Tuesday 28 March 2017

REVIEW: The Crimson Mask 1: A Shadow Has Fallen by Chris Leach

Serial fiction has a long and noble history, with novels and sequential adventures once released in installments in newspapers, magazines and novelettes. Nowadays, new fiction is released in episodes on a variety of websites and apps, keeping the tradition alive.

The Crimson Mask is a new adventure serial in a vintage style that suits the serial format down to a tee. Chris Leach has released his first installment in this story, "A Shadow Has Fallen," for download via Payhip. The Crimson Mask is a mystery adventure that takes place in an alternative 19th century. Twenty years since the assassination of Queen Victoria and the Great Fire of Westminster, dark days are coming for the Empire and an insidious organisation known as the Shadow seeks to take control of London. Only an equally secretive organisation, the Foundation, can hope to stop them.

To say any more would spoil this first chapter, which sets up the story's central mystery and introduces the central members of the Foundation. Over only 5000 words Leach crafts a tight little adventure that creates an intriguing backdrop for the rest of the story. He's obviously having great fun playing in his pseudo-Victorian world and that comes through in his easy, enjoyable prose.

I'm looking forward to reading further chapters of The Crimson Mask, although the timescale for the next episode isn't clear. Until then, I recommend that you give the story a try by downloading this first chapter. It's only 49p, which is good value for money in anyone's ebook.

Monday 27 March 2017

The Almost Doctors by Babelcolour

Stuart 'Bablecolour' Humphryes has uploaded his latest video, this one initially inspired by a request from Mark Gatiss. Humphryes has created a very clever "mockumentary" which gives us a glimpse into parallel timelines, where different actors played the part of the Doctor. Actors like Jim Dale and Fulton McKay, who were offered the role in reality but turned it down or were eventually deemed unsuitable. It's a fascinating what-if making use of some ingenious video manipulation.

He's started with Part Two, covering the 1970s, with the 60s-focused Part One to follow. Hopefully we'll get a Part Three as well if we're very good.

Saturday 18 March 2017

Comics to Screen: The Flash 3.13 & 3.14 - Gorilla City



Perhaps my favourite thing about The Flash is there embracing of Gorilla Grodd, the best of DC's villainous gorillas. (That there're even multiple villainous gorillas to choose from is a wondrous thing.) In the season two episode "Gorilla Warfare," Team Flash unceremoniously dumped Grodd in the parallel universe of Earth-Two, hoping to wash their hands of him.

Naturally, that didn't go to plan. Earth-Two has an entire city of telepathic gorillas, and Grodd landed rights on their border. Unsurprisingly, a power struggle ensued, between Grodd and Solovar, the great white gorilla who rules Gorilla City. I am so happy that this nonsense makes it to TV in 2017. The first episode takes our heroes on a mission to the African jungles of Earth-Two in search of Harrison Wells, although central Africa does look a lot like a wood in Vancouver. (There's a nice moment lampshading this with some balls about arresting climate change on Earth-Two, but really, there's no way they could afford major location work after spending all their money CG gorillas.) This is tremendously fun, with lots of OTT pseudo-Roman gorilla battles.

The second episode continues Grodd's plan to take revenge on Central City, roping in Gypsy (underwhelming Jessica Camacho) to open rifts to Earth-One. As much as having gorillas running round the city is a sure-fire win, I enjoyed this episode less. It's too bound up with Barry's ongoing mistakes and guilt, and the most interesting part -having him decide to kill off Grodd for good - is dropped in favour of his taking the moral high ground. If you're going to make him flawed and make questionable decisions, go all the way with it. He can't even let Solovar kill Grodd, although naturally the showrunners want to bring the monstrous ape back again next year.

Beyond the gorilla shenanigans, this two-parter exists to bring Jesse Quick back onto the showin order to run her romance with Wally. Quite why she's so enamoured with the stroppy little bastard is anyone's guess, but Violett Beane is pretty adorable so it's no bad thing having her around. Plus, we get the return of proper Wells, Earth-Two version. It's great fun watching likeable, hipster HR rub up against short-tempered genius "Harry" Wells, but mostly I'm pleased to have sexy Wells back for a couple of episodes. (His channelling of Grodd in the prison scenes is weirdly hot, and I'm not the only one who thinks that.")

Other than the Wells family relations, the best character in this two-parter is Julian. Tom Felton is such a great addition to the recurring cast; he steals every scene that allows him a line. I'm finding the Savitar plotline rather dull, but Julian himself is a great character. I love seeing get his Indiana Jones on for his excursion to Earth-Two. Plus, after his continual mentions of the Philosopher's Stone in preceding episodes, we get perhaps the greatest in-joke yet. They must have pissed themselves writing the Planet of the Apes line.


