Monday 27 February 2017

REVIEW: The Lego Batman Movie

Batman is a character that can be anything from camp crusader in purple lycra, to a brooding misanthrope in black body armour. Conventional wisdom of late is that the latter approach is the better. Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKay and their colleagues beg to differ.

The Lego Movie was an unexpectedly brilliant family comedy, and its standout element for many was its version of Batman. Voiced by Will Arnett (possibly the best Batman since Kevin Conroy), the Lego Batman is a hilarious parody of the brooding, gravel-voiced Dark Knight. The Lego Batman Movie carries the joke as far as it can, sneaking us a look at the sulking brute behind the mask. After all, no matter how dark and hard-nosed, no one who dresses up as a bat can be a true adult. The Lego Batman keeps his mask on almost the entire run of the film, only taking it off twice, once for a gala event at the insistence of Alfred (a note-perfect Ralph Fiennes).

The script is a very family-friendly approach to Batman, and haven't we waited long enough for one of those? Grahame-Smith's story essentially takes the growling Christian Bale Batman and shows us how he might become the cute Adam West Batman, with his extended Bat-family. Bruce Wayne accidentally adopts wee Dick Grayson (Michael Cera) while besotted by the new Comissioner Gordon. That is to say, Barbara Gordon, voiced by Rosario Dawson, rapidly stacking up the comicbook character credits.

Much of the story concerns Batman's gradual acceptance of son and sidekick ("The kids at the orphanage call me Dick." "Well, children can be cruel.") into his life, and his growing respect for Barbara as a hero and crimefighter in her own right. The secondary plotline involves Batman's other great relationship, his great enmity with the Joker (Zack Galifianakis). Bats destroys the Joker by dismissing him as his archenemy ("I'm fighting lots of villains. I like to fight around."), leading the Clown Prince of Crime to go to absurd extremes to take over Gotham and prove himself. As the Joker's plans go, the one he uses here isn't the most contrived or ridiculous, and certainly one of the most successful.

The Lego Batman Movie is a Batman movie first and foremost, but it doesn't let Lego's vast franchise reach go to waste. The rest of the Justice League make an appearance, but this is wisely kept to a cameo, so that the focus is resolutely on Batman and Robin (although The Lego Justice League Movie sounds fairly inevitable at this stage). In the second half of the film, though, the plot goes nuts, bringing in villains from every corner of the Lego Dimensions. This leads to some of the funniest moments in the film, as Sauron (Jemaine Clement, wonderfully) lays waste to Gotham, along with Lord Voldemort (strangely not a dual role for Fiennes, but a guest spot by Eddie Izzard), the Gremlins and many others. Even the Daleks are involved, although, strangely, they're referred to only as "the British robots." (Clearly, they are taken from 1979's Destiny of the Daleks.)

I had hoped that a similar array of heroes would be involved in saving the day, but the script shows more restraint than that, and correctly keeps Batman at the centre of the film. There's plenty of room for his huge array of villains, one of the best, and often the most ludicrous, rogue's galleries in comics. I had to convince some very incredulous friends that Crazy Quilt, Orca and the Condiment King are genuine Batman villains. The only really crushing ommission is the Music Meister. It's a glorious film for comicbook fans in general, and Batman fans in particular. Every previous Batman film gets a nod, even the 40s serials, plus much more. To support the excellent performances there are some wonderful minor roles and cameos, such as Billy Dee Williams finally getting to play Two-Face, and very oddly, Mariah Carey voicing the Mayor of Gotham.

This is an absolute joy from start to finish. Time will tell if it has the same rewatch value as The Lego Movie, but it definitely has the same wit, silliness and message of family and friendship as its predecessor. Here's looking forward to The Lego Movie Sequel (and, hopefully someday, The Lego Doctor Who Movie).

Friday 24 February 2017

Comics to Screen: Supergirl 2-10


This episode involves two main themes, both, in essence, revolving around the theme of heroism and what it means. Primarily, we have the nature of what makes someone a hero. Is someone a hero if they simply engage in stereotypically heroic actions without any true compassion to back it up, as is the case with Mon-El, who uses his Daxamite powers to save people mainly so that he can impress Kara? Or is it someone's intentions that makes them a hero, as with James and Winn, who are finally revealed to Kara as the Guardian and his sidekick. They have no powers and fuck up as often as they do good, but they're doing so from a genuine desire to help people.

