Monday 26 August 2019

REVIEW: Archer: 1999

Almost ten years after its pilot episode "Mole Hunt" was aired, the great Archer (probably) comes to an end with Archer: 1999, its space-themed tenth season. Of all the genre-themed settings we've had over the last few years, this is the one I've been looking forward to the most. It's not how I'd have done an Archer sci-fi series - I'd have gone for a full-on Star Trek parody - but it's a great celebration of sci-fi tropes and beloved cliches of the genre. In spite of the name, there's not really any Space: 1999 elements in there (not even a single moon is blown out of orbit to become a gigantic wandering base). The main inspirations are clearly Alien - always a source of referential moments in Archer - and Star Wars, with a mix of long haul space capitalism and swashbuckling space adventure.

Not that there are no Trek elements, though. The gladiator battle in episode two could have fit in the original series with no trouble, while the alien critter in episode three, "The Leftovers," is absolutely a Cardassian vole from DS9. There are plenty of other little nudges and secret ingredients, too - there's a certain Firefly-esque flavour to a lot of the proceedings, not least in the retooling of Adam Reed's character Ray Gillette as a space courtesan. He's basically the male version of Inara, only with less poetry and more cake.

The series is set aboard the starship MV Seamus, a space freighter that is somehow both clapped out and tremendously well-equipped, co-captained by Archer and Lana after their marriage ended and they won half the ship each in the divorce. Interestingly, some of the core characters have been brought back to be closer to their "real" versions than previous iterations like Danger Island and Dreamland. While Archer's always basically the same, Lana's role has varied a fair bit the last few years, and Archer has always been pursuing her in his fantasies. Here, their relationship is very much like how it is in the series' reality. Cyril has also been brought back in line after two seasons as a villain, now in a sort-of relationship with Lana (although it gets very little attention) and acting as the ship's first mate and "space accountant."

Cheryl/Carol is basically the same as ever (down to the glue-eating) but is now the ship's crackshot laser gunner, a job which she finds incredibly boring because she's so good at it, while Pam, in her greatest transformation yet, is a huge alien rock monster of indeterminate gender, not that it's affected her personality much. The brilliant Lucky Yates has finished his stint voicing a parrot as Krieger is back, now an Ash-style synthetic human, full of android milk and just as questionably committed to mad science as he ever was in human guise.

Giving the name "Mother" and the early hints as to the Alien-esque setting, I expected Mallory to be a computer, but instead she's a sort of holographic sentience who can appear as either a ball of light or Mallory's recognisable human form. Mysteriously, she seems to be Archer's literal mother in this reality, suggesting she's a recreation of a real human rather than an AI like Krieger. She's still an alcoholic.

Archer: 1999 works as a tongue-in-cheek space adventure, happily sending up the genre while making it clear that Reed and his co-writers love sci-fi and space opera. Some elements that might have translated well to the setting are surprisingly altered. Barry is back, for example, and despite being a cyborg in the main reality and therefore an easy drop into this environment, he's now the fully robotic Barry-6, an IG-88-like killer droid. Although he's a recurring villain, he's significantly less threatening than his nightmarish Dreamland incarnation, and becomes a laughing stock by the end, which might suggest Archer's subconscious slowly moving past his hatred of his archenemy. (On the subject of cyborgs, Ray was basically one by the middle of the main Archer run, so it's kind of surprising he's completely human here.)

The series has the same pros and cons as the previous couple of seasons, only more so. Dreamland worked well by not massively altering the format from where it had been for the previous year, but playing up the setting. Danger Island through itself into the setting, making big changes to story style and worked as an adventure series, but the comedy suffered. Archer: 1999 continues this trend, with the space adventure working brilliantly and looking truly fantastic for the most part but easily being the least funny of the seasons so far. Not that there aren't laughs along the way; episode five, "Mr. Deadly Goes to Town," starring Matt Berry as a sentient weapon of mass destruction, is a solid sci-fi adventure and pretty hilarious. On the whole, though, the reliance on running gags is becoming tired and serves mostly to remind the audience of when earlier seasons did it better. It's hard to disagree when Barry-6 calls it "derivative."

The final challenge for season ten is to tie up the three-year-long Archer-in-a-coma storyline, which intrudes into the penultimate episode before taking up most of the final one. Logic pretty much goes out the window here in favour of weird visuals and call-backs. There's some exploration of the psychological cost of Archer's mental battle as he falls apart, but there's no consequence, as he simply wakes up to see Mallory in his hospital room. Still, it's a nice final scene and strangely moving, albeit equally disturbing in its oedipal way. If this is the final season of Archer as has been stated, then it's a pretty anticlimactic ending. However, Reed has suggested an eleventh season might happen, in which case a final, back-to-basics approach could help round the series off more satisfyingly. Assuming, of course, that Archer really did wake up...

