Die Hard: The 12 Rules of Dying Hard and the Mantle of the Hat

McClane v2

As Die Hard 5 sludges towards the mid $200 million in box office takings, just about demonstrating its immunity to the law of diminishing returns (and making life easier for its guaranteed sequel), a four part dissection of a franchise that’s hard to kill. First up, Die Hard’s literary roots and the rules it tries to live by (freely).

I watched four Die Hard films in a day.  Here’s the proof in the form of Storified Tweetnotes of Parts One to Four. And here’s the result:

1.         The 12 Rules of Dying Hard

DIE HARD: THE TOUGHEST OF THE ‘REALISTIC’ ACTION FRANCHISES, THE ONE WITH THE EVERYMAN COWBOY, THE ONE WHERE THE MOST CALCULATED AND DEVIOUSLY VILLAINOUS PLOTS GIVE A SIMPLE NEW YORK COP WITH FAMILY ISSUES ‘A BAD DAY’.

There’s lots to love there. As of this year we’re up to the fifth instalment, with Bruce Willis doing his neat trick of sandwiching it in between Looper and GI Joe 2. The brilliantly definitive 1988 original muddies the response to its continued appeal a little; while it’s a shame to imagine a limp line of continuing sequels, it’s also hard not think that there may be life in the grizzled old cop yet. There’s certainly little hope that the heady heights of that first film will be reached again. But I’m always loath to can a franchise that’s happily lumbering towards double-digits, especially one that’s retained its leading man and seemingly ‘reboots’ hard. After all, it’s difficult for any sequel to diminish the reputation of an original or earlier film after 25 years.  Even George Lucas couldn’t damage the original trilogy that much without actually reshooting them.

With the sixth entry apparently a done deal and Bruce all signed up, it looks like the franchise may now settle into two trilogies, albeit separated by a 12 year gap. It seems odd that one of the most defined franchises (quite ‘jump the truck-proof’ in many ways) has found its yippe-ki-way to five sequels… But then it did start with supreme quality. The first film not only redefined the action film, but also laid down a set of rules that would prove definitive for the franchise. Subsequent sequels have worked within or against the confines of these rules, but for the most part they remain. If you’re looking for the perfect part six, these are the rules to follow:

The 12 Rules

1. McClane’s a fish out of water

Yes, McClane’s having a bad day. But by the Rules of Die Hard this bad day is exacerbated by his already being in an unfamiliar situation (see also Rule 3). First, this situation must be far from his comfort zone – an unknown city or better yet a large corporate tower block or airport. He’s on edge already, but crucially he’s in a jurisdiction that’s not his own, and worse at the whim of someone else. This is particularly Die Hard if that someone is a jobsworth (see Rule 6), villain or if the controlling mechanism is something that he just can’t comprehend, for instance the technology of a giant airport or the world wide web (see Rule 4)

2. McClane’s a family man

And he’s not very good at it, apart from crucially in Part Two. Importantly, it’s not until Part Four that McClane is officially divorced.

3. McClane’s in the wrong place

Contrary to villain assertions in Parts Three and Four, not least countless promotional material, McClane is the right guy, but granted, he is most certainly in the wrong place. While his presence may often be coincidental, there are often compounding factors. A tower siege for instance, is far more likely to put McClane at ease than a Los Angeles corporate Christmas party. There are also secondary levels of being ‘in the wrong place’: in Part One, it doesn’t help that the tower is also still under construction.

4. McClane’s an everyman

McClane’s reaction to everyone and everything is consistent: He is a solely English speaking, technophobic everyman.  An important part ofthe franchises appeal (see also, Rule 11)

5. McClane has allies

McClane is always able to assemble a group of allies, though necessarily they often lack any authority (see Parts One or Two) or are thrown together and have to overcome previous difficulties (see Parts Three and Four)

6. McClane versus jobsworths

Similarly, McClane will be constantly hampered by jobsworths while caught in a prolonged escalation of authority. Best personified by the escalation of Part One where it plays straight into the villains’ hands: cop to precinct to SWAT to FBI (strongly linked to Rule 1).

7. Music

Die Hard is a franchise distinctly aware of itself, even in Part One. Music that switches between the score to be a diegetic part of the film, whistled, sung or just heard by the film characters is an important part of the franchise conceit. It’s almost as crucial as McClane, with increasing irony, wondering how lightening can strike the same guy so many times. When a music refrain may be referenced in the film by hero or villain, it is likely to later link to a key part of the villain’s plot (see Rule 10) at a crucial moment. Particularly interesting in Part One where Beethoven’s Ode To Joy was chosen for its use in A Clockwork Orange.

8. Cause and effect

One of the vaguest rules, as cause and effect of this type is in most film narrative. However, a Die Hard film should use this masterfully and more than the average actioner(a crucial part of establishing Rule 3). There will be prominent foreshadowing: setting plot points early that will prove crucial possibly hours later. Exemplary examples are the jetlag shoe device in Part One or very early and throwaway reference to missing dump trucks in Part Three.

9. Creeping dread

There will be an extravagant villain master plan swinging into operation from the off. This is not Italian Job; the villain is established, or later shown to have been in full control from the beginning. The audience becomes aware of the plot as McClane does or sometimes just before him. The revelation will slowly and leisurely be revealed in mounting tension often against the backdrop of McClane’s personal issues, until…

10. Twist

There will be a gigantic twist, usually with a number of small twists accompanying it. Often a villain will be shown to have obscured their real objective with another crime. Unfortunately it is that first crime that ensnares McClane. Part Three played with this by making McClane the distraction.

