Sunday 31 August 2014

WHO REVIEW: 8-2) Into the Dalek

Since the Daleks took the nation by storm over the '63-'64 new year, they have been at the centre of Doctor Who's appeal. While the series has enjoyed the occasional Dalek-free stretch for a few years, they are always back before long. Indeed, since the series returned in 2005, there has been at least one Dalek-centric episode in each broadcast season bar one, not to mention their continued appearance as a background threat throughout the anniversary period. It's a simple fact that each Doctor must meet the Daleks at least once; even Paul McGann finally encountered them in the widely available BBC7 radio series. Perhaps then, Into the Dalek was an attempt to get this necessity out of the way early on, and to cement Peter Capaldi's status as the Doctor by placing him opposite the character's nemesis.

On the other hand, perhaps it was an attempt to do something new with a group of monsters that have appeared again and again throughout the series' history. After so many episodes in which the Daleks provide the threat, it can't be easy to find new things to do with them. To explore the morality and internal workings of the monsters allows the series to do something with them that is hasn't focused on before, rather than simply treating them as metallic menaces for the Doctor to defeat.

Unfortunately, the past weighs heavily down on this episode. Sure, it's clearly influenced by such miniaturisation movies as Fantastic Voyage and Innerspace, but it's Doctor Who's own history that is seen most clearly here. It's not simply that the Daleks have been done to death; although the fact that now three of the last four episodes have featured them doesn't help this feel any fresher. This episode invites comparisons with the one that so successfully relaunched the monsters, Rob Shearman's highly acclaimed Dalek (and to a further extant, his earlier audioplay Jubilee, upon which it was loosely based). A lone Dalek, at first disabled, able to get into the Doctor's head and lead him to question himself. It's the same philosophical ground, although after nine years it's certainly not to soon to be treading it again. No, it's Asylum of the Daleks that bears over this episode. For in the 2012 opener, we saw that yes, there was such a thing as a good Dalek. The fact that it was Oswin Oswald, one of Clara's time-flung iterations who had become that Dalek, makes it all the stranger that Into the Dalek makes no connection to that earlier episode.

Other comparisons are easy to make, both to early Doctor Who and more recent episodes. It's hardly a complaint that elements of this story bring to mind The Invisible Enemy or Carnival of Monsters in the minds of die-hard fans. The few people watching who will make these connections will, mostly, enjoy the spotting the similarities. However, it was only three years ago that we saw a miniaturisation story, in which our heroes were menaced by mechanical antibodies, and four since the Doctor and Amy got drenched in half-digested muck in a monster's belly. Doctor Who fans, in particular, notice these things, but even casual viewers are likely to find this episode overly familiar. Or is this a deliberate attempt to reassure viewers that this is, indeed, the same series as Let's Kill Hitler and The Beast Below?

Perhaps these are small quibbles. I did, after all, praise Deep Breath highly, and that was equally as derivative an episode, relying on even more elements of the past. Like Deep Breath, Into the Dalek was a fun, exciting and visually spectacular episode. Indeed, it may have been a better choice for the cinematic treatment than last week's dinosaur display. Certainly, the swooping spacecraft and Dalek attack are better viewed on a decent-sized TV screen. The low overnight figures suggest more people will be picking this up on catch-up services than previously, but anyone watching on iPads and other such devices will be missing out on an essential element of the episode.

Undeniably, it's Peter Capaldi who holds the episode together. With the silliness out of the way, the twelfth Doctor has now settled into his skin, and is a far more sombre figure. That's not to say he provides no comedy; the three-week late coffee and the utter rudeness of the man provide some exemplary funny moments. Yet it's his quieter, harsher and nastier moments that make you sit up. While the Doctor's line, promising a journey “into darkness” was over-emphasised in the series' early trailers, this is a more serious attitude for show. While we can imagine Matt Smith sitting Clara down and asking her, “Am I a good man?” it's hard to imagine him saying it through such a haunted expression. Even more so, while the eleventh Doctor may have sacrificed a man as “dead already,” it's hard to believe he would have used the situation to his advantage in that way, and certainly not in such a cold-hearted manner. The question though is at the heart of this episode. Not can there be such a thing as a good Dalek, but is there such a thing as a good Doctor?

We know the answers to both. The Daleks and the Doctor have been diametrically opposed since very early in the series' history, although not quite as far back as their first meeting on Skaro, as the Doctor here suggests. There, the Daleks were ruthless, frightening and inhuman, but above all they were scared and trying to survive. The Doctor, on the other hand, was untrustworthy, selfish, and careless. Some of this uncertainty about both parties has been returned by this episode. On the whole, though, the question has been answered. There can be a good Dalek, but only every once in a while as the story requires, for the basic narrative of Doctor Who places them as the ultimate evil. It is a stone upon which the series is built. We may have heroic Silurians, Sontarans, even Cybermen, the Daleks cannot be redeemed. Equally, the Doctor has, for all his mistakes and questionable actions, proven time and again that yes, he is a good man. Of course, this is a new Doctor, older, harsher and moulded by centuries of defensive war against such foes as the Daleks. So far, though, there isn't enough to give us cause to question him. A couple of hours of Capaldi being rude isn't enough to dim the memories of Smith being cuddly.

For all the elements that reach back to the past, though, there are plenty that are looking forward. Clara seems almost surplus to requirements here, as Zawe Ashton's Journey Blue takes up much of the mantle of the companion, and is able to face down the Doctor even as he gets to her. While Clara gives as good as she gets, it can't be said that she has much place in the Doctor's story here. On the other hand, her own story is working better than ever, and her job at Coal Hill School has provided more sense of her as a real character. Equally good is her flirtatious interaction with Danny Pink. While we saw less of Samuel Anderson's new character than expected, he made an impression in those few minutes, both as an amiable and delightfully awkward young teacher, and as an old soldier hiding something in his past. A little mystery is welcome, so long as it doesn't swamp the character. It's certainly far more interesting than the mystery of Missy, in her teashop heaven, although there is a certain parallel between her acquisition of Gretchen and the Doctor's last-second rescue of Journey.

When Danny does finally meet the Doctor, it promises to be very interesting indeed. The Doctor has long disliked the military, but here his attitudes are particularly pig-headed and arrogant. In fact, he is spectacularly hypocritical, seeing that the crew of the Aristotle are fighting a defensive war against the Daleks, the beings he so hates and himself fought against during a centuries-long campaign. To abandon a potential companion because she's a soldier is unlike the Doctor we know. We'd expect him to be enthused by her potential, her willingness to disobey orders. Maybe he'd even see her as a challenge. Here, though, he just dismisses her, and if her is equally dismissive of Danny, there will be trouble with Clara.

Perhaps if the remaining crew got a little more exploration, he might feel more agreeable to them. While Laura Dos Santos has one shining scene as Gretchen, it's only Michael Smiley as Colonel Blue who makes any impression. While many of us will remember him best as Tyres from Spaced, his credits are numerous and he is perhaps best known as that excellent actor who never gets a big enough part. Praise is due, as always, to Nicholas Briggs. How this man can still find ways to instil new inflections and character into the voice of the Daleks is a mystery. He is quite astonishing.

What this episode could really have done with is time. Deep Breath has taken some criticism for being too long, but I felt that it needed that extra room to breathe. Back to forty-five minutes, Into the Dalek feels rushed and ill thought out. Hour long episodes, or longer, would provide much needed space for clarity and development. While there are still longer, quieter scenes that are given the time they need, the remaining, plot-heavy scenes suffer by being compressed even further. Perhaps with more time, seeming errors would prove to be explicable. It's easy enough to overlook things like the miraculous clothes-cleaning pipes. However, the very core problem of the story is poorly considered. The Doctor recognises immediately that the Dalek's supposed goodness is, in fact, the result of a malfunction, and only this malfunction is preventing it's “evil engineering” from taking hold. Yet he proceeds to repair that malfunction, and is astonished when the Dalek instantly returns to its murderous ways. It's a moment of idiocy that hard to forgive even as a plot expedient.

