Thursday, 29 March 2018

WHO REVIEW: The Thing from the Sea

BBC Books are now adding to their prodigious range of novelisation readings with some original audiobooks for classic series Doctors. We're long past the days of Missing Adventures and Past Doctor Adventures so new releases for the original seven are a rare treat. We have Big Finish, of course, with their huge library of adventures, but there's a different quality to an audiobook than there is for an audioplay. Then there are the hybrid versions, with limited casts and a mix of narrative reading and character acting, such as the Companion Chronicles.

Another series that began with this strange hybrid style was the Nest Cottage series, written by Paul Magrs and starring Tom Baker as the fourth Doctor. Indeed, it was the initial run, Hornet's Nest, that coaxed Baker back to the fold, and without this BBC commission, it's unlikely he'd be performing as the Doctor for Big Finish today. The following series, Demon Quest and Serpent Crest moved back towards a full-cast play approach, but there was something about the narrative style that suited the fourth Doctor, particularly with Paul's eccentric and lyrical prose style.

The first of the BBC's new past Doctor range is this new follow-up to the Nest Cottage adventures, The Thing From the Sea. It's read by Susan Jameson, from the point of view of her character Fenella Wibbsey, the Doctor's out-of-time housekeeper. There's a little exposition at the beginning to bring listeners up to speed with the events of her previous appearances in the above sets, but it's actually easy enough to just drop in and begin here (although I would recommend listening to the Nest Cottage series - they're often broadcast by BBC Radio 4Extra). Poor old Wibbs has been left tending to the cottage, while the Doctor has returned to his adventures in time and space. The Doctor returns with more pomp than warning, dressed in his burgundy ensemble (suggesting a late adventure in his fourth lifetime).

The Doctor whips Wibbsey into a gothic adventure in an historical Italian settlement, with a mysterious, charming count ruling a sickly populace. The perfect set-up for a Doctor Who adventure, and that's before the Thing from the Sea washes up on the beach. At just over an hour long (which seems to be the standard for these new audiobooks), this is a brisk, entertaining experience with a nice mix of the fantastic and the science fictional, all tied up with Paul's trademark weirdness. No one else creates worlds quite like him, and his turn of phrase makes it all the more enjoyable. The only slightly clunky moments come from scenes that are from the Doctor's point of view, which requires Wibbsey to recount what the Doctor apparently filled her in on later, but overall having the story told from her point of view works well. Paul Magrs has a special affinity for uncanny old ladies.

On that note, I also recommend listening to this new podcast from Bafflegab Productions, Grandma Guignol. These podcasts are making available for free the audio series The Brenda and Effie Mysteries, formerly the stars of Paul's successful novel range. Despite getting rave reviews and picking up awards, the audio series didn't get the popular attention it deserved. So Bafflegab have made it available this way. You can listen to it on iTunes, and be sure to subscribe to avoid missing any installments. I'll look at reviewing it once the series is complete.

The Thing from the Sea is available from BBC Worldwide, Audible and all audio and book stockists. Adventures for the first and third Doctors are set to follow.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Things I'd like to see in Discovery season two

Classic Starfleet characters

The Enterprise appeared at the very end of the final episode of season one, with Captain Pike name-checked. It's pretty clear we'll be seeing more of the Enterprise and its crew in the second season, at least during the opening episodes. It will be incredibly disappointing if we don't get to see some familiar characters. Pike is one of my favourite captains in Trek - both Jeffry Hunter and Bruce Greenwood versions - and I'm stoked to think we'll get him back on TV. I'd say getting Greenwood back is a great idea, but it's more likely that we'll have a recasting. It's even possible that we'll see Pike command the Discovery, being that it's without a captain at present, although this seems unlikely, at least in the long-term.

There's also the enigmatic Number One, the first officer played by Majel Barrett in "The Cage." We know so little about the character that any further exploration of her would be fascinating. Number One occupied the logical second-in-command spot later occupied by Spock. With her Vulcan-like demeanour, she could make an interesting foil for Burnham - and perhaps she's due for a promotion? Could she become the captain of the Discovery? Then there's Spock. It'll be tricky recasting such an iconic character for the second time - it's highly unlikely Zachary Quinto will be involved - but having both Sarek and Burnham onboard, en route to Vulcan, and then stumble across the Enterprise basically demands Spock appear in some aspect.

Failing all that... Yeoman Colt? Please?

Getting to know the Discovery crew

We spent a lot of time with Lorca, Saru, Tyler, Tilly, Stamets and above all Michael Burnham in season one. Barring an appearance from his Prime Universe self, Lorca isn't showing up again, and we've been promised plenty more time with Saru and Burnham. But lets be honest, the characters we had the most fun with were Tilly and Stamets, and when they were paired together they absolutely sang. I'd love to see more science adventures with the two of them - perhaps even some away missions to give Tilly some command experience.

Beyond the core crew, there are a number of crewmembers who only were only explored briefly. The final few episodes gave the likes of Detmer, Owosekun, Bryce and Rhys a little more time in the limelight, but not much at all. An episode or two that takes the focus away from the main stars of the series could be really interesting. Plus, we all want to know more about Airiam, the mysterious cyborg crewmember, whose job so far has been to manage the spore drive. She'll need some new duties in the next season and I'm dying to learn more about her.

New worlds, new civilisations

One thing the creators of the series have mentioned is that season two will involve more exploration than the first. This is promising; a second season about warfare and survivalism might get very oppressive. We only got some brief visits to completely new worlds, and the only episode that revolved around exploring one (episode eight, "Si Vis Pacem Para Bellum") was pretty disappointing. We had some very intriguing additions to the Trek universe, though, from Saru's antelope-like people, the Kelpiens, to the gigantic spacefaring organisms the gormangander and the alien tardigrade. I'd really love to see more of this - bizarre new aliens, interesting new cultures, allegories for our own world's contemporary problems. We're also promised some more exploration of Saru's background, and there's certainly a lot more we could learn about the mysterious commander.

Revisiting alien races

On the other hand, one thing a Trek fan always loves to see is a classic alien species. Discovery did some interesting things with its depictions of well-known alien species. The Klingon redesign was very controversial with fans, although I've come to really like the new, more alien version of the famous warrior race. The Vulcans were visually the same as before, but we learned more about the more fractious side of their culture, building on elements introduced in Enterprise, as well as new sides to their psychic abilities. We also saw three classic series races: the Andorians, Tellarites and Orions, the former two redesigned but very much in keeping with how their look developed from TOS to ENT, and the latter, rather wonderfully, just people painted green. Other references make it clear that TNG-era races such as the Betazoids and the Trill are known in this period. There's a lot of scope to explore familiar races further, or to just pepper the series with fan-pleasing cameos.

One species I would absolutely love to see is the Cardassians. We don't know when the Federation made first contact with the Union, and while they're clearly not a major player in galactic politics until the 24th century, that's not to say they aren't initially contacted earlier. Could we perhaps see the first contact with this fascinating civilisation, perhaps enjoying a more prosperous earlier period of exploration? The idea of a Discovery redesign of the Cardassians is hard to resist. Other species that could appear as antagonists without damaging continuity include the Tholians, the Sheliak and the Suliban.


Some serious stuff happened in season one. Major Starfleet and Federation figures condoned the extermination of the Klingon people and the destruction of Kronos. L'Rell took control of the Klingon houses by holding them to ransom. Tyler/Voq left to join her, possibly offering a sort of link between the Klingons and humanity. Starfleet became intimately involved with its Mirror Universe counterpart, leaving Mirror Georgiou running around somewhere in the Beta Quadrant. The Federation survived a war that involved swathes of it territory being occupied by Klingon forces. This stuff has to have consequences, and while we need to see new exploration in the second season, it can't just carry on like none of this happened. The showrunners have also been talking about making it clear how the events of Discovery so far fit into the established timeline, something that looks like will be quite a difficult job.

