Two interesting but possibly silly factoids about Star Wars

A while back Peter Mayhew – the 7’6” guy inside Chewbacca’s costume in the original Star Wars – released a lot of ‘behind the scenes’ stills from the production.

They’ve got a period look – the movie was shot in the age of disco, flares and vinyl-topped cars. But it’s kind of cool to think Star Wars still has the power to capture our imaginations despite its stylistic origins in the decade taste forgot. Which leads me to a couple of factoids:

'That's no moon'. Wait - yes it is. It's Mimas, orbiting Saturn.

‘That’s no moon’. Wait – yes it is. It’s Mimas, orbiting Saturn.

1. Tattooine is a real place. Most of the movie was filmed at Pinewood (hence the surfeit of British seventies brat-packers in bit-parts) but Lucas filmed the desert sequences in Tunisia near a town that looks like the Star Wars version. The name of that town? Foum Tataouine. Though before you all go ‘squee, how cool is it that they found a town of the same name’, think about how movies are actually made.

Not only is Tataouine a real place – it was liberated from the Nazis in 1943 by New Zealanders. I’ve met some of the guys who were in on the drive. (Just to compound the trivia, Luigi Cozzi’s Italian spaghetti version of the Lucas epic, Star Crash (1978) was filmed in part at Bari, where the Kiwis landed later the same year).

 2. Darth Vader’s real accent. Darth Vader was played by British actor and weight-lifter Dave Prowse, but he lost his voice to James Earl Jones. Prowse is from the West Country – Sir Arthur C. Clarke, who was also West Country, spoke the same way. A soft, lilting accent that is one of England’s quintessential classics. But not, it seems, suitable for the movie’s chief villain.

Call it meta-entertainment. The story behind the adventure. Or something.

I can’t help thinking that the story behind the forthcoming Disney knock-offs won’t be anywhere near as interesting.

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

And now, some shameless self promotion:

It’s also available on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/nz/book/bateman-illustrated-history/id835233637?mt=11

Nook coming soon.

You can still buy the print edition here: http://www.batemanpublishing.co.nz/ProductDetail?CategoryId=96&ProductId=1410

All the good Trek stuff was invented by Robert A Heinlein

OK, so ‘Captain James Tiberius Kirk’ got pinged on Monday for drink-driving, here in New Zealand.

supernovaWell, not actually Kirk, he’s fictional. I mean Chris Pine, who plays him in the movie re-boot. According to the reports, Pine was stopped in Methven (of all places), after a wrap party for a movie he’s been shooting here. It’s made major news internationally.

To me the media frenzy underscored the way Star Trek has been entwined into modern culture. In fifty-odd years since the original Shatner-Nimoy-Kelley series it’s gone from fan fodder to mainstream entertainment.

For me the real appeal of Trek has always been Roddenberry’s optimistic vision for society. This really was futuristic. But there’s also been a lot of focus on its supposed anticipation of today’s tech – everything from automatic doors to cellphones. That’s less compelling. The auto-door and cellphone also hit TV at the same time in Get Smart, underscoring the fact that Trek tech was of its time. Much of its gee-whizz stuff actually drew from prevailing mid-twentieth century visions, all of which missed the bulk of the information age revolution and focussed on mega-rockets and star drives. The best of the Trek stuff, as far as I can tell, came from Robert Anson Heinlein – an American literary great. He was also an engineer, and it showed.

Eta Carinae. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.

Eta Carinae. NASA, public domain. Why is it in this post? Just because. Click to enlarge.

1. Medical beds
McCoy’s sick bay was the epitome of high-tech in 1965, complete with medical beds that monitored patient vital signs. We have them today thanks to doctors inspired by Trek. However, Heinlein described one nearly a decade earlier in Have Spacesuit, Will Travel (1958).

2. Communicators (cellphones).
The Trek communicator was a radio. No cell networks on alien planets – your signal’s got to punch through to the Enterprise in its 200-mile orbit (I’m glad I don’t have to hold a kilowatt transmitter to my ear). However, these days they’re widely taken to be ‘cellphones’. Setting aside Buck Henry’s ‘shoe phone’ in Get Smart, the first description of an actual cellphone, in everyday use, was in Heinlein’s 1948 novel Space Cadet.

