Thursday, 18 May 2017

Star Trek: Discovery trailer released

After a bunch of delays, Star Trek: Discovery is finally on its way, set for an autumn launch on CBS Access (in the US) and Netflix (everywhere else). A trailer has been released, with a couple of different edits, but the overall impression is of an exciting series with a mix of galactic conflict and weird space phenomena. The main character seems to have spent time on Vulcan, which brings in a Spock-esque element without being a rerun. Some new aliens and new takes on classic alien races make for a good mix. I'm really looking forward to it.

Everyone is bloody complaining about it.

I honestly don't understand the aggressively negative reaction so many fans have had to this series so far. Before a second of footage was shown, fans had written it off. Most of the fans seem to have watched this trailer with the sole purpose of attacking it. Discovery might turn out to be crap, but it might turn out to be a masterpiece. It'll probably turn out to be pretty good. We'll find out. for now, I'm going to address the many criticisms I've seen for the series based on this one trailer and dismiss them completely.

It doesn't fit the timeline
No, it probably doesn't fit very well. There seem to be several elements that clash with its setting of ten years before the original series. I don't really care. Continuity is a fan game, and I shall enjoy picking apart the episodes, but it won't limit my enjoyment of the series. CBS want normal people to watch this too, and if telling a good, exciting story means that some fifty-year-old continuity point is contradicted, then so be it. How narrow does your idea of entertainment have to be if continuity is the most important thing to you?

The uniforms aren't right
The uniforms here look more like an evolution of Enterprise's style than a predecessor to the original. In fact, this is set around about the same time as "The Cage," so the uniforms should consist of fairly shapeless jerseys with roll necks over navy trousers. There's a reason the original series had such basic uniforms - they hardly had any money.

It looks like the Abrams movies/it looks too good
Christ, to think that people are actually complaining that something looks too good. Even fan productions such as Star Trek Continues, whose raison d'etre is to recreate the original as closely as possible, update the effects. Things have moved on in fifty years, they're supposed to look better. People should want to watch this. The reason it looks like the Abrams movies? Because, for all their flaws, the Abrams movies look amazing!

The Klingons don't look like Klingons
Fair point, they do look very different. I prefer the 24th century look, which is itself completely different to the various looks in the TOS movies which were themselves barely recognisable from the original look. That said, if you got rid of the bizarre outfit, these Klingons wouldn't look all that different.

 I, myself, hate it when the uniforms are changed or the Klingons are redesigned, so I refuse to watch The Motion Picture or any Star Trek production since.

Aren't they allowed to cast white actors anymore?
Seriously. This was the second comment on the YouTube link for the US trailer when I checked in earlier. Because aliens are fine, but if human characters don't look exactly like me, I just can't relate anymore.

The ship looks too sophisticated to be before Star Treki
The same complaint as for Enterprise and the Abrams movies. Technology has moved on since 1966, so not only can we create more sophisticated props and systems, having tech like the original wouldn't be remotely credible. Even Voyager looks ludicrously primitive now.

They've hired crap actors
Seriously? Michelle Yeoh? Doug Jones? Are you joking?

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Comics to Screen: The Flash 3-21 - "Cause and Effect"


After the huge revelation of Savitar's true nature last week, The Flash follows it up with... a quick chat and a dappy comedy episode. Season three of The Flash is perhaps taking some inspiration from Buffy season six: we've had a musical episode and now we have a memory loss one. Tabula rasa, etc.

This is a fun episode, but it unfolds with a crushing inevitability. What do Cisco and Julian think is going to happen when they start dicking about with Barry's memories? Especially without Caitlyn, who, as they say, is the one who would normally be doing the brain surgery. It does, however, lead to some tremendously fun scenes, as Barry tries to blag his way through a trial without the faintest idea about his identity or his qualifications. It's also a very cute touch that he prefers to call himself Bart - Bart Allen being the name of the fourth Flash in the comics.

The interesting part, of course, is that Barry is so much happier without his memories. The script draws attention to this, but it's evident straight away, and brings back a lot of the innocence and joy of the first season of The Flash. Both Grant Gustin and Candice Patton get to give some of their best performances for a while; the latter has had little strong material to work with lately, oddly considering that she's playing a woman facing imminent, seemingly inevitable death.

Having Caitlyn back on the team one last time, albeit as Killer Frost and out of necessity, is fun, but I still prefer Tracy as Team Flash's lady boffin. She and HR have far better chemistry than Caitlyn and Julian ever had. Also, someone tell Julian that falling for Caitlyn never ends well for any man. "Cause and Effect" was a welcome bit of silliness before what promises to be an intense season finale. With only two episodes left, we are promised King Shark, Captain Cold and some random technology to power Savitar's imprisonment, and this is one of those times I feel out of the loop for not keeping up with Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow.

This episode includes one of the most enjoyable Cisco geek references, as he refers to the classic Star Trek episode "The Enemy Within," and it turns out that on Earth-19, they only have Voyager. To which Cisco responds that he hates spin-offs, which raised a smile. He is completely wrong about Savitar, though - he's nothing like the good and bad Kirks being split apart by a transporter accident. What Cisco should be referencing is the original Doctor Who. Savitar is, he explains himself, a time remnant, and so seemingly a possible future version of Barry that is all that remains of a future timeline. While this raises some interesting questions about the nature of time travel and Barry's morality, it also means that if anything, Savitar is The Flash's version of the Valeyard.

Also, 38.6 terajoules is, by no means, more energy than the Sun. Not by several orders of magnitude.


Barry has a worrying moment of hubris when he suggests that he, and speedsters like him, could become gods. It's easy to see how his evil future self has gone down the twisted path to become Savitar. In the comics that inspired the series, however, Savitar had a different origin.

First appearing in The Flash #108 in 1995, Savitar was originally a fighter pilot who's plane was struck by lightning when flying at supersonic speed. His original identity remains unknown, but he fought for the Eastern bloc during the Cold War and the incident infused him with the power of the Speed Force. Suffering delusions of grandeur, he became obsessed with speed and his own greatness, taking the name of the Hindu god Savitr, a generally benevolent deity who represented the Sun, motion and mutability. Gaining a cult of followers, he went on to fight speedsters in various timeframes. He first battled Johnny Chambers, aka Johnny Quick, the father of Jesse Quick in the main continuity. Later, he battled Golden Age speedster Max Mercury. This early speedster was thrown forward in time along with Savitar when they collided with the Speed Force Continuum. Emerging into history before Savitar, Mercury became mentor to various Flashes in order to prepare them for Savitar's inevitable attack. (I would put money on a version of Max Mercury appearing in The Flash season four.)

When Savitar reappeared, he took it upon himself to become the one true speedster, battling various superfast heroes but mostly existing as an enemy of the third Flash, Wally West. It took an alliance of numerous speedsters to defeat Savitar and finally trap him in the Speed Force, although he did, briefly, escape in The Flash Rebirth series. The TV series has given us an even more complicated origin story for Savitar, although I'd still expect a coalition of speedsters to come together to stop him. Say, Barry, Wally, Jesse and Jay?

As well as this, the TV version of Savitar has similarities to the most recent Reverse-Flash, aka Daniel West, Iris's brother in comics continuity. Due to his own mental difficulties, Daniel became committed to killing their father and changing his own timeline in the process.

WHO REVIEW: 10-4 - "Knock Knock"

Series ten, so far, represents a real return to form for Doctor Who. Not every episode is an instant classic, but we don't need twelve unmitigated wonder-episodes. Good, solid episodes of Who that may not be perfect but give us plenty to enjoy and talk about. "Knock Knock" is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an original piece of work, but it's supremely effective as a chilling, family-friendly horror story.

"Knock Knock" is, really, a very straightforward haunted house tale, with the twist being a sci-fi explanation for the "ghosts." This isn't remotely original in itself; Doctor Who did this back in 1989 with Ghost Light, and plenty of other productions and stories have taken a similar approach. It's sci-fi by the back way in; a fantasy episode through-and-through with some minor scientific trappings. In fact, I don't think we've had a less scientific episode of Doctor Who for quite some time. It wouldn't have played out much differently if the woodlice had been replaced with actual dryads.

There's a slight theme developing here, with the Doctor, for the second episode, admitting he's not sure if the strange-creature-of-the-week is terrestrial or alien, not much caring, and just getting on with taking care of the problem. It's fun to see him theorise about gaseous entities and dryads and whatnot and then happily leave without ever finding out what he was actually dealing with. Earlier Doctors would be driven mad by not knowing.

