Monday 27 January 2020

WHO REVIEW: 12-5 - Fugitive of the Judoon

Look, I'm not averse to a spoilery review, but if you haven't seen this episode yet, you really need to go an watch it now. Then you're allowed to carry on reading.


Sunday 26 January 2020

TREK REVIEW: Picard 1-1: "Remembrance"

The first episode of a series can often be a difficult one to review. There's so much to set up, and little time to explore it all. Most Star Trek series are highly episodic, with the first episode functioning as a self-contained story, even as they set up elements to be continued in later instalments. Star Trek: Picard isn't like that. This is a serial, with episode one being the first chapter in a longer story. As such, we're left with more questions than answers, and the complete serial will no doubt throw "Remembrance" into a different light.

Nonetheless, as an opening chapter, and on its own merits as an hour of television, this is excellent. After years of Trek prequels on the big and small screen, it's wonderful to be looking forward again, even as the story reacts to elements that have gone before. The destruction of Romulus in 2009's Star Trek film was a huge event that was thrown in as background colour, a reason for the villain to be angry and vengeful. The aftermath remained completely unexplored until now. Equally, the previous film, Star Trek Nemesis, set up intriguing new elements regarding the relationship between the Federation and the Romulan Empire, as well as the nature of Data's artificial life. There was so much  that, outside the spin-off fiction, remained frustratingly unexplored.

It feels totally right that Patrick Stewart, one of the most outspoken actors when it comes to politics and human rights, should not only step back to star in the series, but develop the story as well. Stewart has spoken about how his anger at the world has informed this series, and it shows. While not everyone will be happy with another take on an ineffectual Federation and a corrupt Starfleet, at least this time there seems to be a point to it beyond cynical shock value. Once, the idea of a utopian future was enough to make the horrors of real life bearable. Pure escapism isn't enough now. To give us hope, you have to show a world where things are wrong, and show us that they can be put right. It's very hard to believe that our civilisation will ever reach the ideals the Federation is supposed to stand for. Better to address this and show that, while we will continue to make mistakes, we will also continue to learn from them.

Immediately, Picard looks different to other Star Trek productions. This is high-quality, prestige television. It looks more sophisticated even than Discovery, even as it remains, for almost all the first episode, resolutely on terra firma. Such a relief that, after bottling it with Enterprise, the showrunners of Trek have given us a version of the series that can spend some time exploring the Earth. Sometimes, you have to look inward to learn about yourself, even if you don't like what you see.

Stewart, now in his seventies and playing a man in his nineties, in a future that has only grown worse (echoes of Logan), is exceptional. Always the best actor to helm a starship, Stewart gives a mature, subtle and powerful performance as the aged Picard, now retired to his vineyard. His only connections to the wider universe are his two Romulan staff, Laris (the always wonderful Orla Brady) and Zhaban (Jamie McShane), no doubt refugees from the destruction of Romulus. We see a disastrous interview with the Federation News Network, where his desire to help the Romulans is attacked, in what amounts to a horribly xenophobic propaganda piece. Not only does this serve to drive Picard further into isolation, but it provides an uncomfortable reflection of our xenophobic, refugee-hating right wing news organisations in the UK and US.

Starfleet's failure to rescue millions of Romulans is complicated by the fact that the rescue fleet was destroyed by "rogue synths," artificial beings who attacked Mars. We don't know what drove them to do so, or what the extent of artificial life is in this future. Nonetheless, it's another element of today's world, the fear and hatred that both drives and results from terrorism, translated to a new future. Into this comes Dahj (Isa Briones), on the run from Romulan assassins, and somehow linked to Picard via (implanted?) memories.

I'd gone out and said that Dahj was actually Lal, and I was almost right. Picard describes her as Data's daughter, and she seems to be based on a painting of his that he named "Daughter," something which was surely a representation of his late offspring Lal. At present, though, Dahj's existence poses more questions than answers. The suggestion is that she is a flesh-and-blood being with a synthetic brain, perhaps more like a Blade Runner-style replicant than an android. Regardless, she's terrified, confused, and as a synthetic being, an outlawed and hated life form in this more defensive Federation. Although she is extremely capable - the action sequences in which she fights off Romulan agents are impressive - she seeks out a nonagenarian to help protect her, something he is incapable of doing. Still, it at least brings Picard back into the world, and serves to engage him with Starfleet again, and the oft-mentioned and now finally seen Daystrom Institute.

There are shocks to come in the first episode, even so, although Dahj's fate may not be sealed (if she is artificial, perhaps she can be reproduced). She even has a twin, working aboard the Romulan Reclamation Site - the Borg Cube seen in the trailers - presumably just as unware of her own nature as her sister was. The twin theme continues directly from Nemesis, even as we see that Data's brother, B-4, was ultimately a failed experiment.

Where this episode works surprisingly well is in its take on nostalgia. Both hardcore and casual fans are going to come into Picard with a rose-tinted view of The Next Generation, and this episode plays on that, with Brent Spiner back as a dream of Data with whom Picard can interact. The dream sequences show snapshots of the TNG-era, but there's nothing celebratory or self-congratulatory about them. There's a sense of real sadness for what Picard has lost as the universe has moved on without him.

"Remembrance" raises so many questions, regarding the Romulans, synthetic life, and the nature of the Federation in this time, but in itself, is a moving and gripping reintroduction to perhaps the greatest captain Starfleet ever had. It's Stewart's show, and he owns it, and I for one am absolutely hooked already.

Title-Tattle: This is the first major Star Trek series since The Next Generation to not be named for the ship or station that provides its main setting.

