Tuesday 28 December 2021

TREK REVIEW: DIS 4-5 - The Examples

The mystery of the DMA steps up a gear when it's finally confirmed that the anomaly is not a natural phenomenon. We might have assumed this, given that it appeared to be steering itself round the galaxy, but the drip-drip of new information about it is tantalising. With some kind of advanced technology at its centre, and the ability to appear virtually anywhere by dint of a tame wormhole, it's tremendously dangerous and threatens and anyone and anything in the known universe.

Naturally, it's all hands on deck trying to work out who made this thing and what makes it tick. Now that Discovery has lost one of its best scientists in Tilly, Admiral Vance assigns a famed scientist, one Ruon Tarka, to assist. Meanwhile, the DMA is threatening a former Emerald Chain colony, so Discovery also heads there to mount an evacuation effort. The colonists prefer to leave their criminals behind to die in their prison, so Burnham and Book, the latter needing to make some amends for his survivor's guilt, mount a rescue mission. Meanwhile again, Culber is finding the sheer ongoing pressure of helping the many people struggling through this crisis overwhelming.

Three distinct storylines again this week, all with something important to say about how we face crises. Of the three, it's the scientific discourse that's actually the most fun. Shawn Doyle is wonderfully watchable as Tarka, an arrogant but charismatic scientist. Making him a Risian is a nice touch, with the scientist still annoyed at his upbringing on a pleasure planet, but that Risian “do whatever you want” attitude is still with him. He's a hedonistic scientist, with little regard for rules or risk. I was reminded a little of Richard Kiley's Gideon Seyetik (from the DS9 episode “Second Sight”) by the character and performance, but while the same arrogance, self-aggrandisement and lust for knowledge is there, Tarka is a much more dangerous character. He clearly knows more than he's letting on, and it's heavily implied he was once enslaved by the Emerlad Chain, so there's a lot of interesting backstory there. Stamets immediately dislikes him, although a lot of that is because the man has been heading up the spore drive research and cutting him out, but Tarka's sheer brilliance begins to win him over.

Once they start experimenting with the creation of a tiny DMA as a simulation, things get potentially dangerous. Leaving Saru in charge while Burnham is off on a rescue mission works in the ship's favour, for even when the Kelpien is won over by Tarka's charimatic pleas, he's still intrinsically cautious and probably responsible for the ship not being sucked into a black hole of its own creation. The reappearance of the long-missed Tig Notaro as engineer Jett Reno adds another spiky personality to this heady mix. You have to let slide the obvious idiocy of undertaking this experiment in the middle of a rescue mission on the edge of the most dangerous spatial event in the universe – it's absolute madness they wouldn't put it off until they were a safe distance away – but it's heady sci-fi and really sparks.

The mission to the colony, spread over a string of asteroids, is the action-packed side of the episode, but oddly the least engaging. This is classic Trek stuff but the unjustly imprisoned criminals – the Examples of the title – are a bit of an uninteresting bunch, and I struggled to remember who was in prison for what. Still, Burnham an Book remain a great team when it comes to this daring missions. The genuinely criminal Felix – the only guilty man on Radvek, if you will – stands out a little better, mostly thanks to Michael Greyeyes, but he's still not the most interesting character. Clichéd characters are fine, but the noble prisoner is harder to pull off than the self-serving scientist or the stalwart captain and the whole storyline just fails to gel for me. Still, it's a very nice touch making the colony's founders the Akaali. Previously seen in the Enterprise episode “Civilization,” the Akaali were at a roughly twentieth century level when we met them. A thousand and forty years later, they are, of course, much more advanced. (Annoyingly, I almost put the Akaali in my Discovery season four article, but decided on the Crepusculans and the Romans as my pre-warp follow-ups instead.)

Wilson Cruz is a shining star this season, bringing such humanity and warmth to the increasingly troubled Culber. Deliberately throwing himself into the task of maintaining the crew's mental health, he has refused to spend time looking after his own. Given that not long ago he was mudered, resurrected through interdimensional mulch and then thrown out of his own timezone, it's fair to say he has some issues to work through. Pairing him with David Cronenberg's blunt and pragmatic Kovich is a brilliant choice, perhaps not making a great deal of logistical sense but providing some tremendously entertaining interplay between the two characters. There's an effective coda between Culber and Stamets where they recognise that they are frankly just as bad as each other when it comes to looking after themselves.

The episode ends with ominous rumblings of future developments regarding the DMA, plus a briefly explored plotline looking at the computer Zora's gradual evolution, something which demands more attention further along. More important to the episode itself are the themes carried throughout. A lot has been made in the real world about how this season is a response to the events of the ongoing pandemic, with the Federation and its neighbours facing an implacable natural threat that they cannot reason with but must work together to understand and survive. This carries through with this episode, reflecting the general attitude of many government to ignore their prison populations safety when it came to the virus, and of course Culber's focus on the huge, ongoing stress that the situation is causing. On the other hand, this allegory is broken by the revelation, however expected, that the DMA has been constructed. If it is meant to be a parallel for COVID-19, what is that supposed to signify? Surely the scriptwriters aren't suggesting they think the virus was engineered by the Chinese or something?

More likely it's just a case of not fully thinking the allegory through. The episode equally takes a look at society's collective responsibility for its less privlileged members. The plight of the various Examples, mostly imprisoned for minor crimes, suggests the treatment of minority groups who are targeted disproportionately by legal systems, although having them be a varied group perhaps lessens this parallel. More up-front is Burnham's reprimand of the Akaali governor, pointing out that he's a refugee now and hoping for his sake that whoever takes his people in is fairer than he was. Some very clear parallels to recent attitudes by some western governments there. Altogether, this is some classic Star Trek material.

Starship Spotter: Starships mentioned this episode incluce the USS Janeway and the Ni'Var starship NSS T'Pau.

Alien civilisations: Species considered as responsible for the DMA inclue the Nacene (VOY: “Caretaker”), the Iconians (TNG: “Contagion”) , the Metrons (TOS: “Arena”) and the Q Continuum, although the latter haven't made contact with the Federation for six hundred years.

Scanning for life forms: An officer on the Discovery bridge is visibly of the Shlerm race, previously only seen in the film Star Trek Beyond.

Sunday 19 December 2021

TREK REVIEW: DIS 4-4 - All is Possible

And catching up with my Disco reviews, watching now week-by-week on Pluto TV, which is both perfectly legal and charmingly retro. I haven't had to actually tune in at a particular time to watch Star Trek since 2005. We even had to stop watching something else to switch over, or we'd have missed it.

As such, it's nice that we have an episode with a solidly old-fashioned Trek feel to it in Disco week four. Tilly's story, while visually riffing heavily on 2009's Star Trek movie (and unsurprisingly, given the same visual artist, Neville Page, was involved) is a meat-and-potatoes story that harks right back to "The Galileo 7" with Tilly as the Spock figure, testing out her command (and teaching) skills. Thinking on it, Tilly's path seems to be quite similar to Spock's, in that they're both heading from the command path into the training path. I could easily see a future series one day in which an older Tilly is captaining a training ship, pulled to the frontline suddenly like in The Wrath of Khan.

Tilly's leaving the show is a bit of a surprise, not because it wasn't signposted, but because it's come so quickly. I fully expected this storyline to run through the season and culminate with her leaving at the end. While it's clear Tilly's new academy posting will keep her close at hand for guest appearances, it's also a big change to core line-up of the series. Since she arrived on the scene in season one, Tilly has been an essential part of the show and of Burnham's life. It's not helping quell the rumours of Mary Wiseman's pregnancy, of course. For that matter, where's her husband? The series' resident Andorian hasn't been seen all season.

I wouldn't be at all surprised if we get a Starfleet Academy spin-off - after all, there have been on-off plans for that for at least thirty years. I'm not sure the characters we have set-up this episode would carry a series themselves. Adira aside, none of the cadets say main character to me. There's promise in the simmering rivalry between Harrall and Gorev, the young Orion and Tellarite cadets, but it's resolved by the end of the episode. Still, applause for Adrian Walters for his decision to play the Tellarite with a Caribbean accent. Sasha is cute, but doesn't have much character beyond the quiet nervous one. Still, there's promise in the idea, with the nurturing, understanding, but surprisingly steely Tilly taking wet-behind-the-ears cadets on various ill-advised missions.

The events on the moon Kokytos are fun and gripping, with spectacular visuals. The new virtual sets are really justifying their expense this season. The alien monster, referred to here as a Tuscadian pyrosome, is a wonderfully odd bit of random science extrapolation; pyrosomes on Earth are bioluminescent filter feeders, not carnivorous monsters that hunt people down, but they got the colony creature part right. Equally questionable science comes with the gamma-ray burst that knocks the shuttle out of flight in the first place; if you get hit by a gamma-ray burst then you'll be pretty much vapourised, and crashing is the least of your worries.

