Wednesday 30 October 2019

FANS WHO: Mission to the Unknown

This has to be the great triumph of the Doctor Who fan film world. I guess Devious made a big name for itself, getting Jon Pertwee involved and all and making it as a DVD extra, but this is something special. A university drama project impressing the BBC enough to air on their official YouTube channel, with heavy coverage in DWM. In effect, this is now the official BBC version of Mission to the Unknown, given that the original is long gone and only exists as a soundtrack. The University of Central Lancaster has usurped the original episode, 54 years to the day.

Mission to the Unknown is a canny choice by . There are a lot of Doctor Who episodes missing from the archives, but this is one of the few that looks honest-to-goodness gone for ever. There's not a scrap of footage left, there's no indication that any copies sold abroad were retained by their buyers, and there was just less interest for many years since it doesn't feature the Doctor or his companions. This one is not turning up in someone's lock-up.

However, the very fact that this is such an oddity amongst Doctor Who episodes works in its favour as a fan project. There's no need to recast the Doctor or his companions, and barely anyone watching today has seen the episode's star Edward de Souza in the role as space hero Marc Cory. The fan production can really stand on its own.

The UCLan version of Mission really stands up. We can't see the original but, judging from what's left of the follow-up The Dalek Master Plan, the student version looks easily as good as the original. The starship set and the jungle of the planet Kemble look spot-on; yes, they're a bit minimalist and claustrophobic, but that was exactly what the sets were like in the 1965 Doctor Who. Black and white hides a lot of sins, and while this would look pretty cheap in colour, it looks classy in monochrome.

The video quality is a lot better now, of course, so the limitations of the monsters, faithfully reproduced, are going to show up a lot more. The Planetarians look cheap here, but that rather adds to the charm. They were cheap in 1965. This is a recreation of the original Dalek Cutaway, right down to Paul Stenton's hissing barrow boy performance as Malpha. Seriously, if anything, the original was more ridiculous.

Of course, the UClan crew have achieved a real coup getting Nick Briggs in to voice the Daleks. When combined with some excellent Dalek props, having the official Dalek voice artist makes these pepperpots the real deal. Briggs, to his credit, strikes a balance between recreating the idiosyncratic voices of the time and his tried-and-tested modern Dalek staccato. It's not the first time Briggs has recreated the Dalek voices for a fan production, of course, even since he became the Beeb's main monster modulator, but it still lends an air of authenticity to the production.

Then it's down to the human cast. Marco Simioni takes over from de Souza as Marc Cory, with Dan Gilligan as the long-suffering Lowery. Yes, they're a bit hammy, yes, there's some slightly wooden RP, but again, this calls back to the original episode. Listen to the soundtrack - it's hammy. You can't fault this for calling back to 1960s Doctor Who.

To think these students made this in just five days. Great work guys.

And those Varga plants are just the cutest.

Watch the episode here.

Sunday 20 October 2019

New magazines - Whotopia #35 and From a Story By #1

Two new issues of fanzines are now out, featuring my very own work.

Issue 35 of Whotopia is an Earth Reptile special, with reviews of the lizard-men's classic serials. I accepted the daunting task of viewing and reviewing 1984's fifth Doctor story Warriors of the Deep. I also provide the latest in my run of "Master Who?" articles, this time taking a side step to the Master's appearances on audio, something which has recently become a rather busy field. There are also articles on the nature of the Silurians and Sea Devils, on the portrayal of dyspraxia in the most recent series, the late, great Terrance Dicks and more, plus an exclusive comic strip.

To download the issue in digital form, simply click on the cover image to the right, or to purchase a physical copy, click on the link here.

Also available is the first issue of From a Story By... the first ever magazine devoted to tie-in fiction books. I take a look back at the four Red Dwarf novels of the 1990s by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, while the issue also includes articles on Star Wars, Dark Shadows, Hammer Horror and much more. To purchase a copy of this paper-and-ink magazine, click here to be taken to the Obverse Books site.


TREK REVIEW: Short Treks 2-1 & 2-2: "Q&A" and "The Trouble With Edward"

Ask a silly question...

The Short Treks format proved successful in its first run, with four short adventures that tied into Discovery. Of these, three were really very good, with only the opener “Runaway” seeming rather throwaway, and even that turned out to be surprisingly important for the resolution of Discovery's second season. The far future setting of “Calypso” laid hints for the finale of the second season and will doubtless tie in to the third, while “The Brightest Star” acted as a prequel to very important developments for Lt. Saru. Only the Harry Mudd episode “The Escape Artist” seem to be a completely standalone adventure, and even that may turn out to be more important later on.

