Sunday 27 September 2015

WHO REVIEW: 9-1 & 9-2: The Magician's Apprentice/The Witch's Familiar

Now that was quite something. Intriguing, exciting, emotionally powerful, but also densely packed and demanding close attention. Two episodes that cut to the very heart of the Doctor's character.

This was a bold choice to start the season with, a story which is so steeped in the series' history as to risk putting off more casual viewers. Judging by the reactions of friends who are less steeped in the series' history, this had gone well, but there were confusing elements. I'm not talking about cute little references to past stories put in for uber-geeks like me; for most people, there's no difference between a kiss to the past and any other bit of world-building. The story as a whole is quite unforgiving to new viewers. Aside from being a sequel to a forty-year-old serial, it more-or-less carries on from where the previous season left off. Someone who hadn't seen any of Capaldi's episodes before, let alone any Doctor Who before, would find it a challenge to take in everything presented in the opening episode – UNIT, Missy, Karn, all chucked in with little in the way of explanation. That said, the dialogue does a lot of the work. You don't need to know that Missy is the latest version of the Master, she confidently explains that she's the Doctor's closest friend and Clara's reaction to this sets out that she's a villain, and in case there was any confusion on that last point, she casually murders a few people for larks. Still, even in a story that's slower paced than many, there's little room early on for scene setting or easing in new viewers.

Clara's role as all things to all storytellers might also make her difficult to get a handle on. She's introduced as a schoolteacher, before suddenly walking into a military installation as if she's a secret agent/interplanetary warfare specialist. Although she's been more consistently and clearly written over the last series, here she's once again taking on whatever traits she needs for any particular moment in the narrative. Jenna Coleman makes it work, charismatically papering over the cracks, but there's not always a clear line from the remarkable woman who acts as deputy Doctor and the panicking young girl who's repeatedly duped by Missy. Nonetheless, the interplay between the two women provides some of the best moments I the story. I wasn't quite sold on Missy in series eight, but here, the writing improves a notch and meets Michelle Gomez's captivating performance. Weird, funny, sexy and frightening, she's everything an evil Time Lord – sorry, Time Lady – should be. Her best moments, though, are where she is essentially playing the part of the Doctor, Clara acting as her assistant in the wilds of Skaro, making clear the similarities between the two Gallifreyans. Brilliant though she is as the Master, I'd have loved to see Gomez as the Doctor.

All this said, the story belongs to Peter Capaldi and Julian Bleach, the latter of whom, particularly, is astonishingly good. Of all the past elements brought back for this story, Davros is perhaps the safest. Excepting the Daleks, as a consistent and everpresent part of the series, Davros is probably the most iconic villain in the programme's long history, and the most recognisable. While I wonder how much of the set-up was otherwise picked up, Davros is easy. Even people who barely know about Doctor Who have heard of Davros, such is the notoriety of the character. Missy may jealously sneer when the Doctor refers to the creator of the Daleks as his archenemy, but he's right. For all that the Master and the Doctor go back further, and have fought more frequently, it's Davros that has caught the public imagination. A truly repellent villain, physically unpleasant, emotionally damaged, as capable of cold evil and ferocious mania. And so it's a tremendously brave move to bring him back, seven years after his last appearance, in a story that skilfully makes him a sympathetic character.

Precisely how much one is affected by the scenes between the Doctor and Davros will depend on how much they believe his spiel. The entire encounter is signposted as a trap, by the Doctor's dialogue, Davros's interaction with his henchman, Sarff, and by the whole set-up and direction of that final scene between them. Nonetheless, it's impossible not to feel some sympathy for the scientist, and so much of this is due to Bleach's performance. His previous turn at the role was dominated by the screaming, maniacal side of Davros's character, but here he has the opportunity to be more subtle, creating a weakened, desperate Davros. Although the villain is manipulating the Doctor throughout, there's truth to his claims. He is dying, and so much of what he says has the ring of truth. A final gambit, yes, but also, if that failed, a chance to make peace with someone who, as much as they may not wish to admit it, shares many similarities. Davros's seemingly genuine delight at the news of the Doctor's rescue of his people makes sense, because it's truly in character for him, albeit showing an emotional side we've not seen before. His statement that a man needs a people, or a nation, someone to hold allegiance to, is exactly the sort of rhetoric that Davros would ascribe to, even as someone who murdered his own people further his aims. He wiped out his race to create them anew, in his own twisted image.

