Tuesday 21 May 2019

Game of Thrones - the final episode: a sort-of review (SPOILERS, obviously)

I've never been moved to write about Game of Thrones before. To be honest, I'm not that big a fan of it. I can't deny that it's an astonishing piece of television, boasting incredible production design, music, writing, direction and acting. It's inarguably a television phenomenon, must-see viewing for millions, that managed to be a roaring financial success in spite of also being the most pirated series in the world. However, while I've watched a great deal of it and have been thoroughly impressed with it, I can't say I've really enjoyed much of it. I don't find it entertaining, it's too relentlessly bleak and depressing for that. I watch it to be impressed, but mainly because of the need to know what happens next, and even then, I gave up on it for a couple of years part way through season three because it had degraded to nothing much more than rape and torture for the sake of it.

Although I was told it would be impossible to catch up after leaving it for two seasons, it really wasn't. The characters are generally keen to keep everyone informed of their various enmities, and anyone who watches it religiously will happily tell you, at length, all of the different characters' backgrounds and relationships. So I got sucked back in, and here we are, with the internet going into meltdown over the final few episodes, which were apparently a huge betrayal of the characters and came out of nowhere.

Which is rubbish, and since pretty much all the characters behaved in a wholly predictable way. Daenerys has been moving from damaged to completely insane for years, and her becoming a bloodthirsty tyrant is exactly where the character was headed. I think most of the people who think that her roasting everyone in King's Landing is an unbelievable turn of character are suffering from the same delusion as Jon and Tyrion: they couldn't see what a monster she was because they're love her too much. Or, to put it another way, they don't like that bird they fancy turning nasty. She didn't even get to sit on the uncomfortable throne before she was done in, which is pretty hilarious.

The eventual end to her story - Jon killing her because Tyrion told him to - was both entirely predictable and entirely right. They had to see what a monster she'd become before they could turn against her, especially Jon, who's never quite managed to balance holding to his principles and doing the right thing. After all, he could have gotten away with it, told Greyworm and his troops that Daenerys had flown off with Drogon to parts unknown and settled down to a relatively comfy life, but he's too honest and probably went straight up to the guy and confessed.

The ending might have been a bit rushed, at least in comparison to the meandering seasons before it, but it was, ultimately, satisfying. Some of it was hard to believe, of course. Tyrion managing to talk his way not only out of execution but also into office and almost inventing democracy while he was at it was perhaps a bit much, but it's also a perfect audition piece for Peter Dinklage's eventual casting as the lead in Doctor Who (seriously, he's my absolute number one choice). He deserved to survive, if only for being the best thing in the show since it started.

Ayra is apparently indestructible. Honestly, Suz and I thought her wandering out of the city at the end of the previous episode, white with dust, when the entire population had died around her, was some metaphorical artsy thing. Either that, or she was an actual ghost. But no, she's well enough to get on a boat and go west. Life is peaceful there. More fuel for our fan theory that the world of Thrones is actually the far, far future of Earth, and Arya is Lady Me, having inveigled her way into House Stark and forgotten most of her past.

The big surprise - Bran the Broken being a sort-of elected king - actually works. The creepy bastard is the only character in the entire thing without any ambition at all, and since he can't have kids, might just prevent the Six Kingdoms from going to war with Winterfell in a few generations when two sets of cousins start fighting between each other like they did in Europe for most of the 19th century. On the other hand, the infighting that will result when he eventually dies will be incredible. I do have to wonder how a bunch of big blokes and eunuchs are going to start another house, though. They'll be extinct in the next twenty years, unless there are plans for an even rapier sequel series.

So, did it make perfect sense? Of course not, but what big, sprawling work of fiction ever does? It made enough sense to work as a conclusion, and an effective one at that. I honestly don't see what everyone's moaning about.

Oh, and George R. R. Martin told the writers his rough plans for the upcoming books. I bet a fiver that the parts the fans are getting upset about and think betray his vision were his idea. 

Saturday 18 May 2019

WHO REVIEW: Audio Adventures of Paul Magrs

Next, in my overdue review catch-up: an audiobook and audioplay from the wonderful, whimsical Paul Magrs, one from Big Finish and one from the Beeb.


