Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Comics to Screen: Spider-Man: Homecoming observations and spoilers

Spider-Friends!

Liz would appear to be the MCU's version of both Liz Allen, one of Peter Parker's many romantic interests in the comics, and Valeria Toomes, daughter of the Vulture. Liz was the primary live interest of Parker in the Spectacular Spider-Man's first TV season., where she was portrayed as mixed race rather than the comics' traditional apple pie American blonde. In the Ultimate Spider-Man comics, Liz becomes Firestar, the superhero who was part of Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. Sony was previously planning a spin-off movie featuring a team of female superheroes, and while it looks like this has been cancelled, if it ever gets the go-ahead again, Firestar would be a likely inclusion. Liz also has links to Flash, Ned and Harry Osborn in the comics, and is the stepbrother of the villain Molten Man, although she doesn't appear to have any siblings in this version. Valeria Toomes tries to distance herself from her father's activities in the comics, and eventually works for SHIELD. Again, it's easy to see this becoming part of the narrative if the character returns to the MCU in the future.



Michelle Jones likes to be known as MJ, confirming that she is the equivalent of Mary Jane Watson, albeit as a new and very different character. While she doesn't have much in common with Peter Parker's girlfriend and sometime wife, she does act as an observer character keeping him on his toes in the same way, and making her MJ hints very strongly that the two of them will get together in the future of the MCU. I'd lay good money that the next Spidey film will see them develop something of a romance, but will also introduce Gwen Stacey (or an equivalent character) to complicate matters.

Donald Glover plays petty criminal Aaron Davies, and mentioned having a nephew in the borough. That nephew is Miles Morales, the second Spider-Man of the Ultimate Comics universe and currently one of two Spider-Man, along with Parker, in the mainline Marvel comics. Glover voices Miles in the Ultimate Spider-Man animated series, and campaigned to play Spider-Man during the run-up to The Amazing Spider-Man. Director Watts was aware of this and cast Glover in his movie, setting up Miles for potential inclusion in the MCU in future.

Jacob Batalon's character Ned is probably named after of Ned Leeds, a recurring character in the comics, although he has no official last name in the films yet. In the comics, he is a friend and rival of Parker at the Daily Bugle, and is eventually brainwashed to become the third villain known as the Hobgoblin. There is virtually no chance that Ned here is going to live the life of Ned Leeds in the comics, and hasn't much in common with that character. Exec. producer Eric Hauserman Carroll states that Ned is a composite of several characters, but the character he has most in common with is Ganke Lee, best friend of Miles Morales. Ganke goes by the name Ned as an alias.

Spider-Foes!

The criminal called Gargan is best known in the comics as the Scorpion, hinted at, not exactly subtly, by the scorpion tattoos on his neck in the film. The version in the film is based on the Ultimate comics version of the character, who was a petty criminal. As well as being a recurrent villain as the Scorpion, he becomes one of several characters to take on the Venom symbiote, and even acts as Spider-Man for a short time, albeit in a not-very-heroic way. Given that Sony have resurrected their plans for a Venom movie, I think it's highly likely we'll see Gargan as either the Scorpion in the next Spider-Man film, the new Venom, or both. The rights issue is complicated around reusing characters from this film, however.

The film features two versions of classic Spider-Man villain the Shocker, who wields gauntlets that produces sonic shockwaves. In a nice touch, the gauntlets leave a yellow residue on his jacket sleeves which approximates the look of the comic version's costume. Initially it is Jackson Brice, better known as Montana, who wields the gauntlets and the name Shocker, taking the lead from the Spectacular Spider-Man animated series, which combines the two characters. He doesn't last long, and is replaced by Herman Schultz, the traditional holder of the title.

Sony's previous Spider-Verse lineup included Sinister Six, which went on the backburner along with much of their plans, in spite of a lot of set-up being included in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. However, with the Venom movie back on the cards, we might see Sinister Six enter production after all. The Vulture was an original member of the Six, with the Shocker joining the Sinister Six and Sinister Seven at different points. The Scorpion never technically joined the Sinister Six, but Mac Gargan was part of the team during his time as Venom, and he was a member of the equivalent group, the Insidious Six, in the classic 90s Spider-Man cartoon, and a couple of versions of the team in the Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon series. As all three villains survive the events of Homecoming, there's a pretty good chance they'll be in the Six should the movie eventually materialise.

Michael Chernus's character, Phineus Mason, is better known as the Tinkerer, an inventor of great skill who has provided numerous comicbook villains with technology and equipment, and has been affiliated with the Sinister Six, the Ultimate Six and the Masters of Evil in various iterations. In Homecoming, he adapts Crossbones's weaponry into Shocker's gauntlets and creates the Vulture's flying armour from Chitauri and Stark technology. His whereabouts are unconfirmed at the end of the film, so it's a cert that we'll see him again. Odds on he creates the Scorpion suit for Gargan.

Spider-Cameos!

Among the many names listed in the credits are some notable inclusions among Liz's group of friends. Jorge Lendeborg plays Jason Ionello, J. J. Totah is Seymour O'Reilly and Ethan Dizon is Tiny McKeever, all part of the general gang of popular dickheads in classic Spider-Man comics and animated shows. More surprisingly, traditional Parker-love interest Betty Brant is listed, played by 16-year-old Angourie Rice. Betty Brant is normally based at the Daily Bugle during Parker's journalist career, rather than a kid as she is here. Tiffany Espenson plays Cindy, who is likely a reference to Cindy Moon, who has quite recently been introduced as the superhero Silk in the comics, a character who was bitten by the same spider as Parker.

Most of the teachers are basic background Spider-Man characters, but Coach Wilson, played by Hannibal Buress, dates back further, to Stan Lee's 1955 creation Meet Miss Bliss, in the pre-Marvel days. The headmaster of the school, Principal Morita, is seemingly a descendant of Jim Morita of the Howling Commandos, and is played by Kenneth Choi, who played the earlier Morita in both Captain America: The First Avenger and Agents of SHIELD.

Director and producer Kirk Thatcher appears briefly as an ageing punk on the streets, reprising his cameo from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (he's the arsehole on the bus who Spock nerve-pinches). This conclusively proves that the MCU and Star Trek share the same universe.

Some guys just doing their job


Damage Control, the clean-up company here owned, like everything else, by Stark Industries, first appeared in 1988, gaining their own title in 1989. They've appeared several times since then, leading their own comedic adventures while also being significant players in major Marvel Comics events. This is there first appearance in the MCU, although the film makes it clear that they've been doing the hands-on work behind the scenes since Avengers Assemble, although previously we've only seen SHIELD agents cleaning up battle sites. In the comics, the company was initially jointly owned by Tony Stark and Wilson Fisk, and given the timescale here, there's no reason this can't be true of the MCU. It's founded by Anne-Marie Hoag, played here by Tyne Daly, and the character is the current owner of the company in the comics. Two years ago, ABC ordered a pilot for a Damage Control live-action TV series from Ben Karlin, intended as a comedy series set within the MCU, but so far there has been little news on this. Given the appearance of the company in Homecoming, it's quite likely the series will be developed at some point. 

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

REVIEW: Spider-Man: Homecoming

Marvel and Sony have made friends again, and the fruit of their joint labours is the latest Spider-Man, the sixth of the modern era. (How you count it overall is matter of debate.) Fans sighed a deep cynical sigh when the Spidey cinematic series was rebooted for the second time in about five years, following the Amazing Spider-Man franchise, which was cut short after it failed to pull the crowds as expected. Young Tom Holland became the second Englishman to play Peter "radiaoctive spider-bite" Parker in last year's Captain America: Civil War, which introduced this newest take on a character who first appeared in 1962 and has been swinging across screens for almost as long. Impressively, director Jon Watts and his writing team have managed to create a film that feels both modern and very traditional.