Imagery here is everything. For all the power of the quiet moments, there's some real spectacle here, from the slow revelation of Skaro as it fades into view to the bombastic entrance by the Doctor, brandishing his guitar for the “axe fight.” Skaro, in particular, looks incredible, a wonderful recreation of the metal city of the original Dalek serial from 1963-4. Also a treat is the squadron of Daleks from various points in the series' history; as a fan, the appearance of an original '64 Dalek made me cheer. No sign of the more recent, chunky Daleks of the New Paradigm, who have seemingly been quietly retired. Either that, or they couldn't fit through the doors on Skaro.

There are also many elements that send a shiver down the spine. The hand mines on ancient Skaro are horrifying, not something I'd ever have imagined for the Thousand Year War, but acceptable, really, given the later use of biologically-engineered weaponry. The concept of Daleks' still-living remains, left to rot in the sewers beneath the Dalek city, is utterly repellent, as is the revolting climax in which the Daleks are, for all intents, choked to death in their own shit. Other elements that work well in the horror stakes include Colony Sarff, a colony organism as his name suggests, sure to horrify ophidophobes everywhere. The image that will stick with me the most, though, is Davros, helpless and desperate on the floor, his spinal column twitching in open air. Quite horrible.

Thankfully, though, there's plenty of humour to offset the serious elements and the horror. Not everyone was impressed with the Doctor's partyboy moment, but I feel it worked. As Clara said, this isn't like him, at least in this incarnation. This is the twelfth Doctor in extremis; it's when he's cornered and frightened that he makes a noise. It's when he's quiet and contemplative that he's more himself. And anyway, everyone needs a bit of fun now and then, and if Matt Smith can bring his footballing skills to the character of the Doctor, then a former member of the Bastards From Hell can pick up a guitar and switch on the cool. If only they'd had Craig Ferguson there to back him up. There are other moments that lighten the mood when it threatens to become too grim. The Doctor pinching Davros's chair is both amusing and threatening, but it's the line that follows - “The only other chair on Skaro” - that made it. That one was a tea-spitter.

There are other issues, mostly just niggles. Sometimes the logic of the story went a little awry. Colony Sarff tracks the Doctor across time and space, all the way to Karn, becoming perhaps the only person to land a spaceship there without crashing, and is fooled by the Doctor hiding behind a rock. He finally finds him in 12th century Essex by following Missy and Clara, but the Daleks have had an agent there for three weeks. The cliffhanger was never meant to be anything more than “I wonder how they got out of that?” moment, but still, the monochrome flashback to the Doctor's teleporter antics wasted time. Beautifully filmed and great fun, but utterly inessential. The other cliffhanger, the Doctor holding a gun to young Davros, was also a bit of a cheat, but overall, the revelation of the true nature of the scene worked within the context of the story.

So, coming back to the core of the story. Young Davros, skillfully portrayed by Joey Price, is just the right combination of childlike uncertainty and fear, and confident perseverance. He demands the Doctor rescue him, as he promised. Yep, you can see this kid growing up to be the Davros we know. I've seen it argued that this is a false dilemma, as is the moment the Doctor potentially has the chance to kill all the Daleks from the safety of Davros's infirmary, because we know he can never go through with it. The Doctor will never irrevocably wipe out the Daleks, nor will he kill their creator to prevent their existence, because that would deprive the series of its main monster and invalidate the Doctor's character. That's irrelevant, though. All dilemmas in the series are false, constructed to further an adventure. However, they're true for the characters, within the fiction, and that's what counts. We could as easily point out that the Doctor just stumbled upon another kid called Davros, but that's not how the narrative works.

I had wondered how it would play out. Presumably the Doctor knew kid Davros would survive, since he'd met him in later life, but he didn't want to be the one who saved him. I wondered if maybe leaving him to the hand mines was what led to his being so horribly injured. I wondered if in the future, Davros was actually going to regenerate, becoming healthy again, rather than just saved from death (a good thing he didn't, since this would have rather ruined the appeal of the character). There were, potentially, other ways for it to go, without ever destroying the Doctor's character. I, for one, was really hoping, at the very end, that Davros would be taken off in the TARDIS and shown a better life by the Doctor. An interesting “What if?” for the series, perhaps.

