Tuesday 29 January 2019

TREK REVIEW: Discovery 2-2 - "New Eden"

Well, that's more like it. As much as I've enjoyed Discovery so far, there haven't been many episodes that have felt particularly Trek-like. This isn't in itself a bad thing, given that the Trek formula has chugged along for decades and needed a good kick up the arse, but sometimes it'd be nice to see an old-fashioned mission to a strange new world and a mystery to solve. "New Eden" gives us exactly that: a very traditional Star Trek plot told in a fast-paced, modern way.

Following on quickly from the season opener, "Brothers," the episode continues to explore the mystery of the seven red starbursts and the image of the red angel. Another red burst is detected, over fifty thousand light years from the Discovery's position, deep in the uncharted sectors of the Beta Quadrant. In spite of the enormous distance, which would take 150 years to cover at high warp, Captain Pike elects to boot up the spore drive and take a huge jump across space to go investigate. When they get there, the red burst has gone again, but a new mystery presents itself: a distress signal emanating from a nice little human town.

What follows is that classic Trek set-up: the pre-warp society, with the added mystery of how a bunch of humans managed to get 50 kly from Earth without warp drive. Pike, Burnham and Owesekun (finally given a trip away from the bridge and a little character background) beam down to the surface to investigate the colony of New Eden. Long story short, in 2057, a bunch of people were abducted out from the middle of World War Three, spirited away to another planet and left to build a community.

Season two of Discovery has been said to have a theme of "science vs. faith," something that Star Trek has explored before with mixed success. This episode, however, handles the debate with some subtlety and even-handedness. Pike (Anson Mount), displays an unexpected spiritual side, recognising the sanctity of the Church and its importance as the central point of the town. Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), having been raised to the strict tenets of logic of Vulcan society, has little patience for the religious people of New Eden, although she also positions this as science being her faith. (Admittedly, Vulcan society as anti-religious is a little hard to accept, giving all the mystical rituals and actual body-hopping ghosts on Vulcan, so perhaps this is more Michael's view than her culture's). Owesekun (Oyin Oladejo) comes from a "Luddite commune" (presumably the 23rd century version of the Amish or suchlike), but her family are non-believers. The New Eden folk worship the red angel that rescued them, combining it with a multitude of faiths from Earth into a new religion.

What's so effective about this element is how respectfully the script treats the Eden people. Burnham may dismiss their beliefs but she never treats them as stupid. Jacob (Andrew Moodie), the most scientifically minded of the community, is positioned as the closest thing to the Starfleet mindset, but even he has faith in the mystery of his people's past. Trek has always displayed an atheist perception of the universe, even as it has populated it with gods, but occasionally an episode comes along to suggest that science and religion might not be as incompatible as they might initially seem. It might not quite cross over to real life - there aren't really red angels and wormhole aliens and Q acting as gods - but it's a good attitude nonetheless.

The theme of faith informs the episode in other ways too. Stamets (Anthony Rapp), a pure scientist, is beginning to develop his own faith in the mysterious mycelial network, submitting to yet another dangerous trip through the spore drive in the hopes of seeing his late partner again. Tilly (Mary Wiseman) also has her own spiritual experience when she is visited by a long-dead school buddy after a dark matter-related accident puts her in sickbay. To be honest, I'm not pleased at the spore drive being reactivated so soon. Tilly's mission to find a new way of fuelling the drive, without resorting to a living interface, is pretty irrelevant if they can just keep plugging Stamets in. On the other hand, it seems to be building up to something interesting that I wouldn't be surprised somehow links up to the red angels. The writers have to do something to scupper the spore drive eventually, or it's going to be impossible to incorporate this into continuity (that said, the original Enterprise frequently made seemingly impossible trips to the edges of the galaxy, so perhaps there is room for some crossover there).

"New Eden" is also a Prime Directive episode, that most well-worn of Trek story types, but a far more intelligently written one than we usually got in the past. The colony on Terralysium falls under the rule of General Order One since the inhabitants haven't achieved warp drive, and as such can't be informed of the existence of alien life - including the interstellar civilisation now based on Earth. Pike is staunchly in favour of going by the book, while Burnham doesn't see how it can apply to a human society that has already been altered by alien intervention. Rather than interminable debates in the ready room over whether or not to inform the Eden folk of their heritage, the debate is handled with a lighter touch that makes both sides reasonable. There's a definite argument to say that they do have a right to rejoin Earth society, but on the other hand, aside from some limited technology life on Terralysium doesn't seem too bad at all.

Out in the planet's rings, a radiation event is approaching, one that is dealt with by the Discovery crew, but at no point is there any discussion about whether preventing this from wiping out the colony would constitute unlawful interference. Because that would be idiotic, and no one would suggest such a thing until the time of The Next Generation. (Seriously, I despise episodes like "Homeward," where a lazy cod-ethical debate honestly asks us to consider that allowing a civilisation to be wiped out by a natural disaster is in any way morally preferable to interfering with its societal development. And yet there are fans complaining that this episode didn't have a moment when Saru said, "According to the Prime Directive, they've all got to die because that's just the way it is.) In any case, the event is stopped by some nifty thinking on Discovery with no need to make contact with the people on the surface, while Pike and Burnham come to a compromise on exactly how much knowledge can be permitted to reach the people of the colony.

If this episode is any indication, Discovery season two could really be the Star Trek we've been waiting for. The mystery of the red angels - and of Spock's apparent madness - is becoming very intriguing. It'll be interesting to see how - and if - everything is tied up at the end of the season.

Thursday 24 January 2019

Superhero Shows Roundup: Legends of Tomorrow season three and four (part one)

Legends of Tomorrow has gradually gone from being the corny extra series alongside Flash and Arrow to being one of my favourite TV series of recent years. The rolling team members, unashamedly silly adventures, and continually shifting settings keep the series constantly fresh and entertaining. Add to that genuinely likeable characters (both the heroes and villains), witty dialogue and an absolute bevy of geektastic in-jokes and you have a series that is simply tremendous fun. Really, there are more Back to the Future jokes in this series than can reasonably be expected to fit.

