Saturday 31 December 2016

REVIEW: Rogue One - A Star Wars Story

Right, we've all seen this now, yes?

The Force Awakens was a thoroughly enjoyable new episode, it was inarguably derivative of the original Star Wars. Rogue One, on the other hand, while being literally derived from A New Hope's backstory, feels considerably fresher. Although a prequel, it's far more its own thing than The Force Awakens managed to be.

It's easy to be sniffy when it comes to the now expanding roster of Star Wars productions, with this the first of what promises to be many "Star Wars Stories." Of course Disney are going to milk the property for all its worth, but really, is that a bad thing? The original trilogy is one of the most beloved film series of all time, and while the prequel trilogy has left many fans fearful of tainting it, there is so much scope for further exploration. It's a whole galaxy, after all, and the films and TV series so far have only scratched the surface of that.

The triumph of Rogue One lies in its embracing of new characters who are not linked to the Skywalker-Solo dynasty that has dominated each of the main episodes. While there are some remarkable characters, they nonetheless come across as relatively ordinary people, pushed to extremes by the terrifying situation they find themselves in. Luke was destined to become the first in a new generation of Jedi, while Leia was already a princess and an interstellar ambassador ebfore getting involved in the Rebellion. Sure, Han Solo was just some scruffy nerf herder, but even he had a mythic quality, one that has led to his character holding legendary status come Episode VII. The closest Rogue One has to this is Donnie Yen's character, Imwe, a Guardian of the Wills; sort of a wannabe Jedi who wields the Force but is apart from the eternal Jedi/Sith battle. The remaining characters all just want to get on with their lives, drawn into the Rebel-Empire conflict with varying degrees of unwillingness.

Jyn Erso is a case in point. Felicity Jones has rather a tough time convincing us who her character is supposed to be, but this, I feel, is more due to the last minute rewrites and reshoots which saw the film change quite considerably before its final release. Early trailers for the film included a number of now-excised shots, and portrayed Erso very much as a reluctant hero, fighting for the Rebellion purely from necessity. In the finished product, she transitions from the reluctant fighter to the hero of the Rebellion with jarring suddenness. Not that this unbelievable, but it could have been portrayed more fluidly. Nonetheless, Jones portrays Erso with charisma and resolve from her almost-broken beginnings to her heroic ending, and it's a pity we'll not get to see her in the role again. It's unlikely she'll ever reach the legendary status of the quite similar Han Solo.

Diego Luna is equally watchable and heroic as Cassian Andor, the captain of Rogue One and the secondary hero of the film. Unlike The Force Awakens, which presented Rey and Finn as dual leads, equally as important, Rogue One is very much Erso's film, with Andor as her support, something that the more aggressively masculine corners of the internet couldn't accept. Some of these actually argue that a woman in space is unrealistic, somehow ignoring the numerous actual women who have completed missions in space, as wellas the fact that this is a series about warrior-wizards with magic ruddy swords. I hope the next Story they announce is a lesbian romance with no male characters except Jabba the Hutt.

The central trio is completed by K-2SO, brought to sardonic life by Alan Tudyk, and undoubtedly my favourite character of the film. Frankly, this reprogrammed Imperial troop who cannot keep his trap shut is far more entertaining than C-3PO or R2-D2 ever were (although the old droids do turn up in Rogue One, since they are obligatory for every Star Wars film). Bring him back. Save his personality chip. Reprogramme another one, I don't mind.

The secret hero of the film is Galen Erso, Jyn's father and the mastermind behind the Death Star. Played by the mesmeric Mads Mikkelsen, who finally gets to portray someone other than an out-and-out villain, he's one of the most interesting characters in the film. His presence also clears up one of the most annoying elements of the original Star Wars, which is to say, the great big hole in the Deatn Star that's perfect for firing torpedoes directly into the engine core. By simply making this a deliberately engineered weakness, designed to stick two fingers up to the Empire, Galen Erso makes the original film a more coherent story in retrospect.