Going forward, we're sure to see more of the Doctor's past, his mysterious confession coming to the fore, even though it may not actually be revealed, just like his name wasn't in 2013. Missy will be back, of course, as will Davros, eventually. I'm not sure I'm keen on this “hybrid” idea, but we'll see where it goes, and nor am I clear on just what was supposed to be different about the Daleks after their regeneration. Given that the Doctor gave up a big chunk of his regeneration energy, and may some day miss an arm or a leg, or “just be really litte,” I'm hoping that they use that as reasoning to maybe cast a disabled actor in the role. Or get Peter Dinklage as the thirteenth Doctor. As Clara... well, we know now that Coleman is leaving by the time the season is out. Her time as a Dalek in this episode – heartbreakingly unable to articulate herself from within the shell – strongly echoes her first appearance as Oswin in Asylum of the Daleks. I wonder if she'll make it out of the season alive.

Extra bits after the break

Sunday 20 September 2015

Casting Call: Marvel Cinematic Universe and X-verse

Anyone looking for my review of the Doctor Who season opener will have to wait till next week; I'll be reviewing the full two-part story in one go.

Loads of casting news for the latest Marvel adaptations has surfaced since I last wrote on the subject, trickling out until the recent flood of Luke Cage details. Deep breath...

Tom Holland
Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Captain America: Civil War, untitled Spidey movie)

No introduction for the character required here. Spidey's latest reboot has been the subject of much anticipation and aggravation since Marvel made their deal with Sony to co-produce the character's outings. 19-year-old Holland was chosen out of many auditioning young actors, and will be playing Spidey a little younger than his actual age, bringing him back to the high school kid he began as. Kevin Feige and the team behind the movies have confirmed that they won't be rehashing the origin story, which is a relief - pretty much everyone knows the origins of Spider-Man anyway now, so it's hardly essential. Considering how late in the day he was cast, Holland's role in Civil War can't be especially large (unlike in the comic crossover it's loosely based on, in which he's an intrinsic central character). Also, the producers have confirmed that Spidey is already swinging around MCU New York (a throwaway line in Ant-Man supports this). What works nicely in this set-up is that he'd have been about twelve when The Avengers took place, so he'll have been inspired by the various supers charging around his version of New York.

Like the previous film Spidey (Andrew Garfield), Tom Holland is a Brit. He's best known for his time in the lead role in Billy Elliot: The Musical, plus screen appearances in The Impossible, Wolf Hall and How I Live Now. His schedule has become a lot busier this last year. We know that after his Spidey debut in Civil War, he'll have at least one movie to himself (officially untitled, but the smart money is on The Spectacular Spider-Man), with two sequels already optioned. It'd be a big surprise to not see him at least briefly alongside the other heroes in Avengers: Infinity War, but the contract between Marvel and Sony stipulates that he can't appear in any TV properties. There are also talks of an animated Spidey movie or two, but it's unknown if any of the screen actors will take up their roles in the voice studio.

Jon Bernthal
Frank Castle/The Punisher (Daredevil s2)

One of Marvel's most popular characters, but not one who's ever really caught on well on film, ruthless vigilante Frank Castle has been played by various actors over the years: Dolph Lundgren in the 1989 Punisher movie, Thomas Jane in the 2004 reboot (and its unofficial short sequel, Dirty Laundry) and Ray Stevenson in 2008's Punisher: War Zone. So this is just the latest of various unrelated attempts to bring the character to the screen (he's also had various animated appearances, including in the 1990s Spider-Man animated series and the rather good anime Iron Man: Rise of the Technovore. The Punisher lacks superhuman abilities but is a formidable hand-to-hand combatant and tactician, who has found himself both fighting with and against various heroes throughout Marvel's comics since his debut in 1974. Jon Bernthal, best known as Shane in The Walking Dead and Joe Teague in Mob City, is an absolutely spot-on choice for the role. We'll see what side of Daredevil's fight he's on when he appears.

Elodie Yung
Elektra Natchios (Daredevil s2)

One of the most popular and important characters in the Daredevil storyline, Elektra is ninja assassin with an almost superhuman proficiency in martial arts. She's been a longtime love interest of Matt Murdock in the comics, but has almost as frequently been set against him, predominantly because he has a strict no-killing rule while she's, well, a professional murderer. Her mercenary nature has led to her aligning herself with various groups over the years, from SHIELD and HYDRA to ninja groups the Chaste and the Hand. With the Hand seemingly set to be a recurring threat in the new Defenders oriented shows, and Murdock's sensei Stick confirmed to return, Elektra's malleable allegiance could lead to some significant conflict. A line in the first series of Daredevil about a Greek student during Murdock's college days strongly implies he's already met Elektra in this storyline.