11. Humour

McClane is an everyman, and responds to situations in a naturally humorously way. Despite the self-awareness of other parts of the films, his aren’t fourth-wall breaking one liners. McClane is no Deadpool; he is simply a wry and gnarly cop having a bad day. One who expects foreigners to understand his English swearing perfectly. A fine line must be drawn between superhero and cocky: in Part One this is neatly defined as a cowboy, something which continues through the franchise despite McClane’s protestations. This is often helped by the international part of the plot. A cowboy persona encompasses McClane as the definitive American everyman, but also a specialised maverick. As The Dark Knight franchise sees actors taking on the mantle of the Bat, the Die Hard protagonist must take on the mantle of the Hat. In some films, while McClane denies that he’s a cowboy, Willis almost drawls like John Wayne. Humour’s main presence in the franchise comes from the fact that the Die Hard film conceit is innately humorous – and not simply because of its ridiculousness. The hosepipe sequence of the first film is a effectively a tripartite joke with a structure that could be lifted from a number of Lloyd or Keaton films.

12. The Franchise is called ‘Die Hard’

Die Hard. Yes, a statement on its single-minded hero, or villains… But also I’ve always thought, simply about being bloody hard to kill despite the situation. Violence is a key part of this as you might expect, as are high death rates and very visible blood. Although the franchise has seen a steady decrease in rating (it currently stands at 12A as of part 5), violence is crucial.  If Part Six is called Die Hardest then it should be a winner.

The Other Themes

There are several other themes that run heavily through the franchise, but can’t quite be considered Die Hard Rules. Media parody is particularly evident in the first two, but it quickly loses signal. By Part Three, the media is kept at arm’s length only to be exploited by the villain.   In Part Four there sole purpose is to be manipulated while by Part Five there’s a barely police presence, let alone a journalist (beyond a headline grabbing turn by top ranking anchor women Sophie Raworth).

Location is one key component. The first three films remain resolutely based around three different American cities.  This lessens by the State hopping  Part Four, while Part Five transplants McClane to Moscow.   While not a rule, interpretation of this through the films could be the most important tenet of Die Hard – something particularly important when considering Die Hard 4.0.

But first a filmic and literary detour.

Admittedly most rules were set by the first film – still quite rightly the best action film ever made. Part of that first film’s brilliance was inadvertent: it was made in that crazy unimaginable pocket of non-time: the late 1980s. You couldn’t make that film in America now. Films of the time like Beverly Hills Cop and 48 Hours are destined never to become soft and cuddly Sunday afternoon flicks. A kind of high swearing, semi-automatic gloss-grit that will never be repeated.

Other bullets aligned: They included John McTiernan directing at the top of his game, Speed director Jan de Bont showing why he should have stuck to cinematography, and a nice homeland realism; while Rambo was sillily taking on the entire Soviet army in Afghanistan and Arnie was making Predators bleed before falling back towards the Terminator. Casting also certainly helped. Not only was it human-shaped suaveness of brilliance Alan Rickman’s big Hollywood break, but also Bruce Willis’ first big role. With his five year stint in Moonlighting drawing to a close, he was not only an actor willing to work to make it on film, but also a proven comedy-drama actor. The ingredients were good, but none more so than the source material.mcclane-dying-hard a

2. Die Hard as Adaptation

The first Die Hard set the franchise’s standard for adaptation, but an awkward one. It was adapted from Roderick Thorp’s 1979 thriller Nothing Lasts Forever, itself inspired by The Towering inferno. That book’s title presciently suggested John McClane’s slide into James Bond throughout the series, but on page he is actually called Joe Leland. In one of those wonderful quirks of movie rights, the adaptation of this book triggered a first refusal clause for the actor who had played Joe Leland in the prequel novel’s own film, The Detective. At 73, Frank Sinatra declined and the role eventually fell to another crooner, Bruce Willis.

Die Hard II: Die Harder was also an adaptation, this time translating Thorp’s characters into Walter Wager’s 58 Minutes. It’s probably a good thing that in the pre-24 world, the main plot wasn’t just 58 minutes long. While not a book adaptation, things came full circle with the third instalment, delayed a few years while various scripts were rejected. That the film finally emerged from an original screenplay for a new Lethal Weapon film was not unexpected and ultimately works well. While the Riggs and Murtaugh dynamic is still visible through McClane and Zeus, it neatly complied with most Die Hard rules and neatly bookended the trilogy. It was also a neat spin on the first film’s genesis. When Sinatra had passed, the script was mooted as a sequel to Commando. Though the ‘Die-hardness’ of the third film’s certificate was diminished, the return of McTiernan helped. The film is a lot more violent than memory may suggest, though sadly it was to be the last Die Hard film to feature Bruce Willis’ hair.

Die Hard 4.0 surfaced in 2007, in the rather unfairly unappealing hands of Len Wiseman.  The Underworld helmer should not have been unexpected. This was no Lecter, Alien or Ripley franchise and Wiseman could be seen as an heir apparent to McTiernan and Die Harder helmer Renny Harlin. With Parts Four and Five, the dynamic had certainly shifted, as had Hollywood. Live Free and Die Hard, the name Die Hard 4.0 para-stole from New Hampshire’s state motto, was again an adaptation, this time from John Carlin’s 1997 Wired article ‘A Farewell to Arms’ – which had previously stalled in script form for the proposed film, WW3.com. Part Five was the first to lack an ounce of adaptation. Instead sourced from the mind of the A-Team’s screenwriter Skip Woods. Not universally admired by fans of that Team, not for his Wolverine: Origin’s screenplay – at least you can see the sign of intent with reverential yet twisting previous credits.

