Monday 31 August 2020

Ancient Beings online exhibition

 The Ancient Beings exhibition was displayed in the Tower Gallery at Eton College from late 2019 until closure earlier this year due to the COVID-19 crisis. It has now been deinstalled, but there is now an online version of the exhibition freely available to view here, allowing anyone to view the remarkable relics that have been collected.

The Ancient Beings exhibition features materials from Ancient Egypt, some of them dating back over five thousand years, and gives incredible insight into the mythology and culture of this distant civilisation.

Explore the exhibition now at this link, thanks to my extremely talented sister, Rebecca Tessier, who just happens to be the curator of the exhibit.

REVIEW: Stargirl season one

The CW and DC's Stargirl made it to Amazon Prime in the UK just over a week ago; Suz and I sat down to watch it not long after and finished the series in three days. It's a real delight; nothing spectacularly new, but a well made, heartwarming and, above all, fun superhero show. It brings to mind the early seasons of Supergirl and The Flash, before they got caught up in their own angst. 

We first saw this version of Stargirl in a brief cameo at the end of Crisis of Infinite Earths. The original Earth-Two (or elements of it at least) has been seemingly folded into the Prime Earth continuity, and a new Earth-Two was presented. This is where the Justice Society of America was the primary superhero team, making it more like the Earth-Two of the comics. We've already seen a version of the JSA, who operated in the 1930s and '40s of Earth-One, on Legends of Tomorrow, where Stargirl was played by Sarah Grey. On Earth-Two, though, the JSA was active in the 21st century, although there was still a retro-vibe to them.

The series kicks off with a gripping scene in which the villainous Brainwave kills off the entirety of the JSA, with the exception of Starman's sidekick, Pat Dugan. It's a hell of an opening and pulls me right into the series straight away. We then rejoin this world ten years later, when Dugan and his family are moving to the town of Blue Valley - which just so happens to be his wife's hometown and the location of the villainous Injustice Society's base of operations. It's extremely silly, but the series embraces the silliness. It hits exactly the right balance - accepting the daftness of the premise but playing completely straight.

Pat Dugan is played by Luke Wilson, forever to be known as Owen Wilson's younger brother, and he brings a real warmth and charm to the role. He's a decent natured everyman who just happens to have a past as a superhero sidekick (an honorable role, he's quick to point out). His stepdaughter, Courtney Whitmore, is played by Brec Bassinger, who has a lot of charm and presence and brings a very optimistic feel to the series. They make for an excellent leading pair, centring the ensemble cast. Courtney might just be the daughter of the original Starman, and in any case, when she uncovers the Cosmic Staff - a seemingly intelligent weapon and tool - it bonds with her, recognising her pure heart and self belief. Pat isn't exactly thrilled she's found the JSA relics he's been carrying around, but it's hardly like he was going to be able to keep this stuff secret forever.

It doesn't take Courtney long to go from alienated teen to superhero. It's pretty blindingly fast actually, and she's kitted up in her own outfit in no time (I enjoyed her making her own adjustments to Starman's costume; it reminded me of the old days when Peter Parker used to do his own alterations at home). Pat, who was originally the hero Stripesy, adopts the slightly less absurd name STRIPE for when he's in his huge robotic battle suit. Now, I know he's a mechanic, but how he managed to keep that a secret during the move is anyone's guess. Still, seeing STRIPE to make his first appearance was the most triumphant part of the opening episode, and well worth the anticipation.

Part of what made this series so enjoyable for me is the fact that I'm not as familiar with the JSA - or their precursors, the Seven Soldiers of Victory - as I am with the Justice League or other more popular heroes. I know enough to make the reveals of the characters' backgrounds and the identities of the villains exciting, but many of them were new to me. Even the ones I knew aren't characters I'm super familiar with, so the series feels fresher than, say, a new version of Superman or Spider-Man would, or even something like Runaways. I guess a real DC diehard would have known who everyone was going to turn out to be, but there were more surprises for me. 

Now, I do know that Starman is one of DC's many legacy characters, but Sylvester Pembleton, the Star-Spangled Kid, was never one of them in the comics. However, conflating the two characters makes a lot of sense, especially as in the comics Courtney went from being the second SSK to becoming Stargirl when she acquired the Cosmic Rod. This sort of streamlining is common in comic adaptations and it makes the backstory here easy enough to take on. I learned a lot more about Stargirl reading up after the watch through. It so happens that Brec Bassinger was born in 1999, the same year Courtney Whitmore was created (she plays her younger, at about fifteen). This might also have something to do with the wonderfully nineties soundtrack to the series, which adds to the retro vibe - it's basically the same as having 1940s heroes revived for comics in the seventies. I also had no idea that Geoff Johns - who created the character and also acts as showrunner here - named Courtney for and based her on his sister, who was killed in the Flight 800 disaster in 1996. It must have made creating this series a very personal project for him.

Bassinger is a worthy Stargirl for sure, but she needs her own JSA, and sets up recruiting new team members from the local teens. There's a bit of a Buffy vibe to this, a little bit of Smallville, even a touch of the Power Rangers to it. This stuff works, so why not use it. Thew new JSA take on the mantles of the classic heroes, sometimes due to inheritance (Cameron Gellman as the surly Rick Tyler, the new Hourman) other times due to affinity with the technology (Anjelika Washington, the hyper-enthusiastic Beth Chapel as the new Dr. Midnite). They're all loners and outsiders for one reason or another. Most affecting is Yolanda Montez's story. Played by the truly stunning Yvette Monreal, Yolanda in this version was a popular girl at school and headed to be class president until her boyfriend leaked nudes that she had sent him, leading her to be mocked and bullied at school and virtually disowned by her religious parents. (I honestly hate them more than any of the Injustice Society villains.) Monreal gives a very deep and believable performance that brings light to this important and ongoing issue in schools today, one that seems particularly prevalent in the States. Yolanda becomes the new Wildcat, taking after her hero Ted Knight. That's another element I like - Yolanda is already a boxer and Courtney is already a talented gymnast, which gives the skills to bring to the table even before they acquire superhero kit.

