Sunday 28 December 2014

WHO REVIEW: 8-13) Last Christmas

Christmas is a time of mixed emotion, when joy, love and frivolity are tempered by loss, heartache and inequality. The best Christmas stories have this bittersweet balance. Christmas is also a time for ghost stories, a tradition that has risen again in recent years. So Doctor Who should be perfect for Christmas, and the status of the annual Christmas special as a modern-day tradition would support this. However, as many of the Doctor's festive adventures have been mediocre as have been fantastic, and even the best, (which is, clearly, A Christmas Carol), are rarely as good when watched at other times of the year. With its tenth Christmas special, however, Doctor Who delivered a genuinely gripping, moving, frightening and funny adventure, one that will surely stand up just as well when watched when the nights have grown shorter and Christmas indulgence is far from our minds.

Last Christmas follows on very closely from the main run of Series Eight. It is, after all, mere weeks since the Doctor faced down the Mistress and Clara lost Danny, so to play this as a separate event would have seemed off. The events of Death in Heaven were uniquely traumatic for both the Doctor and Clara, and to shrug that off in favour of a festive knees-up would have felt false. It's Christmas; people who love each other get together and have arguments. Perhaps Clara and the Doctor overcame their mutual lying a little too quickly, but the underlying tension of their parting, and the reasons behind it were still simmering, most prominently with the unexpected presence of Danny Pink.

A classic sci-fi base-under-siege story that riffs on Alien while chucking in layers of dreams and fantasies and has Father Christmas as its special guest star is not something many series could get away with. Indeed, it's not something that Doctor Who could have got away with until recently. The Santa-robots from the first two Christmas specials felt silly enough at the time. It's hard to imagine the series actually running with a full-on Santa episode even as recently as two years ago. Last Christmas does see Steven Moffat using his usual clever tricks and tropes to craft a spooky story, with “Don't blink!” now having evolved into “Don't think!” and monsters you cannot look at instead of ones you must. However, by taking a tried-and-tested approach to Doctor Who as its foundation, it's free to go off in wilder and more ridiculous ways than ever before. Certainly one thing this last year of Doctor Who has had in abundance is confidence. They might not have pulled everything off, but the production team have had some guts in trying bold and strange new things, particularly since the halfway point of the series was reached. Last Christmas sees them at their most confident yet.

It's also very hard to this episode working as well with another Doctor. Eccleston could have pulled it off, if it he could have taken it seriously, but both Tennant and especially Smith would have been completely unsuited to it. They would have been thrilled to see Saint Nick, bouncing around the set and telling him how brilliant and beautiful he was. No, this needed the most grounded, most bad-tempered and most cynical Doctor to make it work. As well as the seething rivalry between these two fantastical old men, the twelfth Doctor makes Father Christmas work as a character by taking him seriously (well, just seriously enough). With Capaldi giving him credence, we can sit back and accept that Santa is part of this episode. And sure, it's great seeing grumpy-faced Twelve growl at Santa Claus and piss on everyone's parade when they think they're free, just as it's a joy to see him give in to the nonsense and fly the sleigh. (I have to admit, while I'm getting more and more Twelve-like as I get older, I'm still an overexcited Eleven when it comes to Christmas. I just sleep through more of it than I used to.)

Telling a story that's almost entirely set in dreams is a risky approach, of course, and it's hard not to make the audience feel that they've been cheated. This is precisely the problem that affected the previous episode to try this, Amy's Choice, but where that failed, Last Christmas succeeds because it maintains its threat. Indeed, the dream itself is the threat, linked precisely to the slow death of the characters as the Dream Crabs digest their brains. This is supported by some genuinely unpleasant nightmarish imagery, not least the flickering tentacles of the Crabs themselves, or their slimy carapaces covering their victims' faces. Indeed, this might be a little much for 6.15 on Christmas Day, when young children are still fully charged on festive excitement. I sat down to watch this with my best friend's six-year-old son, and he lasted about fifteen minutes before declaring he was bored and wandering off. It was only the next morning that he confessed that he was too scared to watch it. It only took a little reassurance that none of it was real, of course, and that it's fine to be scared and it can be fun, but even so, I do wonder if perhaps this was a little strong for its slot.

On the other hand, it has Nick Frost as Father Christmas. While trailers did suggest that jolly Saint Nick might potentially be the villain of the piece, happily this was not the case, and while Frost is indeed a gobby and confrontational Santa, he is also a courageous and reassuring one. The storming of the polar base by Santa and his trusty elves, their entrance heralded by a phalanx of slinkies and toy robots, has to be one of the most audaciously absurd and wonderful in Doctor Who's history. And anyone who thinks the joke with Rudolph's nose isn't funny is a misery. That was bloody hilarious. Still, none of this could have worked without Nick Frost (truly the perfect name for the man behind Father Christmas), along with Nathan McMullen and Dan Starkey (finally recognisable outside of his Strax makeup). Frost is capable of standing up to Capaldi's Doctor while balancing the humour and threat of the scenes he appears in. No mean feat.

All of the cast are excellent here, though, from Natalie Gumede's no-nonsense head scientist Ashley to Maureen Beattle as the pragmatic elder Bellows. It's lovely to see Michael Troughton finally appear in his father's show, after many appearances by brother David, even if his character does get the short end of the stick when it comes to brains and decorum. (Now, let's get Sean Pertwee in series nine, yeah?) Samuel Anderson provides a truly beautiful coda for Danny, far better and more moving than the misjudged angel moment in Death in Heaven. It is, however, Faye Marsay who steals the episode. Shona is cute, silly and not particularly competent, and feels so real that she absolutely grounds this fantasy-based episode and all that it features. Having spent the bulk of the episode making us adore her, and desperately trying to get the other characters to like her, she wakes up in a scene of heartbreaking loneliness. It's the scene that best embodies that bittersweet quality of Christmas and it's the one that has stuck with me long after the Dream Crabs have lost their creepiness. Judging by the reaction on the interwebs, there hasn't been such a call for a character to be raised to companion status since Carey Mulligan appeared as Sally Sparrow. Let's hope we see her again. (IMDB also informs me that it's Marsay's birthday on the 30th of December Happy birthday Faye!)

As of yet, though, there's no vacancy for a companion. I'm of two minds concerning Clara's staying on. Clara's character has improved enormously over the last year, now that she is free of the “impossible girl” baggage, and this in turn has allowed Jenna Coleman to improve her performance. She has been genuinely excellent throughout Series Eight, and I'm looking forward to seeing how Clara and the Doctor develop their relationship in the ninth series. On the other hand, he has been part of the show for a long time now, and there's a real risk of it becoming stale. Especially considering that Clara has been living her own life this year, she would perhaps work better as a Martha-style occasional companion. Last Christmas boasts some of her best performance, particularly her finally bidding fairwell to Danny. It is, however, that beautiful scene with the Doctor that shows both Coleman and Capaldi at their best. The Doctor finally returning to Clara, sixty years too late, not even registering her age but helping her celebrate on last Christmas... it's truly beautiful, and perfectly reflects the inverse scene in The Time of the Doctor, right down to the Doctor helping Clara pull a cracker. It works so perfectly that it's hard to imagine that Clara's eventual departure will work anywhere near as well. In fact, the episode really should have ended there, however well the final rug-pull works. Indeed, I think it's pretty clear that in the initial treatment this was how it ended, bookmarking Clara's story, but after Coleman's last minute decision to stay a rewrite was necessitated.

Despite this, Last Christmas is one of the best Christmas specials Doctor Who has produced, and also a damned fine episode of the series as a whole. It may not be the end that Clara deserves, but it could be a great new beginning.

