Wednesday 31 January 2018

REVIEW: Black Mirror Season Four

That least festive of series, Black Mirror, returned over the New Year, and I have made gradual progress working through it. This is a series that I cannot, without powerful willpower, watch all in one go. Too bleak, too thought-provoking. I'm pleased to see the variety of styles and themes that made season three so interesting continues, with the expanded run allowing Brooker and his co-creators more scope to try different things. I decided to watch the episodes in the suggested order this time, primarily because the first episode was the one I was most looking forward to watching.


I've written at more length about this episode, and its antecedents in Star Trek and The Orville, here, but in terms of a quick review, I have to call this one an absolute winner. It's true that you'll get more out of this episode if you're a Trek fan, but there's much, much more to it than just being a bleakly comedic riff on the old franchise. This is about as far as Black Mirror has gone into the fantastical side of science fiction, primarily because of the Trek-like virtual world, but also because of the unlikely technological developments it shows. (Being able to duplicate someone, right down to their complete memories and personality, in a digital world from a DNA sample, is ludicrous pseudoscience in the finest Trek tradition.) Huge plaudits to the entire cast, but especially Jesse Plemons as the sadistic Daly, convincingly sympathetic until the moment he reveals himself to be a monster. Cristin Milioti and Jimmi Simpson are also brilliant. This is a strong story of the abuse of power, combining horror and humour to tell a stonking sci-fi tale. There's even a pretty uplifting finale, which is nice, considering the harrowing stuff that is to follow.


Milder on first glance, this is, to me, far more disturbing than the opening episode. It's the episodes that tread closer to real life, that you can actually believe might someday happen, that disquiet me most. It's entirely believable that not only would a concerned parent microchip her child (something that's actually been talked about by pet-chipper developers), but that they would willingly extend that to watching everything they see and do, even censoring their experiences. This is a much more predictable episode than most, but that's not to its detriment, with events taking us down a horribly inevitable path. Rosemarie DeWitt excels as the overly protective mother Marie, making her sympathetic even as she bulldozers down her daughter's boundaries and acts with utter stupidity. By the end of it, you feel incredibly sorry for her, in spite of her bringing on absolutely everything that happens here herself. Brenna Harding is also brilliant as her daughter Sara, although it's pretty much impossible to believe she's a fifteen-year-old girl. It's a powerful reminder that young people need to experience the world in their own way if they are to become functional adults, and is a generally uncomfortable experience of a life with a complete lack of privacy and respect. Jodie Foster was a great choice for director, and gives the episode an indie-ish feel that contrasts strongly with the season opener.


Bloody hell, this one's grim. They like to keep the nasty ones for the middle of the season, don't they? Something of a companion piece to "Arkangel," once again exploring how invading people's own experiences and memories crosses a very important line. The difference here is that the people who have their memories explored accept the process, and it's done in order to help solve crimes and assign responsibility for incidents. Andrea Riseborough is brilliant in this, but then, she's brilliant in everything, and becomes pretty terrifying here as her character Mia becomes ever more desperate in her need to cover up her role in a manslaughter. It's a slightly frustrating episode, with Mia being spectacularly stupid, agreeing to the memory viewer even when given the opportunity to back out (no one reads the T's and C's, do they?) Of course, you could view it differently, as her willingly delve further into murder and allowing herself to be compromised so as to give herself an excuse to kill, but Riseborough doesn't play it like that. No, she just digs herself further into her own grave. Kiran Sonia Sawar is also hugely impressive as the unfortunate Shazia. It's nice to have a cast of Scots and Northern English after two America-based episodes, although this was filmed in Iceland rather than the initially proposed Scotland. The overall feel of the episode is more like one of those Nordic crime dramas than anything else: cold, bitter and snowy. The ending works well, though.


As with series three, an unremittingly bleak episode is followed by a lighter, romantic episode. This is the "San Junipero" slot, so it's forever going to be compared to that episode. To begin with, I wasn't particularly keen on this one. The idea of a dating app that pairs you up with people for pre-decided periods is a great idea for an allegory on modern dating, but the situation is so artificial it's hard to accept that anyone would stand for it. People will stay with someone they hate for a year out of some obligation to their family, or because they're trying to recapture something they once had. No one would ever do that because an app told them to. The episode gets better as it goes on, though, as the true nature of the environment is revealed. Frank even guesses the entire truth when he's chatting with Amy, but it's thrown out in such a glib way that it's only as more clues become apparent that the truth of the simulation becomes clear. It's all signposted quite clearly, and the similarity to previous VR-based episodes makes it feel kind of inevitable,  but it's played out in a very satisfying way. It helps that the two leads, Joe Cole and Georgina Campbell, are so likable and have such easy chemistry, right up to that final scene. Still, it's no "San Junipero."


Exceptionally good - one of the best episodes of Black Mirror yet. Brooker continues to try different styles and genres for the series and this is entirely unlike any of the episodes we've had so far. It's a much more straightforward story than we usually get, a very simple tale of technology gone bad. Wisely, Brooker keeps the history of this post-apocalyptic Britain mysterious; we don't know if the dogs have caused the collapse of society or if they have simply taken advantage of it. The dog is modestly terrifying; they could have designed it to look mean, bristling with weapons, but instead its unassuming until it activates and is completely impassive even when hunting Bella down. It's all the more frightening for it. The fact that it the dog is based on the very real BigDog system developed by robotics firm Boston Dynamics, which was apparently turned down by the US military purely because it was too noisy.

An episode like this wouldn't work at all if it wasn't realised well, and this is almost perfect. Maxine Peake, one of our best actresses, carries almost all of the episode on her own, with long stretches free of dialogue, and is absolutely enthralling throughout. Combined with stunning direction by David Slade and a powerful and effective score, this is a remarkable piece of television. The ending is devastating.


Although Black Mirror episodes can be watched in any order, this time the final episode in the set actually feels like a finale, or at least, a straight line under the series so far. If this does turn out to be the end of the series altogether, it would stand well as a final episode, but equally if we do get the hoped for fifth season, it would work perfectly well just as another installment. There are supposed to be Easter eggs for every episode so far in "Black Museum," and while I'm not well-versed enough in the first two seasons to spot everything (I urgently need to go back for a re-watch) there were plenty of little nods that I spotted. Does this mean that, as some viewers have concluded, all of Black Mirror actually takes place in the same fictional universe? I find it hard to square up some of the versions of the world we've seen so far, but seeing that most episodes are quite self-contained (or entirely virtual), it's not impossible. ("Metalhead" would, naturally, have to take place after everything else, or at least everything set in the British Isles.)

This episode definitely takes place in the same universe as "San Junipero," giving us three short stories that together chart the progress of the one-day miraculous technology that will allow true life after death in an immersive virtual environment. It's a nice change to have an anthology episode - only "White Christmas" has done this before - and it keeps everything pacy and interesting. It's a shame, though, that we couldn't have "San Junipero" as a single happy story. All technological and social developments exist on the back of exploitation and callous experimentation, and it turns out that San Junipero's development from the early day's at St. Juniper's hospital is no different. (Also on the subject of comparing the two stories, the use of Sandy Shaw's "Always Something There to Remind Me" is a stroke of genius that beats even the use of "Heaven is a Place on Earth.")