Perhaps there is some future for Rusty the Dalek. While a good Dalek may only exist fleetingly, there is at least a Dalek now at large with a burning hatred for his own kind. The Daleks will most definitely be back, most likely sooner rather than later, and it is possible that Rusty will be along with them. As a warped mirror to the Doctor, there may be story potential for this Dalek yet.

Wednesday 27 August 2014

HAMMERAMA: The Quiet Ones (2014)

Hammer's big movie for 2014, this was actually filmed in 2012 and held back, so it's perhaps appropriate that I missed it in the cinema and only got to see it once it was released on DVD. Hammer's modern films are struggling to make a huge impact, falling uncomfortably between two stools. One the one hand they want to provide the traditional scares and atmosphere of Hammer's classic productions, while on the other they need to do some new and more modern. The Quiet Ones certainly feels like Hammer, with a slow set-up, a manic set piece and an uncomfortable atmosphere. As for the other side of things, there is very little to mark this out as anything new. Even the 1974 setting seems to have been chosen to make this feel like good, old-fashioned Hammer.

The central idea is a tried and tested one. Jane, a disturbed young woman, is manifesting poltergeist activity, and after years of being shunted between foster families and asylums she is now in the care of Professor Joseph Coupland, who is determined to purge her of the psychological damage that he believes is causing the manifestations. Not to actually help her, mind you, but because he sees himself as a scientific pioneer. “Cure one, and we cure the world.” He has two students assisting him, Krissi and Harry, and recruits young cameraman Brian to record his experiments. It becomes apparent very quickly that Joseph is blind to anything but his own hypothesis, and that his treatment of Jane comes to little more than abuse.

The whole production has a nasty undercurrent to it, drawing attention to the abuse that the most vulnerable suffer behind closed doors. It does, to its credit, avoid sensationalising this for the most part. The core cast are all very good, although Rory Fleck-Byrne hasn't much to do with Harry, who's just there to be a third party in the seedy love triangle with Krissi and Joseph. Both Erin Richards and Sam Claflin are very good as Krissi and Brian, but their characters are pretty cliched. Brian is gauche and nervous, but grows some balls in the end. Krissi puts it about and gets jealous when she's not the centre of attention. So far, so off-the-peg. In fairness, Joseph isn't the most original creation either, but at least he has some depth to him, and Jared Harris is absolutely magnetic in the role. An actor with gravitas to spare, his performance makes you understand why people would be following him even after his dismissal by his peers. Even as his seedier, selfish side becomes apparent, and his self-assurance turns to desperation, he maintains his position as the head of the household.

Best is Olivia Cooke as Jane, who really sells her character's fear, anger and internal torment. Manifesting her problems as an alter ego called Evie, Jane is the source of all the paranormal activity in the film. The question that hangs over the film is whether Evie is nothing more than the personification of Jane's trauma, as Joseph believes, a possessing spirit, or something altogether stranger. There's a theme of the abuse of power, and with it, the blindness of belief, be it in the supernatural or a supposed scientific truth.

However, John Pogue's direction leads a lot to be desired. The film switches between Brian's home footage and standard cinematography. Picking one or the other would have worked, but by mixing the two Pogue creates a film that simply feels disjointed. The switched to Brian's footage also signpost that something spooky is going to happen, making otherwise shocking events seem predictable. That's not to deny that the film is effectively creepy, but it's the build-up, though slow, that is most effective. Once Jane's “possession” begins to fully manifest, events deteriorate rapidly, but are less powerful for all their shock value. The first major manifestation, a bizarre “teleplasmic” tentacle that reaches from Jane's throat, is a shocker, but looks ropey as hell. (And anyway, shouldn't that be “psychoplasmic?” Or did they not want it to sound too much like The Brood?)

The climactic sequence is undeniably powerful and distressing, as Joseph's attempt to cure Jane becomes increasingly desperate and Evie's power becomes more destructive. However, the final ending is crushingly predictable and frankly badly realised, and a poor ending can destroy the good work that went before it. Altogether, creepy and very well acted, but let down by an unambitious premise and lacklustre direction.

August Comics Round-up (2)

Another handful of comics to round off the month. The very last of August's releases will be reviewed in September, because I am apparently unable to ever reach the comic shop on a Wednesday.

Ms. Marvel #7 (Marvel)

Still Marvel's best current title, and apparently outselling Avengers right now. It's just gorgeous, it really is.
Kamala is the most believable and most likeable new character in years, and her unlikely friendship with Wolverine works because they're such an odd match. Yet they make a good team because of their similarity of attitude: get it done, rely on yourself, be strong in the face of weakness. It also doesn't take itself to seriously; the villain in this weird little two-parter is the half-cockatiel clone of Thomas Edison. It's also very much embedded in the wider Marvel universe, for better or worse. So far, this element has been a strength, mainly because Kamala has the same fan tendencies the readers have.

Edge of the Spider-Verse: Superior Spider-Man #32 (Marvel)

So, I thought Superior Spider-Man, the "Doc Ock as Spidey" run, had finished, but no. This is the first installment of the multi-reality crossover event that will dominate the many, many Spider-related titles over the next few months. It actually takes place during a previous Superior Spider-Man adventure, but to be honest, it works because it's set on its own path and the fact that I followed none of that run doesn't seem to hurt a bit. The time and reality hopping adventure sets up the big events that will hit this autumn, and the arrogant Ock-Spidey is actually quite a joy to read. Plus, we get Spider-Man 2099, Spider-Man India and even Spider-Monkey fro Marvel Apes all thrown in.

The Multiversity #1 (DC)

Alternative realities are also the order of the day over at DC, with Grant Morrison's new masterwork kicking
off with this issue. It's another big event, but it sounds like this one will be more contained, so that I might actually be able to read all of it. Two bookend issues plus six one-shots - much more palatable. This is actually very good, combining Morrison's irreverent satirical side with his weirder magical stuff. Not that I honestly think he believes all this stuff, but his persona as great comics wizard lends the "You are the hero" style metatextual side some clout. Exploring a number of the fifty-two universes of the "New 52" imprint, this mixes colourful superheroics with genuinely unnerving Lovecraftian horror. Add to that a deliberate choice to include a high proportion of heroes of colour, and this is a bold and enjoyable book. And Captain Carrot, the bunny hero, is sublime.

Star Trek #35 & 36 (IDW)

IDW's ongoing Star Trek title begins a five-part storyline entitled "The Q Gambit." Bringing Q into the Enterprise-E, it sets up the worrying possibility that, by saving his own reality from the Hobus supernova, Spock's presence has doomed the new timeline. Thence, Q goes to alt-2260 and plays with Kirk before whisking him, his ship and crew to their own future: a devastated 24th century in which the Federation has been conquered by the Dominion (seemingly including the Cardassians and Klingons). The choice of DS9 rather than TNG as the main setting seems odd at first, but it works: the harder, grittier version of Trek we saw in the latter seasons of DS9 works well as a counterpoint to new-Kirk's relentless optimism. A superior crossover.
Abrams-verse is a bit of an obvious tactic, but this is cleverly done. Beginning with Q visiting Ambassador Picard aboard the

Doctor Who Magazine #477 (BBC/Panini)

Is this the twelfth Doctor's first appearance in comics, or did Doctor Who Adventures get there first? I'm not sure, but this new story (after a Vastra/Jenny/Strax buffer story) kicks off the new Doctor's era just a few days before his official TV debut. "The Eye of Torment" retains the DWM dreamteam, Scott Gray and Martin Geraghty. Set on a station orbiting the Sun, this has some truly impressive solar vistas (fine colour work by James Offredi) and some well-drawn characters facing a suitably sinister threat. A fine start.