Aliens life forms: Dahj's unfortunate boyfriend is a Xahean - one of Po's people from Discovery and Short Treks.

Future history: The exact year of the series' setting isn't exactly clear, but it's suggested to be either very late in the 2390s or the beginning of the 25th century. If it's fourteen years since Picard left Starfleet, and he left as a result of the Hobus supernova in 2387, then it must be 2401 at the earliest.

The atmosphere of Mars has been burning since the attack by rogue synths, as seen in Short Treks 2-6, "Children of Mars," twenty years earlier. (This definitely suggests that the red planet has been terraformed by the 24th century - a carbon dioxide atmosphere wouldn't burn.)

Bruce Maddox is mentioned as the driving force behind the creation of synthetic life at the Daystrom Institute. Maddox appeared in the TNG 2-9, "The Measure of a Man."

Graphics: I like how the Romulan emblem has been tweaked so that it no longer features the two globes in the raptor's claws, reflecting the loss of the twin worlds of Romulus and Remus.

Musical cues: As in the final trailer, the episode features a rendition of "Blue Skies" by Bing Crosby. This was the song Data sang at the Rikers' wedding in Nemesis and had been passed on in his memories to B-4. As an aside, Bing was the grandfather of Denise Crosby, who played Tasha Yar in the first season on TNG.

There are musical phrases taken from the theme from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which was reworked for the following original cast films and The Next Generation, and the first appearance of the Romulans, TOS 1-8, "Balance of Terror."


Don't forget, you can pick up issue three of the sci-fi and cult television magazine Chromakey now via Lulu.

There are articles on a whole range of new and classic sf TV, including Doctor Who, Quantum Leap, Good Omens, Dark Skies, Max Headroom and Star Trek, plus a tribute to the late Terrance Dicks and an interview with BSG's Sarah Rush.

You can order the magazine for just £5.22 (plus postage, natch) here.

Wednesday 22 January 2020

WHO REVIEW: 12-4 - Nikola Tesla's Night of Terror

That was a great little story. I like that we've gone back to the celebrity historicals - fun romps with a charismatic figure from history and an alien threat. Last season we had "The Witchfinders," which was one of the better episodes of the year. "Rosa" was a more serious story, as close as we've gotten to a pure historical since 2005, but had some similarities to this episode.

Nikola Tesla is the perfect historical figure for Doctor Who to feature. The gentleman inventor is a character trope that goes right back to the beginnings of the Doctor - that's essentially how Doctor was first characterised, and an element that has been introduced back into the Doctor's performance with Whittaker's incarnation. Of course the Doctor is going to be a huge Tesla fan. Setting an episode during the "Current War" - the legendary rivalry between Nikola "AC" Tesla and Thomas "DC" Edison - is the sort of historical story I really enjoy. This series we seem to have something of a theme of the history of electronics and computing, following on from Ada Lovelace and Noor Khan to Tesla and Edison.

It's the sort of historical situation that is ripe for exploration on Doctor Who - absolutely within its themes but not terribly well known. There's been a big resurgence in Tesla enthusiasm in recent years, with a lot of fictionalised versions of him appearing on steampunky sci-fi productions, but when it comes to his actual history, he's still little known  by most people. The educational aspect of Doctor Who, there at the very beginning, is a strong element of this latest iteration of the show and a welcome one.

Goran Višnjić is absolutely spot on as Tesla. He's made up to look physically almost identical to him, and is essentially of the same nationality (Višnjić is a Croatian-American, Tesla was Serbian-American, but both were born in what is now Croatia and was under a greater country's control at the time). It's his performance though that makes Tesla such a compelling character in this episode - eccentric, bewitched by the possibilities of technology and quietly passionate. Just as good is Robert Glenister as Edison - the more famous of the two inventors, as the script is happy to point out. He plays him with a gleeful arrogance, and to be honest, the script really eviscerates Edison for much of the episode. True, Edison was a capitalist of the first order, but he was also a brilliant inventor in his own right and, arguably, made more of a direct impact on history than Tesla. That said, he at least gets to argue his case, and he is shown to have genuine compassion for his staff, even if he is a dickhead to Tesla (who, lets be fair, was no saint himself).

The TARDIS fam is used pretty well throughout here. It still feels like the writers are struggling a bit with finding something for them all to do, but Nina Metivier manages it better than most. Yaz gets to pair off with Tesla for her own mini-adventure, while Graham backs up the Doctor and Ryan gets some nice character moments with Dorothy (Haley McGee). It still feels a bit overstuffed - you could manage this story happily with the Doctor, Dorothy, Tesla and Edison and none of the regular companions - ut on the whole it works.

As do the Skithra. Yes, they're an awful lot like the Racnoss, with the Skithra Queen both looking and sounding reminiscent of the Racnoss Empress, but "The Christmas Invasion" was over thirteen years ago, so it's been long enough. Plus, Anjli Mohindra's performance as the Queen is pretty great, and a lot subtler than Sarah Parrish's as the Empress, even if she is channelling a lot of the same tics. I feel like the two species are probably related in-universe. The Skithra are conceptually quite different, though; if anything, as scavengers they're more like the Santa robots that the Racnoss co-opted than the Racnoss themselves. I like the idea that there are loads of alien chancers hanging around primitive planets waiting to nick stuff off more advanced passers-by, safe in the knowledge they probably won't get caught.

On the other hand, there are some conceptual problems with the Skithra. They're said to have a hive mind, something that is used against them in their defeat, but they don't act like they do. Sure, they have a humanoid(ish) Queen and a bunch of scorpion-like drones, but the drones seem to have distinct personalities and self-awareness. It also seems like Metivier is trying to draw a parallel between Edison using his employees' inventions to make money, and the Skithra stealing technology from other races rather than building it themselves, but they're not really equivalent.

