Sunday 31 March 2019

Comics Round-up March 2019

Well, it's been a while since I did one of these. I very rarely find the time and money for new comics these days, but when I was feeling crappy with the latest infectious agent that was doing the rounds – and neither going out nor really eating – I thought I could spare a few quid to treat myself.

I've picked up a few first issues and one-shots, some brand new, some released a month or so ago, to see what's new on the shelves.

Invisible Kingdom #1 (Berger Books/Dark Horse)

A fascinating new science fantasy series from G. Willow Wilson and Christian Ward, about a distant solar system where cut-throat economics and religious piety rub shoulders. A female-centred book – and I'm focusing on reading more of these, since they seem to offer much of the best character work in current comics – it includes space nuns (or “nones”), an alien species with four sexes, and a shipping conglomerate that delivers goods to other planets regardless of the cost to the workforce or locals. It's only the first chapter and barely scratches the surface of the setting, but it promises to be something very interesting and looks like it'll be a far better sci-fi take on Amazon than that Doctor Who episode. Think I'll carry on with this one.

Domino: Hotshots #1 (Marvel)

Domino heads an all-female team of super-agents that reminds us that this character was a lot of fun before Deadpool 2 reinterpreted her. This is another strong comic centred on women, with as many good as bad characters, all with at least some complexity (although the newer characters don't get a lot of exploration yet). It's Gail Simone, so you know it's going to be good, and it's sensible marketing, including enough elements familiar to movie-goers to appeal (Domino, Black Widow, Wakandan rebel, anime-esque woman...) Props for remembering that Black Widow is a spy, as well. Then a male character crashes into the narrative loudly at the end, but again, he's one Simone knows how to handle properly.

The Magnificent Ms. Marvel #1 (Marvel)

Why did I stop buying Ms. Marvel? I'm fairly sure it was lack of money, but it was a hard one to let go of. This is ostensibly a new series, but it's really a continuation under a new name, as per. It doesn't matter, Kamala is as wonderful a character as ever, now a little older and wiser but still very much a teenaged girl. This combines some very fun and silly superheroics with believable friends and family dynamics, that make Kamala feel a lot more real than most superheroes. This is what Spider-Man feels like when he's written right.

Goddess Mode #1 (DC/Vertigo) 

Robbi Rodriguez and Rico Renzi, the artist/colourist team from Spider-Gwen, work together again, this time for DC. No surprise that this comics looks just gorgeous, with bold, frenetic artwork. The story, by Zoe Quinn, is an interesting one, but it's seriously exposition-heavy. Maybe this is just a symptom of its being a set-up issue, but for now, this AI-techno-magical future comes across as better in concept than execution. It's another interesting all-female superhero team, though, and worth picking up issue two to get to know them a little better.

Star Trek: The Next Generation 20/20 (IDW)

Part of IDW's 20th anniversary celebrations, which appear to be hitting just in time for them to be bought up. Oh well. The idea with these is that they're taking popular series and either rewinding or fast-forwarding twenty years into the narrative. In this case, the story turns back to the 2350s, when Picard has just taken command of the USS Stargazer, with Jack Crusher as his Number One. Peter David is on writing duties, so you know it'll at least be entertainingly readable. It's pretty slight, but captures the younger Picard well – he's a bit of a dick, trying to prove himself, and recongisably halfway between the cocky cadet from “Tapestry” and the wiser elder statesman we love. And, while it's a touch fanwanky, this explores a very important meeting in his life.

Tuesday 26 March 2019

TREK REVIEW: Discovery 2-10 - "The Red Angel"

So, there's no way of reviewing this one without dropping some clunking SPOILERS about the ongoing mystery of the series. Well, it's in the episode title. I'm going to hit the spoilers straight away, so I've hidden the review under the page break.

Wednesday 20 March 2019

REVIEW: Ghostbusters - Crossing Over

IDW's run of Ghostbusters comics began as a straightforward continuation of the original two movies and their video game follow-up. It was, from the beginning, peppered with references to The Real Ghostbusters cartoon series and toys as Easter eggs for those of us who, like main writer Erik Burnham and primary artist Dan Schoening, grew up with this nonsense and refuse to grow out of it now we're in our thirties. Over the years, however, IDW has taken full advantage of their licences to use various popular series and films, producing a number of crossovers and introducing multiple versions of the Ghostbusters into the main storyline. In 2016, the reboot Ghostbusters movie provided a new set of characters to play with, and now IDW has developed a veritable Ghostbusters multiverse. Crossing Over is the culmination of this, a sort of Crisis of Infinite 'busters.

The trade collection of Crossing Over brings together all eight issues of this comics event, along with the 2018 Ghostbusters Annual (which brought us the IDW continuity version of fan favourite RGB villain Samhain, and which I reviewed here). It involves the dream team of writer Burnham, artist Schoening and colourist Luis Antonio Delgado, who by now work so perfectly together that it's hard to imagine anyone providing a better version of the Ghostbusters in comics. The set-up is fairly simple: the “Prime Dimension” Ghostbusters have access to an interdimensional portal (provided by Donatello of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, naturally), and have used it to contact various other groups of Ghostbusters in other realities, for help in tackling particularly large paranormal threats. Not all the other 'busters are keen on their Prime counterparts' monopoly on interdimensional travel, though, and Ron Alexander (former Ghost-Smasher, now part of the Ghostbusters Chicago franchise) and Dr. Jillian Holtzmann (of Dimension 80-C, aka the 2016 movie-verse) team up to make their own.

Predictably, this doesn't work as planned, and an unlucky confluence of events leads to a huge swathe of ghosts escaping the containment unit through the portal and running amok through the dimensions. The Ghostbusters have to get these ghosts back, not simply because they're out there causing untold trouble, but also because their absence has destabilised the containment unit and it could go boom. So the Prime 'busters recruit every version of themselves and other busting teams they can find, to hunt through the multiverse and recapture all those errant ectoplasmic entities.

