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."

Thursday 15 October 2015

TREK REVIEW: Star Trek Continues: Divided We Stand

I rather enjoyed this one, in spite of its being squarely aimed at the core American audience of Trek fans. It's not, to be fair, terribly original in its content: Kirk and McCoy are seemingly sent back in time to the American Civil War, although it's very quickly revealed to the audience that they have been infected by a virus that has caught them in a shared dreamscape. There's no mystery to it, nor much interest in the Enterprise-based subplot of curing the two friends. No, this is all about how Jim and Bones cope in this environment, believing it to be viscerally real and apparently without hope of rescue.

The original Star Trek played with Earth's history on numerous occasions, so much so that it seems odd that it wasn't repurposed as a time travel show. Whether it was actual trips into the past, bizarre alien recreations or planets that seem to have developed along Earthlike lines due to interference or sheer coincidence. So this excursion to 19th century America feels very in keeping with the series that it's seeking to emulate, without taking the path of previous episodes and indulging in heavy continuity. Not that there's anything wrong with heavy continuity in a fan series, but it's a pleasure to have something a little fresher after a run of sequels and callbacks. In fact, I can only think of one nod to the series' history, that being the name of the probe that delivers the virus: Friendship Three, presumably a successor to the eponymous probe from the Voyager episode Friendship One.

The strength of the episode lies in the recreation of the American battlefields. I presume the production team called on the services of some historical reenactment enthusiasts, since the battle scenes are populous and convincing (not that I'm any expert on the period, never having had a particular interest in the American Civil War). The decision to use Kirk and McCoy was a wise one. The strength of their friendship keeps them going through the bloody horrors of a very real war, far from the usually sanitised conflicts seen in Trek (although the original series was bloodier than people remember). Their respective backgrounds put Kirk and Bones on opposing sides in the war, with Kirk cast as a Union soldier and McCoy as his prisoner. It unfolds predictably, but nonetheless effectively, with both Vic Mignola and Chuck Huber working extremely well together here. A particularly effective installment from an always impressive fan production.

Watch the episode here.

Wednesday 14 October 2015

WHO REVIEW: 9-3 & 9-4: Under the Lake/Before the Flood

With Being Human, Toby Whithouse brought together vampires, werewolves and ghosts, along with such elements as time travel, to remarkable effect. In Doctor Who, he's already had a stab at vampires, and now he's utilised both time travel and ghosts in a story with a fascinating set-up. It's a very clever idea, splitting the story across two time zones, so that characters can, in theory, meet their own ghosts in the future. It never quite runs with this idea, though. The concept of being able to not only see but actually speak with your ghost is compelling, but beyond a brief interaction between the Doctor and his ghost (revealed to be nothing of the sort in any case), the idea isn't explored. The fact that the ghosts are essentially incapable of communication rather ruins it anyway; they're not characters but sinister set dressing and hazards. It's undeniably effective, but it's the less interesting option. Equally, the Fisher King, is well designed and realised - at least in the underlit interior scenes, not looking quite so creepy stomping about in daylight. However, since he does little more than rant and murder people off screen, he's a very hollow and uninspiring villain. 

Huge respect for the inclusion of the talented Sophie Stone as Cass, a deaf actress playing a deaf character, unapologetically included not as a token to disabled sensibilities but simply as a strong, interesting character who brings a somewhat different perspective to adventure. Around the country, deaf children will be watching Doctor Who and seeing a deaf person in a heroic role, not only leading the guest characters but enthusiastically told by the Doctor that she is the smartest person in the room (barring himself, of course). It's a wonderfully positive move on the part of the series' creators. Oddly enough, the Doctor doesn't know sign language; a strange omission for the man who knows fifty million languages, even if the script did make a joke about it being deleted to make room for semaphore. It's understandable in real life terms, of course; very likely, Peter Capaldi doesn't know sign, and in any case, having Cass's signs translated makes it possible for the bulk of the audience to understand her lines. However, I watched Before the Flood in the company of a fluent signer who was translating along with the episode, and I can therefore say that any viewer who can sign will get more out of the it than one relying on the interpreter. 