Of course, it's not necessary to watch any of these in order to enjoy Discovery, which is just as well, since CBS has made them as difficult as possible to see for the majority of the world. Now a second run of Short Treks has kicked off, with two episodes released within a week of each other, the beginning of a very incoherent release schedule that will end with a sixth episode in January '20. Once again, it's impossible for anyone outside the US to watch any of these through legal means if they want to catch them before the next run of full Star Trek seasons begin.

So, gripe over. Yes, I've watched “Q&A” and “The Trouble With Edward.” No, it wasn't done legally. If you want to get upset about that, CBS, perhaps these positive reviews will help pay my debt.

The second run of Short Treks is going to be even more varied than the first, kicking off with two silly stories that link in with what we might call the greater Discovery universe. The third, out in November, is also set to feature Anson Mount as Captain Pike, who makes brief appearances in the first two. The fourth and fifth are said to be tied to Discovery in “interesting and unexpected ways” according to showrunner Alex Kurtzman. The final episode is to be a prequel to Picard, taking the Short Treks away from Discovery for the first time. We've also been told that some Short Treks are going to be animated, although whether this refers to some of the second run's instalments or planned episodes for a third series isn't certain.

So, nice mixed bag there. Starting with two fun, throwaway stories that tie in to the popular reimagined version of Pike's Enterprise would seem to be a great idea. Both “Q&A” and “The Trouble With Edward” are a lot of fun, with the first episode rather light-hearted and the second an all-out comedy. “Edward,” in particular, is an absurd episode that wouldn't stand up in an ongoing Trek adventure series, but might give us an idea of how the upcoming Lower Decks animated series will play.

Predictably, the more serious Trek fans hate them.

OK, let's look at “Q&A” first. This was a straightforward side story about the fresh-faced young Spock coming aboard the Enterprise and getting stuck in a turbolift with Number One. In there, he bombards his commanding officer with questions so as to pass the time until they decide to sort things out. It ends up with them singing the “Modern Major General” song by Gilbert and Sullivan, Which is exactly the sort of hilarity that two stuck-up Starfleet officers would think was ridiculous and should be kept between themselves. (Seriously, these are people who think opera is a good time and that jazz is risqué.) Some of the more, shall we say, devoted Trekkies have branded this a betrayal of Spock's character.

I mean, talk about missing the point. Back when he first appeared in “The Cage,” Spock's character was completely different. He was a laughing, smiling science officer who couldn't help shouting his head off on the bridge (“THE WOMEN!”). Writer Michael Chabon explicitly wrote this episode to explore Spock's character at this time, to see his more emotional younger self and explain why he later worked harder to suppress his feelings. In reality, it was because Roddenberry was able to keep one character, so ditched Number One and retooled Spock to take on her emotionless demeanour. In the fiction, we discover it was Number One's fault after all, telling Spock to keep “his freaky” hidden after their bonding session. For all the fans saying that this episode violates canon (and so what if it does?), you're missing the point. The episode is about explaining a contradiction that's already part of canon.

“Q&A” gives us Ethan Peck the chance to play a different side of Spock, but it's Rebecca Romijn who benefits most from this episode. She only had a few scenes who distinguish her version of Number One on Discovery, and here we get a chance to learn more about Una: a passionate character who, like Spock, has learnt to hide her feelings in order to be the sort of officer she believes she needs to be.

It's a light-hearted episode with a more serious message, and it's a refreshing change to have something this small scale in modern Trek. Also, Spock's barrage of questions contains some interesting moments, such as a suggestion that he believes in intelligent design. Still, it's his attack on the Prime Directive that hits hardest. “Not ethical but also illogical?” I find myself agreeing with Spock.

“The Trouble With Edward,” is, as the title suggests, a spin on the classic “The Trouble With Tribbles.” It provides us with, essentially, an origin story for the tribbles, not that that was ever a missing landmark of Trek continuity. What it really is, though, is Archer Trek. Finally! H. Jon Benjamin's voice is unmistakable, and it's great to have him in front of the camera for a change. Close your eyes and it's Sterling Archer or Bob Belcher half-heartedly justifying himself in the ready room.

Edward Larkin is an idiot, yes, albeit a brilliant one, and not the sort of person you expect to see on a Starfleet starship. The same story could be told more seriously, of a man who is brilliant in his field but hampered by poor social ability, rather like good old Reg Barclay on The Next Generation and Voyager. But that's not what this story is; no, this is a pure comedy, something rarely attempted in Trek and never as outrageously as this. Benjamin is pitch perfect in his role, awkward and petulant but pretty sympathetic. Rosa Salazar is equally good as the young Captain Lucero, infectiously optimistic until she has to deal with what it can really be like leading people you haven't chosen to work with.