All this is run through Kara's own attitudes; as the central character of the series, she's the one who makes the judgments at the end of the day. It's refreshing though that James calls her out on this. Just because she's the city's resident premier superhero doesn't give her the deciding vote on the roles others play. (And she doesn't have the clout that, say, her cousin would.) Equally, though, James is clearly as motivated by his jealousy of Kara (and perhaps Mon-El), as he is by nobler reasons. 

I'm glad that there are no clear-cut answers. The charaters are both right and wrong in many ways. Mon-El doesn't think it matters why he's saving lives, as long as he's doing it, while it makes the difference to Kara. She's right to point out that James (and especially Winn) are putting themselves in danger because they have no superpowers, but then, neither does Alex, and she runs into battle with aliens on a weekly basis. Kara seems obsessed with making Mon-El into a hero to match up with his powers, but says to James that powers aren't all it takes, because if they were, Livewire would be a hero. 

Tying into this is the secondary theme, that of prejudice and prejudgment, and how this undercuts Kara's, and J'onn's, heroism. Kara refuses to believe that Livewire could possibly be innocent, until she sees visual evidence that she has been abused and used against her will. She also harbours lingering prejudices against the Daxamites, something that is holding her back even as her feelings for Mon-El grow. It's a relief that he finally admits his feelings for her, but she can't (yet) do the same. 

J'onn is far more prejudiced, which throws his character into a very poor light. While he has been the victim of supression on Mars (as a Green Martian), and prejudice on Earth (as both an extraterrestrial and a black American), he is, albeit understandably, prejudiced against the White Martians who destroyed his people. M'gann has been locked up under the DEO for what must be weeks, with no consideration of due process or her rights. This sort of shit goes on all the time in The Flash, and it's no more palatable there, but it's perticularly galling here as she's been so clearly noble and heroic herself. J'onn finally overcomes his prejudices and makes a huge step forward as a character, but it's a nasty side to both J'onn and Kara that keeps coming forward.

That's not to say I disapprove of the storyline. It's far more interesting to have flawed heroes, and sci-fi allows for a certain allegorical approach (I am reminded of Worf's attitudes to the Romulans on Star Trek: The Next Generation). Both Kara and J'onn have issues to deal with because of their backgrounds, but now that they're on Earth they're called out on it and made to deal with their preconceptions. While this isn't the most exciting episode of the series, it has important things to say.


Jimmy Olsen, of course, goes way back. He arguably made his first appearance as early as 1938, in an issue of Action Comics, only a few months after Superman himself. The newspaper boy who appears isn't named, but he does look like Jimmy, right down to the bow-tie. Jimmy's inarguable debut, though, happened on the radio, in the series The Adventures of Superman in 1940, played by Jackie Kelk. As a chatty sidekick to Superman and Clark Kent alike, he was quickly absorbed into the comics, appearing on-and-off for a few issues before disappearing again. It was only when Jack Larson played the character on the TV version of The Adventures of Superman in 1953 that he became a mainstay of the comics.

He became popular enough that in 1954 he received his own title, Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen. During this series' frankly astonishing twenty-year run, Jimmy was put through a variety of unlikely transformations, from Flash-like super-speed, to increased intelligence and elasticity. At one point he was transformed into an alien from Jupiter, and on another occasion, he switched bodies with a gorilla. There was quite a lot of stuff with gorillas, but they seem to be the province of The Flash these days.

The series also introduced Lucy Lane, who became Jimmy's ongoing love interest, although he also had dalliances with Supergirl. Jack Kirby took over the title on 1970, specifically because he wanted free reign to play with an existing title and Superman's Pal was one of DC's lowest selling titles at this point. He revamped the series with more impressive villains and gave Jimmy his own team, the Newsboy Legion, characters he had initially created for Star-Spangled Comics in the forties. Also returning from that title was the Guardian, the Captain America-like alter ego of Jim Harper.

Jimmy has appeared many times onscreen over the years. Best known is Marc McClure's portrayal, visually close to the look of the comicbook original however dated that appeared. McClure first appeared in 1978's Superman: The Movie alongside Christopher Reeve. going on to appear in its three sequels and in the 1984 Supergirl film starring Helen Slater. He was later played in the alternative continuation Superman Returns in 2006, played by Sam Huntington.

