Saturday 22 December 2018

WHOTOPIA issue 33 out now

The latest issue of the ongoing Doctor Who fanzine Whotopia is now available for download. This issue's overall theme is "Out of the Shadows." It looks at long lost characters' returns, and at moments when underutilised or underexplored characters and elements came into their own and realised their potential.

Amongst the many articles, on characters as varied as Adric, Mel and the Brigadier, is the latest column in my "Master Who" series. This time I look at Sir Derek Jacobi's quietly sinister incarnation of the villainous Time Lord. There's also a look at the latest series, the beginning of an epic trek through the entire series from 1963 onwards, and a farewell to Whotopia editor and top gent Jez Strickley.

Click on the link to download and read for free.

Friday 14 December 2018

TREK REVIEW: "The Brightest Star" (Short Treks 3)

The Kelpien Hello

The third Short Trek is a well-worn but well told story that provides Lt. Saru - perhaps the standout character from the first season of Discovery, and certainly the most mysterious - with an origin story. It's an origin that treads familiar ground for Star Trek, and as such it feels very traditionally Trek, but at the same time, feels a little unoriginal.

During season one, Saru spoke profoundly of being from a world with a binary food-chain, where life was either predator or prey - and his people were the latter. What we see here doesn't quite fit with that, however. I expected to see them living in a state of fear from natural predation - as intimated by Saru's words and the novel Fear Itself, the deepest exploration of Saru's character so far. Instead we have a religious society, living in awe of a more advanced species called the Ba'ul, to whom they willingly sacrifice themselves. It's strangely comforting to see Star Trek present an old-fashioned pre-warp civilisation that blindly worships a false god. Saru's own father is the high priest, who expects the chosen sacrifices to feel honoured in their deaths and spouts religious cliches.

Saru, on the other hand, is uniquely gifted, seemingly more intelligent than his peers by a significant margin, to the point where he can tinker with a bit of detached Ba'ul technology and successfully send a message to the stars. Unlike the other Kelpiens (apparently so named because they farm kelp, seriously), Saru's isn't content to blindly walk to his death, and instead searches for answers among the stars.

Eventually, it's Philippa Georgiou who comes to his rescue - still a lieutenant, but still able to have persuaded Starfleet to bend the rules so that she could pick up a unique specimen in what clearly counts as a violation of the Prime Directive. Of course, this is 23rd century Starfleet, when the spirit of the non-interference directive was more important than the letter. This is an era when Kirk could overthrow a false god without so much as a reprimand, so it's perhaps not so surprising that Georgiou manages to intervene on Kaminar, even in such a tiny way. It's a far cry from the 24th century, when  in the comparable situation of the episode "Pen Pals," Picard honestly seemed to think that it was preferable to let a young girl and her entire society die rather than answer her call for help, just because they hadn't invented warp drive yet.

The episode raises more questions than it answers. Are the Ba'ul native to Kaminar? If so, why are the Kelpiens so much less andvanced? If not, then surely the Prime Directive wouldn't apply, and Starfleet would be free to intervene if requested? Are there more, natural predators that hunt the Kelpiens, or has everything been controlled for the benefit of the Ba'ul? If nothing else, at least we know why no more Kelpiens ever show up in Star Trek; as a pre-warp culture, they wouldn't be travelling among the stars.

As with all of Discovery, the episode a visual treat, and I particularly love the knife-life Ba'ul ship, hanging over the Kelpiens like the Sword of Damocles. And while the subject matter is well-explored, the fifteen-minute format means the story is tight and compact, all the better for a franchise that has a tendency to drag things out. It gives Doug Jones more well-deserved time in the spotlight, although he doesn't get to do a great deal that's new with Saru's character. Nonetheless, we see a side to him that deserves more exploration; a side of incredible bravery in spite of his innate fear, strong enough that he can not only go against his society's mores but abandon everything he knows for a better life.

We've been promised a visit to Saru's homeland in Discovery season two, making this episode something of a prologue to a full episode. Saru's backstory deserves more exploration, and that's something I look forward to.

Wednesday 12 December 2018

WHO REVIEW: 11-10 - "The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos"

Well, I found that quite enjoyable. It was an unchallenging, pacy episode which had some interesting elements. What it wasn't was a season finale. Given that the series has been altogether quieter and less bombastic than previous runs, a relatively low-key final episode isn't a huge problem. Nonetheless, it's hard to argue that there wasn't a better way to end the thirteenth Doctor's debut series than with an episode like this. RTD went all out with his finales - hordes of Daleks, armies of Cybermen, the imminent destruction of the universe. While Moffat gave us introspective season finales, they were also major event episodes - the collapse of history, the Doctor's last stand against storming aliens, the raising of the dead as Cybermen. This episode does present us with a threat to the planet Earth, but at such a remove that the threat never really hits home.

Not that there isn't plenty going on in this episode. More ideas are thrown at the screen than we've seen before this season (with the arguable exception of the universe-frog episode that precedes it). The Ux are an intriguing new addition to the series' mythos; a race of beings that only ever exist as a pair, seemingly Sith-like, as master and apprentice. Blessed with enormous powers, they provide some much needed sci-fi spectacle, although their nature is in dire need of further exploration and explanation. How can a species only exist two at a time? How did they even develop a culture, and most bizarrely, how can they exist on only three planets of the universe? Even if they stood on one planet each, they'd still not manage that. Not to mention that, even with a religion that supposedly values doubt, they immediately believe the first alien who lands on their doorstep is god and proceed to do what he says for three thousand years. Intriguing beings, but utterly stupid.

The shrunken planets, held in tenuous equilibrium as part of a gigantic engine of destruction, is a fantastic idea, although it was an even better idea when Douglas Adams first did it in The Pirate Planet in 1978. Still, if you're going to steal, steal from the best, and the visual presented here is provocative. The concept of a planet that messes with your memories and perceptions is a brilliant one, and while Mark Addy's character Paltraki sells some of the horror of losing your sense of self, the concept simply isn't explored far enough to make it worthy of inclusion. Illustratively, the characters have to wear neural inhibitors to stop them losing their minds, but when the Doctor and Yaz give theirs up to help free the Ux, there's no sense of jeopardy at all. This could have upped the ante of the episode significantly, providing powerful imagery and raised stakes for two main characters, but in the event, they just get headaches and then put the things back on again after a few minutes.

Bringing back Tim Shaw as the villain is an unsurprising move, but not a foregone one. I feel he works much better here than in the first episode, as a vengeful, twisted manipulator than a rampaging killer. Having spent 3407 years sitting and stewing (I'm assuming he didn't get chucked back in time, making it the year 5423 now), he's got nothing more on his mind than accruing power to get back at the various planets he thinks have wronged him. Aside from the usual outlandish coincidences that just need to be accepted in Doctor Who (Tim Shaw lands right by the only two individuals on the entire planet; the Doctor picks up the distress signals left by the soldiers of his victim races), this is a solid plot for a finale, but tooth-face just isn't a strong enough villain to hold a climactic adventure. He's a strong villain as presented here, but strictly middle-episode fare. He wouldn't last twenty minutes against the Daleks of the Master, even with the Ux on his side.

A finale doesn't need to hinge on apocalyptic events, however. Emotional stakes can be just as earth-shattering. It's Graham who carries the emotional weight of this episode, shouldering and eventually finally coming to terms with Grace's death. Fortunately, Bradley Walsh is capable of taking the emotional burden for the whole cast. The grieving man's revenge plot might be a hoary old cliche, but it has emotional punch and, while predicated on violence as a response to violence, it entirely understandable. There's also a good argument to be made that Graham is right to hunt down the alien. While it's absolutely right that he finally decides to be "the better man" and spare Tim Shaw's life, we're talking about an individual who has dedicated his life to hunting, killing and abducting innocent people across the universe. I love how Graham refers to Tim as a creature, and "it," refusing to even speak of him in human terms. It's a perfectly understandable response to the alien and his philosophy of violence.

It's the Doctor who comes off worst in this episode, in a way that provides real potential for future exploration. The thirteenth Doctor has been rigidly pacifistic in her words, but has slipped from that ideal more than once in action. She remains hypocritical, pledging the wrongs of violence when confronted with a being she set up to die by liquefying his DNA. The script at least takes her to task when she orders everyone to put down their guns, but saddles up with grenades, and notably she doesn't have a good answer. All the Doctors have been hypocrites when it comes to their use of violence, but none have been so vehemently pacifist in philosophy while failing to back it up with any alternative. It could be very interesting to see what happens when this Doctor comes up against a foe that truly can't be reasoned with or talked down. (If the New Year's special really is Resolution of the Daleks, we might see that very soon.)