The rest of the supporting cast are all very good as well. Shout out to Trae Romano, who plays Pat's son/Courtney's stepbrother Mike, and who has more character in one scene than most child actors manage in a career. (I've said this before, but there really are some exceptional young actors starting their careers right now.) Amy Smart, a familiar face in movies in the nineties, plays Barbara, Courtney's mum/Pat's wife, with a lot of humour and class. It looks for a moment like she's going to go down the Buffy's mum route, refusing to believe the evidence of her own eyes, but as soon as she's confronted with the weirdness around her, she accepts it and joins the fray.

The villains are strong as well. Without going through everyone, there's a good mic of the outlandishly evil and the more nuanced. Most notable is Neil Jackson as Jordan Mahkent, aka Icicle. On the outside he's a committed liberal politician and family man, but underneath he's a heartless monster seemingly drawn from the depths of Niflheim. But underneath that, he's... actually a committed liberal politician and family man. Jackson's performance helps a great deal, but there's also some intelligent writing here, and while many of the Injustice Society are clearly opportunistic villains, Icicle is torn by his goals and his actions. When we find out what the ISA actually want, it makes things far more complicated, since their goals are absolutely right and just. There's an interesting argument to be had about whether the ends can justify the means, but even so, I feel that if Icicle had just come clean to the new JSA, made up of forward-thinking kids, he might have won some of them round.

Also worth singling out is Jake Austin Walker as Henry King Jr, the son of Brainwave. Initially he appears to be a generic jock character, the sort of thuggish bully who gets by on his looks and sporting prowess, and the fact that he's the bastard who shared Yolanda's pictures around supports this. Before long, though, a much deeper character emerges, one who's terrorised by his father and ashamed of his own actions. He becomes one of the more interesting characters. Less effective is Cindy Burman, his new girlfriend and current queen of the school. Meg De Lacey gives a perfectly good performance and she's a fine foil for Courtney, but making the stereotypical mean girl a supervillain is predictably obvious. I can't help compare it back to Buffy again, where the mean girl popularity queen became a hero. Still, Cindy has her own horrors in her background and looks like she's set up for a big role in season two, so we might see more sides to her going forward.

Stargirl is tremendous fun and a real family show, but it doesn't shy away from serious issues and gets pretty heavy towards the season's end. It also looks absolutely amazing, honestly some of the most visually impressive TV I've seen. At a compact thirteen episodes, it doesn't drag on like many of these shows. Definitely worth seeking out if you're a superhero fan.

Saturday 29 August 2020

TREK REVIEW: Lower Decks 1-4 - "Moist Vessel"

This week's installment is a fairly strong Trek adventure with an interesting central sci-fi concept, around which there's some promising character work for some of the regulars. For a change, Ensign Boimler takes something of a back seat for the episode, with Ensigns Mariner and Tendi being the main focus of the story.

For a series apparently about life on the Lower Decks, the low-ranking main characters spend a lot of time on the bridge and in the ready room. Right at the beginning, Mariner is present for Captain Freeman's briefing of the senior staff for this week's mission, interrupting the rather dull discourse with guest Captain Durango with an unstifled yawn. It's played up for laughs but it's a relatable moment; we've all been in a meeting or lecture where we can't help but yawn due to the lack of mental stimulation (in fact, I've gotten to the nodding-off stage in meetings more than once). It sets up the main thread of the episode, with the captain at loggerheads with her daughter for her unprofessionalism and disrespect.

Freeman can't just have Mariner transferred, because that would show her up in front of her ex-husband (the admiral who transferred their daughter there in the first place, naturally). Commander Ransom suggests just victimising her with the worst assignments imaginable until she asks for a transfer herself. Cue a montage of revolting and tedious jobs, including emptying the waste tanks on the holodeck, which are full of stuff so disgusting it has to be bleeped out of the dialogue. Fans have been joking about the obvious use of the holodeck and wondering about the poor sap who has to mop up afterwards, but previous versions of the franchise would barely even hint at it (except maybe some of Quark's dodgier holosuite programs and the Doctor's pon farr treatment). Lower Decks has licence to say the thing we've been thinking all these years, and is all the funnier and more believable for it.

However, Mariner finds ways to make the menial jobs competitive and fun, so Freeman tries a different tactic: promoting her to Lieutenant and making her part of the senior officer team. It's very funny watching Mariner losing her mind due to the boredom of the day-to-day work and play of the command team, in a sequence that poke fun at the endless meetings of The Next Generation and Voyager and particularly the off-hours activities of the TNG crew. They were amazing characters, but the TNG officers often came off as sticks-in-the-mud when it came to leisure time. It seemed like in the 24th century the only music allowed was jazz and opera, and that playing poker was the favourite game in a society apparently without money. The Cerritos officers are the same but worse, with Mariner having less fun playing cards with them than she had scraping carbon deposits off the ship.

Meanwhile, Tendi finds herself drawn to/rivals with Lt O'Connor, who has been preparing himself (allegedly) to ascend to a higher plane of existence. This is the sort of thing only the most remarkable characters ever manage on Trek (although there are plenty of villainous incorporealised beings out there to plague Starfleet as well). Tendi's enthusiastic interruption seemingly screws up the intended metamorphosis, leading to her trying to force O'Connor onto the next plane of existence by using every spiritual technique at once. It's good to see Tendi get some more characterisation, revealing that her main motivation is her need for everyone to like her, and also showing that her intense enthusiasm can be just as damaging as Mariner's disinterest.