Monday 15 December 2014

Those Marvellous Captains

Two of the upcoming comic-inspired movies I'm most looking forward to are Captain Marvel from Disney/Marvel, and Shazam from WB/DC. Both star a superpowered character who goes by the name Captain Marvel, although the hero of Shazam might end up being called Shazam. Understandably, there's a little confusion regarding the name "Captain Marvel" and how it relates to various characters. Not only have there been various characters in both the DC and Marvel universes named Captain Marvel, they have generally also gone by various other names. There are also various Marvelmen, Marvel Boys, Marvel Girls and Ms. Marvels, not all of which are related to the Marvel comic publishers. How to make sense of all this? Well, here goes:

Fawcett, National and DC

The original Captain Marvel was the star of a strip published by Fawcett Comics, his initial apperance being in issue two of Whiz Comics in 1940. At first glance, Captain Marvel was a Superman rip-off, and it was certainly the success of National Comics' Batman and Superman comics that led to the creation of Whiz Comics and its characters. The origin of Captain Marvel was entirely different, however. He was teenager Billy Batson, who encountered the wizard Shazam, who granted him the power to transform into Captain Marvel by uttering the word "shazam!". The magical incantation granted Billy the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury. He had very Superman-like powers and appearance, and yes, this did eventually get Fawcett comics into trouble. However, during the 1940s Captain Marvel's adventures were the best-selling American superhero comics of all, outselling his inspiration. During that golden era, a whole Marvel Family was created, including Captain Marvel Jr (really the young boy Freddy Freeman) and Mary Marvel (Billy's twin sister Mary). While Mary got her powers from saying "Shazam!" like her brother, Freddy had to say "Captain Marvel," so was always a second-tier sidekick to the true Captain Marvel. There was also a short-lived spin-off title called The Marvel Family, which featured other, non-powered members of the Marvel family, plus Marvel Lieutenants and even a Marvel Bunny. 

By 1953, however, the tide was turning. National Comics was now Detective Comics Publishing (later DC Comics), and a lawsuit between DC and Fawcett over Captain Marvel's similarities to Superman resulted in the cancellation of the line. DC eventually required the rights and finally complete ownership of Fawcett's stable of characters, and made plans to bring back Captain Marvel as one of their own heroes - one of the few who could go toe-to-toe with Superman. Various attempts to revive the character in the 70s and 80s, including an alternative version named Captain Thunder, had not been very successful, but in 1991 the graphic novel The Power of Shazam! reintroduced the character for good. Captain Marvel has survived the many reboots of the DC line, and still exists, with a revamped backstory, in the New 52. 

The problem, of course, is that during Billy Batson's period off the stands, Timely Comics, publishers of such characters as Captain America and the Human Torch, has changed their name to Marvel. To protect their copyright, Marvel created their own superhero named Captain Marvel, who premiered in Marvel Superheroes in 1967. After this, all the new DC Captain Marvel products were sold under the name Shazam! By 2011, the character had stopped being referred to as Captain Marvel even within the comics' story material, and was now known as Shazam (formerly the name of the wizard). While many fans still refer to him as Captain Marvel, this does fit with a proposed future mythology for the character, in which he will one day become the new wizard Shazam and choose a new Captain Marvel. Captain Marvel Jr, for his part, split from the Marvel family for a time and changed his name to CM3, while the New 52 version wishes to be known as King Shazam. There are other Captains Marvel in the DC multiverse, as well. One of Batson's most nefarious enemies is Black Adam, an evildoer who also wields the power of Shazam (and who will be played by Dwayne Johnson in the upcoming movie). There's also a version of the character on the parallel Earth-3, only in this version of events, it is Lex Luthor who is granted the power, whenever he says "Mazahs!" Really.

M. F. Enterprises

Between the Fawcett and Marvel iterations of Captain Marvel, a minor publisher named M. F. Enterprises created their own short-lived character by the same name. He appeared in four issues of his own self-titled comic in 1966-7, and two issues of the even briefer Captain Marvel Presents The Terrible Five. This character was a "Human Robot" (read android) whose background was otherwise pretty identical to Superman's, while his powers were odd to say the least: he could detach his body parts by shouting "Split!" He also had more regular abilities like laser eyes and a hyper-intelligent computerised brain. This Captain Marvel took on the secret identity of Roger Winkle, a mild-mannered reporter, no less, while his sidekick was the young Billy Baxton.

Given that his name clashed with both Marvel and DC properties and that his background, alter ego and villains were direct rip-offs of DC characters, it wasn't long before this Captain Marvel was put out of business. He did, however, make a brief cameo in a 1997 issue of The Power of Shazam!

Marvel Comics

When Marvel pinched the rights to the character name, they began a series of characters called Captain Marvel, a legacy title that has been handed down and that, unlike Captain America, say, has no one character who dominates its history. The first Captain Marvel is actually called Marr-Vell, and is a member of the alien race the Kree, sent to Earth to monitor them only to eventually break away and ally with the human race. In a grim turn of events, Marr-Vell died of cancer in the graphic novel The Death of Captain Marvel. The second Captain Marvel was Monica Rambeau, a character created in 1982 and, unusually, a black female superhero. Rambeau was bombarded by cosmic energies, granting her the ability to convert to electromagnetic energy, and allowing her extreme speed, intangibility, energy blasts and so on. As Captain Marvel, she led the Avengers for some time.

Marr-Vell's son, Genis-Vell, became the third Captain Marvel, and after some initial friction, Rambeau conceded the name. She has since been known as Pulsar and Photon (neither of which is a name unique to her, because that would be too simple) but now goes by the name of Spectrum, and is part of the Mighty Avengers team, acting as their field commander. For some, Rambeau is the definitive Captain Marvel, and while she is both a major female member of the Avengers and a real heavy hitter, she is not the Captain Marvel who will be headlining her own Marvel movie.

Now, Genis-Vell, Marr-Vell's genetically engineered son, had a hard time as the Captain, going mad and destroying the universe (he did fix it up again though). Genis took the name Photon (requiring Rambeau to change her name again, and yes, this is confusing) leaving the captaincy open. It was taken next by his sister, Phyla-Vell, who came to exist as part of the strange effects of Genis's recreation of the universe. Phyla's name is a terrible pun of the part of writer Peter David. She has since become known as Quasar and then Martyr, became one of the Guardians of the Galaxy, and died in battle. The fifth Captain Marvel was a Skrull sleeper agent known as Khn'nr, a shape-shfiting alien who took on the identity of Marr-Vell. The Marr-Vell identity became dominant, so for a short time it was as if the original Captain Marvel was back. He died too.

Marvel Boys and Marvel Girls

While Captain Marvel didn't come to Marvel until relatively late on, Marvel-monikered heroes graced its pages even before it was called Marvel Comics, back when it was called Timely Comics, and then Atlas Comics. The first such character was Marvel Boy, aka Martin Burns, a young man who wielded the power of Hercules in the Forties. In fact, there were two Martin Burnses, according to the official Marvel history, an attempt to make sense of two wildly contradictory origin stories. Supposedly they were both active under the name Marvel Boy at the same time, because this isn't confusing enough. In the 50s, Robert Grayson received cosmic bracelets from the Eternals to become Marvel Boy in his own title from Atlas Comics. And he grew up on Uranus. This Marvel Boy was revived in the 70s and revamped as the Crusader, and become part of the superhero team the Agents of Atlas in 2001. His bracelets were later donned by Wendell Vaughn, who became the next Marvel Boy, later Marvel Man, and finally Quasar. Yes, this is also the name later taken by fourth Captain Marvel, Phyla-Vell, after she acquired the cosmic armbands.

The fifth Marvel Boy was Vance Astrovik, a mutant who later took on the hero name Justice. To be extra confusing, another version of Vance Astrovik better known as Vance Astro became a member of the original Guardians of the Galaxy in an alternative timeline in the 31st century. The two Vances have even met up and worked together. The original Vance was followed by another mutant, the even more powerful David Bank. The best known Marvel Boy, however, was Noh-Varr, another member of the Kree race. He sided with the Earth during the Skrull invasion and took on Norman "Green Goblin" Osborn's offer of joining his "Dark Avengers," becoming the sixth carrier of the title of Captain Marvel.

There have been four Marvel Girls. The first was the mutant girl Jean Grey, founding member of the X-Men and also known by the name Phoenix, although generally referred to, unusually, by her given name in most things these days (particularly on TV and film). She was, of course, played by Famke Jansen in the Fox X-Men movies although will presumably be recast for X-Men Apocalypse. Jean Grey has died numerous times, and it never sticks. She and her husband, Scott Summers aka Cyclops, share some of the most convoluted storylines and family tree in the Marvel universe, covering multiple alternative timelines and potential futures. Their daughter Rachel, from one such future, is the third Marvel Girl. The second was Valeria Richards, the daughter of Reed Richards (Mr Fantastic) and Sue Storm (Invisible Girl/Woman) in yet another alternative timeline. There was also a fourth Marvel Girl in yet another alternative future, Dream Richards, the daughter of Rachel Grey and Franklin Richards, Valeria's brother. A proper Marvel family.