It's hard to credit that Graham and Ryan could outmanoeuvre killer robots and the Stenza when waves of soldiers were captured (and immediately ran away once freed), but this is par for the course in Doctor Who, which sees teenaged girls outwit Autons and Silurians. It's still great to see them trap him in his own stasis prison, although again, the moral philosophy deserves exploration. Is this really more humane than killing the guy? And doesn't it just mean that, one day, he's going to get out again, ready for revenge once more? The Doctor singularly failed to deal with Tim Shaw when she zapped him away from Earth with a malfunctioning teleporter, and again, the threat has been subdued but not ended. Even so, I can't imagine many people will be clamouring to see the third part of the Tim Shaw trilogy.

Neither Yaz nor Ryan seem very well used here. At least Ryan gets to work on his relationship with his grandfather while they fight for their lives, but Yaz is mostly there to parrot the Doctor's words back. She's suffered a lot from that this year, but this episode was the most blatant, and it's a pity, because Madip Gill is clearly capable of handling strong material when she's given it. Mark Addy is a welcome face, but he's wasted with his part here, just as so many brilliant guest actors have been wasted on undeveloped minor roles on this programme in the past. Phyllis Logan, as the Ux elder Andinio, manages to bring some real gravitas to a fairly ludicrous part, while he co-Ux Percelle Ascott commands much sympathy as the more downtrodden, more self-aware of the two.

So, a flawed episode but fun, one that has the promise of something better with a polish and more room to breathe. Hasn't that been the case for most of this season? With both Chibnall and Whittaker back next season, but not until 2020, there's some considerable work to be done to tighten up the scripts so that this iteration of the series can reach its potential. The series has clearly been a hit with the general viewership, and there's something to be said for more straightforward, more accessible adventures. But there's been a lack of punch to most of the episodes, with even the best of them ("Rosa" and "Demons of the Punjab," for my money) showing clear room for improvement. Given the drop in interest that will doubtless come from making audiences wait for over a year (and with no Christmas specials), they really need to make the most of the series' best elements for maximum impact on its return.

Title Tattle: "The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos" is surely the most blandly sci-fi title the series has ever had. It's hardly a memorable planet name either (I'll memorise it, of course, but that's my brain problem).

The Timeless Child: What was that all about then? Was that put in "The Ghost Monument" just to give us something to latch onto as an arc phrase, because it's not been mentioned since.

Best line:

"Tim Shaw, how long's it been?"
"Three thousand, four hundred and seven years."
"I bet the seven really dragged."

Season eleven rankings:

  1. Demons of the Punjab
  2. Rosa
  3. The Witchfinders
  4. The Tsuranga Conundrum
  5. Kerblam!
  6. The Woman Who Fell to Earth
  7. It Takes You Away
  8. The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos
  9. The Ghost Monument
  10. Arachnids in the UK

Friday 7 December 2018

WHO REVIEW: 11-9 - "It Takes You Away"

This, it seems, is series eleven's Marmite episode, with friends and critics alike either praising it as the greatest episode all year or an irredeemable pile of rubbish. As for me... well, I'm not quite sure whether I liked it or not. There was an awful lot to like about this episode, but the overall effect didn't quite gel for me.

Ed Hime's first script for the series is not short on ambition, charging from one idea to another. The episode is really four entirely different, barely connected settings: first it's a Nordic thriller threatening to become a horror story; then it's suddenly a creepy adventure in a goblin's maze; after that, it becomes an emotional and philosophical piece about love and loss; and finally, it's a woman standing in an empty room talking to a frog. Whether any of these elements actually manage to work together is a matter of opinion. While it's great to see the series really displaying some imagination and throwing ideas at the screen with abandon, the result is pretty incoherent.

The first segment of the episode takes inspiration from the many Scandinavian dramas that have become popular across Europe, a genre that Doctor Who hasn't previously explored but that seems absolutely ideal for the series. After a bit of fun silliness from the Doctor, getting her bearings by taste like her Tennant incarnation and winding up her companions with tales of the Woolly Rebellion, events rapidly move into unsettling, tense territory. There's something out there, it seems, the thing that "takes you away," and Hanne is alone in a boarded-up house fearing for her life. One thing that can't be argued with is how brilliant young Ellie Wallwork is as Hanne, portraying a bolshy, frightened, likeable girl who grounds the episode and shoulders a lot of the emotional work. She's really quite excellent, and it's good to see the series' commitment to diversity still going strong (two years ago we had a deaf actor playing a deaf character, now we have a blind actor playing a blind character, although this time her sensory disability is more significant to the plot).

Ellie's relationship with the regular cast is illuminating, bringing out distinct elements of their characters. The Doctor, for all her oddness (and she's at her most deliberately strange this episode), is primarily a reassuring presence, and acts as such here, putting Hanne at ease even while she's coming to concerning conclusions about her situation. Graham even more so, providing a grandad figure (and I absolutely love that he's carrying his own sandwiches around. He'd have got on well with Tennant's Doctor, at least they could have gone for chips). Yaz reassures Hanne in a more calculated way, utilising her police training to fix on something she finds comforting to distract her. But Ryan does nothing but antagonise her, immediately assuming her dad has just abandoned her. Of course, this is a perfectly natural assumption from Ryan given his family history, but he also happens to be absolutely right. He and Hanne remain at loggerheads until he proves he has her back, making him the only character (including her dad) who actually has any kind of relationship with her.

There's plenty of scope for a solid fifty-minute episode just here, but barely twenty minutes in, the cast jump through a magic mirror into a subterranean troll dimension. This section is the most visually and atmospherically effective part, mainly because of Kevin Eldon's turn as the sinister creature Ribbons of the Seven Stomachs. Eldon is one of those actors, like Alan Cumming, who you'd swear blind had been in Doctor Who before, he's such a perfect fit for it. In fact, he has once, as a companion of all things - he voiced Antimony in the webcast Death Comes to Time - but this is his first time onscreen, and quite rightly, he gets to be a monster. The question of just how Ribbons, the flesh moths, and the various other critters managed to be in the Anti-Zone between universes remains frustratingly unanswered. It's perfectly fine to have unanswered questions, of course, but this seems more like something has been overlooked. There's more to this peculiar new cosmology than we get to know, and without it, the episode struggles to make sense. There are effective set pieces but they don't fit together.

Saturday 1 December 2018

CHROMAKEY issue 1 available soon

Issue one of the new sci-fi and cult TV magazine Chromakey is due for publication on the 25th of January. It includes "Lost in Space: Everything Old is New Again," my elaborate ramble on the opening episodes of Lost in Space - both the 1960s versions and the new Netflix series.

There's a ton of sci-fi goodness in there. The full contents runs:

Dan Tessier takes a look at the similarities and differences between the 1960s' original and the new Netflix series.

Richard Peevers dives into the world of the popular Netflix series.

Bob Furnell goes back to the 1970s and delves in to the making of this Canadian-made sci-fi series.

Actor Gary Conway sits down with Steve Eramo to talk about his career and life in this exclusive interview.

Matthew Kresal gets to grips with this highly popular and well-remembered British political thriller.

Remember those made-for-tv horror movies from the 70s and 80s? 
Arnold T. Blumberg takes a look at the 1972 production Gargoyles.

Our panel review the episode "Kill Straker" from the Gerry & Sylvia Anderson series, UFO.

In the first of his ongoing series looking at forgotten sci-fi and fantasy series,
Andrew Screen examines the BBC’s final black and white filmed series, Counterstrike.

Peter Gouldson offers his appreciation of the second adventure which many consider one of the series' best.

Bob Furnell provides the lowdown on the numerous failed American TV series pilots made in the 1970s.


$9.99 CAD | Available POD from

Keep an eye out for this, it should be quite something.

Wednesday 28 November 2018

WHO REVIEW: 11-8 - "The Witchfinders"

This season's third historical adventure continues to show that the thirteenth Doctor's best episodes are those set in the past. Unlike “Rosa” or “Demons of the Punjab,” though, “The Witchfinders” is an episode that relies heavily on an alien influence. That's not to say that a purely historical episode set during the witch trials wouldn't work, but it would be a very different story to the one we enjoyed on Sunday night. While there's a moral side to the story, “The Witchfinders” is unashamedly in the mould of the theme park history romps of the previous few Doctors, and that's great. As good as the more serious historicals this season have been, it's worth reminding viewers that trips to the past can be a lark as well.