3. Tribbles
My favourite Trek episode is David Gerrold’s ‘Trouble with Tribbles’. Proof that Shatner, McCoy and Nimoy were really a comedy trio with Nimoy as the ‘straight man’ (he can also be very funny, check out ‘The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins‘. But I digress.) In ‘Tribbles’, a space station gets over-run with cute ‘cat’ creatures that reproduce asexually if you feed them. The creature – and plot - so precisely followed Heinlein’s ‘flat cat’ from Space Family Stone (1952) (aka ‘The Rolling Stones’) that the producers apparently asked Heinlein for permission. Heinlein himself, incidentally, apparently drew inspiration for his 1952 tale from a 1905 story by Ellis Parker Butler called ‘Pigs is Pigs‘.

4. Starfleet
This is influenced by Heinlein’s ‘Space Patrol’ from Space Cadet. Explicitly – Roddenberry said so. Again, Heinlein had an antecedent  - Space Cadet was basically ‘US Naval Academy In Space’. (As an aside, he precisely described the physics of space-walking in this book – 17 years before NASA had to re-discover the principles).

Needless to say, Trek wasn’t the only SF tech Heinlein did first. Remember Star Gate? Go read Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky (1955). What about Dr Who‘s TARDIS, that can go anywhere in time and space? Try Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit, Will Travel (1958). And the idea that your star-drive also makes a dandy weapon – a key schtik in Larry Niven’s ‘Known Space’ series? That was a throw-away line in Heinlein’s Time for the Stars (1956).

All of which points to one thing – Heinlein was a very great writer, by any measure – and a great engineer and thinker.

Indeed, some of us encounter his ideas every night, in our own homes, whether we’re reading one of his books or not. Guess who devised (and eventually patented) the modern waterbed?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More science, more writing tips, more fun.

Six degrees of Bacon. Maybe.

A few weeks back I happened to mention Thunderbirds to a friend of mine.

A photo I took of the Corgi Thunderbird 2 model I've had since forever... And it's not tilt-shift. This is what happens on a focal length of 190mm at f 5.6, natural light with exposure time of 1/100.

A photo I took of the Corgi Thunderbird 2 model I’ve had since forever… And it’s not tilt-shift. This is what happens on a focal length of 190mm at f 5.6, natural light with exposure time of 1/100.

‘Oh, Gerry,’ he said. ‘I did some work for him, back when I was in the UK.’

Makes that friend of mine one degree of separation from the late director, Gerry Anderson. Small world.

The actual game is linking actors in less than six steps, via movies they’ve been in, to Kevin Bacon. Another friend suggested calling them ‘rashers’, as in bacon but also Bacon. The game works in real life, too. For instance, two of my regular readers, each independently, are two ‘rashers’ from Neil Armstrong, and I bet there are connections other readers have that I don’t know about.

In New Zealand, we’re all meant to be two degrees apart by default, and one of our phone companies calls itself ‘Two Degrees’ for that reason. Actually it’s not true, it’s more like three or four, even within miniscule communities such as the New Zealand history field or writing. Personally, I’ve got fewer ‘rashers’ to Gerry Anderson.

Neil Armstrong in the LM, tired but elated after the first moon walk, 20 July 1969. Photo: NASA

Neil Armstrong in the LM, tired but elated after the first moon walk, 20 July 1969. Photo: NASA, public domain.

In any case, it’s difficult to test empirically. I’ve seen figures such as an actual ‘degree of separation’ between any two random people on the planet (let’s call it the ‘Bacon Number’) of 6.6. However, I suspect this is true only within similar cultures. That’s because ‘degrees of Bacon’ pivot on ‘connectors’. One individual opens up a network of others.

Trouble is, knowing that I am connected to another Joe Blow by 6.6 links – someone I don’t know, will never meet, and whose life is as ordinary as mine – isn’t all that interesting – which is why the game’s usually played by figuring out your chain ‘o links to somebody famous.  ‘I danced with a woman who danced with a man who danced with a woman who danced with the Prince of Wales’. Total strangers, in other words – by definition, nobody has direct connection beyond the first link. But it shows us how human society is linked, which is pretty interesting.