The first thing to say about this, is that it's tremendous fun. I absolutely lapped this up, right the way through. Bringing together the original Ghostbusters, The Real Ghostbusters, Extreme Ghostbusters, version from the games, the new movie, plus new versions created just for this project – it's basically the ideal reading material for me. No guilty pleasure here, this is just outright pleasure. However, on the other hand, this is straightforward in the extreme. Crossing Over is basically a greatest hits package for the IDW Ghostbusters range, with mixed teams of 'busters heading to various universes to recapture ghosts we've seen in previous issues. Now that's fine, and it's a tried and tested way of celebrating a milestone, like ten years of IDW Ghostbusters comics, and they deserve to run it. But there's not a great deal to this story, beyond the fun of seeing these characters mixed up together in unexpected combinations. It's a 10/10 for fan enjoyment, rather less so for actual writing.

Still, does that matter? Sometimes, by fans for fans just means getting to play together, and it's fun to just get all your toys out of the box at the same time and go nuts. There are a few great new elements in here as well: I adore Mike, a huge, articulate golem who acts as a Ghostbuster in one dimension, and the distinct visual styles of the different realities make the different story tracks fun to read. There's something to be said for a smaller publisher trying a major event like this, but knowing when to reign it in. When Marvel or DC run an event, especially one that crosses realities, it involves hundreds of issues across dozens of title. This is just a longer than average run of the main Ghostbusters series, and aside from its brief set-up in the annual, doesn't require any extra purchases. It's all collected here in one volume anyway, along with most of the variant covers, which showcase some fantastic artists (I particularly like Tim Lattie's style). Holtzmann appears on a whole lot of these extra covers; indeed, she's in the book about as much as is possible without it becoming “The Adventures of Holtzmann,” but there's a little more depth added to her character. The same can be said for Garrett, who was always the most annoying character from Extreme Ghostbusters, but benefits from some character exploration here.

The story ends in a well-deserved climax as the 'busters finally take down an especially powerful demon from a previous adventure. Winston gets some closure, while other characters are forced to make sacrifices. It's all pretty predictable, plot-wise, but it works. I'd have liked to have seen some more versions of the teams, even if only in glimpses; there are several versions of the original team, Egon in particular, but there's a missed opportunity for alternative versions of the 2016 team, for instance. That's a small quibble, though, and the run leaves off on an interesting note that promises changes when the series returns to the stands. Next we have the Ghostbusters 35th anniversary celebration, which consists of one-shot issues with different teams, which should be a fun interlude to tide us over. Next year, of course, a brand new film is due to hit, which leaves the future of IDW's licence in question. I hope they get to keep it, and look forward to seeing what new developments they have to take incorporate into their story.

TREK REVIEW: Discovery 2-9 - "Project: Daedalus"

This episode was equal parts effective and frustrating. It's also a bit of an event episode, so SPOILERS from here on out.

On the one hand, it's great to finally get some genuine exploration of Airiam's character. Having been seen in the background since the first episodes to take place on the Discovery, her nature has been raised questions among viewers. Although she's obviously artificial to some extent, just based on her appearance, no one knew if she was an android, and alien, some kind of enhanced human... we just couldn't say. Now, at last, we know it was the last option. Airiam turns out to have a tragic superhero backstory: she and her husband were caught in a shuttle crash on their honeymoon, killing him and seemingly leading to her being rebuilt as a cyborg. Basically, she's Starfleet's science-Robocop.

Hannah Cheesman is brilliant in this episode, now that she finally gets to do something with the character. She makes Airiam one of the most human characters in the show, no mean feat behind the thick mask that she wears in every scene save flashbacks. Her obvious anguish as the virus takes her over and she fights for her free will is powerful, and at the times when she is under the control of the programme, she's really quite frightening (the moment when she pulls Nhan's breathing mask off is brutal). It makes the viewer want to see more of her character – and then they kill her off. Now, it's a very well-written and performed death scene, but it lacks the impact it should have because we've only just gotten to know this character. It's as if the TNG writers had only given Tasha Yar three lines of dialogue before writing her into “Skin of Evil” to kill her off. Or perhaps more comparably, if Data, one of the most fascinating characters of the series, hadn't received any character exploration until halfway through season two. Given that Airiam had already become a fan favourite based solely on speculation, making her into an actual character just so they could have a death with some impact comes across as a very cynical move.

That's a shame, since on its own merits, Airiam's storyline here works very well. It's also entirely possible she'll be back – she uploads her memories to the Discovery computer before she goes, so she'd be one of the easier characters to bring back to life. Her nature as a (partially) artificial intelligence ties into the reveal of the Big Bad for the season. It turns out that Section 31 is not only taking tactical information from Control, it's super-intelligent mainframe, but is under its, well, control. I'm of two minds about this revelation. On the one hand, a malevolent AI is a sci-fi cliché, but this is Star Trek and we're allowed to to enjoy the odd cliché along the ride. Essentially, Control is SkyNet, or the Architect from The Matrix (I said the enhanced probe monster looked like one of the bots from that franchise). It's fighting to achieve true sentience, and to wipe out all organic life in the process. We know that it's capable of this, since we've already seen that future can come to pass, and it's this that the Red Angel has returned to prevent.

On the other hand, it makes Section 31 a bunch of heels. It's rather like the rugpull with Captain Lorca last season. Both seasons have set up an interesting villain that raises serious questions about Starfleet and its ethics in wartime. Cornwell even essentially says that Section 31 are there to do the dirty work when war's underway or on the horizon, just as she questioned what it had done to Lorca last season. In both cases, though, the truth is far less interesting. Lorca wasn't the “real” Lorca, he was a moustache-twirling villain from a comically evil parallel universe. Leland and Section 31 aren't really trying to justify their journey down a dark path, they've just been duped by an evil computer. I don't mind the silly cliché plots, but they're being used at the expense of something genuinely interesting.

Cornwell drops other hints as to what might really be going on. At first it looks like the Vulcan Admiral Petar is masterminding events, and Cornwell reveals that she's a logic extremist. This would tie into the backstory of Spock and Burnham, and put an existential crisis at the heart of Starfleet. It's genuinely interesting that not only could an extremist rise so high in Starfleet, but that it's apparently common knowledge, at least among fellow admirals. But no, Control had her killed offscreen, and there goes that plotline.