The other two main plotlines aren't as exciting, but work solidly well. Book's ongoing therapy is starting to lose its appeal as a storyline, but is saved by the ever-impressive performances of Ajala and Cruz. The more interesting part of the storyline is how Culber's own trauma is gradually coming to the fore, beyond time given how much he's been through even since he was resurrected. More interesting is the diplomatic incident to Ni'Var, with Burnham and Saru drafted in to sit and look official while Admiral Vance is off with political gutrot. Of course, this all part of the canny Federation President's plan, knowing she and Vulcan President T'Rina are both stuck in non-compromisable positions. Michael's a ig mouth who can't help but get involved and Saru's the wisest old man in the galaxy, let's get them involved. I'm starting to really like Tara Rosling as the quiet, measured T'Rina, and particularly her gentle, well-mannered romance with Saru.

With Ni'Var demanding its own Article 50 Brexit clause before it rejoins the Federation, there are clear parallels with the political situation today, and we can see that neither the Federation nor the Ni'Vari can back down without angering way too many voters. Burnham and Saru's compromise seems a little too easy, but overall this is a strong diplmacy storyline of the kind TNG and DS9 used to do so well. Altogether, there's a strong theme of compromise and understanding running through the episode, both understanding of ones rivals and oneself. Burnham points out the Romulan and Vulcan reunification, and President Rilak's mixed heritage, as examples of civilisations moving past their differences, and Saru joins in with his own acceptance of the Ba'ul (who used to eat his friends, let's remind ourselves, so there's no one more willing to let past sins go than him). Meanwhile, Tilly makes her cadets stop and get to know each other, even while they're being hunted by a killer blob monster, forcing them to undestand that not everyone who looks like your enemy is your enemy, and Culber helps Book understand that he'll need to find new ways beyond his homeworld to accept its loss. It's a thematically strong episode that holds together very well.

Stellar Cartography: The Alpha Helios system has, in traditional human style, names from Greek mythology. Helios was a sun god, while the ice moon Kokytos is named for a river in Hades (also spelled Cocytus). Geryon, the intended destination, is named for a three-bodied giant.

Monster Monster Monster: The Pyrosome beast seems very reminiscent to the Henrauggi from 2009's Star Trek, and its home on Kokytos is very like the similarly frozen Delta Vega.

What's in a name? The USS Armstrong is obviously named for Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon, while its Captain Imahara is surely named for Mythbusters and Star Trek Continues star Grant Imahara, who died last year.

Thursday 9 December 2021

TREK REVIEW: DIS 4-2 & 4-3




This season of Discovery has gotten off to a very serialised start, with "Anomaly" essentially acting as a coda for the opener and "Choose to Live" continuing the themes and plotlines. Not that there's not plenty else going on, but it seems season four will be a strongly serialised narrative. Both episodes revolve heavily around the mystery of the gravitational anomaly, as we might expect, but also around Book's emotional fallout from the loss of his homeworld. It's the latter that makes for the better television, not least because of David Ajala's excellent performance as the traumatised traveller. 


Book suffers from a very understandable survivor's guilt, not least because he could have saved his brother and nephew - had he only known that they were in such terrible danger in the first place. "Anomaly" sees him clearly unable to make rational decisions in the wake of his loss, but Burnham still okays him for a mission into the anomaly that destroyed his world to gather essential telemetry. A little later, Michael steps back from being captain for a brief moment to act as his partner first and foremost, but the person who makes the most impact on him, surprisingly, is Stamets.


Beamed into Book's ship as a sophisticated hologram, Stamets isn't the natural choice to team up with Book, but their wildly different personalities actually get the better of one another and they force each other to open up. For his part, Stamets owns up about his feelings of being made redundant as the one-and-only spore drive operator, while also feeling a sort of guilt for not being the one to save his family at the end of the previous season. Rapp and Ajala have a wonderfully awkward but ultimately respectful rapport on the screen, and I'm looking forward to seeing more of this unlikely team.


Ultimately, though, very little actually happens in "Anomaly," plot-wise. Stamets's initial theory that the anomaly (blimey, that word is getting irritating now) is a pair of colliding black holes is rapidly thrown out when the data comes in. This isn't a bad thing, given that, as David McIntee points out in his own (better) review, this would lead to a gamma ray burst that would kill even more people than the anomaly's gravitational effects. As also points out, it does look rather like a big evil eye. By the time of the next episode, the new data has the scientist referring to it as a Dark Matter Anomaly or DMA, even though that's definitely a poor description and he becomes convinced it's a wormhole except that it doesn't fit that model either. 


We also get two Culber-oriented subplots through the two episodes. Tilly, who is dealing with a time-displacement malaise and seems to be working towards being written out, basically appoints him as her personal counsellor. He seems to have taken on this role by default, but he's easily the best counsellor the franchise has ever had (sorry Troi, sorry Ezri, sorry red from Star Trek Continues), with Wilson Cruz emenating a calming presence at all times. 


His second storyline is more immediately impactful, seeing him mastermind the work to grant Gray a new body in the here-and-now. Like the Qowat Milat space nuns who also makes up a significant part of "Choose to Live," this plotline follows on from Star Trek: Picard, with the technology used to make Gray corporeal again being an adaptation of the golem tech that allowed Picard to survive death. It's a strange thing to have the very end of the TNG era be a distant history in Discovery's new setting, but it's helps tie everything together as parts of a greater whole. Given the tech in Picard could and should revolutionised life in the galaxy, it's both frustrating and understandable that we learn that virtually no one has ever gotten it to work in the eight hundred years since.


The use of the zhian'tara ritual is a clever way of making this work, as in DS9 this was used to allow Dax's former hosts live again through borrowed bodies. Again, it ties it all together nicely, although we might suppose from this former example that now Gray is incorporated his memories and experiences are lost from Adira's mind. It's nice to see Xi, the nice man from Trill, come back as well.


A further ongoing element is the reintroduction of Saru to the ship, settling in as Mr. Saru, the first officer. It's not unheard of for a captain to act as first officer in the franchise, but it's odd considering that Saru has seniority over Burnham. Still, he seems happy, and it suits the character better to be doling out the old man wisdom than be giving out the orders. He's relatively underused in these episodes though.


"Choose to Live" has a lot more plot going for it than "Anomaly," with three separate story threads jostling for the A-plot role. As well as Gray's re-embodiment, we've got Burnham being arbitrarily teamed-up with her own mother to hunt down a rogue space nun who's turned to piracy, and a trip to the Planet-Formerly-Known-as-Vulcan for new best buds Book and Stamets. The latter plotline is the most satisfying, again even though there's relatively little actual plot, giving Book the opportunity to heal through the embracing of his emotions and memories. Distinctly forward-thinking stuff from the more Romulan-influenced Vulcans of the 32nd century, who can, it's clear, still perform the classic mindmeld. It's great to finally see Ni'Var in the dusty, red reality at last, super-futuristic with its hovering platforms far above its iconic deserts. The Vulcans are the same as ever in some ways though, granting their visitors no consideration or niceties and putting themselves into meditative trances in order to think about scientific problems.


Burnham's hectic Qowat Milat storyline has a lot more going on, but is somehow the least involving of the lot. I enjoyed the fun space adventure, from the "That's no moon!" moment of the gigantic space ark reveal to the Abronians themselves - proper aliens with big, hulking semi-insectoid bodies. The idea of a race of aliens whose bodies are prized for containing latinum is a new and chilling one, as is the idea of grave-snatchers raiding stasis pods. Still, for all the fighting and derring-do, this threa failed to grab me in the same way as the quieter moments of the episode. 


In the end, of course, we're still no closer to knowing what that nasty anomaly is all about.


New worlds: The Abronian ark is a huge, hollowed-out asteroid, not unlike Yonada in the classic episode "For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky."


New civilisations: Ni'Var remains separate from the Federation, and getting the world to rejoin seems to be the President's top priority. As we hear it's coming out of isolation, it seems clear that Kaminar is not currently a member either.


Old titles: This is the second Trek episode called "Anomaly." Enterprise S3 E2 shared the title. This is the first time an episode title has been recycled in the franchise, although there have been several close calls in the past.


Old jokes: And, for Mr. McIntee, a Star Dwarf meme:


Tuesday 7 December 2021

WHO REVIEW: FLUX Chapter Six - The Vanquishers

Well that's the end of Flux, Doctor Who's first season-long serial since the eighties. After six very busy, sometimes confusing episodes, generally highly entertaining episodes, how did that all hang together?

