Saturday, 11 November 2017

REVIEW: RED DWARF XII- Ep 6) SKIPPER

SPOILERS for the finale, folks!




Number Thirteen gets her togs



I have to say, this isn't at all what I was expecting. There were two options for the creative team, one of which was to just put her in a traditionally Doctorish gent's outfit to hammer home that it was the same character, and the other was to give her a more feminine costume that no previous Doctor would have worn. I'm glad they've gone with the latter, but even so, I kind of expected something that was more like one of the old Doctor's costumes, in a feminine cut.

This, though, I like very much. It's feminine, quirky, and fairly practical. There's a certain Doctorishness to it, but quite unlike any of the outfits before, which is just how it should be. There are bits of old Doctor influence in there, though. Most obviously, the braces call back to Matt Smith, but moreso to Patrick Troughton. (I was a bit intrigued when someone said the new Doctor would be wearing suspenders, but that was just a bit of Americanism/Britishism confusion.) The long coat calls back to David Tennant. The stripes across the top might be a nod to Tom Baker's scarf, and the boots could recall Smith or Eccleston. I'm not sure what's going on with the top of that coat - is that a hood swung back? - but it does have a somewhat Time Lordly quality to it.

Some people don't like it, which is fair enough, although attacking it by saying it's too silly or doesn't have enough gravitas seems to ignore how ridiculous some of the earlier Doctor's outfits were. I've seen it said that it looks like something out of Rainbow, which isn't totally unfair, but compared to the sixth Doctor's costume, it's very sedate. Someone else has said it makes her look like a circus performer, and a friend pointed out that Sylvester McCoy not only acted like a circus performer in some of his episodes, he basically was one before he started acting. Again, fair enough if that's not something you like in your Doctors, but it's hardly without precedent.

Various commentators have been pointing out similarities with other characters' costumes. Mork is the most common comparison:




but I'm seeing more than a hint of Wesley Crusher:




Either way, there's a definite eighties style to the costume, which actually fits quite well with the out-of-time vibe we get from various Doctors. Capaldi wore a costume which hinted at styles from both the 50s and 70s, while Hartnell's turn-of-the-century style was similarly 50-60 years out of date. Something that has a suggestion of 1987 is forty years out, the same sort of dislocation. In any case, I like it. It's different but still says "Doctor" to me.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

REVIEW: Thor: Ragnarok

By rights, marvel should be slowing down and flagging a bit by now. Thor: Ragnarok is the seventeenth movie in the MCU, which has been going for a good nine years. No one would be surprised if things were becoming stale by now. Yet somehow, this year has seen a run of films that have just gotten better and better. After the excellence of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming, Taika Waititi has created what may be my comicbook movie of the year.

Waititi is a real left-wing choice to direct a Marvel movie. Only Edgar Wright seemed more of an odd fit, and we saw how well that partnership ended. Nothing in Waititi's previous work, least of all his celebrated What We Do in the Shadows, makes you think “this guy needs to do a superhero movie.” In a weird way, though, he's a perfect choice, and what he does here with Norse mythology and operatic superheroics is much like his deconstruction of vampire lore and gothic romantic literature in Shadows. Hats off, too, to the writing trio of Yost, Kyle and Pearson, who put together a script that, for the most part, manages a fine balance of the grandly dramatic and the overtly comedic.

It's obvious that Marvel wanted to grab some of the success of Guardians of the Galaxy in restyling the Thor movies, which haven't generally been the most popular of the ongoing MCU series (although I've loved both previous instalments). Ragnarok explores the cosmic side of the Thor comics, something that the previous films have largely overlooked, as well as accepting just how ridiculous a character he is. Thor is at his best when simultaneously an amazing hero and a figure of fun, as he is in the best moments of 2011's Thor and in Avengers Assemble, and it seems film-makers have finally realised what excellent comic instincts Chris Hemsworth has. (Say what you like about Ghostbusters, Hemsworth made a one-joke character work far better than he should have there.) Ragnarok combines Thor's mythical side with the galactic comedy of Guardians, and also jumps on the same retro bandwagon to great effect. After all, the eighties are the decade right now, and the Masters of the Universe, synth-rock, Led Zeppelin mix just work perfectly. The other obvious comparison is the 1980 Flash Gordon movie, and Waititi has said that really Queen should have provided the songs for this film, were it not impossible for obvious reasons.

As with all the best superhero films, Ragnarok benefits from an exceptional cast who give their all in playing these absurdly over-the-top characters. Tom Hiddleston grins that grin to maximum effect throughout, although his usurping of the Asgardian throne is dealt with far more quickly than we might have expected, and he's so perfect as Loki that he can nail the character both as out-and-out villain and shifty ally. After a fair few ineffective and underwhelming villains (in spite of some excellent actors) Marvel has come out on top this year with its baddies, and Cate Blanchett as Hela, Goddess of Death is the best of the lot. Not only does Blanchett look incredible in the costume (damn, now my goth thing is back), she drips with menace and contempt. As secondary villain the Grandmaster, Jeff Goldblum basically plays Jeff Goldblum, but frankly, would you want it any other way? Then there's Karl Urban as Skurge the Executioner, somehow looking exactly like the comics character, clearly having a whale of a time as the scurvy thug.

On the heroic side of things, we have Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie, who is just stunningly good as the tough, beautiful, drunken warrior woman. She's a perfect foil for Hemsworth's Thor, a far better match as a potential love interest than either Jane or Sif (both of whom hero worship him too much), and I'm so glad we'll be seeing more of her in Infinity War. A fun cameo from Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Strange makes the brief terrestrial scenes feel as wonderfully odd as the scenes in other realms, while Anthony Hopkins makes his surprisingly brief appearance as Odin his best in the role yet.