The Divine Commodore (Far-Fetched Books)

Not really a comic, but I couldn't go without mentioning Robert Rankin's latest ridiculous offering. A new illustrated storybook in the vein of his previous Alice of Mars, this is actually rather better. It's funnier, his artwork has improved on what was already some very striking black-and-white linework, and it has more kiwis in it. Yes, this is the story of the Divine Commodore and his cohort of kiwi birds on their fabulous journey across the high seas. Gloriously silly and free of cynicism, this is old-fashioned, daffy fun. That Rankin has clearly modelled the Commodore on his good self is a lovely touch. It's a beautiful, limited-edition volume, and it comes both signed and with a free fortune-telling fish! Which makes an excellent bookmark.

Monday 25 August 2014

Doctor Who and the Fear of Queer Equality

So, predictably, the BBC has been attacked for showing a lesbian kiss in Saturday's Doctor Who episode Deep Breath. "Attacked," in this case, meaning a handful of homophobic morons have kicked up a fuss. Still, it's always the loudest arseholes who get the most attention, and so a number of outlets have reported on the issue, including Pink News.

It is, of course, fabulously stupid. Vastra and Jenny have been portrayed as existing in a same-sex relationship since they first appeared, and have been married for most of that. Not only that, but Doctor Who featured its first same-sex kiss nine years ago, in the first season finale The Parting of the Ways, when Jack briefly kissed the Doctor goodbye. This caused a tiny uproar itself, but nothing much. Here though, it seems that two women kissing is somehow obscene to some people, with the comments lifted exposing deep-seated hatred of homosexual practice. It's very revealing that these individuals have no problem with a family programme showing heterosexual kissing, but consider a lesbian kiss to be "pornographic" or "inappropriate for a children's programme." Only one quote focused on what is surely more questionable, the fact that the two women involved are of different species. Of course, that's just dressing up. It seems this is no problem, but two women sharing a brief kiss on screen is.

I saw Deep Breath at the Orion Cinema with many children in attendance, and not one seemed remotely shocked or upset by the kiss. Chaste homosexual romance is not inappropriate for a children's programme. Homophobia is inappropriate for a human being. Avert your eyes, bigots.

Sunday 24 August 2014

WHO REVIEW: 8-1) Deep Breath

There's a moment in Deep Breath where the Doctor, still settling into his new body, faces down the sinister Half-Faced Man and questions its continual replacement of body parts. The desperate droid has maintained its existence for millions of years, but every single part of its body has been replaced, time and again. “There's not a trace of the original you left,” says the Doctor. “You probably can't even remember where you got that face from.” Realisation dawns on the Doctor's own face, the thirteenth he's worn and one that looks strangely familiar to him. He might as well be talking about himself.

The Doctor's comparison of the Half-Faced Man – and by extension, himself – to a broom that has had its handle and brush continually replaced is an apt one, albeit one that brings to mind a classic scene from another long-running BBC series, Only Fools and Horses. The Doctor has changed so many times that it's hard to see how much of the original character is left, even though, in age and character, Peter Capaldi's version is closer to William Hartnell's than any of the eleven in-between. While it can be argued that the Doctor remains the Doctor, underneath the surface trappings, it's harder to say the same about the series itself. In its thirty-fourth season and approaching its fifty-first birthday, Doctor Who has moved far beyond its original conception. There are, however, always links to the past, tying the long history of the show together.

Deep Breath is, simultaneously, a restating of the series' goals and a reassurance to fans of Matt Smith's episodes that this is the same show. Much has been made of this being Capaldi's version of Robot, and much as Tom Baker's first episode reassured viewers by essentially having him guest in Jon Pertwee's series, Deep Breath provides the same service for Capaldi. As well as carrying over Clara as the Doctor's companion, the subsidiary team of Jenny, Vastra and Strax are there to underline the point that yes, this is still Doctor Who, and that strange, angry man is still the Doctor. In fact, Deep Breath goes considerably further than Robot in this regard, providing viewers with something of a greatest hits catalogue of Moffat tricks. The tyrannosaur in the Thames is a visual treat to open the season, and brings to mind the similarly visually rich 2012 episode Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, even up to the scene of the Doctor mourning the senseless death of animal. The villain is a rejigged version of the clockwork robots from The Girl in the Fireplace, Moffat's celebrated 2006 story for David Tennant, simplified to become a straightforward monster for the Doctor to square up against. Favourites like Amy and Handles are mentioned.

Most significantly, there is the special cameo from the previous Doctor himself. Clara receives a phone call from the Doctor during their previous adventure (literally so, since Matt Smith's scene was recorded during the filming of The Time of the Doctor). While for some this may feel like shoe-horning in the series' previous star, for others it is a reassurance that this is the same character and series. There's a touching video that has spread across the web, in which Capaldi speaks to a young girl and lets her know that Matt Smith has said it's alright for him to be the Doctor. Smith's appearance in the episode does the same, settling the many children who will have watched the episode unsure what to make of this grey-haired Scotsman who has replaced their hero. That is comes after Capaldi's similarly unannounced appearance in The Day of the Doctor is perfect. As fans, we're used to the series having clearly demarcated eras. These days, eras overlap.

However one takes the familiar trappings of the episode, Capaldi's performance can only be praised. This odd, spindly man, stalking around on wobbly legs like a newborn gazelle, arrives in a wave of manic post-regenerative confusion. So far, so familiar, and while it's easy enough to imagine the previous couple of Doctors speaking these lines, Capaldi does something quite different with them. His bitching at the terrestrials as “pudding-brains” and gawkers comes across not as mild irritation or eccentricity, but genuine, fiery anger. The mania is there, but it's an ill, tired mania, the madness of a distressed mind. He dismisses his friends and escapes into the wilds of London's alleys. The Doctor terrifies a poor homeless man with his ramblings, before persuading him to part with his coat. He's wonderfully, vehemently Scottish. This is our third Scot in the role, of course, but while Sylvester McCoy's accent was barely commented upon in the series, and David Tennant disguised his, Capaldi and Moffat, proud Scots both, celebrate it. “I'm Scottish, I can complain about things!” Just like his weathered face, the accent is a mysterious acquisition that the Doctor cannot explain, but one that he revels in.

Once he's settled down, of course, the Doctor gives us a much better idea of what he will be like from now on. While Capaldi definitely has the comedy chops for the silly parts, his real skill is at the angry, the mysterious, and the unnerving. His scene with Clara in the restaurant sees him at his best, inhuman, bizarre and inquisitive. It's distinctly Sherlock-like, with Moffat crossing his style fro series to series; it's very easy to imagine Cumberbatch and Freeman reading Capaldi and Coleman's lines. Indeed, with the Victorian setting and Vastra's “The game is afoot!” line, there's a definite Sherlockian vibe to the whole episode. While the episode takes much of its material from its Matt Smith precursors, the style is slowed down considerably. Scenes are longer and wordier, giving the actors time to truly impress us with their performances. The aforementioned restaurant scene in particular is one of the longest we've had since the series returned nine years ago. Combined with the longer running time of this opening episode, this more sedate style is a benefit. It allows the manic parts to truly stand out, and the plot to take a breath between.

