Driving Ambition: Where To Get It

Driving Ambition! It’s a novel of murder, labour relations and self-driving cars!

If you want a dead tree version, the link here will take you to the publisher’s website.

If you want a version in pixels, click here for Kindle and here for Kobo, and here for a DRM-free version for those of you who know what to do with one of those.

The audiobook is available here.

For content previews, you can of course read a sample on Amazon, and you can also see me reading Chapter One here.

And if you want to buy one direct from the author– just flag me down at any event I’m attending!

Universite de Paris-Est in the Twenty-First Century: A Photoessay

I’m currently adjusting gradually back to life in 2020, but one of the things I did over the December/January break was to make a collaborative visit with colleagues at Universite de Paris (shortly to become Gustave Eiffel University). The campus architecture is simply amazing, and I want to share the highlights:

The Colour Out of Space Opera Part Eight: What Colour Is The Sky On Your Planet?

Welcome back to The Colour Out of Space Opera! As promised last time (catch-up links: one two three four five six seven), this episode will take a quick look at the problem of planets.

As we’ve seen extensively, one of the crucial issues in space opera is how to differentiate characters, and ideally give the audience some understanding of who they are and what their role is, in a quick and easy way that can help casual viewers tuning in to the series, while not alienating or boring regulars.

However, another crucial issue is that space operas require characters to visit different planets on a near-weekly basis. Which presents a twofold problem: first, how to make a landscape look convincingly alien on a budget– and, second, how to disguise the fact that the same location usually has to stand in for several planets?

(as an aside, I’d like to stamp very thoroughly on the idea that this is the result of space operas being done on the cheap. This is a problem that affects all space operas, from the genuinely low-budget Blake’s 7 through to original series Battlestar Galactica, at the time the single most expensive TV programme ever made. Because it doesn’t matter if you have the resources of a small multinational corporation, that budget still has limits– and, even if your budget was completley unlimited, physical and logistical considerations also mean your choice of locations is not infinite).

One easy, cheap and effective way of doing this is through lens filters. A simple filming or post-production effect can make a normal Earth landscape look alien, as in Battlestar Galactica‘s War of the Gods:

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This particular effect clearly led to problems, as in the same story vis-FX shots including laser beams and the revelation of Count Iblis’ demonic forms were incompatible with it and had to be shot in conventional colours. Nonetheless, for the audience, the planet has been established as alien.

Blake’s 7, on more of a budget, used a red lens filter instead in Time Squad to make the planet look more alien and less Southeast England, without the troublesome vis-FX problem (sometimes simpler is best):

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Which is rendered even more effective by the social and emotional connotations of the colour red, giving the adventure a sense of urgency and danger. Similarly, in Cygnus Alpha, the titular planet’s superstitious theocracy is highlighted early on by having the exteriors set in darkness:

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Colour and filtering can also be used to drive the audiences’ emotions regarding the setting more subtly. For instance in the New Caprica story arc of reimagined Battlestar Galactica, the lighting and post-production teams indicate the sense of frustration, monotony and despair associated with the colony and its later occupation by giving it a grey, rainy tone throughout:

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But, in the episode Unfinished Business, as characters remember happier days on New Caprica, the planet is seen in unexpectedly brilliant sunshine, reflecting how it can look with the rose-tinted glasses on:

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Finally, the Eye of Jupiter story arc shows us how lens filters and visual effects can be used to achieve multiple ends at once. The use of lens filters, first, disguises the fact that the team are filming in Kamloops (handy for Vancouver and nicely rugged) yet again, and sets up a harsh, bleak, washed-out emotional tone reflecting the characters’ increasingly frayed relationships as well as their feelings about the planet:

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And, when the revelation in the temple is about to unfold, visual effects can change the sky and the landscape to something more suitably terrifying and apocalyptic:

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Next time: A shift back to costuming, and how to get historical referencing right… and hilariously wrong.

