Sunday 27 December 2015

REVIEW: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The Force Awakens opens with a truly beautifully directed scene, in which the villains' credentials are set out with a brutal massacre, and a single stoomtrooper stands among the carnage, unable to act. We can't see his face, he is completely indistinguishable from his fellows save for the blood smeared on his faceshield by his dying comrade. You can tell exactly what the trooper is thinking at every moment. It's a masterful example of silent acting combined with excellent direction.

Yes, The Force Awakens is derivative, so similar to its predecessors, particularly the original Star Wars, that it's practically a remake. The script is straightforward, some of the performances are very broad, and it trades in nostalgia over originality. Still, I don't know about you, but that's exactly what I was after. Like Terminator 5 and Jurassic World, the seventh episode of Star Wars is made for people who want to experience their favourite worlds again, reliving the classic movies. None of these franchises can afford to simply do this again, and need to go in new directions with their upcoming sequels, but for now, this works. The Force Awakens is a perfect reproduction of what made the original Star Wars so enjoyable, with just a little added to make it more palatable for modern audiences.

It's a wonderful step forward to have the main protagonists in the year's biggest blockbuster be a black man and a woman, and for them to be supported by a middle-aged couple. John Boyega is excellent in the role of Finn, the stoomtrooper who overcomes years of conditioning and abandons the First Order, the Nazi-esque successor to the Galactic Empire. He's a likeable hero with a strong development from terrified deserter to true hero, but he is overshadowed once the final act is set up and the white people dominate the scenes. So, a big step forward, but not without its flaws. The only other major role for an actor of colour is Lupita Nyong'o, who provides the voice of the venerable alien Maz Kanata. She's excellent in the role, but I question the wisdom of hiding the one other prominent black face (not to mention one of the most beautiful faces in the world) behind a CGI reptile.

Daisy Ridley shoulders some of the more perfunctory dialogue, but again, is a hugely likeable and believable hero. Yes, her story deliberately parallels Luke Skywalker's, but it's refreshing to have the hero of the piece, and the most impressive character, be a young woman, and this adds a new angle to the story. It's not only going to be little white boys who can see themselves in the heroes on screen. After all, even though Carrie Fisher was impressive in the original trilogy, she was nonetheless sat down out of the way while Luke saved the Galaxy. Rey gets to be the most powerful potential Jedi in the series, almost absurdly so, displaying incredible Force ability without a bit of training. Staggeringly, there are people out there who find this the hardest thing to believe in a film about magic space knights – obviously it's impossible that a woman could be the best in swordfight.

One thing in the prequels' favour was a sense of scale sometimes missing from the originals. The Force Awakens has that scale, without ever crossing the line to CGI overload. There are hectic space battles and tons of monsters, but it's never incoherent or hard to follow. I understand that much of what has transpired between Return of the Jedi and this movie is very similar to developments in the old expanded universe books and comics, but like the majority of the film's vast audience I know little about that. I can say that I like that things have clearly not been easy since the Battle of Endor, and that the Empire didn't just miraculously vanish overnight without consequence. The First Order is clearly a powerful organisation, the New Republic is worryingly weak, and their relationship with the Resistance uncertain. Leia is now a General, Han is once again living on the edge of the law, and life is still shitty for most people in this Galaxy. It's still an old, broken, dangerous world, populated by bizarre creatures, just as it should be.

Some of it is, perhaps, too familiar. Rey is drawn into the Rebellion Resistance after an attack on her home, the desert planet Tatooine Jekku. Han and Chewie take time away from their smuggling to help take the fight to the Death Star giant planet that eats suns. There's a critical confrontation over a huge crevasse. I don't think anyone loses an arm, though. But this just feels like Star Wars through and through, and while some dislike a certain familial relationship between characters being revealed, I feel that it's a confident inversion of the classic films' set-up. There's a deliberate sense of history repeating. Adam Driver's character, the villainous Kylo Ren, is a deliberately weak despot, trying hard to live up to the example of his idol, the long dead Darth Vader. The character works because of his weakness, not in spite of it. Equally good is Domhnall Gleeson, whose General Hux is the young, modern equivalent of Grand Moff Tarkin, with extra scenery chewing. Of course, the First Order recruits its officers from the best schools in England. There are little hints of life in this twisted order; for example, the revelation that the stormtroopers are made up of clones, recruits and children brought up as soldiers, with disagreement between officers which is the best method.

There are flaws, of course. Gwendolyn Christie is wasted as super-trooper Captain Phasma. Oscar Isaac's character, Poe Dameron, is written out early on, before randomly reappearing later in a lazy rewrite. But this is exciting, nostalgic fun, surprisingly funny, and if you do somehow manage to get bored, you can play “spot the cameo.” And BB-8 really is the cutest robot ever.

Saturday 26 December 2015

WHO REVIEW: 2015 Christmas Special - The Husbands of River Song

We sorely needed a light-hearted runaround after the heavy drama of the recent series of Doctor Who, and this certainly delivered that. It's hard to call this anything particularly remarkable for Doctor Who. It's hard to make a Christmas special feel special when it's only been about three weeks since the last series finished; Doctor Who is very concentrated into the last few weeks of the year now, which does suit the spooky direction we've gone in lately, but does reduce its overall impact on the screens.

In any case, this was good fun, if nothing spectacular. A ludicrously over-the-top sci-fi story with more than a hint of Hitchhikers to it, with the broad comedy set-up used as a background for River and the Doctor to play together. The conceit of bringing River back, yet again, but pitting against a Doctor without the boyish looks of her previous Time Lord boyfriends is a good one, and having River unaware that this is the Doctor at all is a great idea. As the Doctor says, it's a chance to see what River is like the rest of the time, having her own adventures, playing up how flirtatious, amoral and downright dangerous she is. The script flirts with the idea that River is just using the Doctor as a handy ride in times of trouble, but swivels and has her declare her love for him in an astounding speech. Either way, she is revealed to be enormously dependent on him, even as she lives a long and elaborate life of her own.

It has to be said, Greg Davies and Matt Lucas, although both pretty funny here, are wasted in the roles of Hydroflax and Nardole (a particularly unfortunate little character, he really gets put through the ringer). As is Game of Thrones's Nonso Anozie, who provides the booming voice of the robotic body that carts the various characters' heads around. It's really a showcase for Capaldi and Kingston, who play things mostly straight while the farce carries on around them, displaying admirable comedic skills and great chemistry with one another.

Both of the main settings for the episode have potential, but neither is explored in any kind of detail. This is a pity; the horrific reign of King Hydroflax could have been a mine of material, but perhaps Hydroflax is just too straightforward a villain for modern Doctor Who, suitable only as a vague threat and comic relief. Another potential source of villainy and adventure is the starship Harmony and Redemption, the misnomered cruise liner for the worst scoundrels and despots in the Galaxy (having committed genocide in the past, the Doctor would have no trouble booking a cabin). A shipful of supervillains could provide a series' worth of material, but it's little more than a throwaway gag here. There's a lot more that could have been done with this setting.

What made the episode for me was the ending, beginning with River's impassioned speech (and the Doctor's merciless teasing of her for it), and moving into their, we presume, final adventure together. Bringing back material Moffat wrote for River when he first created the character, it puts a different perspective on the Doctor. The man who doesn't like endings - who refused to even countenance the idea of Clara dying - finally has the courage to accept this is the beginning of the end for them. Having put off the fateful trip to Darillium for so long, he and River share what seemed to be their final moments together in front of the Singing Towers. It's utterly beautiful, shows Capaldi and Kingston at their absolute best, and ends with a doozy: they've actually got twenty-four years to spend together in their one, final night. Although the comedy nonsense was fun, this is where the strengths of both performers and the writer lie.

Friday 25 December 2015

Flash and Supergirl mid-season reviews

Avec les spoilers


It's Christmas in Central City, and we celebrate with a villain team-up. This episode has the feel of an episode of the classic 90s Batman animated series, what with the over-the-top plot (exploding Christmas presents!) sitting alongside a grimmer plotline (Patty faces her desire for revenge against her father's murderer). Plus, the presence of Mark Hamill as the Trickster naturally makes it seem like the Joker's around. (Thought: Jay says they don't have a Trickster on Earth-2. He should have said they have a Joker instead.)

Weather Wizard, despite his silly name and powers, is a cold, heartless individual, and makes a great mirror to the Trickster, who's utterly insane but blessed with a strongly emotional worldview. Alongside them you have Captain Cold, who gets to show his noble side, setting the stage further for Legends of Tomorrow, which will hit early next year. There's some strong development of the Zoom/Wells plotline, and Wally West makes his debut appearance, but the most important thread is Patty's storyline coming to a head as she finally gets some closure. She's still the Iris of this series, the only character kept out of the loop when everyone and his mum knows Barry's the Flash. They really need to sort that out. Otherwise, though, this has been a strong half-season and this was a great episode.


