Sunday, 26 January 2020


Don't forget, you can pick up issue three of the sci-fi and cult television magazine Chromakey now via Lulu.

There are articles on a whole range of new and classic sf TV, including Doctor Who, Quantum Leap, Good Omens, Dark Skies, Max Headroom and Star Trek, plus a tribute to the late Terrance Dicks and an interview with BSG's Sarah Rush.

You can order the magazine for just £5.22 (plus postage, natch) here.

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

WHO REVIEW: 12-4 - Nikola Tesla's Night of Terror

That was a great little story. I like that we've gone back to the celebrity historicals - fun romps with a charismatic figure from history and an alien threat. Last season we had "The Witchfinders," which was one of the better episodes of the year. "Rosa" was a more serious story, as close as we've gotten to a pure historical since 2005, but had some similarities to this episode.

Nikola Tesla is the perfect historical figure for Doctor Who to feature. The gentleman inventor is a character trope that goes right back to the beginnings of the Doctor - that's essentially how Doctor was first characterised, and an element that has been introduced back into the Doctor's performance with Whittaker's incarnation. Of course the Doctor is going to be a huge Tesla fan. Setting an episode during the "Current War" - the legendary rivalry between Nikola "AC" Tesla and Thomas "DC" Edison - is the sort of historical story I really enjoy. This series we seem to have something of a theme of the history of electronics and computing, following on from Ada Lovelace and Noor Khan to Tesla and Edison.

It's the sort of historical situation that is ripe for exploration on Doctor Who - absolutely within its themes but not terribly well known. There's been a big resurgence in Tesla enthusiasm in recent years, with a lot of fictionalised versions of him appearing on steampunky sci-fi productions, but when it comes to his actual history, he's still little known  by most people. The educational aspect of Doctor Who, there at the very beginning, is a strong element of this latest iteration of the show and a welcome one.

Goran Višnjić is absolutely spot on as Tesla. He's made up to look physically almost identical to him, and is essentially of the same nationality (Višnjić is a Croatian-American, Tesla was Serbian-American, but both were born in what is now Croatia and was under a greater country's control at the time). It's his performance though that makes Tesla such a compelling character in this episode - eccentric, bewitched by the possibilities of technology and quietly passionate. Just as good is Robert Glenister as Edison - the more famous of the two inventors, as the script is happy to point out. He plays him with a gleeful arrogance, and to be honest, the script really eviscerates Edison for much of the episode. True, Edison was a capitalist of the first order, but he was also a brilliant inventor in his own right and, arguably, made more of a direct impact on history than Tesla. That said, he at least gets to argue his case, and he is shown to have genuine compassion for his staff, even if he is a dickhead to Tesla (who, lets be fair, was no saint himself).

The TARDIS fam is used pretty well throughout here. It still feels like the writers are struggling a bit with finding something for them all to do, but Nina Metivier manages it better than most. Yaz gets to pair off with Tesla for her own mini-adventure, while Graham backs up the Doctor and Ryan gets some nice character moments with Dorothy (Haley McGee). It still feels a bit overstuffed - you could manage this story happily with the Doctor, Dorothy, Tesla and Edison and none of the regular companions - ut on the whole it works.

As do the Skithra. Yes, they're an awful lot like the Racnoss, with the Skithra Queen both looking and sounding reminiscent of the Racnoss Empress, but "The Christmas Invasion" was over thirteen years ago, so it's been long enough. Plus, Anjli Mohindra's performance as the Queen is pretty great, and a lot subtler than Sarah Parrish's as the Empress, even if she is channelling a lot of the same tics. I feel like the two species are probably related in-universe. The Skithra are conceptually quite different, though; if anything, as scavengers they're more like the Santa robots that the Racnoss co-opted than the Racnoss themselves. I like the idea that there are loads of alien chancers hanging around primitive planets waiting to nick stuff off more advanced passers-by, safe in the knowledge they probably won't get caught.

On the other hand, there are some conceptual problems with the Skithra. They're said to have a hive mind, something that is used against them in their defeat, but they don't act like they do. Sure, they have a humanoid(ish) Queen and a bunch of scorpion-like drones, but the drones seem to have distinct personalities and self-awareness. It also seems like Metivier is trying to draw a parallel between Edison using his employees' inventions to make money, and the Skithra stealing technology from other races rather than building it themselves, but they're not really equivalent.