This was an entertaining episode that could have been a truly great one, but for all its effective moments, as a whole it's ultimately just unsatisfying.

General observations:

  • The Discovery writers don't know the difference between ultraviolet and infrared. And why would video screens intended for human eyes emit either the ultraviolet or infrared signatures of their subjects in the first place?
  • Airiam, Detmer and Tilly play a kadis-kot, a game which was mentioned several times in Voyager (Seven of Nine and Naomi Wildman used to/will one day play it). It's a bit unclear in Voyager whether the game originated in the Alpha or Delta Quadrant, but this episode makes it clear it's an Alpha Quadrant invention.
  • It's confirmed that Lt. Nhan, the new security chief, is a Barzan (the race from the TNG episode, “The Price”). This is interesting, as they still don't have their own space travel in the 24th century, although they're in diplomatic contact with warp-capable civilisations.
  • A Starfleet AI achieving sentience isn't a first, but it could be tied into Zora, the evolved version of the Discovery computer who starred in the Short Trek “Calypso.”
  • Although it could still be Burnham, I'd lay 2/1 odds that the Red Angel turns out to be a resurrected Airiam.

Sunday 17 March 2019

REVIEW: Captain Marvel (2019)

After ten years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe should be showing signs of slowing down. We'd expect a few clunkers to have cropped up by now. Yet even the weakest films are enjoyable adventures, and the best are among the best action-adventure films of the modern age. Still, it's a black mark against Marvel that it's taken this long to produce a movie that features a woman as its lead hero. It's not as though there haven't been plenty of potential characters in Marvel's vast library who could have headlined a film (indeed, there's been a Black Widow script sitting on the Marvel movie desk for years). Nonetheless, now that it's finally happened, it seems right that it's Captain Marvel – the Carol Danvers version – who finally gets that honour.

Danvers is actually the sixth character to hold the title of Captain Marvel in the canon (not including various other Captains Marvel from other publishers – I wrote a whole piece on this some time ago, and the original Captain Marvel is getting his own big budget picture next month). Having first appeared in the sixties, when Danvers first got her powers she took on the name Ms. Marvel, and went by various other names until she took on the mantle of Captain in 2012. Yet the success of her run of comics has made her the best known and most celebrated version of the character, and entirely deserving of a tentpole film. Danvers is one of the most powerful heroes in Marvel comics, and easily the most powerful in the MCU at present (although Scarlet Witch has the potential to become almost godlike if/when she returns).

Invariably, the fact that there's a woman headlining a movie twenty-one films into the franchise has set internet dickheads into apoplexy. Even the less vehemently misogynistic ones have been creepy as hell. Early publicity for the film was overtaken by star Brie Larson's response to some idiot's proclamation that he had “fixed” a promotional image by photoshopping a smile onto her face, which Larson responded to by shonkily photoshopping smiles onto every male hero's face on a range of Marvel posters. It was masterfully done, and given that some dudebro character in the film has a go at Danvers for not smiling, it's the sort of attitude that's been in the firing line since the film's beginnings.

After three paragraphs just scratching the surface of the politics of film's genesis, it's clear that the need for a film like this and the ludicrous controversy around it threatens to overshadow the film itself. Which is a tragedy, since Captain Marvel is an absolute belter of a superhero movie. Marvel have made an intriguing decision to set this in the past – 1995, to be precise – to work as not only a way to introduce Danvers into the MCU but also act as an origin story for Nick Fury (and in a much smaller way, Clark Gregg's popular Agent Coulson). Now that I'm old enough to see retro productions from eras I remember from the first time round, seeing a 90s-set movie is a joy. There's no end of 60s, 70s and 80s-set films, but it's rare the 90s get the same treatment. From Danvers crashing through the roof of a Blockbuster store, to the inspired choices of 90s hits on the soundtrack, this is a nostalgia-fest for those of us in our thirties.

There was a lot of speculation about the film from the moment it was announced, not least around who was to play the starring role. Brie Larson is absolutely perfect in the part, nailing the toughness and the humour that Danvers has always displayed. She has a powerful screen presence, which, along with some canny direction, makes her the centre of attention even when she's part of an large ensemble of characters at various points in the film. Danvers's origin story has been tweaked with considerably in the comics lately, and the film presents a backstory that combines published elements and new ideas to make for an intriguing background. By presenting this as a mystery, not only to the audience but to Danvers herself, the film is elevated above a standard origin story to become a discussion on identity and the importance our pasts play in defining who we are. I'm glad I managed to avoid the majority of spoilers for this film – but note, that there will be spoilers after the page break.


Much of the fan speculation focused on who Jude Law and Annette Bening were going to play. Early on, the smart money was on Law playing Mar-Vell, the first Captain Marvel and the one who inadvertently gave Danvers her powers. Mar-Vell of the Kree took on the Earthly persona of Dr. Walter Lawson in the comics, a disguise for his activities on Earth. Later reports suggested Bening would be playing the Supreme Intelligence, the Kree's overseeing power, and while this is true, it's only a tiny fraction of her role. Instead, she's revealed to be Dr. Wendy Lawson, Danvers's mentor. Gender-swapping Mar-Vell is a brilliant move, completely altering the dynamic of the two characters into something more constructive than the romantic overtones of the original. Law, meanwhile, portrays the villainous Yon-Rogg, interpreted here as an overbearing commander who claims to be training Danvers to be “the best version of herself,” but all the while does his best to crush her spirit and keep her beneath him. He consistently refuses to allow her to fully use her powers, insisting that it only means something if she can beat him without them – because the only way he can maintain his superiority is by denying her her full potential.

There's a pretty clear undertone to all this, one that no doubt flew over the head of the film's masculinist naysayers. Danvers talks about fighting with her hand tied behind her back, a common metaphor for how women have to function in the workplace particularly, and in life in general, either because there is so much put in their way to prevent them from reaching their potential, or because they are expected to hold back in a world that revolves around men. It's no accident that the most important relationships for Danvers in the film are with women (with the notable exception of Fury) and that it's these relationships that lead her to reaching her potential.