Taking Peter Parker back to high school is the best thing they could have made. Although he didn't spend all that long at school in the comics, there's something right about setting his inaugural adventures during his formative years as a wee fifteen-year-old. Watts has made a very canny choice in his approach, deliberately giving the film the feel of classic John Hughes movies. The language is bluer but the humour less so, but overall there's a definite feeling of The Breakfast Club, with a little hint of Ferris Bueler's Day Off (and some very deliberate references to that last one). On the other hand, the kids deal with very modern problems, no one is ever more than an inch away from their phone, and everything is on YouTube. It's a film for teens that also appeals to anyone who remembers being a teen.

Tom Holland is absolutely spot-on as this younger version of Parker. This is a Parker film more than a Spider-Man one, and it's clear that Watts has more interest in the kid's personal life than his superheroics, but that's to the film's benefit, not it's detriment. We've had plenty of superhero battles lately; it's on its characters that a film like this succeeds or fails. Holland is perhaps the greatest screen Spider-Man we've ever had. He was a big success in Civil War, but it's here that he proves he can hold a feature, indeed a franchise. He gives Parker an easygoing but slightly nervy charm, and easily convinces as a brilliant but uncertain American teenager, in spite of being a 21-year-old Englishman. (Amusingly, Holland attended the Bronx Science High for a short time in preparation of the role, and no one believed he was playing Spider-Man.) He's signed up six films, including three Spider-Man films, so we have two Spideys and two team-ups to look forward to.

Peter Parker is nothing without his supporting cast, though. Spider-Man's story has always been a soap opera, full of love triangles, close friendships, rivalries and complex relationships. Homecoming makes this into one of its greatest strengths. Parker has to balance his "Stark internship" (i.e. his trainee Avenger status), his relationship with his aunt, his friendships and difficulties at school, potential romances, and a ruthless villain who, in classic Spider-Man style, is linked to his life in unexpected ways. It's a tangled web, indeed.




Thankfully, the other players in the film are uniformly excellent. The loudest shout-out has to go to Jacob Batalon as Ned, Parker's best friend and uber-nerdy computer geek, who stumbles upon Parker's secret and spends much of the film squeeing at his role in a superhero narrative. I'd happily watch a Ned spin-off, where he amiably goes about his business thwarting villains with tech smarts and sudden bursts of courage. On the other side, there's Tony Revolori as Flash Thompson, who is both Parker's quiz team rival and the popular dickhead of the school. If this sounds an unlikely combination, it is, but it works because of the way this version of Flash is presented. Unlike the traditional football jock, the school bully concept has been updated to the overconfident but maladjusted rich kid, who's always going to get what he wants and doesn't give a shit about anyone else.

This updating and, in some cases, complete rewriting of characters works very well. A case in point being Homecoming's MJ, no longer Mary Jane but Michelle Jones, played by Zendaya. Why she's the main female credit on the film I don't know; apparently she's a big thing in the States. However famous she is, she does a brilliant job of making the sulky outsider MJ into one of the best things of the film. Completely unlike the MJ we know from the comics, rather a new character who is positioned to take her place in the narrative. This MJ has the vibe of Ally Sheedy's character in The Breakfast Club (she even goes to detention voluntarily). Some people have, predictably, kicked off about the changes to characters, especially the race changes for the, originally all-white, set-up, but this is a more accurate reflection of how a school in America looks today. And we know that there's a whole Spider-Verse of different versions of Parker and his associates, so there's room for wildly different interpretations of classic characters.

What I don't understand is why she is credited and publicised so much higher than Laura Harrier, who portrays Liz, who is somehow top of both the brainy and popular cliques and Parker's love interest for the movie. Harrier gives a very sweet, likeable performance but isn't a pushover (one thing Spider-Man has long been good at is strong-minded female characters). Again, Liz is a variation on an established comics character, tweaked for this new telling, and forms a vital part of the new ensemble - far more vital than MJ does.

Another fine example of this: Adrian Toomes, aka the Vulture. Michael Keaton is exceptional in the role, giving a very real performance as the most three-dimensional villain we've ever seen in a Marvel movie. It's a common complaint that the villains in the MCU are paper-thin, with the notable exception of Loki. Ego was a huge improvement in the recent Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, but really, neither Loki nor Ego are particularly complex, although they are better characterised than most. Toomes, however, is an ordinary man pushed to extraordinary actions by a events beyond his control. He is a man desperately trying to take back control, for his own sake, and his family's. Both the script and Keaton's performance sell this perfectly, giving us a villain who has a genuine moral code that happens to be at odds with the majority's, a character with actual personality instead of a list of traits. And he is as unlike the life-force sucking Vulture of the comics as he could be.

Toomes is driven to his extreme, extra-legal career by Stark Industries' appropriation of all alien and unfeasible technology that lies around the MCU following the various climactic battles. It's a logical extension of these battles that a salvage industry would develop to take advantage of the repercussions, and equally feasible that the powers that be would try to take this source of profit for themselves. That said powers are wholly or partially responsible for the destruction in the first place is all the more effective. It's a better and more subtle examination of the nature of the 1%, corporate greed and collateral damage than Batman vs. Superman could ever hope to manage. It's also notable that both Keaton's Vulture and his Batman could believably exist in this world (different publishers not withstanding), and would be diametrically opposed to one another. Birdman, of course, is the evolutionary midpoint between the two.

The opposite party to Toomes in Homecoming, then, is Iron Man. Some worried that this was going to be an Iron Man film in all but name, but it's Parker's film through and through. What Stark provides is a mentor figure and provider of hardware, and he's surprisingly mature in both counts. There's finally a sense that Stark has actually learnt from his past mistakes and is trying to make sure others don't make the same, but it's never at the expense of Parker's development. "If you're nothing without the suit, you don't deserve it," becomes this film's version of "With great power comes great responsibility," and it's just as vital to Parker's understanding of his role as hero. And while Stark is the opposite of Toomes and they are pit against each other, they never meet, with their battle for control occurring entirely through the proxy of young Parker.

The only point that the film falls down is the actual battles between Spider-Man and the Vulture. While the action is, for the most part, very impressive, as we've come to expect from Marvel, but the climactic final confrontation is so overly busy that it's almost impossible to tell what's going on. There are flashes on interesting visual effects, but they're rather lost in the maelstrom. There's a sense that the huge battle is only there because of convention, whereas the main dramatic beats have already been dealt with. Still, this is a pretty small complaint for a film that gets so much right.

Whotopia Issue 31 is now available



To read the latest issue of fanzine Whotopia just click the image above. As well as the usual mix of Who-related articles and reviews, this issue is dedicated to the maestro of scriptwriting, Robert Holmes. Each one of his stories has been reviewed (I got to cover Terror of the Autons, Talons of Weng-Chiang and The Ribos Operation, all absolute classics - but then, aren't most of his scripts?) The issue also includes the fourth part of my "Master Who?" series, covering the villainous Yank, Eric Roberts.

The issue is also available to purchase in a glossy paper format here, for about a fiver.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Star Trek Planetary Classification Guide

The following is based on the planetary classification system used in Gregory Mandell's Star Trek Star Charts and Chris Adamek's variant found at The Final Frontier, themselves based on the planetary classes so far named in televised Star Trek (classes D, H, J, K, L, M, N, T and Y). I've tweaked it considerably, though, to hopefully make it more closely match both what we've seen on screen and the types of planets found in reality. It has also incorporated David Sudarsky's gas giant classification scheme.

The classification scheme used on Trek is based around class-M being an Earth-type planet. In the original series we saw numerous class-M planets that ranged from being virtually identical to the Earth to all manner of oddly hued worlds, but all with a breathable atmosphere (except for Arret, which was described as class-M in spite of having lost its atmosphere). Other than the one class-K planet (Mudd), we hear very little about other classes, but the simple rule remained M = habitable.

From the movies and TNG onwards, more classes were introduced, such as the barely habitable class-H, the gas giant class-J and the barren class-D. The latter has been used very inconsistently, applying to a ringed gas planet in Voyager "Emanations" and the arid but habitable planet in Voyager "Gravity." TNG introduced class-L as a planet with a breathable atmosphere but otherwise unsuited to animal life (at least long-term), but Voyager gave us several class-L planets with humanoid civilisations (in the episodes "Muse" and "The 37s," notably). Over the years, the idea that only class-M planets are habitable has been lost, with Mandell's scheme including various classes that would have been included under M in the original Trek. I've tried to centre the scheme back on class-M here.