Friday 23 August 2019

REVIEW: Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood

Tarantino's ninth, and supposedly penultimate, film is a love letter to the heyday of Hollywood and the strain of actor that once made its films and series such a great success. It's his latest exploration of America's dark history, and features many of the elements we've come to expect from him. There's a cast of favourite faces, historical revisionism, nostalgic Americana, a spectacular soundtrack, long scenes of dialogue, non-linear story elements, graphic violence (although less than usual) and lingering shots of female feet (even more than usual, not that I'm complaining).

As much as Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood is typical Tarantino in many respects, there's a unique feel to the film when seen in his career. In spite of being announced as his take on the Manson murders, Once Upon a Time is, surprisingly, quite the feelgood film, ultimately quite uplifting. In reality, it's not the Manson film that many were expecting. The Family cult and the build-up to the infamous murder of Sharon Tate and her houseguests are treated as part of the scenery of 1969, vital to the story but not actually what it's about. Charles Manson himself, played by Damon Herriman, appears only briefly, although his presence is felt throughout the lengthy Spahn Ranch sequence.

Equally, Sharon Tate is an underserved character, for all of her screentime. Margot Robbie is magnetically beautiful onscreen, but is given remarkably little to say or do, something that's not gone unnoticed by critics. There's a single scene in which she shines, where Robbie watches the real Tate at the cinema, revelling in the audience's reactions to her character. While there's a sense of trying to remind audiences that Tate was more than her death, she serves primarily to represent the glamorous, desirable side of Hollywood that so many wish to be part of, not least the film's hero. Like the Manson family, Tate is part of the landscape.

The real story is that of Rick Dalton, Leonardo DiCaprio's ageing movie star, and to a lesser extent, his faithful friend and stuntman Cliff Booth, played by a deeply tanned Brad Pitt. Although inspired on a variety of actors from the period, Dalton is predominantly based on Burt Reynolds, who famously has a close relationship with his stuntman Hal Needham. DiCaprio is exceptional as Dalton, once the star of Gunsmoke-esque Western series Bounty Law, an actor who's becoming more and more aware that he is long past his prime and that his fame is fading fast. Struggling with alcoholism and depression, we see Dalton go from the worst lows of his career to brief highs, all the while knowing that his era is over.

A generous use of classic TV and film footage helps complete the illusion, with material tweaked and twisted so that DiCaprio can appear in classic films - be it a fantasy version of The Great Escape where Dalton won out over Steve McQueen or altered versions of TV episodes that cast Dalton in new, fictionalised versions. The occasional minor anachronism doesn't seem to matter, when we're watching what's clearly a diversion from reality - seemingly the same one as seen in Inglourious Basterds, which Tarantino references in most metatextual moment in the film.

Pitt's performance as ex-stuntman Booth is just as impressive. A laconic, almost impossibly laid back characterisation hides an individual who is incredibly dangerous. One troubling element is the revelation that Booth probably murdered his wife and got away with it - based on the dubious circumstances of Natalie Wood's death while in the company of Robert Wagner - and yet he is never called on it by anyone outside of one TV set scene. By the end of the film, we never know if this man - who is capable of extreme violence - is actually guilty of the crime, or how we should feel about either him or Dalton if it's true.

The film is packed with recreations of real stars, be it Damien Lewis's brilliant turn as Steve McQueen or Luke Perry playing Wayne Maunder, who both died during the period of post-production. While not always entirely flattering, the portrayals of real life individuals are at least respectful - with the exception of Bruce Lee, with Mike Moh forced to play him as a complete prick, something that has drawn a lot of criticism from Lee's family.

There lies the difficulty of making a film like this. I'm often uncertain just how acceptable it should be to make films of events that happened so recently. A number of the people portrayed, or loosely adapted, in Once Upon a Time are still alive, although a surprising number of them died off during production, and the families of those deceased are still here. How Tate's family must feel seeing her recreated onscreen, yet again, is hard to imagine. As with so many people who lived in just-about living memory of the core audience, there's an element of distance. They're people whose lives, and deaths, have become mythic, part of a seemingly long lost time that, really, wasn't that long ago at all.