I wasn't wrong. Chibnall didn't manage to tie everything up by the end of part six. There's still a lot of unanswered questions and hanging threads, and that's not necessarily a problem - we still have three specials left to cover the Thirteenth Doctor's final days, and doubtless much of this will be revisited. Still, there are some painfully dissatisfying elements that niggled at the back of my mind throughout.

Let's start with the good stuff, though. This is a belter of an episode for the Sontarans, more so even that part two, giving the ludicrous space goblins a chance to really stand up to the big league monsters. They're still the butt of jokes - Dan Starkey's chocoholic soldier being a very silly diversion - but they work as a serious threat. For once they're the terrifying military force they're always claiming to be. Murdering the entire Lupari people, barring Karvanista, hunting them down on their own ships and killing them one-by-one, winning through sheer force of numbers - that's the Sontaran threat we've heard of all these years. 

The Doctor's peculiar journey throughout, wrestling with the promise of her lost memories, while she is split into three facets who work together and apart to save the universe - excellent stuff. Yes, it's highly derivative of "Journey's End," which had the Doctor and his duplicate save the multiverse together, but it's not a take-for-take rip-off and that was twelve years ago now. In fact, at times it looks like it's riffing on The Three Doctors, and that was in 1972. Whittaker is on fire snapping and flirting with herself - she's had to spend far too much of her time as Doctor talking to herself, but this makes it into a game. That's not to say she doesn't have serious moments as well, and her eventual reunion and confrontation with Yaz is well worth waiting for.

On the subject of reunions, Bel and Vinder's discovery of each other is a lovely moment. Jacob Anderson is great when he gets solid material, and Thaddea Graham is magnetically watchable in all her scenes. Their storyline seems only tangentially connected to the main Flux plot, but watching the events sweep others up in their path is a solid line for the serial to take. In any case, it seems highly likely they'll be back before the end of 2022. Equally impressive is Nadia Albina as Diane, who finally gets to make a contribution to the plot, even if it's not entirely clear why her character is given such unique treatment by the Ravagers. Still, she's a badass, and we could do worse than having her on side the next time aliens come invading. It's a shame we're unlikely to see Kevin McNally back as Professor Jericho, who would have made a fun recurring character in 20th century settings had he survive, but at least Claire gets a resolution of sorts to her story. We still don't get a full rounding off of the Angels storyline, but not everything has to be crossed off.

Yaz gets to be genuinely awesome as well, showing that she always had the potential to be a brilliant lead character once anyone bothered to actually write her that way. Dan fares less well, and I'm not entirely convinced he's essential to keep on as an ongoing companion, but Bishop remains a fun presence. It's good to see Joseph Williamson get some closure to his story, and he's rather more polite now he's in the presence of ladies. There's no explanation given for the doorways through space/time, but again, that might be something else that will be followed up later. Or maybe not. Either way, while being known forever as the "Mad Mole of Edge Hill" is pretty cool, he's hardly "too important to history" to risk, although if he was killed before he'd finished the tunnels they were all standing in that would a tricky paradox to deal with along with everything else.

Other characters fare less well. Kate Sewart is entirely unnecessary, doing nothing much to contribute to the plot. She's just ort of there, seemingly only to give her an opportunity to meet the current Doctor. Craig Parkinson remains icily cool as the Grand Serpent, but there isn't any clear reason for him to be allied with the Sontarans and he seems superfluous. Still, he gets some excellent moments, particularly his complete dismissal of Vinder whom he doesn't even seem to remember - a mere footnote in his life of power-grabbing and murder. His comeuppance is fairly satisfying, but he's likely being kept alive for a return appearance, which should make his story mean more. Assuming he's not another iteration of the Master, that is. He did turn into a body-snatching snake once, after all.

It's in the overarching plot with Swarm and Azure that things really fall flat. While they look pretty striking, there's not been much to the Ravagers throughout, and their plotline just doesn't hang together. Sure, they want revenge, and apparently they're trying to wage a war on space in the name of time, but it's all just words. None of it really seems to mean anything.  Having the Doctor face a vengeful enemy from a time in her life she doesn't remember is a solid idea, but it needs proper attention, and it's lost in all the other goings on. When we finally discover that Time is a some kind of living entity, we're left with even more questions and no sign of any answers. This isn't a first for Doctor Who - the New Adventures had Time as a godlike figure who played a significant role on occasion - but here it's just one too many revelations thrown at the screen.

Finally, we have to address the Doctor's actions in this episode. The Sontarans, in their ruthlessness, plan to use the Daleks and Cybermen to absorb the Flux, wiping them out in the process. Aside from a complete misunderstanding of how antimatter works - something of a Doctor Who tradition, and more than a little Crisis on Infinite Earths - it's a brilliant play on the ruthless warriors' part. The Daleks and Cybermen seem a little gullible to fall for it, but doubtless they were planning on betraying the Sontarans themselves. It's evidence for how monstrous the Sontarans are - and yet the Doctor, instead of trying to save the Daleks and Cybermen, instead uses the Flux to wipe out both race and the Sontarans as well. It's premeditatedly ruthless by even the Doctor's standards. I'm all for the Doctor being a terrifying bastard, but it sits poorly with the idea that her Fugitive incarnation represents a darker side to her. Why, because she works for a dodgy organisation and carries a gun? Did she just wipe out three whole species? 

It leaves the Whoniverse in an unclear and precarious state. I hardly think the Daleks, Cybermen or Sontarans are actually extinct - this is, at my count, the seventh time the Daleks have been conclusively wiped out, and they're not even pretending it's going to last, since they're back in four weeks. However, the universe is still apparently sitting at 90% wiped out, with nothing but Earth and a handful of devastated worlds left. No mention is made of this at all, and the Doctor and co. leave for adventures without considering there's nowhere left to explore. Surely they've got to follow some of this up?


Tuesday 30 November 2021

WHO REVIEW: FLUX Chapter Five - Survivors of the Flux


It's the penultimate part of a six-parter, traditionally the time when all the questions got answered and we settled down for an action-packed finale. This isn't the classic series though, and Flux is very unlike a traditional Doctor Who six-parter. Each episode has had a distinct feel and new content, keeping things as fresh as in any of the always varied modern series while still building towards a single narrative finale.

At least, that's what we're expected. Given that “Survivors of the Flux” continued to drop new revelations on us even as it was answering earlier questions, it's by no means certain that this will all tie up by the end of episode six, “The Vanquishers.” There is, after all, a new episode to come less than a month later, plus two further specials as we continue in 2022. It's a bit of a mug's game reviewing serialised stories episode-by-episode, and half of my questions and ideas will be rendered nonsensical by the time the story finishes, but one thing I am confident in saying: this won't all be over next week.

Survivors of the Flux” doesn't hang together as well as the previous couple of episodes, and has a distinct feeling of being a bit rushed. The impession I get is that this was originally several episode, but the continued shortening of the season due to COVID restrictions and changing plans at the BBC meant that a lot of storylines got squashed together here. However, Chibnall pulls it off, giving us a rather baffling but highly enjoyable episode. Doctor Who, as I have said many a time, rarely makes sense, and the trick is getting away with it until after the episode has finished. This instalment manages that, keeping everything moving and ratcheting up the intrigue and excitement so that there's no time to go “hang on...” until you've settled down to beddy-byes later that evening.

The adventures of Yaz, Dan and Jericho could happily have stretched to a six-part serial in themselves. A tenner says we get a short story collection on this by the middle of next year. Yaz has now settled down to her status of leader of the team, a substitute Doctor leading two middle-aged white blokes around and generally being rather awesome. Having her pick up her spirits and resolve by replaying the Doctor's message in times of stress is a nice touch. In the end, though, their mission, to discover the vital information of the Earth's impending doom, seems to be forgotten halfway through. Instead, they switch to trying to let Karvanista – still 117 years in the future for them – their location. Why they've suddenly become determined to get off the Earth by any means necessary isn't clear, nor how they expect to go about it, as even the dog-faced space pilot readily notes that he doesn't have a time machine so can't pick them up. No doubt this will be explained away in part six. However, you have to wonder just how the trio financed their way around the world on their myriad adventures, given that none of them had any resources to call on in the 1900s.

Bel and Vinder's story continues on in the background, reconnecting with the grand narrative towards the episode's conclusion. While I'm certain we'll see the star-crossed lovers reunited, I'm not sure just how they're going to fully integrate them back into the story. Bel hasn't met the Doctor at all and Vinder remained an outsider even as he was pulled into events with Yaz and the Doctor. I'm not sure how they'll get their resolution with the little time we have left, which leaves me wondering if they'll stick around as new companions after this serial ends. I still have a worrying suspicion about Bel's baby's eventual identity, but I'm not going to voice it here since I'll either be made to look a fool or, worse, proven right.

