Friday 31 October 2014

A Legend Lost

It was a bit bizarre yesterday, with Burgess Hill hitting the national and then global news twice. In very sad news, John Moore, the Coca-Cola Santa Claus, has died.

For better or worse, the Coke adverts are part of Christmas for a lot of us. It's a bit like hearing Slade for the first time in the year - once you've seen the Christmas Coke ad, you know it's properly Christmas time. The thing is, I had no idea that the legendary Coca Cola Santa, who appeared in many of those adverts over the years, lived in my town. I must have seen him in his his other jobs as a barman and driver. I may even have seen him as Father Christmas in his local appearances. And yet I never knew such a widely seen face made his home here.

The gods have seen fit to grant a pleasant day for the funeral. My thoughts to his family and friends.

The Woman in a Black Beehive

While on the subject of Mssr Magrs, Bafflegab productions have just announced that his creations, Brenda and Effie, the spooky sleuths of Whitby, are getting their own audio series. Paul has written six novels in The Brenda and Effie series, some of which have been adapted for radio, and now they shall return in The Brenda and Effie Mysteries, starting with The Woman with the Black Beehive. Bafflegab have released subscription and release details and even included a free sample track.

Click here - happy Hallowe'en!

Life on Magrs: The Girl with the Pink Hair

I was considering blogging on this, but Paul puts it so much better. This is my home town, Burgess Hill. Not a bad place to live, but very close-minded, full of the upwardly middle class and restrictive. What harm would it do to let this little girl wear a pink wig and let a little joy into her day? What harm would it do, really, if all the kids had coloured hair?

Life on Magrs: The Girl with the Pink Hair: I read an upsetting story this morning. An old friend had shared it on Facebook from a local newspaper. It was about a girl of eleven in a...

Wednesday 29 October 2014

Marvel Phase Three: What do we know?

Last night while I was out, ahem, socialising, in the States it was mid-afternoon and Marvel was making a buttload of announcement regarding their next wave of movies. They revealed the complete set of films that make up Phase Three, right through to 2019. It's fair to say I am a little bit excited, and was immediately texting and sharing the hell out of the news over my Guinness.

So, what have we got? New bits of info keep coming to light, but here goes, with a little speculation thrown in:

May next year sees the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron, for which Marvel released an extremely exciting trailer last week, and now followed up with a clip with a slightly different cut of the trailer. All the main heroic characters from Avengers Assemble are back, along with Don Cheadle as War Machine, potentially setting him up for future Avengers membership. Also included are Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Emily Olsen as the Scarlet Witch, briefly seen at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. James Spader is scary as hell as Ultron, seemingly created by Tony Stark in this version of events, but apparently taken from an old weapons programme, so Hank Pym might still have some level of involvement in the backstory. Seeing that he's a major part of the next movie, Ant-Man, this would make sense. Paul Bettany plays the Vision, almost certainly a development of the JARVIS AI. Andy Serkis has an undisclosed role, but it's been suggested that he plays Ulysses Klaw, which would tie into the Black Panther release scheduled. And Ultron will be needing some ultra-hard metal for his new body, and what better than a job lot of Wakandan vibranium?

Black Panther villain Klaw?

Age of Ultron is the eleventh film released by Marvel and finishes Phase Two. Phase Three kicks off in July with Ant-Man, starring Paul Rudd as Scott Lang, aka Ant-Man, Michael Douglas as Hank Pym, the original Ant-Man and creator of the shrinking suit. Evangeline Lily is Hope van Dyne, who seems to be filling the role as Lang's romantic interest, and is also probably going to be the Wasp in this version of things. Corey Stroll is Darren Cross, the villainous Yellowjacket, and John Slattery is back as Howard Stark. So this would seem to involve flashbacks and potentially tie in to the Agent Carter TV series. 

May 2016: Captain America: Civil War. Marvel did a huge fake-out with this, putting the title up as Serpent Society, which went round the internet and changed to the real title in the time it took me to text someone the false information. I initially thought this would be a difficult one for Marvel to adapt. The Civil War crossover event involved superheroes from all over the Marvel universe, including an absolutely vital role for Spider-Man. The major problem for the MCU is that they smply don't have enough characters set up for a Civil War style event, and those they do have don't really have secret identities to protect. On the other hand, it looks like only the generally gist of the series is being used (it's not like Age of Ultron is much to do with the crossover event beyond having Ultron in it). Marvel Supremo Kevin Feige says "Events of the whole cinematic universe will make all governments in the world want regulation. Not so much about secret identity, but about who reports to who." 

We do know that Robert Downey Jr. will appear, and that he and Cap will go head-to-head. Whether this will be RDJ's last film for Marvel we don't know, but rumours abound that Steve Rogers will end up dying in these events, seeing that Chris Evans is coming up to the end of his contract. There's also the question of the Winter Soldier, who hasn't been mentioned, but surely will have some time devoted to him. We do know that this film will have a significant role for Prince T'Challa, aka the Black Panther, played by Chadwick Boseman. Given how early Marvel have announced the actor playing the Panther, he might even appear as early as Age of Ultron. Now, while there has been a ton of speculation regarding Sony and Marvel finally finding a way to work together and use Spider-Man, any details on this has been conspicuous by their absence. It's no secret that Sony are in a state of crisis regarding their Spider-Man movies, and allowing Marvel to use the character, if only for crossover and team-up movies, would allow them to broaden their scope. If they can agree terms, Marvel could use Spidey in Civil War or future Avengers installments, and pay Sony a stipend; it'll basically be free money for them. On the other hand, there's no news whatsoever on whether this is true, and many have suggested that T'Challa could take Peter Parker's place in the story.

November 2016: Doctor Strange. No confirmation on the lead actor for this feature, but it sounds as though Benedict Cumberbatch has got the gig, but negotiations are still going. This is the first all-out mystical character to make it to the movies, after Thor and the Asgardians were interpreted more as hyper-advanced aliens than gods.No details on the plot yet, but a tenner says Dormammu is in it. May 2017: Guardians of the Galaxy 2. This will probably deal with Peter's parentage to some degree, and all we know is that he is not the son of the king of Spartax as he is in the comics. Peter's father seems to be something very old, and Den of Geek have suggested he's an Eternal, which might link him to the mad Titan Thanos to some extent. This is all major speculation right now, but Thanos is definitely going to be involved somehow, building up to the big events in Avengers 3. Suggestions are that some new members of the team will be introduced; I'd go out on a limb and say we'll at least get Nova and maybe Adam Warlock. Fingers crossed Howard the Duck and Cosmo will appear, but I doubt it.

July 2017: Thor: Ragnarok. Where's my fiver? Since we caught a glimpse of the realm of the fire giants in The Dark World, it seemed likely we would see Surtr and the Ragnarok storyline for the third Thor film. This will also have to deal with the ongoing thread of Loki's relationship with Thor and his usurping of the throne of Asgard. I dare to suggest it might go some way to tying together Dr. Strange's mystical world and the bigger cosmic side of things. Planets, realms and dimensions being explored. Edit: It's just occurred to me that Ragnarok is not the end of the world in Norse mythology, per se, but the critical step in a cycle of destruction and renewal. What better time, it they so wished, to recast Thor? Perhaps even with an actress in the role?

November 2017: Black Panther. No news about this beyond the casting of Boseman and probably Serkis. There's one issue in that Marvel can't use Storm, who is a huge part of T'Challa's story in the comics, but there's still plenty to be told about the Prince of Wakanda. I'm really looking forward to what they're going to do with this one.

May 2018: Avengers: Infinity War - Part One. July 2018: Captain Marvel. November 2018: Inhumans. May 2019: Infinity War - Part Two

Marvel aren't immune to the lure of the two-part event movie, and it looks like we'll have one huge cosmic war played out over these four films. So happy that Captain Marvel is going ahead, with Marvel confirming that this is the Carol Danvers version of the character. As one of Marvel's heaviest hitters, and a member of both the Avengers and Guardians in the comics, Captain Marvel's introduction into the franchise is big news. I'd say it's also extremely likely the Guardians will show up in her movie, and at least some of them will come to Earth for the final part of Infinity War. The Inhumans will also likely tie a lot of things together. The Inhumans are genetically part-Kree, the alien race who have already appeared in Guardians of the Galaxy and are presumably the blue-skinned creature glimpsed in Agents of SHIELD. Also, Captain Marvel gains her powers from an encounter with the Kree, so this big cosmic bust-up is already full of links. The Inhumans are not unlike X-Men's mutants, albeit with a different backstory, and could massively swell the roster of superhumans in the MCU if there was a Terrigen event that caused some unknowing Inhuman descendants to manifest their powers. Kamala Khan, please come to the MCU! It's also implied that Skye's father in Agents of SHIELD is Inhuman, but I'm stuck on UK airtimes for this and so behind the times.