The three quite different stories are cleverly used to chart separate events in the incremental evolution of the mind-copying technology. The first part, based on the unpublished short story "Pain Addict" by Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller fame), is the most viscerally unpleasant, but also the least horrifying in its implication. Addiction we can understand, even if it is an addiction to something as extreme as severe pain. I found the actual graphic mutilation scenes, although far tamer than what appears on cinema screens, very difficult to watch, while my lady Suz, an unrepentant chilli fiend, loved the analogy of wanting hotter and hotter chillies to get the same hit. At least with the damaged Dr. Lawson (an excellent turn from Daniel Lepaine), there is initially a good reason for his poor decision. The other stories just make you scream, "Why would you do that?!"

The middle third was the most unsettling for me. It's perfectly understandable why someone would want to continue their existence, even in a very limited form, vicariously through their partner, if the alternative was a vegetative state, but it's also inevitably going to turn into some kind of personal hell for both of them. But the idea of downloading someone's mind into a toy, unable to move, barely able to communicate, is absolutely horrifying. Carrie (Alexandra Roach) is left with an even worse existence than her post-car crash coma. The revelation that she's still "alive," trapped in legal limbo as an exhibit in the museum, is just chilling.

The final part brings everything to a climax. The first two stories have blackly comical moments, but this is purely a dissection of human cruelty. It's no coincidence, I'm certain, that it's the Black Museum. Clayton Leigh (a good performance on limited material by Babs Olusanmokun) is a black man, (probably) innocent of the murder he was executed for. The idea that a holographic copy of someone should be kept in a cage and repeatedly tortured is appalling, but also very believable. People can be spectacularly cruel, and it takes very little to dehumanise someone to the point where their suffering can be viewed as nothing more than entertainment. Of course he had to be black. It's a non-too-subtle allegory on the treatment of black people in America still today.

Holding everything together are our museum owner and his lone customer. These could have been thankless roles, but they are absolutely crucial and pull this episode together into a powerful revenge tale. Letitia Wright - Gyanese-British playing American playing British - is the only likeable presence in the entire episode, right up to her hard-as-nails turn at the end. English actor Douglas Hodge also portrays a realistic American, with his Rolo Haynes being a sort of sci-fi snake oil salesman, utterly amoral and completely without conscience. It's unusual for Black Mirror episodes to feature proper villains; most of the time, even the worst characters are misaligned protagonists. Even Captain Daly in "USS Callister" was sympathetic in a sad, warped kind of way. Rolo, however, is utterly reprehensible, making Nish's final act of vengeance all the more satisfying. Rolo is left screaming, trapped in electronic amber for her amusement, and we cheer his comeuppance. I guess we all have some of that cruelty within us.

Sunday 28 January 2018

FANS WHO: I Can See You

Waaaay back in 1997, when Doctor Who was seemingly dead onscreen, a group of fans under the name TNT Films made their own serial. The 90s were the golden age of Doctor Who fan productions, and by '97 looked like the only way forward for Who onscreen. Fans wanted as much Doctor Who as they could get their hands on, and a lot of amateurish rubbish got more attention than it deserved. So it was especially exciting when someone made something that was genuinely good. The Millennium Trap was one such production, a fun and well-made adventure that evoked both the Troughton and Pertwee eras and brought Nick Scovell to attention as the fan Doctor to follow.

At the end of The Millennium Trap, Scovell's Doctor regenerated, transforming into the young James Harper. After that, though, we didn't see what happened to the new Doctor. Scovell returned in several stage productions and eventually another filmed serial (and in the last stageplay, regenerated again - into Nicholas Briggs!) but we never got a chance to see what followed from Trap. Then, some years ago, TNT Films unexpectedly announced that James Harper would star in a follow-up, titled Doctor Who: I Can See You. After some production stills and info were released and there was some strong fan interest, it all went quiet.

Finally, in 2018, I Can See You is now complete and available. So was is worth the wait?

Well, the first thing to say is that this is a much simpler affair than the story it sequalises. A short story rather than a novel. It's also a pretty cheap affair (although not so cheerful); aside from the lovely TARDIS set, it's filmed in public spaces and a charity shop, before eventually ending up in a featureless void. However, the appeal of Doctor Who, let alone fanfilms, has never been in huge budgets or flashy effects. I Can See You feels like Doctor Who, combining a tight script with some decent direction (by Rob Hamilton and Andy Robb respectively) to give us a straightforward but effective adventure. The cast is small, led by Harper himself and Mary Stone, as his homeless companion JoJo. On the run from an alien force, JoJo is a character who wouldn't be out of place in the modern TV series. Initially disregarded by the Doctor, she becomes part of his life by sheer force of will. It's a memorable performance by Stone, and it's a pity we likely won't see more adventures from these two leads.

This is Doctor Who, though, and what everyone is really wondering is, what's the Doctor like?

James Harper makes an excellent Doctor. He's quite different to his predecessor (any chance of a Scovell-Harper remake of The Two Doctors?) Initially, he's acerbic and dismissive, having no time for anyone, even someone in mortal danger. There's clearly something weighing down on him, something that has taken its toll on his spirit. We get a little insight into what's bothering him, but ultimately it remains mysterious. In time, though, the thrill of the chase and the impact of JoJo reawaken his adventurous spirit. There's a very Doctorish quality to Harper, and visually at least, he has a little of both Tennant and Capaldi to him.

Short but sweet, I Can See You is a great little adventure for an engaging Doctor-companion team. It's a treat to finally get to see it.

I Can See You can be viewed on the team's Facebook page. 
The next Fans Who review will be The Wooden Planet from CP Studios.

Saturday 27 January 2018

WHO REVIEW: The War Master - Only the Good

BENEATH THE VISCOID by Nicholas Briggs

THE GOOD MASTER by Janine H. Jones

THE SKY MAN by James Goss


With John Hurt sadly departed, Big Finish has to turn to other avenues to explore the Time War. The eight Doctor boxed set was planned early on, but has now expanded to become another four-box epic series. Gallifrey returns soon to see the Time Lords' efforts in the War. Most interestingly, though, we get to see what happened to the Master, resurrected to fight for Gallifrey, once the War had begun in earnest.

A four-story boxed set of the kind BF likes to make these days for their "event" titles, Only the Good feels like something of a testing ground for the concept of a Master-led series, in spite of wrapping up its own story quite neatly. The big draw is obviously Sir Derek Jacobi, one of our most beloved actors, stepping back into a role that he had for only moments on television. It's a most welcome opportunity to explore the least-known incarnation of Doctor Who's most persistent villain (except, perhaps, for Gordon Tipple). What's interesting with this incarnation of the Master is how much like his alter ego he is. Characterisation in both the writing and performance makes it clear that there's a lot of Yana in the Master, and vice versa. This is a version of the Master who revels in little pleasures and seems to genuinely enjoy the chance to play at being a good guy - even if it is all a means to an end.

