The Door in SF

You thought I was kidding, didn’t you?

Ron Cobb does the business. That’s the kind of door we’re talking about…

image courtesy of John Eaves. Check out his chunk of posts on Ron Cobb here.

Let’s consider the humble doorway, and how it has become a character in and of itself in SF. In every other genre I can think of, they are simple objects. They open. They close, occasionally with a slam. In a prison context, they are symbols of incarceration, although to be frank characters tend to talk about the walls more, and they are the object that will have the graffiti and the gate-bar scratches, counting off the days until freedom comes.

SF doors are infinitely more complex. They are desperately over-engineered for the job at hand. And at the same time they barely fulfil the essential design requisites that you and I would consider the door would need. They rarely have handles, for example. You have to punch a code or say a password or, memorably in Jeunet’s Alien:Resurrection, huff your cheesy breath into a detector.

And that’s before the darn things will even open for you. Then you get the best efforts of a team of props men as they slide back on tracks or drop through the floor or iris open like a lens. In Star Trek: DS9 the doors were built like cogs, and they rolled out of the way in a way that was far too complex for the end result. Lights will frequently blink and flash. In Peter Hyam’s Outland, they had useful red or green fluorescents to let you know if they were locked or not.

And then of course, they always make noise. Helpful bleeps and chimes to let you know that they’re about to do that fancy three-way split. The hiss of hydraulics. The unzipping sound that accompanied Captain Kirk as he marched down the corridors of the Enterprise (those corridors were always too fancy for my liking, although I’ve always had a thing for the Jeffries Tube). And I have to mention the doors on the Heart Of Gold in the Hitch-hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, that were programmed to take pleasure in opening and closing, and did so with an almost orgasmic sigh.

Of course, there are always exceptions. The doors in the reboot of Battlestar Galactica are heavy, unwieldy things, but at least they have a handle and they are pulled open and closed. However, as they’re all designed to isolate an area in the event of a leak, they still have valves and wheels and an excess of handles and cranks. Opening a door still takes up a disproportionate amount of screen time and effort.

I’ve not really talked about the more esoteric kind of SF door yet. The Stargates, for one, have devolved over the years from being a 2001-esque gateway across galactic space, complete with warp effects and the wailings of a heavenly choir, to the kind of thing that O’Neill and crew hop through when they fancy a walk in the Canadian woods. Then we have the organic portals of the living craft of Lexx and Farscape. These worry me. I’m not sure a door should drip and ooze. Or to that point, just vanish on you just at the point when you need them the most.

But of course, my all-time favourite SF door? Well, there’s no contest, really.

And don’t tell me you wouldn’t do the same with a door that did that. I want one for my garage.

The Joy Of Corridor

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Like most things in my life, it all boils down to Star Wars.

There are certain kinds of films that I really go for, and will happily sit and watch again and again. Danny Boyle’s Sunshine is one of them, and in a short introduction before it’s screening last night on FilmFour, he nailed one reason why. They all seem to be of a particular type, a genre with a history and a meme-set that is easily tracked. I love films of the genre sub-species he described as “A Ship. A Crew. A Signal.”

These are the horror-tinged bottle films, where most of the action takes place on a dark, monolithic spacecraft, within the confines of which BAD THINGS HAPPEN once The Crew pick up and foolishly answer The Signal. This Signal is usually a misinterpreted message to STAY THE FRAK AWAY. From then on in there will be running and screaming and dying and mostly a single survivor.

But mostly, there will be corridors. Hundreds of them, stretching for miles. They will be encrusted in vents, ducts, computery bits, extraneous ribbing, tons of stencilling and detailing in a limited palette of sans-serif fonts. There will be steam. Oh my word, there will be steam. I often wonder whether ships like the Nostromo and the Event Horizon are powered by a coal-fired boiler rather than a nuclear reactor.

The camera will start the film drifting in a dreamy manner down these corridors, and end it whizzing down them as the final character either has to get to a door before a timer runs out, or because something insectoid with too many teeth is chasing them. Frequently, both of these things are happening at once. There will be a whooping alert sound. It’s the same one in all of these films. There will also be a calm female voice doing the countdown. I think Winona Ryder has the monopoly on that one.

Sunshine has some great corridors. The set took over the entirety of Three Mills Studio in East London when the film was shot in 2006, and the detailing is exquisite. I’m happy to report that there’s also little attempt to score points off the meme. Although the ship is on it’s way to the sun, the corridors are dark and claustrophobic. The feel is heavy and industrial. Like most of these ships, the Icarus II is a submarine in space, a tiny metal bubble of life in an environment that’s almost instantly lethal.

