Tuesday 25 September 2012

WHO REVIEW: 7-4. The Power of Three

The Chibnall’s second episode of the year, and it’s another light-hearted one with some good, funny lines. It’s not as comedic as Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, although it does verge on sitcom territory in the first, mostly housebound scenes. It feels both very contemporary and quite derivative, harking back to the RTD days with its news reports and celebrity cameos (love Brian Cox’s scene), and  dropping references to Twitter and the Wii. Much like those earlier episodes, this makes it seem very up-to-the-minute, but will inevitably date it rapidly. On the other hand, the Doctor coming to stay has elements of the Craig episodes from the previous two series (The Lodger and Closing Time), while UNIT’s involvement connects to the series’ noble history.

For the most part, this is a fun, solidly enjoyable episode with a great central concept. The sudden appearance of millions of small, black cubes all over the world is a wonderful sci-fi idea, and humanity’s response to it – panic mixed with curiosity, followed by complete acceptance and apathy – is probably exactly how we’d really react to such an event. There’s some wonderful character work here, leading to some of the series best laughs. Mark Williams as Brian once again steals any scene he’s in. His immediate fascination with the cubes develops into calm contemplation, first leaving him in the TARDIS for four days, alone with his thoughts, then making his daily Brian’s Log for UNIT. He provides some good laughs – “Don’t mock my log,” – but he remains the heart of the episode, the emotional support for Amy, Rory and, surprisingly, the Doctor.

The married couple are also well used, with the episode revolving around their developing life together and their gradual drifting away from the Doctor. They get to act like real people again, two ordinary Brits whose lives have been invaded by a Time Lord. While Amy gets yet another career, it’s good to see Rory back in the hospital; it seems that Chibnall is the only writer these days who remembers the guy’s a nurse. While, in the end, they elect to continue travelling with the Doctor, it’s hard to escape the feeling that they’re time with him has come to a natural end. Of course, the actual, probably distinctly unnatural end, will come next week.
Despite Amy’s claim that this is the year “the Doctor came to stay,” he actually spends very little time in the Pond household, and what little time he is there goes mostly unseen. The brief snatch we do get sees him at his most skatty, jumpy and irritable; indeed, his most “Eleventh-Doctorish.” This version of the Doctor, more than any other, needs to be kept busy and on the move, and seeing him cooped up with nothing to do, in a constant state of ants-in-his-pants, is hilarious. Not that he doesn’t get some quitter moments. While his tete-a-tete with Amy is rather beautiful, it’s his confrontation with Brian that sticks in the memory, forced to admit that, yes, sometimes his companions die on their travels. It’s pretty likely that this is foreshadowing something nasty due to occur next episode.

While Amy and Rory’s days on the show are numbered, and that probably means no more Brian, we do have a new character to enjoy, one who I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of. Shame on you if you didn’t spot the surname and realise that Kate Stewart was the Brigadier’s daughter, but perhaps you were just too busy enjoying such a wonderful new character. Calm, confident and controlled, our new UNIT leader provides a perfect foil to Matt Smith’s manic Doctor. Jemma Redgrave is perfectly cast, and Kate is a fine successor to the legendary Brig. I hope it won’t be too long before we see her again.

Thursday 20 September 2012


1.8) The Battle
‘Sphere and Loathing’

The Mission: Rendezvous with the Ferengi Alliance at system Xendi Sabu.

Planets visited: None.

Future History: Nine years previously (2355) in star system Maxia Zeta, the USS Stargazer under Captain Picard encountered an unknown alien ship that fired upon them without provocation. Picard destroyed the alien ship, but not before the Stargazer was crippled. Leaving it to explode, the crew abandoned ship and spent weeks drifting in life pods.
Turns out the ship was Ferengi, and was under the command of Daimon Bok’s son. The Ferengi now call the incident the Battle of Maxia. Somehow the Stargazer survived, and came into Bok’s possession.
Oh, and in the 24th century they now longer have colds or headaches. Lucky bastards.

Alien Life Forms: The Ferengi are back. This time they actually get some characterisation beyond the previous ‘squeaky rodents meets Yankee traders’ approach. Daimon Bok has come up with a scheme to punish Picard for the death of his son, offering him the Stargazer as a gift in order to draw him in. His first officer, Kazago, and a third Ferengi crewman, Rata, are horrified that he is not offering to sell the ship back to him. Kazago displays loyalty to his captain, but removes him from command when it becomes clear his behaviour is motivated solely by revenge, not profit. Troi seems to have no trouble sensing the Ferengis’ emotions, not that it helps anyone much.