An unexpected turn of events comes as the Grand Serpent returns – itself not a surprise, but the manner is a sudden twist. Seemingly a contemporary, albeit alien, character in 2021, he appears in the 1950s at what is revealed to be the early days of UNIT, allying himself with Robert Bathurst's posh army type and then murdering him rather unpleasantly. (“Your career's finished Todhunter, you big lig!” we shouted as he died, because once you've been in Red Dwarf you are forever tarred with the smeg brush.) A lot of questions a raised here. Presumably the Serpent does have a time machine, rather than merely being very long lived, given that he is apparently here in the past after he was a galactic ruler in the present. The history of UNIT seen here doesn't quite fit in with what we've seen on screen over the years, and the valiant attempt to tie in the events of The War Machines only complicates matters further. All these little asides, and that vocal cameo by the Brigadier himself, are lovely, but don't actually add up to anything coherent, but then, UNIT dating has always been a notorious mess. If anything, making it worse seems rather in keeping. It's nice to see Jemma Redgrave back as Kate Stewart, as well, after an absence of six years. It helps tie everything together into one big, long adventure. As fun as it is to see Kate hoarsely taking down Prentis, aka Mr G. Serpent, you wonder why a military officer in charge of an alien-fighting group doesn't have, I don't know, some kind of gun that might be useful against him? When they dissect the body afterwards and find it made out of snakes she's sure to be backed up.

The assassin sent after Yaz's team sports a serpent tattoo, which naturally suggests he is linked to the Grand Serpent, but I can't help but note the similarity to the Third Doctor's tattoo seen immediately after he arrived on Earth, post-regeneration. In reality it was Jon Pertwee's own navy tattoo, but no shortage of fan theories have arisen. Could the Doctor have been linked to the Grand Serpent in that mysterious period between The War Games and Spearhead from Space? Then we have Steve Oram's increasingly bizarre performance as the eccentric Joseph Williamson, with Team Yaz finally catching up with him and his network of tunnels that lead to doorways through space and time. With everything tying together in unpredictable ways and nods to the past everywhere, it's tempting to try to link everything together, no matter how unlikely.

Meanwhile, outside the universe, the Doctor hatches from her stone prison and faces down the mysterious lady in the hat, who turns out to be Tecteun, the universe's nastiest foster mother. Having the mysterious mastermind turn out to be, essentially, the Doctor's mum is a bit of a let down but quite an obvious move, and there was bound to be a confrontation with her eventually. While Whittaker is impressive in these scenes, they fell a little flat to me. Tecteun's motivation was all over the place. To begin with, we learn the Division – or just Division now, it seems – are destroying the entire universe because the Doctor has interfered with it too much and it's the only way to be rid of her and start from scratch. This seems, even given the Doctor's inflated status over the years, to be insanely over-the-top. There must be something more behind it. Then Tecteun tries to bribe the Doctor into joining forces with her in the next universe by promising her her memories back, which goes against the Division's entire stated motive.

This is all fairly baffling, and unfortunately shows up how difficult it is to accept the Division as the all-powerful force they're made out to be. Retconning in something like this is always going to show up some logistical flaws – just look at trying to fit UNIT into the programme's complicated history – but by making the Division the secret power behind pretty much everything, it's hard to accept they're really what they say they are. I can accept that they had operatives all over the Time War, for instance, or that the CIA were really a front for them, but you have to ask where they were when Rassilon, Davros or sundry others were trying to destroy the entire multiverse. Events which were only stopped by the hated Doctor, of course.

Still, on its own terms, the Division is an intriguing and powerful threat, albeit one that has seemingly sown its own destruction in the form of Swarm and Azure. We're still in the dark on their exact motive, beyond good, old-fashioned revenge. A war between Time and Space sounds cool, but it doesn't really mean anything. We shall see though. Events are coming to a head, and it looks like next week everyone will be involved.

One final thought: it's quite right that the Doctor would refuse to accept her memories and the safety of the Earth in payment for allowing the universe to end, and that she'd vow to save the universe and get her past back, thank you very much. Does the Doctor really want that past back, though? While the Fugitive Doctor hasn't been portrayed as significantly nastier than their familiar incarnations, there have been hints at something far worse, especially considering they apparently worked for the Division for centuries. Are they just memories in the fobwatch, or, as in previous uses of the chameleon arch, is there an entire identity and biology in there that will overwrite and destroy the Doctor's existing persona? Does Chibnall have the guts to wipe out the universe and the Doctor's identity and start again? Probably not, but it does leave the Doctor with an interesting dilemma.

Saturday 27 November 2021

REVIEW: Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of)


On Friday night, the missus and I were at the end of a nice day out in the Smoke and decided to stop by one of those ticket kiosks that dot the West End to see if we could grab a last-minute theatre ticket. It was Black Friday, after all, so there was bound to be some fantastic bargain out there.

It turned out a lot of people had the same idea, so there weren't very many affordable seats left – at least, not together, and we didn't really want to sit at opposite ends of the theatre. There were plenty of shows on we'd heard of, but they were mostly very pricey, and anyway, the whole point of a last-minute ticket is to try something unexpected.

So, we ended up getting tickets to Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) at the Criterion Theatre in Piccadilly. We'd not heard of this one; I mean, we'd heard of Pride and Prejudice. Suzanne has even read it. An all-female, OTT-comedy take on the 1813 novel, it sounded like our sort of thing. We thought it would be a laugh, but didn't expect anything, well, special. What we got was an absolutely brilliant show, one of the best evenings we've had at the theatre in years.

The fact that I'm not particularly into the works of Austen probably accounts for this play completely passing me by since it premiered at the Tron in Glasgow in 2018. It started its UK tour in late 2019, before getting stalled by the pandemic in 2020 just like everything else. Restarting in October this year, it deserves to be a monster hit. Written by, co-directed by and co-starring Isobel McArthur, it updates the satire of the original novel into a raucous, foul-mouthed and flamboyant modern take. It's a hotch-potch of anachronisms – the characters can't quite seem to decide if its the 18th century or the 21st – but this only adds to the air of chaotic fun.

The five members of the cast each play one of the serving staff who work uncelebrated in Austen's world, themselves reenacting the story by taking on various roles. McArthur herself portrays both Mrs Bennett (who sounds exactly like Blackadder the Third's Mrs Miggins) and a very dashing Mr Darcy. Meghan Tyler is a boisterously Irish Elizabeth, dominating her scenes. Christina Gordon spends most of the play as Jane, but also gives us hilarious performances as Lady Catherine and Mr Wickham. Hannah Jarrett-Scott is both the Bingley siblings, Charlotte and the main servant character, Tilly. Tori Burgess rounds out the cast as two of the remaining Bennett sisters. With whip-fast costume changes and a variety of accents, the actors jump between roles with aplomb.

The direction and choreography are spot-on, with perfect timing and positioning making for precise physical comedy, complementing a tight and fantastically funny script. Anacronistic props add comedy to a minimalist but cleverly constructed set, with the biggest laugh of the night going to the filthy skip wheeled in, emblazoned with the legend “JANE AUST-BIN.” Most of the jokes are smarter than that, but who doesn't love a shocking pun?

There are songs, but it's not a musical – more of a karaoke theatre experience. The multi-talented cast sing and perform all manner of instruments, giving us songs from everyone from Elvis Costello and Pulp to Bonnie Tyler, and even some Divine Comedy. It's practically my playlist, with the notable exception of the works of Master Christopher de Bourgh. The second half tones down the comedy a little, bringing in the feels for a beautiful finale.

With an incredibly talented cast and fantastic comic writing, Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) is a brilliant, touching and absurd take on one of the greats of literary fiction. It might even get me to read the book.

Wednesday 24 November 2021

TREK REVIEW: DIS 4.1 - Kobayashi Maru


Before cracking on with the review, let's take a moment to rail against Paramount's latest dubious marketing decision. While I understand the company's desire to monetise their product effectively, their decision to make Discovery available only through their own streaming service is questionable, and their approach to doing so utterly baffling. It's not that Paramount hasn't got a large slate of films and programmes, but it's hardly Disney, and not so many people are going to want to sign up to another expensive subscription service to watch their shows. Choosing Star Trek as their tentpole production shows that they're pinning their new service on Trek fans, so then doing their very best to piss worldwide fans off seems like a very stupid thing to do.

Pulling Discovery from Netflix after a backroom deal, two days before the latest season is due to start, is a kick in the teeth to anyone who hasn't decided to shell out for Paramount Plus, and to anyone outside of the US and Canada. With days to go after much trailing, the rest of the world is told to stuff it and will have to wait months to see it legally. It's not exactly hard to pirate things these days, and Paramount are going to make considerably less money in the long run as people either torrent their programmes or leave it altogether. That's even without looking at the concerns of the cast and crew, who were suddenly told days before their big premiere that 90% of the world won't see their work as promised.