There are some other little quibbles - where did that Silurian gun come from, for instance? - but it's hardly the first time a decent Doctor Who romp failed to make sense when looked at closely. This was a lot of fun, and I'm not arguing with that.

Maketh the woman: The companion trio all get kitted out in early 20th century outfits, all perfectly chosen to suit the actors, but the Doctor just wears her usual gear. After the black tie twist in Skyfall, I'd been looking forward to Thirteen in a period costume for a change.

Ethics is my manor: There's a serious problem with the Doctor's morals here. She forcibly wipes Ada Lovelace's memories to protect her memory, against her protestations, but let's Edison and Tesla carry on after seeing the TARDIS, alien technology and all sorts of history-damaging things. Alternatively maybe it's inconsistent writing, more evidence for needing a decent script editor to take his marker to this series.

Whose face is this? Robert Glenister previously appeared on Doctor Who as Salateen in the 184 classic The Caves of Androzani. Anjli Mohindra was, of course, Rani Chandra for four seasons of The Sarah Jane Adventures.

Title Tattle: Yeah, that's a lovely title, but I'd have gone with "Current Affairs."

Oh look, rocks: One thing Tesla has in common with Rosa Parks: they both have asteroids named after them. So does Edison, as it happens.

Sunday 19 January 2020

REVIEW: Crisis on Infinite Earths

It took the Marvel Cinematic Universe eleven years to bring us their over-the-top, self-indulgent and thoroughly enjoyable time-travelling crossover. So for the CW's Arrowverse to get there in just eight years is pretty swift. Although I've never been the biggest fan of Arrow itself, it's a testament to the huge franchise of DC superhero shows that it has spawned that, in its final season, it would be part of a five-part crossover with all of its sister shows involved. Although that's not the half of it; this is as much an event for Supergirl , and particularly, The Flash, which has been counting down to this Crisis since its first season, with glimpses of the inevitable future marking Barry's time.

Plus it's a much-needed boost for Batwoman (a show I'm behind on, but still, from the evidence of early episodes, one that needs an injection of fun) and a celebration of the ridiculousness of Legends of Tomorrow. Even that doesn't cover it, though. By taking the idea of Infinite Earths to its logical extreme, Berlanti and the CW team realised they could put everything in there, if they could get the right people involved. And they got away with it; Crisis on Infinite Earths is an absurd celebration of the entirety of DC's live-action screen history, and a fair bit of the animated universe too. It's amazing that they got so many actors from DC productions past to get involved, even if some of them were just fleeting cameos.

It's nicely balanced on that front, too, with the regular cast still carrying the bulk of the story. The only alternative version of a character to get a big cut of the action is the Earth-96 Superman, and he, of course, is played by Legends regular Brandon Routh. It's particularly lovely how the reuse of actors isn't glossed over, but commented on by the characters. Superman productions in particular have a tradition of reusing actors in new roles, so there are a lot of characters who look like other versions of people they know. It's ridiculous, but as always, the Arrowverse embraces that ridiculousness.

There's also a nice balance to how they manage the repercussions of the Crisis. The original comics events used it as a way of tidying up continuity, starting a tradition of periodic DC universe makeovers that only ever made things more complicated. This was more straightforward – it got the main Arrowverse series, Arrow, The Flash, Batwoman and Legends, into the same reality as those acquired later, Supergirl and Black Lightning. But really, this just seems like an excuse to have fun. Yet it still left us with a multiverse, so there's no disjoint between the joy of seeing your favourite version of a character make a cameo and realising they've been killed along with everyone in their universe. It's all still out there, so we can still enjoy the infinite versions of this nonsense.

Part One: Supergirl

It starts beautifully, with a knowingly daft and over-the-top voiceover from the Monitor that leads into a multiversal montage of multiple Earths. It's a damned shame Adam West is gone, because I'm certain he would have jumped at the chance to appear alongside Burt Ward on Earth-66. Then we're into the action, with the universe of Earth-38 – the “Superverse” - under threat from the antimatter wave. One thing that this crossover managed very well was keeping each episode feeling part of its parent series, with this episode focusing on Supergirl and her friends and their reaction to the devastation. And it's pretty full on – Kara loses her entire world, and Argo, bar the lucky few survivors. Rightly, Superman and Lois are part of the team, not just because they're setting up their own series, but because they're pretty bloody important. But Supergirl herself is bloody impressive here, saving millions by working with the DEO and sundry aliens to evacuate people from their Earth. It's a shame we couldn't actually see much of this, but I guess a planetary evacuation is a rather expensive thing to put on screen. Still, it really makes it clear that this is a big event, with repurcussions. Supergirl's Earth is gone, and billions are dead. We know they'll find a way to put things right, somehow, but nothing's going to be the same after that.

It works very well as part one of the overall story, as well. It sets up the new Arrow spin-off by focusing a section on Oliver's relationship with his daughter and bringing in Laurel, and rightfully having Oliver lead the battle against the wraiths that precede the coming of the Anti-Monitor. It's the best battle of the serial, because it's relatively small scale, and features characters who fight without superpowers. It ends with Oliver's death, which is very poignant, even though we can already sense that he's going to be back before the end.

Other bits I loved:
  • Sara and Ray just chilling at a pub quiz, with no idea that the Crisis is coming.
  • The respective Batman themes on Earth-89 (the Keaton movies) and Earth-66 (the West series and movie).
  • Titans is included as Earth-9 – there's too much comicbook TV to watch right now, and I've just started this, but I loved seeing it included. It's another Berlanti one, although not one that's getting folded into the main universe.
  • Harrison Wells in a brilliantly comicky Pariah costume.
  • Wil Wheaton's cameo.

