Wednesday, 28 January 2015

I ain't afraid of no reboot

I don't think there's anything I need to say about the upcoming Ghostbusters reboot - starring Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon - that isn't covered in this erudite post.

satire

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

TV REVIEW: The Man in the High Castle

As part of Amazon's new run of pilot episodes, The Man in the High Castle is so far just one small part of a much larger story that is begging to be told. I'll be candid: I've not actually read the original novel by Philip K. Dick (it's on the list, OK?) Dick's works are notoriously difficult to capture successfully on film. Ridley Scott was, of course, responsible for altering the acclaimed novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? into the even more celebrated film Blade Runner. How extensive his work is here, as executive producer, isn't clear, but The Man in the High Castle does capture the astonishing attention to detail and visual panache that made Blade Runner such a masterpiece of world building. The script, by Howard Brenton and Frank Spotnitz, is remarkably utilitarian, with little of the flashy dialogue we've come to expect from shows trying to make an impression. It feels very natural and is all the more powerful for it. We spend only an hour in this world, but the vision of America we experience is entirely believable, recognisably the sixties America of a thousand movies but skewed and leached of hope. Unlike the original novel, this is a period piece, and therefore has a certain amount of further work to do in creating its world.

While any adaptation is bound to alter certain details, I understand that fans of the novel have, for the most part, been pleased with how little has been changed. As yet, this is set-up that, if Amazon have any sense, will be expanded into a full series which may, of course, move in unforeseen directions. As someone who is new to the story, I wonder if I am actually at an advantage; able to be surprised by developments. The revelation of one character's loyalties at the episode's end came as a surprise to me, although, in retrospect, it was hinted at by a cheeky bit of Scott set dressing. (Hint: you'll think Blade Runner again.) As with much of Dick's work, we are encouraged to question everything we see, and I'm sure there are more surprises to come.

The concept of a world in which the Axis won WWII is a cliche, of course, but only because it holds such endless fascination in our culture that it has been used time and time again, and will continue to be so. The conquered and divided States here are a little one-sided; the Japanese Pacific States seem too pleasant on first exploration, although the existence of a ruthless police force show how this is only surface deep. Nonetheless, while I applaud the representation of the Japanese people as varied in culture and attitude, I wonder if they are being made to acceptable as an occupying force here. Life for those under Japanese occupation in the War was horrific, and I wonder if things would have been so much better by this alternative 1962. The Nazi-occupied side, on the other hand, has the feel of occupied France all through it, right down to the resistance. A Nazi-ruled America is familiar enough from fiction, and this is perhaps the best and most believable depiction I have seen. Nonetheless, the Nazi forces come of far less attractively than the Japanese; they are, so far, villainous through and through. Hopefully further episodes will illuminate and explore all sides of the conflict more equally.

All that said, this is a masterful depiction of life under foreign rule, where ordinary people are pushed to extremes by the harsh political realities of their world. Huge praise is due for the cast, all of whom sell this world convincingly. In particular Alexa Davalos as Juliana, a wonderful but underused actress; Luke Kleintank as Joe, who carries much of the episode just driving in near silence and remains absorbing; and the great Rufus Sewell, who is terrifying as the calmly cruel Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith. We need to see more of them and the torn apart world they inhabit. More please, and soon.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Eight times a woman played the Doctor

With a new incarnation of the Master played by Michelle Gomez, showrunner Steven Moffat stating that one day it's bound to happen, and acclaimed writers such as Neil Gaiman pushing for the development, it seems that a female lead for Doctor Who is pretty much inevitable. If not the next Doctor, then definitely the one after, I'd say. Peter Capaldi could very well be the final example of an old white man in the role, taking the traditionalist version of the Doctor as far as it will go before the series tries something truly different. Some people support this idea, others are horrified by it. However, it is not without precedent. Here are eight women who have played our favourite Time Lord.

Barbara Benedetti

The Wrath of Eukor (1984)

The first serious attempt to make Doctor Who featuring a female Doctor, The Wrath of Eukor was a fanfilm produced by "Seattle International Productions." Running at less than half an hour long, the story began a short run of adventures for this new incarnation. Clearly the creators of the project weren't too keen on Colin Baker's taking the lead in the series, since they immediately regenerated him into a new, seventh incarnation. Having regenerated too many times over too short a period, the Doctor's DNA matrix fails and he regenerates once more, this time changing sex, which is something of a surprise. Benedetti became a popular Doctor in fan circles, and she was certainly the best thing about these cute but amateurish films. She was joined on her travels by Carl, a crude American idea of a Victorian cockney chimney sweep (played by Randy Rogel, now a well-regarded animation screenwriter).