Enterprise revealed that M stands for "Minshara," a Vulcan term. TNG "The Royale" featured an obscure "Transjovian" class-K with a thick cold atmosphere, that I've tried to incorporate into the below scheme. The hellish Class Y was created for Voyager "Demon" and appeared a couple of times since, and the Class T ultragiant was featured in Voyager "Good Shepherd." Other classes mentioned over the years, such as Theta-class planetoids, class-9 gas giant and the Klingon Q'tahl class don't fit into this scheme. Anything new that is revealed in Star Trek: Discovery or the next movie will be incorporated later.

(Images taken from various sources. Classes F, G, H, L, T, V, X and Y rendered by Chris Adamek at The Final Frontier. Classes A and O nicked from Wookiepedia. Classes B, D, E, I, J, K, M, N1, N2, P and Q are all photgraphs of real planetary bodies. Kudos if you can identify them all. )

Class A
Molten 

Hot zone/lunar orbit

E.g. Gothos
Class A planets are young, rocky planetoids, the surface of which is kept at least 50% molten due to the proximity of the parent star or planet, via direct heating or gravitational effects. The atmosphere is thin, boiled away by the intense heat but replaced by volcanic outgassing. Due to the tenuous nature of the atmosphere, the heat released by the volcanic activity quickly dissipates into space.
Life forms: none


Class B
Ferrous/iron planet

Hot zone/ecosphere
E.g. Mercury, Kepler-10b
Small, mostly metallic rocky planetoids. Class B worlds exhibit a highly iron-rich crust, with a magnetic core and no mantle. Atmosphere thin to negligible, with little to no heat retention. The surface varies from extremely hot to cold dependent on position near star, and can exhibit molten surface areas. The night side of the planetoid will fail to retain the heat exhibited on the day side, left a frigid wasteland. These planetoids are inimical to life.
Life forms: none

Class C
Carbon planet


Hot zone/ecosphere
E.g Janssen (55 Cancri e)
Predominantly carbon-based planet, appearing blackened from orbit due to large deposits of graphite. The pressure within the mantle and outer core produces diamond deposits. The atmosphere is composed primarily of carbon dioxide, rich in hydrocarbons and monoxide smogs. Little to no surface water is to be expected on the surface of a carbon planet.
Life forms: anaerobic carbon-based life may be possible

Class D 
Asteroidal/dwarf 

Hot zone/ecosphere/cold zone/lunar orbit
E.g. Luna, Ceres, Regula, Paan Mokar
Rocky bodies varying in size from the tiniest planetessimal to planet-sized moons. Common around larger planetary bodies and in asteroid belts. Atmosphere tenuous, although water ice can manifest at the poles. Although naturally lifeless, Class D worlds may be adapted through use of pressure domes or oxygen caverns.
Life forms: none.



Class E
Ice dwarf

Cold zone/outer cloud
E.g. Pluto, Eris, Psi 2000
Small, sub-planetary bodies common in the outer star system, in the orbit of Class I planets, through the scattered disc and out into the Oort Belt. With a rocky crust covered in nitrogen ice, and an atmosphere tenuous in the extreme, Class E worlds are incapable of retaining the limited heat they receive from their distant parent star. There may, however, be subsurface water, heated by mantle activity, which can provide the basis for colonisation through pressure domes.
Life forms: rare, microbial.

Class F
Primordial

Hot zone/ecosphere
E.g. Excalbia
Young planets that are still developing, Class F planets represent the earliest stage of the formation of a habitable world. With partially molten surfaces, atmospheres rich in reactive gases and heavy vulcanism, Class F planets are inimical to life like ours, but have, on rare occasions, developed inorganic life, when present in the hot zone and continued in their plastic state for long enough. Those further out will cool over billions of years to become Class G, the next step in their evolution.
Life forms: metal-carbon complex (e.g Excalbian)

Class G
Developing

Hot zone/ecosphere
E.g. Janus VI
With a primarily silicate-based crust, these planets have cooled and solidified from Class F to form a more stable surface, although vulcanism is still rife. Water has begun to condense to form oceans, amid centuries of constant rainfall. The atmosphere and the life that may develop on the surface are intertwined; as the rich carbon dioxide atmosphere allows early photosynthetic life to flourish, these organisms flood the atmosphere with oxygen, pushing towards the next stage in its evolution. Over many millions of years further, these Cambrian-stage planets cool further to become classes H, K, L, M, N, O and P, dependent on various factors.
Life forms: primitive organic or silicon-based life, more rarely advanced silicon-based life (e.g Horta)

Class H
Extreme desert


Hot zone/ecosphere
E.g. Tau Cygna III, Shelia, Delta Vega, Nimbus III
Rocky planets with primarily silicate crusts, Class H planets are true desert worlds. With very limited surface and atmospheric water, and high levels of surface radiation, Class H planets are not conducive to complex ecosystems, although hardy life may develop and flourish. Milder Class H environments may be colonised by humanoids with some adaptation. Class M planets can be reduced to Class H through environmental damage.
Life forms: radiation-resistant carbon-based organisms (e.g Sheliak). Not naturally conducive to humanoid life.

Class I
Ice giant/neptunian


Cold zone
E.g. Uranus, Neptune, Marijne VII
Cold worlds with thick atmospheres of hydrogen, water, methane and ammonia, commonly found in the outer reaches of a solar system. The hydrogen envelope is considerably thinner than on a Class J world, but this is still the dominant element of the planet. Such planets commonly attract a number of moons and impressive ring systems. In spite of the name, ice giants have little solid material and are mostly fluid.
Life forms: unknown




Class J
Gas giant/jovian

Ecosphere/cold zone
E.g. Jupiter, Saturn, Cherela
Huge planets with thick hydrogen and helium-based atmospheres, rich in hydrocarbons. Beneath the gaseous layers lies liquid hydrogen above a metallic hydrogen core. Class J planets commonly support many moons and ring systems, and these moons may themselves be habitable worlds in their own right. Class-J planets dominate a star system in the inner region of the cold zone. With sufficient engineering prowess, habitable Class M environments can be constructed between the cloud layers of a gas giant.
Class J planets correspond to classes I to III on the Sudarsky scale. The coolest are Class I jovians, Jupiter-type planets with ammonia clouds, often with complex and powerful weather systems. Warmer are the Class II jovians, which feature water vapour clouds. Class III jovians have no chemical components that form clouds and appear as featureless blue-white orbs.Those straying closer to the star are captured and are heated to Class-S.
Life forms: Jovian-type, hydrocarbon-based (e.g Lothra)

Class K
Adaptable


Ecosphere/cold zone
E.g. Mars, Mudd
Class K planets are essentially dead terrestrial planets, with a primarily silicate crust, rich mineral deposits and no magnetic field. The atmosphere is thin, predominantly carbon dioxide, and retains little heat, leading to a frigid desert landscape. Nonetheless, there can be some weather systems in a Class K atmosphere, and vulcanism can occur. Water and/or carbon dioxide ice may be found at the poles. Class-K environments can develop from the evolution of Class G, or through the long deterioration of classes G, L or M. Rich in mineral deposits. Although fundamentally lifeless except for the most basic of organisms, Class K planets are readily adaptable through use of pressure domes or oxygen caverns, and are prime targets for terraforming.
Life forms: microbial carbon or silicon-based life.