To be honest, although I'm still hugely enjoying Doctor Who, Legends is the series that is making the most of its temporal potential. The Waverider leaps up and down the timeline, screwing with history, fixing it, screwing it up again, tackling anachronisms, arch-villains and temporal paradoxes. Season two ended with the ludicrously named Rip Hunter (Arthur Darvill, Doctor Who link number one) leaving the Legends to protect history against the Legion of Doom, only to see them rapidly create a paradox so immense that it shattered history. Rip then stopped being a pseudo-Doctor figure and set up his own Men in Black (well, blue) to replace the destroyed Time Masters. The Time Bureau provided a new background to the series; not allies or villains, as such, but a starch-shirted group to act as rivals to the Legends.

Season three starts with the Legends trying to return to what passes for normal life, while the Bureau tracks down anachronisms - historical figures (and occasional prehistoric monsters) that slip through space-time to places they shouldn't belong. Helen of Troy. Elvis Presley. P.T. Barnum (played by Billy Zane!). The first episode sees the Legends under Captain Lance (Caity Lotz) steal the Waverider back from the Bureau, reunited with Steel, the Atom, the twin hero Firestorm and everyone's favourite Mick "Heatwave" Rory to go and capture Julius Caesar, who has arrived in Aruba, 2017. Legends simply has tremendous fun with the time travel concept. Most of the characters get a focus episode, an we get to see the childhoods and parents of characters like Ray and Rory. In spite of the silliness and comedic nature of the series, the stakes are high in these adventures and there are serious emotional stakes for the characters too. It's solid adventure drama.

Amaya (Maisie Richardson-Sellers), the first version of the superhero Vixen, is absent in the first episode, having returned to Africa in 1942 to fulfil her destiny. Her return to the Legends causes all kinds of temporal problems, not least of which is the appearance of her villainous granddaughter Kuasa, the Water Witch (Tracy Ifeachor, Doctor Who link number two - dreadful actress but never mind). Another element that I love about Legends is its connections to the wider DC universe. Not only does it take part in the annual Arrowverse crossover event - the expansive Crisis on Earth-X four-parter - it cherry-picks the best characters from across the DC televisual universe. Even Wally West (Keiynan Lonsdale) works far better when he temporarily joins the team, far better than he does in the shadow of the Flash.

After starting as a fairly straight crime-and-vigilante series, Arrow spun-off into The Flash and introduced metahumans into the mix. Then it began to introduce magic, which opened up all sorts of avenues for stories, not least of which was the incorporation of John Constantine (Matt Ryan) into the Arrowverse. After a guest spot in season five of Arrow, Constantine's own series was retconned into being part of the same universe. After drawing on Arrow and The Flash for its villains in season two, Legends brought back Damien Darhk (Neal McDonough) again to be a major villain in season three. Darhk is a villain who simply refuses to stay dead, with time travel giving the show an excuse to bring him back again and again, and to be fair, McDonough's performance is such archvillainous fun it's hard to blame the showrunners.

In a fun twist, the temporal paradoxes plaguing history had the side effect of weakening the walls between dimensions, allowing the demon Mallus to encroach on our world. Mallus - perfectly voiced by John Noble, who makes a late-season cameo as himself in one of the most knowing and funny moments in the series - joins forces with Darhk and his daughter Nora (Courtney Ford) to break free into reality. This brings Constantine into the mix as a recurring character, joining the Legends team as a regular for season four. That's not the extent of the DC pick-and-mix, though. We go an a trip to the future of the 21st century, when both metahumans and religion are illegal - for religion, read Islam. Anti-Trump sentiment runs high on this show, and that's no bad thing (hell, Barack Obama even makes an appearance). Here the Legends recruit Zari Tomaz (Tala Ashe, and be still my beating heart), who is the Arrowverse equivalent of the superhero Isis. This suggests that it's only a matter of time before Black Adam and Captain Marvel/Shazam are introduced as well. Zari is on the best characters to be introduced in season three, a brassy, confident but vulnerable woman with real depth and an absolute favourite of mine.

The on-off, join-leave-rejoin nature of the regular cast really helps keep this series fresh. The loss of Martin Stein (the great Victor Garber) was heartbreaking, leading to another rejig of the series as his Heatwave partner Jefferson Jackson (Franz Drameh) eventually leaves in turn. On the other hand, the Time Bureau includes the wonderfully nebbish Gary (Adam Tsekhman) and the bad-ass-as-hell Agent Ava Sharpe (Jes Macallan), who goes from being cold-hearted but hard-as-nails to becoming one of the most likeable and entertaining characters as her own mysterious origins are revealed. (Don't want to spoil everything here, but it's sci-fi gold.) Ava and Sara, after a serious rivalry at the beginning, end up in one of the sweetest relationships in the series (much more believable than Amay and Nate).

That's another thing I love about this series. It's unrelentlessly, unashamedly bi. With bi-erasure still so common on TV, to have three characters who are openly bisexual (Sara, Gary and Constantine) enjoying both casual and committed relationships is tremendously heartening. Alongside the endless geeky references, there are plenty of naughty jokes, and let's be fair, this is a damned sexy series as well. And, as if incredibly beautiful people, time travel, monsters and geeky jokes weren't enough, the episode title are among the most pun-tastic in history. Searching for Helen of Troy? It's a "Helen Hunt." Searching for a magical orb that controls life and death? You're "Necromancing the Stone." Nora facing two different version of her father? It's "No Country for Old Dads." This show could have been made for me.

Eventually, Mallus is defeated upon his manifestation in the physical world - using a giant cuddly toy named Beebo (a reference to so many things, including Rick and Morty, and the one time Legends has failed to make the obvious Ghostbusters reference - after all, "It just popped in there.") Unfortunately for the universe, Mallus's interdimensional prison also held any number of magical beings, imprisoned for the threat they pose to humankind (real or imagined). Season four launched with the show completely embracing the magical side of the Arrowverse, with missions no longer revolving around sorting anachronisms but capturing magical beasts. With the Time Bureau now fully allied to the Legends, no doubt aided by Ava's relationship with Sara, time travel is now monster hunting as well, and the Bureau are charged with holding magical creatures like a high-tech Newt Scamander. Nate "Steel" Heywood even joins the Bureau, and in one of those fabulous coincidences so common in genre TV, his father - played by none other than Tom "Biff" Wilson - is in charge of their budgeting with Homeland Security. With Back to the Future references now dialled up to eleven, and a different magical creature each week, the series is only getting more fun. Of course, Nate left the Legends partly because Amaya left him to return to 1942 again, but Maisie Richardson-Sellers is back on the series as the shapeshifter Charlie. Inititally played in her primary form by Anjli Mohindra (Doctor Who link number three), Charlie is a Cockney punk faerie and allows MRS to stop pretending to have an illogical American accent.

