Sunday 27 December 2015

REVIEW: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 26 December 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 25 December 2015

Flash and Supergirl mid-season reviews

Avec les spoilers


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

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


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

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

Wednesday 23 December 2015

December Comics Round-Up

Ultimates #2 (Marvel)

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

Doctor Who - Eighth Doctor #2 (Titan)

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

Doctor Who Magazine #494 (Panini)

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

Batman/TMNT #1 (DC/IDW)

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

Ms. Marvel #2 (Marvel)

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

The Mighty Thor #2 (Marvel)

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

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #3 (Marvel)

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

Lucifer #1 (DC/Vertigo)

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

The Wicked + The Divine #17 (Image)

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

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

Sunday 20 December 2015

Whotopia Returns!

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

Wednesday 16 December 2015

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

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

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

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

Monday 7 December 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 5 December 2015

REVIEW: The Flash 2.7-2.8, plus Arrow 4.8


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

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

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


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

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

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