Class K/T
Transjovian

Cold zone
E.g. Theta-116-VIII
This subclass represents frozen class-K planets that have drifted or been expelled into the outer system, commonly by gravitational perturbation by a larger body. A thick atmosphere of nitrogen, neon and methane accretes and can develop turbulent weather systems. Transjovian-class planets are highly inhospitable and experience phenomenally low surface temperatures.
Life forms: none

Class L
Marginal


Ecosphere
E.g. Phylos, Indri VIII, Briori outpost
Similar to Class M planets, Class L are on the borderline of life-bearing environements. Typically rocky, silicate-crust planets, Class L worlds are commonly arid, but in some cases display oceans or tundra. Surface temperature varies considerably, and the atmosphere is thinner than on a Class M world, with high levels of argon, carbon dioxide, and often other toxic gases. Radiation levels are potentially dangerous. Class L environments may feature basic ecosystems, normally only with plant life. They may, however, be colonised by humanoid life, and are excellent targets for terraforming. (Planets assimilated by the Borg, where the atmosphere has been altered by pollution with carbon monoxide, methane and fluorine, may be considered a variant of Class L).
Life forms: Most have no native animal life. Plant life often abundant on more temperate examples.

Class M
Terrestrial 

Ecosphere/lunar orbit
Also referred to as "Earth-type," S3 or Minshara-class, Class M planets are the cradles of life. With silicate crusts, those with rotating iron cores can display strong magnetic fields. Rich nitrogen-oxygen atmospheres with some carbon dioxide, water vapour and trace gases are ideal for the development of varied, complex biospheres. Class M planets feature high surface and atmospheric water content, essential for organic life. Surface conditions can vary considerably across the globe, from tundra, to temperate, to desert environments. Class M worlds are found in orbit of stars or larger Class-I, J and U planets, and can vary widely in visual appearance. Class M is divided into subtypes dependent on surface water levels and other features, and these can vary over the course of a planet's lifespan (for instance, Earth was a Type-4 ice-world during one period of its early history, and Exo-III was once a more hospitable Type-2).
Life forms: abundant carbon-based life, including humanoids
M Type-1 Arid. E.g. Vulcan, Cardassia Prime, Deneb IV
Surface water 25-50%
M Type-2 Temperate/varied. E.g. Earth, Bajor, Altamid
Surface water 50-80%
M Type-3 Pelagic. E.g. Argo, Azati Prime, Antede III
Surface water 80-95%
M Type-4 Glacial. E.g. Andoria, Exo-III, Rigel X
Surface ice 50-95%
M Irregular E.g. Ba'ku planet, Gaia, Planet Hell
Class M but with unusual features, such a radiation belts and ring systems.

Class N1
Reducing

Hot zone
E.g. Venus
Although similar to Class M planets in size and geological make-up, Class N planets are rendered as hugely different environments due to their atmospheric conditions. A thick carbon dioxide atmosphere causes a runaway greenhouse effect leading to extremely high surface temperature and pressure, utterly inimical to humanoid life. Some nitrogen, water and sulphur dioxide exist in the atmosphere, which is dominated by clouds of sulphuric acid, leading to corrosive rainfall. A Class N world may potentially be adapted to class-M by long-term terraforming, but this is a significant undertaking and such planets are usally overlooked in favor of more hospitable worlds.
Life forms: rare; microbial organisms may exist in cloud layer.

Class N2
Sulphuric

Hot zone/lunar orbit
E.g Tholia, Io
A variation of the Class N planet in which a considerably thinner atmosphere, composed mainly of sulphur dioxide and monoxide, sodium chloride vapours and molecular oxygen. Large deposits of sulphur exist on the surface giving a yellow-green colour from orbit. Temperature is lower than N1 conditions, but still high in comparison to Class M, with significant vulcanism caused by graviational effects from the host planet or star, or by an unstable core. Unlike on N1 worlds, N2 enviroments may develop complex organic life, although such organisms will rely of sulphur respiration and use hydrogen sulphide as a biological solvent in place of water. This life form type is far rarer than the more common oxygen/water type organisms.
Life forms: sulphurphilic organisms (e.g Tholian)

Class O
Oceanic

Ecosphere
E.g. The Waters, Megara, Kepler-22 b
True ocean worlds with no surface land area. Oceans on Class O planets are typically thousands of kilometres deep, with phenomenal pressures at the depths. Turbulant atmospheres of nitrogen, oxygen, water vapour and carbon dioxide envelop the planet. On hotter variants of the Class O, the ocean surface may vapourise, giving a continuous fluid surface, rather than a delineated ocean and atmosphere, on the edge of becoming a Class U world.. Cooler Class O worlds can potentially be colonised with artificial habitats, and have considerable scope for food cultivation in the form of plankton and algae.
Life forms: abundant, marine carbon-based organisms.

Class P
Cryoterrestrial

Cold zone/lunar orbit
E.g. Titan, Breen
Similar in size and structure to Class M planets, but in far colder regions, Class P planetoids display enivronments that are like frigid shadows of  terrestrial worlds. With a dense nitrogen-methane atmospheres, and surface rich in hydrocarbons, the seas and oceans on Class P worlds are comprised from short-chain hydrocarbons such as methane and ethane. In place of rock, mountains and landmasses form from water ice; cryovolcanism is apparent. These planetoids display a subzero ecosystem. In the later stages of a star's evolution, Class P worlds may be heated to another evolutionary stage, dooming existing ecosystems and pushing the planetoid towards classes K, L or M.
Life forms: hydrocarbon and ammonia-based

Class Q
Cryo-ocean

Cold zone/lunar orbit
E.g. Europa, Ganymede, Enceladus
Ocean worlds in colder regions, these are smaller planetoids enclosed in thick water ice crusts. Atmosphere is tenuous, beneath the ice layer exists an extremely deep ocean. Undersea heating from the planetary core, or gravitational effects from a host planet, can lead to non-photsynthetic ecosystems. Commonly form as moons around planets of classes I, J and U. Can potentially be colonised with artificial habitats, although care must be taken not to damage the existing, submarine environment.
Life forms: marine carbon-based organisms

Class R
Rogue/orphan planet

Interstellar
E.g. Dakala, Omarion
A varied class, containing those bodies that are planet-sized but not tied to a star's gravity. Such bodies, sometimes called planemos, can range from terrestrial to Jovian size; the largest are on the borderline with the brown dwarf class. Rogue planets form in the interstellar void from accreted material, while orphan planets are ejected from star systems by gravitational effects. Thick, carbon-rich atmospheres can lead to retained surface heat and non-photosynthetic ecosystems, sometimes displaying very unusual adaptations to their harsh environment.
Life forms: varies, from none to complex; carbon or silicon-based

Class S
Hot jovian/pegasid


Hot zone
E.g. Galileo (55 Cancri b), Osiris, 51 Pegasi b
Gas giants, similar to classes I and J but in short, close stellar orbit, maintaining an extremely high temperature. Carbon monoxide is the dominant carbon-carrying molecule. Class S planets correspond to classes IV and V on the Sudarsky scale, with Class IV being the cooler of the two, displaying alkali metal vapour clouds. The hottest planets are Class V, with silicates and even iron forming clouds. These planets glow red due to the high thermal output.
Life forms: none known

Class T
Gas supergiant/ultragiant

Cold zone
E.g. Kappa Andromedae b
Gigantic gaseous planets with thick hydrogen atmospheres and enormous gravitational pull, these planets are on the verge of becoming stars. Supergiants accrue complex systems of moons ranging from planetesimal to planetary size, effectively becoming miniature star systems in themselves. Any such bodies that exceed 13.6 Jupiter masses would begin deuterium fusion and become a brown dwarf or "substar."
Life forms: unknown




Class U
Transitional


Hot zone/ecosphere/cold zone
E.g, Dulcinea (Mu Arae c), Kepler-10c
Existing in size between the Class I ice giants and the Class V superterrestrials, Class U planets are large enough and with strong enough gravity to retain a thick atmosphere of hydrogen, helium and hydrocarbons. The atmosphere transitions to oceans of semisolid compressed water above a rocky core. Sometimes known as gas dwarfs - something of a misnomer for such large planets.
Life forms: Jovian-type, hydrocarbon-based.