There are some other little quibbles - where did that Silurian gun come from, for instance? - but it's hardly the first time a decent Doctor Who romp failed to make sense when looked at closely. This was a lot of fun, and I'm not arguing with that.

Maketh the woman: The companion trio all get kitted out in early 20th century outfits, all perfectly chosen to suit the actors, but the Doctor just wears her usual gear. After the black tie twist in Skyfall, I'd been looking forward to Thirteen in a period costume for a change.

Ethics is my manor: There's a serious problem with the Doctor's morals here. She forcibly wipes Ada Lovelace's memories to protect her memory, against her protestations, but let's Edison and Tesla carry on after seeing the TARDIS, alien technology and all sorts of history-damaging things. Alternatively maybe it's inconsistent writing, more evidence for needing a decent script editor to take his marker to this series.

Whose face is this? Robert Glenister previously appeared on Doctor Who as Salateen in the 184 classic The Caves of Androzani. Anjli Mohindra was, of course, Rani Chandra for four seasons of The Sarah Jane Adventures.

Title Tattle: Yeah, that's a lovely title, but I'd have gone with "Current Affairs."

Oh look, rocks: One thing Tesla has in common with Rosa Parks: they both have asteroids named after them. So does Edison, as it happens.

Sunday, 19 January 2020

REVIEW: Crisis on Infinite Earths

It took the Marvel Cinematic Universe eleven years to bring us their over-the-top, self-indulgent and thoroughly enjoyable time-travelling crossover. So for the CW's Arrowverse to get there in just eight years is pretty swift. Although I've never been the biggest fan of Arrow itself, it's a testament to the huge franchise of DC superhero shows that it has spawned that, in its final season, it would be part of a five-part crossover with all of its sister shows involved. Although that's not the half of it; this is as much an event for Supergirl , and particularly, The Flash, which has been counting down to this Crisis since its first season, with glimpses of the inevitable future marking Barry's time.

Plus it's a much-needed boost for Batwoman (a show I'm behind on, but still, from the evidence of early episodes, one that needs an injection of fun) and a celebration of the ridiculousness of Legends of Tomorrow. Even that doesn't cover it, though. By taking the idea of Infinite Earths to its logical extreme, Berlanti and the CW team realised they could put everything in there, if they could get the right people involved. And they got away with it; Crisis on Infinite Earths is an absurd celebration of the entirety of DC's live-action screen history, and a fair bit of the animated universe too. It's amazing that they got so many actors from DC productions past to get involved, even if some of them were just fleeting cameos.

It's nicely balanced on that front, too, with the regular cast still carrying the bulk of the story. The only alternative version of a character to get a big cut of the action is the Earth-96 Superman, and he, of course, is played by Legends regular Brandon Routh. It's particularly lovely how the reuse of actors isn't glossed over, but commented on by the characters. Superman productions in particular have a tradition of reusing actors in new roles, so there are a lot of characters who look like other versions of people they know. It's ridiculous, but as always, the Arrowverse embraces that ridiculousness.

There's also a nice balance to how they manage the repercussions of the Crisis. The original comics events used it as a way of tidying up continuity, starting a tradition of periodic DC universe makeovers that only ever made things more complicated. This was more straightforward – it got the main Arrowverse series, Arrow, The Flash, Batwoman and Legends, into the same reality as those acquired later, Supergirl and Black Lightning. But really, this just seems like an excuse to have fun. Yet it still left us with a multiverse, so there's no disjoint between the joy of seeing your favourite version of a character make a cameo and realising they've been killed along with everyone in their universe. It's all still out there, so we can still enjoy the infinite versions of this nonsense.