This is another fine episode for the Doctor and Bill's developing friendship. Every companion needs an episode that brings them back to Earth, giving them the opportunity to use their new time-traveller's nous in their own environment. This is Bill's, and it reinforces the generational gap between her and the Doctor. For the first time since Eccleston's tenure, the Doctor is being presented as explicitly of the older generation to the companion. Even Twelve and Clara didn't have this, being presented on a more equal footing due to Clara's ever-growing importance to the Doctor's life. The Doctor is positioned explicitly as a teacher to Bill, and while they're friends, he's exactly the wrong sort of person to be hanging around her new digs with her studenty friends. It's the first time he's been called "Grandad" and it's been more than just a throwaway joke. There's a reinforcement of the traditional Doctor/companion relationship, that of an old man and his long line of granddaughter substitutes, with the more recent romantic element removed from the equation by the actors' ages and the companion's sexuality. Whether this is building up to Susan's reintroduction as hoped, or just a return to first principles, it's a new dynamic for the fans of the modern series.

While Bill gets to run her own strand of the storyline and acts as a capable adventurer, none of her housemates are especially interesting. All likeable enough, and the cast all put in perfectly good performances, but none of them have enough time spent on them to be anything other than bug-bait. Only Harry (Colin Ryan) gets to do much, acting a short-term substitute companion to the Doctor and coming pretty well out of it (he just wants to get out of there, which, on the face of it, is a very sensible option). Otherwise, though, these kids are there just to get killed off, which they do very effectively, although they are also miraculously restored at the end, and while this is a fantasy story, I find it harder to believe that people can get better from being devoured by crustaceans or absorbed into wood.

Any episode like this stands on its performances, and the stand-out one here is, of course, David Suchet. One of our most beloved actors, having him appear in an episode of Doctor Who is a huge treat for fans. As the Landlord, he runs the gamut from respectable yet mysterious, through to sinister and quietly threatening, to, eventually, childlike and pitiful. Also deserving of praise is Mariah Gale as Eliza, who manages to give a moving performance from beneath layers of prosthetics and CG animation. As for the twist about their relationship, I feel it works well, adding a stronger emotional element to the story than it otherwise had.

While there's not much of originality in the set-up, it's hard to fault a story about a man-eating house for its creep factor, especially when it's done as well as here. The effects and soundscape come together beautifully to create a very unsettling episode. If you have access to BBC iPlayer, I recommend watching the Doctor Who Enhanced version, which boasts 3D "binaural" sound. I'm not up on the technical aspects, but it does make for an immersive and disquieting experience. On the visual side of things, the creepy-crawlies are bound to give plenty of people the creeps, although their most effective moment, crawling into Shereen's foot, was cribbed directly from the 1999 version of The Mummy, which did it far better. Although, in fairness, that would hardly be acceptable for the family audience the series is going for.

The episode is also replete with foreshadowing. Bill learns in passing that the Doctor is a Time Lord, which might set up some more of his kind turning up later in the season, while his almost accidental mention of regeneration is clear preparation for Twelve's upcoming departure. Is the Doctor aware that regeneration is on the way, or is his saddened look at the mention a more general malaise? Then there's the biggest revelation about the contents of the Vault yet. I'm going to put my pound in and say it's Missy in there, but we'll find out soon enough.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

There is no dino, only Zuul

How's this for a news item that combines my interests? Palaeontologists in North America have released their newest discovery, an astonishingly complete ankylosaurid dinosaur fossil that they have named Zuul in honour of the monstrous Terror Dog from 1984's Ghostbusters. The find is exciting because complete dinosaur fossils are rare enough, but a complete ankylosaur is virtually unheard of. Zuul has the first complete skull and tail club ever found for an ankylosaurid, and includes many osteoderms - the lumps of bone that were embedded in the skin and used as armour. These usually wash away over time due to being disconnected from the main skeleton.

Given the resemblance of the ankylosaur's skull to the horned face of the Ghostbusters monster, the discoverers named the species Zuul crurivastator. The specific name does not mean "ankle biter," as some outlets are reporting (for a start, this thing was huge), but "shin destroyer," in reference to that great tail weapon. 

The LA Times has a video of Dan "Ray Stantz" Aykroyd with the fossil.

Monday, 8 May 2017

COMICS TO SCREEN: Guardians Vol. 2 Continuity Capers

Who is Star-Lord's father?

Star-Lord goes back to the 1970s and there have been a couple of versions of his backstory, but generally the comics agree that the father of Peter Quill is J'Son of Spartax, heir to and later ruler of the Spartax Empire, who crashed on Earth in the late seventies and was taken in by Meredith Quill. The MCU has gone down a different route, with James Gunn setting up some mystery at the end of the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie by questioning Quill's parentage.

In this version of events, Quill's dad is Ego the Living Planet, an enormously powerful entity that caused trouble across the Marvel comics universe. In the film he calls himself a Celestial (see below), but in the comics he's said to be one of the Elders of the Universe, a group of extremely ancient and amoral beings that includes the Collector an the Grandmaster (as played by, respectively, Benicio del Toro in Guardians 1 and Jeff Goldblum in the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok). There doesn't seem to be any reason he can't be both, though, as far as I can see.

Ego's enormous power and his control over matter and energy explain why Quill was able to handle the purple Infinity Stone without being vapourised. Until he severed his link with Ego, Quill displayed some remarkable powers, but now he's presumably a relatively normal mortal (then again, we shall see). Although Ego is killed in the course of Vol 2, there's not really anything stopping him slowly piecing himself back together again. It'll probably take him a few million years though.

Given his description of his development, I'd say Ego in the film can best be described as a Boltzmann Brain.

How did Marvel get to use Ego in the film?

It's actually quite surprising that Ego was able to appear in the movie. Although he was introduced by Jack Kirby in Thor i#132, as a character he is normally associated with the Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer and the X-Men, the film rights for his appearances lie squarely with 20th Century Fox. However, James Gunn was insistent on using the character, and Marvel Studios negotiated his use by allowing Fox to completely change the powers of Negasonic Teenage Warhead, whom they wanted for Deadpool. So the new question is, why did Fox need to negotiate that, considering everything they were allowed to do to Doctor Doom over three films?

Who are the Celestials?

The Celestials are a group of extraordinarily huge and powerful alien beings that date back billions of years to the early days of the universe. Their origins are mysterious, although recently The Ultimates suggested that they were created by the First Firmament, the sentience of the very earliest primal universe. They resemble impossibly tall armoured humanoids, and were responsible for the creation of the human offshoot races the Eternals and the Deviants. All of these beings were created by Jack Kirby for Eternals #1 in 1976. I'd strongly recommend reading Neil Gaiman and John Romira Jr's 2006 Eternals minieries, which is a work of art.

To give a rough idea of how powerful they are, the Celestials are considered gods by the Eternals, and the Eternals became several of the pantheons of gods of the human race. They are gods to gods. Thanos is also an Eternal, so there's an interesting link that may be explored in the MCU. So far, the MCU has given us a brief rundown of the Celestials thanks to the Collector's informative film in Guardians of the Galaxy, where we learn that they were responsible for the creation of the Infinity Stones. The planetoid Knowhere from that scene is constructed from a Celestial's severed head; in teh comics, the Guardians use this as their base.

Who are Sly Stallone and his friends?

Stallone is the big name cameo for the movie, playing an old Ravager named Stakar. This character, also known as Starhawk, was part of the original Guardians of the Galaxy team, created by Arnold Drake for Marvel Super-Heroes in 1969. The original Guardians made on-off appearances over the years before getting their own title in 1990. Set in a different timeline to mainstream Marvel series, it ran till 1995. Dan Abnett revived the title in 2008 with a new team of his own invention, featuring characters cribbed from various sources for the Annihilation storyline, and it was this team that became the focus of the movie Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014. Through the complications of time travel, the original Guardians made appearances in the new title, before getting their own title again, Guardians 3000 in the follow-up to the movie.

