Tuesday 28 September 2021

I'm surprised and delighted

 So, with a few moments to catch up, let's reflect on the big news of the Doctor Who world: Russell T. Davies is coming back as showrunner. I think I can speak for pretty much everyone when I say that this is unexpected. After all, RTD stepped down as showrunner almost twelve years ago, with his involvement in Doctor Who's wider universe continuing just a few years further into the Moffat era, with Torchwood: Miracle Day and an instalment of The Sarah Jane Adventures. He did a few bits of extra material for the lockdown, novelised Rose, and has given Big Finish his earliest script submission for a dust-off, but essentially, it looked like he was done with Who.

And yet, he here is. Quite how the BBC persuaded him to come back is unknown, although I imagine a substantial amount of money was involved, but beyond that, it's not like he's struggling for work. RTD is, if anything, a hotter property now than he was in 2003, when the Beeb basically brought back Doctor Who just to get him on staff. One thing he's said before in interviews is that he'd come back if the series was in trouble, and I think we can probably assume that this is what's going through his mind. 

The degree to which the Chibnall era of Who is failing has been blown out of proportion. Series eleven did rather better than the two before it, and while the twelfth series hasn't fared so well, concerns over ratings dropping over the course of each season aren't so significant considering that this happens with every run, sometimes with an upturn for the finale, but not usually a major one. TV ratings have dropped across the board, with traditional television struggling in the face of high-budget streaming productions on Netflix and Amazon. That said, I think it's hard to argue that the series' writing hasn't gone downhill, or that public and fan perception of the series has deteriorated. Some of this is down to sexism against Whittaker's Doctor and the "anti-woke" backlash, and some of this is down to the fact that the series has been on for a long time now so simply isn't as fresh and interesting as it once was. 

Nonetheless, as much as I've enjoyed the recent series, the standard isn't as high as it once was. Chibnall, although full of excellent ideas (and I, in the main, like the Timeless Child reveal), isn't anywhere near as strong a writer as RTD or Moffat. There were always duff episodes in a season, but with fewer episodes each time, there's less room for filler. The six-part thirteenth series really has no excuse to be anything other than excellent, and it has to be said, bringing RTD back, with a big announcement before S13 has even started, suggests a lack of faith in Chibnall's approach on the BBC's part . 

The programme has become very inward-looking in recent years (with S11 being a noticeable outlier), like the original run did in the eighties, which is potentially alienating for the general audience. What RTD did back in 2005 was relaunch a programme that had largely been forgotten, and that was thought of by those who remembered it with mockery. (Except for us true believers, of course.) RTD made that show relevant again, reinventing it, ditching what didn't work and keeping the essentials, slowly drip-feeding the audience with the more outlandish and geekier elements as they were slowly converted. A new, modernised and streamlined approach is exactly what Doctor Who needs again.

Of course, RTD has done this once. Can he do it again? Series one to four were very of their time and the approach was running out of steam by the time Tennant and RTD left. A redo of this would be just as tired as the current series. However, this is Russell T. Davies we're talking about. In fact, this is his whole team, with Jane Tranter and Julie Gardner as well, both essential to Doctor Who's comeback in 2005. This isn't merely a BBC production now, but a co-production with Bad Wolf, their production studio, named for, of course, the running mystery phrase in that first series. Judging by such recent series including It's a Sin, Years and Years and A Very English Murder, though, RTD's work is better and more daring than ever, and with his own studio involved, he'll have more creative control than ever.

In other interviews, RTD has expressed a frustration at doing Doctor Who before the rise of the streaming TV phenomenon, saying how he'd approach it like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While I don't think we're really going to get spin-offs for Nyssa or Jo Grant (that's what Big Finish is for), a more serialised Doctor Who as part of a larger, interconnected universe could well be the order of the day. That said, RTD has spoken at length about how the workload of Doctor Who alongside its spin-offs (although the first two series of Torchwood were largely run by Chibnall, as it happens) nearly finished him. I hope he isn't taking on too much again out of his love for Who.

I assume the odds of Olly Alexander as the Fourteenth Doctor have been slashed again - although I'd still prefer Lydia West or Omari Douglas if we're going for a Sinner - but really, we have no concrete idea about what Doctor Who will look like when RTD takes back control in 2023. Exciting times again.