The first instalment, Beneath the Viscoid, feels somewhat apart from the rest of the set. Set on the planet Gardezza, a world with a thick, viscous ocean that causes incredible difficulty for the Dalek force that occupies it. This unpleasant environmental feature is the only thing that gives the amphibian natives a sporting chance against the Daleks, but their days are still numbered. Fortunately for them, a Gallifreyan time capsule is found on the ocean bed, and inside is none other than the legendary Doctor.

Except, the Doctor isn't in this set. It's the Master, playing at being the Doctor in order to gain the natives trust and use it for his own ends. This is the second time that Jacobi has sort-of-played the Doctor, after his role in the Unbound story, Deadline, but here he gets to portray the character in a genuinely interesting way. He's incredibly charming and resourceful and full of admiration for the natives's ingenuity, but can switch to becoming cold and callous at a moment's notice. It's clear that the Master enjoys playing the role... until he tires of it, and will dispatch anyone who gets in his way. Jacobi's performance is what makes this episode work. The rest of the cast, although perfectly fine, aren't given much to work with as they play pretty generic aliens, so the episode never really flies.

The Good Master is stronger, and once again sees the Master playing at being the good guy and loving it. The planet Arcking is a safe haven in the War, due to a gravitational event creating a state of grace around the planet. The Daleks can't invade and it's virtually impossible to be harmed there. As such, it's become a hospital planet for those wounded in the War. The Master is there, posing as one Dr. Keller (nice callback to The Mind of Evil), a talented surgeon who takes pride in all the lives he's saved. However, he isn't simply hiding out. There's something on Arcking he needs...

The episode introduces Johnny Green as Cole, an injured pilot who becomes the Master's new companion. There's some excellent interplay between the two characters, and it's easy to see why Cole would join this supposedly trustworthy Time Lord, especially as he's on the Dalek's most wanted list. We know him better, of course, but it's interesting to see the Master doing the right thing, even if it is for his own selfish reasons.

The Sky Man is very much Cole's story. With the Master uncharacteristically citing Time Lord code and refusing to become too involved, he is swayed by Cole's insistence that he could maybe save just one world. Almost immediately we get a powerful scene in which the Master presents him with the impossible decision - of choosing one world among all those plagued by the War to single out for rescue. It's an incredible scene.

Nonetheless, a planet is found, and the Master and Cole make it their home for a time. A peaceful agrarian world whose inhabitants have deliberately shunned high technology to steer clear of the attention of the belligerents in the War, it is unfortunately still affected when some kind of temporal fallout causes illness to spread amongst the inhabitants.The Master basically takes a holiday and takes up viticulture, while keeping his eye on Cole. 

Cole, though, lives among the people he means to save, gaining respect and distrust in equal measures as he makes small improvements to their lives. He falls for a young woman named Elidh - played beautifully by Emily Barber. The actors give their characters very believable chemistry, and Cole's increasingly desperate attempts to save the locals from the effects of the fallout become more and more galling. Without wanting to spoil the story too much, his eventual solution calls to mind the creation of the Cybermen, an event with equal tragedy, only this time we see all of it through the eyes of the man who was inadvertently responsible. Thanks to some excellent writing and a wonderful performance by Green, the results are heartbreaking. The undisputed highlight of the set.

Finally, The Heavenly Paradigm brings events to a climactic, if rather unexpectedly stylised, end. It turns out that one of the greatest weapons in the Time Lords' arsenal, with the power to restructure whole timelines and shape reality to its bearer's will, is hidden in a house in the Stamford Bridge area in the seventies. Oh, and it's guarded by Nerys Hughes. Not quite how I expected one of the most significant events of the Time War to start.

While we might have believed the Master had developed some real affection for Cole in their time together, it certainly isn't enough to stop him using the boy for his own ends. You see, Cole is a temporal anomaly who should never have survived crashing on Arcking, and now, with a little direction from the Master, he's created even bigger, more devastating paradoxes of his own. This the Master can use to power the Heavenly Paradigm to such a degree that he can rewrite the entire universe, and end the Time War for good.

What's so satisfying about the Master's behaviour in this story is that, while he is utterly ruthless and opportunistic, he honestly thinks he's doing the right thing. After all, he doesn't want to see the Daleks dominate the universe of everything fall into hell, anymore than anyone does. This could be the only way out for the people of the universe. Unfortunately, he's bitten off rather more than he can chew, and things go badly wrong. Leaving the Time War somehow even worse than he found it, the Master powers up his chameleon arch and goes on the run, bringing the story to where we will pick it up, years later, in "Utopia." A satisfying conclusion to a set that proves that the Master can have diverting adventures even when the Doctor isn't around.

Sunday 21 January 2018

REVIEW: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

It's time for Dan and Suz's Star Wars review! No spoiler warnings – you've had a month to see the film now, it's long beyond time we got round to this and now it's here. If you haven't seen The Last Jedi, I'm sure you've seen the fans' reaction to it. Which is, to say the least, a bit divided.

There are to camps among Star Wars fandom when it comes to this, the eighth episode of the franchise. There are those who, largely along the lines of the critics' response, think it's one of the strongest in the series to date and love that it's doing something a little different with the mythology. And then there are those who are crying about it because it's profoundly and unapologetically feminist in its approach to this Boy's Own adventure. You see, The Last Jedi is a film that directly opposes the usual narrative of Star Wars. Fans have grown up on stories which saw a series of old men training up young men to use violence against violence and make grand gestures in the face of oppression. There's a bunch of memes going around comparing Luke's journey in A New Hope to the radicalisation of a young Muslim, and it's funny because it's absolutely right. The Force Awakens, in that it was a virtual remake of the original Star Wars, changed one major factor by making the new recruit to the Jedi way a young woman, but otherwise it was still full of dog fights in space and hand-to-hand battles.

The Last Jedi makes pains to point out that disobeying orders and going on unplanned incursions into enemy territory makes men heroes, but it doesn't, in the main, win wars. Poe Dameron's headstrong nature is explicitly condemned by the commanding officers of the Resistance, both of whom are women. Finn begins this episode trying to escape the oncoming First Order in a combination of desperation to find Rey and simple (and quite understandable) fear. Neither Poe nor Finn is ever portrayed as a baddie in this film, but they are openly shown to be flawed, childishly so. Finn because he is hugely inexperienced, and Poe because he's got bloody lucky in the past and hasn't yet got himself killed (a possible swipe at the previous film's barely credible rewrite which saw him come back from apparent death with little explanation).