Oh, and Constantine's on the run from Neron, a demon so powerful and legendary in DC canon that he makes Mallus look like the Tooth Fairy. With season four returning for its second half in April, I'm determined to add regular Legends reviews to the blog. It's just endlessly entertaining.

Saturday 19 January 2019

TREK REVIEW: Discovery 2-1 -"Brother"

Here begins the much anticipated second season of Discovery, touted as taking the series back to the ideals of Star Trek. We're hoping for more hope, optimism, futurism and exploration after a year of warfare. In line with this, Discovery is folding the original Star Trek into its storyline, or at least, the original pilot. "Brothers," leading directly from the cliffhanger end to season one, sees Captain Pike leave the Enterprise (gutted by a cosmic event) and take command of the USS Discovery.

Does this episode manage its goal of bringing Star Trek back on track? Well, yes and no. There's definitely a feeling of wonder that the first season of Discovery did display, but that was too often lost amongst all the grim, gritty darkness. Space is still a dangerous place, but it's also a remarkable place, and although the mystery of the red bursts is described as a threat, it's also clearly a scientific wonder. (After all, seven events going off simultaneously at different points of the galaxy is certainly impossible.)

In some ways, this is very much Star Trek in the traditional style, with long meetings on the bridge, technobabble and all. In others, it's still very much informed by the Abramsverse movies, particularly the asteroid journey sequence which combines the space fall of the 2009 film and the breach of the Vengeance from Star Trek Into Darkness, right down to the cocky dickhead who gets himself killed. The introduction of Tig Notaro's character, Reno, on the wreck of the Hiawatha, also strongly recalls the way Scotty was introduced in the 2099 movie.

Notaro's hugely likeable Reno is the sole new character to be introduced in the episode, save for a couple of barely there Enterprise crewmembers (including the commander who appears to be a Barzan, which seems unlikely in the 23rd century but is corroborated by Memory Alpha). Like Pegg's Scotty she's a remarkable engineer who's become overly blunt due to time spent alone, but brilliantly she's been doing everything she can to keep her comatose fellow crew alive, forced to use her engineering skills to act as mechanic on the human machine.

Anson Mount is excellent as Pike, who is perhaps my favourite of the Trek captains, even on a par with Picard. He isn't the Pike of the movies, but has some of the same charismatic presence as Bruce Greenwood, but at the same time isn't quite the same man as Jeffrey Hunters original version. He's a good deal more open, casually friendly and carefree than either version of Pike we've seen before, although it's not too hard to reconcile Mount's and Hunter's. After all, the original Pike was more dour and downcast, but he'd just been through a gruelling mission, and was on the verge of quitting Starfleet. This is two years later and his enthusiasm has clearly returned. He stills displays a down-to-earth lack of pretentiousness that reflects the old Pike. Plus, he failed astrophysics, so we have something in common.

The established cast get less time in the spotlight, although there are some beautiful moments between Tilly and Stamets. Saru, though, and oddly enough, Michael, seem to get short shrift. Michael actually gets a lot of screentime and is nominally the focus of the episode, but is strangely underserved. Part of the problem is the huge, Spock-shaped hole in the episode. The narrative deforms around his absence, teasing us with glimpses of him as a child in such a way that he dominates Michael's own storyline. This season is clearly going to revolve around the red angels/starbursts and Spock's disappearance, and he's pulling the narrative off course.

For an opening episode, "Brother" is lacking something. In spite of the mystery, the combination of talk and action, and the promising new characters, it lacks oomph. The story didn't grip me in the way the beginning of a mystery should. Still, there's potential there, and I look forward to seeing where the series is going.

Wednesday 16 January 2019

Ghostbusters are back, again?

Well, this was unexpected. There had been rumblings from Sony and Ivan Reitman as far back as 2016 that another live-action film was going to follow the Paul Feig version, but even these were vague and contradicted each other. One report suggested it would exist alongside the Answer the Call team but feature male 'bsters, probably including Chris Hemsworth and/or Pratt and/or Pine. Dan Aykroyd came out last year to say that yes, his old plan for a third movie in the original continuity was going ahead with himself and Ernie Hudson back in busting, with Bill Murray as a ghost - the same story he'd been reporting for the last twenty years. And yet, today, Jason Reitman (son of Ivan) revealed that a new movie, in continuity with the originals but featuring at least some new Ghostbusters, was about to enter production and should be on screens by 2020. There's even a teaser trailer.

I mean, there's very much a sense of "I'll believe it when I see it." Films can slip back into Development Hell as easily as they can hit the headlines. Still, 2020 is only next year, and even at the rate they churn films out these days, it must be fairly advanced if it's planned for then.

So, I'm cautiously excited. Reitman Sr. is onboard as producer. Reitman Jr. has some interesting scripts under his belt, he directed Juno, which was rather brilliant, and it sounds like he's a huge fan of the originals and gets what made them work while also having modern sensibilities. His co-writer Gil Kenan doesn't seem to have any previous writing credits, but he directed Monster House and the Poltergeist remake, so he has some form with spooky visuals. It could be something really special. I just hope it actually happens.

Tuesday 15 January 2019

REVIEW: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

After a very busy Christmas and New Year where I lacked any time to visit the cinema, I've finally managed to see Into the Spider-Verse, on the last weekend it was showing in my area. I'm very pleased that I managed to catch it - it's bloody brilliant.