Tuesday 21 September 2021

TREK REVIEW: Lower Decks 2-1 - 2-3


2-1) Strange Energies

A very silly start to the second season, although not necessarily the funniest episode the show has given us. It's weird that Trek has never gone back to explore the phenomenon seen in the second pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” that gave Gary Mitchell his superhuman powers. TOS went back to the galactic barrier twice, but neither time did anyone get zapped with superpowers. (According to rumour the film that became Star Trek Into Darkness was going to feature him as the villain at one point, and the fan series Star Trek Continues ended with a two-part story revisiting the idea, but nothing official outside the books.)

Here, it's not the galactic barrier that gives Ransom his powers, but an alien monolith on the planet Apergos, which the Cerritos is visiting on a mission of second contact. Given how much happened in the finale of season one, not everything could be followed up in one short episode, but it's still a bit odd that the writers decided to give focus to Ransom, who's never really been a focal character. Still, it follows up on the new, improved relationship between Mariner and Captain Freeman, seeing their new found friendship straining and Ransom becoming jealous of the Captain's favouritism of her daughter. Having Ransom's godlike rampage tie into his jealousy and inferiority complex is a nice touch, and although he's not quite in his right mind, you have to say he gets off pretty lightly. Certainly better than Mitchell did.

Silly though it is, the super-Ransom storyline is pretty funny and far better than the B-plot, which sees Tendi act completely out of character. I'm glad they followed up Rutherford's memory damage straight away, but while Tendi has shown slightly obsessive and tone deaf behaviour before, her actions here are ridiculous and dangerous and just go a bit too far for a main protagonist to get away with, even in a comedy. Ransom has a reason for becoming a threat and acting out of character, but Tendi's behaviour is inexplicable.

I love the opening and closing scenes, with Mariner fighting Cardassians on the holodeck (I've missed those grey-skinned guys) and Boimler having a terrible time on the Titan. The bits in between aren't so great, but it's still a pretty fun episode.

Best references this episode: on the holodeck we see a bunch of recognisable ships, including the Miranda-class USS MacDuff, a Jem'Hadar fighter, Romulan Birds-of-Prey, several Bajoran ships, two Galor-class Cardassian ships, some Delta Flyer-styled shuttles and a TOS-style Klingon D-5 battlecruiser.

Best line: “You've got to get me out of here – they kept showing me lights!” (The Cardassian holo-programme references the classics.)

2-2) Kayshon, His Eyes Open

It's kind of weird the Lower Deckers have to shower together in the nip, isn't it? Pretty sure they could fit some doors and screens in their, even on a lesser ship like the Cerritos. They probably just do it to humiliate the ensigns and make sure they know their place.

Anyway, the apparent hook of this episode is that we have a Tamarian onboard, the new security officer Kayshon. As much as I like the idea of the character, learning how to fit in and speak intelligibly to the rest of the crew, there's actually very little done with the idea of a Tamarian in Starfleet. The episode is more focused on the hi-jinks in the Collector's Guild, where dozens of deadly references are stored to both threaten and amuse. For all the recognisable artefacts in the Guild, the funniest is the most original one, Kahless' fornication helmet. Still, setting much of the action in what's essentially a museum for Trek lore is a fun way of piling in those references, which are a big part of the appeal of the series for fans.

The B-plot of Boimler's struggle to get along in the more dangerous world of the USS Titan is a strong storyline, with poor Bradward totally unsuitable for this kind of mission (at least, so far). On the Cerritos, Jet Manhaver, who we met in “Cupid's Errant Arrow” in season one, looks set to be his replacement in the core group, but we know this isn't going to last. Following the Pakleds and the threat they pose is important, and I'm glad they're not treating the plotline as a one-off joke, but I'm also glad they're keeping most of that on the Titan, since the Pakleds would become boring quickly if they were the main focus of the series. It's fun to have some time with Riker, with Jonathan Frakes sending up his own performance in TNG, and ending the episode with Boiler getting duplicated just like Riker did back then is both one of the funniest references the series has given us, and a canny way to have their cake and eat it by having a Boimler adapt to life on the Titan and have him back in the main team on the Cerritos. Pretty solid episode all told, and it's good to have the gang back together.

Best references this episode: The Collector's Guild is absolutely packed with them, but the Excalbian bones being a way to melt your way out of trouble, the beacon from the SS Valiant, the flag of the Terran Empire and Odo's bucket are personal favourites. Just how did they get ahold of these things? The Collector's Guild is surely linked to Kivas Fajo from TNG: “The Most Toys,” but could also be a reference to Marvel's Collector. And did that giant skeleton belong to Spock's mega-clone from the TAS episode “The Infinite Vulcan?”