It's the women who come out best throughout the movie. Carrie Fisher gets a great final send-off which allows her to use the Force in a way that shows yes, Leia is just as powerful as Luke and was massively underutilised in the original trilogy. Sure, surviving in the vacuum of space for that long strains credibility to the limit, but given that the Force is, quite simply, magic, it really doesn't bother either of us. Rey shows maturity when confronted with betrayal by the two men who mean the most to her (Luke and Kylo Ren, sorry Finn), and sticks to her principles throughout. Whether her principles are right is still questionable, since she remains convinced of the greatness of the Jedi, something that the film continually calls into question, but we'll come back to that.

And then there's Laura Dern's character, Vice Admiral Holdo, is one of the few new additions to the main cast, and is a revelation. She's the seeming opposite of Leia, in her modern iteration. This is someone who we are told is a powerful commander, and then sashays in all glammed-up with purple hair and a pretty dress. She's an attractive older woman who doesn't apologise for her femininity and who immediately puts the male characters in their place. It's hard to overstate how important a character she is. Holdo is the sort of character who is normally revealed to be a villain in a film like this. Indeed, our expectations in this regard are deliberately played with by writer-director Rian Johnson. We've learned to trust Poe and Finn and to distrust women like Holdo, so we keep expecting them to be proven right and her wrong. Instead, they go and make an almighty hash of their unauthorised secret mission and Holdo is proven to be an intelligent commander with compassion and humility who, ultimately, saves a whole lot of lives.

On the other side of the spectrum is the other new character, Rose, played by Kelly Marie Tran. A lowly technician (read: a very important member of a large and essential team), she has good reason to hate people like Poe who, after all, got her sister killed in his latest heroic mission. Yet she still sides with Poe and Finn in their mini-mutiny. Possibly it's down to her attraction to Finn, although as with all Finn's relationships (including Rey and Poe) it's unclear how much is romantic and how much is just friendship; but mostly it's down to inexperience. Indeed, it's Poe, who's experience has led to his arrogance, who Finn and Rose look to for guidance. They all redeem themselves, but none of them escape this initial flaw of acting without thinking, up to the moment that Rose nearly kills herself to stop the oncoming First Order attack on Crait and Finn nearly fouls up everything rescuing her. Heroics vs. strategy.

The Last Jedi is surely the most critical of Star Wars' essential premise of all the films in the franchise, and it's not as if George Lucas ever wrote the Jedi Order as anything other than massively flawed. Fans have also cried out against Luke's portrayal as an old, depressed and ineffective man who has retired from the Jedi life and hidden out on an island on some long forgotten planet, milking space walruses. This seems to be a strange thing to contest, given that his two mentors both went into hiding as soon as the Empire came to power. At least Obi-Wan tried to stay near to Luke and keep and eye on him, but Yoda went and sat in a swamp on his own for thirty years, becoming increasingly strange in the head. That's what Jedi do when things get tough. The film cleverly plays with this, though, by making it clear that yes, Luke is still pretty damned awesome. He needs Rey to stop looking for the mythologised version of the character and accept the imperfect man that he is. Then he can – in the greatest scene in the film – project his astral self to Crait and take on Kylo Ren what appears to be a display of macho badassery but turns out to be astonishing misdirection. And finally the phrase “more powerful than you can possibly imagine” means something more than wandering around as a ghost for years.

Ah, Kylo Ren. Adam Driver is almost too good for the role. The Force Awakens had already set up this new generation of villains as feeble wannabes with bigger guns than their daddies – Shadows of the Empire, if you will. Space Nazis are scary, but space neo-Nazis are scarier still. It's a perfect update for our time, and what's most frightening is that so many of this fanboys don't realise that they're the target of this satire. While Domnall Gleeson is brilliant here, and we have an unexpected and wonderful role from Adrian “Eddie Hitler” Edmonson, it's Driver's show. It's frankly embarrassing to watch Hayden Christensen try to play the same emotions in the prequels after seeing Driver so convincingly portray a young man tearing himself apart. What's so fascinating is that we genuinely don't know which way Ren will eventually go. This is someone who constructed his villain identity seemingly using an actual “what's your Star Wars name?” meme, who wears a stupid mask because his granddad needed one to help him breathe, and is still one of the most convincingly divided characters ever seen in the series.

Kylo's story is the backbone of the film, with the entire Luke-Rey plotline revolving around their relationship with him and the Resistance plotline extending from his actions. His obsessive hatred of Luke is about the only thing he's sure about. His and Rey's complex feelings for one another are the most believable romantic relationship Star Wars has given us, two hugely powerful characters linked by their uncertainty of how to use those powers. Ren's betrayal of Supreme Leader Snoke, lopping Snoke's head off as he tries to push Rey to the Dark Side, is of course a direct life from the Emperor-Vader-Luke scene at the end of Return of the Jedi, but one that serves to push Snoke completely out of the narrative. That's another thing that fans are wailing about: two years of wondering who Snoke really is and he's just killed off before we find out anything about him. Again, missing the point: Snoke's identity is spectacularly irrelevant. He's just a big scary baddie. (Of course, if he returns as a Force ghost for Episode IX and gives us his eulogy we'll eat our words.)

The original premise of the films and indeed, the Jedi culture, is that we need both light and dark to achieve balance. With one side intent on winning out over each other, this balance can never be achieved. This seemed to be lost somewhere along the way with light and dark vying to have dominion over the other. Perhaps the only one who can see the balance is Kylo Ren, who understands the need to cease the fighting and work together, accepting both light and dark as part of the same parcel and endeavour to find balance. But Ray is too brainwashed by her interpretation of the ancient Jedi religion to see this for what it is; an olive branch and a chance of peace.
Wars will never end if people cant forgive or at least stop the fighting and focus on the future.
Kylo then takes it to the logical next level, if people cant forgive what has passed, and want to continue the fighting, then these warring factions need to be removed in order to make way for peace. A clean slate is a clean slate!

One thing that both of us have been saying for years is that the focus on the Light Side and Dark Side is the big failing of the Jedi and the Sith. Rey's burgeoning Force abilities see her calling on both sides, something that initially frightens Luke as much as Kylo did, but at least he's slowly learned his lesson and doesn't completely drive her away. It's no wonder Kylo turned to the Dark Side – at least Snoke is consistent in his messages – but he gets that the divide is exactly what's led to decades of battling between successive regimes. Suz has more sympathy for Kylo than Dan does – exterminating the entire galactic civilisation and starting over is perhaps a bit far to go for a new ideology – but he is essentially right. The final scene of the film – a young slave boy at Canto Bight uses the Force to shift his broom, looking wistfully up at the stars – is probably intended to be inspiring and hopeful. However, Suz points out that all it really implies is that the fighting is going to carry on for another generation. Particularly off the back of Ray's refusal to take Kylo up on his offer to forget the war. Indeed, it's essentially a callback to how Darth Vader started out, something that led to a complete collapse of galactic order and decades of war.