Section 31

A recently released extra scene (that you can see here) shows nasty Mirror Empress Georgiou hanging around on Kronos after the events of the final episode, where she is approached by a mysterious operative of Section 31, Starfleet's secretive dirty tricks department (who's pretending to be a Trill, for some reason). Given how dark the events of Discovery season one were, it's no surprise that a lot of fans surmised that Section 31 were involved, perhaps even that they were directing the Discovery's mission. Given that Starfleet are openly in support of the Discovery and Lorca was actually acting on his own agenda, this now seems less likely, although it's not impossible they had a hand in it. After all, being secretive and undercover is their MO. In any case,it looks like Section 31, probably along with Georgiou, will be involved in season two.

More time travel

The best episode of season one was the largely stand-alone time loop episode "Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad," which saw Rainn Wilson's more sinister take on Harry Mudd repeatedly murder the Disco crew. As well as being a tremendously fun episode in itself, it proved there's still mileage in Trek for timey-wimey episodes. With both the past and the future of Discovery's timeframe already mapped out in significant detail, there's plenty of potential exploration to be had of the Trek timeline, and a visit to the present day could be very interesting in a series that's not afraid to pull its punches.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018


1-14) "The War Within, the War Without"
1-15) "Will You Take My Hand?"

Date: 2257, nine months since Discovery vanished into the Mirror Universe.

The Mission: Save the Federation from the Klingon hordes by blowing up their homeworld. How utopian.

Planets visited: 

Kronos: The Klingon homeworld is comprised of a network of huge volcanic caverns, "a planet of cave." Rather implausibly, some of these caverns are big enough to hide a starship in. The dense, green upper atmosphere prevents long-range scans of the surface. There's an area of the planet that has been given to the Orions as a sort of embassy, but it's more of a downtown slum for offworlders, built on top of ancient shrines to the tyrant Molor, which access the volcanic channels beneath the surface. Humans can pass there, although it doesn't go unremarked upon. Food available on the streets includes barbecued Ceti eels and gormangander flesh. The currency on the planet is the darsek.

Delta 2: A desolate, uninhabited class-4 moon in the Veda system. The Disco crew terraform it (very rapidly) using mycelial spores, to help power their spore drive.

Earth: Spacedock is currently in construction in orbit. The Federation president is based in Paris (as in the 24th century). A ragtag Klingon fleet is headed to Earth with conquest or extermination on its agenda.

Future History: No human has visited Kronos since Archer and the Enterprise NX-01 "almost a hundred years ago." (ENT: "Broken Bow" was actually 106 years earlier, so either this is a small inaccuracy or Archer took his ship there again during the Romulan War period).

In the time since Discovery went missing, the Klingons have conquered 20% of Federation space. They wiped out Kelfor 6 by igniting its atmosphere, destroyed Starbases 9 and 12 and the USS Saratoga and then took out a third of the fleet. Planets they've attacked include Nervala, Septra and Iridon, all of which were decimated.

All knowledge of the Mirror Universe is classified, on pain of charges of treason. This explains why Kirk didn't know anything about before being zapped there ten years later. (Obviously it is declassified some time between then and Deep Space Nine over a century later.) The idea of a parallel universe where those lost in the war might still survive is considered too dangerous to allow to spread. (It probably wouldn't be good for Federation unity if the existence of a dominating human empire got out, either.)

Taking the Michael: She's good at giving speeches. She can think of several reasons to rationalise saving the Emperor, but admits that she just couldn't watch Georgiou die again. Understandably, she finds it hard to see Tyler again after he tried to kill her. Possibly she distrusts him because, in Tyler's words, "Klingons killed (her) parents and then (she) fell in love with one," but really, it's hard to see how she could trust him after that. In time, she learns to see him for who he is and comes to terms with what's happened between them. She's still reclaiming her life after the Battle of the Binary Stars and can't handle even more heartache. She's still guilty for making her parents stay at Doctari Alpha to see a supernova, and the details of what the Klingons did to them are pretty horrific. The sound of Klingons laughing takes her right back there and she has to get out. However, seeing people just living their lives on Kronos stops her hating the Klingons. She gives the bomb to L'Rell to prevent a genocide and give the Klingons another way to end the war. For ending the war without compromising Federation ideals, she receives a pardon from the president and regains her rank of commander.

Space Cow: He's acting captain of the Discovery in the absence of a more senior officer. He's not happy about Burnham lying to him about the presence of Kelpiens in the Mirror Universe, but he gets that she didn't want to upset him by telling him that Terrans like to eat his people. He has regained his respect of Burnham. He recognises that Tyler is not Voq and allows him to walk free. He's got the balls to square up to Georgiou when she's practically threatening to kill and eat him. He's the first Kelpien to receive the Starfleet Medal of Honour.

Half Man, Half Klingon: Tyler is now fully Tyler after some emergency neurological surgery, but he still remembers being Voq and everything from his life, which comes in handy. In all respects, he gets off pretty lightly after his actions as Voq/Tyler, and is accepted back by most of the crew very quickly. He is obviously an asset on the Klingon homeworld, being able to speak Klingon (which the natives find funny) and hold his own in a game called "Obliterate Them." He says that Burnham's love saved his life, and says that he chose humanity over the Klingons because they can feel compassion and sympathy for their enemies. Once they've completed the mission he leaves with L'Rell to bridge the gap between the Federation and the Empire.

Vulcan Dad: Worryingly ready to advocate Klingon genocide. On the other hand, he thinks no one should regret loving someone, which is about as soppy and sentimental as a Vulcan gets.He also says he never gets tired of seeing his home planet.

Starfleet's Best? Cornwell takes the Discovery, flanked by Andorian and Tellarite guards, expecting some kind of Klingon trap. She takes command immediately and is quick to agree to take the fight to the Klingons. She interrogates L'Rell and comes away with the conclusion that the only way forward is to take the Klingons out, to the point where she advocates genocide. She's also severely pissed at Lorca's true identity. She's also pretty damned stupid if she thinks she can trust Georgiou to do anything she says.

We love Tilly: Breaks the ice by going to eat with Tyler, which helps other crewmen come round. She helps Burnham come to terms with things and go speak to Tyler. She wasn't expecting a wartime career, and considers her Mirror self's actions pretty horrifying, which makes her all the more determined to do right by people in this universe. She's starstruck by Georgiou until she realises she's the evil version. On Kronos she's able to play the hardass part pretty well until she's too out of her element, and gets high on volcanic fumes. After the success of the mission, she is accepted into teh command programme. She's never been to Vulcan before.

Captain Killy: Tilly's evil Mirror counterpart subjugated the Betazoids and wiped out the people of Mintaka III (q.v. TNG: "Who Watches the Watchers") which is pretty harsh, considering they only have hoes to defend themselves with.

Spores, Molds and Fungi: Unsurprisingly, Stamets is coldly furious when he meets Tyler. When he asks if the guilt of Culber's murder is tearing him up, he is pleased, saying "Maybe you're still human after all." He can navigate the spore drive so well by now that he can easily tell the difference between solid rock and a cave just from the feel of it and can jump the ship right into a cavern.

Evil Philippa: Spends a fair bit of time bitching with Sarek over whose version of Burnham is best. After initially demanding to go back to her own universe, she takes her place as captain of Discovery, pretending to be MIA Captain Georgiou who isn't dead at all, honest, no siree. She is completely incapable of pretending to be a balanced Federation captain, gets angry when Detmer calls Kronos the Klingon homeworld (because animals apparently don't have homes) and looks about ready to stab anyone who questions her. She beats the crap out of a bound L'Rell, mostly just for the fun of it. She was born and raised on Pulau Langkawi in Malaysia (Michelle Yeoh is from Ipoh, inland and further south, but Ipoh's a bit of a dump to be frank). Burnham lets her go, and she is later approached by Section 31 (in an extra scene).