Ms. Marvel

Carol Danvers, a USAF officer, debuted in the 60s in Marvel Super Heroes, where she was caught in an explosion alongside Marr-Vell. Although injured, she absorbed some of his Kree DNA, since this is what happens in explosions in comics. Now equipped with flight, super strength and other abilities, she took on the name Ms. Marvel, and received her own title. Danvers has gone through some pretty horrendous stuff in her long comics career, including an ill-judged rape storyline and a twisted encounter with the X-Man Rogue, which ended up granting Rogue enhanced powers but also carrying round a copy of Danvers in her head. Danvers later received enhanced powers at the hands of another alien species, and took on the name Binary. She's also been known as Warbird, but eventually settled back into being Ms. Marvel. Danvers first got the title of Captain Marvel in another alternative reality, in the House of M event, before finally taking on the position in the mainstream comics run in 2012. Since then, the Danvers-headed run of Captain Marvel  has become enormously popular. As well as being a member of both SHIELD and the Guardians of the Galaxy, Danvers has been the subject of continual fan requests for the cinematic treatment. And so it is this Captain Marvel who will be getting her own major movie release in 2018, as part of the third phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

This has of course left a vacancy for the position of Ms. Marvel. Although there have been two other shortlived Ms. Marvel's in the past - Sharon Ventura, who later mutated into the She-Thing, and Karla Sofen, better known as Moonstone, who became the evil Ms. Marvel as part of the Dark Avengers. The current Ms. Marvel is Kamala Khan, a young Pakistani American girl who sees Danvers as her idol, and takes on the name after her Inhuman powers are triggered. Given that both Captain Marvel and the Inhumans have movies coming up (and the Inhumans are also involved in Marvel's Agents of SHIELD on the TV), it's not impossible that we'll see Kamala on screen sometime.

It's also worth briefly mentioning that Danvers appears in other Marvel lines, set in yet more alternative timelines. The Ultimates line features a non-superpowered Captain Danvers who is at one time involved with Mahr-Vehl, the Captain Marvel of that reality. She also features prominently in the Marvel Mangaverse, in which she actually becomes Captain America. As Captain Marvel, though, Danvers is probably the premier female superhero of the mainstream Marvel line. I mean, she represents the Earth to the universe at large, that's pretty impressive.

The Marvelman Debacle

Although most committed comics fans get their comics from specialist shops that import them from the States, there's a tradition of British publishers selling reprinted American comics in newsagents on the high street. Fawcett's Captain Marvel and its spin-offs were published here by L. Miller and Sons. Ltd, who found themselves in a pickle when Fawcett cancelled their entire line following the dispute with DC. So Miller's simply produced their own knock-off version of the good Captain, under the name Marvelman. This was young Mickey Moran, who received his powers from an interstellar wizard-scientist and became Marvelman when he uttered the word "Kimota!" (atomic backwards, sort of). He got his own version of the Marvel family, with Dicky Dauntless as Young Marvelman and Johnny Bates as Kid Marvelman, each swapping their child bodies with superpowered adult forms when they exclaimed "Marvelman!"

The original Marvelman run carried on till 1963, when it was canned. It was revived in 1982 by Dez Skinn and Alan Moore for the first issue of Warrior, an anthology comic in the vein of 2000 AD. Having already revamped the poorly conceived Marvel character Captain Britain (which included another version of the Marvelman character, briefly glimpsed as Miracleman in another timeline), Moore began his career defining deconstruction of the superhero genre by crashing wholesome hero Marvelman into the real world. The adult Mike Moran, plagued by nightmares from his forgotten time as Marvelman, rediscovers his powers. His journey of discovery leads him to Johnny Bates, who has remained in his Kid Marvelman guise through the years and matured to become supremely powerful. Forced back to be thirteen-year-old Johnny, he suffered horrific bullying and sexual abuse in the children's home he as dumped in, leading to another devastating resurgance of Kid Marvelman's powers. 

The new Marvelman strips were sold to American publishers Eclipse, whereupon they gained the attention of Marvel Comics, who, as with DC, took exception at their use of the Marvel name. Eclipse changed Marvelman to Miracleman, with the rest of the new Marvel family changing in kind. There was also a version of Mary Marvel, named Miraclewoman, created when young girl Avril Lear was experimented upon to create a superpowered being in the nature of Marvelman/Miracleman. Moore left the comic and it was continued for some time by Neil Gaiman. After an unpleasant dispute over creators rights between various parties including Spawn creator Todd McFarlane, the collapse of Eclipse comics and his purchasing of their properties, and legal ramifications regarding the purchase of the original Marvelman material, Miracleman was scrapped. Just recently, however, Marvel have purchased the Marvelman back catalogue, although the reprinted Miracleman retains the Marvel-less name. A weird upshot of this is that Gaiman is now writing for Marvel and has sold them the rights to his Spawn character Angela, who is now part of the Guardians of the Galaxy and set to join the Avengers. Gaiman will be continuing the Miracleman story in new issues. 


So, there are, currently, two characters called Captain Marvel. Carol Danvers is the Captain Marvel who belongs to Marvel Comics, used to be Ms. Marvel, and will star in the movie Captain Marvel. Billy Batson is the Captain Marvel who belongs to DC Comics, whose comic and upcoming movie are called Shazam! and who is officially called Shazam himself. Marvel comics still have a Ms. Marvel and sometimes a Marvel Girl, and while they now own and publish Marvelman, they're still marketing him as Miracleman. It's quite straightforward really.

Thursday 4 December 2014

The Many Regenerations of the Doctor

Had to share this piece of work by Stratos06th aka South Park Taoist. I'd fancied making something like this myself, but I could never have made something as good as this. While there are plenty more Doctors who could have been included on here, I think the artist has drawn the line at the right place. Any more would make the chart too busy, and I love the little inclusions of pastiche characters and mythic equivalents of the Doctor that wouldn't fit if, say, all the Morbius Doctors had been included separately. It's a great piece of work. Click to embiggen.

On filth

“Pornography is the canary in the coalmine of free speech: it is the first freedom to die. If this assault on liberty is allowed to go unchallenged, other freedoms will fall as a consequence.” Myles Jackman, UK-based obscenity lawyer

As reported by The Independent on Tuesday, a large number of sex acts have been made illegal in pornography on the United Kingdom, in an amendment to obscenity laws that was quietly rushed through parliament. In actuality, these acts were already illegal to portray in materials on DVD and video, and have been for some time. The new amendment simply brought the rules pertaining to video-on-demand pornography into alignment with the materials that can be sold in sex shops. It's a crock, of course; the law only affects materials produced in and streamed from the UK; the majority of porn sold in Britain is imported and has been for some time, due to the fact that it can legally show elements that homegrown material cannot.

The list of acts now banned from all forms of British pornography is as follows:

  • Spanking
  • Caning
  • Aggressive whipping
  • Penetration by any object “associated with violence”
  • Any physical or verbal abuse (regardless of consent)
  • Urolagnia (water sports)
  • Role-playing as non-adults
  • Physical restraint
  • Humiliation
  • Female ejaculation
  • Strangulation
  • Face-sitting
  • Fisting

The list is arbitrary in the extreme, bereft of any logic. The final three have been blacklisted as being “potentially life-endangering,” and while it is possible to see why they might be viewed as such, it would take a high degree of incompetence, stupidity and bad luck to die by any of these means. Other items on the list could not possibly be seen as dangerous. Spanking? Surely one of the most common and harmless forms of light S&M play, now apparently an obscene act. Dirty talk is seemingly out, penetration by a hazily defined type of object no longer permitted, even handcuffs are apparently unacceptable as items of physical restraint. There's also a very unplesant tone of misogyny to the list. Face-sitting and humiliation make up a significant part of femdom play. Most bizarre and alarming of all is the criminalisation of female ejaculation. Seemingly the compilers of the list consider it to be nothing more than a pornographic act, as opposed to a natural consequence of orgasm for many – although far from all – women. Presumably any female performers will have to ensure that they do not enjoy themselves too much, lest they achieve an explosive orgasm and invalidate their videos for sale.

There appears to be no issue taken with male ejaculation, or forcible male-dominant acts such as face-fucking, actually a more dangerous activity than face-sitting. There is also a complete lack of any consideration of consent. All that appears to matter is the appearance of consent, of two partners who engage in equally-levelled play, with no dominant or submissive party.

The laws won't affect the majority of people. Many, many members of the British public view pornography, mostly online, but the laws will not prevent them from downloading or streaming material from other countries, or prosecute them for viewing such material that has been produced in the UK against the law. At least, not yet. It's very clear to see that it would only take a small amendment to the law to block materials from other abroad or to criminalise the viewing of materials. Even as it is, scores of performers, professional and amateur, will now be unable to make money from or take pleasure in producing videos of these activities, in spite of having broken no laws in the process of engaging in such acts.