Throughout the film, Danvers is treated by Yon-Rogg and the Kree as one of their own, named Vers and essentially brainwashed into serving them. Her regaining of her identity coincides with her changing sides (notably Yon-Rogg continues to call her Vers even when she insists it's not her name). Her reconnection with her past hinges on her finding her best friend from her life on Earth, Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), while her changing sides requires another prompt. Throughout the MCU, the alien Kree, in both their blue and white-skinned variants, have been predominantly portrayed as villains (in Guardians of the Galaxy and the TV series Agents of SHIELD). Captain Marvel makes it clear that the situation is more complicated than that, but while it at first makes it appear that the Kree are fighting a just war, it soons becomes clear that they are the aggressors. What's more surprising is that their traditional enemies, the green-skinned shapeshifters the Skrulls, undergo the opposite shift.

In the comics, the Skrulls, aside from the occasional rebellious outlier, have been out-and-out villains, using their shapeshifting abilities to infiltrate other worlds. This is how they are portrayed to begin with in Captain Marvel, before, when Danvers finally has the opportunity to talk to their leader Talos, it becomes clear that they are refugees. This is a massively important and timely inclusion in the film, in a time when refugees and immigrants are continually demonised by the media. What's most interesting is that Talos never denies that they are at war with the Kree or that he has engaged in terrorist activities. Instead, he accepts what he has done was terrible but explains his battle to find his people a home comes at a cost. This is an astonishingly nuanced look at a situation for a comicbook movie to take.

It helps,as well, that Ben Mendelsohn's performance as Talos is so charismatic and sympathetic. He sort-of plays two roles here – Talos and Talos-pretending-to-be-Fury's-boss – using his natural Australian accent in the former and his more often-heard American voice for the latter. Having this green-skinned alien speaking like an Aussie somehow makes him seem the most down-to-earth character of them all. (It also makes his scenes feel like FarScape, while the rest of the film, with its shapeshifters, tentacled monsters and 90s setting feels quite a bit like Men in Black.)

Samuel L. Jackson is just perfect as a younger, less cynical but less open-minded Nick Fury. Still sporting two working eyes and a full head of hair, Jackson was de-aged in post-production, the first time this has been done for a whole film but perhaps not necessary since, haircuts aside, he's always looked pretty much the same. Watching Fury go from a fairly ordinary but impressive agent to the man who will form and lead the Avengers in defence of the Earth is a significant contribution to the MCU's backstory. Fury and Danvers is an unexpected team-up but it works, thanks to some truly excellent chemistry between Jackson and Larson. This is basically a buddy-cop movie, crossed with Top Gun and MiB.

That said, Fury's best moments are with Goose the cat. Sorry, Goose the Flerken. Taking a ridiculous one-off joke from Danvers's guest appearance in the Guardians of the Galaxy comic and turning it into a high point of the movie means that Goose (and the four cats who play him) are as much the stars as Larson and Jackson. However, Larson leads a brilliant cast here, all of whom she displays great chemistry with, and they completely sell why these characters would fall in with each other. The only one of the main cast who doesn't really impress is Law, but Yon-Rogg is a shallow character and perhaps demands a shallow performance.

Ending with a decisive victory for Danvers and the Skrulls, Captain Marvel manages to convincingly incorporate her character into the MCU while explaining why she's never been called upon to save the Earth before. That it not only works as a fan-pleasing missing chapter in the Marvel universe, but also as an allegory for sexism, racism and the refugee crisis is remarkable. This is exactly what science fiction is for.

Stray thoughts:

  • Maria's daughter Monica (Akira Akbar) is destined to become a major part of the MCU. While she has a completely different background in the comics, Monica Rambeau was the second Captain Marvel, a character almost as powerful as Danvers. Given that the film is set twenty-four years ago, I will eat my hat if an adult Monica doesn't appear in a future film. Incidentally, Maria's Air Force call sign is “Photon,” one of the names that Monica uses in her superhero persona.
  • In the comics, Goose is Carol's cat and called Chewie. While I get the Top Gun reference, it's not like the Star Wars name would have caused problems now that Disney owns both franchises.
  • One little thing I dislike is the reluctance of superhero films to use superhero names in dialogue. Both Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel have the same problem: neither character is ever called by their superhero name outside of the film's title.
  • While I enjoyed the story of how Fury lost his eye, it would have been funnier to have him repeatedly almost lose his eye throughout the film, and to never find out how he really lost it.
  • In Agents of SHIELD, the existence and appearance of the Kree seems to come as news to Coulson. Was he never briefed on this mission?
  • While they're a sympathetic people here, the introduction of the Skrulls, in the past, must surely lead to the Secret Invasion storyline in future MCU films.
  • While the “give us a smile” dudebros are idiots in the extreme, Brie Larson really does have an incredible smile.
  • The Kree designation for the Earth is planet C-53.

Saturday 16 March 2019

TREK REVIEW: Discovery 2-6 - "The Sound of Thunder"


“The Sound of Thunder” brings Saru's story to a climax – or at least, a climactic end of chapter – with a barnstorming adventure that raises some serious questions about the Prime Directive and just how Starfleet thinks it should be implemented.

To recap: Saru had his vaharai triggered by a giant red space sphere from the dawn of time, transforming him from a meek space cow to the assertive Kelpien Mk. 2. This new Saru is more upfront, more confrontational, joyfully sarcastic and verges on being a bit of a dick. One might expect the ship's chief medical officer to prescribe a few days off to see if this unforeseen metamorphosis has any side effects, but no, Dr. Pollard sends him straight back to work. Then again, she checks out Hugh Culber, confirms that he has returned to life fully repaired to factory settings and thinks he'll be just fine to go off and deal with experiences with no further medical oversight. Pollard makes Claire from The Orville look like Hippocrates.