Gorilla Grodd goes right back to 1959, with his debut appearance being in The Flash #106. In the original continuity, Grodd and his fellow Gorilla Citizens were granted their super-intelligence by a radioactive meteorite, later retconned as a spaceship, which crashed into the African jungle. Solovar was part of the story from the beginning, having constructed Gorilla City with extraterrestrial help, and telepathically warning Barry Allen of Grodd's plans of world domination. Over the following years, Grodd made numerous appearances and enacted various schemes. He was frequently involved with other members of the Flash's Silver Age rogue's gallery, and such teams as the Injustice League and the Secret Society of Supervillains. 

Grodd has made a major return in the New 52, as king of Gorilla City, having killed and devoured his father (in this version, the gorillas believe that eating the brains of their enemies embues them with their knowledge). It seems that these gorillas were enhanced by the Speed Force itself, further tying their destiny up with that of the Flash. Grodd has made a number of TV appearances over the years in various animated series, in particular as a recurring foe in the wonderful Batman: The Brave and the Bold, even joining forces with other simian villains such as Gorilla Boss and Monsieur Mallah. in the wonderfully fun episode "Gorillas in Our Midst" (which also features Detective Chimp). On TB&TB, Grodd is voiced by John "Bender" DiMaggio, while on The Flash he is voiced by David Sobolov.

Sunday 12 March 2017


"An excellent farewell to Jackman's long run as Wolverine."

Batman has been played by eight actors in live action films since 1943. Superman by five, Spider-Man by four. Most of the X-Men, in spite of the seventeen years of continual film production in a (broadly) consistent universe, have been played by two or more actors. But it's hard to imagine anyone else playing the Wolverine.

Some day, of course, someone else will play Logan. Fox won't let the character lie forever, and if they ever let the X-Men rights slip, Marvel would snap them back up and make a Wolverine film like a shot. Whoever takes on the role is going to have a very tough time winning over Hugh Jackman's fans. On paper, he is totally, notoriously wrong for the part. A short, stocky, beaten-up little bruiser being played by a strapping, handsome actor, who was best known for musicals prior to getting the part. Nonetheless, Jackman has been note perfect throughout his appearances in the X-Men franchise, from starring roles to cheeky cameos. He's the only actor to appear in all of the X-Men and Wolverine films - you can even include Deadpool in that, if you want to count the paper face mask Wade sports at the end. 

Logan is to be Jackman's final time as the Wolverine. This is probably for the best; there's only so long anyone can play an ageless mutant. Taking inspiration from the Old Man Logan storyline is something that Jackman himself campaigned for for some time, although seemingly he was mostly interested in the "old man" part of that than anything else. Indeed, very little from that questionable comics series has survived, beyond the future setting, the aged Logan and the road trip format. It's 2029, and no mutant has been born for over a decade. Logan is working as a chauffeur, of all things, trying to earn enough money to get out of the States. He is, along with the vampire-like mutant Caliban, caring for Professor Xavier, who is having psychic seizures that are devastating to everyone in the vicinity.

It's not a jolly setting, and it doesn't appear to be either future shown in Logan and Xavier's last mission together, Days of Future Past. But then, the writers X-Men franchise has never worried too much about continuity. Logan exists in relation to the previous X-Men films, but set apart as its own story. Nonetheless, the script assumes a certain knowledge of the basic set-up of the X-Men's world, and the nature of both Logan and Xavier's characters. It would be possible to come in cold and pick this all up, but it's not intended to be watched like that. It's a reflection on Wolverine's character, how he's developed through the films, and how he can be expected to deal with the decades of horror and violence he's experienced.

Logan is an extremely violent film, with decapitations, gunshots to the head, brutal beatings and murders aplenty. While I might sound like a scratched record, I am amazed that it has been released with a 15 certificate in the UK (an R-rating in the States, which isn't quite the same but still more permissive than I'd expect). Not too long ago, Logan would definitely have been rated 18. I don't think it's too violent, though. Indeed, it's honestly violent, in the way that, say, Tarantino films usually are. Violence is horrific and should be treated as such, and a less visceral version of Logan would blunt the message of what violence can do to someone.