The Picard Manoeuvre: Ah, well. We learn that Picard commanded another starship nine years ago, although where he has been posted during the period before he took command of the Enterprise is not revealed. We learn the nature of the now legendary Picard Manoeuvre: when faced with the Ferengi Marauder at Maxia, and deducing it had only light-speed sensors, he jumped his ship to warp for a brief moment, causing it to appear at two places on the Ferengi sensors. He then blasted them from behind. (We also see plenty of the other Picard Manoeuvre, where he tugs his tunic down.) Picard is beset with headaches but soldiers on through his mission to the Ferengi (what a trooper - a headache gets you off work in the 24th century). This is all down to the Thought Maker, Bok’s weapon, which eventually causes him to relive the memories of the attack at Maxia when on the Stargazer bridge.
Why didn't I stick with Shakespeare?

Number One: Intensely loyal to Picard by now. He refuses to believe that his captain would attack an unidentified ship unless in defence, whatever the newly recovered Stargazer log claims. He rightly believes that Bok has forged it, and succeeds in talking Picard out of his technologically induced hallucination. Riker develops a decent rapport with fellow first officer Kazago.

Future Treknology: Bok has got hold of a rare and dangerous Thought Maker. Completely illegal in the Ferengi Alliance, such a machine is capable of altering the minds of humanoid life forms. A Thought Maker consists of two glowing pink and silver spheres, a large control unit and a smaller relay unit. The relay needs to be near the intended victim to fully take him over, but can affect him from a distance of millions of kilometres, producing headaches, dreams and hallucinations. At full influence, it makes its victim extremely susceptible to suggestion.

Space Bilge/Funny Bits: There’s some clunky dialogue here, particularly Worf’s revelation that Picard brought a “fairly heavy chest” onto the Enterprise from the Stargazer when they’re trying to work out how something may be affecting him. Kazago actually says “I’m all ears.” Sometimes the obvious ones are the best.

Verdict: A good episode, highlighting the developing relationship between Picard and Riker, exploring the Captain’s past and using the Ferengi far more effectively than in their debut. It’s a shame that this follows on so soon from another episode in which Picard is influenced and acting out of character, but that’s not this episode’s fault. An effective story.

Wednesday 19 September 2012

WHO REVIEW: 7-3. A Town Called Mercy

We’ve been here before, of course. Most of the time the Doctor dispenses justice without worrying too much about whether he has a right to do so. Every so often, though, he’s forced to confront his own moral code. It happened in Genesis of the Daleks, again in Resurrection of the Daleks. It was 2005’s Boom Town that first gave over an entire episode to the debate on capital punishment against second chances. A Town Called Mercy does much the same, but is rather better, managing to spin a more entertaining story around the central dilemma.

The core of this episode – Kahler-Jex versus the Gunslinger – is nicely handled. Although we naturally expect there to be a hidden truth behind the apparent set-up, the reveal that the killer cyborg is not a straightforward villain is satisfying. Jex’s crimes are illustrated perfectly by nothing more than a few snatches of blurred footage and some screams; our imaginations do the rest. A couple of mentions of “deaths on the operating table” convey the horror of becoming a cyborg far better than any graphic imagery could ever have done (and more effectively than a whole two-parter about the birth of the Cybermen). The success of the episode hinges on the cast convincing the audience of the gravity of the fictional situation. Thankfully, all the cast are up to it. The star of the show is Adrian Scarborough as Jex, thoroughly convincing as a very English extraterrestrial whose mild manners hide a terrible past. It’s a credit to him that, even at Jex’s most loathsome, carping on about being a war hero, he remains respectable and strangely admirable.

Almost as good is Andrew Brooke as the Gunslinger. Saddled by a hefty load of prosthetics and with some overdone voice modulation, Brooke conveys the hopelessness of the cyborg’s situation through little more than expressions. There’s a weariness and frustration there, and a vulnerability. Ben Browder, a familiar face to TV sci-fi fans, is another brilliant casting choice. His noble Marshal, Isaac, provides the emotional heart of an episode in which Amy and Rory are mostly kept to the sidelines.