 

The Colour Out Of Space Opera Part Seven: White Hat Hackers

Welcome back to The Colour Out Of Space Opera, a blog post series on the uses of colour and style in many familiar space opera series! Here are the catch-up links if you need them: one two three four five six

The last two installments focused on the use of colour in Blake’s 7, to colour-code the heroes for quick characterisation, and also to show characterisation arcs. This time, let’s turn back to Battlestar Galactica, Blake’s 7‘s near-contemporary.

One particular use of colour in 1970s Battlestar Galactica is the use of white as a shorthand for villainy. This appears to start as a sly political dig. The series itself generally followed a strongly neoconservative line, to the effect that politicians are untrustworthy, pacifists are naive, and governance is best done by reluctant leaders who swoop in, solve your problems, and go away quickly. In the pilot episode, the Council of Twelve (or Quorum) ruling the Colonies appear dressed in Roman-style white senatorial robes. Naturally, one of the Quorum is a traitor to his species, and the rest are naive idiots who basically let him get away with it:

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However, there’s another referent. The 1970s saw a renewed dialogue over the history of slavery and its fallout in the USA, so what’s a better shorthand for villainy in a multiethnic neoconservative series than a costume recalling, white-clad, plantation owners:

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The re-use of this trope also gives us white-clad corrupt politicians (again) in The Gun on Ice Planet Zero, white-helmeted prison guards in The Long Patrol… and this guy.

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In one of the more interesting, and subtle, uses of this trope, Count Iblis in War of the Gods first appears to the Fleet as a man wearing a uniform not unlike Adama’s, but white. This appears like a way of inspiring trust while also subtly hinting at Iblis’ supernatural, “angelic” nature… but, if you’ve been following the series, also a hint that he’s the anti-Adama, who will potentially lead the Fleet to destruction. And then, in the same story, we meet the Lightship People:

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Angelic creatures, also dressed in white. Seemingly benign figures who can even restore the dead– but who are also plainly working to their own agenda and not necessarily the good of the Fleet.

This is echoed later in their implied messenger, “John,” an ambivalent figure who Starbuck and Apollo find less than trustworthy:

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And, while the re-use of the white uniforms in the godawful Galactica 1980 was, on one level, simply a way of saving money, it could also be taken as a sign that something in the series has gone terribly, terribly wrong.

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What about the new series? The colour-coding comes in first of all as a way of differentiating individual Cylons, perhaps most obviously in the case of burgundy-Doral and teal-Doral, identified by jacket colour:

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Given that the series sets up a nature/protagonist, culture/antagonist differentiation early on, though, we can also see styles, rather than colour per se, used to set up the opposing characters of Sweet Eight (nature) and Hard Eight (culture) in The Face of the Enemy.

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As with Blake’s 7, though, reimagined Battlestar Galactica also uses changes in colour and style to show the journeys of various characters. Leoben, for instance, starts out as a fanatic, obsessed with Starbuck and what he believes to be her spiritual destiny:

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As this obsession leads him into darker, sadder areas, he abandons the rough bright colours and wears black. Significantly this is also true of the Head-Leoben who appears to Starbuck in her visions, symbolising his role in allowing her to come to terms with her destructive nature and her own death:
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One of the more interesting examples comes with another of the Head People, in this case Head Six who appears to Baltar throughout the story. When she first appears, it’s in a red dress, symbolising her connection to the Cylons but also seduction, destruction and conflict…

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(…as a side point, note that a red dress is also, so to speak, a red flag about the true nature of Ellen Tigh…)47

During the Pegasus story arc, though, Head Six dresses in darker colours, as Baltar has to confront and navigate the abuses perpetuated by humans on Cylons (and on each other):

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Later, as Baltar becomes a spiritual leader to the Fleet and begins encoding the monotheistic religion that Head Six has been encouraging him towards, she varies her colour scheme somewhat:

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Significantly, when she is most encouraging Baltar towards his spiritual role (at the end of the first season, and later on after Baltar’s cult forms), she dresses in white:

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Which, of course, has connotations of spirituality and angelic nature, and weddings, and other positive associations that one might expect.