As for the grand finale, all we know is that Thanos is coming, Infinity Gauntlet all ready. Marvel have released a teaser made up almost entirely of old footage and dialogue but one big reveal at the end. What's more, Mssr Feige has suggested that the characters from the Defenders miniseries - including Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist and Charlie Cox as Daredevil - might cross to the movies for this big event. They could also bump up the numbers in Civil War if the series are far enough advanced by then. No news on the long-scripted but unfilmed Black Widow movie, although at least we're getting one female-lead movie from Marvel (DC are actually getting there first, with Wonder Woman set for a 2017 release, but I am yet to be convinced they won't foul that up). It's also unlikely we'll ever see a Runaways movie, despite early work on it, but Feige has suggested that there may be a future for it on TV. Indeed, the addition of magic and more alien races in the MCU makes it easier to bring in (and you'd just make the mutants into Inhumans).

As for Big Hero 6 - it doesn't look like that's part of the MCU, but I'm still excited about it and going to count it until proven otherwise. Frankly, I'm going to count the 1980s Howard the Duck movie until proven otherwise, just to be perverse.

Addendum: While I am very excited for both Black Panther and Captain Marvel, and encouraged to see films headlined by a black hero and a female hero, it is not as if Marvel are pioneering things here. The media are going on as if these things have never been done before. Apparently everyone has forgotten about the three Blade movies released by New Line in the nineties and noughties. Supergirl came out way back in 1984 (a fine year). Then there's the 2004 DC/WB Catwoman movie, which, awful as it was, featured a black female superhero. Indeed, Halle Berry was a major part of the first two Fox X-Men films as Storm, although she was sidelined after that. As excellent as Marvel's output has been so far, and as encouraging as these developments are, let's not forget what came before OK?  

Tuesday 28 October 2014

Comics Round-Up: October (3)

Here are the comics I've been reading at the end of October. Christmas is coming, which means a tightening of the belt, so I'll be dropping some titles soon. Some titles are coming to an end anyway, others I haven't followed up on some promising first issues (or not found them easy to come by). On the other hand, there are some interesting miniseries starting up, so we'll see what we see. Last issue of the current run of Saga is due out tomorrow, and is going to get lumped in with the November reviews.

TMNT/Ghostbusters #1  (of 4) (IDW)

My local comic shop are struggling with the whole putting aside comics for customers when they say they will, so I buckled and downloaded this. It's worth it, although I'll still look out for a print copy so that I can fully appreciate the artwork (I mostly read downloads on my phone, which is convenient, but hardly ideal). If you're a child of the 80s/early 90s, this has got to be an exciting prospect, a Turtles/Ghostbusters crossover.  I really like the set-up they've used, using three different artists to differentiate between the various dimensions and time periods. Given that this jumps from mediaeval Japan to modern day New York, then to a different New York, introducing a new villain and bringing the characters together, it's surprisingly coherent. Very good fun so far.

Amazing Spider-Man #8 (Marvel)

An unremarkable issue this week. The interplay between Spidey and Ms Marvel is still great, but the story itself is nothing special. It ties into yet another Spider title that I haven't followed, so the significance is probably lost on me, Still, the improved focus on Silk is good stuff, and I'm very pleased that the creators have made a conscious decision to change her costume into something with a bit more class. There's another "Edge of Spider-Verse" installment, this one set in the MC2 universe and following May Parker, Peter's daughter. Given that this is an established character and reality they can hit the ground running, but it's still just a vignette as opposed to an actual story. It's all building up to the main event kicking off this month.

Rocket Raccoon #4 (Marvel)

Aw, poor Rocket. This finally gets into some actual story alongside the silliness, as Rocket faces another member of his people... or so it seems. It's still great fun, especially when all of Rocket's ex-girlfriends turn up for the reckoning (he used to date a Galactus lady?!) There's even a tiny bit of gender politics thrown in. Briefly.

Wild's End #2 (Boom!)

What's so good about this title is how seriously it takes itself. It's an absurd premise told completely straight, and is really quite gripping for it. That's not to say there aren't some really sick jokes in there too. A straightforward tale about the horrors of war... with talking pigs.

The Multiversity: The Just (DC)

The third release in Morrisson's Multiversity series is the first misfire. The idea behind it - a reality where all crime has been stopped and superheroes are nothing more than bored, attention-grabbing slebs - is cute, but doesn't really have much mileage for a story. Earth-Me is populated by the offspring of the Justice League and its enemies, and while seeing the different characters' relationships play out has some appeal, the whole thing runs the risk of being as vacuous as the culture its parodying. Still, the ongoing plot, with a force breaching the dimensional walls through a cursed comicbook, is moving on nicely.

Thor #1 (Marvel)

I've finally got hold of this - it, predictably, sold straight out - and while it's a decent enough read, it's not the new beginning it was marketed as. In honesty, I doubt Marvel is really capable of doing a fresh start on any of its titles, they're all so bogged down in continuity. So, while this is the new issue one, it's very much continuing on from the previous volume, albeit with enough handy exposition to roughly get what's going on. Hoping that it improves next issue as we actually get to meet the new Thor.

Edward Scissorhands #1 (of 5) (IDW)

IDW continues to prove it's the publisher that owns the media tie-in market, with a not-particularly-timely sequel to the classic 1990 film. Kate Leth's story shows promise, dealing with Kim's nearly grown-up granddaughter searching for the truth about Edward, and Edward's misguided decision to awaken one of his maker's other creations. I'm not sure about Drew Rausch's artwork though. It's certainly very Tim Burton-y, but not really in keeping with the tone of the story. Eli is an interesting creation, with his mechanical claw hands - could Vincent Price's character just not do hands? - and it has the confidence to go for pages with virtually no dialogue, but this has yet to prove itself to me.

WHO REVIEW: 8-9 & 8-10



After half a series in which the new Doctor put his stamp on recognisable types of stories – the post-regen story, the Dalek story, the historical romp, the scary one – Doctor Who has begun to try new and more experimental things, bringing in new writers to shake the series up. The past two weeks have given us two very different episodes, but they both display a push towards new approaches and visual styles.

Because Doctor Who fans are never happy, the same people who were complaining that Clara had no character a month or two ago are now moaning that this is “The Clara Show.” These types are not going to be swayed by Flatline, this year's Doctor-lite episode in which, cleverly, the Doctor is largely confined to the TARDIS allowing Peter Capaldi to film almost all of his scenes in one go. While the Doctor tries to coordinate efforts from within his little prison, it's up to Clara to take his place as the intergalactic problem-solver. Clara gets to be the Doctor for a week, giving us just a little taste of what a series with a female Doctor might be like. She even gets her own young, male companion, in the shape of Joivan Wade as young offender Rigsy, proving himself in the face of an invasion from beyond space and time.

Jamie Matheson's second episode in a row, but his first written, as evidenced by a stronger central idea and a sharper script than in Mummy on the Orient Express. The TARDIS has been shrunk before, but rather than a way to dump the heroes in trouble or to provide an episode-ending cliffhanger, here Matheson makes it the visual crux of the episode. Flatline is a visual spectacular, from the hilarious yet unsettling image of the Doctor's eagle-eyed face looking out of the tiny TARDIS to the bizarre dimensional collapse of an everyday sofa. Douglas Mackinnon displays the same skills as he did on Listen, making a reasonably cheap episode into something visually striking. The Boneless, the two-dimensional beings invading our world, manage to be equally as effective as living graffiti as they are as twisted, shifting facsimiles of their victims.

In spite of his limited screentime, Capaldi is excellent as ever. He finally gets his big “I am the Doctor” moment, his natural gravitas selling what might otherwise be a rather naff speech, but is just as good almost giving up in the TARDIS or when performing his spectacularly awful dad dance when he, momentarily, pushes the Ship out of danger. But this is Jenna Coleman's episode. Coleman holds the whole thing together, taking the Doctor's role in the story in that most vital way. She gives the story something to pivot around, so while there are some real weak links, they do not damage the episode as a whole. Christopher Fairbank is very good as the loathsome Fenton, but he becomes repetitive and surplus to requirements rapidly, and the remaining community service bods are nothing more than monster fodder. Even though having one called Stan, after Flat Stanley, is beautiful. Nonetheless, Coleman's excellent central performance brings the best out of even the weakest characters.

The language is sometimes confusing, with “dimension” being used both in a more solid scientific sense of two- and three- dimensional spaces, and in the wishy-washy sci-fi parallel universe sense. The science itself is pretty shaky, as well. Flat images aren't actually two-dimensional, they're just very, very thin along the third dimension, and the whole switching being 2D and 3D spaces is very questionable. But this is Doctor Who, and sometimes you just have to accept that we're dealing with bollocks science and run with it.

