I’m not a huge fan of Star Trek. The original series was camp fun, and the movies that embraced that (primarily Wrath Of Khan, The One With The Whales and The One With Shakespeare In The Original Klingon*) were thoroughly enjoyable. Next Gen was largely “meh” with only a few flirtations with REALLY ANNOYINGNESS (So-called empath Deanna Troi and her ability to state the stupefying obvious – green guys with weird foreheads are blasting away at the Enterprise with a battery of Kill-O-Death Cannon, at which point Troi helpfully interjects “I sense… anger”. Come to think of it, what IS the ship’s councillor doing sitting on the bridge anyway? Also: Troi’s relationship with Riker. Also: Riker. No wonder Picard kept sending the fatuous git on every possible away team. “Captain, our sensors detect millions of ten-foot tall heavily-armed warrior-lizards whose society appears to be entirely based around the loathing of trombones, stupid beards and self-satisfaction.” “Number One, report to the transporter room.”). Deep Space 9 I actually quite liked, despite it being a poor man’s Babylon 5 and featuring the most wooden commanding officer in Trek history. Voyager was nearly unbearable, it’s only saving grace being the holographic doctor who seemed to hate every other character on the ship nearly as much as I did. And Enterprise was actually unbearable.

This disclosure isn’t coming from the sneery “Trekkie? Me? No, I Have Known The Touch Of A Woman Haw Haw Haw” place that seems in rather pathetic vogue at the moment (I really must get round to writing that post on The Cult Of Nerd that’s been kicking around in the back of my mind for the last few weeks). It’s just that a person’s reaction to the new Trek film is inevitably going to be coloured by their feelings about the franchise so I feel I should get my cards on the table right from the off. I wouldn’t want you thinking it’s just nostalgia talking when I tell you that the film’s really, really good.

The film’s really, really good.

Going in, I had some trepidation. Classic Trek given a smirky noughties shakey-cam makeover sounded like something that was potentially smug enough to provoke me to gouge my own eyes out with a spoon. Particularly seeing as it was being directed by the bloke who made the really not terribly good at all Mission Impossible 3.

Any lingering doubts were quickly dismissed. Within the first ten minutes I’d laughed, I’d cried and I’d seen the vehicle that I now want a go on more than any other in movie history. Sorry, Dark Knight-era Batmobile. Sorry, Speeder Bike. Sorry, hoverboard thingamy out of Back To The Future 2. For all the flashy whizz-bangery and unnecessary wobblycam this film looks and sounds and feels like Star Trek. More importantly, it looks and sounds and feels like a massive, epic, sweeping space-opera. There’s derring-do and a remarkable but mis-matched group of misfits battling against impossible odds with The Fate Of The World Itself At Stake. It’s as close as (almost) anyone’s come to recreating the fun and wide-eyed excitement of the first Star Wars film. Certainly closer than George Lucas has managed since 1983.

One of the big reasons Star Trek works as well as it does is the casting. Central to the original series was the Freudian relationship between Bones the irascible, emotional humanist id, Spock the cold, rational ego and Kirk’s (heh) superego resolving the two. In this film you can see that dynamic shaking into place via the three terrific central turns from Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban.  The film usually remembers that the lasers and splodes aren’t the point, they’re just there to dress up what’s fundamentally a story about people. And, importantly, they’re people you really enjoy spending a couple of hours with. For the most part the performances are pitched to evoke the original cast without impersonating them, something that’s done through little mannerisms such as Kirk’s smirk and command-chair slouch, Chekov’s wide-eyed enthusiasm or Spock’s patented “Hmm, you’re right, I hadn’t considered that” expression. It’s a difficult trick but it’s pulled off immaculately give or take a dodgy Scottish accent or so.