I'm very much enjoying the direction the series is taking, with more focus on Kara's emotional reaction to both current and long ago events. The comicbook fan in me is loving the introduction of familiar characters; Red Tornado was a treat (even if T. O. Morrow was an irritating villain), and then the spectacular reveal that Hank Henshaw is, in fact, the Martian Manhunter. Really didn't see that one coming. Henshaw/J'onzz is a bit glib with his alien identity now the cat is out of the bag with viewers, but still, this was great misdirection for fans, who fully expected him to become the Cyborg Superman as in the comics. (Not that this precludes the return of the real Henshaw, who could well be the Cyborg Supes.)  The "finale" episode has some great scenes, including the various battles between the alien forces and the protectors of the Earth, but any scene involving the Kryptonians actually speaking (either flashbacks to Krypton or Earth events) is marred by stultifyingly po-faced sci-fi dialogue. It really damages the whole episode. Still, at least Non gets an upgrade from mute slab of moron-muscle to an actual thinking, speaking, calculating character.

The best parts, though, remain Kara's interactions with her family, friends and team. I like that she's really getting put through the ringer emotionally, and her outburst at her mother's hologram, railing against being abandoned on Earth, is probably the best scene for her in the series so far. Although, the climax of the previous episode, in which she pours all her rage at her life's flaws and injustices, into burning up the Red Tornado, is a close second. I'm also truly loving Cat Grant now, portrayed with cut-glass iciness by Calista Flockhart but with moments of real warmth and humility. Cat could have been just a one-note bitch character, but she's become the highlight of the series. "Hostile Takeover" sees her facing the attempted ousting of Cat from her own company by a hacking and smear campaign, thwarted by Kara and her gang, and it works brilliantly. At its best, Supergirl is a very modern, strongly feminist series, and here it really explores the incredible obstacles women face in positions of power and responsibility, by showing rather than just echoing well-worn platitudes. Oh, and then Cat shows she has more brains than any of Superman's allies ever did, by working out that Kara is Supergirl and absolutely not backing down. 

Wednesday 23 December 2015

December Comics Round-Up

Ultimates #2 (Marvel)

Yes, this is definitely the Avengers-esque title I'm going to follow. Black Panther's team - Blue Marvel might nominally be calling the shots, but it's definitely Black Panther's team - are all incredibly powerful, hyperintelligent, or both, and they're travelling the universe to sort shit out. Dan Brown's art is perfect for this. There's a real cosmic feel to this issue, ending with a complete inversion of what Galactus stands for, that could lead to some very interesting things indeed.

Doctor Who - Eighth Doctor #2 (Titan)

Emma Vicelli absolutely nails her depiction of the eighth Doctor. I prefer this issue to the first; this is the other side of the eighth Doctor, the careworn old man who's trying to remain positive in the face of an overwhelmingly cruel universe. It ends on an optimistic note, but we know that this Doctor is going to have to face his own war soon, which adds depth to the story. Very good.

Doctor Who Magazine #494 (Panini)

Haven't we had sword-and-sorcery planets in the comics quite recently? This is fine, but there's not an original element in it. Adrian Salmon's art style doesn't really work for it, either. I'm going to call this one a miss.

Batman/TMNT #1 (DC/IDW)

Just much more fun than it has any right to be. I like that this avoids going for all out campery. Batman and the Turtles might actually work very well together. And using Killer Croc here is so obvious it would have been foolish not to do so.

Ms. Marvel #2 (Marvel)

This is rather excellent, with Kamala facing the twin evils of gentrification and the exploitation of fame. There are some rather lovely moments with both Bruno and her adorable older brother, and pitting the youngest Avenger against a new, corporate version of HYDRA makes sense. The important stuff is Kamala's entirely believable reaction to the developments, though.

The Mighty Thor #2 (Marvel)

"Just take me to my cell, serpent. I figure it's best I get one now... before all the good ones are filled." That's just a brief line showing how awesome Heimdall is, but this is brilliant throughout. Thor is just excellent right now. The war between the Light and Dark Elves rages, with the incongruous sight of Roxxon tanks mowing down unicorns. Loki is back, all re-grown up and bad again, while the Elves and Jotnar lay waste to the Nine Realms in a beautiful and finely written story. Recommended.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #3 (Marvel)

A fairly middling issue for Squirrel Girl, but still way more fun than pretty much any comic series running right now. Retro-Dr. Doom just about works in this context, revelling in the campness of the character, but Nancy isn't quite up to the task of holding the storyline up against him without Doreen. Things work much better once the girls team up again. Digging Doreen's sixties costume. Includes the perfect footnote, "That guy's The Punisher! Like all men who take themselves extremely seriously, he likes to spend his downtime sewing cartoon skeleton heads onto every shirt he owns, so that way everyone can tell right away how extremely serious he is." When a comic running at half-power has lines like that, it's a keeper.

Lucifer #1 (DC/Vertigo)

Well, that wasn't nearly as bad as I'd feared it would be. I still don't really see the point of it; the original Lucifer series by Mike Carey was truly brilliant and a closed story, ending in the most perfect and final way possible. I'd expected this to be a reboot, rather than a continuation as it is here, and I'm not sure which is more pointless. Still, Lucifer returning to the Universe in the wake of God's apparent murder has some potential. Not a patch on Carey's work, but approximately 130 times better than the shit they cooked up for TV.

The Wicked + The Divine #17 (Image)

Wow, this has gone off the boil. The last issue of the current "let's look at everyone's backstory" season, this one focuses on cat-goddess Sekhmet, who is only interesting in fucking and drinking and is correspondingly boring as hell. Looking forward to how the series kicks back into gear upon its return in April, as it really needs some forward momentum.

And that's yer lot. I'll be cutting right back on the comics next year - Saga, Squirrel Girl, Ultimates and The Mighty Thor will be on my list, probably along with Ms. Marvel and maybe Spider-Woman

Sunday 20 December 2015

Whotopia Returns!

It's been nearly two years, but now the popular web fanzine Whotopia is back with its 28th issue. In this very Masterly issue, I provide the first article in a series called "Master Who," examining each incarnation of the villainous Time Lord in the same vein as my "Doctor by Doctor" articles from 2013. David P. May also provides an insight into the villain's schemes in "Master of Disaster," and also takes a look at the underappreciated first Doctor serial The Keys of Marinus. There's also new fanfic from Michael Baxter, a look at third Doctor story Carnival of Monsters and Bob Furnell explores some of the unmade scripts for the fifth Doctor. Click below to go straight to the issue.

Wednesday 16 December 2015

The International Astronomical Union recently held a vote to determine the names of a list of planets and stars in distant systems. It would be impossible to assign a name to every star and planet in the Galaxy - there are just too many of them - so they generally just get an alphanumerical designation. However, a few have accrued names from popular usage, and now a select group have had names officially assigned by the IAU, according to popular vote.

The full list is at the link, but some of my favourites include Thestias, the new name of the only known planet orbiting Pollux (Beta Geminorum), named for the epithet of Leda, the mother of Castor and Pollux (the Gemini twins) in Greek myth. The Mu Arae system has five known planets, named for characters from the Don Qixote story: Quijote, Dulcinea, Rocinante and Sancho, plus the star itself has received the common name Cervantes, after the author.

Another star, formerly known only as PSR 1257+12, has been named Lich, and undead being from myth, and its planets have been named in kind: Draugr, Phobetor (i.e. Nightmare) and Poltergeist! The well known Epsilon Eridani is now also called Ran, and its sole known planet is Aegir, named for two Jotnar from Norse myth. And a particular favourite planet of mine, Fomalhaut b, is now known as Dagon, after the Semitic deity (made famous in the modern era by H.P. Lovecraft).

The 55 Cancri system has been named in honour of great astronomers, with the star itself now called Copernicus, and its planets named Galileo, Brahe, Lippershey, Janssen, and Harriot, while Iota Draconis b has been named for the great Hypatia. Wonderful stuff.

Monday 7 December 2015


You know what? I really enjoyed that. This hasn't been the most consistent of series, and there are problems with the finale that reflect this. It's certainly not what I expected to see, following on from the remarkable Heaven Sent, but that's not a bad thing. This was a perfect end to the season, and to Clara's story. Clara's character has suffered particularly from the inconsistency this year, and she's never been the most consistent character in any case. As a farewell, though, this worked beautifully. As many have pointed out, this was essentially an inversion of Donna's fate at the end of season four, with Clara taking retaining her own agency and the Doctor being punished for his own arrogance and hubris. "Never be cruel, and never be cowardly; and if you are, always make amends." For once, the Doctor was both cruel and cowardly, and he payed for it.