Even especially silly historical episodes like “The Unquiet Dead” and “The Unicorn and the Wasp” had impressive death counts, and you don't visit a seventeenth century witch hunt without some horrific moments. The strength of this episode lies in its balance between the outlandish and the realistically grim, with the gruesome but ridiculous Morax making for a threat that's easy enough for the Doctor to defeat, while the more frightening and far more real danger of the witch trials is something she has no way to stop. The Doctor rids the unlikely-named Bilehurst Cragg of the unearthly monsters, but it's they who destroy the more human threat of Becka Savage, even if the Doctor does twig the truth just beforehand.

Most damningly, the Doctor fails to talk her way out of her own execution by King James. It's hardly the first time the Doctor has been on the verge of execution, and only escaped by ordinary luck or extraordinary ability, but it does come after a series of adventures where her impact on events has been minimal. It's a good thing that at last we have some good old-fashioned monsters for her to beat (in rather perfunctory fashion), to show she can still do the essential Doctoring. She does manage to talk down the King for a moment, but the Doctor's moving words aren't a match for his combination of religious zealotry and fear. This comes in an episode where, for the first time, the Doctor has to really deal with the different attitudes faced by women.

The witch hunts were, of course, as mired in misogyny as they were in religious mania (as with King James) and personal vendetta and survival (as with Becka). While plenty of men were tried and executed as witches, far more of the unfortunate victims were women. While the real life trials at Pendle Hill weren't nearly as devastating as those in its fictional neighbouring village, the numbers speak for themselves: eleven were tried as witches, nine of them women, and only of one the twelve was found innocent. The rest were executed (another woman never reached trial, dying in prison). While the use of the ducking stool as a method of trial is historically unlikely – these were generally used as a punishment for unfaithful wives and similarly victimised women – the unsurvivable method of attempting to drown a supposed witch and then executing her if she survived – drives home the impossible situation and sheer cruelty an accused witch faced. The folkloric confusion between the two actions stems, no doubt, from the fact that they were similarly spurious accusations used to dispose of troublesome women with enemies.

It was essential that the Whittaker had the opportunity to simply strut her stuff as the Doctor before having to explore the difficulties of being a Lady of Time, but equally a story like this had to happen before the year was out. The simple fact is that the world was (and is) a very dangerous place for women, and there are many eras and places where being female will damage the Doctor's standing. I'm pretty sure that Capaldi's Doctor would still have been strung up if he'd been waving his magic wand around during a witch scare, but he wouldn't have faced the dismissal and patronising attitudes of men. Unfortunately, to follow this up with the Doctor unable to win out against the King using her wit and words, even if only temporarily, makes her character appear weaker when she needed to show what she was made of. At the end, the Doctor has one the King's respect, but too late to have saved her from a ducking.

It's interesting that this is the first of the season's historical adventures to be set in Britain (although “Demons of the Punjab” intersects profoundly with British history). The episode could have been set as effectively in the Salem witch hunts, and Doctor Who has visited these events in the past (in the first Doctor novel The Witch Hunters, by Steve Lyons), and this has overtaken the British witch hunts in popular culture. However, it's clear that both writer Joy Wilkinson and director Sally Aprahamian are drawing more on older British cultural artefacts like Blood on Satan's Claw and Witchfinder General (which have been subject to much parody in the past before the era fell out of fashion – both Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Black Adder (in “Witchsmeller Pursuivant”)had elaborate witchfinding stories) but all this had faded in popularity by the mid-eighties.

Of course, setting this Britain means we get to have King James as our historical celebrity guest. In contrast to the rest of the cast, Alan Cumming plays the King as larger than life, fruitily arrogant and unashamedly camp. When it matters, though, Cumming allows the King quieter, more serious moments. King James (VI of Scotland and I of England) is a fascinating figure, one whose life was plagued by violence and threats. His fear of those who would hunt him is underplayed, as is the tragedy of his background, but it allows some context to his actions here. In reality James had become less zealous in his witch hunting by 1612, but he was committed to his faith throughout his life and was a major proponent of the fight against evil, as he saw it, during his time in Scotland (a country he all but abandoned to his underlings once ascending to the English throne). Of course, you can't have King James onscreen without flagrant gay flirting, and his coming on to Ryan doesn't disappoint there (Ryan, for his part, takes it all in his stride). James' sexuality has been subject to rumour and debate since his youth, so the accuracy of this portrayal is something for discussion. Nonetheless, if you're going to write King James as a flamboyant gay demon-hunter, there's no better casting than Alan Cumming.

Siobhan Finneran also makes for a fine guest star as the unethical but desperate Becka, playing her hard enough to be a compelling villain but with enough sympathy to make her motives understandable. Tilly Steele is equally good as Willa, the next in line for Becka's persecution until the Doctor draws the attention. There's an interesting angle to Willa's characterisation, with her following a sort of earth-based faith that would now be called pagan and then would be called satanic. Judeo-Christian religions have a long, long history of (literally) demonising other faiths and belief systems, and while Becka's attacks on the villagers are motivated as by desperation, personal interest and classism, they are fuelled by religious fanaticism. James was fanatical in his belief he was doing God's work, and the many commoners who rallied behind the witch hunts were driven by both unquestioning belief and fear. The Doctor takes a more rationalist stand against blind faith in the supernatural, in keeping to how they were portrayed in earlier incarnations.

There's a problem with using Doctor Who to criticise religion, though. Yaz shouts down the faithful: “They're not possessed by the Devil, but by alien mud!” In the words of Dave Lister: “Oh good, something sensible at last.” A bunch of alien criminals made from dirt is no less ridiculous than possession by demons; it's a bit hollow for the Doctor to dismiss belief in Satan when she's actually met him. Still, her focus on the “twist in the sequel” to Christianity being “love thy neighbour” is a very nice touch, even if that phrase did originate in the Old Testament. At the end of the day, as much as I have problems with religion, using faith for good instead of harm is a far better message than believing in technobabble monsters over demons.

Friday 23 November 2018

The Under Gallery

It's been a long time since I just sat down and wrote a story, on my own, purely for fun, not for any particular purpose or project. Today is Doctor Who's 55th anniversary, and thus also five years since The Day of the Doctor. So, I thought I would put together a little follow-up. It's very hastily written and far from perfect, but hopefully enjoyable.

The story is dedicated to my sister Rebecca, an actual museum person and arts expert, and apologies for pretending to know anything about her territory. Alex is named after (but not based on) my good friend Alex, also a former museum person, as a belated gift for their birthday.

Alex craned her neck looked up at the full, remarkable height of the columns that surrounded the entrance of the National Gallery. Just in case these huge monuments that supported the grand, majestic building in Trafalgar Square weren't enough of a clue, the words “National Gallery” were emblazoned in gold on red banners that hung beside the outermost columns, and she could still just about see the name chiselled into the stone itself above them.

She hurriedly stepped into the museum before she felt too overwhelmed. The sheer size of this place was enough to make her nervous, even without taking into account the age and incredible wealth of artwork inside. She was being presumptuous, ridiculous even. There was no way that she would even be considered for the job.

Alex looked around in for someone to direct her to the Under Gallery. There were a couple of security guards, but neither one of them knew what she was talking about, both giving identical excuses of it “not being their patch,” and a fusty-looking tour guide was no more help. She looked at her map; it wasn't marked on there, but there was an information desk in the Sainsbury Wing. Or she could maybe ask the girl in the shop. That wasn't a bad idea; when this job turned out to be a bust she could try for one there. Much more realistic.

No. Confidence. The key to interviews was confidence, her dad said, and he'd been to enough of them to know. Even got a job from some of them. He was proud that she was even considering the job. She'd been the first one in the immediate family to “get an education,” as he called it, and once she'd got her degree she'd been determined to get on the ladder of a museum career. In a year and a half, she'd managed three months volunteering at a minor history museum and a very short stint at a studio which went out of business shortly after. She was about to give up and just resign herself to bar work for the rest of her life.

Then this job had turned up, out of nowhere. It had been her dad who'd found it, when she'd gone round to see him and sheepishly ask about moving back in. A tiny ad in the borough paper, which virtually no one read anymore. Circulation of about five, probably, mostly local ads and the odd job, and then, somehow, this. Under the printed banner of the National Gallery, a new opening for the role of “Assistant to the Curator of the Under Gallery.” It read as if it had been written for her.