I've seen seven Spider-Man movies - nine if you count Civil War and Infinity War - and Into the Spider-Verse is inarguably the best of them. Into the Spider-Verse is a new avenue for Spider-Man on film; while there have been numerous animated series (which I took a look at a while back), this is the first time an animated feature has been made starring Spidey. It seems bizarre that it's taken so long for a studio to make this, given how perfectly suited Spider-Man is to the animated format. And it's funny that it took Sony's heel-turn on the Spidey front, suddenly dropping all their plans and building bridges with Marvel, to make this happen. If Marvel hadn't rebooted the Spider-Man franchise for the second time in fifteen years, it's doubtful that the proposed animated series would have received the heartfelt backing that it did. Sony have poured a lot of money into this, while allowing its creators a lot of leeway to build a new Spider-Man franchise in their own vision.

The first thing to notice is that this is a visually spectacular film. With a combination of 3D computer-animated techniques and hand-drawn artwork, the film has a unique visual style. It's the closest thing to actually watching a comicbook onscreen, with the sheer relentless action of superhero comics faithfully reproduced. This is no stilted motion comic; the action scenes are frenetic but always completely clear and easy to follow, while the design of Spider-Man's New York is stylistically striking and alive.

It's also doubtful that, without Marvel recasting Peter Parker and incorporating him into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Sony would have elected to bring a film starring Miles Morales to the big screen. Not that Parker's absent - very much the opposite, there are several of him - but this is very much Miles's film, and rightly so. A young mixed race character heading a superhero movie is still a big deal, even nearly twenty years after Miles was introduced in the Ultimate Spider-Man line. The film takes after the comic series origin story heavily, with the original Spider-Man of Miles's world, a blonde-haired Peter Parker (voiced by Chris Pine in a starry cameo) killed in action and Miles taking on his mantle after he, too, is bitten by the traditional radioactive spider.

Beyond this, though, it's the relatively recent Spider-Verse crossover event that informs the storyline. Spider-Verse, and its Edge of Spider-Verse support titles, created an epic multiversal adventure that actually worked, bringing together disparate versions of Spider-Man from different quantum realities to fight alongside each other. For all the sweet nods to the past and outrageously geeky moments, though, the Spider-Verse event was a fairly grim affair. Into the Spider-Verse is anything but. Although it has its share of heartbreaking and devastating moments, played with real sincerity, it's ultimately a hopeful and good-natured film, and a tremendously funny one at that.

Which is exactly right, since Miles is an optimistic and hopeful character. He's perfectly portrayed here, voiced by Shameik Moore with a youthful cockiness and charm that hides the totally believable insecurity of a young teen. (Somehow, Moore is twenty-three yet completely sells as a character nearly ten years younger.) Brilliantly, Miles is counterpointed with a version of Spider-Man who has lost that confident, optimistic personality. For years I've thought that the perfect screen treatment for Miles would be to have Parker acting as a mentor, an elder Spider-Man introducing his young protege not only to heroism but also to audiences who may not be aware there has ever been another Spider-Man. Peter B. Parker - the alternative reality version, voiced the very likeable Jake Johnson - is both the recognisable Spider-Man of previous film treatments and also a washout. This isn't like the comics continuity in which Parker's marriage and success were retconned in a dubious storyline, but a very believable story of someone whose marriage failed and who couldn't quite get his life back on track afterwards. It's a Peter Parker who's given up, and who needs Miles to reawaken his optimism, and god, don't we all need a Miles sometimes.

As the spine of the story, it works brilliantly, with real affection between Peter B. and Miles. However, Miles's other relationships are equally important, with his father Jefferson Davis (Bryan T. Henry) and uncle Aaron Davis (Mahershala Ali) being the two most significant figures in his life, pulling him in opposite directions. On the one side, he has his father's lawful but overbearing influence as a member of the PDNY (this universe's New York police force); on the other, his uncle's more accepting nature but criminal tendencies. Somewhere in the middle is how to be a superhero, and how to be himself. A lot of superhero films combine the coming-of-age story with the superhero origin, but few pull it off so well.

Of course, the fun really starts when more alternative Spiders turn up. The Spider-Verse comics had hundreds of them, but the film settles for a team of six (plus the odd sneaky cameo). The Earth-65 version of Gwen Stacey, aka Spider-Woman aka Spider-Gwen, was created for the Spider-Verse event but immediately proved so popular she was granted her own title. Hailee Steinfeld, who appears to be very much an up-and-coming star, is hugely charismatic in the role. Introduced at the same time was Peni Parker, a Japanese girl from a manga-esque universe who is bonded to a giant robotic battlemachine named SP//dr, which is somehow ludicrous, frightening and adorable at the same time. Peni is voiced by Kimiko Glenn, while none other than Nicolas Cage plays Spider-Man Noir, perfectly cast as the 1930s gumshoe version of Peter Parker. Rounding it off is John Mulaney as Peter Porker, aka The Spectacular Spider-Ham, a talking pig from a universe of cartoon animals who has become one of the most enduringly beloved and most ridiculous characters in the franchise.

Miles, Peter B, Gwen, Peni, Noir and Ham must prevent the Kingpin - horrifically gigantic and brilliantly played by Leiv Schreiber - from destroying the multiverse in a misguided attempt to get his family back. The Kingpin is aided by several villains, including a nightmarish version of the Scorpion, a genuinely unsettling version of the Prowler and a weirdly sexy female Doc Ock (Kathryn Hahn). It's during the hero-on-villain battles that the action impresses most, but the greatest moments visually are when the universes overlap, creating psychedelic vistas of multiple New Yorks (filled with plenty of wonderful, blink-and-you'll-miss-them jokes). The different Spiders have their own visual styles too, with the best being Spider-Man Noir's monochrome look, complete with Letratone dots for shading.

For all the zaniness and spectacle, though, where Into the Spider-Verse really impresses is in its wit and its heart. I'm pleased to read that already a sequel and a spin-off are already being planned (the latter finally giving Sony a way to work in its all-female hero team concept), because the Spider-Verse is an idea that can launch in so many directions while never invalidating the main, live-action Spider-Man's world. An absolute triumph.


Several of the voice actors have played other Marvel heroes or villains in previous productions. Nic Cage was the big screen Ghost Rider; Liev Schreiber was Sabretooth in X-Men Origins: Wolverine; Zoe Kravitz (Mary Jane) was Angel Salvadore in X-Men: First Class and Mahershala Ali was Cottonmouth in the first Luke Cage series. Oscar Isaac, Apocalypse in X-Men: Apocalypse, also plays a major character in a post-credits cameo, as does the late Stan Lee. Lee also appears as a version of himself in a genuinely moving cameo in the main film.

