> Splinter of the Memory’s Eye

There has been an awakening.

No – a correction: there has been a re-awakening.

Happily collecting the novelisations and spin-off novels of Doctor Who and Star Trek since the 70s until my bookshelves were bowing under the amassed weight of their respective extended universes, oddly I never had the same completist obsession with Star Wars (save for a few books here and there).

As the years have passed though, with the advent of having to (begrudgingly) grow up, I have since slimmed down said collections, retaining only a few of the titles that hold any meaning to me (admittedly when it comes to Doctor Who, that’s most of ‘em).

Anyway, Star Wars

Back in ‘the day’, the total sum of my collection was the six novelisations and the three Han Solo novels by Brian Daley. At some point I think I might have owned the Thrawn Trilogy and perhaps ‘Splinter of the Mind’s Eye’. I certainly don’t remember actually reading the Thrawn series and I have vague recollections about Kaiburr crystals. But at the beginning of this year, I only had left the original editions of ‘Star Wars’ by Alan Dean Foster [sorry, I mean George Lucas <cough, cough>], ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ by Donald F Glut and James Kahn’s ‘Return of the Jedi’, all loved and cherished.

Then someone came along and made a film called The Force Awakens and decided to do away with established printed Star Wars canon. So what was considered canon now and what wasn’t? The answer proved to be easier than expected, however. Go look in the novelisation of The Force Awakens by Alan Dean Foster and an easy checklist happily tells you what’s what.

And that, for me, was when the trouble started.

Because I bought the novelisation. Yes, bought it. And it sat on my bookshelf next to ‘Return of the Jedi’. Four books to four great films.  But something was missing.

Some things were missing.

Other Star Wars books. Ones I remembered owning and loved reading.

So online shopping I went and bought the three Brian Daley Han Solo novels. I made sure to buy the original editions not the omnibus publication (which I did buy previously however for my son).

But something was missing.

Another Star Wars book. One I seemed to remember owning and most likely loving to read.

So back online I went and bought, after some searching, an original edition of ‘Splinter of the Mind’s Eye’ by Alan Dean Foster (him again).

And I read it, and remembered (some of) it from the late 70s/early 80s (it was printed in paperback in April 1978).

It’s been documented elsewhere that it was originally developed as the bona-fide sequel to Star Wars, albeit on a cheaper budget and so many of the story developments included and expand220px-Splinter_of_the_Minds_Eyeed upon in The Empire Strikes Back and after are simply not present. Since The Force Awakens, the book itself has been relegated to the ‘Legends’ series, meaning that it is no longer canon. But that doesn’t bother me and the validity or not of ‘canon’ is a discussion for another time.

What struck me about ‘Splinter of the Mind’s Eye’ was how some of the set pieces (not story ideas) are first introduced here. Were they Alan Dean Foster’s own creations or were they on a George Lucas tick-list? If the former, one wonders if Alan sat there pointing at the screen sighing as he watches his ideas realised.

So, with spoiler alerts fully, erm, alerting…

We have an opening scene set in space with Luke Skywalker in his X-wing (with R2-D2 in the back) and Princess Leia in a Y-wing accompanied by C-3PO. The way Skywalker crashes his starfighter on Mimban, a world of nothing but swamp across the majority of its surface, is acutely similar to his descent to Dagobah.

Further, the application of the Force to move inanimate objects was also seen for the first time in The Empire Strikes Back. In Star Wars it was, I think, only seen to control minds, for remote strangulation and telepathic communication but in ‘Splinter…’ it’s swishing objects left right and centre, most prominently in a light-saber duel between Skywalker and Vader. And that itself was a major part of the clash on Bespin between father and son.

Tellingly, in ‘Splinter…’, the duel ends with Skywalker slicing Vader’s arm off. That was a pivotal moment in Return of the Jedi where Luke realises he has the potential to become his father after his father did the same to him in the previous chapter.