First is the long-awaited reunion between the Doctor and Iris Wildthyme. Part of the Big Finish main range - a very occasional pick for me these days - this came out at the very end of last year. Muse of Fire sees the transtemporal adventuress meet the seventh Doctor at last, something which I've been waiting to hear ever since she bitched about the portentous little sod back in her first full length Doctor Who appearance, the 1998 novel The Scarlet Empress. We don't get very many Iris audios these days, and she hasn't been in a Doctor Who one for an age, so this was one to look forward to.

Muse of Fire sees both Iris and the Doctor arrive in 1920s Paris. Beautifully recreated with some excellent scene-setting from Magrs and very effective sound design by Benji Clifford, this is the perfect setting for Iris. It's a time of parties, sophisticated drinking, socialites and artists of all stripes. It's the latter which drives the plot, as it becomes apparent that someone or something is pushing the greatest, most important upcoming artists of the time away from Paris. Magrs displays his marvellous imagination in a story that includes a truly bizarre alien being that fits the themes and settings of the story perfectly. Katy Manning is as adorable as ever as Iris, especially when she is partnered with Philip Olivier's Hex, a rarely used companion these days. The team of Seven, Ace and Hex is one of the best in the audios, but it's Hex's enamoured friendship with Iris which works best.

For his part, the Doctor often takes a dim view of Iris's involvement with history, but he is particularly belligerent and judgmental here. It's good to see this most all-knowing and inscrutable of Doctors taken down a peg or two when he realises that he hasn't made the right call this time. However, the biggest treat of all is Iris's own companion, David Benson's Panda, fulfilling his life's dream as an influential art critic and finally appearing in a Doctor Who story. Panda is such a wonderfully silly idea for a character - a walking, talking stuffed animal with the voice and manners of an inebriated Noel Coward - that his adventures with Iris seemed destined to be consigned to some parallel universe, away from the main Doctor Who narrative. Finally, he meets the Doctor, who even provide an origin story for the little chap, although, as with Iris's various origins, you'd best not take it as the gospel truth.

Muse of Fire is a joy throughout, mixing humour and drama as only Magrs can, although a mark off for not calling it "Destiny of the Dali."


Sadly, Big Finish are apparently not interested in further scripts from Magrs, a foolish decision since his unique voice is a breath of fresh air amongst the same tiny stable of regular writers they rely on these days. Indeed, if it wasn't for his scripts for the BBC's Nest Cottage series, Tom Baker would never have become enamoured with Doctor Who on audio and never have joined Big Finish after years of asking. However, BF's loss is the Beeb's gain, since the month gone saw the release of The Winged Coven, the latest audiobook in the linked Nest Cottage series of adventures, which began with Hornet's Nest back in 2009. Magrs tells the story of writing for and meeting Tom Baker here, and it's clear he enjoys writing these stories as much as I enjoy listening to them.

The Winged Coven is the second audio to be read by Susan Jameson in character as Mrs Wibbsey, the Doctor's housekeeper and occasional companion in this strange and special sideline of adventures. It's an odd little corner of the Whoniverse and one to cherish, where a seemingly older version of the fourth Doctor (the Curator, perhaps?) lives in a house in Sussex, when he's not off on his adventures. Magrs gas always had a thing for middle-aged ladies and their eccentric, parochial view of the world, and the fun that can be had juxtaposing this with the fantastic and cosmic. Jameson's conversational delivery is perfect for this gossipy story of witches and aliens, where she has to contend with a secret society, a to-do in the minimart and the usual difficulties with Deidre Whatsit. It's less a Doctor Who story, really, than a Wibbsey adventures, and I'm fine with that. The perfect listening for a cosy night in.

Monday 13 May 2019


So, I'm finally getting round to writing up my review of Shazam! which I saw pretty much as soon as it was released, but just haven't found the time to sit down and write about yet. Which is odd, since, while we're going through another comicbook movie busy patch, Shazam! is a very strong contender for my comicbook movie of the year.

