Sunday 28 August 2016

REVIEW: The Tick - 2016 pilot episode

Having had considerable success with their previous pilot season, which kicked off the acclaimed series The Man in the High Castle, Amazon have pushed ahead with three new pilots. I can't say I have any interest in watching Jean Claude van Johnson or I Love Dick, but I couldn't resist watching the latest TV version of The Tick.

I was a fan of the animated series back in the 90s, and while the 2001 live action series passed me by, I have fond memories of the blue-suited superhero, whose adventures occupied the same strange televisual space as Earthworm Jim, Johnny Bravo and Rocko's Modern Life. Today's pop environment is arguably perfect for a new Tick series; the influx of superhero properties are asking for a parody. On the other hand, though, you might say we've already had that parody, with Deadpool, Guardians of the Galaxy, KickAss et al all gleefully ripping the piss out of themselves while making for highly enjoyable adventures in their own right. The Tick might just be a little too obvious and silly to really hold up in this company.

So it makes sense that Ben Edlund has taken a more high concept direction for this version of his superhero. At a mere thirty minutes long, this is a very brief but effective introduction to a superhero-infused world, where an ersatz Superman has been protecting citizens since the early 20th century, and supervillains have, supposedly, been vanquished. The new version of The Tick riffs on the paranoia and mistrust of our age, questioning the reality we are presented with. Griffin Newman plays Arthur, the Tick's traditional sidekick, here presented a schizophrenic whose childhood encounter with supervillain The Terror has left him unable to trust the world around him. Jackie Earl Hayley, top choice for disturbing comicbook villains today after his recent role in Preacher, is suitably horrible as The Terror, the supposedly dead villain who Arthur is convinced secretly runs the city of Midtown.

We see there are criminal gangs trading in super-tech and weaponry, but beyond that, how much of Arthur's theories is based in reality we don't know. We don't even know if the Tick is real. He faces down criminals, causes a huge explosion and generally leaves a trail of destruction in is wake. He's even backed up by an eye-witness account... yet outside of his villain battle, he interacts only with Arthur. Arthur, whose mental difficulties are accompanied by a pronounced facial tick, and who is obsessed with superhero and villain activity. Is he some aspect of Arthur's personality, mad flesh? The "you you want to be?"

The best thing about this, though, is definitely the Tick himself. Peter Serafinowicz was born for this role, imbuing the Tick's ludicrous speeches with a cocksure swagger and a majestic oration. There are some lines where he gives a dead-on Adam West impression, while in others he just sounds like a bellowing lunatic. There are some choice lines on offer: "You fingered foul fruit, friend," is a favourite, but I feel "Evil wears every possible mitten," is a cut above.

The episode is clearly the work of people who love what they're doing. As well as Tick creator Edlund, current hero Serafinowicz and former Tick Patrick Warburton are listed as producers. These are people who love the character and want him back on our screens. Based on this episode, I'm with them. As a pilot, though, it's fairly weak. Half an hour is just right for an installment of this show, but the pilot needs to be longer to set up the premise a little more clearly. As it is, it rather just stops, and fluffs its cliffhanger. Hopefully, the cleverness, silliness and bombastic fun will garner enough positive feedback to assure a series. I want to see how if this develops into something genuinely original.

I also want to hear the Tick shout "SPOOOON!"

Tuesday 23 August 2016


Star Trek Beyond
Captain Kirk vs Idris Elba

The Mission: Diplomatic mission to Teenax; stopover at Yorktown base; investigation into alien attack beyond the Necro Cloud Nebula.

Period: March 2263 (Kelvin Timeline)

Spoilers beyond this point

Sunday 21 August 2016

REVIEW: Suicide Squad

Somewhere in Suicide Squad, there's a really decent film. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, with too many characters to incorporate and too many creative influences trying to make their mark. The concept of the comicbook original Suicide Squad - a group of untrustworthy, heinous and powerful characters on top-secret missions - is certainly a fine basis for a movie. Initial information on the film described it as a superhero version of The Dirty Dozen, which would indeed make for a fantastic popcorn flick. Suicide Squad, however, never quite lives up to its premise, in spite of a highly enjoyable first half.