This is Elektra's second live-action casting, following on from Jennifer Garner's attempt at the role in 2003's middling Daredevil film and its woeful spin-off, the 2005 Elektra movie. French actress Elodie Yung plays Elektra in the next season of the Daredevil series. A martial artist in real life, she's appeared in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Les fils du vent and as Jinx in GI Joe: Retaliation. Not that that's any reason to go and watch that film.

Tilda Swinton
The Ancient One (Doctor Strange)

Once Sorcerer Supreme, the Ancient One is a Tibetan mystic, born over five hundred years ago, who is responsible for training Dr. Strange to become the Sorceror Supreme of the modern age. In the comics, he is, unsurprisingly, male, but Marvel have surprised everyone by casting English actress Tilda Swinton in the role. As with Baron Mordo (below), this is some inspired casting that totally ignores established racial and gender characteristics in favour of getting some true talent involved. Doctor Strange is looking like it'll have one of the best and most intriguing casts of any comicbook movie for years. The Ancient One's exact origins and characteristics have varied a fair bit over the years, but he's always been an incredibly aged, astonishingly powerful, albeit physically weak, sorcerer. As well as Strange and Mordo, he's been affiliated with such disparate characters as Eternity and the Black Rider, and while powerful now, is nowhere near as formidable as he was in his prime (hence his training of a new Sorcerer Supreme to take his place). Before training Strange, he almost single-handedly kept the Dread Dormammu from invading the Earth, has travelled to many other dimensions, and has continued to be a major force after death.

The Ancient One appeared, in spiritual form, in the 1978 Doctor Strange telemovie, voiced by Michael Ansara. The great Katherine Mathilda Swinton of Kimmerghame is perhaps the only actor living who is sufficiently talented, strange and remarkably unique to play the great sorcerer. Trying to sum up her career here would be a fool's errand, but for comicbook geeks, she was the Archangel Gabriel in the misguided 2005 WB adaptation of Constantine.

Chiwetel Ejiofor
Baron Mordo (Doctor Strange)

One of the great British actors of the current generation, Ejiofor's been attached to this for ages, but only recently has it finally been confirmed that he's playing Baron Mordo. One of Strange's arch-nemeses, Mordo is, in the comics, a Transylvanian of noble birth who was trained by the Ancient One to become Sorcerer Supreme, but was exiled for his treachery. Clearly, casting an Afro-English actor means that the character's origins will be tweaked a little, but the essentials will doubtless remain: Mordo is an incredibly powerful warlock who despises and opposes Strange. His abilities include, but are not limited to, hypnotism, illusionism, the summoning of demons, teleportation, astral projection, martial arts and numerous magical techniques. Plus, of course, he's been studying the magical arts longer than Strange, so he has experience on his side. In his long comics career, he's renounced evil a couple of times, but always been tempted back to the dark side.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is, of course, brilliant, and will bring some pure class to the role. Skiffy fans will know him from Serenity and Children of Men (and there's a rumour going round that he was offered the lead in Doctor Who at one stage), but his greatest roles have been in films such as 12 Years a Slave, American Gangster and Kinky Boots. He also won the Laurence Olivier Award in 2008, making him very probably the best actor to appear in the MCU by a long, long way.

Also confirmed for Doctor Strange is Rachel McAdams, aka Irene Adler in the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes movies, Clare in The Time Traveller's Wife and much, much more. There's no news on who she's playing, but the likelihood is that she's playing Clea, who is both his main love interest and linked closely to the demon Dormammu. There are several other characters she could be playing, though, especially considering the unexpected casting decisions this film is taking.

Mark Willig 
Lash (Agents of SHIELD s3)

Lash is very new character in Marvel comics, having been introduced in the Matt Fraction-penned series Inhuman series in 2014. An Inhuman, but not one of the main society who we normally encounter, Lash grew up in an isolated community where very few are chosen to undergo Terrigenesis and mutate into their Inhuman forms. As well as being physically formidable, Lash has the power to absorb and convert any form of energy and release it as whichever form he chooses, often intense heat. In the Inhuman storyline, Lash searches the world for "Nu-Humans" - humans who have unexpectedly transformed into Inhumans following the worldwide flood of Terrigen mist. Unlike some groups, though, Lash is dedicated to wiping out these people, who he sees as underserving of their transformation. Given the similar events at the end of season two of Agents of SHIELD, we can expect something similar to happen here, although Joss Whedon has expressed that things will not be taken directly from the comics, so there may be some surprises. Mark Willig is fairly new to acting, having had roles in NCIS and Year One among others, and was formerly a career footballer.