I find it very amusing that there are two Captain Marvel movies out within a couple of weeks of each other, so that they were both showing alongside each other for a while. While I know that the lead character of Shazam! is officially known as Shazam, I still think of him as Captain Marvel, even while I think of Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel as well. (There's a long and complicated history to the name, which I covered in an article a while back - I've put it as the featured post which you'll see to the right). Shazam! plays this quite well, never quite getting Billy Batson's superhero-persona to go by any name - the closest he gets is, in the climactic showdown, asking his new siblings to "say my name!" To which they all, naturally, shout, "Billy!" "No, say the word I say to change!" One of the better jokes of the film is the running gag where he and his new bestie Freddie come up with increasingly ridiculous names for him.

It's kind of surprising that it's taken this long for a Shazam!/Captain Marvel feature film to happen. The character was the subject of what was probably the first ever example of superhero cinema, certainly the first direct adaptation from a superhero comic, The Adventures of Captain Marvel, a Republic serial originally released way back in 1941. (Wonderfully, you can stream or download this, legally and for free. I'd recommend you do so, it's a lot of fun: it's available here.) Although this was eventually re-released in an omnibus format, this was over four hours long and poorly joined together, and not really a feature in the true sense.

DC/WB began working on a modern feature treatment about ten years ago, which would have starred Dwayne Johnson, initially down to play the lead, before opting to play the villainous Black Adam. Somewhere along the line this fell through, and Black Adam is not a part of the film (although DC apparently have plans for a standalone Black Adam movie starring Johnson, something I'm less than convinced will work). Now that it's finally arrived, it is officially part of DC's expanded cinematic universe, but the links to the other movies are minor. It's certainly no trouble imagining that this takes place in the same universe as Justice League or Wonder Woman, but if there's certainly no need to have seen anything else in DC's recent output. Indeed, the one cameo the studio clearly wanted to happen couldn't, seemingly due to scheduling conflicts, so a certain fan-pleasing moment is a little hamstringed.

It's was always a question how they were going to make this work for the big screen, but in hindsight, the answer is obvious. Of course you make it as the superhero version of BIG. While previous updates of the character have previously explored the divide between Billy and his superhero alter ego, but the movie goes in the opposite direction. It's not as if Billy disappears while Shazam takes his place; Asher Angel and Zachary Levi play the same character, just with a different appearance and abilities. There were a few moments where I struggled to buy this; Angel's troubled teen is a more cynical character than the joyful and excitable superhero played by Levi, but as Billy learns to accept his new family and his place in the world, the two versions of the character become more alike. I can accept Shazam as the boy that Billy would be without the guilt and crappy breaks weighing him down.

While Angel gives a good performance, this is Levi's movie. His kid-in-a-superman's body performance is an absolute joy, and the whole film hinges on how much fun it is to see him discovering his powers. Equally excellent is Jack Dylan Grazer, who plays the young Freddy Freeman, Billy's new adoptive brother and best friend. He gets to interact with both versions of Billy and manages to steal a few scenes from Levi, which is no mean feat. I'm glad the script doesn't shy away from Freddie's disability, and how much being able to magically transform into a superpowered body would mean to him. Of the rest of Billy's adoptive family, everyone performs well, but Grace Fulton as Mary Bromfield (here his older sister, rather than the same age) stands out. Faithe Herman plays Darla Dudley, the youngest of the family, who might be the most adorable person I've ever seen on screen.

The script understandably follows the updated version of what we once called the Marvel Family, but doesn't lose any of the uncomplicated fun of the central concept. The appeal of Shazam/Captain Marvel is simple: what kid wouldn't want to be able to become a superhero? It works on more levels, though, and the use of the modern version of Dr. Sivana, rather than the straightforward mad scientist original ties in nicely to that. Mark Strong is basically perfect in the role – he's pretty much a shoe-in for comicbook villain roles, to be fair, but he really excels here. An effective story choice is to have the young Sivana almost chosen by the wizard Shazam, only to be spend his life bitterly trying to get his chance to claim that power.