The popular 90s series Lois and Clark featured Jimmy is a prominent role. Michael Landes played the character as a cocky up-and-comer for the first season, but was replaced by the better-remembered Justin Whalin, who was more like the goofy rookie of the comics. Other actors who have played Jimmy include Aaron Ashmore in Smallville (whose brother Shawn was almost cast in the role for Superman Returns), and the late Tommy Bond in the 1948 Superman cinematic serial and its 1950 sequel, Atom Man vs. Superman.

Mehcad Brooks is, clearly, something of a departure. Aside from his race, the character as portrayed by Brooks is quite different from the naive sidekick of the comics and popular films. Confident, athletic and strong, Brooks's James Olsen has not only become editor of CatCo, but has transformed himself into the Guardian in place of Jim Harper (who has appeared in Supergirl). In many ways, Winn is more like Jimmy as we remember him. There are some elements of the character that follow on from the comics, though, such as his relationship with Lucy Lane and his brief attachment to Supergirl. And he is, of course, Superman's pal. It's just a shame he's so terribly dull (and he doesn't wear a bowtie).

Thursday 23 February 2017

The Worlds of TRAPPIST-1

The internet is alight with people sharing the news of NASA's latest announcement. After teasing us with talk of a discovery "beyond the solar system," NASA announced the existence of a seven-planet star system located less than forty light years away. What's most exciting about the discovery is that most of the planets are considered potential habitats for life.

The star known as TRAPPIST-1 is, like many modern stellar discoveries, named after the device used to detect it, in this case, the TRAnsiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope in Chile. You may notice that this doesn't quite spell out TRAPPIST, but the inventors are obviously Belgian beer fans and I can support that. Located 39 light years away in Aquarius, TRAPPIST-1 is described as an ultra-cool dwarf star, on the borderline of a red dwarf and a sub-stellar brown dwarf. Three planets were discovered there and announced back in 2015, and since then, the NASA Spitzer telescope and the Very Large Telescope at Paranal have detected four more. The extent of the system was announced last night (Feb 22nd).

In spite of being such a cool, dim star, TRAPPIST-1 may make an effective sun for life-bearing planets due to their extremely close orbits. All seven known planets orbit the star closer than Mercury orbits the Sun, and at least three of them are considered right within the system's habitable zone. This makes the planets astonishingly close together; the first and second planets are only slightly further apart than the Earth and the Moon. Finally, elaborate skies hanging with enormous sister planets can be considered a reality, not just science fiction. 

OK, this is Vulcan, but you get the idea

The planets are named TRAPPIST-1b through to -1h, and, unusually for discoveries of this type, are labelled in order of distance from their star. Each of them is within Earthlike mass and radius, with at least three of them estimated as being smaller than the Earth, and all are considered to be rocky, terrestrial-type planets. TRAPPIST-1b and -1c are the closest, with featureless spectra that indicates either a cloudless, water vapour dominated atmosphere, or a thicker, Venus-type atmosphere. They most likely lost the bulk of their surface water while their star was still cooling, and are less likely as abodes for life. TRAPPIST-1d is more likely habitable, although still closer than the calculated Goldilocks zone. TRAPPIST-1e, -1f and -1g are right within this zone, and are probably fairly cool in comparison to their inner brethren, far more likely to hold liquid water, Depending on the thickness of the atmosphere, they may be cooler than the Earth, or more comfortably terrestrial. TRAPPIST-1h is less well analysed so far, but is likely cold and less hospitable.

While the relative positions of planets to the star suggest potentially life-supporting temperatures, we shouldn't jump to conclusions. As always, Earthlike is a relative term. Red dwarf stars, let alone ultra-cool dwarfs, are debatable as life-supporting stars, due to the extreme proximity of their planets. The year on these planets will be very rapid, in the manner of a few days (-1b's year lasts only a day-and-a-half in Earth terms, with -1h at no more than 35 days, probably less). They are also likely to be tidally locked, with one side of each planet permanently facing the star. Both facts would lead to extreme weather conditions on the surface. Equally, radiation from the star, including X-rays and extreme energy ultraviolet radiation, would bombard the planets constantly at that proximity, depleting the atmospheres and making it harder for life to form.

