Saturday 22 December 2018

WHOTOPIA issue 33 out now

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

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

Click on the link to download and read for free.

Friday 14 December 2018

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

The Kelpien Hello

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 12 December 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best line:

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

Season eleven rankings:

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

Friday 7 December 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 1 December 2018

CHROMAKEY issue 1 available soon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


$9.99 CAD | Available POD from

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