Wednesday, October 07, 2015

It's All So F.A.B.ulous

Reboots, reimaginings and returning relics are distressingly common in recent years. I understand that one of the big reasons for this is that the children of the 80's and 90's are now the ones in charge of greenlighting new projects today. If I had that power, we'd be starting Season 5 of MacGyver (2011)* around now.

But for all the terrible attempts to bring back the past, there are a handful of successes, and one series stands above all others in recent years.

Growing up, I watched the heck out of the original adventures of International Rescue, Thunderbirds, a supermarionation series by Gerry Anderson. I've seen every episode multiple times. So when I heard that there was a new series on the way from ITV, I was pretty excited. My excitement faltered when I first heard it would be CGI, but grew immensely when I discovered it would have sets by WETA Workshop, the same company behind the sets and props for such massive movies as Lord of the Rings, Avatar and Disctrict 9!

Wait. Is it computer animation, or physical models? Yes.

What? It's both. The sets are physical models build by WETA, and then the characters are digital creations composited into the filmed sets! And it works! Spectaularly. The new series, Thunderbirds Are Go has become my favourite sci-fi show on TV right now, either animated or live action, and joy of joys, this is both!

Here is my top five reasons Thunderbirds Are Go is awesome!

FIVE! The sets are lovingly created in exquisite detail by the masters of modern miniature sets, WETA Workshop. The level of care and attention to detail is astonishing. There is a massive amount of tribute paid to the original sets, from the basic base and craft designs simply getting a modern overhaul, to things like the portraits in the island lounge, or the orange juicer in the wall of the Thunderbird 1 hanger.

But it's more than that. Not everything runs smoothly, and there's a slight jerkiness to some of the sets more mobile aspects. My favourite is the wall panel that swivels back to bring Virgil in to pilot Thunderbird 2. The panel judders just a tiny amount as it starts its rotation, a mechanical hiccup that was either intentionally included or purposely not fixed, because it adds to the heritage of the series.

FOUR! The computer graphic elements are so good they are indistinguishable from the sets. The figures are animated with a wonderful texture to their clothes and skin, making them appear to be miniatures as well. The seams and zips look a little over-sized and the weave in the fabrics look magnified. The skin effect in particular is beautiful, a slightly shiny, waxy look, as if made from the same rubber as the original marionettes.

All this intentional fakeness helps sell the illusion that these are also physical puppets moving within the set spaces. It sounds impossible, a clever idea that could never pay off. Surely the viewer would see the layering of effects? Yet, Thunderbirds Are Go proves that it can be done through cutting edge CG animation, lighting and clever set features. Doors open and close in the physical set, powered by invisible gears and mechanisms, and then one of the brothers is animated in, perfectly timed to the footage. Your brain simply accepts what it sees.

I also love how the characters move. Being CG, they can run, jump and be more active, as well as type without being replaced by live action hands, yet they still can often be seen holding their hands in that classic marionette cupped pose, or they move just a little like they might be on strings. And I still can't believe that the vehicles themselves are entirely CG. They interact with the sets so well, again, totally selling the illusion.

THREE! Scott, Virgil, Gordon, Alan and John. The brothers are so well written and realised. They work well as a team, and there are never any egos. Everyone is working for the benefit of the mission, so when Scott tells Virgil that he needs to back off because he's putting himself and the mission in danger, then Virgil does so immediately. Everyone still gets their moments of heroics of course, but they also have absolute confidence in each other, and never bicker or disagree. Success is a team effort.

That said, I hope to see a lot more of the newest member of International Rescue, Kayo in future episodes. Kayo is the new Tin-Tin, and is much more proactive, having her own ship, Thunderbird S, the Shadow, and joining Alan on rescue missions in Thunderbird 3. But so far, she's only appeared in a handful of episodes. More please!

TWO! The characters are smart. As soon as someone on a video connection starts acting weird, Lady Penelopy spots the inconsistency and warns of a possible trap by the dastardly Hood, Scott agrees, and everyone acts accordingly. When John admits to missing Grandma's cooking, the rest of International Rescue jump to action to rescue their obviously captive brother. Problems are usually solved in clever, action packed ways, that leave plenty of room for drama.

I would like to see them hire a science advisor for future seasons, however. There is no reason they can't stick to some basic levels of science without compromising the tension. In one episode John is subjected to 25 Gs of force as Thunderbird 5's ring spins. A human would blackout at around 8 or 9 Gs. I know 25 sounds much cooler or more dangerous, but Brains could simply have stated "Th-th-the average human can only withstand up to 9 Gs of force before going unconscious" to which Scott could have quipped "John's never been average at anything" as the readouts climbed into the low double digits.

ONE! That theme.

Need I say more. No, I needn't, but I will. It's a great update of the original, making it a bit more action packed and exciting. In a stroke of genius, they opted to retain the countdown from the original theme, intoned by the late Peter Dyneley, who also voiced father Jeff Tracy in the original series. It sends shivers down my spine every time. There are some themes you skip past to get to the action, but not this one. Never this one.

THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO!