So they're out of the way, complaints (ish):

  • Clara didn't die after all. Are we surprised? Even if the cast of the episode hadn't been released ages ago, this wouldn't have been unexpected. Nobody stays dead in this series. It's just part of the way the show works these days.
  • Gallifrey's back then? Sat at the end of the Universe, not up to much. The Doctor finally arrives there and takes the place over in a bloodless coup (which is just perfect), exiles the President, takes his place and promptly runs off again. All great, but still, it was a bit anticlimactic.
  • Rassilon was a disappointment, and a bit of a waste of the great Donald Sumpter. It's a shame we didn't get Timothy Dalton back, but perhaps, actually, it was for the best. This was the real Rassilon; the scared, desperate old man behind the blustering warlord, who simply isn't relevant now the Time War is finally over. The Doctor finally kicked him out by simply refusing to take him seriously.
  • Why were Ohila and the Sisterhood there? And how? They seemed rather surplus.
  • The Doctor really put himself through billions of successive iterations in a cyclic hell just so he'd have a bargaining tool when he finally got to Gallifey? He really is a stubborn old bastard.
  • All that Hybrid stuff really didn't work as a mystery. We'd never heard anything of it before Davros randomly mentioned it in The Magician's Apprentice, and since then it's been dropped in rather awkwardly more or less every episode in an attempt to make us think it's been haunting the Doctor and the Time Lords since the series' inception. It really didn't work. Applause for the fan-baiting tease of the half-human Doctor though (which he notably doesn't actually deny).
With that out of the way, though... this was rather joyful, when it wasn't milking tears. The Doctor goes home - and he really goes home, not to the President's office but to the place he hid out as a child. I was very pleased to see the General again (I'll have to stop calling him General Bones now). A shame to lose Ken Bones, who I rather adore, but that regeneration was just fabulous. T'nia Miller is actually rather excellent as the new General, with a real authority that makes it believable she's the same character. And the gall of it... the old white guy regenerates into a young black woman, right in front of us, a full-blooded Time Lord, damned right it's canon, deal with it. And basically says, "ah, back to normal at last." Just perfect.

Even before that though, the moment between the Doctor and the General, the former acting appallingly, blinded by love, the latter standing his ground, unwilling to waver. Two characters with utter respect for each other, at odds. It's a beautiful scene. But for the Doctor to gun someone down, a friend, even though he knew he'd probably regenerate; I don't think we've ever seen him go so far.

Good to see Maisie Williams used well again. She gave an astonishingly controlled and confident performance as the last woman in the Universe. By then, after trillions of years of life, she'd either be completely insane or, well, god. Also, that classic, white TARDIS interior, with the Doctor in a severe black coat. I had nostalgia for the sixties, and I wasn't even there. 

So, very Moffat, and the Moffat haters will, of course, hate it. And fair enough; if it's not your cup of tea, that's understandable. It was somehow overblown and undercooked at once, it made no sense whatsoever, but it was quite simply a wonderful experience and I imagine it'll be an episode I go back to again and again (unlike, say, Zygon ISIS, which although the best story of the year, isn't one I'll get a lot of rewatch value from). It ends with the Doctor picking up the pieces while Clara and Me/Ashildr travel the Universe together. Spot on.

Saturday 5 December 2015

REVIEW: The Flash 2.7-2.8, plus Arrow 4.8


This episode only works because Grodd is in it, and I'm still thrilled by the fact that we get to see Gorilla Grodd on live action TV. The central storyline, ostensibly, is Grodd coming to terms wih his existence by, um, trying to create a race of superintelligent gorillas with Caitlyn's help. So about par for the course there, really. Grodd and Caitlyn get some nice King Kong/Fay Ray moments. Added into this is Harrison-2 pretending to to be Harrison-1 to fool Grodd into behaving himself, which, unsurprisingly, doesn't work.

The other side of the episode sees Barry getting over his crippling injury by Zoom the episode before. While I never expected Barry's paralysis to be permanent, I'd have thought they'd at least have him grounded for a few episodes while he healed, emotionally and physically. I get that this is a metaphor for his regaining confidence after his defeat, and it works well as that, but it's still over too quickly to really accept. His dad drops in as well to give him a boost, and gives an actual reason for leaving town as soon as he got out of prison: he can't stand to live in a place full of people who saw him as a murderer. Which is understandable, but it's still bizarre to have him skip out on his son like that.

However, there are some great moments for Barry-Patty and Cisco-Kendra, Harrison-2 is still very much a highlight of the series, and it ends with a gorilla being punched into another dimension. Which is something that deserves a place in anyone's viewing schedule.


In case the title didn't make it clear, this two-part story - which crosses over between The Flash  and Arrow - exists almost solely to set up Legends of Tomorrow. However, it does manage to spend some time on some rather lovely character moments, particularly between Oliver and Felicity, and move on the ongoing plot of both shows (a little of Speedy's development, a crisis for Patty, Jay, Caitlyn and Harrison-2). It's a good thing I've been following Arrow more this year, because it would be pretty confusing coming into that series' side of things otherwise. That said, the most important part of that series' story, the relationship between Oliver and Felicity and the revelation the former has a son, is easy to grasp for more casual viewers.

Mostly, though, this is about introducing the really out there characters due to make up part of the Legends team, namely Kendra/Hawkgirl, Carter/Hawkman, and Vandal Savage. Throwing in a pair of eternal lovers from ancient Egypt, reincarnated again and again over thousands of years, and the immortal warrior who hunts them down, takes the Arrowverse to new levels of comicbook weirdness, but to their credit the showrunners pull it all off. This is overblown, overexcited nonsense, with way too much breathily delivered exposition and some really crass dialogue, a huge rewrite late on due to the power of time travel and some rather fudged action scenes. But god, I enjoyed this.

Cisco and Wells remain probably the best things in The Flash, so it's a shame they don't interact in this story, but they both have more important things going on. I was a bit disappointed in Caspar Crump as Vandal Savage; he looks the part but his performance was a little underwhelming. (Zoom would kick his arse.) John Barrowman is still terrible as Merlyn.

Monday 30 November 2015

November Comics Round-Up (2)

Spider-Gwen #2 (Marvel) I'm enjoying the glimpses at parallel universe versions of favourite characters, particularly the backstory sketched in for the female Captain America who faces up against Gwen before becoming a tenuous ally. However, there's only so long this idea can hold the attention for, and this series is starting to feel like it's on autopilot. I'll probably drop this and come back to it later to see if anything new is happening.

Web Warriors #1 (Marvel) The ongoing adventures of multiple Spideys, continuing the fun begun in the Spider-Verse event. There's still some fun to be had with the concept, particularly the use of the 60s cartoon universe as a safe training ground for the Warriors (with appropriate nods to the notorious Spidey memes). It follows on from the Ultimate Spider-Man series' take on Spider-Verse by having multiple versions of the same villain - in this case, Electro. Fun, but I feel like this idea might soon have run its course.

All-New, All-Different Avengers #1 (Marvel) I like the racial politics in this, especially since people are actually making a big deal of the ethnic layout of a fictional team of superheroes in the real world. The romance building up between Ms. Marvel and Nova is pretty cute. Overall, though, this isn't especially grabbing me, which is a shame. Between the New, All-New All-Different and Uncanny, there's probably material for a really decent Avengers team and title.

Ultimates #1 (Marvel) The final "Avengers" group, taking on the mantle of the Ultimate universe team, but doing it completely differently (i.e. not shit). The new Ultimates are the great problem-solving team of the universe, facing cosmic weirdness and analysing it to find solutions. Sure, there's ass-kicking - Ms. America is on the team, after all - but this team focuses on solving issues, not destroying them. Their first case: meet Galactus, solve his hunger. It's an ingenious set-up, and on the strength of the first issue, worth carrying on with. Also notable is the colour of the main cast - Captain Marvel is the only white face so far in a team that includes Spectrum, the Blue Marvel, the Black Panther and Ms. America. Plus, a moment to actually ponder the philosophical repurcussions of Marvel's great multiversal reset. Very good indeed.

The Wicked + The Divine #16 (Image) This issue is the weakest in a long time. It's purely an origin story for the Morrigan, and a pretty cliched, uninteresting one at that. I don't think we really need to see each of the gods get their moment of ascension. I enjoyed the, ah, ketchupomancy though.

Ms. Marvel #1 (Marvel) I'm not sure why I ever dropped this. Money, probably. Anyway, this is just a great as it ever was, although now Kamala is part of the Avengers. It works better here, seeing the effects of this on her life, than it does actually in All New, All Different. There's a fine balance between her superheroics and her personal life, adorable artwork, and the phrase "giant weaponized amphibian." I am somewhat baffled as to why Marvel and her fellow New Jersey citizens remember the world sort-of ending while characters in other titles don't. Or do they? I can't follow everything.

Spider-Woman #1 (Marvel) Giving a female hero a pregnancy sounds, on the one hand, like the most stereotypical bad idea ever, but on the other... well, what's the point in having female-driven comics if you can't use them to explore the stories and issues women face? And, in practice, this, the story of Jessica Drew beginning her maternity leave before settling into life as a single mother, is really very good. Particularly as she's been training up the Porcupine to take over the crime-fighting duties while she's off. Jessica's fiercely independent nature makes her an interesting choice for this unexpected development, with everyone running around trying to help out and take care of her. This comic works. The bets bit is Spider-Man's Spidey-sense going off because Iron Man is about to ask who the father is.

The Mighty Thor #1 (Marvel) Spider-Woman isn't the only hero facing life-changing issues. Giving a character a life-threatening illness can be a cheap shot, but this is handled well. The pain of going through chemotherapy is a real one for many people, and I've seen enough of this in real life to call this comic out if it felt cheap. This is written with respect. While Jane Foster can never benefit from her therapy since each transformation into Thor burns the poisons from her system, the cancer remains, killing her. This is set against a sci-fi/fantasy backdrop of corporate greed and cosmic warfare, with some spectacular imagery. Classic Sandman fans could do worse than trying this.

Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur #1 (Marvel) Just a lovely start to this new title. Jack Kirby's old characters, Devil Dinosaur and Moon Boy, are brought back, alongside the absolutely wonderful new kid, hyperintelligent ten-year-old Lunella Lafayette. She's the most adorable, likeable new character since Kamala Khan (and god, that's a team-up I'd love to see some day). Like Ms. Marvel, it's tied in with the Inhumans/Terrigen mist plotline, but Lunella is deliberately avoiding any chance of being exposed. It's a slow beginning but promises to be a wonderful tale for anyone who's ever felt unappreciated - i.e. everyone. And it has a big red T. rex in it.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #1 (Marvel) Squirrel Girl in the Sixties. Also, Doctor Doom, her first adversary, returns to cause trouble. I wish I could do more to summarise this comic other than just gush about how joyfully daffy it is.

Saga #31 (Image) Saga returns, and it's a pretty good issue, both continuing from precisely where we left Hazel, her grandmother and abductors and catching up with them in captivity months later. While it's still not at the level that Saga used to play at, this is well told and has important things to say about prisoners of war, immigration control, xenophobia and transmisogyny.

Ghostbusters Annual 2015 (IDW) I haven't had a Ghostbusters annual since, what, 1993? What a joy. OK, so this isn't a kids' annual, but a bumper-sized comics issue, but still, this is good fun. The main strip, featuring the Sandman as the villain, works very nicely, tying into the overall storyline. Following that is a bunch of shorts by various artist/writer combos, some of which work well, others not so much. Overall, though, this is a hit.

Sunday 29 November 2015

WHO REVIEW: 9-11: Heaven Sent

After an exceedingly hectic week, one in which I didn't even find time to review Face the Raven, but did find time to watch The Day of the Doctor, Remembrance of the Daleks and An Unearthly Child in a pub's basement bar, Saturday was pleasantly relaxed. Although not for the Doctor. He had an absolute shitter of a Saturday, and it lasted several billion years.

Essentially a single-hander for Peter Capaldi (barring a couple of cameo moments), it's very hard to see how this episode would have worked as well under any of the previous Doctors. John Hurt could've pulled it off, because he's John Hurt, but Smith, Tennant and even Eccleston would have struggled to maintain sufficient gravitas, vulnerability and believability throughout the fifty-five minutes of the episode. Doctor Who has experimented with new approaches and storytelling devices quite frequently over the last few years, from the dream logic of Last Christmas to the flawed found footage style of the recent Sleep No More. It's with Heaven Sent, though, that it really manages to create a unique episode of the series, one which feels genuinely different to anything that has come before it.

Which is quite an achievement, considering that so much of Heaven Sent is Moffat taking his now overused tropes and stretching them to their endpoint. Though it's not a “timey-wimey” story as such, the cyclical storytelling brings those stories to mind. Creepy imagery and scares aren't new for the series, although they've rarely been as effective as the veiled ghost, dredged from the Doctor's nightmares and sent to slowly track him down. The Doctor's hypertime mental state is exactly the same as Sherlock's mind palace, down to the sleuth's ingenious last second before the bullet hits in His Last Vow. The time-stretched nature of the story is really a better realised version of the Doctor's long last stand in The Time of the Doctor. The shifting castle brings to mind Harry Potter, Dark City, The Cube... it's not original. Nothing is really new here. It's the way it's being deployed that's makes it so brilliantly effective.

It's an episode which relies on the skill of its central player and his support. Without wanting to overlook the many people who work on a production like this, whose skills go into making every episode, the success of Heaven Sent is down to Capaldi, Moffat and director Rachel Talalay, the latter in particular really making this something of a masterpiece, maximising the tension and managing to create a feeling of aeons passing as the story progresses. Also worth mentioning is Murray Gold, whose excellent music is sometimes overlooked when discussing the success of an episode. That said, it's still too high in the mix. If we're going to have emotive scenes of Peter Capaldi talking to himself, I'd like to be able to hear what he's saying.

Although this is a pure character piece for the most part, it manages to also be an intriguing example of science fiction. Sci-fi rarely takes the idea of how a teleporter actually would have to work and runs with it (there are some excellent stories that do, the best on screen being the adaptation of Christopher Priest's The Prestige). The dawning realisation of the Doctor's situation, the movement of the stars tipping him off that a vast amount of time has passed, and his sheer, bloody-minded refusal to lose to whatever has him trapped, makes for an incredible combination of high-concept and emotive storytelling. Again, it's Capaldi that makes it work, expressing the Doctor's fear, rage, and finally triumph against this haunting trap. It would be the best regeneration story ever, if he changed his form instead of iterating as an endless run of Capaldis.

That's not to say it's flawless. I'm finding it hard to invest in Clara's death, since I don't believe for a second she's not coming back. Even if we didn't already know she was set to appear in the finale in some fashion, nobody ever stays dead in this show (q.v. River returning once again for Christmas). There's also the question of whether any of this actually happened at all. If the castle really did exist inside the confession dial, it was surely some virtual environment, presumably in some region of the Gallifreyan Matrix (as with the Nethersphere in last year's similarly Hell-themed finale). The Doctor would still have suffered in his own personal Hell, but it still reduces the impact. On the subject of impact, his arrival on Gallifrey would have ahd more clout if it hadn't been revealed in the press release weeks ago, although I guess it was no big surprise anyway. However, the main problem with Heaven Sent is precisely what's so wonderful about it. The production team have had the guts to do an experimental, intense one man show, that repeatedly shows the Doctor blackened, burnt and on the edge of death, but how many children could have sat through this? This is genuinely adult Doctor Who, but it's worth remembering the series' target audience is meant to include the whole family.

Still. It was bloody good.

Continuity Corner: The Doctor has generally suggested that he left Gallifrey because he was bored and wanted to see the universe, although there have been suggestions there was more to it. He, he confirms that he fled because he was scared.

So, is he really the Hybrid, or is he just really cross and spitting blood? This could be a resurrection of the idea that the Doctor is half-human from the TV movie, something that most fans prefer to ignore. Personally, I assume it only applied to the eighth Doctor (due to an anomaly in his regeneration), and that he was put back to pure Gallifreyan biology when he regenerated into the War Doctor.

Alternatively, what the Doctor actually says is, “the Hybrid destined to conquer Gallifrey and stand in its ruins is me.” Maybe he actually means Me, aka Ashildr. She is in the next episode, after all.

Maketh the Man: As I didn't review last week's episode, I missed the chance to comment on the Doctor's new Pertwee-esque look, with a frankly gorgeous burgundy velvet jacket.

Questions: I may have missed an explanation for this, so forgive me, but why didn't the wall of diamond-like material reset like the rest of the castle?

Also, the Doctor, after diving into the sea, swaps his sopping wet clothes for his previous iteration's nice dry ones, leaving his wet ones to dry out for the next one. Does this mean the first iteration of the Doctor spent most of his time in the castle naked?

And Another Thing:

Neil Perryman of Adventures with the Wife in Space points out that “Heaven sent and Hell bent” are lyrics from “Sweet Bird of Truth” by The The. This might be a clever reference, or it might be Neil getting carried away.

Sunday 15 November 2015

WHO REVIEW: 9-9: Sleep No More

It's not fashionable to like Mark Gatiss's Who scripts, but I'm keen on most of his episodes, the exception being series six's Night Terrors. Like that episode, though, Sleep No More is a case of style over substance, blessed with strong visuals but without the heft of a decent story to back them up. There are some excellent ideas here, but very little exploration of any of them. The compression and elimination of sleep, the distressing notion of genetically engineered "grunts" for combat, the potential of a video to infect its viewers with a malevolent force; all of these could form the basis of an intriguing, potent science fiction story, but none of them are used to any real effect here. There are hints at an interesting future world, where there's idealogical conflict between "Wideawakes" and "Rip van Winkles"," and where civilians are conscripted into the military to serve alongside both career soldiers and indentured servants. So little of this explored at all. Who holds the power here? Who is this army fighting? Why do people willingly give up their sleep to get ahead, and who are they working for? Nothing is elaborated upon beyond soundbites.

I'm not generally a huge fan of the found footage school of film. I struggle to see past the artificiality of it all. One of the more effective elements of the script is that it embraces this artificiality, not simply using the cobbled together footage as a visual conceit, but as a storytelling one. The drawbacks of the approach, however, are the same as they ever have been, from Blair Witch to Cloverfield. The storytelling lacks coherence. We need to be told what has happened to characters who die offscreen, and have incidences explained to us because we can't fully make them out. It's goes to far into a "tell, not show" method of storytelling.

The characters fall foul of the sketched-in nature of the story. Capaldi is as watchable as ever as the Doctor, even he seems to be lacking interest in proceedings. Jenna Coleman might as well not be present, so minimal is Clara's contribution to the story. This episode has received some coverage for its casting of Bethany Black, the first openly transgender actor in the series, and this is rightly praised. However, her character, the aforementioned grunt designated 474, gives her virtually nothing to work with. Is she a good actress? I honestly couldn't say, based on what she has to do here. None of the other guest actors, bar Reece Shearsmith, gets much better. I can only praise the episode for continuing this series' trend for diverse casting, but only the white cis guy actually get anything decent to work with. Although presumably that's more because he's old mates with the author.