Star Wars has always had some excellent location work, and The Last Jedi is no exception. The casino city of Canto Bight has taken some flack from critics and fans, but we love it. It's a new environment after The Force Awakens added to the series of desert planets and forest planets and city planets. As well as providing us with the always welcome hive of scum and villainy, it's a glitzy and weird futuristic world with a lot of visual interest. It also adds more to the overall criticism of the light/dark divide, pointing out that there are plenty of terrible people who don't care who buys their weapons or how they make their money, and who couldn't give a damn who runs the Galaxy as long as they're still in their comfy little world. Benicio del Toro's wonderfully twitchy and completely amoral character DJ is the only major character in the film who isn't beholden to the debate and divide between good and evil. Crait is perhaps the most visually arresting location. Deliberately indicative of Hoth from The Empire Strikes Back, the decision to film at the salt flats Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia is a brilliant one, utilising one of the most remarkable locations on Earth as a backdrop for the climactic battle of the film.

As always, there are plenty of fun creatures to enjoy – Suz's favourites are the llama-like steeds on Canto, while Dan likes the crystal critters on Crait. For all that The Last Jedi finally takes things in a somewhat different direction for the franchise, it's still very much a Star Wars movie with all the expected trappings. Yoda turns up (as a puppet, pleasingly) and Chewie still gets all the best lines. It occupies the same position in its trilogy as The Empire Strikes Back, and like Empire, ends in pretty crushing defeat for the heroes. Also like Empire, it's a strong contender for the best film in the franchise. The direction, writing and acting are all among the best we've seen in Star Wars. The crying fanboys are just a bonus.

Tuesday 16 January 2018

TREK REVIEW: Discovery 1-11 - "The Wolf Inside"


OK, Discovery fans, you owe me a tenner.

Not for realising Ash Tyler is actually Voq - it would have been more interesting if he hadn't been, and last week's episode all but confirmed it anyway - but for pegging Georgiou as the Emperor. She was the odds-on favourite there, with Harry Mudd at 10/1 and Sarek at 33/1, but still, I claim my kudos. Anyone else would have been a let-down, though. It had to be Michelle Yeoh back for an encore.

This was a fun, silly episode, disguised behind some grimdark events and soul searching for its characters. The Mirror Universe is an intrinsically silly concept that makes very little sense if you analyse it at all. Why do the same people end up on the same ships living such similar lives in spite of human history being so very different for the last two hundred years? Why do the same people meet, across light years, in both realities? It's absurd, so it's best to just sit back and enjoy the silliness. (This silliness was enhanced by last night's episode of Lost in Space on the Horror Channel, which saw the characters visit their own mirror universe, inhabited by their antimatter counterparts. I was very disappointed that John Robinson's alter ego wasn't called Ron Jobinson.)

There were three main strands to this episode: Burnham's depressing roleplay in Mirror Starfleet; Tilly's attempt to save Stamets; and Tyler's inevitable reversion to his true nature. All three strands were woven together cleverly, so although the episode felt a bit like the necessary middle-of-the-trilogy installment, the overall story moved on in satisfying ways. Credit goes to the writers and to Martin-Green for making Burnham's struggle so immediate and painful. As captain of the ISS Shenzhou she is at once in a position of considerable power and utterly powerless, having to go along with the execution of prisoners guilty of "malicious thought" and watch her own captain be tortured. Even in her own cabin she gets little chance to be herself, since she is doted on by her slave, the Mirror Saru. (Burnham says that she has seen no Kelpiens onboard, out of respect for Saru, and frankly, having no Kelpiens on that ship of horrors would be the best result for him. I doubt they did well under the Empire.)

Burnham tries to help the rebels on Harlak, a ragtag group of Klingons, Andorians and Tellarites that are the closest thing this universe has to a Federation. Another thing I called right - that Mirror Voq is the leader of the rebels - although there's no only so much satisfaction to be gained from guessing the bleeding obvious and shouting "I could have written this." So happy to have some recognisable alien races in Discovery, even if they are the Mirror Universe versions. Like the Klingons, they've been revamped for the new era, with new make-up designs. The Andorians are a fair development from how they looked on Enterprise, with more built-up faces, and their eyebrows (long since an optional accessory) replaced with mini-antennae. I wasn't so keen on the Tellarites initially, considering them a bit too much of a departure from the older styles, but again, they're actually not that different from the Enterprise versions and the warthog tusks are pretty cool. There's a bit of an issue with the modulation of alien voices, which makes them difficult to understand. At least when they're choking on Klingonese we get subtitles. Nonetheless, I was still unreasonably excited to see Andorians.

It was also inevitable that we'd see Mirror Sarek, rocking a goatee beard, which much be about the only thing he has in common with his son in this universe. You thought Prime Sarek had a problem with Spock joining Starfleet, imagine how the Rebel Prophet feels about it? Sarek's there primarily to give Burnham the green light so that she can chat with Voq and the rebels, and that's only permitted so that Tyler-Voq can lose his shit when he sees his alternative self and screw everything up. The fact that we've basically had the reveal of Voq last week could undermine this strand, but seeing Tyler and Burnham get together properly when we already know he's a Klingon spy makes it all the more chilling. 

There's some very sloppy writing in here, though. Do none of the Mirror crew think it's even slightly odd that Tyler starts barking in Klingon and that this doesn't require some further questioning? Why does the crew of the Discovery assume that Stamets killed Culper, when he's been catatonic for so long? Don't they have CCTV on this incredibly advanced starship? Stamets's fake-out death is also pretty cheap and underwhelming, although it's saved somewhat by his strange mushroom-fuelled vision in which he meets himself (or is it his Mirror self?)

It'll be fun to see where the Mirror Universe sage goes next, although I hope it isn't dragged out for the whole remainder of the season. I'm also intrigued as to how much they're planning to tie this into Enterprise (will Georgiou turn out to be Hoshi Sato's descendant, as some fans have suggested? The last we saw of the Mirror Universe had her setting herself up as Empress) and how it will fit in with the Mirror Universe's "first" crossover in the original series.

Tuesday 9 January 2018

TREK REVIEW: Discovery 1-10 - "Despite Yourself"

Star Trek: Discovery returns from its mid-season break to begin chapter two, which looks set to be the saga of the Mirror Universe. It's a bit of a wrench sideways for a series that has so far been almost wholly concerned with the war with the Klingons. The big revelation that the ship has been stranded in the Mirror Universe is actually no surprise whatsoever - it was pretty well signposted that they'd travelled between universes and there have been several hints along the way - but it's still exciting to back in Star Trek's favourite parallel continuum.

The Mirror Universe is an extended joke that can wear thin quickly, but for now, this is tremendous fun. We've just about gotten to know the characters well enough to make hearing about their nasty parallel counterparts fascinating. One fan theory has held that Lorca is actually from the Mirror Universe anyway, but unless he's a very good actor he's just as shocked to be in another universe as the rest of the bridge crew. It'll be interesting to explore whether Mirror Lorca is truly a freedom fighter or whether he wants to take the Empire for himself.