Also appearing in the third season of SHIELD are Constance Zimmer as Rosalind Price, an agent for a rival organisation who will cross paths with SHIELD in the hunt for new Inhumans; Juan Pablo Raba as Joey Gutierrez as one such newly transformed Inhuman, and Andrew Howard as Agent Banks, who is also set to be on the hunt for Inhumans.

Simone Missick
Misty Knight (Luke Cage)

Misty Knight is a fan-favourite character, and a big part of the stories of both Luke Cage and Danny Rand, aka Iron Fist. She's just a much a product of the seventies as Cage, being a combination of both blaxploitation cinema tropes and kung fu martial arts flicks. A former police officer, she boasts both detective skills and martial arts prowess; she lost her arm in the line of duty, receiving a bionic arm from Tony Stark that has granted her various enhanced abilities. How much of this will make it to the series in unknown, although if Phil Coulson can come back with a cyber-arm, I don't see why Misty can't. Knight's had romantic and heroic partnerships with both Cage and Rand (the latter of which has still not been cast), so she's bound to be a major part of not just the Luke Cage series, but the Iron Fist and Defenders series as well. Simone Missick is a fairly new face on screen, but she absolutely looks the part. Playing Misty's police partner Rafael Scarfe is Frank Whaley, who's had minor to middle roles in more or less everything in the last twenty years or so.

Theo Rossi
Hernan Alvarez/Shades (Luke Cage)

Shades was one of the cons sharing Luke Cage's cell during his time, and like Cage, suffered abuse at the hands of those in authority. Since he got out, the Dominican-born Shades has struggled to stay straight, acting on both sides of the law, and as both friend and enemy to Cage. At one point, he acquired a technologically-enhanced visor that allowed him to fire optic blasts (rather like Cyclops in X-Men). In latter stories, he's mostly, but not always, been on the side of right. His son, Victor Alvarez, developed some of the powers of Iron Fist when he absorbed the chi of over a hundred people in the disaster that killed Shades; with the new abilities he displayed, he took on the name Power Man, formerly used by Luke Cage. While I'm not convinced we'll see Shades blasting people with his super-sunnies on TV, I'd be surprised if Victor isn't introduced, if only as a kid. Sounds like Shades will be very much still a street criminal in this version, we shouldn't assume there's no chance for redemption. Theo Rossi has appeared in many popular shows, but is best known for his role as Juice in Sons of Anarchy .

Mahershala Ali
Cornell "Cottonmouth" Strokes (Luke Cage)

A powerful drug lord in New York, Cottonmouth was involved in the drugs sale that framed Luke Cage and led to his incarceration. A man with many enemies, he's been a target of  the Hand as well as Cage and his allies. At one point ending up with all is teeth shattered, he got them replaced with razor-sharp gold caps, and has enhanced strength in certain storylines too. Actor Mahershala Ali is familiar from The 4400, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay and Predators. Also cast is Alfre Woodard as Mariah Dillard, Cottonmouth's cousin who intends to run for office and bring change to Harlem. Woodard is a familiar face with years of screen roles behind her, most recently 12 Years a Slave and Annabelle, but is best known to genre fans for appearances in K-PAX, The Forgotten and Star Trek: First Contact.

Andre Tricoteux
Piotr Rasputin/Colossus (Deadpool)

It's confirmed that actor and stuntman Andre Tricoteux will be taking over the role of metal-plated Russian mutant Colossus in February's highly anticipated Deadpool movie. The character was previously played by Daniel Cudmore in X2, X3: The Last Stand and Days of Future Past.

