Sunday, 30 December 2007

Year in Review 2007

There hasn't been much to review here, as Voyages Extraordinaires: Scientific Romances in a Bygone Age only started in its current weblog form a mere two months ago. In order to inaugurate a tradition, despite so little water having passed under this London Bridge, here are some of our favorite pieces from the past year...

Welcome to Voyages Extraordinaires! was the introduction both to the weblog as well as the French-themed "Voyages Extraordinaires Month", and served as a nice description of this journal's spirit. There was another welcome quote on this spirit in Jules Verne at Home (1894).

There were a couple of very essential films that we also reviewed. Namely, A Trip to the Moon (1902) and The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (1958). We also got to pay a visit to The Original Doctor Who, and plan on charting a course with him through the coming year, in as close to the order of the stories as we can muster.

Since Voyages Extraordinaires aren't just about fiction, but about real life adventures to places exotic and historic as well, I was glad to be able to share with you a look at Canada's Banff National Park and spend Christmas at the Banff Springs Hotel.

We have many good things coming up in the coming year. We'll have whole months devoted to Disney, anime, the Golden Age of the 1920's and 30's, jungle adventure, the briny depths and the celestial spheres, in addition to a usual (and unusual) array of reviews, essays and anecdotes. I hope you all had a wonderful 2007 and will have an even better 2008! Thank you for reading Voyages Extraordinaires and spreading the word about it!

Anthology of Music Videos

It's New Year's Eve, so dance the night away! To get you ready, here is a collection of Victorian mad science-themed music videos. You've probably seen them before, but it's always nice to revisit old favorites.

Tais Toi Mon Coeur by Dionysos

She Blinded Me With Science by Thomas Dolby

Tonight, Tonight by the Smashing Pumpkins

Bullet by Covenant

Thursday, 27 December 2007

The Original Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child (Story 1, 1963)

English Science Fiction has always enjoyed a wonderful, offbeat, colorful status relative to that coming out of North America. In the colonies, there has never been a shortage of googly-eyed monsters, flying cars, Disnified or Roddenberried visions of futuristic technotopias, or Joseph Campbell-style mythology dressed-up with laser swords and space ships. But compare that to the sheer wry madness of British Sci-Fi, and especially the chief amongst them...

When setting out in the early 1960's to develop new children's programming in a Sci-Fi vein, the British Broadcasting Company was very specific about what they did not want to see: the illiterate style of American drive-in monster movies. The BBC did have a few previous successes to work from, including a live teleplay of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine in 1949, the mysteriously disastrous first manned flight in space in 1953's The Quartermass Experiment, and the astronomer Fred Hoyle-penned 1961 series A for Andromeda, about a radio signal from space that instructs humanity to build a supercomputer that in turn gives them instructions on how to create an alien woman. In an interoffice memo, it was determined that the subjects faring best for the new show were psychic phenomena and time travel. Time travel would be especially preferred, since it could fill the quota for educational content by having the characters go back in time to historically and scientifically important periods.

Not long thereafter, the first and best of that (literally) immortal icon of Science Fiction debuted: Doctor Who.

Of course, the good Doctor has changed quite a lot since 1963. Not the least of those changes have been the actor: to compensate for new actors taking over the role, the mythology of the Time Lords of the planet Gallifrey was developed, each of whom can regenerate themselves 12 times into whole new bodies and personalities. Most audiences in North America remember Tom Baker's pacesetting performance as the Fourth Doctor, with his floppy hat, grinning English smile, six+ foot scarf and robot dog K-9 in tow. Baker has faced stiff competition from the latest, Tenth Doctor David Tennant, whose high octane adventures through time and space have made the character more popular than ever.

Of the ten actors to portray the Time Lord, only a select few have really been able to capture the essence of The Doctor. Granted, all have done a fine job of acting like The Doctor... but some are The Doctor. Baker and Tennant are among them. Another is Paul McGann, who served as the Eighth Doctor in only one television movie and is otherwise filling out his role through audio-dramas. Despite the quality of his movie, McGann certainly looks exactly like how one might envision a British time traveller, complete with frock coat, cravat and pocket watch.