Further Spiders I'd love to see in future films include Peter Parquagh, the Spider from Marvel 1602; Jessica Drew as the classic Spider-Woman; Anya "Arana" Corazon; Pavitr Prabhakar, the Indian Spider-Man; Spider-Punk and Spider-UK. And definitely the Toei tokusatsu Spider-Man and his giant robot-spaceship Leopardon.

There's also a serious need for an animated Spider-Ham to appear in a live-action Spider-Man movie. Seriously, how do we make this happen?

Sunday 13 January 2019

WHO REVIEW: DWM comics 2018




2018 has been a pretty good year for Doctor Who in comics, with Titan printing ongoing and limited series for the seventh, ninth, tenth, eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth Doctors. I dip in and out of the Titan releases, usually with the UK-published editions – these are a few months behind the American releases, but not as much as most such repubs, and are far, far better value for money. I might come back to the Titans later, but for now I'm going to take a look at the other major Doctor Who comics publisher, Panini.

With the ongoing comic strip in Doctor Who Magazine, Panini is continuing a series that has run virtually uninterrupted since 1979, beginning with the fourth Doctor strips in Marvel's Doctor Who Weekly right up to the thirteenth Doctor stories in this week's DWM. The magazine is the sole publication that I still subscribe to, and I've been reading the comic strip devotedly every month since the high and heady days of the eighth Doctor strips.

2018 started in the shadow of the twelfth Doctor's regeneration, in the strange hinterland between Doctors. It's a strange period when the Doctor in the strip isn't really the current Doctor anymore – we'd already seen Capaldi turn into Whittaker on Christmas Day – but it's too early to show the new Doctor having adventures. And it was a long stretch this time, with a particularly late start for the new series.

The first strip of the year, The Phantom Piper, actually started in November 2017, and continued story elements that started in the eleventh Doctor era, right back in The Child of Time story arc in 2011. I love this aspect of the DWM strips, carrying forward stories and characters for years, revisiting old settings and old friends and enemies. It makes the strip feel like one, long story, in spite of the dozens of editors and writers, hundreds of individual adventures, and all the different Doctors it's featured. The Phantom Piper sees the twelfth Doctor and Bill searching for an explanation of a strange glyph that has appeared on the shell of the TARDIS. The Doctor elects to ask his friend Alan Turing, which leads Bill to change into WWII period clothes, only to step out onto the surface of the Moon.

The Doctor has taken her to Athenia, a far future colony where human and AI beings called Galateans live together. Here, a robotic recreation of Alan Turing continues to live and work, free to be who he wants to be. However, there's conflict brewing between the humans and Galateans, with the old problems of two groups of people blaming each other for their problems because they don't like those who are different. Into this steps the Phantom Piper – the very same psychopomp feared by Jamie McCrimmon – the King of the Dreamspace. A demonic and brilliantly realised monster, the Piper foments and lives off warfare, and uses the Child of Time Chiyoko to bring himself and an army of phantoms to life. The symbol on the TARDIS is the final part of the code, and the Piper has manipulated the Doctor into bringing it to Athenia so that he can achieve physical existence.

It's a gripping story, with plenty of action and heady sci-fi concepts, but also examines themes of identity, difference, conflict and responsibility, with both Turing and Chiyoko forced to look at themselves but ultimately coming to accept their strange natures. There are a lot of characters for an action-based strip, many of whom are returning characters from years ago, and I do think it's a better story for long-term readers, though, who are particularly rewarded for their commitment when former companion Fey Truscott-Sade suddenly appears at the end (thoroughly rattling the Doctor).

Fey was an on-again, off-again companion of the eighth Doctor during the late 90s/early 00s run of the DWM comic, to my mind one of the greatest periods of Doctor Who in any medium. An unstoppable secret agent who provided the skills and muscle when the Doctor needed them, she was last seen exploring the universe bonded to the Gallifreyan AI Shayde, whose first appearance in the strip was alongside the fifth Doctor in the 1980s. So, yeah, I can see why this might be utterly baffling for newcomers. Still, I managed to pick up a lot of this without in-depth explanation when I started getting the magazine halfway through a strip story, and the stories, when well-told, are easy enough to to get to grips with even with limited background.

The next story, The Clockwise War, manages to be perfectly rewarding for devoted followers of both the modern TV series and the DWM comics, bringing the Time war crashing into the middle of the ongoing narrative. Much like the eleventh Doctor series from Titan, The Clockwise War heavily features flashbacks to the Time War, in this instance featuring a younger War Doctor, before his hair greyed and still idealistic enough to still go by the name the Doctor. This doesn't quite mesh with what we saw onscreen, but that was vague enough that it still works, and this tale of a catastrophic lapse in judgment by the Doctor on the frontline gives a much stronger reason for him abandoning the title. It also makes perfect sense that the Doctor would recruit soldiers from his travels to help fight in the War, and bringing in Fey – already part-Gallifreyan thanks to her link with Shayde – works.

It's devastating to have this character back only to have her back as an enemy, twisted by her experiences in the War and what she sees as her betrayal by the Doctor into opposing him at every turn. The events of The Phantom Piper and its preceding stories are revealed to be part of her overarching plans to defeat the Doctor and reignite the Time War to her own design. It's one of those massively overcomplicated plots that Doctor Who does so well, running for a whopping seven instalments across time and space. The confrontation between the twelfth Doctor and Fey is gripping, but the most powerful elements are the flashes back to the War, with a real look at the nightmarish possibilities of a war utilising space, time and reality as weapons. It even creates a new villain spawned by the War, the Absence, who manifests as a very Thanos-like humanoid, but is a blindside for the real cause. It's one of the best stories the strip has run in years; a real epic but with personal stakes and drives for the Doctor and his friends. Huge plus points, as well, for featuring the Time Lord General and giving her the name “Kenossium.”