Part One: Supergirl

It starts beautifully, with a knowingly daft and over-the-top voiceover from the Monitor that leads into a multiversal montage of multiple Earths. It's a damned shame Adam West is gone, because I'm certain he would have jumped at the chance to appear alongside Burt Ward on Earth-66. Then we're into the action, with the universe of Earth-38 – the “Superverse” - under threat from the antimatter wave. One thing that this crossover managed very well was keeping each episode feeling part of its parent series, with this episode focusing on Supergirl and her friends and their reaction to the devastation. And it's pretty full on – Kara loses her entire world, and Argo, bar the lucky few survivors. Rightly, Superman and Lois are part of the team, not just because they're setting up their own series, but because they're pretty bloody important. But Supergirl herself is bloody impressive here, saving millions by working with the DEO and sundry aliens to evacuate people from their Earth. It's a shame we couldn't actually see much of this, but I guess a planetary evacuation is a rather expensive thing to put on screen. Still, it really makes it clear that this is a big event, with repurcussions. Supergirl's Earth is gone, and billions are dead. We know they'll find a way to put things right, somehow, but nothing's going to be the same after that.

It works very well as part one of the overall story, as well. It sets up the new Arrow spin-off by focusing a section on Oliver's relationship with his daughter and bringing in Laurel, and rightfully having Oliver lead the battle against the wraiths that precede the coming of the Anti-Monitor. It's the best battle of the serial, because it's relatively small scale, and features characters who fight without superpowers. It ends with Oliver's death, which is very poignant, even though we can already sense that he's going to be back before the end.

Other bits I loved:
  • Sara and Ray just chilling at a pub quiz, with no idea that the Crisis is coming.
  • The respective Batman themes on Earth-89 (the Keaton movies) and Earth-66 (the West series and movie).
  • Titans is included as Earth-9 – there's too much comicbook TV to watch right now, and I've just started this, but I loved seeing it included. It's another Berlanti one, although not one that's getting folded into the main universe.
  • Harrison Wells in a brilliantly comicky Pariah costume.
  • Wil Wheaton's cameo.

Part Two: Batwoman

While this one does put a lot of emphasis on Kate Kane, her friendship with Kara, and her complex relationship with Bruce Wayne and his memory, there's a huge focus on the Suerman mythology. However, for that reason this is my favourite of the episodes, as I just love the interaction between multiple Supermen. The visit to Smallville's Earth was a special treat; we'd all heard it was coming, but there was a spectacular frisson seeing Tyler Hoechlin and Elizabeth Tulloch meet Tom Welling. It's a pity we didn't get any interaction between them and Erica Durance's Lois, though. It's perfect that this version of the character gave up his powers to live an ordinary farmboy life. Plus, Lex became president on that Earth, just as was foretold. It's slightly odd having Iris along for the ride, but Candace Patton is pretty great here, and after all, they're all journalists, right?

Jon Cryer might be the best Lex Luthor ever (still a huge surprise), and seeing him travel to multiple Earths to do what their Luthors couldn't and take down Superman repeatedly is wonderfully villainous. Of course, he uses magic, always Superman's other weakness. Could the Book of Destiny be a hint of some Sandman elements being incorporated somewhere down the line? Even more wonderful than Smallville is Earth-96, both the universe of Superman, Superman II and Superman Returns, but also the live action version of Kingdom Come. It's great that Routh finally gets to play Superman again, even playing him alongside himself as Ray. Wonderfully daft.

Both the biggest treat and the most aggravating decision, though, is Bruce Wayne. Kevin Conroy is my favourite Batman, but this is clearly not the Bruce Wayne of the 90s animated series and/or Batman Beyond. No, Earth-99 is more like The Dark Knight Returns and the grim Frank Miller canon, with a bit of Kingdom Come and even a touch of the DCEU movies. It's wonderful to have Conroy appear in the flesh at last, but did they have to make him such a miserable version of the character?

Back to the plot, and Oliver is back already, but not quite himself. Love that they got Constantine involved for this, as is all right and proper. There's a distinct lack of Legends in the crossover so far, even as we get a version of Mick Rory providing a Waverider to act as a base of operations. Still, there are a lot of characters and you can't fit everyone in. The Paragons idea is very daffy, but very comicbook and it's a nice way to get a core team together.

Other bits I loved:
  • There are a lot of nods to the Superman movies, but the best was giving Bruce a Lex Luthor line just to show how villainous he's become.
  • Plus he refers to Superman as “a strange visitor from another planet, with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men,” which is straight from the really old Superman material – on TV and radio.
  • I love how Routh's Superman references fighting himself before, ala Superman III, but that film isn't in continuity with Superman Returns.
  • Gideon with the voice of Leonard Snart. This crossover has a dissapointing lack of Snarts so I'm glad he's in there somewhere.
  • Mick Rory is good with babies!