Part Two: Batwoman

While this one does put a lot of emphasis on Kate Kane, her friendship with Kara, and her complex relationship with Bruce Wayne and his memory, there's a huge focus on the Suerman mythology. However, for that reason this is my favourite of the episodes, as I just love the interaction between multiple Supermen. The visit to Smallville's Earth was a special treat; we'd all heard it was coming, but there was a spectacular frisson seeing Tyler Hoechlin and Elizabeth Tulloch meet Tom Welling. It's a pity we didn't get any interaction between them and Erica Durance's Lois, though. It's perfect that this version of the character gave up his powers to live an ordinary farmboy life. Plus, Lex became president on that Earth, just as was foretold. It's slightly odd having Iris along for the ride, but Candace Patton is pretty great here, and after all, they're all journalists, right?

Jon Cryer might be the best Lex Luthor ever (still a huge surprise), and seeing him travel to multiple Earths to do what their Luthors couldn't and take down Superman repeatedly is wonderfully villainous. Of course, he uses magic, always Superman's other weakness. Could the Book of Destiny be a hint of some Sandman elements being incorporated somewhere down the line? Even more wonderful than Smallville is Earth-96, both the universe of Superman, Superman II and Superman Returns, but also the live action version of Kingdom Come. It's great that Routh finally gets to play Superman again, even playing him alongside himself as Ray. Wonderfully daft.

Both the biggest treat and the most aggravating decision, though, is Bruce Wayne. Kevin Conroy is my favourite Batman, but this is clearly not the Bruce Wayne of the 90s animated series and/or Batman Beyond. No, Earth-99 is more like The Dark Knight Returns and the grim Frank Miller canon, with a bit of Kingdom Come and even a touch of the DCEU movies. It's wonderful to have Conroy appear in the flesh at last, but did they have to make him such a miserable version of the character?

Back to the plot, and Oliver is back already, but not quite himself. Love that they got Constantine involved for this, as is all right and proper. There's a distinct lack of Legends in the crossover so far, even as we get a version of Mick Rory providing a Waverider to act as a base of operations. Still, there are a lot of characters and you can't fit everyone in. The Paragons idea is very daffy, but very comicbook and it's a nice way to get a core team together.

Other bits I loved:
  • There are a lot of nods to the Superman movies, but the best was giving Bruce a Lex Luthor line just to show how villainous he's become.
  • Plus he refers to Superman as “a strange visitor from another planet, with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men,” which is straight from the really old Superman material – on TV and radio.
  • I love how Routh's Superman references fighting himself before, ala Superman III, but that film isn't in continuity with Superman Returns.
  • Gideon with the voice of Leonard Snart. This crossover has a dissapointing lack of Snarts so I'm glad he's in there somewhere.
  • Mick Rory is good with babies!

Part Three: The Flash

This one really feels like an episode of The Flash, which is quite right. The Flash was always headed here, destined as Barry was to sacrifice himself to save the multiverse from the Crisis. At least, in the comics, things work out rather differently here. Was anyone really surprised when the Barry who sacrificed himself turned out to be the one from Earth-90? A cop out, perhaps, but not an unwelcome one, and it gave John Wesley Shipp the final send-off that he deserved. He's been wonderful all through this series as Henry Allen, Barry Allen and Jay Garrick, giving them all distinct characters, and it's a rather beautiful goodbye for him.

There are some very nice character moments for Team Flash, which is important, since while Grant Gustin's Barry doesn't die, he instead loses everyone. Indeed, everyone does. The episode ends with the destruction of the multiverse. I mean, we all know it'll be sorted out, but wow, that's a cliffhanger-and-a-half. Even so, the strongest moments of this episode were the character interactions, between Barry and his friends, between Kara and Kate, between Barry-90 and everyone who'd listen. It's a bit harsh on Hoechlin that Routh gets to be the “main” Superman, but it's not like he lasts long as a Paragon. The switch of Lex Luthor to take over his role is fantastic – ad the clear reason that the Monitor brought it back. You can't save everything just with heroes, you need a bit of villain in there as well.

There are some fluffs, though. Bringing in Ryan Choi (destined to become the new Atom when Routh leaves Legends later in 2020) is nice, and making the ordinary guy the Paragon of Humanity is a great touch. (I say ordinary, he's still a super-genius.) But his inclusion is underwhelming and feels undeserved (that said, he's much better in the following episodes). The introduction of Cress Williams over from Black Lightning is handled poorly. I'm miles behind on that show, so haven't seen its tie-in episode, but the guy has just lost his family and entire world, and he just has to shrug it off and get on with things. And after all that, he's fairly pointless, just a lightning zap here and there that could have been provided any number of ways. Also, after practically vanishing from events in Part Two, J'onn J'onnz is suddenly back as a Paragon. Not that he shouldn't be there, but the writing was sloppy there.

Other bits I loved:
  • Wow, Birds of Prey. I'd practically forgotten that one.
  • Ralph Dibney gets a few nice moments, particularly “Holy All-Star Squadron!”
  • Look, I really don't like Lucifer, it gets the comics and character so completely wrong, but it was still a nice moment having Constantine meet him.
  • Looks like Earth-73 is Black Lightning Earth, but it's not spelled out. Going with that one though. Still pleased they incorporated the series even if they did fluff it.
  • Jim Corrigan shows up! Now that's a development. It's a pity they didn't get Emmett Scanlan back from Constantine, but Stephen Lobo's suitably grim.