Yet none of these similarities detract from the enjoyment of the story. And even with the idea that Luke and Leia are attracted to each other (‘Splinter…’ was before the reveal that they are siblings, of course) it doesn’t contradict anything the rest of the actual film series itself proposes (hell, in The Empire Strikes Back Leia gives Luke a full-on smacker in front of the rest of the main cast and nothing in ‘Splinter…’ goes even that close!). And with the Vader-Skywalker exchange in the book not inferring that they are anything other than enemies with a shared awareness of the Force, Star Wars and the first three-quarters of The Empire Strikes Back take exactly the same stance (unless you discount the ret-con tinkering of Episode 5’s Special Edition).

The whole idea of the Kaiburr crystal of course, has become the kyber crystals that power a Force-wielder’s light-saber. Whether this terminology finds its way into the film series we will have to wait and see but the crystals are definitely considered canon – the animated series use them as a plot device.

So, with ‘Splinter…’ being the first spin-off novel of the franchise and one that has given so much to the basis of what we consider Star Wars lore , it holds up remarkably well bearing in mind too what we now know about the Skywalker family. It’s well-worth tracking down and well-worth a read. Thank you, Alan Dean Foster.

Time, methinks, to take a look after all these years at Brian Daley’s three Han Solo adventures.

Oh, and on a recommendation, I’m about to (re)buy the Thrawn Trilogy and ‘Shadows of the Empire’…

> Pinewood Studios: A Brief History

Pinewood-Studios.jpg

I drive quite regularly on the M25, London’s orbital motorway and, whenever I’m near its junction for the M40, I often break into a Cheshire Cat grin that puts even the heaviest traffic jams into insignificance. For I know as I sit despondently behind the wheel of my car staring at the row of vehicles snaking for miles in front and behind me, there is, nestled away over the trees and amongst woodlands and fields, a world of secret underground lairs, control rooms of alien spaceships and the realm of brave superheroes. And that world is called Pinewood Studios.

The films that are made there , and there have been many, may sometimes be financed, produced and controlled by international money, by big powerful American backers, but Pinewood is a British company and as a result, the UK influence on worldwide movies cannot be argued with.

But Pinewood Studio’s humble beginnings stretch back to 1935 and they themselves are born from something almost out of a Fleming novel.

Heatherden Hall is a Victorian mansion that, in the 1920s, was popular both as a secret retreat and meeting place for politicians and diplomats. It’s easy to picture the high-ceilinged banqueting rooms and hallways as backdrops for covert conversations and world-changing decision-making. The Anglo-Irish Treaty was even signed there.

But it was sold in the early 1930s to a Charles Boot, a housing contractor, who decided in 1934 to develop the estate from a country club into a film studios complex, emulating in style what had been seen at those in Hollywood. But having no prior film-making experience Boot didn’t embark on this alone. He went into partnership with a man who milled flour for a living: J Arthur Rank.

Rank himself though was no stranger to film-making, albeit of the type that offered spiritual teachings through his own-formed Religious Film Society.

The name Pinewood was dreamt up by Boot, to further emulate the American studios (‘holly’wood, ‘pine’wood) and to reflect the fact that topography meant the majority of the surrounding woodlands were pine trees.

The studio complex had cost nearly £1million to make over a 9 month period. By today’s standards, that’s not too short of a cool £40million.

By the time Pinewood Studios was officially opened on 30 September 1936, it contained no less than 5 separate soundstages and space for an enclosed water tank capable of holding anything up to 65,000 gallons. 75 years later, Daniel Craig would plummet to the depths of this tank in the opening sequence to Eon Productions’ Skyfall.

But Daniel wasn’t the first Craig to work there. Davina Craig (no relation) co-starred in the very first motion picture completed at Pinewood, London Melody, alongside Anna Neagle in 1936. The musical had started life at Elstree but due to a fire halting production, Rank’s new complex was the most logical place to continue.

London Melody, then, was the beginning of a long and fruitful – and occasionally fraught – 8 decades of movie making, seeing some of the biggest names in the industry from both behind and in front of the camera come and go.

