28 January, 2006

Death to VHS

There's a large cupboard in our garage under the house that's stacked with videotapes. There's about 300 of them, piled in there three or four deep and they're in no particular order. Not that it would be easy to put them in order anyway as the majority of them are unlabelled. They've been stuck down there for perhaps as long as five years, untouched and unloved.

I can't recall the exact sequence of events, but I suspect that the tapes may have been consigned to this cupboard not long after we bought our first DVD player. That was in early 2001 - a time when, in New Zealand at least, DVDs were still yet to make a big impact on the market and were still very much the playthings of collectors and 'early adopter' consumers.

At the time we bought our first DVD player I was working as the VHS & DVD content manager for an online shopping website (it was about that time that I also became its General Manager, but that's another story). Looking back now it seems rather absurd that I'd been writing about DVDs for the website for a full year and a half before I watched my first DVD. Indeed I owned about a dozen titles on DVD before I even bought something to play them on. Maybe that's because at the time DVD machines were reasonably pricey (about four times as expensive as they are now), but the price was dropping rapidly enough for it to be worth holding off as long as possible before buying one.

Having discovered the allure of these shiny discs with their wonderfully sparkling clarity of sound, vastly superior picture quality and space-saving slim cases, the writing was on the wall for our collection of VHS tapes. The video shelves in our living room were cleared off and we set about expanding our DVD collection. A handful of VHS tapes were kept close at hand for the convenience of recording something off TV while we were out that we wanted to watch later, but after purchasing a DVD recorder a couple of years later, there was no longer even a need for these tapes, and the VCR was unplugged to make way for the DVD recorder.

But the bulk of the tapes were never disposed of. We gave some away and sold a lot of the commercial videotapes as we replaced the various movies and TV series with their DVD equivalents, but about 300 blank tapes of off-air TV recordings still languished in their cupboard gathering dust. Each time we did a spring-clean of the garage, the subject of what to do with the tapes came up, but there was always the dilemma of what if there was something on them we wanted to keep? I knew that somewhere in the mass of unlabelled tapes were a few items that we'd hate to lose.

The only solution was to dust off the VCR (which turned out to be still in good working order after sitting in another cupboard!), dig out the tapes, and start checking through them one by one. After putting the task off for a very long time, I finally did this today.

It's been a thoroughly liberating experience to do away with stacks of tapes filled with TV episodes of shows such as South Park, Buffy, Stingray, Red Dwarf and X-Files, all of which we now own on DVD. I've also discovered that almost all of the movies we recorded off TV over the years are ones that we've since replaced on DVD, so there was very little in the way of umm-ing and ahh-ing over what to keep.

In the end the 'keep' pile turned out to be thankfully just a small handful of tapes, including recordings of a few times when I've been interviewed on TV; a classic and much-loved kids TV series called Under the Mountain, a couple of music documentaries, and the notorious Star Wars Holiday Special.

It's taken me most of the day to work through the imposing tower of black plastic but the job's finally done, thank goodness. The cupboard's cleared out and I've reduced 300 tapes down to about ten tapes of things that we actually want to keep. The next task is probably to hook up the CR to the DVD recorder and transfer the recordings we want to keep to DVD, but that's a job for another day!

22 January, 2006

A Rooster's Tale

The ongoing project to publish as much as possible of the TSV back catalogue online continues. The most recent issue added to the archive is a spin-off special from May 1993: The TARDIS Tales Collection. This was a 72-page issue that collected together all of the TARDIS Tales comic strips from TSV that had been published up to that time, plus some material that was exclusive to the collection.

TARDIS Tales was written and drawn by Graham Muir, a talented fan who hails from Ashburton. Over the years the comic strips gained an international following amongst TSV readers. Graham's quirky, self-deprecating humour and bold black and white drawings were a popular feature of each issue and over time Saucer the insolent, aggressive talking chicken, introduced in one of the early instalments, became synonymous with the strip. The Doctor himself was sidelined as a supporting character and usually ridiculed, but no-one seemed to mind.

The special issue even earned praise from John Ainsworth in Doctor Who Magazine's Fanzine Trap column (issue 211, 13 April 1994):

"All of Graham Muir's witty cartoons from Time/Space Visualiser collected into one volume. To give an example of the humour, in The UNIT Reunion, the Brigadier has a fatal heart attack when the Doctor introduces him to his new companion, Saucer Smith from the planet Poultro who is in fact a talking rooster. Good for a giggle."

17 January, 2006

An Apple a Day...

Every once in a while I stumble across a quote so succinct, and so much in keeping with my view of the world that I just want to memorise it and share it with others.