As with many characters in the Guardians films, Stakar and his cronies have much more complicated backstories in the comics, and this has been avoided by just making them assorted aliens in the MCU. The assorted Ravagers that Stakar gets together to "steal some shit" in the aftermath of Vol. 2 are versions of most of the original Guardians team. As if Stallone wasn't big enough news, Michelle Yeoh plays Aleta. She and Stakar were brother and sister/husband and wife/alternative counterparts in the comics (see what I mean about it being complicated?). The crystalline being is Martinex, played by one-time Lex Luthor Michael Rosembaum, while the gigantic strong man is Charlie-27, played by Ving Rhames. The CGI monster is Krugarr of Lem, while the artificial being is Mainframe, voiced by Miley Cyrus, of all people. These guys will definitely be appearing in future movies. Oh, and you know who else was in the original Guardians team? Yondu Udonta.

Who is Adam?

In one of the many credits scenes, Ayesha is seen to be creating a new being to be the next evolution of the Sovereign race and to battle the Guardians of the Galaxy. She names him Adam. This is Adam Warlock, aka Warlock aka "Him," an extremely powerful superhero from the Marvel canon, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby for Fantastic Four in 1967. Initially wielding Superman-like powers, Adam Warlock has only grown more powerful over the years. Adam Warlock was created on Earth in the comics, by a group of scientists calling themselves the Enclave, and was matured in/regenerated in a large cocoon. A cocoon very much like this could be glimpsed in the background in the Collector's lair in the first Guardians of the Galaxy, a deliberate Easter Egg by Gunn, but it looks like this won't be developed now that Ayesha has been set up as Adam's creator. In the comics, the two characters are linked; Ayesha, aka Kismet aka "Her" has a very different backstory and is basically Adam's female equivalent. Adam Warlock was a major player in the the 2007/8 Annihilation storyline, joining the Guardians of the Galaxy afterwards. He's the main foe of Thanos in these comics, and wields the Soul Gem. Given the equivalent of this is the blue Infinity Stone, it seems likely that the Vision will be taking his role in Avengers: Infinity War, with Adam Warlock turning up later in Guardians 3.

Who can speak Groot?

Not many people, that's for sure. The language of Planet X is extremely subtle and full of nuance, with most beings hearing only "I am Groot." To begin with, it seems only Rocket could understand Groot, but after a long time together, the other team members are beginning to pick up his ways. By the time Groot is going through his second adolescence, Quill seems to understand him quite well.

However, if you really want to know what Groot was saying throughout the film, you'll have to find a copy of Gunn's special Groots-only script, which he gave to Vin Diesel so that he would know how to perform each line (in no fewer than sixteen languages this time).

Who's that duck?

Howard the Duck, as voiced by Seth Green, makes a cameo in the bar on the seedy sex planet (I forget the name, so I'm going to call it Eroticon 6). Green cameod as Howard in the final post-credits scene in the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie, having been part of the Collector's collection of weird galactic stuff. I don't foresee the interdimensional traveller from Duckworld becoming a star in the MCU, but given that Squirrel Girl is set to appear in an upcoming TV series, nothing is impossible. Although the 1986 Howard the Duck film is considered to be its own, separate entity, I see no reason we can't include it in the MCU. Obviously Howard looks a little different, but it's been a few years and he's clearly been through some rough times.

What's up with Stan Lee's cameos?

There's a fairly long-standing fan theory that the reason Stan Lee can appear in different contexts in multiple Marvel movies (including Big Hero 6 and films from Sony and Fox and so across multiple universes) is that he is, in fact, portraying the Watcher, an immensely old and powerful being that appears in order to witness significant events in the marvel universe's history.

Vol. 2 reveals that, while he might not be a Watcher, he certainly hangs out with them. Both of Stan's cameos in the movie see him with a group of Watchers on an asteroid, before they move on to places unknown. The Watchers have made appearances throughout the Marvel comics, usually in the person of Uatu, generally known just as The Watcher, who first appeared way back in Fantastic Four #13 in 1963. Co-created by Stan Lee, they are among the most powerful of the Marvel universe's many races, but usually remain uninvolved in the universe's affairs. In his cameos, Stan regales the Watchers with stories of his previous cameos, which goes to show that, whoever he is, he's the same being in each of his appearances.

Is that guy really called Taserface?

Yep. The funniest ongoing joke in the film is named after a character from the comics. Taserface was introduced in the first issue of the 1990 Guardians of the Galaxy comics, an alien cyborg who fought the gang to a stalemate. He later ditched the stupid name, going as "the Nameless One" for a bit before settling on Overkill, which is marginally less silly than Taserface.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

COMICS TO SCREEN: Supergirl 2-19 & The Flash 3-20


Last week's episode, "Ace Reporter," wasn't the greatest in Supergirl's run. We had a great guest spot from Rahul Kohli (aka Ravi in iZombie), and some good moments between Kara and Lena Luthor, but the episode on a whole was pretty procedural and uninventive. Things picked up a lot this week with an episode that, as the title suggests, revolved entirely around Alex and her relationships. It must have been a hell of an episode to film as well; Chyler Leigh is put through the ringer here, spending half of the episode submerged in water. No wonder she was barely in last week's episode; she probably needed a holiday.
While this is a series about Kara, so far this season it's been Alex who's had the most interesting storylines. Her relationship with Maggie, her difficult position at the DEO, split between personal and professional concerns, and her ongoing responsibility for Kara's wellbeing have seen her being pulled in every direction. Maggie is the most interesting of these relationships, though, a genuinely well portrayed romantic relationship between two women with serious, high pressure occupations. Maggie clearly isn't an easy person to be in a relationship with, but it's easy to see why Alex wants to be with her. The final moments of the episodes, when they declare their love for each other, is just beautiful. Chyler Leigh and Florian Lima have wonderful chemistry.
The plot of the episode wasn't anything complex. Some pissed-off loser who lusted after Alex at school wants to hurt her because she rebuked him, or is more successful than him, or is gay, or whatever other issue he has, but he's worked out that Kara is Supergirl and wants to use that to get his murdering dad out of jail. He abducts Alex to use as a bargaining chip. It's all fairly predictable (although at one point I did wonder if they'd actually surprise us and kill Alex off), but it's all extremely well-played. It's not about the plot, but the relationships between the characters. Maggie and Kara don't see eye-to-eye because Supergirl's strong-arm tactics clash with the police's more careful approach (OK, maybe that's harder to believe). Kara doesn't cope without Alex to support her, and there are some nice moments between her and J'onn. On the periphery, Lena's story develops in an unexpected direction. It's forty-five minutes of television drama that's primarily about relationships and features all female characters for much of its runtime, and still is an action-packed and gripping story.
Oh, and apparently James wasn't in this episode. I hadn't noticed he was missing.


Meanwhile, The Flash barrels on to its finale, and things are getting interesting now. The Savitar storyline has not been gripping me; it's a third year with an evil speedster as the Big Bad and it feels like there's little more they can do with the concept. Even having him from the future isn't especially interesting, because Thawne/Reverse-Flash was also from the future. The mythological aspects to the character are different, though, indicating a real ego trip for the villain, but, until now, Savitar has been a monster, not a character. That changed with the big reveal at the end of this episode, which finally revealed the villain's true identity. I won't spoil it here, because not everyone will have seen it yet and the reveal is very well played. Suffice to say, of all the possibilities, it is the most satisfying, and it was also the popular opinion in Suz and Dan's Flat of Awesome. Actually, Suz guessed it ages ago, although we then second and third-guessed ourselves until we convinced ourselves we were wrong.
Last week we had a very effective trip to the future as part of Barry's quest to prevent Iris's death, in "The Once and Future Flash." "I Know Who You Are" follows on from that episode's revelation that one Tracy Brand will invent a way to trap Savitar, albeit too late to save Iris. Team Flash track down failing physicist Tracy, played delightfully quirkily by Anne Dudek. HR immediately falls for her, and they share some fine chemistry, which this version of Wells ahs been lacking with the main team. I think it's pretty clear that Caitlyn is not coming back, and will either remain as the villainous Killer Frost or be killed off at the end of the season. Tracy is obviously being set up as replacement lady scientist, and frankly I think this is a fine plan. She's a far more likeable presence on the team after only one episode.
The other main strand of the episode is Joe's relationship with Cecille. The couple finally admit their love for each other (Joe somewhat reluctantly), and while it doesn't hold a candle to the similar developments in Supergirl, it's still a strong element for the story. Joe really has been through the emotional wringer this season, arguably as much as Barry, and it's clear that it's taking its toll on him. We know that someone major is going to die by the time the season's done, and I fear that all signs point to Joe, who is being pushed to try to protect Iris, Cecille and Barry and who has never been afraid of stepping into the line of fire.
Three episodes left, and things can only get harder for Team Flash.