Age the youthful McGann about 70 years, and he could easily be the First Doctor. Played by William Hartnell, this ancient, irascible old codger in Edwardian garb is the quintessential Doctor. He is no stuntman, that is for sure, and that changes the pace of his adventures from what modern viewers might expect. However, if handed a description of Doctor Who the program, the condescending but grandfatherly old rogue scientist portrayed by Hartnell is likely what one would come up with.

In this legendary initial story arc, we are introduced to Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright - a high school science teacher and history teacher respectively - who are vexed over a strange student of theirs, Susan Foreman. Susan, it seems, has knowledge far outstripping that of even the most advanced thinkers of Earth, while at the same time having a very poor grasp of everyday, local affairs (for example, she was shocked and embarrassed at forgetting that England was "still" on the Imperial measurement system "at this time" rather than on Metric). Taking matters into their own hands, they follow her home one night... to a junkyard in Totter's Lane.

In the junkyard, with Susan nowhere to be found, they run afoul of a bitter old man until they hear her voice coming out of a blue police telephone box. Despite the efforts of the old man to stop them, they burst into the box to rescue Susan, only to find that somehow, it's bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. Fearing reprisals by both the authorities of Earth and of his home planet - from which he and Susan are on the run - this old man called The Doctor closes the door of the strange ship and spirits the pair of teachers back to the year 100,000 BC.

At this point, we launch into the ostensibly educational, historical content that makes the first Doctor Who adventures so unique. Viewers, originally a Sunday audience of children, are treated to a barren, ice swept prehistoric world where cavemen live by one rule: he who commands fire, commands all.

Much of earth in 100,000 BC stretches any scientific credulity, to be sure. What it lacks in hard science, however, it makes up for in good cinematography and some surprisingly intelligent writing. There are points when this glimpse into man's conquest of fire is more genuinely engaging that it really ought to be. Though it does help that the titles of the various episodes melodramatically fire up the imagination: "The Cave of Skulls", "The Forest of Fear" and so on. Nevertheless, two of Doctor Who's traditional hallmarks are here from the outset in quality writing and directing compensating for terrible costumes, sets and effects. It's only the modern Doctor who would benefit from cinema-quality aliens and environments. Back in 1963, it's pure Science Fiction cheese that rises above the occasion.

This impromptu crew survives its first adventure in prehistory, but it won't be that easy. The Doctor had to beat a hasty retreat from his home planet aboard a ship - "Time And Relative Dimension In Space" or the TARDIS - that he doesn't really know how to work quite properly yet and which seems to be broken. That its chameleon circuit is locked in the shape of a 1960's British police call box is the least of its problems. There is no way to program the ship to return to Ian and Barbara's own time. They are lost in space, and their next destination is a desolate world called "Skaro", with its inhuman occupants, the villainous Daleks...

Tuesday, 25 December 2007

Christmas at the Banff Springs Hotel

One of the best places to spend a Christmas is at the stately, castlesque Banff Springs Hotel in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada. Built by the Canadian Pacific Railway, this imposing Scottish Baronial style hotel rose from the Bow Valley in the heart of the Canadian Rockies to become the benchmark of elegance through the teen years of the 20th century and into the 30's and 40's. The well-to-do would come by rail in well-appointed cars to this neo-mediaeval magnum opus to take in the mountain airs, see the wilderness, scale the mountains, and be back in time for tea.

Somehow, perhaps with the layer of dust and the immutable sepia photos of the past, this "Castle in the Rockies" feels as much a primal part of the wilderness as the trees and rocks it was hewn from. The castle has always stood there, seemingly as solid and immortal as the mountains surrounding it. The melodies of the Scottish pipers feel to the ear as natural as the bellowing of elk and bears.