So here we learn that the tribbles' rapid breeding is due not to natural evolution, but to genetic tinkering by Edward, who added some of his own DNA into the mix. It's ludicrous, yes, and flies in the face of what the franchise has already established about the tribbles – they were said to be prodigious breeders by Dr. Phlox in Enterprise, a hundred years earlier – but it's in keeping with the tone of the episode. As a one-off bit of nonsense, this works, and brilliantly. If you don't want to accept this as part of Trek canon, then fine, but that doesn't mean it's not a great little bit of entertainment. We're clearly not meant to take this seriously; there are shots of tribbles springing out of the fur of their parents, Gremlins-style. Just enjoy it and don't get het up about the “damage to canon” or anything else that simply isn't important.

But do you know what is important? Edward was right. Tribbles would be the perfect food source for a planet facing famine, especially his enhanced ones which seem to reproduce without any obvious food source of their own. Well done Lucero. If you'd just listened, the people of Pragine 63 could be enjoying tribble sandwiches right now, and delicious furry tribble cereal wouldn’t be confined to a post-credits gag.

“Q&A” and “The Trouble With Edward” give us the best idea of what a comedy Star Trek series would be like. I fully expect just as much fan ire when Lower Decks finally materialises.

You want tribbles? Because that's how you get tribbles!

Thursday 17 October 2019

The Divine Comedy - Office Politics Tour

It's been a good few years since I last saw Neil Hannon perform. Uninterested in going along to the Foreverland Tour in 2016 - the last album being, let's be honest, rather boring - I was excited to see the Divine Comedy again. It had been too long, and the new album was said to be something of a return to form. Office Politics sees Neil embrace the sillier side of his music again, crafting a concept album about work, life and technology, and indulging in a passion for synth pop; a genre he's always played with, but lately and suddenly pushed to the fore. Office Politcs, then, sees a bunch of styles thrown together in a way that shouldn't really work, but somehow does, united by a tongue-in-cheek pretentiousness. Which is exactly what the best DC albums always were.

The best album tours throw in a bunch of old favourites, of course, and so the Brighton Dome performance could only really start one way. It had to be "Europop," one of the band's first singles in its earliest iteration but here performed in its reworked electro version from 1993's Liberation. Sporting a pink suit which fit the atmosphere of Brighton better than it fit him, Neil performed in an office set with talented support. Playing with the set is a new approach based on the performances I've seen before, with Neil using the setting to tell a story of a working life from joining the company to the ritual discomfort of the office party.

Both singles from the album were of course featured: the catchy, privilege-poking "Queuejumper" and the adorable "Norman and Norma," the hit of the album for me. However, the songs that worked best live were the less celebrated ones from the album, particularly the tragicomic "Life and Soul of the Party," and its follow-up, the gorgeously 80s ballad "Feather in Your Cap." It was probably a mistake to perform the two pretentious hard-synth pieces in succession; after dragging through the sub-Kraftwerk "Synthesiser Service Centre Summer Super Sale," the audience weren't particularly in the mood for the more upbeat but still synth-heavy "Infernal Machines." However, the wistful "You'' Never Work in the This Town Again" and "I'm a Stranger Here" regain a lot of DC's classic charm and worked beautifully live.

Neil Hannon's other calling, of course, has been writing theme tunes for sitcoms, and his theme for the non-existent comedy series "Philip and Steve's Furniture Removal Company" is even more of a standout oddity live than on the album. It was the old favourites, though, that kept the atmosphere buoyant, with the obligatory but always beloved "National Express," "Something for the Weekend" and "Generation Sex" getting rousing renditions. I was pleased to hear several favourites from Absent Friends, including a heartfelt performance of the title song, probably the best single piece of the evening. "Commuter Love" and "Come Home, Billy Bird," fit so perfectly with Office Politics' themes that it would have been foolish not to include them.

Switching between new and classic material kept everyone happy, and we were crying out for the second encore.
Bowing out to "Songs of Love" and "Tonight We Fly," Neil steadfastly refused to sing "My Lovely Horse" from Father Ted. Well, it was worth requesting, that man in the audience. He has sung it before at gigs, after all - when I asked him.

All photos sneakily papped by my sister Rebecca Tessier.

Tuesday 15 October 2019

Ghostbusters at 35

Although it was officially released in June 1984 in the United States, Ghostbusters didn't see the light of the cinema screen in most of the world until later in the year. In the UK, it wasn't out until December. So, Columbia can be forgiven for staging their anniversary re-release for the Hallowe'en market - well, near enough, anyway.

