Sunday, 13 October 2019

Coming Soon...

I have two exciting announcements to make about forthcoming projects!

Firstly, Obverse Books have revealed the cover for issue one of From a Story By... This is a print magazine that has been gestating for some time, and will feature authors such as Paul Magrs, Kara Dennison and John Peel. From a Story By... is all about TV and film tie-in books, celebrating our love of the many weird and wonderful guides, novelisations and cash-ins that accompanied our favourite screen properties. There will be articles on everything from Star Wars to Dark Shadows, and I have written a piece on the four Red Dwarf novels by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor. It's not on the site just yet but with a November release date it is sure to be listed soon





Secondly, Altrix Books have revealed the cover for Master Pieces, the upcoming Doctor Who charity anthology starring multiple versions of the nefarious Time Lord, the Master. Ginger Hoesly has created this cover for the collection and it is a thing of absolute beauty. The anthology should be up for pre-order on the Altrix Books site very soon, and will feature stories by authors such as Chris McKeon, Scott Claringbold and myself.






Thursday, 3 October 2019

Superhero Show Round-Up: Legends of Tomorrow 4-B and Elseworlds


Legends of Tomorrow Season Four, Part Two

Legends, week in, week out, keeps on being the most fun of the Arrowverse series. Splitting the series in two so sharply, with episode eight airing mid-December and episode nine a the beginning of April, robbed the season of some momentum. Nonetheless, things kicked off well with “Lucha De Apuestas,” an episode that revolves around Mexican masked wrestling, one of those strange cultural artefacts that Brits only really get to see on telefantasy shows. The episode brings a lot more focus onto Ramona Young as new Legends recruit Mona Wu, whose nervousness and trouble fitting in is put into sharp relief by her new ability to turn into a hulking were-beast.

Much of Legends' appeal has been in its ability to take characters who don't fit together and turn them into workable double-acts and team-ups. Some of these have been established characters, such as Mick Rory, who gets to show new and ever-more sensitive aspects as he shows there's a lot more to him than the arsonist villain he started as on The Flash. His grudging respect for Ray Palmer, or “Haircut” as he prefers to call him, his more rough-edged buddying up with Charlie, and his surprising reveal as Mona's favourite author (after Jane Austen) all serve to make this once paper-thin character into a three-dimensional one, and a fan favourite at that. Other characters were created just for this series, such as Jes Macallan's wonderful Ava Sharpe, who went from being a jobsworth obstacle as the head of the Time Bureau to being one of the most complex and relatable characters in the series as she tries to understand her place in the world. Unlikely friendships, such as Ava, Mona and the formerly villainous Nora Darhk forming their wine-fuelled book club, bring out new sides to their characters. Legends has a big ensemble cast, and this can be tricky to pull off, yet the writers manage it with style by juggling the various relationships across the episodes.

Alongside all this is Nate's budding relationship with Zari, helped along by some very sweet chemistry between Nick Zano and Tala Ashe, juggled with his difficult, but slowly thawing, relationship with his father (just cannot get over Thomas F. Wilson being on this show). Hank's seemingly villainous turn is revealed to be nothing of the sort, although there are some dodgy undercurrents to his actions, and it turns out that he's literally made a deal with the devil (or, at least, a devil). The reveal that he wasn't planning to use the various subdued magical creatures as weapons, but as exhibits in a huge theme park/circus/magical zoo as a present for Nate, is one of the harder things to swallow in the series. Given how batty this series can be, this is saying something. It does, however, all come together rather beautifully at the end.

In amongst all the love, though, is poor old Gary, played to nebbish precision by Adam Tsekhman. Constantly overlooked, put upon and mocked by both his bosses at the Bureau and his heroes in the Legends, it was only a matter of time before Gary snapped. Thankfully, he does come good in the end, but his turn to the dark side has been, in retrospect, signposted since the beginning of the season. It also gave us the unforgettable visual of his demonically possessed severed nipple crawling back to him, which is a sight I had not expected to see on any series, let alone this one.

The decision to mix in supernatural monsters with the time travel revitalised this show during season three, and the monster-of-the-week format carried it forward nicely through the first half of season four. Wisely, though, the second half of the season phased this out in favour of more serialisation, with the character-pieces playing out against the background of the demon Neron's invasion of the living realm. Having Brandon Routh's character Ray subsumed by Neron is a bold move; Ray has been the noble heart and conscience of the group since its inception, and his gradual temptation by Nora showed that his love for others can lead him to make the wrong decisions. Having him allow Neron to take possession of him in order to save his friends is absolutely in character but almost ends up destroying the world, and gives Routh a rare chance to play a villain, something he excels at. (I cracked out Scott Pilgrim after watching the finale; he really is good at playing a charming bastard.)