The strong tradition of adaptation working within the rules of the franchise has helped steer Die Hard over two decades, but did anyone think that the quality would really be sustainable through five films…

Next: Essential Die Hard moments and where Die Hard 4.0 went wrong and where Mission to Moscow didn’t…

David Bowie: Persona and Personae – Which Bowie are you?

“Didn’t know what time it was, the lights were low-oh-oh
I leaned back on my radio-oh-oh
To find out which Bow-ie-ie… I was…”

Originally published on Mirror Online

It’s here, the handy intergalactic flowchart to find out which Bowie persona you really are!

Click on the infographic to view the original article and find out your resounding Bowie characteristics below!

Which David Bowie are you?

Which Bowie Are You? - Mirror Online
Via: Mirror.co.uk

So, which Bowie did you end up as and what does it all mean? Here’s a handy guide…

2000s Bowie (As heard on ‘Heathen’ and’ Reality’)

“All things must pass”

Hung-over from the eclectic drum n’ bass days, you’re the older, reflective Bowie; contemplating his life work, acknowledging the past but still wonderfully “struggling for Reality!” Often ripping into classic covers of bands you inspired, no wonder you’re prone to smile on camera a bit more than you used to.

Aladdin Sane (As heard on ‘Aladdin Sane’)

“Cold fire, you’ve got everything but cold fire”

The older Ziggy? Cousin of Ziggy? Something else..? Spinning out from the Spiders of Mars’ web, A Lad Insane you may be, but also the most definitive Bowie look. Cast an eye over your people and bask in the red glow of the lightning bolts blazing across their faces.

Diamond Dog (As heard on ‘Diamond Dogs’)

“Hot tramp, I love you so!”

Finding yourself in a dystopian future with remarkable similarities to Orwell’s 1984, it may be no surprise that you’re the swansong of glam. You may look like Ziggy with all the trappings and, er, a bit more on display, but revolution is in the air. At least you’ve got a tail. Prone to belting out what is possibly the ultimate Bowie track, ‘Rebel Rebel’ you truly are the dog’s.

Earthling Bowie (As heard on ‘Earthling’)

“Sending me so far away, so far away”

After a prolonged grounding, you’re the one who went back to space. Beating Britpop at its own game with glorious McQueen stylings, you’re the most zeitgeisty Bowie, hitting the fastest crazed and basking in a new level of cool. You may not be leading the pack this time, but “Little Wonder” you’re a commercial giant.

Hunky Dory Bowie (As heard on Hunky Dory)

“Hung up on romancing”

Dreaming of sailors fighting in the dance hall while immersing yourself in the works of Aleister Crowley and Nietzsche, you’re the complicated Bowie from which the seeds of personas flourished. Dark and literate you may be, but still with the tendency to wear a good dress and fully aware that you’re “not much cop at punching other people’s dads “.

Jareth the Goblin King (As seen in Labyrinth)

“Nothing, nothing, tra-la-la”

King of Goblin…. Muppets. You’re the star of show in the cult 80s classic with lots of hair and very little trouser fabric. Any slights at your appearance should be met with a resounding play through of the film soundtrack. On a loop. “I… can’t…  live… within you…”

John Blaylock (As seen in The Hunger)

“Forever…?”

Bound to have fun for longer than the average person, you may want to be a little less trusting in your love life.  The tragic victim of Tony Scott’s directorial debut. Aging before our eyes in just hours, the doomed vampire was a part Bowie was destined to play during his rather eclectic acting career. The fact the last Twilight film emerges DVD at the same time as Bowie’s new album is surely no coincidence.

Major Tom (As first heard in Space Oddity)

“Tell My Wife I Love her Very much” “She knows”

The tale of the doomed astronaut that launched possibly the most influential career in music. A recurring character in the catalogue, you’re another tragic character and the first, but by no means the last Bowie persona to have a suspected hedonistic streak… Presumed lost in 1969 in the hype of the moon landings frenzy, your demise may have been greatly exaggerated in ‘Ashes to Ashes’ 11 years later or when popping up later to say ‘Hello Spaceboy’. You can never be sure. You’re the oldest and most lasting Bowie with a title track still ripe for influence and Conchord parody in equal measure.

New Romantic Bowie (As first heard on ‘Scary monsters (And Super Creeps)’)

“I know when to go out and when to stay in. Get things done”

You’re the most successful Bowie, reaching huge heights of success and shrugging off the increased criticism. Whether waxing on about red shoes, Blue Jean or Modern Love in general you can lead from the front while your former child fans, including Culture Club, Duran Duran and countless others, nip at your lime suit trousers. Watch out for tour managers bearing glass spiders…

Nikolas Tesla (As seen in The Prestige)

“Nothing is impossible”

One of the most prominent roles of the Bowie-lite past decade. Who better than this legendary inventor? You’re the Bowie who sports a moustache that can only be described as ‘fine’, just don’t expect anyone to leave you their cat to look after.  A quiet man of reason you may be but also acutely aware of the phenomenal power you can harness –  unlikely to stay put in one place for long.