In fairness, though, Shearsmith is great here, doing what he does best: a shifty, slightly unsettling character. Rasmussen's villainy is blatant from the start, and it's not intended otherwise. He stands by in his Dastari specs and a monochrome suit straight out of a Pertwee serial, every inch the Doctor Who villain. The monstrous Sandmen are also very effective, a revolting concept well rendered, their ill-defined formes well suited to the found footage format. However, they make no sense at all, either scientifically (we're used to that, of course), or narratively. There's so much that could be done with the concept of removing sleep from human life, but all we get is eye-gunk monsters with dubious and poorly explained origins. The final scene, with Rasmussen (or is it a copy of Rasmussen? I was left confused), crumbling away as he speaks to the audience is creepy as hell, but it's lost in a script that has no real impact overall. When the story makes absolutely no sense, it's probably not a good idea to have the Doctor point it out.

Sleep No More boasts arresting visuals and a potentially interesting central idea, and has the guts to leave things open-ended, with the Doctor escaping but crucially not stopping the villain's plans. However, this is lost in the general confusion of the finished product. An interesting experiment, but one that was scuppered by poor handling.

Continuity Corner: 

This episode is set in the 38th century, during which time the Indo-Japanese nation is a major force in the Solar System. According to the Doctor, a tectonic realignment occurred merging India and Japan, which was part of the Great Catastrophe. He says to Clara that she has this to look forward to, which suggests it might be something in her personal future, although he could just be speaking figuratively. If he does mean it's shortly to come, it's tempting to suggest that the Great Catastrophe is the same as the Great Cataclysm, an event that saw a huge rise in sea levels and major environmental change, and formed the backstory of the Australian K-9 TV series, which was set around 2050. However, it's quite likely it's an event further into the future and closer to the time of the episode. Interview's with Mark Gatiss in the latest DWM have him make the link with the event that led to the evacuation of the Earth mentioned in the serial Frontios, something normally cited as being much, much further in the future, while Bethany Black thinks it might be linked to The Sun Makers, in which humanity relocates to Pluto, and is apparently also set in the 38th century (but I've no idea where she got that date from). So make up your own head canon on that one, I guess.

We've not seen the 38th century before (barring possibly Sun Makers), but the Peladon/Galactic Federation serials featuring the third Doctor are generally accepted to take place in the 39th century, although there's absolutely nothing in the episodes themselves to suggest that. According to The Daleks' Masterplan, in the year 4000, Uranus is a planet of some importance in the Solar System, but Neptune is hardly mentioned. Here, though, it's a hub for the Indo-Japanese culture, with a major population living on its satellite, Triton.

The Doctor says people don't put "space" in front of things, like "space restaurant." I'd suggest the takes a look back at some of his old serials.

"When I say run, run!" is, of course, a bit of a second Doctor catchphrase.

Most pertinent line: "It doesn't make sense! None of this makes any sense!"

Friday 13 November 2015

REVIEW: The Flash 2.6 - Enter Zoom

A one-episode review for once, because said episode was just too exciting to hold onto. It's an odd episode, in fact, with a switch thrown halfway through that turns it from utter silliness to the most intense Flash story yet. That said, the two elements bleed through to their opposing halves.The bulk of the early part of the episode deals with Barry constructing a ludicrous plan to capture Zoom by convincing him that Linda is Dr. Light, complete with an absurd training session in which everyone is clearly having a ball. But in the middle of this is Harrison Wells. "Harry remains an electrifying, untrustworthy figure, genuinely alarming in his nervous attack on Cisco, but is tremendously sympathetic due to the fact Zoom is trying to coerce him by holding his daughter captive. Oh, and his daughter is none other than Jesse Quick, so we've not seen the last of her. On the other side, the climactic battle between Zoom and the Flash is as heart-stopping as this show has ever got, and Zoom is actually pretty terrifying, in a way the Reverse-Flash never was. Yet even this has the villain catch a lightning bolt in his hand and throw it back, at once the comicbook-y moment the show has yet offered.

After a pretty poor show with the villainous Dr. Light - still out there, by the way - Malese Jow gets to show she's actually a pretty decent actress, making Linda, Light and Linda-as-Light all recognisably different. Good to see she's in on the team now, so she might finally get some better material to deal with. Patty, however, has replaced Iris as the female character who everyone continually lies to, and I'm starting to hope she just tells both Barry and Joe to go stuff it and heads up her own metahuman taskforce.

The monstrous Zoom has shown up earlier than I expected, and from the look of him, he's not the Earth-2 Barry Allen, so I'll scrap that idea. There's someone reasonably beefy under that monster suit. However, his vendetta against Barry seems more personal than just a desperate need to be the Fastest Man Alive. There's some link there. Is it too daft to suggest that Zoom might be the Earth-2 version of Henry Allen? It would be fascinating to have the roles of the first season reversed for the second.

Coming soon - more Grodd!

Monday 9 November 2015

November Comics Round-Up (1)

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #1 (Marvel)

"Only our second Issue One of the year!" proclaims the cover, happily setting the tone for the rest of the book. There's little else to say on Squirrel Girl - this carries on exactly as it would have done had none of that Secret Wars pap ever happened. Except Doreen is now a New Avenger and has access to their canteen. Ryan North brilliantly takes the piss out of the Marvel-Fox shenanigans by having it declared that Squirrel Girl is in fact not a mutant, but something slightly different and that is irrevocable and legally binding. Hilariously, at least one commentator is genuinely upset about this.

New Avengers #2 (Marvel)

Two comics featuring Squirrel Girl in one week, which is obviously marvellous. Other than that, this ticks along nicely. Evil Reed Richards and his bizarre experiments with the fabric of reality make for a peculiar and interesting threat. I like that he seems to be the only individual who is actually aware that the universe has been rebooted, having gained this knowledge from empirical observation.

Bombshells #15 (DC)

Dropped back into this after missing most of it. Soviet Supergirl protecting her family and homeland, with her sister Star Girl, is basically impossible to get wrong, although this doesn't really do anything spectacular with the idea.

Doctor Who - The Eighth Doctor #1 (Titan)

The very fine George Mann's new Doctor Who comic steps back an incarnation or two to give us new adventures for the eighth Doctor, perhaps the version of the Doctor most suited to the comic format. This is a late-in-the-day Eight, but he's in a good mood, channelling the exuberance of his earlier stories. This actually feels very like the heyday of the Doctor Who Magazine strips, but with fun new ideas. Emma Vieceli's art is charming, and new companion Josie is very likeable (and gorgeous).

Doctor Who - Eleventh Doctor Year Two, #1-2 (Titan)

This, perhaps, is even better. Si Spurriers and Rob Williams create an intriguing tale that builds on the questions of what the Doctor did during the Time War, but at the same time, they have a spot-on grasp of the eleventh Doctor. It's a look at actions and consequences, that makes us wonder if even the Doctor knows quite what he did during the War. The Squire, seemingly his companion during some great battle, is a wonderful addition to the team; clearly damaged, not quite sane, but very loveable. Plus, Abslom Daak is in it, working better than he ever did in DWM because Spurriers and Williams absolutely refuse to take him seriously. The threat in this story - a timeless void that was once a person - is abstract but very effective, threatening to pull the Doctor's timeline apart from his first incarnation to his last.

The Vision #1 (Marvel)

Not what you'd expect from a Vision comic, this sees the cosmically-powered, nigh-indestructable android settle down to raise a family. The robot family is an old, careworn science fiction idea, but it has mileage, and never tires as a way to explore what it means to be human. Lyrically written by Tom King, with great art and colours by Gabriel Walta and Jordie Bellaire.

Howard the Duck #1 (Marvel)

Finally, another series that has had two Issue Ones this year, one that is almost (but not quite) as silly as Squirrel Girl. Who does appear in it, albeit briefly. Howard works better as a supporting character in my opinion, but I like this, fronting a detective agency with Aunt May as his Mrs. Hudson. I also realy like his sidekick, the shapeshifter called Tara (look, I know these girls are cartoons, they're just kind of my type, OK?) Plus, an extra story, featuring, for some reason, "Gwenpool." Because, something.

Sunday 8 November 2015

Return of The Doctor Who Project

It's back! After a short hiatus (that's a very Doctor Who-y word) The Doctor Who Project has announced a return, and are now looking for writers for new adventures featuring their alternative tenth Doctor and his companion Hannah Redfoot.

Full details of submission rules and where to send them can be found here. Submission deadline is December 5th.

Saturday 7 November 2015

REVIEW: The Flash 2.4 - 2.5 (with added Arrow)


This episode exists purely to set up Firestorm Mk. 2 for Legends of Tomorrow, which is does pretty efficiently if unremarkably. Jay Jackson is a likeable character, and has a pretty good rapport with Stein (if you can ignore the homosexual undertones. Good name for a band, that). Caitlin is an unbelievable bitch to him though, slagging him off because he's wasting himself earning a living instead of going to a college he can't afford. The fight with Tokamak is perfunctory. This also has the cheesiest dialogue of any episode yet, which in The Flash is really saying something.

In the B- and C-plots, Iris is hugely growing on me, absolutely refusing to take shit from her estranged mother, but it's a huge shame that Joe is becoming increasingly stupid as the series progresses. Assumption: his unheard of son is the series' version of Wally West. Patty is an utter delight... and then that cliffhanger! King Shark looks incredible, and I am so pleased that this series has the guts to have monsters like that running around (although how the hell he sneaks up on Barry is inexplicable).