It’s not perfect by any means. It’s pretty relentlessly white-male-centric: Uhura is set up as an interesting character then given next to nothing to do for the last half of the film. I’d have preferred a plot resolution that relied a bit more on outwitting the enemy and a bit less on peace through superior firepower. However, my only major issue we’re probably going to have to break the old spoiler warning out for:

CAUTION! SPOILERS AHEAD!

The whole baggy, slightly tedious section with the (slippy-slidey) ice world needed to go. Really? There was no more elegant and cohesive way you could have woven in the time-travel plot and Old Spock than that? A massive Exposition Dump and an even more massive coincidence that Kirk got marooned on the same world that Nero stuck Old Spock on? I’m not even sure which of the two was more of a stretch of logic. Wouldn’t New Spock just have chucked Kirk in the brig? Wouldn’t Nero have just kept Old Spock on the Death Star for fun, torture and maybe more? Couldn’t he have shown Old Spock the destruction of Vulcan from there? Hmmm and ahem and come on now.

I know cohesive water-tight plotting is hardly Star Trek’s raison d’etre, but in this case it was abusing the privilege. Thing is, the whole alternate universe, time-travel thing was such a clever and brave idea it really did deserve an awful lot better.

CAUTION! SPOILERS BEHIND!

That’s being just a fraction nit-picky, though. To reiterate: the film’s really, really good. Comfortably the best Star Trek film ever, comfortably the best sci-fi movie since Serenity. Between this and Iron Man we now have two unexpectedly terrific summer blockbuster franchises that are ready to follow the path well-trod by Pirates Of The Carribbean 2 and Matrix Reloaded right over the quality cliff.

Which’ll be something to look forward to.

* – Actually, just go here, they’re all great.

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Tom Clancy Presents Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. By Tom Clancy (Xbox 360)

It’s an arcade flight sim in a contemporary setting. And it wants to be Ace Combat 6 so badly it hurts, right down to the pre-mission target-percentage breakdown, the post-mission cinematic replay and the three camera view options, each practically identical to its equivalent in AC6.

Here are the things H.A.W.(ks – Ed) does better than Ace Combat 6: more planes (although they all feel pretty much exactly the same to fly), external fly-by “assistance off” view that looks hugely cool (but is completely unnecessary and massively difficult to control), your plane carries anti-missile flares (not that you’ll have any left when you need them because some idiot mapped “deploy flares” to a click of the control stick, something that’s incredibly easy to do accidentally when engaged in intense flight manoeuvres) no portentous and jarring cut-scenes about the hideousness of war (instead there’s a staggeringly nonsensical plot about a corporation as lacking in business-sense as they are in morals), moderately groovy R6: Vegas/CoD4 XP-O-Gain level system (which mostly only unlocks new planes which, as previously stated, aren’t much more than re-skins), looks hugely pretty in places (but extremely ropy in others – the Chicago level with the skyscrapers jarringly plonked down on what looks like a perfectly flat Google Earth map will take you back to the worst sins of mid-nineties flight-simmmery) and its whole campaign is playable in co-op (actually, that one’s pretty much an unreserved yay).

Here are the things it does worse than AC6: smaller maps with smaller, almost linear missions. One of my favourite levels in Ace Combat sees you asked to assist a massive amphibious assault on a coastal town. There are three different allied forces landing in three different places facing different compositions of enemy, and who you choose to primarily support in what way is up to you. Fly a mud-moving A-10 Warthog with iron bombs to easily take out enemy tank formations? Or air-to-ground missles for knocking out priority targets from a safe distance? Either way, you’ll be vulnerable to enemy interceptors and too slow to effectively support all three fronts. Go with a multi-role plane like the F-16 or the Mirage 2000 which’ll let you carve through enemy close air support bombers like a multimillion dollar supersonic knife through butter but is somewhat brittle in the face of ground fire? Should you take the risk of attacking the well-defended town in order to secure its airfield, giving you a base near the front-line where you can land to get repaired and re-armed?