And then there's the Hulk. The idea of a Planet Hulk film never really appealed to me, no matter how much fans clamoured for it. I mean, I love monsters, I really do, but the idea of two hours of green CGI musclemen pummelling each other seems tiresome in the extreme. Making it part of a larger storyline, though, is a brilliant move, and dumping Thor in the middle of it is a stroke of minor genius. Cutting him and his pomposity down to size by leaving him reduced and defeated is, of course, part of the reason that initial Thor storyline worked so well, and he needed a dose of that again. Thor is at his best when he doesn't have his hammer. His weirdly tender interplay with the Hulk is a winning factor for the film, and Mark Ruffalo is as perfectly cast as ever as the uncomfortable Banner, having to rediscover his balance all over again after two years in Hulk mode. The Hulk's chattier than we're used to on film, but his intelligence has always fluctuated in the comics, and it's reasonable that he would have developed somewhat given longer to learn and explore his existence.

Sakaar is an incredible location, a cesspit of a planet in an unstable region of space/time, where the passage of time is unreliable and wormholes dump miscreants without hope or warning. It's exactly the sort of place you'd expect the Guardians to turn up, and they probably will at some point when they want to link the series together. (In fact, the time dilation on Sakaar would be a good way of syncing up Star-Lord's timeline to the Avengers movies, if need be.) The planet features a colurful bunch of monsters, although the standout is, of course, is the rock-man Korg, played by the director himself (although at first we thought it might be Rhys “Murray” Darby, such is the intense Kiwi-ness).


Bookending the cosmic hijinks is Ragnarok itself, the end and rebirth of Asgard and the ultimate battle of Norse mythology. As a huge mythology buff I adore this aspect of the film, and the storyline, via the comics, sticks surprisingly closely to the legendary sources. Naturally, there are some differences even before you chuck all the spaceships in – Hela is Loki's daughter, rather than Odin's, an aspect that might stem more from the character Angela than Hela herself – but the bulk of the material is linked quite strongly to Norse mythology. And in any case, any movie that not only brings Surtur and Fenris to the big screen, but has the Hulk punch them both in the face, is a winner in my book.

REVIEW: RED DWARF XII - Ep 5) M-CORP

This episode was a particularly interesting one for me, as I attended its filming at Pinewood back in February of last year. Not only is it fascinating to see how the episode finally turned out, it's been long enough since the recording that much of it felt fresh again, although not without a certain sense of deja vu. (Well, it probably is deja vu, it sounds like it.) One observation I must make is that most of the scenes recorded in front of us were done with at least two takes, which means that the audience response is a little false in the finished episode. You know you need to laugh at the funny bits, but the laugh is never as big, or as genuine, as it was on the first time round. Equally, the funniest scenes aren't necessarily the ones that stick in your mind from the recording; it's the ones that the cast enjoy performing the most, that involve the most ad-libbing and retaking, that you remember. If you're interested, the biggest laugh was for the Windows sound effect that twanged when the ship was rebooted.




The finished product is a fine episode, although nowhere near a classic. Like a lot of episodes, it starts off about one thing and ends up being about quite another. In this case, it begins as a rumination on ageing, with Lister hitting his fiftieth birthday (thus a little younger than Craig Charles), and then moves onto a dissection on corporatism and monetisation, and the ever-desperate need for the newest upgrade or app. Still, it comes back to the original theme as Lister is aged to decrepitude after his money runs out and he's forced to pay in time.

It's a nicely paced and structured episode, but again, there's the sense that there are too many ideas fighting for attention here. Lister's declining health, the talking medical probe Chippy, and the idea of predicting the time of someone's death with accuracy are all strong elements. Then it veers onto the plotline of M-Corp, their takeover of Earth in the 26th century, and their rapacious need to monetise everything from water to air to thought. Again, I'm reminded of the future history that Grant and Haylor described in the Red Dwarf novels, and I'd love to see this material expanded on the page.

M-Corp's buying out of the JMC has some brilliantly visual consequences any product or person not provided or employed by the company rendered invisible to Lister, M-Corp's sole employee and customer on the ship. The Cat spraying Lister with lager from an invisible can, before he too becomes invisible and steals his beans on toast, are great visual gags and really feel like classic Red Dwarf moments. Lister's teleporting to M-Corp's own little world, with downloadable "friends" and water that costs four hundred dollarpounds, works well too, all clinical white and corporatised. Helen George has a strong turn as the main guest star, the creepy M-Corp avatar Aniter. (Incidentally, she was not present at the filming. All the M-Corp universe material was prerecorded and played back to us.)

The resolution is clever, with M-Corp's desperate need to sell and sell some more proving its undoing. Lister's old age make-up is very impressive considering the TV budget, but it's great to have him reverted to his correct self. The final joke, having to reboot Lister to his original 23-year-old self self is a winner, but again, there's a ton of material that could be mined from the idea of backing up people's identities. Plus, the idea that Kryten could recreate the 50-year-old Lister's knowledge and personality from CCTV records is ludicrous, although admittedly Star Trek did something similar but even more idiotic back with "The Changeling" in the sixties (in which Uhura had her mind wiped, and was apparently able to be completely reeducated to Starfleet standard with her personality unaffected in a mere two weeks).

That final scene though, recreating the very first scene from "The End" back in 1988, is wonderful. Still, I wonder why this episode wasn't chosen to close out the season. With any final episode of a recording block potentially standing as the last episode of Red Dwarf ever, rounding it out with a recreation of the very first moments would have been lovely.