Onto the actual episode... and yes, that was really rather good. Taking up some months after the end of season three's climactic finale, with Burnham fully ensconsed as captain of the Discovery, on a mission to reunite the disparate worlds of the Federation and spread a little goodwill. The opening act sees Burnham and Book (there for his special empathic skills) visit the planet Alshain Four, where the native population are struggling for dilithium but are very hostile towards the Federation due to previous bad experiences pre- and post-Burn. It's a very fun, over-the-top and visually spectacular opening, ending with Burnham and crew making things good with the Alshain and gifting them some dilithium. “We're the Federation,” says Captain B. “It's what we do.”

Moving on to Starfleet HQ, where Starfleet Academy is re-opening for the first time in over a century, and the brand new Federation President is on-hand to speechify about the importance of it all. Twenty-one worlds have rejoined the Federation in the last five months, a new experimental Pathfinder Drive is being worked on, and missions of exploration are starting again. A new spacedock named Archer is commissioned, and to hammer home the symbolism, we get a refrain from Archer's Theme from Enterprise. It's all rather moving. There are little, subtle asides to other historic Trek series as well – mention of the new USS Voyager and a line about “what was left behind,” plus a paraphrase of the classic “strange new worlds” opening, just to bring everything full circle.

It's rather more feelgood than the immediate crises the show has previously dropped us in. This doesn't last long, of course, and before the episode is done a new, unforeseen and unprecedented catastrophe is heading for the galaxy. Discovery is called out to help space station Deep Space Beta 6 when it's hit by a gravitational anomaly, and just so happens to be in the general vicinity of Kwejian, where Book is enjoying a space coming-of-age ceremony with his brother and nephew. Without going into massive spoilers for the whole episode, it's leads to a thrilling rescue mission at the space station, where Adira and now Lieutenant Tilly face a panicky and proprietory commander alongside a catastrophic collision with some Oort cloud debris. Burnham, none-too-happy to have the President along for the ride, takes matters into her own hands and goes on a breakneck, death-defying one-woman mission to fix the station from the outside. Meanwhile, similarly catastrophic gravitational effects begin around Kwejian.

I had thought that the icy debris heading for the station was evidence of the whole of Kwejian's system shifting across space due to the gravitational anomaly, but this doesn't seem to be the case. Nonetheless, planets were left dislocated and it's clear the galaxy is in for some serious trouble in the near future.

In a side-plot, Saru remains on Kaminar, doing his best to lead the Ba'ul-Kelpien alliance back into the wider galaxy while also looking after his young protege Su'Kal. There are some lovely moments here, with a genuinely touching scene in which Su'Kal reassures Saru that he now has new friends and family on Kaminar, even as some people still fear him, and that the Kelpien captain should return to Starfleet where he clearly belongs. Another little sideline is Adira's relationship with Gray, who's still hanging around as a ghost in want of a physical body. There's not much time spent on it, but it gets its moment so we know this storyline hasn't been forgotten. Stamets and Culber remain devoted space dads to Adira, who is struggling with being both the youngest crewmember on her first away mission, and having centuries of experience no one expects.

The main thread of the story, though, is Burnham's messiah complex, seemingly even worse than ever now she's captain. As the President points out, her inflexible commitment to ensuring everyone lives could one day mean that everyone dies, and her inability to delegate during major crises risks missions failing. In Burnham's defence, it did, as she says, work, and she can probably be forgiven for acting like the universe revolves around her when events so far in Discovery suggest it does. Martin-Green (now also listed as producer) gives a great performance, fun when she needs to be and stubbornly rigid otherwise. She has a great foil in David Ajala's Book, and their chemistry hasn't lessened in the time between seasons. More interesting though is her interplay with Chelah Horsdal as President Laira Rillak, who muscles her way onto the bridge and questions the captain's decisions at every turn. Clearly a charming and resourceful leader, Rillak is also canny enough to research the people she's dealing with, memorising key details she can use to get them on side.

It looks to me that the writers are trying to set Burnham up as a new Kirk. The opening is very much the sort of adventure we might see Kirk on, with Book providing the common sense of Bones while Burnham wings it on guts and charm and ends up with a precarious situation that eventually comes good. Watching here we were reminded very much of the Teenaxi at the beginning of Star Trek Beyond, physically very different but equally paranoid and aggressive aliens who went for Kirk the same way the Alshain went for Burnham. Her fractious relationship with the President also recalls any number of arrogant and officious VIPs that Kirk had to put up with on his bridge on TOS, questioning his sometimes impulsive command decisions.

The rest of the cast remain strong, with Mary Wiseman giving us a more assured Tilly, Blu del Barrio and Ian Alexander remain adorable and Oded Fehr is a solid presence as Admiral Vance. Perhaps the most impressive remain Doug Jones and Bill Irwin as Saru and Su'Kal, providing extraordinarily nuanced performances under layers of make-up. With some fascinatingly strange new worlds and some gripping action, this is an excellent season opener.

What a shame we couldn't watch it.

Alien life forms:

President Rillak appears to be a mixture of human, Bajoran and Cardassian heritage.

Nalas, the commander on DS Beta 6, is one of Kima's species, now named the Akoszonam.

Starfleet officers seen include Lurians and Ferengi.

The Alshain (who reminded me visually of the Engineers from Prometheus) have some kind of symbiotic relationship with their planets butterflies, and can fly using their planet's magnetic field.

Stellar Cartography: Alshain, or Beta Aquilae, is a real star system, a mere 45 light years from Earth.

Personnel roster: Rhys has been promoted to Lt. Commander, and seems to be acting as first officer for this mission.

Future history: Rillak talks to Burnham about the Kobayashi Maru, but it's a little hard to credit they're using the same test all these centuries later. Even naming a space station after Jonathan Archer is a bit of a stretch – his era was a thousand years earlier.

Monday 22 November 2021

WHO REVIEW: FLUX Chapter Four - Village of the Angels

Doctor Who: Flux is improving week on week, with the twisty and interesting “Once, Upon Time” followed by a gripping episode that combines the best of time-hopping weirdness with good, old-fashioned spookiness. The Weeping Angels are, of course, one of the most popular and inventive monsters ever featured in Doctor Who, and there's still little enough of them that their inclusion here is exciting in the way that the return of the Daleks and Cybermen aren't. Even the Sontarans, while it was a treat to have them feature properly for the first time in ages, aren't as clever or unique a concept as the Angels. Interviews with the cast suggest a palpable excitement in having them appear. There hasn't been a full-on Angels episode since “The Angels Take Manhattan” in 2012, and since then their more minor appearances in “The Time of the Doctor” and Class have been throwaway. Big Finish have been using them plenty, of course, because Big Finish don't get the rights to the concept and not do it to death, and there's been a positive response to the mobile game The Lonely Assassins. Still, “Village of the Angels” feels special, not only because the Weeping Angels are such a brilliant monster but also because the episode is straightforwardly high quality in a way we haven't really seen lately.

Given that the Angels are the quintessential Moffat era monster, it's unsurprising that the episode has a very Moffat-y feel, more so even than last week's, with an almost storybook vibe to the creepy village with its old-fashioned inhabitants. After from the exemplary “Blink,” though, the Angels never quite worked as well even with Moffat writing, their simple but ingenious central concept being added to until it became diluted and overcomplicated. Here, though, everything builds more naturally. It's assumed that, if you're watching this, you've probably at least seen “Blink” on iPlayer and probably know the basics from the previous years, with a few reminders that you mustn't blink and that “the image of an Angel becomes an Angel” dropped in for good measure. Now that the excessive abilities introduced in “The Time of Angels” are fully established it's easier to just get one with it and have them come for the Doctor as a truly relentless threat.

Without wanting to be too harsh, this episode feels like a first draft than a lot of this era's stories. Maxine Alderton's clearly a real talent and while we don't know how much of this is hers and how much is Chibnall's they clearly make for a good team. I loved “Once, Upon Time” but there were still persistent issues such as the clumsy exposition and the sometimes weak characterisation of the Doctor. These are cleaned up here, with Dan's role as exposition engine lampshaded and the Doctor being a proactive force while also allowing her to be terrified and wrong-footed by the Angel's attack. Last week I felt that Whittaker was better when playing the Fugitive Doctor than her normal incarnation, as it was simply stronger material, but here she gets to be a verison of her Doctor that really works.

Yaz gets to actually be a police officer, bringing skills and an approach that other characters simply wouldn't try, in her attempt to track down the missing girl Peggy. It's a bit obvious that, when a mysterious old lady starts wandering around muttering about these things happening again, they're going to be revealed as the same person after a time jump, but it's still effectively told and played. The guest cast are uniformly good, but plaudits especially to Annabel Scholey as Claire. I'm still not going to be surprised if she's revealed to be an iteration of Clara, but right now she's plenty interesting enough as a forthright and capable woman who happens to be a powerful psychic and is stuck living more than fifty years in her own past. There's enough promise in that for a whole series in itself. Kevin McNally is almost as good as Professor Jericho, a delightfully old-fashioned sort of character who absolutely fits with the haunted village vibe.