This is especially the case with the following episode In the Forest of the Night. This episode displays some of the wonkiest science this series has ever committed, and despite talk of solar flares and oxygen levels, it can only be approached as an out-and-out fairytale. Once again, this is a visually striking episode, albeit beautiful rather than unsettling. We should expect nothing less from Frank Cottrell Boyce, the man who gave us the outlandish 2012 Olympic opening ceremeony, but a great deal of the credit has to go to director Sheree Folkson. This is another cheap episode, utilising little more than a forest with a few judiciously strewn props, although that Trafalgar Square lion must have cost a little. Undeniably effective as the scenes of the overrun London are, the lack of money is apparent due to the lack of people around. There should be panicked Londoners everywhere, fending off packs of wolves. Nonetheless, the limited cast does allow a focus on the core group. If there's one major problem with Flatline in regards to the ongoing story, it's that Danny Pink was severely short-changed. Here, though, the relationship between Danny and Clara is centre stage. Both Jenna Coleman and Samuel Anderson are on perfect form in this episode, displaying an easy chemistry that sells their relationship well. Bringing a gaggle of children along could have gone badly wrong, but the dysfunctional class are all likeable, particularly peculiar little Maebh.

While most critics are questioning the dodgy science and the fairies at the bottom of the forest, perhaps the most controversial element of this episode is its attitude towards mental illness. It might be viewed as crashingly irresponsible to encourage children not to take their prescribed medication, but personally, and I say this as a mentally ill person who relies on regular medication, I agree with the message. There's a tendency for doctors today to immediately prescribe medication for every genuine or perceived behavioural problem in children, when the first thing they should be doing is talking and listening to them. Of course, in reality disturbed children aren't talking to forest spirits, but the Doctor is right: the first thing to do is to let them speak to us, not shut them up with tablets.

Tying both episodes together is the developing relationship that Clara has with both the Doctor and Danny. Her turn as “Clara Who” unsettles the Doctor deeply, forcing him to confront how he is perceived by others, and the effect he is having on his companion. Throughout the two episodes, Clara lies to Danny, over the phone in his brief appearance in Flatline, and repeatedly to his face in Forest. While it seems as though this aspect of their relationship has been resolved as of the end of this episode, more troubling is the change in Clara's character as she becomes more like the Doctor. There's a clear difference in how she behaves when with Danny and with the Doctor, as each man influences her in her responses to situations. Danny's concern is with her safety and that of the children, and the pleasures of an ordinary life, while the Doctor sees the bigger picture, and puts the fate of worlds above the comfort and safety of individuals. Both heroic in their own way, they have wildly different ways of approaching the situations they find themselves in, and it certainly seems that the Doctor is beginning to wonder if Danny's attitude isn't better. Certainly, his effect on Clara is something he sees as negative, even as she finally rejects him in Forest. Clara displays a shockingly defeatist attitude when confronted with what appears to be the end of the world, refusing to allow the Doctor to save her and the children as their species faces extinction. As her character is explored further, Clara is developing some very unappealing traits.

Finally, both episodes end with a reveal that the mysterious Missy has been watching events as we have. (With the exception of Forest's one big failing, the overly sugary final scene in which Maebh's missing sister miraculously reappears after a year of hiding in a bush.) Aside from putting the viewer in the same position as the Doctor's newest enemy, these little snippets push the ongoing arc plot of the series onwards towards the upcoming finale. Each time, however, these vignettes feel entirely separate from the main story; as intriguing as they are, they would perhaps have worked more effectively if better integrated with the episodes as a whole.

Minor flaws aside, both Flatline and In the Forest of the Night prove that Doctor Who has plenty more tricks up its sleeve. The way forward for the series seems to be a larger pool or creative talents, with new writers and directors vital to keeping the programme fresh. While both episodes may prove to be loved or hated by individual viewers, it cannot be denied that trying something different it just what this series needs to keep it going into its ninth (or 35th) series. 

Monday 27 October 2014




The post-anniversary publication schedule has slowed down to a trickle now, with only a handful of titles representing Doctor Who in print. The hardback range has released its latest batch of three, the first novels to feature the twelfth Doctor, but to be honest my enthusiasm for the standard print releases is pretty low these days and all we see are the same authors time after time. The e-book only range, which kicked into gear for the anniversary year, is still popping out the occasional treat, however, and considering the much, much lower price of these titles (£1.99 for the Time Trips series, only a pound for the Puffins) it's much more tempting to dip into these. Furthermore, these tend to be written by authors new to Doctor Who, meaning that we get some new voices amongst the same-old of the physical books.

The Time Trips series, conceived as quick reads for all ages, has suffered from too many mediocre releases over the year, but September's release by Joanne Harris is a triumph. Before tackling the book, however, let's just reiterate that: this is a Doctor Who book by Joanne Harris, MBE. Celebrated author and an absolute master of the short story, rightly famed for her novel Chocolat, and writing for the Time Lord. And she's clearly a fan; The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Time Traveller is set during the Doctor's long, painful journey back to Earth between scenes in Planet of the Spiders. That's not something a non-fan just pulls out of a hat; this is an author who knows the series and has a definite idea of the point in its history she wants to explore. Harris has an excellent grasp of the third Doctor's character, but uses her story's setting to portray a weaker, more vulnerable version than the one we're used to. This is, after all, a Doctor on death's door, determined to explain and stop the power behind the world he's arrived in, even as it is the only thing keeping him alive. While it occasionally veers towards tweeness, it has a dark enough heart to keep it from arriving there, and is a strong, satisfying story with a twist that, while not completely unexpected, is off-kilter enough to be effective. Indeed, there are times when this surreal story feels like something from the strange Doctor Who annuals of the 1970s, albeit with a standard of prose about 150% stronger.

While The Loneliness is perfectly fine for a bright child to read, Lights Out is aimed specifically at a younger audience. The Puffin series of Doctor-by-Doctor stories had its winners and losers, but boasted a Who's Who of modern children's literature that gave it a particular standing. This late addition, allowing the twelfth Doctor to join the party, is no different. Holly Black is the author of the excellent Spiderwick Chroniclesseries of children's books, and while her work is more often lavishly illustrated, here she uses the blind prose to her advantage. The central twist is a little too similar to that of Charlie Higson's ninth Doctor release for the range, and it will read weaker when collected into the Twelve Doctors omnibus that collects the full series. Of itself though, Lights Out is a very effective little mystery, very brisk and with some fascinating science fiction concepts. Again, the author is clearly a fan; the story is littered with perhaps too many references to its parent series before it starts pushing ahead with the story. It makes effective use of the Doctor, who is a known quantity to the central character, but not in this incarnation. It's a clever tie-in to the appearance of a new and unsettling Doctor onscreen. Whether we'll see any further Doctor Who releases from Puffin is uncertain. They could do a War Doctor story, and rerelease all the others all over again. Barring that unlikely event, though, Lights Out is a fine end to the run.

Placements: As mentioned, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Time Traveller takes place during the final moments of the third Doctor's swansong, Planet of the Spiders, during his long voyage through the Vortex as he succumbed to radiation poisoning. While it took two weeks for him to arrive home from the point of view of Sarah Jane and the Brigadier, the New Adventures suggested that for the Doctor, ten painful years passed on the journey.

Lights Out also takes place during a particularly specific gap. While the Doctor is fetching coffee for Clara between the episodes Deep Breath and Into the Dalek, he pops to a space station in the distant future where the events of this story take place. The coffee is actually vitally important to the plot.

Monday 20 October 2014


This is a review written from the point of view of someone who hasn't read Gillian Flynn's original novel. Which, as a moviegoer, can only be a good thing, because foreknowledge of the plot would have weakened my enjoyment of the film. However, this review does include spoilers, so don't continue further if you haven't seen it yet and wish to remain in the dark.

It's a powerful film, directed with style and restraint by David Fincher. There's a strong feeling of discomfort throughout, almost every film feeling just a little off, due to direction, performance or dialogue. We feel quite voyeuristic as we see the underbelly of the failing marriage, as it unravels from the first thrills of romance to the depths of a marriage characterised by mutual loathing. Rosamund Pike is exceptional as Amy, convincing both as the beautiful perfect wife and the frankly terrifying sociopathic individual she is revealed to be. Ben Affleck is also very good; he's frequently the target of jibes for his acting ability but he has matured into a very fine actor indeed. His is a very naturalistic performance, excepting those moments when he is deliberately projecting a facade, particularly as his character, Nick, becomes more media savvy and learns to tailor public perception.

The lead couple threaten to overshadow the other actors, the majority of whom are equally excellent in their roles. Everyone is perfectly cast, from the always entertaining Tyler Perry as celebrity lawyer Tanner Bolt, to Neil Patrick Harris, veering between quiet class and dangerous obsession as Amy's one-time lover. Carrie Coon, primarily a stage actor, is new to me, but her screen career seems assured on the strength of her brilliant performance as Nick's twin sister Margo. Not everyone is an acting great, though. Emily Ratajkowski, from that awful music video, plays Nick's bit of stuff Andie. She mostly has to look good with her top off, which she does, so fair enough. Missi Pyle perhaps goes a little far as the obnoxious scandal show host Ellen Abbott, but she's faultlessly entertaining.