Amdist the snows of winter in the ranges of the True North Strong and Free, with lit trees and warm fires in the limestone hearths, it is Christmas in the grand picturesque. Since I cannot bring all of you to it, I can at least bring it to all of you in a pair of videos. The first is an introduction to the Banff Springs itself, while the second is a "widescreen" presentation of Christmas at the hotel. I hope you enjoy them and Christmas!

Sunday, 23 December 2007

Merry Christmas to All!

Merry Christmas (or your chosen mid-winter festive occasion) to all of my readers!

As a present, the following News Magazine of the Screen reel is a bit young - dating from 1950 - but it's still a wonderful, if solemn, vintage celebration of the season. Enjoy!

Thursday, 20 December 2007

Banff National Park

The Canadian Rocky Mountains form a unique range in the annals of history and the natural wonders of the world. Before the arrival of Europeans in the Victorian era, these glacially-shaped blue-grey limestone and slate mountains were part of a vast stretch of untamed wilderness, penetrated only briefly by the local tribes of the Nitsitapii (Blackfoot), Tsuu T'ina (Sarcee), Nakoda (Stoney) and Ktunaxa (Kootenay) First Nations. For them, the forested valleys of the "Shining Mountains" offered resources of animal meat and hide, timbers for lodges and red ochre for rituals. The mountains echoed with the calls of grizzly, elk, moose, bighorn sheep, cougars and mountain goats.

Sir Alexander MacKenzie, employed by the North West Company of fur traders, was the first European to cross the Rockies in 1793. For the next century, Europeans would keep themselves in the foothills of the great mountains, locked within the fur trade forts of the North West and Hudson's Bay Companies, save for the few surveyors like David Thompson and Captain John Palliser, and missionaries like Rev. Robert Rundle. Finally, the Canadian Pacific Railway blazed a route through the mountains that was completed in 1885.

With the movement of the steel through the wilderness, a trio of CPR workers tapped a secret long known by the First Nations: bubbling up from the depths of Sulphur Mounatin were warm mineral waters believed to hold curative powers. The debate over these springs was decided by the creation of Banff National Park, also in 1885. Banff was soon joined by Jasper, Yoho and Kootenay National Parks, which along with other provincial parks, form the Canadian Rocky Mountains UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Canadian Rockies themselves extend the border between the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta, and reach into Glacier National Park in Montana.

Though they suffer from a great deal of tourist attention - Banff is the most visited National Park in Canada at upwards of five million visitors per year - the Canadian Rockies are still imposing and untamed. They stand immovable as one of the great icons of Canada and one of the last great, extraordinary wildernesses.

With Christmas coming fast upon us, and with the images of Canada and snow being so closely aligned, it is worth paying a video visit to Banff National Park ourselves. The first video is an overview of Banff National Park itself, with its wildlife, wilderness and discovery. The second is about the history of Banff, looking at some of the sites in the town of Banff. The third is a very quick anthology of Rocky Mountain wildlife made possible by the best place to go see Rocky Mountain wildlife: the zoo in nearby Calgary, Alberta. The final film features Lake Minnewanka - the "Water of the Spirits" - in Banff National Park.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Nanook of the North (1922)

An excerpt from Nanook of the North (1922).

This first cinematic documenatry, 1922's Nanook of the North by Robert J. Flaherty, is a fascinating piece of film. There are many layers upon which it can be appreciated, including layers it has acquired over time.

Flaherty himself expounded on the creation of this remarkable vision of the struggle between man and nature in the high north:
In August 1910, Sir William MacKenzie whose transcontinental railway, the Canadian Northern, was then in the initial stages of construction, commissioned [me] to undertake an expedition to the East Coast of Hudson Bay to examine deposits of certain islands upon which iron ore were supposed to be located.