Today's NZ Herald carried an article about how the official Australian and New Zealand food regulatory body are proposing changing standards so that apples will be classed as unhealthy. Yes, you read that right. We've all been brought up on the wisdom that eating fruit is good for you. Not so, apparently. Too much natural sugar in apples it seems. Riiight. Next they'll be telling us that breathing air and drinking water is inadvisable.

The full article if you care to read it is here, but the bit that really appealed to me is that one of the objectors to this proposed new standard casting the innocent apple as the new food-to-avoid, had this to say:

"Politicians and legislators - when the only tool they've got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."

Isn't that just so true?

12 January, 2006

Keri Hulme and The Bone People

The Bone People, by Keri Hulme, is a New Zealand novel that won the 1985 Booker Prize. The book is set in a remote area of the South Island and broadly is about the relationships between a reclusive woman Kerewin Holmes (believed by many commentators to be largely based on Hulme herself), a boy called Simon and the man who looks after him, Joe. It's a fairly long book, full of evocative descriptions of the environment and involves a lot of Maori culture. It's the only full length novel Keri Hulme has written.

I studied The Bone People for a New Zealand English Literature paper at Auckland University in 1989. The paper gave students some flexibility; it wasn't necessary to write about every book on the reading list, you could disregard a few. I remember making my selection according to which titles I could obtain cheaply (being a typically broke student), and I was able to pick up The Bone People for a good price in the Students Association secondhand book sale. I carried this dauntingly thick, slightly battered red covered paperback around in my bag for a few weeks before I sat down in the library one morning and turned to page 1.

Hours later, I emerged from the library having read the 450-page book from cover to cover without a break. Not because I had to read it that fast but because it was just so engrossing that I could stop reading. It's a cliche to say so, but this really was one of those rare novels that was simply unputdownable. I felt like I'd become to know and understand each of the characters in the book personally and I realised exactly why that novel was thoroughly deserving of the Booker Prize.

I wrote about The Bone People in my final exam and got good marks for that paper. More than sixteen years later I can't recall what any of the other books were I had to read for that English paper, but I recall The Bone People. The memory of reading that book over one day has stayed with me long long after many other incidents from my time at university have faded from my mind.

So it came as a bit of a jolt when someone called Keri Hulme sent an email to the TSV website feedback address late last year, offering advice on a Maori name included in this this article. Was this the Keri Hulme? I emailed back, thanking her for the feedback (which we added to the site), and also as an aside asked if she was the same Keri Hulme who was the author of The Bone People. I tried to explain a little bit about how much I'd been impressed by her novel. Feeling a wee bit foolish in case this just happened to be someone else with the same name, I clicked send.

A couple of weeks passed and I thought nothing of this. I wasn't expecting a reply, but when I checked my inbox when I got home this evening, there was a reply from Keri Hulme. The Keri Hulme. Keri wrote that she appreciated my comments about her novel very much, and told me that she appreciates "good sci fi" and likes the TSV website.

A Booker Prize winning author reads the TSV website. I'm still getting my head around that fact. Even writing it down seems wrong somehow. It's one thing to have Colin Baker recive issues of your magazine (which indeed he does, and by his own account enjoys reading them), but this is something else. When TSV gets noticed and appreciated by someone with such outstanding literary credentials who is well and truly outside of the usual Doctor Who circles, that is truly extraordinary and rather humbling.

09 January, 2006

Whatipu Beach Memories

Whatipu is a wild and remote surf beach located at the southern end of Auckland's Waitakere Ranges. Accessible via a narrow gravel road which winds down through a mountainous bush-clad valley, the beach and its surrounds are a vast undeveloped scenic reserve with a few scattered camping grounds.

When I was a teenager my family lived in the Waitakere Ranges and trips out to the neighbouring west coast beaches seemed reasonably frequent. Of all the spectacular, wild beaches including Karekare, Bethells and Piha, it was Whatipu that always appealed to me the most. It is so vast and devoid of civilisation that it seemed like the perfect location for a fantasy/sci-fi series (though I'm sure the poor road access would be a deterent to a large film crew). Later of course, such series as Hercules and Xena were filmed on location on the west coast beaches.

In the late 19th and early 20th century the Waitakere Ranges was stripped of its Kauri trees. Kauri is now in short supply, but at the time it was a common timber. The logs were transported down the West Coast by a tramway line built on trestles above the sand, mainly hugging the cliffs down the length of each of the beaches before a wide arc across the open sand at Whatipu saw the line terminate at a wharf where the timber was loaded on to ships. The tramway's long since gone - more's the pity because it would make an awesome tourist attraction, but if you know where and what to look for, you can still see rusting lengths of track and railway sleepers poking out of the sand. Apparently the steam engine used to haul the timber is buried whole beneath one of the sand dunes, but no one's ever been able to locate it.