The film is plotted beautifully, although there are some small elements that appear to be oversights; clues that are introduced that should alter the police view aren't picked up. I imagine in the novel they are dealt with, but some trims are inevitable when adapting work to film. For the most part, though, it is immaculately structured. What's most satisfying is that there is no big twist to this story. Revelations come a several points that change the way we understand the plot or view the characters, the most significant being, of course, the truth behind Amy's self-enacted disappearance. In so many stories this would be the grand twist at the end, whereas in Gone Girl it occurs before the halfway point and alters the way we look at the story as a whole.

Gone Girl is a fascinating exploration of relationships, emotional and physical abuse, media sensationalism and demonisation. If there's one element that sits poorly with me, it's the two incidents of Amy falsifying her own rape. While I do not imagine this is intended as a comment on rape survivors at all, there is a worryingly common view that many, if not most, rape accusations are false and conjured up by vindictive women to hurt men. In reality, of course, very few accusations are false, but a manipulative woman like Amy is exactly the sort of character rapist defenders imagine all women to be. It's just something that made me, personally, feel uncomfortable about the film.

Then again, that is rather the point of the film, that uncomfortable truths exist behind supposedly happy and well-adjusted people's relationships. Outlandish in its plotting, perhaps, but nonetheless a fascinating and disturbing exploration of human relationships.

Saturday 18 October 2014

One Last Plug

My lovely new books arrived today! I am now a professionally published author. I am a little bit pleased about this, as you may have noticed.

Iris Wildthyme of Mars explores the many Marses of the imagination and also features stories by Ian Potter, Simon Bucher-Jones, Selina Lock, Dale Smith, Juliet Kemp, Richard Wright, Rachel Churcher, Mark Clapham, Lance Parkin, Aditya Bidikar, Blair Bidmead and editor Phil Purser-Hallard.

Iris Wildthyme, the Mistress of the Magical Bus, was created by Paul Magrs. Iris Wildthyme of Mars is available now from Obverse Books.

Thursday 16 October 2014

Comics Round-Up: October (2)

Mighty World of Marvel #4, Avengers Universe #4 & #5 (Marvel/Panini)

So, I'm dropping Wolverine and Deadpool for a bit and trying out Avengers Universe, which seems to tie closer to Mighty World. Also, I just really enjoy the heroes line-up on the inside cover on both these titles. It's cosmic hi-jinks aplenty this month, with Uatu the Watcher and Thanos appearing in both volumes, just to make sure we know that significant shit is going down. Mighty Avengers: "No Single Hero" is the best of these cosmic comics, with most of the Avengers out of town on a intergalactic mission, leaving Luke Cage and his Heroes for Hire guarding the city, along with Spider-Man. the Blue Marvel and Monica Rambeau/Spectrum/Photon. There's a massive alien invasion, and then frickin' Shuma-Gorath appears. It's ridiculously over-the-top, and I love it. And who the hell is "Spider Hero?" One nitpick: Spectrum doesn't know the speed of light, despite being made of it. I don't know, maybe she meant kilometres instead of miles.

Uncanny Avengers has the continuing story of "The Apocalypse Twins," which goes for equally over-the-top cosmic-ness, as Holocaust is present at the assassination of a Celestial, an event that not only potentially has terrible consequences for the entire galaxy, but is linked to a foolish mistake by a young Thor. Wish I'd caught the previous issue, actually. There's some high-concept time travel stuff here, with causes in both the past and future. Daniel Acuna's art is just lovely. The Angela storyline continues in Guardians of the Galaxy, and while this is mostly a fighty-punchy issue, there's some good interplay between the characters. I just struggle to take the goddess Angela seriously when she has her tits hanging out in every panel. Avengers Arena continues with "The Survivor," which introduces some new characters for me. Reptil really has the most ridiculous powers I've ever seen - transform, dinosaur arse! However, it focuses on Nico and Chase from the Runaways, one of my favourite series and makes for a fine issue.

Both books have a more down-to-earth strip to balance out the pan-galactic adventures. Universe #4 has an Ant-Man story that is throwaway but provides some laughs, and issue 5 has an enjoyable set-up for Young Avengers with Kid Loki trying to recruit dimension-hopping herione Miss America. Mighty World continues it's Daredevil run concerning Foggy Nelson's cancer. Combining Murdock's extreme discomfort with his sick friend - he can only barely stand the smell - with a hardluck case from his youth, it's the complete opposite of the rest of the book and really very strong stuff.

Amazing Spider-Man #7, Edge of Spider-Verse #5, Ms. Marvel #9 (Marvel)

These guys all go together, in one big crossover-mess. I'm not even coming close to buying all the Spidey related titles that are apparently essential reading this winter. The Spider-Verse checklist list six or seven releases every month right through January, spread over six titles. Sorry, true believers, not with Christmas coming up. But I'm a sucker for all this parallel universe nonsense, and Spider-Man has always had great fun with these, and even though I'm cherry picking I've enjoyed this little crop.

So, Ms. Marvel continues to be the most fun you can have with Marvel each month, and while we're already kind of in-depth to the mythology, its back-to-basics approach of a precocious kid dealing with superpowers is tremendous fun to read. So, Kamala is an Inhuman, which ties into the fact that these superbeings-who-aren't-mutants seem to be set up to take the MCU by storm. Especially as they're part Kree, the alien race that have already entered the Marvel movies. So yeah, seems pretty clear, and if this means we might get a Kamala Khan movie one day, all the better. Kamala also crosses over in Spider-Man this month, which is just the most obviously perfect idea. really, Spider-Man does not work the way he once did. The writers have left themselves in the unenviable position of having to allow him development, because to not do so would be unfeasible and poor storytelling, but resorting to retconning and rewriting history to keep him grounded in his old, "typical Parker luck" ways. Frankly, Ms. Marvel is much more like classic Spider-Man than the man himself now, and this team-up works well because of it.

Spider-Man includes a back-up Edge of Spider-Verse story which covers the ongoing, and deteriorating, crisis across worlds, and introduces properly Spider-UK. This character is, rather brilliantly, both the Spider-Man and Captain Britain of his universe. And of course the Captain Britain Corps are involved; their job is to police the realities of the multiverse. It's mythology heavy, but it's good stuff. The actual Edge title, the last one in the series, is less impressive, mainly because it exists solely to introduce another character's story then cut it off in favour of the overall plot. Still, it's a very different take on Spider-Man, set in a manga world in which the very young Peni Parker is symbiotically bonded to an enhanced spider and fights villains in a mecha-suit. It's an entertainingly skewed take on the Marvel universe, it's just a shame they don't have the space to do anything with it. Still, Spider-Verse as a whole is shaping up nicely, especially now Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham has arrived. But... they killed the Spider-Friends. The BASTARDS.

Batgirl #35, Gotham Academy #1 (DC)

The much-awaited new Batgirl run has kicked off, and it really is as good as it was made out to be. I'm definitely a huge fan of Barbara's new costume, and the artwork here, by Babs Tarr, is just perfect. It completely fits the breathless, contemporary feel of the book. complimenting Stewart and Fletcher's writing perfectly. Particularly excellent are the frozen-screen type shots that explore Barbara's eidetic memory. So, yeah, keep Babs drawing Babs please. This is an achingly cool book, so up-to-the-minute that it hurts me in my old man bones, even as it skirts around trademarked app names. But it's also an important story, dealing with internet privacy and publicity abuse, and skirting into the whole nasty misogynistic nerd culture that's being bared to the world right now. Comics really need to address this stuff if they're going to do anything about it, so this is good stuff.

Gotham Academy is a promising new title, and while it's sold as basically being Hogwarts but in DC-land, it's better than that has a right to be. For a start, Becky Cloonan and Brendan Fletcher are actually good writers. I'm taken by Olive and Maps, and the idea of growing up in Gotham is a fine starting point for a story, especially with Bruce Wayne as your patron hanging over you. Funny with a little bit of creepy, and also boasting wonderful art by Karl Kerschl and Geyser. A very good October for DC, even as I remain utterly uninterested by the "Future's End" crossover.

Guardians 3000 #1 (Marvel)

Dan Abnett comes back to do for the original Guardians of the Galaxy what he did for a bunch of forgotten space characters a few years back that eventually led to a surprise blockbuster movie. It's not bad, not bad at all, but I'm somehow unmoved. Gerardo Sandoval delivers frenetic artwork that helps build the pace, and the central concept is great. A group of aliens fighting a war that seems to be a case of history literally repeating itself, with only a human clairvoyant capable of of sensing the time-loop... that's classic science fiction. But by the end of the issue I was already a bit annoyed by the spacey future slang. It's a bugbear of mine, and it really pulls me out of these things. It also feels much more like 2000 AD than anything Marvel. Not a complaint, just an observation.