The remaining guest cast are all very good indeed, although in many cases rather wasted in the parts they have. Zaqi Ismail is perfectly good as Lunn but lacks a great deal in character as written; Arsher Ali seemed at risk of the same during the first episode, but he, as Bennett, came into his own in the second part once he had something to play other than spooked. Paul Kaye, rightfully recognised now as a highly talented actor, is amusing as the snivelling Prentis, but is so quickly killed off that there was never really any chance to appreciate him. The same goes for Steven Robertson and, most of all, Colin MacFarlane; talented actors whose characters are given virtually no screen time before being bumped. Yes, they then get to do their best as hollow-eyed phantoms, but that's still a waste of genuinely fine acting talent. Most galling is the killing of O'Donnell, who, particularly in the second episode, develops into an infectiously likeable and entertainingly bloody-minded character before being killed off to give the male characters the necessary angst. I'm not making a vehement feminist point here; the best character in the story was female (Cass, of course), and since much of my upset at O'Donnell's death is that I fancy the pants off Morven Christie, I'd be pretty hypocritical. Nonetheless, it grates.

Capaldi shines, as always, even though, to be honest, he didn't have very strong material to work with this time, Nonetheless, he's an interesting enough actor to make any of his scenes compelling. Clara, though, is rather uninteresting in this story, and Jenna Coleman makes less of an impression than usual. Perhaps it's a good thing she's leaving this year; there doesn't seem to be much left to do with her character. 

Ultimately, the script is packed with potentially great ideas and characters that, for the most part, it fails to explore to full effect. For all its atmosphere - and I think we need more slow-paced, unsettling stories - it's a disappointing tale, relying on rather a dissatisfying interpretation of time travel that lacks real drama.

Casting Call: Sophie Stone is the first deaf actress in the series, but not the first deaf actor. That was Tim Barlow, who played Tyssan in 1979's Destiny of the Daleks. Barlow lost his hearing in a military incident, although has since recovered much of it through the use of a cochlear implant.

Nitpick: Why didn't the base crew try switching the lights to permanent day mode, so that the ghosts wouldn't be able to materialise? I realise that the ghosts took control of the day/night systems during the episode, but you'd have thought they'd at least try this rather obvious idea.

Continuity Corner: The future parts of the story are set in 2119, and it seems that not only are UNIT still operating, but the Doctor is still well known - enough that O'Donnell knows of him and his exploits, at least. We haven't really seen much of this period in the series; The Rebel Flesh/The Also People was set in the 22nd century, presumably the earlier part, since The Dalek Invasion of Earth essentially ruined human society from the 2150s onwards. Other stories set around this time include Nightmare of Eden and possibly some other outer space stories (Doctor Who tends to go for a generic spacey future in the classic series), but we see very little of Earth in this time. The ninth Doctor considered the year 2105 "a bit boring" in The End of the World. The existence of an alien ship doesn't seem to be a huge surprise to the base crew.

The Doctor's cheat cards include one that says "I should've known you didn't live in Aberdeen," a reference back to where he left Sarah Jane Smith, according to Whithouse's first Who episode, 2006's School Reunion.

Prentis is a Tivolian, a species introduced in the form of Gibbis in another Whithouse script, 2011's The God Complex. He notes that they were conquered by the Arcateenians, another species created by Whithouse, for the Torchwood episode "Greeks Bearing Gifts." They're one of the very few species to turn up in both that series and The Sarah Jane Adventures.

The Doctor ponders whether the ghosts are Flesh avatars (right period, as noted above), Autons (Spearhead from Space, et al) or digital copies in the Nethersphere (Dark Water/Death in Heaven).

