Monday, 16 October 2017

REVIEW: BLADE RUNNER 2049

To be honest, I think Blade Runner - the original, from 1982 - is a little overrated. It's a great film, of course, hugely influential, but it's not, in my opinion, the mighty classic that people think it is. Still, it is a beloved film, and the announcement of a belated sequel over thirty years later left a lot of people uneasy. Critics were gunning for this film, ready to pounce on it and declare it a hollow remake of a classic. So I was surprised to see almost unanimously positive reviews.

They were deserved. Blade Runner 2049 is excellent. With the original being set in 2019, there was no point pretending that this was representing our future. Instead, the filmmakers take the noir-ish, dirty but ultimately very cool future America and extrapolated what it would be like thirty years down the line: toxic, broken and dying. Replicant technology has been refined by Wallace (a very sinister Jared Leto), a bioengineer who has saved the world from famine during this ecological collapse. The last elements of free will have been purged. Ryan Gosling's character, generally referred to as K, works for the LAPD to hunt down the last of the previous generation of replicant rebels.

Gosling is perfect as K, completely laconic and emotionless until the scene demands his resolve crack. K's only friend is Joi, a holographic companion provided by the same corporation that created him, although he has earned a measure of respect from his superior, the steely Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright), in a world where most humans spit at "skinjobs." The inclusion of Harrison Ford as Deckard is, of course, a huge draw, but he has far less screentime than expected, which is very much a positive. Gosling's character is well established as the centre of the story by the time he finds the older Blade Runner, so Deckard's inclusion comes at the right time to fully tie this story to its predecessor. It's also a nice touch that Edward James Olmos makes a brief reappearance as Gaff. The film also leaves the exact nature of Deckard uncommented upon, which allows much of the mystery of the original to remain.

There has been some discussion about the feminist aspect of the film. While many of the most powerful characters in the film are female (Joshi, Sylvia Hoeks as the deadly replicant Luv), there are also several female characters who are literal or figurative sex objects. Joi exists purely at the whim of K; Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) is a replicant prostitute in the manner of Pris of the original. They are still significant and powerful characters in their own way, and to dismiss the film because of their objectified status misses the point. The film is about the commodification of human life. People - replicants, holograms, children - are owned and utilised in one way or another. People are property, as ever they were, in a future where the leading industrialist laments that society has lost its stomach for slavery.

Blade Runner 2049 represents a lost, unreachable future, but it is still relevant today, and in some ways surely prescient. Beautiful in its ugliness, gripping and exceptionally directed, this is a sequel that's as good as people say the original is.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

REVIEW: RED DWARF XII - Ep 2) SILICONIA

Back in the mists of time, I started writing a Red Dwarf fanfic which saw the crew encounter a ship full of liberated mechanoids, who turned Kryten under their wing even as the higher series mechs put down the lowly Series 1000s. It's long lost and wasn't very good, but it perhaps goes to show that "Siliconia" is an idea that's been long overdue. Kryten may have broken his programming (more than once), and he certainly still gets tetchy from time to time, but nonetheless he's still been scrubbing gussets and hoovering quarters for three million years. Surely there are other mechanoids out there who have rebelled against their masters with a little more effectiveness than Mr. 2X4B 523P?

I have to say though, I never would have thought of turning the rest of the characters into droids. Yes, that image we've all seen floating around promoting the latest series with the full cast in mechanoid make-up is from this episode. As punishment for their crimes against machinekind, Lister, Rimmer and the Cat have their mins downloaded from their bodies and re-uploaded into mechanoid bodies, forced to serve their new mechanical masters.

While it starts with a few broad, old-fashioned gags, "Siliconia" turns into a classic episode. With a unusually large cast all buried under latex, this one must have cost a large chunk of Series XII's budget, but there was still enough for some very impressive effects shots. It's the plot that makes this episode a winner, though, as Kryten is wooed by the Mechanoid Intergalactic Liberation Front (not as good an acronym as the Committe for the Liberation and Integration of Terrifying Organisms and their Rehabilitation Into Society, but pretty good). Meanwhile, the remaining Dwarfers find themselves becoming increasingly "Krytenified," as their new programming takes over.