* - In the Season 4 finale, MacGyver had to rescue friend and regular trouble-magnet Jack Dalton from recurring villain and master of disguise, Murdock after Jack stumbled on to a map to the lost library of Alexandria. In the Season 5 opener, Mac and Jack uncover the location of the library, only to discover that Murdock, presumed dead for a few months now, has gotten there ahead of them. When Jack gets them both trapped inside the ancient site, it's up to MacGyver to get them out, using only the artifacts inside. Sounds easy, but her hands have been badly burned in the cave-in, and she has to rely on Jack to put her plan into action.

No. No, I got the pronouns right.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Shake It Off, Shake It Off

Three years ago, on October 1st, 2012, I was provisionally diagnosed with Early Onset Parkinson's Disease. I wrote about this before, but now, three years on, I want to talk about how I think about my condition, and how it has, or, more accurately, hasn't affected me.

I've had PD for over three years now. Although I didn't see a neurologist until October, I had had tremors since March or April of that year. In those three years I've enjoyed my job, got back to swimming, drew lots of comics, played video games, read books and did lots of craft stuff, both with the kids in school and at home. Oh, and I became a dad. PD hasn't caused me any issues in anything I do. Sure, the tremor is annoying at times, but there's no loss of strength, so I don't have to worry about picking up an increasingly weighty baby! The only difficulty I can even struggle to think about is if I'm asked to write a note without something solid to lean on, say just using a binder held in my left hand. I can still manage it, but it won't be pretty!

Story Break: During the first year or two, I would occasionally blame anything and everything on PD. One time, while we were on holidays, I noticed my tremor was much stronger one morning. I quietly worried about it for an hour or two until Claire noticed that something was up and asked. When I explained, her reaction was "Or maybe it's the four cups of coffee you had over breakfast this morning." I do drink coffee, but not usually that much. We were out having a lovely breakfast and the server just kept refilling my cup. Mystery solved!

Since then, I've stopped blaming PD for everything. Now I blame those infernal cosmic rays from distant alien galaxies trying to alter our DNA for the coming invasion...

Some things will change, eventually. I might not be able to thread a bead for the kids some day. I might find I can't draw a neat circle one morning. Maybe I'll have to carry cups of tea one at a time, instead of one in each hand. All that's okay too. And they'll happen one at a time, not all at once, like the initial diagnosis. I'll deal with them then as they come.

My tremors get worse when I'm stressed, excited, tired, hungry, basically extremes of emotions or conditions, so I've really started to be more aware of my physical condition independant of PD at any time first and foremost. I try to eat well and regularly. I try not to have too much stress in my life, and get plenty of rest. You'd think that would be difficult with a six month old in my life, but Ada is a great night sleeper most of the time, so I usually get a good night's sleep.

The excitement bit is harder. I mean, for me, I get excited at movies, reading a good book, telling a joke, playing with the kids, all that. Heck, I get excited staring at paint dry. I just have to accept that I'm going to show my excitement more than others. That's not really a bad thing, in my opinion. Oh!! Taking photographs can be a bit of a pain, especially at exciting moments. Thank goodness for digital cameras. I just quietly delete all the blurry ones, as if they never happened. I had to let some of the hospital staff photograph the birth of our daughter, which worked out great in the end, as we got some incredibly unique photos to share with her on her 21st birthday/wedding day.

One great bit of advice I was given by my neurologist (I honestly love that I can say that. I have a neurologist! It's like I'm living in a TV show!) is not to let anyone decide for me when I need to start taking medication. Not doctors, not my neurologist, not family or friends. No one. I can choose that for myself, and to date, I have chosen to remain drug-free. I don't really need it yet anyway, the tremors are still pretty much limited to my left arm three years on.

The medication is getting better and better every year, but it's still not great. It has some long-term side effects, the funniest of which is tremors. Yup. The medication for PD causes tremors. Bananas! Anyway, the longer I can go without taking the medication, the longer I'll go before having to deal with the side-effects. Or, by the time I do start taking it, maybe I'll never have to deal with the side effects! One of the reasons for them is that the medication is a pill, so it's strongest when you take it and trails off over time, causing an inconsistency in the effects. This leads to peaks and valleys and the body has to try to compensate for that. They're currently working on a slow release delivery method, something planted under the skin that would release the medication evenly over days or weeks and just need topping-up at regular intervals. Cool!!

There is some advice that was given to me that I haven't taken myself yet, so read into that what you might. I haven't gone to any support groups or meet-ups for people with PD. I know that it's good to talk about these things with other folk and see how well they're coping. But instead, I blog. I believe that being open and honest about PD, or anything really, is great. It shows others that whatever they're dealing with, they're not alone, and sometimes that's how you feel when you get a diagnosis for something, not just PD. I was taught that by friends who survived cancer, and other friends who went through IVF treatments to become pregnant as they talked openly about what they were experiencing. I haven't had to deal with either of those, but their stories helped me with my diagnosis, as well as during the two years we were trying to become pregnant without success.

10% of the population will be diagnosed with PD at some point in their lives. 10%!! That's huge! One in ten people!! If that was a fatal condition, it would, literally, decimate the population! But it's not fatal. It's not even entirely life-changing. It's manageable, and getting more manageable every year.

I plan to live a long time yet, and thanks to medical science I'll be almost as active and productive as anyone else. I'll be a good friend, a good husband, and, hopefully, a good dad for a long time yet.

Post Script: This blog was inspired by a question from a friend. I'm so lucky to have great friends, and if this or anything else raises questions for you, feel free to ask me. I'll be delighted to answer them if I can.