Doctor Who: The Twelfth Doctor #1 (Titan), Doctor Who Magazine ##479 (Panini)

Titan launch the third of their DW series, the highly anticipated twelfth Doctor run... and it's a crashing let-down. Really, this is a bad comic. Understandably they're not going down the same route as their Ten and Eleven series, but even though they need to stick with the current set-up, there's no call for something so unambitious. Robbie Morrison writes a story that is taking its cues from Hitchhikers, which is fine, but you need wit to do that, and he's in short supply. The dialogue might work with some talented actors saying it onscreen, but on the page it's just drab and unfunny. But that's nothing compared to the artwork. The pencils are by Dave Taylor with colours by someone called Hi-Fi (presumably not Steven Taylor's panda). It's just awful. The sample spread that went out last week looked OK, but that's clearly where all the time and effort went, because the rest is just shoddy. DWM's continuing serial, "The Eye of Torment" is considerably better, in terms of dialogue, artwork, ideas, pacing,,, everything really. Even if it is telling a strangely similar story to Star Trek's "Skin of Evil." But, you know, a good version.

Wednesday 15 October 2014

REVIEW: Ghostbusters: Mass Hysteria

Three years, thirty-six issues, two volumes, twelve Ghostbusters, and it's now over. Erik Burnham and Dan Schoening's Ghosbusters series for IDW has been an astounding success. While plans for a third movie seem to be finally getting somewhere, it sounds like Paul Feig's plan for a complete reboot are going ahead. I see this as no bad thing, as the time has really passed for a third outing for the original team. Taking the, ahem, spirit of the originals and forging ahead with something new is a great idea, especially if an all-female team is in the offing as reported.

Anyone desperate for Ghostbusters 3 bringing back the original team should look to the official video game, which reunited the core cast one last time to provide an excellent third instalment. After that, IDW's comic volumes can be considered Ghostbusters 4 & 5, continuing the story further. In which case, “Mass Hysteria” makes for a perfect final act. This eight issue story is a celebration of thirty years of Ghostbusters, it has been described by author Burnham as “a love letter” to the franchise. And it is to the whole franchise, not only furthering and tying up stories from his own comic series, but also taking elements from throughout the movies, animated series and video games and weaving them into a new story.

For a long time, Dana Barrett and Louis Tully were off-limits to IDW. Rights to use Dana have been particularly difficult for creators to acquire over the years, so while this was a disappointment, it was no surprise. Nonetheless, the lack of two of the core characters from the original films left a gap in the ongoing story. In particular, Dana's involvement is a vital element of the films, to the degree that one has to wonder just why this apparently ordinary woman has been so linked to the two most significant paranormal events in modern history. Finally, though, the situation changed, with Dana and Louis both now available to be included in this series. No wonder this feels so very right – the whole gang's together again, and finally we have a follow-up to those initial events with Gozer. For while the coming of Gozer was stopped, the evil god is still out there, and so, it is revealed, is his sister.

Tiamat, Babylonian goddess of chaos, is intrigued by both the Ghostbusters' recent escape from limbo (in the “New Ghostbusters: Stripped” storyline) and they're defeat of her brother.And so she weaves into their lives through Dana and Louis, making them her links to the earthly plain just as Gozer did. It's all a game, though, and as the embodiment of chaos, Tiamat doesn't obey the same rules as Gozer. She doesn't need a human link to the world, she doesn't obey simple physics, her very presence in our dimension causes gravity to malfunction and blood to rain from the sky. She is a truly unstoppable force, and it's only by her own caprice that she allows any kind of victory. Tiamat did, in fact, appear in The Real Ghostbusters series, but Burnham and Schoening have never been afraid to take an idea from the cartoon and do something bigger with it. Tiamat is a suitably powerful and threatening villain for the Ghostbusters' biggest case yet.

What's so effective about this series is that it never forgets its focus on the lives of the characters. All the main players get their moment in the spotlight, but it is, gratifyingly, Winston who is the real star of this story. Unfairly sidelined in the movies, the fourth Ghostbusters is the heart and soul of this story, finally marrying his girlfriend Tiyah and being the one who finally stands up to Tiamat in a way she cannot ignore. The final tragedy he suffers at her hands... damn, it's just too sad. The final issue is essentially an epilogue, but god, does it deliver a gutpunch of a final twist.

“Mass Hysteria” is an incredible end to an excellent series, and while I'm sad to see it over, it's been a fine three years of bustin'. If I am forced to make a criticism, it's that I miss Tristan Jones's extras from earlier issues, but perhaps we'll see something new for the trades. With a whole franchise of Ghostbusters, there's plenty of directions the series can go if and when it returns. Indeed, Paul Feig's reported all-female reboot of the franchise could learn a lot from this series. For now, though, there's just the addendum of the most eighties crossover of them all to keep us going. Bring on Ghostbusters meets TMNT.

Cover images pinched from Dapper Dan's DeviantArt gallery. Go check it out, he's amazing at Hallowe'en.

Tuesday 14 October 2014

REVIEW: Gotham, episode one

Firstly, I realise that you're on episode six or something in the States. I'm in England, I had to wait for the pilot to air on Channel 5 last night. So for many of you, this is already out of date and thus probably quite irrelevant. Also, although I've been mostly steering clear of spoilers, there's a general consensus that I've picked up on that this series has started to improve as it's gone on. So I bear this in mind.

So... yeah. This has potential. As pilots go, this isn't bad, but it isn't terribly inspiring either. Nonetheless, I'm one of the few who is genuinely sold on the central idea of the series. There are dozens of superhero properties out there right now, and decades worth of screen takes on Batman. If they're going to do another one, it has to do something that's a bit different to what we've seen before. And while there's been a glut of prequels and remakes in recent years, sometimes they are a good idea. Sometimes there is a story to tell. I never would have said anyone was clamouring to hear the story of how Jim Gordon started out in Gotham City, but once it was suggested... well, I was intrigued. 

This first episode has its flaws. God, does it have flaws. The dialogue is frequently so cliched as to be risible. The plot doesn't so much resolve as just stop when Falcone walks in, and while I understand that it's setting things up for the long game, as an episode in itself it feels neither self-contained nor the first part of a serial. I love the idea of setting up various villainous characters in their early guises, but this really hammers it in. It's just about acceptable when the crooks sneer at Oswald and call him Penguin, and he screeches that he doesn't like to be called that. But the Ed Nygma as a riddling coroner, that just doesn't work. Ivy Pepper, presented as being the future Poison Ivy (did not enough people recognise the name Pamela Isley?), is too young to really stand a chance of coming into her villainy, so I'm guessing she's just a cute Easter egg. The pickpocketing Selina Kyle might work though, and I like the idea that she was witness to the Waynes' shooting. But really, there is such a thing as too much at once. If that comedian does turn out to be the Joker (which I doubt he will, but just in case) well, that's really going to be too much thrown into this first episode.

Still, there's a lot to like. There's a retro, prohibitionist vibe going alongside the mobile phones and contemporary trappings, and while in any other setting this would be sloppy, it works here. Gotham inhabits its own tilted time zone, not quite modern and not quite antiquated, which is exactly how it should be. I like Ben McKenzie. He hasn't convinced me as Jim Gordon yet, and he's going to have a hard time selling it to everyone who's seen Gary Oldman make his turn at the part definitive. Still, he has a gallant charm and I can see him working once he's more used to the role. Fish Mooney, played by Jada Pinkett Smith, is a good addition to the set-up, and shows that with a few original characters to interact with the DC archetypes, there's interesting ground to cover. The gender and race balance is refreshingly mixed. Robin Lord Taylor is excellent as Oswald, all twitchy nerviness barely covering his restrained brutality. He's a little man who wants to be a bruiser, and he's by far the best thing about this.

Some of the casting lets it down though. Sean Pertwee is badly miscast as Alfred, cockneying it up way too much. He also looks and sounds so much like his dad these days that it just looks to me like the Doctor shouting at Bruce Wayne, but that's by the by. I'm very pleased to see Harvey Bullock finally get some decent live-action screen time, but I'm not convinced by Donal Logue in the role. He's not big enough, hard enough or imposing enough for Bullock. He should be a bull of a man; it's in the name. Admittedly I'm influenced by the animated version of the character, but that's because it worked. I can't buy Bullock in this.

Still, I want this to work, and I think it can. It needs to be able to tell it's own stories, without relying on nostalgia for the established characters. I'm eager to see how the relationship between Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon develops, how Gordon stands a chance in a city where pretty much everyone seems to be on the side of the mob, and  what the future holds for Mssr. Cobblepot. I'm convinced this series can succeed, but it needs work.