Doctor fanatic O'Donnell references Rose, Martha and Amy, and refers to the 1980s being pre-Harold Saxon (The Sound of Drums) and "pre-the Moon exploding and a bat coming out" (Kill the Moon). She also mentions a Minister of War, but what this means is as yet unknown.

The Doctor once met Shirley Bassey. At least, he thinks he did; it might have been Iris Wildthyme in her Bassey-like second incarnation. 

Wednesday 7 October 2015

Back to the Small Rouge One

As of October 2nd, Red Dwarf is back in production, three years since post-production completed on series ten. Both Red Dwarf XI and XII have begun pre-production, the first steps in creating twelve new episodes, which will bring the total run up to 73. Full production doesn't begin until cameras start rolling in November. And for the first time, I've actually found out about a live recording in time to book tickets! I'm going to see an episode of Series XII recorded on February 26th, as a treat for my birthday. Series XI is set to air on Dave next year and XII in 2017, so I'll have to sit on the plot details for a whole year.

Producer Richard Naylor tweeted this image to mark the start of pre-production on Series XI:

Presumably this is Kryten himself, not Spare Head 2.

Tuesday 6 October 2015

Casting Call: More DC Television Stars

The autumn TV season has started Stateside and the return of DC's series is imminent. Except Gotham, which is so imminent it's already started. Time enough for one last roundup of characters and actors joining the Arrowverse and the new Supergirl series.

Violett Beane
Jesse Chambers/Jesse Quick (The Flash)

Wow, we're really getting a full complement of speedsters in the new season of the The Flash. Not content with Grant Gustin as Barry Allen, Keiynan Lonsdale as Wally West and Teddy Sears as Jay Garrick, now they've added young female speedster Jesse Quick. While her backstory in the series will probably adjust this, in the comics she's the daughter of two Golden Age heroes, Johnny Quick and Liberty Belle. She inherits both their power sets, giving her both super strength and super speed. Although reluctant to become a costumed hero, she eventually joined the New Titans team. Violett Beane (great name) is a new face, and the only other credits I can find for her are the films Flay and Slash, neither of which has yet been released.

Franz Drameh
Jay Jackson/Firestorm (The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow)

Firestorm is such a weird, complicated character. In The Flash season one the original Firestorm was involved, a fusion of two characters, Ronnie Raymond (Robbie Amell) and Prof. Martin Stein (Victor Garber). In the comics, there have been various combinations of characters melted together to make Firestorm, including Jason Rusch, who had a brief appearance in The Flash (played by Luc Roderique). Yet, season two and Legends of Tomorrow will be fusing Stein with a wholly new character, Jay Jackson, described as a former high school athlete, who has become a mechanic since dropping out due to injury. Franz Drameh is an Anglo-Gambian actor, still quite new to the screen but known for the excellent Attack the Block and a role in Edge of Tomorrow (Live. Die. Repeat).

Demore Barnes
Henry Hewitt/Tokamak (The Flash)

Initially an enemy of Firestorm (introduced in The Fury of Firestorm in the 1980s), Henry Hewitt gained powers after exposing himself to the same conditions that created the nuclear-powered hero. This gives him the power to generate rings of energy that can destroy matter's atomic structure. The TV version appears to be another victim of the disaster at STAR Labs that created the Flash, Firestorm and the various metahumans of the series. Canadian actor Demore Barnes is best known as Hector "Hammerhead" Williams in The Unit, and has had numerous American TV appearances including as Raphael in Supernatural

Michael Ironside
Lewis Snart (The Flash)

Another villain for The Flash, Lewis Snart is the estranged father if Leonard and Lisa Snart, aka Captain Cold and the Golden Glider. Brief glimpses of their past in season one made it clear that Snart Sr. was an abusive father. He's back with a plan that endangers both his children. Michael Ironside is a huge sf fan and a bit of a legend among genre fans, known for roles in Top Gun, Robocop, Starship Troopers and The Machinist. He has DC experience as well, having voiced both Darkseid and, briefly, Batman, in animated adventures, and also having played Lois Lane's father, General Sam Lane on Smallville.