The film hinges on Logan's two core relationships: with Xavier and Laura Kinney. Both call back to the first X-Men film in 2000. While X-Men saw Xavier take Logan in and bring him back to some semblance of civilised behaviour, here we have Logan caring for the decrepit Xavier, looking after him both for his sake and the sake of anyone else in the local area. The second relationship, with his genetic daughter, Laura, mirrors his paternal relationship with Anna Paquin's Rogue in X-Men. However, there's no element that calls back to the Logan-Jean Grey relationship, although a line referring to Jean was reportedly cut from the final edit. It's hard to see how such a relationship would have worked in this film, and it works better focusing on a relatively small core group of character. Nonetheless, it's a pity that there was no room for Liev Schrieber's Sabretooth in the film - the one good addition to X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and a character who is inextricably tied up with Wolverine's story.

Both Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart give exceptionally good performances as aged, sick versions of their now familiar characters. With Logan slowly dying from the adamantium that has been poisoning his system for decades, and Xavier dying from straightforward old age, there's an sense of impending death throughout the film. The Logan-Xavier relationship is one of exhausted commitment and responsibility, tempered by genuine fondness and good humour. Hearing Stewart swearing his tits off throughout the film is worth the ticket price alone. Surprisingly good is Stephen Marchant's performance as the ghoulish Caliban, bald and albino and sickly, an outsider to the pairing but one who helps hold it together.

Really, though, it's Dafne Keen's performance as Laura that makes the most impression. In spite of having no dialogue for much of the film, the Anglo-Spanish actress, at only eleven years old, gives the most remarkable performance of the film. She easily holds her own alongside Jackman and Stewart, no easy feat at all. She possesses both raw, terrifying instinct and heart-rending vulnerability. Laura Kinney has been a huge success in the comics, first as X-23 and now as the new Wolverine, and it's easy to see a great future for Keen as both an actor in general, and as an ongoing star of further X-Men films.

Logan's journey is at once both cynical and hopeful, giving up his less realisable hopes of escaping with Xavier to his adoption of Laura's own dreams, finally helping her achieve her freedom. It's also, as the X-Men films have always been at their best, about family.


Friday 10 March 2017

Scream for Shalka - the REG Doctor returns in Nine Lives!

Waaaay back in 2003, when Doctor Who was celebrating its 40th anniversary, there was a very exciting announcement. Doctor Who was coming back, with a modern new direction, and a new, ninth Doctor! Before that though, there was another announcement. Doctor Who was coming back as an online cartoon serial, with a new, ninth Doctor played by Richard E. Grant. The excitement around the new TV series killed the thing dead, but Scream of the Shalka, that first, solitary web serial still has its fans.

One area the REG Doctor, or the Shalka Doctor, lived on is in fanfic. Now, after this very, very long break, there's been an upsurge in interest in that Doctor. Shalka was released on DVD last year, and Obverse Books have released a volume analysing the serial as part of their exhaustively researched Black Archive range. And now, we have the pleasure of announcing Nine Lives, a fiction anthology for charity, featuring the Richard E. Grant Doctor in stories written by such luminaries as Rachael Redhead, Kara Dennison, Stuart Douglas and Paul Driscoll, plus more... Scott Claringbold is the editor and there's wonderful cover art by Paul Hanley. Oh, and I have a story in there too: "Frozen Time," a chilly chapter in which the Doctor encounters an old, old enemy...

Pre-orders are closed as I write this, due to a heartwarming and surprising early run of orders, but the book will soon open up for orders again once printing is a go. It's on sale for £12 from Red Ted Books (plus postage, natch) and all proceeds go to the Stroke Association and the Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Thursday 2 March 2017

FILM REVIEW: Hidden Figures

It's hard, as a British person in the 21st century, to understand how many American states remained racially segregated until the latter half of the twentieth. That's not to say racism and illegal segregation don't exist today, or where I live, but the widespread and legally enforced separation of black and white populations has never existed here. The echoes of racial segregation can be seen throughout the United States today, and this is hardly surprising, considering that it was a simple matter of fact for so many people still alive today. While racial segregation is now illegal in the US, we can already see a modern form of segregation, against same-sex couples and transgender individuals, taking shape under the guise of "religious freedom laws." They're even trying to keep people from using public toilets again.

So Hidden Figures is a timely piece, both last year's bestseller by Margot Lee Shetterley and this new film adaptation. I confess to not having read the book (yet, it's now high on my too-read list), but the film was something I was eager to see as soon as I heard about it. Part of this was down to the excellent cast, but mostly it was a desire to see an underexplored side to the space race, a major part of 20th century history which has always held a fascination for me.