I'm not so enamoured with Burnham this episode, impressive though she is in the combat scenes, but that's mainly due to the other characters getting the bulk of the quality scenes. Anthony Rapp manages to continue to impress as Stamets, even though he spends much of the episode unconscious and/or delirious. It's going to be a very upsetting scene when he fully regains consciousness and discovers his partner Culber has paid the price of trusting Tyler. That was a genuine shock, as even though Culber was never the most significant character and potentially a bit disposable, he was so inoffensive that it was a surprise to see him bite it so suddenly.

So, the big mystery of Ash Tyler turns out to be... exactly what we thought it was. Although L'Rell never comes out and says, "Yeah, your name's Voq and you're an undercover Klingon agent," it's basically been confirmed. In a way, I think it's a pity, since it's the most obvious explanation, and also lessens the impact of Tyler's PTSD storyline. A major storyline dealing with wartime abuse is to be praised, and to reveal it's all warped/implanted memories cheapens that. Nonetheless, Shazad Latif is absolutely excellent throughout the episode, really selling the anguish and confusion of Voq/Tyler.

The episode really belongs to Mary Wiseman as Tilly, though. It's a massive, and questionable, cliche, that evil fascistic women must be sexified, but wow, Tilly in this episode! The most likeable character in the series gets to play against type as the evil "Captain Killy," the most vicious woman to ever fight her way to the captaincy of a ship. The idea that the crew could redecorate the entire ship, repaint the hull, recarpet the bloody place and synthesise new uniforms in about a day is pretty hard-to-swallow, but when worth it when it allows us the entertainment value of Tilly ad-libbing her way out of a confrontation with an imperial starship.

Just tons of continuity in this episode, from the Shenzou turning up as an imperial ship,to the Organian System, to the references to the Enterprise two-parter "In a Mirror, Darkly," and the fate of the starship Defiant. It sits on just the right side of intense fanwank, and adds something to the episode. It's a real fan-pleaser.

I think I'll carry on reviewing episodes until the season ends, if only to track how the series develops and how wide off the mark I am in my predictions. The new mystery is the identity of the "faceless emperor." Almost undoubtedly this is the Mirror Universe version of a character we already know. The smart money's on Georgiou, what with Michelle Yeoh being the biggest star in Discovery's arsenal and still involved heavily in the promo circuit - plus Burnham being a favourite of the emperor. 10-1 it's Harry Mudd, though. That would be a laugh.

Sunday 7 January 2018

Time Shadows: Second Nature

The time is coming... Time Shadows was an absolutely brilliant fanthology written for charity and featuring all thirteen Doctors (well, more than thirteen, in fact). Now the second volume is approaching its imminent release. Featuring Doctors galore and stories from authors such as Nick Walters (The New Adventures: Dry Pilgrimage; Eighth Doctor Adventures: Dominion, The Fall of Yquatine, Reckless Engineering; Past Doctor Adventures: Superior Beings); Dale Smith (Past Doctor Adventures: Heritage; New Series Adventures: The Many Hands; Faction Paradox: Spinning Jenny; Time Hunter: The Albino's Dancer); Paul Driscoll (The Black Archive: The God Complex) and many more, including me.

The book will be raising money for CODE, the global literacy charity. It will be available to order very soon, but for now, Pseudoscope have released teasers for all the stories, including mine, "Time-Crossed."

Click here to peruse.

Saturday 6 January 2018

Discovery, Orville, Callister: A Starship Trinity (part two)

On the face of it, Black Mirror is a completely different sort of show to either Star Trek or The Orville. So much so that it was a genuine surprise when Trek-like imagery was revealed from the upcoming fourth series. Yet the three series are, in their own ways, doing the same thing: discussing contemporary issues, both social and technological, through the medium of science fiction. While Black Mirror episodes are set predominantly in the 21st century, albeit in a nebulous set of timeframes, they aren't so different from the 22nd to 24th century adventures of the various starships Enterprise or the 25th century voyages of the Orville. The Next Generation's many holodeck episodes, which saw fantasy realms created technologically, then go awry, aren't a million light years away from Black Mirror's explorations of virtual reality. The Orville's seventh episode, "Majority Rule," is almost a more family-friendly version of Black Mirror's third season opener "Nosedive," both of which imagine worlds in which social media "likes" determine everything from social status to legal process.

So maybe "USS Callister" isn't such an odd fish. Beginning with a note-perfect parody of an old Trek episode, in which a Shatnerising Jesse Plemons plays Captain Daly, facing down the villainous Valdak (Billy Mangussen), who is equal parts Khan and original series Klingon. It's exactly right, from the soft-focus female close-ups to the VHS frame fringeing.

It's also a fantasy, since Daly is in fact a meek coder at a successful company. The USS Callister is his own private universe, a walled-off section of his company's MMR game Infinity, into which players plug their brains. He has chosen to recreate his favourite sci-fi series, Space Fleet, as his own personal playground. To begin with, Daly's a sympathetic character, unfairly put down and used by his boss Walton (a brilliant Jimmi Simpson). It's a bit odd that his computerised crew look like his workmates, but still, it's a fantasy, and seemingly a harmless one. However, after a bad day we see him violently assaulting and tormenting his second-in-command, modelled after Walton, and it's clear there's more to this.

A new employee, Nanette, played by Cristin Milioti, initially gushes over her master coder boss, but it isn't long before she's warned away from him. Daly then takes a sample of her DNA from a discarded cup and, in a display of pseudoscience worthy of Trek, clones her within the Infinity programme. There's now a duplicate of Nanette, Science Officer Cole, existing within the confines of Daly's fantasy universe. Everyone on the Callister is a sentient duplicate of someone who has, somehow, wronged Daly in some innocuous way. It becomes clear that Daly is a sadistic dictator, an "asshole god" as Walton puts it, who wields absolute power in his domain and enforces his will with physical and psychological torture.

It's an absolutely vicious attack on a certain type of Star Trek fan. The sort of fans that the general public once popularly imagined - sad, lonely, scared of sex - but elaborated to the anti-liberal fanbros that now plague the internet. It would be easy to see this episode as an attack on Star Trek and its fans, but it's clearly written by someone who loves the show. While showrunner Charlie Brooker isn't a particular fan, his co-writer on the episode, William Bridges, has spoken about adding little homages to the franchise. It's clear that he loves it in many iterations: Daly's initial display of omnipotence is a horrifying scene in which he removes Nanette's face, leaving her featureless, blind and suffocating, and is lifted directly from the first season Star Trek episode "Charlie X." Later scenes, such as Walton's Chekov-esque dash to engineering and his heroic sacrifice, owe more to the recent reboot movies. Brooker himself has spoken about the series and how it was never intended as an attack on fans of classic sci-fi, and actually watching it, that's clearly not the case.