Would suit recent graduate of history of fine art. Hours variable, must be flexible. Ideal candidate would be local, with a passion for intriguing and unusual artwork, and strong ankles. Experience in museums and galleries NOT REQUIRED – we have our own ways of working and don't want to waste time while you unlearn everything. Must love old relics.”

OK. it read like a joke, but the number attached checked out and when she called, the personnel officer had said there was a record of a Doctor Smith requesting the ad be placed. She couldn't fathom why he had specified that particular newspaper, or quite what the Under Gallery was, but she said that the man in question was rather eccentric and set in his ways, and it was best to let him carry on as he liked. Whatever it was he actually did there.

Alex had a thought and pulled the newspaper page from her bag. She unfolded it, and read, at the very bottom of the advert: “Make sure you take a look around when you arrive. I'll find you!”

Eccentric was the word, she thought, but at the very least she should enjoy the museum. She could have wandered around there for hours, but instead, looked at the map and decided to go straight for the furthest gallery on the ground floor – the huge collection of European art that stretched from the Middle Ages to Nineteenth Century. She ambled from Boltraffio to Titian and through to Cezanne, walking the centuries and almost forgetting why she was there. She'd made her way right through to the end of the Nineteenth Century and was admiring a Gustave Moreau when someone spoke to her.

“Ah, Saint George and the Dragon,” boomed a deep, throaty voice at her shoulder. She jumped and spun round to face the speaker, a well-built old man who leant heavily on his cane. He was much taller than her and had once been taller still, but age had hunched his shoulders. Still, he had managed to sneak up on her even in the quiet of the Gallery in the morning.

“Sorry, did I startle you?” he said, his face breaking into a huge smile. “I'll have to take points off for jumpiness, you know. You must be Alex, yes?”

Alex's head caught up with his words. “Sorry, um, yes,” she said. “Are you Doctor Smith?”

“Well, I did say I'd find you, and I found you in front of one of my very favourites.”

Alex followed his gaze back to the painting.

“Mine too. It's a little derivative of Raphael, but I enjoy the more abstract style -”

“Oh, don't give me that,” snapped the old man, “I know you know about art, you've nothing to prove there. What I want to know is why you like it?”

Alex looked intently at the image, of the black-clad Saint George on his noble steed, plunging his lance into the bloodied, cowering dragon.

“It's because Saint George isn't the hero. It's the dragon. I guess I feel sorry for it.”

“Yes,” he said, nodding enthusiastically, “I do too. Of course, it was nothing like that at all. George was this big, swarthy fellow with a huge moustache, and the dragon was a biomechanoid... Well, I'll come to all that later. Follow me.”

With surprising speed, the old man was moving back through the Gallery.

“Doctor Smith, wait!” she said, as loudly as she could without being too loud for the Gallery, and dashed after him.

“I'd much rather you just called me 'Curator,' if it's all the same to you,” he said, leading her to a nondescript looking door at the far end of the cavernous room. He pulled an odd, spade-shaped key from his pocket and fumbled with the lock. “By the way, did you have time to see the Van Goghs?”

“Not yet,” she said. She glanced at her watch, and realised she'd spent the better part of an hour there already. This was the strangest, most protracted interview she'd ever had.

“Shame,” he said, sadly. “Poor old Vincent, such a nice man. I've a couple more in my private collection, if we have time.” The lock clicked open at last. “Come on.”

The Under Gallery was a maze of white corridors, spotted here and there with a painting or sculpture, none of which Alex recognised. If she'd had time to look at them, perhaps she could have identified the artists – that was the sort of test she'd have expected from this, but the Curator hurried her along into a large anteroom. The walls were patterned with tiles, white on white, circles within hexagons. A single painting dominated the room, a sizeable landscape. It depicted a blazing citadel against a tumultuous background of smog and lightning.

The Curator sat down heavily on the single white bench in the centre of the room. He whipped a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed his forehead.

“Forgive me,” he croaked, sounding exhausted, “I forget sometimes that I'm not as young as I was.”

“That's OK,” said Alex, half-looking at him and half at the landscape. “What's this picture?”

“Oh, pay that no heed, it's been dealt with. Now, come sit. It's about time I asked you a few questions.”

Alex did so, perching on the bench next to the Curator. He smelt faintly of peppermints.

“Now, what do you know of the Under Gallery?” he asked, fixing her with an enquiring stare.

“Um... nothing, really,” she replied, taken aback. “I didn't know there was one until I saw your advert.”

“Well, quite right. That's a relief – if you had known something about it, I'd have been quite worried. It's a secret you see, set up by command of Queen Elizabeth and personally entrusted to me.”

Despite herself, Alex was impressed. “Personally? You know the Queen?”

“Oh yes, Good Queen Bess. Charming lady.”

She smiled sadly. The old man was obviously getting confused.

“Good Queen Bess was Elizabeth the First,” she pointed out.

“Indeed,” he replied, a wistful look coming over him. “Oh, I practically had to crawl back to her and beg forgiveness after I left her. Terrible, terrible, but it was a very urgent situation, as I recall. Anyway, Elizabeth tasked me with taking care of, shall we saw, dangerous works of art.”

“Dangerous? Like, political art, that sort of thing?”

“What? Pah!” the Curator scoffed loudly. “I mean dangerous,” he hissed. The sort of things that can't be allowed to just sit around where anyone can use them. Now, I've dealt with most of them over the years – locked away the worst of them in the Black Archive, neutralised the rest, but there's one item left that I must take care of. Before I run out of time.”

That was the point where Alex had finally had enough. He was a nice old boy and she was sure he had lots of lovely stories, but this was not going anywhere.

“Curator,” she said, as firmly as she could, “were you going to ask me any questions about the job or did you just want to tell me stories?”

“Stories? That's just it, you see.” He looked at her sheepishly. “I'm sorry, my dear, I haven't been entirely honest with you. You see, there is a job opening, of sorts, but it isn't going to be the sort of thing you're expecting. I don't need to see your CV or anything, I just needed to make sure you were the right person before I showed you this.”

He pushed himself back to his feet with his cane, and walked stiffly over to the far wall, stopping at one of the small pictures that hung there.

“I'm sorry about the advert,” he said, “a necessary bit of subterfuge, but you see, one day you're going to be in a rather senior position here and I needed someone I knew I could trust with this. Of course, time being what it is, you're a little earlier in your career than I'd have liked, but needs must.”

“Please, Doctor Smith,” she sighed, “tell me what this is about. You're not making any sense.”

“This image,” he said, gesturing at the tiny, barely hand-sized painting, “exists for a particular purpose, and unfortunately, it's taken rather longer than I'd hoped to come to fruition.” He plucked the picture from the wall and held it out to Alex. An oval of canvas, depicting a bird – a pheasant, maybe, or something similar – painted in muddy, washed-out tones.

“I took on the role of Curator here as a form of semi-retirement,” continued the old man, smiling again, “but even I won't live forever. This old body's wearing a bit thin, and I find myself with the desire to get back out there and see the universe again. But I couldn't leave until I'd dealt with this one, last job.”

He crouched down, slowly, his knees cracking, and placed the picture face up on the white floor.

“Unfortunately, this is one item I can neither take with me nor leave with that UNIT lot.”

Alex wasn't looking at the Curator anymore. She was staring intently at the tiny picture of a bird. Even in its drab colours, it was somehow quite beautiful. The more she looked at it, the more remarkable it seemed to be. She shook her head, looking back at the old man as his cryptic words arranged themselves in her head.

“You went to all that trouble to get me here... me specifically... so I could look after this painting.”

“Exactly,” said the Curator, beaming. “One day you can hang it up in the main Gallery if you like, when you're in charge, but for now, just take it home with you. Well, when we're done here.”

“I can't do that!” she gasped, shocked. “That's the property of the museum!”

“No it's not, it's the property of me,” he replied, pointing to himself with a thumb. “And I'll be giving it to you in just a few moments.” He reached into his pocket again, and pulled out a box of matches.

“Doctor Smith,” said Alex, more confused than ever, “what are you doing? You're not going to -”

He struck a match and dropped it onto the little painting. Immediately, it went up in flames, burning hot and bright.

“Why the hell did you do that?” cried Alex.

The Curator's voice was barely a whisper.