Part Three: The Flash

This one really feels like an episode of The Flash, which is quite right. The Flash was always headed here, destined as Barry was to sacrifice himself to save the multiverse from the Crisis. At least, in the comics, things work out rather differently here. Was anyone really surprised when the Barry who sacrificed himself turned out to be the one from Earth-90? A cop out, perhaps, but not an unwelcome one, and it gave John Wesley Shipp the final send-off that he deserved. He's been wonderful all through this series as Henry Allen, Barry Allen and Jay Garrick, giving them all distinct characters, and it's a rather beautiful goodbye for him.

There are some very nice character moments for Team Flash, which is important, since while Grant Gustin's Barry doesn't die, he instead loses everyone. Indeed, everyone does. The episode ends with the destruction of the multiverse. I mean, we all know it'll be sorted out, but wow, that's a cliffhanger-and-a-half. Even so, the strongest moments of this episode were the character interactions, between Barry and his friends, between Kara and Kate, between Barry-90 and everyone who'd listen. It's a bit harsh on Hoechlin that Routh gets to be the “main” Superman, but it's not like he lasts long as a Paragon. The switch of Lex Luthor to take over his role is fantastic – ad the clear reason that the Monitor brought it back. You can't save everything just with heroes, you need a bit of villain in there as well.

There are some fluffs, though. Bringing in Ryan Choi (destined to become the new Atom when Routh leaves Legends later in 2020) is nice, and making the ordinary guy the Paragon of Humanity is a great touch. (I say ordinary, he's still a super-genius.) But his inclusion is underwhelming and feels undeserved (that said, he's much better in the following episodes). The introduction of Cress Williams over from Black Lightning is handled poorly. I'm miles behind on that show, so haven't seen its tie-in episode, but the guy has just lost his family and entire world, and he just has to shrug it off and get on with things. And after all that, he's fairly pointless, just a lightning zap here and there that could have been provided any number of ways. Also, after practically vanishing from events in Part Two, J'onn J'onnz is suddenly back as a Paragon. Not that he shouldn't be there, but the writing was sloppy there.

Other bits I loved:
  • Wow, Birds of Prey. I'd practically forgotten that one.
  • Ralph Dibney gets a few nice moments, particularly “Holy All-Star Squadron!”
  • Look, I really don't like Lucifer, it gets the comics and character so completely wrong, but it was still a nice moment having Constantine meet him.
  • Looks like Earth-73 is Black Lightning Earth, but it's not spelled out. Going with that one though. Still pleased they incorporated the series even if they did fluff it.
  • Jim Corrigan shows up! Now that's a development. It's a pity they didn't get Emmett Scanlan back from Constantine, but Stephen Lobo's suitably grim.

Part Four: Arrow

God, they make us wait, don't they? More than a month without an episode, then two on the same night. I love how that month has passed in the show too, with the Paragons being stuck in the Vanishing Point all this time. There's an interesting universal set-up here: the multiverse has been destroyed, yet it would seem only in the present. So time travel is still possible, and timeless realms such as the Vanishing Point, Purgatory and the Speed Force continue to exist. Thus, we go back to the very beginnings of the multiverse to set things right, and get a time-travelling greatest hits parade to boot.

Yes, it's very Avengers: Endgame, but hell, these guys have earned it too. This is Arrow's show this time round, and Oliver Queen gets to shoulder the burden. Making Oliver the Spectre is an amazing move, one that's over-the-top but that seems right given the huge stakes here. Given that his character and series have evolved from vigilante-versus-assassins and criminals, to superhero-versus-metahumans and magicians, it follows that he ends up with powers of his own. And not just powers, he's an ultra-powered ghost! Somehow, even with something this silly, even though we've just done the same thing, Oliver's death is poignant. It's a hell of a move, killing off the star of Arrow halfway through his final season. It's a pity that Stephen Amell spends so much time with his voice so heavily modulated.