Carol Reed’s Talk of the Devil was filmed in its entirety at Pinewood also in 1936 but the outbreak of World War II meant the whole country was enlisted for the war effort and Pinewood was not unaffected by this. The British Government requisitioned the studios between 1940 and 1945, producing a number of propaganda documentaries and training films including the Oscar-winning Desert Victory. Non-war related movies returned to Pinewood in 1946.

Alec Guinness de Cuffe, better known simply as Alec Guinness, headed up the cast of David Lean’s Oliver Twist in 1948, a film not without its problems after release due to Guinness’ faithful portrayal of Fagin being considered anti-semitic by some quarters.

Controversy aside, The Red Shoes (1948), Genevieve (1953), Doctor In the House (1954), The Spanish Gardener (1956), Carry On Sergeant (1958) and Carry On Nurse (1959) sat amongst another 11 productions between the end of the war and the oncoming renaissance of freedom that would be the 1960s, with talent such as Dirk Bogarde, Shirley Eaton, Geoffrey Keen, Norman Wisdom, Joan Sims and Bernard Lee becoming regular sights on the back-lots and sound stages.

The Rank Organisation had been the sole producer right up until the 1960s but the move to rent out studio space to other production companies meant Pinewood  was leading the way in film industry innovation through what is known as the ‘unit system’. It’s a method by which several pictures can be filmed simultaneously and completely independently of one another on the multiple sound stages, meaning Pinewood could achieve the highest production rate of any studio in the world. Quite an impressive feat from a place thought up by a housing contractor and a bread maker.

As The League of Gentlemen moved out, in 1962 James Bond of the Secret Service moved in and, give or take a couple of hiccups, he never really left. Terence Young’s Dr No started it all, with another 5 titles in the 60s alone adding to the franchise. We also had Harry Palmer arrive with The Ipcress File in 1965, a character the refreshingly opposite of Sean Connery’s sophisticated killer. The Carry On… series kept going, not even scared off by Christopher Lee’s Dracula swooping in for one bite only from Bray Studios for Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968) but Rank itself, under the chair of John Davis, saw a decline in profits and moved its business more towards holiday ventures and bingo halls.

The economy of Britain was on a slow decline throughout the 1960s in general which led to trade union strikes and three-day working weeks at the dawn of the new decade. Repercussions were felt right across the movie industry and even Hollywood began to experience a financial and artistic depression. That said, Pinewood was still busy creating astonishingly impressive work despite these dark times: The Day of the Jackal and Live and Let Die (both 1973); The Man Who Would Be King (1975); and, of course, a certain cape-wearing superhero 3 years after. More on him later. It was in 1976 that the iconic 007 Stage was built and The Spy Who Loved Me was the first film shot there.

Roger Moore had replaced Connery for Eon Productions’ snowballing James Bond series, but not before he turned in a performance alongside Hollywood heavyweight Tony Curtis for ITC’s The Persuaders!, Pinewood’s first full foray into television production. Over the years other television shows would partly be made there, amongst them Space: 1999, The IT Crowd, EastEnders, Emmerdale and Doctor Who.

Christmas 1978: we all believed a man could fly. And he didn’t need reindeer or a big white beard to do it. Superman – The Movie was a critical and commercial success, some say in part due to the lack of competition at the time. But whatever the reason, it could be argued that the last son of Krypton single-handedly made the decade end on an upturn for Pinewood. It was a far cry from the financial whirlpool that was the beginning of the 1970s.

The 1980s and 1990s saw some remarkable films come out of the studio: both Ellen Ripley’s reawakening and death; more adventures for Bond; Superman’s sequel and a first for his comic-book ally Batman (1989). Even Ethan Hunt and Simon Templar did their bit while Bond was washing his hair and a progressive rock band made their mark by breaking down The Wall (1982). However, as if emulating the 1970s depression, the UK Government introduced unfavourable tax laws for inward investment in the UK film industry. This mean that Pinewood was struck hard but Bond, Batman and their contemporaries kept the studio afloat.