As much as I love both Tennant and Smith in the role, there's a feeling for me, as an old-school fan, that the Doctor is finally back. Capaldi has a gravitas and severity that we haven't seen in the Doctor since Christpher Eccleston's series. While The Day and The Time of the Doctor both allowed Moffat to play with an older Doctor, these were very much a warm-up for the new incarnation. Yet, both from Capaldi's peformance and Moffat's script, there's a more alien feel to the Doctor now. This Doctor thinks nothing of slipping a severed human face onto his own or his companion's, and when the Doctor abandons Clara, we can believe he really isn't coming back. Sure, we know that Clara will be OK and that the Doctor will save the day eventually, but for a moment we can honestly believe that the Doctor doesn't give a damn about his companion.

For her part, Clara comes into her own here. Finally she has begun to feel as if she really has some character of her own. Seeing her square up to the Doctor, Lady Vastra and the Half-Faced Man shows that she has some real spirit and conviction, and finally given some strong material, Jenna Coleman shines. There's the feeling that, given a less cuddly Doctor to work with, Clara has a chance to be more interesting. Smith's Doctor liked her too much; Capaldi's version keeps her on her toes, and forces her to be more independent as a character. One of the most interesting parts of a regeneration is seeing how the companion reacts to the new Doctor, and this is something that was missing in the complete revamp of the series that accompanied Smith's debut. While Clara has some experience dealing with other and older Doctors, her handsome young Doctor always came back, even after he'd grown into an old man on Trenzalore. This time, he's gone, and the old man is here to stay, and the only female he's flirting with is a Tyrannosaurus rex.

The supporting cast all do well. It's gratifying to see Catrin Stewart get some stronger material, since Jenny has previously felt somewhat overlooked in favour of Vastra and Strax. For their part, Neve McIntosh and Dan Starkey have so completely settled into their characters that they can't put a foot wrong. Brian Miller has a lovely scene as the tramp, and it's a nice touch having him in the series again. Quite exceptional though is Peter Ferdinando as the Half-Faced Man, quite terrifying and convincingly inhuman. His scenes with Capaldi are electrifying; two alien beings with steel wills and no idea of compromise.

Equally worthy of praise is the work of the effects team. While the Half-Faced Man is a reuse of the clockwork droids from the Madame de Pompadour, the effects used to create it are far in advance of what we saw then. The villain is a quite astonishing combination of performance, prosthetics, propwork and CGI visual effects. And the exposed eyeball is just revolting. It's not only the professionals who deserve praise however. The fans have been more involved than ever in this new series. The new title sequence is marvellous, created by Billy Hanshaw and discovered on YouTube before Moffat employed him to recreate it professionally. Also wonderful are the sonic devices used by the Paternoster Gang, designed by young Blue Peter contest entrants and realised by the talents of the visual effects team. Not only are these elements beautifully visualised, but they also feel perfectly fitting in the episode and, if it hadn't been publicised before, there would be no way of knowing that they were children's fan designs.

After the climax of the episode, the Doctor has fully arrived. He's settled on a new outfit and revamped his console room. He is ready to adventure and Clara is finally fully on his side. It's not quite business as usual, but it is time for adventure again. Moffat, of course, can't leave it at that, and for better or worse there has to be a mystery. Michelle Gomez is a favourite, quite wonderful at kooky and disturbed performances, and having her on board as a new villain is exciting. Quite who she is, of course, is subject to wild speculation. My own completely unfounded suggestion is that she's the ghost of Cameca from The Aztecs.

As with the fiftieth anniversary special, Deep Breath was simulcast into cinema theatres worldwide. It was shown in 450 theatres throughout the United Kingdom and more besides. On the big screen it is quite astonishingly effective, especially the displaced dinosaur (the lesson is: if you can have a dinosaur, do so. Always). Cinema-goers were treated to a special introduction by Strax himself, giving us a rundown of the Doctor's previous incarnations that was quite hilarious. (“The first Doctor, as you can see, was a woman.”) The main feature was followed by the first edition of Doctor Who Extra, the new, shorter, breathless replacement for Confidential, which was quite pointless but mercifully brief. Then we were treated to a live feed from a post-broadcast Q&A session with Capaldi, Coleman and Moffat. While Zoe Ball is a student of the shouting-and-pulling-faces style of presenting, this was an entertaining and interesting meeting with the people behind the series. And, when it comes right down to it, I'm with Capaldi on the ongoing argument about the Mondasian Cybermen.

And so, the first episode was a resounding success. The Doctor is on a mission to solve his mistakes and Daleks, Cybermen and Robin Hood await. A whole series of adventures are coming. Deep breath everyone.

Doctor Data: He doesn't know where he gets his faces, and although he does recognise this one, he can't place where from. He accepts that he wanted to be Clara's young, handsome boyfriend but that this isn't him, and thinks his subconscious is telling him something by giving him an older body. He can't quite rememebr where he's seen the clockwork robots before, and even the name SS Madame de Pompadour doesn't tip him off. I doubt Reinette would take kindly to that, but it has been 1200 years for him since that adventure.

Links: Vastra says, "Here we go again" when she sees the new Doctor, just like the Brigadier did after his third regeneration in Planet of the Spiders. Strax's thorax comment brings to mind Linx, Sarah-Jane and The Time Warrior. Clara gets to use the old "You've redecorated. I don't like it," line. She and the Doctor go for chips at the end, much like he did with Rose at The End of the World. The Doctor's appearance and collapse bring to mind the post-regenerative opening of The Christmas Invasion. The last time we saw a T. rex in London in Doctor Who was 1974's Invasion of the Dinosaurs. Moffat claims in the post-broadcast interview that no other series can do that. Well, no other series except Primeval, maybe.

Threads: The Doctor is, naturally, in his predecessor's clothes to begin with, and despite the fact that the waistcoat is too short, he suits them better than Smith ever did. After that he spends much of his time in a nightshirt, before acquiring a stinking old coat and fingerless gloves from a tramp. He looks just right in the Victorian funeral clothes that he steals from a droid, even if he is covered in dust. Finally he wanders off and returns in his new modern retro ensemble. For her part, Clara changes into her green Victorian dress, although who laces her up and does her hair is anyone's guess. Strax wears a beret when he's driving the coach.

Hanky Panky in the TARDIS: As mentioned above, the only recipient of the Doctor's eye this time is the dinosaur. Jenny and Vastra flirt both with each other and with Clara to an extent. Jenna Coleman and Catrin Stewart are both very beautiful - as is Neve McIntosh, although it's harder to see that through all the latex. I also have a big crush on Michelle Gomez, but then I've always liked funny women.

Best Line: "Who frowned me this face?"
"Don't look at that mirror, it's absolutely furious!"

Friday 22 August 2014

REVIEW: "Sexton Blake and The Silent Thunder Caper" by Mark Hodder

He may be decried as the poor man's Sherlock Holmes, but Sexton Blake has been around almost as long and at one point was just as well known and successful. The other Baker Street detective, Blake originated as a thinly-veiled Holmes pastiche but over the many years he starred in thrilling prose, radio and film stories he developed into his own man. Now Obverse Books has gained the rights to the character, and has published the first volume in the sixth series of the Sexton Blake Library, the first such publication since 1968.

Obverse has already dabbled with the Blake canon, with a short collection of stories featuring his nemesis Zenith the Albino, which included such Blake luminaries as Michael Moorcock among its contributors. Now, though, Sexton Blake returns to the fore with The Silent Thunder Caper, a gripping story from Philip K. Dick Award winner Mark Hodder. After a brisk introduction to Blake's history from 1893 to the present day, the story begins in fine style with a touch of the science fictional before settling in to Blake's Baker Street lodgings. The Silent Thunder Caper is a rip-roaring story in fine style, drawing on the 1930s golden age of Blake adventures for its inspiration. Hodder captures the cunning of Blake, the derring-do spirit of his sidekick Tinker and the the hilarious malapropisms of his housekeeper Mrs Bardell. It's a thrilling adventure that pits Blake against new threats and old enemies; a fine reintroduction for the character.

