Journey Beyond The Stars: When Kubrick Met Clarke

All About The “Ultimate Trip.”

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“I think there were two problems with the design of anything [in 2001]. One was, ‘Is there anything about it that would be logically inconsistent with what people felt would actually exist?’ and the other one was, ‘Would it be interesting? Would it look nice?'” – Stanley Kubrick. 

Fresh from the success of Dr. Strangelove in 1964, Stanley Kubrick considered creating the definitive SF movie, drawing on the latest discoveries. At that time, Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008) was extraordinarily talented in both fields of science fiction and science. Having set out to use his “imagination to do something about reality,” he achieved this by creating the concept of the communications satellite, so he was the ideal boffin with which Kubrick felt he could collaborate.

The director started the collaboration with the writer in April of that year. They took one of the latter’s short stories: “The Sentinel” (1950: about the discovery of an alien pyramid on the Moon) as the basis for crafting an ambitious science fiction epic. As it lasted only six pages, the pair spent the next two years developing the work into a novel which, in turn, would be converted into a screenplay – the basis for creating the ultimate “visual experience.”

Kubrick contacted Chesley Bonestell, then a highly-sought Hollywood matte painter and illustrator who had worked on Destination Moon (1950) and Conquest of Space (1955) just two of the numerous “space movies” the formidable pair viewed, in order to get the feel of what SF cinema could be like. Bonestell had, in 1952, also illustrated an eight-part series of articles for Collier’s magazine, focussing on the possibilities of space exploration.

They were certainly not impressed with what was already on offer. Clarke noted that the director was “highlly critical of everything,” with particular attention to “the poor quality of the design and special effects and the puerility of the scripts.” They decided that they had to be the instigators of an unprecedented, more respectable, dynamic form of SF cinema…

With all the creative talent at his beck and call, Kubrick opined that there “would not be any room left for my imagination.” Shooting began in December 1965, and with that, “Journey Beyond The Stars” was born.

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“[Clarke] mentioned that he was working with director Stanley Kubrick on a film which aimed to be the science fiction, one which would be serious, scientifically plausible and big budget. It would involve other intelligences in space…” – Frederick I. Ordway III. 

In January 1965, the pair met Frederick I. Ordway III (writer) and Harry (Hans-Kurt) Lange (artist), who both worked for the NASA George C Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. In the director’s penthouse in New York City they discussed not only rocket science, but ballistic missiles, computers and aliens. In the next few days, Kubrick made a deal to with General Aeronautics to secure their valuable advisory services. Their boss: Werner von Braun did not seem to mind…

The first scene to be shot was the spine-chilling Dawn of Man sequence. The ape costumes and make-up were supplied by Stuart Freeborn (responsible fer all three characters played by Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove). When a tribe of apes awake to discover the Monolith while the terrifying music by Grigory Ligeti plays, still stands as one of cinema’s most fabulous – not to mention frightening – moments of all time. 

When the dominant ape hurls a bone into the sky, so it transmogrifies into a gently descending spacecraft, thus catapulting the viewer millions of years onwards – a truly magical edit. There is a fascinating story connected to how The Blue Danube Waltz by Johann Strauss came to be used for that spaceflight sequence. Apparently, Kubrick just happened to be listening to that piece of classical music while editing that very scene, and realised that it would make a fine musical accompaniment for the images. Whatever the background, this sequence forever remains a sumptuous audio/visual delight.

Technical designs for the space wheel under construction in space (based on one of Bonestell’s original Collier’s illos), the Orion passenger cruiser and the Moon shuttle Aries were all approved by NASA. This work paved the way for all subsequent model-effects work we have watched in subsequent (pre-CGI) extravaganzas. This made up an estimated $6.5 million of the $10 million budget. Then, amid all the post-production mayhem, the title was changed to: 2001: A Space Odyssey… 

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“We were interested in starting where Destination Moon finished…” – Arthur C. Clarke. 

For the final act concentrating on the Discovery mission to Jupiter, the model of the Discovery ship itself was the largest constructed for the film, said to have measured 54 feet in length. It is not surprising to learn that it never moved; to create the motion shots, it was the camera that moved.   

