31 August, 2006

Tangerine Trees and Marmalade Skies

Am I genuinely Aspergers or just a bit inexperienced talking to people I fancy? Is that really a melanoma or would it eventually heal if I stopped picking it? And am I bipolar or just not happy right now? Is it hypochondria, or am I just saying that to avoid dealing with things?

The thing is, everything seems to have a label. I'm amazed at the amount of conditions people can identify, diagnose and come up with a name for well in advance of you discovering you have it.

And of course, as soon as I read an article about cancer, or ADHD or the autistic spectrum, it always has some kind of resonance with my own life so I then spend a week thinking whether I should have it looked into.

Earlier this year I went into counselling. The actual act of phoning up a stranger and saying that I'm having a bit of a problem was much more distressing than the sessions, most of which I breezed through. One of my colleagues at work got a counsellor who seemed to break all the rules. She gave advice, explained how things were and my colleague left feeling like life made more sense. I didn't really have that experience. I recognised a few connecting patterns that seemed to stem from childhood (no, really. I can tell you're surprised). But I already think too much about things - spend too much energy worrying about possible outcomes or potential rejections rather than going out and living my life. But can being an only child raised in Catholic schools really account for all that? Do I have a colour on the autistic spectrum all of my own? Was it nature or nurture that made this beast?

Relationships are at the heart of all this. I can see how all my toy collecting in the last year or so has been a regression towards childhood. I did feel adored then, I think, but even then I was off into my own little world.

I've been popping back to that world a lot in the last year. I just don't seem able to make sense of this one much. Or at least, other people seem able to make it work for them more than I can.

29 August, 2006

Snakes in a Cinema

I used to go to an art-house cinema in Liverpool city centre. I'd been told it has once been a popular venue for fans of (ahem) 'skin-flicks', and I was never really sure if they'd changed the carpet since the hand-over because it always felt a bit crunchy. For about two years I went to see loads of French, Spanish and Italian films, became pretty familiar with the back catalogues of Daniel Auteil, Gerard Depardieu and Pedro Almodovar and saw loads of older classics (saw Taxi Driver more times than is probably healthy).

Now that I live in London, the equivalent is the NFT. Until very recently I'd only seen about two films there in ten years and almost never used my allocation of freebies that I get as a member of the BFI. But a friend and I have managed to catch a couple of really mixed films there recently and I'm hoping we can continue to frequent the place as it's very friendly, comfortable, and as the films we go to see tend to be a bit obscure there's always room for a good stretch. And my mate's good company too, and loves his films so that's another incentive.

I mention this because there's another art-house cinema near to where I live. The Ritzy in Brixton manages to straddle art-house and popular films so well that last night as I joined a massive queue, I was worried that they were going to sell out of tickets for Snakes on a Plane only to discover that a) there were plenty of available seats and b) everyone was queueing to see Volver, Pedro Almodovar's latest, which was being shown in Screen One.

Snakes on a Plane was on Screen Five.

Now, I want to see Volver too, but I was surprised that the screen wasn't more than half full and that Snakes was in such a tiny screen for a film only on release for a weekend. Okay, it's a dumb B-movie exploitation flick, but by GOD it's effective. Maybe it's the venue, but the audience seemed in just the right mood for it, shrieking in the right places, laughing out loud at the fate of one passenger and giving one line of dialogue an enthusiastic round of applause. I've only seen this kind of reaction at corporate premieres and American cinemas, so this really helped make the film even more enjoyable.

If I get the time, I'd like to see Volver there, but somehow I can't imagine Carmen Maura being quite as cool as Samuel L. Jackson. He's so cool, he can wear a beret and not make you think of Frank Spencer.

Making Monsters - in 5" Scale

When I was a little kid of nine, and Doctor Who Weekly had just arrived on the scene, my parents didn't have much money to buy me all those wonderful Doctor Who-related toys. Not that there were many available anyway: you could buy a talking Dalek that inevitably lost all its parts, or a friction-powered one that had a red top and was a bit lanky-looking; there was a gurning Tom Baker in his season 12 costume; an anatomically impossible Leela; a Cyberman with a nose; a friction-powered K-9 that had ear so fragile that every child in the country snapped them by about 3pm on Christmas day, and a larger 'talking K-9' that had a few lines of authentic dialogue but was too big to interact with your other dollies; a cardboard Tardis that, missing the actual point of the machine, could make any figure placed inside 'disappear' by spinning the light on top; and a rather splendid Giant Robot that never made its way to toyshops near me anyway.

I didn't even have the full set. But being the inventive, imaginative child that I was, I made my own figures. I used Plasticine to customise an Incredible Hulk into a looming Ice Warrior and turned James Bond's Moonraker space suit into a Cyberman. The black bases from cola bottles turned up as Davros's wheelchair and the base for a Plasticine Sil (somewhere, there's a photo of actor Nabil Shaban posing with my Sil and he seemed quite impressed). And every bit of plastic, tin foil and wire in the house ended up being recycled into various sets and dioramas for my figures, even beyond the age where I was actually playing with them, just because I enjoyed making them. Eventually, I used some of those sculpting tricks to make those macquettes for the Big Finish CD covers.