Still, there is reason to hope. Even if the planets are lifeless now, they may not be always. Stars' longevity is inversely proportional to their size and temperature, and an ultra-cool dwarf like TRAPPIST-1 is likely to last a thousand times as long as the Sun, remaining stable for trillions of years. TRAPPIST-1 is estimated at only 500 million years old at present, but it could become a host for life for many thousands of millions of years in the future. 

Click the link here for NASA's announcement and an artist's impression of planet TRAPPIST-1d.

Friday 17 February 2017

Comics to Screen: Supergirl 2-9


You could be forgiven for expecting something rather special from this, Kevin Smith's first episode of Supergirl. After all, his directorial debut on The Flash, season two's "The Runaway Dinosaur," was a thing of beauty. What's more, as the title hints, "Supergirl Lives" is loosely based on Smith's script for the troubled and long-dead feature film Superman Lives, although, from what I've read of that production, the only thing that has really survived is Kara being left powerless due to the lack of a yellow sun. 

What we actually get is a fairly low-key start to the semi-season, even as it spans light years. Much of the episode takes place on Slaver's Moon, a hellish planetoid bathed under the light of a red dwarf star, leaving both Kara and Mon-El little better than ordinary humans. (As inhabitants of the same system, it makes sense that they react the same way to stellar conditions. For all we know, Slaver's Moon might even be in the Kryptonian system, although it's probably unlikely.) Much of the purpose of the episode seems to be tying up the loose ends from the previous episode "Survivors," with the villainous Roulette still on the loose. The alliance of Roulette and the Dominators, while tying various elements of the Supergirl/Arrowverse together, feels like an odd mix and doesn't really work.

Where the episode succeeds is in the development of two of its recurring male characters. Jeremy Jordan has really come into his own as Winn, now that the character has been allowed to get away from the confines of CatCo and become more than a second-tier love interest for Kara. Winn's latest role as sidekick to the Guardian is more believable than James becoming the superhero himself, but as a distinctly un-buff, un-powered individual, it's entirely fitting that Winn would be overwhelmed by the threat and violence of the situations in which he finds himself. Jordan portrays Winn's journey from post-traumatic stress through reluctant heroism to true bravery rather wonderfully.

Chris Wood gets more likeable as Mon-El with each episode, and this instalment sees him finally accept his fate as a superhero without losing any of his layabout charm. As well as finally kicking his story into high gear (with more developments in his relationship with Kara to come as a result), the aliens searching for him at the episode's close raise interesting questions about his background. Do we know the truth about his life back on Daxam? There should be some fun revelations to come later in the season.

The real star of the episode, though, is the stupid comedy alien called Joe, who appears to have wandered in from a children's series filming on the same planetoid.

Sunday 12 February 2017

New from The Doctor Who Project

TDWP have just released the latest in their Brief Encounters line - a series of adventures for Doctors One to Seven. This time it's "Shadow at the Heart" featuring the fifth Doctor and Nyssa, as played by Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton in the hit BBC TV series.

This short was written by me and my compatriot James P. Quick of C.P. Studios, from James's original idea. I think we've come up with something pretty special here, especially if you're a fan of early 80s Doctor Who. I have also been involved with C.P. Studios' upcoming series of Batman audioplays, The World's Greatest Detective. Keep an eye on the website for updates.

You can download the story in PDF format for free here.

Thursday 9 February 2017

CAPTAIN'S BLOG: TOS 2-23 & 2-24

TOS 2-23) Patterns of Force
Captain Kirk vs. Space Nazis

The Mission: Find missing Federation observer, John Gill, on the planet Ekos.

Planets visited: Ekos, the inner of two habitable planets in star system M43-Alpha. A very Earth-like planet.

Alien life forms: The Ekosians and Zeons  are two humanoid races who inhabit the planets Ekos and Zeon respectively. They seem to be indistinguishable from humans, and from each other. The Zeons are technologically more advanced than the Ekosians, and a number of them arrived on Ekos some years ago in an attempt to "civilise" them. The Ekosians did not welcome the Zeons, and treat them as second-class citizens. Since Gill came to power, the Ekosians have been run as a Nazi state, unaware that Gill is from another world. The Zeons are being rounded up and exterminated, but there is a resistance movement.