After four adventures, in 1988 the Doctor regenerated again, this time into a traditionally male incarnation, played by Michael Santo. The director, Ryan K. Johnson, has details of the stories and how to obtain them on his website, although they also available to view on YouTube.

Joanna Lumley

Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death (1999)

The first time a woman played the Doctor in an officially BBC-sanctioned production was in the closing moments of this classic skit from Comic Relief 1999. Written by Steven Moffat, The Curse of Fatal Death's running joke (apart from the farting) was the deconstruction of Doctor Who by doing all the things critics and comedians continually brought up. The Doctor freeing himself from traps using time travel, marrying his companion, and of course, regenerating into a woman. There really was no one else who could have played the archetypal female Doctor but Joanna Lumley, giving her a girls school, jolly-hockey-sticks good humour. In fact, it was regenerating into a woman that gave the Doctor back her sense of adventure. Since 2010, Moffat has pretty much done everything from the skit for real in the actual series, with the exception that is was the Master who became a woman, not the Doctor. And in Dark Water, they just kissed, while the Lumley Doctor and Price Master went off arm-in-arm. Bwahhahahaaa...


Arabella Weir

Unbound: Exile (2003)

Big Finish's Doctor Who Unbound range was a series of "What-if?" style stories that had featured new actors in the role of the Doctor. The sixth release posited a different outcome for the Doctor's trial by the Time Lords, and instead of being exiled to Earth in the form of Jon Pertwee, he escaped, forced a regeneration and changed sex. (Apparently what happens when Time Lords attempt suicide to force a regeneration.) Nonetheless, Arabella Weir's Doctor ended up on Earth after all, hiding out in Sainsbury's and spending a great deal of time in her local pub. A very different, comedic take on the Doctor, who spent much of her time arguing with the phantom of her former self (voiced by Nick Briggs, who also wrote the script).


Catherine Tate

Journey's End (2008)

The official TV series itself finally got round to having a female Doctor, of sorts, in the climactic finale to the fourth series of the revival. The tenth Doctor had begun to regenerate, before offloading his excess energy into his handy spare hand, sparing him the awkwardness of changing his appearance in front of Rose again. When his faithful companion Donna touched the detached body part, a "Time Lord-human biological metacrisis" kick-started an hour of nonsensical technobabble. Said metacrisis led to the hand growing into a whole new extra David Tennant, while Tate's character took on elements of the Doctor's knowledge, intelligence and abilities. The temp from Chiswick thus became a sort of female human version of the Doctor, joining with both Tennant-shaped versions as the "three-fold man" to defeat the Daleks. Unfortunately, her feeble human brain was unable to take the strain and the real Doctor had to wipe her memory of the event. For a short time though, Catherine Tate was the Doctor.

Katy Manning and Nicola Bryant 

Ghost in the Machine (2013) and The Widow's Assassin (2014)

Oddly enough, the sci-fi staple of a bodyswap has never been used on televised Doctor Who. Possessions a-plenty, but not two people switching minds and bodies. In the expanded universe material, however, it has occurred more than once, most notably in two productions from Big Finish. Ghost in the Machine is part of the Companion Chronicles range, which utilises a mix of audiobook and cast drama techniques to provide stories for Doctors no longer with us. As such, the various companion actors, many of them female, have had a turn at impersonating their Doctors, but this stroy went one further by having the third Doctor and Jo Grant briefly switch bodies. It finally happened in the main range this year, when the sixth Doctor went in search of his lost companion Peri and became embroiled in a web of espionage, possession and mind-swappery. This culminated in a gorgeous scene in which Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant got to play each other's characters.

April O'Neil 

Doctor Whore (2014)

A XXX porn parody, Doctor Whore (not to be confused with Doctor Screw) is better than most, and actually bares some resemblance to the show it's spoofing. It's clear that the people involved actually do love Doctor Who. It's not the first time there's been a sexy female Doctor in little to no clothes (a particular shout-out to GoGo Blackwater of Suicide Girls for her set "Twelve"), but this version has gone down quite well with fans of a certain persuasion. After tenth and eleventh Doctors played by Kris Slater and Brian Street Team, the twelfth Doctor is portrayed by April O'Neil, legendarily geeky porn starlet. "After all, why would they pass up the opportunity to cast a woman or a minority?" She travels with Martha, played by another porn-performing Who fan, Skin Diamond, and Captain Jack (Aaron Wilcox). And then they all have sex, obviously. OK, so it's not the most effective feminist argument for a female Doctor, but they do get points for poking fun at the BBC for casting yet another skinny white guy.