It's always a treat to see a classic film on the big screen, particularly when it's one that you never had a chance to see the first time round, due to unfortunately missing its release, a lack of showings in your area, or unluckily being nine months old when it was originally released. I have actually seen the film on the big screen before, for Hallowe'en about five years ago, but Ghostbusters is one film I will take the opportunity to see every time I get the chance.

So, thank you Odeon Brighton for hosting this special showing. There weren't very many of us there - how many people go to catch a movie on a wet Monday night? - and there weren't any staff on the door (which raises the question of why I bother paying for this stuff, when I could blatantly just walk in). But still. There was a good atmosphere. Everyone there loves the film, or they wouldn't be there.

So, was it worth making the trek to see a film I've already seen god-knows-how-many times? Well, there wasn't all that much extra in this special anniversary presentation. There were some new interviews with Murray, Aykroyd, Hudson, Weaver, Potts and Reitman, but none of them really told us anything new. Did we learn anything? Only that Sigourney Weaver has aged incredibly well.

However, there were, as promised, several alternative takes of favourite scenes. This was the best part of the showing. So much of the film was ad-libbed that the alternative takes have some seriously different dialogue, and where the dialogue is the same the inference is often very different too. It's not much different to watching a new Blu-Ray release - and there'll doubtless be one to tie in with the new movie next year - but it still added something special to a brilliant film, seen the way it was intended.

Sunday 13 October 2019

Coming Soon...

I have two exciting announcements to make about forthcoming projects!

Firstly, Obverse Books have revealed the cover for issue one of From a Story By... This is a print magazine that has been gestating for some time, and will feature authors such as Paul Magrs, Kara Dennison and John Peel. From a Story By... is all about TV and film tie-in books, celebrating our love of the many weird and wonderful guides, novelisations and cash-ins that accompanied our favourite screen properties. There will be articles on everything from Star Wars to Dark Shadows, and I have written a piece on the four Red Dwarf novels by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor. It's not on the site just yet but with a November release date it is sure to be listed soon

Secondly, Altrix Books have revealed the cover for Master Pieces, the upcoming Doctor Who charity anthology starring multiple versions of the nefarious Time Lord, the Master. Ginger Hoesly has created this cover for the collection and it is a thing of absolute beauty. The anthology should be up for pre-order on the Altrix Books site very soon, and will feature stories by authors such as Chris McKeon, Scott Claringbold and myself.

Thursday 3 October 2019

Superhero Show Round-Up: Legends of Tomorrow 4-B and Elseworlds

Legends of Tomorrow Season Four, Part Two

Legends, week in, week out, keeps on being the most fun of the Arrowverse series. Splitting the series in two so sharply, with episode eight airing mid-December and episode nine a the beginning of April, robbed the season of some momentum. Nonetheless, things kicked off well with “Lucha De Apuestas,” an episode that revolves around Mexican masked wrestling, one of those strange cultural artefacts that Brits only really get to see on telefantasy shows. The episode brings a lot more focus onto Ramona Young as new Legends recruit Mona Wu, whose nervousness and trouble fitting in is put into sharp relief by her new ability to turn into a hulking were-beast.

Much of Legends' appeal has been in its ability to take characters who don't fit together and turn them into workable double-acts and team-ups. Some of these have been established characters, such as Mick Rory, who gets to show new and ever-more sensitive aspects as he shows there's a lot more to him than the arsonist villain he started as on The Flash. His grudging respect for Ray Palmer, or “Haircut” as he prefers to call him, his more rough-edged buddying up with Charlie, and his surprising reveal as Mona's favourite author (after Jane Austen) all serve to make this once paper-thin character into a three-dimensional one, and a fan favourite at that. Other characters were created just for this series, such as Jes Macallan's wonderful Ava Sharpe, who went from being a jobsworth obstacle as the head of the Time Bureau to being one of the most complex and relatable characters in the series as she tries to understand her place in the world. Unlikely friendships, such as Ava, Mona and the formerly villainous Nora Darhk forming their wine-fuelled book club, bring out new sides to their characters. Legends has a big ensemble cast, and this can be tricky to pull off, yet the writers manage it with style by juggling the various relationships across the episodes.

Alongside all this is Nate's budding relationship with Zari, helped along by some very sweet chemistry between Nick Zano and Tala Ashe, juggled with his difficult, but slowly thawing, relationship with his father (just cannot get over Thomas F. Wilson being on this show). Hank's seemingly villainous turn is revealed to be nothing of the sort, although there are some dodgy undercurrents to his actions, and it turns out that he's literally made a deal with the devil (or, at least, a devil). The reveal that he wasn't planning to use the various subdued magical creatures as weapons, but as exhibits in a huge theme park/circus/magical zoo as a present for Nate, is one of the harder things to swallow in the series. Given how batty this series can be, this is saying something. It does, however, all come together rather beautifully at the end.