The first two acts are not without their flaws, but they are at least aware of the ridiculousness of the set-up. There's a real verve to the introduction of the first group of characters, and while the frenetic editing and barrage of pop music is distracting, there's a lot of fun to be had as the principal cast are introduced. No doubt about it, this is an impressive cast, and for the most part the best (or, more realistically, most expensive) are introduced first. The premise is outlined efficiently, building on the previous instalments of Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman to create a believable, if fantastic, situation. With Superman gone, and a history of costumed and superpowered villains, it's perfectly feasible that someone such as Amanda Waller would worry about "the next Superman" and make plans for how to deal with such threats. We know it's bound to go wrong, but that's the fun of set-up.

While much of the film is over-the-top fun, it suffers greatly from an uneven tone and misjudgements in managing the large cast of characters. While it's certainly possible to manage a huge group of super-characters effectively - Civil War showed us that - it's no easy task. After the first batch of characters, including Waller, Harley Quinn, Deadshot, Killer Croc and Enchantress, are introduced, we get the next bunch, with El Diablo, Captain Boomerang and Slipknot added to the team. Rick Flagg is included in order to try to control the band of misfits. Then he brings in Katana as his own personal muscle. And then there's the rest of Waller's committee. And the Joker. And the big bad of the film itself. Not to mention all his troops...

It's all rather too much, too hurriedly. There's an adage that an audience can only accept so many oddities at once. It's easy enough to accept a crackshot assassin and clown who dresses as a criminal, but we're also expected to accept a cannibal with reptilian skin and a demonic witch possessing a young woman. If you're a comics fan like me, it's fine, but even given the last twenty years of superhero flicks, there's only so much an audience member can be prepared to swallow all at once. As I said, though, the earlier part of the film revels in the silliness. Later on, though, it takes on a more serious, moralistic tone that sits uneasily with the first half of the film and the characters' background. The structure of the story is, ultimately, a mess. It would have been far more effective to start out with the team in place, learning about the characters from their interactions and actually seeing them taking on missions that the military can't be seen to do. Instead, we get one mission, going straight into the main event after spending the better part of an hour on introductions and set-up, with Flagg and his army boys along for support. It's exactly what the Squad was not set up to do.

While I'm pleased that the creators of superhero films no longer feel bound to give us long-winded origin stories, the approach taken here falls between too stools. What we do see of the more interesting characters makes me want to see more, and holds back the narrative at the same time. Deadshot, along with Harley, is one of the two main protagonists of the film. The most sympathetic of the Squad, Deadshot gets significant backstory that is more interesting than what he gets to do as part of the team. Will Smith is as good as ever, even if he is playing a more amoral version of his default movie character. Perhaps the most impressive of the cast is Jay Hernandez as El Diablo, a reformed monster who has to be broken away from his new pacifist stance. As good as he is, he's stuck with some of the worst, most cliched dialogue in the film. It's impressive that he can make such a load of tosh as compelling as he does. On the other hand, Katana, played by Karen Fukuhara, is entirely pointless to the story, in spite of a fascinating backstory, while Akinnuoye-Agbaje is utterly wasted as Killer Croc.

The biggest missed opportunity is Harley Quinn's relationship with the Joker. These aren't my Harley nor my Joker; I grew up on the Tim Burton films and the classic 90s animated series. These two fruitloops represent a more modern, utterly unhinged take on the characters, and in that they succeed completely. Jared Leto is magnetic and disturbing in his turn as this tattooed, steel-toothed supervillain; the only weakness is that we are desperate to see more of him. Margot Robbie absolutely nails it as Harley. Both vulnerable and formidable, she uses her sexuality as another weapon and sells her complete obsession with the Joker, someone whose love she'll never truly have. While we don't need an origin story for every character, Harley Quinn is one who deserves one.