Future History: John Gill is considered one of the Federation's greatest historians. Sent to Ekos merely to observe the culture, he has perverted it into a replica of Nazi Germany, right down to the uniforms and weaponry. While Gill sits as Fuhrer, it;s his right-hand man Melakon who wields power, keeping Gill drugged and subdued and communicating his wishes through soundbites. "Gill" has now ordered the "Final Decision," an attack on the planet Zeon and the complete extermination of the Zeon race. Just in case any of this was too subtle, the Zeons all have Hebrew-derived names, like Isak and Abrom.

Future Treknology: The Zeons have quite primitive interplanetary craft. Gill (and perhaps the Zeons, to begin with) has evidently pushed Ekosian technology forward, as they now have nuclear weaponry and the beginnings of space travel themselves.

Kirk and Spock have transponders injected into their skin to allow them to be beamed up should they not report in. An extremely wise precaution that they really should have used as standard. However, they dig out the implants to use the rubidium crystals within to create a laser beam from the lightbulb in their cell in order to affect escape.

Captain James T: Gill tutored him at the Academy. He evidently admires the man, describing him as "gentle," but even Kirk isn't immune to the allure of a well-tailored Gestapo uniform. For once, Kirk doesn't try to shag the sexy blonde he's assigned to work with. He could easily get the Enterprise to intercept the Ekosian warfleet but refuses to go down such a destructive route.

Green-Blooded Hobgoblin: How perfect does Spock look in his beanie? Spock's alien appearance draws attention from the xenophobic Ekosian authorities, even with his cunning beanie disguise. (The fact that Nimoy is Jewish makes these scenes rather more potent than they might otherwise be.) When Spock stands on Kirk to begin his escape attempt, it looks for all the world like he is taking as long as possible on purpose. He also starts to enjoy "gambling" with his life. Spock's lash-marks are, of course, green. He uses the nerve pinch no fewer than three times, and "mind probes" Gill.

The Real McCoy: The entire set-up is worth for when Bones beams down in SS uniform, demanding to know what the hell is going on.

Shirtless Kirk Alert: It's a twofer, as both Kirk and Spock get their tops off. And whipped. This is bordering on slash fic.

Trek Stars: Valora Norland plays Daras, femme fatale who poses as a high-ranking Nazi but is secretly part of the resistance. She gives an excellent performance and isn't reduced to Kirk's fox of the week.

Space Bilge: Kirk and Spock consider the odds of a parallel society like this developing of its own accord virtually impossible. This is after previously visiting space Rome and a perfect duplicate of Earth.

Quote, Unquote: "To the logical mind, the outlook is somewhat gloomy."

The verdict: A good, old-fashioned "Nazis in America" tale, and about as subtle as they ever get. The script twists itself into a propaganda piece for the Prime Directive, when the actual lesson is the far from surprising "Nazism is bad." Still, it works well, with some excellent costumes brought out from the archives so it looks more expensive than it actually is. There's another side to this beneath the surface, with both Nimoy and Shatner being from Jewish backgrounds. With Nazi elements becoming more prevalent in the US and even dominant parts of society sliding towards that way of thinking, "Patterns of Force" takes on a new edge. Gill isn't as bad as Trump.

Tuesday 7 February 2017

Women's Rights - February 2017 edition

While MPs in the UK have begun petitioning for legal proceedings against employers to fight against sexist dress codes for female employees, President Trump has insisted that his female staff "dress like women."

Trump has also instructed his education team to begin rolling back the Title IX legislation that has slowly been making US universities responsible for the sexual safety of their students. Betsy DeVos has pledged to review whether Title IX is actually necessary, in spite of what has been decribed as "an epidemic of sexual assault on American campuses." In a related move, the religious freedom movement has allowed a number of Christian schools to apply for the right to waiver Title IX. This would allow them to refuse students who are LGBT or pregnant out of wedlock, and would also have the effect of removing any protection they have against sexual violence. 

Arkansas has passed a law that would make abortion legal under any circumstances, which would have the side effect of allowing rapists to sue their victims if they became pregnant, even in cases of incest. While there is still time to block Act 45, the fact that the legislature of the state passed it in the first place is truly horrific.

Due to the continual reduction of funding to NPOs in England, a clinic and support group for the victims of female genital mutilation will soon be forced to close. A petition exists to help try to prevent this.

The Russian courts have effectively decriminalised domestic abuse, a move that has set women's rights back significantly in a country where spousal abuse is commonplace and thousands of women are killed by their partners every year. The move has even been backed by the Russian Orthodox Church.