The Neron storyline also brings Constantine's story to the fore, and while I still live in hope that we'll have a resolution to Matt Ryan's own series someday, this follows up on much of his backstory and brings things forward. We finally get to see Astra, the girl he lost to Hell in his greatest failure. Now played by Olivia Swann in her jaded adult form, Astra seems like an clear candidate for a recurring character in season five, albeit on an unknown agenda. Plus, we get to see Constantine at his best, playing the forces of Hell against each other in a take on some classic material from the Hellblazer comics.

The finale brings together these many disparate elements in a more-or-less coherent manner. It's all a bit syrupy, with a “love conquers all” message that they just about carry off. There are similarities between the messages of tolerance here and in Supergirl, but the use of magical creatures is a much poorer allegory than alien immigrants and it's lost amongst all the silliness. Still, it does see a whole bunch of monsters teaming up with the Legends against Neron (and Jane Carr reprising her brillaitn turn as the evil Fairy Godmother), which can only be good fun. It's good to see that the time travel element hasn't been pushed to the wayside, and the fact that Zari is from the future means that the world-changing events in the present have unforeseen effects to her timeline. Thankfully, Tala Ashe is confirmed for season five, because if she wasn't, I'd be most unhappy.

Best episode of the half-season: “Terms of Service.” Constantine faces the Triumvirate in Hell.
Best episode title: “Seance and Sensibility.” Jane Austen and a love god.
Most unexpected cameo: Caspar Crump returns as Vandal Savage, now dead and totally over himself.


Elseworlds

It seemed sensible to look at the annual crossover event separately, since more and more they act as a multi-episode serial instead of individual episodes from each parent series. This year didn't feature Legends of Tomorrow in the line-up, instead crossing Arrow, The Flash and Supergirl.

On the whole, Elseworlds was a qualified success, and this lies in the fact that it's purpose was less to provide a coherent adventure than to introduce new elements to be followed up later. Firstly, it had to introduce Ruby Rose as the new Batwoman and bring Gotham City into the Arrowverse. Secondly, it had to plant the seeds for the next season's upcoming crossover extravaganza, Crisis on Infinite Earths.

As a multiverse-building exercise, it works. It's a lovely touch to have the nineties The Flash explicitly included in the new multiverse (as Earth-90, the 52 Earths idea having now been completely abandoned). The Monitor is about as outlandish and comic-booky a concept the franchise has brought to the screen so far, even ahead of Gorilla Grodd, and we finally get the Arrowverse version of Lois Lane. Played by Elizabeth Tulloch, Lois was a major missing element of the Superman family of characters in the CW multiverse.

Ruby Rose is pretty perfect as Kate Kane. The character is, after all, one of the LGBT icons of the DC universe, even if the comics have fluffed it in the past, and having such a real life LGBT icon in the role seems appropriate. More importantly, Rose has the tough-as-nails bravado and incredible sexiness that the role needs. We'll see how she does heading her own series in Batwoman this coming season. For now, though, the Gotham sequences are the elements of Elseworlds that work best.

The central story, though, with John Deegan manipulating reality from within Arkham, doesn't work as well as it should. Having him become evil Superman has some clout, but since Superman is a peripheral character in this franchise, it doesn't deform the story the same way it would in, say, the DCEU or Smallville. Swapping Barry and Oliver over in their superhero roles works OK, but Barry is such an angsty dick lately and Oliver seems a lot more centred, so that they don't contrast nearly as much as they would have if this had been done a few years ago. I like the hints that Batman exists on Earth-One but no one really believes in him, whereas he's a known quantity on Earth-38 and good buddies with Superman. On the other hand, meeting Earth-One versions of Alex and James Olson should be significant, but since they're part of an already altered reality they matter less to the overall story than they should.

Given the huge, anything goes crossover to come, I wouldn't be surprised if Jeremy Davies again either as John Deegan or an alternative version. He did, after all, play Ritchie Simpson on Constantine (retroactively part of the Arrowverse) as an essentially very similar character, and in Justice League Dark voiced him alongside Matt Ryan's Constantine, where Dr. Destiny took control of him. So really he's played three versions of the same character already, plus the version here seems modelled after the version of Dr. Destiny seen in The Sandman. Anyway, if he doesn't turn up again in some form alongside the Monitor I'll be surprised.