Léa Seydoux
Bella Donna Boudreaux (Gambit)

The latest casting news for the Gambit  movie has confirmed that French actress Léa Seydoux will be co-starring with Channing Tatum, and although it's not been officially confirmed, it's accepted that she'll be playing Bella Donna Boudreaux, otherwise known simply as Belladonna. A mutant like Gambit, Belladonna has the ability to shoot energy blasts and to astrally project. She shares a long, complex history with Gambit in the comics, and it can be expected she'll be a combination of romantic interest and villain in the movie. Léa Seydoux is  a major rising star in Hollywood, soon set to appear in the Bond flick SPECTRE, having had previous English language credits in Inglourious Basterds and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Her most acclaimed performance is alongside Adele Exarchopoulos in the French graphic novel adaptation Blue is the Warmest Colour (aka La Vie d'Adele), an award-winning romantic drama.

Friday 18 September 2015

This is truly incredible. Normally, images and models of the Solar System have either the planets to scale, or their orbits, and occasionally they'll display both to scale but, crucially, not with each other. To do so would mean that either the planets would be too small to see, or the orbits would be too vast to fit in a model. These guys did it anyway. With the Earth as a marble, the Sun became a metre and a half across, and the entire model had a diameter of seven miles.

It truly brings the sheer enormity of the universe into a certain perspective, although it's still an image that's hard to comprehend. Even seven miles is difficult for a human mind to envisage, so taking in the vastness of the Solar System is impossible. In fact, this gigantic orrery only models the planetary orbits; with Neptune at seven miles, at this scale the generally accepted boundary of the Solar System, the edge of the Oort Cloud, would be over 400,000 miles away. A model of the entire system at this scale would actually stretch out past the real Moon.

Tuesday 15 September 2015

TREK REVIEW: Star Trek: Renegades

This had so much promise. Such a pity. One of the big fan productions, with higher than average productions values and several stars of the franchise appearing both as new and established characters.Unfortunately, it's really not terribly good.

The set-up is promising: it's 2388, a year after the destruction of Romulus and ten years since the starship Voyager returned to Earth. A disturbing new threat has emerged in the quadrant, but Starfleet are reluctant to to anything about it, hiding behind the Prime Directive. Whole planets are vanishing the space around them collapsing in on itself. A newly contacted alien species, based on the planet Syphon, is behind the events. Some in Starfleet suspect a conspiracy within their ranks is what is keeping the Federation from investigating this threat. In such circumstances, it's down to rebels and renegades to defend the Earth and its allies.

Renegades has been much touted as a darker, grimmer version of Trek, and it certainly delivers on that promise. We meet the central protagonist, Lexxa Singh, in a particularly brutal prison, having been left hanging out to dry by the Federation. The villainous Borada and his Syphon buddies are vicious brutes. Much is made of Starfleet's dirty tricks department, Section 31, and there are heavy hints of some nasty secrets in the Federation's past, although it's not entirely clear how much of this is true and how much is fabricated by its own enemies. There are some surprisingly violent moments that come with little warning. It's a murkier side of the Star Trek universe.

On the whole, I'm OK with that. I've spoken out against the tendency of recent movies to make grimdark adaptations of properties, but sometimes it's worthwhile having a look at the darker side of a world and seeing how far the fiction will stretch. I wouldn't want every episode of Trek to be like this, but occasionally exploring the seedier, dirtier side of a universe is worth doing. It's not entirely original, of course; perhaps it's a sign of the cynicism of our age that we can't quite believe in a utopia like the Federation anymore, and have to imagine conspiracies and dirty secrets behind the facade. At the end of the day, not everyone can be living a good, happy life in this or any universe, and these kinds of productions reflect that reality.

However, as with the most recent official Trek production, Star Trek Into Darkness, the attempt to make Renegades darker and more uncompromising is ham-fisted. As with STID, this is a poorly written script, with a plot whose twists and revelations make little narrative sense, and with poorly judged attempts at gritty reality. I can forgive the cringeworthy Syphon aliens, with their endless bleating on about the honour of the kill and macho posturing; Star Trek's been obsessed with that crap since it began to invent a culture for the Klingons back in the beginnings of TNG, and this just feels like more of the same. (Although, with both of these examples, it's clear that the writers have never once met anyone from any of the real warrior cultures that exist on Earth or bothered to investigate what such people might be like.) There's much worse examples than that, with continual posturing by the main characters, and needless moments of gratuitous unpleasantness. Oh, great, now the aliens are casually making rape threats to the women; even filtered through po-faced Trek language I'm not keen on shit like that.