Tony Todd
voice of Zoom (The Flash)

Zoom is confusing, but I think I have it (I've become more versed in Flash-mythology lately). Eobard Thawne, the villain of the first season of The Flash, is known as the Reverse Flash and is also sometimes called Professor Zoom in the comics. Hunter Zolomon, on the other hand, is an entirely separate character, inspired by Thawne to become the newest Reverse Flash and taking on the moniker Zoom. He's obsessed with the Flash - the Wally West version in the the comics, generally - and wants to make him suffer personal tragedy so that he can become a more compassionate hero. He's more powerful than the original Reverse Flash, having the ability to manipulate the fabric of time around himself.

Tony Todd, owner of the scariest voice in Hollywood and infamous as the Candyman, as well as having numerous other major horror roles and various appearances on genre TV (he has three credits for the Star Trek franchise alone, including DS9: "The Visitor," which was just beautiful). He's only providing the voice for Zoom, so presumably the identity of the villain is to be kept under wraps for a while. In any case, he's the Big Bad for The Flash season two.

Jimmy Akingbola
Reiter (Arrow)

Well, this is an odd one. Reiter is better known as Baron Blitzkreig, and Earth-2 villain first introduced in the 70s but retroactively stated to be active during WWII. He's one of the various Nazi villains who joined the Fourth Reich, as well as affiliating with the Secret Society of Super Villains and Shadowspire. The important thing to note here is that he's a Nazi; in fact, he gained his powers of super strength, heat vision and flight after undergoing operations to save his life after he was wounded by a prisoner in a concentration camp. Yet, the TV version is going to be played by British actor Jimmy Akingbola, who is of Nigerian descent. This is an unexpected juxtaposition, and presumably the TV version will have a rather different character to the comics version, and won't be going by the name Baron Blitzkreig. In fact, the only similarities between Arrow Reiter and comics Reiter is that they're both villains and both have links to the Shadowspire organisation.

Jimmy Akingbola is mostly known for his theatre work but has expanded onto film and television in recent years, including appearances in sitcoms The Crouches and Big School and the film Anansi. Unlike his villainous counterpart, he's known to the acting community as "Mr. Nice." Which would actually be a cool name for a villain, come to think of it.

Stephanie Corneliussen
Valentina Vostok (Legends of Tomorrow)

Another character who'll need to be reimagined to make sense in a modern series, Vostok dates back to Showcase comic in 1977 and was a Soviet spy, who absorbed the powers of Negative Man to become Negative Woman. These powers included the ability to transform into an ethereal energy form, but she lost these powers. She became a generally heroic character and served in the Doom Patrol. How her origin is to be tweaked for the Arrowverse isn't certain, but she's described as an exceptional physicist, and if she's a villain she may be working for Vandal Savage in some capacity. Danish model Stephanie Corneliussen appeared on the acting seen a couple of years ago and has had major roles in Mr. Robot and The Exes.

Rutina Wesley
Liza Warner (Arrow)

Liza Warner is the alter ego of the comics character better known as Lady Cop. She first appeared in her own title in 1975, and her thing, see, is that she was a cop, but she was a lady. In spite of the utter sexism and naffness of this idea, she's actually a pretty impressive character, being a dedicated and skilled detective. Over the years she's been involved in thwarting some serious crimes and her comics have dealt with adult issues, such as sexual health and trauma counselling. She also has links to the Atom (the newer, Ryan Choi version, but she might meet Brandon Routh's Ray Palmer version). The Arrow version of Warner will head an anti-vigilante taskforce and so come up against Oliver Queen and his team. I think we can safely say she won't be calling herself Lady Cop. Rutina Wesley is best known for playing Tara in True Blood and Reba in Hannibal, and I must say I am loving the CW's support of diverse casting across its series. 