Class V
Superterrestrial

Ecosphere/cold zone
E.g. COROT-7 b, Gliese 163 c, Persephone
The so-called "super-Earths," large rocky/metallic planets intermediate in size between terrestrial and ice giants. Their higher gravity allows them to retain dense, hydrogen-rich atmospheres. Surface temperature and pressure high and unsuitable for humanoid habitation, but complex high-temperature life can evolve, and they are potentially viable for colonisation using pressure domes.
Life forms: silicon or carbon-based, adapted for higher pressures



Class W
Divided/locked

Hot zone/ecosphere/lunar orbit
E.g. Daled IV, Klavdia III, Remus
Rocky planets kept tidally locked to the parent star or sister planet by the intense gravitational interaction of other bodies in their system. One side is overlit and heated, displaying molten areas and a burnt, desert-like surface. The far side is kept in perpetual darkness and cold, sometimes with a more temperate dividing line if the atmosphere is dense enough to mediate the heat. Such planets may be colonised, and some display native life that has adapted to the extreme environment, often in unusual ways.
Life forms: microbes and plants, some display higher organisms.

Class X
Chthonian

Hot zone
E.g. COROT-7b
The dead core of a Class-S or T planet, stripped of its atmosphere by millennia of stellar activity. Dense and metal-rich, these planetoids are rare and valuable. Uninhabitable and ultimately doomed to absorption by their parent star.
Life forms: none


Class Y
Demon-class

Hot zone
E.g. Ha'dara
Exceedingly unfriendly, these planets display thick atmospheres rich in toxic gases, high radiation levels, extreme surface pressure and corrosive conditions, even harsher than Class-N planets.
Life forms: rare, but mimetic life has been discovered.


Class Z
Pulsar planet
E.g. Draugr, Poltergeist, Phobetor
Planets found in orbit of pulsars (rapidly rotating neutron stars), bathed in intense magnetic radiation and inimical to all known life. Subdivided by origin, pulsar planets may form from the remains or cores of destroyed companion stars, or may be more ordinary planetoids captured by the pulsar's gravity.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

LUCKY THIRTEEN




And so, the thirteenth Doctor has been announced, and she is going to be played by 35-year-old Jodie Whittaker.

I'm not especially familiar with her, although I have seen her in Black Mirror and she was excellent in Attack the Block. I still haven't gotten round to Broadchurch, but I was half-expecting Chibnall to cast someone from his biggest hit. I've generally heard good things about her, so I'm very much looking forward to seeing her in action. Exciting times.

Of course, there are plenty of fans kicking off about the BBC casting a woman in the role, but this is something I've been vocally in favour of for some time. I think that a character who can turn into anyone is long past the point where he should become a she. I honestly think that this is a good move for the a show that, in spite of some sublime moments over the last couple of years, needs a strong kick up the arse. I'm surprised by some of the people I know who are against the idea, but I think any fan needs to give Whittaker a chance. I mean, I'm giving Chris Chibnall a chance as showrunner, and he's so far been pretty dreadful for much of his Who and Torchwood contributions.

My hopes? I hope Chibnall and any writers he hires write her not as "the female Doctor," but just as the Doctor. I hope she's well-served with scripts and material. I hope people give her, and the series, a chance.

There's no point saying that the Doctor changing sex doesn't make sense, or that no explanation can logically work when he's been male for so long. Regeneration is made-up nonsense, ludicrous magical pseudoscience that works only because the writers say it does. Anything the writers want to do, it can do, and that can include changing sex, race or number of legs. And frankly, I haven't much time for people who think that changing gender is one step too fantastical for a series about someone who travels in time in a magic cupboard, fighting monsters. I know actual people in real life who have changed their physical sex, so is it really that hard to imagine someone who has changed their form thirteen times already doing the same?

I am concerned that, if series eleven does turn out to be rubbish, then this casting will be what gets the blame. The more people get angry about the casting, the more I want it to succeed. I'm going to miss Capaldi terribly, but it's always hard to see the Doctor change.

And frankly, I'm just relieved that the Doctor is still older than me.

WHO REVIEW: 10.11 & 10.12

WORLD ENOUGH AND TIME

THE DOCTOR FALLS



“World Enough and Time” kicks off what is Doctor Who's best series finale since Matt Smith's inaugral run, perhaps even since the heady days of the Eccleston, Tennant and Piper. There is, however, a big flaw in the episode's presentation that comes about, not because of the episode itself, but because of the media surrounding its broadcast. Which is why I'm hiding the review after a page break, because I still know fans who haven't seen it and it really is best seen without spoilers.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

WHO REVIEW: 10-10 "The Eaters of Light"

I can't help but feel a little sorry for Rona Munro. Not too sorry for her - she's an award-winning, critically lauded playwright enjoying huge success in theatre, after all. Her Doctor Who credits, though, seem cursed to suffer ignominious fates. Her first story, Survival, was fated to be the last Doctor Who story of the original run. It wasn't meant to be - it was recorded third to last - but it was broadcast at the end of the 1989 season and as such has been tarred by the reputation of the story that ended the series. Twenty-eight years later, Monro becomes the first classic series writer to return to write for the new series, and her episode gets the lowest overnight ratings in the series' history. I think that people are making a bit too much about the ratings of the show - they have gone downhill, but then, BBC ratings have been dropping across the board. The new singsong show, Pitch Battle, which followed right afterwards got even less. Still, it's a kick in the teeth for Munro, which is a great shame, because both of her Doctor Who scripts are rather excellent.

The Eaters of Light is quite an old-fashioned script, which isn't too surprising. A historical mystery that turns out to be down to an alien life form, the Doctor and his companions getting split up, some heroic sacrifice and there you are. A nice, straightforward adventure. It also features some nice, strong characterisation and a potent anti-imperial. anti-war message. It's arguable that following Empress of Mars with this story was poor scheduling, but it also follows through on a strong thematic storyline that explores cowardice, readiness for war, and imperialism. The surviving members of the Spanish Ninth Legion are the ones who ran away in fear; the courageous soldiers all died. Of course, they all come good in the end, sacrificing themselves to protect the Earth. On the other side, we have Kar, whose fear provoked her to unleash the Beast against the Legion.

The characterisation of the regulars is a little off. Not Nardole - he's spot on, ingratiating himself with the proto-Picts and looking happy enough to settle down and learn "Scotch." Bill, on the other hand, has caught the same weird obsession with the Romans that both Amy and Clara had, something that seems to exist purely to give some reason to explore the mystery of the Ninth Legion. It's hardly like they need a reason to be there, beyond the Doctor fancying this period of history today. It's also a slightly odd moment when Bill realises that the TARDIS is translating for her. Both Rose and Donna had that scene, but at their first opportunity, not ten episodes in. It's very in character, though, that she immediately then realises it's a telepathic field, sci-fi savvy as usual. (The lip-sync line is great as well.) The Doctor seems to have regressed to his season eight persona, all Tucker-ish aggression and criticism. He's viciously dismissive of "brave people£ and is apparently "against charm." (It'd be fun to see Twelve opposite Ten someday - his earlier self would wind him the hell up.)

There's some intriguing characterisation for the Doctor, who seems thoroughly besotted with the Roman Empire. Only recently he was expounding the value of their imperial rule, and here he glibly raves about the indoor toilets to a young woman whose people were almost exterminated by the Romans. I do love his quiet acknowledgment that everyone in the universe looks like children.

The science of the episode is pretty flimsy, but then, this isn't a scientific episode. This is pure fairy tale, with the Beast's dimension being very clearly fairyland, right down to the differences in the passage of time on each side. The fate of the soldiers, reduced to bog bodies by the creature sucking the light out of them, is grim, but makes no sense scientifically. People's bones don't stay strong because they contain sunlight, they stay strong because the UV part of sunlight provides the activation energy for a chemical reaction within the skin that produces the needed vitamin D. As a storytelling device, though, it makes perfect sense; it just needs to be approached with a sort of child-like logic. Oddly enough, most viewers seem to have more of a problem with the use of light to hurt the Beast, but this makes more sense. The Doctor suggests the devices have optical cancellation properties, and the Picts say it poisons the light. Presumably, they remove the wavelengths of light that the creature needs to survive (UV, frequencies, I'm guessing), leaving only wavelengths toxic to it, rather like filtering out all the oxygen from air, leaving only nitrogen and carbon dioxide.