And it’s kinda fun. Can you link yourself to Kevin Bacon via people you can link to (however indirectly) who’ve appeared in movies? Here’s the tool http://oracleofbacon.org/

I can do it in five ‘rashers’. An immediate family member had an actress friend who starred in an early ’70s British horror movie with Christopher Lee, who was in Airport ’77 with John Kerry, who was in Frost/Nixon with…Kevin Bacon. For me the coolest part of this link is it puts me six degrees from everybody in Apollo 13, which was one awesome film.

You?

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, science geekery, humour and more. Watch this space.

Motoring magic from the wonder age of deco – part 2

The other Saturday I spent a few hours in downtown Napier, New Zealand, where the annual art-deco weekend was in full swing.

'Art Deco' car parade, Napier, February 2014.

‘Art Deco’ car parade, Napier, February 2014.

For a few days the town turns into party central, celebrating the rich and famous lifestyles of 1930s Hollywood. There’s a lot of cosplay. And  a lot of tourists. I overheard a couple of them – done up in period costume down to the cloche hats – chatting in German, something like: ‘Ich muss ganz ein Eis kaufe mir’. I don’t go in for the dress-ups, nor did I attend any of the set-piece events such as a 1930s picnic or the tours. It’s my home town after all. And I’ve (literally) written the book on it.

Crowds along the balcony of the 1932 Masonic Hotel, an early streamline building.

Crowds along the balcony of the 1932 Masonic Hotel, an early streamline building.

But I did make the point of going to see the vintage car parade. They spanned the gamut from the First World War through to the early 1940s. Few of them actually appeared on New Zealand roads at the time – the country imported mainly British. And none of them, I suspect, were in quite the sparkling order they are now. But that wasn’t the point …was it.

Quintessential modernism - streamline-age Cadillac convertible.

Quintessential modernism – streamline-age Cadillac convertible.

Passing the Buick...

Passing the Buick…

The art of deco.

The art of deco.

Parasols and sun.

Parasols were vital wear in 33 degree C heat (91 degrees F).

My camera really didn't capture just how much the cars glowed in the sun.

My camera really didn’t capture just how much the cars GLOWED in the sun.

Something tells me this is a 1936 Packard.

Something tells me this is a 1936 Packard Super 8.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: Writing tips, science, geekery…and more.

Motoring magic from the wonder age of deco – part 1

I made the pilgrimage this year to my home town of Napier, New Zealand – and its annual Art Deco weekend – three or four days of Golden Age Hollywood style partying with air shows, vintage car parades and more.

Unlikely to have actually driven in 1930s Napier...but who cares?

Unlikely to have actually driven in 1930s Napier…but who cares? This photo didn’t use an infill flash – there was SO much light the shadow side of the car was illuminated by reflection off the footpath alone (just like that photo of Aldrin on the Moon, actually).

It’s all in good fun. And for me, the centrepiece was the car parade with its procession of Packards, Chryslers, Buicks, Chevrolets and more.

It’s not strictly historical, of course. New Zealand was one of the most motorised countries in the world back in the 1930s, but most of them were British, built to comply with British road tax laws that favoured ‘small’. Austin Dibblers and Humber Pootles ruled the roost. Although proper cars were occasionally brought in from North America, they were a rarity.

A 1938 Morris 'Minor' - same transmission, curiously, as the 1952 model I learned to drive on. No synchromesh on 3rd and 4th.

A 1938 Morris ‘Minor’ – same transmission and side-valve 850 cc motor, curiously, as the 1952 Minor I learned to drive on, decades later. Syncromesh? What’s that?

Sun, palms, deco. Hollywood? No. Napier.

Sun, palms, deco. Hollywood? No. Napier.

The other Kiwi quirk was the tendency to keep the cars well past their ‘use by’ date – a hazard for historians trying to date mid-twentieth century photos by cars. Even in the 1950s it wasn’t unusual to see early 1930s models chugging about.

1931 Hispano Suiza. No such beastie in 1931 Hawke's Bay, but hey...

1931 Hispano Suiza. No such beastie in 1931 Hawke’s Bay, but hey…

Anybody might think it was 1930...

Anybody might think it was 1929 Chicago …

Cars lined up after the deco-age parade, Napier, 2014.