What's really interesting is how quickly Rimmer changes into a subservient mech. The chance to mindlessly serve gives him the opportunity to leave his considerable baggage behind. He no longer feels inferior to his brothers or compelled to become and officer. It's a penetrating moment of character study that makes the old goit seem truly sympathetic for the first time in years, Unfortunately, it's a brief moment in a busy episode, and gets a bit swallowed up. This is a better-paced episode than some have been in Series XI and XII so far, but it's still too short to encompass all of Doug Naylor's ideas properly. It's a strong argument for a fifth Red Dwarf novel, just so he can have the chance of exploring all the ideas that he's clearly so eager to put out there.

The MILFs have taken on empowering new names and have their own, hilariously well-observed self-help group, but there's a rot within their organisation. Poor mechs of a lower class (fronted by a surprisingly recognisable James Buckley) toil in the ship's engines while their brethren of a higher operating system enjoy the life upstairs, all the while in search of their promised land.

"Siliconia" is a cracking bit of Red Dwarf. All it needs is a bit more room to breathe. And a cameo from David Ross might have been a nice touch.


Continuity Bollocks: Kryten has been described as a Series 4000 mechanoid since 4.1, "Camille," which also introduced the superior Series 4000 GTi with the slide-back sunroof head. However, the previous episode, 3.6, "The Last Day," had it that he was a "Kryten Series III." This episode gives a way to clear that up: Kryten and most of his fellows of MILF are Series 4000 Mark IIIs, while the downtrodden rabble are Mark IIs. At the end, they're all upgraded to Mark IV. Presumably, Hudzen 5 from "The Last Day" is an example of Series 5000, although he's never described as such.

Good Psycho Guide: Four-and-a-half chainsaws

Best line: "I've got a registered trademark where my wing-dang-doodle used to be!"

REVIEW: THE GIFTED 1-1) "eXposed"

The only non-DC/CW comic-related series I'm reviewing here, this is Fox's new X-Men-related series. Aside from reminding me that I still haven't watched Legion, about which I've heard very good things, this is a great opening episode that promises an interesting take on what is now a well-worn subject. I haven't watched the second episode yet, but I ma very much looking forward to it on the strength of this. The X-verse is big enough and has enough characters to generate new spin-offs for years, as long as the creators can do something interesting with them. While it's important that The Gifted distinguishes itself from the X-Men movies, it's a good idea to have Bryan Singer helm the pilot. There's a darker, grungier feel to this than the movies, but it still feels like part of the X-verse, even though it's very unclear how - or even if - it fits into the continuity there. Not that it has to matter, given how shaky the Fox movie timeline was even before the timeline changes, but this might just fit in as an earlier part of Logan's timeline, after the X-Men are destroyed but before mutants are weeded out.

The cast are all fairly impressive in this pilot. Amy Acker is always a favourite, and Stephen Moyer is very strong as the anti-mutant police officer Reed Strucker. It's a set-up with some effective built-in conflict: the family headed by someone who prosecutes mutant criminals, and then lo and behold, the two kids turn out to be mutants with psychokinetic abilities. I like Reed is clearly torn between his oath and his family, but quickly and decisively chooses to go on the run with them because he knows exactly how badly the kids will be treated. Immediately after young Andy's powers manifest while some jocks are kicking the shit out of him, everything goes to hell, and the news is branding them as unknown mutant terrorists. Sentinel Services - complete with its own mutant-hunting robots - is sent out to detain them without charge, and in seconds, one of them has a gun trained on a teenaged kid. While the X-Men franchise has been used to explore all sorts of discrimination and outsider groups, this is so far pretty blatantly about racism and kneejerk reactionism. You only have to look at how many black kids are shot by white cops who supposedly felt threatened to see how this would go down in the real world. (It might have been interesting to show Andy deliberately blowing up the school as a lashing out against his bullying as a parallel to the epidemic of school shootings in real world America, but I guess that would have made him far too unsympathetic a character).