The Clockwise War is a suitably grand finale for the twelfth Doctor in the DWM comic, providing him with an emotional farewell while also drawing a line under the Moffat era of the TV series. October saw the beginning of the first strip to feature the thirteenth Doctor with The Warmonger, which finished this month. A mere three stories in one year, but that's what happens when you run long tales like this. The Warmonger is good fun, but presents a less sophisticated story than the preceding two. Then again, a new Doctor brings a new set of fans and potentially new readers, so leading with a pretty straightforward story is not bad thing.

The Warmonger sees the thirteenth Doctor and her crew arrive on Gatan, a ruined planet where two indestructible aliens have spent the last few years battling it out, seemingly oblivious to the destruction they have left in their wake. Not only that, but the endless fight is being televised, by none other than Berakka Dogbolter – the daughter of the recurring villain Josiah Dogbolter first introduced in the 80s strips. Is it a good idea introducing a new Doctor with what is, essentially, an old villain (albeit reworked with a new gender, rather like the Doctor herself)? I think it works, since once again, everything is sufficiently explained, and the sketched-in backstory for Berakka doesn't matter a jot if you've not read the strip before. It's just another bit of background colour for the Doctor and her universe. For a long-term fan of the comics, though, it cements this as yet another instalment in this ever-running comic. Even with another sudden shift to a new Doctor and new companions, this feels like it's part of the same story as The Clockwise War, The Flood, The Moderator and The Iron Legion.

The story here is a simple tale speaking out against exploitation, rampant capitalism and unending warfare. All things that we should be against, but sometimes there's no need for subtlety. This is a story that improves as it goes along, and it makes better use of the companions than a lot of the TV episodes of the recent series: Yaz is utilised well, paired off with a native character that allows her to take charge of a plot thread, while Graham and Ryan work really well as a pairing on their own thread. Plus Ryan dons a robotic suit of armour to save the Doctor and immediately falls over, which is the sort of dyspraxic behaviour we'd actually expect from him. It even gives the Doctor an opportunity to use pacifist ideals against the villains, and actually come up with a workable, non-violent solution to the threat, something the TV series hasn't really managed so far. It's a pretty decent first story for the thirteenth Doctor and a good start for 2019.

Sunday 6 January 2019

WHO REVIEW: 11-11) "Resolution"

Without getting too far into the implications or thought processes behind ditching a highly sought after Christmas Day slot, it was strange not to have an episode of Doctor Who to look forward to on the big day, for the first time in thirteen years. However, it was great to have a new episode to look forward to on New Year's Day, when we had been slobbing around for the entire day, waiting for the takeaways to reopen because we missed lunchtime and filling time by watching Disney cartoons. Looking at the overnights, it looks like "Resolution" did very poorly, dropping below episode ten's fairly low initial ratings, but it was still fourth most watched for the day. It looks like New Year's Day is a terrible day to be scheduling event television these days, which might also suggest moving away from Christmas was a foolish idea.

All that aside, "Resolution" (a title that works on several levels, although "Resolution of the Daleks" would have better warmed my fan heart) was a very entertaining episode, providing the big stakes, high spectacle finale that series eleven really needed. Keeping the Daleks - or rather, Dalek - back for the special was a sensible move, although I'm in two minds about whether it was a good idea to keep mum about its inclusion for so long. I'm put in mind of John Nathan-Turner's turning down of a Radio Times cover for Earthshock in 1982, so as to better keep the surprise of the Cybermen returning. Top marks for maintaining the surprise, but less successful in generating viewer interest.

Suz managed to avoid the spoilers and still guessed it was a Dalek as soon as it was described as "like a squid," and most fans guessed it was a Dalek once the trailer hit with the line about it being the deadliest creature in the universe. Was there really any benefit in staying quiet on the matter?

Nonetheless, the episode worked. There are plenty of viewers who think the Daleks are becoming tired and overused, and it's hard to argue with that. We've had an appearance by them almost every year since the series returned in 2005, whether it was a two-part Dalek extravaganza or an extended cameo. They've very nearly been done to death, and so the initial announcement that series eleven wouldn't feature any old monsters (still technically true) didn't bother me. On the other hand, if there's one monster that every Doctor really has to face, it's the Daleks. There's a sense that a Doctor doesn't really count until he/she faces them. Of the eleven previous main Doctors (ie starring in an ongoing series on TV), eight had a Dalek story in their first season. McCoy only had to wait till his second, Pertwee and Davison hung on till their third. The various eighth Doctor media wasted little time in pitting him against the pepperpots, and the War Doctor was defined by his enmity with them. The Doctor exists in opposition to the Daleks, even if there have been long stretches when they haven't appeared.

So they had to come back at some point, and bringing them back for the special/finale was a good move. It was also a very good decision to feature a single, lone Dalek, to once again show the that they could be a genuine, frightening threat. This is the exact tactic used by Eccleston's 2005 episode "Dalek," the episode to which "Resolution" is most clearly indebted (and to significantly less effect by Capaldi 2014 episode "Into the Dalek"). Daleks, like most villainous hordes, suffer from the Law of Conservation of Ninjutsu - there's only a finite amount of badassery allowed onscreen, so that one Dalek can kill a planet but a thousand of them can be mown down by human resistance or Cybermen.

In most respects, the Dalek scout - a new variation created to have extra-awesome abilities for this one episode - is successful in making the Daleks a threat again. At first, crawling around outside its shell and then hitching a lift on the unsuspecting Lin, commanding her in a sneering baritone (spectacular work once again by Nick Briggs), the Dalek is scarier than ever. It's made clear this thing is a deadly threat even without the armour and weaponry we normally associate with it (even though it's hard to see how it didn't get squashed when Lin was driving it around). It rebuilds itself in increments, first recovering its (miraculously intact) gun stick and using it for prolonged execution of human obstacles, before rebuilding its shell from bits and pieces lying around. The finished junkyard Dalek is a design triumph, still recognisably a Dalek but just different enough to be effective, and clearly a cobbled together version rather than some old prop that's been dirtied up.

On the other hand, the fact that the Dalek was defeated back in the ninth century by a bunch of primitives with swords and flaming torches reduces its threat significantly. I'm fine with the Doctor using Chekov's oven to blast it with microwaves sine that's the sort of improbable techno-wizardry we expect from her, just like the Dalek being able to fight off tanks when it's wearing a few old bits of Dalekanium and some farming equipment. A bit of steel and fire though should not have stood a chance. The opening is frankly strange in any case. Aside from the question of what the hell a Polynesian, a Russian and a Briton are doing interacting in the ninth century, it serves only to provide a cool and epic opening monologue. The Dalek is hacked into three bits and buried in opposite sides of the globe, only to beam itself back together as soon as one chunk is revived. Narratively, it's almost entirely pointless.