The centrifuge was the largest set, at 38 feet high… and it revolved. All “props” had to be bolted to the floor, while the lighting and camera(s) operated non-stop. Kubrick remarked: “The Centrifuge set was made in such a way that that it had the structural integrity to preserve itself while the frame was rotated.”  

Of the climactic hallucinogenic trip which culminates in Bowman hurtling through the timegate, until finding himself in a pristine mansion, yes, there were several cases of people taking strange substances. MGM recognised that particular audience by adding the tagline: “The Ultimate Trip” on posters. There are no reports of what both Kubrick and Clarke made of these individuals…

People have sought to question the movie’s claim to masterpiece status by stating how agonisingly incomprehensible 2001: A Space Odyssey really is. Plenty of critics – professional and amateur alike – set out to offer explanations for baffled cinema-goers to mull over, but “usually they were as verbose and wrong-headed as the film was clear thinking and sleek.”

In 1968, when Arthur C. Clarke was asked by a journalist what the film was about, he replied: “I don’t know. Ask Stanley Kubrick!” On the other side of the world, Kubrick was being asked the same question: “I don’t know,” he replied. “Ask Arthur Clarke!”

200?: With Kubrick, movies were made from different... (ahem) angles
200?: With Kubrick, movies were made from different… (ahem) angles
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Cosmic Sounds!: Music To Write SF Blogs By

That Weren’t No DJ, That Was Hazy Cosmic Jive!

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“Without music, life would be a mistake” – Friedrich Nietzsche. 

When blogging, usually through the night, it is customary for the compilation of these Posts to be accompanied by music. Now, some writers prefer to work in quiet conditions: not me. At university, music on the radio, or tapes, became imperative to convey me through some particularly troublesome essays.

And so the tradition has continued, with some pumping, pounding beats to carry me to deadline, or some suitably spaced-out melodies to help me through the night. Some of your fave Posts on this site were concocted with the aid of these audio additives.

Wherever possible, appropriate spacey vids have been found to maximize your sensory pleasure! Hopefully, this fine collection will inspire you in your own blogging endeavours…

Oh my god! Youtube is full of 2001: A Space Odyssey videos! Actually, this Post could have consisted of videos with montages of scenes from this single cinematic masterpiece, but variety is indeed the spice of life, so this compendium has dared to forage for more diverse matter. 

Luke Slater, a British DJ, has been producing stellar grooves for over twenty years. His Wireless album was particularly good, and this track: Weave Your Web works well when placed over 2001’s climactic trippy viz.

Richie Hawtin is an innovative Canadian techno producer. This track: The Tunnel makes for a perfect sci-fi number, with its weird bleeping and whirring effects. And this is one of the most simple – yet striking – vids seen by these bleary eyes in a long time. 

“Sternklang is the expression of the intimate encounter with the whole, the direct connection with the stars and the vast universe…” – hookback.  

“Awesome!” is a phrase too readily bandied about these days, but this next piece unconditionally deserves that tag. Tholen’s Sternklang is an epic – seventy-one minutes to be exact! – dark and dissonant soundscape, and should only be savoured during the darkest hours (with the best quality Stereo headphones of course).

The video contains suitably majestic cosmic graphics. It can be viewed in its entirety, or in five easily-digestible segments. Part 2 is my particular fave, with the three-note drone which, commencing at 1:44, hits right to the core, while the space station which materialises at around 2:34 is particularly impressive; the moment at 9:48 is quite special too…

Wow, just as you’re recovering from that stunning experience, so it’s followed by another grand opus. Steve Roach is one of the leading ambient composers working today. Again, it is on the darkest, silent nights that his pieces are replayed over and over for inspiration.

“Darkest Before Dawn” is a deep and goose pimple-inducing masterpiece, especially in its seventy-four minute entirety, but for this Post, here is Drift, because the animation here is absolutely mesmerising. Enjoy! 