Amal Clooney and Nadia Murad are fighting to prosecute the crimes of Islamic State militants, who have systematically abused Yazidi women and children during the ongoing conflict in Iraq, Syria and the surrounding territories. While this piece makes for some very upsetting reading, it is also important to highlight the horrific extent of the abuses by IS, and the complete failure of the West to provide a lifeline for the Yazidi.

And this is just the last week or so.

Sunday 5 February 2017

Cinematic Enterprise 1: Impossible Vistas, Impractical Pyjamas

During the latter months of 2016, the missus and I watched the full original run of Star Trek films, from The Motion Picture to Nemesis. Suz had never seen any of these before, in spite of being a big fan of TNG and Voyager and an occasional watcher of the original series. Now, it's no longer 2016, but it's still within Star Trek's fiftieth anniversary as far as I'm concerned (it didn't start till halfway through the year, after all). So, I'm finally getting back on the Trek writing wagon.

So, we sat down to watch all the Trek movies. We started with The Wrath of Khan.

Well, I watched The Motion Picture, but I told Suz not to bother. We watched Khan with drinks and mates and not a little disbelief that Suz had never seen it before. TMP is notoriously hard going, so I decided it was unnecessary to put her through it. In the end, she did catch it on TV a few weeks later and had it on in the background, which is perhaps the best way to watch it. She thought it was pretty, which it most certainly is.

Directed by Robert Wise
Written by Gene Roddenberry, with Alan Dean Foster and Harold Livingston. 
Released: 7th December 1979
Set: c.2273
Starships featured: USS Enterprise NCC-1701, Klingon Battlecruiser, Vulcan warp shuttle
Planets visited: Earth and Vulcan

Star Trek: The Motion Picture marks a very odd start for the franchise's cinematic outings. In 1973, all that existed to base the film on was the original series and the short-lived animated follow-up, plus a few books and comics. Star Trek was solely Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Enterprise. Work was in progress on a Star Trek feature film from the mid-70s, and had stalled several times before reverting back to television. The script and production work that began TMP were originally intended for a sequel series, known as Star Trek II or Phase II. This would have written Spock out and replaced him with a fully Vulcan science officer, but even including this fundamental departure, early work on the series still sounds far more like the original Trek, in content and spirit, than what we eventually got with TMP.

The Motion Picture owes its existence to the success of Star Wars two years earlier. True, Close Encounters probably convinced them this wasn't a one-off, but still, without Star Wars' runaway success, the exorbitantly expensive Star Trek movie would never have been greenlit. Early reports that it was the most expensive film in history to date are untrue, but understandable: it was actually somewhat cheaper to produce than Superman: The Movie, but the full cost of that film wasn't released for years later. Taking inflation into account, several earlier epics were considerably more expensive. However, it was still an enormous gamble for Paramount, and one that only partially paid off, even considering that the line between Phase II and TMP's costs is somewhat blurred. So, the question remains, if the success of Star Wars convinced studio execs that space opera was a moneymaker, why did Roddenberry decide that the best film to emulate was 2001: A Space Odyssey?

It's no surprise that the studio used TMP's apparent financial failure (itself grossly exaggerated) to push Roddenberry to the sidelines, nor is it a bad thing that they did. Much like Star Wars later, the franchise only really got back on track once its creator was no longer able to control production. The best films and series are the result of collaboration in the face of adversity. TMP is Roddenberry's personal vision of the future, with the budget to show it. His novelisation of the script reveals some fascinating insights into the future world of Earth in the Federation, little of which made it to screen. The woman who dies in the transporter accident, in a jarring scene of horror early in the film, is revealed to have been Kirk's former "life partner." There's intriguing talk of a more advanced strain of humanity which now dominates Earth, while, amusingly, it's the more primitive, instinctive types like Kirk who are considered more suited to exploring space.

Roddenberry's vision was of an intellectual, complex society, and this is reflected in the rather sterile look and feel of the film. Gone are the primary colours and makeshift props of the original, so evocative and recognisable, but existing due to production and budget restraints. In are sophisticated sets and beige pyjamas. Admiral Kirk may manipulate events to regain his command of the Enterprise, but he is far removed from the adventurer of the original series. Kirk's rebellious, swashbuckling nature has been exaggerated in the reboot films, and this clouds how we see the original version of the character, but he was far more human and interesting than the reserved character Shatner is given here.