The threat of the week comes from an ancient alien generational ship that's loaded up with a valuable substance that can instantly transform environments – a sort of Genesis device in liquid form. Quite why the aliens would need a generational ship if they can terraform planets so quickly and easily is a mystery, and they're all long dead so no one can ask them. When Durango tries to look better than Freeman and gets too close to the ship, the fluid is released, travelling up the tractor beams (hmmm, really?) into both ships. Cue a race against time in which mother and daughter find some common ground working together, and Tendi and O'Connor realise they're similarities too.

The resolution of the plot is pretty perfunctory, and very like that of the first episode, but it's not really the point of the story. It's the relationships between the characters that's the focus. As Mariner points out, she clearly gets her immaturity from her mother, who has spent a lot of resources on trying to force her daughter out and even childishly claimed Ransom's idea as her own. It's not long before their understanding crashes down and Mariner expertly gets herself demoted (much to Boimler's relief). Elsewhere on the ship, O'Connor suddenly and unexpectedly achieves enlightement, ascending after all – a process that turns out to be far more painful than he expected. This is probably the funniest sequence of the episode, drawn out just long enough to make it absolutely ridiculous, and sees the show at its most Rick and Morty-like so far.

"Moist Vessel" is a pretty decent episode that, unlike "Temporal Edict," works as a Star Trek adventure as well as a comedy. The laughs come from the extremes of the situation and more natural character conflict, and from laughing at the foibles of Trek and its tropes rather than simply referencing them constantly. While there are plenty of nods and winks for fans, the episode would work perfectly well without them.

Sunday 23 August 2020

DC EU: The Suicide Squad roll call

 The full roll call for The Suicide Squad has been released. Here's the rundown of the various villains and antiheroes we'll be seeing in James Gunn's sequel treatment.

Viola Davis as Amanda Waller

Waller is the most important element in the plot given that she's the badass who brings the various lunatics together. Davis, always an powerful actor, reprises her role from the first Suicide Squad, providing much needed continuity.

Joel Kinnaman as Rick Flag

Also reprising his role as the commander of the team in the field, Kinnamen's looking particularly hard-as-nails in this role call. He was one of the better elements of the first film so it's good to have him back.

Michael Rooker as the Savant

It's a James Gunn movie so a role for Rooker is obligatory, but he's never anything less than watchable so we don't mind. Real name Brian Durlin, the Savant is a hyper-intelligent vigilante who basically set himself up as a rival to Batman in his early appearances in the Birds of Prey comics. A chemical imbalance in his brain menas he struggles to retain his memories.

Flula Borg as Javelin

DJ Flula is a German YouTube personality-cum-comedian who's apparently a bit of a big deal these days, but I lose track of these things. He's got a lot of voice work under his belt including some DC cartoons, and he looks great as Javelin. A former athlete who has turned to a life of crime, Javelin is one of the sillier characters to be included in The Suicide Squad and I'm thrilled they're going with these sort of daft C-list villains. Anyway, javelins are well nasty.

Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn

The other returning star and the big draw of the film, after her scene stealing turn in the first film and her headlining of Birds of Prey (which I still haven't seen but will honestly get round to soon). It'll be good to see her take on the role of the SS's best and barmiest without the Joker's shadow over her.

David Dastmalchian as Polka-Dot Man

Oh my word, they're using Polka-Dot Man! Abner Krill uses a miraculous costume that utilise its polka-dots as various weapons, which is the sort of mental idea DC films just don't have the guts to use often enough.Weirdly, he never appeared on the 60s Batman series, and his only film appearance before this was a non-speaking cameo on The Lego Batman Movie. Dastmalchian has form as Abra Kadabra on The Flash and was brilliant in Ant-Man, so stoked for his casting.

Daniela Melchior as Ratcatcher 2

Another Batman villain, the original Ratcatcher, Otis Flannegan, originated in Detective Comics in the 80s. Melchior's version would seem to be a follower of the Flannegan, perhaps his daughter.Presumably she can talk to rats like her predecessor. Melchior is a Portoguese actor who I'm totally unfamiliar with, and is playing one of the newest members of the Squad. At 23 she's the youngest member of the cast.

Idris Elba as Bloodsport

Big name star Idris Elba is a huge addition to the cast. Early rumours suggested he'd be replacing Will Smith as Deadshot, (and that was probably the original idea) but it's probably better that he's getting his own character. There have been various villains called Bloodsport in DC Comics, ususally as Superman enemies, but Elba's is the original, Robert DuBois. A mentally scarred veteran, DuBois utilises extremely advanced weaponry including kryptonite bullets, and his inclusion in the film hints at some link to Lex Luthor, who commonly employed him.

King Shark

The metahuman/shark-hybrid/demigod (origins vary) was one of the most fun elements of The Flash series and it'll be good to have a monster character on The Suicide Squad. He's going to be CGI, of course, and Steve Agee has been involved with the voicework, but it's not confirmed he's in the final film. Taika Waititi is rumoured to be re-recording the lines.

Mayling Ng and Mongal

An alien warrior, Mongal is the sister of Mongul and is a perennial enemy of Superman and Green Lantern. Extremely strong, she's perhaps the most powerful of the squad. Ng is an actor and martial artist who's previously had roles on Wonder Woman and Scorpion King: Book of Souls.

Peter Capaldi as the Thinker

The most exciting casting for me, the great Peter Capaldi is taking on the role of Clifford DeVoe, the hyperintelligent mastermind who's been a major enemy of the Flash over the years. Neil Sandilands played him on season four of The Flash but wasn't very interesting in it; I can't wait to see how Capaldi plays him.

Alice Braga as Sol Soria

The talented Brazilian actor Alice Braga won acclaim for City of God and has genre experience from Repo Men, I Am Legend, Elysium and Predators. She's also going to be in The New Mutants when it finally appears. Sol Soris seems to be a version of Juan Soria, a minor villain who's a wannabe superhero.