Part Four: Arrow

God, they make us wait, don't they? More than a month without an episode, then two on the same night. I love how that month has passed in the show too, with the Paragons being stuck in the Vanishing Point all this time. There's an interesting universal set-up here: the multiverse has been destroyed, yet it would seem only in the present. So time travel is still possible, and timeless realms such as the Vanishing Point, Purgatory and the Speed Force continue to exist. Thus, we go back to the very beginnings of the multiverse to set things right, and get a time-travelling greatest hits parade to boot.

Yes, it's very Avengers: Endgame, but hell, these guys have earned it too. This is Arrow's show this time round, and Oliver Queen gets to shoulder the burden. Making Oliver the Spectre is an amazing move, one that's over-the-top but that seems right given the huge stakes here. Given that his character and series have evolved from vigilante-versus-assassins and criminals, to superhero-versus-metahumans and magicians, it follows that he ends up with powers of his own. And not just powers, he's an ultra-powered ghost! Somehow, even with something this silly, even though we've just done the same thing, Oliver's death is poignant. It's a hell of a move, killing off the star of Arrow halfway through his final season. It's a pity that Stephen Amell spends so much time with his voice so heavily modulated.

The final battle is a little underwhelming, if only because fisticuffs seem like a daft way to save the totality of existence. The build-up is more enjoyable, with Choi and Lex making a bizarrely effective team. Cryer's obviously having a fantastic time and is one of the best things about this crossover. Good to see that Supergirl doesn't deal well with working with him. She can be too saccharine at times, it's good to see her pissed off.

And then: the multiverse is restored, with tweaks.

Other bits I love:
  • LaMonica Garrett is awesome when he's playing Mar Novu before he becomes the Monitor.
  • You have failed this universe.” So cheesy. I love it.
  • Amell does get a really great final scene.
  • That cameo. Ezra Miller drops by as another Barry Allen, bringing the DCEU into the great DC screen multiverse. It really feels complete, now that the current cinema version is included. I like that they pointed out that his inclusion, at this stage in the story, made no sense, but it was the only way to get him in there, since he could only be squeezed in after most the filming was completed. Then again, the Speed Force is outside of time.
  • DCEU Flash gets the idea for the name from CW Flash.
  • The Spectre fighting the Monitor while reality reforms around them is straight from the comics, although this time we have a different Spectre.

Things I didn't love:
  • I know Emily Bett Rickards has left Arrow, but where the hell was Felicity? This is the biggest crossover ever and Oliver just died. She should be here.

Part Five: Legends of Tomorrow

And rightly so, the Legends episode is the silliest of all. I'm a bit disappointed that we didn't get more Legends in there, but we got some great stuff from Sara, Ray and Mick, even if the rest of the team was either absent or reduced to cameos. Again, though, with so many characters to include, it's understandable (presumably why the Legends were left out of the last crossover).

So, now we have Earth Prime, the combined elements of Earth-One, Earth-38 and Earth-73-or-whatever. Possibly the old Earth-Two as well, given that it seems to have been replaced. It's a weird place, with Oliver having used his infinite powers at the moment of his death to reboot the universe and do some tinkering while he did so. Questions abound. Why is Lex suddenly in position of trust and power? That can't have been Oliver's choice. An effect of the Book of Destiny, perhaps? We'll see the fallout of the Crisis on all six series, but things can't ever be the same after this. On one hand, it threatens to invalidate everything we've already experienced on the shows so far. On the other, characters can interact with each other more easily, and it looks like they're pulling out all the stops when it comes to comicbook daffiness.

The final battle against the Anti-Monitor manages to somehow be more absurd than the confrontation with Beebo, but it works, mainly because the various heroes feel like a real team, all bringing their own elements to it. There are still strange omissions and inclusions – J'onn is mainly included as a Paragon so he can infodump people psychically in the new universe – but on the whole it works.

If nothing else, it's worth it for that final big scene. After all this time, we finally have a live-action TV Justice League. The Flash, Superman, Supergirl, Batwoman, the Martian Manhunter, Black Lightning, White Canary, and whoever's going to take over as the Green Arrow. It's been a wild, eventful, ridiculous ride.

Other bits I love:
  • The multiverse continues. There's a new Earth-Two, it seems, which will include the upcoming Stargirl series. So even though they've gone to all this trouble to bring the shows together, they're keeping some in their own continuities.
  • Heavy set up for a Green Lantern show.
  • Best cameo of the crossover: Marv Wolfman himself. If you don't know, that's the modern DC equivalent of all those Stan Lee cameos.
  • Diggle gets to have both his son and his daughter in the same reality. One got switched with the other due to Barry's Flashpoint foolishness.
  • Good to see Mick's literary career is going strong.

Victorian Nightmares

From late to 2019 to the beginning of 2020, the BBC aired three high budget, prestige television adaptations of classics of Victorian literature: A Christmas Carol, The War of the Worlds and Dracula. I had... mixed opinions on all three of them.

You can read my reviews of the Victorian telefantasies at Television Heaven by following these links:

Monday 13 January 2020

WHO REVIEW: 12-3 - Orphan 55

Damn, that was disappointing. After such a great start, series twelve drops the ball completely with a real hash of an episode. Though not without its entertaining moments, "Orphan 55" is nonsensical stream of events that fail to cohere into anything worthwhile.