Sunday 11 August 2019

Doctor Who and the Adventures in the Far East

There's been a lovely little flurry on Twitter recently regarding some forgotten Doctor Who from South Korea. The details are available here at broadwcast, which focuses on the overseas sales of televised Doctor Who, but also includes a section on merchandise in each country.

South Korea didn't really go for Doctor Who much in the 20th century, but this little titbit has recently emerged. It turns out that Korean readers had their own, short-lived, probably unlicensed version of Doctor Who as a comicbook release. Treasure Island was a Korean manwha (cartoon format) publication which released hefty 400-page volumes from 1982 to 1992, and included various reprints and licensed materials as well as original creations. Quite how they managed to create their own version of Doctor Who is uncertain, and there doesn't seem to be any evidence that they acquired a licence to do so, although broadwcast suggests they might have cribbed some material from Marvel reprints and worked from that.

Certainly, there's a very clear influence of Tom Baker's fourth Doctor on the manwha Doctor, who wears a clear variant on his costume. These were released in early 1984, when the fifth Doctor's time was coming to a close and the sixth was making his debut, but Tom Baker's image would still have been the most commonly seen around the world. Indeed, his was still the face most people thought of when imagining the Doctor until Tennant and Smith assured the domination of the modern series in younger viewers' minds.

It's an idiosyncratic take on Doctor Who, with the Doctor (from the planet Black) and his companion Joy travelling the universe in a TARDIS that appears to be a rocketship. The only story for which there's any detail so far is "Fugitives," which saw the Doctor fight Nazis and pirates for the entertainment of avian aliens. The article's writer says that's the sort of thing only a manwha book would include, but I can easily imagine it turning up in an early Doctor Who Weekly or Monthly comic strip. If your Korean's up to scratch, you can read some of the adventure here.

It's wonderful that there are still elements of Doctor Who and its spin-offs that are turning up out of the blue like this after all these years. I've always had a soft spot for weird knock-offs and foreign language versions of my favourite properties (the tokusatsu Japanese Spider-Man series being perhaps the greatest). The Treasure Island strips and the manwha Doctor are still obscure enough that there's bound to be more material out there waiting to be discovered.

So far, the manwha Doctor has certainly caught a few fans' imaginations. Most notably, Doctor portrait artist extraordinaire Paul Hanley has added him to his line-up of incarnations. (He's got the rocket fins on the TARDIS and everything.)

The manwha Doctor isn't the only version from the Orient. The Japanese translations of the Muller and Target novelisations published by Hayakawa Bunko from the early 80s featured their own idiosyncratic versions of the Doctor, his companions and adventures. Starting with the translation of Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure with the Daleks, with a new title that translated as Space-Time Big Bloody Battle, the Japanese Dr. Hu appeared Asian but in the first Doctor's clothing style, and battled unique versions of the Daleks and truly unsettling Autons. Then there's Dr. Who, a completely unrelated but surprisingly Doctorishly-stylised villain from the tokusatsu movie King Kong Escapes. Who's to say there's not a universe for each of these alternative Doctors in the great Who-multiverse?

A crossover between the manwha Doctor and the Hayakawa Doctor, at least, has got to be worth something.

Tuesday 6 August 2019

WHO REVIEW: The Legacy of Time

While Big Finish Productions started producing audioplays in 1998 (with the adaptation of the Bernice Summerfield New Adventure Oh No It Isn't!), it was in July 1999 that the released their first Doctor Who production, The Sirens of Time, on CD and audio cassette. Twenty years later, when even CDs seem a bit archaic and most people download their purchases, BF has released their own anniversary celebratory box set featuring a spread of Doctors, companions, favourite characters and time-twisting shenanigans. SPOILERS will follow in this review of the gigantic six-hour collection.

I've been a bit disappointed in BF's reliance on the same handful of writers and recurring cast, it makes sense for an event project to be placed in reliable hands. Ken Bentley directs all but one episode and by its nature, this features a host of recognisable voices playing familiar characters. The set involves six very separate stories which are linked by a general theme of things going wrong with time, all of which are eventually linked together in a just-about coherent fashion. The overall plot is basically irrelevant, though – the fun is in the individual adventures and the cross-pollination of various Doctors and spin-off casts.