WHO REVIEW: 8-8) Mummy on the Orient Express

Like Kill the Moon, Mummy on the Orient Express boasts a lurid title and an absurd premise that bely the seriousness of its approach. The set-up is fun and promises certain things, which are delivered. The beautiful but claustrophobic setting of the Orient Express itself; the shambling Mummy, excellently realised; and a murder mystery, albeit a mystery of the hows and whys, rather than the whos. However, the monster mash and the initial jokey atmosphere are as much a facade as the period trappings of the eponymous train. This is a science fiction story, albeit one with Doctor Who's usual shakey grasp of actual science, and one in which the monster is another victim and the true villain hide behind the scenes.

Even the sci-fi story, with its professorial troubleshooters, is just the setting for the core story, that of the Doctor and Clara, as they deal with the emotional fallout of the previous episode. The decision to set this episode some weeks after Kill the Moon, allowing Clara enough time to cool down sufficiently to concede to one last trip with the Doctor, grants the characters a chance to explore their relationship further. There's some great mileage to be had here, and while we hardly believe the possibility that Clara will stop travelling with the Doctor after this, watching her move from reluctant associate of the Doctor to fully endorsing his lifestyle once more is at the centre of the episode's story. Coleman and Capaldi are on fine form here, their chemistry better than ever. The Doctor's obvious discomfort when talking about emotions covers a clear and obvious affection for Clara, and her own anger with his methods belies her love of the danger and the problem-solving adventuring. This “space dad” dynamic works very well between them, and while there's still the hint of something more romantic under the surface, this aspect of their relationship suits the characters and actors very well.

It's a pity then that, due to the structure of the story, the Doctor and Clara are separated for so long. Conversations over the phone don't have the same televisual appeal or chemistry that face-to-face encounters have, and much of their interplay suffers due to this. Thankfully, each character is given someone new to bounce off. Daisy Beaumont is a fine foil for Clara as Maisie, an ordinary woman, albeit one from an unpleasant family background, who can relate to Clara's relationship with a very difficult, very old guardian. Maisie, however, contrasts sharply with Clara, for there is little affection between her and her grandmother, and she feels nothing but fear at her experiences in this episode, while Clara, despite herself, is exilirated. Their interplay makes for some good scenes, even if there is a rather clunky moment where the characters suddenly realise they're failing the Bechdel test and comment upon it.

The Doctor is paired for much of the episode with Perkins, played by comedian and Doctor Who fan Frank Skinner. While it's fair to say that Skinner is not the strongest actor to grace the series, he fits the part well, and is really quite good as the intriguingly well-informed chief engineer. Indeed, so competent is Perkins that for a time he is an easy suspect for the man behind the manipulations, but he turns out to be a fine ally for the Doctor. It's also a joy watching Skinner and Capaldi on screen together, knowing that we are seeing two huge fans of the series loving their work. Being a fan of a show is not enough to warrant a place on its cast, but nonetheless, it does add a little something.

It's a beautiful production, with the train itself well-realised and filled with an impressive cast of suitably classy extras (including the obligatory scientist who looks like Albert Einstein). The inclusion of Foxes singing “Don't Stop Me Now,” very appropriate considering Clara's eventual decision, is a lovely touch. Period settings are far better with the addition of such verisimilitude, and the choice of a well-known song covered in a retro-style helps sell that this is a slightly askew version of a familiar setting. In practice, there was little to stop this episode being set on the actual Orient Express, and it wouldn't have required too many rewrites to make the script fit this. In fact, it might have forced Jaimie Mathieson to use some actual science in his convoluted explanations for the Mummy's actions. Still, what we get is a visually striking contrast between the sci-fi trappings and the period aesthetic, not least the train itself flying through space.

The Mummy itself is a wonderful creation of make-up and costume. We've had mummies before of course, but this is the finest example by far, exactly what one imagines when thinking of the classic movie monster. In fact, it's almost too well-realised, and was unsurprisingly omitted from early trailers for being too scary. A definite success of monster design. It's bizarre MO, killing its victims after a sixty-six second delay, provides an arresting visual cue and provides some gripping tension. However, there are only so many times it can be used before it begins to feel a bit stale. Indeed, in the latter scenes, it's the Doctor and his own heartless, even cruel interaction with the soon-to-be victims, that provides the tension. While the Doctor's final, desperate deduction of the Mummy's true nature is a fine scene, it comes across less as a calculated realisation and more as a desperate stab in the dark. While the revelation that the Mummy is an unnaturally preserved soldier fits with this season's theme of the military and its criticisms, is doesn't hold up terribly well when analysed. Equally, the Mummy's physical nature is a false mystery, since no one watching can possibly know that the bit of made-up science used to phase out the victims would take sixty-six seconds.

Mummy on the Orient Express is a highly enjoyable story, beautifully realised and with strong central performances, most notably from Peter Capaldi, who makes even the slowest, most expositional scenes tremendously watchable. Like the Mummy itself, it looks incredible and is suitably chilling, but falls apart once you look too closely.

Monday 13 October 2014

Little Weirdos: Mini figures and other monster toys: Monster in My Pocket: Series 3

Very nice little article on the Little Weirdos blog about the extremely rare third series of Monster in My Pocket. I do not have any of these, and this makes me sad.

Little Weirdos: Mini figures and other monster toys: Monster in My Pocket: Series 3: Since Monster in My Pocket is one of the biggest, most collectible, and arguably one of the greatest lines of little weirdos ever, I thou...

Sunday 12 October 2014

The weekend was a drag

This was initially going to be quite a pleasant, easy weekend, but has turned into one spent almost entirely at work due to half the people in the district being on holiday and the other half being ill with the local plague. I didn't get to watch Doctor Who until gone midnight last night/this morning, so the review for that will wait a short time, because I need to watch it again and will shortly have to get a rail replacement bus back to the bloody shop again.

At least the powers that be managed to find cover for me on Friday night, when I wasn't supposed to be working at all and needed rather urgently to get down to Brighton to meet my lovely friends Rosalie and Joanne for our little night out. We went to see drag sensation Alaska Thunderfuck 5000 at the Powder Room, at Club Revenge. I'll be honest, I'm well out of the loop with all this stuff, I've barely seen any local drag shows in recent years and only watched bits and pieces of Ru Paul's Drag Race since the first series, but we went to see Sharron Needles a few months ago and she was fabulous so I was looking forward to this. Got to squeeze right at the front due to some well worked-out queuing. Alaska was pretty spectacular, kind of amateurish but she puts on a hell of a show. She did a pretty unique version of Wrecking Ball (I still prefer Weird Al's version). On the whole, I think Sharron was better, but it was a great night, with some excellent supporting acts. You haven't really experienced anti-Iraq War satire until you've seen it performed by a gothic drag act.

However, my favourite performer at the Powder Room has been Lili La Scala, who compered on Friday. Classy, beautiful and with an astounding voice. I'll definitely be looking out for her again.

Rosie got to meet Alaska but I had to shoot off. Apparently she smells of sick. Also, her claws are terrifying. I was really concerned I might lose an eye.

Back to work, hopefully to a quiet one so I can catch up with some reading and get slightly back on track with the many, many things I need to write up.

Monday 6 October 2014

WHO REVIEW: 8-7) Kill the Moon

Every episode of Doctor Who seems to start a debate among fans and commenters, and this week's is no exception. Aside from the central debate around which the episode is built, there is another that has, once again, become a focus: is Doctor Who science fiction?

The only answer I've ever been satisfied with is “sometimes.” Some stories are out-and-out fantasy, others sway much more heavily towards real science. It's never going to be pure, hard sci-fi, seeing that it revolves around an immortal alien in a magical time-travelling box, but some stories take a more realistic approach to exploring the universe than others. The important thing is not whether the series as a whole sticks to one approach – variety being the series' greatest strength – but whether an individual story can remain focussed. Changing the rules halfway through an episode will destroy a story. Kill the Moon, however, doesn't change the rules. While the halfway point of the episode marks a major change in direction for the story, it remains a fantastical piece of space romance. For all its realistic aesthetic trappings, this is fantastical Who through and through.

Setting the episode on the Moon allows production team to show off what they can do. On one thing no one can disagree: this is a beautiful episode. Filming in Lanzarote was the perfect move, its craggy terrain so moonlike that even without the colour grading one could be fooled into thinking they'd filmed on another world. Filming in a real location and altering it in post-production gives the episode a verisimilitude and a realism that a soundstage or a green screen background would never allow. Look up at the Moon tonight, and you can imagine that this is what it looks like up there. The realism of the locations filming, and the believability of the sets, give the impression that this week we're watching hard sci-fi. The future of 2049, so close to our own time, is beautifully sketched in. A future in which mankind has given up on space travel is very believable (and also, possibly, just about compatible with the Troughton-era 21st century of The Seeds of Death, where all space travel was relegated to museums) with little asides such as the sublime “my gran used to post things on Tumblr” wonderfully giving the feel of a world just years into our own future.