“…On my planet, we have a legend… called Footloose. And in it, a great hero, named Kevin Bacon, teaches an entire city full of people, with sticks up their butts, that dancing, well, is the greatest thing there is” – Peter Quill (Starlord). 

Yeah! Time to boogie! Karl O’Connor (aka Regis) is one of the most captivating DJs on the current scene. With Peter Sutton (aka Female) he formed Sandwell District, and reinvigorated a stagnant techno landscape.

Not only was Hunting Lodge the best techno track of 2011, but someone went to the trouble of putting it to images from 1984 (1954). Peter Cushing in a techno vid: sci-fi paradise!

This next track is a phenomenal late-night mind-blaster. The accompanying vid is equally staggering, “Gas 0095” was the debut album of electronic musician Mat Jarvis, otherwise known as Gas. Its classic track: Microscopic is overlaid to powerful effect on a short scientific film called: “The Power of Ten,” which explores both outer and inner space. These fantastic sights and sounds blew me away when first viewed five years ago.

Please be advised: take a deep breath…

“I think, therefore I ambient” – Mixmaster Morris.  

Finally, we come to Geir Jenssen, the Norwegian electronic producer, better known under the moniker: Biosphere. His music has been labelled: “arctic ambient,” supposedly because it induces a glacial atmosphere, rather than being a tad chilly. Any track from the stupendous Substrata album (2009) would have sufficed, but this track incorporates samples of Russian cosmonaut radio transmissions and skillful sprinklings of The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss to blissful effect.

There is just a still image here, but this is not important. What matters is that within the next fifteen minutes, you may most likely drift into the Land of Nod, pleasantly dreaming of gliding among the stars…

groovy

Groovy!

Fear Of F/X: The Evolution Of CGI

Trapped inside an electronic arena, where love, and escape, do not compute!   

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“Nobody cares About making movies about people any more. All they care about is special effects” – Ellen Keith, F/X: Murder By Illusion (1986). 

The lone cowboy marched through the terrain, determined to track down the man who had shot him dead. The pixelated vision of Yul Brynner’s relentless android gunslinger, developed for Westworld (1973), introduced computerised effects to movies (not Tron (1982) as commonly misconceived). These pioneering images were the work of Information International Inc. or Triple-I. 

Little did anyone know that from these tentative beginnings, we would get the ubiquitous Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) of today.

Before we were bombarded by CGI, there was an exciting period of SF imbued with the more awe-inspiring and organic delights of animatronics, make-up, puppetry and blue (not green) screen wizardry. You got the feeling that real ingenious creativity was unfolding before your very startled eyes, and the fantastic results often inspired the how-the-hell-did-they-do-that?! response.

Nowadays, we know that it’s a team of technicians working on machines. Jeez, where’s the sense of wonder in that?! 

ACE IN THE HOLE: "The shaft is ray-shielded, so you'll have to use proton torpedoes"
ACE IN THE HOLE: “The shaft is ray-shielded, so you’ll have to use proton torpedoes”

“That’s impossible, even for a computer” – Wedge Antilles.  

The director of American Graffiti needed to create special effects for a new “space adventure” he’d been working on, tentatively titled: “The Star Wars.”  In May 1975, the effects team Industrial Light and Mgic (ILM) was born to create the flying spaceships, lasers and explosions in space and all the other awesome stuff. What they achieved in terms of sfx magic was nothing short of rermarkable. Most notable were the 3D wireframe graphics used during Jan Dodonna’s Death Star attack briefing. 

Obviously, this line of historical enquiry must reserve a special mention for Tron (1982) which, as the first feature-length computerised film, is commonly referred to as the one with the first computerised images ever. Apparently, a heaving 2 Mb of memory (that’s approximately 1/2000th of the capacity of your average PC, folks!) went into the making of this film about a computer programmer (Jeff Bridges) who gets sucked into the gaming world. Who can forget that pulsating light cycle race? Still looks pretty neat even now…

Th Last Starfighter (1984) relied on revolutionary new computer technology to produce its space battles. A childhood fave (to be covered more fully in a later Post), its story and entertainment value still stands up remarkably well, but regrettably, those vfx have dated horribly…

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“It’s all CG now, creating worlds in CG. It’s a completely different toolset. But the rules of storytelling are the same” – James Cameron. 