Thin White Duke (as heard on Station to Station)

“The European Canon is here”

Terrestrial or not, you’re the surely the dark character made flesh from the film ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’. With an alien dissociation from humanity, you’re really not expected to put recyclable rubbish out on the right day.  Dark, menacing and all together rather unpleasant as you wander from Station to Station. Even with one thin white foot touching the ground, your paranoid mind is caught between everything from kabbalah to Norse mythology despite the dawning ‘Golden Years’.

Tin Machine Bowie (As heard on Tin Machine I and Tin Machine II)

“Tin Machine, Tin Machine, take me anywhere”

Every once in a while, a man just needs to be part of a band. You can’t be a solo singing sensation forever, right? You are the democratic Bowie, lead singer and co-writer with in the four-piece combo Tin Machine. The glam of The Spider from Mars is far behind you as you belt out hard rock anthems. The Bowie least likely to invite critics around for afternoon tea.

Ziggy Stardust (As heard on Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars)

“Wham, bam, thank you Ma’am”

What is there to say about the biggest and best Bowie persona – the alien who came to Earth for rock music and fun (though not necessarily in that order)?  Tune-meister, fashionista and Top of the Pops ground-breaker all the way from your ‘Starman’ to your ‘Queen Bitch’ – you are a legend.  One word of warning though: you’re very likely to take it” all too far”.

Read more Bowie on Jokerside:

David Bowie and the Lost Trilogy
The Forgotten Trilogy
David Bowie The Next Day
The Next Day
Bowie on Jokerside
The worst news
David Bowie Station to Station at 40
The Duke
David Bowie Station to Station at 40
The Golden Years

David Bowie: The Forgotten Trilogy

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As The Next Day is released, a look back at one-named little wonders: Hours, Heathen and Reality

FIRST THINGS FIRST: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A FORGOTTEN TRILOGY IN DAVID BOWIE’S BACK CATALOGUE, THERE AREN’T EVEN MANY THINGS RESEMBLING A TRILOGY.  Of the most famous, the sublime ‘Berlin trilogy’ of Low, Heroes and Lodger, only Heroes was completely written, recorded and mixed in Berlin.

But that album, relatively shorn of a persona, may well be the most famous, the most influential, the most definitive Bowie album.  So much so, it’s no surprise that Bowie’s first album in a decade, released this week, modifies/obscures the cover of that 1977 albumIt makes even more sense considering the album’s first single clearly harked back to those Berlin days.  There is no doubt that much has happened in the intervening 36 years but Bowie would never again match his 1970s work rate – a period that once made him wonder if he had ‘overachieved’.

So, the forgotten trilogy?  A trilogy out of nothing.  But it just so happens that the first review I read of Bowie’s new album The Next Day remarked that it was his best album since 1. Outside.  A strange claim in the normal mix of things, but framed in the classic Bowie critique it’s as good as comparison as any; referring back to an abstract point in his back catalogue that has no doubt improved with age.  Legendarily, every album following Bowie’s commercial success, but critical slide, with Let’s Dance was declared ‘the best thing he’s done since Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)’.  In this review it was 1.Outside – not a bad album – but when fairly bundled with the following Earthling, it manages to totally exclude Bowie’s late 1990s and early 2000s work.  Rather harshly in fact.

While Bowie albums are rarely one genre, they tend to be described by their predominant genre – Young Americans may be soul while Earthling is drum ‘n’ bass.  But between Earthling and 2003, when Bowie started his 10 year break, he actually released three albums. The assumption is that these may not be so easily recognisable as his previous work, potentially even forgettable and so lend themselves to be conveniently written out of history.  It’s always harsh.  By making a trilogy out of them, I myself am conveniently writing out the 2001 All Saints album of collected instrumentals.

So it’s unfair but convenient to wrap the three albums up as the forgotten trilogy – a wonderful jumble of nostalgia and retrospective with I’d say more than one classic Bowie song between them.

Hours: The Last of the Dreamers

Hours surfaced in 1999, and may be my most listened to Bowie album simply by dint of it hitting my first year at University, and fresh into my discovery of Bowie/post-Art School haze.

Hours’ opening track, Thursday’s Child, sets the tone of reminiscence, with rather haunting backing vocals from Holly Palmer pushing up to a duet at points.  It’s subdued but effective, no doubt a side-effect from its origin, as with much of the album, as a soundtrack for the video game Omikron: Nomad Soul.  A neat throwback to Bowie’s recent closeness to touring partners Nine Inch Nails, contributors to games such as Quake, videogames seemed a perfect step for Bowie.  In the previous two years Bowie had refinanced his back catalogue and issued Bowie Bonds while diversifying on the web and now he was forging forward with videogames.  Bowie had always, unsurprisingly, been tech-savvy – reportedly sending his first email in the early 1980s – and games were a neat fit, Tony least culturally.  Not only that, Hours was the first album to be released in its entirety as a download before its physical release.  “Thursday’s Child has far to go” but is still ahead of the curve.

Of course, the result had to be a little obtuse.  Rejecting his recent working methods of sprint writing and recording, Bowie alongside guitarist, former Tin Machiner Reeves Gabrels, settled in Bermuda to write the album.   The result was, despite its brilliantly crazy cover and trend setting technology, Bowie’s most straightforward album for a long time.