Pete Davisdon as Blackguard

Richard Hertz aka Blackguard is a mercenary bestowed with technologically advanced armour. Best known as a comedian and comedy actor, Pete Davidson won acclaim for his role as star and co-writer of The King of Staten Island earlier this year. He has presence.

Nathan Fillion as TDK

The Firefly and Castle star is always good value and another favourite of James Gunn. Floyd Belkin is a metahuman from the far future in the comics, originally going by the name Arm-Fall-Off Boy. One of the most ridiculous of DC's characters, he can detach his limbs and use them as weapons. This should be... interesting to see onscreen. Belkin changed his name to Splitter, but here seems to be going by TDK, although what that stands for we can't yet say. Surely he's not calling himself The Dark Knight? I've heard suggested that it's The Dismemberment Kid.

Sean Gunn as Weasel

Another obligatory James Gunn casting choice, it's his brother Sean, who provided the motion capture for Rocket Raccoon on Guardians of the Galaxy. This time it seems he'll be voicing the character as well, but there's the risk this will be more of the same. John Munroe is a low-life who becomes a costumed villain in the comics, although the movie version seems to be based more on the rebooted New 52 version, and looks like he's actually part weasel.

Jai Courtney as Captain Boomerang

One more returning cast member. Courtney was great fun as the wonderfully loopy Captain Boomerang in the first film, and it's good to have him back. He can take comfort that he's no longer the owner of the most ridiculous name on the squad.

John Cena as Peacemaker

The legendary John Cena plays Christopher Smith, the Peacemaker. Described by Cena as "a douchey Captain America," Peacemaker believes in peace at all costs, and it doesn't matter how many people die to get it. Pretty much the most American character ever, then.

DC EU round-up!

 So, there's been a huge amount of news and material released by DC/WB as part of its DC Fandome, its online convention this weekend. Here' are my thoughts on some of the more interesting titbits.

The Batman

Hmm, not sure about this. I mean, it looks stunning, but also miserable as hell, and I'm kind of done with grimdark Batman for now. I'm still not entirely sold on Robert Pattinson as Bruce Wayne (although I do like the guy), but we've been wrong before about unusual casting choices in the Batman films. He's very emo-looking in this, but then again, I guess Bruce is a bit of an emo. I'll see this, but it looks so joyless I'm not sure it's going to work for me. Best comment on YouTube: "Looks like a Batman who's watched his parents die as many times as we have."


Which might actually just be called The Flash, but in either case is a) the long-delayed Flash movie and b) an adaptation of the Flashpoint comics arc. The Flash TV series already did a version of that, but this is likely to be closer to the source material since they can actually use Batman, and we're, astonishingly, getting two of them: both Michael Keaton and Ben Affleck are returning to the role, presumably as alternative versions of the character. We've had it confirmed that the Ezra Miller iteration of Barry Allen calls himself the Flash now because he got the name from Grant Gustin's version in Crisis on Infinite Earths, so the door's open for even more unexpected cameos. (If John Wesley Shipp turns up I'll scream.)

Wonder Woman 1984

This is more like it. There's an edge to it, yes, but it looks fun and colourful in a way The Batman just fails to capture. Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman is one of the best things in the DCEU so it's a treat to have her back headlining a film, but I'm most excited about the wonderful Kristin Wiig as the Cheetah. I love it when the films aren't afraid to embrace the very silly villains of the source material. Good to have Chris Pine back as Steve Trevor, bringing to mind when the 70s TV show jumped ahead thirty years and recast Lyle Waggoner as the son of the original Trevor. That doesn't seem to be what's going on here though.

Black Adam and Shazam 2

We've had confirmation at last of the Shazam! sequel, provisionally titled Shazam: Fury of the Gods, which will apparently feature the comedian Sinbad in some capacity. Other than, not much info.

The long-gestating Black Adam film starring the Rock is still in the works, with confirmation that Noah Centineo is signed up to play the Atom Smasher. Intriguingly, it's been revealed that Adam will be forming his own Justice Society, seemingly as a rival to the Justice League, and has recruited Hawkman, Cyclone and Dr. Fate.

The Suicide Squad

Both a trailer and roll call for this one, but it has to be said, having James Gunn behind the wheel is the most important thing. The previous film was flawed to say the least, although it had its moments, and I'm hopeful about this one. Peter Capaldi as the Thinker is my most favourite thing for a while. Full roll-call analysis coming up!

Saturday 22 August 2020

TREK REVIEW: Lower Decks 1-3 - "Temporal Edict"

"Temporal Edict" was a very good episode of Futurama. Not such a great episode of Star Trek, though. It's very funny, can't fault it there, and I enjoyed it plenty, but it's far more like a parody of Trek than the first two episodes, which worked as Trek episodes in their own right. As funny as it to see a starship go to pot due to her captain working the crew into the dirt, it's hard to believe it's something someone in Starfleet would actually do.

It's good to spend a bit more time with the captain and first officer. The episode focuses heavily on Boimler and Mariner, pairing them up with Captain Freeman and Commander Ransom respectively, while Tendi and Rutherford don't feature much, but there's no way a half-hour episode can give everyone a big slice of the pie, and switching it around like this works well. The episode is split into two storylines, which are designed clearly to show how different Boimler and Mariner are. Mariner introduces the idea of "buffer time," the built-in downtime that Starfleet crewmen factor in to their duty estimates. It's basically the Scotty school of engineering statements: multiply each estimate by four so you look amazing when you do it in quarter-time. When Boimler lets this slip to Freeman, it leads to the uptight captain to create an impossible-to-meet work rota with zero slacking built in.