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

Best line: "Sir, you've got nothing. No life, no future, no partner - you're so easy to buy for!"

Sunday, 29 October 2017

REVIEW: The Death of Stalin

Armando Iannucci is justly famed for his political satires. With The Thick of It and In the Loop, and latterly the US-set Veep, he has pilloried the absurdity, pettiness and power-hungry games of UK and US politics. Turning to historic Soviet politics, however, involves not just the absurdity of this, but utter horror and brutality. And so The Death of Stalin, while hitting the comedic level of his best material, is also the bleakest and most serious of his political comedies. The tagline, "A Comedy of Terrors," is apt indeed.

It's not that the film isn't funny, simply that the comedy is violently undercut by the oppressive grimness of the story. Still, how could it be otherwise? This is Stalinist Russia, one of the true nightmares of twentieth century totalitarianism, and the power struggle that played out in the aftermath of Stalin's death is living memory for a lot of people who could watch the film today. Kruschchev's rise to power, both brutal and forward-thinking at once, shaped the geopolitics of the latter half of the century. From cruel Chief of Intelligence Beria to the violent Zhukov, these were monstrous people.

But the best way to undercut these people is to mock them, and while Stalin has been the focus of such mockery many times before (although not nearly as much as his ally/nemesis Hitler) it's not often the Soviet cabinet as a whole gets this treatment. Iannucci's approach is to treat them as the squabbling old men that they were, already past their prime by the time Steely Joe died, desperately clinging onto the power they held at his whim. Casting Brits and Americans indiscriminately, the Soviets come across as a ragtag bunch of ageing gangsters.

What a cast, though. The cream of comedic and dramatic actors here. Jeffrey Tambor, who's never anything less than hilarious, is the hangdog-faced deputy Malenkov, who's propelled to supreme power in the wake of Stalin's brain bursting. The exceptional Simon Russell Beale as Beria, the vicious, gleefully cruel spymaster who murdered and raped his way through god knows how many victims, yet with Beale's performance is somehow both terrifying and likeable. The great Michael Palin as devout Stalinist Molotov, the most sympathetic of the characters, and even he denounced his wife as a traitor to maintain political leverage (of course, Palin has always excelled at playing nice bastards). Most brilliant of all, Steve Buscemi as Khruschev himself, the backstabbing party leader who, eventually, even after the close of the film, comes out on top. Until Brezhnev, of course.

Probably the funniest performance, though, is that of Jason Isaacs as General Zhukov, head of the Red Army, which he elects to play with a broad Yorkshire accent and a manic gleam in his eye. Other significant roles include the wonderful Andrea Riseborough as Stalin's daughter Svetlana, Joseph Friend as her hilariously drunken paranoiac brother Vasily, and Olga Kurylenko as the subversive pianist Maria Yudina. Perhaps the greatest turn actually comes from Paddy Considine, who opens the film as a desperate theatre owner under impossible pressure to record and already completed concert for the Premier. His performance sells the utter fear and desperate self-preservation of everyone living in the Soviet state at the time, while being hilarious to boot (with some superb straight-manning from the still-underappreciated Tom Brooke). Not forgetting, of course, Adrian McLoughlin as Stalin himself, portrayed a small, withered man, pathetic even as he commands life and death over all those around him.

Predictably, Russia hates this film, seeing it as a Western attempt to undermine their great history. After all, many Russians still view Stalin as a great social architect and war hero, instead of a power-crazed murderer. At least, they say they do - after all, disagreement likely goes down very poorly. There are films that gain notoriety on the back of this kind of controversy, but The Death of Stalin deserves to be seen on its own merits as a funny, powerful historical satire, with character moments that are equal parts cringe-inducing embarrassment, crushing wit and genuine fear for life and liberty.

I get the feeling The Death of Stalin will be watched for many years to come as a look back at a pivotal moment in history. This is exactly the sort of film that should be made, and if it pisses off the Kremlin, all the better. Just imagine the movies we'll get about Putin, Trump and Kim in sixty or seventy years, assuming we're not living in some irradiated wasteland by then.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

REVIEW: RED DWARF XII - Ep 4) MECHOCRACY

After a disappointing third episode, Series XII gets back on track with a hugely enjoyable story that gets just about everything right. After three episodes with significant guest casts, "Mechocracy" gets back to core Dwarf. It's Lister, Kryten, Rimmer and the Cat as the only humanoids onscreen, with only vending machines and other appliances as supporting characters. The story sees Lister allow a computer virus to infect Red Dwarf's system, leading to an "abandon ship" situation to which the vending machines are not invited. Long story short, the AI-run machines on the ship go on strike, so Rimmer and Kryten compete to become their president and thus control Red Dwarf.





Sunday, 22 October 2017

REVIEW: RED DWARF XII - Ep 3) TIMEWAVE

Irony: an episode about a society in which criticism has been banned being the most critically panned episode in recent years.

The central idea is pretty promising. A society in which no one is held accountable for anything, no one learns how to do their jobs because positive criticism is illegal, where no one can insult or belittle anyone, no matter how idiotic. This could have been a Hitchhikers-eqsue satire. This could have been a timely attack on the fragile nature of people's egos and the tendency of people today to take anything as an offense. It could have gone down the route of Incompetence, Naylor's old stablemate Rob Grant's novel, where no one could be dismissed or barred from a position no matter how ill-suited or unable they were. We might have expected a few pokes at a certain notoriously incompetent and idiotic POTUS, except that these episodes were written and filmed before that world-damning election.