It's no wonder that, with the human crew so emotionally reserved, Spock is required to become even more stoic. Written back into the script following successful negotiations with Leonard Nimoy, Spock's personal journey is fundamental to the film's story. His attempt to purge all emotion mirrors V'Ger's crisis, and it is when he makes contact with the being that he realises the futility of his efforts. He finally embraces both logic and emotion, accepting that he is both Vulcan and human, and becomes a more complex, balanced character. Spock's story is the highlight of the script, and Nimoy, naturally, performs it perfectly. Xon, his Phase II replacement character, morphed in the script to Sonak, the other victim of the unstable transporter, perfunctorily killed off.

Perhaps the most promising characters are Will Decker and Ilia, respectively played by Stephen Collins and Persis Khambatta. Created as ongoing characters for Phase II, it's easy to see that these characters had legs. After all, they were essentially recreated for The Next Generation, becoming William T. Riker and Deanna Troi, although the alien sexuality angle was dropped from the latter's character. Both Collins and Khambatta are extremely good in difficult roles. Originally conceived as Kirk's eventual replacement in Phase II, Decker's role is inverted as the new captain of the Enterprise, usurped by Admiral Kirk during the V'Ger crisis. Collins portrays Decker's reserved anger at Kirk with class and restraint. Khambatta is even better as Ilia, an interesting mix of alien sexiness and refined logic whose descendants, other than Troi, include fan favourites Seven of Nine and T'Pol. She also has the difficult task of portraying V'Ger's recreation of Ilia, faced with making this artificial version recognisable as the same character and distinct as a machine. It's no easy task, but Khambatta pulls it off with grace and skill.

While it's easy to criticise TMP, and I will, one thing cannot be argued with: the film is absolutely gorgeous. Douglas Trumbull was drafted in to take over the effects work after a long pre-production process, revamping the look of the Star Trek in the vein of his earlier work on 2001 and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. From the outset, TMP revels in the luxurient vistas of space travel.  The revamped Enterprise, lit only by its alien surroundings, is a thing of beauty. Once we encounter V'Ger, we are pulled into a realm of bizarre, mystifying structures and energies that boggles the mind. We get glimpses of Vulcan that drive home the alien nature of this civilisation. The Klingons are no longer extras with bad facial hair, but alien beings with bizarre skull structures.All of this is supported by a powerful and beautiful score by Jerry Goldsmith, beginning an association with Star Trek that would continue for decades, including a stirring theme that would be reworked for subsequent movies and The Next Generation.

The problem with the film is that it is all too ready to bathe in its music and effects. While there are a number of cuts available, each of Robert Wise's directorial efforts begin with an agonisingly long intro that lingers on the new Enterprise for what feels like about an hour. The story zips along quite happily for the first actual hour or so of the film, but once we enter V'Ger's sphere of influence the plot fundamentally stops. Nothing much happens between the Enterprise's entry of V'Ger's energy cloud and the being's eventual ascendance, and in a film that is already moving at a languid pace this is a terminal error. It's hardly surprising that the novelisation is made up almost entirely of the build-up to encountering V'Ger, with the long, drawn-out process of contact relegated to a mere handful of pages.

It's not for nothing that TMP has been nicknamed "The Motionless Picture." It's a shame that they took this direction, because there is so much to love in this movie. It's a film of genuine intelligence and stunning wonder, that truly explores the extent of what Star Trek can be and do. It's also a slog to make it through, and while the same can be said of its spiritual forebear, 2001, it never reaches the heights of that production and so doesn't seem worth the same investment. If talky, thoughtful science fiction is your thing, then The Motion Picture is worth your time. If you prefer your sci-fi films with a little more fun and action, then you should still be grateful for it, for it paved the way for The Wrath of Khan and all the films that followed, not forgetting the many TV series from The Next Generation to Discovery. If you've never watched TMP, give it a try. Just maybe watch it in two or three goes.

Thursday 2 February 2017

Who should be Who?

It's hardly an important thing to be focusing right now, while the shitstorm that is global politics careers further down the swanny, but Peter Capaldi has announced that he's leaving the lead role of Doctor Who. This isn't a surprise; not because of the recent rumours (there are always rumours), but because four years/three seasons is about standard for the role lately. (Episode-wise, Tennant had 47, Smith 44 and Capaldi will end on 40, so that seems pretty par for the course.)