Saru's lost his threat ganglia, but now has some sort of “teeth” or spikes growing in their place, something we later discover can be shot like little darts. Along with massively increased strength, the new Saru has some handy superpowers, but still isn't exactly in control of himself. Saru, of course, wants to head straight for his homeworld of Kaminar, but General Order One precludes – until a signal from the Red Angel, which apparently overrides everything, leads the Discovery straight there. Pike sends Michael down – she hasn't had much opportunity to stretch her xenoanthropology muscles lately, so this is good – but she persuades him to allow Saru to accompany her. On the one hand, the one native of the planet in Starfleet is probably an essential member of that landing party, but on the other, Saru is acting seriously out of character and the last time something like this happened, he virtually committed mutiny.

There's some handy clarification on the Kaminar situation from Pike and crew: twenty years ago, the Ba'ul, the dominant life form on the planet, achieved warp and the Federation made contact. The Ba'ul were immediately hostile and the UFP elected not to contact them again. If we wanted to use this as an excuse for them not intervening in the treatment of the Kelpiens, then we're out of luck. Starfleet are fully aware that the Ba'ul are farming the Kelpiens for food, not least because Saru is there to tell them, and yet did nothing for twenty years. To stress the point: Starfleet have refused to intervene when one group of people is eating another group of people, because it's “an internal matter.” This is appalling moral cowardice, and quite simply the worst invocation of the Prime Directive in Trek's long history. No wonder Saru, having finally grown his balls, decides to break ranks and intervene himself.

It's a defining performance from Doug Jones here, as he perfectly portrays a Saru who has changed but is still recognisable. Indeed, the lack of fear only makes Saru's inner personality stand out more, rather than changing it as such. He was always the bravest amongst his people, but was cowed by his biology. His sister Siranna, on the other hand, remains petrified of going against what she believes is the natural order. In the twenty years since Saru upped and left, their father has been eaten and Siranna has become a priest in his stead. Even though she saw Saru's escape, she'd prefer to believe he was dead than question her belief system. That said, he did abandon his family without so much as a goodbye, and she does begin to come round once she is forced to confront the Ba'ul herself.

So, the Ba'ul. A masterstroke of monster design there. They are genuinely horrible creature, vaguely humanoid but with spindly, spiky limbs, and coated in a thick black oil in which they seem to live. They speak in nightmarish hissing voices. It's not often Trek does a full-on monster race, and the intention seems clear: these are the bad guys. Their ships, too, are visually impressive, vicious dagger-like designs that hang above the planet like Swords of Damocles and square up to the Discovery like a pack of wolves. On the other hand, there's the revelation that actually, the Ba'ul were originally not the predators, but the prey. It reverses the assumptions we've made, but makes it questionable to have such a character assassination of the Ba'ul. Still, there's not really any point at which we're expected to feel sorry for them, even if the Kelpiens were allegedly just as bad once upon a time.

There are some very questionable bits here. Tilly works with Airiam (the fan-favourite cyborg who remains a huge mystery, but finally gets to show what she can do with her computerised brain) to analyse data from the red sphere, which happened to be round these parts thousands of years ago when the Kelpiens were in charge. Their very rapid jumping to conclusions is a bit off, but par for the course in these kinds of shows. As usual, Star Trek throws around the word “evolve” rather haphazardly, since the Kelpiens do not evolve from one stage to another in a scientific sense, but mature through a form of minor metamorphosis. Still, the Kelpien life cycle makes no sense. Why would a predatory species have a life stage that lasts well into adulthood, that makes them completely subservient and perpetually terrified? If, on the other hand, the Ba'ul engineered them to be like this as retribution, why do they still undergo the vaharai? There's clearly something more going on here.

The Ba'ul don't take kindly to Starfleet having stolen one of their livestock, and threaten to destroy Saru's village if he does not return. In a noble show of solidarity, Pike refuses to even countenance the idea, but Saru bucks orders and beams himself back down to the planet. When he and Siranna are captured, Saru uses his new-found strength to fight back against the Ba'ul. All well and good there, even if it doesn't look like the two Kelpiens have much of a chance of escaping the Ba'ul for good. However, on the ship, Mike and Pike have a conference and decide the best course of action is to trigger the vaharai remotely using the data they got from the sphere. This only brings about a worse retribution as the Ba'ul decide to cut their losses and prepare to exterminate the entire Kelpien species with thousands of planetary weapons.

The Kelpien people are very, very lucky, because the Red Angel shows up and uses their powers to deactivate the Ba'ul's technology, saving the day and leaving the two species to learn to live together. But let's just look at what the Discovery crew do here. Finally deciding to get involved in Kaminar's situation, they inarguably break the Prime Directive, and I have absolutely no problem with this. As I've said before, straightforward morality trumps General Order One on many occasions. However, even if the Ba'ul hadn't, rather predictably, decided they were going to off the whole lot of them, Pike and crew have made a hugely presumptive decision on behalf of the Kelpiens. They have forced thousands, maybe millions, of people to undergo a transformation that is both painful and bewildering, without any attempt at gaining consent. Furthermore, they then leave the two species to sort out their differences. How do they think that is going to work? One side could very well find a way to just wipe out the other. Given the Ba'ul still have a lot of tech at their disposal, and if the Kelpiens are as dangerous as they're made out to be in their predatory forms, there's going to be a lot of conflict on Kaminar. Yet there's no indication that Discovery or Starfleet are even keeping an eye on what happens on the planet. Hell, the ship is in the system for the whole of the next episode and into the one after, yet not once is it mentioned that anyone has bothered to check up what's happening down there.

Surely, the sane thing to do would have been to inform Starfleet of the situation and petition to get involved diplomatically. Yes, that's what Starfleet should have done when they first made contact all those years ago, but still, it doesn't alter what Pike and crew are faced with now. This isn't even Kirk-style cowboy diplomacy, it's just sheer recklessness.

Not that this detracts from a very successful episode. I don't need my Starfleet heroes to be flawless, and indeed, Pike's reckless streak is addressed in the next episode. “The Sound of Thunder” is an episode based on a solid concept, with some excellent performances and some truly great design, but it absolutely demands a follow-up to show the consequences of Starfleet's actions.