What we got was a bunch of people in children's television "crazy" costumes acting like irritating prats, and not the class of irritating prat that we're used to getting with Red Dwarf. It was a bit of a warning sign when the promo photo released was of Johnny Vegas in a baby pink police uniform, but he's actually the best thing in this episode. As the Crit Cop, Vegas's performance is just the right combination of frustrating and likeable, and his style fits in nicely as part of the Dwarf's world. (It's easy to imagine Vegas playing a crewman on the Red Dwarf back in pre-accident days, and he's apparently a big fan of the series, which is nice to know.) He's a damned sight better than Jamie Chapman as Captain Ziggy, although, to be fair to him, he had pretty poor material to work with.





Saturday, 21 October 2017

Polari Brighton

The Polari Literary Salon is an LGBTQ literary performance workshop that is generally London-based but makes outings to other parts of the UK. The Arts Council England has presented the organisers with a grant to fund a nationwide tour to mark their tenth anniversary, and so last night Polari came to Brighton.

I didn't know anything about Polari until my partner Suz and I met the wonderful Cerys Evans at a very Brightonian barbecue in the summer (lots of vegan sausages on offer). Cerys is a writer and performer (and has just started her own website), and is instantly a hit with everyone she meets. We made sure we were free to come see her perform at the Marlborough Pub and Theatre, a cosy little venue on the edge of Kemptown. It turned out Suz's friend John McCullough, a talented poet, was also performing that night. So naturally we absolutely had to make this.

We still managed to be late, and missed Cerys's first poem, which is frankly unforgiveable, but she still wowed us with some amazing readings of her own, very personal, very moving work. John was up during the second half reading from his latest book, Spacecraft, and giving us a sneak peak of his work in progress. John's poetry can be moving, powerful, funny - the gamut. And he likes to sneak in Doctor Who references.

It wasn't all local peeps, though. V. G. Lee, five time novelist and short story writer, read one of her stories from her collection As You Step Outside, and I loved it so much I went and bought the book straight away. Playwright Alexis Gregory performed part of his upcoming work which deals with pivotal moments and periods in the gay community throughout the twentieth century. He gave us the opening piece, a performance of a memoir from a man who was present at the Stonewall Uprising in 1969. It was an astonishingly powerful and moving piece, bringing to life an event that was long enough ago to feel historical, even mythic, to us now.

Each step of the tour includes a writing workshop, and one person is chosen from each to perform their piece at the event. A new writer read her poem #MeToo, a powerful hit of painful experience. The event finished with Sylvia Brownrigg reading from her new novel Pages for Her, which was beautiful, although I feel I ought to read the previous Pages for You from 2002 first. The evening was hosted by top-hatted raconteur Paul Burston and sign-interpreted by Natalie MacGarvie. It was a wonderful experience, and I'm glad that I'm learning to appreciate poetry at last - something I never really "got" until lately, and a lot of that is down to Suz.

We stayed out chatting with talented people and making new friends. Just a wonderful night. There's still time to see Polari on tour in London and Newcastle, and beyond.

Monday, 16 October 2017

REVIEW: BLADE RUNNER 2049

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 14 October 2017

REVIEW: RED DWARF XII - Ep 2) SILICONIA

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

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

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





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

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

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


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

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

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

REVIEW: THE GIFTED 1-1) "eXposed"

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

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

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

Sunday, 8 October 2017

REVIEW - RED DWARF XII - Ep 1) CURED

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




Thursday, 28 September 2017

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

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





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

Date: May 11th, 2256. Stardate 1207.3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alien life forms:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starships:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexy Trek: Sonequa Martin-Green is absolutely stunning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Thoughts on IT (2017)

I'm not actually the biggest fan of Stephen King's work, and film adaptations have, over the years, been of very variable quality. (Although The Shawshank Redemption is, of course, one of the greatest films ever made.) The 1990 IT miniseries/TV movie hasn't got a good reputation, save for Tim Curry's legendary performance as Pennywise. I remember it scaring the crap out of me, but then I was about seven (I got to stay up late two nights in a row to watch it as a special holiday treat). I haven't ever found a reason to revisit it, to be honest. However, there's a reason the novel is considered a classic of horror, and if anything, it's surprising that it's taken so long for a proper cinematic adaptation.

This is IT: Chapter One officially, with the second installment coming in a couple of years and featuring the adult versions of the characters. I hope they find a way to include the kids again, even just in flashbacks, because the young cast really is very good here. The biggest praise must go to Sophia Lillis, who plays Bev, the sole girl in the Losers crew, who is just exceptional. Finn Wolfhard, the go-to kid for Stephen King-esque productions, is pretty hilarious as "Trashmouth" Tozier. All the kids are very good, though, with real chemistry that makes them a believable group of friends.

Some critics have said this wasn't a particularly good horror film, which I would not agree with, but that it was an excellent coming-of-age movie, which is definitely true. That was always the aspect of IT that worked best; incredibly brave kids who have to deal with shitty lives even before the bogeyman comes to eat them, coming together and helping each other through the most traumatic time of their lives. I'm just not as interested in them once they're messed up adults, and I suspect director Andy Muschietti and various screenwriters aren't either. Pretty much every adult who appears in the story is thoroughly horrible character, and the OK ones barely make an impact. King never shies away from depicting just how awful people are. Thankfully, the film isn't quite as horrible as the book, and doesn't feature any ill-judged or gross sex scenes. And there's no question that, at a thousand-odd pages, the book has plenty that can be left out even in two films. (Confession: never finished it. Life's too short.)