Instead, we have interminable scenes of Cara Delevingne trying very hard, but failing, to portray a 6000-year-old interdimensional sorceress by speaking through a voice modulator and dancing about a bit, while the ultimate villain of the piece is a faceless monster that most people will have forgotten about by the time they leave the cinema. The final act sees the movie lose all coherence as it attempts to make this band of bastards into heroes, losing any of the good will the previous hour-and-a-half managed to gain in a barrage of pyrotechnics. Sit back, let it all wash over you and you'll have fun... but you'll leave wanting to see more of Harley and her puddin.'

Saturday 13 August 2016


Season Two, Episode Eight - A World With No Sadness, Baby

In this unique and haunting episode, Dandy visits a world on the boundary between life and death. The episode begins with Dandy's body floating down a mysterious river, arcing up into the sky...

He's Dandy, Baby: Dandy wakes up in his funeral barge holding a mysterious cube. He has amnesia, with no idea where he is or how he got there. To begin with he is mostly concerned with finding something to eat, only realising later that he hasn't actually felt either hungry or tired since he arrived on the planet. Apart from a creepy old lady and her talking cat, very little in this world truly phases him; Dandy takes things in his stride much as he usually does.

Eventually it becomes clear that Dandy is dead and on a planet of ghosts, having been killed crashing into the main console of the Aloha Oe approaching the planet. He lacks a reflection and will never age or change. Given the choice between an existence without sadness or strife, and real life with the sadness that allows happiness to exist in relief, Dandy chooses life. After all, what's the point of existence without being able to enjoy food or boobs?

Dandy speaks to the spirit of the planet (see below), but she is unable to send him back. However, she remarks that he is "The One," and is able to send him sideways, into a reality where he averted death, so that he may continue. She reveals she is in love with him, to which Dandy, with his usual modesty, expresses no surprise whatsoever. Someday, he returns to the planet to see her.

They're Sidekicks, Baby: With Dandy alone in Limbo for most of the episode, we hardly see Meow and QT. We see in flashback that the three of them approached the planet hunting the rarest of rare aliens. Neither of Dandy's friends would even notice if he died straight away - they'd just think he was asleep. Meow suffers from "starvation hairballs."

I Know This Planet, Baby: The planet Limbo: a huge rock in space, protected from visitation by an impenetrable dark nebula. The Limbo world was once an ordinary planet, but its inhabitants wiped themselves out in a huge, stupid war, leaving only a world of ghosts behind. Now, lost souls from all over the universe gravitate towards the planet. It's a weird place, with buildings open to the air, chandeliers hanging from the sky, and a cable car that carries souls to the heavens. Once lost souls accept that they are dead, they are able to pass onto the next world, although many of them choose to remain to help new arrivals. Souls tend to go through the motions, still trying to eat and sleep, before accepting their new existence. The food on the planet includes ramen that evaporates into dust, and living candies.

The spirit of the planet manifests in multiple forms. The Curiosity of Limbo is personified as an angelic young girl, who has existed in isolation for aeons, the only truly living being in a world of ghosts. The Logic of Limbo manifests as the Night Porters, a swarm of flying, jellyfish-like creatures, led by a frightening being with no face, but an eye on one hand and mouth on the other (kind of like the Angel of Death in Pan's Labyrinth).

The Alien Registry records that Limbo holds no life, but QT detects something, leading the team to believe whatever's down there must be ultra-rare.

We're Alien Hunters, Baby: Limbo is populated by some very strange creatures, including a pink motorcycle that is actually a spirit; huge, snatching bird-creatures; and a vast snail-like creature with a single eye, that leads a choir of worm-like things. There are a Lord and Lady on the planet, probably unaware that they are dead; he has a crocodile's face, while she has a china mask hiding a body comprised of tentacles. Dandy's guide on the planet is Ferdinand, a hulking, ogre-like being who keeps Dandy safe by enveloping him in his torso.

It's Tech in Space, Baby: The cube Dandy wakes up with is his own black box, containing the memories of his last moments of life.

The Aloha Oe has a broken radar. QT gets by as a pilot by looking out the window.