General observations:

  • The Sound of Thunder” is a reference to the classic Ray Bradbury time travel story A Sound of Thunder, presumably a further hint that the Red Angel is making interventions in history. Indeed, given that the original story was about seemingly minor changes to the past having devastating consequences in the present, perhaps the title is a hint that what's happened in the episode will not turn out well.
  • A slight continuity anomaly: “The Brightest Star” saw Georgiou arrive from the Shenzou to save Saru, whereas this episode states she arrived in the USS Archimedes.
  • Saru's Kelpien eyes are able to make out the Red Angel better than the humans' (and apparently their sensors), and he is able to see that the mysterious being is actually a humanoid in a sophisticated sort of spacesuit. Judging by the curves, they're probably female, but that's still an assumption.
  • The Ba'ul seem physically weak in comparison to the Kelpiens, but it's still odd that they all hide when Saru breaks out of his restraints and do anything to stop him running riot and contacting the Discovery.
  • I feel a little sorry for Sara Mitch, who played Airiam in the first season. Now that the character actually gets to do something, she's been recast and is played by Hannah Cheesman. Mitch still appears, as Lt. Nilsson, but it's another background role.

TREK REVIEW: Discovery 2-7 - "Light and Shadows"

The search for Spock is over... almost. Ethan Peck makes his debut appearance as Trek's most celebrated character, but spends the bulk of his time wandering about in a fret, muttering numbers and strange phrases to himself as if he was Barry Allen after a sojourn in the Speed Force.

There are two strands to this fairly brief episode, one dealing with Micheal and her family on Vulcan, the other on the Discovery following up the mysteries of the Red Angel. There's a lot to enjoy in both of them, although neither one quite manages to be more than a bridge between this episode and the next.

Michael returns to Vulcan (which is absolutely beautifully realised in some of the best shots of the series) to have it out with Amanda, who she correctly deduces is hiding Spock. In spite of Spock's limited agency in this episode, this strand is all about him, with the conflicting attitudes of Sarek, Amanda and Michael threatening to tear their family apart. They all have Spock's interests at heart, but differ vehemently on how to help him. In the end, Michael and Sarek win out and take him to Starfleet – well, Section 31 – only for Michael to realise how stupid she's being and break him out before they use a mind-sifter on him. Once again, Georgiou helps Michael, doing the right thing for perhaps the wrong reasons. Her motivation is so opaque so far that it's hard to say what she's up to.

It's revealed that Spock suffers from a specific learning difficulty named l'tak terai, which is compared to dyslexia but, as a spatial awareness disorder, seems to be closer to a Vulcan equivalent of dyspraxia (the two conditions are closely related, though). Not only do we have a dyspraxic character in Doctor Who, now it's revealed that one of the most intelligent and remarkable characters in Star Trek also experiences the condition. This is brilliant, although there's never been anything to suggest that Spock has such difficulties in the past, but it shows that a disability doesn't have to hold someone back from doing great things. Sarek's unsurprisingly shitty attitude is a powerful element as well – basically dismissing it as being cured by superior Vulcan teaching, which is, of course, ridiculous. Even in the 23rd century, you don't cure dyspraxia, you learn to work with it. Moreover, though, one feels terribly sorry for Spock, who torn between his mother's and father's expectations as a child.

Back on the Disco, the investigation into the Red Angel continues in orbit of Kaminar. I'm not quite convinced that the Red Angel must be from the future just because there are tachyon traces (which have already been identified as being a result of cloaking devices as well as time travel) and because its technology is more advanced than what Starfleet has now (which could just mean it's alien). Nonetheless, this seems to be the answer to its origins, at least partly. I love the shuttle trip into the time rift, though, which is classic Trek adventure and makes what would otherwise be a very talky episode into something more action-packed. The time pockets add some bizarre elements to the peril, which gets particularly exciting when the Discovery's probe comes back from the future, augmented by superior technology into something like one of those be-tentacled killer robots from The Matrix.

The trip is an excuse to put Tyler and Pike in a small space together and force them to come to an understanding. Frankly, I'm on Pike's side; Tyler is a known murderer who killed a crewman, and whose defence is that at the time he was under the control of a split personality, but that he's just fine now. Is it any wonder Pike doesn't trust him? For his part, Tyler sees through Pike and realises he's thrill-seeking due to his sitting out the war, which actually fits Pike's character rather well; back in “The Cage,” he fantasised about living it up on the Orion Colonies dealing in slave girls because he was feeling guilty about his actions in Starfleet. Basically, he's a cocky test pilot who deals with his guilt with adrenaline. However, while Tyler proves he can be trusted to put his captain and his mission ahead of personal feelings, he's still a massive liability and Pike's chumminess with him after this is a bit unbelievable.

Still, the plot thickens when Airiam gets infected by some kind of influence that makes her eyes go red and evil-looking. There's a definite link between, not only the “probe” and the Red Angel, but also the intelligent red sphere from episode three. It's an intriguing episode that mostly serves to further the overall plot, but has a lot of solid content in itself.

Best line:

Everything's cooler with 'time' in front of it.”

General observations:

  • So, assuming the probe was picked up after drifting for five hundred years and arriving in the native time of the agency that sent it back... there's someone or something active in the 28th century involved in the whole Red Angel fiasco. It doesn't necessarily follow, of course, that the Angel is from this time. More than anything, this brings to mind Enterprise and it's time war, with factions acting from different points in history with different levels of knowledge and technology. If there is something acting from the 28th century, then this is a period we know very little about, although it might be noted that Enterprise's mysterious Future Guy called this era home.
  • Almost any continuity issues could be resolved by utilising the time travel aspects of this plot. On the other hand, I almost want them to go all out and use it to pull Discovery into another timeline altogether, thereby saving them from having to fit in with existing continuity, something that's been pretty hit-and-miss so far.
  • For instance, there's a bit of a clash here with the original series, which has Spock and Sarek estranged for years beforehand and not even having seen each other since years Spock joined Starfleet. Feasibly, though, neither one counts this as a meeting, given that Sarek barely interacts with Spock and Spock is off his head.
  • Leland is responsible for the deaths of Michael's parents. Because of course he is. Does everything have to be related to Michael and Spock's childhoods?