The film's going to succeed or fail on the strength of Pennywise itself, though, and thankfully, Bill Skarsgard is bloody brilliant. Very different to Curry's interpretation, even more unnerving, with an unsettlingly childlike aspect that masks something really horrible beneath. I love how unpleasantly physical his performance is, drooling and moving his own eyes in opposite directions, it would be deeply unpleasant even without any CGI or prosthetic effects. I like that there's a very physical creature just below the surface of the clown, breaking out when it's ready to feed or just can't contain itself anymore. And then, within that, there's the Deadlights, which we catch just a glimpse of before it cuts away (for the sake of our own sanity, naturally). Then there are the other aspects of the creature, including a truly stomach-churning leper and a twisted painting of a woman that walks around, misshapen face and all. Much more effective than werewolves etc. The balloons are still there though.

I can't help but feel that the second chapter is inevitably going to be weaker in comparison, but this was an excellent horror movie.


Monday, 25 September 2017

TREK REVIEW: Rise of the Federation: Patterns of Interference

Patterns of Interference is the fifth novel in the Rise of the Federation series, Christopher L. Bennett's sequence of adventures for the characters of Star Trek: Enterprise. The series charts the earliest events of the United Federation of Planets through the 2160s, both following on from threads from episodes of Enterprise and working backwards from various historical bits and pieces mentioned in other series.

Previous novels in the series have followed up on the deadly technological threat from “Dead Stop,” named by Bennett as the Ware, which has been neutralised with unforeseen consequences for the local galactic neighbourhood. First contact has been made with the planet Sauria but Federation trade with the despotic Maltuvis has led the planet into political chaos. The Rigel system has joined the Federation, but this itself has led to political fallout among such powers as the Orion Syndicate and a breakout movement from the Malurian system. It's fair to say that in a few years the UFP has made a big impact in local space, but frequently with unpredictable consequences.

This lies at the heart of the novel, as Admiral Jonathan Archer campaigns for the creation of a non-interference directive to prevent reckless meddling in the affairs of other peoples. Don't expect to see the founding of the Prime Directive here, though; Bennett understands that policy decisions like this take years to come into effect. Archer has to deal with both logical and impassioned pleas against non-interference, including from his enemy-turned-friend Shran. Meanwhile, other organisations have a vested interest in Starfleet becoming so shamed by its interference that the Federation retreats into isolationism. Multiple factions play against each other, in a plot that increases in complexity as different characters come together at the hotbed that is Sauria.

Bennett's prose is always a pleasure to read. He knows how to spin a good adventure. There's also a good deal of social commentary in his work, and this novel is no exception, as the author uses futuristic situations as a commentary on contemporary issues in true Trek style. There are memorable instances on gender politics that see characters comment on how movements for equality can easily be reversed when society becomes more insular. While they're talking about colony worlds with a vested interest in keeping their populations growing, it's a comment on the shifts both backwards and forwards in gender politics today, and also an attempt to make sense of the sexism displayed in some episodes of The Original Series. In another plotline we spend time with Maltuvis, an idiotic, narcissistic tyrant who has come to power due to his wealth and by turning his people against minorities, a none-too-subtle pop at a certain president currently dominating the news.

All manner of characters from Enterprise and beyond turn up in this series and many of them are present in this book, all working to their own ends. While Archer pushes his political agenda, he is contacted by Trip Tucker, alive and working for Section 31 as per the novel The Good That Men Do. The two of them along with Captain Malcolm Reed, now of the USS Pioneer, put plans into place to bring down the clandestine organisation from the inside. Meanwhile, the Orions, led by the alluring three sisters introduced in Enterprise: “Bound,” conspire to interfere with Sauria themselves, with agents that include the Malurian Garos (from Enterprise: “Civilization”) and the Orion woman Devna (from TAS “The Time Trap”). Furthermore, there are roles for the crew of the USS Essex, the ancestors of one James T. Kirk and a member of the Paris dynasty. There's a real risk with works like this of small universe syndrome, but Bennett pulls it off with panache.

Although there's an overall optimism in the Rise of the Federation series, there's something rather doom laden about Patterns of Interference. In spite of everyone's best efforts here, Section 31 will live on to threaten Federation ideals in the future (both in the primary and Kelvin timelines). Garos's actions are for the good of the Malurian people, who will be rendered extinct off-screen in the TOS episode “The Changeling.” According to the TNG episode “Power Play,” the USS Essex will be lost with all hands at Mab-bu VI. Knowing the future of so many characters and groups makes casts a shadow over much of what happens here.

While all of this is going on, T'Pol and Hoshi, now of the flagship USS Endeavour NCC-06, are sent in to assist a group of boomers who have landed on a planet where plant life dominates. There a species of tree-like organisms dubbed dryads show potential as a source of medical compounds but also signs of sentience, and Hoshi is tasked with trying to identify their linguistic abilities. It's an interesting, pure science fiction storyline that feels somewhat divorced from the main events, but remains relevant to the ongoing questions of involvement with other worlds.


Rise of the Federation has been a strong line since its beginnings, and Patterns of Interference is one of its strongest instalments.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Now available - The Throne of Peladon

Season 41 of The Doctor Who Project is now begun. The first story, The Throne of Peladon by James P. Quick, is now available to read for free. Part two, The Secret of Peladon, is available next Saturday.