Cars lined up after the deco-age parade, Napier, 2014. Photographic conditions were extremely difficult – 33 degree C and blazing bright sunshine matched with dappled shadows.

There was an art about cars back then which they seem to have lost today.

There was an art about cars back then which they seem to have lost today.

A lot of the cars at the parade have been brought in since. There were quite a number of Packards – including some magnificent Clippers – few of which actually drove New Zealand streets back then.

More cars on display...

More cars on display…

My next car? I wish...

A 1937 Packard 120C six-cylinder convertible. Beautifully restored. My next car? I wish…

The parade doesn’t celebrate what happened; it celebrates aspiration. And it’s fun to imagine Napier as it might have been in 1940 when all the art deco was brand new and Humphrey Bogart ruled the silver screen.

The art of the art deco car...

The art of the art deco car…

Along the way, I almost walked backwards into a 1937 V12 Rolls Royce Phantom III, while lining up a photo of another car. Don’t ask.

I jumped back and this appeared as I spun around...

I jumped back and this appeared as I spun around…

More soon. Meanwhile – do you like ‘deco’ stylings? What’s your favourite design period?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: Writing tips, science, geekery…and more deco. Lots more deco.

It’s Golden Age Hollywood party time!

My home town – Napier, New Zealand – styles itself ‘Art Deco capital of the world’ with reason. Between 1932 and about 1940 the central city was completely rebuilt to the latest styles – Chicago school, Spanish Mission, Streamline Moderne and more – after a devastating earthquake.

Party time in Napier's main 'art deco' precinct, February 2014.

Party time in Napier’s main ‘art deco’ precinct, February 2014.

It was a unique heritage. Unfortunately most of the best was knocked down in the 1980s, before the value of this unique collection of small ‘art deco’ buildings was recognised. However, the rest have been saved and restored.

Today that heritage – and the lifestyle we’d like to imagine went with it – is celebrated with an annual summer party, a three day weekend of 1930s Hollywood-style fantasy action. The streets fill with restored vintage cars, the Warbirds arrive with their awesome T-6 Harvards (Texans), Spitfires, Mustangs, Avengers and the like. And everyone has a great time.

I made the effort to get there this year. Here are the first couple of photos. More soon.

I don't think any of these cars actually featured in 1930s Napier...but hey...

I don’t think any of these cars actually featured in 1930s Napier…but hey…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More deco posts, more writing tips, and stuff.

I got a message from Marilyn Monroe

I picked up a new follower on one of my social networks the other day. Marilyn Monroe.

Henry David Thoreau...also followed me. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Henry David Thoreau…also followed me. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Not THE Marilyn Monroe, of course. Any more than I was followed by Henry David Thoreau, who joined the list next day.

They were fans – and, as a writer myself, I’m an enthusiast for anything that spreads the word about great writers like Thoreau. More please!

Still, I think it’s safe to say the real Marilyn Monroe isn’t out there on Twitter.

It’s always puzzled me that some people pretend to be celebrites. None of this is new – social networking merely makes it easier. Is it dragging on the coat-tails of fame? Sharing the emotion and pleasure they feel by consuming the work of the celebrity? Expressing a need to identify with someone other than themselves? Winding others up? Or all of the above?

That’s why we often see “Official” tagged to Twitter accounts of the real celebrities.

It begs questions about online identities. For myself, I use my real name. It’s a common popular name, so I add my initials and a “New Zealand” (‘NZ’) qualifier online. The letter “J” is another popular one to start middle names with, I find, but hey, my middle name’s also mine – and, coincidentally, I discover has been in the family since the early 1800s, at least.

I’m a bit worried another Matthew Wright might do something heinous, like dressing up as an Oompa Loompa in Norwich, for instance, and I’ll get besmirched.

But I wouldn’t use a pseudonym – still less pretend to be anybody famous. Maybe they might pretend to be me…maybe…

I think the phenomenon tells us a good deal about people. Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

If you think of Jackson’s ‘Hobbit’ as a fan-fic video game it makes more sense

I finally caught up with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Part two of the trilogy – and don’t we know it. The film ended – splat – in the middle of what was structurally the build-up to the dramatic finale.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was – you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian’.

