17 June 2012


10 Seconds: The Pain Begins. 15 Seconds: You Can't Breathe. 20 Seconds: You Explode.

Scanners is one of David Cronenberg's best known films, notorious in particular for the exploding head sequence. The film, released in 1981 (and also briefly known as Telepathy 2000) continues Cronenberg's obsessive theme of organic, visceral horror based on the contents of our own bodies: Rabid dealt with a deadly virus caused by experimental skin-grafts; Shivers focused on the psychotic erotomania caused by new organ replacement technology; eXistenZ and Videodrome with the way we perceive reality. Scanners focuses directly on the power of the mind, caused by an experimental drug.

Plot Summary: (Includes spoilers)
Forty years ago, experimental drug trials produced 237 babies with telepathic powers. Known as scanners, the head of the laboratory Biocarbon Amalgamate - Darryl Revok - has taken it upon himself to create a scanner underground movement which will, in the tradition of all good underground movements, take over the world.

The active manifestation of these telepathic powers, which are portrayed as a curse rather than a blessing of any kind, is in the form of intense pain, often accompanied by nosebleeds, shaking and bleeding. Scanners can, however, extract necessary information or exert a controlling influence over others. Scanners can also combine their powers, or even use their powers to hack into computers. Given time, the scanning procedure can kill, or even start fires. Revok's plan is simple: conform to the scanners' new world order, or die. Being in charge of a laboratory, Revok's plan rapidly becomes obvious - the tranquiliser drug ephemerol is to once again be administered to pregnant women, producing a new army of scanners.

Opposition to this scheme comes from scanner-specialist Paul Ruth, played by Patrick McGoohan, who selects Cameron Vale (played by Stephen Lack) to lead a resistance movement against the scheme. Providing Vale with drugs to control the chaos in his head, Ruth sends Vale out to oppose Revok, leading to the eventual destruction of the entire scanner underground.

An Opinion:
Incorporating classic Cronenberg activity: buckets of blood, bulging veins, glowing eyes and an early-synth soundtrack that, quite frankly, grates, the film is nevertheless highly-regarded and well worth seeking out, particularly if you plan on seeing the much-rumoured remake, apparently soon to enter production, though last heard of in 2004. The acting quality of Stephen Lack must be commented on: either Lack had decided that the drugged-up, tortured character he played should come across as wooden, unrealistic and uninspired, or his acting is really that bad. You decide.

As Cronenberg films go, the concept for Scanners fits in perfectly with the classic Cronenberg vision, as the darker side of biology once more provides fertile ground for gory and disturbing exposition. The million dollar question, however, has to be asked: Is the film any good?

The answer is, as usual a matter for personal taste. If you like Cronenberg's films, it's great. It's dated, yes, and the soundtrack verges on unbearable noise, but it's classic Cronenberg and while not up to the shocking heights of Videodrome or the slick action of eXistenZ, it's great stuff. Conversely, if you hate gore, can't abide the idea of psychic powers and found similar films to be unbearably tedious, avoid this at all costs. If you're not sure, then I humbly suggest it's worth a try; you really don't want to be one of the few people in the world who don't know about the infamous exploding head scene...

On a related note, it may be wise to avoid the sequels Scanners II: The New Order and Scanners III: The Takeover, which take Cronenberg's characters and, as so often happens, remove much of the artistic or entertaining merit from them. Of the two, The New Order is the closest to Cronenberg's vision, though it alters the plot significantly and does nothing to enhance the original concept.

17 May 2012

Sir Clive Sinclair

It's almost unthinkable that you might not have heard of Clive Sinclair, despite the fact that he seems to have completely vanished from the public eye for the past twenty years or so. I keep expecting him to pop up on Dragon's Den, or some dreadful reality TV programme, but no - Sir Clive has more about him than that. Alan Sugar, take note - everyone knows your name, but Sir Clive is still blessedly esoteric. Because Clive Sinclair is no television personality, no souped-up fat cat who wants to be in the public eye (I'm deliberately ignoring the late night poker shows. Impartiality... hah!) Clive Sinclair is an entrepreneur, but also, and most importantly, an inventor in the truest sense of the word, like Trevor Bayliss and Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Each of these, in their time, changed something about the world. Which sounds grandiose, but it's not much of a search to find fervent believers in Clive Sinclair. Scratch the surface just a tiny bit, and you'll find those who believe he changed the world of computing, in particular, rushing to the fore with tales of glorious childhood memories. (Or, in my case at least,  maybe childhood is a wishful thought...)

Clive's most famous achievement has to be the ZX Spectrum, which contrasts sharply with his most infamous creation, the Sinclair C5. Both were revolutionary, innovatively designed, cheap and undeniably cutting-edge. One was successful, the other was not. This, in a nutshell, is the pattern of Clive Sinclair's life - the direct result of mixing inventor and entrepreneur. A string of companies; a range of imaginative designs; some of it worked, some of it (with the best will in the world) simply didn't: Sir Clive Sinclair fits the inventor mould completely. And it all started way back in the 1940s...