REVIEW: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

The first Guardians of the Galaxy film was an unexpectedly huge hit for Marvel in 2014, rocketing a fairly obscure comicbook team to A-list status and cementing Chris Pratt's position as a superstar. The sequel continues the story mere months after the end of the first installment. It's fair to say that Vol. 2 delivers more of the same: imaginative galactic locations, snarky characters, zippy one-liners and a retro-flavoured soundtrack. However, sometimes, more of the same is exactly what's wanted. If it ain't broke, as they say.

However, for me at least, Vol. 2 actually surpassed the original. While I can't say yet if it'll have the same rewatch value as the first film, it builds on the character relationships established in that movie to give the story a strong emotional centre. As Gamora says, the Guardians aren't friends, they're family, and that's what Vol. 2 is, at heart, about: family.

The big guest star of the film is Kurt Russell, an actor who's never anything less than utterly watchable in any film, playing Star-Lord's long lost father, Ego. Russell's now old enough to give a powerful performance as a noble, patriarchal figure, and while he's begun to appear in such roles, only Marvel and James Gunn would have signed him up to play a planet. For the most part he's a relatively modestly-appearing humanoid avatar, although he elevates himself to his true god-like status in the film's climax. It's no big surprise when Ego turns out to be the villain of the piece; it's signposted pretty clearly from his first appearance and all but Quill are unconvinced by his seeming benevolence. He's the first villain to really convince in the Marvel movies since Tom Hiddleston's Loki, with other films drafting in fine actors but giving them paper-thin roles to play. Russell's performance as Ego is a mix of terrifying power, amorality and regret, and it makes for a far stronger antagonist than Lee Pace's Ronan in the first film.

It's no stretch to imagine Chris Pratt's Peter Quill as his son, and Pratt gets a stronger role here than the dashing ne'er-do-well of the first film. There's some real depth to his lonely, outsider status, and it's easy to see why he is so eager to accept his place with Ego. His sudden turning on his father is the film's most powerful moment, with Pratt giving a fantastic performance. Of course, while Star-Lord is an outsider, so are his fellow Guardians, and it's this that makes them his true family. Outsiders all together. Dave Bautista gets most of the funniest lines as Drax, who is less literal, but even stranger and unpredictable than before. Bautista is clearly revelling in being a fan favourite, but he also gets his own strange relationship, with the adorable Pom Klementieff as Mantis. Essentially Ego's pet, she's a sad, rather beautiful character, both powerful and pitiful.

Zoe Saldana gets much better material to work with than in the first film, with Gamora holding a great deal of her own adventure in the depths of Ego's planet as she deals with her own family issues. Karen Gillan returns as Nebula, adopted sister to Gamora, and she gets to be far more than the faceless assassin of the first film. She's a deeper, more real character, and this makes her sexier and more dangerous than she ever was in the previous film. While she is set up as a villain early on, there's far more to her story here, as we learn the extent of Thanos's maltreatment of her and her relationship with Gamora is explored. The sisters enjoy some of the best development of the film's characters, and as it looks certain we'll see Nebula again, I look forward to seeing how their damaged relationship can be developed further.

Rocket and Groot are present and incorrect, with the duo's friendship inverted from the first film. Groot is now Baby Groot, possibly the most marketable movie alien since the Ewoks and a highlight of every scene he's in. Groot was Rocket's muscle in the first Guardians, but now the tables are turned, with Rocket acting as Baby Groot's protector and teacher. Everyone looks after Groot at some point though; he's the team's little ward and needs constant supervision.

The real star of the film, though, is Michael Rooker. Returning as Yondu, Rooker gives an astonishingly sympathetic performance given that he's playing an interstellar mercenary and murderer. His story is violent but beautiful, as we follow his fall, rise and greatest moment throughout the film. At the heart of it, of course, is his relationship with Quill, again tying into the central themes of family and proving that Star-Lord didn't need to search the Galaxy for a father figure.

For all that, though, the basics are still here. The script is smuttily hilarious, the violence cartoonishly OTT, and the visual effects absolutely beyond compare. Really, aside from the odd moment that looks a little too cartoonish, I don't recall another space opera that looks quite this good. It's gorgeous, a riot of explosive colour. CG rendering has even reached the point where a creature like Rocket actually looks realistic. The soundtrack isn't as rocking as the first, although douze points for starting the film with "Mr. Blue Sky," one of my absolute favourite songs.

There's a huge amount to pick apart here, too, from secondary villains the Sovereignty and lesser but still massively entertaining roles from Sylvester Stallone and Sean Gunn, the latter who, as Kraglin, gets more screentime than expected and will also clearly be coming back for another trip round the Galaxy. (In a film about family, it's perhaps appropriate that one of the most likable performance comes from the director's brother. He also does Rocket's motion work on set, making him one of the unsung heroes of the production.)

Volume 3 is a way off yet, and before that, the Guardians will be appearing in Avengers: Infinity War, where they will, presumably, finally go face-to-face with Thanos. However, I doubt that film could top this one's cosmic ensemble. This is a film that, while dealing with a genuinely universe-toppling threat, still manages to be about the most personal of concerns. Ten out of frickin' ten.

Monday, 1 May 2017

WHO REVIEW: 10-3 - "Thin Ice"

Sarah Dollard has delivered a script that, when brought to life by some of the best acting and design we've seen on the series in years, has all the makings of a minor classic. Not an anniversary special, not a barn-storming finale, just a little, meat-and-potatoes episode that turned out to be something truly wonderful.

Firstly, there's a good, old-fashioned deductive adventure for the Doctor and his companion, working out just what those lights under the ice are. That back-to-basics approach of the first few episodes is working wonders for the season so far. The tried-and-tested formula of present-future-past for the new companion works, so it makes sense to bring it out again, with the new girl's reactions to the set-up being the newer element. The BBC is never better than when it's creating a period drama, and the production team excels in this episode. The frozen Thames is so believable, it's astonishing; a remarkable work of set design, backed up by a bustling crowd of extras in period dress. No one does this stuff better. The model work is also impressive - how many viewers realised that the Doctor who takes a swim was not Peter Capaldi, but a lifelike sculpture of him instead? Everyone's skills come together to make a truly effective setting.

I find some strange satisfaction in that the Doctor's detective work never actually gets as far as explaining what the creature under the ice actually is. He's far more concerned in the why's and the who's than the what-on-earths. We never find out whether the creature is alien or earthly, quite what its little piscine companions get out of their symbiotic deal or just how long the beast has been there. It's fun to speculate, but it's not important right now. It's not the point of the story.

Because, as with the frozen Thames, there's a lot more going on under the surface. This is a story about morality, and especially, exploitation, in its many forms. It's Bill's turn to question the Doctor's ethics, ethics that have been coded by millennia of experience and an alien viewpoint. It brings to mind episodes such as "The Fires of Pompeii," but it's better written than an argument about going against the flow of history. The Doctor doesn't give a damn about that here (in fact, he openly alters history without the least regret). It's far more like the fourth Doctor at his most alien, in Pyramids of Mars, brushing off the death of an individual because there isn't time for outrage. The Doctor's logic at the situation is faultless, but it's so... unpalatable to someone like Bill. It's also the first time, I think, that we've really focused on how a companion reacts to her first immediate encounter with death. Mostly, we've seen the difficult truth of confronting death when a companion has faced someone close to them: Rose and her father, Clara and Danny. Bill doesn't know young Spider for more than a few minutes, and yet his death is intimately and profoundly upsetting for her. It's a brutally realistic picture, and one that makes the Doctor's position more believable. Not as an alien, but as an old man who has seen (and caused) death time and again. It's someone from a cosy civilian life facing death alongside a soldier.

The episode flirts with the race issue when Bill first steps out onto the ice. Of course she's going to be worried about how people react to her. She'll have experienced so much shit from white people in the 21st century, let alone going into the 19th. (We don't have time to explore attitudes to her sexuality, which is a pity, but one 45-minute episode can't cover everything.) Again, it recalls an earlier episode. Martha's first trip in the TARDIS was to Shakespearean London, and she was similarly concerned. However, this time it's handled with so much more finesse. As much as I loved "The Shakespeare Code," I hated the Doctor's dismissal of Martha's concerns. "I'm not even human," and "Just act like you own the place." Very easy to say when you look and sound exactly like a white Englishman. The twelfth Doctor accepts Bill's concerns and admits it will be dangerous, but persuades her it's worth the risk if she wants to experience this life.

Of course, later on the script stops flirting with the issue and goes right for it, in what is, for me, the most triumphant scene in the series since "No sir, all thirteen!" After lecturing Bill on maintaining detachment and controlling her temper (Peter Capaldi lecturing on controlling your temper!) the Doctor smacks the bastard Lord Sutcliffe square in the mouth for his racist tirade against Bill. It's beautiful. (And anyone who wants to counter it with "But the Doctor's a pacifist!" I suggest you actually watch virtually any episode of the series broadcast since 1963 and question where you got that idea.)

From the punch, we move rapidly to that most powerful speech. There's been a lot of rubbish written about how the BBC has a "left wing bias," which I find bizarre considering its continual towing of the line under the Tory government. The writers of Doctor Who though, they're left wing, and this is the moment it comes to the fore. That fantastic, socialist, anti-elitist speech against Sutcliffe and his exploitative ways... it's what this series is made for. How old do you have to be before you can make a speech like that? You just need to be a 37-year-old Australian scriptwriter. Sarah Dollard should be bloody proud.

For this script is not about monsters, or fancy coats and top hats, or Regency colour. It's about exploitation, and how it drives industry and "progress." Exploitation of other races, of children, of the poor, and yes, of animals, be they real creatures or a fabulous sea monster. An absolute triumph.

WHO REVIEW: 10-2 - "Smile"

There's a very odd structure to this episode. I appreciate the more relaxed pace that we're looking to get with this season, and "Smile" in particular takes a very languid stroll through the story for the first half hour or so. It had the feel of a sixties or early seventies episode, particularly the choice to have only the Doctor and Bill for much of the runtime. This is how serials used to start - twenty-five minutes of investigating a new location, possibly with only the regulars, with the nature of the story only becoming apparent in time. On the other hand, "Smile" actually begins with a scene that lays out the central idea of the episode. There are killer mini-robots that tear you to bits if you can't convince them you're happy. The reasoning behind it isn't clear, but the basic idea is. Going in, we as an audience have a much better idea of what is going on than the Doctor and Bill. We just have to wait for them to catch up.

Fortunately, Capaldi and Mackie are more than capable of carrying the bulk of the episode on their own backs with no supporting cast. There's a very relaxed interaction between them, and one that feels earnt, as the Doctor and Bill have already known each other for some months by this point. These travels in time and space are merely the next big step in their friendship, and it's always fun to see a new companion's first outing to a future world or alien realm. It also helps that the visuals for this episode are so striking. The colony itself is filmed at the City of Arts and Sciences, a huge cultural centre in Valencia. It's a truly remarkable location, which, combined with the rolling crop fields for the outer parts of the colony, makes this episode visually unique. There's never been an episode of Doctor Who that looks quite like this.

Equally, the emoji "robots," that act as interfaces for the tiny, mechanical Vardies, are a striking visual hook for the episode. It makes the episode feel both old-fashioned and up-to-date. Depending on how our culture and language develop, in ten years this episode will either look remarkably prescient or hopelessly dated. Other than the emojibots, though, there's nothing new here. It's mixed up in fun new ways, but it's still highly derivative, with elements of The Happiness Patrol, The Ark in Space and sundry science fiction stories coming together to create what feels, at times, like a kid-friendly episode of Black Mirror. That's not to say it's not a well-written or enjoyable episode; some of the best stories are derivative. Still, there's something of a "best of" feel to this one.

Peter Capaldi is scarier when he's smiling broadly than when he's scowling furiously at people. Pearl Mackie is just a joy to watch in her interactions with him. "Smile" is a pretty great episode up until the last ten minutes or so, when we realise the Doctor has been astonishingly dense by not checking if there's anyone alive in the spacecraft. (And sorry to disappoint, those who thought the Doctor had finally gone full Malcolm Tucker, but he shouts "Pods!" not "Bollocks!") The crew wake up, quintupling the cast but proving to be mostly pointless. The celebrated appearance by Ralf Little turns out to be less than ten minutes of him playing an aggressively stupid person. It's a shame, because the final resolution is pretty sound. It even manages to make the much-maligned reset button a virtue. That little dip aside, "Smile" is a fairly strong episode.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Comics to Screen: The Flash 3-17 - "Duet"

It's time for Supergirl and The Flash to return after their Easter break, and to get us in the mood, we've re-watched the last Flash episode but one, the musical crossover "Duet." This may well become one of our feel-good TV choices for years to come.

There have been musical episodes on fantasy TV series for years, from the sublime (Buffy's legendary "Once More With Feeling") to the less memorable (Lexx's operatic episode, "Brigadoom"). "Duet" is not the best bit of musical television I've ever seen, nor even the best Flash/Supergirl crossover, but it is great fun and utterly adorable. With both series being led by former Glee stars, a musical episode was a bit of a no-brainer, and, excessive use of autotune aside, the singing cast all acquit themselves well. Any member of the cast who's ever sang for their supper performs here. John Barrowman must have been kicking the door down once he heard what they were up to.

Melissa Benoist is the highlight of the episode. She always seems perfectly at home on The Flash, and Kara's relationship with her super-friend Barry has settled into wonderful camaraderie by now. Benoist has the most beautiful voice, and looks stunning in the period costumes she wears in the false reality (it's not clear if it's some other dimension, a shared delusion, or something between the two). Grant Gustin is pretty good too, but he never impressed me as much as Benoist. It is his show, though, so he gets the last number.

The best elements of the story are the unexpected. Victor Garber and Jesse Martin playing Iris/Milly's two dads ("D'you got a problem with that?"). Jeremy Jordan as the Manhattan hustler Grady. That gorgeous group rendition of "Put a Little Love in Your Heart" (just possibly a Scrooged reference, or am I making links where none exist?) It's a pity Carlos Valdes doesn't get to play every instrument on the soundtrack, and damn, we needed a singing HR, but the ensemble is still fabulous. And Barrowman... well, he's still Barrowman.

Where the episode is lacking something is in its villain. True, the Music Meister here isn't exactly a villain per se, more of a cheeky trickster with a strange way of helping people solve their problems. Still, he's underwhelming. Having Garber's old love interest Darren Criss take the role must be a treat for the Glee fans, but I'm not one of them, and while he's likeable enough, there's no edge to him whatsoever. He's also not really the Music Meister; the world he creates for Barry and Kara comes from their fantasies because they love musicals, and by his own words, "could have been a war movie or a space opera." There's nothing intrinsically musical about him.

The episode does make up a vital part of the stars' ongoing plots. Both Kara and Barry are facing serious love issues, and although they're there for each other, it's interesting to note that the reason Iris left Barry is essentially the reason Kara left Mon-El. Both men were dishonest for what they thought were good reasons, and both women eventually come round to accept and forgive this. It's also canny marketing by the CW - followers of Supergirl will have to start watching The Flash to follow the main character's plotline.

"Duet" isn't a classic, then, but a very enjoyable way to spend a forty-five minutes, with some dreadful yet loveable songs and villains in spat, and what's not to love about that?


The Music Meister is one of the most recent additions to the DC Rogue's Gallery, having been created for the fantastic animated series Batman: The Brave and the Bold. Appearing in the episode "Mayhem of the Music Meister!" in 2009, voiced by the incomparable Neil Patrick Harris, the Meister quickly became a fan favourite and was rapidly absorbed into the comics, although he's made only occasional appearances.

"Mayhem" is a far better musical episode than "Duet," and the Music Meister as he appear there is both more fun and more powerful. Possessed of the ability to control the minds of others with his song, he can overpower almost any hero or villain and bend them to his will. He also has the ability to instantly transform his costume into one that's appropriate for his latest musical genre. And if there's one thing "Duet" is missing, it's a singing, dancing Gorilla Grodd.

Although the Meister is a newer character, he probably has his roots in the Fiddler, an enemy of the first Flash who first appeared in All-Flash #32 in 1948. Unlike the Music Meister, the Fiddler hypnotised people with his furious fiddling (stop it). He could also use sound to shatter glass and create force fields, and had various trick violins to boot. The Fiddler was adapted into the Music Master for the Justice League animated series in 2002, perhaps inspiring the name of the later Music Meister.

The Music Meister that appears in The Flash is, as noted above, barely a similar character. His powers aren't music-based, but appear to be telepathic in nature. He also snatches the powers of those he leaves in a comatose state. It's all because he wants to help Kara and Barry get their true loves back, and soon he's off to "help" someone else (it would be great if he turned up in some completely unrelated series somewhere down the line). Since this Meister says that no one here would understand where he comes from, and considering that his powers seem to be reality-altering in some way, it's tempting to think that he originates in the fifth dimension, like Mr. Mxyzptlk.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

The Grand Doctor Who Survey

There's been a survey going round Facebook covering people's cinema preferences. Unsurprisingly, this has been adapted by Doctor Who fans. Here's my response. Arguments have ensued with big name fans and close friends alike.

FAVOURITE AUDIO DOCTOR: Eighth or David Warner
MOST UNDERRATED COMPANION: Sara Kingdom (does she count?)
MOST OVERRATED CLASSIC SERIES STORY: Brain of Morbius tied with Tomb of the Cybermen
LEAST FAVOURITE AUDIO STORY: Something dull enough that I've forgotten it
MOST UNDERRATED AUDIO STORY: Iris Wildthyme series 2
LEAST FAVOURITE COMIC STRIP STORY: that eighth Doc football one
GUILTY PLEASURE COMIC STRIP STORY: Something with the Kleptons in, probably
LEAST FAVOURITE TARDIS INTERIOR: Seventh, by the time it was just a backdrop with the lights dimmed.
FAVOURITE NEW DOCTOR STORY: Spearhead from Space tied with The Eleventh Hour
FAVOURITE UNIT STORY: Spearhead from Space
LEAST FAVOURITE MASTER: Eric Roberts, but I like them all
FAVOURITE CYBERMAN STORY: The Tenth Planet or Spare Parts
FAVOURITE DOCTOR WHO BOOK: The Scarlet Empress tied with The Infinity Doctors
WHO SHOULD PLAY THE 13th DOCTOR: Peter Dinklage or Tilda Swinton

Sunday, 16 April 2017

REVIEW: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

I don't have a problem with remakes. Remakes are a time-honoured Hollywood tradition. Even straight, shot-for-shot remakes weren't uncommon in the golden days of film. It wasn't unusual for a successful film to be remade with a bigger budget, either with the same cast or a more star-studded one, and then rereleased to rake in even more money. Stage plays were frequently adapted to film, older movies were revamped for the age of colour, and once television became the entertainment behemoth of the twentieth century, TV films were reshot for cinema. By the seventies, even sitcoms were being remade virtually shot-for-shot for film. 

There is, however, the risk of alienating the very people who loved the original. We can become very attached to our favourite films, and take them more seriously than they were ever intended. Beauty and the Beast is, of course, an adaptation of La Belle et la Bete, a gothic fairytale written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve way back in 1740. There were doubtless outcries from purists when her original novel was rewritten to be more child-friendly in the 1750s and again in the 19th century. Even then, Barbot's novel was based on traditional folk tales dating back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Still, there's something about that romantic, cutesified Disney Classic from 1991 that's never been beaten. I was initially reluctant to go see a new, live-action version, particularly after the disappointment that were Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent

I'm happy to say that Beauty and the Beast was a huge success. It recreates the animated original just enough to hit the same highs but adds enough to make it something new. I still prefer the original, but the live action version is a very enjoyable film in its own right. It's absolutely gorgeous, with wonderful locations, sets and CG animation. (Live action might be an exaggeration for this film, considering about a quarter of the characters are CG.) There was a risk that the songs would come across as disappointing cover versions, but there's a pleasant feel of a stage musical to the big numbers. 

The cast are generally pretty fine. Luke Evans is probably the best as Gaston, managing to make him genuinely quite likeable, at least until he becomes a murderous psycho. Josh Gad is hugely entertaining as LeFou. Keven Kline is perfect as Maurice, rewritten as a highly skilled and engaging artisan, rather than the senile old man of the original (it's harder to see why he's so quickly written off as a nutter in this version). The enchanted objects are all pretty good, although Ewan MacGregor's French accent is, somehow, slightly worse than his attempt at Alec Guinness in the Star Wars prequels.  (Why are Lumiere and Plumette the only ones with French accents?) I love Stanley Tucci's new character, Cadenza, the harpsichord. 

Dan Stevens and Emma Watson are both fine. There's nothing wrong with either of their performances, but neither do they light up the screen. They're likeable and they work well together, but they're probably the least interesting members of the cast. Looks-wise, the Beast is a little more human in this version, which is sensible if we're dealing with a more realistic design than a cartoon, but he still looks better before his regeneration. (You don't think that's a regeneration? Watch it alongside an equivalent scene on Doctor Who, and tell me where RTD got his ideas from.) At least Belle lampshades this (but then , these days, every guy has to have a beard.) The iconic scenes are recreated, but the most memorable, the ballroom scene set to the song "Beauty and the Beast," just doesn't compare. For a start, yellow just isn't Emma Watson's colour.

I'm not particularly keen on any of the new songs, although at least the Beast gets his own number this time round, which was something that in retrospect was sorely missing from the original. Gaston's song is possibly even better this time round, if that's actually possible (it uses a slightly different set of lyrics from an earlier draft of the original script). I do like the extra backstory for the characters (with the exception of the Beast's, who was better off just being a shallow arsehole). Belle and Maurice have some family history, and we find out why Belle's mother isn't around. Gaston isn't beloved just because he's handsome and barge-sized, he's an actual war hero. LeFou is an actual character, not just comic relief. The enchanted objects have some humanity behind them. It's additions like this that make it a little deeper, and that's exactly the kind of changes that benefit the film.

One character who is developed is the Enchantress, who actually becomes a character here rather than just part of the film's own backstory. She's revealed as Agathe, an impoverished old woman in Belle's village who displays compassion towards Maurice - the compassion that the prince so lacked. She's a deeper version of the original Enchantress, but she's still a vindictive old witch. While her cursing of the prince is given more reasoning in this version, it's still viciously capricious, especially as she seems even more powerful here. She rocks up at his castle in the middle of a party looking for shelter, when all the while she has power over the elements and the ability to zap herself wherever she wants. Bloody witch is looking for trouble. Then she turns the prince into a buffalo, all his staff into furnishings even though they've done nothing wrong at all, splits up a community and devastates an ecosystem. Maybe they'll do a sequel where they burn her.

Both versions of Beauty and the Beast are gorgeous, and they both have the same story issues. Even more of Belle's desire to leave her provincial life and explore the world are made in the new version, and still she settles down with a rich guy in a big house up the road. Still, the French Revolution will be along soon, so let's hope they don't have puppies.

WHO REVIEW: 10-1 - The Pilot

It takes a certain cheek to call an episode “The Pilot” at the beginning of a programme's tenth, or even thirty-sixth, season. It's a statement of intent: Steven Moffat has called the episode a reboot, and while this is overstating it, there's a clear design to make this a new starting point for the series. To an extent, this works. We've got a new companion, who acts as the viewpoint figure the series has been missing for some time, through whose eyes we discover the elements of the programme. The kids who started watching Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant are grown-up now, and a new generation of children are starting to tune in. Doctor Who has a sort of soft-reboot built into its concept, with a continually changing roster of companions and Doctors, and the occasional slate-clean is good for its continuation.

On the other hand, this is the last season for both Capaldi and Moffat. The decision to make this a new starting point seems willfully perverse with Chris Chibnall taking over as showrunner, and a new Doctor joining at the same time. While there are callbacks a-plenty in this episode, it works reasonably well as something standalone. On the other hand, during the upcoming series, we have Ice Warriors, retro-Cybermen and two versions of the Master to look forward to. All wonderful fun, but hardly a fresh start.

There were several attempts to bring back Doctor Who in the long gap between the TV movie and “Rose,” and more than one of them had the Doctor grounded, living and working as a professor in some dusty old college. (Usually, they were proposed with an eye to having an older Tom Baker return to the role, and Moffat's already done that.) It's a perfect set-up for an introduction to the character, putting him in a position of authority but also making him interesting, a little distant, and with plenty of opportunities to impress. It's a nice touch making Bill, not a student who's impressed him with her intellect, but another outsider who's impressed him with her enthusiasm (and also recognising that not everyone can afford to go to university).

I wasn't keen on Bill based on her brief appearances in trailers and so on. She just came across as gobby and a bit dense. It goes to show how poorly done those trailers were. Pearl Mackie is extremely likeable as Bill, and by the episode's end I was thoroughly sold on her. Bill is, admittedly, a bit of a re-run of Rose (with a touch of eighties Ace thrown in), but she's different enough to make an impression herself. It's gratifiying to have a character who's genre savvy, not only pointing out the obvious sci-fi-ness of everything that's going on around her, but immediately rationalising everything as a clever effect. After all, a clever knock-through is a much more logical explanation than a dimensionally transcendental timeship. Also, although everyone has made way too big a deal of it, it's great to have a companion who's happily, uncomplicatedly gay. Plus having an actor of colour, playing someone in foster care... there are lots of different ways to live a life in Britain today. I didn't care much for Bill's jokes about models and fat women; those were low shots.

I'm also now completely sold on Nardole. He works perfectly as an assistant and valet to the Doctor. He exists as a sort-of cushion between the Doctor and the outside world, easing his interactions. It's looks like they've been good for one another, with the Doctor's hardened exterior softening and Nardole becoming more Doctorish (his explanation of the TARDIS' nature is cribbed almost exactly from the fourth Doctor's explanation in The Robots of Death).

The alien threat for the episode is a clever one, albeit highly derivative (we've seen living water in “The Waters of Mars,” a mimic in “Midnight” and a ship in need of someone with wanderlust to become its pilot in “The Lodger”). It's an arresting visual and a witty but easy-to-grasp concept, and leads to a clever, non-violent resolution. It drives me mad that both Bill and the Doctor take an age to realise what's wrong with the reflection. I understand that the script can only move as fast as the slowest member in the audience, but Bill's meant to be intelligent and the Doctor's a genius. It's infuriating.

The problem with being sic-fi savvy, of course, is expecting storylines to go a certain way. I was convinced that Heather (a lovely performance from Stephanie Hyam) was going to be an alien of some kind, just as Bill was convinced that the star in her eye was evidence of an alien possession. In the event, she was an ordinary girl, until she fell victim to the sinister puddle (and why would you want to get a “defect” like that fixed? It looks amazing!) We were also forewarned that the Daleks were going to appear in this episode, so naturally I spent much of the episode wondering how they were involved with the whole thing. I assumed that the spacecraft that left the oil and scorch marks was of Dalek origin (the last time we saw a landing pattern like that was in Remembrance of the Daleks). As it happens, the Daleks were nothing but a brief sideshow, presumably only included so as to incorporate the little scene from over a year ago that introduced Bill. Quite why the Doctor thinks it's a good idea to hide out in the midst of a Dalek assault isn't clear, but it's a fun aside and drops that last essential element of the series into the episode.

“The Pilot” is the best opening episode for quite some time, probably since “The Eleventh Hour” way back in 2010, which remains one of the best episodes in the revived series. As much as I enjoyed much of the last season, the series needs a shot in the arm, and maybe a new companion was just what it's been waiting for. I am optimistic for the remainder of Capaldi and Moffat's last run. We shall see what is kept within the Vault, and why it's important enough to keep the Doctor grounded for fifty years, although I hope it doesn't override the individual episodes' stories.

Title Tattle: “The Pilot,” although clever, is the most generic possible title for an episode. There must be a thousand American series that have begun with an episode called “Pilot,” even when they're not actually pilot episodes. It is, however, a better name than the working title “A Star in her Eye.”

Links: The Daleks are seen battling the Movellans, a race of androids we saw in 1979's Destiny of the Daleks. By this stage, the two armies had become locked in stalemate due to their logical natures (it was suggested that the Daleks were, at this point in their history, entirely mechanical). It's a cute little aside for fans, and in no way intrusive for normal people. They just look like fun disco aliens. The Doctor states that they've gone into the past here, although that probably means from the perspective of their previous stop-off, 23 million years in the future.

Among the many little callbacks in the Doctor's study are photographs of two of the most important women in his life: his late wife River, and his (presumably late) granddaughter Susan. Capaldi has made no secret of his desire to see Susan return to the series, so perhaps this is foreshadowing of her eventual arrival later in the season.

The Doctor's moonlighting as a lecturer calls back to his old friend Professor Chronotis, a Time Lord from the previous generation who retired to live as a don at Cambridge. This was in Douglas Adams's notoriously unfinished serial Shada, many elements of which he reworked for his Dirk Gently books. He also pitched a story which would have seen the Doctor retire from adventuring and settle down on Earth, possibly as a tutor. (Adams also wrote Destiny of the Daleks. Any Hitchhikers references I didn't spot?)

The Doctor again tries to wipe his friend's memory, and again gets shouted down. It's good to see that Moffat clearly thinks that this is pretty unconscionable behaviour on his part. It calls back to the end of the previous season, where he intended to erase Clara's memory of him, only to get the tables turned. This was almost two years ago now and the missus had completely forgotten about it. This is the difference between people who watch things normally and people like me.

Best line: “No one's from space. I'm from a planet, like everyone else.”
I've been shouting this at sci-fi shows for years.

Friday, 14 April 2017

I've just read a rather excellent article on Strange Horizons, having discovered it via Alistair Reynolds's blog. It's entitled "Kirk Drift" and is written by Erin Horakova, who takes some time to dissect the cultural shorthand of Captain Kirk and the original Star Trek in general, and see how different it is to what was actually presented.

It's a long piece but worth reading through. As she goes, Horakova takes a look at representation in media and gender expectancy, but it's fundamentally about how Kirk is far from the brash womaniser that he is commonly remembered to be. In fairness, I think there are times where Kirk acted rashly or in quite unpleasant ways in the original series, although generally with a nobler goal. Horakova goes into some depth here on those times and not always in ways I fully agree with, but on the whole I think she's absolutely spot on. In particular I like her attack on the modern reboot franchise, which I am a fan of, but can see has a wealth of flaws. Certainly, I'm no big fan of Star Trek Into Darkness, which I dislike considerably more now than when I first saw it in the cinema. I'm struck by how Kirk's character in these films is markedly different to how he was described during his Academy years in TOS. Clearly, George Kirk had a significant influence on his son in the original timeline. At the risk of letting this be taken as a criticism of Millennials (I am one, just about), there's a clear difference between the original idea of a respectful, studious man making his way up the ladder and an arrogant jock who's rewarded the captaincy because he gets bloody lucky and just sort of deserves it, and it's one that reflects our expectations of life in the early 21st.

Anyway, you can read it here. It's worth a few minutes.

Monday, 10 April 2017

REVIEW: UnHistory by Lance Parkin and Lars Pearson

"Apocryphal stories too strange for even AHistory."

Deciding what parts of a fictional universe “count” is a rum game, all the more so in one as long-running and inconsistent as Doctor Who. AHistory has expanded since its first remit to include all manner of spin-offs and expanded universe material, but there's still a huge selection of officially published and broadcast Doctor Who that is essentially impossible to fit into the overall narrative. Not that this is any indication or reflection of quality: Time-Flight is inarguably canonical, but is absolutely awful, while there are very good reasons to discount The Infinity Doctors, The Kingmaker , Happy Deathday and Full Fathom Five in spite their clear brilliance. Parkin and Pearson take a similar approach to me, which is that everything counts, as long as it can be squeezed in there somewhere. UnHistory, then, includes all the other things that we really can't squeeze in to the “real” Whoniverse. Fiction that is, somehow, even more fictional than the rest.

This has led to some odd decisions about what to include. Scream of the Shalka was included in the first edition of AHistory, before being omitted from follow-ups as apocrypha, and finally included here. The Unbound audios have been omitted from all editions of AHistory as “elseworlds” type stories, but the recent crossover of the David Warner Doctor into The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield has led to them being included as “real,” albeit alternative, adventures. Thus, none of them, not even the metatextual Deadline, make it into UnHistory. Other stories' inclusion here is inarguable: few fans seriously try to include the 1960s Dalek movies into the Doctor's timeline, nor the early comics strips featuring Doctor Who and his ugly grandchildren. Nonetheless, this hasn't stopped everyone, and in a fictional multiverse filled with time travel, parallel timelines, temporal duplicates and a Land of Fiction, virtually everything can be made to fit somehow. Indeed, Peter Cushing himself had some very novel ideas as to how his two movies could be incorporated into the Doctor's timeline.