All told I made four expeditions on Sir William's behalf, during a period of six years, along the East Coast of Hudson Bay, through the barren lands of the hitherto unexplored peninsula of Ungava, along the west coast of Ungava Bay and along the southern coast of Baffin Land... As a part of my exploration equipment, on these expeditions, a motion-picture outfit was included. It was hoped to secure films of the North and Eskimo life, which might prove to be of enough value to help in some way to defray some of the costs of the explorations. While wintering in Baffin Land during 1913-14 films of the country and the natives were made... The film, in all, about 30,000 feet, was brought out safely, at the conclusion of the explorations, to Toronto, where, while editing the material, I had the misfortune of losing it all by fire. Though it seemed to be a tragedy at the time, I am not sure but what it was a bit of fortune that it did burn, for it was amateurish enough...

New forms of travel film were coming out and the Johnson South Sea Island film particularly seemed to me to be an earnest of what might be done in the North. I began to believe that a good film depicting the Eskimo and his fight for existence in the dramatically barren North might be well worth while. To make a long story short, I decided to go north again- this time wholly for the purpose of making films.

Nanook of the North is a rousing tale of nature and survival in the vast, endless expanse of the Canadian Arctic. The footage captured by Flaherty is astonishing in its grandeur, despite the limitations of silent film and monochrome stock. There are fields of snow, floes of ice and herds of walrus that can fire the imagination of the armchair explorer warm at home in front of the fire. Then there are the stories of Nanook himself, and his family, charting out across those expanses on their hunting expeditions, skimming the water in kayaks and hitching up their dogsleds. The Inuit cut a romantic figure against the desolate, subfreezing landscape. A title card from the film describes it poetically:
The shrill piping of the wind, the rasp and hiss of driving snow, the mournful wolf howls of Nanook's master dog typify the melancholy spirit of the North.

The film is also the first feature length documentary, and therein forms a remarkable document of salvage anthropology. Nanook of the North captures those last aspects of Inuit culture in the 1920's that were deemed "authentic" by white anthropologists. This is also where the film is at its most controversial.

It is well-known at this point that large sections and elements of Nanook of the North are contrived for the camera. "Authenticity" is a negotiable characteristic dependent on the gaze of the observer: the person doing the watching, doing the chronicling, decides what aspects of a culture are "authentic." In the case of Nanook, Flaherty set out to chart Inuit culture as it was before European colonization even as the fruits of 500 years of colonization and trade had already made its impact.

The most direct, visible European presence in the film is the trading post that Nanook (whose name was actually Allakariallak) and his wife (who wasn't actually his wife) visit in the first quarter. There they are shocked and amazed at newfangled European inventions like the gramophone before heading off to hunt walrus and seal with spear and lure. Behind the camera, Allakariallak hunted with a gun and this desolate corner of northern Quebec was populated with several Euro-Canadian settlements. The most significant influence is not what the camera discreetly turns away from, but that the camera turns away. The greatest European presence is not before the camera, but behind it; it is the European gaze that dictates what shall be seen and how it shall be seen.

The matter is complicated, however, and does not make Nanook of the North an objectionable piece of cinema history. (In the vein of, say, a Birth of a Nation or a Triumph of the Will) The fact remains that authenticity will always be dictated by the observer, and that is no less true, even amongst the most well-meaning. Some Native American commentators regard white North American fetishism of "traditional" Native cultures to be a form of racism in itself. Flaherty's goals were certainly noble and ambitious, to make a visual document of what he felt was traditional Inuit culture before it was irrevocably "damaged" by colonization.

Standing back even further as observers of Nanook of the North, the film can also be appreciated as a historical subject unto itself. In the words of aesthetic philosopher Walter Benjamin, "The grey film of dust covering things has become their best part." Or in this case, the grain of dust on the grey film. It can be looked upon and enjoyed not only as an aesthetic narrative of the Canadian North or as a historical document of Inuit culture, but also as a 1920's silent film. It takes the armchair explorer not only into ages past in the high Arctic, but into the main street nickelodeon and then into that snowy wilderness of a time before colonization.