In amongst all the love, though, is poor old Gary, played to nebbish precision by Adam Tsekhman. Constantly overlooked, put upon and mocked by both his bosses at the Bureau and his heroes in the Legends, it was only a matter of time before Gary snapped. Thankfully, he does come good in the end, but his turn to the dark side has been, in retrospect, signposted since the beginning of the season. It also gave us the unforgettable visual of his demonically possessed severed nipple crawling back to him, which is a sight I had not expected to see on any series, let alone this one.

The decision to mix in supernatural monsters with the time travel revitalised this show during season three, and the monster-of-the-week format carried it forward nicely through the first half of season four. Wisely, though, the second half of the season phased this out in favour of more serialisation, with the character-pieces playing out against the background of the demon Neron's invasion of the living realm. Having Brandon Routh's character Ray subsumed by Neron is a bold move; Ray has been the noble heart and conscience of the group since its inception, and his gradual temptation by Nora showed that his love for others can lead him to make the wrong decisions. Having him allow Neron to take possession of him in order to save his friends is absolutely in character but almost ends up destroying the world, and gives Routh a rare chance to play a villain, something he excels at. (I cracked out Scott Pilgrim after watching the finale; he really is good at playing a charming bastard.)

The Neron storyline also brings Constantine's story to the fore, and while I still live in hope that we'll have a resolution to Matt Ryan's own series someday, this follows up on much of his backstory and brings things forward. We finally get to see Astra, the girl he lost to Hell in his greatest failure. Now played by Olivia Swann in her jaded adult form, Astra seems like an clear candidate for a recurring character in season five, albeit on an unknown agenda. Plus, we get to see Constantine at his best, playing the forces of Hell against each other in a take on some classic material from the Hellblazer comics.

The finale brings together these many disparate elements in a more-or-less coherent manner. It's all a bit syrupy, with a “love conquers all” message that they just about carry off. There are similarities between the messages of tolerance here and in Supergirl, but the use of magical creatures is a much poorer allegory than alien immigrants and it's lost amongst all the silliness. Still, it does see a whole bunch of monsters teaming up with the Legends against Neron (and Jane Carr reprising her brillaitn turn as the evil Fairy Godmother), which can only be good fun. It's good to see that the time travel element hasn't been pushed to the wayside, and the fact that Zari is from the future means that the world-changing events in the present have unforeseen effects to her timeline. Thankfully, Tala Ashe is confirmed for season five, because if she wasn't, I'd be most unhappy.

Best episode of the half-season: “Terms of Service.” Constantine faces the Triumvirate in Hell.
Best episode title: “Seance and Sensibility.” Jane Austen and a love god.
Most unexpected cameo: Caspar Crump returns as Vandal Savage, now dead and totally over himself.


It seemed sensible to look at the annual crossover event separately, since more and more they act as a multi-episode serial instead of individual episodes from each parent series. This year didn't feature Legends of Tomorrow in the line-up, instead crossing Arrow, The Flash and Supergirl.

On the whole, Elseworlds was a qualified success, and this lies in the fact that it's purpose was less to provide a coherent adventure than to introduce new elements to be followed up later. Firstly, it had to introduce Ruby Rose as the new Batwoman and bring Gotham City into the Arrowverse. Secondly, it had to plant the seeds for the next season's upcoming crossover extravaganza, Crisis on Infinite Earths.

As a multiverse-building exercise, it works. It's a lovely touch to have the nineties The Flash explicitly included in the new multiverse (as Earth-90, the 52 Earths idea having now been completely abandoned). The Monitor is about as outlandish and comic-booky a concept the franchise has brought to the screen so far, even ahead of Gorilla Grodd, and we finally get the Arrowverse version of Lois Lane. Played by Elizabeth Tulloch, Lois was a major missing element of the Superman family of characters in the CW multiverse.

Ruby Rose is pretty perfect as Kate Kane. The character is, after all, one of the LGBT icons of the DC universe, even if the comics have fluffed it in the past, and having such a real life LGBT icon in the role seems appropriate. More importantly, Rose has the tough-as-nails bravado and incredible sexiness that the role needs. We'll see how she does heading her own series in Batwoman this coming season. For now, though, the Gotham sequences are the elements of Elseworlds that work best.