James Cameron’s The Abyss (1989) presented the first CG water effects, while Total Recall (1990) provided engaging viewing primarily for the varied experimentation that went into crafting a substantial number of original visual effects, but then two veritable game-changers were set to burst and crackle onto the big screen.

Terminator II; Judgment Day (1991) (Cameron again!) became one of the most enjoyable Summer blockbusters of all time. A new level of technology pioneered by ILM was unleashed. Quite unlike anything experienced before, the liquid metal T-1000 morphed, mimicked and mutated in highly original ways into the SF(X) Hall of Fame. Then in 1993, along came another colossal pioneer of sfx. Jurassic Park (1993) offered the first physically-textured CG animals, which just happened to be the species made extinct millions of years ago. Admittedly, the T-Rex and the raptors were very impressive… but how many technicians were required to painstakingly process those awesome scenes? Having marveled at stop-motion animation, you just cannot beat the one late great Ray Harryhausen…

Starship Troopers (1997) was a dull and forgettable experience, and not surprisingly a box office flop, but it carries the distinction of being the first motion picture to showcase an intricate CG military battle. Funnily enough, it would have won the Best Visual Effects Oscar that year if it wasn’t for Cameron’s Titanic…

Beyond Y2K, computerised viz accelerated at an exponential rate. There appears to be an abundance of CGI at the expense of a decent plot, characterisation or any other essential ingredient necessary for sufficient visual story-telling. CGI now holds scant joy for me – that’s why no CG movies from the last two decades feature in this historical study. Yet there are those who would argue that computer-generated effects are imperative because they have attained spectacularly sophisticated standards. Like some inhuman unstoppable force, CGI appears to be relentless, uncompromising, and looks like it will mercilessly consume all traditional f/x methods until the allure and awe of cinema are eradicated forever.

The beast is loose… 

OMG F/X: Fear and loathing in the CGI Factory
OMG F/X: Fear and loathing in the CGI Factory

“Even today, a lot of the CGI you see in movies is so clean and crisp that it just looks fake. It’s weird: the more advanced they get, the faker it looks” – Jim Lee. 

What do you think of CGI? 

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Is Neill Blomkamp The Right Choice To Make Alien 5?

Stop Worrying About These Pet Projects!

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“I can’t think of a better director. He’s a real fan. I think he’ll… take it in unexpected directions… It will certainly stand up to the others and probably break a lot of new ground as well” – Sigourney Weaver. 

It has been common knowledge for some time that Sigourney Weaver wants to reprise her most famous role: Ellen Ripley. This week, it was confirmed that Neill Blomkamp (whose latest movie: Chappie has just opened) will direct Alien 5, after some of his impressive concept art for such a movie project recently emerged. Following some encouraging buzz online, Fox execs were quick to give Blomkamp the green light… but really, is this wise? 

Let’s sift through the evidence: Blomkamp’s debut feature: District 9 (2009), was an intriguing anti-apartheid parable set in South Africa, and showed much promise. Yet when the less impressive Elysium received unfavourable reviews in 2013, it looked like the talent had collapsed. Now, instead of reversing the downward trend, Chappie – apparently an expanded remake of Blomkamp’s own 2003 short: Tetra Vaal – has garnered some very discouraging reviews.

On the strength of District 9, Blomkamp would have been good to go, but now, it looks like an ominous – almost regrettable decision. The latest edition of Time Magazine summed it up aptly: “The world needs good sci-fi movies. Unfortunately, Chappie isn’t one of them.” 

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“…We’re gonna need immediate evac. I say we take off and nuke the site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure” – Cpl. Dwayne Hicks.  

The last time we saw Corporal Dwayne Hicks he’d had his face sprayed with a xenomorph’s acid. This past week, it was confirmed that the actor who played him back in 1986: Michael Biehn, had been approached to possibly reprise that role. Nearly thirty years on, is Biehn ready for active duty once more? “Yes…” he nonchalantly replied. “Looks like it.” 