Sunday, 16 December 2007

Comedy Clips

After reviewing the two great genre comedies of 1965, and not giving too-favourable a pair of reviews at that, it only seemed fair to post some of the clips that have made it onto YouTube. Enjoy!

From The Great Race:

From Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines:

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines (1965)

Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines: Or How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 Hours and 11 Minutes, directed by Swiss Family Robinson's Ken Annakin, was released in the same year as the first Scientific Romance farce, The Great Race. Like it's predecessor by a few months, Magnificent Men appears to want to play with the inherent absurdity of Victorian-Edwardian technology and the obsessions about it, but it quickly veers off into humour that comes off as dated as Great Race's sexual politics.

From the outset, Magnificent Men bypasses the aesthetic motifs of early cinema and opens with the a cavalcade of aeronautic follies that, interestingly, is very similar to that which opens Vincent Price's Master of the World. This actual historic footage is supposed to give the audience the opportunity to laugh at failed attempts at flight, but even this gives way to droll humour dolled out in small doses of racial stereotypes. There are a few crazed flying contraptions that make their way into the movie, based on some genuine designs from the Edwardian Era, but these are few and far between. The planes that actually do make it into the air are all reproductions of actual working aircraft. To the flight enthusiast, that is at least one bonus that the feature has.

Otherwise, the movie is carried by a parade of racial caricatures that run just shy of being outright offensive. There are a couple different types of Briton represented, from the stiff-upper-lipped nobleman to the priggish git nobleman to the bumbling Royal Navy officer. The lone Scot is, of course, perpetually drunk. The Italian contestant is a wealthy and stylish mafioso with an extremely large family and nagging wife. Thankfully, his Roman Catholicism comes in handy when conscripting a monastery full of nuns to help him get his flyer back in the air so the Protestants don't win the race.

The racial conflict comes to humorous boil between the French and the Germans... The French are naturally irreverent and libidinous, with the pilot taking frequent time out of the race in order to woo the girls. Together, the French crew constantly antagonizes the Germans, who don't know how to fly but accomplish it by following the instruction manual to the letter. Spending the entire film in uniform, the Germans are taken to flag lowering ceremonies every evening and goosestepping their craft onto the tarmac every morning.

About the only race not derogatorily profiled in this film are the Americans, who are still presented as wild and woolly cowboys but are treated with unbelievable reverence. Is there any doubt that the rugged American will get the girl who's fed up with restrictive British society? In fact, both Magnificent Men and Great Race - British productions - have an almost annoying fetish with idolizing America's virtues.

Annakin tried again a few years later in 1969 with Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies, also know as Monte Carlo or Bust. This one was based on the famed Monte Carlo rally and included Tony Curtis trying to relive his success with The Great Race.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

The Great Auto Race of 1908

Having examined the farce based loosely on the actual New York to Paris automobile race of 1908, it's worth taking a look at the actual race itself.

The Great Auto Race of 1908 is a website devoted to the race and to the 2008 centennial celebrations.

The following video is an advertisment for the centennial The Greatest Auto Race on Earth documentary:

Sunday, 9 December 2007

The Great Race (1965)

For many fans, a great deal of Scientific Romance's appeal is the humour implicit to the utter absurdity of Victorian and pseudo-Victorian society and technology. Victorian mores, to modern sensibilities (and even to many satirists at the time), seem particularly absurd. In Spectacle of Empire, author Jan Morris recalls the apocryphal episode of two British gentlemen in a far-flung region of the world who said nothing to each other until they were formally introduced by their native bearers stopping to chat with each other.

Modern Scientific Romance is, in many ways, an exploration into the absurdity of technology. This is implicit to a genre that seeks to replicate the 21st century in the 19th, using the mechanical technology of the Industrial Revolution to replicate the the simplicity of the cybertechnology of the Information Age. Everything has to be bigger, clunkier, weirder-looking and infinitely more complicated... The kind of world where they would think to build mechanical horses before horeseless carriages, or a huge contraption of cogs and wheels to scramble a pan of eggs.