Billy, himself, is only chosen because he's the last possible candidate and time is running out, and he's really no better than the young Sivana was. There's a nice symmetry between the characters, since both are the product of broken families and retaliate against their backgrounds. Sivana's father is a bully who openly treats his brother as the favourite, while Billy's mother wins the award for worst cinematic parent of the year and simply walks away from her son. While Billy turns from his delinquency due to finally finding a loving family and learning responsibility from his power, Sivana grows up with his uncaring father and brother and obsesses over the power he missed out on. Strong's Sivana is monstrous and terrifying, but still sympathetic. The real villain here is bad parenting.

Not everything works quite so well. The Seven Deadly Sins, being the opposite source of power to Billy's, work double time as monsters and Sivana's magical battery, and in themselves are very generic demon-beasts which mostly don't seem to reflect the sins they're supposed to represent. (I'm very tempted to have a crack designing my own, which would at least get me drawing again.) I'm not convinced by Djimon Hounsou as the wizard Shazam (the naming really does become confusing in the comics), but the sheer straightness of his performance works well with the comedy that revolves around him.

The balance of comedy and action-drama works is pretty perfectly balanced. The funniest moment of the film comes in the middle of the climactic one-on-one showdown between Billy and Sivana, and there's a gentle mockery of superhero tropes throughout, but in a refreshingly non-cynical way. There are some elements that just play weirdly to a British audience, though. Billy's first day at school, complete with bullies who like to pick on disabled kids, continue the impression I've always gotten from American films that arsehole kids can basically get away with what they want there. More worrying, though, is the weary “you get used to it” vibe of a bunch of children handing over their backpacks to be scanned for weapons, which admittedly has started to happen in some of the worst areas of Britain but is still rare and controversial enough to be noteworthy. Here it's just part of adjusting to a normal schoolboy life, which makes us all glad we live in a culture that isn't quite that messed up.

Fortunately, the overall feel of the film is overwhelmingly positive, and it never forgets that at its heart it's a story about family, something which carries forward right to the bombastic action climax. And while Black Adam might be missing from the Shazam story for now, at least it looks like we've got Mister Mind for the sequel, which is something I never thought we'd get to see on the big screen.

Monday 6 May 2019

Forgotten Trek

There's a great Star Trek site here by Nick Ottens, which explores the beginnings of various eras of the Star Trek franchise and the various roads not taken.

It includes a lot of material from The Art of Star Trek and The Continuing Mission, both excellent volumes that are favourites of mine, but in bringing it all together here, with more sources and further information, Ottens has created a single encyclopaedia of hidden Star Trek historical knowledge and design.

The site covers everything from the original series to Voyager, through the unmade Phase II series, the original cast films and taken through the TNG films up to Insurrection. There are all sorts of unmade episodes listed in the TOS and Phase II sections, and while I've heard of some of them, I've never come across so much information on them. (Most of them sound absolutely awful, which is great. They're the most entertaining.)

The site has been updated recently, and I hope that in future Ottens might add information on Nemesis, the Abramsverse movies, Enterprise, Discovery and more. For now, it's an excellent site for all thing Trek up to about 2000.

Also on the subject of Trek, I've made a small update to my planetary classification guide. Basically I've just tried to squeeze in another class to cover a planet seen in Discovery and a similar one from TOS.

Sunday 5 May 2019

REVIEW: Avengers - Endgame

And so, I finally begin to catch up with not only my viewing, but also my reviewing, of the many sf and superhero extravaganzas (extravaganzae?) to hit the screens.

Endgame is less a movie, more a cultural event; the culmination of eleven years of cinematic material designed to draw a line under the first iteration of perhaps the most successful film franchise in history. It's the sort of film that can't be appreciated alone; much of the experience comes from seeing and discussing it with like-minded friends. As such, this review is going to be slightly different, as my lovely partner-in-crime Suzanne and I chat about the film (in reality, we've been chatting about it for days with various other people as well, but this sums it up nicely).

And obviously, if you still haven't seen it, there are SPOILERS after this break.



An absolutely brilliant episode which sees the culmination of the Moclan storyline that has run through this season. It shows just how far this series has come when you see the improvement between the well-meaning but flawed "About a Girl" from early in season one, to this, its direct follow-up. Both episodes deal with serious issues of gender identity, equal rights, misogyny, sexual politics, cultural value clashes and more, but this is a more focused, more intelligently delivered story. 