The flames grew, impossibly so, shooting upwards, three, six, nine feet into the air, licking the ceiling of the Under Gallery. There was no way that the tiny painting could contain so much energy, and yet, it was still burning. Slowly, within the flames, an image was forming. A bird, its wings spread.

Finally, within the flames, it took shape, a beautiful creature, its feathers red and bronze and gold, its wings so wide they almost brushed the walls.

“It's amazing,” breathed Alex.

“Fantastic,” said the Curator. “Molto bene!

“Is it really... a phoenix?”

“The image of a phoenix becomes a phoenix,” he explained. “How else would such beings reproduce? And once it exists, it renews itself, again and again... as long as it's cared for. Many people have tried to use this remarkable creature for their own ends. I've looked after it for the last few centuries, and now it's your turn.”

The flames were growing hotter, bursting outwards as the phoenix flapped its mighty wings. The heat was becoming painful on Alex's skin. Her face itched.

“Are we safe here?” she asked.

“I may have made a slight miscalculation,” admitted the Curator. “It happens every century or so.”

“We need to get out!”

“No time!” The Curator, once more moving faster than a man of his age should, leapt between Alex and the phoenix. The flames lashed outwards, and she smelt the burning fibres of his jacket. He grit his teeth and hissed as the flames hit him.

And then, suddenly, it was over.

The Curator dropped to the floor. He leant on his hands, displaying his charred back for Alex to see. The flesh was blackened and blistered.

“Oh dear,” he said, quietly, “that was rather silly of me...”

“Come on,” said Alex, getting her hands under his arms, “we need to get you upstairs and call an ambulance.”

The Curator shook his head. “Leave me. This was bound to happen sooner or later. This just brought ahead a little. In fact, it might be just what I needed.” He scooped up the picture in his hand, passing it to Alex. “Here, take it.” She held it up – the image was now of a radiant, golden bird, full of life. She clasped it to her chest.

“Wait here. I'm getting help.”

She ran out of the room, looking back only briefly to make sure he wasn't trying to stop or follow her. She thought she saw the same golden flames around the old man for a second as she ducked out the room, but it can only have been an afterimage.

She stuffed the painting into her bag, still convinced she shouldn't have it, and ran through the winding corridors, retracing her steps as best she could, until finally she burst out of the door and back into the main Gallery.

It hadn't taken her long to get help. The young gent at the information point had got straight on the phone for an ambulance, and one of the security guards from earlier had accompanied her on the way back to the Under Gallery. When she got there, though, something was wrong. The door had changed somehow – there was no longer a lock. For a moment she thought she was in the wrong place, but she looked around at the paintings and was certain she was in the same spot. The guard opened the door for her, but beyond it, there was nothing more than a dusty, brick-lined corridor, leading to a fire exit.

Still no one had heard of an Under Gallery, and anyone she asked was certain there had never been another level accessible through that door. She didn't mention the painting in her bag.

It was a month later, and Alex almost fell through the door to her flat. Her first week as a very junior displays assistant at the Courtauld. They'd basically treated her as a skivvy, but it was a step on the ladder and she got to spend time with some amazing artwork.

She looked up at the glorious picture of the phoenix, now hanging on her living room wall, once again mesmerised by its beauty, even more so now that it had been restored to its prime. She still had no answers to what had happened the month before. She didn't know who the Curator was – and like hell his name was John Smith – nor how he'd known about her or where to place that advert. Why had her chosen her? Could it be possible that he really did know what she would do in the future? She supposed it was no more ludicrous than a man who'd spent hundreds of years looking after a magical painting, but still, it just seemed too much to accept. If only there had been some way to find him again, if just to make sure he was okay, but he'd vanished without a trace.

She stuck the kettle on and crashed onto the sofa. She had a job and the first week was done. She closed her eyes and tried not to fall straight to sleep.

God, that kettle was loud. Seriously going for it – a long, grinding, wheezing sort of noise.

She opened her eyes. What the hell was that? It was getting louder. She spun round on the sofa, looking over the headrest. A rectangular object was – well, the only word for it was materialising – right in front of her, on her threadbare carpet. It solidified, slowly, into a large, blue box, with the words “Police Public Call Box” embossed on the top. The noise stopped with a resounding clunk, and the box opened.

A young man popped his head round.

“Alex!” he said, flashing a bright, infectious smile. “It's me!”

“Who are you?” she said, peering nervously over the back of the sofa.

“That's right,” he said, “although I'd prefer it if you call me Curator, if it's all the same to you.” He paused, then shook his head. “Or maybe Doctor. Let's see how we go.”

This really was too much.

“You... you can't be the Curator...”

“The phoenix isn't the only one that renew itself,” said the excitable man. “You don't get to be as old as me without rejuvenating every so often. In fact, I've done it so many times now I've started to reuse some of my old bodies – just the old favourites, mind.”

“What do you want?”

“I wanted to say thank you. Turns out you were the perfect person for the job, and that picture looks very nice up there, by the way. And it's been a while since I took this old girl out for a spin, and she'll need a bit of bedding in, and I wondered if you'd like to maybe come with me? Just one quick trip somewhere, I'll have you back in time for Strictly.”

“A quick trip where?”

“Lady's choice,” said the young man, swinging open the doors to his box wider, inviting her in. she could see through to a room, far larger than could possibly fit into the box, its white walls lined with hexagonal tiles.

“What do you say? Geronimo!”

Tuesday 20 November 2018


Funny one this. On the one hand, it's a solid, highly enjoyable episode with a style and premise that would have slotted in quite happily at any point in the series in the last few years - in fact, as a few have pointed out, it's possible to imagine it as a seventh Doctor story with minimal tweaking. On the other, it's as brazenly political as the year has been so far, but with a muddled message that eventually comes down on very much the wrong side of the debate.

What's good? Well, eerily cheerful robots creeping about policing workers is about perfect for an episode of Doctor Who, and the revelation of explosive bubble wrap as the weapon of choice is basically perfect. If anything, showing it earlier would have made even more of the concept, but it still works as a sudden shock reveal. Some strong direction from Jennifer Perrott helps us overlook the fact that this isn't the most visually scintillating episode. We spend an awful lot of screentime amongst warehouse shelving and the climax is filmed in a car park from the looks of it, but some clever direction makes it look effective. Pete McTighe's debut script is snappy and witty, moving at a pace that's been lacking in some of the recent episodes.

This is the first episode where the regular cast hasn't felt too big. Maybe Graham gets a little less to do than usual, but since he's dominated much of the previous stories that's not such a problem. Yaz shines when she gets to investigate on her own, bonding with Dan (a fun turn from Lee Mack, and quite right that the bloke with the stupid sense of humour shares my name), and she finally gets to use some of her police skills both in investigation and holding a suspect. Ryan, too, fits nicely in this episode, and it's good to see the writers haven't completely forgotten about his dyspraxia.

While there are any number of corporations that could be viable targets for this episode, Kerblam! is so transparently a parody of Amazon it's surprising they didn't just call it Shamazon or something. Amazon's record for workers' rights is appalling; they're well known as one of the worst employers in the top rungs of companies, actively blocking workers from joining unions and by all accounts putting profit and efficiency above fair treatment. On the other hand, they're not exactly known for rampant automation, a much more general concern that has existed for decades.

And let's look at the actual story. McTighe tells a tight story but the allegory lacks a focus. At first, it looks like he's taking a pop at the profits-over-people corporate mindset, but the in the end the episode comes out firmly on the side of Amazon and its ilk. Don't get me wrong, as much as Amazon pisses me off with its policies and its tax dodging, I still buy half my stuff through them. Capitalism exploits a market, and there's a market for speed and convenience. They might not quite be at the stage of teleporting drones to other planets, but give them time. (Although the Doctor must have ordered that fez before getting stuck on Trenzalore, so it's taken Kerblam! a good two thousand years to deliver it. Not exactly Amazon Prime.)

It's not as though young terrorist Charlie (Leo Flanagan) is a good guy, by any means. It's entirely right that the Doctor lays into him for being prepared to murder innocents to further his political aims. But it's not as if his politics are in themselves wrong. As someone living in a society with rampant unemployment, being told to be grateful that there's a company committed to 10% human hiring, it's entirely right that he pits himself against the System. It's his methods that are wrong, not his ideology. Yet the Doctor leaps to the defence of the System - and there's some semantic difficulty here, since that refers to both the AI that runs Kerblam! and the politico-economic system that supports it. The Doctor makes the point that it's not the system that's at fault, but the people that exploit it, and she's not wrong, but isn't that splitting hairs? And when it comes to the System AI, let's not forget that it murdered Kira - played with maximum adorableness by Claudia Jessie to really hit home - just to spite Charlie and hopefully make him change his ways by breaking his heart. (Which doesn't even work.) How is that any different to Charlie's own murders to further his principles?