It's a sign of how far television has come that Munro can now have a casual discussion of homosexuality, instead of making sly references to lesbianism like she had to with Survival. I love the frank Roman acceptance of bisexuality, and Bill's surprise at the ease at which it is accepted. It's a timely reminder that cultural attitudes can vary wildly over time and location.

In spite of the slight old-fashionedness of the story, it kicks along at a fair pace, and is all wrapped up by about thirty-five minutes in. After this, there's the final scene, which exists as a set-up for the grand finale (which is just about to begin as I write this). I don't know if the scene was written by Munro, Moffat or both, but it's a far stronger characterisation of Missy than we've seen so far this season, and for once, I can believe that she might actually be able to change. As this is my last chance to speculate, I can't help but think of the Alastair Reynolds novel Harvest of Time, which posited that the Master's own existence through time was bearing down on him. Separated from the influence of his other selves, the Master was capable of acting out of goodness. I wonder if we are going to see something similar to this when John Simm's Master returns. Finally, the Doctor says that Missy needs to learn to hear the music. I think that the music have been the problem in the first place.


Stray thoughts: 

Nardole tells the Picts the true story of what happened to the crew of the Mary Celeste. Apparently they were eaten by the Enzomodans, who communicate by digesting people. We probably shouldn't believe everything Nardole says though - 1965's The Chase told us the real story: the Daleks did it.

Kar is the Gatekeeper. I am not clear on who the Keymaster is. The Easter of Light is clearly the Terror Dog though.

So, the Doctor was a vestal virgin, second class? Was he not able to become first class because he's a man, or because he's not a virgin? Or is there something we don't know about the Doctor's past? Is this another hint that he was once female?

As far as I know, crows can't talk, but ravens sure can.

Best line:

"Complete and total absence of any kind of sunlight."

"Death by Scotland."

Monday, 19 June 2017

REVIEW: WONDER WOMAN

I caught Wonder Woman on its opening weekend, but it's taken me this long to get round to reviewing it. Primarily this is because picking holes is often the most enjoyable part of reviewing a film, and Wonder Woman has very little wrong with it. I think we can all agree that it's by far the best of the DC Expanded Universe movies that have come so far, standing head-and-shoulders above Man of Steel (which I enjoyed more than most), Batman vs. Superman (which had its moments but was dreadfully flawed) and Suicide Squad (which started reasonably well but went rapidly downhill). Wonder Woman had, very unfairly,two things to prove: that a female-centred superhero movie could work, and that the DC movieverse wasn't doomed to collapse. Both of these it managed with aplomb, by being a brilliantly fun movie and showing just how fantastic Wonder Woman is when done right.

If you haven't seen it yet, I suggest you go out and watch it forthwith. And then come back and read this, because there will be SPOILERS.


So, the last time anyone attempted a movie focused on a female superhero was, what, Catwoman? That was thirteen years ago, and thanks to a complete misunderstanding of the character combined with cheap production and an almost offensively poor script, essentially killed off superheroine movies before they started. Sure, we've had plenty of superpowered and costumed women in comicbook movies over the last few years, but none have been allowed to headline. Even so, it's hard to lay the blame at the feet of DC and Warner Bros. because of Catwoman, however much of an easy target it is. There has been a huge reluctance to give superheroines their own films. This is apparent from the fact that, in her 76-year history, no one has made a live action Wonder Woman movie before (excepting a rather dismal 1974 TV movie). She's one third of DC's top tier trio, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Batman and Superman. They've had, respectively, eight and six live action films, more if you count their recent crossover and the old monochrome serials. Batman got his first big screen outing in 1943; Wonder Woman had to wait till 2017.





So, yes, there was a lot riding on this release, and much of that was squarely on the shoulders of Gal Gadot. Fortunately, not many people were worried that she might not carry the film; she was by far the best thing about Batman vs. Superman, outdoing the big boys in charm, style and bad-assery. In terms of physicality, she is perfect for the role, having been both a model and a soldier in her already storied career, but it's her performance that carries the film. Gadot's Diana is strong-willed, intelligent, noble, idealistic and naive, traits that are portrayed through confident writing and a powerful and believable performance. It would be easy for the film to fall into cheesiness as Diana strides into cabinet meetings and demands to know why she can't be heard along with the old white men, but both Allan Heinberg's script and Gadot's performance sell it perfectly.

Steve Trevor is understandably bowled over by Diana's physical beauty, but it's her courage and conviction that make her someone that he will follow into a warzone, along with his mismatched gang of sidekicks. I really enjoyed Chris Pine's performance as Steve, with great charisma, wit and heroism, but never overbearing or too arrogant - bravery, not bravado. The times when he stands against Diana are when he is genuinely right, borne out by his greater experience in "Man's world" and a real modern war. Diana and Steve's relationship illustrates the core theme of the movie, the dichotomy between humanity's compassion and beauty, and its capacity for destruction and cruelty. Diana is overly enamoured with humanity, unable to believe that their warring is anything other than the influence of Ares, while Steve has grown cynical and war-weary. They both affect each other, coming closer to each other's worldview for a more rounded perspective.

The choice of a World War One setting is inspired, miring the narrative in the very worst of humanity's warmongering. It's not surprising that Diana is convinced that it is Ares who is responsible for this horror. Patty Jenkins's direction is excellent throughout, but it's in the battle scenes that it's exceptional, in the valiant defense of Themyscira on horseback, the real-world horror of the trenches, and the liberation of the besieged village. In all these, Diana is the most remarkable element, quite rightly the centre of events, particularly once she has accepted her destiny and left for the wider world. This is the big difference between Wonder Woman and the other DCEU films. While they're set in the same grimdark world of cruel tyrants and the worst of humankind, in Wonder Woman there's a true ray of hope in the form of Diana. She strides through the battlefield on the front, a golden figure cutting through the dismal greys of No Man's Land. She represents something better than humanity, a warrior for honour rather than a fighter for war's sake, and that's refreshing after the stolid brutality of the recent versions of Batman and Superman.

It would be very easy to focus solely on Diana and Steve, but the supporting cast are also excellently cast. A special shout out to Lilly Aspel and Emily Carey as the younger versions of Diana, with young Lilly being especially adorably spunky. Connie Nielson is powerful and intimidating as Queen Hippolyta. Perhaps the character who most needed more screentime is Etta, played by Lucy Davis, exactly the sort of actor you wouldn't expect to see in a film like this and yet somehow absolutely perfect when placed opposite Gadot's Diana.

On the villainous side, both Danny Huston as General Ludendorff and Elena Anaya as Dr. Poison are suitably monstrous in their roles, although they are unquestionably second-tier villains throughout. I particularly like the use of Dr. Poison in the story, although it might have been interesting to have her, as in the early comics, disguised herself as a man in order to further her advancement in her nefarious choice of career. What I really love, however, is the casting of David Thewlis as the Big Bad of the movie. It was inevitable that Ares would eventually turn up to battle Diana, although it might have thematically worked better if it really had just been humanity's evil alone that was dooming the world. Still, it's made very clear that Ares' hatred of humanity is down to their inherently flawed nature, and that they are casually monstrous even without his influence. Thewlis is one of those actors I love to watch in anything, and his initial role as Sir Patrick is exactly the sort of role an aging British actor can walk through. It's his true identity as the God of War that's inspired. Underneath his ridiculously overblown armour he's still a thin Englishman, not the hulking brute that you'd imagine Ares to be. It's extremely appropriate; the real warmongers of our history, from Hitler to Assad to the blindly cruel generals of WWI have always been scared little men rather than mighty warriors.

And that's the crux of the movie: that heroism, and the cowardice of evil, can be present in anyone, in any guise, from any origin. While it's another film that trots out the Germans as a villainous force, there's a more balanced portrayal than most, with the young German soldiers portrayed as terrified and relieved when the carnage of the finale is averted, and their commanders are desperate to stop yet more of them being killed. Human beings can be cruel or compassionate, just like the gods of Greek myth. It's a noble sentiment for a popcorn movie about a warrior woman with a magic lasso. You'll leave feeling that Diana represents the best of us, or at the very least, a little in love with Gal Gadot.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

XENOREVIEW: Alien: Covenant

I was chatting about Covenant with a friend during the build up to its release, and one thing he said was inarguably true: there is no need for another Alien film. In fact, there hasn't been a need for an Alien since 1986, when Aliens took the intense, terrifyingly suspenseful original and spun it out into an adreneline-fulled military nightmare (and I say that as a fan of Alien3). However, we are in the era of the franchise and there will be more and more new Alien films until the money stops rolling in, and for all their flaws, they are still enjoyable sci-fi horrors.