Give it a read if you enjoy classic era Doctor Who stories, political intrigue, mediaeval adventures or hermaphrodite hexapods. Click the cover and go read!


http://www.thedoctorwhoproject.com/files/seasons/season_41/The%20Throne%20of%20Peladon.pdf

Saturday, 23 September 2017

TREK REVIEW: Star Trek Boldly Go - Vol. 1

Star Trek: Boldly Go volume 1 collects the first six issues of IDW's new Kelvin timeline series. Although there's no particular reason this series couldn't have simply carried on from the previous ongoing series, Boldly Go specifically continues the story of Kirk and crew after the main events of Star Trek Beyond, leading up to the launch of the new USS Enterprise NCC-1701-A seen at the very end of that movie. In this respect, it's similar to how DC published strips in the 1980s that showed events between The Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock and The Voyage Home, where Kirk took command of the Excelsior. Like this, Boldly Go may find itself contradicted and rendered irrevocably apocryphal if, and when, a fourth Abramsverse movie is released.

Issues 1 - 4

Issue 1 sees Kirk taking temporary command of the USS Endeavour on a year-long mission of exploration. Bones is there too, having taken a role reduction to assistant chief medical officer so that he can continue to serve under his friend, and Chekov is manning engineering and the transporter bay. The remaining core crew have gone in separate directions, which is entirely plausible. Sulu has been promoted to commander and is first officer aboard the USS Concord, while Scotty is lecturing at Starfleet Academy. Meanwhile, Spock and Uhura have taken a sabbatical, in order to assist Sarek with the founding of the new Vulcan Science Academy on New Vulcan.

The first four issues comprise a single story, which sees the Concord encounter an alien threat that Starfleet is unprepared to meet. Although it's delivered as a big shocking cliffhanger, it's no big surprise who the aliens are, but if you have managed to avoid this reveal and want to remain unspoiled, stop reading now. Needless to say, the Concord is carved up by the aggressor, the bulk of its crew captured, including Sulu's husband and daughter, giving him a particularly personal stake in the story. Also captured is the commanding officer of the Concord, Captain Terrell, who, twenty years later in another reality, commands the Reliant on The Wrath of Khan. Terrell, it seems, is not a lucky captain in any timeline.

So, without beating about the bush any further, the aggressors are the Borg, somewhat beefed up but immediately recognisable and reliably insisting that resistance really is rather futile. If anything, it's a surprise that the Borg took so long to turn up in the Kelvin timeline comics; indeed, I wondered if they were being held back for a movie appearance. While it's another example of recycling older ideas for the new timeline, seeing Kirk and crew take on the Borg is irresistible. Spock and Uhura are brought back in in order to analyse the Borg and their language, something that's slightly contrived considering the Borg have never had any trouble making themselves understood before. However, it works, and the story builds in intensity with each chapter, as the Borg make way to Romulus, putting Kirk in a very dangerous position politically. For those wondering why Romulus is high on the Borg's agenda, it has to do with the Narada, and the revelations about its nature that IDW previously established in the Countdown and Nero miniseries.

Although this is a story that relies heavily on established elements, it also introduces one fascinating new character. Commander Valas, first officer of the Endeavour, is a Romulan, raised on Earth by dissidents who fled the Empire. She's an intriguing character, coming across as a more impulsive yet still emotionally restrained officer than Spock, and her presence adds another complication to the interactions with the Star Empire.

Mike Johnson provides a strong, gripping story that promises repurcussions in future issues, and Tony Shasteen's artwork is excellent, with some fine likeness of the actors and dynamic space action. The Borg Sphere looks especially imposing as it carves up ships and outposts in pursuit of its mission. There are some nice character touches – the head of the Vulcan Academy appears to be played by Judi Dench! - although there's one notable slip-up by the colourists that make it appear, at one point, that Spock has red blood. The story also displays the same flaw as the Enterprise episode “Regeneration,” in that, even in this more advanced timeline, it's hard to credit how rapidly an earlier ship is able to take down a Borg vessel.

Issues 5 & 6

Issue 5 continues with the same creative team, but tells a much slighter, although effective story. The issue is given over entirely to the character of Jaylah, currently studying at Starfleet Academy. It's a very dialogue-light story, but uses an unusual storytelling style, playing events in reverse as we explore the alien woman's backstory, on Altamid and before. The story seems a little detached in this volume, but sets up further appearances of Jaylah in future comics.

Issue 6 follows on from the Borg story, with Sulu recovering from the near loss of his family and ready to take on another posting. The Kelvin timeline's version of the Babel Conference is in its planning stages, here involving the Romulans and held in response to the Borg incursion. However, the storyline is mostly a standalone adventure in which the Endeavour encounters a white hole, a previously unverified phenomenon with unknown and unpredictable effects. What follows sees two junior crewmembers acting against the ship for reasons that become clear. It's a brief but effective story that relies on that old Star Trek staple, the godlike alien race who decide to observe a primitive human crew. This issue is written by Ryan Parrott, and has artwork by Chris Mooneyham, who provides a fairly old-fashioned, perhaps classic style of comics art that makes the crew look especially dashing. It's a strong closing story that gives hints to future events in a series that has some considerable promise.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

REVIEW: Electric Dreams - The Hood Maker

Philip K. Dick - famously troubled, gloriously creative, gifted - or cursed - with a unique way of seeing the world. His novels are well known, and have been adapted many times before. Indeed, it's no doubt the recent success of Amazon's adaptation of The Man in the High Castle and the upcoming release of the sequel to Blade Runner that have spurred the creation of this new series. While I've read a number of Dick's novels, I'm mildly ashamed to say I haven't read any of his short stories. The only ones I could name immediately would be "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale," the basis for Total Recall, "The Minority Report," and "The Adjustment Team," adapted as The Adjustment Bureau. A quick check reveals more that have been adapted - I hadn't realised the fairly woeful Paycheck started as PKD short story - but still, it's clear that there's far more of his work out there than I have made time to explore.

Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams seems set to remedy that, putting Dick's various short stories through the adaptation process and turning them into hour-long TV episodes. There will no doubt be some significant changes to be made; Dick wrote the bulk of his material in the fifties and sixties, and things have moved on quite significantly since then, both technologically and socially. However, it looks like the ethos of the work will remain. I certainly intend to look up these originals and see how the new and old compare; hopefully the series will encourage more people to look into the original works. While showing on Channel Four in the UK, the US, and one imagines, eventual world rights, have been taken by Amazon.

Electric Dreams kicks off with a series of generically sci-fi-ish images, the sort of immediately arresting but ultimately nonsensical stuff that was used for the title sequences of The X-Files and the 90s version of The Outer Limits. The sort of thing Rick and Morty parodies. This wasn't particularly promising to me, but thankfully, once that was over, the first episode itself was stylistically brilliant. "The Hood Maker," adapted from the 1955 story of the same name, has a dirty neon, rundown look that isn't a million miles away from Blade Runner's aesthetic, although the city we visit here is distinctly low-tech. This gives the production something of a feel for the '50s origins of the story, although the impression here is very  much a post-electronic society, rather than one in the past. (The actual setting and background for the story are barely even sketched in, which cuts down on exposition and maintains a palpable air of mystery.)

In this distorted version of Britain, society is run by the Union, just as stratified as it is today but now with a new underclass: the Teeps, telepathic mutants who are physically distinguished by facial birthmarks. The Teeps are a feared and downtrodden minority, living in ghettos and used for both official and illegal purposes. It's a disturbingly believable set-up. While the hatred for Teeps is clear, with protests on the streets against their very existence, the police use Teep agents to hunt down and interrogate suspects - in one of the most disturbing scenes in the programme, a supposed terrorist is forced to relive trauma and shameful memories as part of a torturous interrogation. Meanwhile, the elite visit Teep brothels, where seeming psychic sex sessions lead to emotional and physical abuse, all while officially maintaining the segregation.

The stars of the programme are Richard Madden, best known as Robb Stark on Game of Thrones, and Holliday Grainger, who has had various TV roles and is surely destined for greatness based on her performance here. The two have previously appeared together in the 2015 adaptation of Lady Chatterly's Lover, and have strong chemistry. Grainger plays Honor, a Teep who is assigned to work with Madden's Detective Ross in an investigation into rising disruption in the city, both by "Normals" and Teeps. Someone is making hoods that block out the Teep's abilities, and civil unrest - including a possible Teep uprising - is on the cards,

While Madden is excellent and charismatic as Ross, it's Grainger's haunting performance as Honor that is the star call here. She is powerfully sympathetic, from her introduction to the heart-wrenching conclusion. Also impressive is Anneika Rose, who plays Honor's friend Mary, a Teep who is left working in a telepathic brothel and earns abuse for her troubles. In a powerful scene, Mary's emotional and physical pain echo through all the Teeps in the ghetto, linking them together in trauma in a way the "Normals" could never understand. The story raises important and evocative questions, about our rights to privacy, autonomy and freedom, both from the point of view of the Teeps and their frightened targets. There's an undercurrent throughout of abuses of power on all sides, and it's very clear that, one way or another, this society is due for violent change.

I understand the original story is significantly different both in specifics and the general direction, and look forward to investigating it. Here, though, Matthew Graham, creator of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, creates a story that poses many questions, answers few, and makes us think about how people treat each other and how power is shared out. Towards the end there are revelations, including a retelling of an earlier scene with distinct differences, that make us question everything we've seen so far. Not only is this exactly how Dick liked to make his readers question reality, it puts us firmly in the shoes of Honor in her betrayal and confusion. This is an excellent start to a series that promises much, and I look forward to the remaining episodes and will be sure to delve in to the stories that inspired them. (Channel Four are missing a trick if they don't republish them themselves.)

Monday, 18 September 2017

Twenty years of Cassini

On October 15th, 1997, a Titan IV rocket launched from Cape Canaveral, carrying a Flagship-class spacecraft named Cassini. For just under twenty years, Cassini, and its companion probe Huygens, travelled through space and set up home in the Saturnian system, until it was deliberately crashed into Saturn's atmospheric sea on September 15th, 2017.

A collaborative mission between NASA (who created and launched the orbiter, Cassini), the European Space Agency (who developed the probe Huygens and the bulk of its technology) and the Italian Space Agency (who provided Cassini's telemetry and radiocommunication equipment), the Cassini project took fifteen years to move from initial concept to launch. Originally scheduled to end in 2008, the Cassini mission was extended with the Cassini Equinox mission, and again in 2010, with the Cassini Solstice mission, before it was carefully and deliberately destroyed in its final plunge.

In its early years, the spacecraft made a flyby of Venus, looped back round and took some test photos of Earth's Moon, using the gravity of this flyby to boost towards the outer solar system. After three years in space, Cassini made a flyby of the asteroid Masursky, followed by a flyby of Jupiter, collecting the most detailed images ever of the great planet. While between Jupiter and Saturn, tests were made using radio signals to and from the spacecraft, which further proved the effects predicted by Einstein's theory of gravity. In 2004, Cassini reached its destination, entering Saturnian orbit and passing through the planets outermost rings, taking shots of several moons in the journey. Two new moons - named Methone and Pallene - were discovered, while the spacecraft made flybys of the largest moon, Titan.

At the very beginning of 2005, the Huygens probe landed on Titan, sending back telemetry as it did so. It revealed a world of icy "rocks" and marshes of liquid hydrocarbons, a strange, frozen inversion of Earth, the first time we could look beneath the dense, clouded atmosphere. Over the following years, Cassini continued to travel throughout the Saturnian system, making flybys of moons, and sending back new and surprising data, such as the revelation of water systems on Enceladus. It also sent back some of the most detailed, surprising and beautiful images of the great ringed planet itself. Over the two decades of its service, multiple fixes and adjustments were made by the mission control team remotely from Earth.