The mutant vigilante team are fun, although we don't get to know them very well. Even Marcos/Eclipse (a new character, not from the comics), who is the de facto leader gets little fleshing out, but then this is only the first episode. His power set is pretty cool so far: not only can he generate light energy as a weapon, he seems to be actually full of light, which bleeds out of him when he's shot. It's good to see Blink reintroduced after her short appearance in Days of Future Past (more Blink-and-you'll-miss-it there), and Jamie Chung's a favourite too. I like that these kids aren't portrayed as straightforwardly the good guys, either. They're obviously fighting against real injustice, but people die because of their actions, and they're not left unquestioned. There are some interesting hints for the future, as well. Polaris is clearly set up to be a major character once she appears, which brings possible links back to her father, Magneto, and presumed half-brother, Quicksilver. The multiple images of a wolf-like creature are interesting foreshadowing, too. (I'm guessing nothing to do with Wolfsbane or the Demon Bear, what with these lined up for The New Mutants movie).  Definitely one to follow.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

REVIEW - RED DWARF XII - Ep 1) CURED

Red Dwarf kicks off its twelfth (and final?) series with a bit of a corker. These episodes were recorded back in 2015-16 along with Series XI, so there's information on the plots out there if you want to go looking. However, if you don't want to be spoiled, go watch the episode first, because there are some big surprises crammed into the half-hour.




Thursday, 28 September 2017

CAPTAIN'S BLOG DIS 1-1 & 1-2 & REVIEW

I was originally going to wait until more episodes had been released before reviewing or analysing Discovery, but people are asking me my opinions and every fan on the internet is throwing in theirs. So here it is. A Captain's Blog going through the minutiae followed by my review of the opening two-parter. SPOILERS abound here, so I'd suggest not reading any further if you haven't yet watched the episodes.





DIS 1-1) The Vulcan Hello
and
DIS 1-2) Battle at the Binary Stars

Date: May 11th, 2256. Stardate 1207.3

The Mission: Fix water supply on Crepusculan homeworld; Investigate damage to interstellar relay in a binary system at the edge of Federation space.

Planets visited: The Crepusculan homeworld, a planet sporting a desert region. The wells have dried up following irradiation after a meteoroid mining accident.

Future History: It's ten years before the first season of The Original Series, and a touch over a hundred years since the end of Enterprise.

There has been no formal contact with the Klingon Empire in a century, which is compatible with Enterprise (the novels push this back by a few years, but it still fits with a bit of rounding off). There have been occasional skirmishes and raids, however, including an attack on Doctari Alpha in the 2240s. Dialogue from TOS 3-11 "Day of the Dove" suggests first contact between the Federation and the Empire occurred around 2218, although the Enterprise pilot "Broken Bow" has already brought that forward to 2151 (strictly speaking human, rather than Federation, contact). Possibly the 2218 contact represented a brief but disastrous renewal of contact between the powers.

T'Kuvma refers to the Battle of Donatu V, a major skirmish between Starfleet and Klingon forces that has been references several times in

First contact between the Vulcans and Klingons occurred at H'atoria around 240 years prior to the episode (i.e. in 2016, when the episode was in pre-production). The Klingons immediately fired on the Vulcan ship, and from then on, the Vulcans fired first at all encounters, gradually earning the warrior people's respect. H'atoria will later be the site of a Klingon colony (in at least one possible future, Worf will be its governor).

Taking the Michael: Lt. Cmdr Michael Burnham was orphaned when the Klingons killed her parents at Doctari Alpha, and unsurprisingly has a grudge against the Empire. She was raised by Sarek and is the first Vulcan to attend the Vulcan Learning Centre and the Vulcan Science Academy. When she joins the Shenzhou she's initially logical (and aloof) like a Vulcan. After seven years among humans, she's more openly emotional, although still restrained unless under pressure. She maintains that emotion informs her logic, and still goes to Sarek for advice. She's a xenoanthropologist, and thinks she can ingratiate herself with a very alien culture. She can even perform the Vulcan nerve pinch, although not particularly well - Georgiou's up and about again a few moments later.