Jenna Coleman

Flatline and Death in Heaven (2014)

Along with the Master returning as the Mistress, this is the clearest argument yet that one day soon we shall see a woman in the lead role. While some fans disparaged the latest series as being "Clara Who," this was an effective way of not only putting the companion on more equal footing with the Doctor, but also teasing the possibility of a future female Doctor. Clara stepped up to take the Doctor's place as investigator and hero in Flatline, while Death in Heaven took it further, briefly having Clara claim to be the Doctor to try to outwit the Cybermen. The showmakers even tweaked the title sequence so that it was Coleman's name that was listed first, and her eyes that appeared in the Vortex. It has to be said, Coleman did a convincing job of leading the programme, even for that short time.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

2014 Telefantasy review-y rambles

Sleepy Hollow

This series shouldn't work. Washington Irving's classics "Rip van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" are mashed up into what's basically Adam Adamant Lives redone for a modern audience. Yet it works, because it finds the balance between the ludicrousness of the premise and the drama of the approach. It takes itself just seriously enough, and it certainly helps that the writing on the show is top notch. So Orci and Kurtzman can make some good stuff when they work on it. Sleepy Hollow manages to be genuinely funny and properly scary at times. It also doesn't hurt that Tom Mison and Nicole Beharie, as Ichabod Crane and his new ally Abby Mills, as well as being fine actors with some excellent chemistry, are both utterly gorgeous. You've also got Orlando Jones Captain Irving (nice touch there), and he's always a class act (personally, I could see him as the Doctor, but I'm always on the lookout). Then there's John Cho - John moviestar Cho - making guest appearances as a monster, along with John Noble, with his Vincent Price tones, as a semiregular and later regular cast member.

The recurring fish-out-of-water jokes regarding Crane adjusting to the modern world should become boring quickly, but they genuinely work, partly due to some actual originality on the approach and mostly due to some subtle comic skills from Mison. I wonder about the decision to have Crane portrayed as a Briton who switched sides during the American Revolutionary War. In fact, Crane is very little like the original version in the short story, who was a superstitious and selfish character as opposed to Mison's upright and, at first, skeptical hero. But this is a very loose adaptation of those original works, using the basic idea mixed in with Christian apocalyptic mythology and Goetic demonology to great effect. Plus some cracking monsters and a healthy dose of TV-friendly gore, of course. Looking forward to when I can stream season two without paying a premium.

Marvel's Agents of SHIELD

A huge improvement on the first season, picking up on the climactic events of those final crucial weeks and carrying on without dropping the pace. I still think Skye is a boring character, so basing the bulk of the ongoing story around her doesn't quite work for me; thankfully, the wider mystery has been enough to keep my interest, particularly with Clark Gregg and Kyle MacLachlan
giving such strong performances as her two father figures. The broader team has also improved, with May becoming a more relatable character without losing her edge, both Fitz and Simmons given some very strong material that has expanded their characters and Ward becoming a sinister background figure. The new team members were slow to come together, but the whole team feels really cohesive now, with Hunter and Mockingbird having genuinely good chemistry. Plus Fitz and Mac's bromance (or maybe romance) is just the sweetest thing. Only Trip has been badly served, and it's no surprise to lose him at the end.

There's far more integration of the comics material this year, but not to the degree that it's impenetrable for casual fans or non-comics readers. I'm pretty steeped in Marvel, so I can smile when I recognise the identity of Skye and her father, but they're obscure characters and the vital dialogue is pretty easy to miss. For anyone who doesn't know who Calvin Zabo and Daisy Johnson are - ie, the majority of the audience - it really doesn't matter. Seeding the Inhumans into the series is a good move on Marvel's part, I feel. They're a weird concept, so drip-feeding information years ahead of the planned movie not only gives viewers plenty of time to come up to speed, it's a good testing ground for concepts that might not work in the film. It also ties the show to the movies in such a way that they don't have to lag behind, as they did with Thor: The Dark World and The Winter Soldier.