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Superhero Shows Round-Up: Supergirl Season Four

Supergirl Season Four

Supergirl, however, keeps getting better.

The wonderful thing about this series is that it's about diversity and tolerance, and moreover, fighting for tolerance. In today's world, particularly today's America, this is the most important message. This is as broad as it could be, but the core targets for its focus are feminism and immigration, two things bound to make a lot of white guys very angry and send them to the internet spouting rage-fueled bile. The feminist aspect was a given, of course, given that this is a series focusing on a female superhero, but the immigration angle has been as important since the start, with the showrunners remembering that Supergirl and Superman are the story of All-American Heroes who came to the States as refugees.

For a while now, the universe of Supergirl (Earth-38, as it happens) has been a rather more utopian one than our own, where the President is a woman who very clearly beat Trump (or his Elseworlds analogue) and leads an America that welcomes extraterrestrial immigrants. While there have been anti-alien elements throughout, the series has been broadly consistent in portraying a world that accepts aliens. Two things have forced this to change. Firstly, real life politics can't be pushed aside forever; it's impossible to really comment on the state of the US today by going, “Wouldn't it be nice if the world were more like this?” Eventually, Supergirl's America had to begin to reflect the real world equivalent. Secondly, the alien acceptance angle sits awkwardly with the fact that the bulk of the villains on this series are alien criminals or invaders. It's hard to imagine Joe Public squaring this with a view of alien acceptance, so it's something that had to be addressed.

To this end, season four introduced a new character, Ben Lockwood, played with superb conviction and charisma by Sam Witwer. The TV version of Agent Liberty, Lockwood's story is powerful and chilling because it is so plausible. Indeed, it's the sort of thing we see in reality all the time, and his fall from grace is so upsetting because there are points where the viewer comes very close to agreeing with him. Lockwood never had a problem with aliens, but his father was a backwoods, anti-alien kind of guy. Only slowly, after catastrophe after catastrophe, does Lockwood turn from a tolerant, accepting man to a mouthpiece for the Far Right and subsumed by his hatred for alien beings. The major turning points are the Daxamite invasion of Earth and the attempted terraforming by Reign, the cataclysmic events that rounded off the previous two seasons respectively, which lost his his home and then his father.

This would have been convincing enough if that had been all that pushed him over the edge, but it's the little things that make it so much more effective. It's easy to see the parallel between the alien invasion driving people to hate alien civilians, just as Islamist terror attacks have led to a huge increase in hate crimes on ordinary Muslim citizens. It's the smaller things that slowly chip away at Lockwood, though, such as his father's steel business being pushed out by alien alternatives, and alien workers proving better at jobs than humans. It's not subtle, but this sort of thing isn't asking for subtlety. It's all the more effective for an American audience, I'm sure, in a country where “alien” - a terribly dehumanising word – is still the preferred term for a foreign national.

The anti-alien sentiment is given a huge boost when the existing President (Lynda Carter) is revealed as an alien herself, the sort of Republican wet dream that ran through the Obama administration when the opposition were desperately trying to come up with some evidence to support their claims that the POTUS wasn't legally American. It leads to a right-wing populist President, who happily uses Lockwood as his mouthpiece. Given that the core characters work as reporters and magazine editors in their day jobs, the line between the press' commitment to unbiased reporting and the moral commitment to fight for the right cause becomes a major sentiment.

However, there are more aspects to the series and its agenda of outspoken diversity. Most notable are the two new hero characters on the regular cast, Jesse Rath as Brainiac-5 (pushed up to main cast at the end of last season) and Nicole Maines as Nia Nal, aka Dreamer. I don't think there can be any question that Rath is playing Brainy as if he's autistic; although this isn't something that can necessarily be said to apply to the character, being an alien android and all, his delivery of lines, tendency to not focus on the other cast's eyeline and the writing of the character as struggling to navigate emotional relationships and everyday conversation can only be read this way. Is it right to characterise a robot like this? One of the worst things that autistic people hear is that they're perceived as “robotic” because of their way of communicating and expressing themselves. Nonetheless, Rath's performance is beautifully understated, utterly charming and very funny without the humour ever being at his expense, so personally I'm in favour of the approach.