While it’s true that Amy gets a couple of decent scenes and Rory is relegated almost to an incidental extra, the Doctor gets to be the core of an episode for the first time this series. Asylum and Dinosaurs both focussed very much on the Ponds’ relationship and their interaction with the Doctor; here, the Doctor gets to be the centre of attention. Matt Smith rises to the occasion. His Doctor can sometimes come across as a little ineffectual, but here he dominates his scenes, roaring at Jex with an anger we rarely get to see so plainly in this version of the character. Predictably, fans in some quarters are up in arms about the Doctor packing a gun. It’s a common claim that the Doctor doesn’t “do” guns, but this is not, in fact, the case. I can think of five incidences off the top of my head in which earlier incarnations have picked up firearms, and there are probably more. These are often in times of extreme peril and the Doctor usually bottles out of actually using the weapon; again, Resurrection of the Daleks, with the Doctor facing down Davros, springs to mind. However, he’s blasted down Cybermen, Ogrons and Daleks in the past. As I said last week, the Doctor is far from a pacifist, but it’s only when he threatens humanoid characters that most people take exception.
A Town Called Mercy is a strong episode that skirts the debate on capital punishment, war crimes, weapons of mass destruction and personal culpability in times of conflict. However, there’s plenty of fun to stop the episode from becoming a depressingly grim affair. In perhaps the core scene, in which Amy confronts the Doctor about his behaviour, she looses bullets through clumsiness to lighten the mood, and this sort of thing keeps the episode fun. There are nudges to classic Western films throughout, some exciting action scenes and some very funny gags. The spacepod’s security system is very Hitchhikers, although the “Kahler-Alarm” pun is groanworthy. As for the Doctor speaking horse; well, that’s just silly. I’ll accept him speaking baby, but not horse. I reckon he’s making up and talking to himself to aid thinking, although that would imply that he’s named a male horse after his own granddaughter…

Topped off with a stirring score, some beautiful location shooting in Almeria and a guest cast who give it their all, this is a memorable episode that isn’t afraid to spend time talking about the issues instead of racing through them. After two frenetic episodes, it’s satisfying to have a more thoughtful instalment to slow things down a little before the finale approaches.

Friday 14 September 2012

CAPTAIN'S BLOG: TOS 1.13 - 1.14

TOS 1.13: The Galileo Seven
Mr Spock vs Crew Alienation

The Mission: Get urgently needed medical supplies to Makus III, and engage in research of Murasaki 312 on the way.

Planets visited: Taurus II: Located in the dead centre of the Murasaki 312 effect, it’s a desolate place of rocks and fog (or polystyrene and dry ice, if you’re being realistic).

Future History: A plague has hit the New Paris colonies; the Enterprise isn’t taking medical supplies directly there, but is rendezvousing with another group at Makus III (a courier ship, or an ambulance?)
The Galactic High Commissioner is onboard the ship to oversee the mission. He has the authority to overrule the captain if necessary to ensure the successful delivery of the supplies. He can’t literally be the High Commissioner of the whole Galaxy; presumably this is some overly inflated term for some very high-up civilian minister.

Spatial Effects: The Enterprise diverts to explore the Murasaki 312 “quasar-like effect.” Kirk has standing orders to explore all quasars and quasar-like phenomena. In reality, there’s no possibility of finding any actual quasars within our Galaxy. At the time this episode was written, the nature of quasars was essentially unknown, but they are now understood to be the highly energetic cores of young galaxies - so they are both very, very distant and no longer exist, having long since calmed down into more mature galactic structures. However, there are such things as microquasars, which are similar but much smaller objects that form from a star orbiting a black hole or neutron star. Perhaps Murasaki 312 is one of these. Whatever it  is, Murasaki 312 is a huge, green swirly thing that blocks sensors and transmissions with high levels of ionising radiation. Evidently, planets can exist within its boundaries.

Captain James T: Can’t let a chance to see a “quasar-like object” go by, even when he has another mission coming up in the very near future. The Galactic High Commissioner throws his weight around, but Kirk does everything in his power to delay the mission to Makus III while he tries to find his lost crew. When he can’t delay any longer, he orders Sulu to set course for Makus… at space normal speed. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, let’s just say it’ll take a while.