I watch porn. I enjoy it. I know a couple of people – women, as it happens – who perform in it. I also enjoy some of the acts on the list. Others are not things I enjoy partaking in or watching, but then, I don't have to. I simply have to let others do what they enjoy and not worry about it a moment longer. Now, however, my government has passed a law stating what is and is not considered morally acceptable to gain pleasure from. It is worrying to think that it's only a small step from banning the broadcast of these acts to criminalising the acts themselves. We should remind ourselves that it was only a few decades ago that any homosexual activity was illegal in this country, due to a moral decision by our government.

In a perverse attitude resemblant of those of the Victorian era, it seems that the fact of consent is not what matters, but merely the appearance of it. It's about propriety, not protection. Better to have a regulatory system that would work to ensure that those performing in pornography were doing it consensually, rather than attacking the industry itself.

And let us not forget that this is decision by a government facing investigation for historic abuses of children. A country in which a vast paedophile ring at the highest levels of government and the media industry was kept secret for decades by coercion, bribery and murder. A legal system with a long-standing systemic inability to criminalise and punish rapists, which continues to victimise the survivors of abuse. Rather than focussing on exposing, punishing and stopping genuine abuses of consent, of looking inward and taking scrutinising their own houses, the government would prefer to remove one more freedom from the general public.

Monday 24 November 2014

This past week...

I spent a lot of time at work.

I had sticky toffee pudding with my best friend and her son, and we wrote a song about custard.

I hung out with my other best friend and her kids, and we played Moshi Monsters cards in a carefully calculated way which meant I would always lose.

I saw my cousin pretend to be a Japanese woman in an amateur production of Avenue Q, with most of my family, including my grandmother. She loved it.

I suffered from moderate man flu.

I listened to Dark Eyes 3.

I saw The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1. I thought it was very good indeed. I lost focus a bit on the story when Jennifer Lawrence and Natalie Dormer were both on screen.

I spent a lot of time at work.

The Doctor Who Project: The Final Season

The Canadian Doctor Who fiction series The Doctor Who Project is about to enter its fourteenth and final season. Season 40 (for it continues from the end of the original series) features three stories told over four installments, featuring their own tenth Doctor and his companions Val and Tom.

The season kicks off this Saturday with Ghost Ship, a spooky story by Krista Wilson and Matthew James, in which an isolated spacecraft is seemingly being haunted. You can read an extract here.

Ghost Ship is followed by Cybercult, by my expat friend Miles Reid-Lobatto. If you haven't gussed, it's a Cybermen story, but this time, they've brought religion with them.

The series ends with a climactic two-parter. In Final Reckoning by John Gordon Swogger, the Doctor and his newest companion encounter an ancient threat, and come face-to-face with no fewer than three incarnations of the Master.

The Doctor Who Project features novella-length stories available for free download in PDF format. Head over to the homepage on Saturday 29th November for the TDWP Doctor's final adventures.

Comics Round-Up: November (2)

Last one of the year. After this I shall be dropping almost everything due to the mighty expense of Christmas. It'll probably be a couple of last issues of short runs and a couple of the Spider-Verse tie-ins to keep me going till the new year.

Spider-Verse #1 (Marvel)

With so much Spider-Man related material coming out, it's tempting to assume it's just another huge cash-in event. Marvel is a bitch for those lately. However, most of this has actually been very good. Whether we really need Spider-Verse and Spider-Verse Team-Up as separate titles is debatable, but this short run anthology series is well worth having. Very brief stories in both new and established realities, each portrayed in a different style. The strip in the Marvel Mangaverse is a slightly weaker start, but the Steampunk Lady Spider, facing a steampunk Sinister Six, is fantastic. We get a wonderfully cutesie story for Penelope Parker on Earth-11, and a newspaper-style strip which is quietly ingenious. Looking forward to the second issue.

The Amazing Spider-Man #10 (Marvel)

This is the least exciting of the three Spidey releases these couple of weeks, seeing that it exists mostly to set up further adventures on the remaining spin-off titles. Seriously, the last few pages involve several groups of Spider-persons heading off into their own titles, helpfully annotated so you know where to send your money next.Still, it's quite fun, we have both primary Peter Parker and a time-displaced Otto Octavius as Peter Parker, plus Miles Morales from the Ultimate universe... yeah, this is complicated if you're not already steeped in it. But there is a Spider-Punk with spikes on his head.

Spider-Woman #1 (Marvel)

Having removed the grotesque Manara cover from the line-up, an altogether more pleasing new start for Spider-Woman arrives as one of Spider-Verse's many spin-offs. This is actually mostly about Silk, making good mileage from the contrast between the experienced Jessica Drew and the naive but tough Cindy Moon. Plus, 1930s Noir Spider-Man along for the ride. Whether this title can maintain any steam once the Spider-Verse events are over is another matter.

Batgirl #36 (DC)

What I like about this title is that, rather like Marvel's Ms. Marvel, the heroine comes across as the sort of girl who might actually be reading these books. Barbara Gordon juggles complex work with an increasingly difficult personal life - so far, so standard, but the details are spot-on. Hers is a world of awkward romantic potential, fragile friendships, social networking and anime marathons, albeit with a sinister faux-Batgirl manipulating her enemies behind the scenes. Really just a  lot of fun.

Batman Arkham #12 (DC/Titan)

I picked this up because Clayface is on the cover, and he has been one of my favourite Bat-foes since I saw the excellent "Feet of Clay" episode of the nineties animated series. The last strip of this issue begins a new story from The Dark Knight, with a powerful new origin tale for Clayface for the New 52. Really great stuff, with some appropriately oily looking artwork from Alex Maleev. Before that, though, are two dull comics from Arkham Unhinged and Detective Comics, both essentially very nicely drawn exposition, although "Icarus," Detective Comics' new story, shows promise.

Thor #2 (Marvel)

Ah, now this is more like it. While I think I'd prefer it if Thor had actually become female rather than be replaced by an as-yet-unidentified woman, but this is still great stuff now that she is finally here and kicking Frost Giant arse. New Thor's inner monologue reads pretty modern, so that suggests she's from contemporary Earth. A former Avenger? When she's speaking aloud though, she sounds just as portentous as the Odinson, posh typeface and all. It's lovely stuff.

All-New Captain America #1 (Marvel)

This, on the other hand, is really rather disappointing. Sam Wilson is now Captain America, although he still has his Falcon wings, while Steve Rogers is now retired because he's caught old age. Steve's son - who is actually Zola's son - is the new Cap's sidekick, Nomad. So with these somewhat baffling rejigs out of the way, this is really quite boring. Stilted dialogue, dull moral arguments, no plot to speak of.

Wild's End #3 (Boom!)

How Abnett manages to make a very straightforward tale of alien invasion so compelling is beyond me. Aside from the obvious incongruity of having Wind in the Willows inspired characters fighting alien death machines, that is. These are fairly cliched characters brought to life by some deft insights, making this a quietly powerful story.

Guardians of the Galaxy #21 (Marvel)

Jumped ahead here, with the aid of some library copies of the trades. Current Guardians line-up consists of Star-Lord, Drax, Gamora, Groot, Rocket, Agent Venom and Capt. Marvel, although the great lady is not in this issue, which kicks off the "planet of the symbiotes" storyline. Have Marvel really never played this idea before? We're still a long way from reaching the aforesaid planet here, with this focusing on how utterly stupid it is to send Venom into space as Earth's representative. But this is cool. Venom extrapoplated to the nth, and that last page - yeah, very cool.

Star Trek #38 (IDW)

Excellent to see Kira enter the fray here. Of course she's going to be leading the resistance - who else would? Slightly odd to have Keiko O'Brien captaining a ship, but it gives her relationship with Miles a new dynamic. Not as fun as seeing Miles and Scotty bouncing off each other. This is still good fun, even if the DS9 characters all talk like they've swallowed a dictionary. Still two parts to go though, and the pace is starting to flag.

Doctor Who Magazine #480 (Panini)

Twelve's first strip story for DWM comes to a close in a clever if perfunctory way, with both Clara and the Doctor shouldering the world-saving duties. This nicely ties into developments in the TV series, with Clara displaying more and more worryingly harsh Doctor-like behaviour. Pretty bloody good start to Twelve's era in the mag.