Alien Life Forms: 

Klingons: Yes, it's true: Klingons have two dicks. They also have higher muscular density and mitochondrial activity than humans. The Species Reassignment Protocol that was tested on Voq involved flaying his skin, cracking his bones, cutting up his heart and sanding down his fingertips, all while conscious, because Klingons. (So Arne Darvin is much harder than we ever thought.)

L'Rell admires human courage after her interactions with Cornwell and the Discovery crew but is still fully in support of a powerful unified Klingon Empire. She is saddened by the fact that the Houses have broken apart again. She uses the threat of the hydrobomb to blackmail the Houses to reunifying the Empire, leaving her as ruler and potentially having huge consequences down the line.

In the Mirror Universe, Kronos was annihilated by Starfleet and the Klingons reduced to scattered exclaves.

Orions: A whole bunch of them live in the "embassy" area on Kronos, doing the usual Orion criminal activities. Some of them are surprisingly up on ancient Klingon cults and their stomping grounds. Refreshingly, after the big redesign of the Klingons and the lesser redesigns of the Andorians and Tellarites, the Orions are portrayed by people painted green. More of a pale fern green than the usual bold leaf green.

Trill: There are Trills in the Orion town on Kronos (although at least one of them is a fake).

Starships and Space Stations: 

USS Discovery NCC-1031: The first thing the crew do when back in the Prime Universe, even before starting repairs, is repaint the ship to Federation standards. The ship swapped places with its Mirror equivalent, which was destroyed by Klingons almost immediately. The Discovery's cloak-breaking algorithm is distributed to the fleet as soon as Cornwell takes command but it's probably too late to make a difference.

USS Enterprise NCC-1701: Shows up at the end of the final episode, transmitting a distress signal and under the command of Captain Pike. It looks rather different to how we remember it - still the same general shape, but redesigned to fit in with Star Trek: Discovery's aesthetic. I actually really like it.

Starbase 1: In Earth's backyard, Starbase 1 is home to dozens of starships and thousands of Federation personnel. Now it boasts only a few hundred Klingon life signs, and has been tagged by House D'Kor.

Future Treknology: The drone carries a hydrobomb which causes an enormous buildup of steam when dropped into the volcanic network, which will explode out through the crust of the planet annihilating the atmosphere and rendering it uninhabitable. Lorca collected some Nausicaan disruptors which the away team use to start a trade with the Orions.

Trek Stars: Clint Howard, who plays the creepy old Orion bastard in the final episode, has the distinction of being the actor with the longest Star Trek career. His initial appearance, as creepy young child-alien Balok in TOS: "The Corbomite Maneuver" was in 1966, a whole 51 years before this episode. Howard also appeared as a human in 1995 (DS9: "Past Tense"), and a Ferengi in 2002 (ENT: "Acquisition").

Sexy Trek: Like all evil parallel universe women, Emperor Georgiou is bisexual, and gets it on with a pair of Orion prostitutes. There's a lot more skin on display than we're used to in Trek, most of it green. Did I mention that Klingons have two dicks? No wonder Worf was so popular with the ladies.

Space bilge: Starbase 1 is 100 AU from Earth and is now under Klingon control. This would put the Starbase at the fringes of our solar system - this should mean the Earth is under imminent threat from the Klingons, rather than being treated as a distant outpost. It's also shown as being in orbit of a class-M planet, and there's definitely nothing of the sort that close to Earth. The Starbase is also described as being over a light year away from the Discovery, which makes it extremely close in starship terms and by no means a chore to warp to.

L'Rell is very easily able to convince the Klingon Houses that she can destroy the planet with what appears to be a generic remote control and no way to back up her claim that it's linked to a massive bomb.

Quote, Unquote: "Logic dictates that each farewell may be our last." True of all times, not just war.

The Review: A very satisfying end to an uneven but exciting first season. The first half drags a little but gives way to a second part that ups the ante, although it does end rather quickly and neatly. It's entirely reasonable to see the Federation's leaders get desperate enough to resort to genocide against the Klingons - they are potentially facing the same themselves - but it's also tremendously disappointing. Thankfully, the script doesn't for one moment side with this idea and makes it clear that there has to be another way. Burnham has developed into a more comfortable, more confident character, back to the self-assurance she had in the opening episodes. Rather than a complete reversal of her decision to square up to the Klingons there, her decision to use the bomb to force the Houses' to end the war is using the Klingon ethos of "might is right" in a mindful way. (Albeit via L'Rell, which could come back to bite her.) It's also wonderful that, after the script going out of its way to remind us just how bloody awful the Klingons are in this series, Burnham manages to look past her experiences and recognise that most of the Klingons are just people living their lives. It's even better that she sees this after spending an evening surrounded by crims and gamblers, instead of the best of society.

Tyler's story comes to a satisfying conclusion, although it will still be fascinating to see how he develops in the coming season. Saru and Culber get good moments but are a little overlooked, yet it's hard to complain when we get so much quality Tilly time.

The appearance of the Enterprise at the end was an obvious way to round out the series, but what else could they do? It was inevitable, but it was nicely staged and personally I love the redesigned version of the iconic ship, certainly more than the recent movie version. Ending the episode on the classic theme was a nice touch as well. On the other hand, it's becoming increasingly hard to reconcile this wartorn 23rd century with the timeline we know. I'm intrigued to see how the events here develop in the second season.

REVIEW: The DC Universe by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman's most recognised comicbook work will always be his original creations, particularly Sandman (although even this was inspired by the original 1930s Wesley Dodds character). However, he has written numerous books featuring existing comic characters, both for Marvel and DC. As he points out himself in this books afterword, DC and especially Batman are his first loves, and even the Sandman's earliest titles featured established DC characters heavily, with the occasional cameo as the series developed. Gaiman is no stranger to working in an established universe, but his work is generally of that most interesting sort, the kind that takes established characters and settings and twists them into new shapes, or takes the concepts as far as they can be taken.

This collection brings together a variety of Gaiman's DC work from 1988 through to 2009, when the classic Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? was first published. Fully half of the material here was previously included in the WhttCC paperback, and this accounts for some of the best material, but since I never sat down and reviewed that, it seems worthwhile looking back over these stories. These are all Batman stories, or at least Gotham stories, that dwell on the fictionality of Batman's world and present new explorations of established characters. They explore Gaiman's continuing fascination with the nature of myth, in the same way Sandman and American Gods explore mythical and myth-inspired characters. As the world itself has multiple origin stories, it hardly seems hard to accept that fictional characters can as well.

The volume kicks of with “Pavane,” Gaiman's contribution to DC's Secret Origins series, focusing on Poison Ivy. One of the most interesting of the Batman rogues gallery, certainly one of the most powerful, and nonetheless one of the most vulnerable. With artwork by Mark Buckingham, it looks and reads very much like early Sandman, which makes perfect sense considering when it was written, but explores Gaiman's obsession with Batman through Ivy's eyes. One aspect I really like about this story is that, although it turns on Ivy's irresistible sexual allure, she isn't portrayed as some perfect comicbook pin-up. She's actually fairly ordinary looking, which emphasises her abilities even more.