TREK REVIEW: Discovery 2-8 - "If Memory Serves"

Now that was just lovely. Opening with a montage of scenes from “The Cage,” the very first episode of Star Trek recorded, “If Memory Serves” embraces the history of the franchise while molding it to its own vision. Star Trek frequently references its own past, but has rarely incorporated past footage like this. The only time something similar has happened is during the thirtieth anniversary celebration – itself over twenty years ago now – when footage from the original series was incorporated into Deep Space Nine and scenes from Star Trek VI recreated for Voyager. In that case, though, the material was treated with reverence, with the creators going to effort to make sure everything fit with the original look of the show.

If Memory Serves” is different. The clips from “The Cage” are shown in a highly stylised, almost storybook fashion, highlighting and celebrating the visual and stylistic differences between the original series and Discovery. This is more like Doctor Who's method of celebrating its past, when clips of William Hartnell were used in both the twentieth anniversary special and the 2017 Christmas special, before brazenly introducing a new actor playing the first Doctor, with a new interpretation of the character. It's a way of saying, “This isn't the same show it was back in the 60s, but we love that original take and we're indebted to it. Let's celebrate it, and pay tribute to it.” And that's rather beautiful.

After all, every character from “The Cage” is played by a different actor here. Almost every actor from that original episode has died (the only survivor is Laurel Goodwin who played Yeoman Colt) and many of the Discovery cast hadn't even been born when the original was filmed. As remarkable as the resemblance between Jeffrey Hunter and Anson Mount is in some shots, it would be foolish to try to pretend that we were watching the same people. Equally, Discovery has a very different style to the original series, and even where it has paid homage to the old designs – the Enterprise uniforms, for instance, or the phaser designs – they've been a tribute rather than an recreation. Some fans don't like this, but we're watching productions made fifty years apart. Television and technology are different now – I mean, I watched this episode by streaming it onto a device smaller than the communicators the original cast used to speak to each other. If there's too much of a conflict for you, pick one style and decide that that's the way it “really” looks, and the other one is a mere TV recreation.

For all that, though, the Discovery version of Talos IV is a nigh-on perfect reproduction of the original, only shot on actual location instead of in a stuffy studio lot. Don't get me wrong, what the original crew managed with such meagre resources was remarkable, but seeing Talos like this was wonderful (you can't beat a good, old sci-fi quarry). Discovery's creators have reproduced the strange alien sounds of Talos, down to the singing plants. The Talosians themselves were a decent update of the originals, although I kind of love the old-fashioned bumheads and would take them any day over the more sophisticated make-up we see here. Nonetheless, they were a fine example of taking an old design and updating it to work with the modern series' style. However, it was a poor decision to use a fairly well-built man to play the lead Talosian. The original production used slightly-built women but dubbed over with deep male voices, which was a simple but effective way of making them appear alien. The new Talosians have obvious genders, and it just doesn't work as well.
They're still creepy bastards, though, who have little concept of consent and get off on reliving other people's visceral experiences. Michael is understandably disgusted by them, and I really like that she clearly doesn't trust Vina. Melissa George is brilliant in what was a pretty peculiar role in the first place. Her chemistry with Mount sells the attraction and connection between Vina and Pike far better than Susan Oliver and Jeffrey Hunter did (although, in fairness, theirs was a very different style of acting altogether). She's almost as creepy as the Talosians, though, and although she's upfront with Michael about how horrible their punishments can be, she's very apologetic for them. Definitely some Stockholm Syndrome there, which is no big surprise.

The big one, though, is Spock. After his introduction last week, we finally get to see Ethan Peck's take on Spock properly, as he's allowed some characterisation beyond lunatic obsession. I actually love the scene where he, still unspeaking and seemingly only partially aware of his surroundings, takes control of the shuttle and pilots it directly into the illusory black hole. However, he gets to truly show his stuff once on Talos when his mind has been reordered by the Talosians (not that I'd trust them to tinker with my brain). Peck is a very different Spock to either Nimoy or Quinto. He has an intensity and and unnerving quality to him, understandably considering his psychological trauma, but also a vulnerability. He has the drive of Nimoy's Spock and the sardonic quality of Quinto's, but he's very much his own version of the character, yet I have no problem accepting him as the “real” Spock, beard and all.

I'm of two minds about the schism between Michael and Spock, however. While our experiences in our youth do mold our adult selves, it just seems childish that Spock would be harbouring so much anger for one vicious exchange when they were kids. Supposedly Michael's actions on that fateful night on Vulcan set Spock down the path of rejecting his humanity and embracing his Vulcan side, and I can buy that. The poor kid was being forced to choose between two clashing lifestyles by his parents and a traumatic display of emotion could absolutely have been the deciding factor for him. But in essence he's been holding a grudge against Michael because she was mean to him when they were little, which is both emotional and irrational, so if he has dedicated himself to suppressing his emotions he's done a very poor job of it. He even accepts that her actions then were a logical way to protect him. Michael continues to apologise for something that she did as a child, when she's risked her life and career to save Spock after his psychotic break, and he refuses to accept her apology. I just feel Spock should be more mature than this.

What I do like is the nature of his madness. Having been in communication with the Red Angel – now unequivocably accepted as a time traveller – his sense of the passage of time has been skewed. This would be disorienting for anyone, but for Spock, who views cause and effect as the underpinning of logic, it is unbearable. We learn that the Angel has been interfering in his life directly since his childhood, directing him to save Michael when she ran away and nearly got eaten by a monster. (Hell, Vulcan is dangerous!) I'd lay a fiver on the Angel being someone we will recognise, possibly Michael herself (although that would make her life one massive paradox). Peck and Martin-Green share some strong chemistry though, and there's a hint of that in Peck's brief interaction with Mount.