Multiversity: Pax Americana (DC)

And finally, Grant Morrison's answer to Watchmen. Some might say it's a little late to be writing an answer to Watchmen. The last twenty years of superhero comics have been answer to Watchmen. Nonetheless, this is a very well written comic. Morrison gets to use the original Charlton Comics characters (albeit in their somewhat updated Earth-4 incarnations) rather than having to settle for barely disguised replicas as Alan Moore had to. While Moore had Dave Gibbons to bring his story to life, Morrison has Frank Quitely. I've bought some bad comics in the past on the strength of Quitely's artwork. It's intricate and powerful, and perfectly matches the comic's tone. Experimenting with narrative and causality, Morrison has not written an easy story here, but it's well worth picking up and working through. It needs to be read through a couple of times to fully appreciate it, I feel, but this is fine work.

Friday 14 November 2014

Are we losing Dimetrodon?

Another installment in the great taxonomical debate that is rocking palaeontology, or at least, gently shaking it. Bathygnathus borealis is the name given to the very limited remains of an animal discovered on Prince Edward Island in 1854. It was lauded as being the first dinosaur found in Canada, before being passed around the 19th century zoological community and re-identified as a pelycosaur in 1905. The pelycosauria has since been abandoned as an order, although it is used informally to describe the sail-backed creatures of the Permian period. Nowadays, Bathygnathus is considered a sphenacodont, like the very popular genus Dimetrodon. Dimetrodon is also erroneously called a dinosaur all over popular culture - it turns up in cheapy plastic toy dinosaur sets all the time - and is one the beasts that people tend to think of if asked to visualise a prehistoric animal.

In 1940, it was suggested by Romer and Price that Bathygnathus and Dimetrodon were one and the same. Given that all that remains of Bathygnathus is one upper jaw, and that Dimetrodon is known from dozens of fossils and has numerous species, no one was really worried about Bathygnathus. However, recent reviews of the 1940 materials suggest that Romer and Price were correct, and that the two genera are synonymous. Which is a bugger, because Dimetrodon wasn't described until 1878, twenty-four years after Bathygnathus. If it is concluded that they are the same animal, Bathygnathus has naming priority. If this comes to pass, I suspect the ICZN will be petitioned to keep Dimetrodon as the name, much like they were for Tyrannosaurus, which was identified as synonymous with the earlier Manospondylus. As in that case, prevailing usage is clearly with the newer name, it has distinct cultural clout, and the earlier sample is so fragmentary as to be somewhat useless in the face of the later finds.

Thursday 13 November 2014

Rosetta arrives

All over the news yesterday but I was busy: the ESA spacecraft Rosetta has reached Comet 67P after a ten year voyage through space. Its robot probe Philae has also successfully launched, and after a bit of a wobble, has landed securely on the surface of the comet to begin its measurements.

BBC: Rosetta Comet lander now stable

Some people are questioning whether this is a valuable use of resources. Given the enormous strides forward in everyday technology that have come from NASA's developments over the decades, the relatively young ESA has a lot to prove. However, with ESA, as well as the Chinese and Indian space agencies making huge steps forward, it is they we should be looking to for future breakthroughs. In any case, I believe that knowledge is in itself a worthwhile goal. Examination of this comet will hopefully teach us a great deal about the conditions of the early Solar System, which in turn tells us more about where our world came from. That is, in itself, a worthwhile endeavour. And after the explosion of the Antares rocket at launch and the crash of the VSS Enterprise in flight tests, setting back commercial spaceflight by months if not years (and costing one brave pilot his life) it's encouraging to see  such a triumph in the field.

Daily Mash: Comet landing empirically cool, so shut up

MOVIE REVIEW: Interstellar

Interstellar is attracting some very mixed reviews, at least some of which are down to what seems to be a growing fad of knocking Christopher and Jonathan Nolan. There are, however, some genuine problems with the film. At two hours and fifty minutes, it's far too long; it has a glacial pace that fits its theme of the slow journey into the future but tries the patience of the viewer. It's frequently sentimental, no more so than the final act which is almost unbearably saccharine. Yet there's a lot to love about this film. It has ambition, scope, a powerful message and, by god, it's gorgeous.

Set at the end of our century, the film paints a depressingly plausible view of our future, one in which America has been reduced to a dustbowl, almost all crops and livestock are extinct and life has been reduced to subsistence farming. It's not all bad; there's no military, robot drones have been repurposed as handy tools or mere power sources, and there's a genuine sense that people have pulled together to come through this tough time. On the other hand, mankind's ambition has failed. The population is described as “a caretaker generation,” keeping the Earth alive so that their descendants might have a better quality of life. Horribly, schools teach that the Moon landings were faked for propaganda, and that endeavours into space were vast wastes of money that should have been spent on more worthwhile pursuits. There's a balanced message here, rather than a mixed one. The script is very much on the side of the environmentalist, telling us that if we don't start controlling ourselves we are going to suck our planet dry. Yet it is also profoundly on the side of ambition, putting forth that without something to strive for, we have no purpose, and that mere subsistence is not sufficient.

It's in this future that we meet Cooper (Matthew McConaughy), a trained astronaut who never got to travel to space before NASA was shut down. Living with his father-in-law (John Lithgow) and two children, Tom (Casey Affleck) and Murph (Mackenzie Foy), he ekes out a living as a farmer, just like everyone else. Until, by a strange sequence of events, he and Murph find themselves at the secret base run by NASA, now operating underground and out of the public eye. NASA's data shows that the Earth has mere years left before it can no longer support humanity, but fortunately the genius Professor Brand (Michael Caine, in his obligatory role in a Nolan film) has a plan in motion. One that will send his daughter (Anne Hathaway), Coop and two other astronauts into space, through a wormhole and to another galaxy to find a replacement home planet.

Gratifyingly, the science on display is grounded and plausible, with virtually no concessions to artistic licence up until the final act, which takes us beyond speculation and into wild imaginings. Physicist Kip Thorne provided scientific advice on the production, shooting down some of the Nolans' ideas that he felt were too far beyond what was scientifically feasible. Beyond some exaggeration in the alien locales, and the inevitable artistic visions required when realising such phenomena as black holes and wormholes, the universe we are presented with is entirely plausible. It is also utterly spellbinding, with cosmic vistas and hypothetical planets stunningly created. Particular attention is paid to the phenomenon of time dilation, and inevitable consequence of dealing with relativistic environments such that found in a planetary system orbiting a black hole. While my maths isn't up to the task, I'm sure Thorne ensured the timescales matched up. The vitality of the mission is maintained as we jump from Coop and Brand's search for new planets to the tribulations of those they left behind. Murph, having grown up to become the Professor's most trusted colleague (now played by Jessica Chastain), is now the same age as her father. The ever-widening distance between them, both physically and experientially, is harrowing. The relationships between fathers and daughters is a core theme of the film, one that underpins the grander concepts from start to finish.

While the pace is slow, it is livened up by some effective action sequences, including an astonishing moment on an ocean planet, who's proximity to Gargantua, the black hole, leads to gigantic tidal waves that threaten to destroy the landing craft. There's a sense of deepening despair as the search for a previous mission and its promising planets leads to disappointment after disappointment. On the aforementioned ocean world, despite following years behind the original mission, the extreme time dilation means that Coop, Brand and co. are only hours too late to save their lost precursor. It's not all gloom, however, as there are some much needed moments of humour, mostly involving the repurposed robots, thankfully benevolent rather than Hal-inspired threats.

The Nolans have claimed numerous films as inspirations, but the clear prime source for Interstellar is Kubrick and Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey. The two productions share the same sense of scope and wonder, the desire to explore not only humanity's frailty in the face of a vast and uncaring cosmos, but also its potential and urge to survive. There are also major similarities in the final act; although presented very differently, both films take a similar journey beyond the familiar dimensions of time and space. The mysterious power behind the developments of the story is also quite different in each film, although attentive viewers will no doubt realise something of the nature of Interstellar's mysterious benefactors. I am also reminded of the works of physicist and author Stephen Baxter, whose novels frequently combine a hope that humanity can overcome it's smallness in the universe, with the very real likelihood that human selfishness and narcissism will destroy the best chances we have.

The cast is almost uniformly excellent, particularly McConaughy, Chastain and young Foy, whose relationship as father and daughter (at different ages) is at the very heart of the film. The only weak link is Matt Damon, as stranded astronaut Dr. Mann, who may be giving a fine performance as someone isolated and alienated, but seems frankly bored by proceedings. Hathaway is also very good, but her character is the most guilty of the frequent schmaltzy moments, which makes her harder to root for. Were it not for the heavy-handed “power of love” vibe that permeates the script, and a trimming of some of the more extraneous sequences, this would be a masterpiece. Your enjoyment of Interstellar will no doubt rely on your tolerance for it's dreamy, magic-realist climax. With those caveats, it has to be said that this is one of the finest science fiction films, and certainly the finest serious space opera, for years.