All that light tactical layer is absent from H.A.W.(ks. – Ed). In your first playthough, you’ll have a lot of planes to choose from but generally only one weapons load and one approach to any given scenario. There’s no landing at carriers or airbases, no chance to change your payload mid-mission, no trading off effectiveness against X sort of target with effectiveness against Y. It’s pretty much just a shooting-gallery – hostile unit appears in front of you, press A to fire a missile, done, done and I’m onto the next one.

There are tons of smaller niggles. Hard mode is too easy (so I presume you could finish Normal mode without actually looking at the screen) while Elite mode doesn’t, y’know, make the enemy AI any more dangerous it just artificially and unfairly limits the number of weapons you can carry (which wouldn’t be as much of an issue except that, as previously mentioned, there’s no way of re-arming mid-mission). The targeting system is fiddly and thoughtless – if I’ve got AAMs armed, why on Earth does it let me lock onto ground targets that I can’t hit? And why oh why oh why is “change weapon” mapped to the D-pad? Did nobody twig that when you want to switch to, say, dogfighting missles you might possibly be in, f’rinstance, a dogfight and so not really be overly keen to LET GO OF THE HUGGING CONTROLS?

If the flight scenes in Top Gun mildly arouse you, you’ll have some fun with H.A.W.(ks – Ed). Me? They do and I did. It’s not a bad game by any means, it’s just shallow, workmanlike, a bit bland and lacking in charm. It’s like a tribute band – the songs are still good but the magic’s not quite there. H.A.W.(ks – Ed) is the Bootleg Ace. It’s the Counterfeit Combat. It’s the Tesco Value Ace Combat 6.

With an unnecessarily silly name.

John Woo Presents John Woo’s Stranglehold By John Woo (Xbox 360)

The graphics are ropy, the controls are slightly worse, its difficulty is up and down more than a manically depressed junkie kangaroo on a space hopper and it’s a pony that barely manages one trick. And that’s the exact same trick as Max Payne’s, only – and I appreciate this will be hard to believe – with a worse story. If I’d paid full price at release I’d have been a) insane and b) furious. But as a cheap, throwaway b-movie title it hits the spot. Stranglehold is the first game in history where the stuff you can do in-game is cooler than the stuff you’re shown doing in cut-scenes. The first time I slid down a banister, shot a sign that fell on a mook’s head, blew up a second mook by taking out the barrel of propane he was slightly foolishly hiding behind, then dove onto a wheelie-trolley and rolled across a courtyard shooting two more mooks in the face I’d pretty much had enough fun for the fiver the game set me back. And the massively over-the-top spinny-around-with-doves-flying-up-everywhere special move made me laugh every single time I did it. For that, I’m willing to forgive semi-frequent moments of frustration brought on by the lack of a Left 4 Dead-style “Spin 180 Degrees” button and insufficient information as to the location of the THOUSANDS OF ENEMIES currently shooting your wanger off.

Stranglehold is rubbish. But it’s extravagant, operatic, cheerfully stupid, generally good fun rubbish. It’s rubbish with the courage to be rubbish as loudly and forcefully as it can. Much like Face/Off, actually.

Russell T. Davis Presents Russell T. Davis’ Doctor Who Easter Special By Russell T. Davis (Alright, you can stop now – Ed) (Telly)

It was alright, wasn’t it? The Lara Croft wannabe pseudo-assistant was good fun, the visual of a London bus crashed in the middle of a desert wilderness was cool to the point that you strongly suspect that RTD started with that image and worked back to find a story that semi-justified it, I liked that the ugly menacing-looking aliens actually turned out to be innocent bystanders and the story rollocked along at a decent old pace even if it didn’t make a lot of sense and fell apart a bit in the final third. No change there, then. So not a boundary, but a controlled single that keeps the scoreboard ticking over. Still looking forward to seeing what Who will turn into in fresh hands, mind.