We follow Boimler through the consequent chaos on the ship, as the crew are driven to exhaustion and mental collapse by their punishing duty regime. Boimler loves it, of course, because he's a workaholic; it even prompts him to say, "Space, the funnest frontier?" in his log (he's presumably the only one ahead of schedule enough to record a log). He intersects with Freeman, who's increasingly desperate attempts to keep the bridge running while the rest of the crew collapses from exhaustion makes for some good comedy moments. Still, it's hard to see how someone with this poor an understanding of human capacity can ever have got command of a starship, even one on an undesirable mission.

Meanwhile, Ransom leads a team including Mariner on a mission to Gelrak Five, home to a race of primitive humanoids who've just been indicted into the Federation. I mean, they can't be that primitive if they let them in, they must have warp drive as a basic qualifier, but they use spears and worship crystals and seem pretty backward. They certainly don't look like prime Federation material, but only five years earlier (in-universe time)  on Insurrection we learned the UFP was letting in newly warp-capable civilisations at the drop of a hat just to keep their allies numerous following the Dominion War. (On the subject of the Dominion War, the Cerritos was supposed to be heading to a conference on Cardassia Prime, but apparently no one wants to go there. Except me. I'm dying to see post-war Cardassia.)

Mariner clearly has the smarts for these missions but she's so disrespectful and aggressive here that it's amazing she was just demoted before. I'm getting the feeling the only reason she's still in Starfleet at all is because her parents are a captain and an admiral.While Boimler's the Starfleet poster boy, Mariner's the fan stand-in, making jibes about the 2260s and squeeing at the old-school Trek stuff on the planet's surface. She and Ransom have an interesting relationship, with a mutual lack of respect moving to grudging respect as a result of this mission, helped out by some serious attraction on both sides. 

The trial by combat is, of course, classic Trek material, and it even sounds like the original series during the fight (although Futurama would have used the actual TOS fight music, which was sorely missing here in favour of something with a similar feel). I liked the big, beefy champion actually being the smartest, most sensitive of the Galrakians, and Ransom's prodigious use of Kirk Fu. The "geode of judgment" or whatever it's called, however, is lifted directly from an episode of Futurama (4.6, "Where the Buggalo Roam"). A Futurama feel is fine, but that series should be lifting from Trek, not the other way round.

The plotlines meet when the Galrakians invade the ship and the crew are so exhausted and behind schedule that they can't even fight back, leading to Boimler convincing Freeman that she has to cut the crew some slack. ("The crew are only human... and Vulcan, Orion and Bolian... and there's that Benzite...") The episode has a decent punchline, with the new edict for the crew to slack off and take it easy being named the Boimler Effect, with Boimler unable to comprehend that he has a rule named after him that's about breaking the rules.

It's a pretty good episode, but it hasn't the punch of the first two, and it just feels like a comedy in space with Trek references rather than an actual comedy episode of Trek. Still, it's all worth it for that fantastic coda, where in the far future we see a Federation teacher tell her class about how the Boimler Effect changed Starfleet forever, before revealing the most important figure in Federation history. I won't spoilt it here because it prompted the biggest, barking laugh of the series so far, but rest assured he never quadrupled his engineering estimates. 

Aliens of the week: 

The Galrakians are pale green humanoids with slit-like nostrils instead of noses, worship rock formations and hate the wood-worshipping people of Magus Prime.

Life forms encountered by Commander Ransom include horned gorillas, sentient tar and "spores that make you hook up with your best friend's sister," so he's either been rifling through the Trek back catalogue or he's actually visited Neural, Vagra Two and Omicron Ceti 3.

The Federation classroom in the distant future has students who look human, but also Ferengi, an Andorian and, astonishingly, a Borg.

Tuesday 18 August 2020


 Issue 36 of the Doctor Who fanzine Whotopia is now available for download. This special, one-off issue features an in-depth review of Series 12 (refreshingly positive, as well), features on the Thirteenth Doctor, a piece on the soundtrack to The Krotons of all things, and my last installment of "Master Who," looking at Michelle Gomez's glorious Missy.

The issue is available for free download via Dropbox.

Monday 17 August 2020

TREK REVIEWS: Television Heaven series reviews

I've four new reviews up on Television Heaven covering the breadth of Star Trek for your reading pleasure.The cute and underrated kids' spin-off Star Trek: The Animated Series, the flawed but watchable Star Trek: Voyager, the equally flawed Enterprise (but my do I have a soft spot for it), and bringing us right up to date, a review of Star Trek: Picard S1 as a whole, to sit alongside my episode reviews on the blog.

While we're at it, John Winterson Richard and Peter Henshuls have covered the ever popular Star Trek: The Next Generation, the connoisseur's choice, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and along with site runner Laurence Marcus, they've gone back to the beginning with a look at the original Star Trek.

Saturday 15 August 2020

TREK REVIEW: Lower Decks 1-2 - "Envoys"

I can't get over the boots!

After a strong introductory episode, Lower Decks settles down to an episode that probably gives more of a flavour of what the series will be like week after week. Things aren't quite as madcap this time round, with a more coherent storyline and more time for the main characters to develop. The episode has a clear "be true to yourself message" that's supported by the two story threads and sundry duplicitous aliens. It's still hugely funny and chock full of Trekkie Easter eggs that are great fun to spot.

The episode starts with a fun mini-story which sees a glowing energy alien menace Mariner and Tendi in a corridor. In a regular episode of Trek this would be the set-up for the entire story, but here the ludicrousness of a glowy ball threatening the ship is played up and Mariner even manages to rugby tackle it and stuff it in a tube, which makes about as much sense as anything to do with these incorporeal entities ever does. 