Alien: Covenant sees Ridley Scott continue the story he began five years ago with Prometheus. That film was deeply flawed, but I nonetheless remain something of a Prometheus apologist, and feel that much of the film's poor reception was due to the huge hype built up around its status as a prequel to Scott's seminal Alien. The problem lie in the movie's weird existential status, with Scott and the writers seemingly unable to decide whether it was a prequel or a new story. On its own merits, it was a fun slice of sci-fi hokum, albeit one that thought it was far cleverer and more original than it really was. As a lead-in to Alien, it was wholly disappointing, and the film fell uncomfortably between two stools.

Covenant, with four writers helping create Scott's vision, is still unfocused, but it at least accepts its place as an Alien film wholeheartedly, as well as a sequel to Prometheus. In fact, it makes Prometheus a stronger film, making some of the weirder story choices a little more sensible in retrospect. The utterly bizarre alien life cycle from Prometheus is laid down as little more than a runaway experiment, one that the android David has continued, creating a new stage of alien evolution. This version, beginning as an airborne spore that invades the body, has some similarities with the hotchpotch of monsters in Prometheus, but is perhaps more akin to the infectious version of the Alien that was originally suggested for Alien3. It hasn't the visceral horror of the the facehugger, but the so-called neomorph makes its marks, erupting from its victims' bodies not through the chest, but through any available route. The design of the neomorph is something of a success, especially its scurrying nymph stage, which would doubtless been dubbed "Rat Alien" if Kenner had produced a figure. Of course, the neomorph is just a stepping stone to the ultimate life form, with the final result being the xenomorph we know and love.

Well, almost. When the classic Alien finally reveals itself, it's a slick CGI creation, that is both faster and less cunning than the creature that infiltrated the Nostromo. The original man-in-a-suit had an ungainly, unnatural quality to its movements that made it far more unsettling than the ferocious creature of the Covenant climax. Still, the shower scene has to stand up there as one of the creepiest and most chilling scenes of the Alien franchise.

We're getting ahead of ourselves, though. Before all that, there's the tragic events of the colony ship Covenant, which leaves the command crew decimated. There's a big difference to those we've seen in previous films. Alien gave us a bunch of jobbing space truckers; Aliens a hardened squad of space marines; Alien3 and Resurrection criminals and Prometheus some of the least intelligent scientists ever committed to film. The crew of the Covenant are specialists chosen for the mission for their technical skills, and are also all couples, a requisite for a colony mission that needs to maintain close ties and build up its numbers quickly. It adds a different dimension to the cast interactions and its a welcome change. However, it's a large crew, and in such a frenetically-paced story, many of them are lost as characters. Really, the film belongs to three actors: Katherine Waterston, Danny McBride and Michael Fassbender.

Waterston is extremely likeable as the strong, emotionally intense yet very human Daniels, who is thrown into the spotlight when her husband (James Franco in a role almost completely confined to a prequel short film) is killed in a space accident. She exists in the Ripley role, that of the powerful female character that holds the film together, just as Noomi Rapace was in Prometheus. Some may complain that this has become a trope of the Alien films (even Sanaa Lathan in AVP fills a similar role), but I think a strong central female lead is a good constant to have. Waterston centres the film in the same way Rapace centred Prometheus, and makes the overall ensemble work. Out of all the remaining crew, it's McBride who makes the most impact. Partly this is because his character, the pilot McBride, actually makes it through the film, but he also brings a lot of charm and guts to a rare straight role.

But this is Fassbender's movie, as the twin androids David and Walter. He dominates his screentime in both roles, making each of the machine people distinct. He does make some questionable accent choices, but otherwise he makes the most of his roles, and is clearly relishing the out-and-out villainy of David, who has now set himself up as the creator of the next dominant species of the universe. His place as a sort of otherwordly Doctor Moreau is a highlight of the film, his disturbing genetic laboratory and the fate of Rapace's character Shaw providing more scares than the monsters he's created. Walter, the supposedly more advanced redesign, has had the emotions stripped out to make him less uncomfortable for humans to work with (they're basically Lore and Data from Star trek TNG). Nonetheless, he has a deep connection to Daniels, with some fine chemistry between Fassbender and Waterston. Plus, of course, we have scenes with two Fasseys opposite each other, which is going to sell a film to me regardless (although the droid-on-droid kiss is definitely creepy rather than erotic). I like that David and Walter are named to reflect original Alien producers David Giler and Walter Hill, but I'm oddly put out by how it buggers up the alphabetical naming of the droids in the franchise (Ash, Bishop, Call, David... Walter).

The film ends on a predictable but effectively chilling note, and the future of the Alien is ensured. We're still some way from the Nostromo's encounter with LV-426, and the semmingly inexplicable discovery of the Engineer spacecraft riddled with xenomorph eggs. There is a ninth Alien film currently in the works which fill, presumably, bring the story right back up to the original film. On the strength of Covenant, it's unlikely we'll ever see an Alien film that matches the horror of the original or power of its sequel, but there should be plenty of entertainment to be had on the way.


Thursday, 15 June 2017

WHO REVIEW: 10-9 -"Empress of Mars"

By George, that was jolly good fun, what?

"Empress of Mars" is inarguably the most straightforward episode we've had this year, and in a season that has seen a conscious attempt to go back to basics, that's saying something. There isn't a single surprising thing in this episode; even that lovely monster cameo at the end is about as predictable a bit of fanwank as you could get with Mark Gatiss in charge. Indeed, this is about the least surprising episode you could get from Gatiss; Victoriana crossed with Pertwee, with a touch of Troughton, is about as Gatiss as you could get.

None of which is a criticism. Straightforward and predictable is not always a bad thing. Sometimes all you want is a good, old-fashioned adventure where you know who's good, who's bad, and who appears bad but will ultimately come good. After a few episodes that tried to do new things with Doctor Who but didn't really pull them off, going back to the old days and just doing it bloody well is a tonic.

This is an episode that exists primarily to justify some arresting visuals. Mars is always a source of spectacle, and the conceit of the British Army colonising the planet, red tunics against red soil, couldn't be anything other than gorgeous. Opposing the red tunics are the iridescent green carapces of the Ice Warriors, and the Empress Iraxxa, with her crimson visor. It's an array of red and green.

The Ice Warriors always were the archetypal big green monster, huge clomping lizards with pincer hands and rasping voices. They've been refined a bit since then, both in the Peladon stories of the seventies (on which, more later) which introduced the Ice Lords in their fine capes and glitter, and again in 2013's "Cold War." This is the new Ice Warrior that Gatiss introduced then, thankfully not slithering out of its carapace for a sneak around some ducts. Ice Warriors, to me, should be towering, clanking brutes, and so they are here. But that doesn't mean they can't be characters. While the bulk of the Martian cast are lumbering monsters, the main man Friday is a rather interesting character, a being who has a genuine reason to be conflicted between his ancestral ties and his current situation. The success of the character really goes to actor Richard Ashton, who gives a quiet and dignified performance as the lonely Martian. He absolutely raises the episode up above the sheer silliness it could have been, portraying the noble creature who looks sluggish and cold-blooded but is actually passionate and possessed of a delicate enough touch to catch a saucer in one chitinous pincer.






Also impressive was Adele Lynch as Iraxxa, a character that veered close to becoming a walking cliche of the "Aren't men stupid?" variety but thankfully avoided it. She actually turned out as a rather well-written antagonist, one who never let her understandably strong loyalty to her people lead her to do something stupid. It's a good thing the decision was made to allow the Martians to speak with an easily understandable voice style, instead of hoarse rasping, although for a moment I was convinced Iraxxa was played by Sarah Parish, since she sounded exactly like the Empress of the Racnoss from "The Runaway Bride." Of course, the Martians would sound better here, because this is their natural atmosphere - that was established as far back as 1969's The Seeds of Death.