Comparisons with the highly regarded episode The Waters of Mars (already almost five years old) are inevitable. Both episodes see a mission to a barely explored world in our solar system jeopardised by unexpected extraterrestrial infestation. With The Waters of Mars, though, this was the structure of the whole episode, leading up to its central dilemma, whereas Kill the Moon uses its dark crannies filled with spider-bacteria merely to up the immediate threat before discarding them as mere side-effects of the real problem. Both episodes pit the Doctor against a strong female mission leader, and Hermione Norris as Hendrik is easily the equal of Lindsay Duncan's Captain Brooke. Her two “third-hand” astronauts, Duke and Henry, receive pretty short shrift, being there mostly to make her look better before getting eaten by spiders, but that does leave us with the most female-oriented team in a long while, something that can only be a good thing. Indeed, Hendrik, as someone awed by the beauty of the universe but willing to do something terrible to save her world, is one of the best-written characters in recent Who, and I'd be very happy to see her in a future episode.

For all the sci-fi trappings, there's not much here that makes sense once upon even brief examination. The Moon increasing in mass leading to an increase in gravity allows the cast to walk around without gooning about with low-gravity lunar hopping, and would indeed cause terrible effects on Earth. But where does the extra mass come from all of a sudden? What are Hendrik and crew planning to do with the vast payload of nuclear weapons? Blowing up the Moon is hardly going to help, unless they want chunks of it to rain down on the Earth. The spiders are incredibly well realised, truly horrible little creatures, kept in the shadows until they need to pounce and scare the bejesus out of the audience. I like spiders, but they certainly gave me the creeps. Still, the rationalisation of them as gigantic bacteria is no more scientifically plausible than if they'd been revealed to be bogeyman babies. This is paper-thin pseudoscience, so once the Moon is revealed to be an egg for a space-bat-moth-dragon-thing, it's not such a turn for the fantastic as it might have otherwise seemed.

There are hints throughout that the Moon is something other than it appears, from the almost unremarked-upon cobwebs to the fact that the lost Mexican expedition found no minerals there at all. (This one is rather hard to accept, given that we, in the present day, have already brought back mineral samples from the Moon.) Shortly after this, the Doctor comes to the sudden conclusion that the liquid he finds on the surface is amniotic fluid, and goes spelunking to check his hypothesis. Nonetheless, his sudden, almost embarrassed statement that the Moon is an egg seems completely out of the blue. A sudden switch is thrown, and the episode ceases to be about a mysterious problem with the Moon and becomes about a fantastic dilemma.

The episode teases with becoming a pro-choice/pro-life debate, focussing on the “it's just a baby” angle, and it is absolutely right that the three humans making the decision are all women, with different levels of maturity driving their judgment. Placing fifteen-year-old Courtney – probably the character most likely to face this decision in her immediate future – firmly on the side of the rights of the unborn creature is an interesting decision. The episode makes its stance very clear – killing the baby creature is a terrible thing to do – but accepts that sometimes, people have to do unpleasant, unwanted things. It does, however, bring the audience into the equation, actively asking us to make our vote in the decision. Clara speaks to everyone on Earth (or at least in Europe), telling them to switch their lights on or off to show their opinion. That the episode opens with this in a flash-forward is vital, making the following forty-five minutes all about the us the viewers making our judgment. It's inextricably linked to its time of broadcast in a way that no other episode has been, first showing on British TV sets on a dark autumn's night when the Moon was bright in the sky.

There is, however, a huge, fundamental problem with this dilemma, and that's there actually isn't one. The Doctor, with his vast knowledge, is clearly aware that the Earth is safe from the hatching of the Moon. If he wasn't, he wouldn't zip back at the end. He even drops the truth, about the Moon beyond this point: “Maybe it's a completely different moon.” The three humans only know what the Doctor tells them, and what the Doctor tells them is that the hatching Moon is a terrible threat. The Doctor says that a hatchling never destroys the nest (again, not true), and is completely confident that the Earth is safe. From the point of view of the humans, the Earth is in terrible peril. Lundvik is far more likely to be right when she theorises that the Moon-creature is an exoparasite instead of a pretty space-dragon. Even if not, an Earth with no Moon would be in as much turmoil as one with a Moon increasing in mass. Morally, Lundvik is completely right. The life of one creature, no matter how young and how large and how unique, cannot outweigh the lives of every single living thing on Earth. Not just all of humanity, but every single animal, plant and microorganism is facing potential extinction because of this one newborn life. God, I hope some people watching turned off their lights.

Nonetheless, it's academic, for the dilemma is completely false. Artificial issues in sf are nothing new, but to work, they need to hold together within the fiction of the story. Clara is quite right when she points out that we don't know if it will hurt the Earth or leave it alone, but the Doctor does. The entire dilemma, dramatic and tense as it is, is manufactured by the Doctor just to see what his friend decides to do. No wonder Clara wants to slap the Doctor, putting her through that for no reason. Ultimately, however, the episode works, because it confronts this. The spectacular scene between the Doctor and Clara, absolutely owned by Jenna Coleman while Capaldi quietly faces the anger, saves the episode, calling the Doctor to task for his arrogance and emotional manipulation. It's followed by a beautiful scene between Clara and Danny, putting her anger against the Doctor into context. We know the Doctor will be back in Clara's life, but it seems that their days together are most certainly numbered. It also shows, just like last week's episode, that both Coleman and Samuel Anderson are truly fine actors when given strong enough material to work with.

This is a shame, because Clara has come into her own as a character this year, Coleman and Capaldi sharing a wonderful chemistry. The Smith/Coleman interaction worked reasonably well, but they were too similar, both as characters and performers. The twelfth Doctor works better with Clara precisely because of his arrogance and occasional cruelty, giving the ordinary young woman a dangerous figure to square up to. And Capaldi really is fantastic in this episode, taking what could easily have become ridiculous sequences and raising them to his level. His evocative speech concerning “grey areas” in time, far more eloquent than any of the previous Doctors' blather about fixed points and “timey-wimeyness,” is matched only by his rapturous performance on the beach, rejoicing at the grand future he can see unrolling from that moment. It's a performance that saves the episode at potentially its weakest point, for it's here that credulity is pushed to breaking point. For while this is fantasy dressed as science fiction, the moment when the Moon-creature, having hatched from an egg, lays another, equally-sized egg despite the logical incompatability of body-sized, while only Courtney is looking... well, that's the moment that suspension of disbelief becomes difficult. That's Kill the Moon all over: a very silly episode made and performed with complete conviction and seriousness. It's the sort of gloriously absurd story that only Doctor Who can sell.

Saturday 4 October 2014

WHO REVIEW: 8-6) The Caretaker

While most critics are raving about Listen, I feel that this episode is the highlight of the season so far. That said, tonight's episode, Kill the Moon, promises to be something very special. For me though, The Caretaker combines the very best of Doctor Who: humour, drama, the alien intruding on the everyday, some genuine character exploration and just a little bit of continuity for the geeks. At first glance, it appeared that this was going to be a third episode from Gareth Roberts in the same vein as his two Matt Smith stories, The Lodger and Closing Time. There are, of course, definite similarities. In all of these episodes, the Doctor arrives in contemporary England and sets himself up in a ordinary human situation in order to investigate and neutralise a hidden alien threat. However, while the two Smith episodes were essentially silly romps with a heartfelt message, The Caretaker is, beneath the daffy robot and the sitcom humour, quite a harsh critique of the Doctor's character and ethics.

It is, of course, very funny, primarily down to the performances of the cast. While the script does deliver some blinding lines – some of them surely the work of Moffat rather than Roberts, his style very recognisable now – much of it is quite low-key. Roberts has faith in the cast and the director to provide the humour and pathos in what is a much subtler script than his previous outings. Although there are exceptions; the joke about the Doctor mistaking young Adrian to be Clara's boyfriend because he holds a resemblance to his former self is brilliant, but it is hammered home long after it's run its course. On the whole, though, this is a fine script, brought to life by a cast on the top of their game. Jenna Coleman doess best in scripts that focus on Clara's character, rather than her mystery or her adventures. In fact, the adventuring is dealt with in an opening montage and then done with, allowing us to see what her character is actually like away from Zygons and robot sheriffs. Equally, Samuel Anderson is at his best here, finally given an opportunity to play Danny outside of deliberately farcical scenes. The chemistry between the two actors helps carry this whole episode, which is as much about their characters' relationship as it is about the Doctor. Bizarrely, some fans have complained that the series still contains too much “luvvy-duvvy” stuff. In fact, almost all of this has taken place offscreen, and we now join Clara and Danny having developed from dating to a fully-fledged relationship. Their easy chemistry sells this, and the episode wouldn't work without it.