With this stunning news, we now have to erase Alien 3 (1992) and Alien Resurrection (1997) from memory; fine, some fans believe that both these underwhelming sequels deserve to be expunged from existence anyway. Which brings us back to Crappy. Sorry! Chappie…

It was a tough weekend, ruminating on whether to watch this new release. Just consider the paltry goods on offer: it splices elements of Short Circuit, Robocop and other goodness-knows how many ’80s robo-pics together into a disjointed mess; a supposedly endearing” robot which soon resorts to violence – any chance of a meaningful exposition on artificial intelligence and its ramifications literally blown away; narrative shortcomings aplenty; there appear to be no likeable characters anywhere because it is “too tonally conflicted to engage our sympathies.” 

Die Antwoord are probably the most disconcerting aspect of the whole package. Had never heard of them before; now wishing they had stayed beyond my sensors… And Hugh Jackman sports a mullet… 

Really!

Science fiction should not have to be as painful as this…. surely? Can count avoiding Jupiter Ascending as one of my finest accomplishments during February, but there was no warning about this other misfire lying in wait…

Is Chappie as bad as it looks? Please feel free to Comment. 

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“You’ve been in my life so long, I can’t remember anything else” – Ellen Ripley.  

From Alien to Avatar, Sigourney Weaver has shown how to create bold and no-nonsense roles for women in SF. Can’t help thinking that she would have presented an infinitely more suitable casting choice than Jodie Foster in Elysium…

Last week, while publicising Chappie – in which she plays the CEO of a weapons corporation – this charming and versatile actress – recalled how her next project came about: “…You know it’s a pity we didn’t really finish the story. I said: ‘I should probably talk to Jim Cameron about that.’ And he [Blomkamp] said: ‘Don’t talk to Jim about that, talk to me about that.’ So we kept talking about it.”  

From the first day on the set of Chappie, Blomkamp enthused about his admiration for the first two Alien movies to Weaver; and then he “started sending these incredible paintings of this world and some very detailed story ideas…” 

Yes, but as we have seen, unfortunately, time and time again, how so many projects began with the most impressive pre-production designs only for the finished film to flounder so disappointingly. Weaver should tread cautiously; we don’t dispute that Blomkamp is a swell guy – it’s just that his grasp of SF seems to have diminished somewhat of late… 

On the possibility of working on an Alien 5 with Neill Blomkamp, Weaver remarked: “It would be cool… because I’d love to work with him again.” Very diplomatically, she continued: “…If it’s happening, I’d be curious to know how I would not be in it, but I imagine the alien is in it, and they’ll probably make his deal first, and give him more money.” 

Alen 5: Do you think Sigourney's in safe hands?
Alen 5: Do you think Sigourney’s in safe hands?

A Vulcan Obituary: Leonard Nimoy 1931-2015

A Salute To Spock (Don’t Grieve, Admiral).

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“Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most… human” – Admiral James T. Kirk. 

Leonard Nimoy, who died on Friday aged 83, will forever be known as the actor who portrayed the first regular alien character in a long-running TV series.

Mr. Spock, who made his debut in Star Trek’s pilot episode: The Cage in 1966, is one of the most recognisable icons of popular culture. If any editor had to produce a montage of iconic images to celebrate, say, the best of TV sci-fi, or characters from sci-fi movies, then Mr. Spock would get selected every time. Leonard Nimoy possessed such drawn, gaunt features that he could easily pass for something otherworldly. With those slanted eyebrows and famous pointed ears, how could he not become an instant star?

Besides Trek, Nimoy made appearances in countless TV shows including: Dragnet, Rawhide, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Mission: Impossible and Columbo, and he even made a cameo appearance in a video with The Bangles!     

William Shatner, who played Spock’s commanding officer: James T. Kirk: “loved him like a brother,” and added that we: “will all miss his humour, his talent, and his capacity to love.”   

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“On the day we filmed that scene… I came to this very much as a neophyte… I turn around and I’m looking at my cinematographer, and he’s got tears streaming down his face… and then I’m looking at the rest of the crew, and everybody’s crying! And I’m thinking: ‘what am I missing here?'” – Nicholas Meyer. 