It also confirmed what I pretty much understood from watching the first instalment, The Hobbit: Leaving Bag End and Getting As Far as the Front Gate. Once upon a time I read a wonderful book by J. R. R. Tolkien. A few scenes in these movies bear passing resemblance to one or two passages in the book, but I think we have to accept that this movie trilogy isn’t really Tolkien’s wonderful kids’ tale.

To me this instalment – particularly – came across as a cross between high-budget fan fiction and a shoot-em-up video game, with plenty of set-piece chase sequences and puzzle-solvers, melodramatic cliff-hangers in lieu of real tension and cliched game-style characters (I’m talking about you, Tauriel). But it had little in the way of tight plot, characterisation or true dramatic tension.

Possibly Smaug. Possibly not.

Possibly Smaug. Possibly not.

Judged on its own merits – and accepted as the middle third of a nine or ten hour story – The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug was OK. It’s very much in line with current trends, like X-men and other SFX spectaculars. But I know Jackson’s capable of better than this. He did a stunning job on The Lord Of The Rings. Wonderfully scripted, structured and paced.

What happened? I fear the market happened. The Lord of the Rings was over a decade ago. The big studios don’t seem to be taking major risks these days – it’s why multi-parters and franchises rule. It’s why movies appeal more to the video-game set now than they ever have in the past.

In the wider scheme of things, Jackson’s version of The Hobbit pretty much nails current market expectation. I fully expect to see a vid-game involving [spoilers!] a helter-skelter barrel chase while overcoming obstacles, pulling levers and dodging orc arrows; or a scuffle through Erebor jumping between platforms and moving conveyor belts, pulling levers and so forth in order to flood the bad guy with molten gold.

To me that tells us a lot about ourselves, about how society has changed, about how our expectations have been moulded. And Tolkien’s ouvre, I think, deserves more than this.

Your thoughts? Have you seen this part of the trilogy yet? What did you think?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More art deco holiday snaps, regular posts resume next week. Watch this space.

Why I like ‘Dr Who’ when I usually diss stupid science in SF

I’ve been a huge Dr Who fan ever since I was a kid and had to hide behind the couch when the Yetis appeared.

It’s great. Scientifically hokum – but great. Which sounds odd given that I usually diss bad movie science. What gives?

Eta Carinae. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.

Eta Carinae. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.

It’s like this. A lot of Hollywood SF is set in the ‘real’ world – then ignores the basic observable realities. Space fighters, sound in space, fake visible lasers that go ‘pew pew’ – all of it is just irritatingly dumb. Destroys the suspension of disbelief.

But not Dr Who.

Dr Who is about concepts we cannot directly see or understand, and which might be true. Maybe. I mean, things bigger on the inside than they are on the outside? That can go anywhere in space and time?

That gets my vote. It’s totally counter-intuitive. Cool. And that sustains the suspension of disbelief. Then there’s the fact that he can go anywhere in space and time. Want to snog Jeanne Antoinette Poisson? No problem. Fly to the far side of the universe? Easy. Couple that with whimsy and tongue firmly in cheek where it needs to be – and you have a winner.

Entertainment, whimsy and maybe science. The BBC got it right. Hey – does anybody remember the BBC version of TrekBlake’s 7?

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: a fun wrap-up for 2013. Regular writing tips, humour, science geekery and other posts start early January. Get ready for the big reveal; the way to measure the speed of light with custard. Seriously.

A small tribute to my favourite model

This holiday season I thought I’d share a picture of my favourite model.

A photo I took of the Corgi Thunderbird 2 model I've had since forever... And it's not tilt-shift. This is what happens on a focal length of 190mm at f 5.6, natural light with exposure time of 1/100.

A photo I took of the Dinky Thunderbird 2 model I’ve had since forever… And it’s not tilt-shift. This is what happens on a focal length of 190mm at f 5.6, natural light with exposure time of 1/100.

It’s the Dinky Thunderbird 2 with Thunderbird 4 in the pod and click-to-extend elevator legs. I’ve had it since forever, and apparently it’s classed as ‘vintage’.

Every bloke of A Certain Age is a fan of Thunderbirds… right? And it’s being re-made, even as I speak, right in the city where I live, by Weta Workshop. Cool.

Happy holidays everybody…and I hope none of you need to call International Rescue any time soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013