Which is a shame, because Ed Hime is trying to say something important with this script. Speaking out about global warming is important, even though it's probably screaming into the void at this point. "You're arguing over the washing-up while the house is burning down," is a genuinely excellent line. It's just a shame that there aren't really any others in the script, and that it comes in the midst of a tediously long monologue from the Doctor. A decent script would have made the importance of changing our environmental impact part of the story, not tacked it on the end. And frankly, a message about changing our behaviour to tackle global warming is hard to swallow from a programme with such a gigantic carbon footprint. A series that films in Tenerife, South Africa and Australia lecturing about the environment feels like one of the big blockbusters that seeks to teach us that money isn't everything. 

It's a very derivative story as well, but then again, some of the most enjoyable episodes of Doctor Who have been derivative as hell. But to make a derivative episode work, you have to do it somehow differently to what's come before, or at the very least make it entertaining. Hime's previous episode, "It Takes You Away," was an oddity that didn't quite work, but at least it was different. This episode was merely a series of set pieces that were done better on previous episodes. So Orphan 55 is Earth in the future? So was Ravolox, and when The Trial of a Time Lord is the better handling of a concept, it doesn't look good. The bus ride through the deadly environment was done far better by "Midnight," the holiday camp built on the home of deadly creatures was done better in The Macra Terror

The reveal that the holiday spa is a faked environment is nicely handled (like the "fakation" neologism) but the hostile environment doesn't convince. It's hard to persuade an audience that the outside is inimical to all life when there are visible trees. Then again, Hime seems to think that trees "breathe" carbon dioxide and uses this to explain the Dregs, apparently not realising that plants respire oxygen as well. Still, having the Dregs turn out to be mutated humans is a fairly nice twist, even if it's one that's completely obvious the moment it turns out Orphan 55 is Earth, and let's be honest, that was hardly the biggest shock ever. (I honestly expected them to use that twist for Desolation on "The Ghost Monument" last series.) The "dregs of humanity" angle could work well - the idea being that the rich and elite abandoned the Earth, leaving the little people behind - but it's thrown in and passed over too quickly. Nothing has time to stick in this episode. In some ways, this seems like one of the more frenetic comic strip stories - everything is there because it'll briefly look good. 

And for the most part, it does. The Dregs are a very ordinary monster design, but are nicely realised all the same. Then again, you've got Hyph3n, the furry. At least, I assume that what she's meant to be - if she's actually meant to be an alien, then god only knows what the costume designers were thinking. Again, it's a script just going, here's an idea. Oh, didn't work, try the next one. Characters aren't developed beyond simple character traits, and most of them get no closure beyond a sudden burning need for self-sacrifice - three times in one episode, in fact. 

Laura Fraser is completely wasted on this episode. They have James Buckley and give him no funny material. Gia Re does at least share some chemistry with Ryan, but her character is so nuts it's hard to take her seriously as soon as her motivation is revealed. By far the worst element of the episode is Vilma, played by Julia Foster, who hams her way through the episode, spending half of it screeching "Benny!" at the top of her lungs. That's BEnni, who for a moment becomes a spooky voice from the deadly outer wastes, before calmly asking to be murdered. Because he's apparently being tortured by monsters. But can still have a conversation. 

I can't say I'd like another episode of this, but it might have had a chance to work if it had been a two-parter. The concepts might have had time to be explored, the characters could have been developed. Instead, everything steamrollers ahead with no regard for logic or characterisation, until everyone except the regulars is apparently dead. Still, it's hard to care too much. Before we've had a moment to think about them, we're onto the lecture anyway. Although the moral seems to be less "global warming will render the Earth uninhabitable" and more "if you don't change your ways you'll turn into monsters." Actually, it's not a comic strip - it's like a story from a World Distributors Doctor Who annual. 

Graham gets some funny moments at least, and Jodie Whittaker really tries to sell her lines. At the end of the day, though, there's too little that works in amongst the nonsense. I preferred this warning when The Curse of Fenric gave it. 

Maketh the Woman: I do like the Doctor's knitted version of her signature top. 

Future History: The revelation that all futures we see in the series are merely potential futures that can still be changed is really the only way that Doctor Who history can make any sense. As much as I like AHistory and the mad attempt to tie all of the events of the series into a single chronology, the futures shown in the series across its 55-year run contradict each other so much they really can't fit together. Plus, this way all future stories can happily ignore the Earth's fate as Orphan 55 and the events of this episode. 

Monday 6 January 2020

WHO REVIEW: 12-1 & 12-2: SPYFALL

Well, wasn't that a return to form? As much as I enjoyed series eleven - and I really did - there's no denying that it wasn't quite at the level we'd come to expect from Doctor Who. The writing is sharper, though hardly perfect - character's still explain what they're doing all the time, but at least the show is self aware enough to poke fun at itself while it's doing it.

But the confidence this year! We waited a full year between "Resolution" and Spyfall, Part One, the longest gap between episodes since the series returned in 2005, and then the very shortest, with only four days till part two. We needed a barnstorming return, and we got one. Episode one had scale, riffing on the Bond themes with a globetrotting series of locations, ridiculous spy tech and some serious guest casting. There's some guts in casting Stephen Fry as M - sorry, C - and then bumping him off that early, but he's always good value and it's a treat to finally have him on the series. (The TV series, that is. He's done Who before). Lenny Henry gives good villain here, underplaying the role of Daniel Barton to good effect. In spite of many years as a straight actor, he's still best known as a comedian, so this is a good reminder just how classy he can be when he wants to be.

The regular cast all get to show what they're capable of, all having material that's better suited to their characters than they often got last series. It's gratifying that Chibnall and his team have been listening to some of the complaints about series eleven and gone out of their way to fix them. There's over-the-top adventure for Thirteen and her fam, of course, but also a sense that the companions actually have lives, something that was forgotten so often last year. It's a small thing, but noting that Yaz's career has been hit by her recurrent "secondments," that Ryan's been making excuses to his mates but acquiring new skills, and that Graham needs to visit an actual doctor occasionally are all satisfying.