Iddo Goldberg
T.O. Morrow/Red Tornado (Supergirl)

Looks like Iddo Goldberg is playing two characters on Supergirl, scientist and creator, unless in this version of events T.O. Morrow actually becomes the Red Tornado. The android hero has had multiple origins in DC comics, but the most recent version is an android hosting an air elemental. (He doesn't appear to exist currently in the New 52 continuity, but I may be out of date here.) Red Tornado has been part of the Justice League and was an advisor and mentor to Young Justice team; indeed, I know him best from his appearance in the Young Justice animated series, voiced by Jeff Bennett. In spite of usually being heroic, his earliest iterations included the Tornado Tyrant, a more villainous turn, and his Supergirl TV persona has been described as a villain,. Still, I wouldn't be surprised to see him ally with Supergirl in the future.

Red Tornado has the usual attributes of superhuman strength and intelligence you'd expect from an android, but also has the ability to control the air and generate wind. Most versions can also assume human form. The perennially villainous Thomas Oscar Morrow has no powers but is a highly gifted engineer and has created numerous mechanical warriors over the years. Iddo Goldberg is an Anglo-Israeli actor most recognisable for roles in British series such as Peaky Blinders and The Secret Diary of a Call Girl and the movie Defiance.

Monday 5 October 2015

Audio Explosion

Lots of exciting audio information!

Strangeness in Space has just released Episode 2, which is now streamable here for free. Starring Trev & Simon and Sophie "Ace" Aldred, this episode also features Rufus Hound as Atrocious Knocious and Peter Guinness as the villainous Dr. Scarifium. There's also a guest appearance by Carol Cleveland. It's very silly, and did I mention it's free?

Big Finish has been secretly recording a special new box set starring John Hurt! We always wondered if they might get there eventually, and now BF have broached the Time War, starting with The War Doctor: Only the Monstrous. Clearly that title refers to Nicholas Briggs, who has no regard for the dwindling of our bank balances. The press release goes on to say that there will be three further box sets for the War Doctor, followed by a prequel release featuring Paul McGann's eighth Doctor at the beginnings of the Time War. All the sets are available for £20 on pre-order for both CD and download. As well as this, McGann stars in this month's big release, the first set in the Doom Coalition series, which is set to crossover with BF's new River Song series. So bye-bye pocket money. (The order of events right now seems to be To the Death [previously on Radio 4X], Dark Eyes 1-4, Doom Coalition 1-4 [with a River Song instalment too], The Eighth Doctor: The Time War, The Night of the Doctor [the webcast mini-ep], The War Doctor: Only the Monstrous.)

Before all that, though, there's a chance to listen to some classic science fiction on Radio 4X. Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s 1960 novel A Canticle For Leibowitz has been adapted for radio in this excellent reading by Nigel Lindsay, who explores this devastated future through the eyes of a Catholic monk. The first book in the novel, Fiat Homo, is now available to download or stream in five episodes. It's really quite something.

Sunday 4 October 2015

REVIEW: The Magician's Way by E.M. Scott

"Adela, the Forest Queen, has protected the balance of nature in the Three Valleys for 1000 years. The Three Valleys are the safest place on earth. But Adela is tied now, too tired, and something stirs in the well she guards. If left unchecked it threatens all within the natural world. 

A twelve-year-old girl, befriended by a banished knight, may hold a key to keeping the balance But has she been taught enough to do so?"

It's easy to fall back on favourite authors, and while I have plenty of Pratchett and Rankin for the near future, I'm making the effort to read new authors; both new to me and new to publication. E.M. Scott is new to the fantasy scene, The Magician's Way being her first novel. It's a book for younger readers, especially suitable for 7/8/9-year-olds, such as the Year Three class that teacher Scott dedicates her book to. Children are one of Scott's two main concerns, along with wildlife. She sets this out herself in a postscript, which details that 10% of the book's profits will go towards charities that support conservation and child welfare. Without this, though, her concerns are clear through reading the novel, which takes time to explore the relationships between its child protagonist and the many animals that inhabit the kingdom in which she lives.