The central story, though, with John Deegan manipulating reality from within Arkham, doesn't work as well as it should. Having him become evil Superman has some clout, but since Superman is a peripheral character in this franchise, it doesn't deform the story the same way it would in, say, the DCEU or Smallville. Swapping Barry and Oliver over in their superhero roles works OK, but Barry is such an angsty dick lately and Oliver seems a lot more centred, so that they don't contrast nearly as much as they would have if this had been done a few years ago. I like the hints that Batman exists on Earth-One but no one really believes in him, whereas he's a known quantity on Earth-38 and good buddies with Superman. On the other hand, meeting Earth-One versions of Alex and James Olson should be significant, but since they're part of an already altered reality they matter less to the overall story than they should.

Given the huge, anything goes crossover to come, I wouldn't be surprised if Jeremy Davies again either as John Deegan or an alternative version. He did, after all, play Ritchie Simpson on Constantine (retroactively part of the Arrowverse) as an essentially very similar character, and in Justice League Dark voiced him alongside Matt Ryan's Constantine, where Dr. Destiny took control of him. So really he's played three versions of the same character already, plus the version here seems modelled after the version of Dr. Destiny seen in The Sandman. Anyway, if he doesn't turn up again in some form alongside the Monitor I'll be surprised.

Wednesday 2 October 2019

Superhero Shows Round-Up: Supergirl Season Four

Supergirl Season Four

Supergirl, however, keeps getting better.

The wonderful thing about this series is that it's about diversity and tolerance, and moreover, fighting for tolerance. In today's world, particularly today's America, this is the most important message. This is as broad as it could be, but the core targets for its focus are feminism and immigration, two things bound to make a lot of white guys very angry and send them to the internet spouting rage-fueled bile. The feminist aspect was a given, of course, given that this is a series focusing on a female superhero, but the immigration angle has been as important since the start, with the showrunners remembering that Supergirl and Superman are the story of All-American Heroes who came to the States as refugees.

For a while now, the universe of Supergirl (Earth-38, as it happens) has been a rather more utopian one than our own, where the President is a woman who very clearly beat Trump (or his Elseworlds analogue) and leads an America that welcomes extraterrestrial immigrants. While there have been anti-alien elements throughout, the series has been broadly consistent in portraying a world that accepts aliens. Two things have forced this to change. Firstly, real life politics can't be pushed aside forever; it's impossible to really comment on the state of the US today by going, “Wouldn't it be nice if the world were more like this?” Eventually, Supergirl's America had to begin to reflect the real world equivalent. Secondly, the alien acceptance angle sits awkwardly with the fact that the bulk of the villains on this series are alien criminals or invaders. It's hard to imagine Joe Public squaring this with a view of alien acceptance, so it's something that had to be addressed.

To this end, season four introduced a new character, Ben Lockwood, played with superb conviction and charisma by Sam Witwer. The TV version of Agent Liberty, Lockwood's story is powerful and chilling because it is so plausible. Indeed, it's the sort of thing we see in reality all the time, and his fall from grace is so upsetting because there are points where the viewer comes very close to agreeing with him. Lockwood never had a problem with aliens, but his father was a backwoods, anti-alien kind of guy. Only slowly, after catastrophe after catastrophe, does Lockwood turn from a tolerant, accepting man to a mouthpiece for the Far Right and subsumed by his hatred for alien beings. The major turning points are the Daxamite invasion of Earth and the attempted terraforming by Reign, the cataclysmic events that rounded off the previous two seasons respectively, which lost his his home and then his father.

This would have been convincing enough if that had been all that pushed him over the edge, but it's the little things that make it so much more effective. It's easy to see the parallel between the alien invasion driving people to hate alien civilians, just as Islamist terror attacks have led to a huge increase in hate crimes on ordinary Muslim citizens. It's the smaller things that slowly chip away at Lockwood, though, such as his father's steel business being pushed out by alien alternatives, and alien workers proving better at jobs than humans. It's not subtle, but this sort of thing isn't asking for subtlety. It's all the more effective for an American audience, I'm sure, in a country where “alien” - a terribly dehumanising word – is still the preferred term for a foreign national.

The anti-alien sentiment is given a huge boost when the existing President (Lynda Carter) is revealed as an alien herself, the sort of Republican wet dream that ran through the Obama administration when the opposition were desperately trying to come up with some evidence to support their claims that the POTUS wasn't legally American. It leads to a right-wing populist President, who happily uses Lockwood as his mouthpiece. Given that the core characters work as reporters and magazine editors in their day jobs, the line between the press' commitment to unbiased reporting and the moral commitment to fight for the right cause becomes a major sentiment.