Gotham

After a shaky start, this has really built up to be something special. For a while it was very much a case of baddie-of-the-week, who's-that-villain, but it's important to remember that it's a rare series that hits its stride immediately. The generic material was in the foreground while more important elements were being set up in the background, and with episode seven "The Penguin's Umbrella" the series suddenly became a must-watch. Robin Lord Taylor as Oswald remains the best thing in this by a country mile, but all the cast have come into their own as their characters have been refined. Well, except Jada Pinkett Smith's eye-rollingly tiresome Fish Mooney, who is due for a killing off. The ongoing cold war between the Falcone and Maroni organisations is genuinely gripping viewing now, and the series is standing on its own feet more than we'd expected from the early episodes' reliance on recognisable character cameos. Being less into DC than Marvel, I do sometimes wonder if I'm missing important references, but for the most part, I'm recognising characters than are genuinely important. Anthony Carrigna as Victor Zsazs was really rather excellent. Even the initially underwhelming Bruce/Alfred relationship has become a high point. This is becoming something quite interesting. I'm also loving the race, gender and sexuality mix here, which is notable for being almost unmentioned in the series itself.

Constantine

I'm even less knowledgeable about Hellblazer, mostly knowing Constantine from his appearances in other titles such as Sandman. My flatmate, however, is a huge fan, and this has won her over. Again, the pilot was highly flawed, but this is working really well now it's found its feet. To clear something up, this hasn't been cancelled, it just hasn't been renewed, and I think it's unlikely they'll let the intitial thirteen episodes run without renewing it for at least a full season. Matt Ryan is pretty good as Constantine, even if he's a bit too clean and his accent wanders all over the shop, but he's got a good side of bastardly to him. Angelica Celaya is phenomenally watchable as Zed, sharing great chemistry with Ryan. Some people have unfavourably compared this with Supernatural, and while that's fair enough, calling it a rip-off is wrong; Supernatural took its cues from Hellblazer. The mythology is already building up to something very interesting here, and the series is a lot gorier than I expected it to be. Not too much, just enough to give it an edge of genuine threat. Another series which has become something to really look forward to.

Comics Round-Up (January 7th)

Back in the swing, but I'm going to have to drop some stuff to save money. Slimmer update than previously.

Agents of SHIELD #1 (Marvel)

Phil Coulson has already been assimilated into the mainstream Marvel universe, but now the SHIELD TV series has been absorbed and retooled for the comics. This raises some questions concerning what happens if Skye becomes a character, seeing that she already has a counterpart in the comics. For now though, this is all Coulson, with a little material for Fitz, Simmons and May, who are just recognisable as their TV characters. Effective TV characters don't always translate well to the page and vice versa, but Phil comes off well. He's basically the world's greatest comics nerd, now in charge of all his heroes. This is an opportunity to have Coulson rub shoulders with all the Marvel heroes without rights issues getting in the way, and it really goes for it, chucking everything in.

Star Trek/Planet of the Apes #1 (IDW)

So this is the third crossover for IDW's Star Trek series? Fourth if you count the Deep Space Nine storyline running in the main range. We might have hoped for something a little more interesting than another use of a separate franchise as a parallel reality, but still, this is pretty fun. Apes and Trek make a better match than previous crossovers, and it's a nice take that the Klingons are getting round the peace treaty with the Federation by invading Earth in another timeline. Is this just an excuse to use the subtitle "The Primate Directive?" Why didn't they call it "A Primate Little War?"

The Amazing Spider-Man #12 (Marvel)

It's all kicking off now, with prime Spidey leading the mission to recruit as many Spiders from the Multiverse as possible, Big Bad Solus, daddy of the Inheritors comes for the team and storms their safehouse dimension, but Pete turns up with a bunch of guys from multiple Japans. Including Toei TV series Spidey, and his giant robot Leopardon! It's the big smackdown issue, with raised stakes, unexpected deaths and a great twist on the final page. However, the continual habit of starting plotlines and then dropping them with a note to go pick up another title is getting irritating.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #1 (Marvel)

Ryan North's new comic brings one of Marvel's least celebrated characters to the masses. You know what? Squirrel Girl is fantastic. She's one hell of an underappreciated character. This title is joyous, poking fun at the genre, and celebrating one of the most inventive and weird superhuman powers in the range. And with people actually arguing about the size of Spider-Woman's breasts, it's refreshing to have a superheroine who doesn't look like either a supermodel or a porn star. Plus, it made me enjoy a story about Kraven the Hunter, and he's rubbish. I'm sorry, but he is.