Back in 1983, me and a pal, both ardent Star Wars fans, decided to check out Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan. We joked that it would probably “be just as crap as the first one.” Well…! How wrong could we have been?! We were in awe of Khan as the indomitable villain; swept along with the majestic score by James Horner; hypnotised by the epic battles between the Enterprise and Reliant; but what really blew us away was the death of Mr. Spock. 

Unbelievable. It just didn’t seem… logical. 

Yes, Spock of Star Trek. Killed off?! It was such a bold, and highly unexpected twist. Everyone knew where they were when Spock was killed off, so they say. Things like that didn’t – and shouldn’t – happen, especially to such an iconic character. But it did, and a landmark in SF cinema was produced. Played superbly by Nimoy and William Shatner, it was a monumental and intensely emotional scene, because one of the closest and best-loved friendships in TV history had come to an abrupt and shocking end.

Due to the lacklustre performance of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979, there was minimal interest among the cast to reprise their roles for any sequel, especially Nimoy. He was eventually coaxed back, but with one condition: that Spock be killed off. The actor believed this denouement would make for a fitting end, considering that Wrath of Khan was apparently intended to be the “last” Trek film ever(?!) 

Of course, the phenomenal success of II meant one thing: Paramount Studios came clamouring for III… In the most ridiculous plot-contrivance in SF history, Spock had to be resurrected somehow, and indeed he wasThen, inevitably, came IV – a ridiculous time-travel romp featuring whales set in 1986 which (hey!) just happened to be the year it was made.

Both were particularly notable for being directed by Nimoy himself. He would go on to work behind the camera on numerous other projects, including the unlikely comedy Three Men And A Baby(!) Talk about being a far cry from…

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“My heart is broken, I love you profoundly my dear friend. And I will miss you every day. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest” – Zachary Quinto. 

Other than the Star Trek movies, including the recent reboot (2009) and its sequel (2013), he appeared in Zombies Of The Stratosphere (1952), Them! (1954), Invasion of The Body Snatchers (1978) and A Woman called Golda (1982) (for which he received an Emmy nomination), among others. He dabbled in writing (mostly poetry) and photography, and his deep, distinctive voice led him ultimately to his own singing career where he gave us such greats as: “Highly Illogical,” “Where It’s At,” and the irrepressible “Ballad of Bilbo Baggins.” 

Annoyance with the limitations his Vulcan role had on his career culminated in Nimoy’s 1977 autobiography simply entitled: “I Am Not Spock.” He eventually embraced his Vulcan self, realising that it had secured a place in SF immortality.

The episode: “Amok Time” presented the first opportunity to see other Vulcans. Aware that Humans engaged in ritual behaviour when greeting others, when time came for Spock to greet others of his kind, Nimoy realised that no equivalent Vulcan rituals had been prepared. Nimoy himself concocted the perfect solution; drawing from his Jewish heritage, his famous split-fingered salute was based on the kohanic blessing, a “manual approximation” of the first letter in Shaddai, one of the Hebrew names for God. Within days of that episode’s first broadcast – and in the decades to follow – people in the street would greet Nimoy with that gesture!

The Vulcan phrase closely associated with Spock was “Dif-tor heh smusma.” We all knew it as: “Live long and prosper.”

Leonard Nimoy lived long and indeed prospered. 

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“To this day, I sense Vulcan speech patterns, Vulcan social attitudes and even Vulcan patterns of logic and emotional suppression in my behaviour. Given the choice, if I had to be someone else, I would be Spock” – Leonard Nimoy.  

Naturally, so many tributes in the past few days have quite rightfully loaded the aforementioned death/funeral scene from Wrath of Khan; instead, to end this Post, something different, but still… fascinating was in order.

Normally, tawdry ads would never squirm their way onto one of my immaculately-crafted Posts, but this is such rare, exceptionally good fun, and perfectly encapsulates the humour and infectious joy you could always expect from Leonard Nimoy: