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.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

A little catch-up

It's been a pretty good week off, apart from the oppressive virus that has infiltrated my system. Understandably, I think, I'm not overjoyed to be dragging myself back to work tomorrow. However, it has been a fun few days. Suz and I spent last weekend in the West Country with her family, and then I spent the middle of the week helping my mum and my sister out with some stuff. Thankfully all pretty chilled, aside from the heavy lifting. I found time to take in the new Power Rangers movie, which I expected to be complete rubbish but I actually quite enjoyed. I've set up a Limitless card for the Odeon, so I'm planning on taking more time in the cinema. It's all about finding the time, of course.

This weekend, Suz and I went over to Dublin for a couple of days to stay with some wonderful friends. Suz has family from Ireland and has been over to both Dublin and Belfast a couple of times, but this is my first time. I've actually seen quite little of the British Isles, having spent a long while making longer trips abroad, so some little trips to Wales, Scotland and the two parts of Ireland are much overdue. As well as getting to spend some quality time with friends, we got to do a nice bit of touristy sightseeing. Our friends live in Ranelagh, which is in easy walking distance of the center of town but so quiet in itself, A really nice spot to stay. On the Friday we wandered about town and then took the tour bus up to Dublin Zoo, which is an impressive place and the third largest zoo in Europe, within the gigantic Phoenix Park. It's where they bred the legendary MGM lion named Slats. The history of the zoo is rather exploitative, which is par for the course for such institutions, but nowadays it has a focus on conservation, holding many critically endangered species. I was impressed with their great ape enclosures - they have chimps, gorillas and orangs and they all have free reign over a large open area. The elephants were hiding though.

We did plan to do the Guinness factory on the Saturday, but I wasn't feeling great and really needed an easy one, so instead the four of us had a jaunt into town. We went to Dunne's department store, and got lost in The Largest Lingerie Department in Ireland, in tribute the legendary scene in Father Ted. I did learn that Guinness is not black, but very very very very very very very very very dark red. Considering how much of it I've drunk over the years, I'm surprised I'd not noticed before. While we didn't make it to the Guinness factory, I did drink a significant quantity of the stuff, which I think is medically sound as I am suffering from mild anaemia. It really is better over there. We also spent some time in the National Museum of Ireland's archaeology site, which is the huge building on Kildare Street. It's full of remarkable prehistoric artefacts going back to the Paleolithic. The Bog Bodies exhibition was fascinating and quite chilling. Suz spent time in the Ancient Egypt exhibition, but I was still creeping around the corpses. I definitely plan to go back to the city to see more of it, particularly the Natural History Museum or "Dead Zoo."

Worky-wise, I have a ton of reviews I've been planning to write, both for here and Television Heaven, so expect some of those fairly soon. Nine Lives, the charity anthology featuring the Richard E. Grant version of Doctor Who has gone to the printers, and includes my story "Frozen in Time." I've also been asked to contribute to the second volume of Time Shadows, which I'm pretty excited about. The first volume was absolutely excellent and I'm very pleased to have been chosen from among the many submissions. I hope to find time to write up some of my own fiction ideas that I've been mulling over for a while, both fanfic and original. Before that, there's still work to be done with CP Studios on both Doctor Who and The World's Greatest Detective, the latter of which is assembling an impressive cast.

Also, in recent news, a carnivorous mushroom has been discovered down the road from me. So that's cool. 

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

REVIEW: The Crimson Mask 1: A Shadow Has Fallen by Chris Leach

Serial fiction has a long and noble history, with novels and sequential adventures once released in installments in newspapers, magazines and novelettes. Nowadays, new fiction is released in episodes on a variety of websites and apps, keeping the tradition alive.

The Crimson Mask is a new adventure serial in a vintage style that suits the serial format down to a tee. Chris Leach has released his first installment in this story, "A Shadow Has Fallen," for download via Payhip. The Crimson Mask is a mystery adventure that takes place in an alternative 19th century. Twenty years since the assassination of Queen Victoria and the Great Fire of Westminster, dark days are coming for the Empire and an insidious organisation known as the Shadow seeks to take control of London. Only an equally secretive organisation, the Foundation, can hope to stop them.

To say any more would spoil this first chapter, which sets up the story's central mystery and introduces the central members of the Foundation. Over only 5000 words Leach crafts a tight little adventure that creates an intriguing backdrop for the rest of the story. He's obviously having great fun playing in his pseudo-Victorian world and that comes through in his easy, enjoyable prose.

I'm looking forward to reading further chapters of The Crimson Mask, although the timescale for the next episode isn't clear. Until then, I recommend that you give the story a try by downloading this first chapter. It's only 49p, which is good value for money in anyone's ebook.

Monday, 27 March 2017

The Almost Doctors by Babelcolour

Stuart 'Bablecolour' Humphryes has uploaded his latest video, this one initially inspired by a request from Mark Gatiss. Humphryes has created a very clever "mockumentary" which gives us a glimpse into parallel timelines, where different actors played the part of the Doctor. Actors like Jim Dale and Fulton McKay, who were offered the role in reality but turned it down or were eventually deemed unsuitable. It's a fascinating what-if making use of some ingenious video manipulation.

He's started with Part Two, covering the 1970s, with the 60s-focused Part One to follow. Hopefully we'll get a Part Three as well if we're very good.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Comics to Screen: The Flash 3.13 & 3.14 - Gorilla City



Perhaps my favourite thing about The Flash is there embracing of Gorilla Grodd, the best of DC's villainous gorillas. (That there're even multiple villainous gorillas to choose from is a wondrous thing.) In the season two episode "Gorilla Warfare," Team Flash unceremoniously dumped Grodd in the parallel universe of Earth-Two, hoping to wash their hands of him.

Naturally, that didn't go to plan. Earth-Two has an entire city of telepathic gorillas, and Grodd landed rights on their border. Unsurprisingly, a power struggle ensued, between Grodd and Solovar, the great white gorilla who rules Gorilla City. I am so happy that this nonsense makes it to TV in 2017. The first episode takes our heroes on a mission to the African jungles of Earth-Two in search of Harrison Wells, although central Africa does look a lot like a wood in Vancouver. (There's a nice moment lampshading this with some balls about arresting climate change on Earth-Two, but really, there's no way they could afford major location work after spending all their money CG gorillas.) This is tremendously fun, with lots of OTT pseudo-Roman gorilla battles.

The second episode continues Grodd's plan to take revenge on Central City, roping in Gypsy (underwhelming Jessica Camacho) to open rifts to Earth-One. As much as having gorillas running round the city is a sure-fire win, I enjoyed this episode less. It's too bound up with Barry's ongoing mistakes and guilt, and the most interesting part -having him decide to kill off Grodd for good - is dropped in favour of his taking the moral high ground. If you're going to make him flawed and make questionable decisions, go all the way with it. He can't even let Solovar kill Grodd, although naturally the showrunners want to bring the monstrous ape back again next year.

Beyond the gorilla shenanigans, this two-parter exists to bring Jesse Quick back onto the showin order to run her romance with Wally. Quite why she's so enamoured with the stroppy little bastard is anyone's guess, but Violett Beane is pretty adorable so it's no bad thing having her around. Plus, we get the return of proper Wells, Earth-Two version. It's great fun watching likeable, hipster HR rub up against short-tempered genius "Harry" Wells, but mostly I'm pleased to have sexy Wells back for a couple of episodes. (His channelling of Grodd in the prison scenes is weirdly hot, and I'm not the only one who thinks that.")

Other than the Wells family relations, the best character in this two-parter is Julian. Tom Felton is such a great addition to the recurring cast; he steals every scene that allows him a line. I'm finding the Savitar plotline rather dull, but Julian himself is a great character. I love seeing get his Indiana Jones on for his excursion to Earth-Two. Plus, after his continual mentions of the Philosopher's Stone in preceding episodes, we get perhaps the greatest in-joke yet. They must have pissed themselves writing the Planet of the Apes line.


Gorilla Grodd goes right back to 1959, with his debut appearance being in The Flash #106. In the original continuity, Grodd and his fellow Gorilla Citizens were granted their super-intelligence by a radioactive meteorite, later retconned as a spaceship, which crashed into the African jungle. Solovar was part of the story from the beginning, having constructed Gorilla City with extraterrestrial help, and telepathically warning Barry Allen of Grodd's plans of world domination. Over the following years, Grodd made numerous appearances and enacted various schemes. He was frequently involved with other members of the Flash's Silver Age rogue's gallery, and such teams as the Injustice League and the Secret Society of Supervillains. 

Grodd has made a major return in the New 52, as king of Gorilla City, having killed and devoured his father (in this version, the gorillas believe that eating the brains of their enemies embues them with their knowledge). It seems that these gorillas were enhanced by the Speed Force itself, further tying their destiny up with that of the Flash. Grodd has made a number of TV appearances over the years in various animated series, in particular as a recurring foe in the wonderful Batman: The Brave and the Bold, even joining forces with other simian villains such as Gorilla Boss and Monsieur Mallah. in the wonderfully fun episode "Gorillas in Our Midst" (which also features Detective Chimp). On TB&TB, Grodd is voiced by John "Bender" DiMaggio, while on The Flash he is voiced by David Sobolov.

Sunday, 12 March 2017


"An excellent farewell to Jackman's long run as Wolverine."

Batman has been played by eight actors in live action films since 1943. Superman by five, Spider-Man by four. Most of the X-Men, in spite of the seventeen years of continual film production in a (broadly) consistent universe, have been played by two or more actors. But it's hard to imagine anyone else playing the Wolverine.

Some day, of course, someone else will play Logan. Fox won't let the character lie forever, and if they ever let the X-Men rights slip, Marvel would snap them back up and make a Wolverine film like a shot. Whoever takes on the role is going to have a very tough time winning over Hugh Jackman's fans. On paper, he is totally, notoriously wrong for the part. A short, stocky, beaten-up little bruiser being played by a strapping, handsome actor, who was best known for musicals prior to getting the part. Nonetheless, Jackman has been note perfect throughout his appearances in the X-Men franchise, from starring roles to cheeky cameos. He's the only actor to appear in all of the X-Men and Wolverine films - you can even include Deadpool in that, if you want to count the paper face mask Wade sports at the end. 

Logan is to be Jackman's final time as the Wolverine. This is probably for the best; there's only so long anyone can play an ageless mutant. Taking inspiration from the Old Man Logan storyline is something that Jackman himself campaigned for for some time, although seemingly he was mostly interested in the "old man" part of that than anything else. Indeed, very little from that questionable comics series has survived, beyond the future setting, the aged Logan and the road trip format. It's 2029, and no mutant has been born for over a decade. Logan is working as a chauffeur, of all things, trying to earn enough money to get out of the States. He is, along with the vampire-like mutant Caliban, caring for Professor Xavier, who is having psychic seizures that are devastating to everyone in the vicinity.

It's not a jolly setting, and it doesn't appear to be either future shown in Logan and Xavier's last mission together, Days of Future Past. But then, the writers X-Men franchise has never worried too much about continuity. Logan exists in relation to the previous X-Men films, but set apart as its own story. Nonetheless, the script assumes a certain knowledge of the basic set-up of the X-Men's world, and the nature of both Logan and Xavier's characters. It would be possible to come in cold and pick this all up, but it's not intended to be watched like that. It's a reflection on Wolverine's character, how he's developed through the films, and how he can be expected to deal with the decades of horror and violence he's experienced.

Logan is an extremely violent film, with decapitations, gunshots to the head, brutal beatings and murders aplenty. While I might sound like a scratched record, I am amazed that it has been released with a 15 certificate in the UK (an R-rating in the States, which isn't quite the same but still more permissive than I'd expect). Not too long ago, Logan would definitely have been rated 18. I don't think it's too violent, though. Indeed, it's honestly violent, in the way that, say, Tarantino films usually are. Violence is horrific and should be treated as such, and a less visceral version of Logan would blunt the message of what violence can do to someone.

The film hinges on Logan's two core relationships: with Xavier and Laura Kinney. Both call back to the first X-Men film in 2000. While X-Men saw Xavier take Logan in and bring him back to some semblance of civilised behaviour, here we have Logan caring for the decrepit Xavier, looking after him both for his sake and the sake of anyone else in the local area. The second relationship, with his genetic daughter, Laura, mirrors his paternal relationship with Anna Paquin's Rogue in X-Men. However, there's no element that calls back to the Logan-Jean Grey relationship, although a line referring to Jean was reportedly cut from the final edit. It's hard to see how such a relationship would have worked in this film, and it works better focusing on a relatively small core group of character. Nonetheless, it's a pity that there was no room for Liev Schrieber's Sabretooth in the film - the one good addition to X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and a character who is inextricably tied up with Wolverine's story.

Both Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart give exceptionally good performances as aged, sick versions of their now familiar characters. With Logan slowly dying from the adamantium that has been poisoning his system for decades, and Xavier dying from straightforward old age, there's an sense of impending death throughout the film. The Logan-Xavier relationship is one of exhausted commitment and responsibility, tempered by genuine fondness and good humour. Hearing Stewart swearing his tits off throughout the film is worth the ticket price alone. Surprisingly good is Stephen Marchant's performance as the ghoulish Caliban, bald and albino and sickly, an outsider to the pairing but one who helps hold it together.

Really, though, it's Dafne Keen's performance as Laura that makes the most impression. In spite of having no dialogue for much of the film, the Anglo-Spanish actress, at only eleven years old, gives the most remarkable performance of the film. She easily holds her own alongside Jackman and Stewart, no easy feat at all. She possesses both raw, terrifying instinct and heart-rending vulnerability. Laura Kinney has been a huge success in the comics, first as X-23 and now as the new Wolverine, and it's easy to see a great future for Keen as both an actor in general, and as an ongoing star of further X-Men films.

Logan's journey is at once both cynical and hopeful, giving up his less realisable hopes of escaping with Xavier to his adoption of Laura's own dreams, finally helping her achieve her freedom. It's also, as the X-Men films have always been at their best, about family.


Friday, 10 March 2017

Scream for Shalka - the REG Doctor returns in Nine Lives!

Waaaay back in 2003, when Doctor Who was celebrating its 40th anniversary, there was a very exciting announcement. Doctor Who was coming back, with a modern new direction, and a new, ninth Doctor! Before that though, there was another announcement. Doctor Who was coming back as an online cartoon serial, with a new, ninth Doctor played by Richard E. Grant. The excitement around the new TV series killed the thing dead, but Scream of the Shalka, that first, solitary web serial still has its fans.

One area the REG Doctor, or the Shalka Doctor, lived on is in fanfic. Now, after this very, very long break, there's been an upsurge in interest in that Doctor. Shalka was released on DVD last year, and Obverse Books have released a volume analysing the serial as part of their exhaustively researched Black Archive range. And now, we have the pleasure of announcing Nine Lives, a fiction anthology for charity, featuring the Richard E. Grant Doctor in stories written by such luminaries as Rachael Redhead, Kara Dennison, Stuart Douglas and Paul Driscoll, plus more... Scott Claringbold is the editor and there's wonderful cover art by Paul Hanley. Oh, and I have a story in there too: "Frozen Time," a chilly chapter in which the Doctor encounters an old, old enemy...

Pre-orders are closed as I write this, due to a heartwarming and surprising early run of orders, but the book will soon open up for orders again once printing is a go. It's on sale for £12 from Red Ted Books (plus postage, natch) and all proceeds go to the Stroke Association and the Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

FILM REVIEW: Hidden Figures

It's hard, as a British person in the 21st century, to understand how many American states remained racially segregated until the latter half of the twentieth. That's not to say racism and illegal segregation don't exist today, or where I live, but the widespread and legally enforced separation of black and white populations has never existed here. The echoes of racial segregation can be seen throughout the United States today, and this is hardly surprising, considering that it was a simple matter of fact for so many people still alive today. While racial segregation is now illegal in the US, we can already see a modern form of segregation, against same-sex couples and transgender individuals, taking shape under the guise of "religious freedom laws." They're even trying to keep people from using public toilets again.

So Hidden Figures is a timely piece, both last year's bestseller by Margot Lee Shetterley and this new film adaptation. I confess to not having read the book (yet, it's now high on my too-read list), but the film was something I was eager to see as soon as I heard about it. Part of this was down to the excellent cast, but mostly it was a desire to see an underexplored side to the space race, a major part of 20th century history which has always held a fascination for me.

Hidden Figures centres around three African American women, working for NASA in 1961, on the eve of manned spaceflight. Katherine Goble (nee Coleman, later Johnson), played by Taraji P. Henson, was and is a remarkable woman who displayed one of the finest mathematical brains of the 20th century. (Katherine Johnson, now 98-years-old and described by all who meet her as "sharp as ever," received the Presidential Medal of Freedom two years ago and attended this year's tumultous Oscars with Henson.) Katherine is the central character of the film, but a great deal of focus is also given to her friends and colleagues, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan. Jackson, played by Janelle Monae, was one of the most notable engineers at NASA and a tireless advocate for equal workplace rights. Vaughan, played by Octavia Spencer, taught herself computer programming language and became a frontrunner in the field of computing. They were, respectively, the first black female engineer and supervisor at NASA. Of the three, I was previously aware of Vaughan and Goble/Johnson, but I hadn't heard of Mary Jackson until watching the film.

The cast are uniformly excellent. As well as the three leads, the cast includes Kevin Costner as the director of the Space Task Group, Kirsten Dunst as Vaughan's departmental supervisor, and Mahershala Ali as Jim Johnson, Katherine's suitor and then husband. Although given relatively little screentime, Ali is magnetic, and it's hardly a surprise to me that he was become the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar (for Moonlight, one of my must-sees for March). There's also a role for the now ubiquitous Jim Parsons's, as chief engineer Paul Stafford, who comes across as a straight version of his usual cerebral, socially inept characters. Glen Powell is suitably charismatic as the legendary astronaut John Glenn, albeit reduced in age somewhat for the film.

For all the support they have from the wider cast, though, the strength of the film lies with the leading actresses, in particular Taraji P. Henson. She grounds the film with a performance that paints Goble as both an exceptionally gifted woman and a very straightforward one, someone who is both down-to-earth and looking to the stars. Janelle Monae adds a sassier, sexier side as the highly intelligent engineer Jackson, displaying a refusal to ever submit to the unfair treatment of her state, while Octavia Spencer makes Vaughan the most fundamentally likeable of the trio, coming across as a quietly brilliant and highly compassionate woman. Both Jackson and Vaughan are portrayed as more ambitious than Goble, who is simply so remarkably intelligent that it is ludicrous that she shouldn't be included in the most important meetings of the Mercury programme, and proves herself indispensible.

This was a time when the word computer meant someone who sat and performed calculations with pencil and paper. In a time when we each carry a supercomputer in our pocket and there's serious talk about private leisure flights to the Moon, it's amazing to see the first men travel to space, and the very first, cutting-edge IBM systems installed at NASA (taking up a huge office space). But it's the attitudes that are the most alien. A big chunk of the film is taken up with Goble's treks across the NASA grounds to find a toilet she is allowed to use, a drawn out, repetitive sequence that hammers home both the tragedy and absurdity of the situation. Jackson has to petition to be allowed to attend an all-white college in order to gain the qualification necessary to apply to become an engineer. Black people live in fear of being stopped by a white policeman, unsure what will happen if they say the wrong thing... well. maybe some things haven't changed.

A film like this is bound to romanticise the facts somewhat. Even a little surface research shows that the screenwriters have altered the facts somewhat. The three women had already made significant strides in their careers by 1961, but aligning these events with the first manned spaceflights makes it all the more momentous. John Glenn really did insist that Goble check the calculations before he made his first orbital flight aboard Friendship 7, but it wasn't the breakneck, white knuckle rush that it's portrayed as here. Most notably, it was Mary Jackson who had to trek across campus to find a washroom, not Katherine Goble. She just used whichever lavatory she pleased. In reality, it seems that NASA, although far from perfect, was more equitable than is shown here. Nonetheless, the film works, because even if the facts don't quite align with what we see, it's making an important point. NASA may have been making strides forward, but America as a whole was lagging behind. The events play out against a background of civil rights protests and violent repurcussions. This was the society these women lived in.

While it tweaks events, the script doesn't play too loose with established facts. I was pleased to see that Alan Shepherd and Gus Grissom got their dues as the first and second Americans in space, before the glamour of Glenn's 1962 orbital mission. (Legendary as he is, there are those who erroneously think Glenn was the first man in space; he was the fifth.) It's a pity we couldn't hang on a little longer for the flight of Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, but that would stretch the narrative out to mid-1963. While dominated at points by these world-changing events, this is a very human story, and as much is made of Goble's personal life and her romance with Jim Johnson as the mathematics, space flights and social upheaval. Genuinely excellent, this is a must-see.

Monday, 27 February 2017

REVIEW: The Lego Batman Movie

Batman is a character that can be anything from camp crusader in purple lycra, to a brooding misanthrope in black body armour. Conventional wisdom of late is that the latter approach is the better. Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKay and their colleagues beg to differ.

The Lego Movie was an unexpectedly brilliant family comedy, and its standout element for many was its version of Batman. Voiced by Will Arnett (possibly the best Batman since Kevin Conroy), the Lego Batman is a hilarious parody of the brooding, gravel-voiced Dark Knight. The Lego Batman Movie carries the joke as far as it can, sneaking us a look at the sulking brute behind the mask. After all, no matter how dark and hard-nosed, no one who dresses up as a bat can be a true adult. The Lego Batman keeps his mask on almost the entire run of the film, only taking it off twice, once for a gala event at the insistence of Alfred (a note-perfect Ralph Fiennes).

The script is a very family-friendly approach to Batman, and haven't we waited long enough for one of those? Grahame-Smith's story essentially takes the growling Christian Bale Batman and shows us how he might become the cute Adam West Batman, with his extended Bat-family. Bruce Wayne accidentally adopts wee Dick Grayson (Michael Cera) while besotted by the new Comissioner Gordon. That is to say, Barbara Gordon, voiced by Rosario Dawson, rapidly stacking up the comicbook character credits.

Much of the story concerns Batman's gradual acceptance of son and sidekick ("The kids at the orphanage call me Dick." "Well, children can be cruel.") into his life, and his growing respect for Barbara as a hero and crimefighter in her own right. The secondary plotline involves Batman's other great relationship, his great enmity with the Joker (Zack Galifianakis). Bats destroys the Joker by dismissing him as his archenemy ("I'm fighting lots of villains. I like to fight around."), leading the Clown Prince of Crime to go to absurd extremes to take over Gotham and prove himself. As the Joker's plans go, the one he uses here isn't the most contrived or ridiculous, and certainly one of the most successful.

The Lego Batman Movie is a Batman movie first and foremost, but it doesn't let Lego's vast franchise reach go to waste. The rest of the Justice League make an appearance, but this is wisely kept to a cameo, so that the focus is resolutely on Batman and Robin (although The Lego Justice League Movie sounds fairly inevitable at this stage). In the second half of the film, though, the plot goes nuts, bringing in villains from every corner of the Lego Dimensions. This leads to some of the funniest moments in the film, as Sauron (Jemaine Clement, wonderfully) lays waste to Gotham, along with Lord Voldemort (strangely not a dual role for Fiennes, but a guest spot by Eddie Izzard), the Gremlins and many others. Even the Daleks are involved, although, strangely, they're referred to only as "the British robots." (Clearly, they are taken from 1979's Destiny of the Daleks.)

I had hoped that a similar array of heroes would be involved in saving the day, but the script shows more restraint than that, and correctly keeps Batman at the centre of the film. There's plenty of room for his huge array of villains, one of the best, and often the most ludicrous, rogue's galleries in comics. I had to convince some very incredulous friends that Crazy Quilt, Orca and the Condiment King are genuine Batman villains. The only really crushing ommission is the Music Meister. It's a glorious film for comicbook fans in general, and Batman fans in particular. Every previous Batman film gets a nod, even the 40s serials, plus much more. To support the excellent performances there are some wonderful minor roles and cameos, such as Billy Dee Williams finally getting to play Two-Face, and very oddly, Mariah Carey voicing the Mayor of Gotham.

This is an absolute joy from start to finish. Time will tell if it has the same rewatch value as The Lego Movie, but it definitely has the same wit, silliness and message of family and friendship as its predecessor. Here's looking forward to The Lego Movie Sequel (and, hopefully someday, The Lego Doctor Who Movie).

Friday, 24 February 2017

Comics to Screen: Supergirl 2-10


This episode involves two main themes, both, in essence, revolving around the theme of heroism and what it means. Primarily, we have the nature of what makes someone a hero. Is someone a hero if they simply engage in stereotypically heroic actions without any true compassion to back it up, as is the case with Mon-El, who uses his Daxamite powers to save people mainly so that he can impress Kara? Or is it someone's intentions that makes them a hero, as with James and Winn, who are finally revealed to Kara as the Guardian and his sidekick. They have no powers and fuck up as often as they do good, but they're doing so from a genuine desire to help people.

All this is run through Kara's own attitudes; as the central character of the series, she's the one who makes the judgments at the end of the day. It's refreshing though that James calls her out on this. Just because she's the city's resident premier superhero doesn't give her the deciding vote on the roles others play. (And she doesn't have the clout that, say, her cousin would.) Equally, though, James is clearly as motivated by his jealousy of Kara (and perhaps Mon-El), as he is by nobler reasons. 

I'm glad that there are no clear-cut answers. The charaters are both right and wrong in many ways. Mon-El doesn't think it matters why he's saving lives, as long as he's doing it, while it makes the difference to Kara. She's right to point out that James (and especially Winn) are putting themselves in danger because they have no superpowers, but then, neither does Alex, and she runs into battle with aliens on a weekly basis. Kara seems obsessed with making Mon-El into a hero to match up with his powers, but says to James that powers aren't all it takes, because if they were, Livewire would be a hero. 

Tying into this is the secondary theme, that of prejudice and prejudgment, and how this undercuts Kara's, and J'onn's, heroism. Kara refuses to believe that Livewire could possibly be innocent, until she sees visual evidence that she has been abused and used against her will. She also harbours lingering prejudices against the Daxamites, something that is holding her back even as her feelings for Mon-El grow. It's a relief that he finally admits his feelings for her, but she can't (yet) do the same. 

J'onn is far more prejudiced, which throws his character into a very poor light. While he has been the victim of supression on Mars (as a Green Martian), and prejudice on Earth (as both an extraterrestrial and a black American), he is, albeit understandably, prejudiced against the White Martians who destroyed his people. M'gann has been locked up under the DEO for what must be weeks, with no consideration of due process or her rights. This sort of shit goes on all the time in The Flash, and it's no more palatable there, but it's perticularly galling here as she's been so clearly noble and heroic herself. J'onn finally overcomes his prejudices and makes a huge step forward as a character, but it's a nasty side to both J'onn and Kara that keeps coming forward.

That's not to say I disapprove of the storyline. It's far more interesting to have flawed heroes, and sci-fi allows for a certain allegorical approach (I am reminded of Worf's attitudes to the Romulans on Star Trek: The Next Generation). Both Kara and J'onn have issues to deal with because of their backgrounds, but now that they're on Earth they're called out on it and made to deal with their preconceptions. While this isn't the most exciting episode of the series, it has important things to say.


Jimmy Olsen, of course, goes way back. He arguably made his first appearance as early as 1938, in an issue of Action Comics, only a few months after Superman himself. The newspaper boy who appears isn't named, but he does look like Jimmy, right down to the bow-tie. Jimmy's inarguable debut, though, happened on the radio, in the series The Adventures of Superman in 1940, played by Jackie Kelk. As a chatty sidekick to Superman and Clark Kent alike, he was quickly absorbed into the comics, appearing on-and-off for a few issues before disappearing again. It was only when Jack Larson played the character on the TV version of The Adventures of Superman in 1953 that he became a mainstay of the comics.

He became popular enough that in 1954 he received his own title, Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen. During this series' frankly astonishing twenty-year run, Jimmy was put through a variety of unlikely transformations, from Flash-like super-speed, to increased intelligence and elasticity. At one point he was transformed into an alien from Jupiter, and on another occasion, he switched bodies with a gorilla. There was quite a lot of stuff with gorillas, but they seem to be the province of The Flash these days.

The series also introduced Lucy Lane, who became Jimmy's ongoing love interest, although he also had dalliances with Supergirl. Jack Kirby took over the title on 1970, specifically because he wanted free reign to play with an existing title and Superman's Pal was one of DC's lowest selling titles at this point. He revamped the series with more impressive villains and gave Jimmy his own team, the Newsboy Legion, characters he had initially created for Star-Spangled Comics in the forties. Also returning from that title was the Guardian, the Captain America-like alter ego of Jim Harper.

Jimmy has appeared many times onscreen over the years. Best known is Marc McClure's portrayal, visually close to the look of the comicbook original however dated that appeared. McClure first appeared in 1978's Superman: The Movie alongside Christopher Reeve. going on to appear in its three sequels and in the 1984 Supergirl film starring Helen Slater. He was later played in the alternative continuation Superman Returns in 2006, played by Sam Huntington.

The popular 90s series Lois and Clark featured Jimmy is a prominent role. Michael Landes played the character as a cocky up-and-comer for the first season, but was replaced by the better-remembered Justin Whalin, who was more like the goofy rookie of the comics. Other actors who have played Jimmy include Aaron Ashmore in Smallville (whose brother Shawn was almost cast in the role for Superman Returns), and the late Tommy Bond in the 1948 Superman cinematic serial and its 1950 sequel, Atom Man vs. Superman.

Mehcad Brooks is, clearly, something of a departure. Aside from his race, the character as portrayed by Brooks is quite different from the naive sidekick of the comics and popular films. Confident, athletic and strong, Brooks's James Olsen has not only become editor of CatCo, but has transformed himself into the Guardian in place of Jim Harper (who has appeared in Supergirl). In many ways, Winn is more like Jimmy as we remember him. There are some elements of the character that follow on from the comics, though, such as his relationship with Lucy Lane and his brief attachment to Supergirl. And he is, of course, Superman's pal. It's just a shame he's so terribly dull (and he doesn't wear a bowtie).

Thursday, 23 February 2017

The Worlds of TRAPPIST-1

The internet is alight with people sharing the news of NASA's latest announcement. After teasing us with talk of a discovery "beyond the solar system," NASA announced the existence of a seven-planet star system located less than forty light years away. What's most exciting about the discovery is that most of the planets are considered potential habitats for life.

The star known as TRAPPIST-1 is, like many modern stellar discoveries, named after the device used to detect it, in this case, the TRAnsiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope in Chile. You may notice that this doesn't quite spell out TRAPPIST, but the inventors are obviously Belgian beer fans and I can support that. Located 39 light years away in Aquarius, TRAPPIST-1 is described as an ultra-cool dwarf star, on the borderline of a red dwarf and a sub-stellar brown dwarf. Three planets were discovered there and announced back in 2015, and since then, the NASA Spitzer telescope and the Very Large Telescope at Paranal have detected four more. The extent of the system was announced last night (Feb 22nd).

In spite of being such a cool, dim star, TRAPPIST-1 may make an effective sun for life-bearing planets due to their extremely close orbits. All seven known planets orbit the star closer than Mercury orbits the Sun, and at least three of them are considered right within the system's habitable zone. This makes the planets astonishingly close together; the first and second planets are only slightly further apart than the Earth and the Moon. Finally, elaborate skies hanging with enormous sister planets can be considered a reality, not just science fiction. 

OK, this is Vulcan, but you get the idea

The planets are named TRAPPIST-1b through to -1h, and, unusually for discoveries of this type, are labelled in order of distance from their star. Each of them is within Earthlike mass and radius, with at least three of them estimated as being smaller than the Earth, and all are considered to be rocky, terrestrial-type planets. TRAPPIST-1b and -1c are the closest, with featureless spectra that indicates either a cloudless, water vapour dominated atmosphere, or a thicker, Venus-type atmosphere. They most likely lost the bulk of their surface water while their star was still cooling, and are less likely as abodes for life. TRAPPIST-1d is more likely habitable, although still closer than the calculated Goldilocks zone. TRAPPIST-1e, -1f and -1g are right within this zone, and are probably fairly cool in comparison to their inner brethren, far more likely to hold liquid water, Depending on the thickness of the atmosphere, they may be cooler than the Earth, or more comfortably terrestrial. TRAPPIST-1h is less well analysed so far, but is likely cold and less hospitable.

While the relative positions of planets to the star suggest potentially life-supporting temperatures, we shouldn't jump to conclusions. As always, Earthlike is a relative term. Red dwarf stars, let alone ultra-cool dwarfs, are debatable as life-supporting stars, due to the extreme proximity of their planets. The year on these planets will be very rapid, in the manner of a few days (-1b's year lasts only a day-and-a-half in Earth terms, with -1h at no more than 35 days, probably less). They are also likely to be tidally locked, with one side of each planet permanently facing the star. Both facts would lead to extreme weather conditions on the surface. Equally, radiation from the star, including X-rays and extreme energy ultraviolet radiation, would bombard the planets constantly at that proximity, depleting the atmospheres and making it harder for life to form.

Still, there is reason to hope. Even if the planets are lifeless now, they may not be always. Stars' longevity is inversely proportional to their size and temperature, and an ultra-cool dwarf like TRAPPIST-1 is likely to last a thousand times as long as the Sun, remaining stable for trillions of years. TRAPPIST-1 is estimated at only 500 million years old at present, but it could become a host for life for many thousands of millions of years in the future. 

Click the link here for NASA's announcement and an artist's impression of planet TRAPPIST-1d.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Comics to Screen: Supergirl 2-9


You could be forgiven for expecting something rather special from this, Kevin Smith's first episode of Supergirl. After all, his directorial debut on The Flash, season two's "The Runaway Dinosaur," was a thing of beauty. What's more, as the title hints, "Supergirl Lives" is loosely based on Smith's script for the troubled and long-dead feature film Superman Lives, although, from what I've read of that production, the only thing that has really survived is Kara being left powerless due to the lack of a yellow sun. 

What we actually get is a fairly low-key start to the semi-season, even as it spans light years. Much of the episode takes place on Slaver's Moon, a hellish planetoid bathed under the light of a red dwarf star, leaving both Kara and Mon-El little better than ordinary humans. (As inhabitants of the same system, it makes sense that they react the same way to stellar conditions. For all we know, Slaver's Moon might even be in the Kryptonian system, although it's probably unlikely.) Much of the purpose of the episode seems to be tying up the loose ends from the previous episode "Survivors," with the villainous Roulette still on the loose. The alliance of Roulette and the Dominators, while tying various elements of the Supergirl/Arrowverse together, feels like an odd mix and doesn't really work.

Where the episode succeeds is in the development of two of its recurring male characters. Jeremy Jordan has really come into his own as Winn, now that the character has been allowed to get away from the confines of CatCo and become more than a second-tier love interest for Kara. Winn's latest role as sidekick to the Guardian is more believable than James becoming the superhero himself, but as a distinctly un-buff, un-powered individual, it's entirely fitting that Winn would be overwhelmed by the threat and violence of the situations in which he finds himself. Jordan portrays Winn's journey from post-traumatic stress through reluctant heroism to true bravery rather wonderfully.

Chris Wood gets more likeable as Mon-El with each episode, and this instalment sees him finally accept his fate as a superhero without losing any of his layabout charm. As well as finally kicking his story into high gear (with more developments in his relationship with Kara to come as a result), the aliens searching for him at the episode's close raise interesting questions about his background. Do we know the truth about his life back on Daxam? There should be some fun revelations to come later in the season.

The real star of the episode, though, is the stupid comedy alien called Joe, who appears to have wandered in from a children's series filming on the same planetoid.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

New from The Doctor Who Project

TDWP have just released the latest in their Brief Encounters line - a series of adventures for Doctors One to Seven. This time it's "Shadow at the Heart" featuring the fifth Doctor and Nyssa, as played by Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton in the hit BBC TV series.

This short was written by me and my compatriot James P. Quick of C.P. Studios, from James's original idea. I think we've come up with something pretty special here, especially if you're a fan of early 80s Doctor Who. I have also been involved with C.P. Studios' upcoming series of Batman audioplays, The World's Greatest Detective. Keep an eye on the website for updates.

You can download the story in PDF format for free here.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

CAPTAIN'S BLOG: TOS 2-23 & 2-24

TOS 2-23) Patterns of Force
Captain Kirk vs. Space Nazis

The Mission: Find missing Federation observer, John Gill, on the planet Ekos.

Planets visited: Ekos, the inner of two habitable planets in star system M43-Alpha. A very Earth-like planet.

Alien life forms: The Ekosians and Zeons  are two humanoid races who inhabit the planets Ekos and Zeon respectively. They seem to be indistinguishable from humans, and from each other. The Zeons are technologically more advanced than the Ekosians, and a number of them arrived on Ekos some years ago in an attempt to "civilise" them. The Ekosians did not welcome the Zeons, and treat them as second-class citizens. Since Gill came to power, the Ekosians have been run as a Nazi state, unaware that Gill is from another world. The Zeons are being rounded up and exterminated, but there is a resistance movement.

Future History: John Gill is considered one of the Federation's greatest historians. Sent to Ekos merely to observe the culture, he has perverted it into a replica of Nazi Germany, right down to the uniforms and weaponry. While Gill sits as Fuhrer, it;s his right-hand man Melakon who wields power, keeping Gill drugged and subdued and communicating his wishes through soundbites. "Gill" has now ordered the "Final Decision," an attack on the planet Zeon and the complete extermination of the Zeon race. Just in case any of this was too subtle, the Zeons all have Hebrew-derived names, like Isak and Abrom.

Future Treknology: The Zeons have quite primitive interplanetary craft. Gill (and perhaps the Zeons, to begin with) has evidently pushed Ekosian technology forward, as they now have nuclear weaponry and the beginnings of space travel themselves.

Kirk and Spock have transponders injected into their skin to allow them to be beamed up should they not report in. An extremely wise precaution that they really should have used as standard. However, they dig out the implants to use the rubidium crystals within to create a laser beam from the lightbulb in their cell in order to affect escape.

Captain James T: Gill tutored him at the Academy. He evidently admires the man, describing him as "gentle," but even Kirk isn't immune to the allure of a well-tailored Gestapo uniform. For once, Kirk doesn't try to shag the sexy blonde he's assigned to work with. He could easily get the Enterprise to intercept the Ekosian warfleet but refuses to go down such a destructive route.

Green-Blooded Hobgoblin: How perfect does Spock look in his beanie? Spock's alien appearance draws attention from the xenophobic Ekosian authorities, even with his cunning beanie disguise. (The fact that Nimoy is Jewish makes these scenes rather more potent than they might otherwise be.) When Spock stands on Kirk to begin his escape attempt, it looks for all the world like he is taking as long as possible on purpose. He also starts to enjoy "gambling" with his life. Spock's lash-marks are, of course, green. He uses the nerve pinch no fewer than three times, and "mind probes" Gill.

The Real McCoy: The entire set-up is worth for when Bones beams down in SS uniform, demanding to know what the hell is going on.

Shirtless Kirk Alert: It's a twofer, as both Kirk and Spock get their tops off. And whipped. This is bordering on slash fic.

Trek Stars: Valora Norland plays Daras, femme fatale who poses as a high-ranking Nazi but is secretly part of the resistance. She gives an excellent performance and isn't reduced to Kirk's fox of the week.

Space Bilge: Kirk and Spock consider the odds of a parallel society like this developing of its own accord virtually impossible. This is after visiting space Rome and a perfect duplicate of Earth.

Quote, Unquote: "To the logical mind, the outlook is somewhat gloomy."

The verdict: A good, old-fashioned "Nazis in America" tale, and about as subtle as they ever get. The script twists itself into a propaganda piece for the Prime Directive, when the actual lesson is the far from surprising "Nazism is bad." Still, it works well, with some excellent costumes brought out from the archives so it looks more expensive than it actually is. With Nazi elements becoming more prevalent in the US and even dominant parts of society sliding towards that way of thinking, "Patterns of Force" takes on a new edge. Gill isn't as bad as Trump.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Women's Rights - February 2017 edition

While MPs in the UK have begun petitioning for legal proceedings against employers to fight against sexist dress codes for female employees, President Trump has insisted that his female staff "dress like women."

Trump has also instructed his education team to begin rolling back the Title IX legislation that has slowly been making US universities responsible for the sexual safety of their students. Betsy DeVos has pledged to review whether Title IX is actually necessary, in spite of what has been decribed as "an epidemic of sexual assault on American campuses." In a related move, the religious freedom movement has allowed a number of Christian schools to apply for the right to waiver Title IX. This would allow them to refuse students who are LGBT or pregnant out of wedlock, and would also have the effect of removing any protection they have against sexual violence. 

Arkansas has passed a law that would make abortion legal under any circumstances, which would have the side effect of allowing rapists to sue their victims if they became pregnant, even in cases of incest. While there is still time to block Act 45, the fact that the legislature of the state passed it in the first place is truly horrific.

Due to the continual reduction of funding to NPOs in England, a clinic and support group for the victims of female genital mutilation will soon be forced to close. A petition exists to help try to prevent this.

The Russian courts have effectively decriminalised domestic abuse, a move that has set women's rights back significantly in a country where spousal abuse is commonplace and thousands of women are killed by their partners every year. The move has even been backed by the Russian Orthodox Church.

Amal Clooney and Nadia Murad are fighting to prosecute the crimes of Islamic State militants, who have systematically abused Yazidi women and children during the ongoing conflict in Iraq, Syria and the surrounding territories. While this piece makes for some very upsetting reading, it is also important to highlight the horrific extent of the abuses by IS, and the complete failure of the West to provide a lifeline for the Yazidi.

And this is just the last week or so.