The main part of the episode sees Mariner and Boimler on a mission to the planet Tulgana 4 (I initially thought they said Turkana 4 which would be much worse) involving escorting a Klingon delegate call K'Orin, who's old times besties with Mariner, to the Federation embassy. The clash of personalities between Boimler and Mariner is in force, with Mariner getting drunk with her Klingon buddy and Boimler putting on his dress uniform for a much more formal meeting. Once on the planet they go through one chaotic situation to the next trying to track down the drunken Klingon after he pinches their shuttlecraft, with Boimler's book smarts clearly not as useful on alien planets as Mariner's wits and experience. It also seems clear that Boimler thinks of Mariner as just as new to Starfleet as him, and doesn't realise how much more experience she's had before getting demoted. This plot goes on to a sweet but obvious resolution, with Mariner setting up an opportunity for Boimler to succeed, even if the more confident Boimler at the end is a bit of a dick.

The other thread sees Tendi and Rutherford make plans that clash with the cyborg's engineering duties, to which he makes the sudden, rather extreme commitment to quit engineering so his shifts change. As well as enjoying time in a Jeffries tube way to much, Rutherford seems extremely black-and-white in his thinking. It leads to a fun series of scenes though, with Rutherford trying on the different uniform colours for turns in command, medical and security. He's hopeless at the first two - his utter fouling of the command simulation is the funniest bit of the episode, particularly how he somehow managed to get a casualty rate of 105% - but he's a whizz in security thanks to his implant having an ass-kicking setting. The Borg battle is very cool, although you've got to wonder why more crewmen don't get an ass-kick protocol implanted. 

One thing I really like is that the senior crew we see seem a lot nicer than the rather dickish people we met in the first episode. Ransom and Shaxs are really decent and encouraging to Rutherford when he joins their teams and when he decides they're not for him, and that's a much more Starfleet kind of attitude. It's only Tendi who wants for attention in this episode, but she does get some good moments.

The design of this series is one of its best elements. Not only does it look gorgeous but the animated format allows the artists to chuck in as many cheeky references as they can, and there's plenty in the script to begin with. Tulgana 4's big settlement is split into four zones - Little Qo'noS, the Andorian district, the Risian district and the Federation embassy - with a Farpoint Station styled spire in the middle. As they move throuhg the zones, Mariner and Boimler meet all kinds of aliens, old and new. The bulky, blue Taxor is a nice additon, as is the nightmarish Anabaj, but the most exciting alien was the shapeshifting Vendorian. That's not only one of the best aliens created for the animated Star Trek, it's never been seen since. Lower Decks just brought back an alien last seen in 1973. There's more: on Tulgana there are brief glimpses of Arcturians from The Motion Picture, Kaelons from TNG: "Half a Life," an Aurelian or Skorr (if there is, indeed, any difference) from TAS, Lurians (Morn's lot from DS9,) an Arkonian from Enterprise, some Evora from Insurrection and some centaur-like Ariolo from the Star Trek IV. On the sip we see a Napean (from TNG: "Eye of the Beholder,") and what might be a Xahean (from Discovery and Picard). I'm loving the classic aliens and the wonderful obscurity of some of these.

A more casual fan or someone new to the series would just see all of these things as cool aliens, and make no distinction between an attack by a brand new creation like the Anabaj and a return appearance by an old enemy like the Vendorian. What we have here is some fun space adventure that takes place in a colourful universe and is downright hilarious.

The best joke was probably the one about Section 31 and the power walk, though.

Friday 14 August 2020

WHO REVIEW: Regenerations

The Time War is perhaps the perfect backdrop for Doctor Who fanfic. It provides enormous scope and possibility, the highest of stakes and a constant background threat. More than that, though, is the very nature of time as the field of war means that characters from any era of the series' history can justifiably appear, and continuity needn't be a burden if a story can't quite “fit.” If there's any time to break the rules, it's during a time war.

Regenerations from Chinbeard Books, (publisher of Seasons of War) returns to the Time War in the midst of its darkest hour, and uses it as a way to look at the Doctor's lives through different lenses. When the possibility of Dalek victory in the War becomes too likely, Rassilon sanctions a desperate gambit: change the Doctor's history to prevent the War from beginning. By preventing what Lance Parkin called “Last Contact” - the first meeting between the Doctor and the Daleks – the malevolent pepperpots will never become obsessed with alien life and time travel and the War will never come to pass.

Naturally, things do not go as simply as planned. Regenerations sees the Doctor's timeline unravel, presenting us with well-remembered stories from the series twisted into new forms. As history is altered, there isn't even a consistent timeline between these stories – they may follow on, or they may contradict each other, but each one sees a classic story bent out of shape by the manipulation of history.

Kenton Hall edits the collection and also writes the overarching story, which follows the War Doctor as he moves from a galactic crisis to dealing with his own past unravelling. A triplicate story starts the collection off, with “The Shallow Stage” setting the cosmic scene before we're wrenched back to the very beginning in “The Untrustworthy Child,” an ingenious rewriting of the very first Doctor Who story, before the consequences are explored in “The Hidden Well.” Hall takes us back to the War Doctor's travails several throughout the book, and also introduces two new characters, the young Time Lords Jelsillon and Dyliss. These two become honorary companions for the collection, their stories woven into the Doctor's timeline at the outset with dire consequences for all of them.

From there we move along the Doctor's mangled timeline, stopping first with the Second Doctor in “Time of the Cybermen” by Dan Barratt. A clever reversal of the central conceit of The Tomb of the Cybermen, Barratt's story gives us a glimpse of the Cyberwars we often heard about but so rarely saw on the series, in a gripping adventure. Things get more peculiar in “The Paradoxical Affair at Styles,”a new take on Day of the Daleks by Andrew Lawston. To begin with, while the details are different, the overall story seems much the same as the classic serial, perhaps with more of a side of humour. But as it progresses, the Time War encroaches upon it as Gallifrey attempts to intervene in the Daleks' history.