There are still logical flaws in the Angels concept, such as no one taking the obvious route of at least trying to take turns blinking. The visual of people being crumbled to dust if they contact an Angel a second time is chilling, although I suspect it contradicts what we've seen in previous stories (I'll have to go back and rewatch to be certain). I love the concept of a premonition of an Angel constituting an image, thereby rooting itself in Claire's mind, although by this logic anyone who's ever seen an Angel woould have one living in their head as a memory. It's easy enough to voerlook this though when there are so many striking concepts so well put across, including the uplifted village plucked out of space and the idea of a rogue Angel. The Doctor actually comes off rather badly, refusing to listen to such “a creature,” but the Doctor's more interesting when they're morally dubious and a bit of an arsehole.

The Division is becoming a far more interesting idea than it first appeared, where it was basically the Time Lords' CIA under a different name. Now it seems to be a much bigger, multi-species concern that employs a whole phalanx of Weeping Angels to maintain time. The Doctor's (apparently) accidental crossing of her own time stream in “Fugitive of the Judoon” seems to have linked her present to her past working for them, even before she went actively looking for information on them. It's always a bit tricky to apply logic to a time travel narrative like this, since past and future mean nothing to someone travelling across the whole of history on a whim, but there's generally been a impression that time active beings usually meet each other in the the correct relative order. Obviously this isn't always the case, but here it looks like the Doctor's interacting with her forgotten past has upset the chronology rather badly. The Judoon came for her and now the Division have come for her, and who knows, maybe even the Flux is a result of this.

We end with one of the best cliffhangers in recent memory, and whether it makes sense or not it's a fantastic image (as well as hinting towards the idea from The End of Time that Angels began as cursed Time Lords). We even get a mid-credits scene, MCU-style, following up on Bel's subplot. Thaddea Graham remains one of the best things in this series and is more than capable of maintaining her own storyline, but I am looking forward to Vinder catching up with her and their reconnecting with the main narrative.

Next week looks to be throwing even more elements in but hopefuully will begin to tie this all together. We've only two weeks left for this serial to be, if not resolved, at least satisfactorily climaxed.

REVIEW - Ghostbusters: Afterlife

SPOILERS after the break! 

Well then, it's finally here. Ghostbusters: Afterlife (or Ghostbusters: Legacy in some regions). I saw it on opening night (three evenings ago) but have taken a little while to collect my thoughts. As some of you might have noticed over the years, I'm rather into Ghostbusters, the film and the whole franchise. Ghostbusters II is great, sorely underrated, I thoroughly enjoyed the 2016 reboot (these days referred to as Answer the Call) and am still a bit annoyed the fan backlash damaged its performance so much that it didn't get a sequel. A third movie of any kind seemed unlikely for years, and at least the reboot made it clear there was still an appetite for the film. Finally we get a third instalment of the original continuity and... I liked it. I didn't love it. But I liked it.

For the bulk of the movie, this is a solid adventure with some nice comic touches. Taking the route of a coming-of-age/kids fight the supernatural story is a different direction to what we might have expected, which is a straight-up remake, but still very evocative of eighties classics. Focusing on a new generation allows the story to continue while updating and refreshing it, and while this is very much the same world as the original Ghostbusters, there's a distinctly different feel to most of it. Taking the action away from New York and out into the country makes a huge difference. There's a distinct tone to the majority of the film which is very unlike the previous ones. While the original wasn't the laugh-a-minute gag fest some fans make it out to be, it was very much a comedy. The reboot went hard into the comedy route, whereas this is the least comedic of the four, focusing a lot more on character drama. This isn't to say it's not funny, but it's a more sparing type of comedy. 

Monday 15 November 2021

REVIEW: Last Night in Soho

There are few directors who combine such a wit and visual invention as Edgar Wright, and his latest film takes him in a new direction, tackling a horror-thriller without the backing of comedy. The Cornetto Trilogy went further with violence and gore, but the jokes took off much of the edge. Last Night in Soho, although not without laughs, is a serious film tackling serious themes of abuse and exploitation.

In interviews, Wright talks about listening to his parents' record collection, listening to their stories of their youth in the sixties. Whereas this period is now fondly recalled in most popular media, Wright's recollections of his parents' stories paint a different picture, of harsher experiences. Films actually made in Britain in the sixties often show a darker, more dangerous side of the London experience. Last Night in Soho revives this genre, a look at the cruel and dirty side of the sixties acting as an antidote to the rose-tinted nostalgia of theme park history.

A contemporary setting puts the experience at a further remove, with heroine Ellie a generation-and-a-half further from the lived experience of the sixties than Wright himself. Thomasin McKenzie, a Kiwi doing a decent South Western accent (although the missus informs me she sounds far more Somerset than Cornish), is a hell of a find as Ellie. Embodying a real vulnerability but never weakness, Ellie's experience among the snobs and bullies of the London College of Fashion could break a less strong person even before the bizarre psychic experiences start.

One thing I love about this story is the complete lack of explanation given for Ellie's abilities. She's briefly mentioned as having “a gift,” and we share her visions of her late mother, but that's all. We're thrown into her unprompted memories and dreams of Sandie, building from the glamour and excitement of the sixties nostalgia to the abject horror of Soho's seedy underbelly. Anya Taylor-Joy is, as usual, absolutely captivating, combining real movie star beauty with powerful acting. Early plans had Taylor-Joy as Ellie, and while I don't doubt she could have played it beautifully, that just seems entirely the wrong aesthetic. She's the very picture of sixties glamour and optimism, and that makes her fall all the more powerful.

In the film surprisingly little is Matt Smith, but god, does he make an impact in his scenes. Dominating, sexy and frankly terrifying, as Sandie's lover-turned-pimp he is incredible. Rounding off the big-name cast are Terrence Stamp as one creepy old bastard and the late, great Diana Rigg in her last ever role, the harsh and damaged landlady of Ellie's bedsit. A striking newcomer is Michael Ajao as John, the gentle and caring fashion student who becomes Ellie's love interest. Definitely one to watch. Classy old hand Rita Tushingham makes the most of her scenes as Ellie's grandmother, while there are further clasy turns by Pauline McLynn and genuine sixties icon Margaret Nolan (also filming her last role). Another one to watch is Synnove Karlsen as the queen bitch Jocasta.

Events turn disturbing in both past and present, twisting into a murder mystery/ghost story. There's a decent twist, with the story leading us down the wrong path, but it's hardly the most difficult one to guess and most people will get there before the big reveal. We're teased into thinking that Smith's Jack is still at large in the present day, but by casting him and Taylor-Joy Wright has two actors with such distinctive looks it's impossible to have anyone convince as their older selves. This, oddly, works in the story's favour, better hiding the contemporary characters' identities. Still, the film isn't going to win any awards for shocking heel-turns.

What it deserves awards for is atmosphere, combining the look, feel and sound of the sixties with a genuinely unsettling dreamscape. As the more stylised world of Ellie's dreams encroaches on her waking life, McKenzie's naturalistic performance becoming more heightened as her link to Sandie becomes more powerful. Spectacular style combines with some exceptional performances to make this one of the most potent films I've seen in a long while.

Sunday 14 November 2021

WHO REVIEW: FLUX Chapter Three - Once, Upon Time


Now that was by far the best episode of Doctor Who we've had in a long while. As much as I enjoyed last week's "War of the Sontarans" in the main, I wasn't as blown away with as some fans were. "Once, Upon Time," on the other hand feels like a genuinely new and interesting approach to Doctor Who, a dreamlike wander through the main characters' lives that raises as many questions as it answers. Crucially, though, it feels like we're finally getting somewhere, and there's a resolution coming, even as new elements are still being placed on the board.

While Chibnall's dialogue still includes some clunky exposition, particularly from the Doctor, on the whole the script is more polished, and both stranger and easier to follow than previous installments. Throwing the Doctor and her friends into their timestreams is a clever way to explore them and the ongoing plot, while setting up little hints of the upcoming story. Given the chance to play different roles as they step into other points in each other's lives, the actors are given a chance to really show what they can do. Whittaker and Gill are especially good in this respect, with Whittaker in particular showing just how naturalistic and charismatic she can be when given the right material. 

Jacob Anderson stands out in a different way. We don't really know him as Vinder yet, so having him appear as other characters doesn't have the same impact, especially considering he just poses as other soldiers. However, we finally get some exploration of who Vinder is, what his background is and what drives him. A noble soldier punished for doing the right thing, Vinder is a genuinely strong character, and while it's arguably too late in the day to give him focus like this, at least it's finally happened. Anderson is great given a chance to do more than simply react to things, giving a strong and subtle performance as the morally torn young man. In his flashback we also have some nicely sketched-in worldbuilding, as the Grand Serpent (a wonderfully selfish and grandiloquent Craig Parkinson) manipulates the politics of a distant part of the galaxy. I suspect we'll see more of him, and even after Vinder's story is done he could happily return as a villain for the Doctor to face.

Bishop isn't as good in his various roles, but he brings enough charm to the proceedings to make up for it and he gets more material to make Dan three-dimensional, after the fluff of episode two. He has strong chemistry with Nadia Albina's Diane, and all this hints that there's more going on with his character. Why else would the Ravagers abduct Diane to pressure him, and why is Joseph Williamson's plans on Dan's virtual doorstep so important? Dan seems far to proactive and ready a time traveller to just be some ordinary bloke. Perhaps his mysterious ex-fiance will be revealed as someone significant? Then again, perhaps not. Regardless, I hope this is all careful foreshadowing and not just sloppy writing.

The mystery of the Doctor's timestream is more interesting though. It's clever switching the Doctor in for a different version of her own character, with a genuinely surprising appearance by Jo Martin as the Fugitive Doctor, at a point presumably prior to the events of "Fugitive of the Judoon." We finally get a look at this Doctor working for the Division and being as ruthless as we've been told she is. The planet Time, under siege by the Ravagers, seems too visually similar to Gallifrey for it to be coincidence, and the Mouri too like the old image of the Time Lords as godlike beings ruling over time for it to be unintended. Perhaps the Time Lords usurped the Mouri, and they are now returning since the Time Lords are gone again? It's hard to be sure with all the jumping around time, but clearly there's a link there. More mysterious still is Barbara Flynn's character, seemingly a powerful but uncaring being who is bothered more by the Doctor's conduct than the end of the universe (or rather, "this universe," intriguingly). I'm plumping for the White Guardian, but that's just my fan brain trying to make links. Still, if the universe were ending, the Guardians would be expected to take notice.

Among the best things in the episode is the lovely Thaddea Graham from the sadly cancelled The Irregulars. She's likeable and impressive as the swift, smart and assured Bel, a survivor in the post-Flux universe linked, perhaps a little predictably, to Vinder. Facing down a platoon of Cybermen and sneaking past a phalanx of Daleks, she could give the Doctor a run for her money, and I suspect we'll be seeing an great deal more of her. On the subject of familiar monsters, I liked the use of Daleks and Cybermen as an aside, showing just how dire the situation has become with the universe on the brink and its most ambitious powers fighting over the rubble. Equally, there's some good use of the Weeping Angels, livening up Yaz's otherwise not-terribly-exciting scenes and reminding us of the mystery of Claire and her link to the Doctor. Are the Angels a threat or would they benefit from time being repaired? We'll see their gameplan next week. 

Easily the strongest episode of Doctor Who: Flux so far, "Once, Upon Time" balances the usual Doctor Who timey-wimey nonsense and silliness with an arresting mystery and some gripping scenes. It's a shot in the arm for the series and makes me look forward to episode four.

Saturday 13 November 2021

Marvel Review Round-Up: Eternals

So, although I've been watching all of Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as it's been released, I've not found time to sit down and review the films. Having just got back from watching Eternals, and with Black Widow and soon Shang-Chi up on Disney Plus for a rewatch, I'm going to work my way backwards along the films over the next few days. (Probably won't bother with What If? because, although it was great fun, I haven't much to say about it.)

Eternals has received some very mixed reviews, some absolutely scathing, others glowing, and I can completely understand that. It feels both very different to the rest of Marvel's films, yet at the same time just another in a long line of superhero films. The decision to hire Chloe Zhao to direct (and largely write) the film was an interesting one, and the greater creative freedom that Disney/Marvel are giving their directors can only be a good thing for the franchise's future (one of the better decisions that DC/WB made in its attempt to rival the MCU was to let directors have considerable creative control, and Marvel is finally following suit). There's a much slower, more melancholic feel to Eternals than to any previous MCU production and this gives helps it stand out. A film embracing the truly mythic side of Marvel's canon is overdue, with characters who have lived for millennia and literally world-shattering events granting a sense of scale that we really haven't seen before. The huge range of different location shoots helps as well (although I was pleased to see the film start in London's Natural History Museum, one of my favourite places). 

Yet it still feels somehow more of the same. Your mileage may vary, but I'd say the modern era of the superhero film began in 2000 with X-Men, although you could certainly push it back further if you wanted. Still, I'd say that was the start of the current run of hugely successful film properties based on, largely Marvel, comic series. That was twenty-one years ago. Even if you don't look further back to the many popular superhero films of the nineties, eighties and even seventies, that's a long time with a lot of movies packed in. The Eternals, in spite of being the alleged inspirations for various mythical heroes and gods, come across as just another superhero team. You've got the super-fast one, the zappy one, a couple with magical-type powers, the one with superstrength, flight and laser-eyes, who's explicitly likened to Superman... While some have more interesting and less common powers, notably Phastos who can build anything and create mechanisms from nowhere, it's still mostly stuff we've seen time and time again. 

Likewise, the fight scenes, although impressive, are the most standard Marvel the film gets, and while they're visually interesting, their style and magical graphics look too much like those scene in both Shang-Chi and Doctor Strange to stand apart. I get it, this is what magic looks like in the MCU, but could we not have some more visual variety? When fighting the Deviants, reimagined here as elaborate but mostly uninspired monsters, Eternals falls into the trap of looking like a video game, something that the MCU had largely managed to avoid so far. 

Which is a shame, because there's some wonderful stuff in here. The cast is both star-studded and truly impressive, while also being proudly diverse. Unlike the comics, which had largely white male Eternals in the main line-up, the film has a cast that involves people from various ethnicities, equally split down the sexes but largely focused on the women. We have a deaf actor in the form of the wonderful Lauren Ridloff, and finally some prominent gay characters in the MCU, and while half of this is getting cut for Middle Eastern and Asian releases (where they haven't banned it altogether) at least they're doing something. And look, this is, as far as I'm aware, the first time we've had Salma Hayek and Angelina Jolie together in a film, which is an incredible thing in itself. Both are absolutely brilliant, of course, still incredibly beautiful and playing powerful, noble characters who push the narrative in interesting directions.

Gemma Chan is very good as Sersi, although I feel she has relatively little to work with for the first half of the film. Once things kick up a notch she really gets to take a bit of the role. Oddly, she's already been in the MCU, painted blue as Minn-Erva in Captain Marvel, and clearly the PTB were impressed with her seeing that they brought her back so quickly. It's good to see a solidly strong actor finally get a major movie role. Standing out is Lia McHugh as Sprite, fifteen but playing someone eternally twelve/thirteen years old, but giving the role more depth and pathos than many adult actors I've seen in a long time. Whereas everyone in the cast is strong, not many of them really give the impression they've lived for seven thousand years; McHugh, in spite of being the youngest, manages it best. 

I particularly liked Don Lee as Gilgamesh, reinterpreting the legendary warrior in an entirely new way, and Bryen Tyree Henry as Phastos, the Enternals equivalent of Hephaestus, but my favourites are easily Kingo and his valet, Karun. Kumail Nanjiani is hilarious as the Eternal-cum-moviestar, and Harish Patel provides a much needed human touch. Obviously we're going to get sequels to this, but I really want to see a prequel with Kingo and Karun building a Bollywood career in the 1950s. Richard Madden is suitably inscrutable as Ikaris, but there's surprisingly little of Kit Harington as Dane. Hats off to them for resisting the urge to drop in some Game of Thrones jokes, especially when they were both there talking to a character called Sersi. Harington is very likeable, though, and the film sets up his inevitable return as the Black Knight, with a whole plotline that runs along in the background unseen. 

That's probably, though, where the film struggles the most. While the shout-outs to the MCU are some of my favourite moments, they feel weirdly detached from the rest of the film. Had this been entirely separate, it would have stood on its own merits more, but as it is, it feels like an uneasy insert into the existing continuity. The reason given for not interfering Thanos's assault on reality is slender. Sure, the Eternals have their prime directive which prevents them from interfering in human conflicts, but this falls down on numerous fronts. One, we see them interfering in other conflicts in human history, even though they agonise over it. Two, an alien invasion is scarcely an internal conflict. Three, they talk aboit how they helped Odin fight the Jotnar, which proves the point of number two. And four, gratingly at least for any fans of the comics, Thanos is a bloody Eternal so why the hell wouldn't they get involved with that? It's a small thing in relation with the film it itself, but it makes it hard to accept as part of the overall story.