This leads into Secret Origins Special, which includes non-Gaiman material for the sake of completeness and narrative drive. It begins with Gaiman's “Original Sins,” framing material about a chatshow team looking to get Gotham supervillains in for interviews, because without his villains, Batman is simply not interesting. The bizarre and elaborate array of criminals that continually plague Batman through his career define him. And so Alan Grant gives us “The Killing Peck,” a clever and entertaining story about The Penguin, and Mark Verheiden gives us a galling examination of Two-Face. Gaiman himself provides the middle instalment, “When is a Door: The Secret Origin of the Riddler,” which combines witty writing with wonderful artwork from Bernie Mireault and Matt Wagner plus gorgeous colours from Joe Matt. Any one of these stories could stand alone and still work, but presenting them together creates a compelling examination of Batman's world.

This extends to the big name story itself. Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? Was written by Gaiman to be the final story – or, at least, a final story – for Batman, marking the final issues of the initial runs of both Batman and his original home of Detective Comics. (Of course, both of these titles are still going, having kicked off again immediately with new issues ones.) A companion piece to Alan Moore's classic Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, which had previously served the same purpose for Superman. WhttCC is a more metatextual affair, however, taking place after Batman's death, where various characters, both heroic and villainous, semi-aware of their fictional nature, come together to mark the occasion. Various characters give their accounts of how the hero died, all of them completely contradictory and many of them surely completely impossible. Of them all, “The Gentleman's Gentleman's Tale,” is the best. Perhaps better titled, “The Butler Did It,” it reveals Alfred as the eccentric genius behind all of Batman's adversaries, his entire crime-fighting career a great hoax to keep Bruce's depressed mind occupied. The entire story is remarkable, though, and even though Batman will no doubt have more “final” adventures, it makes for a beautiful coda. Not only can these characters have multiple origins, they can have multiple endings as well.

Nonetheless, my favourite story in the collection is the shorter, simpler “A Black and White World,” Gaiman's contribution to the Batman Black and White series. Taking the metafictional theme further, it sees Batman and the Joker preparing for one of their epic battles, going through their lines and waiting to be called onto set. Genuinely funny in a restrained way (not something you can often say of a Joker story), its success is ensured by Simon Bisley's unique, disturbing scratchy artwork.

The remainder of the stories are newly collected in this volume, and take place beyond the confines of Gotham. The major draw here is Legend of the Green Flame, a legendary “lost” Superman/Green Lantern story that was originally written for Action Comics Weekly in 1988 to wrap up that publication, before editorial changes altered the fictional landscape of the DC Universe and consigned it to the never-weres. It finally saw the light in 2000 as a special publication, and has rarely been reprinted. The simple tagline would be “Superman and Green Lantern go to Hell.” As Gaiman points out, this is not the hell of his Sandman series, owing more to Alan Moore's depiction in The Saga of the Swamp Thing) but the development of the mythic universe of Sandman is clearly there in its early stages. It's an effective story that puts two of DC's most overly powered heroes through the ringer, consigned to a reality in which they are weakened and vulnerable. It also perfectly illustrates Gaiman's love of, and skill for, playing in the sandbox of the DC Universe, utilising such supernatural characters as Deadman and the Phantom Stranger to great effect.

Deadman also appears in “On the Stairs,” the shortest, most standalone story in the collection. From Solo #8 it gives the sardonic psychopomp a moment to explore his ghostly existence. It's another fine story that's made even better by being well-served by its artist, in this case Teddy Christianson. (Rob Leigh's lettering also works wonders here.) The final superhero that Gaiman tackles is “Metamorpho, the Element Man,” a C-list character for whom Gaiman has a not-so-secret fondness. Also featuring Metamorpho's female equivalent, Element Girl, I had hoped this would have some of the power and emotion of Gaiman's other usage of that character, the one-off story “Facade” in the third Sandman volume, maybe the most heartbreakingly beautiful thing Gaiman has ever written. This tale is very different, a deliberately retro-styled story told in twelve weekly instalments in 2009's Wednesday Comics, a series which stood to emulate the newspaper strips of old. It's the simplest, least interesting story in the collection, but it does what it sets out to do, which tell an entertaining comic adventure. The double-page periodic table spread is a joy.

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Monster in My Pocket - The LOST Monsters

Now, here's something exciting for MIMP fans.

Back in the beginning, 96 monsters were listed as part of the Monster in My Pocket range. All 96 were designed and appeared on Latin American card and sticker collections, but only 81 were ever made into figures. The remaining fifteen monsters - Achelous, Ankou, Banshee, Catarenha, Djinn Shapeshifter, Genie, Grendel, Hairy Boggart, Headless Man, Hieracosphinx, Hodag, Jabalius (Beast of Gevaudan), Sciapod, Talus and Troll - were never made into toys, although some did make appearances in the MIMP comicbook or on posters. A sixteenth monster, Bash Tchelik, also appeared on the posters revealing "upcoming monsters" for later series, but nowhere else.

Fede Mazz, a big name collector, has spent the last few years working on creating the "missing" sixteen MIMP figures. He has recruited the talents of master artist and sculptor Rich Roland, the man who sculpted the original figures back in the day. Initially, the costs of the project looked to put the toys well out of my price range, but thankfully Fede has now turned to Kickstarter to raise funds to bring this project to fruition. The first four figures - Banshee, Catarenha, Sciapod and the Headless Man - are ready to go into production, and work has begun on the next four.

Backers can pledge different levels and receive anything from a set of four cards and a poster, to the set of the first four figures, to a set of collectable golden casts of the first four in a decorative display box. Fede's also joined with the creators of the most recent OMFG line to offer extra collectable figs for upper band backers. Should he raise enough, the first four monsters will be put into production.

Don't they look gorgeous? You can pledge here.

Saturday, 24 March 2018

WHO REVIEW: Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen (audio novelisation)

Written by James Goss, based on a story by Douglas Adams
Read by Dan Starkey

Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen is a strange beast. Its convoluted history begins with a TV serial pitch by Douglas Adams back when he was script editor for Doctor Who in the late 70s, before being reworked as a spec script for a Doctor Who movie. It might have stayed in the “unmade stories Hall of Fame” had Adams not been so adept at reusing his own material. Like City of Death and Shada, which we reworked aggressively to become the basis for the Dirk Gently books, The Krikkitmen was rewritten to become part of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. At first lined up to be the opening parts of a second Hitchhiker's TV series, it then became the basis for the third novel, Life, the Universe and Everything. Decades later, this was adapted by Dirk Maggs to become the Tertiary Phase of the original iteration of Hitchhiker's, the radio series.

Which is what makes the new novelisation of The Krikkitmen such an oddity. Based on the copious notes and plot breakdown originally submitted by Adams back in the day, the new novel by James Goss feels less like Doctor Who per se than a sort-of DW/HHGttG hybrid. This isn't odd in itself – Doctor Who was very much like Hitchhiker's in this period, mainly because Adams had his fingerprints all over it and tested out his ideas on the series. Still, The Krikkitmen does have the problem of feeling overly familiar to anyone who's read Life, the Universe and Everything.

Doctor Who fans are used to stories existing in multiple form. There are half-a-dozen versions of Adams's other grand unfinished story, Shada, and something like nine versions of the first Dalek story. It's the differences in style, content and format that make these revisits interesting. The problem with The Krikkitmen is that Adams reworked so much of it to become Life, the Universe and Everything that there isn't so much of a difference to it. The Doctor's lines were basically split between Slartibartfast and Trillian, so now the dialogue is back with the Doctor and Romana. So much of the story, particularly the opening scenes, just sound like rerunning the novel.