However, there are more aspects to the series and its agenda of outspoken diversity. Most notable are the two new hero characters on the regular cast, Jesse Rath as Brainiac-5 (pushed up to main cast at the end of last season) and Nicole Maines as Nia Nal, aka Dreamer. I don't think there can be any question that Rath is playing Brainy as if he's autistic; although this isn't something that can necessarily be said to apply to the character, being an alien android and all, his delivery of lines, tendency to not focus on the other cast's eyeline and the writing of the character as struggling to navigate emotional relationships and everyday conversation can only be read this way. Is it right to characterise a robot like this? One of the worst things that autistic people hear is that they're perceived as “robotic” because of their way of communicating and expressing themselves. Nonetheless, Rath's performance is beautifully understated, utterly charming and very funny without the humour ever being at his expense, so personally I'm in favour of the approach.

Nicole Maines, on the other hand, truly breaks ground as the first transgender actor to portray a transgender character in this genre. To the best of my knowledge there has never been a trans superhero onscreen, and it's very rare to see it in comics. Gratifyingly, while her gender identity is very important to Nia and a significant aspect of her character, it's not all there is to her. She gets to be a new hero on the show, the precognitive Dreamer, and is also an alien settler. At first I wondered if this was really necessary, making her trans and an alien, but there's no reason that a character needs one defining characteristic as the “other.” People are complex and varied and can differ from the assumed “normal” in many ways. Maines gives a strong yet vulnerable performance as a character who is still finding her place in life, and she shares amazing chemistry with Rath. Take away the extraterrestrial topcoat, and you've got a story about two immigrants, one trans, one autistic, who slowly learn how to tell each other about their feelings. It's beautiful and it's bloody brilliant that we have genre TV willing to try these things.

Among the sterling work done with the new characters there's almost no room to praise the continued development of the relationships between Kara, Alex, J'onn and even boring old James. Although every relationship gets its moment, the core of Kara's story this year is her complex friendship with Lena Luthor (Kate McGrath). While it really stretches credulity at some points to believe that this genius can't work out that Kara is Supergirl (the phrase “galactically stupid” comes to mind), the edge it lends to their friendship is palpable. Into this the writers drop Lex Luthor, who was bound to show up eventually, but they wisely kept him aside until his presence was required to push things over the edge. While I love the tradition was of recasting actors from various Superman productions in new roles, I was absolutely ready to throw out the idea of Jon Cryer, formerly Lenny Luthor in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, as the new Lex. And I like that film, even if nobody else does! However, Cryer absolutely knocks it out the park, playing Lex with a huge chip on his shoulder and a desperate need for validation that propels his fight for power. It's a dead-on characterisation and his antagonistic relationship with Lena works well.

Of course, there's no point bringing in Lex if you're not going to have him mastermind some ridiculously complicated scheme. Adapting the classic Red Son storyline, albeit liberally, the season see a parallel plot with Kara's clone, the Russian-born Red Daughter, set up as her dark mirror. As well as giving Melissa Benoist the chance to show how flexible she can be in performance, it ties in nicely to the anti-alien storyline, a sentiment that Lex naturally would want to stoke. The season ties together with panache, accepting the odd slow-burner episode that could have been trimmed, and the finale packs a real punch. Plus we get Lex in his green-and-purple battle suit, and they even call the finale “The Quest for Peace.” That takes some guts.

Best episode of the season: “Man of Steel” - Lockwood's story.
Most pointless addition: Otis and Mercy Graves – Luthor's annoying henches.
Best monster moment: Menagerie as a knock-off Venom.

Tuesday 1 October 2019

Superhero Shows Round-Up: The Flash season five

With the new season of the Arrowverse iminent, it's about time I did my round-up on the last runs of the superhero TV metaverse. I still don't bother with Arrow, excepting crossover events, but here's the round-up of The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl as they lead up to the multiverse-shattering events of Crisis on Infinite Earths.

The Flash Season Five

After four years revolving around Barry, his dead parent issues and his slightly incestuous wooing of Iris, season five gets to see him settle down with his new wife and deal with parenthood issues instead. It's a bit of an odd one, though, given that their child is a grown woman. Jessica Parker Kennedy's character, having made a series of cameos during season four, revealed her identity in the season finale as their daughter Nora, having travelled back from the year 2049. Understandably, Barry and Iris weren't exactly expecting this development, even if 99% of the audience had guessed it was her (there was a slim chance it would turn out to be Cecille's kid, of course, which would also have been fun).