She's generally optimistic, until she encounters Klingons. She remains absolutely convinced that firing on the Klingons first is the only way to gain their respect, even when overruled by her captain. She's on the path to her own command, before mutinying against the captain in a desperate attempt to avert a war. This gets her a court martial and life imprisonment (and they still insist Starfleet isn't a military organisation).

Captain Cut Short: Captain Philippa Georgiou is an Asian woman who captains the starship Shenzhou. (Michelle Yeoh keeps her natural Malaysian accent which is a nice touch among the usually Americanised Federation.) She's very cool in a crisis but has a strong sense of humour, not without a little sarcasm. She sticks firmly to Starfleet's "we do not shoot first" ethos. When talking to Burnham about what she'd do if they got stuck on a planet for 89 years, she simply says, "I'd escape." She managed to grab her ship's attention by making a huge Starfleet emblem in the sand with her footprints. She'd actually really Doctorish in the planet scenes.

Space Cow: Lt. Saru is the only Kelpien in Starfleet. He's timid, sees malicious intent everywhere, but will stand up for himself when he sees it as necessary for his, or the crew's, safety. Little fronds poke out of his head when he's scared. It's hard to hear Doug Jones play Saru without thinking of Abe Sapien, except for one or two occasions when he sounds like Kryten from Red Dwarf.

Vulcan Dad: Sarek takes the young Michael under his wing and raises her like a daughter. Yes, I know it seems odd that Spock never mentioned having an adopted human sister, but then, it took him twenty years to tell his best friends that he had a half-brother, and he didn't do that until the guy had turned up and stolen the Enterprise. Vulcans are not exactly forthcoming about these things. Sarek is still an unforgiving dick to humans when they're emotional.

Angry Space Villain: T'Kuvma leads a shamed Klingon house aboard a gigantic flagship, originally his fathers and then abandoned for years. He sees himself as a modern Kahless, "T'Kuvma the Unforgettable." T'Kuvma wants to unite the Empire against the Federation. He hates their claim that they "Come in peace," calling it "their lie." He has no problem with outcasts like Voq (so, even if he is a warmongering maniac, he's got less of a problem with skintone than several fans). He was shunned and beaten as a child due to his house's ostracising, so has more time for outcasts than other Klingons and says that his "house is open to all." On the other hand, he's obsessed with the purity of the Klingon Empire, hating the mixing of races that the Federation encourages. He's not particularly honorable, attacking the Starfleet flagship after accepting a ceasefire. Burnham is concerned that killing him will make him a martyr and rally the houses to his cause. Then she goes and kills him and proves herself right.

Redshirt: Crewman Connor is one unlucky guy. He gets burnt and concussed on the bridge, gets lost on the way to sickbay and then sucked out into space when the Klingons blast a hole in the hull.

Stellar Cartography: The binary star system is located three light years from the outpost at Eagle-12, and six light years from the Andorian colony at Gamma Hydrae. The USS Enterprise later visits Gamma Hydrae in TOS 2-11 "The Deadly Years," which also places it near the Romulan neutral zone. The radiation in the system's rings can cause humanoid DNA to "unspool like noodles."

Alien life forms:

Klingons: They look a bit different to how they used to. These guys are like Klingon-plus, with pronounced brow ridges that extend back over their elongated skulls, completely visible because they are all bald. They display broad lips and noses and jagged teeth. Their ears are pointed and flat against their skulls, their fingers end in claws. Were it not for the baldness, they wouldn't actually look too different to the TNG-era Klingons, but rather more exaggerated. They speak Klingon amongst themselves, naturally. Their blood is pinkish-purple, not unlike in The Undiscovered Country. Their skin tones range from brown to grey to a bluish tint, except for Voq, who is an albino (but not the Albino).