The story is told through the eyes of Lola, the young apprentice of the aged Magician, who has lived a quiet rural life before the disruption to the Kingdom of the Three Valleys necessitates their travelling to the King's castle and the surrounding village. The nature of the threat to the King is unexpected, and the force that threatens the kingdom has a wide, unceasing reach, giving the tale an oppressive atmosphere. Thankfully, there are many friends and allies for Lola, so at no point do the odds seem insurmountable. The Magician himself wanes quickly, and Lola developing her talents and strengths as she leads the fight against the evil that threatens the Three Valleys. Her greatest gift allows her to connect to the natural world in a unique way, and the story puts me in mind of a more child-friendly version of Robin Hobb's Assassin's Apprentice and its follow-ups.

The novel is written in clear, straightforward prose, and should be accessible for younger readers as they make their way through a story that continually adds new elements before building to a strong climax with a powerful foe. Sometimes a little more flourish to the telling would be welcome, but on the whole the story is strong, intriguing and easy to follow without ever talking down to its target audience. I'm pleased to hear that two further novels are planned. I think it's quite clear where Lola's destiny will take her, but how she'll get there is another question entirely. A strong debut.

REVIEW: Shocktober Fest Scream Park 2015

Some background, for those who don't know: Tulley's Farm is a site in West Sussex that has been holding Hallowe'en-themed attractions since the mid-nineties, which in 2009 grew into Shocktober Fest, an American-style haunted farm event that sells out annually and has been voted the most popular Hallowe'en event in the UK. Every October the event is held for several weeks, encompassing the very busy half term holiday and building in anticipation (and cost) to All Hallows Eve itself. From this year there's also a revived Spooktober event for youngsters and another venue, Tulley's "The Howl," at Mead Open Farm in Bedfordshire.

This was my first trip to Shocktober Fest, although many of my friends have been to it and other themed events at Tulley's in the past. This year there are eight main attractions, or Haunts, which range from the very mild to the seriously nerve-rattling. The oldest and most well known is the Haunted Hayride, the most kid-friendly of the Haunts, a trailer ride through woods peppered with shacks and oddities and populated by zombified cowboys, murderous maniacs and, rather brilliantly, dancing phantom nuns. Because, why not? Also pretty tame is the Haunted House, which is a good entry level for the more serious haunts and gives you a taste of the various ghouls who'll leap out at you. The Haunted House in particular is very brief. 

Stronger is the Nightshade Circus, far more claustrophobic than the Haunted House, and no good at all for coulrophobes. (It's also where they send the really attractive actors, we noticed.) The Cellar is another haunted house event, but the best of the lot, the confined and twisted spaces providing ample opportunity for the various ghosts to hide before they leap out at you (and they really do get right up in your face). It's also a little trickier to find your way around, which makes it more interesting, but not as baffling as some of the more adult Haunts. 

The Colony and the Volt are extremely claustrophobic. The Colony, a post-apocalyptic island of inbred cannibals, co-opts the corn maze and involves a lengthy period through a pitch black building, feeling your way along as you can't see a damned thing. It could also do with some actual indication of where to go and when, because the snarling actors weren't really able to communicate this (and are seemingly forbidden from dropping character), and more than once we found ourselves outside the boundaries of the Haunt and having to find our way back in. Briefer, but more intense, was the genuinely unsettling Volt, which supposedly adds the risk of electric shocks to the struggle of finding your way through the darkness. In actuality, it's a psych-out; you're so on-edge waiting for the shocks that never come that you almost feel them every time you touch a wall. Of the six Haunts we went through, this was the one that shook me, and it was almost all self-inflicted.