The bulk of this season's effectiveness is down to JPK's performance as Nora. Given that the character deforms the narrative of the season completely, had she not been likeable and engaging it would have fallen flat. Fortunately, JPK is absolutely adorable, and Nora remains sympathetic throughout the season, even if she is a brat sometimes. That's forgiveable, though, since she's basically written as a kid; although her actual age is a bit foggy, she can't be any older than 25 and probably more like nineteen. Amusingly, JPK is older than either Grant Gustin or Candic Patton.

(As an aside, it's a bit strange that both The Flash and Legends involve time-twisting narratives concerning women called Nora who happen to be the daughters of major characters. Although as a nice touch, it's made clear early on this season that Nora's name is after Barry's mother, something that has only happened because Eobard Thawne killed her and changed history. She was supposed to be called Dawn, like in the comics.)

The ongoing mystery of Nora's character stops being her identity – which would have worn thin if they'd kept it going another year – and becomes her allegiances. It turns out that she's in league with Thawne, aka the Reverse-Flash, returning to become the major villain of the series at last. Thankfully, if somewhat inexplicably, he's once again played by Tom Cavanaugh, having reverted to stolen form of Harrison Wells. This doesn't make any sense that I can make out, but Cavanaugh is so much better in the role than Matt Letscher I don't care. In any case, Thawne is now imprisoned in Iron Heights in 2049 – the past, from his perspective – awaiting execution. Given how impossible to kill this character has turned out to be, this would seem to be wishful thinking on the part of the authorities.

Of course, Nora's actions come from good intentions, and for all his manipulations of her, Thawne genuinely seems to care about Nora. To be fair, he doesn't seem to be much worse a parental figure than either Barry or Iris, neither of whom will be winning Parent of the Year awards anytime between now and 2049. Barry in particular is an absolute arse this season. It's an interesting arc for his character to take, given how likeable he was at the beginning, but as the series has gone on and the pressure has mounted on him, he's become more and more unlikeable, arrogant and hypocritical. His treatment of Nora, in particular, is appalling, once he discovers she working with Thawne. OK, Thawne is his arch-nemesis and the murderer of his mother, and it's pretty clear he's going to be manipulating her, but rather than try to help her he kicks her out of his family and forcibly dumps her back in the future. Guy's a prick.

Before we set it out with Thawne, though, Team Flash have to face down Cicada, a terribly dull villain who drags the season down. The odd naff baddie isn't a big deal, but when it's ostensibly the Big Bad of the season and hangs around for the bulk of the episodes, this is a problem. All good for making the bad guy something other than another speedster, but last year's Thinker was only a qualified success and Cicada has far less going for them. I say them because we did have a fun twist in the second half of the season when the first Cicada was replaced by his own vengeance-driven niece, but Sarah Carter sneering her way through scenes isn't much more entertaining than Chris Klien growling through them.

This is all tied in with a metahuman cure storyline which runs like a watered-down X-Men storyline, only without the punch since, rather than being natural traits, the metahuman abilities were all granted by catastrophic disasters. Moreover, Team Flash really do have a responsibility to provide a cure for those who want one, since all of them events were their fault (OK, Thawne engineered the first one, but still). This includes the climactic events of the previous season, which ties into Thawne's captivity in the future in a pretty clever way, albeit one that doesn't actually make sense. Still, I've long stopped hoping for the time travel in this series to make sense.

All the characters get their own running storyline; if there's one thing this series excels at, it's juggling a large ensemble cast. My personal favourites this season are Frank Dibny (Hartley Sawyer) and Sherloque Wells (one of four roles for Cavanaugh this year, along with “Harry” Wells, Wolfgang Wells and Thawne). Having a new main Harrison Wells character each year is one of the sillier but most fun aspects of this series. I certainly can't think of another series that does something like this. Making this year's version a French-speaking, Sherlock Holmes-esque detective is just brilliant, and Cavanaugh is absolutely brilliant in the role. His buddy-rival relationship with “Baby Giraffe” Dibny is one of the highlights of the season.

On the other hand, Cisco gets a fairly dreary storyline this year, which necessitates him behaving far stupider than his character should ever be allowed to. And the less we hear from boring Caitlyn and her boring family and their boring icy escapades, the better. Her storyline is the single most pointless aspect of the season and far too much time was spent on it.

On the whole, The Flash is still a lot of fun when at its best, and a real heartache when it ramps up the emotions. Still, it's hard to argue that the series is matching the heights of its first couple of years. There's more filler than before, I fear, and I wonder if the best future for this series would be shorter seasons and tighter story arcs.

Best episode of the season: “Godspeed” - the story of Nora and Thawne
Best secondary villain: Weather Witch – Reina Hardesty is the cutest.
Best episode title: “The Flash and the Furious,” although “King Shark vs. Gorilla Grodd” takes some beating.