Disney's new Star Wars universe shucks off the gigantic Expanded Universe of supplementary material that it had accrued over the years, which has upset some fans and galvanised others. I've never been into Star Wars enough to be invested in the expanded material (it's always been Trek and Who for me), but it's surely a good thing to have the universe opened up like this for exploration. There is still, of course, plenty of canonical material to be mined. I'm sure to notice lots of little winks once I finally get round to watching Rebels, while I didn't realise the significance of Saw Gerrera, and just wondwered why Forest Whitaker had so little screentime compared to what the trailers suggested. I enjoyed the many nods to the earlier films, although quite how those two alien ne'erdowells found their way from Jedha to Tatooine without getting blown up, in time to meet Obi-Wan and Luke, what, a week later? But then, we have Darth Vader, voiced once again by James Earl Jones. He's used with commendable restraint, which maximise the impact of his scenes, although he really should realise that if he wants to destroy something on a spaceship, shooting the ship down and blowing up would probably work better than boarding said ship and stalking malevolently through it.

The most contentious aspect of the film is, undoubtedly, the use of CGI actors to recreate characters from A New Hope. It's a open question whether it's respectful to recreate a deceased actor, but in terms of its effectiveness, I think the CGI Peter Cushing/Grand Moff Tarkin worked astonishingly well. Yes, you can see he's CG, but only just. It's remarkably life-like, and Guy Henry provides a very good vocal performance. The story wouldn't work anywhere near as well without Tarkin's involvement, and his rivalry with Krennic (a great performance by Ben Mendelsohn) adds a lot of flavour to the Imperial scenes. I did feel that Tarkin came across as more moodily vindictive than his original, coldly monstrous self. This is the only guy who ever told Vader to stand down. You shouldn't see a flicker on that face.

The ending of the film is powerful, bravely going down thn the Blakes 7 "everybody dies" route. It is a war movie, after all, and the sacrifices of the characters hammer home the significance of the battle they've fought. Finally, the film segues directly into A New Hope, ending immediatley before the original's first scene. I can't wait to get this on disc and watch them back-to-back. The last thing we see is Leia, CGI'd the same way as Tarkin. Somehow, she's not quite as convincing (probably because a gaunt, wrinkly face hides the joins better than a smooth, youthful), but her appearance is fleeting, so it works. It's heartbreaking, though, to watch it now, after the incredibly sad loss of both Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds. (We can take some comfort from the fact that Fisher has already shot her scenes for Episode VIII, but still.)

Controversial matters aside, Rogue One works, striking out in a somewhat new direction for the franchise while still feeling 100% Star Wars. A triumph.

Wednesday 28 December 2016

WHO REVIEW: 2016 Xmas Special - The Return of Doctor Mysterio

It's been a desolate year for Doctor Who fans. A whole 365 days to wait between episodes, the longest gap we've had since the series was revived back in 2005. All we've had to fill the void in the meantime was the disappointing spin-off Class and the animated release of the fan favourite The Power of the Daleks. (At least, that's the case onscreen. Doctor Who has been exceptionally well-presented in other media this year, with six incarnations heading their own Titan comicbook series and a whopping eleven in Big Finish audios.) Still, we do have the now-traditional Christmas special, now such a mainstay that its absence from the BBC schedules is unthinkable.

The Return of Doctor Mysterio (named for the series' Mexican title, a name Peter Capaldi reportedly adores) is a straightforward adventure, light of complexity and high on fun. It doesn't feel particularly “special,” although its status as the only episode of the year gives it a little more clout. It isn't even especially Christmassy, with the festive trappings limited to the opening scenes. Still, after the exceedingly festive Last Christmas in 2014, a couple of years of less snow-covered adventures is no bad thing. It's an episode with nothing more sophisticated to say than “look, it's Doctor Who does superheroes!” and that's fine. I don't understand the view of some fans who attack this idea. Yes, it's derivative, but Doctor Who has often been at its best when it was copying other things. Do fans complain about The Brain of Morbius being “just Doctor Who does Frankenstein” or The Enemy of the World being “just Doctor Who does Bond?”