The final battle is a little underwhelming, if only because fisticuffs seem like a daft way to save the totality of existence. The build-up is more enjoyable, with Choi and Lex making a bizarrely effective team. Cryer's obviously having a fantastic time and is one of the best things about this crossover. Good to see that Supergirl doesn't deal well with working with him. She can be too saccharine at times, it's good to see her pissed off.

And then: the multiverse is restored, with tweaks.

Other bits I love:
  • LaMonica Garrett is awesome when he's playing Mar Novu before he becomes the Monitor.
  • You have failed this universe.” So cheesy. I love it.
  • Amell does get a really great final scene.
  • That cameo. Ezra Miller drops by as another Barry Allen, bringing the DCEU into the great DC screen multiverse. It really feels complete, now that the current cinema version is included. I like that they pointed out that his inclusion, at this stage in the story, made no sense, but it was the only way to get him in there, since he could only be squeezed in after most the filming was completed. Then again, the Speed Force is outside of time.
  • DCEU Flash gets the idea for the name from CW Flash.
  • The Spectre fighting the Monitor while reality reforms around them is straight from the comics, although this time we have a different Spectre.

Things I didn't love:
  • I know Emily Bett Rickards has left Arrow, but where the hell was Felicity? This is the biggest crossover ever and Oliver just died. She should be here.

Part Five: Legends of Tomorrow

And rightly so, the Legends episode is the silliest of all. I'm a bit disappointed that we didn't get more Legends in there, but we got some great stuff from Sara, Ray and Mick, even if the rest of the team was either absent or reduced to cameos. Again, though, with so many characters to include, it's understandable (presumably why the Legends were left out of the last crossover).

So, now we have Earth Prime, the combined elements of Earth-One, Earth-38 and Earth-73-or-whatever. Possibly the old Earth-Two as well, given that it seems to have been replaced. It's a weird place, with Oliver having used his infinite powers at the moment of his death to reboot the universe and do some tinkering while he did so. Questions abound. Why is Lex suddenly in position of trust and power? That can't have been Oliver's choice. An effect of the Book of Destiny, perhaps? We'll see the fallout of the Crisis on all six series, but things can't ever be the same after this. On one hand, it threatens to invalidate everything we've already experienced on the shows so far. On the other, characters can interact with each other more easily, and it looks like they're pulling out all the stops when it comes to comicbook daffiness.

The final battle against the Anti-Monitor manages to somehow be more absurd than the confrontation with Beebo, but it works, mainly because the various heroes feel like a real team, all bringing their own elements to it. There are still strange omissions and inclusions – J'onn is mainly included as a Paragon so he can infodump people psychically in the new universe – but on the whole it works.

If nothing else, it's worth it for that final big scene. After all this time, we finally have a live-action TV Justice League. The Flash, Superman, Supergirl, Batwoman, the Martian Manhunter, Black Lightning, White Canary, and whoever's going to take over as the Green Arrow. It's been a wild, eventful, ridiculous ride.

Other bits I love:
  • The multiverse continues. There's a new Earth-Two, it seems, which will include the upcoming Stargirl series. So even though they've gone to all this trouble to bring the shows together, they're keeping some in their own continuities.
  • Heavy set up for a Green Lantern show.
  • Best cameo of the crossover: Marv Wolfman himself. If you don't know, that's the modern DC equivalent of all those Stan Lee cameos.
  • Diggle gets to have both his son and his daughter in the same reality. One got switched with the other due to Barry's Flashpoint foolishness.
  • Good to see Mick's literary career is going strong.

Victorian Nightmares

From late to 2019 to the beginning of 2020, the BBC aired three high budget, prestige television adaptations of classics of Victorian literature: A Christmas Carol, The War of the Worlds and Dracula. I had... mixed opinions on all three of them.

You can read my reviews of the Victorian telefantasies at Television Heaven by following these links:

Monday, 13 January 2020

WHO REVIEW: 12-3 - Orphan 55

Damn, that was disappointing. After such a great start, series twelve drops the ball completely with a real hash of an episode. Though not without its entertaining moments, "Orphan 55" is nonsensical stream of events that fail to cohere into anything worthwhile.