It makes throwing them all into the Bondian escapades all the more entertaining. Glitzing them up in their finest and sending them to the casino, and the ludicrously killer car chase where it's the car itself trying to kill them - all pure holiday season movie highlights. The show can't keep up this level of incident all the way through the series, but this is exactly what we needed for a season opener. There's mystery as well, of course, with a visually arresting alien race, conspiracies and an unknown realm all thrown into the mix.

It all builds up to that reveal, though. Sacha Dawan is another actor who seems like he should have appeared in Doctor Who years ago, especially considering his previous involvement with Mark Gatiss and other genre television, yet here he is as the likeable and handsome O. Then - my god! - how did they keep that secret? There's always a rumour that the Master will be back, but when it's true, it's usually spoilt. Everyone knew Yana and Saxon were likely to be the Master, and most of guessed Missy was as well, but this came right out of left field. Not that there weren't a couple of clues, but with the story belting along like this, they were very hard to spot. As always, the Master's patience and acting ability seems remarkable, but that's nothing new. It all pales with that reveal, and a stonker of a cliffhanger.

Part twos are never as good as part ones, but this one did come pretty close. It has the hallmarks of Moffat's classic two-parters, throwing in enough new elements and curveballing the story onto another path (and if that's not as mixed metaphor, I don't know what is). I absolutely love that the Master is using the Tissue Compression Eliminator again (I don't think we've seen that since 1984), and I had imagined that the Doctor had been shrunk. The alien realm did look rather like the fronds of a carpet, after all. But no, it was your common or garden alternative dimension. Bizarrely, we then meet Ada Lovelace and get transported with her to 1834. That's the sort of unexpected shift in location that we don't get often enough in the series these days.

Teaming the Doctor up with Ada Lovelace (a lovely performance by Sylvie Briggs) as part of the celebration of computer science is a wonderful idea, and quite right to include Charles Babbage but not allow him to overshadow her. From there we jump again to the 1943, to meet Noor Inayat Khan. Aurora Marion is especially good, although she doesn't get as much material as Ada. In some ways, this is an odd move - separating the Doctor from her companions only to give her two more - but as a celebration of two of the most incredible women in British history it's wonderful. Really, the only complaint is that either Ada or Noor Khan would have easily carried an entire story, not just a small part of one episode.

The Master pursues the Doctor through time, something that gives an air of desperation to the adventure. Given time to explore the role a bit more, Dhawan is brilliant as the Master. It's a shame, in a way, that Missy's arc has been cut off and forgotten about, but the Master was always going to come back and always going to become a villain again. It's been only two years since we last saw the Master (Masters, really) which is a very quick introduction for a new incarnation, but when the character is as entertaining as this, who cares? Dhawan's Master is a furious, hurt man lashing out at the Doctor and the world, and having fun doing it. Putting him in Nazi gear was a bit of a step - at least the script accepts that he'd never get into the SS looking like that, and came up with a bit of Time Lord magic to cover it up - and the episode's most tense moment, in Khan's house, came close to poor taste. Hell, it worked though. The WWII secret resistance brought in a new angle on the spy themes as well.

Meanwhile, 77 years later, the companions gets some strong material for themselves, showing that the best way to handle a large team is to split them up and actually give them something to do. Who'd have thought? The off-grid survival angle gives another side to the spy genre as well, more Bourne than Bond. Henry doesn't get nearly as much decent material in this episode, however. The aliens, named now as the Kasaavin, are as generic as they come, but essentially they're there to provide a threat and look cool while the humanoids do the plotting and talking.

The ending is a bit rushed, but the timey-wimey resolution works (both for the opening and closing of the episode), as long as you don't worry about the logistics too much. It's a fine line they're skirting, but Doctor Who has gotten away with more flagrant abuse of time travel before. Still, the Master, for all his contrived plotting, doesn't seem very prepared when he arrives back at the scene of the climax after several decades waiting around. I'm not entirely sure whether this story was in favour of information technology or not. While Barton lords it over the masses and blames them for allowing technology to infiltrate their lives, the Doctor hero-worships Ada and Noor Khan for their contributions to computing and coding. Before mind-wiping them, that is. She really hasn't learnt anything since she was played by David Tennant.

There's still time for that revelation about Gallifrey. Finally, the Timeless Child, after that one evocative mention in "The Ghost Monument" last series, is recalled. The Time Lords have been destroyed again, this time by the Master himself out of sheer rage at their lies. It's all very intriguing, and promises interesting things to come. Whittaker's best moments so far have been in this episode, either face-to-face with the Master or alone contemplating Gallifrey's fate, and I really hope she gets more of this sort of material. While I admire Chibnall's decision to spend his first series as showrunner focusing on the new, he failed to replace old monsters and concepts with anything equally memorable. After the Master, Gallifrey and the Daleks, there's more to come this year, and while there's a delicate balance to be found between the old and new, if it's presented with this verve it should succeed.

Time, Gentlemen: Both Stephen Fry and Lenny Henry have been involved with Doctor Who before, as Time Lords, no less. Fry played the Minister of Chance on the webcast Death Comes to Time in 2001, while Henry was the Doctor himself in his own 1986 comedy sketch - somewhere between the Doctor's sixth and seventh incarnations.

Maketh the Woman: Everyone looks great in black tie, but the Doctor's outfit is just perfect. It's not a tuxedo, whatever anyone says, but a light formal overcoat. Bringing back the bow-tie is a nice touch as well, and I love that she's still got the culottes and boots. She looks amazing.