Wednesday 12 November 2014


This must be watched by all. It's the cutest thing. (I don't know where the chicken leg comes from.)

Tuesday 11 November 2014

WHO REVIEW: 8-11 & 8-12 - Dark Water/Death in Heaven

Death always stalks the Doctor, and this year, more than any other, its presence has been a constant theme. In a year that has been marked by more death than I am used to, this feels somewhat personal. Far more so for many more viewers of course. From the quietly devastating cold open of Dark Water, this two-part finale is obsessed with the concept of death and what comes after, exploring its philosophy and twisting it for shock and horror. Danny dies in the most mundane and pointless way, the way that so many of our friends and family have died. To then use this as the starting point for an existential horror story told in the early evening for a family audience is bold, to say the least.

Doctor Who frequently makes the press for being “too scary” or “unsuitable for kids,” ever since Terror of the Autons turned toys into killers in 1971. Perhaps, this time, the papers were right. This is frightening stuff by anyone's standards, but for a young child watching, perhaps a child who has lost a parent or grandparent, to be confronted with the notion that the afterlife is unending hell and servitude... yes, perhaps Doctor Who did go too far this time. This isn't the New Adventures, it's not for a small, select audience of older readers. This is something that is watched by thousands of children. It's made clear that 3W is not the real afterlife, but nothing more than a computer matrix designed to torment the uploaded minds of the recently deceased until they elect to delete their own emotions. Yet it is presented as where millions of souls have been sent over hundreds of years, awaiting resurrection as Cybermen. In the Doctor Who universe, this is the afterlife of humanity, and it's horrifying. How many of us have cremated our loved ones? Even though the 3W was lying about the dead being conscious of their bodies treatment, the idea is still terrifying (and frankly I find the idea of an eternal afterlife terrifying already).

It's interesting that the Doctor's first thought of the afterlife is not Heaven, but Hell. It's very hard to swallow that whatever the circumstance, the Doctor would go on a quest to find a soul in the afterlife. His immediate response upon hearing the supposed truth of life after death is that it's a racket, that the dead are gone for good. This sounds more like the Doctor we know, which makes his mission for Clara's dead love all the more baffling. Did he already have his suspicions that something unnatural was going on? It's hard to credit his actions otherwise, regardless of how much Clara has him wrapped round her finger.

Clara's relationship with the Doctor has been at the centre of this series, particularly the effect the Doctor's presence has had on Clara's character. This story takes these developments to their limit. The opening to Dark Water provides the devastating set-up to one of the most intense scenes ever between a Doctor and his companion. Clara's desperate ruse to force the Doctor to change the past shows just how ruthless she is capable of being, and Jenna Coleman gives her best performance of the series, racked with grief and anger and the injustice of Danny's death and the lengths she's been driven to. Capaldi is naturally more than capable of holding his own in this scene, quietly reacting to Coleman's performance before the Doctor turns events around. It's a tremendously satisfying moment when the Doctor reveals that he has been in complete control of the situation, allowing it to play out. Dream sequences like this are a bugbear of mine, so frequently being dramatically empty and unnecessary to the story. This example, however, is vital and effective, showing us just how Clara has come, what she is capable of and how much she loves Danny. The scene is capped off with the Doctor's perfect response to the situation, forgiving Clara for her betrayal in the name of her friendship. It's an astonishing scene.

Death in Heaven continues the theme of the companion becoming the Doctor. The opening of the second part has Clara pretending to be the Doctor to delay the Cybermen and keep herself alive. It continues on the same vain as her Doctoring in Flatline, but is strangely presented as if we are supposed to believe that she might be telling the truth. Even teaser trailers for the story focused on her claim that “Clara Oswald never existed.” Had this come a year ago, we might have given it credence, but coming now when we've gotten to know Clara, we know it's nothing but a ploy. The tweaks to the opening titles are cute, giving Coleman top billing and having her eyes peer out from the dark in place of Capaldi's. It's a short-lived gimmick, though, and doesn't seem to serve any story purpose. It does, however, push the series further in the direction of the introduction of a female Doctor, something that is now looking more likely than ever. For her part, Coleman is actually rather good as an ersatz Doctor, playing the ruse through with charm and confidence (and more Smith-like than Capaldi-esque).

The biggest hint at the Doctor's potential change of gender is, of course, Missy. After a season-long mystery, the villain's identity is an inevitable let-down. Not that having the Master back is a disappointment, far from it. It's just that Missy=Mistress=Master is the first thing that everyone thought of. It's so obvious that many of us fans dismissed it and tried thinking up increasingly unlikely identities. Missy being the Master is the most obvious answer imaginable, and her introduction across the series is mishandled. As much as it provided an ongoing talking point, having nine weeks of exposure to Missy dulled the eventual reveal. Less “Oh my gosh, it's the Master!” than “Well, yes, obviously.” None of which makes the return of the character in a wholly new guise a bad thing. Michelle Gomez is a fabulous actor, one who I have long included on my list of potential Doctors, should the Time Lord ever be cast as a woman. Gomez once revealed a desire to play the Doctor in a Radio Times interview, and she's had the next best thing as the Master. Nonetheless, I am not quite convinced by her as the Master. She is wonderfully entertaining, dripping with lunacy and makes for an unnervingly unpredictable foe... but she's not quite the Master to me. I guess this is how fans felt when Eric Roberts or John Simm were cast, never accepting them as the Master either. For me, the times when Gomez actually felt like the Master were the quieter, more sinister moments. I'd much rather see her show us how coldly psychotic she is, than hear her shout about how she's “bananas!”

Nonetheless, having the Master back is a fine thing, and the sex change is a good look at how the series may be progressing. If the Doctor doesn't regenerate into a woman next time I'll be very surprised. The outpouring of bile on some fan groups shows just how much misogyny and homophobia there still is in fan circles, especially depressing in a series that is about change and acceptance. In a world where sex change and gender fluidity is becoming evermore common and accepted, these sorts of attitudes are appalling and outdated. I hope those angry few who have declared they will never watch the series again follow through on this “threat.” We'll be better off without them.

It's a pity that the BBC couldn't keep the Cybermen's involvement a secret, but given that they were filming the creatures in broad daylight in the middle of London, it's hard to see how they could have. Instead, they made them the selling point of the story. It would have been a treat had it been presented as a surprise, though. The nature of the skeletons in their invisible support units is screamingly obvious when we already know the Cybermen are coming, and while the reveal is still very effective, it would have been electrifying to see those handles appear had we not already known. That said, the nature of 3W's logo didn't hit me until we saw the doors shut and form a pair of Cyberman eyes. It's then that the old Cyber music starts up and Dark Water's cliffhanger climax begins, something that takes a full ten minutes to put everything into place.

For once, though, the full horror of Cyber-conversion is put centre stage. Once the Cybermen actually begin rising from their graves, they actually do very little for much of the episode. They're not here as stomping robo-soldiers, but as a chilling reflection of our need for the promise of life after death. There are a lot of people who would give up their emotions and autonomy for the chance to live forever in an ageless new body. This is the Cybermen as they were originally envisioned, a desolate potential endpoint for humanity. Although the flying Cybermen are kind of fun. They were lagging behind the Daleks with that, after all.

It's good to see UNIT back, particularly as they are already prepared to shoot down the cliffhanger. It's a joy to see Ingrid Oliver back as Osgood, and the character's death is shocking and upsetting, especially as it comes mere moments after the Doctor offers to take her on a trip into time and space. Kate Stewart maintains further continuity for this modern day UNIT family, although Sanjeev Bhaskar is terrible wasted in his brief role as Colonel Ahmed, though. UNIT's involvement was inevitable, of course. For one thing, this story revels in its links to the past: a genuine Tomb of the Cybermen gives way to a new take on the first UNIT story, The Invasion. In fact, this almost runs as the ultimate unseen story of the UNIT era; a remake of The Invasion with the Master in Tobias Vaughan's role. More importantly, though, is the running theme of the Doctor's attitude to the military, that has been an aspect of the majority of episodes this year. To not have his own military employers turn up would be unthinkable. The setting up as the Doctor as “President of Earth” is laughable – as if every country in the world would vote in such an idea – and plays as a one-shot joke that is never taken to its fullest extent. It does, however, continue the exploration of Doctor-as-general, now commander-in-chief of the forces of Earth.