A pity we couldn't have had more King Shark, but Tom Cavanagh is back as Harrison Wells, and that makes it all OK. So this, it seems, is the real Harrison Wells, albeit of Earth-2, and in that reality it seems he's a bit of a dick. Good to see that Barry gives him the benefit of the doubt; he's significantly more grown up than either Cisco or Joe, the latter of whom just immediately shoots the guy. He really can't get his head round this parallel universe stuff, can he? We can understand how Cisco would feel, though, and his scenes with "Harry" are great. Only Barry and Caitlin seem able to remember that the man they were fighting before wasn't Wells, but the man who killed him and took his form. Which is, admittedly, a bit confusing.

There's good fun to be had with the Earth-2 alter egos, with the minor villain Dr Light being here the parallel Linda Park. We know that we'll see Killer Frost later this season (presumably the Earth-2 Caitlin), and even if he doesn't turn out to be Zoom, surely we'll see Earth-2 Barry? Meanwhile, our Barry finally gets together with Patty, and though the literal blind date is ludicrous, their chemistry is so good it really works. A cracking episode.


Arrow, episode 4-5. I'm a little behind on Arrow, which I still don't enjoy anywhere near as much as The Flash, so this was a bit of a cheat, and sneaking ahead left me a little confused. There's also so much backstory on Arrow now that I forget who loves/hates/banged/murdered who. However, this is the highly anticipated return of John Constantine, after his own series got the axe. Matt Ryan is still great in the role; I can see why he's not everyone's cup of tea, but I've completely warmed to him. We watched the Constantine movie afterwards to remind ourselves how bad it could be instead. Introducing magic, soul quests and demons into the world of Arrow creates an interesting clash, reflected in the strong yet uneasy alliance between Oliver Queen and John Constantine. Although it's perhaps a bit of a surprise Oliver didn't call on his favour from a bloody wizard during any of his earlier crises. In the end, the actual battle for Sara's soul was a bit easy, but still, this bodes well for future mystical adventures. I hope the CW manage to negotiate another appearance of Matt Ryan in the future (maybe in Legends of Tomorrow?) Talking of which - Ray Palmer's coming back!

Wednesday 4 November 2015

Now, what I want to see in the new Star Trek

This week, CBS announced that plans were in place for a new Star Trek TV series, set to be available for streaming from early 2017. This will be some months after the thirteenth Trek movie, Star Trek Beyond, hits the screens, itself timed to mark the franchise's fiftieth anniversary. Naturally, every geeky outlet on the net has begun setting out what the new series should feature; that is, those that aren't already dismissing it as utter crap. Alex Kurtzman is set to be the exec. producer, having already co-written and produced the 2009 and 2013 movies. This could go either way, really, but I note that Kurtzman has a strong track record with television. In his favour: Star Trek 2009, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (hey, I liked it), Now You See Me, Alias, Locke & Key, Limitless. Against him: Star Trek Into Darkness, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Cowboys and Aliens, The Island. Let's give him some leeway and see what he comes up with, alongside co-exec Heather Kadin. Certainly, it looks like the times he's had more creative control have generally produced better results, and we still don't know anything about producers, directors, and crucially, writers at this stage.

Without further ado, here's my penny's worth on hopes for the new series:

Keep moving forward

As yet, there's no word as to when this series will be set, or whether it will take place in the primary universe of the original franchise or the parallel universe of the new films. Frankly, I'm not too bothered which version of Trek history it takes place in. It could even take place before the split (i.e Enterprise onwards - maybe we'll finally get to see the Romulan War) or so far into the future that it's irrelevant which continuity we're seeing. What matters more is that we have new, original material, that fits with the Star Trek aesthetic and spirit, but doesn't shamelessly copy it.

When The Next Generation arrived, it stumbled early on by trying to recapture some of the camp glitz of the original series, but once it established it's own identity, it became quite its own animal, and a huge success to boot. The movies that have had the best reception have been the ones that were, tonally, very different to what came beforehand. The Wrath of Khan mined the original for inspiration but added new dynamics and a Hornblower aesthetic. First Contact took the optimistic and controlled TNG crew and put them through the wringer in a dark adventure against their greatest foes (and still ended on a hopeful note). The 2009 movie chucked everything away that had been holding the franchise back, taking favourite elements and characters and revamping them in a modern, flashy, action movie. The perennially popular Star Trek IV: The One With the Whales was perhaps the least Trekky of the lot, ditching outer space adventure for fish-out-of-water comedy, and still managed to be both a financial hit and a fan-pleasing sequel.

Conversely, Voyager and Enterprise, for all their charms, never caught the public imagination because they were riffing on story styles already mined by TNG. By the time Enterprise was cancelled, last minute attempts to revamp the show were too little and too late. Star Trek had become a genre into itself, and an out-of-date one at that. It drastically needed a reboot (and I say that as someone who genuinely loves Enterprise). Star Trek Into Darkness, although a commercial hit, was a lowest common denominator movie, slavishly reproducing the look and bombast of its predecessor without adding anything new, while providing echoes of classic scenes that meant little to casual viewers and infuriated fans.

The lesson being: don't be afraid to try something new. Be Star Trek, but not the Star Trek we've seen before.


Star Trek has an embarrassingly poor record at depicting alternative sexualities and lifestyles. There have been a handful of attempts to explore homosexuality and its social issues through alien allegories, all of which fell flat, largely due to never going nearly far enough. We've never had an openly gay character on any of the series. A couple of characters have been suggested as being closeted, but to play or write a closeted character misses the point. Gay characters should simply exist in Star Trek's future, as part of that world, not as a source of social drama or conflict. The same goes for people from other marginalised groups. The transgender, agender, polyamorous - the human cast should be as varied, if not more varied, than the alien races we meet. Trek has made a good effort to depict an egalitarian future for women and different races, but it needs to go further. We've had occasional steps forward with disabled characters - TNG had a blind character from the start - but again, it could go further.

That's not to say that these differences can't be the source of conflict, but that should come from outside. Star Trek, at its best, has been political, using science fiction to explore contemporary issues. Sure, it was often ham-fisted, but subtlety isn't always the most important thing. Have a gay character as part of the crew, then have him face homophobia on some backwards planet. Or transphobia, or victimisation of the disabled. "Can you believe it," they might say, "they used to think like this on Earth!" Humanity is vast, complicated and multifaceted. Let's explore it.

New aliens, old aliens

One thing that the more recent version of Trek have relied upon is previously established alien races, be they the widely recognisable Klingons and Vulcans, or obscure fan-pleasers like the Tholians or the Gorn. Now, I like this as much as the next fan, but we're supposed to be exploring strange new worlds. That's not to say we should completely forget the existing cultures; they still exist in this universe, after all. Just don't focus on them. I'd love to see a couple of Andorians, wriggling their antennae in the background, but we need to lay off the old faces sometimes. This will be the seventh Star Trek TV series (including the animation). There have been thirty seasons of Trek already. Of these, sixteen had a regular Vulcan main character, and eighteen have had a Klingon in the main cast. We've done these guys to death. Give us some new blood. Take us to an unexplored region of the galaxy, or another galaxy altogether. I'm not saying I won't smile like a prat if we meet the Talosians again, but let's keep that as a very rare treat. New life, new civilisations. And take advantage of the make-up, puppetry and CGI techniques we have now. These aliens could look like anything.

Embrace the format

This isn't a one-off movie; this is television, and television has changed. Even 22-episode ongoing series have long, complex stories running on, although they do still spread them out with filler episodes. However, more and more TV series are going down the Netflix route: self-contained stories told over ten episodes or so, with a strong central storyline that doesn't keep you coming week after week so much as demand you swallow the whole thing in one go. Look at Sense8 or Daredevil. Explore the universe with a new set of characters, and let us explore how it effects them. Let them grow, let them change. Alternatively, look at the sprawling epics like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. Huge casts, whose stories are told over years. Can you imagine a cross between Deep Space Nine and Game of Thrones, with alien political machinations and warfare told against astonishing vistas and hundreds of extras building a coherent world? Or send out a ship, have the crew beam down to a new planet that we've never imagined before and stay there for a full season, truly exploring and impacting upon it. Maybe the budget won't stretch to these fevered imaginings, but the storytelling techniques still hold. It could be majestic.

Failing all that...

... let's have Archer in space.

Sunday 1 November 2015

Marvel Comics October Round-Up

October was the month of the big relaunch for Marvel Comics, and while Secret Wars is still stumbling on - in fact, there's even some pre-Secret Wars stuff on the shelves - the main lines have been relaunched with a slew of new issue ones. Some seem to be making the most of the new universe they're launching, others are taking characters back to their core appeal. I've finally managed to catch up on the first bunch, and here are my thoughts. Nearly up-to-date now; The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl relaunched this week too, but I'll hit that with the November titles.

Sam Wilson: Captain America #1: Sam Wilson goes freelance, pitting himself against the corporate facade of American politics and fighting for the under-represented, instead of acting as a weapon for a corrupt national security force. Marvel-America tears him apart, and real America does the same. Sam Wilson pits himself against the forces of hatred and intolerance and defends Mexican illegal immigrants from hate groups. This is exactly what Captain America should be - putting the real America to shame.