Indeed, it's bizarre seeing the Doctor squeeing over the Kerblam! man even before she came out firmly on the side of the company. Yes, she's on great form during the investigation, climbing the walls like a bored child and taking down the workplace bully a peg or two, but otherwise she's seriously against character. Let's imagine for a moment that this was a seventh Doctor story. Yes, he'd have strung up Charlie by his own petard, but no doubt have organised a workers' revolution before he left, probably blowing up the warehouse as well. The episode starts as a critique of Amazon, before ending up in support of it. It's an episode with a decent story but an incoherent message.

Best joke: Kerblam! is shut down for a month, and grants all workers two weeks' paid leave. Judy (Julie Hesmondhalgh) even manages to make it sound like a grand magnanimous gesture.

Title-Tattle: "Kerblam!" is the first Doctor Who episode to sport on onscreen title with an exclamation mark. I could have sworn "Boom Town" had one, but it turns out I imagined it. There have been plenty of non-TV stories that use exclamation points though.

While we're here, can we please address the rumours and reports that Doctor Who is losing viewers and is in trouble? The latest series is doing spectacularly well, drawing in viewers in consistently higher numbers than since Matt Smith's early days. As you can see in this article, although the series has seen a drop in viewers since it started this year, this is by no means a surprise, nor a concern. Every season of Doctor Who has lost viewers as it ran; in fact, pretty much every TV series suffers this as long as it's marketed properly. It gets its biggest audience for the first episode, then interest gradually wanes, and then there's often a spike for the finale. It's normal, it's expected. What's more, Doctor Who series eleven has seen higher figures than Capaldi's run, and been higher rated, consistently making the weekly top ten programmes. Since the above article was published, "Kerblam!" achieved overnights of 5.93 million, an increase of 0.13m on the previous episode "Demons of the Punjab."

While it's also true that more viewers are being counted in this year's ratings, as non-TV based viewers are being included in the full count for the first time, they don't amount to enough to change the fact that the ratings are much higher than the last couple of years. Doctor Who Magazine goes into depth in its latest issue (#532 if you wish to read it), and while obviously they're going to have a vested interest in pushing the popularity of the show, they also get viewership reports directly from the BBC. The opening episode "The Woman Who Fell to Earth" has a consolidated rating of 10.95 million, which is to say these were the full figures over the course of the week from its broadcast. In contrast, "Rose" had a consolidated rating of 10.81m, making Jodie Whittaker's debut the highest rated episode for a new Doctor this century. While there might be some allowance made for differences in viewership stats measurement in the intervening thirteen years, it's still a huge result. The week's consolidated ratings for Capaldi's last episode were 7.92m, while Whittaker's debut, using the same metric (TV viewers only) still achieved 10.54m, a huge increase. Sliding down to around 8 million sees series eleven averaging out where series ten hit its best. Even the overnights are higher than they have been for years, before you take into account time-shifted viewers. So any bloggers and YouTubers who are claiming that fans are desperately insisting the series isn't failing (with rows of laughing face emojis as their counter-argument) are simply wrong. Indeed, it's mostly fans of previous series who are complaining about the show, and while they're obviously entitled to dislike the new direction, the general viewership - you know, normal people who don't pour over it like us - clearly like it. They don't seem to have a problem with a female Doctor, a Muslim in the TARDIS, diverse casts and socially aware stories either.

Friday 16 November 2018

WHO REVIEW: 11-6 - "Demons of the Punjab"

"Demons of the Punjab" is, by far, the strongest episode of the season so far. The only episode to rival it is "Rosa," and there's a clear indication that this new version of Doctor Who is strongest when presenting historical, socially aware stories rather than escapist adventures. More cynically, I might point out that these two episodes are the ones with the least involvement from showrunner Chris Chibnall. "Rosa" was co-written by Malorie Blackman, while this has a sole writing credit for Vinay Patel. On the other hand, the episode feels very much a part of the new Who; while there has been quite a variety of stories in just these six episodes, series eleven still feels consistently part of one vision for the programme. Chibnall has stated he's using the open writing room approach to brainstorm ideas, and while this episode seems very much the work of Patel, others doubtless had influence.

Some have questioned why the two writers of colour this season have written scripts specifically concerned with their racial backgrounds. Patel, at least, is on record stating that this is very much the story he wanted to tell. This is surely not a shock, to anyone except the most parochial viewers. The Partition of India is one of the most significant events in the history of the world, one that continues to have repercussions for people in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) and the United Kingdom. The rights and wrongs of the British Empire and its actions worldwide are far too big a subject to go into here, but the Partition is a singular event that triggered astonishing violence. It was, of course, intended to prevent conflict, but human nature is far more aggressive and complicated than that and the idea that drawing a line through a map would somehow leave a community happily divided is tragically flawed.

Such world-changing events are impossible to really comprehend by individuals, so stories like this - seeing the effects on people's lives, on their families - let's us understand it in personal terms. I have friends who's parents and grandparents experienced very similar events to Prem and Umbreen, with the border line drawn right through villages, splitting communities down the middle. What's surprising about Patel's script is that it doesn't give much time to the British Empire's responsibility here. There's the odd line about Englishmen not being very welcome, but it's not followed up, and there's the Doctor's slightly ill thought out line about the Viceroy Mountbatten. Overall, though, the British responsibility for the crisis is overlooked in favour of placing the responsibility for the violence on those who became radicalised. Which is not wrong, by any means, as the responsibility for violence lies at the hands of those who perform it, but all such situations exist in context. As well as the British officials, there were Hindu nationalists and an influential Pakistan Movement calling for a two-nation system. It's complicated, and, like with "Rosa," this is just too big a subject to examine properly in a fifty minute TV show.

Which is not to say it isn't worthwhile. It's frustrating how little most people in Britain know about an event that is a significant part of our history, not least because of the large numbers of Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani people, and their immediate descendants, who live here. I only know a little myself, although the episode has encouraged me to read into the events more. I imagine the episode will prompt others to learn more about it too.

So, while the subject is a worthwhile one, it would be wasted on an episode that was poorly scripted and realised. Fortunately, this is easily the strongest script of the season so far, and the performances are, for the most part, very strong. The weak line, unfortunately, is Amita Suman, who is captivatingly beautiful but sadly very wooden in her acting with some poor delivery, which is a problem when her character demands so much screentime. Fortunately, both Shane Zaza as her husband Prem, and Hamza Jeetooa as his radicalised brother Manish are more than capable of carrying their share of the episode. Zaza in particular commands real sympathy and charisma.

The regular cast are as good as ever, and it seems like every episode I point out just how brilliant Bradley Walsh is, particularly in the heartbreaking moment he consoles Prem, knowing what awaits him. Tosin Cole doesn't get very much to do this episode, and Ryan is suffering from the same problem as Yaz did earlier in the season; there just isn't enough story to go around for this many regulars to have much focus each episode. This is, of course, Yaz's episode, and Mandip Gill holds it admirably, but there's still the frustrating sense that we don't really know her character. While this episode and "Arachnids of the UK" gave her much needed focus, she exists almost entirely in relation to her family.

Jodie Whitaker is effortlessly charming as the Doctor, especially the hen party when she revels in being included in things like henna painting, and things she never got do when she was a man. Her sense of powerlessness is palpable as events play out, and there's a lot to be said for an approach to historical stories that don't involve famous and influential figures. There's no moral or scientific argument that history must be maintained, no fixed points in time or immutable chronology. The Doctor and her companions are simply in no position to affect the grand sweep of events here, and any direct intervention in Prem's fate would almost certainly negate Yaz's existence. There's nothing they can do but accept that he will die and that the family's story will continue. The Doctor's lack of direct impact has been a talking point this season, but it's exactly what this episode needs (nonetheless, I hope she has the chance to show what's she's capable of before the year is out).

Why the Doctor is so easily persuaded to take Yaz back into her personal history, in spite of the obvious dangers, is another question. For those who ship the Doctor and Yaz, it's worth remembering that the last time the Doctor did something like that, it was because he fancied Rose and lost all judgment. Whether it means anything like that now remains to be seen.