Ethics is My Manor: The Doctor says she's a pacifist, but she's really, really not. She's just very bad at knowing when to use force. Her morals are all over the place here - she casually hands the Master over to the SS, while making sure they can see how Asian he looks. I mean, she probably figures he'll just kill them, and fair enough, but wow, that's jarring. Barton, on the other hand, seems to get away scot free.

Master-y: So, is the new Master after Missy, or from somewhere else in their convoluted timeline? I somewhat doubt he's from before Yana and Harry, but he could be between Harry and Missy. He could even be from an alternative timeline, but it's probably simplest to assume that "O" follows Missy and has reverted to type after, you know, being abandoned, dying, on a devastated starship and then discovering something nasty about the Time Lords.

I love how the Master gets beardier as his villainy goes on.

Links and references: The Master "apologises" for killing the Doctor at Jodrell Bank. Except it wasn't Jodrell Bank, it was the Pharos Project. It was just filmed at Jodrell Bank...

Missing Pieces: "O" met the Doctor in one of her earlier incarnations, all to ingratiate with her in his current plan. The Doctor apparently once lived in the Austrailian Outback for 123 years (when?!)

Patterns that aren't there: I had half convinced myself that the aliens were the Voord, if only because of the outline and the social network/search engine being called VOR. It would be willfully obscure of Chibnall to bring back such a little known monster, but it would have made them a bit more interesting.

Infinite Earths: I struggle to accept that the multiple images of the Earth represent different points in time and not different versions of the Earth. We haven't had a proper alternative reality story for ages.Unless you count the frog-verse.

Learn to talk: Chibnall doesn't know what "momentarily" means.

The Ratings War: OK, those overnights are not encouraging. 4.88 million for episode one, 4.6 million for episode two, both about 22% of the audience for the night. That's less than last year's New Year's special, but on the other hand, part one was the second most watched programme of the day, after Emmerdale, which only got 5m, and beating Corrie. Part two was the fifth most watched programme, but there still wasn't a great deal in it.

Clearly, people just aren't watching telly on the night anywhere near as much as they used to; the overnights have been dropping while catch-up and downloads have increased for some time. Nonetheless, I think it's clear that the move away from Christmas was not a clever one. Nice experiment, but it doesn't look like a New Year's launch works particularly well for the series, especially after a whole year's gap.

Wednesday 1 January 2020

World's Greatest Detective

After a tantalising wait, episode two of "The Lynx of Mbacké" is now available to stream on CP Studios website! Starring Terry Cooper as Bruce Wayne and Jessica Mathews as Selina Kyle, this two part adventure is my first ever audioplay and I'm very proud of it.

Of course, this is not at all my own personal work. Even the script, while credited to me, was written with James P. Quick with significant additions by Scott D. Harris, and they, along with director Pete Lutz, created and recorded the serial. And a huge shout-out to the cast who brought the script to life, in particular Ms. Mathews, who is perfect as Selina.

Make sure you listen to the mid-credits scene too! And don't forget to listen to the rest of the series so far, which includes a very special guest appearance from Simon Fisher-Becker (aka The Fat Friar and Dorium Maldovar). More episodes are to come, including some which I have worked on, but this is something the team are doing in their own time so episodes will arrive on an ad hoc basis.

Listen to "The Lynx of Mbacké" here! Available to stream or download. The series so far can be reached here.

2020 vision

I'm not sharing one of those posts where people put up photos of themselves on New Year's Eve 2009 and 2019. I'd look basically the same anyway. Hair's slightly neater at the moment, I suspect. Still own some of the same shirts. What's changed in ten years? Quite a bit, I guess. I actually had 20/20 vision back then, before years of computer usage took its toll. It seems deeply strange that we're in 2020, the same way it seemed unreal when we hit 2000. It just sounds too futuristic... but then I working with people born in the 21st century, so maybe it's just making me feel old.

As for the traditional look back at the year just gone, that I feel obliged to do since everyone does in spite of the self-reflection making me feel terribly depressed... well, 2019 has been a brutal year for most of us. It feels like it's lasted several years, really. I can't really deny that the world is in a state that has left me thoroughly dejected. I can tell you that 2010 me would have been horrified to see a near-decade of Conservative rule in this country, culminating in Boris Johnson as PM. But it all went wrong for our civilisation much earlier than 2019. In fact, I'm naming this Earth-2016 after the year Trump won the US election and we careered into a parody dystopia timeline.

As horrible as the state of the world is, my personal life has been pretty good in 2019. A lot has happened on the life front, really. Suz and I bought a place together, then got a gorgeous puppy. Absolutely terrifying life commitments but thrilled to have taken the steps. Almost like a grown-up. It's been a very up-and-down year mental health wise, but then, it was ever thus. I've had a nice bunch of little publications. My first ever audioplay has been webcast. What else? I changed the way I write my nines. Might change back. You know, live on the edge.

I generally dislike resolutions, but why not? There's plenty of things I want to work on. I want to write a lot more, both fiction and non-fiction, not least so I can catch up with my commitments to others. Plus, a big run of Who reviews to catch up on (the New Year's special is part one of a twofer, so the review will be up in about a week). The tricky part is not crashing out because of putting pressure on myself. I definitely need to read more, and try to get back to something resembling my old reading rate. It's also time to seriously look at improving my work situation, since I really do need more money, and while I've been earning some nice extras through Television Heaven and a couple of other bits that not enough to make a real difference. All that will hopefully help on the brain side of things as well, although that also needs a serious approach.

We'll see if I've managed to drag myself up in a year's time.