The growing divide between the increasingly open-minded Bortus and his strictly traditionalist husband is at the centre of this episode, standing in for the divide between the Union as a whole and the patriarchy on Moclus. Beginning with more Moclan engineers on the Orville and the couple's son Topa parroting Klyden's misogynistic values at school, the rift grows deeper when it becomes clear that the engineers are smuggling a baby girl away from Moclus. Supposedly heading to fellow Union member world Retepsia, they are in fact on their way to a secret breakaway colony inhabited solely by female Moclans, who turn out to be much more common than previously supposed. In a nice bit of continuity, the colony is led by Heveena (Rena Owen), the writer and activist who appeared in "About a Girl." She gives a dignified performance, although not without humour - this mostly serious episode has some of the best comedy moments in the series, not least Heveena's adopting of Dolly Parton as a kindred spirit and the lyrics of "Working 9 to 5" as a rallying cry.

It's clear that the colony will not be allowed to exist by the Moclans, so Ed suggests they declare themselves an independent state and present their case to the Union. What follows are some pwerful scenes at the Union Council, which bring to mind the Federation Council scenes from Star Trek IV, although more impressively realised. Moclus remains a vital strategic member of the Union, given that it is the principle weapons developer for the organisation (and Ed points out how incredibly short-sighted this arrangement is). Now that the Kaylon are an ongoing threat, their importance is even greater, and so the Union can't risk their pulling out of the alliance due to disagreement on this subject.

Although the Moclan patriarchal viewpoint is extreme, they're presented with respect, and the Council scenes are surprisingly even-handed, which stops the episode feeling preachy. Nonetheless, it's obvious we should be siding with Ed, Bortus and the rebels here. As Ed says, in one of the most biting moments of the episode, we need to be tolerant of other culture's beliefs, but some things are "over the line." The episode has such clear parallels with some cultures on Earth today. After all, each time the West goes to war with a Middle Eastern culture, human rights is given as the justification, but if that were really the case, we'd be at war with Saudi Arabia, instead of buying their oil and selling them weapons.

The most significant edge to the argument, to me, is that when people argue about respecting significant cultural differences and embracing moral relativism, they only ever seem to be concerned in those at the top of the culture. The downtrodden - who are, almost always, women and LGBT people - have their own cultural viewpoint swept under the rug, a subject of the culture but not a its proponents. This episode and the previous Moclan stories skirt closely to real life issues, and while Islamic, Middle Eastern and African cultures seem to be their obvious targets, the parallels with right wing Western, particularly American, politics are also obvious. Of course, the parallels between the Christian Right and Fundamentalist Islam are obvious, yet neither group will recognise that. There's also another subtext here, that of the misogyny so often present in gay male culture.

There's an awful lot going on in these Moclan episodes and there's still a risk for subtlety to be lost when dealing with too much at once. These latest episodes have handled it well, and honestly should be celebrated for tackling it head on.

Planets visited: Heveena's planet is within a star system, hidden within an absorption nebula in the vicinity of Nekkar, so over 200 light years from Earth.

New aliens: Some intriguing new faces make up the Union Council, as well as recognisable species such as Xeleyans, Retepsians, Gelatins (like Yaphit) and members of Dann and Olix's races.

The Trek Link: Marina Sirtis, aka Deanna Troi, plays the new schoolteacher aboard the Orville. Her co-star Jonathan Frakes directs the episode, while frequent Trek guest star Tony Todd (with roles on TNG, DS9 and Voyager) appears as the Moclan ambassador. F. Murray Abraham - Ru'afo in Star Trek: Insurrection - appears as the Xeleyan Council Chairman. With Ted Danson, Victor Garber and Kelly Hu reprising roles as Union admirals, everything feels comfortably familiar.


Ed and Kelly's relationship has become less of a focus in the second half of this season, but here it comes back to the fore in an excellent character piece that has worthwhile things to say on love, experience and growing up. It's an episode that brings to mind the TNG episode "Second Chances," which sees a duplicate of Riker created years earlier try to pick up his life on the Enterprise. Here, the route is more direct, with Kelly's younger self being brought directly from the past to the Orville. Pulling her from the very beginning of her and Ed's relationship is a canny move which allows their entire history to be put into context. 