However, for the most part it works, because not only does the Dalek get to be a threat, but it gets to have a character, and, crucially, it has achieves no redemption. In both "Dalek" and "Into the Dalek," the eponymous creature is tainted with humanity and becomes, to some extent, redeemed by the episode's end, forcing the Doctor to end hostilities. It would have been very easy, and entirely wrong, to allow Whittaker's Doctor to come to a similar conclusion. The thirteenth Doctor has been unequivocally pacifist during this last season, at least in word if not always in deed. Talking a villain down or giving them a serious telling off is not something that can be allowed to work with a Dalek except in very, very unusual circumstances. To have the Doctor offer the Dalek one final chance to flee before giving it a microwave suntan without pity is exactly right. We desperately needed the Doctor to be pushed to the point where she'd actually fight, and if the Daleks can't do that, nothing can.

Whittaker's a joy to watch as usual, and gets to finally own an episode, but her companions aren;t given the same opportunity. The best served is Tosin Cole as Ryan, who finally gets to sit down and confront his absent father (Daniel Adegboyega), and while he's hardly the best actor in the ensemble, he shines with personal, family material like this. Whether he should have forgiven his father is a matter for debate, but Doctor Who should be a hopeful show, so I think it's the right conclusion. Bradely Walsh gets less to do as Graham, being deliberately left out of the main action for a while so that he can talk to his stepson Aaron, but his performance remains one of the best elements of the series. It's Mandip Gill's often overshadowed Yaz who is seriously overlooked her, with very little to do, even though there was a perfect opportunity to have her deal with her police connections. Chibnall desperately needs to find her some material that she deserves.

Even though the series continues to struggle to give three companions enough material, here we get three more pseudocompanions. Nikesh Patel as Mitch is essentially companion number four for this episode, and he's charming enough to convince as a potential returnee, but it's Charlotte Ritchie, who is magnetic as Lin and unnerving as the Dalek puppet, who steals all her scenes. It has to be said that Lin and Mitch display more chemistry in their initial scene than Team TARDIS do all episode. Adegboyega does well as Aaron, both sympathetic and rather pitiful, although shoehorning him into the TARDIS as well is a bit of a contrived way to give his story some, (sorry), resolution.

Still, with the usual Chibnall caveats that the writing is at best competent and at worst baffling, this was a fun and exciting special that gave series eleven the finale it needed. It's going to be a long wait till 2020 (another bizarre decision), but at least 2019's sole episode was a hit.

Wardrobe Department: Yes, the Doctor's new scarf really is very snazzy, but Graham's got some good scarf game this episode too.

The Shallow Bit: Yeah, big crush on Charlotte Ritchie.

The History of the Daleks: The arrival of the Dalek scout on Earth in the ninth century pushes Dalek activity back a lot further than previously thought (assuming that the Dalek isn't a time traveller, of course, which is never stated but is by no means impossible). Parkin and Pearson's AHistory suggests an eighth century date for Genesis of the Daleks, which is not too hard to fit with Dalek scouts travelling in space in the ninth but would suggest that they weren't entombed beneath the Dalek ciity for very long at all. The Dalek scout is far more advanced than an immediately post-Genesis specimen ought to be, though, even if it is a souped-up special version.

On their more recent history, I guess we just have to assume that neither the earlier Dalek appearances in the 21st century just never happened anymore. Moffat realised that it was basically impossible to allow "Journey's End" to exist and maintain any kind of sense of reality for contemporary scenes, so stuffed it down a crack, and "Dalek" was hard to reconcile with "Doomsday" from the get-go. Maybe with UNIT in suspense due to funding cuts and Torchwood seemingly defunct there won't be anymore retcon in the water and people will start remembering the periodic alien invasions again.

Dialogue Triumphs: 
Dalek: "Who are you? Identify!"
Doctor: "Oh, mate. I'm the Doctor. Ring any bells?"

Dialogue Disasters: Jesus, did no one think to cut the line referring to the Dalek as a refugee? That is tone deaf in the extreme.

TREK REVIEW: "The Escape Artist" (Short Treks 4)


“The Escape Artist” rounds off a very mixed bag of mini-episodes that make up the first set of Short Treks. After a fun but wonky character piece with “Runaway,” an excellent sci-fi short with only tenuous links to the main series in “Calypso,” and a decent but unoriginal flashback in “The Brightest Star,” Short Treks explores one of the best received guest characters of Star Trek: Discovery.

Harry Mudd appeared in only two episodes of the original Star Trek, and one episode of the short-lived animated series, played in all three by Roger C. Carmel. In spite of this short tenure on the series, Mudd was the only recurring villain character in the original series (the Klingons Kang and Koloth joined him in returning for the animation). Returning, reimagined characters are the modern fashion, though. Discovery's first season recast Sarek, Captain Pike and the Enterprise's Number One are due to return in the imminent second season. However, these characters are significant elements of the franchise's backstory (with the exception of Number One, but her character is mysterious enough to intrigue and was originally intended as a major regular character).

Why Mudd? Why reimagine and recast a relatively minor villain, who was never much more than a nuisance to Kirk and the Enterprise crew? Why is Mudd popular enough, and well-enough remembered, to be brought back as a recurring villain for Discovery? Surely, it's because he's fun. Harry Mudd, the galactic rogue, captures like no other character the charm and silliness that made the original Trek so much fun, that was too often lost in later iterations of the franchise. As fans remembered the series as more serious than it ever really was, the daffier, more sitcom-esque elements were quietly forgotten.

Discovery, although not without humorous moments, is a very serious show, and bringing back Mudd injected a much-needed element of fun into the wartime adventure. Now played by Rainn Wilson, an actor best known for comedy, it would have been easy to portray him much like the charming, naughty crook of the original. However, this would have been a very uneasy fit for Star Trek: Discovery's bloody universe, and so the character was reworked. Wilson's Mudd is a darker character, a genuine threat whose rap sheet has expanded from petty theft and cons to include multiple attempts at murder. However, Wilson retains the roguish charm and humour of the character, and makes for a fine modern Mudd.