Whatipu is also famous for its caves, the largest of which was once used as a dance hall for the locals, complete with a wooden dance floor now buried under several metres of sand. In early 1986 - my final year in school - our entire class hiked out to Whatipu and camped in the cave. Soon after we left school a number of us made a return visit to the cave. There was some talk of holding a class reunion picnic or camp there at a later date, but nothing came of this to the best of my knowledge.

On Saturday, fifteen years after I last visited Whatipu, we drove out there. I wanted to show Rochelle this most desolate and isolated of Auckland's beaches. She sells many maps of this area in her store but had never before visited Whatipu.

The memory I had of the place was at odds with the present day reality. I recalled a vast stretch of rolling sand dunes between the beach and the cliffs but nature has transformed these dunes into scrubland and marshes. There's even a lake inhabited by swans, nestled somewhat incongruously between the dunes.

The cave was much as I remembered it, but with the addition of a designated (yet deserted) camp site area a short distance away and a sign outside the entrance warning of falling rocks. Sure enough, the sandy cave floor where myself and thirty or so of my classmates had once slumbered snug in our sleeping bags was now littered with rocks, some the size of footballs, that had fallen from the roof of the cave. I was suddenly wary of spending any length of time in that cave. It no longer seemed like the safe, inviting place it had seemed to be when I was a Seventh Former. Had we unwittingly put our lives at risk by camping in that cave? Had the cave roof perhaps become unstable in the intervening years? Or was it simply that in those young and reckless days that danger was all part of the thrill of doing something a bit daring and adventurous...?

I lingered just long enough in that cave to take a photo, and for the 20-year-old memories of that fondly-remembered school camp to come flooding back before beating a hasty retreat to the safety of the welcoming sunshine outside.

Photos: Rochelle (1-2); me (3)

02 January, 2006

Da Vinci's Machines

Yesterday Rochelle and Jon and I spent the day at the Auckland Museum viewing the Da Vinci exhibition.

It was a spur of the moment thing, an outing to clear the cobwebs after a very late night (or early morning) due to celebrating the New Year. A good time was had by all who came to our little party, and the screening of the new The Christmas Invasion episode of Doctor Who on our projector screen went down a treat. But I digress...

The exhibition was exclusively focused on Da Vinci's machines, so there were no pictures of disiciples at dinner, or that woman with no eyebrows, in sight. Da Vinci's sketches and plans for various inventions were displayed alongside fairly accurate scale models made of traditional materials including wood, metal and cloth. So we saw his flying machines, lifting devices and gear assemblies amongst others. Some of these were interactive exhibits so much fun was had turning levers and lifting weights, and wondering if some of these were in fact intended for entirely different purposes.

One of the items on display particularly caught my attention - a bicycle made mostly of wood. This looked so much like a modern bicycle that it at first appeared rather incongruous in amongst the fanciful and - let's face it - somewhat impractical flying machines. It looked to me like what you might get if someone from the 20th century had journeyed back 500 years and tried to reproduce a bicycle using available materials and a memory of what they looked like. In other words, Da Vinci's bicycle was closer in appearance to a modern version than it was in function.

Struck by this thought, I looked around the exhibition with fresh eyes and some of the other inventions on display started to take on a similar feel. Quite uncanny! Maybe I've just been watching too much science fiction.

Something else that struck me about the exhibit was that Da Vinci was apparently fervently opposed to warfare and yet invented tanks, catapults, siege machines and devices to sink boats from below. This inconsistency seems to have been due to the fact that he was being paid to come up with these designs. So just as many of us may be required to compromise our own values to some extent each day in our workplace, so it was for this great man.

None of us had been to the Auckland Museum for some time so after having our fill of Da Vinci's wonderful gadgets we took in some of the other exhibits including the very sobering and heart-breaking displays of the wars in which New Zealand has taken part, and then to cheer ourselves up again an exhibit about childhood - which included toys and games through the generations with a display of typical a childs' bedroom. Nestled in amongst the Star Wars figures, Smurfs, comics, games and other kids culture items, was a copy of a Doctor Who Target novelisation. Okay, so it was Mawdryn Undead and the reprint edition at that - and therefore not a particularly iconic example of the series, but just to see Doctor Who represented in the museum was simply delightful.