The Doctor's role in Dalek history is very much the focus of Alan Ronald's story, “Terminus of the Daleks,” which presents a reality where the Fourth Doctor decided he very much did have the right. At least, that's what the Time Lords believe, so much so that on Gallifrey they hold theatrical productions of the their own version of Genesis of the Daleks. The fictionalisation of history is just as much a theme in the collection as its outright rewriting, and “Terminus” balances both to become my favourite story in the book. I couldn't help but imagine the faux Doctor as played by John Culshaw.

“Shockwave” by duo Simon A. Brett and Lee Rawlings is another nifty tale of changing history, giving us a reality where Adric managed to die in a completely different way in Earthshock. The consequences are a version of Time-Flight that is, shockingly, really very good, as timelines converge at Heathrow with Tegan baring the brunt of the chaos. After all, had the freighter not crashed circa 65 million BC, Earth's history would be very different indeed. It's a very funny story but it has a nasty sting in the tail.

Christine Grit's story “Revelation,” is, as you might guess, a reworking of Revelation of the Daleks, somehow even nastier than the original. By this point things are becoming very odd, and the story sees the Sixth Doctor and Adric arrive on Necros. The Doctor can feel something's wrong with his timeline by now but is powerless to do anything about it. “Revelation” becomes even more Sixey when the Rani shows up, her story continuing in “Enter the Rani” by Target Trawler Nick Mellish. This story takes the infamously dreadful Time and the Rani and turns it into something that's honestly brilliant – more than that, it turns it into something that makes sense. With a wicked sense of humour, a truly vicious examination of the Rani's cruelty and better-written Mel than I've ever seen, it's another highlight for me.

The further along we go, the more the War Doctor's central story comes into focus, and we learn that the villain behind the masterplan isn't who we expected (but is utterly in keeping with the themes of the book). A diversion back to the Eighth Doctor's first and last moments keeps the experiment running. “The Edge of the War” is this broken universe's equivalent of the TV Movie, one that spends far more time looking at things from the Master's and Grace's point of view. This version of the story moves in a very different and brilliant direction, and the Doctor gets absolutely owned for laying kisses on unwary surgeons. “The Flight of the Doctor” sees the Eighth Doctor's arrival on the War's outskirts and on Karn play out differently, with Barnaby Eaton-Jones telling a different story to Moffat, albeit one with just as many brilliant lines.

Hall comes back to wrap things up in “The Weight of the Doctor,” which storms through the new series – the future, of course, from the protagonist's point of view – bringing the timeline as up-to-date as you could possibly want as the Doctor rights the wrongs of his own reality. Regenerations is based on a very clever concept, but without such a strong selection of stories the idea would be wasted. An excellent fanthology. 

The Regenerations ebook can be purchased from Chinbeard Books here, with all proceeds going to Invest in ME.

Sunday 9 August 2020


 Well, that was unexpected news!

Christopher Eccleston, the Ninth Doctor himself, is coming back to Doctor Who! The actor has signed up to play the Doctor once more in four boxed sets by Big Finish Productions starting 2021. The news that Eccleston is willing to take on the role again in any capacity is a shock, although I guess if it was ever going to happen it would be for Big Finish rather than the BBC. But I think a lot of us never expected this to happen.

Now BF have the original Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth and Tenth Doctors on their books. It can only be a matter of time before Smith and Capaldi sign up (and Whittaker once the licence extends following her tenure on the TV series).

I can't wait to hear the Ninth Doctor again, in the first new material for over fifteen years.

Friday 7 August 2020

TREK REVIEW: Lower Decks 1-1 - "Second Contact"


The first episode of the new animated comedy series Star Trek: Lower Decks has now been released for streaming on CBS Access, beginning a run of new Star Trek episodes that will last twenty-three weeks (the full first season of Lower Decks and the third season of Star Trek: Discovery). Lower Decks is, remarkably, the ninth full Star Trek series (tenth if you count the companion series Short Treks). The return of Star Trek to an animated format is a pretty big deal. Short Treks had a couple of very good animated episodes which experimented with different styles, but when most people think of a Trek cartoon, they'll think of the 1970s Star Trek: The Animated Series. This is definitely worth a look if you're a Trek fan, but it conjured up images of cheap, jerky animation and simplistic morals for kids.

Lower Decks is something else entirely. While there's also an animated adventure series in the works (the recently named Star Trek: Prodigy), Lower Decks is an adult comedy series. That's not to say it's entirely unsuitable for a family audience, at least based on the first episode, but it's clearly aimed at older teens to adults, and specifically at established Trek fans.

Created and run by Mike McMahan, who also wrote the excellent Short Trek “The Escape Artist,”but is best known for working on Rick and Morty (plus earlier on South Park and other animated comedies). Based on early descriptions and the series trailer, I expected Lower Decks to be a lot more Rick and Morty-esque than it's turned out to be. Admittedly, there's a lot of episodes to come yet and we might get an episode based on horny dragons or a breast-enlargement ray, but I think it's unlikely. The first episode of Lower Decks is, if not a laugh-a-minute, a pretty solid barrage of gags, but it's pretty much on the right side of the grown-up/puerile divide. The smuttiest joke is the All-Nude Olympic Training holodeck program, and that's pretty mild.

First and foremost, though, this is a Star Trek series, and McMahan is clearly a huge Trek fan. Everything in the episode screams “Star Trek!” from the design of the USS Cerritos to the obscure-as-hell references to Klingon culture. There are recognisable alien races throughout – Ensign Tendi is an Orion, Lt. Shaxs is a big, burly Bajoran, Dr. T'Ana is a Caitian, and there are Trill, Benzites and more on the ship. There are references to a ton of classic Trek stories – in fact, Ensign Mariner dumps a ton of them at the end of the episode, just to make sure we know this is made by bona fide Trekkies.