Nicole Maines, on the other hand, truly breaks ground as the first transgender actor to portray a transgender character in this genre. To the best of my knowledge there has never been a trans superhero onscreen, and it's very rare to see it in comics. Gratifyingly, while her gender identity is very important to Nia and a significant aspect of her character, it's not all there is to her. She gets to be a new hero on the show, the precognitive Dreamer, and is also an alien settler. At first I wondered if this was really necessary, making her trans and an alien, but there's no reason that a character needs one defining characteristic as the “other.” People are complex and varied and can differ from the assumed “normal” in many ways. Maines gives a strong yet vulnerable performance as a character who is still finding her place in life, and she shares amazing chemistry with Rath. Take away the extraterrestrial topcoat, and you've got a story about two immigrants, one trans, one autistic, who slowly learn how to tell each other about their feelings. It's beautiful and it's bloody brilliant that we have genre TV willing to try these things.

Among the sterling work done with the new characters there's almost no room to praise the continued development of the relationships between Kara, Alex, J'onn and even boring old James. Although every relationship gets its moment, the core of Kara's story this year is her complex friendship with Lena Luthor (Kate McGrath). While it really stretches credulity at some points to believe that this genius can't work out that Kara is Supergirl (the phrase “galactically stupid” comes to mind), the edge it lends to their friendship is palpable. Into this the writers drop Lex Luthor, who was bound to show up eventually, but they wisely kept him aside until his presence was required to push things over the edge. While I love the tradition was of recasting actors from various Superman productions in new roles, I was absolutely ready to throw out the idea of Jon Cryer, formerly Lenny Luthor in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, as the new Lex. And I like that film, even if nobody else does! However, Cryer absolutely knocks it out the park, playing Lex with a huge chip on his shoulder and a desperate need for validation that propels his fight for power. It's a dead-on characterisation and his antagonistic relationship with Lena works well.

Of course, there's no point bringing in Lex if you're not going to have him mastermind some ridiculously complicated scheme. Adapting the classic Red Son storyline, albeit liberally, the season see a parallel plot with Kara's clone, the Russian-born Red Daughter, set up as her dark mirror. As well as giving Melissa Benoist the chance to show how flexible she can be in performance, it ties in nicely to the anti-alien storyline, a sentiment that Lex naturally would want to stoke. The season ties together with panache, accepting the odd slow-burner episode that could have been trimmed, and the finale packs a real punch. Plus we get Lex in his green-and-purple battle suit, and they even call the finale “The Quest for Peace.” That takes some guts.

Best episode of the season: “Man of Steel” - Lockwood's story.
Most pointless addition: Otis and Mercy Graves – Luthor's annoying henches.
Best monster moment: Menagerie as a knock-off Venom.

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Superhero Shows Round-Up: The Flash season five

With the new season of the Arrowverse iminent, it's about time I did my round-up on the last runs of the superhero TV metaverse. I still don't bother with Arrow, excepting crossover events, but here's the round-up of The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl as they lead up to the multiverse-shattering events of Crisis on Infinite Earths.

The Flash Season Five

After four years revolving around Barry, his dead parent issues and his slightly incestuous wooing of Iris, season five gets to see him settle down with his new wife and deal with parenthood issues instead. It's a bit of an odd one, though, given that their child is a grown woman. Jessica Parker Kennedy's character, having made a series of cameos during season four, revealed her identity in the season finale as their daughter Nora, having travelled back from the year 2049. Understandably, Barry and Iris weren't exactly expecting this development, even if 99% of the audience had guessed it was her (there was a slim chance it would turn out to be Cecille's kid, of course, which would also have been fun).

The bulk of this season's effectiveness is down to JPK's performance as Nora. Given that the character deforms the narrative of the season completely, had she not been likeable and engaging it would have fallen flat. Fortunately, JPK is absolutely adorable, and Nora remains sympathetic throughout the season, even if she is a brat sometimes. That's forgiveable, though, since she's basically written as a kid; although her actual age is a bit foggy, she can't be any older than 25 and probably more like nineteen. Amusingly, JPK is older than either Grant Gustin or Candic Patton.

(As an aside, it's a bit strange that both The Flash and Legends involve time-twisting narratives concerning women called Nora who happen to be the daughters of major characters. Although as a nice touch, it's made clear early on this season that Nora's name is after Barry's mother, something that has only happened because Eobard Thawne killed her and changed history. She was supposed to be called Dawn, like in the comics.)

The ongoing mystery of Nora's character stops being her identity – which would have worn thin if they'd kept it going another year – and becomes her allegiances. It turns out that she's in league with Thawne, aka the Reverse-Flash, returning to become the major villain of the series at last. Thankfully, if somewhat inexplicably, he's once again played by Tom Cavanaugh, having reverted to stolen form of Harrison Wells. This doesn't make any sense that I can make out, but Cavanaugh is so much better in the role than Matt Letscher I don't care. In any case, Thawne is now imprisoned in Iron Heights in 2049 – the past, from his perspective – awaiting execution. Given how impossible to kill this character has turned out to be, this would seem to be wishful thinking on the part of the authorities.