Don't Quote Me, Baby: "Whether I'm alive or dead, I'm still pretty Dandy!"

The Bottom Line, Baby: The last of Space Dandy's surrealist episodes, this is bizarre and beautiful. Although other episodes play with tone and content in the series, no others stray so far from the series' usual vibrant, colourful style. Even Dandy is more contemplative than we'll ever find him again, ruminating on the necessity of sadness and hardship in life. Curiosity's offer to shift Dandy between dimensions, and his identity as "The One," is a huge revelation as to his true nature, which will pay off in the finale. Dandy could have died and returned to life via another timeline many, many times, offering a way to make sense of the series' baffling and contradictory continuity. The story comes together, a piece at a time.

Star Trek: Discovery

There's a new Star Trek series in the very beginnings of production. Due to be made available for streaming in January, Star Trek: Discovery will be, at least at first, a thirteen-part serial with distinct episodic beats, following a mission for the newly unveiled starship, the USS Discovery NCC-1031. The showrunner is Bryan Fuller, who previously wrote for both Voyager and Deep Space Nine, becoming regular script editor on Voyager's sixth season and co-producer on the seventh. He also created Dead Like Me and Pushing Daisies, worked on Heroes and was showrunner on Hannibal. Plus, he's making the new TV adaptation of American Gods, Neil Gaiman's mythology-inspired novel, which I am also very excited about.

Fuller has, this week, released various details of the series, which build on the brief description and promo video previously shown at San Diego ComicCon. We already know that the series was, in Fuller's words, going back to Star Trek's "60s roots," and that it revolve around the starship Discovery (a perfect name for a Trek series and starship, sharing its name with the fourth NASA space shuttle). There's some wonderful talent involved. As well as Fuller, we have Nicolas Meyer, who directed the classic Trek movies The Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country. Writers include Joe Menosky, who wrote Next Gen classics such as "Darmok" and "Conundrum," and several Voyager episodes including two of my absolute favourites, "Distant Origin" and "Living Witness." Other writers revealed are Aron Coleite, who worked on Heroes, and Kirsten Beyer, whose Voyager novels I am, if I'm honest, not very keen on, but who I think may actually work rather better with the TV format. The chief production designer is Mark Worthington, who has worked on American Horror Story.

Fuller has revealed that the series will have a core cast of about seven characters, with the lead character being a female officer who is not a captain. Most sources are suggesting she'll be a lieutenant commander. That's not to say that there won't be a captain in the cast - if it's set on a starship we should expect a commanding officer, and Lt. Commander seems too junior for that role - but I think it's an interesting new take to not focus on the captain. We don't know anything else about the lead at time of writing, except that they are looking at diverse casting. I, personally, am strongly in favour of this, believing that there needs to be a concerted effort to reflect diversity in drama, which sometimes means actively seeking to cast people from diverse backgrounds. Also, Star Trek has rarely been as diverse or inclusive as its fans like to think it is. For all the work it has done, its leads have always been predominantly white and its captains male. As soon as the news of a female lead broke, some fans began complaining that this has been done before with Voyager, as if a box labelled "woman star" had been ticked and could now be safely ignored.

Fuller has also said "absolutely we're having a gay character," which is way beyond time. Star Trek Beyond made a good effort in having Sulu in a same-sex relationship, but the franchise needs to provide much more visibility for sexually diverse characters. The future Star Trek has presented so far has been depressingly heteronormative, and while a great deal of that is due to American networks fear of showing non-hetero relationships, attitudes have moved on considerably, even since Enterprise.

Fuller has said that, "there's an incident and an event in Star Trek history, that's been talked about but never explored." He also specified that it the series "is set ten years before Kirk, and will bridge the gap between Enterprise and the original series."