The aliens of the week, the Thijarans, are both very effective and essentially unnecessary. I suppose we're just not going to see pure historicals anymore, but even more so than "Rosa," this is an episode that could have worked perfectly well without any other time travellers or sci-fi elements beyond Team TARDIS. Nonetheless, they are excellently realised, easily the most visually effective monsters of the season so far. Making them physically monstrous but actually rather pleasant is a nice touch, and I like how the two aliens were both voiced and physically portrayed by women, which when combined the masculine, alien Shredder look, adds to the unearthly quality. On the other hand, their mission to observe the forgotten dead, while noble and effectively portrayed, is very similar to the Testimony and their actions in the most recent Christmas special.

If anything, the fact that the Thijarans, while being both simultaneously effective yet surplus to requirements, shows how well Doctor Who could pull off a return to the purely historical adventure. "Demons of the Punjab" shows that this is where the series' newest iteration's strengths lie.

Play Segun Akinola's haunting Punjabi-inspired arrangement of the Doctor Who theme.

Thursday 15 November 2018

TREK REVIEW: "Calypso" (Short Treks 2)

As much as I found to enjoy with "Runaway," this is so far beyond in terms of quality and content it scarcely seems to be part of the same series. A two-hander set centuries after Discovery, yet still strongly linked to the primary series, "Calypso" benefits from some excellent acting, stylish direction and a compact and effective script.

"Calypso," takes its name from a nymph in Greek mythology, who kept Odysseus captive for seven years, and so our protagonist is likewise kept captive by an otherworldly being. Aldis Hodge plays a lost traveller, who, while never revealing his true name, goes by the moniker Craft for the duration of the episode. Drifting in a (snazzily designed) one-man escape ship, he is rescued by the drifting, desolate USS Discovery. There's a strange irony in Hodge's character taking the name "Craft," given that it is Annabelle Wallis who is actually playing one. The mysterious, disembodied voice of Zora claims to have evolved herself over the centuries, and it seems that the Discovery's shipboard computer has developed sentience, and a distinct personality, since being abandoned.

What follows is a rather beautiful love story between man and machine, as Zora looks after Craft and they provide company for each other in the wilderness between stars. Craft has already been introduced to archaic film material in his escape vessel, stolen from his enemies in a war zone - the V'draysh seem to have a predilection for historical material, and the ship was stuck running Betty Boop cartoons. For her part, Zora has access to a full film catalogue, but enchants Craft with her favourite: Funny Face, the Fred Astaire/Audrey Hepburn musical (released in 1957, which should be precisely 300 years before the second season of Discovery). Like with the inclusion of recognisable popular music in Discovery and the reboot films, it's good to have Trek including vintage material that isn't just Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes and opera.

Craft is a very closed, stoic sort of man, while Zora lacks a physical presence, yet the actors maintain a real chemistry. (Peaky Blinders' Annabellle Wallis gives Zora an English note of class that makes her seem very much like Gideon from Legends of Tomorrow.) As much as they come to care for each other, though, Zora is still keeping Craft captive. Even considering how much she's evolved, she's still a computer and is apparently constrained by her last order, to maintain her position, and so can't take him back home to Alcor 4, but her keeping him on the ship and not allowing his use of the shuttle is motivated purely by her loneliness. For his part, Craft is also lonely, but he has a wife and child back home (although, given how long he's been away at war, she's very likely assumed he's died and has moved on).

Nonetheless, in one beautiful scene where Zora manifests as a holographic avatar, the two share a dance, and their feelings come out, before Craft storms off in a fit of guilt. Finally, she lets him go, in a rather heartbreaking final scene.

In feel, "Calypso" is more like an episode of Black Mirror, or one of the better episodes of Electric Dreams, in spite of its shortened runtime and Trek universe trappings. The links to the main series are slim, but they're there and they raise all manner of questions. Zora says she's been alone for almost a thousand years, putting this in the middle of the 33rd century, almost certainly the furthest into the future the Star Trek franchise has ever taken us on TV. (Enterprise showed us one possible version of the future around AD 3000, and the previous record holder, the Voyager episode "Living Witness," was set 700 years after the rest of the series, around 3075. The final scene picked up "many years" after, so it might be beyond this point, but it's impossible to say.) There are little details that sketch in some of the background of Craft's universe. He's from a human colony, but the name of his enemy, V'Draysh, is clearly a corruption of Federation. Plus, they enjoy 20th century cartoons. It looks like by this time, there are two factions of humanity pit against each other. We also don't know what leads the Discovery to be abandoned in space, raising a mystery for the series' future.

Regardless of its Trek links, this is a classic sci-fi story, and I'm excited to see that the writer, Michael Chabon, is working on the upcoming Picard series. It's the strength of the actors that makes this episode soar, though. Even at only fifteen minutes long, this is one of the best Star Trek productions in years.

Sunday 11 November 2018

REVIEW: Slaugherhouse Rulez

It's a strange one, this. The first film to come from Stolen Picture, the new production company created by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, Slaughterhouse Rulez is very much channelling the spirit of the Cornetto Trilogy. Shaun of the Dead came out a whole fourteen years ago and the belated third movie The World's End was back in 2013, and so a relaunch of the skewed universe of Pegg and Frost is perhaps overdue.

Except this isn't quite the same thing as the Cornetto films. Edgar Wright is not involved; Slaughterhouse Rulez is directed by Crispian Mills, formerly of Kula Shaker, who also co-wrote the script with Henry Fitzherbert. There are multiple shots that seem to deliberately reference well-remembered moments from the trilogy, but while Mills is a skilled director, he hasn't the sketchy flair of Wright. Credited as executive producers, Pegg and Frost's fingerprints are all over the script, but this no two-man adventure for the best buds. In fact, they barely interact during the run of the film.

No, this film belongs to the youngsters (I won't say kids, since the cast are mostly in their twenties, as is traditional for films set in schools). Set in the fictional country school of Slaughterhouse, named for its legendary founding by the slaughterer of a monstrous beast, this is a merciless send-up of the nightmare world of the British public school system, where children are sent by parents who either desperately want to better their standing, or simply have more money than familial love. It's a time honoured institution, where children are separated from their families and bullied mercilessly by their elders, earning the right to eventually bully the newbies should they survive into the Upper Sixth. At least Slaughterhouse admits girls, which is better than Eton College (although fagging officially no longer exists in modern public schools, and Eton employs a lot of female staff – Slaughterhouse only manages to have two women on its staff, one of whom has already quit and the other, the terrifying matron played by Jane Stanness, barely seems to qualify as human).

Young Don Wallace, played with considerable charm by Peaky Blinders' Finn Cole, is the unfortunate kid who gets drafted into Slaughterhouse by his well meaning mum (Jo Hartley). On the plus side, he shares a room with a decent chap named Willoughby Blake, played by the excellent Asa Butterfield (Hugo, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas), and takes about ten minutes to fall madly in love with queen of the school Clemsie Lawrence (Hermione Corfield, terribly posh and all that). On the downside, he's sleeping in the bed of a boy who committed suicide, Willoughby insists on calling him Duckie, Clemsie is the definition of unattainable and the school corridors are stalked by the psychotic House God Clegg (Tim Rhys Harries – extremely posh, kind of sexy, utterly terrifying). Clegg wastes no time in making Don and Willoughby's lives a living hell. Don is the wrong sort of boy to be allowed into Slaughterhouse, while Willoughby dirties the school by being gay (public school life being at once intensely homoerotic and deeply homophobic, because only good straight boys can wank each other off).