Of course, Nora's actions come from good intentions, and for all his manipulations of her, Thawne genuinely seems to care about Nora. To be fair, he doesn't seem to be much worse a parental figure than either Barry or Iris, neither of whom will be winning Parent of the Year awards anytime between now and 2049. Barry in particular is an absolute arse this season. It's an interesting arc for his character to take, given how likeable he was at the beginning, but as the series has gone on and the pressure has mounted on him, he's become more and more unlikeable, arrogant and hypocritical. His treatment of Nora, in particular, is appalling, once he discovers she working with Thawne. OK, Thawne is his arch-nemesis and the murderer of his mother, and it's pretty clear he's going to be manipulating her, but rather than try to help her he kicks her out of his family and forcibly dumps her back in the future. Guy's a prick.

Before we set it out with Thawne, though, Team Flash have to face down Cicada, a terribly dull villain who drags the season down. The odd naff baddie isn't a big deal, but when it's ostensibly the Big Bad of the season and hangs around for the bulk of the episodes, this is a problem. All good for making the bad guy something other than another speedster, but last year's Thinker was only a qualified success and Cicada has far less going for them. I say them because we did have a fun twist in the second half of the season when the first Cicada was replaced by his own vengeance-driven niece, but Sarah Carter sneering her way through scenes isn't much more entertaining than Chris Klien growling through them.

This is all tied in with a metahuman cure storyline which runs like a watered-down X-Men storyline, only without the punch since, rather than being natural traits, the metahuman abilities were all granted by catastrophic disasters. Moreover, Team Flash really do have a responsibility to provide a cure for those who want one, since all of them events were their fault (OK, Thawne engineered the first one, but still). This includes the climactic events of the previous season, which ties into Thawne's captivity in the future in a pretty clever way, albeit one that doesn't actually make sense. Still, I've long stopped hoping for the time travel in this series to make sense.

All the characters get their own running storyline; if there's one thing this series excels at, it's juggling a large ensemble cast. My personal favourites this season are Frank Dibny (Hartley Sawyer) and Sherloque Wells (one of four roles for Cavanaugh this year, along with “Harry” Wells, Wolfgang Wells and Thawne). Having a new main Harrison Wells character each year is one of the sillier but most fun aspects of this series. I certainly can't think of another series that does something like this. Making this year's version a French-speaking, Sherlock Holmes-esque detective is just brilliant, and Cavanaugh is absolutely brilliant in the role. His buddy-rival relationship with “Baby Giraffe” Dibny is one of the highlights of the season.

On the other hand, Cisco gets a fairly dreary storyline this year, which necessitates him behaving far stupider than his character should ever be allowed to. And the less we hear from boring Caitlyn and her boring family and their boring icy escapades, the better. Her storyline is the single most pointless aspect of the season and far too much time was spent on it.

On the whole, The Flash is still a lot of fun when at its best, and a real heartache when it ramps up the emotions. Still, it's hard to argue that the series is matching the heights of its first couple of years. There's more filler than before, I fear, and I wonder if the best future for this series would be shorter seasons and tighter story arcs.

Best episode of the season: “Godspeed” - the story of Nora and Thawne
Best secondary villain: Weather Witch – Reina Hardesty is the cutest.
Best episode title: “The Flash and the Furious,” although “King Shark vs. Gorilla Grodd” takes some beating.

Monday, 30 September 2019

Doctor Who and the Adventures in the Far East - Part Two


You may remember the recent revelation that Doctor Who had a secret incarnation in Korean comicbooks... and the there's this:



OK, it's not really a Japanese tokustatsu style TV version of Doctor Who from the seventies. It's a fan project by someone who styles themselves "lepoissonriuge." It's been up on YouTube for five years, but I happened to stumble across it the other day. It's pretty brilliantly done - both the tokusatsu genre and Doctor Who really lend themselves to cheap-looking productions!

I love the Doctor's monster-fighting outfit here, the ridiculous Dalek and the unrecognisabel Cybermen. If the BBC had tried to make a quick quid by selling the rights to Doctor Who to Toei Company like Stan Lee id with Spider-Man, the results would probably have looked a lot like that. Although, naturally, a giant Emperor Dalek would show up for the climax and be defeated when the TARDIS turned into a giant robot.