Most significantly, in this story and across the season, is the contrast between the Doctor and Danny, between general and soldier. While the Doctor may declare that he is no hero, no general, no president, Danny's scathing assessment of him is hard to argue with. Danny's story is painful to watch, from his death to his inhuman resurrection, and Samuel Anderson is brilliant throughout. While some moments in the season haven't shown him in a very good light, like Coleman, when given strong enough material Anderson excels. Their scenes together, in particular, are heartbreaking and hugely affecting. Whether it's by coincidence or design, having the final episode broadcast just before Remembrance Sunday (and before Veterans' Day in the US) lends a particular poignancy to the proceedings. Danny's encounter with the nameless Afghan boy in the Nethersphere is haunting, and highlights the difference between him and the Doctor. Danny, at least, looks the boy in the eye and tries to help. It's hard to see the Doctor confronting one of his victims in such a way.

Indeed, as Danny points out, the Doctor's hypocrisy is evident here. As Danny stands there, his face distorted by cybernetic implants, he calls the Doctor to task for his unwillingness to get his hands dirty. He shoots down the Doctor's profound words, knowing that once a tactical advantage is made clear, he will have to go back on them. It's hard to argue with the Doctor's logic, but emotionally his hypocrisy is hard to bear. Which is, of course, the point of the story, of the involvement of the Cybermen and the Master and the ongoing debate of military force. To be an effective soldier means disconnecting, if only temporarily, from ones emotions. To respond emotionally to the things a soldier must do can break someone. Hence the Cybermen are perfect soldiers, unquestioning and unencumbered by emotion. Danny packages away his emotions to do his duty, but never gives them up; even when his inhibitor is enabled there is, as the Doctor puts it, the promise of love. The alternative is to become a Cyberman, or worse, to revel in the darkness, as does the Master.

With so many very strong elements in play, it's hard to say why the story doesn't quite work. It's certainly better viewed altogether, even rewatched with the knowledge of what's coming, able to focus on the meat of the episode rather than the excitement of twists and revelations, such as they are. Perhaps there is simply too much going on, but it's more a question of tone. This is an unusually bleak story, and yet the normal moments of comedy are still present. More often than not Doctor Who balances these things well, but in spite of such gems as Chris Addison's performance as Seb (such as shame he didn't get a reunion scene with Capaldi), or the Doctor's Malcolm Tucker-esque meeting with Dr. Chang (a very Matt Smith-like performance by Andrew Leung), the comedy moments seem out of place. Nowhere is the tone more uneven than in the climactic scenes. We have the truly beautiful goodbye scene between the Doctor and Clara, both Clara and Capaldi quietly dignified while their characters lie to each others faces for what they perceive to be their own good. We have the Doctor's explosion of anger as he faces the fact that Missy lied to him about Gallifrey's location. Yet we have the misjudged soldier speech from CyberDan, no doubt incredible on paper but over-the-top and pompous on screen (I kept expecting him to announce that he was “cancelling the Apocalypse!”) And the Cyber-Brigadier. A charming tip of the hat to a beloved character, or a rather crass joke? The jury's out, and the scene is so tonally mismatched that it's hard to know how to take it. The same has to be said for the sudden magical rescue of Nameless Afghan Boy by Danny, necessitating a hurried moment of exposition and so totally out of keeping with the rest of the episode it's impossible to swallow.

Finally, the powerful final scene is punctured by a teaser for the Christmas special, the first time the narrative element from the festive episode has broken into the main series in this way since the days of David Tennant. As joyful as it is to see Nick Frost playing Santa Claus, and as baffling as the implications of this are, it just doesn't sit right with the emotionally draining scene we've just witnessed. Which perhaps sums up the whole story; full of such brilliant moments, but, like the Master's plans, incoherent when taken as a whole. If ever there was room for a director's cut of a Doctor Who story, it's this one. It could have been something more.

Sunday 9 November 2014

Comicbook Movie Calendar

The UK release dates for pretty much all the comic-based movies heading our way next year, with my excitement levels appended. Just because.

Big Hero 6 - 30th January

They've already got this one in America. I am not happy about this. I'm used to getting my comic movies on time nowadays. This is the first ever animated theatrical feature based on a Marvel property, released by Disney and not part of the MCU. Early reviews suggest it's going to be an absolute belter. Excitement level 5/5

Kingsman: The Secret Service - 12th February

This one's been pushed back a lot, and while I know very little about Millar and Gibbons's The Secret Service, the synopsis does sound rather fun, and Matthew Vaughan makes very good comicbook movies. The cast is amazing too: Sam Jackson, Mark Strong, Colin Firth and Michael Caine are all involved. EL 3/5

Avengers: Age of Ultron - 24th April

At least we get this one before the Yanks. Cap, Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, War Machine, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Nick Fury, Maria Hill, Heimdall and Loki all set to return, with Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver and the Vision joining the ranks to battle Ultron. Can't bloody wait. EL 5/5

Ant-Man - 17th July 

Looking forward to this one a little more now. It's got to be good if it's going to successfully launch Phase 3 of the MCU, especially considering the vast array of films set to follow it. Peyton Reed directs and it sounds like he knows what he's doing, even if he isn't Edgar Wright. EL 3/5

The Fantastic Four - 6th August

Josh Trank directs the first in a new series of FF movies, based heavily on the Ultimate Fantastic Four comics and with a whole new cast including scary Tony Kebbell as Dr. Doom. Could be great. EL 4/5  UPDATE: Sounds like they really are going head their attempt to make this realistic and "lo-fi." Kebbell has even let slip that his version of Doom is going to be an "angry blogger." Christ. EL reduced to 2/5.

Bananaman - Summer?

We don't know exactly when this is coming out, or even if it will make it out next year as planned. No news on cast or director, but it's being made at Elstree. Apparently they want to call it Bananaman: Man of Peel, which would be amazing. With no concrete news, I can only go by my love of the comics and cartoon series. They'd better have a cameo role for the Goodies. EL 4/5

Further into the future, we have continual releases from Marvel/Disney including Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, Captain Marvel, Inhumans and the two-part Avengers: Infinity War. I don't really need to specify how much I'm looking forward to all of these. Marvel overall excitement level 5/5

DC/Warner have their own raft of movies to rival Marvel, starting with Batman vs Superman next year, which will introduce a whole load of characters and spin off into solo movies in the reverse fashion to Marvel. Whether this can work is anyone's guess, but I'm quite looking forward to Wonder Woman and The Flash. There are also movies for Cyborg, Aquaman, Suicide Squad and a reboot for Green Lantern, but of all the DC projects the one I'm most looking forward to it Shazam! The DC hero known as either Shazam or Captain Marvel is uncast as yet, but Duane the Rock is playing the villainous Black Adam. This all leads up to the the two-part Justice League movie, seeing DC and Marvel going head-to-head in the big event stakes. The Vertigo side of DC is also heading to the big screen with plans Justice League Dark bringing together various supernatural beings under the maestro Guillermo del Toro, and very possibly a Sandman movie, although that has not been officially confirmed. There are also plans for further Superman and Batman films, plus, quite wonderfully, a Lego Batman film. DARKNESS! NO PARENTS! DC overall excitement 3/5, but rising to 4/5 for Shazam! and Lego Batman.

Fox has a further FF movie planned and many more X-Men films on the slate. Surprisingly, the first one we'll see is the long-awaited Deadpool, which hits in February 2016 and could be brilliant, if they don't fuck it up this time. Then comes the eagerly anticipated X-Men: Apocalypse, which will finish the trilogy of films begun with First Class, followed by a third Wolverine movie. At some point we can expect to see Gambit and possibly X-Force, as well as another X-Men title of some description. Probably a mix of new and familiar faces in these movies, but it's worth remembering that several of the newer cast members in Days of Future Past signed up for multiple films. X-Men overall excitement 4/5.

Sony's Spider-Man universe is all over the place right now, so there's little point in taking anything they say as a concrete plan. We'll almost certainly be seeing Sinister Six at some point, probably The Amazing Spider-Man 3 and just maybe a Venom movie (last reported as being titled Venom-Carnage). Any of this could change. A potential spin-off featuring one or more female superheroes set in the Spider-Man milieu is also planned, but details are scarce. I'm hoping for Firestar to be involved somehow. Any of this could change at any moment, especially with rumours of a deal with Marvel to allow Spidey to appear in their productions. Another reboot is not out of the question. Spidey-Verse excitement a cautious 3/5, pending developments.

The only other definite comic-based movie to my knowledge is a Ninja Turtles sequel, which will probably be dreadful. EL 1/5, although I haven't seen the first one yet.