Also included in the volume is “The Wireless Telephone Clue,” a classic Blake story from 1922, written by G.H. Teed. This is the original appearance of the villainous Three Musketeers, witty parodies of the Bertie Wooster type characters that were by then becoming ubiquitous in English humorous literature. Far more cunning than they appear, the Musketeers make wonderful villains for an adventure with a comical bent. Including their first appearance here not only brings some of the history of Blake to a new audience, but makes a fine companion piece that sits well alongside the new story. The only weak point is that the mystery of the Musketeers is already revealed in their 2014 appearance, but this is a small quibble, for the story is still hugely enjoyable in its own right.

The Silent Thunder Caper is a fine start to what I hope is a long and successful series of new Sexton Blake adventures, featuring enemies old and new.

Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book for free from Obverse Books, and I am also due to be published by them soon. However, I would never post a dishonest review. I have previously refrained from reviewing a freebie that was not to my taste. We can't all like the same things, after all. 

To be in with a chance of winning a copy of The Silent Thunder Caper, click here to enter a Goodreads giveaway.

Thursday 21 August 2014

Comics Round-Up August (1)

My day off this week was a Tuesday, so I got to drop by the comic shop a day before the new releases dropped in. Which, considering how much I spent anyway, is probably a good thing. Also, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was excellent, although not quite as strong as the previous film. Which you all know by now, because you saw it when it came out. Anyway, cautiously looking forward to the third installment, which I'm guessing is going to be called War for the Planet of the Apes.

Moving on...

Captain Marvel #6 (Marvel)

Marvel really do seem to be trying to make a name for themselves as the company for strong female
characters, and in spite of some missteps, they're doing reasonably well there. This is the final installment of the inaugural "Higher, Further, Faster, More" storyline, and brings everything nicely to a head, with plenty of action balanced by some clever diplomacy and a benevolent use of surveillance. With a notable exception or two on each side, this is squarely noble females vs. imperialist males, with a none-too-subtle swipe at military and police brutality. Still, strong stuff, and I think I'll continue with this title.

Ghostbusters #18 (IDW)

Continuing the "Mass Hysteria" storyline, this isn't the strongest issue, very much a case of joining part 17 to part 19 and not really doing too much of its own work. Still, bringing Vigo back for an issue is a fun hook, the inclusion of the Spider-Witch from the game as an avatar for Gozer is very cool, and the character work is just spot-on perfect now. Particularly nice is an interlude featuring Winston's wife Tiyah and her sassy friend Kas, which is a welcome pause in the crash-bang-pow.

The Sandman Overture #3 (DC/Vertigo)

Wow, is it time for issue three already? Good grief, it's only been six months since part two! Anyway, yes this is fine, still not really living up to the name of Sandman, but the gradual development of a vast cosmos full of iterations of Morpheus is quite fascinating. The big problem is probably that Sandman is best read as a book, and individual issues, especially when they're separated by months, is a poor way to read it. Not sure about the new character, Hope - she strikes me as a generic cute, feisty-in-the-face-of-tragedy kid. J.H. Williams's art is gorgeous though.

Wolverine and Deadpool #2 (Marvel/Panini)

First British bumper re-release of the month's reviews. The "Savage Wolverine" storyline is already getting a bit dull. Giant gorillas? Cliches can be fun and all, but come on. I find Amadeus Cho a very dull character, I could take Shanna a lot more seriously if I couldn't see where her thighs meet her crotch, and the witchdoctor character is pretty racist. Also, the Hulk is in it for some reason. The Deadpool dead presidents story is much better, finishing up with a bold, sick, over-the-top battle with a guest spot by an extremely camp Dr. Strange. Altogether, needs less Wolverine and more Deadpool.

Batman Arkham #9 (DC/Titan)

And this is the other one. I want to get back into Batman, but DC are currently publishing a hundred and thirty-two different Bats-related titles, so the UK bumper comics are by far the best way to get back up to date. This collects Arkham Unhinged #10, Batwoman #17 and new Detective Comics #17. The former is a fun weird-ass villains get-together that brings Deadshot into the mix, while the latter is the final part of a very stylish fantasy adventure for a strong female team headed by Batwoman and Wonder Woman against the villainous Medusa. It's J.H Williams again, writing as well as painting this time, and it feels more like Sandman than the new Sandman does. The middle strip is the first part of an intriguing mind-fuck story called "Gothtopia," and it's sufficiently interesting to make me want to buy issue ten.

Amazing Spider-Man #5 (Marvel)

Apparently this is part of the Original Sin crossover event, but as I have read none of that, I have no clue how it ties in. I like where their going with this, with the new Spider-powered hero Silk providing an equivalent to Spider-Man with stronger powers and a more interesting backstory. Inevitably, this will all tie in to the upcoming "Spider-Verse" crossover which is already warming up, but the Black Cat vendetta storyline is pretty great. It's a shame it ends with a very tired cliffhanger, which we've all seen before.

Inhuman #3 (Marvel)

Still looks great, still enjoyable enough, but it's nothing special. Inhumans are basically just X-Men with a different power origin, and you can't blame Marvel for wanting to push them. If they can generate enough interest for a movie version they'll have their own equivalent to Fox's X-Men franchise. Dante is enough of a dick to be just about likeable, even if he picks the codename Inferno. (Seriously?) Sounds like more interesting developments might be on the way though.

Rocket Raccoon #2 (Marvel)

Chaotic, silly nonsense, but great fun. Umming over whether to continue this or switch to the Guardians of the Galaxy series (there's Star-Lord now too, and Captain Marvel and Iron Man all tie in). It's a comedy title, and it made me laugh, so it's done it's job. If anything, it reminds me most of Earthworm Jim. Seriously, look at that cover and tell me you can't hear the "Andy Asteroids" music. Whoah Nellie!

Monday 18 August 2014

Eton Miss, and other things

So, decent little week, apart from the thirteen-hour shift at shitwork followed by an immediate opening.On Thursday I went to see my little sister, who works at Eton College doing all sorts of clever stuff. It's outside of term time, so she could show me round the place. Plus, no students is a real plus in a place like Eton - for non-British types, that's where they manufacture Conservative MPs. Eton is amazing though, 574 years old and full of ancient historical artefacts. So we had the run of the place - I got to see the Eton Library, an absolute book lover's heaven, and the Eton Museum, which my sister worked on at length. (They really let that place go. Good thing Becca was there.)  And the archives! They have strongrooms full of stuff that goes back centuries, beyond even the founding of the College. I even got to hold some of the items - I got to handle the genuine seal of King John from the thirteenth century. That's pretty fantastic. Unfortunately I wasn't allowed to take pictures of any of the cool stuff, but here is King Henry VI to show I was at his college. He definitely founded it - I saw the paperwork.

At the end of it, I got to go play in the Natural History Museum. I couldn't play with things in there, although I did get to touch the elephant skull. They have some amazing exhibits, including material from Darwin's voyage, some fine fossils (my hero Mary Anning gets a display to herself) and, probably my favourite part, the case of mutants and oddities. They have a duck with two arses! I want a duck with two arses. It'll have two quacks.

So, a very pleasant day was had, with some lovely people who were all far, far cleverer than me. However, I felt better when the Laura the librarian admitted she'd never finished The Hobbit either. Plus, lunch in a very swish pub that we had all to ourselves, free fudge from a very loud young lady (FREE FUDGE! FOR FREE!) and lots and lots of rain. Then back to my sister's place for dinner and Aladdin. Yes, we cried a bit.

The weekend was quiet, until workday, mostly hanging out with my the rest of the immediate family. My brother has decided to return to England for a few weeks before heading off to start a new position teaching in Japan. So altogether a pleasant little catch-up. Oh, and on Saturday night I went to a fetish club, so that was a bit different. Not entirely well-timed though, considering the working day ahead of me.