It's certainly impressive that so many actors from official Trek productions have joined this cast. Most significant are Walter Koenig returning as Chekov (a longtime supporter of unofficial and fan projects), and Tim Russ as Tuvok. Both characters are well into their second century, with Chekov a prominent Starfleet Admiral, and Tuvok heading Section 31, which is a little harder to swallow. They share a fair part of their screentime, and this helps sell the significance of the plot: two recognisable characters discussing the importance of the unfolding events. Added to this we have Richard Herd returning as occasional Voyager guest character Admiral Paris, Manu Intiraymi as former Borg drone Icheb, and a star turn by Robert Picardo as Dr Zimmerman, creator of the EMH. Another returning cast member is Gary Graham, previously the Vulcan ambassador Soval in Enterprise, here playing a humanoid renegade named Ragnar.

Having so many characters from disparate parts of Star Trek come together has a risk of developing "small universe syndrome," but with a fan production like this is helped add authenticity, and makes it all feel like part of one, big narrative. Unfortunately, guesting on Star Trek does not mean an actor is actually any good at their job. Graham, in particular, should have stuck to playing Vulcans, as he seems incapable of convincingly expressing any human emotions. Admittedly, the dialogue he's given is pretty poor, but still. Many of the new faces in the cast are as bad, or even worse; there are several scenes in this film that, with the combination of poor acting and risible dialogue, are borderline unwatchable. A great deal of time is given to the crew of the Icarus, the eponymous renegades, several of whom are not capable of holding a scene together. Edward Furlong, best known for his childhood role as John Connor is Terminator 2, is the ship's technician, Fixer, and his acting skills haven't improved much over the years. There's worse acting in the film, but I expect better from the bigger names.

The best of the renegades is the aforementioned Lexxa Singh, the captain of the Icarus, and seemingly part of Khan Noonien Singh's extended family of superhuman augments. Adrienne Wilkinson is really very good in the role, a strong-willed, dangerous but principled character, and she makes a lot of the scenes watchable. Making her an augment doesn't add much to the storyline, but does give her a handy set of superpowers. In fact, the Icarus crew are essentially a superteam, boasting many powered-up individuals. Ragnar is a shapeshifter, while Icheb has had his Borg technology weaponised against his will. There's a mutant Betazoid who has no telepathic ability but displays psychokinesis, a war-damaged Bajoran and a recalcitrant Breen. It's a team that would work well in comics, a sort of Trek version of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Also very comicbook-esque is the boosting of the cast with numerous sexy alien females of various species, something I'm honest enough to admit made the film more enjoyable for me. (I don't think the Breen was a sexy female, but who can say under all that kit.)

Where the film really succeeds is in its visuals. It's well directed by Tim Russ, and has numerous pros working on the visual effects and design. The space sequences are gorgeous, both for the starships and the various planets seen. The CGI planetscapes occasionally look a little cartoonish, but since this is a consistent style, it doesn't detract from the overall effect. I particularly liked the surface of Syphon, a desolate realm that appeared inspired by the sets of Alien and its follow-ups. The make-up is also excellent, and while some have been critical of the villainous Borada and his followers, I think they worked well visually. Combining reptilian and simian looks, their design is intimidating, and while the prosthetics are a little rubbery and static, I actually don't mind that effect. It's kind of classic.

Ultimately, though, the fun ideas and impressive visuals aren't enough to save the film from the poor scripting and performances. The climax clearly sets up the possibility of sequels, and it's been well enough received by fans to make this likely, but there's a great deal of room for improvement between now and episode two.

Monday 14 September 2015

FANS WHO: The Ten Doctors, by Babelcolour

The long awaited final episode of The Ten Doctors, the fanfilm by Stuart Humphryes, aka Babelcolour, is now here. Babel began working on this back in 2009, when David Tennant was the incumbent Doctor, piecing together a new story out of segments of footage from the series, augmenting them with hundreds of new effects shots to create three short episodes with a new story. Babel provided the voice of the villain for the story himself, with all other characters' lines being taken from existing recordings or, from episode three onwards, using impressionists to record new dialogue. Then, he got the job to colourise The Mind of Evil for the BBC, and no longer had time to work on his fan project. It looked like that was that, but earlier this year, spurred on by his fans, he found time to complete it, with further help from voice artists and CGI sequences by Mert Karaca.

Now you can watch episode four, or, if you want to experience the whole thing, the entire story, which clocks in at a little under fifty minutes, just like an episode of the real series. Babel plays merry hell with established continuity, taking barely explained hints and glimpses and creating an unknown story from the Doctor's past. There are far more than ten Doctors featured in part four, and the "Ten Doctors" of the title might not be the ones you're expecting.