Saturday 8 November 2014

Comics Round-Up: November (1)

Jeebus, Marvel are determined to bankrupt me with all the Spidey stuff coming out. Spider-Verse has kicked off for real now, with the first two tie-in titles this week and two more next week. Good grief. Great news though, Spider-Gwen from Edge of the Spider-Verse #2 was so popular that she's getting her own series. Marvel have announced about a dozen big event projects that I have little to no interest in, any more than the DC equivalents, so I'll not be spending all my income on Axis or Future's End crossovers.

The Amazing Spider-Man #9; Spider-Verse Team-Up #1 (Marvel)

Some quite dark stuff in the first part of the Amazing line's Spider-Verse story. Lots more alternative worlds being preyed upon by the genuinely unsettling Morlun and his sinister siblings. Our Spidey is finally picked up by the new Spider-army, featuring various faces (well, masks) we've met over the last few months. Plus, we learn most of their official reality numbers, which is great if you're a weirdo completist nerd like me. Our Spidey is supposed to be the greatest of them all, but I'm wondering if they still think he's the “Superior Spider-Man” with Doc Ock's great intellect hitching a ride. Really, though, this is very good Spider-Man. Spider-Verse Team-Up is good fun, two little vignettes featuring alternative Spideys searching the worlds for more like them. The army of alternative Vultures are creepy. Best news is, both titles feature Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham!

Saga #24 (Image)

The Will's sister, The Brand, arrives looking for her brother. Gwendolyn and Sophie have really come into their own as characters, and having these two strands dominate the issue is no bad thing. We don't need to see Alana and Marko, the fallout from their lives is sufficient. There are some very nasty characters in this issue, reinforcing that this is a dangerous, war-torn universe, something that was perhaps beginning to slide a little in the last few issues. And god, Lying Cat is awesone. This is the end of Saga for now, with a painful hiatus to endure for the next few months.

Roche Limit #2 (Image)

Interesting developments as some kind of extraterrestrial power comes into play behind the scenes on Dispater. Some of the truth behind Alex's past is becoming clear, but there are surely more revelations to come. There's a wonderful juxtaposition between the noir story style backed up by grey-brown dingy environs, critical scenes enlivened by bold colours across stark panels, and the stark graphic design of the pages given over to sci-fi background information. It never feels like we're having exposition forced upon us, which is impressive, given the amount of information put across on some of these pages, in contrast to the tight-lipped characters on the strip pages.

Avengers Universe #6 (Marvel/Panini)

Nice fat issue this month. The first half of the book is given over to Young Avengers. It's encouraging to see a teen-oriented comic that's comfortable addressing sex and relationship issues honestly, albeit with spacemen and extradimensional parasites thrown in. The relationship between Teddy (the Hulkling) and Billy (Kaplan) is by far the highlight. If only all comics were able to portray homosexual relationships so positively. Kid Loki is a joy, too. Mighty Avengers begins its “Inhumanity” storyline, which is a good set-up for where Marvel's current releases are now. These reprint editions can be helpful. Uncanny Avengers continues “The Apocalypse Twins.” It's full to burst with spectacle and action but is very much part five of a longer story.

Rocket Raccoon #5 (Marvel)

I actually got this one as a freebie from a kindly benefactor. I'm glad I didn't pay for it. It's cute and reasonably amusing, but having a story narrated by Groot is one joke stretched to a whole strip, and essentially means you're paying three quid for a comic with virtually zero dialogue. Not recommended.

Gotham Academy #2 (DC)

Not as excited by this as I was with the first issue, but it's still enjoyable, well-told and very beautifully illustrated. There's a nice sense of foreboding building up as the seemingly supernatural events in the Academy are foregrounded. Maps and Olive are both really growing on me. Not sure how much can be done with this premise, but I'll stick with it for the time being.

Terrible Lizard #1 (Oni Press)

Stick a dinosaur on the cover, get me to buy. This is written by Cullen Bunn with art by Drew Moss, although Ryan Hill's fantastic colour work needs singling out for praise. It's the standard lonely teen dragged to the middle of nowhere by her father's work, but as his work involves opening transtemporal rifts from an isolated scientific compound there's a lot of fun to be had. The first such experiment goes awry and brings a Tyrannosaurus rex through, who young Jess immediately bonds with. So presumably Wrex is going to be her guard dog against the sundry other monsters that appear to have slipped through. There's also some clich├ęd science-vs-military stuff in here, but it's Jess and Wrex that are the main attraction. Not bad at all.

Tuesday 4 November 2014

HAMMERAMA: The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

You can't have Hallowe'en without a bit of Hammer, and despite the unseasonal blazing sunshine this gone Hallows Eve, I turned to the film that put Hammer Horror on the map. Hammer had, of course, been around for many years before The Curse of Frankenstein, and had dabbled in sci-fi and horror with such titles as The Quatermass X-Periment. Yet it was Curse that would kick off their reputation as the masters of British horror. Full colour X-certificate gothic horror with just enough gruesomeness and gore to shock and entice the British public in equal measure. While tame by the standards of today's gut-drenched horror films, Hammer's chillers were scandalous by the standards of the time. Critics savaged Curse as debased and depraved as much they applauded its acting and production techniques.

There have been dozens of films based on Shelley's novel Frankenstein, already almost 140 years old when Hammer produced its own version. There were already numerous such films by 1957, the most famous and well-regarded being Universal's 1931 film. The success of this was jealously guarded by the company, and Universal did everything they could to ensure that Hammer could not replicate any elements of the monochrome classic. Every adaptation of the novel has played fast and loose with the source material, and Hammer's is no different. Indeed, the need to differentiate their version from Universal's perhaps led to the very different plot used in Curse, which bears little resemblance to that of the novel. Bookended by the possibly insane Baron Frankenstein telling his story while awaiting the hangman's noose, the storyline retains the fundamentals of the scientist stitching together a creature from human corpses and bringing it to life with electricity, but little else. Notably, one element to make it through was the Creature's encounter with a poor blind man, albeit playing out quite differently than in the book. It's a scene notably absent from Universal's version, although it was worked into its sequel, Bride of Frankenstein. However, while in the novel and Bride it is used to develop sympathy for the Creature by providing someone who does not see his terrible visage, Curse uses it to ramp up the horror and danger posed by the Creature.

This is, of course, the first outing for Hammer's classic double act, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, although not the first ever film to feature them both (that was a 1948 production of Hamlet, although Lee was uncredited). The duo would star in a number of films together for Hammer, often as opposing characters, and struck up a deep and famous friendship. Cushing is absolutely fantastic as Victor Frankenstein; idealistic, engaging, yet chillingly amoral and oozing with hubris. In spite of his great intellect, he is a borderline sadist, taking very little time to progress from drowning puppies to murdering old friends in cold blood. Not to mention his cold-hearted affair with his own housemaid, little more than a sex object used by the Baron to sate his baser impulses. Lee, however, is rather wasted here, with little opportunity to show the skill that later made him so renowned. Cast primarily for his height (his role almost went to Carry On... star and future Ice Warrior Bernard Bresslaw), he has no lines and surprisingly little screentime. Nonetheless, Lee manages to bring both fearsome power and an injured vulnerability to the part of the Creature.

Part of the agreement of terms with Universal was that Hammer's version of the Creature could not look like the infamous flat-topped version played by Boris Karloff. Make-up artist Jack Pierce created a unique new look for the Creature, and while it will never be as widely recognised as the Universal version, it has its own distinct quality. It's a particularly unpleasant version of Frankenstein's creation, with rotten, pallid flesh boasting very visible stitching. One eye is white with cataract, while the other is piercingly intelligent. It's a deeply unsettling image.

The film has a small cast, with the bulk of scenes going to Frankenstein and his teacher, accomplice and eventual enemy, Paul Krempe, played with conviction by Robert Urquhart. Melvyn Hayes is impressive, and convincingly Cushing-like, as Victor's younger self. Hazel Court is also very good as Elizabeth, the potential Mrs Frankenstein. But it's Cushing who owns this film, his every scene bristling with charm and threat in equal measure. He is, quite appropriately, electrifying.

The success of The Curse of Frankenstein would lead to the production of six sequels, all but one featuring Cushing as the mad Baron. More significant is that Curse launched Hammer into focusing almost solely on Horror until the mid-seventies. Hammer immediately went into production on Dracula, which reunited Cushing and Lee and allowed the latter to show just what he was capable of. Dracula, its own follow-ups, and the 1959 release The Mummy, cemented Cushing, Lee and Hammer as the new faces of horror.