To that team, the mission's designers, and the spacecraft itself: I salute you.


The Earth, from Saturn.



See some of the most breathtaking images from the mission here at Vox.com


A monstrous new blog!

Just because I haven't overloaded my plate enough lately, I've gone and started a new blog. Monster Mountain is my new home for all Monster in My Pocket related nonsense, including a planned rundown of all the classic monsters, looking into their background in myth, folklore and popular culture. Click here to go see (my preferred viewing mode is flipcard).



Sunday, 10 September 2017

REVIEW: Ghostbusters 101



Of course, this had to happen eventually. It's a bit of a surprise it happened so soon. We haven't even had a pure 2016 Ghostbusters comic series yet (although one is upcoming from IDW), and here are the ladies, crossing over with the classic team for an interdimensional adventure. Then again, they've already done crossovers with The Real Ghostbusters, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and even one-shots with The Lone Gunmen and Mars Attacks! Maybe some day I'll get round to writing my crossovers with Men in Black and Poltergeist. But I digress.




This was a six-part comics series, a little longer then than the previous major crossover events, but still a reasonably concise story. It takes a little while to get going; the first issue is pretty much all set-up, and it's a good while before the two sets of Ghostbusters actually come to meet. This is fine, and the momentum picks up once they do encounter each other, but it suffers from the same problem as a lot of comic series these days, in that it feels as though it's been written for the omnibus release rather than on a monthly schedule. Re-reading it all back in one go, it moves quickly enough and has a good rhythm, but over six months, the first and last installments feel a little damp. I'm sure the trade will work beautifully, especially if they include the extra classroom material that makes the end-piece of each issue.

Aside from the crossover element, Ghostbusters 101 has a great central concept. The original trio of Venkman, Spengler and Stantz were university professors, and alongside their dubious experiments, they would have had to hold lectures and teach students. When a bust goes awry, creating a city-wide clean-up bill the size of Stay Puft's tabard, the 'busters need to generate more cash and Venkman hits on the idea of a ghostbusting experience where students will pay to learn the basic of busting. We don't actually get to see a great deal of the classes, although it sets up a thread that will surely run through any upcoming series, and it does give the gang a whole bunch of extra bodies when things are out of hand in the finale. There are several new characters already included in the set-up, mostly holdovers from the 2017 annual. Cait Banner is Janine's spunky niece, Zoe Zawadzki is her even spunkier, more techie friend, and Evan Torres is their academically-inclined third wheel. Kevin Tanaka is a great new character, the reserved but quietly funny second receptionist, and it's funny that both teams have a receptionist called Kevin, albeit of wildly different abilities. The final new recruit is Garrett Parker, a very bright young man who happens to be on the autistic spectrum, who is dealing with his father's terminal illness (which inevitably comes back to haunt him, literally). A lot of fans though he'd turn out to be the comics version of the Extreme Ghostbusters character Roland, and although he's drawn to look very like him, he's his own character and a welcome addition to the team.




For all that though, it's the crossover we're here for. It's the new kids who create this crisis on infinite Earths, after messing around with the 'buster's interdimensional portal (which was co-constructed by Donatello the Turtle, of course). They cause a ghost to be caught partly between the regular GB dimension and the reality of the 2016 movie, causing an interdimensional bleed which, among other things, leads to two Statues of Liberty standing side-by-side (sadly, neither one walks). The two realities begin to cross over, an anomaly that, in time, will cause both universes to shake themselves apart at a subatomic level. In the words of Egon Spengler, this "would be bad."

It's great fun seeing the classic team and the new team butt heads and eventually work together. Erik Burnham nails the characters' voices just as well as he did with the originals, and Dan Schoening's caricatures of the four are absolutely dead-on perfect. (Delgado's colour work is, as always, gorgeous.) Abby has some fine interplay with Egon and Ray, Abby is the perfect straight-woman as before, and there's a very natural buddy relationship between Patty and Winston - the two normal people. Kevin is a used as a way to throw in as many absurdities as possible, not always with great success, although I did enjoy his aggressive post-it usage, and we even get to meet Mike Hat.




Really, though, there's one thing we're here to see, and probably the main reason the thing got made in the first place. We want to see Holtzmann as a cartoon. Dapper Dan must have been dying to draw her. Cartoon Holtz is perfect, stealing every scene even without Kate McKinnon portraying her. We even get a little info on her prime universe counterpart, who is apparently an FBI agent, and who is undoubtedly going to turn up in future series.

As always, the creative team can't resist chucking in a few nods and winks. Not only does the 2016 movie seem to be set in the same universe as Caddyshack, they sneak a Scrooged reference in there too. The RGB team get a brief appearance through the interdimensional viewer, although here's hoping that one day we get to see the "Answer the Call" team's own "animated" counterparts. There are some fan-pleasing discussions of ghostly physics, questioning why the new 'busters blow up the spooks rather than containing them, why this is a bad idea, and how they got away with it in the 2016 movie. There's a great giant monster moment (something that was missing from the 2016 movie, excepting monstrous balloons), which reuses a monster design from a classic RGB episode. There are few questions unanswered - just whose disembodied voice do we hear speaking to the snarling ghoul that gets lodged between dimensions? - and perhaps these will get followed up in a future series.

Not the greatest series that IDW have done with the Ghostbusters licence, but a fun adventure. I'm looking forward to the 2016 team's own series next year.