Monday 24 November 2014

This past week...

I spent a lot of time at work.

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

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

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

I suffered from moderate man flu.

I listened to Dark Eyes 3.

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

I spent a lot of time at work.

The Doctor Who Project: The Final Season

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

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

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

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

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

Comics Round-Up: November (2)

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

Spider-Verse #1 (Marvel)

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

The Amazing Spider-Man #10 (Marvel)

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

Spider-Woman #1 (Marvel)

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

Batgirl #36 (DC)

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

Batman Arkham #12 (DC/Titan)

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

Thor #2 (Marvel)

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

All-New Captain America #1 (Marvel)

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

Wild's End #3 (Boom!)

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

Guardians of the Galaxy #21 (Marvel)

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

Star Trek #38 (IDW)

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

Doctor Who Magazine #480 (Panini)

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

Multiversity: Pax Americana (DC)

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

Friday 14 November 2014

Are we losing Dimetrodon?

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

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

Thursday 13 November 2014

Rosetta arrives

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

BBC: Rosetta Comet lander now stable

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

Daily Mash: Comet landing empirically cool, so shut up

MOVIE REVIEW: Interstellar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 12 November 2014


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

Tuesday 11 November 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 9 November 2014

Comicbook Movie Calendar

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

Big Hero 6 - 30th January

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

Kingsman: The Secret Service - 12th February

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

Avengers: Age of Ultron - 24th April

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

Ant-Man - 17th July 

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

The Fantastic Four - 6th August

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

Bananaman - Summer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 8 November 2014

Comics Round-Up: November (1)

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

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

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

Saga #24 (Image)

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

Roche Limit #2 (Image)

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

Avengers Universe #6 (Marvel/Panini)

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

Rocket Raccoon #5 (Marvel)

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

Gotham Academy #2 (DC)

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

Terrible Lizard #1 (Oni Press)

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

Tuesday 4 November 2014

HAMMERAMA: The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 1 November 2014

REVIEW: Marvel's Agents of SHIELD 2-1 & 2-2

The MCU's first TV series got off to an inauspicious start. For much of the first season, SHIELD seemed to be playing it safe for the first half of its first season. Unoriginal, uninteresting characters, actors failing to gel, no clear direction and a distinct lack of the joyful excitement of the Marvel movies. Things began to pick up mid-season, as the series started tying into the films and invited some supervillains on to play. With more mystery, rejigged characters and more enjoyable storylines saw a general improvement on the series. Things really kicked into gear with the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The series had been treading water up until the revelations of that film, with HYDRA's infiltration of SHIELD changing the nature of the series entirely and putting out heroes into genuine jeopardy. Suddenly, Marvel's Agents of SHIELD became required viewing.

Season two continues this revamp, hitting the ground running with a pacey two-parter. Beginning with a fun flashback to SHIELD's formative years, setting up the upcoming Agent Carter series (which Channel Four is not showing... sigh) and introducing seemingly immortal villain Daniel "Kraken" Whitehall. Then it's back to the future... and finally we're in a real superhero show. OK, so there's no sign of any actual superpowered goodies, but what we have got is promising. Skye, although still a tedious character, is no longer sat behind a laptop, instead kicking ass in the field alongside the always impressive Agent May. Coulson (the always watchable Clark Gregg), now Director of the Reduced SHIELD Company, is haunted by demons (or should that be aliens?) Ward is still under lock and key, going quietly insane and dispensing nuggets of intel as the plot requires. Most impressive is the new and un-improved Fitz. Suffering from brain damage after his extended trip to the deep, his prodigious intellect present but short-circuited, Fitz has some of the best scenes of the episode. It's a far cry from the dull individual we had before, giving Iain de Caestecker some strong material to work with. Even his interplay with Simmons is better now that she's nothing more than a figment of his imagination. 

The new additions to the cast are a mixed bunch, but ultimately promising. Somehow, the producers managed to find someone with an even butcher name than Lance Hunter to play the character. Nick Blood is pretty good as the untrustworthy merc, although in the first half he is reduced to irritating quipping. The second episode gives him some stronger material, as we don't know which way the renegade will turn, even given that we know he's a new regular. Lucy Lawless brings some real class as Izzy Hartley... then gets killed off. Which is a bit of a waste, assuming she really is dead (you can never be sure in these shows). It's good to see Adrian Pasdar back as Colonel Glenn Talbot, providing an excellent foil for Coulson, and with whom Gregg has some great chemistry. 

However, best of all is Brian Wade as Crusher Creel, the Absorbing Man. After teasing us with introducing potential supervillains early in season one, finally giving us the likes of Deathlok and Lorelei later on, the series goes all out with a proper, classic Marvel baddie. Understandably a TV budget is going to restrict which characters are able to be included, but we need a monster now and again. Wade is great as the simmering, barely controlled Creel, and the combination of stunts and visual effects used to create his attacks are top notch. Although he is taken out by the end of the story, it's pretty clear he's being set up for a return. Let's hope he brings some other favourite villains with him.

On top of this, we have several ongoing mysteries. The nature of the obelisk (aren't obelisks usually bigger?) is left unresolved; at first it seems like it might be one of the invaluable infinity stones, but on balance it seems more likely it's simply an extraterrestrial device. Presumably of Kree origin, tying in with Coulson's resurrection and his fascinating "episodes," scratching out alien glyphs seemingly against his will. Then we have the ever alluring Rayna, now answering to someone known only as "the Doctor" (not him), played with sinister relish by genre stalwart Kyle MacLachlan. This supposed "monster" has been identified as Skye's father, and we might finally gets some answers regarding her origins. The smart money is on her being an Inhuman, and god knows she needs something more interesting about her.

Not without its flaws, Agents of SHIELD continues the path of improvement it displayed in the latter part of season one. I'm looking forward to seeing where it goes from here.