Best line: “I'm the transporter clone? Boo.”

Quibble: Boimler talks about “the D”: “They went to different dimensions, they fought the Borg – they insurrected!” But it wasn't the Enterprise-D that featured in Star Trek: Insurrection, it was the Enterprise-E.

2-3) We'll Always Have Tom Paris

I can only assume that Robert Duncan McNeill was nearby directing an episode of live action Trek or something similar, so was on hand to record his handful of words for this episode. For all the fanfare around having Tom Paris guesting on Lower Decks, they don't do very much with him.

Still, this episode is a lot of fun, making the most of Boimler's absence and return by having the ship's computer refuse to recognise him. This is the sort of aggravating system problem we've all experienced when we've joined a new company or been reassigned somewhere, but the script takes it to its absurd furthest conclusion, with Boimler desperately trying to make his way through a ship that doesn't acknowledge him so he can see his hero. Meanwhile, Mariner and Tendi get to spend some time together, getting to know ne anotehr properly at last on an adventure across the quadrant. It's about time they mixed up the usual pairings of the main characters, and the two women work brilliantly together. The mission to find Dr. T'ana's sex toy heirloom is one of the most enjoyable plotlines the series has run so far (turns out that Caitians have as much of a problem controlling their periodical urges as Vulcans).

Mariner always presents herself as an experienced but jaded space traveller who's on top of every problem she faces, but underneath she's a lot more vulnerable. Tendi, as we've glimpsed last season, is the opposite: endlessly enthusiastic, seemingly sweet and harmless, but absolutely relentless and tough as nails when she needs to be. Her scenes with her cousin, bullying him as the Mistress of the Winter Constellations, are fantastic. Tendi is, when written properly, probably my favourite character in the series. I like that she specifies that not all female Orions project mind-controlling pheromones – that clears up a lot of confusion – but she still has the males of her race wrapped around her little finger.

Shaxs's storyline is the oddest one, but perhaps the cleverest. Just pulling a mysterious resurrection for Shaxs might reduce the impact of his sacrifice last season, but it sends up that strangest of Trek clichés (indeed, sci-fi clichés) so well. Off the top of my head, I can count seven main Trek characters who've returned from actual or apparent death, and I'm probably missing some. That the Lower Deckers wouldn't be privy to the hows and whys makes perfect sense, and so does the idea that Shaxs wouldn't want to talk about it. Very silly and very funny, and however it happened, it's good to have Shaxs back.

Best references this episode: Mariner and Tendi's mission takes them to a bunch of familiar places, including Qualor II from TNG: “Unification,” Starbase Earhart and the Bonestell facility from TNG: “Tapestry” and one new location, an Orion pirate base. There's a branch of Quark's on Qualor; we saw one on Freecloud in “Stardust City Rag” on Star Trek: Picard, but that was set eighteen years after this. Evidently Quark sets up his franchise fairly soon after the end of DS9.

Shaxs's resurrection montage suggests everything from the Nexus to the Mirror Universe – even suggesting he's a holographic Shaxs who likes to dress like Moriarty.

Best line: “Oh, I'm always dating bad boys... bad girls, bad gender-nonbinary babes, ruthless alien masterminds, bad Bynars...”

Monday 13 September 2021

REVIEW: Back to the Future - The Musical!


This could easily have been terrible. I mean, we'd still have enjoyed it, the missus and I; we went to see the long-delayed West End performance of the musical for Suzanne's birthday, the original being her absolute favourite film and all. The thing is, when you adore something that much, even a naff cash-in will bring you some enjoyment. That's how the tie-in industry works. But even casual fans of Back to the Future have to admit that's it's an exceptionally good film. Sure, there are a couple of problems, but honestly, it's a near-perfect combination of a meticulous script and production. It would be extraordinarily difficult to do it justice on stage.