Every one and their mum has an opinion on who should play the thirteenth Doctor. Here are a few of my preferred suggestions, with the proviso that they have to be at least fairly feasible - so no unaffordable Hollywood superstars (although a couple are a bit borderline) nor classic actors in their eighties. Ages included as of present; it'll be a year or two before series eleven starts filming. I've included people of various races, men and women, and even - gasp! - Americans.

Speculation in three... two... one...

Naveen Andrews (48)

A class act, Naveen Andrews is exactly the right age for the Doctor now and has plenty of genre experience. He has the good looks to cater for the segment of the audience who are after a sex symbol and the classic English authoritarianism to convince as a Time Lord. Andrews has something of a controversial past but that shouldn't stand in the way of his starring in a family show now.

Tim Roth (55)

Perhaps too famous to be within the Beeb's budget, but still taking on TV roles and vocally interested in the part. While he's mostly known for tough guy, chip-on-the-shoulder roles, Roth has also played more cerebral characters and his turn in The Hateful Eight shows that he can do the posh upper-class thing when he wants to. Primarily though, he's a bloody good actor and would bring a rougher side to the Doctor, which would appeal to those who enjoyed the older, darker Doctor that Capaldi portrayed.

Tom Burke (35)

Known as Athos is the Beeb's other big primetime drama The Musketeers, Burke has an interesting face and is capable of giving an intense performance. He'd make for a great Doctor, able to balance the adventure and emotional drama well. It would make watching his back catalogue a trifle odd though; Peter Capaldi was his nemesis in the first season of  The Musketeers and he played David Tennant's son way back in 2005's Casanova!

Iwan Rheon (31)

The token young actor on the list (by my criteria, which means younger than me). Since he is appeared as oddball Simon on Misfits, it's been clear that Rheon has a certain uncanny quality about his performance. Genre viewers might find it hard to separate him from his more recent role as the monstrous Ramsay Bolton in Game of Thrones, though.

Peter Dinklage (47)

My number one choice. Immediately some will balk at the idea of casting an American, but I have no problem with that. The Doctor isn't actually British, after all, he's from another planet altogether, so why couldn't he "naturalise" as an American? If it's still a problem, Dinklage does a spot-on English accent. Dinklage is a class act, and he's clearly heading on to be bigger and better things all the time. He's probably too busy with Thrones right now, but maybe pip him for Doctor no. 14, before he gets too successful to ever afford.

Orlando Jones (49)

Not an immediately familiar name to most British viewers, but definitely a familiar face, Jones has turned up in all manner of roles over the years, including plenty of genre material. And what a face! He has the piercing eyes and manic grin of Tom Baker, and is capable of switching between raucous comedy and serious drama with ease.

Tilda Swinton (56)

When the suggestion arises that we should cast a woman as the Doctor, Swinton is among the first names to come up. It's easy to see why: a touch of nobility, great acting ability, a certain ethereal, sylphlike quality and oodles of eccentricity. Having someone so androgynous in the role might take some of the edge off casting a woman, but the main point is that Tilda Swinton would absolutely rock as the Doctor.

Siobhan Redmond (57)

If we're looking for someone to continue on in the same vein as Capaldi, but with a twist, then Redmond could be perfect. The same age, Scottish and with both a playful and a harsh edge. Plus she's ginger, which is something the Doctor has been hankering after for years now. Redmond has already played the Rani for Big Finish, so she already has experience playing a Time Lord, and you can see how naturally she twirls her sonic.

Jamie Clayton (39)

A less likely and more controversial choice. An American woman in the role would send certain types of fan into apoplectic fits, but frankly, is that a bad thing? Clayton appears in Sense8 with Naveen Andrews, and has a certain hard-to-define quality that just feels right for the Doctor. And that voice is just perfect for audio, once she's retired to Big Finish. The only problem would be if Martha came back - it'd be very hard to shake those Sense8 scenes of Clayton and Agyeman from our heads...

Kate McKinnon (33)

Another American woman, another LGBT icon and another suggestion that is bound to piss some people off. But wouldn't she be perfect? If she channelled some of that bizarre, Doc Brown, Egon Spengler vibe to the role, she'd make the most brazenly alien Doctor since Tom Baker. Plus, she has a physics background that would back up the science with some reality for once.