1940: Life, Education And Early Employment
Born on the 30th of July, 1940, Clive Marles Sinclair was the eldest of three children. Growing up in Richmond, Surrey in the UK, Clive was greatly influenced by his father's, and indeed his grandfather's, career as an engineer. Invention and exploration were childhood pleasures for Clive, and he took it upon himself to excel in this area. At the age of ten his local school, Boxgrove Preparatory declared itself unable to teach Clive anything further about mathematics, and suggested it was time for him to move on to secondary education.

Around this time, the family machine tooling business became bankrupt. It was quickly rebuilt with much hard work on the part of Clive's father, Bill Sinclair, but as a result Clive's secondary education was somewhat disrupted, beginning at Highgate, moving to Reading and then to Dorking Grammar School. Despite this lack of consistency he finally took A and S levels in physics, pure mathematics and applied mathematics at St George's College in Weybridge.

Clive Sinclair's choice of subjects, given his later business interests, is no surprise. Linked together with Clive's own interest in engineering, his later career seems a natural progression. Already, at the time of his A levels, Clive was working on a simple radio circuit and, also, an article for Practical Wireless, which was eventually published. Progressing from this, when Practical Wireless advertised for an editorial assistant Clive quickly applied for, and got, the job. Understandably, his parents were concerned: they had expected Clive to progress to university, a fact Clive was well aware of when he told them it was merely a stop-gap holiday job. With no intention of going to university, it was a a stroke of morbid luck when the editor and assistant editor became ill, leaving the magazine in Clive's capable hands. A few articles a week, various circuit designs (some of which worked and some of which didn't), and Clive was already making a mark in the electronics world.

1961: Sinclair Radionics
Accepting better-paid work by Bernard Babani publishing house, Clive continued to design circuits and edit books until 1961, when he handed in his notice and registered Sinclair Radionics as a limited company. His intention, though ill-fated, was to find backing for a pocket transistor radio and release it for general sale. The backer withdrew support, leaving Clive unemployed, though he was quick to find employment with United Trade Press.

Sinclair Radionics Ltd. began to trade from Clive's home address, and quickly expanded to a two-room operation in Islington. Forseeing a need for a manufacturing and mail-order administration base, Clive formed strong links with Tim Elioart, who ran Cambridge Consultants Ltd., the administration wing of Clive's operation. Well-placed advertisements for Sinclair products quickly produced demand, and the familiar pattern of Clive's business operations emerged.

Innovative designs continued to receive advertising input, and orders continued to roll in. A mini-amplifier, the world's first digital watch and a miniature television further embodied Clive's business ideals: as small as possible, as cheap as possible, and produced in bulk. The Sinclair Executive was the world first slimline electronic calculator, arriving (as so many Sinclair products did) in kit form, ready for assembly.

The formula worked. Engaged by now, six months after the company was formed, Clive married Ann. A move to Cambridge in 1967 formalised the base of operations and firmed up the link between Clive's later projects and Cambridge. His marriage to Ann, incidentally, was to last twenty-three years, and produce three children: Belinda, Crispin and Bartholomew.

1980: Sinclair Computers / 1981: Sinclair Research
It is for his success in the field of computing that Clive will be most remembered. In 1979 Clive applied his business formula to computers, producing the MK14, a low-cost, miniature computer. It sold well, and quickly led to the ZX80, a device with a £100 price point, nearly £600 less than Commodore's similar offering. Mail order was still Clive's chosen distribution method, although the ZX80 was available ready-made, as well as in Sinclair's usual kit form. It was an undeniable success, and the new company, Sinclair Research was ready to expand to the US, trading in association with Timex. The ZX81 quickly followed, and was just as successful.

Then came the ZX Spectrum. Arguably the most successful of Clive's creations, and still based around Zilog's Z80 chip, the Speccy brought computing into millions of eighties households. Indeed, the advent of home computing at this time had much to do with Sinclair Research, and while there were other options available, the Spectrum was as much a driving force as any other machine. Follow-ups to the Spectrum, notable the 68008-based Sinclair QL, were less well received, and Clive's interest in computing seems to have settled, following the Cambridge Z88's good reception, and subsequent sale of the Cambridge Computers company.

1985: Sinclair Vehicles
Choosing, instead, to focus on modifying personal transport, Clive's C5 is almost a prototype for the Segway. Not in design: the C5's design was widely derided and even villified for being unsafe. The concept behind it, however, is very similar - a personal vehicle with an environmentally friendly slant, relying on electric motors and offering a practical solution to the traffic problems of today's modern cities. The C5 flopped, totally, and took much of Sinclair Research's money with it, necessitating a sale of the computer division and brand name to Amstrad. Despite this, personal transport remains an area Clive is keen to exploit, and he continues to manufacture his 'Zeta' add-on kits for bicycles, as well as producing an underwater propulsion device and a wheelchair drive unit.

Other Notable Achievements And Current Activities
In 1980, at the peak of his popularity, Clive became the chairman for British Mensa, a title he held until 1997. Also, during the eighties, he studied for a diploma at King's College, Cambridge, and was a Visiting Fellow Of Robinson College from '82 to '85. He was knighted in 1983, and from 1984 onwards he took the role of Visiting Professor for the Department Of Electronic Engineering at the Imperial College Of Science And Technology. Currently, Clive Sinclair lives in London, remaining focused on his engineering and inventing interests. Additionally, Clive dabbles in poker, occasionally appearing on Channel Four's Late Night Poker.