But let’s not forget: right from the start, a white costume in Battlestar Galactica marks you out as, at least to some degree, a villain.

Next time: a step away from costume and a look at how to differentiate your planets.

The Colour Out Of Space Opera Part Six: The Anti-Hero’s Journey

Welcome back to “The Colour Out Of Space Opera”! Here are the links for people wanting to catch up: one two three four five

Also a more-than-usually-massive spoiler warning for Blake’s 7.

Before we go on, a question from Pat McMurray:

“How conscious was all this?”

The answer is, it’s complicated. I do very much doubt that the costume and set designers were going out there armed with copies of Levi-Strauss when they made their designs. However, they did all have a specific task, to wit, evoking a particular emotion relative to a character (or group of characters) quickly and unobtrusively. Meaning they were probably looking for something that “feels right,” leading to the sort of imagery we’re seeing in the space operas we’ve been looking at so far.

For example: if you look at the pilot of Star Trek, they clearly aren’t there yet with the primary-colour functional scheme, but they’re also just as clearly putting a lot of thought into the task of making the characters and their roles instantly recognisable in a way that they aren’t in Forbidden Planet, which will eventually evolve into the distinctive three-colour uniform scheme.

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It’s worth noting as relevant to last post’s topic that in this case they’re clearly not just differentiating characters through costume, but through recognisable distinctive physical traits; you’re not going to get those three chaps in blue confused in the way that you might the officers in Forbidden Planet.

Furthermore, Farah Mendlesohn also commented that colour-coding as a deliberate strategy was very much in vogue in the 1970s, citing, among others, the acclaimed school production of “King” (later filmed by Channel 4), which used yellow and red T-shirts to symbolic effect.

Sometimes we have documentary evidence of how and why certain colours were chosen: outside of genre, the designers on Breaking Bad have been quite forthright about their use of colour coding to define characters. Other times, there’s a clear thought process going on but it’s harder to define the inspiration.

This post’s main topic, however, is to look at another distinctive use of colour: namely, to illustrate the emotional or narrative arc of a character or characters (something else for which Breaking Bad and its prequel series Better Call Saul provide a high-profile recent case). For this blog, though, we’ll return to Blake’s 7 for our first example.

Servalan, the titular rebels’ antagonist, starts the series with an all-white colour pallette. This makes her stand out visually against the, usually black-clad, Federation troops and our multi-coloured heroes. It also continues even after June Hudson takes over as designer and our heroes lose the colour-coding.

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And then, in Season Three, she switches to black. For those unfamilliar with the story, the shift comes in the episode “Children of Auron”, in which she attempts, and fails, to have herself cloned. As Jacqueline Pearce explained it, after that point she’s always a little bit in mourning for her loss, and so this continues to be her colour palette long after the events of “Children of Auron” are of immediate relevance to the storyline.

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The only story where Servalan isn’t in either white or black is “Gambit”, where she wears red– and significantly, in “Gambit”, her presence is entirely unofficial and the activities illicit, so the red highlights for the viewer the fact that she’s off the record.

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Servalan isn’t the only character this happens for, though. Dayna Mellanby undergoes a mini-arc from her wild and free days as the daughter of a rebel who has fled to a primitive backwater:

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To her re-absorption back into society as a gunslinger and weapons expert. Note her colour palette is bright and youthful and the cut of her clothes recalls the Greek tunic she wears in her first story (and she’s wearing her now-deceased father’s medallion, symbolising her sworn quest for revenge against Servalan):

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In the final season, after the Liberator is destroyed and the titular rebels have largely given up their political activities, she adopts a much more austere look (and lost the medallion):

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Also note that, at this point, our heroes are generally clad in shades of black, white and grey, rather than the bright colours of earlier seasons:

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This is more than a little significant, given what we were talking about before regarding nature and culture imagery. At this point, there is no longer an opposition between Blake’s rebels/nature and the Federation/culture, so the heroes’ colour palettes become more and more culture-aligned, and much more along the lines of the Federation’s own monochrome palettes.