The concept of the series is brilliant. The USS Cerritos – a new kind of starship, the California-class which looks like a TNG-era kitbash – specialises in “Second Contact,” the slightly less important follow-up mission after first contact. Which, when you think about it, is actually very important. It's joked away as getting the spelling of the alien planets right, but doing the serious diplomatic and logistic stuff is pretty essential. Still, it's not as glamorous as missions of discovery on the USS Enterprise.

The main characters aren't the bridge crew, the characters we'd normally follow, but the derisively-termed “lower decks,” the bottom-rank newbies and jobbing maintenance people. And while you might sneer at them, if they're not working, your replicator doesn't get fixed and is stuck on the “Hot Banana” setting forever. Following the lower-ranked characters who just want to do their jobs with the minimum hassle is such a different spin on a Trek series that it makes it seem fresh, even though this isn't far off the 800th episode in the franchise.

The main characters are all likeable. Ensign Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome) is pretty much the hero of the episode, a busted-down officer who resents the higher ranks and mostly wants to enjoy her shore leave. She's insanely overexcitable and would quickly become unbearable in real life but she's magnetic for a half hour episode, and she's secretly a moral and inventive officer with an exhaustive knowledge and experience. She just doesn't like having to justify herself to anyone.

Ensign Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid) is the jobsworth, career-minded one, serious about doing things by the book and advancing up the ranks, but he's there for Mariner even when he should be reporting her for breaching regulations (usually for all the right reasons). He develops a fair bit even in this episode, so I suspect we'll see a lot more progression for his character (a tenner says he gets a promotion to lieutenant by the end of the season, which will change the dynamic totally).

Ensign D'Vana Tendi (Noel Wells) is the fresh-faced, bright-eyed new recruit on her first assignment. We don't get to see so much of her in this episode, but her enthusiasm for her posting as a medical officer is infectious, even as she's fighting off goop-spewing zombies. Ensign Sam Rutherford (Eugene Cordero) rounds off the main four. He's an engineer and a cyborg, which makes for an interesting sort of addition to the series, and he's struggling with his new Vulcan-implant which keeps trying to suppress his emotions. He's romantic but way to into his work for his own good.

That's not to say we don't see much of the bridge crew, just that they're not the focus and they're generally seen through the eyes of the ensigns. Captain Carol Freeman (Dawnn Lewis) is a by-the-book sort who seems to have a vendetta against Mariner, and well, I won't spoil it but you'll guess why easily enough. Commander Jack Ransom (Jerry O'Connell) is the first officer and as arrogant as someone with the name Jack Ransom has to be, while Lt. Shaxs (Fred Tatasciore) is the trigger-happy tactical officer. Dr. T'Ana (Gillian Rigsom) is basically a fuzzy Bones.

There's a lot going on in this episode, almost too much, and it belts from introducing the characters to events on the planet Galar (home to the purple, piggy Galadornians) to a zombie plague caused by an insect bite raging through the ship, with the subplots for Rutherford's date and Tendi's first day in sickbay getting sidetracked by the zombies. There's a fair bit of gross-out humour – the most Rick and Morty-like part of it – with a weirdly long scene involving Boimler being “suckled” by a giant spider-cow. Most of the comedy, though, comes from the character interactions and their clashing personalities, and a gentle poking fun at Star Trek's tropes. It never comes across as mocking Trek, though; it's all well-observed humour of the sort that fans have been making for years. It's really refreshing to see it on the screen (outside of Futurama).

Whether someone new to Trek would enjoy it is another question. A lot of the in-jokes will be lost on them, of course, but the basics of the episode are pretty straightforward and I think anyone with at least a passing experience of sci-fi adventures would get it. There are bound to be die-hard Trekkies who hate it simply for being a comedy, and plenty more who just don't enjoy the style of humour it has to offer. Personally, I loved it, and I can only see it getting funnier as we get to know the characters more. And the Monkees joke was perfect.

The episode ends with a swift “coming up” trailer for the season as a whole, which promises some exciting adventures and some recognisable alien races. Did I spy an 8472 there?

Trivia facts:

We only visit one planet in the episode, Galar, but we also see a recreation of Orion on the holodeck - the first time we've ever seen the Orion homeword onscreen (the planet recreated in "The Cage" was described as an Orion colony).

While we've seen several Orions in Starfleet in the Kelvin Timeline, Tendi is the first we've seen in the Prime Timeline, and makes for a rare appearance by an Orion in the TNG-era.

Lower Decks is set in 2380, a year after Star Trek Nemesis, although the design looks a lot more like TNG-era proper. I've stopped trying to make sense of the uniforms in Trek, and the Cerritos crew wear a different uniform to either the late 2370s version seen from First Contact to Nemesis and in late DS9, and the early 2380s one seen in flashback scenes in Picard. We have seen different ships using different uniform variants concurrently in Trek a few times though.

Captain Freeman is the first black female captain to head the main ship in a Star Trek series.

The voice cast has some solid genre experience: Tawny Newsome is Captain Ali in Space Force; Jack Quaid is Hughie in The Boys and Marvel in The Hunger Games; Noel Wells voiced Jibralta in Kipo; Eugene Cordero is in Kong: Skull Island and The Mandalorian. Fred Tatasciore has done a ton of genre voice work, too numerous to list. Jerry O'Connell is immediately recognisable to 90s sf fans; he was Quinn Mallory on Sliders, and he happens to be married to Rebecca Romijn, who plays the new Number One in Discovery and Strange New Worlds, which I think is the first time two first officers from Trek have been married in real life. Phil Lamarr, who voices the Admiral, was Hermes Conrad on Futurama, Rag Doll on The Flash and Malefic J'onzz on Supergirl, plus has plenty of voice credits including Rick and Morty.

Monday 3 August 2020

The Black Adder at Television Heaven

Please enjoy my analysis of The Black Adder, the first series and unscreened pilot episode of the beloved British sitcom saga at Television Heaven.

Blackadder II will be coming soon, followed by monthly articles on the remaining series and specials.