The most popular Haunts would seem to be the Chop Shop and Hell-ements, neither of which we experienced. The Chop Shop had a 45-minute queue and we honestly couldn't be bothered with that, although from the screams and chainsaw noises we heard it was certainly frightening. Hell-ements, which has been raved about since its creation a few years ago, sounded a bit much after already fighting through pitch darkness on other Haunts. This one involves having your head completely covered while you find your way through on a rope... not for the faint of heart.

As well as the Haunts there's plenty going on in the grounds, although as we attended the preview night (for a reduced price) not everything was yet set up. The overall theme was "Horror-wood," with an American horror atmosphere pervading the site. There were many spooks wandering around entertaining people while they waited, ate and got lost; some of actors and characters were excellent, others, well, weren't. Best were the Barber Chops, two barbershop zombies who regaled us with songs. I understand that once it's fully populated there will be a good deal more general entertainment. A basic pass costs a tenner, so not bad if you don't want to see the Haunts and just want to enjoy food, spooks and music, while the "X-Scream Pass," allowing one go round each Haunt, was £25 for preview night, increasing to £30 next weekend and hitting peak at £45 on Hallowe'en. However, given that the Haunts don't open until 7.30 and the park closes at 11.30, it's hard to fit in all eight events if you don't shell out £40-£70 plus for a fast track or VIP pass. Not impossible, since they're mostly quite brief and the queuing was, generally, moving pretty quickly, but tricky. 

So, overall, this was great fun. However, there are some major problems that need addressing. I'm accepting that the preview night has a few creases that will be ironed out - there was a hitch at the Hayride which delayed its start, for example - but I'm sure that this will get sorted. Other problems are more serious. The general staff, for example, aren't permitted to go through the Haunts, which is problematic considering the lack of information regarding them. All the haunts have essentially the same warnings about darkness, sudden shocks and claustrophobia, but there's no way to tell which is going to be more severe other than by going through. While guests, naturally, enter at their own risk, this risk does need to be informed. It's hard to know quite how you'll react to a Haunt until you've experienced it, and there's no easy way for anyone panicking to get out of a Haunt once they've entered it. While there are medics standing by, their access is, by the nature of the events, limited. 

The most serious element of this is the use of inflatable walls in at least four of the Haunts (of the ones we went through, only the Hayride and the Haunted House lacked this). These are extremely claustrophobic, especially in the Colony and the Volt, essentially enclosing you in a smothering layer of fabric through which you have to force yourself in order to proceed. It's actually quite difficult to make it through these, and for some in the party the tightness and closeness of the material made it difficult to breathe. Using this to some extent on fully half of the Haunts (if not more), seems excessive, and made much of the experience unpassable for one of our party. 

While I understand the desire to keep the Haunts spoiler-free, people need to understand what they're likely to be letting themselves in for. There's a big difference between a poky shack, a black, enclosed chamber, and a smothering canvas envelope. While some of the staff were extremely helpful - a particular shout-out to the young man at the Cellar, who went to some lengths to find out what exactly was to be expected in that Haunt - others seemed undertrained or simply not bothered. The security detail also did very little to maintain order, which is quite important in a place with so many over-excited teenagers. (All the attractions are, questionably, rated 12, although anyone under fifteen is supposed to be accompanied by an adult, something that was not being enforced inside the park).

My first Shocktober Fest was great fun, and I would certainly go again (although probably not on opening night), but the management need to take some of their responsibilities more seriously when it comes to the welfare and experience of their customers.

UPDATE: Tulley's have refunded my friend the price of her ticket and have stated that allowing staff to experience the Haunts will be discussed at a management level. We thank them for the quick and considerate response.

Friday 2 October 2015

There, up in the sky!