So far, Mudd has only appeared in two full-length episodes of Discovery, although his star turn in “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” helped that episode become easily the most enjoyable of Discovery's first season. Bringing Wilson back as Mudd for this last Short Trek is an obvious and effective idea, and Wilson not only carries this episode effortlessly but also directs it to great visual effect. “The Escape Artist,” written by Michael McMahan, turns out to be the most entertaining episode of not just Short Treks, but all of Discovery so far, combining humour, wit, peril and a visual style that set it above most episodes.

Finding Mudd in the clutches of a bounty hunter is hardly surprising given his activities, and it becomes clear that the crook has enemies across the galaxy. Handed over by a masked alien female (with a voice modulator that's a clear reference to the bounty hunter Boussh in Return of the Jedi, only this time with the gender disguise switched), Harry finds himself in the clutches of a vengeful Tellarite named Krit. This tusked mercenary (played by Harry Judge, who also portrayed the Tellarite admiral Gorch in the Discovery's main run) has two bones to pick with Mudd: not only did he sleep with his sister, he then absconded with a very valuable ceremonial cudgel. After reading through an ever-growing rap sheet that includes the charge of “penetrating a space whale,” he plans to hand the crook over to Starfleet for a reward.

Harry has escaped from tighter scrapes than this before, and he isn't going to give up just because of some Tellarite with a grudge. While trying such tactics and bargaining, begging and political maneuvering to convince Krit to let him loose, he recounts his previous escapes from the many beings who have previously captured him. We see Klingons, Orions and unnamed aliens capturing him, stringing him up and being subjected to his various attempts at renegotiation. It's all exactly what we'd expect Mudd to do. Most interesting is a brief tactic when he claims to be part of the resistance against the Federation, something that doesn't seem to really exist but casts light on the universe of Discovery. Following on from his verbal attacks on Starfleet in “Choose Your Pain,” it seems that Harry really does see himself as a heroic thorn in the side of the monolithic Federation, and while Krit doesn't buy it, he does show enough sympathy and interest to make it clear that there are plenty of people who don't like the Federation's way of doing things.

Of course, all this comes to nought, and Krit hands him over to the first Starfleet ship he can reach – which turns out to have half a dozen identical Harry Mudd's already in custody. The Mudd in Krit's custody is an android copy with a scanner-fooling skin, just like all of them, while the real Mudd comfortably slips off his feminine disguise back on his own ship, having received a bounty for himself. It's a genuinely clever, left-field twist, that works perfectly in a short, tightly constructed episode like this. What's more, it highlights the cleverness of Mudd, so we can really believe that he's gotten away with any number of crimes and escaped capture.

Writer McMahan is best known for his scripts for Rick and Morty, and it's no stretch to imagine Rick using a very similar gambit to evade capture himself. In fact, you could easily adapt this episode to work for the animated comedy. (Indeed, with that show's loose approach to continuity, a sudden acquisition of programmable androids would be easier to swallow. All we know about setting of “The Escape Artist” is that it must happen after “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad,” but it's tempting to think it's over ten years later, when Mudd has escaped from the android planet in “I, Mudd” and taken a few with him.) McMahan is now onboard to run the upcoming animated comedy series Star Trek: Lower Decks, and on the basis of this short, the series could really work. Indeed, I'd hope we have a return appearance from Harry Mudd in both Discovery and Lower Decks. With the franchise's overseers talking about various potential spin-off series, I have to wonder why they've chosen Mirror Georgiou as the best candidate for a miniseries, when Wilson's Mudd is clearly the best choice to shoulder his own show.

Saturday 5 January 2019

At the edge of space

It's been a fascinating couple of weeks out at the furthest reaches of the solar system.

On New Years Day, the spacecraft New Horizons achieved flyby of the distant planetoid Ultima Thule (2014 MU69). You will recall that back in the summer of 2015, New Horizons made the most distant planetary flyby in history when it reached Pluto, taking shots in unprecedented detail. It's spent the last three-and-a-half years travelling ever outward, finally making it to Ultima Thule at a distance of 43 AU, or six light hours. The orbits of the two planetoids cross, and they are favourably positioned to one another during the spacecraft's window of opportunity.

Ultima Thule is a funny little planetoid. It's snowman-shaped, formed when two objects fused in a slow collision billions of years ago. It's nickname refers to a Latin phrase which became the name of the legendary northernmost point of the ancient world. NASA have also named the original planetesimals that came together Ultima and Thule (for the larger and smaller respectively) which is cute. Ultima Thule is only 31 km long at its greatest extent, and is a snapshot of the initial building blocks of the solar system, that came together to form larger planetoids and planets. NASA are now studying the data sent back for information on its composition, surface temperature and geology, and any evidence for rings, moonlets or a cometary coma.

The next destination for New Horizons remains to be seen, but it has power enough to remain operational until around 2030 and should be able to complete a final planetary flyby once a suitable, very distant target has been identified.

New Horizons is the fastest travelling spacecraft (in terms of initial speed) in NASA history, and is even catching up with the earliest space probes that were launched in the 1970s. Voyager 2 left the heliopause, officially entering interstellar space, in November (it's brother Voyager 1, although launched a little later, passed it and reached the threshold earlier). The Voyagers were be joined in interstellar space by New Horizons in the next few decades, as well as the now defunct Pioneer probes. NH will eventually pass the Pioneers (by the 23rd century, which is when Pioneer 10 is due to be destroyed by the Klingons), but will never catch up with the Voyagers.

Also in November, three astronomers (Sheppard, Tholen and Trujillo) observed the most distant trans-Neptunian planetary object ever. Officially designated 2018 VG18, but nicknamed Farout, the object is the first to be detected at a distance of over 100 AU. Currently at a distance of 120 AU, it beats Eris at an observed distance of 96 AU. In terms of average distance though, it is more than double that of Eris, although not nearly the farthest discovered. In 2014, the same team discovered FE72 which has a semi-major axis of a wahopping 1550 AU.

It's a fascinating time to be learning about the very fringes of our solar system.