I spent years in my youth drawing corridors like the ones you see in films like Sunshine and Alien. Once the technical drawing classes I took in junior high school taught me the rudiments of perspective, I was away. I can still draft a pretty good blocky spaceship in three-point, or an infinitely expansive throughway liberally coated in technological cruft. I love them. They are places where adventure happens, where there is high drama, monsters coming out of the walls and lots of those spinning orange lights they have on the roofs of ambulances.

I said at the beginning that I blamed this on Star Wars. Think about it. Two minutes into the film, after all that tedious nonsense with the yellow letters and the big triangle that goes on for miles, we are inside the Tantive IV, and we see… well, THIS.

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This, and the later scenes in the Death Star are something that should not be shown to an impressionable ten-year-old who’s already a little too lost in his own imagination for his own good. Especially the bits in the prison block.

For further reading, I cannot recommend Martin Anderson’s post on Den Of Geek highly enough. If you think I’m wibbling on un-necessarily, just wait and see what he’s got.

Coming up: doors in SF.

The White Event

X&HTowers, busy as everWell, Reading really caught the brunt of the cold weather this time around. X&HTowers is blanketed under about a foot of cold crisp white stuff, and looks more festive than Santa’s new socks. I’ve been really lucky with shift patterns over the festive season, and am happy to report that The Big Freeze, as most unimaginative news outlets are calling it, coincided with three days off. Yes, OK, I have to work this weekend, but I don’t have to work now, which pleases me greatly.

2010 is, I think, the year when Working From Home becomes much more important, especially if the country continues to be caught out by EWEs (Extreme Weather Events, Ⓒ Rob Wickings if no-one’s snagged that term yet). It’s like taking a duvet day without the guilt, or the chance of getting caught out by the boss. With the prelavence of netbooks and smartphones it’s now so easy to Work From Home that you can do it from a cafe. Or if you prefer, the pub. Why pay for all those expensive business premises when you can just bitch about your colleagues and play soduko in the nearest Barstucks? It’s been coming for a while, and all it takes is one more EWE, one company where no-one bothers to come in, business continues as usual and the clients don’t notice and … well, I reckon it’s time to start investing in multi-purpose public spaces. Wave of the future, I’m telling you. Make ’em weatherproof and give ’em free wi-fi and creche facilities, and you’re rocking. Why close libraries, when you could turn them into something like that?

Happy Feet
Happy Feet

I wish I had the option. Sadly, my work still requires a physical presence, which means braving public transport and the train services. I have a bicycle. Buggered if I’m going to use it in this weather. I can walk to Reading Station if I need to, which I have to frequently as buses and taxis evaporate in Reading as soon as the weather takes a turn for the rotten. If you need a workout, nothing beats walking uphill in a snowstorm. It’s that heel-toe action that you have to adopt to prevent the comedy prat-fall and inadvertent face-first snow angel action. It works muscles that you’d forgotten you had. Muscles that have taken the opportunity to remind you of their presence by complaining loudly.

The House Elf Takes The Strain
The House Elf Takes The Strain

The end result of all this has been that I have taken great pleasure in spending the last couple of days with my butt in a chair, laptopping. I have been working hard on a New year treat for you all, which is the first step in what I am calling The Year Rob Makes Contact. I have great hopes for this year, despite all the evidence so far that it’s going to be rubbish. Come on, we’re only a week in. Give the new guy a chance.

In the mean time, here’s a little something. Below is a PDF to a short piece called The Body Politic. It’s excerpted from a longer piece, Under Glass, which I SWEAR will never see the light of day. It was a badly-misjudged piece of erotic writing, and it makes my toes curl in all the wrong ways. Not pretty. The bit I’m sharing has a few merits, though. It’s here as a PDF. I’d appreciate it if you can let me know if you have any problems either reading it, or dumping it onto your hard drive. My reasons for this will become clear soon enough.

Click the arrow to download THE BODY POLITIC

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There Is A Light That Never Goes Out
There Is A Light That Never Goes Out

Stay warm, everyone.

He Knows If You’ve Been Bad Or Good

That's G MINOR, Santa!

Christmas is not Christmas to me unless the first song played is the Bruce Springsteen version of Santa Claus Is Coming To Town. This has been going on certainly since the mid-eighties, where it was used as reveille, a blast of joyous noise to get you out of bed. Or at least to signal that Dad was up.