In other news, I have a stack of reviews to finish up for Television Heaven, a review of Obverse Books' latest release, and some other little bits for the blog. Doctor Who starts on Saturday; this time I shall be watching it on the big screen since the local picturehouse is showing it. Unlike my earlier reviews, my Series Eight write-ups will be hosted by DoctorWhoWorldwide. Links will be posted as soon as they are up.

Wednesday 13 August 2014

A State of the Universes Report

We haven't yet reached the end of Phase Two, but clues are already becoming apparent regarding Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Bits and pieces of Avengers: Age of Ultron have been released at cons, and when this arrives next year, it will no doubt set up further elements of the expanding cinematic universe. Guardians of the Galaxy had no direct teaser for the following film; the post-credits sequence of The Winter Soldier took care of that, introducing von Strucker, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. It did, however, expand the Marvel world further, so that it truly lives up to the appellation of a cinematic "universe." Thanos waits in the background, supposedly set to be the villain of the third Avengers movie, if not an even later instalment. Other elements were seeded that may reappear, such as the Celestials, and the Kree have already been mentioned in Agents of SHIELD.

Phase Three already promises certain instalments. A third Captain America and a Guardians of the Galaxy sequel have been confirmed, as has a Doctor Strange movie. We know certain little fragments so far. James Gunn has just revealed that his take on the Guardians mythology will be something different to the comics, and that Quill's father will not be the King of Spartax, but something quite different. A whole universe is being created. A second series of Agents of SHIELD is on the way, which will hopefully build on the promise of the first. The risk is the same as what happened with that first series, which pootled along not really impressing anyone until The Winter Soldier was released, whereby it could deal with the collapse of SHIELD and the resurgance of HYDRA. There are some big mysteries for season two to explore, not least of which is the exact nature of Coulson's resurrection. It's been suggested that the blue-skinned alien from whom the life-giving element was extracted was a Kree, which would help tie the series to the wider Marvel universe. More importantly, it gives Clark Gregg some strong material to work with, and when he's given good material, he can be impressive. I still have yet to be impressed by Chloe Bennet's character, Skye, but the tease of her father at the end of series one bodes well, especially since it's now been revealed that Kyle MacLaclan is playing him in series two.

So, who are these mysterious fathers? I doubt they're in any way related, what with one being extraterrestrial and the other very much terrestrial. Quill's father may possibly be Starfox, who in the comics is the brother of Thanos, although as yet this is all guesswork. Theories as to the identity of Skye's father range from Ghost Rider to the Man-Thing, who has at least been mentioned a couple of times in the series. Personally, I feel that he may be a member of the Inhumans. There have been hints of Marvel's plans for an Inhumans movie, not least of which has been Vin Diesel's latest teasing tweet, which suggests that his voice role as Groot was indeed a placeholder to get him on contract for an Inhuman role. Without the rights to the X-Men, the Inhumans could become Marvel's answer to this cinematic franchise, providing an array of uniquely powered individuals with a complex mythology to pick from.

Also coming up is the highly anticipated Agent Carter series, which can only be a good thing for two reasons. One: more Hayley Atwell. Two: a chance to further explore the past of the Marvel universe. This can not only seed elements into the contemporary stories, but allow historical stories which have their own self-contained problems and content. There's plenty of room for WWII-era Marvel characters such as Namor the Sub-Mariner to appear. I also wonder who holds the rights to the original Human Torch, the wartime android who predates the Fantastic Four. Add to this the four heroes who are getting Netfix series, including the interesting casting of Charlie Cox as Matt "Daredevil" Murdock, and a rich universe is taking shape. First though, we have Ant-Man. I honestly can't see the point to this one anymore. Ant-Man was always an odd choice to head a movie, and the developments are not reassuring. This was Edgar Wright's own dream project, and it was the prospect of Wright-directed superhero film that gained fans', and actors', interests. With his script rewritten and a new director on board, it's seeming more and more like a dangerous decision to launch Phase Three, and a huge missed opportunity. The script choices are strange, too, and some of this at least must go back to Wright. Hank Pym is one of Marvel's more interesting and flawed characters, yet he is relegated to a supporting role here, with the action going to Paul Rudd's Scott Lang. Janet van Dyne, a great character and a core Avenger in the comics, is apparently deceased before the movie even starts, and though it's possible Evangeline Lily's character will be the Wasp in all but name, it feels like the most interesting elements of the story have been removed.

Surprisingly, while we're waiting for Marvel to make a Black Widow or Captain Marvel movie, it's Sony who look like they'l be the first to produce a film centred on a female superhero. With The Amazing Spider-Man 3 pushed back till after the Sinister Six movie, and possibly after the Venom film (apparently now titled Venom Carnage), Sony are actively pursuing other options for movie series. Spider-Man is the core hero of the rights they own, but there are several female supporting characters who could take up their own adventures. The most obvious is the Black Cat, as Felicity Jones was included in TASM2 as Felicia Hardy. This version of the character has links to Oscorp, and she could be great for a Catwoman-esque antihero movie. There are several alternatives though. One would be Mary Jane, whose introduction has been delayed and has, in the comics, some superhero history (she's Spider-Woman in the Marvel Mangaverse, for example). Other suggestions have been Silver Sable, Firestar (from Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends) and Spider-Woman (the original Jessica Drew version). Again, though, it's rights issues. Firestar was created to be a Spider-Man ally, but is first and foremost a mutant, and a onetime X-Man. Spider-Woman has only a tangential connection to Spider-Man, although there were later Spider-Woman, (and the Ultimate Comics version was Peter Parker's clone). Who holds the rights to her is anyone's guess.

As for Fox, Fantastic Four is rumbling along but news is sparse. There's more info on the X-Men franchise, with both X-Men: Apocalypse and Gambit entering pre-production. An eighties set X-Men movie is a fun prospect, and if they don't finally introduce Dazzler, I'll be very cross. Beyond that, we don't know where the franchise is going, but I suspect that numerous other characters will be included to test for audience response so that they can one day head up an X-Force or New Mutants movie. We know that come of the new actors in Days of Future Past have been signed up for long-term contracts. There's also a third Wolverine movie in the works, although there will come a point when Hugh Jackman is to old to play an ageless mutant. Many fans point to Old Man Logan as a possible last movie for him, including Jackman himself, although there are significant rights issues that would stand in the way of a direct adaptation. Hawkeye and the Hulk are major characters in the story, so a great deal of rewriting would be necessary to get round that. Then again, previous films have all been pretty loose adaptations of existing storylines, so this is unlikely to be a major problem.

Oh, and DC are doing some films too.

Tuesday 12 August 2014

Oh, shazbot!

I wanted to write a post about Robin Williams. He was to me, as he was to so many, an icon, one of the true greats of comedy and drama. But what more can I add to the many, many tributes that have been made today? Mork has returned to Ork, and that is that. A great and kind man, by all accounts, cut down by this most terrible illness. Even now, a day after his death, some people are attacking him for his "selfish" action of suicide. This makes me incredibly angry. Perhaps it's because of my own struggles with depression, or perhaps it's the sudden number of deaths with similar causes that have affected those I hold dear. Or perhaps it's just because it's an inane, ignorant, cruel thing to say. Already, though, there has been a perfect rebuke to the attacks by people like Shep Smith, a Fox News arsehole. By Dean Burnan at the Guardian, it's the best description of depression I've read in a long time.

For now though, let's remember the wise, troubled clown who made us smile so many times. His films were a fundamental part of my childhood. He was even pretty good in Fern Gully.

Robin Williams, you truly were the Pan.