Second track Something in the Air harks back to its revolutionary namesake in name alone, although the reference is not lost.  As with much of the first half of Hours, Bowie talks from the past and present about what may be a past or fading love affair or metaphor for any facet  of his career.  Where he has danced too long, he may be referring to his endless attempts to reconnect and win new fans, now or at any point of his career.  “I guess I never wanted anyone more than you”.  In the later songs, he seems to be calling to his muses, particularly in second single Survive.  “Where’s the morning (sic) in my life?”  he asks.  “I’ve got ears and eyes but nothing in my life”  – the muse may be gone…  Or she or his critics remain with their naked eyes on him.  Bowie recalls razzle-dazzle clubs every night while wishing he sent a valentine – but to who?

The result is rather melancholy first half, culminating in Bowie asking if he’s Dreaming all his Life – grasping at the memory of his muse; asking if it was “air she breathed”.

By What’s Really Happening, grunge had replaced the romantic softness of the earlier songs, but the questions haven’t stopped.  A song later Bowie returns to the Pretty Things, this time stating that they’re going to hell – which just might be one of the best titled songs in his career – but this time there’s an edge of mistrust and deceit, a far cry from the revolutionary mock-chastisement of the song’s 1971 near namesake. The riff of Pretty Things Are Going To Hell is glorious while Bowie starts to provide a few answers: “I am the blood in the corner of your eye” indeed.  Prolonged instrumental intros soon take a turn for the Heroes, and when Bowie surfaces he sings about the Angels of Promise once again, this time in discordant chorus.  Brilliant Adventure then delves into the orient, a long held interest surfacing again while drawing up memories of his previous Fantastic Voyage and other Berlin work.  But this is not the Bowie of the 1970s.  Where he had once blurred ‘Lennon’ and ‘Lenin’, Bowie now muddles ‘shallow’ and ‘shadow’ In Hour’s TS Eliot inspired climax; upbeat music and downbeat lyrics.

Bowie’s reasons for such a retrospective at this point remains unclear, but this Bowie is by no means passive.  While 27 years earlier, he sang of five years to live he now speaks of Seven Days.  Seven is a key number linked to the spirituality that the album is steeped in, helped along by the auto tuning, the light synth hangovers and Gabrels guitar from his previous two albums.  It’s better sculpted and more unified than other albums a decade either side, but in the Bowie universe that can equate to bland.  This album was the first of Bowie’s since 1972 not to breach the US top 40, but its significance was to be more obvious in the following years – notwithstanding several reissues.

Of course the clue was not only in the name of Hours, but also its cover.  Among pastel geometric shapes, Hours era Bowie cradles a possibly dead Earthling era Bowie in homage to La Pieta.  Bowie had transformed once again, but had he properly disposed of the retrospection?

Heathen: Have I stared Too Long?

No, clearly not.  Perhaps Hours wasn’t long enough, perhaps not hard enough – but within three years he returned with a new album of retrospection.  This is a good thing, because out of a tumultuous few years, Heathen emerged magnificent.  The intervening time saw the commencement and then abandonment of the Toys album, his self-proclaimed Pin-Ups II.  The resulting fall out with his studio, perhaps led to Heathen’s harder edge.  But probably more key was that Bowie had fallen back in with Tony Visconti.  Not only the producer of the “last good Bowie album” Scary Monsters but involved in much of his legendary 1970s work.  Work on Heathen had also started in the same studios as Philip Glass had used to record his versions of Bowie’s Berlin masterpieces in the early 1990s – an auspicious start.  Clearly Bowie was intent on harnessing the past, much as he would again 13 years later.  “Out in space, it’s always 1982” he sings in Slip Away.

Surrounded by the religiously, gothic, Walkeresque parenthesis, Heathen’s body is an outstanding run of songs.

Just as Bowie had stepped in to help his heroes earlier in his career, so he reasoned in the early 2000s that in times of trouble he would look at his peers and inspirations.  If that’s true, Heathen really is an example of greatness coming from adversity.  This is Bowie at one of his most collaborative, with alumni of The Who, Nirvana and King Crimson making guest appearances. Perhaps as an extension of Toy, Heathen contains three covers, a scintillating version of the Pixie’s Cactus, the Legendary Stardust Cowboy’s I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spacecraft – which returned Bowie to space in a well-fitting spacesuit – and a cover of Neil Young’s I’ve Been Waiting for You with Dave Grohl blistering on guitar. The departed were present as well.  Afraid, is a twisted and rippingly great riposte to Lennon’s God.  Bowie was still competing even if he felt too old to appear in a video.

Bowie is still paranoid, perhaps even more so, but also angrier about impending old age and the inevitability that it would take from him his newly found familial stability.  By Everybody Says Hi – a throwaway, but sweet song – he’s seemingly at dotage.  Even if a song later he’s demanding a better future, backed by a Christmas tinkling.  There is no doubt about Heathen‘s depth.  “From factory to field how many tears must fall.  Down there below… Nothing is moving”

Far more atheist than the agnostic Hours, Heathen  still raises more questions than answers.  Far removed from the glam or literature of his past, the album builds perfectly to its sublime close, Heathen (The Rays).  A simple lament, and one of Bowie’s best.  Were that something agnostic could be beautiful, for this would be a prime example.