Now I'm 35 (shh, I am! No, I really am!), and Doctor Who is the number one show on telly, children are spoiled rotten. Right this minute, it's possible to buy a series of 5" 1/13th scale action figures, a little bit bigger / better than the ones we used to collect for Star Wars. the range currently comprises:

A Dalek Battle-pack with a gold Dalek and a non-canonical (ouch) black-and-gold Dalek that can be radio-controlled to dance around or just shoot the hell out of each other. This originally came with either a rather constipated-looking Eccleston figure or a Rose figure that looked more like Letitia Dean had been left on a radiator. It now comes with either a David Tennant Doctor figure or (rather excitingly) a Cyberleader not available anywhere else, yet.

A Tardis console playset with a set of Policebox doors that open onto a beautiful recreation of the Tardis room, and six buttons that produce sound effects. The central console lights up and the rotor bobs up and down. There's even a hat-stand to pop into one corner.

Plus figures of the 10th Doctor (at least three versions, one of which comes in a 'Regeneration' pack with an Eccleston figure)); Rose with K-9 (two versions - one rusty, one shiny... plus two versions of K-9 too, bu-boom!); a remote-controlled K-9; a Cyberman (two versions, one with wrist-gun, one without); a Cybercontroller, flashing brain; a remote-controlled black Dalek; a Moxx of Balhoon; Cassandra (two versions - one comes with her henchman, Chip); a Slitheen; a Sycorax leader; two different Krillitanes; a werewolf; and more to come by the sound of it.

But of course, a market as small as the one for Doctor Who cannot compete with Star Wars, which has figures for every costume variant, every background character and in some cases every possible physical position that the main characters are seen in. So, this is where modding comes in.

Modding is the 'art' of changing existing figures into new ones. Even Star Wars fans have a go, to fill the gaps in their collection or to avoid having to fork out all that money for yet another Princess Leia. I hadn't realised that I was modding all those years ago, but when one guy on the Outpost Gallifrey forum started showing off his customised figures, I thought it might be something I could have a go at. Course, I'm not using Plasticine for these things, but a substance called Milliput, which is like Plasticine, but it dries out and hardens in the space of a few hours.

The first one I had a go at was quite an easy one: swapping the heads of the Doctors from the Regeneration pack so that I had an articulated Eccleston figure. There's a 'how to' available at Whotopia's blog.

Next, I did the Sycorax warrior, because it looked like an easy one to do. I just resculpted the head, added a few details and painted it in acrylics. Babyjelly on Outpost Gallifrey had shown how to go about it, but after a while I left his instructions alone and just went my own way. But what to do next? Babyjelly has done a load of stunning mods of his Tennant figures in various costumes, so I didn't really want to go down that route. Instead, I chose two figures that were unlikely to appear in future releases. The Graske, a little critter from the BBC Interactive episode, was created from a Mini-Me Austin Powers figure by painting his grey suit black, resculpting his shoulders and adding a new head.

Having cannibalised one Austin figure, my flatmate suggested I do the same to 'Fat Bastard', who started out as a Scottish piper but ended up as the Absorbaloff. I wanted to retain the facial expression of the original figure because it matched the character so well, and also retain the joints of the figrue - so that the Absorbaloff could still do a rather sickening belly-roll!

Grr! Argh!

I've also modified my Tardis playset to give it extra walls and cables running across the ceiling. My inner nine-year-old is very happy with it.

Now my mind's in modder-mode, looking out for other figures that could be modified. Looks like this is the only way Mickey Smith's going to get into the range...

24 August, 2006

Streamlining the Solar System

So, scientists have decided that Pluto is no longer a planet. This afternoon, I edited an existing h2g2 entry on Pluto and added a new paragraph to explain this foul treachery. Sniff...

This ongoing battle between magic and science will never be truly resolved, simply because every time science uncovers new facts that take away a little magic from our lives, magic responds by coming up with something even better. Like why jam and peanut butter go together. Or ham and pineapple. Science can't explain that away - magic all the way!

In the meantime though, we're one planet down, when we could have been three more up. We could have all been sending in suggestions for a new name for object 2003-UB313. Personally, I would have liked to see it named 'Mavis', 'Sidney', 'Bill' or 'Sandra' - a nice, normal name that would annoy the astronomers who'd want to give it some awful portentous name like 'Icarus' or 'Ariadne'.

I do love the myseries of science and the focused dedication of scientists. I just wish, sometimes, their research could uncover something that felt more like magic for us mere mortals.

Never mind, Pluto. You'll always be a planet to us.

That and a yellow dog in Disney cartoons...