Another observation from fans is that there is a definite feel of The Sarah Jane Adventures to this episode, and I can't disagree. For me this is a fine thing; at its best, SJA was an excellent children's programme, and while this episode deals with some adult themes, its setting gives it the feel of some of SJA's best. Standing out is Ellis George as Courtney Woods. The “disruptive influence” works far better than previous attempts at similar characters such as Angie in the latter part of series seven and Kelsey in the SJA pilot. When I read that Courtney was to be accompanying the Doctor at the end of this episode my heart sank; by the end of the broadcast, I was delighted to have her aboard. Such swagger. Also reproducing the feel of Sarah Jane is the monster of the week, the scuttling robot the Skovox Blitzer. There's no need for a complex villain in an episode like this; it merely needs a threat to motivate the plot far enough to force the characters to interact. That said, the Blitzer is not the most impressive beast, and while it's has a great design, it appears too prop-like onscreen to really take seriously as a credible danger. Nonetheless, it does its job.

Central to the episode, though, is the Doctor, and how both Clara and Danny interact with him. This is the biggest difference between The Caretaker and Roberts's previous “real world” episodes. The eleventh Doctor was weird, but charming, amiable and fundamentally likeable. The harshness of the Doctor's character was there, but hidden beneath a smiling veneer. The twelfth Doctor is far more raw, his edges more exposed. He doesn't become comically annoyed, but aggressive and furious. His faux pas are not endearing, but infuriating. His exclusion of Clara from the inner working of his plan for so long belies his great arrogance. He arrives in Coal Hill to stop the Blitzer, which has been attracted by the copious amounts of Artron energy in the area, something to which the Doctor has contributed significantly over the years. This version of the Doctor has displayed a vicious hatred of the military, and no more so than here. He immediately writes Danny off as incapable of being anything more than a P.E. teacher due to his background as a soldier, and seems to have more sympathy for the automated weapon he is there to disable than a human being.

In some ways, the Doctor's ribbing of Danny isn't dissimilar to his mocking of Mickey the idiot back in series one and two; goading the man to prove himself good enough to be the partner of his chosen travelling companion. Here though, it comes across as far more vindictive, with little of the good-natured sparring that characterised the ninth and tenth Doctor's treatment of Mickey Smith. The fact that both are played by black men hasn't gone uncommented upon. While I sincerely doubt that this was in any way an intentional inference, the fact that we once again have an older white male belittling a young black man and calling him stupid has understandably offended some viewers.

Naturally, Danny proves himself capable of being part of Clara and the Doctor's world, despite the Doctor refusing to give him even the slightest chance to redeem himself in his eyes. His refusal to listen to Danny during the crisis is pure hubris. Danny makes the quite reasonable suggestion of evacuating the school and the Doctor refuses to even consider going against his own plans. The fact that Danny's suggestion of bringing the military is not met with an explanation for why it would be dangerous, but merely angrily dismissed, is telling. The Doctor takes pride in explaining his plans to Clara; he can't even be bothered with Danny. All of this builds up to, and develops from, the standout scene of the episode, where Danny confronts the Doctor. It's an electrifying scene, with the Doctor's arrogance, self-importance and hypocrisy laid bare. Danny recognises the Doctor for what he is: an officer. “I'm the one who carries you out of the fire,” says the soldier. “He's the one who lights it.” It's a scathing attack, and one that the Doctor cannot retaliate against, not least because it reflects his own words in his warrior incarnation. “Great men are forged I fire. It takes a lesser man to light the flame.” The Doctor's hatred of the military surely stems from his own guilt for his actions during the Time War as much as anything.

For all the silliness, comedy and daft asides about otters, it's this one scene that makes the episode work so well. Despite being a cheap comedy episode with a mediocre monster, this is one of the most powerful critiques of the Doctor's character yet.

Thursday 2 October 2014

Comics Round-Up: October (1)

So this is really everything from the end of September. I'm busy, well behind on stuff. Still, here we go. Much Spider-Verse. More to come.

Edge of the Spider-Verse #2&3 (Marvel)

Issue 2 took a little while to get hold of; it sold out overnight at my local shop. Not surprisingly; this is the Gwen Stacy issue, whose reputation was a sky high before it even printed. It lives up to the hype, though. A really fantastic superhero comic, one of the best Spider-Man comics in ages. In an alternative reality where Gwen was bitten by the radioactive spider rather than Peter, things unravel quite differently. Peter is unmasked as the Lizard and bumped off in the first couple of pages, in a flashback to imaginary previous issues. Issue 3 takes a similar approach, written as if it is just the latest issue of a long-running series, The Spider-Man. This one is manga-inspired, with a Nippo-American Spider-Man, Dr. Aaron Aikman, in a complex armoured Spider-suit.

Of the two, Gwen's issue 2 is the better, being a genuinely well-told Spidey tale that just happens to be about the ass-kicking Spider-Woman Gwen Stacy. Robbi Rodriguez's artwork is excellent, perfectly matching Jason Latour's story style. Nonetheless, Dustin Weaver's issue 3 is very good, a fine, surprisingly downbeat sci-fi story. Both are linked to the overall Spider-Verse story, but without it overbearing the individual stories. Really excellent stuff here.

Superior Spider-Man #33 (Marvel)

And the other "Edge" story for the month, I think this is the last issue of Superior. Again, this is really very good, and pushes the overall Spider-Verse set-up forward significantly. We have a cybrog Spider-Man, Spider-Man India, Spider-Man Noir, Spider-Monkey (!) all joining forces with Otto Octavius and his team. Karn and his twisted sisters of the Spider-hunting clan turn the whole thing into a massive brawl, but this is, if you will, a superior scrap. It raises the issue that most of the alt-Spidey's are variants on Peter Parker (even the monkey) and that the other Spideys might see the mission in a very different way. It's followed by a brief chapter on the background of the Spider-hunters on Earth-000, battling monstrous Spider-gods. Really something else.

Saga #23 (Image)

Another solidly told issue of Saga. It's still hard to know what to say about this other than it remains a brilliant installment in a powerful sci-fantasy story. It definitely doesn't feel like it's treading water anymore; things are building up to a big climax this month. I still can't praise Staples's artwork enough. How can someone make a purple-skinned bat-girl look so attractive? Looks like the Robot Kingdom is on the verge of collapse, as is Alana and Marko's marriage. There's some brutal stuff in this issue, but it's tastefully, intelligently told.

George Perez's Sirens #1 (Boom!)

Am I the only one who doesn't rave about Perez's artwork? I honestly don't think it's all that. This is his new baby, a sci-fi epic featuring strong female heroes and villains across time and space. Plenty of bang for your buck with Book One, and this is building up to something quite epic, with elements strewn throughout history from the 1st century to the deep future. Yet, it just isn't moving me.

The Multiversity: Society of Super-Heroes (DC)

Another excellent one-shot in this series. "Conquerors of the Counter-World" features Doc Fate and his Society of Super-Heroes, a sort of pulp-era Justice League thrown against their altogether crueler, more deadly counterparts from another Earth. The Earth of the SOS is seemingly a retro-tinged world, contemporary but akin to our 1940s. Their evil alternates from Earth-40 invade, leading to a vast and terrible war, as The Immortal Man is pitted against his own counterpart, the monstrous Vandal Savage. It's brilliantly told, powerful stuff, contrasting the pulpy aesthetic with the reality of the horrors of the forties. And it all seems to building up to something truly massive in the series finale.

Wild's End #1 (Boom!)

Tee hee! This is wonderful. Dan Abnett's new title for Boom! is basically a War of the Worlds/Wind in the Willows crossover. I've been reading a lot of Abnett lately - also bought the Rocket & Groot compendium - and he can do talking animals like nobody else. There's surprising conviction to this, something that could be a throwaway joke played deadly seriously. Culbard's artwork is perfect for the project, setting up a strangely believable country village just about to experience a Martian invasion. Really one to treasure.

Roche Limit #1 (Image)

The beginnings of what promises to be an excellent new sf series by Michael Moreci and Vic Malhotra. Set on the colony Roche Limit, on a planetoid orbiting an impossible spatial anomaly, this is a potent mix of noir, horror and high concept science fiction. Taking in everything from organised crime to women's rights in its first issue, it looks like the heavier sf stuff is on the way, judging by the final panel. Really, this is very good, and since it's a limited series, I'm confident there's a strong story to come, rather than a rambling ongoing series.

Star Trek #37 (IDW)

I'm really quite enjoying "The Q Gambit." While to begin with I thought they'd missed a trick by not having Kirk meet Picard (although there are still three chapters left for this to happen), Sisko and DS9 are a much better fit for new Kirk and the modern version of Star Trek. This version of the 24th century is a particularly bleak place, the galaxy carved up between the Dominion and the Klingons, the latter of which have conquered Earth. Naturally, Worf is the king of Earth - he's always a monstrous despot in this alternative universes, have you noticed? One anomaly is that Bashir is working as a medic - how did he get his genetic enhancements in this timeline? Continuity quibbles aside, this is a decent adventure.