Away from the Talos Star Group, events are getting tense on both the Discovery and Leland's ship, the NCIA-93. We finally get some real focus on Culber and Stamets, who are dealing poorly with the former's resurrection. It's hugely satisfying that we see that Culber's death, his survival in the mycelium, and his resurrection have had hugely traumatic consequences for him. Star Trek has a bad habit of killing characters and bringing them back, or transforming them into alien forms and back again, with virtually no physical or psychological after-effects. (In fact, the only person to die and come back with any real difficulty before was Spock.) Culber is suffering from dissociation after being, you know, killed and then put back together by mushroom people, which is quite understandable. Stamets just wants to pick things up where they left off, which is simply impossible for someone after they've been through that level of trauma. Also, Pike's not exactly being a genius here by letting Tyler roam around the ship wherever he likes, even stationing his quarters on the same deck as Culber's. Culber has to see the man who killed him every day. In fact, it's Saru who has the best understanding of Culber and Tyler's problems here – perhaps because he's gone through a major transition himself lately – letting them physically fight it out while they come to terms with each other's existence.

Wilson Cruz and Anthony Rapp are exceptionally good in their scenes together. Their break-up is heartbreaking. But my god, no wonder they started thinking about putting a counsellor onboard ship later on – both Culber and Stamets are in desperate need of help and support. Given the number of psychologically damaged individuals on the Discovery, Pike should really think about getting one assigned.

The Section 31 storyline continues, to no more or better effect than before. Mirror Georgiou continues to show that maybe she's OK if you just give her a chance, you know? Oh, hang on, she just casually dropped in how she exterminated the population of Talos IV in her own universe. I honestly don't understand how we're supposed to feel about Georgiou. Is she supposed to be an entertainingly heartless villain or on a path to redemption? I do like how the four creepy admirals defer to her over Leland – presuming they think she's the prime Georgiou, she's a decorated officer and probably has seniority over him. I don't understand how Leland is able to just give orders to Pike – his being in Intelligence doesn't mean he automatically outranks the other captain. 

Sub-X-Files conspiracy stuff aside, this is a pretty damned brilliant episode. My misgivings over Spock's personality may go away considering we're going to be getting a lot more exploration of his character, and in any case, we don't need our heroes to be perfect. The episode works wonderfully as a tribute to Star Trek's beginnings and is pretty solid in its own right.

Best lines:

Culber: “I don't even know who I am anymore!”
Tyler: “Who do you think you're talking to?”

General observations:

  • Vulcan's Forge is home to huge predatory monsters, just miles from the main city, but this is keeping with the perils Spock faced in his home country in the animated episode “Yesteryear.” The only really odd thing about this sequence is that the Forge has forests here, when it's been portrayed as a desert in all previous appearances (the aforementioned “Yesteryear,” and the Enterprise Vulcan trilogy). We might even want to tie in the huge nasty monsters seen on “Delta Vega” in the 2009 movie – maybe in this timeline they got relocated to a sister planet to make Vulcan safer?
  • I like how there's one admiral for each of the founding races – human, Vulcan, Andorian and Tellarite, and the human doesn't even get to talk.
  • There's a Vulcan medical facility on Quillam, in the Beta Quadrant. More evidence that Vulcan itself lies in that quadrant.
  • We finally get to see who cleans the starships - there are little drones that pick up the mess.
  • The Menagerie” established that General Order 7 prohibited access to Talos IV on pain of death. Here, it's out of bounds but there's no mention of the death penalty. Maybe General Order 7 hasn't been applied to it yet, or perhaps the writers are just glossing over the death penalty aspect, which always seemed out of step with the Federation's ideals.
  • Why the hell is there a Starbase only two light years from Talos when the Talosians can extend their mental powers across space? Unless the Talosians made someone in Starfleet locate a base there...

Sunday 10 March 2019

The Fiction Factory

Another quick update with some more fanfic news.

I’v just completed one story for a project for Obverse books, which is yet to be announced but will be a treat for fans of 20th century TV classics. I’m also working on a story for a Who-related project for Pencil Tip Publishing , which should be something really rather special.

On the subject of the Obverse, a very special project has been announced. In aid of author Tommy Donbavand, who is gravely ill and in need of support, Obverse are publishing four brand new, unofficial Dr. Who novels featuring the eccentric scientist as played by Peter Cushing. Written by a well-known Who author (who shall remain nameless), the set includes novelisations of the two Dalek movies, Dr. Who and the Daleks and Daleks: Invasion Earth - 2150AD, plus two novels based on Hartnell stories, imagining what further movies might have been like had Aaru kept making them. Dr. Who in "The Tenth Planet Invades the Moonbase and Dr. Who and the Ice Men from Mars pit Dr. Who against the Cybermen and the Ice Warriors.

You can buy a complete set of the four books for a discount, or buy the individual books. There's only a week left to get pre-order in though - this is a very limited edition set.

Tuesday 5 March 2019

A quick update

Well, I've just moved house! Everything is in chaos and I'm very busy! And there's no WiFi yet! I haven't even watched the latest episode of Star Trek yet, that's how busy I am!

However, soon I will be catching up and cracking on with some reviews, so expect a flurry of posts in short order, with reviews of Discovery, The Orville, some of the latest Doctor Who releases and probably more.

Plus, take a look at the new Television Heaven site. Site supremo Laurence Marcus has given the site a complete overhaul, making it all shiny and new and much more compatible with mobile devices. There are already new articles on there, and I shall be working away at some new material myself covering both new and classic TV series.

Also celebrating a milestone is The Doctor Who Project, which hit twenty years old in January. This is a pretty bloody impressive feat for a fan fiction series, and there are still new stories coming, and I hear there's an anniversary special in the pipeline. Go check out the site, or if you want to read my stories for the series (including co-written works with James P. Quick of CP Studios) then click the links below:

Shadow at the Heart (with JPQ) featuring the fifth Doctor and Nyssa
Monkey Cups featuring the sixth Doctor and Peri
The Fossilist (with JPQ) featuring the TDWP ninth Doctor and Silver
City of the Dragon featuring the TDWP ninth Doctor, Tom and Val
Peace of Mind featuring the TDWP tenth Doctor, Tom and Val

Monday 4 March 2019

John Candy

No, you're crying!