Doctor Strange #1: A definite success, relaunching the Sorceror Supreme in a stylish, unnerving way. Jason Aaron and Chris Bachalo work brilliantly together, illustrating Strange's deeply unsettling worldview. It doesn't seem that the big reboot has really made any difference to Strange, what with imagery from an early issue being used to illustrate his origins, but that's all for the better. This is a great fantasy comic.

The New Avengers #1: The first lot of Avengers to be introduced into the post-Secret Wars world, this is a mix of the Mighty Avengers and the Young Avengers retooled together as an official team, albeit under the auspices of AIM, which is a questionable authority. Plus, Squirrel Girl, happily acting like she's still in her own comic in spite of the serious chaos around her. There's an intriguing threat masterminded by the Maker, ie the evil Ultimate Universe version of Reed Richards, which is a good use of the melding of continuities that there's a place for now.

Uncanny Avengers #1: And the other Avengers team of the month, the continuing exploits of Steve Rogers and his desperate attempt at unity. It's often hard to see what the difference is between Marvel's various groups of superhumans and why anyone should care, but this does a good job making mutants, Inhumans and enhanced humans distinct, particularly with Rogue, the last of the X-Men to remain while the others have fled, slowly being killed by the Terrigen that has been transforming people into Inhuman beings. Thrown into this is Deadpool, so clearly not Avenger material that he had to join the team eventually.

Guardians of the Galaxy #1: Bendis doing good Bendis. Pletny to enjoy here. Again, I can't see how the reboot has changed anything, since this carries on directly from the events at the end of the pre-Secret Wars run, but I do like the new status quo, with Kitty Pryde as the new Star-Lord and the Everlovin' Blue-Eyed Thing having a whale of a time being an astronaut. Maybe the movieverse Chitauri are a continuity implant? I'm not sure. In any case, this is roughly 300% more fun than the Fantastic Four reboot, and Thing deserves that.

Spider-Gwen #1: Relaunched less than a year after its initial launch, Spider-Gwen looks to be be just carrying on happily as if no universe-collapsing events ever happened, so clearly Earth-65 survived the cataclysm. There's no reason that this needed to start over with issue one, but cool, let's go with it. Gwen continues to juggle her parallel lives while her father tries to clear her name with the NYPD. Meanwhile, the Lizard returns to terrorise New York, except that in this universe, Peter Parker was the Lizard, and died as such. It remains good fun, ticks along nicely. Nothing new here, but why break what's fixed? Oh, and then this reality's Captain America turns up, and she's not happy.

Karnak #1: Karnak of the Inhumans is a hell of an odd character to see headlining his own series. I bought this out of curiosity and on the strength of positive recommendation, but to be honest, it didn't do much for me. Karnak's power - to see the flaw in all things, and exploit it - is intriguing but rather opaque, and I'm not sure it makes for an exciting comic. However, I suspect the problem is with me on this one; I just don't think I really get what it's trying to be.

Wednesday 28 October 2015

WHO REVIEW: 9-6) The Woman Who Lived

It's been a funny week for Doctor Who. Big Finish have announced that, in what's surely the culmination of their gaining the rights to the new series, that David Tennant and Catherine Tate are returning as the Doctor and Donna for a special set of Tenth Doctor audio adventures next year. Meanwhile, in less expected news, Bob Baker is bringing back the Doctor's robot dog in a movie called K-9: Timequake, set for release in 2017. It's set to pit K-9 against the legendary Gallifreyan villain Omega, another character created by Bob Baker and his co-writer Dave Martin. To be honest, I'll be pleasantly surprised if this actually materialises, but it could be wonderfully batty if it does. Before all this, the BBC interrupted its succession of spooky and exciting stories for this idiosyncratic, philosophical and talky episode.

"The Woman Who Lived" is the second half of a sort-of-kinda-two-parter, but is so tonally different to its predecessor "The Girl Who Died" that it's hard to consider it as anything other than a separate story. Not to mention that it takes place eight hundred years later, is written by a different author and one of the previous episode's main characters is almost entirely missing. Catherine Tregenna, having written some of the more emotionally mature and interesting episodes of Torchwood (plus "Meat," but never mind that), is a good choice for this episode, and she excels at giving interesting dialogue to the Doctor and Ashildr - now referred to, and even credited, as "Me." The character's complete inability to remember her original name and barely having any recollection of her life is entirely believable, and equally heartbreaking. There's some fine characterisation here, with Ashildr presented as naive, forthright yet unsure of herself, and immensely likeable, while the centuries older Me is both utterly beaten down and supremely self-confident, yet, at least initially, not very pleasant at all. The parallels with the Doctor are, of course, obvious. That the Doctor refuses to take her with him precisely because they are so similar works perfectly, furthering the notion that he needs a human companion, not a godlike immortal, to keep him focused on the little picture. It's also quite right that he feels guilty for not being there for Ashildr/Me, but never once expresses regret at saving her life, in spite of the consequences.

The first half of the episode is almost a two-hander between Capaldi and Williams, and even with the best writing, couldn't work without their acting talents. As good as Capaldi is, it's Williams who makes this episode, managing the very difficult task of making Me both extremely removed from, and recognisably the same person as, Ashildr. As much as I'm a Clara defender, I didn't miss her in the slightest in this episode. Clara's presence would have overloaded it, when it needed to focus on the relationship, or lack thereof, between Me and the Doctor. (Not me and the Doctor. Me and the Doctor, if you follow.) That said, it's another episode that justifies its later timeslot by being unsuitable for younger children, this time by virtue of being extremely talky and largely uneventful. I like slow-paced television, but it's hard to see many children getting a lot of entertainment from this episode.

Where it falls down is in the material that doesn't focus solely on the Doctor and Me. In spite of being played by the reliably funny comedy actor (and huge Doctor Who fan) Rufus Hound, Sam Swift is a dull and ineffective character. Speaking as a man who adores terrible puns, I can appreciate the joy of ending an episode with a pundown, but the hangman scene fell flat. The jokes needed to be worse! The old ones are the best, as H.P. Lovecraft used to say, but god, that scene needed some original material. The comedy guards and deaf manservant were even less effective, but at least they didn't outstay their welcome. The opening scene was pretty good, but even then, the prevailing thought was "Blackadder did it better." On the adventure side of things, we had some unusually inept action scenes, including a poorly choreographed fight between Me/the Knightmare, and Sam. I realise that bout of fisticuffs was supposed to be inept, but surely it should be watchable. Leandro the lion man was also unispiring, a terribly generic villain who brought little to the story bar an obvious last-minute threat.

Some people have called this episode boring, disliking it for its verbosity and slow-pace. Too much talking, not enough action. For me, though (not Me, but me), it's the opposite. Where "The Woman Who Lived" worked best was in its quiet, dialogue-heavy scenes. I'm looking forward to seeing Maisie Williams's character again, but I'm not too enthused about Sam Swift joining her.

Continuity Corner: The Doctor claims the Great Fire of London was caused by the Terileptils, a reference to the 1982 serial The Visitation, in which the fifth Doctor teamed up with another highwayman, Mr. Richard Mace. He's fibbing a bit, though: it was actually he himself who dropped the torch that started the fire.

He also talks about travelling with another immortal, Captain Jack Harkness, although this is a bit of a stretch. His travels with Jack took place before the Time Agent became immortal, and he promptly dumped him when it happened. This left Jack as a "fixed point in time," a phrase which has since recurred in all manner of scenarios and doesn't seem to mean anything anymore, so it's no surprise we don't hear it applied to Ashildr.

Stargazing: Leandro is from Delta Leonis. Also known as Zosma and Duhr (not the best name, that last one), it represents the hip of the constellation of the lion, and lies around 58 light years away. It's not too different from our Sun, a little bigger and older.

Best line: "What could be worse than losing your children?"
"I keep that entry to remind me not to have any more."

Worst line: "T'is black as night." Hun, it is night.

How d'you like them apples?

Sunday 25 October 2015

REVIEW: The Flash 2.1 - 2.3


Having enjoyed The Flash immensely during its first season, I'm now committing to reviewing the second run. (Run is probably the appropriate term for a period of this show.) The first series hit the ground running (I'll stop now), but this time, it's had a rather uneven start. Of the first three episodes, only one has really succeeded.

"The Man Who Saved Central City" has the unenviable task of resolving last year's catastrophic cliffhanger, which saw  Central City on the verge of being swallowed up by a black hole, as well as follow up on the emotional revelations that led to that event. It does so in a bizarrely roundabout way, joining a depressed Barry Allen six months after he saved the city from the anomaly. We gradually receive glimpses of what happened that day, with Barry not only shouldering guilt for the death of Eddie in last year's finale, but also Ronnie, who's bumped off in a disappointingly perfunctory manner in the act of closing the singularity. We already suspected he was going to leave, what with his being replaced as half of Firestorm in the upcoming Legends of Tomorrow series, but there must have been a better way to tackle it. In any case, we never see a body, so I'd be very surprised if we don't see him again somewhere down the line.