And yet, they've managed it. The BttF musical is an absolute blast. Song-wise, it's a bit of a mixed bag. There are naturally a few songs that were inevitably going to be in there: “The Power of Love,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Earth Angel,” even “Back in Time,” they're all in. There's some clever use of the main theme. Some of the songs really work, in particular Doc's song about dreamers – almost a companion piece to “The Rainbow Connection.” It's rather lovely. On the other hand, a lot of the songs are forgettable, ten-a-penny musical types. They serve their purpose to illustrate a scene then disappear. The only real clunker, though, is the bizarre opening number to the second half, an entirely pointless sci-fi song-and-dance that's clear filler. Overall, though, the songs work, they fit the scenes and, in many cases, help push the story's themes better than the dialogue alone.

The script is nicely done, a decent adaptation that keeps the best elements of the original while still offering something a bit different. There are some dialogue changes that purists might balk at, but at least it keeps things interesting – it's no fun if you can quote absolutely everything the first time you see it. The story's streamlined, with less jumping around locations and far fewer vehicles. There are no Libyan terrorists now, probably wisely, and while the skateboard chase is missed, it's understandable why, considering how hard it would be to make this work on a fairly small stage.

Altogether, though, the play is a visual and technical triumph. The combination of a complex movable set, ingenious props and dynamic and just-retro-enough video effects is spectacular. It's technically incredibly impressive, and it's never still, for even a single scene. Most impressive, though, is the DeLorean itself: a remarkable mechanical prop that drives, flies and appears out of nowhere to a familiar burst of light and sound.

It'd be nothing without a great cast, of course. Olly Dobson, who played Marty when the musical premiered in Manchester, is brilliant as the lead. He channels Michael J. Fox perfectly, and has great chemistry with the rest of the cast. Both his on-stage parents are spot-on too. Rosanna Hyland is excellent as Lorraine – somehow evoking Lea Thompson even more when she's playing the middle-aged version – but the most impressive is Hugh Coles as George. Making his West End debut, he gets George absolutely right, recalling Crispin Glover with uncanny skill.

Cedric Neal, who plays Marvin Berry and Goldie Wilson – the latter with an expanded role – is a scene-stealer, although he sadly doesn't give the “MaaAAAAAyyyooooorrrrr” that I was holding out for. Aiden Cutler makes Biff a more pathetic figure than in the film, a bit more sympathetic but still a root-against villain. Roger Bart, a recognisable face and a voice you'll have heard before, steals the show as Doc Brown. He wisely doesn't try to imitate Christopher Lloyd's performance – which would surely be doomed to failure – but instead gives us an inspired pastiche, somehow even more over-the-top than Lloyd's version. His performance is hilarious, but heartfelt, and he climbs an imaginary staircase as well as anyone I've seen.

The script, which was written by Bob Gale and Rob Zemeckis themselves, isn't as carefully crafted as the impeccable original, but is perhaps deeper, giving more time to the characters' relationships. We get a true sense of Doc and Marty's friendship that didn't fully come across until the final scenes of the first film, and Marty and George get more time to bond and get to know one another. Lorraine's incestuous infatuation with Marty is more intense, seeing as they can get away with slightly dodgier jokes now. Her infatuation with “Calvin Klein” is even reflected by Biff, who seems almost in love with Marty himself, he's so obsessed with facing him. One of the film's underlying themes, that “You can doo anything if you put your mind to it,” is brought to the fore and becomes a recurring motif. On the other side, there's a reflection on just how disappointing the twenty-first century has turned out to be, with Doc dreaming of a world with no poverty, no famine... no disease...

Silly, joyful, a touch satirical and full of energy, it's one of the most enjoyable musical's I've had the pleasure to see performed. Thoroughly recommended.

Wednesday 8 September 2021

Catching Up

 It's been a bit quiet on the blog of late, due to the amount of real life stuff I'm dealing with right now. Unfortunately, the day job is using up an awful lot of my energy lately, and combined with the amount of time I'm spending on my own mental health it's leaving me with less time and oomph to write.

With that in mind I've been trying to prioritise certain works above others, but that does mean both the blog and my Vocal projects have been a bit ignored. But there will be a whole bunch of reviews coming soon, and some new fiction too. In the mean time, I've got a selection of new articles and reviews over on Television Heaven:

That classic nineties puppet-based prehistoric satire, Dinosaurs;

The recently finished and absolutely delightful Atypical;

To tie in with the Paralympics, the beautiful historical TV film The Best of Men;

The powerful and heartbreaking It's a Sin;

The latest in my season-by-season overviews, Buffy S2 and The X-Files S6;

and some classic Doctor Who serials - The Ark, Vengeance on Varos and The Greatest Show in the Galaxy.