Still, between Adams and Goss, there's plenty more built into the Doctor Who version of the story. Goss peppers the story with references to past and (relative) future Doctor Who events, and there's a significant side plot which involves the intervention of the early Time Lords, necessitating a visit to Gallifrey. Ther's a lot more extra material, as well, with various little side trips on the quest to find the pieces of the Wicket Gate, but they make the story feel more like Hitchhiker's, not less, so rambling and bizarre they seem. Also, Adams's original story concept is still brilliant: that cricket, that most English and genteel of sports, is in fact a race memory of the most horrific and destructive interstellar war the Galaxy has ever known. Oh, and behind the Krikkitmen, there's an even worse and more destructive alien species who have the means to destroy the entire universe. It just doesn't feel fresh anymore.

Nonetheless, Goss is as close to a replacement for Adams as we're going to get. I've not read his novelisation of City of Death (my very favourite DW serial, and one I'm reluctant to revisit in prose in case it doesn't live up to the original), but the reading of The Pirate Planet is tremendous. That's one thing Goss's prose really has going for it, and another thing it has in common with Adams's: it's absolutely made to be read aloud. It's hard to beat Jon Culshaw as a reader of fourth Doctor material (as with The Pirate Planet) but Dan “Strax” Starkey does an amazing job, giving the telling a relaxed, conversational tone while perfectly capturing the Doctor and Romana.

Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen would probably have made an amazing movie once. It certainly made a great Hitchhiker's novel. It also makes for a great new Doctor Who novel, so long as you haven't read Life, the Universe and Everything first.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

REVIEW: Black Panther

Now that I finally find time to review the latest Marvel blockbuster, I can agree that yes, it is very good indeed. It's no masterpiece, but it is a very fine superhero actioner with a lot to recommend it. A tad overlong, maybe, but exciting, intelligent, surprisingly funny and hugely entertaining. However, there is no way that I, as a white man, will ever be able appreciate this film in the same way as black audience members. While Black Panther is far from the first superhero movie with a black lead, but it is the first one with a predominantly black cast, the first one set largely in Africa, and the first one that looks seriously at African and African-American concerns. I've seen a lot of blockbuster movies filled with people that look, more or less, like me. Black people haven't. I'm also a 34-year-old, not am impressionable youngster that these films are arguably designed for. It can't possibly have the same effect on me as it would on a black kid.

That said, while I'm perhaps not the right person to fully critique the movie, I recognise and appreciate just how important a film it is. Black Panther isn't simply set in Africa, it's set in a powerfully positive view of Africa. The fictional Kingdom of Wakanda hides its incredible wealth and technological power behind a sort of cloaking device, pretending that their country is just another poor, third-world collection of farms that most people would have trouble finding on a map. Although there is no African nation with the technological prowess of the Wakandans - the Marvel universe is a few years ahead of our in progress, and Wakanda a good fifty years beyond everyone else - it serves to reflect the predominant view of Africa by white and Western people. We look at Africa and see the third world. We don't see the cultural, industrial, and economical richness of the continent unless it's pointed out to us.

 However, the film doesn't shy away from criticising the Wakandans. As a powerful economic force, they have the capability to help their neighbours and those further afield, but they choose to keep themselves hidden away, for the safety of their citizens. The twin threads of the film are King T'Challa's understanding of his strength as the Black Panther, and his acceptance of his role in the world at large, both of which he needs to come to terms with in order to truly become a great king. It's important that his final victory against his enemies isn't simply his superior fighting skills, his special powers or his technological prowess, but his decision to open Wakanda to the wider world.

Chadwick Boseman builds on his initial appearance in Captain America: Civil War, making the Black Panther into a noble, mystical, yet very human and relatable character. He balances the character's roles as king, warrior, superhero and charismatic lead extremely well, dominating a very strong, varied cast. It would be easy for a lead actor to become lost amongst so many memorable co-stars. Boseman never does. There're almost two many memorable roles to choose from in the film if we want to single out a particular actor. Lupita N'Yongo is classy, formidable, likeable and exceptionally beautiful as Nakia, and undercover spy and fighter. She's T'Challa's love interest throughout the film but this is never her defining role. Other remarkable women in the film include Danai Gurira as Okoye, the finest warrior from the all-female special forces unit of Wakanda, who is as likeable as she is intimidating; and the great Angela Bassett as the Queen Mother, Ramonda.

One of the strongest elements in the production is the utilisation of various African nations and tribes to produce a varied and believable Wakandan culture. This extends not only to the complex visual and musical character of Wakanda, but also the characters who populate it. The various tribes that make up the kingdom all have their spokesperson, although only some have significant roles to play in the plot. Daniel Kaluuya is very good as W'Kabi, the head of the Border Tribe who is torn between his loyalty to his kingdom, his role in his tribe, and his friendship with T'Challa. Equally memorable is Winston Duke as the M'Baku, the towering chief of the Jabari. In the comics, M'Baku is known as Man-Ape and dresses as a gorilla, and wisely, Marvel opted not to use these deeply questionable elements in the film. Instead, the Jabari worship gorilla gods (as the Border Tribe worship rhinos and T'Challa's people worship panthers), and keep things on the respectful side of the cliche of the powerful African warrior tribe from deepest, darkest Africa. (In a nice touch, the Jabari speak the Nigerian language of Igbo, while the rest of Wakanda speak the southern African language of Xhosa. Neither is particularly likely to be spoken in the region of Africa Wakanda is supposed to be found, but it does add variety and believability to the cultures).

The favourite, though, has to be Shuri, T'Challa's younger sister, played with infectious positivity by Letitia Wright. Rather than just a princess in the usual movie mode, Shuri is the chief weapons and defence designer for Wakanda, a skilled scientist and engineer. She's like a tiny, adorable Q to T'Challa's Bond, kitting him out with ingenious supersuits and a remotely driven car, among all manner of other gizmos. Letitia Wright's performance has seen her become a firm fan favourite already, and I'm very pleased to see that she will be reappearing in Avengers: Infinity War. The character is a remarkably positive role model for young women, particularly young black women, and has the brains and confidence to challenge the cocky male superheroes with whom she'll be sharing the screen.

There's a serious flaw in this pro-black, pro-African narrative, however, in that the two major American characters threaten to derail the film and take over. Martin Freeman's CIA man Everett Ross (who previously appeared alongside T'Challa in Captain America: Civil War) spends much of the film convinced he's the one in the position of power, only to be taken to Wakanda for his own good and rudely stripped of his presumptions. Then, however, he gets in the cockpit of a Wakandan flying machine and defends the country from its invaders, a white Western guy swooping in to save the day. While it's presumably intended to show cooperation between people from different cultures, it looks a lot like another American soldier shooting a lot of brown people. Equally, Michael B. Jordan's turn as T'Challa's lost cousin, N'Jadaka aka Erik Stevens aka Killmonger, puts the power once again in American hands. Jordan is exceptionally good as Killmonger, but he represents another American influence toppling a foreign nation. While he is of Wakandan birth and embraces his heritage, culturally he is American, and in spite of his clear skill as a soldier and assassin, it's hard to accept that he can just walk into Wakanda, beat T'Challa in ritual combat and take over the kingdom. It weakens the Black Panther's character.

It's a pity that Killmonger is such a transparent villain, because his reasons for hating T'Challa and wanting to take over Wakanda are sympathetic. Having been abandoned in Harlem after his father was killed by the former king and his right-hand man, N'Jadaka has grown up in a culture that systemically suppresses and abuses black people. This is an exceptionally important issue to be exploring in film, especially with the political situation in the US getting worse all the time, and making the character so utterly evil takes away from the validity of his viewpoint. Let's not forget that the term Black Panther is still primarily associated with the Black Panther Party of the mid-to-late twentieth century, a movement that began with noble goals of emancipation before it became corrupted by crime and violent spokesmen. While Shuri's aid programme in Harlem at the film's close represents the best of the Black Panther movement, Killmonger's violent crusade against the West represents its worst excesses.