Really, this is Eternals all over. There's so much in there that's good, but it doesn't quite gel together, finally giving us something that's enjoyable but ultimately unsatisfying for reasons it's hard to articulate. It's certainly too long, some of the dialogue is spectacularly clunky, but the real problems are deeper than that. It's a shame, because there's a lot to recommend it, but ultimately it's an also-ran in the MCU.

Friday 12 November 2021

REVIEW: REAL! A Ghostbusters Tale

It's under a week until the international release of Ghostbusters: Afterlife, the long-awaited return to the original Ghostbusters universe that began with that first film in 1984. If you can't wait to see some new Ghostbusters action, though, who you gonna call? 

You're going to head over to YouTube, where REAL! A Ghostbusters Tale received its online release on, of course, Hallowe'en, some clever timing that the official Ghostbusters marketers seem to have missed. REAL! is a Ghostbusters fanfilm, and it's far from the first, however it is easily one of the best made fan productions I've seen, in any fandom. REAL! is an Italian production, but don't worry, English subs are available if you're a cultural ignoramus like me. Eduardo Stoppacciaro is listed as creator and producer, stars in the film and also directs alongside Christian Calabretta, who wrote the script with Valerio Albasini di Giorgio.

An Italian Ghostbusters film is a new thing, and wow, is this Italian! Set in Rome itself, the directors and cinematographer Simone Schiralli make the most of the iconic architecture as they set the scene. It gives the film a wholly different flavour to any Ghostbusters production before, but this still feels very much authentically Ghostbusters. Set in the same continuity as the original two films, REAL! has a contemporary setting and runs with the idea - used in Extreme Ghostbusters and the upcoming Afterlife - that spectral sightings dried up after the main events of the films. Now, events in Rome are opening the gateway again, leading to three gents from a local university to become embroiled in the spirit world when they rent a flat that turns out to be haunted. 

Starring Marco Fumarola, Fabio Cavalieri alongside Stoppaccario, REAL! re-creates the set-up of the first film, but with new characters with their own dynamic. Stoppaccario plays Davide, and while he has something of the look of Egon, he's more of a charming jack-of-all-trades, and he gets the romantic subplot. Cavalieri is Simone, the spunky, sarky, overexcitable one of the group, while Fumarola is Ludovico, who's the mechanically-minded genius. Exposed to a horrible haunting, the trio contact Egon Spengler himself (voiced by Mario Cordova) who agrees to send them the specs of the 'busting equipment so they can build their own. Alongside the guys is Lidia Perrone as Susanna, the beautiful love interest who has secrets of her own, and Alessandro Budroni as the ultimate villain of the piece, the mystic Fulgenzio Ippolito Margano.

There are some fun nods to the silliness of the original. A favourite moment is the pointing out the miraculous engineering required to build a particle accelerator that fits on a backpack, as opposed to being several miles across as they are in reality. There's also a lovely mid-credits scene where the new 'busters recruit a secretary, played by Christiana Lionello, who must be a distant cousin of Janine Melnitz. 

However, with a name like REAL! you'd be expecting some kind of riff on The Real Ghostbusters, the single best animated of all time, yes? And you'd be right. While the film is very much in the world of the original film, most of the ghosts are fantastic recreations of the spooks that made up the RGB toy line from Kenner. For anyone of my generation they're a wonderful burst of nostalgia - they even have a cameo by everyone's favourite, the Bug-Eye Ghost (Afterlife stole their idea!). It can't be understated how impressive the effects are in the film. The ghosts are wonderfully realised, with something of the style of the original film's spooks, something of the CGI ghouls of the 2016 movie, and something of their own. As well as the joyful inclusion of ghosts familiar from the toy range, some of the more original manifestations are genuinely pretty creepy.

With a script that's genuinely funny, a deliciously spooky threat, clever ideas, great direction and incredible effects, REAL! A Ghostbusters Tale is an excellent addition to the ever-growing and beloved world of ghostbusting. 

You can watch the film for free here. Make sure you watch through the credits for some lovely treats for the fan community, too.

Thursday 11 November 2021

WHO REVIEW: FLUX Chapter Two - War of the Sontarans

 After the frenetic first episode, Flux settles down into something a little more focused. We're still very much in the "chuck stuff at the screen and see what sticks" stage of the proceedings, but there's more time spent on the individual settings so it actually feels like we have some story here rather than mere set-up. 

Having lost Bob Baker - creator of my two favourite fictional dogs - and enjoyed some online looks back at his Who career, it occurs to me that Chibnall is very like the Baker and Martin duo in his approach. He has excellent ideas and an eye for an arresting visual, but not always a solid idea of how to make a story work around these concepts. Chibnall's weaknesses are largely in dialogue, particularly exposition, and plot logic. Doctor Who has never been particularly big on plot logic, but the better stories have been the ones that can distract you from the lapses with wit and panache. Chibnall... doesn't always display those qualities.

I'm trying to get the negatives out of the way before focusing on the good side of this episode. It's one of the Thirteenth Doctor's best and some people are really raving about it, but when it's good like this the weaknesses just jar more. There's some shocking dialogue here, most notably the crashing exposition bombs from Dan and his parents. Dan actually comes out with a line like, "So she's a real historical character, but these Sontarans aren't?" Nobody speaks like that unless they're watching something like Doctor Who. Unless Dan is going to be revealed as some kind of metafictional viewer stand-in, and if he manages to pull that off then hats off to him, then this is just bad.

Equally there are some huge lapses in plot. The Flux, which apparently destroys everything, dumps the damaged TARDIS in the Crimea in the 19th century and plops her passengers down with it. Fine, no problem, it's not like everyone was going to die anyway and the Flux is still a mysterious and unexplained phenomenon. But then some other wibbly effect shifts Dan back home and Yaz seemingly randomly to the temple where Vinder has also appeared, and the Ravagers are infiltrating. Why send them all to the Crimea in the first place if you're immediately going to scatter them again? And why not at least try to throw in some technobabble and a reason for the coincidences into the script, just to pretend you care about plotting.

Jacob Anderson seems lovely but his character has yet to really do anything to make a mark. Was Vinder always in the mix here or did he replace someone else? Is he occupying Captain Jack's role now that Barrowman's persona non grata? Because his character is so generic right now he could be anyone a bit spacey. I hope he gets some proper material soon. At least Yaz is still benefitting from being the lead hero in her sequence. The temple stuff is pretty fascinating and looks incredible. I don't think I'm alone in assuming the Touri and the Planet Time will tie into the Doctor's secret origins, and I'm at least looking forward to finding out what that's all about.

The big triumph of this episode is the Sontaran intervention in the Crimean War. The visual of the Sontaran army battling the British in Sevastopol is wonderful, just the thing Doctor Who is made for. Sara Powell is rather perfect as Mary Seacole, another in this era's commendable line of female figures from history recreated by a talented actress. As with Nora Khan and Ada Lovelace before her, Seacole doesn't get enough time or exploration to really show why she was such a remarkable individual, but she works well as the latest one-off pseudo-companion. 

The newly-old Sontarans are spot-on. Dan Starkey still gets to play various clones, but it's Jonathan Watson as commanders Skaak and Riskaw who really steals it. A gruff Scotsman is somehow just right for a Sontaran warlord. It's gratifying that, while he's made the Sontarans into a major threat again, Chibnall hasn't forgotten that they're also funny. (The horse line is priceless.) 

On the other side, though, the stuff in contemporary Liverpool is pretty dire. Bishop remains thoroughly watchable, in spite of being lumbered with puns that made even me wince, but the plotting around it is totally sloppy. Sontarans mowing down British soldiers before being destroyed in a desperate act of vengeance? That's one thing. One Scouser taking out an invasion fleet with a wok? Taking things a bit far. Even Donna's "Back of the neck!" triumph didn't take things that far. There's also some massive logistical problems with the Sontarans invasion of time. Having them replace Russia and China in history raises huge questions but works, but when we drop into modern Britain the implication is that they've been ensconced as the rulers of Earth ever since. Yet we then learn they've only been there two days. In which time they've set up a national curfew and already generated a resistance movement. 

There's plenty that doesn't add up yet, but that's fine, we're still learning about the mysteries of the story. Things like this are frustrating though. It's a pity, because this is solidly entertaining, with Whittaker at her most Doctorish and some great moments. Yaz looking at her wrist and silently taking in her WWTDD note is perfect. She doesn't need to read it out and translate it; it's only later that Swarm spells out "What Would the Doctor Do?" for the five people in the audience who didn't get it, and this serves to reinforce how he is familiar with the Doctor and their effect on their companions. Chibnall can do it, so it's doubly frustrating when so much clunky material makes it through.