The human characters are almost as important in an episode like this, and much of the running is held together by Anthony Calf's excellent performance as the "coward" Colonel Godsacre. A note perfect performance of another archetypal character, that rises above cliche by virtue of strong writing and excellent acting. Also very good is Ferdinand Kingsley as Captain Catchlove, such an out-and-out prig that you can feel how hated he is by every other character on screen, Most of the remaining soldiers get little opportunity to distinguish themselves, although Bayo Gbadamosi made young Vincey very likeable.

There are some lovely visual moments in the episode, from the "God Save the Queen" message to the stars to the sonic disruptors that kill the Martian victims in a bloodless but horrible manner. Most arresting is the Warrior reaching up slowly from beneath the ground, and although this calls back to "The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood," that episode was seven years ago, and so hardly fresh in the minds of most viewers. Although, watching the episode with a normal person (well, relatively normal), suggests that most viewers won't remember there's a difference between Ice Warriors and Silurians. They are, after all, both green, scaly humanoids whose females are surprisingly curvy for reptiles.

Gatiss has already stated that this episode was, briefly, going to be set on Peladon, and that would have pushed the very unsubtle anti-Brexit element of the story to the forefront. The Curse of Peladon was, after all, about the UK joining the European Economic Community. However, we did at least get that wonderfully fanwanky moment when an individual from Alpha Centauri answered the Martians' distress call. Not only was this a direct callback to the Peladon stories - the very first foundations of the Federation that will form two thousand years later, perhaps - but they even got the original Alpha Centauri actor Ysanne Churchman out of retirement to voice the Cyclopean alien once more. Not that it could ever be anyone but the Alpha Centaurians - they are the next star system along, after all. I'm slightly amazed the production team would even show us the bizarre creature again, although its probably for the best that they elected to only show us its head, and not the, ah, shaft.

Capaldi gets to do his best Pertwee in this episode, raging against imperialism and war for its own sake while threatening the aliens with a massive great tank. Pearl Mackie, on the other hand, gets little to do, her presence in the episode being mostly made up of pop culture references and an occasional note that she is the only other female in the main body of the story. It's Nardole's brief presence that's most baffling. While removing him and TARDIS from the story gets rid of an easy escape route for the Doctor and Bill, there is no indication of why the TARDIS suddenly shifts back to Earth. Is it down to something the Master did, and if so, how? And what are we to make of Missy's sudden concern for the Doctor? The only thing I can take from it is that the Doctor has, indeed, already begun regenerating...

Victorian attitudes: There's some questionable racial politics in this episode, or rather, there aren't any. Godsacre's only problem with Bill being a space police officer is that she's a woman, with no mention of her racial background. There's no racial politics mentioned at all, beyond "We're British, we belong anywhere!" which is distinctly odd, considering they've just come from the wars in South Africa. Then there's the casting of Vincey. Bayo Gbadamosi is great, but the idea that a black man could fight not only serve in the British army, but marry a white girl, is almost without precedent. Indeed, Gatiss protested the casting; his interview here makes an interesting point about balancing representation with historically realistic casting. In another story, it might matter less, but in a story about imperialism, it seems a strange thing to overlook.

Best line: "Sleep no more, my warriors!" Mark Gatiss namedrops his own episode.


WHO REVIEW: 10-8 - "The Lie of the Land"



The final installment of the Monks Trilogy looks set to be a genuinely interesting bit of science fiction until about twenty minutes in. "You're stagnating," says the Doctor. "In fact, you're regressing." So it goes for the episode itself, which singularly fails to make the most of its many promising elements.

To begin with, it's 1984 all over again, with memory crimes as a thin cover version of thought crimes and the Doctor himself taking up the Big Brother position. The Monks have completely duped the human race into believing that they've lived alongside them as watchful guardians for the last however many millennia, and only a very few are (somehow) aware of the truth. In the era of fake news and alternative facts, it's a decent attempt at satire. Although, the situation presented, with a small group staying in power by peddling an obviously false history and violently crushing any voices of dissent sounds more like religion than any political regime currently in the headlines (although there are plenty of countries, such as Saudi Arabia and, increasingly, the United States, where the line between politics and religion has disappeared).

Pearl Mackie earns her keep on this episode alone, delivering a heart-wrenchingly strong performance as Bill clings onto her reality ever more desperately. She really is exceptional when given strong material to work with, and her horrified reaction to the Doctor's betrayal is only bettered by her stoic acceptance of the necessity of her sacrifice.

Almost as good is Capaldi, who shines as a manic, powerful Doctor, grinning terrifyingly out from omnipresent TV screens, blithely lying to the populace and calmly instructing people to inform on family members. He carries the pretense of the Doctor's defection so well that the viewer can truly believe he has sided with the aliens. After all, there is a strong argument to be made that humanity doesn't deserve free will, and after all the centuries of saving us from ourselves, the Doctor might finally believe that.

The problem is, it would have been much more interesting if the Doctor had been serious. It's fascinating that Bill turns on the Doctor so suddenly. After all, she sold out humanity in order to save him, on the strength of her faith in him, and it takes very little to finally shake that faith enough for her to gun him down. It's a tremendously powerful moment that is unfortunately wasted by the Doctor revealing the entire thing was a huge joke at her expense, a highly contrived way of testing to see if she was still on the side of truth and free will. It even includes a glimmer of faked regeneration energy, which seems to have been included solely to spice up the early season trailers.

From this point on, events plod on with a certain inevitability. Missy finally returns, and while Michelle Gomez is as delicious as ever, she's largely wasted as an exposition source in this episode. Revealed in her prison, playing piano and basically hammering home that the Sherlock finale was a dry run for this season of Doctor Who.

Missy claims that her life doesn't revolve around the Doctor - which is blatantly untrue in itself - but her claim to have defeated the Monks in an earlier adventure also rings false. Why would the Master care if the Monks have control of some planet? Far more likely that she once aided them in taking over a world, and she is relating how they were defeated. After all, the Monk's memory control technology isn't all that dissimilar to the hypnotic network the Master used back when (s)he became Prime Minister. And do we think, for a second, that Missy is really crying over all her many victims? Not on your nelly.

The cast are, by this stage, strong enough together to keep the episode watchable up until the end, but they're carrying all the work and the plot is doing nothing. It's fine having a serviceable resolution to a story, but this seems particularly uninspired. Bill remembering her mum to save the day through her emotional strength is far too much like Clara's "blown in on a leaf" story, which wasn't very convincing when they used it back in season seven. And then - it's all over, the Monks bugger off, and everyone forgets any of it ever happened, in another dissatisfying retcon. Although they've turned out as more style than substance, I hope the Monks do return to the series, because there must be something more interesting to be done with them than this.

Links and references: Nardole uses a "Tarovian nerve grip" to disable a soldier, blatantly riffing on Star Trek's Vulcan nerve pinch and also harking back to the Venusian martial arts favoured by the third Doctor. His jokey aside about his training and his new hand sounds very Doctorish, in fact. Imagine David Tennant delivering those lines as the Doctor and tell me it sounds any different.

Maketh the man: I really like the Doctor's new raggedy denim coat.

The Regeneration Game: So, the Doctor is now seemingly able to control his regenerations to such an extent that he can emit enough regenerative energy to put on a light show. Apart from the fact that this was rather pointless in story, seeing that Bill doesn't actually know what regeneration is yet, it raises some big questions about how much control has over his regenerations. If he can use the energy with such precision, why couldn't he just fix his eyes himself? Unless, of course, those weren't blanks when she shot him, and the Doctor has actually begun his regeneration, which would actually be a brilliant way to end the run.

Best line: I should probably choose the Doctor's rant against fascism and fundamentalism, but I can't help but love Bill to Nardole: "I'm gonna beat the sh-!"