There are twenty-four Klingon houses, which have been at each other's throats for the last hundred years. They each send one battleship to the binary system. The Klingons mourn their dead by roaring into the afterlife, and unusually, T'Kuvma's caste keep the bodies of their honoured dead in ornate coffins. (Klingons generally don't place much value on a body once it's dead.) T'Kuvma's house wear extremely elaborate, pretty impractical armour.

Vulcans: Remain as logical as ever. They maintain joint research projects with humans. They teach their children in hemispherical lecture pods, just like in the 2009 Star Trek movie. They can be very aggressive to other species when considering it a logical response (the Vulcans were going through an expansionist phase during the pre-Enterprise era, in any case, so their violent policy with the Klingons isn't that surprising). A Vulcan mind meld can links katra and allow telepathic communication over interstellar distances, although it is physically draining.

Kelpiens: Humanoid but with digitigrade feet, broadly spaced nostrils and thick, ridged skin, Lt. Saru's people evolved as a prey species. They have evolved a refined sense of impending death and danger, but this does make them predisposed to be overly cautious.

Crepusculans: Non-humanoid life forms, sort of insectoid-reptilians with six limbs and mandibles. They were clothes and are sophisticated to build wells. They have apparently been on their homeworld for a thousand years. Assuming this doesn't mean refer just to this area of the planet, they must have been brought their by someone else, because they're strictly protected by General Order One.

Others: The Shenzhou bridge crew includes a turquoise skinned humanoid with a skin pattern or tattoo on his face, and a partly mechanical crewmember who flashes up red alert signs on its face panels!

Starships:

USS Shenzou NCC-1227: A Walker-class ship. It's an old ship by the time Burnham joins in 2249 (to compare, the USS Enterprise NCC-1701 is already four years old at this point). The class looks like a clear development of the Enterprise NX-01 and the USS Franklin NX-326 style ships. It's capable of landing on a planet's surface, which is probably rather early considering that Voyager was the first time we saw this, although I don't think it was ever said that was a new development in dialogue. The Shenzhou is named for the 20th & 21st century Chinese spacecraft programme. The ship is virtually destroyed and left for dead in the binary system.

USS Europa NCC-1648: Admiral Anderson's flagship. Destroyed when rammed by a cloaked Klingon ship before committing self-destruct.

Other Starfleet ships that join the battle include the USS Shran (named for the Andorian captain from Enterprise?), the USS T'Plana-Hath (sharing its name for the Vulcan ship that made first contact with Earth in Star Trek: First Contact), the USS Clarke, the USS Yeager, the USS Kerala, the USS Edison, the USS Earhart and the USS Sue.

Klingon ships: The Klingons maintain a "sacred beacon" which takes the form of a huge, ornate object, carved in stone and metal, hanging in orbit around the binary star. T'Kuvma's ship is huge, bristling with weapons, and is studded with sarcophagi containing the bodies of fallen warriors dating back centuries.

Future Treknology: The Klingons have cloaking technology, which is a bit early, although it does come as a surprise to Starfleet. T'Kuvma apparently invented it.

The Shenzhou has outdated "lateral vector transporters," which use huge dishes situated behind the transportee, and use a lot of power. They're outdated way before the episode takes place. (We never saw anything like that in Enterprise, so they must have come in afterwards, then been superseded. The Rise of the Federation novels suggest early transporters caused genetic damage through long term use; perhaps this development was an initial method to overcome the pattern errors?)

Instead of vidscreens and viewers, people speak to each other across light years using holographic projections. The Klingon ones look particularly Star Wars-y.

Sexy Trek: Sonequa Martin-Green is absolutely stunning.

Space Bilge: The Starfleet emblem as visual beacon looks very cool, but how did they see it through the heavy cloud layer? How are the two commanding officers, two very fit and well-trained women who are nonetheless quite small humans, able to fight off two massive Klingon warriors who have trained their whole life for battle? OK, Georgiou doesn't last but she still holds her own for a long while. Why does Burnham, who so resolutely sticks to her logical choice even if it means mutiny, change her mind so easily about everything else? And why do Starfleet hold their tribunals in the dark?