Sunday 10 August 2014

Spandex Girls

The debate surrounding the portrayal of female characters in comics has now broadened to encompass the movies. Den of Geek have posted a piece calling for more female superheroes who are less obviously attractive and designed to fit male expectations, one that has been met with a fair amount of feedback from both sides of the equation. Frankly, I can see their point, but I think they're missing it somewhat as well, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, yes, woman are used as titillation material in these films. It's not just comicbook movies; I've already complained about the portrayal of Dr. Carol Marcus in Star Trek Into Darkness. However, I don't think that there's anything wrong with a little titillation (or bumillation), as long as that isn't all there is to a character or that there's at least some context. In my view, one of the best ways to approach it is to have the male characters be subjected to it as well. Indeed, Marvel does this plenty. Tony Stark, Steve Rogers and Peter Quill all get fan-service shots of their topless chests. Chris Pratt's impressive torso was even a major selling point of Guardians' trailer, just as much as the sultry shots of Zoe Saldana as Gamora. Gamora is used as an obvious example in Den of Geek's article, and there are problems with her portrayal. As I said in my review, the supposedly badass alien is mostly a damsel in distress until she faces down Nebula, upon which we get to aesthetically pleasing females battling it out. On the other hand, I honestly think there's less ogling done of Gamora than of Star Lord. It could be argues that perving on the men is just as making it a broader problem, but personally I feel it just evens things up. By all means, give us eye candy, so long as we get decent characters with it.

It's certainly true that we get one specific kind of female hero in these films. Zoe Saldana, Chloe Bennett, Coby Smulders, Karen Gillan - all very slim, lithe women who look good in tight leather. Only Scarlet Johanssen mixes it up by adding some real curves into there, and she's hardly large. Is it an unrealistic image for women to aspire to? Yes, it is, but no more so than Dave Bautista's rippling muscles or RDJ's extreme handsomeness are for men. I'm all for more variety in form in both comics and movies, but come on, look at film and TV (especially in America). Everyone is gorgeous. I was just watching an episode of Arrow. Even the IT girl is a model. Pretty people sell tickets and DVDs.

There's definitely a difference in the portrayal of men and women in comics and film. Male heroes are expected to be physically impressive, muscular and strong. Female heroes are expected to be beautiful and sensual first, strong second. And yes, there's a lot of work to be done there. A film can still be made and do well with an older or less obviously attractive male lead, while it's rare to see anything headlined by an older woman. This is something that needs to change. Still, expecting the pretty people to go away is unfeasible. And really, using She-Hulk as an example... are they serious? Jennifer Walters is a fine example of female comics characterisation, but when she's She-Hulk she's green tits and ass. A She-Hulk movie could be great, but does anyone really think we won't get someone drop-dead gorgeous in the role?

Some movie-makers are worse culprits than others. I'm sure that if Michael Bay could somehow hire Megan Fox's arse without having to pay for the rest of her, he would do so. But so long as we can have a decent actor doing a good job of portraying a well-written character, then I will happily accept the bonus of having a gorgeous person in the role. It's just a problem when those first few criteria aren't met.

Marvel aren't perfect. Those posters for The Winter Soldier that morphed Black Widow into bizarre proportions were horrible (Chris Evans didn't avoid the photoshopping either, but it wasn't so obvious). We're supposed to root for Chris Pratt's womanising star traveller, who forgets he has his latest shag in his spaceship. On the other hand, Gamora did resist the cliche of being won over by his charms, so that's something. (Let's see what happens when she meets Tony Stark though.) We really need a movie centred on a female hero, be it She-Hulk, Black Widow or Captain Marvel. However, appearance wise, the Marvel movies are still ahead of the comics. If Gamora had dressed like her comics counterpart, she'd have looked like this:

Thursday 7 August 2014

Mission to Comet

After ten years of travel, the ESA space probe Rosetta has finally reached its destination, Comet 67P. This is a first in the history of space travel, the orbit and companionship of a cometary body. While the probe's robotic lander Philae has yet to land - this is scheduled for November - Rosetta has already sent back some telemetry, including images of the cometary surface. You can see some of them here, and as you can see, the comet is a tiny world in its own right, with boulders, craters and escarpments surrounding a flat plateau. It's been a long, difficult mission, but it's paying off already, and there's still a year of observations scheduled.

Comet 67P is only around two miles across, with a perihelion of 1.24 AU. To get an idea of its size, take a look at this image I pinched from the BBC.

Or, if you're more geekily minded, this:

Monday 4 August 2014

WHO REVIEW: Engines of War by George Mann

This is a particularly exciting release for Doctor Who fans. The first full length adventure for John Hurt's lost incarnation of the Time Lord. Whether more will be forthcoming has yet to be seen, but considering the reception this book has had, I think it is very likely. Whether this is a good idea is another question.

George Mann is a fine choice for a book such as this, adept at crafting an action-packed tale. His prose is clear and straightforward, pacey and easy to enjoy. Just the sort of writer for a war-time tale of Time Lords and Daleks. Taking place in the final days of the Time War, this sees the War Doctor pit himself not only against the Daleks, but the High Council of the Time Lords. Both sides are making moves to end the War, contemplating appalling acts to ensure their own survival. It's a story of the Doctor's last stand at the moral high ground, with the events of this book finally convincing him that there must be “no more.”

Nonetheless, this is a Doctor Who book through and through, and anyone hoping for something unique Who adventure all the same. As such, it has its own one-off companion figure, the young fighter Cinder, who the Doctor picks up from the Dalek-occupied planet Moldox. While she could easily have fallen into a stereotypical character of the tough kid shaped by war, Cinder is likeable enough, and recognisable enough, to become a strong protagonist. Someone we can care about amongst the cosmic battles going on around her, even if her final fate is inevitable.
should look elsewhere. This is a high stakes and emotionally charged adventure, but it's a

It's a continuity-heavy book – not Craig Hinton levels of fanwank, but considerable references to the past of the series. This is natural enough for a Gallifrey-centric story, and it never reaches the point where it becomes a distraction. New series fans tempted by this tie-in to The Day of the Doctor may come away somewhat confused by some of the references, but for the most part they help push the story along. If anything, the numerous references to Gallifrey's past help sell the concept that this is an ancient and rigid culture, even as we see its decay. I hadn't expected it to be quite such a tie-in to The Five Doctors, though, by far the most referenced story over the course of the book.

Certain elements of the story work especially well, exploring the untold details of the Time War. Throwaway terms such as the Skaro Degradations are brought to life. The horrific details of the Dalek war machine evoke a terrifying conflict, and particularly effective in the first third of the book, which focuses on the human cost of the War. We see the War from the viewpoint of the “lesser species,” as their worlds are dominated by Daleks or sacrificed by the Time Lords to further an advancement or defence. Also well characterised is Rassilon, here in his Timothy Dalton incarnation, and we see the depths he is capable of sinking to in order to further his endless life.

It's in the portrayal of the Doctor that the book is constrained however. At the end of the day, the Doctor is the hero of the book, and can't get his hands too dirty. However appalling his decision to destroy Gallifrey was, it was something the later Doctors admitted to. There must have been far worse sins committed during his time on the front line, but little of that is explored here. We get plenty of combat fatigue and broken faith, but little of what would cause the Doctor to abandon this incarnation as “the one who broke the promise.” Indeed, he introduces himself as someone who used to be called the Doctor, and this is the name he is called throughout the book. I understand that this is a practical choice, but it hammers home that this is still the Doctor being Doctorish, and not the terrible warrior he would later try to forget. Only the Daleks seem to have the appropriate fear and reverence for this incarnation; they, in contrast, refer to him as the Predator.