Which brings us to the most significant example of the way this happens in Blake’s 7. We’ve had a look at some of Avon’s earlier costumes in the last installment, but what’s worth noting is that from Season Three onwards he goes from grey:

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To more and more black (with occasional silver and white bits):

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So there’s a few things to notice. One, his palette is becoming more and more cultural, and more and more aligned with the Federation, as Avon himself becomes more and more of an anti-hero. Second, that as he becomes the focus of the series in Season Four, his costume makes him stand out very clearly against the muted greys of the rest of the crew. And finally, it makes the last scene of Blake’s 7 very much not just a victory of the Federation over the rebels, but a victory of culture over nature. Watch who dies first, and watch who’s standing at the end:

Next post, a look at how Battlestar Galactica does something rather similar.

The Colour Out of Space Opera Part Five: Blake’s 7 and the Colour Coded Universe

Welcome back to The Colour Out of Space Opera, a serial essay on colour symbolism, structuralism, and their uses in space opera television series (links to parts one, two, three and four for those of you just joining us).

This instalment: Blake’s 7. Like original Star Wars, and both series of Battlestar Galactica, there’s a clear nature/culture divide. Because it’s 1978, we get organic, warm nature on the side of our protagonists (they’re not exactly heroic), with their partly-living ship and green-clad leader:

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And cool, technological culture is on the side of our antagonists, with a minimalist aesthetic straight out of Gary Numan’s stage performances:

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In Season Four, our heroes take on a more technical/cultural aesthetic (more on why next episode) but it’s worth noting that they still keep touches of nature symbolism, for instance the lush houseplants around Xenon Base:

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What Blake’s 7 also does, though, is something else you see colour doing in space operas. Take a look at this picture from Forbidden Planet, and see if you can tell, based on it, anything at all about the characters’ individual jobs:

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Apart from the man at third from left, who’s clearly the cook (and also, just as clearly, going to be the comedy figure), nothing. You can’t tell at a glance who’s the doctor, who’s the captain, who’s the engineer, whatever. Which is problematic enough in Forbidden Planet, where your audience only has to keep everyone straight for ninety minutes, but it’s likely to be absolute murder for a television space opera, where casual and intermittent viewers will be tuning in all the time, and to keep them from tuning out again just as quickly, you need an easy way of differentiating characters and jobs. But you also can’t make it obvious and laboured, or you’ll alienate your regular viewers. Hence:

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With the addition of a simple colour palette, it’s plain just from looking at the picture that we’ve got three groups of people, differentiated somehow, but probably by function. After a few minutes of watching, viewers should be able to have a rough idea of what the classifications are (blue is science/medicine; yellow for command and navigation; red for engineering and getting shot at by aliens). Regular viewers, though, aren’t being constantly whacked over the head with the distinctions. Much better.

Blake’s 7 used this sort of device to differentiate its human characters according to the functions and emotions we associate with different colours. Take a look at Season One’s space-anorak getups: dark green for our Space Robin Hood, Blake; paler green for telepathic nature-girl Cally; brown for earthy strongman Gan; pink for femme-fatale Jenna; blue for computer-expert sociopath Avon (not pictured: Vila, the comedy thief, in orange):

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Later, when June Hudson takes over, she eschews the colour-palette symbolism, but does much the same sort of thing using clothing styles. Spot the Robin Hood, the femme fatale, the strongman, the telepath, the comedy thief, and the sociopath:

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Finally, in the Season Three surrealist tour-de-force Sarcophagus, the characters’ alignment with their archetypes (musician, magician, priestess, warrior and death-bringer) is again symbolised through their colours:

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Blake’s 7 does something else with colour and costume, though, which we’ll look more closely at next episode.