I suspect his adoption of the song as the Wickings Christmas anthem came out of the song’s appearance on the B-side of the My Hometown single, which made it the first time you could own the song as opposed to just listening out for it on the radio. It’s always been a Dad-sponsored thing, although I’ve carried it on, and I suspect I am the only one of his three boys that does so. I got my love of The Boss from him. That being said, It’s also his fault that I like prog rock, so there’s swings and roundabouts.

There’s just something about the song that sends the hairs up on the back of my neck at this time of year. The quiet opening with the sleigh bells and Roy Bittan’s gentle piano. The Big Man’s solo. The bit where Bruce nearly loses it as Santa arrives behind him.

I love the video, that was a regular feature on the Old Grey Whistle Test for at least three years, that I think is a recording of the 1978 Winterland gig where the version we know came from (UPDATE: memory serves me poorly, it seems. There IS a version shot in ’78, but it’s from Passaic, New Jersey and it’s black and white. I’m probably getting that and the version of Rosalita that Hepworth and co always used to play mixed up. Still good, though. Have a look.)

This year Dad mentioned in passing that he was thinking of playing the Dylan version of “Must Be Santa” instead of Bruce first thing on Christmas Day.  It’s a good version, sure, and the video is a riot. But it’s not the same. And I was quite genuinely shocked. The very thought that he might play something else to blast the Nans and Mum out of bed on Christmas morning seemed so alien. It pulled against the tradition that we two had so carefully set up and kept running for all those years.

I’m happy to report that he didn’t break the chain, and the Big Man still blared over Havering on Friday morning, in the same way that the Micra shook to the beat as we whizzed down the M4 to join him and the family.

Some thing are just sacred at this time of year.

Write When You Have Something To Say

A quicky, as I’m at work. That’s my excuse for link blogging, but there’s a chunk of work in the pipeline.
Like the wonderful Post Secret, SOMEONE ONCE TOLD ME is a brilliantly simple idea. The heart of it is a collection of simple B&W photos of people holding up a placard of a truism, fact or weird piece of advice that they were once told. It’s random, funny, moving and utterly addictive.

And sometimes it comes up with some really good advice.

Translated above. As in, the title of this post.
Translated above. As in, the title of this post.

Random Thoughts During An Internet Outage

Being offline for a morning (not my fault by the look of it, the cable modem’s flashing where it shouldn’t, and the Virgin Media tech support line is permanently busy) does tend to concentrate the mind on all the other chores I should be doing rather than farting around on the web. But it also tends to concentrate one’s thoughts on the inherent fragility of the online existence.

Take Spotify, as an example. This brilliant music streaming service is being held up by many (including me) as the first step towards a radical new business model for the music business. Pay a tenner a month, and eight million tracks are yours. Up until the point where a workman with a jack-hammer chops a cable in half, killing internet connection. All of a sudden you’re paying for… nothing. Better hope the hard drive you stashed all your music on before eBaying all your CDs still boots.

Actually, let’s think this through. Say, like me, you use Google for a lot of your services, upload text to Google Docs, have online storage with any number of companies. Online banking. Chatting to friends in foreign countries. Online gaming, online shopping. Perhaps even running a business. If you couldn’t get at any of that stuff, then you’re stuffed.

This is, of course, exactly what the government’s proposing to do to alleged file-sharers, as part of their brave new digital strategy thought up in a couple of days flat and sketched out on a napkin by Peter Mandelson, completely superseding the moderate, carefully considered Digital Britain survey on which Labour spent months and millions. If one member of a household is “found guilty” of “excessive file-sharing” (these points are in quote marks as there’s no guidelines as to what either of these terms mean in reality. There’s no mention of any particular up/download limit after which filesharing becomes excessive, and certainly no mention of fair legal process or right to appeal) the whole household suffers.

There’s a school of thought that the Internet should become listed as an essential service, which it already is here at X&HTowers. This becomes more relevant when you consider that the Government is already moving some of it’s services and information onto a purely online basis. I now have to administrate Sick Puppy Films Ltd. through the Companies House website, as they charge me to submit my accounts on paper. This is only set to increase, and it becomes a matter of ever-growing horror and disbelief to me that there is consideration to throttle a vital conduit of services and information on shaky legal and ethical grounds.

See, even now I’m putting off sorting out the flat tyres on my bike in favour of ranting about the internet.

Ooh, look, the modem’s playing nice again. Gotta go. I have YouTubing to catch up on.