Mann excels at portraying the more visceral side of the conflict, and makes a good stab at exploring the effects of temporal warfare, something that is never easy to develop in detail. While this is an exhilarating read – it's easy to imagine this as a Doctor Who movie with a huge budget – the Time War is just too horrific and too alien to be explored in too much depth. Engines of War works, but too much War Doctor could weaken his impact. 

Above illustration by Paul Hanley.

MOVIE REVIEW: Guardians of the Galaxy

So, I saw Guardians of the Galaxy on opening day, in a packed out cinema in the middle of the day. I've been extremely busy all weekend, during which time the film has done spectacularly well, soundly beating all its projections and altogether proving to be a huge hit. Pretty good job, especially considering this was Marvel's first risky release since, well, Iron Man. The other characters Marvel have made films from haven't always been huge names compared to Spider-Man, Batman and Superman, but since that first near-perfect Stark movie, they've been on a safe run. Sure, they've consolidated that by making extremely fine popcorn movies, refusing the temptation to rest on their laurels and churn out identikit superhero flicks. Each movie has been its own beast, and that is to the studio's credit and success. However, Guardians could have been the weak link. The source material is not well-known. I'm a bit of a Marvel buff, but I knew next to nothing about them when the film was announced, although Marvel's canny push on the Guardians comics, with reintroductory one-shots for its main characters, has been a great way in.

Part of the success of the movie has to be its relentless publicity campaign. We've been assaulted by trailers and clips over the past couple of months. However, the Guardians trailers have been more consistently entertaining than many films. There have been some missteps – there's always the foolish temptation to use your best scene as a promo clip – but it can't be denied that word of mouth has generated a lot of the opening weekend's success. When announced, I was intrigued by the Guardians film, but not especially worried. I thought this might be the first Marvel film I wouldn't bother making time to see at the cinema. Once I'd seen that first “Hooked on a Feeling” trailer, I was sold and could not wait to see it. I've been playing the soundtrack on Spotify for weeks. Still, in spite of a strong campaign, there's the sense that Marvel were prepared for this to do poorly. The unusual release date gives this away, I feel. If the film had tanked, the studio could point out that late summer releases rarely do well, and quietly put it down as a failed experiment.

However, it worked. If anything, having a lesser known group of characters is to the film's benefit. Even with the limited knowledge I've gained reading the comics lately, I can see that they've made some tweaks to the characters. Quill's background is altered to fit the style of the film more. Drax's story is hugely simplified. These aren't minor but established characters relaunched under a new title for comics diehards. These are entirely new characters for a new audience, and they need to make an immediate impression.

While there are five central characters, it's Star Lord's Story. Chris Pratt is at the centre of the film as Peter Quill, the only human character in the entire film (although the Nova Corps, on the whole, might as well be). While we discover there is more to him in the end, to begin with Quill is our sole link to Earth, thanks to the heartbreaking opening scene. Honestly, that was wrenching, astonishingly so for such a fun, over-the-top film. It works brilliantly though, making Quill's journey understandable. While the situation is outlandish – abducted by space pirates at the age of ten – it's not far off from any story about a good kid who fell in with the wrong crowd. We can see that Quill's grown up in the wrong direction. Young Peter has been in a fight because he stood up for a frog being killed for fun. Star Lord goes into a heist kicking womprats around. We can see he's turned a little bad.

However, Chris Pratt makes the gun-toting, lizard-kicking, womanising rogue incredibly loveable. It's wonderful that this guy, who shed pounds for the role, won out over other, more recognisable faces. Pratt is becoming a big star now – he's filming Jurassic World now – and here you can see why. He's gorgeous and impossible not to like. What's brave of this film is that, in spite of his origins on Earth and his constant companion of his “Awesome Mix 1” soundtrack, Quill is not much of an identification character. While we can recognise his character type, and he's a human being, he's almost as alien as the other major characters. He hops from planet to planet in his souped-up spaceship, jets around with a rocket pack and beds purple-skinned space babes. He's lived in this universe for twenty-six years. He's not a viewpoint character anymore, and that's a risky move. Undeniably, however, it works., due to some deft scriptwork and Pratt's charm.

The remaining members of the Guardians are all successful. After the Avengers have cohered as a very heroic team, it's refreshing to have a bunch of scoundrels and misfits heading a movie like this. As Quill says, they're all losers – the lost and outcast. Five remarkable but damaged people, thrown together but linked through shared misfortune despite their disparate backgrounds. The one weak link is, sadly, Gamora. While Zoey Saldana is excellent as the sexy green space vixen, turning against her twisted family of Thanos and Nebula, the script does not give her the chance to fully convince. Gamora is supposed to be the most dangerous woman in the galaxy, yet she needs rescuing by the male characters again and again. The only time she comes into her own is in the fight against her sister, and while that is a powerful and exhilarating battle, it's clear that these two are a step below the male protagonists in the hierarchy of the film.

Dave Bautista gets some stick as another wrestler-cum-actor, but he's actually very good as the painfully literal Drax the Destroyer. What could be a run-of-the-mill muscle character is lifted by Bautista's performance into someone strangely innocent and eloquent, while absurdly dangerous. Much of the film, however, belongs to the two CGI members of the team. Much has been made of the ballsy chance taken with Rocket and Groot. However, this is the true joy of the film – that a maniacal talking raccoon and a walking tree that barely qualifies as a speaking role not only feel perfectly reasonable parts of this insane environment, but that they steal every scene they're in. I'm not a big fan of Bradley Cooper, but he gives a perfect performance as Rocket Raccoon, angry and sarcastic but still vulnerable. As for Groot... well, I challenge anyone not to adore Groot. A real triumph of character design, Groot is a huge, deadly yet innocent creature. Vin Diesel manages to imbue those three words with astonishing emotion – it's definitely his best performance since The Iron Giant. Groot is easily my favourite character in the movie, but a special shout-out is warranted for Michael Rooker as Yondu. He basically plays his usual grim-faced self, but blue, and with a hoard of pirates to back him up. Yet he sells the twisted father-son vibe between Yondu and Quill. Also impressive is John C. Reilly as Nova Corps officer and family man Rhomann Dey, the real everyman of the movie.

It's not perfect. Glenn Close, Peter Serafinowicz and Djimon Hounsou are largely wasted. Thanos is merely a background presence in the film, which is fine but unexpected. Still, his brief appearance adds something to the larger universe being constructed here. Sadly, his comicbook authentic look is one of the few visual elements in the film that don't work. He looks like the huge, hench cartoon that he is. The villain role is carried primarily by Lee Pace as Ronan as the Accuser, who does sterling work with what is a very limited part. Much like Malekith in Thor: The Dark World, Ronan is a generic supervillain who would be paper-thin were it not for the work of a decent actor under the make-up. Far more effective is Taneleer Tivan, the Collector, who also has a surprisingly small role in the film. Benicio del Toro gives an absurd and camp performance that is perfectly at home in this bizarre world, but his character strikes me as a more unnerving creation than either Ronan or Thanos. The others are simple-minded “destroy the universe” types. Tivan wants to own the universe, and his petty, unwarranted cruelty marks him out as a far more unsettling character.

Altogether though, this is fantastic, silly, exciting film. It's just fun, through and through, and god we can do with some of that in this era of dark and gritty films. The more serious moments don't feel out of place, and serve to make the silliness and fun worth more. The visuals are truly spectacular – getting Chris Foss in to design the spacecraft was inspired – and the soundtrack, made of seventies classics, is a welcome change from the usual orchestral scores. Even “Cherry Bomb” works in context, and that's a shit song. Also, Cosmo the Space Dog is in it. I bet Warner Bros. Won't have the balls to put Krypto in the Justice League film. Really though, this is, for all its shallow, MacGuffin-hunting plot, is pure science fantasy fun at its best. Star Wars is going to have to be bloody amazing to stand up to this.

Spoilers after the break.