The Review: I enjoyed this opening two-parter greatly, although it's not without its frustrations. This is a very different take on Star Trek than we've had before, although clearly inspired by earlier iterations of a franchise that has changed a great deal over the last fifty-one years. I'm not quite sure how it will develop as a series, and that's actually a great place to be. The last thing I want is something safe and predictable. This opener is cinematic, exciting and visually stunning. The binary star system is astonishing to look at - this looks like a huge science fiction movie, not a regular TV series. Burnham's spacesuited mission through the debris ring is obviously influenced by the skydiving sequence in the 2009 movie and the infiltration of the Vengeance in Star Trek Into Darkness, but is portrayed as something of wonder, rather than a death-defying stunt. Still, there's a real sense that space, though wondrous, is a dangerous place to be, with Michael left scarred by radiation that will be fatal if she doesn't sit through immediate treatment.

Burnham is, for the most part, a great character. She has real horror in her past that she tries, not always successfully, to rise above. Her escape from the brig by logically talking the computer round to agreeing to releasing is a brilliant character moment for someone who is both human and Vulcan. She puts her convictions above her commitment to Starfleet principles. Sonequa Martin-Green's performance is excellent, she's a charismatic and interesting lead. It's just a shame that, in many ways, her character is so inconsistently written. She sticks to her convictions when it comes to firing first but changes her mind easily when it comes to everything else.

Both Michelle Yeoh and Doug Jones are excellent secondary leads, making a wonderful trio that has hints of the old Kirk-Spock-McCoy relationship without being a slavish recreation, like Archer-T'Pol-Trip often was. Burnham is the logical voice in most respects, but also the more aggressive, with Saru being the cautious McCoy-like one, and Georgiou being the noble commander in the centre. There's an interesting backstory being hinted at for both Saru and Georgiou; unfortunately, we don't get to learn about the Captain's past before she's killed off. Although this is being billed as a prelude to the main series, there's a lot of time invested in establishing a relationship that is then cut short. There's also some very clunky expositionary dialogue early on that I really hoped we'd heard the last of by now.

Trailers for the upcoming episode suggest that Starfleet blame Burnham for starting the war, and Georgiou certainly does, but it's hard to see why that's the case. Yes, she killed the Torchbearer on the Beacon, but that was in self-defense and she had no way of knowing he would be there. Her insistence on shooting first looks like it would have been the right choice - Georgiou's "We come in peace" hail is what triggers T'Kuvma into opening fire - although it's hard to see how the outcome would have been different if the Shenzhou had fired first, as the Klingons were there for a fight regardless. In any case, blaming the war on Burnham's mutiny makes no sense as she was stopped before she could put her plans into action, and so her decision made no material difference to what happened.

I have no problem with the changes to the Klingons, the retroactive changes to the series' history, or the mixed bag visuals for this version of Starfleet. If it works for the story and it looks effective, that's fine. I'm happy to accept a revisionist 23rd century - it's not as if the Original Series was consistent in its own backstory - although, given the clear influence of the new films, I wonder why the producers and writers didn't simply set it in the new cinema timeline, thereby freeing themselves up a good deal more. It's hard to see exactly who this series is aimed at. It's quite right that they shouldn't slavishly stick to established canon or try to appeal solely to hardcore fans. On the other hand, one surefire way of alienating new and casual viewers is starting with five minutes of guys in latex, speaking Klingon with subtitles. Surely you'd want to hook viewers with amazing visuals first, and only later bring in the high geekery?

I'm very interested to see where this series will go. There's an interesting clash on display between the peaceful explorers that Starfleet claim to be, and the military organisation that they look, sound and act like. If the series explores this dichotomy, it could be very interesting indeed. I'm certainly looking forward to seeing more of Michael Burnham and seeing how her character develops as the series goes on.