Which is a shame, because Ed Hime is trying to say something important with this script. Speaking out about global warming is important, even though it's probably screaming into the void at this point. "You're arguing over the washing-up while the house is burning down," is a genuinely excellent line. It's just a shame that there aren't really any others in the script, and that it comes in the midst of a tediously long monologue from the Doctor. A decent script would have made the importance of changing our environmental impact part of the story, not tacked it on the end. And frankly, a message about changing our behaviour to tackle global warming is hard to swallow from a programme with such a gigantic carbon footprint. A series that films in Tenerife, South Africa and Australia lecturing about the environment feels like one of the big blockbusters that seeks to teach us that money isn't everything. 

It's a very derivative story as well, but then again, some of the most enjoyable episodes of Doctor Who have been derivative as hell. But to make a derivative episode work, you have to do it somehow differently to what's come before, or at the very least make it entertaining. Hime's previous episode, "It Takes You Away," was an oddity that didn't quite work, but at least it was different. This episode was merely a series of set pieces that were done better on previous episodes. So Orphan 55 is Earth in the future? So was Ravolox, and when The Trial of a Time Lord is the better handling of a concept, it doesn't look good. The bus ride through the deadly environment was done far better by "Midnight," the holiday camp built on the home of deadly creatures was done better in The Macra Terror

The reveal that the holiday spa is a faked environment is nicely handled (like the "fakation" neologism) but the hostile environment doesn't convince. It's hard to persuade an audience that the outside is inimical to all life when there are visible trees. Then again, Hime seems to think that trees "breathe" carbon dioxide and uses this to explain the Dregs, apparently not realising that plants respire oxygen as well. Still, having the Dregs turn out to be mutated humans is a fairly nice twist, even if it's one that's completely obvious the moment it turns out Orphan 55 is Earth, and let's be honest, that was hardly the biggest shock ever. (I honestly expected them to use that twist for Desolation on "The Ghost Monument" last series.) The "dregs of humanity" angle could work well - the idea being that the rich and elite abandoned the Earth, leaving the little people behind - but it's thrown in and passed over too quickly. Nothing has time to stick in this episode. In some ways, this seems like one of the more frenetic comic strip stories - everything is there because it'll briefly look good. 

And for the most part, it does. The Dregs are a very ordinary monster design, but are nicely realised all the same. Then again, you've got Hyph3n, the furry. At least, I assume that what she's meant to be - if she's actually meant to be an alien, then god only knows what the costume designers were thinking. Again, it's a script just going, here's an idea. Oh, didn't work, try the next one. Characters aren't developed beyond simple character traits, and most of them get no closure beyond a sudden burning need for self-sacrifice - three times in one episode, in fact. 

Laura Fraser is completely wasted on this episode. They have James Buckley and give him no funny material. Gia Re does at least share some chemistry with Ryan, but her character is so nuts it's hard to take her seriously as soon as her motivation is revealed. By far the worst element of the episode is Vilma, played by Julia Foster, who hams her way through the episode, spending half of it screeching "Benny!" at the top of her lungs. That's BEnni, who for a moment becomes a spooky voice from the deadly outer wastes, before calmly asking to be murdered. Because he's apparently being tortured by monsters. But can still have a conversation. 

I can't say I'd like another episode of this, but it might have had a chance to work if it had been a two-parter. The concepts might have had time to be explored, the characters could have been developed. Instead, everything steamrollers ahead with no regard for logic or characterisation, until everyone except the regulars is apparently dead. Still, it's hard to care too much. Before we've had a moment to think about them, we're onto the lecture anyway. Although the moral seems to be less "global warming will render the Earth uninhabitable" and more "if you don't change your ways you'll turn into monsters." Actually, it's not a comic strip - it's like a story from a World Distributors Doctor Who annual. 

Graham gets some funny moments at least, and Jodie Whittaker really tries to sell her lines. At the end of the day, though, there's too little that works in amongst the nonsense. I preferred this warning when The Curse of Fenric gave it. 

Maketh the Woman: I do like the Doctor's knitted version of her signature top. 

Future History: The revelation that all futures we see in the series are merely potential futures that can still be changed is really the only way that Doctor Who history can make any sense. As much as I like AHistory and the mad attempt to tie all of the events of the series into a single chronology, the futures shown in the series across its 55-year run contradict each other so much they really can't fit together. Plus, this way all future stories can happily ignore the Earth's fate as Orphan 55 and the events of this episode.