It seems like everything interesting in the sky is red these days. Not only has Pluto turned out be considerably ruddier and more interesting than first anticipated, but this past week we've had a blood moon eclipse and some exciting news about the planet Mars. I didn't deliberately wake myself for the eclipse, considering how disappointing space phenomena can be when shrouded by English weather, but it's been beautifully clear the last few days and I generally wake up between three and five anyway, so I got up and wandered out around four a.m. I didn't see the total eclipse but I caught a beautiful view of the waning umbra, with the Moon split into a glowing white crescent and a hazy umber shadow. It was an astonishingly clear night, too, even with the street lights that are part and parcel of living in a town centre. Orion and the Pleiades dominated the central sky, while Venus positively blazed above the eastern horizon.

Just a few days after this, we received news that compelling evidence of liquid water has been found on Mars. NASA have, irritatingly, gone down the "announcement for an announcement" route that's so popular with TV and movie studios these days, but still, it was worth waiting for. Where there's water, there's hope of life. Off to seek the Yip Yips.

In news more terrestrial in origin but interplanetary in imagination, Obverse Books has just released their eighth Iris Wildthyme collection, The Perennial Miss Wildthyme. I'm not in this one, which means there's space for only really excellent authors and not cheeky upstarts. It's edited by Paul Dale Smith, who wrote such brilliant bookages as Doctor Who: Heritage and "The League of Extraterrestrial Gentlemen" for Shelf Life. The hardback run is nearly sold out, though, so get £15 out and head to the Obverse.

My old comrade Mr E.G. Wolverson has written a joint review of the third and fourth Red Dwarf novels, Last Human by Doug Naylor and Backwards by Rob Grant. The original two novels were written by both authors under the pseudonym Grant Naylor, before they parted ways and went on to start their own projects. I devoured these books as a teen, and have read all four of them at least six times (along with the Hitchhikers "trilogy," they were my favourite books as a developing geek). For my money, Backwards was the best of the lot, although I'm hard pressed to argue with Wolvie's view of its conclusion.

The great Who-head Neil Perryman and his good wife Sue are now raising funds for the third volume of their book series The Wife in Space, following on from their popular blog. These books always make tremendously fun reading, and given Sue's less-than-positive views on Pertwee as he takes over, The Pompous Tory should be a treat. They've already hit their target so the book is definitely going ahead, but funding through the Kickstarter campaign is the most cost-effective way of getting the book. It's a fiver for the ebook and £18 for the paperback, and there are lots of extra bits and bobs that can be purchased exclusively through the campaign as well. I'm going for the Sapphire & Steel book as an extra, myself.

Dan Freeman, one of the prime movers behind the acclaimed audio series The Minister of Chance, has a new production in the works. An audio movie like its predecessor, The Light of September is a science fiction epic with a truly impressive cast, that includes such luminaries as Robert Picardo (Star Trek: Voyager, InnerSpace), Tuppence Middleton (Sense8, Jupiter Ascending), Tamsin Greig (Black Books, The Archers) and Sylvester McCoy (the seventh Doctor and Radagast the Brown in The Hobbit). At time of writing it's 60% funded, so more backers are needed to assure its production. If it's anything as good as The Minister of Chance it'll be something to look forward to. There also appears to be a picture of me being foolish on the main page.

Other than this, what's new? It's the beginning of the new TV season in the States, which means Agents of SHIELD, Supergirl, The Flash and Gotham, so my torrent will be torrenting torrentially over the next few weeks. (Plus Fear the Walking Dead for my zombie enthusiast of a flatmate). The Beeb has just announced a new spin-off for Doctor Who, entitled Class, which will arrive next year. It's a dreadfully dull title, but the prospect of kids investigating alien activity in Coal Hill School sounds appealing, like a cross between Grange Hill and The Sarah Jane Adventures. I won't be happy unless Ian Chesterton appears, though. Plus, I've been busy with my best friend indoctrinating her children into the world of Doctor Who, starting with "Rose" and "The End of the World." Skipping those episodes we consider too scary, though. One of them is only three, the middle one is especially sensitive when it comes to movies and TV and the eldest is terrified of living statues, so we'll have to be careful.

Finally, another friend just messaged me to say she'd been "facefucked by a cobweb." I adore my friends, such a way with words.