UnHistory includes such exciting adventures as the strips from TV Comic, TV Action and Countdown, The Dalek Book, The Dalek World and The Dalek Outer Space Book, The Curse of the Daleks, Seven Keys to Doomsday, The Cadet Sweet Cigarette Cards, Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style stories (often with multiple endings) and much more. After dismissing most short stories from AHistory on grounds of space and sanity, Short Trips and Side Steps and even the many Doctor Who annuals have entries here (as such, this makes a wonderful companion to Obverse Books' The Annual Years by Paul Magrs). TV broadcasts that we may wish to forget, from A Fix With Sontarans and Dimensions in Time to sundry adverts are included. The authors have made a somewhat arbitrary decision where to draw the line when it comes to the various sketches and skits broadcast over the years, but they've got to draw it somewhere. The traditional inclusion of a Gallifrey section to the timeline allows them to include otherwise undateable but absolutely essential stories such as The Curse of Fatal Death into the mix.

As always, Parkin and Pearson have gone to exquisite and absurd lengths to date the stories, which is all the more commendable/ridiculous (delete according to taste)when the whole point is that these stories don't fit. It's a work that revels in the absurdity of its premise, and as always, shows its working, however contrived. Occasionally a year will appear in the wrong spot or an index entry will be conspicuous by its absence, but this is a tiny quibble in such a huge work such as this. So, if you ever wanted to know how “The Monster Files” fit into the mix or when the events of “The Not-So-Sinister Sponge” took place, or if you're just a geek with a sense of humour or too much time on their hands, this is the book for you.

Friday, 7 April 2017

REVIEW: Power Rangers (2017)

Who is this film meant to be for, I wonder? Power Rangers starts with an extraterrestrial battle scene at the dawn of the Cenozoic Era, which is followed by a teen comedy scene with a joke about wanking off a bull. It's based on a TV series designed to sell toys to small boys, but makes an attempt to be a serious, modern teen drama, and occasionally drops moments of effective horror. Tonally, it's all over the place, the writing is, to put it generously, unsophisticated, and like so many action movies, it puts spectacle ahead of substance. And yet... I really enjoyed it.

Power Rangers is a better film than it has any right to be, but that's very different to being a good film. Considering that's it's the latest in a long line of cynical updates of older TV properties it's much better than it should be. Like the long-running TV franchise that spawned it, it's stupid, uncomplicated fun for the most part, and that's the best way to enjoy it, but there's a little more going on underneath. The characters are much as you'd expect from any such kid-friendly actioner: the jock who's a decent guy really, the awkward brainbox, the popular girl who's fallen from grace, the drop-out with a heart of gold, and the kinda weird cute girl outsider. It would be easy for the script to be completely vacuous, and it certainly veers that way on several occasions, but there are some stronger moments that come out of the blue. Billy Cranston (R.J. Cyler), the Blue Ranger, is explicitly on the autistic spectrum, and the script makes real efforts to explore how this isolates him from his peers but never makes him out to be a freak, or an emotionless cypher, or a stereotypical geek. Kimberly Hart (Naomi Scott), the Pink Ranger, got busted for sharing a friend's naked pics. It's pretty brave for a film like this to explore the sexting and cyberbullying controversy.

Trini Kwan (Becky G), the Yellow Ranger, is almost certainly gay, although less is made of this in the film than the hype would suggest, and it's the stronger for how little a deal it is. Zack Taylor (Ludi Lin), the Black Ranger, is the simplest character, but even he has a backstory in which he cares for his severely ill mother. This leaves Jason Scott (Dacre Montgomery), as the Red Ranger, the group's leader, and he's easily the most straightforward character, but still has some strong moments as he wrestles with his family, his future and his new role. The film goes the tried and tested route of casting a bunch of twenty-somethings as high schoolers, but all five of them are pretty strong young actors, and it's good to see an ensemble film really work at diversity instead of just paying it lip service.

The supporting cast includes some big hitters. We were all pretty astonished to learn Bryan Cranston would be playing Zordon, the big ol' face in the wall, but one of his earliest gigs was providing voices for the monsters in the original Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers series (they liked the guy so much they named Billy's character after him). He adds a little gravitas to the proceedings, which is needed because he gets lumbered with some really dire lines. Bill Hader is... fine, I guess, as Alpha 5, the annoying robot. He's less annoying than the original, at least. The best is Elizabeth Banks as arch-villainness Rita Repulsa, former Green Ranger in this version. Banks plays the scheming supervillain exactly as she should do, which is to say, completely over-the-top. She's a hoot (and she gets to say, "Make my monster grow!" which is always hilarious).

Critics have mostly dismissed Power Rangers as fluff, which is fine, because at heart that's what it is. The real criticism has been from fans. I was just about the right age to get the most from Mighty Morphin' when it first aired, until it was banned in our house for sending my brother into flurries of kung fu kicking violence. I enjoyed it, I wanted the overpriced toys, but I was never a fan. So I've never taken it seriously enough to care if this reboot is "right." I don't care enough if the Zords don't look like they used to, or the costumes aren't colourful enough. I've read people who decry that they're not taking Rita Repulsa seriously. She's called Rita Repulsa, for god's sake, and you want someone to take her seriously? I've even read one reviewer who attacks the film for allowing the Rangers' faces to be seen when they're in uniform. The only reason we weren't allowed to see their faces during the TV series is because they were reusing footage from Super Sentai and the Rangers were completely different actors when they were in costume. There's no point casting five pretty decent actors if you're going to hide them behind helmets the entire time (and you don't cast someone as beautiful as Naomi Scott and then make her hide her face).

If you're a fan of the originals you'll enjoy a little cameo from Jason David Frank and Amy Jo Johnson, two of the original Power Rangers (Green/White and Pink), and probably seethe at the reimagined versions of Goldar and the Putty Patrol, although I though they worked pretty well. Some people will be put out that we don't get very much time with the suited-up Rangers and their Zords, but this is a superhero origin movie. They're planning at least six of these to follow. Sit back and enjoy some stupid fun - it'll make the occasional clever bit all the better.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

TREK REVIEW: Star Trek Continues 8 - Still Treads the Shadow

Star Trek Continues continues continuing, which is a pleasant surprise to some of fandom considering how unfriendly Paramount have become to fanfilms since the Axanar lawsuit. However, all of Continues' fundraising for the next four episodes was completed prior to the legal announcement, and the production team are pushing ahead with finishing their series, albeit a few episodes shorter than originally planned. I shall try to be as spoiler-free as I can without being totally vague, but if you want, you can watch the episode first here and then come back.

"Still Treads the Shadow" (classic pretentious Trek title there) is a solid episode that revolves almost entirely around Vic Mignola's Captain Kirk. In fact, Mignola gets to portray three characters in the story, although the exact nature of those characters is quite surprising. Mignola does a great job making his three roles distinct. The rest of the regular cast are a little overlooked in this episode, with a good deal of the material going to the big guest star Rekha Sharma, best known to SF fans as Tori on Battlestar Galactica. If anything, though, Sharma could have done with more screentime, to make the most of a promising character and by far the best actor on the production. Sharma's a huge Trek fan by all accounts, so maybe we'll see more of her in another episode.

"Still Treads the Shadow" is written by Judy Burns, who has racked up a lot of professional screen credits over the years, but whose first such credit was that of co-writer on the third season Star Trek episode "The Tholian Web." If anyone was expecting a sequel to that episode, then they'd be absolutely right. Don't expect a rematch with the Tholians, though, as this episode takes a very different take. At first glance, it appears to conflict with Enterprise's fourth season story "In a Mirror, Darkly," which provided its own sequel to "Web," however, a clever line of dialogue allows both sequels to co-exist.

The episode's script is science-heavy without ever becoming too laden with technobabble. I enjoy TOS pastiches that take into account recent discoveries and theories. "Shadow" includes dialogue regarding gravity waves and dark matter, and while both of these had been theorised in the early part of the 20th century, they hadn't become generally accepted or well known concepts until more recently. The dialogue is backed up by some spectacular effects work, which comes across as more showy and modern than previous episodes but works beautifully for the episode. Fans might see some similarity with episodes such as "Second Chances" and "Deadlock," but Trek has never shied away from re-exploring familiar tropes. Well worth a watch.