In some ways, Andy Serkis as the repellant Ulysses Klaue would make a better central villain. With his rapacious desire for wealth, disrespectful sense of humour and hatred of the "savage" Wakandans (plus a thick South African accent), he represents the colonial forces that Killmonger despises; the white man coming to the old world and plundering its resources (no coincidence that his greatest crime is not just killing Wakandans, but being the only person to successfully steal from their supply of miracle ore vibranium). On the other hand (the non-mechanical one), he's such a weak and pathetic character, for all his posturing, that he could never stand equal to T'Challa the same way Killmonger does.

Black Panther isn't perfect, then, but it is a vital new image in superhero cinema. An expansive, global, sci-fi, mystical, cultural adventure, it stands apart from the bulk of superhero and comicbook movies in its desire to speak from a different place, and on those terms it is largely a success.

BabelColour does it again

The mighty BabelColour, aka Stuart Humphryes, has redone his neverending project, the "Every Doctor Who Story" video, bringing it bang up to date. The video clocks in at over nine minutes and has clips of every Doctor Who serial and standalone episode from An Unearthly Child in November/December 1963 to "Twice Upon a Time" in December 2017, covering all the Doctors from William Hartnell to Jodie Whitaker. It's all set to the marvellous mash-up "Whorythmics" and features an opening monologue by some fine Doctor impressionists.

Previous versions of this video have ended with a rundown of spin-offs, movies, skits and adverts featuring the Doctor. This would make the video ludicrously long, so Babs is making a separate video to cover these. (If it had been my project, I'd have found some way to include the two Peter Cushing movies and the two David Tennant cartoons in the main video, but I have neither the technical ability or creative skill to make one of these and certainly not the patience and attention to detail it requires.)

Take a look at the video below and be sure to subscribe to the BabelColour YouTube channel.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

REVIEW: Tremors 5-Movie Anthology

For my birthday I received the Tremors box set, something that only recently appeared on my radar when I read that a sixth film in the series is due for release this year. I hadn't even realised that there was a fifth one, although having seen the first, second and fourth, I had deduced that there was likely a third. There was also a short-lived TV series, which follows on directly from the third movie, which I shall now have to add to my watchlist.

The original Tremors (1990), is a classic monster movie with a brilliant central concept. The sandworm class of monster isn't wholly original to Tremors – Beetlejuice had sandworms on Saturn in 1988, and legends of the Mongolian deathworm date back to at least the 1920s. Tremors, though, is the first film I'm aware of to use the idea of an underground worm as the central monster. Brent Maddock and S.S. Wilson, the writers of the franchise, really thought about how the creatures could make sense. The Graboids, with their wonderfully ludicrous name, are brilliantly realised with physical props and animatronics – state of the art techniques in 1990, and they look so much more real than even the best CGI work. Cleverly, the Graboids aren't revealed in full until a fair way into the film. To begin with, we see the results of their attacks, followed by the attacks themselves. Then we get a glimpse of a snake-like creature that is killed trying to drag off the heroes' truck. Only later is it revealed that this is just one tongue/tentacle of a much bigger monster, a thirty-foot beaked worm that emerges from beneath the ground, hunting its prey by listening to the vibrations made by movement on the surface. The final revelation is that there are three more of the creatures, weaving their way under the ground of the valley in which the town of Perfection is situated. It still bothers me that the monster on the poster barely resembles the creature in the actual film, instead being a modified and hugely inflated version of one of the tentacles.

Aside from the brilliant monster, it's the characters that make Tremors work so well. There's one thing the original has that all the sequels lack: Kevin Bacon. Some of the dialogue in Tremors is risible, but when you have someone with Bacon's charisma delivering it, it works. Bacon is one half of double act Val and Earl, along with Fred Ward, a couple of odd job men who have a relationship of mutual disrespect. There's a lovely father-son relationship between them, with Earl as the elder straight man and Val as the cocky kid. They're part of a community in the town of Perfection, mostly lifelong locals but also Walter Chang (Victor Wong), the owner of the only store in town and the man who names the Graboid, planning to use it as a moneymaking attraction before he gets eaten, and the Gummers. The Gummers are characters that, by right, I shouldn't be able to stand; a pair of right-wing gun nuts who relocated to Perfection for its complete geographic isolation and set up a self-sufficient bunker in case of World War Three. Yet somehow they're the most likeable and funny characters in the franchise, with Burt Gummer (Michael Gross) becoming the single linking character throughout all the films and the TV series, although his wife (Reba McEntire) doesn't return after the first film.

The final outsider is Rhonda LeBeck, played by Finn Carter. She's a hugely likeable leading lady, and it's surprising that she didn't appear in more films after this. A seismologist studying the strange geological activity in the area, she becomes the catch-all scientist for the film, a nice send-up of sci-fi monster movies where scientists are treated as jack-of-all-trades all-rounders instead of the specialists they usually are. There's another nice pop at the conventions when Rhonda, Val and Earl take guesses at the origins of the creatures, going for space aliens, genetically engineered weapons, radioactive mutations and prehistoric monsters (the latter turns out to be true in the next movie). Rhonda and Val have a sweetly awkward romance, another character dynamic that makes the film work so well. The relationships and humour, along with the combination of a killer central monster and the nature of the setting (both expansive and isolated), make Tremors work so very well.

A sequel was a pretty obvious, given the success of the original as a popular and cult hit (even if Kevin Bacon initially hated it). Nonetheless, it didn't arrive until six years later, and went straight to video. Tremors 2: Aftershocks (1996) has a brilliant tagline: “The worms have turned.” Fred Ward returns as Earl, hired to help capture or kill Graboids that have overrun a plot in Mexico. He's joined by Grady Hoover (Christopher Gartin) as his new young plucky sidekick, but fake Bacon is no substitute for the real thing. There's also a new female scientist, a geologist named Kate “White” Reilly (Helen Shaver), who provides the scientific exposition (although she doesn't know what the word “hermaphrodite” means). She's also the romantic interest for Earl, and having an older woman to match the older hero is a nice touch. Still, it's hard to escape the impression that these are weaker stand-ins for the original team.

To expand the idea enough to carry another film, the writers introduce a new form for the creatures. After spending some time polishing off Graboids, recruiting Burt Gummer to assist (literally bringing in the big guns), there's a risk that the monsters are going to be reduced as a threat (just like the Alien before them, or the Borg, or Godzilla, or any one of a hundred recurring monsters). With this in mind, having the Graboids transform, hatching into new creatures, keeps things fresh. Still, the new life stage, the Shriekers, are nowhere near as effective as the original Graboids. The influence of Jurassic Park can be felt here, and not only with the talk of a Graboid theme park; the Shriekers look a lot like piggy Velociraptors. Other than the beaked face, there's little to identify them as part of the same species as the Graboids. They now run around above the ground, and their most frightening feature, hunting people by the tiniest sound they make, is removed. Instead, the creatures are deaf and essentially blind, hunting by the infrared radiation produced by body heat, much like a rattlesnake (or the Predator). They also have a peculiar method of reproduction, hacking up a fully formed Shrieker after they've eaten enough food. Aftershocks is good fun, but it's a poor comparison with the original.