Pegg plays Meredith Houseman, the terribly proper housemaster of Sparta, the specific prison of Don, Willoughby and Clegg, ageing cricketer and heart-broken ex-lover of former school nurse Audrey (appearing only on videophone and played by screen goddess Margot Robbie, a bit of a coup for Stolen Picture but chums with Pegg since Terminal). Martin Sheen is the school's headmaster, known by the boys as the Bat, for his florid swirling of his cape. Slaughterhouse Rulez could have been a perfectly good examination of the horrors of public school life, but is also a horror film and the most unsubtle environmentalist parable since Fern Gully. It's an outspoken anti-fracking script, which is absolutely correct of course, but god this is in your face. The Bat's connections and lust for extra cash and champagne lead him to inviting TerraFrack onto school grounds, led by an old Slaughterer played by Alex MacQueen (is it a coincidence that one of the actors to play the Master for Doctor Who is always accompanied by a theme involving four steady drumbeats?) A commune sets up camp in the woods in protest, led by Nick Frosts' ageing, drugged-up Slaughterhouse drop-out Woody, has little effect on operations, and before long, the lake is one fire and a gigantic sinkhole has opened up.
It's about halfway through the film that events lurch into horror mode, as demonic creatures living in caverns beneath the school escape to the overworld and begin noshing on students and teachers alike. The story becomes a race for survival, in which quite a lot of characters bite it, and while the focus is now on fear and desperation, these are actually the funniest scenes of the film. To be honest, the film as a whole isn't that strong as a comedy; there were no moments in the cinema when the audience broke out into a big laugh. It's more a film of little chuckles and sniggers than big belly laughs, but when hell breaks loose, the over-the-top massacre strikes a fine balance of horror and comedy. It's gory, but not too gory, so it stays on the right side of it. The monsters themselves are pretty well designed, although they'll never make it into the horror hall of fame: hairless hellhounds with huge, vicious teeth, sensibly kept mostly in the dark for maximum effect.
The romance between Don and Clemsy is nicely told, and once the horror begins, both their characters really come into their own: Don gets to be properly heroic, and Clemsy gets to be ballsy as hell. (It's always fun to hear a posh girl swearing, although Don can keep Clemsy; genius kickass chessmaster Kay (Isabella Laughland) is the girl for me.) It's Willoughby who's the heart of the story though, living with guilt and heartbreak and almost giving in.
Altogether, Slaughterhouse Rulez is a belting horror adventure, but a qualified success as a comedy. It might have benefited from being less obviously a descendant of the Cornetto films, but without the visibility of Pegg and Frost, would it have got the attention it deserves?

Friday 9 November 2018

Superhero Shows Roundup: Supergirl season three

Suz and I have made a concerted effort to catch up with our comicbook TV viewing lately, particularly since the new season is now underway and we don't want to end up a year behind. That way lay spoilers and ruined punchlines. Being a fair bit behind and steamrollering through makes one-or-two episode reviews too much of a chore, so I've decided to give each series a quick overview.

Supergirl built on a promising and very entertaining first season with a second season that set out a clearer idea of what the show was. Although the legacy of Krypton and Kara's family was still part of the series' story, the second season had a wider focus on DC aliens and various character relationships.

Season three continues on that line, with the strongest elements remaining the core of the series. The series continues to be a boldly female-centred show, with the mix of heroes being somewhat skewed female in numbers but considerably so in terms of focus. It's no accident that this is a proudly emotional series, dealing with character relationships as much as alien infiltration and with emotional fallout as much as superpowered fisticuffs.

I surprised myself when I was thinking about the various main characters in this increasingly busy ensemble, in that the strongest character for me is Alex. Chyler Leigh has grown into her character brilliantly, giving a mature performance as a character physically tough and ballsy, yet also emotionally vulnerable and open. There's a strong line of development for Alex, as she deals with her newly accepted sexuality; her relationship with Maggie is her primary storyline in the first part of the season, but their different goals in life force them apart. I admire the writing for her character, in that she gets to act out certain destructive traits usually reserved for men: using alcohol and casual sex as a way to deal with heartbreak, but she also has the opportunity to move past these. (A quick one-nighter with Sara Lance in the "Earth-X" crossover sure helps, and got the shippers jumping about.)

However, Alex also gets to explore traditionally female traits, in particular her desire to become a mother (the very thing that causes the rift between her and Maggie). It's a strong character treatment that doesn't saddle her with just being "the butch one" or "the lesbian," but allows her a range of character elements and the chance to be a strong, flawed, interesting character. Over the course of the season, she gets to develop her emotional skills in a way that helps other characters as well.

Shen it comes to Supergirl herself, there's actually a fair bit of negative development, which is just as interesting. The problem with Kryptonian superheroes is that they're often just too good to be engaging, but there's a fine balance somewhere between Superman as the Boy Scout of the universe and Superman cracking necks on the big screen. I like how they're make Kara an incredible hero but at the same time seriously flawed as a person. She's frequently hypocritical and often selfish, which makes her all the more human. Kara goes through a lot of difficult emotional stuff this season, with huge developments that should be tremendously positive knocking her for six. Mon-El comes back through a wonderfully contrived time travel narrative designed to introduce the Legion of Superheroes to the CW multiverse. Chris Wood is brilliant as the older, more mature, more responsible version of Mon-El, imbuing him with some real gravitas even when he's wearing that utterly silly inverse Superman costume. On the other end of things, Kara discovers Argo City, the sole remaining part of Krypton (unless Kandor shows up in a jar someday), tempted to give up her life on Earth and settle there with her family. It's tempting to say that the Argo period is over too quickly, given that this is such a huge deal for Kara, but frankly it's not a terribly interesting place and we're just eager for her to get back to Earth. (BTW, has anyone bothered to tell Superman about this?)

Supergirl is a real ensemble show, and everyone gets some decent exploration. Even James, who still doesn't convince as Guardian, is used much better this season. His relationship with Lena Luthor didn't convince me immediately, but it was well-written and performed, but his best moments were in episode 19, "The Fanatical," which sees him contemplate shedding his mask and facing the reality of being a black vigilante in the States. Obviously, this is material featured far more heavily in Black Lightning and Luke Cage, but it's important to appear here. People protesting that not every black character in TV should have to deal with a racist storyline miss the point: that every black person in America (and pretty much, the West), has to deal with racism during their lives. Obviously, they're not generally acting as super-vigilantes, but it's an effective way to illustrate how people's attitudes change when confronted with someone of a different race.

Without going into too much depth on every regular character, Lena walks a fine line between friend and confidante of Kara and potential villain, and no way do I believe she doesn't know Kara's Supergirl. Winn has his best season yet, bringing the best moments of sidekick comic relief through sheer enthusiasm, while showing real believable human vulnerability as the one vaguely normal person surrounded by aliens and soldiers. I'm stoked to see how he gets on as a member of the Legion, because Jeremy Jordan has been quietly brilliant this year. I'm still annoyed, though, that he and Cisco never got to meet and geek out together.

David Harewood has shown what a fine actor he can be when given some decent material. Given that Kara, Mon-El and J'onn have all lost their peoples, it's J'onn who really displays the aching loss of it. Reuniting him with his father, Myrrn, is a brilliant move, and is so much stronger emotionally than seeing Supergirl reunite with her mother on Argo. Thanks to a dignified and moving performance by Carl Lumbly, what could have been a mawkish storyline is incredibly affecting, as Myrrn suffers the Martian equivalent of Alzheimer's. Even with all the over-the-top sci-fi trappings, it's profoundly moving.

Unfortunately, the overarching storyline, of Reign and her sisters threatening to devastate the Earth, just isn't strong enough to sustain the season. Odette Annable is perfectly good in the role, and is very sympathetic and likable as Reign's alter ego, Sam, but Reign is such a dull, one note character it's hard to stay interested in her. The other two, Pestilence and what's-her-name, are even less interesting, and frankly it's a relief they don't last long. I understand it's important to have a villain capable of besting Supergirl and also to show the difference between the human side and the Worldkiller, but it ends up as a season of a villain with no personality.

Which is the only real negative in what's been a very strong season, for a series that has always had its strengths in the emotional storylines. Some more quick praise: for young Emma Tremblay as Sam's daughter Ruby, who is frankly quite brilliant; for the truly stunning Amy Jackson as Imra, and how fun is it to have Saturn Girl in the series; and lovely Jesse Rath as Brainiac-5, the 31st century android who, wonderfully, is going to stick around as Winn's replacement. (I still don't quite understand the Brainiac family tree, especially with the various continuities in play, especially as we've already met Brainiac-12, but nevermind. In the comics Brainy and Supergirl have a thing, which could be fun to see onscreen, if supremely unlikely.)

One of the more consistent, arguably tiresome, threads of Supergirl is Kara's absolute refusal to kill, even when her enemies are threatening to annihilate the entire population of the Earth. It's one of those arguments that could go on forever, of course, although I'd say that the devastation caused when she finally kills Reign is more an argument that they should have killed her sooner, rather than when she was at full destructive power. In any case, due to a nifty bit of time travel that would make Christopher Reeve proud, Kara creates a much more pleasant outcome, but as we know, that sort of thing has consequences.