The overall result is an album every bit as good as it’s artwork –one of his best covers.  The quality and tone is such that it’s no coincidence Bowie chose to duet Heathen with Low at point of the album tour.  It’s that good an album, let alone a companion piece.  Hours had shown the effect of Bowie’s mastery of drum loops and drum ‘n’ bass, but here they reach a new maturity – kept in check by someone in full control, with a deeper, more visceral and atavistic argument than Hours’ sometimes obscure spirituality.  Partially aided by the failure of Toy, which allowed some songs additional time to grow, most thanks must go to the newly re-fostered relationship of Visconti and Bowie.  They again crafted one of Bowie’s best.

Responding to the obvious questions about its contempraneity, Bowie replied that many of his albums could have been seen as reflective to an event like 9/11.  It’s true that the album was recorded before the terrorist attacks in Bowie’s adopted hometown, but certainly provides a deeper spiritual experience than its immediate predecessors.  New York and a change in his attitude to promotion would surface a short time later.

Reality: Back where I started from…

Pounding back on a schedule, Bowie resurfaced just a year later with 2003’s Reality.  After little fanfare for Heathen but a fair tour with what he proclaimed to be his strongest ever band – Reality was a return to the stadiums.  It had been a while.  As the title suggested, this was Bowie at possibly his most straightforward.  Alas, it would be a stadium album for a stadium tour that would finish him off for ten years.  I saw him at the start of the tour, then near the end.  In Birmingham he was blinding, wheeling out the lovely Days was a nice and unexpected touch – but by the Isle of Wight, I was surely suffering Bowie fatigue.  That is not to say it wasn’t stupendous – he even wheeled out the full Station to Station.  Suitably amazing, but weeks before he had to call time on his biggest tour for years.

A cartoon Bowie adorns the cover of Reality, not the religious heretic of the earlier album nor the old Bowie crossed out 10 years later on The Next Day.  Anime Bowie was the figurehead of a more powerful live rock.  Some of the ambiguity found in Hours was fading, Bowie even suggested that Reality was a “sense of New York”.  This was his true response to 9/11 (most notable in the stinging Fall Dogs Bombs the Moon) and he was taking it out on the road.  Big time.

The songs were accessible, the lyrics retaining a tension after Heathen.  Words mangled in this new world, from its blistering opening New Killer Star through to covers that were again cunningly chosen.

At the time Bowie was wisely cherry picking his back catalogue.  The start of the century had seen him as long haired as Hunky Dory, with a suitably elaborate coat.  Now the hair was styled and foppish, the clothing more regular, as he wheeled out Rebel Rebel as his universal anthem.  He even released it on an album bonus disk alongside Queen Bitch.  The 1970s were writ large, but he was no slave to them.  While his covers were less, they were carefully selected.  I remember a critic at the time wishing that Bowie would end his extended Pin Ups project.  However, in Reality as in Heathen they’re seamless.  In the latter, The Modern Lover’s Pablo Picasso sets a simple statement while recalling Bowie’s own Andy Warhol on Hunky Dory in spirit.  It sets the New York tone intended.  Later on, Bowie picks up the ‘All things must pass’ lyric at the end of Heathen, by covering George Harrison’s Try Some, Buy Some.  And a rather marvellous waltz it is too.

Never Get Old – the theme to that Vittel advert, surely has one of the most simplistic bass scales ever heard in a Bowie song, but then it’s straightforward shouty pop.  Looking for Water recalls the thumping rhythm lines of his 1970’s work, including Boys Keep Swinging, whilst retaining Reality’s  general discordance.  Two great middle-eights set this album for me, the lament on the brilliantly understated Days – the more Hours-like song on the album, if not in production terms – and then that of the title track, a blistering and stadium rock tune full of references to bowie past.

If Bowie remained spiritually agnostic to a point from Hours running into Heathen, here Bowie seems to be testing his own grit and direction.  At points he is introverted , possibly verging on actually  being that Loneliest Guy or singing the haunting avant-garde closing track for eternity.  In terms of this, diversifying the tunes and sending the show out on the road seemed a fair response.   Defaulting to the dark as standard throughout his career, recent new parenthood may have affected Him, but he has said before that he generally approaches similar subjects from different angles throughout all his albums.  Reality was another example.  Alas it was to end sourly, but still after 10 years away from the studio, there was to be The Next Day

Star Trek: The Number 2 and Just Who the Hell is John Harrison?

Sherlock Khan

A foray into the world of Trek signs, portents, speculation and fever-pitch excitement as the resolutely un-colon Star Trek Into Darkness draws ever closer.

Note: though I’ve seen nothing of the film, there may be a few spoilers lurking below at impulse speed…

FRANKLY, THINGS ARE GETTING UNBEARABLE FOR STAR TREK FANS. Still basking from January’s 20th anniversary of Deep Space Nine – or they should be – each week brings new promotional material for the next big Trek ‘thing’ – and man, are they working on the build-up.

All in all, the last few months have possibly been even bigger than that time when (the original) Voyager fell through a black hole at the edge of the galaxy, maybe met some Borg and then came back to the Solar System for a family reunion (and that’s less than a decade away in the new fangled Trek universe!). Yep, it’s big. BIG.

You see, in case you didn’t know, there’s a new film coming out. A new Star trek film, emerging into the new, refreshed, post-fatigue final frontier.  It’s film two of this brave new universe, this shiny new Star Trek. And Trek is a franchise that holds the number two in particularly high regard.