Firestorm's other half, Professor Stein, remains a joy, replacing the villainous Harrison Wells as the elder statesman of the series, acting as something of a father figure for Barry and Cisco. The problem being that Barry really doesn't need another father figure, especially with the astonishingly unlikely events in this episode. Evil old Wells/Thawne leaves a video will confessing to the murder of Barry's mother. His dad is free! Then he leaves! For no well explained or believable reason! It's a shockingly poor way of severing last season's ongoing plot threads and frankly comes across as lazy. 

I did, however, enjoy the juxtaposition of Barry's guilt and Central City's celebration of him with "Flash Day," and his subsequent return to form. The villainous Atom Smasher was dealt with rather more quickly than his pre-series hype suggested, but worked reasonably well as the freak-of-the-week, and the new plot thread dealing with a parallel Earth was seeded in nicely. But can STAR Labs really continue to operate after almost destroying the Earth with a runaway disaster like a black hole? That's hard to credit.


This is more like it. "Flash of Two Worlds" embraces The Flash's comicbook roots with the same joyful exuberance as it did last season. Calling back to the classic Flash issue that spawned Earth-Two and the entire comicbook multiverse that defines DC's mythology (and that of many of its competitors), this is full of cheeky little nods and gleeful winks. There's a lot introduced here - Earth-Two, Jay Garrick as the other Flash, the villainous Zoom, interdimensional rifts, Iris's mother revealed to be alive, Harrison Wells alive on the other Earth - it's chocka. However, it's all done with confidence and panache and it works, far better than the previous week's efforts at tidying up. 

I like Teddy Sears as Jay Garrick. He's heroic in a more old-fashioned, square-jawed way than Barry's millennial speedster. He has great chemistry with Caitlin, who seems to be getting over her husband Ronnie rather quickly (in fairness, he was dull as they come). Another nice addition to the cast is Shantal VanSanten as Patty Spivot, who has a wonderful rapport with Barry and is just as unashamedly nerdy. It's getting harder to support Joe, though, who comes across as obtusely stupid this episode. Are parallel universes really so hard for the average guy to grasp these days? And couldn't Cisco have just explained it to him with a movie metaphor like he did with time travel before? It's also strange that he's so resistant to letting the clearly talented Patty onto the metahuman taskforce. Also, it's a shame that Patty had to get herself into a cliched hostage situation so early on.

Overall, though, this is episode is just wonderfully good fun, from the sandy metahuman villain to the glimpses of Zoom (with Tony Todd providing his gravelly tones) to that glorious shot of Jay an Barry calling back to a classic comic cover. This is what The Flash excels at: cheesy, over-the-top fun.


Episode three is frustrating one, too concerned with setting up the players for Legends of Tomorrow than in telling its own story. Wentworth Miller gives the arch performance we've come to love from his Captain Cold, but he seems bored with this material. Sure, it's cool to see Michael Ironside as his abusive father, but it's all rather trite and uninteresting. Lisa, the Golden Glider, is not my favourite character, but she has good chemistry with Cisco and she's become genuinely sympathetic, although she's cursed with some terrible dialogue this episode. Mostly, though, what works in this episode is the rapport between Barry and Snart/Cold, as two enemies who nonetheless share a certain respect. It's all leading to Snart's eventual redemption as part of the Legends team, as he's a villain who clearly does have some compassion in him. On the other hand, Stein's illness - clearly a result of his sudden loss of his duller half - is an uninteresting storyline altogether, although it's presumably leading to meatier stuff next week.

It was fun seeing Barry get an obvious kick from playing the villain to get in with the Snarts. However, the science on this show drives me mad sometimes. I realise super-speedsters are nonsense, but when you intersect with real science you have to play by the rules a little more. Visible security lasers is a bugbear of mine - that just isn't how they work. The whole point of them is that you can't see them and know when to work round them. In this episode, Captain Cold uses his "cold gun" to freeze the laser beams. It's so utterly stupid I can only surmise it was put in there to deliberately piss nerds like me off.

The other major thread of this episode deals with the Wests, and I'm really warming to Iris after not particularly liking the character last year. It's good to see Joe come to terms with the fact that she's an adult now and that continually lying to her, regardless of his good intentions, is just a shitty thing to do. We'll see how this develops as the series moves on. More fun is the reveal that Earth-Two Harrison Wells has a "Speed Cannon" and can travel between worlds. So, is he Zoom? Surely that would be too obvious, not to mention repetitive, for the production team to run. Plus, as far as we know this really is Wells, not Thawne wearing a Wells-suit. My feeling is that this is a huge herring. The current theory at my place is that Zoom is actually Earth-Two's version of Barry. That would be fun.

Tuesday 20 October 2015

WHO REVIEW: 9-5) The Girl Who Died

While I'm pleased to have longer, more languidly paced stories back this season, it's a pleasure to have a brisk, comical romp like this to break things up. After the grim pair of stories that made up the year's first four episodes, the delightful and often silly The Girl Who Died is, in spite of its title, the most light-hearted episode so far this year. It's also refreshingly small scale, for while the Doctor frets about the potential affect to history should he interfere too much, the stakes here amount to no more than the population of a very small village. This is just how it should be; not every episode should have the Earth or the entire universe hanging in the balance. It's good to have an episode which reminds the Doctor just how important a single human life is.

The script is accredited to both Jamie Mathieson and Stephen Moffat, and while it's impossible to say how much of each writer's work makes up the finished product, it feels more like Mathieson's previous episodes, particularly Mummy on the Orient Express. It's a fine balance between the silly and the soulful. None of it is particularly plausible, either historically or scientifically. These are storybook Vikings fishing for storybook electric eels. The comedy is broad, but effective, and with Capaldi showing a lighter side as the Doctor this year, works perfectly. Everything's pitched dead on.  It's a little hard to credit the terrifying reputation of the Mire to a group of spacemen who can be defeated by being threatened with an embarrassing video on YouTube (or it's 11th century intergalactic equivalent). However, it's such a joyfully funny and triumphant scene that it really doesn't matter. Yet there are some real moments of pathos here. When it was introduced in the equally comical Closing Time, the Doctor's ability to "speak baby" felt trite and overindulgent. Here, though, it's used for a moment of genuinely affecting emotion, making the Doctor appear more alien and poetic than he has been in years.

It all looks wonderful as well, from the implausible Viking costumes to the blocky spacesuits of the Mire. The alien creatures are a pretty flimsy set of villains, including the false Odin who leads them, but they look good and serve their purpose in the story, so it seems churlish to complain. Having them so completely obscured by their technology works well, setting up both their power and their weakness. It's unusual to have an episode of Doctor Who which is so anti-technology, and to have the Doctor reduced to the most basic of technology (aside from a handy mobile phone) before calling him to task makes a big difference. Capaldi is, of course, excellent here, swinging between sardonic humour and worldweary sorrow with ease. It's a characterisation of the Doctor that works so well; someone who has simply lived too long and lost too much. Jenna Coleman also gets some good material after being poorly used last week. Although she is quite minor to the actual plot here, her increasingly Doctorish behaviour against threats, and her spurring him to action in defense of the villagers, plays to the strengths of both the actress and character.

In the end, though, this episode belongs to Maisie Williams. It was perhaps inevitable that she'd be typecast to a certain extent, but Ashildr is quite different to Arya Stark. An astonishingly confident young woman who's unique ability is her skill as a storyteller, she's a wonderful match for the Doctor, and it's easy to see why he is so powerfully affected by her death. She'll be back next week, of course, playing what looks to be a very different take on the same character. It'll be interesting to see how she handles such a role. I'd be very surprised if that is the last we see of her; her importance to the arc plot (presumably much of Moffat's contribution, along with the flashback to The Fires of Pompeii) is hinted at heavily. That's the strength of this episode: a silly, low stakes romp that is simultaneously a moving and vitally important story.

Continuity Corner: The most obvious thing to point out is that the Doctor finally recognises where he got his face from, with flashbacks to 2008's The Fires of Pompeii. It's not just a callback, though; there's a genuinely clever reason given, with the Doctor subconsciously choosing a face that will remind him of a time when he chose to flout history and save lives. A nice way of making use of a bit of recasting.

The Doctor previously tangled with Vikings in his first life, in the serial The Time Meddler. We saw him engage in swordplay in, off the top of my head, The Crusade, The Sea Devils, The Androids of Tara, The King's Demons and The Christmas Invasion.

The first Doctor previously impersonated a deity in The Myth Makers, in which case he was mistaken for Zeus. Before this, his companion Barbara was mistaken by The Aztecs for the deified reincarnation of their high priest Yetaxa.

The Doctor describes Ashildr as "Immortal, barring accidents," how he described his own people in 1969's The War Games. This is the second time we've seen an associate of the Doctor receive immortality, of course. Maybe she'll bump into Jack in a few hundred years. A more similar situation arose in the excellent DWM comic stories The Road to Hell and The Glorious Dead, in which the eighth Doctor saved the life of the Japanese warrior Katsura Sato, with the result of making him immortal.

Hanky Panky in the TARDIS: So, it seems that they've quietly settled that Clara is bi. That's nice.

Best line: "Mother, I hear thunder. Mother, I hear shouting. You are my world, but I hear other worlds now. Beyond the unfolding of your smile, is there other kindness? I'm afraid."