It's an attack on those who claim to be fans but do not understand the very thing they profess to love. Daly spouts on about Space Fleet doing things the right way, about behaving in a particular way with a particular morality and cleanliness, while exposing his true nature as the exact opposite. While he never actually rapes anyone - indeed, he seems almost terrified of sex, even to the extent of removing the genitalia of his constructs - he forces all his female crew to kiss him after every successful mission, something that smacks of the endemic male entitlement and abuse of power that sweeps the entertainment industry. (Some might read this as an attack on Kirk's character, but even at his worst Kirk wasn't like this, at least in the original. If anything, it's an attack on men like Harvey Weinstein, Bryan Singer and, indeed, Gene Roddenberry.) It's an uncompromising dissection of the sort of close-minded male uberfan who obsesses with Star Trek (or Doctor Who, or My Little Pony, or whatever) and then sends rape threats or racist bile to people involved with his favourite show because it doesn't live up to his vision.

While the Trek trappings are obvious, "USS Callister" reminded me most of the Twilight Zone episode "It's a Good Life," (effortlessly parodied in The Simpsons "Treehouse of Horror,") and above all, Harlan Ellison's terrifying short story "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream." Although, unlike those stories, in the end the episode is uplifting and victorious. Mutterings of a spin-off series are already being heard, and while that might be a bit much, a revisit to the Callister could be worthwhile. It's perhaps only a matter of time before the whole exercise eats its own tail, and a Star Trek production takes itself to task in this way.

While Discovery, The Orville and "USS Callister" are quite different productions, they all touch upon similar issues and explore similar themes. One thing is very clear: for all the ways they may or may not be doing Star Trek "right," they're all very obviously made by people with a real love of Trek. They're also doing one thing absolutely right: pissing off the sort of men who make Captain Daly look sensible and well-adjusted.

Back to part one

Discovery, Orville, Callister: A Starship Trinity (part one)

With the second half of Star Trek: Discovery imminent, it seems a good opportunity to look back over the series so far, as well as two other TV productions which have used Star Trek as their starting points. The first season of The Orville finished in late 2017, while the fourth series of Black Mirror, a very different sort of science fiction show, was released on Netflix just before the new year. This run of Black Mirror kicked off with "USS Callister," an unusual story for an always varied series that involved an extended Trek parody.

So that's three 2017 TV series which each serves as a different sort of tribute to Star Trek, particularly in its earlier forms. Discovery acts as an official continuation/prequel of the Star Trek franchise, clocking in as the seventh series since the original was broadcast back in 1966, but one that makes efforts to both reference earlier versions and take it in a new, modern direction. The Orville, in spite of being officially unrelated to Trek, is a loving pastiche which is closer in many ways to earlier iterations of the franchise, but also tries to market itself as a comedy, with mixed results. "USS Callister" is a near-future horror which involves a sustained Trek parody to make a comment on the sorts of toxic fanboys who have made fandom so unpleasant for so many people.

The three productions make very different attempts to comment on Star Trek and real life, but each one covers some of the same ground as both the others. It's interesting to see how each of them works both as a science fiction adventure in their own right and as a meta-commentary on Trek fandom.

Star Trek: Discovery maintains Trek tradition by being named after the lead ship, although the two-part opener revolved around the ill-fated USS Shenzou as an extended set-up for the Federation-Klingon war that has dominated the first half of the series. The previous three series (Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise) all took their name from the main setting (a starship in all but DS9's case), and so do The Orville and "USS Callister." It's a small thing, but one that flags that we're dealing with works by people who are all inspired by the same material. Discovery, as a prequel set ten years before the original Star Trek, treads some of the same ground as both Enterprise and the recent Star Trek reboot movies, each going back to an earlier future and filling in bits of Trek's future history. None of them has made too much effort to fit in rigidly with existing continuity, which is exactly as it should be. The broad strokes are there, sometimes some very specific detail, but the stories come first and any continuity aspects that get in the way are ditched.

This is, of course, exactly how it should be. However, for a very vocal contingent of fandom, by-the-letter continuity is more important than quality of writing, production or acting. While a browse of my blog will make it clear how much I enjoy obscure continuity stuff, but at the end of the day it's a fan game and not something that should dictate the content of a major TV series. Especially considering the level of inconsistency that was present in the original series and the earliest days of The Next Generation. Some fans are getting very angry that the miraculous, pseudo-scientific "spore drive" of the USS Discovery doesn't fit into established Trek history. They're right, of course, and it may or may not be explained away, but if it leads to some interesting stories, it's a fudge worth accepting. I'd rather smile at references to obscure planets than get tied up with that.

The other, fouler contingent of fandom that has made itself known is the "anti-SJW" brigade. These are the people - almost solely white men - who cry foul whenever someone outside of their particular category of human is included in a series that they consider rightfully theirs. It happens in Marvel comics, in Doctor Who, in Star Wars, in bloody Disney. Yet it seems willfully perverse that a Trekkie would be like this. Star Trek has always been about diversity and inclusion, and no, it's not always got it right, but it's at least always tried to get it right. To be against this is to be against the very ethos of the franchise, one that included thinly-veiled social commentary right from the very beginning.

Times have changed, of course, and so the commentary has changed. The showrunners of Discovery - Gretchen Berg and Aaron Harberts, and at least to begin with, Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman - have created a series that looks at a darker set of themes than earlier Trek series commonly did. In a world where the worst acts of our governments are reported on and spread across social media, where terrorism and religious fundamentalism are a worldwide threat and where violence seems to be escalating, looking at the worst aspects of ourselves couldn't be more timely. Star Trek, the original show, had trips back to the past and present and the occasional out-of-time dictator to show that humans were once cursed with savagery and intolerance, but that we had moved past that. Discovery looks at this differently, putting us in the position of the future people and showing that no, they're not perfect, but that they are moving forward. The Star Trek ideal is just that, and it's something for both the Discovery crew and us to strive towards.

What's really got the bros fired up, though, is the showrunners very conscious decision to make the series inclusive. The lead character, Michael Burnam, is played by Sonequa Martin-Green, a black woman, a first for a lead of a Trek series. She initially serves under Captain Georgiou, played by Michelle Yeoh, giving us, for a short time at least, two non-white women as the senior crew of a starship. The status quo changes once we move to the USS Discovery, where Jason Isaacs plays Captain Lorca, a white male American, but on this ship we have Anthony Rapp, a proudly gay man playing a gay scientist who is in a healthy long-term relationship with another male crewmember. We also have Mary Wiseman as Cadet Tilly, a character hinted as being on the autistic spectrum, and Shazad Latif, a British actor of mixed Asian-European descent, as troubled officer Ash Tyler. It's a main cast that is notably light on straight white male characters.

The ongoing narrative of Discovery concerns the war between the ostensibly peaceful Federation and the recently radicalised Klingon Empire, something that is blamed on mutinous actions by Burnham. This doesn't actually wash with what we see on screen, in an example of some very poor writing which fails to square up the events seen in one episode and what we're told about them in another. Nonetheless, it maintains a strong narrative thread throughout the series so far. While there are standalone episodes - in particular the tremendously fun time loop story "Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad" - the core of the series' narrative is the war and the consequences it has for characters. While this focus on war is unusual for Trek - with the exception of the latter seasons of DS9 - it's actually very much in keeping with its philosophy. There are questions about whether war can ever be justified, about what actions in war can be so justified even if the cause is just, and the overall message is that war is a terrible thing for all involved, and is something to work to move beyond.