The 21st Century saw a new chapter for the studios, expanding it beyond the confines of the M25. Rank finally sold Pinewood in 2001 and then a consortium headed up by Ridley Scott and his brother, the late Tony Scott, saw the creation of the Pinewood Studios Group. It took under its considerable wingspan the Shepperton and Teddington Studios as well as ones in Toronto, Berlin and Malaysia. The highly-respected Pinewood brand was now officially worldwide.

Hits such as Love, Actually (2003), Casino Royale (2006), The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), The Dark Knight (2008), Mamma Mia! (2008) and X-Men: First Class (2011) kept the organisation buoyant while events such as the fire at the 007 Stage kept it in the papers. In 2009, Pinewood (with Shepperton) was awarded a BAFTA for its Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema. The Richard Attenborough Stage opened in 2012 not far from a unit named after Stanley Kubrick. The final part of The Hobbit trilogy was filmed there, Guardians of the Galaxy was completed there and Han Solo and Luke Skywalker returned to a galaxy far, far away in 2015 for the newest chapter in the Star Wars saga.

Pinewood became and continues to be a major force in movie production. It is a testament to the highly talented and wonderfully creative British teams that work in Buckinghamshire and their colleagues across the world. And I for one will still continue to smile and dream of far away, magical worlds that they create and bring to life whenever I’m next stuck on the M25.

> A Force Awakened

Star_Wars_The_Force_AwakensMemories have a way, sometimes, of cheating on you, making you believe things were better than they were or somehow skewed to alter one’s perception.

The Target range of DOCTOR WHO books do that – but that’s probably due to the fact that, back in the day, there were no such luxuries as (regular) repeats of episodes, DVD/BluRay releases or downloadable series to watch on platforms such as Netflix. We had DWM and the Target novelisations. And that was it.

Older fans would recount to you the delights of ‘The Web of Fear’ and sit smugly as we all caught up decades later as it became commercially available. The same fans would also look away, coughing into their palms as we all saw that perhaps (and only perhaps) ‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’ wasn’t actually as good as we were led to believe.

There is another franchise out there – bigger, brasher, shinier and only 14 years DOCTOR WHO’s junior.

There have been less screen hours devoted to it, less words printed about it but it has a broader fanbase that the good Doctor could ever dream of.

It also has just two words in its title, the second one also beginning with a ‘w’.

Its memory recall has been, over the decades, less blurry however.

STAR WARS has the luxury of being a phenomenon in its own right.

And 38 years on, a seventh chapter has been released – to critical and financial acclaim, over taking James Cameron’s AVATAR in box-office takings – and proving that there is still life in the old dog, life that appears to not be waning even though the prequel trilogy left a bitter taste in many people’s mouths.

I went to see ‘The Force Awakens’ on the day it was released, December 17th 2015. I was excited and not anxious in the slightest (I do actually quite like the prequels in their own way).

And I came away two hours later feeling like I was 6 again.

And this is why (via a digression or two):

Why do people moan about the prequels? Because, overall, they are quite heavy going. Lots of chit-chat about trade agreements and dark murmurings. The lead, our anti-hero, is portrayed rather badly. Whether Hayden Christensen is a bad actor or not is probably not my place to say (I can’t act, you see), but I know that Ewan McGregor is a rather fine thespian but he’s pretty shit in these three films too. There is blame for this – and that blame resides with the Director/Writer, the one person who knows this universe intimately. Yet Episodes 1 – 3 look beautiful, sound beautiful and there are some incredible iconic shots that Lucas captured. But the script is clumsy, the characters are wooden and, in the main, the whole experience is not fun.

And that is one thing that STAR WARS is and should be: fun.

So, Lucas sells his film company to Disney and sits back, albeit begrudgingly, to let someone else do it.

And we, as expectant, demanding, overbearing and protective fans, wait for it to succeed or fail.

And it succeeds. Admirably. Astoundingly. Breathtakingly.

Because it’s fun.