Tremors 3: Back to Perfection (2001), as the title suggests, goes back to the setting of the original, bringing back all the surviving minor characters from that film: Ariana Richards as Mindy (all growed up), Charlotte Stewart as her mum Nancy, Tony Genaro as Miguel, even Robert Jayne as Melvin, no longer a teenager but still an obnoxious creep. The writers have finally realised that Michael Gross is the star of their franchise, and Burt Gummer has now been promoted to lead hero, still living in Perfection and completely equipped for a Graboid incursion, in spite of the creatures being extinct in the area for the last eleven years. He's even got a new house that is built into an impenetrable concrete shell. In some of the best exposition I've ever heard, Burt lays out the life cycle of the Graboid as known so far in the opening moments, happily covering the developments of the second film. Back in Perfection, Chang's niece Jodi (Susan Chuang) runs a rebuilt store in his honour, selling Graboid merchandise alongside all the essentials (the comics look pretty cool, even if they do consistently misspell Shrieker as “Shreiker”). Meanwhile, up-and-comer Jack Sawyer (Shawn Christian) is making money by conning stupid tourists into shelling out for Graboid tours. Of course, hilarity ensues when the Graboids turn out to be less-than-extinct in Perfection.

Technically speaking, this is the weakest of the three films so far. By this stage, CGI had gotten cheap enough to render the bulk of the effects. This is the beginning of the era of low-budget CG monster movies, with shonky CGI horrors en masse. It's just not as effective as physical effects though, and while there are some puppets used for human-Graboid interaction, the best shots are reused footage from the first film (with a completely different texture so that they stand out like a sore thumb). The increasingly unlikely Graboid life cycle gets a third and final stage, as the Shriekers turn out to be surprisingly short-lived, sloughing off their skins to become Ass-Blasters. I'm not keen on the Ass-Blasters, although I love the idea that they use internal propellants to fart themselves into the sky. I guess it makes sense that the creatures go from underground, to above ground, to the skies, and they are revealed to lay eggs, which goes some way to making the life cycle make sense. I'm just not a fan of the design though. They're even more dinosaur-like than the Shriekers, and with the safari park elements, there's a definite Jurassic Park riff going on here. Even the ending has the same predatorial twist. However, they don't quite go as far as having Ariana Richards recreate her classic Velociraptor scene in the kitchens.

Still, this is fun and overall more enjoyable than Aftershocks, and this comes down to the characters. They can't save the worst parts of the dialogue and they recycle old jokes, but the interaction of likeable characters, along with the sense of community from the original, make this a pretty successful follow-up. Very, very silly, but a lot of fun, and we get to see Gummer swallowed by a Graboid and still come out fighting.

After three films and a follow-up TV series, things were beginning to get pretty stale in Perfection, so for the fourth film a new direction was taken. Tremors 4: The Legend Begins goes back a century to the old West, when Perfection was still the poorly marketed town of Rejection. This provides a shot in the arm to the franchise and results in the best of the spin-off films. In many ways, The Legend Begins goes back to basics, cutting out Shriekers and Ass-Blasters and bringing the focus back to the Graboids themselves. A slight new twist on the creatures is provided by giving us little Graboid hatchlings that rocket through the soil and leap out at their prey. The larvae are recognisably Graboids – or Dirt Dragons as they're dubbed here – but they're a somewhat different threat, requiring sharp shooters rather than heavy munitions. Good thing it's the sort of place a sharp shooter can be called upon to rid the town of varmints. Of course, the full grown Graboids aren't far behind. Much of the film takes place in and around a silver mine, giving us the unsettling prospect of Graboids attacking as easily from above as from below, and without ever giving them jet-propelled anuses.

Michael Gross is the star once again, but this time playing Hiram Gummer, Burt's ancestor and the owner of the silver mine. In a very funny twist on the character, Hiram is an avowed pacifist who has never used a firearm. It's great fun seeing him gradually embrace the life of a paranoid gun nut. Gross is just brilliant, making the most of the chance to play an uptight new character who's still very recognisably a Gummer. History is rewritten in this instalment, with not only Burt but Chang's ancestor settled in pre-Perfection. Sara Botsford plays the rather Heather-like hotellier Christine, while August Schelleberg is Tecopa, a young Native American who becomes Hiram's default sidekick. Billy Drago has a memorable turn as laconic gunslinger Black Hand Kelly. There's a lot of fun to be had with this idea, and The Legend Begins rattles along nicely to an inventive finish.

It was a whopping eleven years before the fifth and to-date-latest movie was released. Tremors 5: Bloodlines (2015) follows on from the 2003 TV series, which itself follows on from Back to Perfection. Burt Gummer, now getting on a bit, is making a tenuous living in the deserts around Perfection as a celebrity survivalist, filming himself in the wild living off snakes, like a less annoying Bear Grylls. This gives Gross plenty of chances to talk directly to the camera and exposit for all he's worth, bringing up any new viewers (or anyone who's come straight from the original) on the Graboid life cycle once again. So far, not so different from Back to Perfection, until two new characters arrive: Travis Welker, replacement cameraman (Jamie Kennedy) and Erich van Wyk (Daniel Janks), a dodgy South African who recruits the pair of them to come back to the RSA with him to take care of their Ass-Blaster problem. Of course, as Gummer says, “If you've got Ass-Blasters, you've got Graboids.”

The new setting works really well, finally taking the franchise out of Perfection and shaking up the threat a little with it. Setting it in a safari reserve gives the opportunity for some beautiful landscapes and wildlife shots (plenty of stock footage usage here), and there's a different feel to the movie than the wall-to-wall Americana of the previous films. Gummer once more finds himself without the required need-to-know information when facing a new, African species of Graboid. Introducing them via the Ass-Blasters first is a different approach too, so we're kept waiting for the eventual Graboid reveal. There's some interesting use of southern African folklore,with the Ass-Blasters likened to the impundulu, the legendary vampiric lightning bird. They also have sickle claws, proving, in a well-executed kitchen scene, that what Back to Perfection was missing was indeed a Velociraptor tribute scene. By this stage, CGI had advanced to the point where the monsters look bloody good, and there's no longer that huge gulf in quality between physical and visual effects. The redesigned monsters look gnarlier and more vicious than ever – the Ass-Blasters are much better than the BtP version – and while the Queen Graboid isn't as reworked, it's significantly larger and nastier, and to top it off, the tongue/tentacles can detach and go hunting on their own. While nothing beats the original Graboid design and concept, the African version is just different enough to keep things interesting.

Gross is still the star as Gummer, now completely embodying the role, while Jamie Kennedy makes a good foil as the young and overly confident Travis. Kennedy always skirts a line between likeable and annoying, and that's no different here, but he manages to fall mostly on the right side of that line. With a whole new cast of characters to introduce, the writers take advantage of the uncertainty by bringing in potentially significant figures and then killing them off, so no one ever feels safe. Well, except for Travis's unrequited love interest Nandi, played by the gorgeous Safrican actress Pearl Thusi. Brandon Auret plays her on/off suitor Johan, who vies for the main action role with Gummer.

Bloodlines was a long-time coming, so it's not surprising I'd thought the franchise dead. The original creative team had little to do with it, with W. Truesmith and M.A. Deuce taking up writing duties, and a bit of new blood does the franchise no harm. Early developments suggested an Australian setting, but the decision to use South Africa works so well that I'm pleased they changed their minds. Reportedly, Kevin Bacon expressed interest in returning early on, taking time out from his EE adverts, but this wasn't to be. In the event, we got a fifth film that revives the franchise with some great humour and action. I'm looking forward to the sixth film, the Arctic-set Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell, which is due in the coming months, and there are rumblings of a Bacon-filled Netflix series. Still, Bloodlines ends with Burt and Travis touring the world as monster hunters, and this is a spin-off that surely we deserve to see.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Master of the Universe

Stephen Hawking has died, aged 76. When he was 21 and diagnosed with a severe form of motor neurone disease, his doctors gave him two years to live. He sure showed them. Perhaps the greatest theoretical physicist of all time, certainly the most well-known, prolific and gifted physicist of the modern age, he held the Lucasian Chair at Cambridge, formerly held by Sir Isaac Newton, formulated theories of singularities within general relativity, proposed a union of quantum and relativistic physics and proved that black holes emit radiation (now called Hawking radiation).