The fine art of making things more complicated than they need to be is an inherently comedic art. And the fact is, very few modern Scientific Romantic books and films are able to play it completely straight at streamlining some Victorian invention to its essential components. Far more often, creators are given to playing, at least a little, with the comedy of the Victorian. Using a huge contraption of cogs and wheels to perform simple household tasks is cinematic shorthand for the crazy inventor, since Lionel Jefferies' The First Men in the Moon to Steve Coogan's Around the World in 80 Days to Christopher Lloyd's Back to the Future to Vincent Price's Edward Scissorhands. The 60's Vernian Master of the World, in which Vincent Price plays the mad aeronaut Robur, begins with a comic sequence showing the foibles of industrial humanity's first attempts at powered flight.

Little surprise that some film-makers, well into the Atomic Age of Scientific Romance, would forgo any attempts at serious content at all and dive headlong into comic territory. However, despite the comedy inherent to Victorian absurdity, the epic Victorian mad science comedies of the 1960's tended to look for their humour in other places, for good or ill. The first of these, 1965's The Great Race set a racy comedy about sexual politics against a global automobile race.

The Great Race, directed and scored by The Pink Panther's Blake Edwards and Henry Mancini respectively, stars Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as rival daredevils in a race based superficially on an actual 1908 London to Paris automobile race. Curtis plays The Great Leslie, the white-clad hero whose teeth and eyes literally sparkle. Lemmon, on the other hand, steals the show as Professor Fate... The moustache-twirling, black-clad, tophat-wearing, sneering villain in the spirit of Snidley Whiplash. Fate is responsible for pretty much any humour that has anything to do with the fundamental absurdity of Victorian industry, from his dark, forbidding castle equipped with player pipe organ to his submersible and peddle-powered zepplin to the Hannibal 8 race car with mini-cannon, smokescreen and heat ray.

Into the mix is thrown Natalie Wood as a suffragette reporter, and with her comes the overwhelming gender politics that are often... usually... downright awkward and embarrassing to watch. There is much talk of women's liberation and much fumbling by the men to compensate, and the whole lot of it falls disastrously flat for generations that have taken women's equality for granted. There is one exception, which is that it sets up Prof. Fate for a really good monologue in which he's explaining a heated discussion between Leslie and Wood's Miss Dubois that happens off camera, all while the cars are floating along on a melting iceberg. Otherwise, this droll comedy about suffrage imposes one of the worst of all possible faults in a film: it is dated.

The story and the humour picks up considerably after the intermission in this three hour film. At this point, we're treated to a parody of The Prisoner of Zenda in which the racers descend upon the Eastern European country of Potsdorf, whose prince the villainous Prof. Fate resembles identically. Jack Lemmon pulls double duty for the drunken monarch, and punches out even more of the comedy. In the fashion of the Mack Sennett-style silent slapstick movies that The Great Race is purportedly trying to imitate, the whole sequence culminates in still the most elaborate pie fight ever filmed.

Because the film tries to be a racy 60's sex comedy, it also dilutes the atmosphere of the silent slapstick movie that it's trying so hard to emulate. The opening credits resemble movie slides and the film in total is dedicated to "Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy", but it unfortunately doesn't deliver on the goods. Had it been an actual slapstick movie in the style of the nickleodeons, it probably would have been a great deal funnier.

Friday, 7 December 2007

The Special Effects of Karel Zeman

One cannot, I think, overstate the wonder and craft of Karel Zeman's filmmaking. But while embraced in his fabulous world, one might briefly step out of suspension of disbelief to beg the question of "My God, how does he do it?"

Well, here's a two-part documentary answering that question...

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

More Clips from "The Fabulous World of Jules Verne"

One YouTube user decided to abbreviate Karel Zeman's The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (aka: The Diabolical Invention, 1958) in about nine minutes, with a light Indie Rock soundtrack. Regardless of the quality of the endeavour, it still showcases even more of this remarkable film. Enjoy!