It was the second pilot of Star Trek that set the whole franchise rolling, when the vibrant Kirk replaced Jeffrey Hunter’ s rather flat Pike, the doctor grizzled a little and the green blooded science officer fully lost his emotions. Where No Man Has Gone Before, a simple exploration of friendship, the corruption of power and the threat of the great unknown -and it still contains some of the most chilling scenes in Trek to date.

I think it’s fair to ignore the Animated Series, which leaves the ’Second phase’ project – a reboot of the original series that was aborted in the late 1970s, but laid the foundations for Star Trek’s to move to the silver screen.

Eight years later there followed the real second series, 1987’s The Next Generation.  That did rather well – a billion dollars a year well in fact.  After seven years that moved onto the big screen itself, and inarguably reached its peak with its second film, First Contact.  A high octane Sci-fi/horror roller coaster, First Contact explored the possibilities of its ‘enemy’ so effectively there was little else you could do with the Borg – just ask Voyager.  (Chillingly, my fingers find themselves typing this theory on none other than the 22nd broadcast anniversary of that second series’ episode, itself called First Contact!).

When First Contact was released in 1996, there may well have been high expectations for that second son of the second son and for very good reason.  For while the number two had proved itself key to Trek success previously, there was one prime example that bestrode the franchise like an Alpha Gorn.  It’s a cultural reference point so large, one day it may well trigger its own Genesis device.  From the Original Series sprung, like a celluloid photon torpedo casket, the sublime The Wrath of Khan.  Not only another film number two, but also so darned influential it was quoted at the start of Kill Bill vol.1. High praise indeed.

So, now 31 years after Khan set the sequel bar, the pressure’s on for the third second Star Trek film.  I hope you’re keeping up.  Following the rip-roaring success of 2009’s Star Trek, which deftly rebooted the whole franchise while returning to its original roster (but also inadvertently wiping out Deep Space Nine –best not think about that) expectations are once again high.  The build-up has so far been quite relentless, and there’s still three months until Star Trek Into Darkness is released.

So far the promo wagon train to the stars has chucked out a teaser trailer, a more sombre full trailer and then a large dollop of IMAX stretched 3d lens flare (placed front of The Hobbit – selected screenings only). There then followed the Dark Knight Rises aping posters showing a decimated London, the hi-octane Super Bowl advert and the new narrated motion poster (A rich man’s poster or a poor man’s trailer?).  And then the last few days have let slip a further preview of the first 28 minutes of the film (plus some key scenes) showing off a bit of reediting, just to let us know that this is a responsive ‘work in progress’ until May.

Reaction has been good.  Now social media turns everything into a spoilerific minefield, the usual array of previews and bullet points about the film have appeared – in their way a nice throwback to prophecies and pulp predictions.  Even these seem to be charging the right phaser.

In all, it almost makes up for the fact that last Christmas was the film’s original release date.

But with all the anticipation and constant promotional material, the refreshed franchise manages to hang on to a key part of Star Trek’s mythos.  For what is essentially (once again) a western, the enemies are key.  Here he may have been named, heard and seen but we still have no idea who he is.  Another sci-fi franchise with another question hidden in plain sight. We know he’s been labelled John Harrison, initially in a throwaway photo caption, but is that it? He seems to have super strength and agility, can fisticuff with a  Vulcan, but still – who is Benedict Cumberbatch actually playing?

Complying with the rule of two, there was always a prime suspect, something the promos have done little to dispel.  Aside from talk of returning and one shot seemingly nicked from The Wrath of Khan, one incontrovertible message, well known to Trekanardos has been loud and clear: ‘The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few’. That’s been the second directive of Star Trek ever since, er, that well known second film (c’mon, you know the first directive). Combined with those choice shots, this looks to be a herring as red as one of the new film’s alien landscapes…

“You think your world is safe. It is an illusion… I have returned.  To have. My. Vengeance.” Growls Cumberbatch in the motion poster. ‘I can’t believe people are still saying it’s Khan’ exasperate  the film’s actors in any media they can.  But why wouldn’t they.  We’ve all been following the film’s production all the way through the casting and will eagerly snap up snippets, mistrust the film’s creators and gloriously speculate on a whim.  That is after all, most of the fun.

And so the potential candidates for John Harrison run as follows:

Khan Noonien Singh, Gary Mitchell, Harry Mudd, Gorn #452 and…  John Harrison.

Hmm. Here’s the logic, why John Harrison may indeed turn out to be plain old Johnny H and none of the other dapper suspects:

  • He’s not jovial, cheerful, slightly obsese or with any women on display. Not Harry Mudd.
  • He’s wearing a Starfleet uniform true (black!), but as his eyes aren’t all shiny there’s no sign he’s Kirk’s best buddy (incidentally, or not, a best buddy missing from the first film).  Also he seems very keen on non-telekinetic smack downs. If he were, it might not mean much:  Gary Mitchell’s (for it would be he) has already had his famous storyline, Where No Man has Gone Before, retold in the reboot universe comics.  And they’re canon. We know because the film’s writers told us so.  And protective Hollywood screenwriters NEVER lie. Not Gary Mitchell.
  • He’s not an 8 foot tall reptile in a gold one-piece. Not a Gorn.
  • He may have super strength, super agility, like the sound of his own voice, be ‘better’ and have ‘returned’  (evidence really stacking up here)… But he’s no Khan.  Not at least, from what we’ve seen.  Khan’s a leader, here’s he’s a loner.   The big KNS is presumably still floating around on the Botany Bay shuttle with his band of genetically engineered supermen (as a cut-scene in the first film was originally going to suggest).  So at the time of the new film, they’re still no doubt dreaming about the Spice Girls (Khan and co hail from the eugenics war of the ‘90s – the Spice Girls survived!). They’ll be picked up in a couple of years in this universe no doubt and have some restless energy – but there’s little reason to think the Nero incursion altered their hibernation cycle.  But again, there’s an inherent flaw in thinking it may be Khan.  Yes, the super-man would be a little mopey having evacuated from a war he was losing, but the events of the second film chart Khan’s wrath against Kirk.  I.e. he’s not going to be really pissed off for another two decades.   There will be years until a certain sun goes supernova and Lieutenant Chekov – who this time could be at Kirk and Kahn’s first meeting, unlike in the other universe – makes a fateful landing…  So that’s it, he’s no Khan.  He’s alone and it’s too darned early.