Specifically, this is Stephen Moffat's love letter to the Richard Donner/Christopher Reeve Superman films, although there are nods to other properties. Moffat has spoken at length about how Clark Kent is his favourite superhero, specifically the man behind the Superman, and it's easy to see why. Lois and Clark is a timeless story that asks us to accept a ludicrous premise – that a woman can't recognise a man in two different guises – in order to play a farcical love story. It's exactly the sort of thing that's up Moffat's alley, and Doctor Mysterio plays out pretty much as you'd expect it to. It's perhaps an oversight, though, to more or less ignore the modern superhero movie genre, something that is ripe for its own parody. Nonetheless, it makes sense for a Christmas Day treat; Superman – The Movie is exactly the sort of feelgood family film people sit down to watch together on the day.

As always, success hangs on the writing and the cast, which come together to produce a very enjoyable hour. As is traditional, the American characters are not played by American actors; Justin Chatwin is Canadian and Charity Wakefield is from very near my bit of England. They both inhabit their roles perfectly. Chatwin plays Grant as a kind, witty if unconfident gent, very Clark Kent indeed, although his mannerisms (and costume) as the Ghost are more Batmanesque, all steely earnestness and deadpan delivery. His power set is, however, 100% Superman, and this remains the main basis for the character. Wakefield embodies her pseudo-Lois Lane just as well, someone so focussed on certain aspects of her life that it's jut about believable she can miss something “too stupid to be allowed to continue.” Of course, a nanny is just about the worst possible job for a part-time superhero to take on, but that's all part of the conceit, and Moffat's script enjoys poking fun at these small absurdities.

The casting of Grant's younger selves is absolutely spot on, with Logan Hoffman and Daniel Lorente working perfectly as the boy and teen versions respectively. They share some excellent chemistry with Capaldi, who is finally being allowed to use his natural flair for kids in his performance as the Doctor. The high school scene is a particularly lovely little scene, but it's kid Grant who'll stick in my memory most. With that much comicbook art on his walls and a very snazzy set of dinosaur jammies, he's the coolest kid ever to appear on Doctor Who.

It's a very nice touch correlating the absence of Doctor Who with the Doctor's twenty-four year time-out with River. The real surprise here is how well Nardole works. As I've said before, I like Matt Lucas, but he was wasted in The Husbands of River Song with a stupid, one-note comedy character that wasn't very funny. This is isn't quite the revamp that Donna Noble got, but the refined new Nardole actually works very well as a companion. The comedy moments work better, and Lucas adds a real pathos to the serious moments. Nardole acts rather like a low-key agent in this episode, who keeps the Doctor focussed and points out his errors. I'm not convinced he can work well throughout a whole season, but we'll see how it runs.

There's a nice about-face regarding the villains of the episode. Adetomiwa Edun (another Brit) plays Mr Brock, blatantly set up to be the grand, Lex Luthor-esque villain, before the alien/German (delete as applicable) Dr Sim (Aleksander Jovanovic) pulls his brain out. It was a surprise to see the head-splitting aliens from last year's special return, but it was written right there, in the name Harmony Shoal. This is, of course, about three thousand years before the previous episode, making it even more of an expected and skewed two-parter. Also, I had hoped the brain aliens would be the Morpho brains from The Keys of Marinus, but that's ridiculously obscure. That'd be like bringing the Movellans back, or something.

Sunday 11 December 2016

Whotopia Issue 30

The latest issue of Bob Furnell and Jez Strickley's Doctor Who fanzine is now available for download. Boasting an interview with Peter Davison plus a variety of articles on Doctor Who and its spin-offs, issue thirty includes the third instalment of my "Master Who" articles, this time covering the barmy 1980s incarnation played by Anthony Ainley. There are also reviews, competitions and a details on how to make your own Dalek!

Download the issue here.

Wednesday 7 December 2016

Comics to Screen: Supergirl 2-8 - Medusa

A highly enjoyable and important episode of Supergirl which pushes certain characters' relationships into new territory and ends with almost everything laid out on the table.