Mert Karaca

Saturday 5 September 2015

Comics Round-up Aug-Sept

The last bits of August, the first releases of September, and a bundle of Comixology bargains that caught me up on some IDW titles I missed. Limited Marvel as Secret Wars rumbles on, before the big relaunch swallows my wallet. Everything I paid to read since the last such post, really.

Captain Britain and the Mighty Defenders #2 (Marvel)

An issue of Marvel comics that made it into the British news (the first since Captain America was assassinated, I think). The reason, this time, is that the villains have begun quoting David Cameron. That is, in all truth, absolutely brilliant, and show's that Al Ewing was absolutely the right choice for this title. As he cheerfully sends up his own work with 2000AD, he makes something more of the Marvel characters he's been given to play with. I didn't particularly rate his work on Captain America and the Mighty Avengers, and this is clearly why: he needs to be allowed to be British on these things. With any luck, the feedback for this title will persuade Marvel to give him a new Captain Britain series, ideally with Faiza Hussain in the title role. This is the second alt-universe story with her as the Captain, after all - it's time she took the title in the main continuity.

TMNT/Ghostbusters Director's Cut #1 (IDW)

Arguably a pointless purchase, as I already the previous edition of this issue. On the other hand, this glossy reprint is a fun way of exploring a meeting of two favourite franchises. In spite of my childhood love of the Teenage Mutant Ninja/Hero Turtles, (and my recent binge of Turtles cartoons with my best mate), I have never massively involved myself with the universe the same way as I have with Ghostbusters, say. The commentary on this made me appreciate the story all the more, and the artwork looks even better than before.

Ghostbusters: Get Real #3 (IDW)

Four part stories rarely show their strengths in their third parts, and this is no exception. There's nothing wrong with this issue, and there are some lovely moments and references for the big GB fans like me, but it's still very much an exercise in getting from set-up to climax. Meat and potatoes stuff, really.

The Fly: Outbreak #2-4 (IDW)

To be frank, this is rather tedious. Seifert's script is far, far too talky, comprised mostly of Martin Brundle describing his self-loathing in long, poorly written passages, interspersed with biological technobabbble (biobabble?) A story about people turning into violent fly-monsters should be more exciting than this. Also, the various scenes of cam sex, banging in corridors, descriptions of insect mating habits as they'd apply to humans... it just comes across as tacky. I'll probably grab part five just to see how it plays out, but this is nothing to write home about. Glad I waited till it was discounted.

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency #1 (IDW)

Chris Ryall's revamp of Douglas Adams's second-greatest creation. It's definitely good value, this first episode packed with progress and dialogue. There's a lot to enjoy here, with Dirk setting up a new holistic detective agency in a mystery theme cafe in California, which mixes things up a little. There's the occasional bit of Adams-y dialogue - the "souler powered" phone stands out - but otherwise, as enjoyable as this is, it doesn't really feel like Dirk Gently.

Bombshells #2 (DC)

Sadly, much weaker than the first issue. That instalment used its short length efficiently but this issue really doesn't manage to get much more than set-up done. It's irresistible to explore a wartime Constantine and Zatanna - especially as Zatanna was pin-up style in the first place  - but we get very little to go on in this very brief episode, half of which is in German. Frankly, I don't ever see the point of songs in comics - it's a mix of art media that simply doesn't work. Also, Ted Naifeh's art is frequently quite ugly here, which is a problem in a series where the sexiness of the art is a major selling point.

Plutona #1 (Image)

Much anticipated, a new, postmodernist superhero teen coming-of-age story. Coming-of-Golden-Age? Lemire and Lennox tell a story largely through imagery, with limited dialogue. Hard to pull off, but they manage it well, and I enjoy the idea of a world where people are well aware of superheroes and kids go "capespotting." It's a little underwhelming with this first episode, but that's probably an effect of the pre-release hype. Worth following for the four parts.

Ungrounded #2 (Pandemic Meme)

My random pick for the month, and what tremendous fun it is. This is from Comixology's open submissions selection, written by Patrick Gerard, with art by Eryck Webb. With superheroes, super-scientists, magical spaces, time travel, possible worlds, malleable physics and doorways into fictional worlds, this is absolutely packed with imaginative ideas.