Hawking would habitually make wagers with his fellow scientists on the most leading edge hypotheses, and would be wrong as often as right. He was never afraid to accept when he was wrong and work on new information to formulate new theories. A firm believer in the Many Worlds Interpretation, Hawking hypothesised multiple pasts for the universe and was still working on ideas at the very edge of understanding when he died. He also had a wicked sense of humour, an eye for the ladies, and was a huge fan of Star Trek and Red Dwarf, like all right-thinking people. The very last contribution he made to popular culture was an appearance as the voice of the Guide Mk. 2 in the latest series of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. He died one week after it was first broadcast.

One of the true greats, who will be remembered for his contributions to science for centuries to come.

Monday, 12 March 2018

REVIEW: Ghostbusters Annual 2018

I can't quite explain the childlike joy I feel when cracking open a Ghostbusters annual. A regular feature of my nineties Christmases, the tradition was resurrected in 2015 by IDW as a sideline to their ongoing Ghostbusters comic series. The 2015 and 2017 annuals (there wasn't a 2016 one, so it's not exactly annual) contained a mix of strips and stories, this year's release features a single, bumper length story that bridges the gap between Ghostbusters 101 and the upcoming multiverse crossover event Crossing Over. While it acts as a teaser for the latter, it makes for a nice little story in itself, in which the 'busters encounter the IDW universe version of Samhain, the pumpkin-headed spirit of Hallowe'en.

The script has some nice little snaps at the original RGB episode "When Hallowe'en Was Forever," like pointing out that Samhain isn't pronounced how it's spelled and that it really doesn't make sense for an ancient Irish spirit to have a pumpkin for a head when the things come from the Americas. But Erik Burnham knows that the episode is a fan favourite for a reason, and this is nothing more or less than a chance to see the core Ghostbusters battle one of the animated series' most memorable foes. I love the new semi-skeletal design for Samhain, and Shoening and Delgado once more form a fantastic artistic team peppering their story with fun little nods to the franchise. Finally, in order to defeat Samhain and a huge army of ghosts, Egon does the unfathomable and brings in 'busters from every universe possible. It's simply tremendous fun, and ends with a nice little teaser for Crossing Over, which promises to be ridiculous.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

REVIEW: The Cloverfield Paradox

So, this one has gotten a bad press, and to be fair, I can see why. It's a bit of a mess, narratively speaking, and the shoehorned in link to Cloverfield, while it no doubt helped get the thing made, works really poorly. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the film. It's a schlocky sci-fi horror in the vein of Event Horizon, with a dash of Alien, a touch of Gravity, and plenty of derivative but mostly effective nonsense. Spoilers follow.

The Cloverfield Paradox started life as The God Particle, a spec script by Oren Uziel, until it was picked up by J.J. Abrams, who rewrote it to become part of his Cloverfield mythos. The original Cloverfield, which came out way back in 2008, was good fun and a new take on the Daikaiju genre, before the fake found footage style had become overused and stale. This was followed up, unexpectedly, by 10 Cloverfield Lane in 2016, which I haven't seen but is reportedly another movie which was rewritten to tie into the Cloverfield universe. The God Particle focused on a particle accelerator experiment that still forms the core of the finished movie. (Presumably it was somehow about the Higgs boson, and there's a line about that fundamental particle in the finished script, that doesn't really tie into anything.)

The finished film is set in 2028, when an major energy crisis has put the world on the brink of all-out war. Germany and Russia, in particular, are at each other's throats, but seemingly the whole of Europe is a tinderbox. To find a new source of perpetually renewable energy, Space Station Cloverfield has been set up in Earth orbit, to begin experiments with a gigantic particle accelerator which will potentially unlock infinite energies from space/time. The search for energy combined with unknown perils is common enough in sci-fi now that it's almost become a subgenre in itself. The space station is the modern day haunted house, or in Doctor Who terms, an isolated base under siege. Tensions are high among the international crew after two years locked up together without results, and then, finally, the accelerator works and produces a stream of powerful energy. Unfortunately, it runs out of control, damaging the station and knocking everyone for six. When they recover, there's no sign of the Earth.

It takes these top tier scientists a long time to realise that they've moved along Earth's orbit and that their view is being blocked by the sun, and longer still to realise that they've actually passed into a parallel universe. Increasingly bizarre horror situations occur for under-explained reasons. It mashes together a number of sci-fi ideas that don't work terribly well together logistically. In fact, none of the plot really makes much sense, so I can entirely understand why some commentators had such a hard time with it.

On the other hand, I think they made the mistake of taking it too seriously. While it sets itself up a scientific drama, it very rapidly becomes clear that this is anything but, and it's best watched as the melodramatic nonsense it is. There's a lack of tonal consistency, but this can work if taken far enough, and it just about does here, with outright horror mixing with earnest futurism, conspiracy theorism mixing with heartfelt family speeches and extreme danger mixing with bizarre moments of humour. Again, the Doctor Who comparison works: just like DW, the film throws together a bunch of ideas and genres and sees what it can get away with. The best moments are the most out-there: the shifty Russian guy goes crazy and then explodes into a shower of worms; Chris O'Dowd's laconic engineer gets his arm bitten off by a wall, only for it to crawl back to him and write him a note. (“My arm saved us!”) Neither of these events is met with any real explanation, other than that having two dimensions in contact produces weird results.

So, it's nonsense, but creepy, entertaining nonsense. It wouldn't work nearly as well if it weren't for a really excellent cast. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is the star of the ensemble, as believable and likeable as ever as Hamilton, a woman who has lost her children and so endures separation from her husband, using her mission as a way to cope and atone for her sense of responsibility for the tragedy. She's an excellent lead and holds the film together, but the whole cast are pretty great here. Daniel Bruhl plays the German physicist Schmidt, who is the target of some conspiracy theorising himself, which turns out to be true in one universe but not the other. David Oyelowo is the rugged station commander, Kiel, the beautiful Zhang Ziyi is Tam, the Chinese chief physicist (who speaks only in Mandarin throughout). Completing the crew are Aksel Hennie as Russian engineer Volkov, John Ortiz as Monk, the medic, and the aforementioned Chris O'Dowd as Mundy, although I still see him as Roy from The IT Crowd. One of the nest turns comes from Elizabeth Debicki, who plays Jensen, the chief physicist of the other reality, who is discovered almost fused with the station itself after it materialised in place of its counterpart. She acts as a rational but dangerously unknowable element throughout.

A weaker element of the script is that it continues to jump back to events on Earth, as Hamilton's husband (played well by Roger Davies) learns of the station's disappearance while trying to deal with catastrophe all around him. To begin with this works with the narrative, as we're not always sure which reality we're following, but once it's clear that the wartorn Europe seen on news reports is Jensen's home, it's clear that something stranger is happening in the primary reality. Helpfully, some nutcase has already appeared on TV earlier in the film, spouting his own conspiracy theories about how the experiment will tear open the universe and unleash demons into the past, present and future. It's a terribly hackneyed piece of exposition that robs the eventual reveal of any mystery.

I mean, we know it's linked to Cloverfield so we expect the final reveal that the great big monster from that film (or another great big monster rather like it, the timing is askew here and the two films don't even necessarily occur in the same reality). The script is never sure whether it's meant to play this as a surprise or ass an origin story, and it falls between the two stools. The link to Cloverfield is the weakest element in a confused production, but there's still a lot of fun to be had with this silly film, as long as you don't take it too seriously.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Thirty years of RED DWARF

A little later than planned, my retrospective for Red Dwarf's thirtieth anniversary is now available to read at Television Heaven.

Click the image to jump to lightspeed.