Perhaps the most noteworthy story thread involves Tyler, who is found by Lorca in a Klingon pow camp, along with a reimagined version of original series villain Harry Mudd. Tyler has been surviving in the prison by allowing his female jailer to use him as her plaything. He is very clearly suffering from PTSD, but is brought on as chief of security by Lorca - an unstable individual himself. While Tyler begins to move past his trauma by beginning a relationship with Burnham, he continues to have flashbacks to his abuse, all the more so when his abuser, the gigantic Klingon woman L'rell, is captured. It's extremely rare for television to present a storyline on male rape, rarer still for this to be part of a military narrative and very unusual in that it is played entirely seriously. Male rape is frequently and shamefully seen as a joke in so much media, particularly American media, and so to see it taken seriously here is hugely positive. There are persistent rumours that Tyler is actually a Klingon character surgically altered and mentally processed to act under deep cover, and that his memories of abuse are twisted recollections of consensual sex with L'rell, but I truly hope this isn't the case, as it would so damage the storyline as so far presented.

The Orville is quite a different sort of series, yet it does cross over with Discovery in some unexpected ways. Seth McFarlane initially made inquiries to pitch for a Star Trek series, but these came to nothing, and so created his own faux-Trek which was picked up by Fox. While a comedy series, at least in part, it's very much not a parody of Trek, with the comedy elements being more based on human interaction and scatological humour. It's very blatantly inspired by Star Trek, though, in particular The Next Generation, although there's a distinct flavour of Voyager there as well. McFarlane isn't shy about it either, and the series wears its influences on its sleeve. The uniforms look like TNG Starfleet uniforms (unlike those of Discovery, which look like an evolution of those seen on Enterprise). The ship, the USS Orville ECV-197, though different in design to the Starfleet ships, looks like a plausible evolution of it. There are alien crewmembers, including Bortus, played by Peter Macon, and Alara Kitan, played by Halston Sage. Bortus, in particular, is a clear lift from both Worf (big, black, strong, laconic, weird forehead) and Spock (unemotional, logical, struggles to understand humans). There's also a Data-like android, named Isaac, sent from an advanced race to study humanity. Instead of the Federation, there's the Planetary Union, and there's faster-than-light travel, phase pistols, shuttlecraft, and all the Trek trappings (although, interestingly, the Union doesn't have teleporters).

The Orville is very much trying to be an older style of Star Trek, with episodic, standalone adventures and simple morality tales. It's greatest strength and greatest failing is, as one, the comedy aspect. How much of this was in McFarlane's plan and how much was pushed upon him by a studio who expect comedy from him is uncertain, but there's a severe imbalance in tone in the series, particularly in the first few episodes. Yet there are moments that are genuinely funny, such as Isaac's attempt to understand practical jokes. Some of the elements send up tropes in a gentle way: there's an alien character who's a green blob, who complains when he thinks he's being discriminated against because he's gelatinous, which somehow works precisely because all the alien crewmen in Star Trek were uniformly humanoid (even DS9s Odo, who slept in a bucket, was usually human-shaped). The choice to make this a series about a captain and his first officer who were once married until she cheated on him is at once a shoe-horned attempt at comedy, but also a more realistic relationship than Star Trek usually manages. Captain Lorca boffs his old flame admiral and then sells her out to the Klingons; Ed Mercer and Kelly Grayson just have to deal with being awkward around each other and trying not to mention certain things. By having "real" people on the bridge of a starship, it's trying the same thing as Discovery: moving us away from TNG-era Trek's idea of perfect examples of humanity.

The Orville is so brazen in its lifting of Trek that it involves several actors recognisable to Trek fans specifically for that reason, most notably Penny Johnson Jerald, once Kassidy Yates on DS9 and now Dr. Claire Finn, Chief Medical Officer of the Orville. Jonathan "Riker" Frakes is in the unique position of directing episodes of both Discovery and Orville. In some respects, this makes it hard to take the show seriously, as do the frequent tonal shifts to fart and dick jokes, or the fact that anytime you hear Mercer talk you hear Brian from Family Guy speak (what with McFarlane playing both roles and writing the bulk of most series). Yet this is very clearly a seriously made series. It looks fantastic, the scripts are generally well-written and there are some big name guest stars (Charlize Theron was well-publicised but Liam Neeson was a shocker).

Some of the episodes are very Trek-by-numbers but when it tries the series really hits. The hird episode, "About a Girl," is an extended discourse on issues as diverse as race, sexuality, misogyny and transgender identity. It's a rambling discourse, and doesn't always work, but damn, it's trying the right things. Bortus's species are the Moclans, an all-male race engaged exclusively in homosexual relationships that nonetheless produce offspring. When Bortus lays an egg that hatches a baby girl, it turns out that his partner was also born female. the script wanders all over the place but takes in some very interesting discussions on cultural attitudes to various elements of identity. The decision to make Moclus an all-black, profoundly misogynistic society verges on racism, though, although it's considerably less racist than the third episode of TNG. It's all worth it for the aforementioned fanbros who rejoiced at The Orville delivering "proper" Star Trek with straight white people in charge, only to give them an entire planet of gay black men.

While The Orville takes a lighter approach than Discovery it explores some of the same themes, one of which is the approach to war. While Discovery has the Klingons, Orville has the Krill, a people who are utterly convinced that they are the superior form of life in the universe due to their devotion to their holy book. The parallels with religious, particularly Islamic, fundamentalism, are obvious. Some series would shy away from this subject matter, but The Orville sees Mercer and his friend and helmsman Malloy go undercover on a Krill ship to get a copy of this book. While there, they develop a new understanding of the Krill mindset, but also discover that the ship is on a mission to annihilate a Union planet. They devise a plan to destroy the ship, only to discover a school of Krill children onboard.

It's a remarkable episode, one that views the religious hardcore with both sympathy and criticism. Mercer eventually comes up with a way to kill the adult crew and end the threat, but save the children, something that he hates having to do but considers the only way to stop his own people being exterminated. During his time on the Krill ship he connects with some of the children and their teacher, who is the only adult Krill who survives. When asked why he saved the children, he replies, "They're not my enemies," to which she responds, "They are now." It's an exceptionally insightful script for such a silly series. Compare it with Discovery's Klingons. Although the showrunners have spoken of wanting to make the Klingons a sympathetic people and show the war from both sides, they haven't followed through, instead making the Klingon make-up more monstrous than ever, giving them opaque motives, and portraying them as vengeful murderers who eat their enemies' corpses and rape their prisoners. The Klingons of Discovery are monsters far more than their brothers in earlier series, or the Krill.

Onto part two