LIES IN RUINS by James Goss

The set kicks off, appropriately enough, with Bernice Summerfield hard at work in the field. She's joined by River Song, who has of late been enjoying her own series of adventures in The Diary of River Song, where she has encountered various incarnations of the Doctor, and latterly, the Master, in flagrant defiance of continuity or logic. Given that River is essentially a combination of the two great heroines of the Wilderness Years, Benny Summerfield and Iris Wildthyme, it makes sense that she should finally meet one of them. (River meets Iris is one story that I'm dying to hear.)

Having two time-travelling archaeologists could have been an exercise in redundancy, but Alex Kingston and Lisa Bowerman have a great chemistry that balances finely between catty one-upmanship and bawdy companionship. It's a bit like when Rose and Sarah Jane fought over the tenth Doctor, only to bond over their mutual experiences of travelling with him. River has one up on Benny, having actually married the Doctor rather than simply been very good friends indeed, but they rub along together surprisingly well once the Doctor turns up.

The eighth Doctor is the version who arrives in the story, but he's not the version either Benny or River remember. Benny, of course, mostly encountered this Doctor in the earlier days of his life, while River, while meeting him in the latter years, still found him in generally good spirits. This is a tired, angry Doctor, though, one who's very, very close to becoming the Doctor of War. When confronted by a very personal threat, he comes closer than ever before to turning the corner from hero to warrior. It's not merely their shared affection for the Doctor that brings River and Benny together though, but also their mutual dislike of his new companion, the impossibly bubbly Ria (named for the companion in the old, pre-BF Audio Visuals range, and played with rambunctious energy by Alexandria Riley).

As good as the ladies are, though, it's Paul McGann's performance that really blows the competition away. This is a Doctor who's lost his faith in the universe after seeing it torn apart in the Time War, who, in the words of River, has lived a very long time indeed. It's a funny thing that the Doctor we saw the least of on TV (of the main incarnations) is the one whose borne one of the longest and most traumatic lives.


The second story jumps back an incarnation for a story that sees characters from the eighties during the sixties and seventies. BF's Countermeasures series – one I haven't explored much, unlike The Diary of River Song – has featured the special operations team from 1988's Remembrance of the Daleks, in their natural home of the 1960s, and latterly regrouped in the 1970s. “The Split Infinitive” hedges its bets by being set in both decades, utilising the running concept of time anomalies to tie the two periods together in ingenious fashion. Cue lines along the lines of “meanwhile, ten years earlier...” as events in one period influence the other and vice versa.

Sly McCoy rrrrollls and rrroarrs through the adventure, while Ace hops back and takes care of events in the further past. They're both completely at ease in their characters after all these years, although McCoy's performance is still as idiosyncratic as ever. The Countermeasures team are a solid troop of characters, but it's Pamela Salem's Professor Jensen who stands out for me – she's an actress of pure class. Dorney's script brings in the Rocketmen, BF's own brand of recurring space gangsters, who work perfectly in the retro setting, although they are a bit too similar to the also-ran baddies that appear in the first episode. There is, however, a gorgeous joke put in just to explain the unending nonsense around UNIT dating.


Episode three is an exercise in nostalgia, one that could have been saccharine but is actually rather beautiful and moving. BF's UNIT series is another one that's been going for donkey's years, on and off, and lately has been updated to include not only the Moffat-era UNIT team of Kate Stewart and Osgood, but also Katy Manning as Jo Jones. This (slightly misnomered) episode sees Mrs Jones and Ms Stewart pulled back in time to the Pertwee era.

As with “The Split Infinitive,” this episode involves a story split across two points in history, this time on the Jurassic coast. Yes, there are great sea dragons wrenched from prehistory by the temporal disturbances (good idea, that). Plot is secondary here, though, with this story hinging on the emotional interplay between the characters. I certainly didn't expect a highlight of this box set to be the Doctor and Jo chatting over a pub lunch.

I've been a bit sniffy about Tim Treloar's turn as the third Doctor, but it sounds like he's lately really gotten a hold of the role. There are moments in this episode where he's absolutely dead on Pertwee, although there are others where he drifts pretty far away. Regardless, hearing Jo catch up with her Doctor is a beautiful thing. Nevertheless, the most affecting moment is Kate taking a brief but moving phone call from her late father (recreated here by Jon Culshaw), and god, that was beautiful.

RELATIVE TIME by Matt Fitton

“The Doctor's Daughter” was a dreadful episode, but it did introduce a character who clearly had more potential than the episode explored. “Relative Time” brings back Jenny Anomaly, fresh from her own BF series about a year ago. Georgia Tennant (nee Moffett) is of course the real life daughter of Peter Davison, and having the sort-of daughter of the Doctor share a story with her actual father is, of course, irresistible. They have, in fact, appeared together in a BF Doctor Who before, 2000's Red Dawn, Georgia's first acting role I believe.