Nobody Presents Nobody’s Empire: Total War By Nobody (You’re fired – Ed) (PC)

Medieval: Total War is one of my favourite games ever, I’ve read every Sharpe book ever written (they are, after all, Mills And Boon for boys), and there’s nothing I like more in movies than some buckles being suitably swashed. So why oh why oh why hasn’t this game clicked with me? Am I just a bit Total Warred out? The real-time battles have a very different feel to Rome or either of the Medievals. Those games depended on you winning the scissors-paper-stone-lizard-Spock matchups (archers beat everything at range, everything beats archers up close, spears beat cavalry, cavalry beats swords, swords beat spears) and making practical use of flank and rear attacks on already-engaged units. Outflanking remains important in Empire, but its battles seem to primarily hinge on your ability to concentrate fire. Almost everyone’s got guns, so all things being equal what you’re trying to do is get two of your units shooting at one of the enemy’s. If you can do that, the opposition will rout before you and your freed-up soldiers can then start shooting at the next enemy unit, continuing a virtuous circle that will eventually see you “rolling up” the other fellow’s battle-line. It’s a different tactical challenge, and an interesting one, but for some reason the whole package isn’t quite grabbing me.
 
There are lots of little problems with it, but nothing I can see as being The Sticking Point. The naval battles are fiddly but easily-skipped. The battlefields seem a lot more varied than they used to be, with buildings that you can garrison, but occupied buildings are such easy prey for enemy artillery that they’re not remotely worth the bother 90% of the time. In the strategic layer, I don’t feel like I’m getting enough feedback on the socio-economic situation in my territories making it hard to determine which cities are performing well and which are on the brink of anarchy, although this may simply be down to not yet having spent enough time learning the nuances of the game.

Can’t put my finger on it. All I know is that this weekend I spent nine hours fiddling with a game I’ve had for six months and three quid’s worth of tower defence shenanigans rather than bestriding the nations of the Earth like a colossus. That can’t be right, can it?

Werner Herzog Presents Werner He… (*gunshot*) Grizzly Man (DVD)
 
Grizzly Man is a documentary about Timothy Treadwell, a failed actor who spent 13 summers living among bears in Alaska before he and his girlfriend were killed by a bear.

(Much as with Steve “Man Who Teases Dangerous Animals For A Living Killed By Dangerous Animal He Was Teasing” Irwin it’s such a horribly predictable fate I’m not even sure that it counts as ironic.)

It’s fascinating stuff with some beautiful footage of the Alaskan wilderness in general and bears in particular. The opening scene, with Treadwell talking the camera, describing himself as a “gentle warrior” who’s “earned the trust” of the bears and will never be hurt by them leads you to think that he’s going to be portrayed as an absolutely colossal tool. In fact the film gives a much more nuanced, interesting picture of a divisive, remarkable, quixotic and thoroughly tragic figure.

A few of the interviews seem weirdly forced, even staged – every time the guy who did the autopsy on what was left of Timothy Treadwell’s body is on camera for instance, or the scene where Herzog listens to the audio recording of Treadwell’s last moments. But that aside, it’s a terrific film that I’d thoroughly recommend.

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Payday, and a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of gadgets. Specifically, a proper NAS enclosure and a suitably beefy SATA hard drive to replace my ageing and slightly flaky LaCie Ethernet Mini disk. Because nothing says “Bank Holiday Weekend” like hours spent fiddling with media server software and transferring video files.

Here’s my sparkly new Seagate 1.5TB disk, still in its immediate packaging – a rather groovy inflatable lilo-for-ants arrangement, as it goes.

And here’s the box it arrived in.

Half the fun of ordering things off the internet is receiving parcels through the post. It’s like getting a present, a little workaday Christmas. And Roy Wood and I are in total agreement on that subject. So it’s nice to see Dabs going out of their way to give their customers that little extra frisson of thrill. That old “Single Pair Of Socks In Enormous Elaborately-Wrapped Package” gag is always a killer, innit?

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