The success of this episode lies primarily with Adrianne Palicki, who really impresses in her double role as the two versions of Kelly. The younger Kelly is a distinct version of the same character, thanks to some subtle acting work by Palicki. She's got a new hairdo and a lot of make-up on, but it's the little differences in her performance that make her believable as the same person, seven years earlier. Both Kelly and Ed have a lot of emotional work to deal with here, with Ed having the opportunity to get back together with the woman he loved, only to accept that he loves the woman she has become. They've both changed a lot in seven years and there's no going back. For all the silliness, heavy drinking and embarrassing stories, this is a mature exploration of emotional growth.

It's a nice touch that both Kellys bring something to the operation of the Orville. Older Kelly might have the experience and the command temperament, but younger Kelly thinks more quickly and has fresher knowledge from her studies, something which helps them come up with a way to escape a Kaylon assault. Something that made me smile was the fact that this happened in the middle of the night, with everyone reaching the bridge in their civvies and pyjamas. I've often wondered why ships in Trek have all senior officers on duty at the same time, as if a standard day-night schedule is in operation in outer space and nothing unexpected or dangerous will happen after half seven.

Then there's that cliffhanger. Discovery might throw twists and turns at every opportunity, but who cares about the reveal of the Red Angel or sudden jumps to the far future when Kelly decides to change her and Ed's whole history?

Planets visited: Earth, briefly, and Vandex 2, a gas giant with a seriously over-the-top ring system. 

Funniest scene: Bortus and Klyden cutting up the floor in the club simulation. Good to see them getting on again.


After that cliffhanger, we shift to a very different second part for the season finale. Although there's more than a little of the Voyager episode "Timeless" in here, this is the first time that an episode feels more like Star Wars than Star Trek, from the rebels, the costumes, the settings and the music, although there's a touch of Firefly in there too (particularly in the talk of Reaver-like scavengers). This is a tremendous, action-packed episode, which still makes time for the emotional beats between Ed and Kelly. It's fun to see Ed and Gordon operating as rogue agents in this alternative timeline, but perhaps the most fun is Yaphit as a resistance fighter. The unexpected appearance of a battle-hardened Alara is a nice touch too; good to see Halston Sage again.

It's a very clever bit of time travel, with Kelly's decision having huge consequences that are unforeseeable to her, but inevitably extrapolated from the previous episodes. Without their previous relationship, Kelly doesn't champion Ed for command of the Orville, so Claire doesn't sing on to serve with him, so she and her boys have no relationship with Isaac. Hence, Isaac is not motivate to protect them and turn against his people, leading to a Kaylon victory. It's an eminently logical sequence of events. The episode looks fantastic too, with a brilliant starship chase and some breathtaking stellar scenes (although they really do talk some bollocks about black holes in this episode).

It's a great finale for a season that's really come on in style and quality. There are some things that haven't quite worked: the lack of follow-up on Isaac's betrayal of the Union before his about-face. His only significant appearance, post "Identity," is in the previous episode where he works on the time technology, and no one mentions his previous actions, although here, the alternative Isaac is summoned, allowing some confrontation. All in all, though, both the core cast and the universe they live in have really come together.

Planets visited: Sarin IV, an ice planet which is basically Hoth, and a forested planet with a rebel base, which is basically Endor's moon. Sarin, or Delta Herculis, is a real star seventy-five light years from Earth. We also visit the Earth itself, devastated in this timeline.

The Trek Link: The writer of this episode, David A. Goodman, previously wrote for Enterprise and worked on some tie-in books for Trek, and before that, he worked on Futurama and wrote the fantastic Trek-parody episode "Where No Fan Has Gone Before."

References: Ed suggests contacting the Calivon for help against the Kaylon; the Calivon were the hyper-advanced aliens who put him and Kelly in a zoo in season one. The alternative Earth is been stripped of all life, even fish, a callback to "Nothing Left on Earth, Excepting Fishes." The Kaylon have been even more thorough than that in wiping out all terrestrial life.