Sherlock Khan cuHe could be a forerunner of Khan for sure – if he’s human, he’s been augmented… But then why dilute a Khan who may well turn up later.  Equally, Harrison could be a surgically altered Romulan member of Nero’s crew come to take revenge – but surely JJ and co want to expand the universe, not constrict it.  The key has to be that Harrison, as he kind of suggests, has popped back home.  Don’t be distracted by accents – he may well be from Home Counties, Pluto.  After all, Khan himself had bizarrely shifted from Indian sub-continent to the Americas during his ill-fated colonisation.

So, John Harrison he is.  But again, who the hell is that?  New, with a hint of back-story tying into the Star Trek we know?  Hmm maybe.  He’s Starfleet, maybe the son of an admiral, maybe some black ops (surely not Section 31, DS9 fans?)…  Maybe it’s just a statement of subversion.  What he definitely is though, is a terrorist.  He’s angry and he kicks the merry Gherkin out of London.

Eager to get in on the speculation, and prove myself by reading the signs laid out before us I have drawn up a highly probable shortlist based on the fact that he seems to be human and yes, his name is indeed John Harrison (well, approximately):

Cadets, Non-coms and officers – this is my probable shortlist:

  • John Harrison – descendent of 19th century US Presidents William Harrison (9th) and Benjamin Harrison (23rd).  Appalled with their lack of biopics by the 23rd century he returns to Earth to seek vengeance.  This is my favourite theory.
  • John Harryhausen – An easy misprint, but quickly dispelled by a  tricorder scan, John is indeed the great-great-great-great (and so on…) grandson of legendary special effects supremo Ray Harryhausen  – inheriting a taste for the spectacular but seeking lapsed payments on behalf of the estate, he seeks revenge.  This is now my favourite theory.
  • He’s Sherlock Holmes.  Well, he is a master of disguise.  Quickly becoming my favourite theory.
  • He’s actually Harry Johnson, Lt Harry Johnson – it’s just that they muddled his name up.  Oh, and he’s pretty angry about it.  You would be if you looked up the wrong sites on the internet… Pretty much my favourite theory.
  • John Harrison, ant overlord –As a tribute to his conservation work, Harrison Ford has  gifted his name to an ant.  A lovely story, and one that goes very well until Pheidole harrisonfordi, realised that Ford had also gifted his name to a type of spider.  What an insult. Accelerating and subverting their evolution, the ant swears vengeance.  This explains why he hates humans, possesses super strength and – for the first few milliseconds of the trailer anyway – all the buildings look like humans from an ant’s perspective.  This storms ahead as my favourite theory.

I know: all of these seem perfectly plausible.  In fact, one of them would be guaranteed were it not for another compelling piece of evidence which suggests his name may not be a variant on john Harrison at all.  All the misdirection of the number two, baiting Khan…  But what you see in the final scene of the trailer…  Is five fingers.  Five.  Yes, this is a remake of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.  The clues are all there: As Pike tells us in the trailer, Kirk’s a little full of himself – you know, maybe ‘let’s go and take on God’ full of himself.  It also explains Harrison’s super strength – he can beat a half Vulcan because he’s a full Vulcan, none other than Spock’s half brother Sybok!  (John Harrison sounds remarkably like “Sybok”if you say it really quickly, preferably drunk).   After the events of the first film, Sybok’s understandably upset.  Look, in certain bits of the trailer, Harrison’s ears look a little pointy!

I mean, surgically altered Romulans would seem a little dull compared to an angry Vulcan suddenly harnessing emotion…  Revenge!  Hell yeah!  Also, helps with those less important things like neat cyclical enforcement and the exploration of the new dynamics of the Trek universe…  The fact that there are other planets full of virtually genetically identical species to Vulcans (Romulus!) notwithstanding.

The opening prologue (now re-edited) shows Harrison stepping into a familiar trope regarding future medicine – yes, just like McCoy’s tragic recollections of his dad in… Star Trek V!   But then perhaps the most compelling evidence that Into Darkness is virtually a shot for shot remake of The Final Frontier.  If you swap the private hospital for a desert, realise that Harrison is Sybok… Well, then Noel Clarke’s the bald guy at the beginning of the fifth film.  (Grins goofily – “You’re a Vulcan”).  His name on the Star Trek V script? J’onn.  An easy name for Sybok to adopt from his lieutenant for his Starfleet incursion. It all makes sense.

Yes, now that…  That is my favourite theory.   Live long and prosper.

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