Green-Blooded Hobgoblin: It’s all about Spock. The events on Taurus II are told largely from his point of view, and his alienation from the human crew is beautifully played. While we sympathise with the shuttle crew’s growing frustration with Spock, we can’t help but be on the Vulcan’s side. He applies logic to everything, and simply can’t understand when the aliens respond in an entirely illogical manner. In the end, he logically decides to act with desperation. Spock comes out of this episode understanding his human side a lot better, and is better prepared for command.

The Real McCoy: Is fiercely loyal to Spock in the face of insubordination, but still voices his disagreements to him.

Personnel Roster: The shuttle crew includes Spock, McCoy, Scotty, this week’s yeoman, two yellowshirts who should really be wearing red, and Lt. Boma, a man of powerful opinions who becomes Spock’s adversary for much of the episode. Led by his emotions, he’s basically Spock’s antithesis.

Alien Life Forms: The Taurus II natives are huge anthropoids with a primitive tribal society. They’re one of the poorest aliens in the whole of the first season - it’s hard to even tell if they are hairy and apelike or just wearing big, shaggy coats. They’re surprisingly successful with their enormous spears, considering that they just seem to throw them willy-nilly about the place.

Remastery: This episode is one of the most effects intensive from the original series, and thus required a lot of work for remastering. The result is stunning, with some excellent visuals of the shuttle and the Murasaki effect. It is also the basis for the second story in IDW’s Star Trek Ongoing series, which imagines classic stories in the 2009 movie’s alternative reality (the first being based on 1.1, ‘Where No Man Has Gone Before.’)

Cliché Count: It’s the first, and most blatant, use of the far-too-frequent ending device that will come to haunt this series. Yes, it’s the shot of all the crew laughing together on the bridge. It’s bad enough on comedy shows, but on Star Trek, it’s painful. Especially in this episode, with all the crew rolling about, Shatner roaring with forced mirth. Men have died, for Christ’s sake.

Verdict: Excellent. One of the very best episodes of the first season, this beautifully highlights the gulf between Spock and the rest of the crew. Nimoy is excellent throughout, but Shatner and Kelly shouldn’t be overlooked.

Sunday 9 September 2012

WHO REVIEW: 7-2. Dinosaurs on a Spaceship

I love dinosaurs. I also love Doctor Who. So put them together, and you’ve got one happy Daniel.

Chris Chibnall isn’t the best regarded of Who writers by fans, but this episode showcases the best of his of his talents; writing fun, breezy romps in which spectacle and pace are everything. That said, things hold together pretty well, logic-wise, although some of the more interesting concepts are a bit confused if you think about them for a moment. The success of the episode is down to how it boldly throws together so many disparate elements, and allows characters and concepts from entirely separate genres to interact. Add in some great casting, some funny one-liners and some truly impressive visual effects (love the rock-and-bones styled Silurian spaceship), and you’ve got a fun, frothy episode.

Thursday 6 September 2012

WHO REVIEW: 7-1. Asylum of the Daleks

An overdue return for Doctor Who, in the first of a short run of what’s promised to be “mini-movies” set to write out the Ponds. As season openers go, Asylum of the Daleks is a success, although it lacks the shock spectacle of last year’s The Impossible Astronaut or the sheer charm of The Eleventh Hour. Altogether, this first episode is decidedly derivative, but is presented with such confidence and verve it’s very hard not to enjoy it.
The big news, of course, is the sudden reveal of Jenna-Louise Coleman’s character, Oswin. Brilliantly kept under wraps despite the seemingly spoiler-ridden world of the series publicity, Coleman’s debut comes weeks earlier than was expected and is a genuine surprise. She immediately makes a huge impression in the role, proving beautiful, sassy and confident, but let’s not overlook the regulars. Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill are now perfectly comfortable in their roles. They have an easy chemistry that here works just as effectively when they’re at loggerheads as when they’re gazing adoringly at each other. Matt Smith, or course, is totally at home as the Doctor, a mercurial, swift-footed eccentric, with a strangely graceful clumsiness.

Tuesday 4 September 2012

Crash Bang Wallop!

So, my computer died. Died a terrible death. Mix that in with moving flat, not having any phoneline yet and doing some unscheduled overtime at work and there's been little time to blog. Plus there's plenty of writing I am VERY behind on, so...

Regular bloggage should resume shortly, including reviews of the latest Doctor Whos.