In “Relative Time,” she plays Jenny as a lively, adventurous, exciting character, heavily drawing on the performance of David Tennant as the Doctor. So, we basically have someone working with her dad while playing her husband. Still, it works, and the interplay between the more fuddy-duddy fifth Doctor and the boisterous Jenny is a lot of fun. It's always good to hear the snarky side of the fifth Doctor come out, as well, and he's in a dreadful mood for a lot of this story.

The episode see the insane Time Lord known as the Nine attempt a grand heist. This is, of course, an earlier version of the Eleven, the villain of the Doom Coalition box sets with McGann. While I'm not entirely sure if a character who continually reverts to his own earlier incarnations needs to be portrayed in earlier regenerations, I really enjoyed John Heffernan's posh kleptomaniac. He's got his own sidekick in the form of Thana, an immortal ne'er-do-well played by Ronni Ancona. It's a bit of silliness that has time for a few poignant moments between father and daughter, but mostly, it's just a lot of fun.


The fifth instalment of the set was originally to have been a Jago & Litefoot story, but the death of Trevor Baxter necessitated a major rethink. Jonathan Morris has come up with an ingenious idea, of alleyways that lead from the past to variant futures, and as he says in the behind-the-scenes interview, it's something that could spawn a ten-part epic. Here, though, it's mostly used as a way to up the ante as the time anomalies threaten to turn British history into a fascist nightmare, and remind that there by the grace of god we go.

In place of the Victorian sleuths, the sixth Doctor is accompanied by Charley Pollard, formerly companion to his next-incarnation-but-one, and DI Patricia Menzies. These characters first appeared together in the 2008 release The Condemned, and it's bizarre to think that this radical mix-up of a later companion and an earlier Doctor happened over a decade ago. It's still a lot of fun to hear Anna Hope's broad Mancunian police officer join forces with India Fisher's posho Edwardian adventurer.

Acting as pseudo-companions are John and Henry Fielding, (Richard Hansell and Duncan Wisbey), who ground the story in some kind of rationality. I knew Henry Fielding as the author of Tom Jones and was only peripherally aware of his role as the founder of the first modern police force, but I was completely clueless as to his brother John. This was a man who revolutionised social justice and became a respected magistrate after he was blinded as a teenager. He could even, it is said, recognise the criminals of London by the sounds of their voices. This is someone who deserves far more exploration than this relatively short adventure can allow.

The final story in the set has to pay double duty as both the fourth Doctor adventure and the obligatory multi-Doctor knees-up. Respect to BF for not making this another full-on multi-Doctor story with the Daleks and the Master causing trouble, as might have been expected. The eventual meeting of all the Doctors to save the day is only the climax to the story, and Tom Baker gets a fairly decent story to himself, but it's easy to overlook it in all the subsequent excitement. We do, however, get a rather lovely celebration of the varied nature of the fourth Doctor era, with both Louise Jameson and Lalla Ward returning as Leela and Romana respectively. The unlikely pairing have become a great double-act over the years in the Gallifrey series, and here we have them both remembering a trip with the Doctor to the planet Henlen; however, the details of their journeys are heavily at odds.

The overarching story reaches its head with temporal anomalies and jostling timelines running out of control. It's all down to the nefarious Sirens of Time, returning from the very first BF Doctor Who adventure, something that feels quite right and proper. Tied into this is the vital journey of the first ever TARDIS, a turning point for the history of the entire universe and a moment ripe for pardoxes and cosmic catastrophe. It's fannish as hell but there's nothing wrong with that in anniversary story, and the climax, while silly in the extreme, is punch-the-air good fun. While it's a trifle hard to swallow Benny being dragged into it again, seemingly just because she's so important to BF rather than any sensible story reason, it's a good excuse to have her meet Leela and Romana plus multiple other Doctors. (At the end of this story and including all media I think she's clocked up eleven distinct incarnations, even more than River.)

It's all an excuse, really, to get as many Doctors together in one room as possible. The proto-TARDIS needs six Gallifreyan pilots, so Romana needs a crew, and all six incarnations of the Doctor from earlier in the set turn up. What's even more indulgent, yet tremendously welcome, is a drop-in cameo from three more. I won't say the actors involved, but one played a villain on the series, one played a companion, and one is married to another star of this box set. It's all rather joyous and sends this very pick-and-mix release out on a high.