Given his earlier suggestions that we look at the registration of the Discovery as a clue, most fans had already expected the series to be set in the early to mid-23rd century. "Ten years before Kirk" presumably means before the setting of the original series, which would place Discovery around 2255, but it may mean ten years before Kirk is in Starfleet, or even ten years before he is born, which would put it back to 2223. All of this well after Enterprise, which is set between 2151 and 2155. For now, it seems sensible to assume it's about 2255. Given that the NCC-1701 was launched in 2245, the NCC-1031 is probably not a new ship during this series. The promo video shows a starship clearly based on Ralph McQuarrie's Star Wars-esque production sketches for the unmade Star Trek feature, Planet of the Titans. Some fans are complaining very heavily about the quality of the CGI in the video, but it's very obviously a work-in-progress cobbled together for the SDCC crowd, and Fuller has confirmed that the design has developed significantly since it was rendered. Some fans are also suggesting the Discovery shows Klingon or Romulan influences, but this seems to be purely due to the angular hull which is unusual for Starfleet ships, and I would be very surprised if this was the case in the fiction, especially given the early 23rd century setting.

McQuarrie's 1970s Enterprise design

As for the event the Fuller alludes to, my first thought was the Battle of Axanar, which would fall into line with Paramount's massive crackdown on fanfilms in general and Star Trek: Axanar in particular. Fuller has since specified that the event he is referring to is not Axanar, the Kobayashi Maru or the Romulan War. A lot of fans keep piping up with the "fact" that the series will explore the Romulan War, in spite of this taking place a full century before the series is expected to be set. Although it is explicitly set in the Prime timeline, there's no reason some aspects can't reflect the new Kelvin-timeline films, considering that many of their elements date from before the timeline divide and should carry forward to the era of Discovery. Equally, though, there's no reason to be beholden to the new movies. They can become quite different animals. I'm perfectly happy to have another series set within the franchise's existing history. There's a whole galaxy to explore within there, after all, and I am firmly not of the camp that thinks Enterprise damaged the franchise by presenting conflicting information. Story is more important than canon, and while I like a good continuity debate as much as the next geek, it's part of the fun for fans and not something to actually be concerned about. It's not as if the original series was particularly consistent anyway.

One thing I'm pleased to hear is that the series will, in Fuller's words, "have slightly more graphic content." In context he seems to be indicating some more colourful language and aggression. This sounds rather like what we've had with the new movies, and frankly, I'm all for that. People get angry, they swear. It makes a world seem a great deal more real than the po-faced dialogue that previous series have often given us.

Other elements alluded to indicate that we may be seeing various crews, and perhaps some familiar faces, but not until the show has found its feet and played a season or two. This seems sensible. We are to expect multiple aliens, including both brand new species and new takes of familiar creatures, which sounds like a good balance. An image tweeted from pre-production shows part of a mask with antennae, which looks like it might belong to an Andorian. It sounds like we're going to get a solid mix of old and new here, which is exactly what I want from a new Trek series. I hope that it lives up to its title and has plenty of newly discovered, never-before-seen worlds and aliens, but I'm also glad that it will be fitting into the universe we know. Equally, the shorter, more serialised season format is a good indication that the franchise is moving forward with modern televisual style.

One thing I simply cannot abide is the overwhelming negativity from some fan quarters. Every piece of information is treated as more evidence that Discovery will fail. There's a female lead, so it will "be shit, like Voyager." It's a serial, so it will crap because "obviously, the writers don't understand how Star Trek works." It's set during the series' history so it'll "be shit like Enterprise." Fans complaining that it's not going further into the future, or that it's not set during the original series, or just after the original movies, often all in the same post. Continual hatred of a series that has yet to even begin filming, alongside hatred of series past, that makes me wonder why these people even watch Star Trek. Many of them claim that they won't be watching it, when it's clear that they will, because they need to know everything about it so they can complain about it.

I can see why some people are put out that the series will be on a pay-to-use streaming site (CBS in the US and Canada, Netflix elsewhere) rather than on broadcast television. But really, these systems aren't terribly expensive, and it won't be long at all before the series will be available on DVD and Blu-Ray. In any case, Netflix is, for my money, well worth getting anyway. And if you really can't spare those few dollarpounds, there are plenty of ways to get this stuff for free.

Personally, I can't bloody wait.