Most importantly, Alex comes out to her mum, who accepts it with perfect grace and none of the hand-wringing that Kara displayed. In the closing moments, Maggie gets over herself and she and Alex finally get together. Not only is it beautifully played by Chyler Leigh and Floriana Lima, it's all an important and moving example of lesbian representation on a series which was lacking in the LGBT department. It's already had a significant impact on at least one viewer, and my girlfriend Suzanne (who was chomping at the bit for the Alex and Maggie to get together) says it spoke to her strongly, reflecting her experiences with coming to terms with her bisexuality. Big thumbs-up.

There's also major developments in the relationship between Kara and both Mon-El and Lena Luthor. I'm warming to Chris Woo'ds Mon-El more and more. His absurd misunderstandings of human culture being very cliched but also very entertaining, mostly due to the doey-eyed cuteness he brings to the role, Katie McGrath continues to impress as Lena, now firmly established as one of the good guys (but there's room for a switcheroo there), and while making her mother the head of CADMUS is a bit of a stretch, it certainly piles on the drama. Similarly, the Medusa virus being used by CADMUS to wipe out aliens on Earth turns out to be created by Kara's biological father. Again, superbly dramatic, but having everyone involved in the major events of this series be related to each other is stretching credibility.

David Harewood gets to have fun, both as Manhunter, and camping it up atrociously as the real Hank Henshaw, aka Cyborg Superman. I'm not super-keen on the White Martian storyline, mostly because it sees Jonn being incredibly bigoted towards someone who has been nothing but noble towards him. Neither Kara nor Jonn are coming across as particularly decent people lately. At least Hank's White Martian blood let him have one good Hulk-out moment before getting resolved, hopefully for good.

Also, something was happening with Winn and James, but ti was boring and I've pretty much forgotten about it. More exciting was The Flash bursting into the episode after a couple of failed attempts. Anyone tuning into "Medusa" expecting it to be a major part of the Invasion! crossover will be disappointed, but on its own merits it was a great episode. Hooking Supergirl into the Arrowverse crossover was just the icing on the cake.

The cherry, on the other hand, was that gorgeous shot of the Fortress of Solitude.


When David Harewood was introduced as Hank Henshaw in Supergirl, we all waited for him to be revealed as a villain and become the Cyborg Superman. Instead, the series swerved and revealed him to be a shapeshifted Martian Manhunter, the real Henshaw being long dead. With Alex and Kara's dad Jeremiah Danvers revealed as still alive, I had wondered if CADMUS would turn him into Cyborg Superman, but instead they stuck with the established identity and brought back Henshaw, giving Harewood two characters to play.

The comicbook version of Cyborg Superman has a ludicrously melodramatic origin story, which deliberately pastisches the origins of Marvel's Fantasic Four. In this case, though, the cosmic rays lead two of the space shuttle crew to become mutated and die, with Henshaw's wife later being killed and Henshaw himself becoming horribly damaged and forced to become a cyborg. Blaming Superman for this, because of reasons, Henshaw goes on the plague the superhero.

After the legendary Death of Superman storyline, Henshaw is one of four interlopers who come to take Superman's place. Using a mixture of cloned Kryptonian tissue and mechanical implants, Henshaw claims to be the real Superman returned but injured. The remaining three "Supermen" are John Henry Irons, aka The Man of Steel; the AI known as the Eradicator, aka The Last Son of Krypton; and Kon-EL, the modern Superboy. Unlike the comicbook version, the TV version of Henshaw couldn't pass for Superman because of their obvious physical differences, although with shapeshifting aliens around, who knows what the writers might come up with. He's also significantly less cyborg-y in appearance than the comicbook version.

In more recent developments, Henshaw went on to become a major foe for the Green Lantern Corps (who I would not be at all surprised to see turn up on Supergirl). In the New 52 continuity, Henshaw is a a major character, but the Cyborg Superman is none other than Zor-El, Supergirl's father.