Hidden Figures centres around three African American women, working for NASA in 1961, on the eve of manned spaceflight. Katherine Goble (nee Coleman, later Johnson), played by Taraji P. Henson, was and is a remarkable woman who displayed one of the finest mathematical brains of the 20th century. (Katherine Johnson, now 98-years-old and described by all who meet her as "sharp as ever," received the Presidential Medal of Freedom two years ago and attended this year's tumultous Oscars with Henson.) Katherine is the central character of the film, but a great deal of focus is also given to her friends and colleagues, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan. Jackson, played by Janelle Monae, was one of the most notable engineers at NASA and a tireless advocate for equal workplace rights. Vaughan, played by Octavia Spencer, taught herself computer programming language and became a frontrunner in the field of computing. They were, respectively, the first black female engineer and supervisor at NASA. Of the three, I was previously aware of Vaughan and Goble/Johnson, but I hadn't heard of Mary Jackson until watching the film.

The cast are uniformly excellent. As well as the three leads, the cast includes Kevin Costner as the director of the Space Task Group, Kirsten Dunst as Vaughan's departmental supervisor, and Mahershala Ali as Jim Johnson, Katherine's suitor and then husband. Although given relatively little screentime, Ali is magnetic, and it's hardly a surprise to me that he was become the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar (for Moonlight, one of my must-sees for March). There's also a role for the now ubiquitous Jim Parsons's, as chief engineer Paul Stafford, who comes across as a straight version of his usual cerebral, socially inept characters. Glen Powell is suitably charismatic as the legendary astronaut John Glenn, albeit reduced in age somewhat for the film.

For all the support they have from the wider cast, though, the strength of the film lies with the leading actresses, in particular Taraji P. Henson. She grounds the film with a performance that paints Goble as both an exceptionally gifted woman and a very straightforward one, someone who is both down-to-earth and looking to the stars. Janelle Monae adds a sassier, sexier side as the highly intelligent engineer Jackson, displaying a refusal to ever submit to the unfair treatment of her state, while Octavia Spencer makes Vaughan the most fundamentally likeable of the trio, coming across as a quietly brilliant and highly compassionate woman. Both Jackson and Vaughan are portrayed as more ambitious than Goble, who is simply so remarkably intelligent that it is ludicrous that she shouldn't be included in the most important meetings of the Mercury programme, and proves herself indispensible.

This was a time when the word computer meant someone who sat and performed calculations with pencil and paper. In a time when we each carry a supercomputer in our pocket and there's serious talk about private leisure flights to the Moon, it's amazing to see the first men travel to space, and the very first, cutting-edge IBM systems installed at NASA (taking up a huge office space). But it's the attitudes that are the most alien. A big chunk of the film is taken up with Goble's treks across the NASA grounds to find a toilet she is allowed to use, a drawn out, repetitive sequence that hammers home both the tragedy and absurdity of the situation. Jackson has to petition to be allowed to attend an all-white college in order to gain the qualification necessary to apply to become an engineer. Black people live in fear of being stopped by a white policeman, unsure what will happen if they say the wrong thing... well. maybe some things haven't changed.

A film like this is bound to romanticise the facts somewhat. Even a little surface research shows that the screenwriters have altered the facts somewhat. The three women had already made significant strides in their careers by 1961, but aligning these events with the first manned spaceflights makes it all the more momentous. John Glenn really did insist that Goble check the calculations before he made his first orbital flight aboard Friendship 7, but it wasn't the breakneck, white knuckle rush that it's portrayed as here. Most notably, it was Mary Jackson who had to trek across campus to find a washroom, not Katherine Goble. She just used whichever lavatory she pleased. In reality, it seems that NASA, although far from perfect, was more equitable than is shown here. Nonetheless, the film works, because even if the facts don't quite align with what we see, it's making an important point. NASA may have been making strides forward, but America as a whole was lagging behind. The events play out against a background of civil rights protests and violent repurcussions. This was the society these women lived in.

While it tweaks events, the script doesn't play too loose with established facts. I was pleased to see that Alan Shepherd and Gus Grissom got their dues as the first and second Americans in space, before the glamour of Glenn's 1962 orbital mission. (Legendary as he is, there are those who erroneously think Glenn was the first man in space; he was the fifth.) It's a pity we couldn't hang on a little longer for the flight of Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, but that would stretch the narrative out to mid-1963. While dominated at points by these world-changing events, this is a very human story, and as much is made of Goble's personal life and her romance with Jim Johnson as the mathematics, space flights and social upheaval. Genuinely excellent, this is a must-see.