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.

Sunday 7 November 2021

Spooky Season

This October and into early November I cranked up the spookiness and wrote a bunch of reviews and a little fiction to celebrate Hallowe'en and the drawing in of the winter nights.

I've submitted a new, very short story to Vocal's Foggy Waters competition. You can read "Ginny" here. I also reposted my old story "Don't Drink the Water" as part of the contest since it coincidentally fit the criteria. 

Review-wise, I've written a bunch of new pieces for Television Heaven. As well as my regular installment of The X-Files (now onto the underrated eighth season) I've got Nigel Kneale's Beasts, What We Do in the Shadows (already a little out-of-date since season three has just been released in the UK) and children's classic The Trap Door. Plus we have two vampiric 1980s Doctor Who serials, State of Decay and The Curse of Fenric.

Please go an check them out, and I hope you enjoy. Spooky season isn't over, of course, as the new Ghostbusters film is out very soon and this has led to a surge in psychokinetic activity, so look out for more 'busters stuff soon too. Plus more Buffy, Doctor Who and a little bit of Trek.

Tuesday 2 November 2021

WHO REVIEW: FLUX Chapter One - The Halloween Apocalypse

Well, that was pretty good. It's hard to say how well it holds together yet, as part one of a six-part serial, the first such structure for decades. (The last time Doctor Who did a six-parter was 1979's TheArmageddon Factor, unless you count Shada's animated redos, but this is more comparable in length to the 12-part epic The Daleks' Masterplan in 1965-6.) 

To be honest, the episode was a bit messy, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing. It jumped all over the place, setting up elements then dropping them to move onto something else, but that's the job of a first part. No one complained when Game of Thrones visited half a dozen different groups of characters per episode with seemingly nothing to do with each other then forgot about half of them for weeks at a time. The proof will be in the pudding, as it were, when we're six weeks in and see if it makes any sense.

"The Halloween Apocalypse" gives us a few firsts. It's the first time we've had a proper overall title for a season since the series came back (the only time other than 1986's The Trial of a Time Lord, and that didn't have episode titles). Beginning series thirteen, it's the first time the Doctor number and series number have matched (unless you're working in a continuous run of seasons since 1963, in which case its season 39, and that's three thirteens so it still seems to fit). It's the first time the series has done a Hallowe'en special, although "The Waters of Mars" certainly felt like one.

It's not as if the episode really feels particularly Halloweeny, really. Other than the reliably spooky Weeping Angels, who had a brief appearance, nothing in this episode is especially ghostly or ghoulish, but then again, it's Doctor Who, so we still have plenty of monsters. And so many monsters! Everyone's turned up, it seems, or will be soon if the trailers and rumours can be believed. Like the Ten/Thirteen team-up in games and comics, there's a temptation to be cynical here: get some popular monsters from the series' heyday back to win back a few viewers. But wasn't it ever thus? Did anyone moan when RTD revamped the Daleks, the Cybermen and the Master for his new vision of the series? Hell, in "Rose," he practically recreated elements of Spearhead from Space shot-for-shot. 

Just the same, the tacked-on Hallowe'en element isn't really any different to the arbitrary Christmassy setting of "The Husbands of River Song" or the entirely pointless Easter egg scene in "Planet of the Dead." It's a hook, nothing more. It's, frankly, a poorer hook than "the universe is ending," as the Whoniverse encounters its own Crisis event that's wiping out planets everywhere. With that in mind, it seems justified that every monster is turning up. And hey, the Sontarans are back, looking like they did back in 1973. A direct update that remakes the classic look with modern methods and realism. More importantly, they're still funny, which is an important a part of what makes the Sontarans work as the clone armies and the probic vent.

I like John Bishop, and while he's hardly the greatest actor the show's ever hired, he's hardly the worst, and he does what he needs to: play the most Liverpudlian bloke in history and be jolly nice. It's interesting we've got an actually, genuinely poor person in the TARDIS, not another essentially middle-class companion. Dan (a fine name) is a decent sort in a shitty situation doing his best to help out and keep his chin up. 

I'm disappointed that we don't get more time with Jodie and Mandip running the show, though. An all-woman team in the TARDIS has never happened, so a Thirteen-Yaz team-up would be interesting to watch. The glimpse we get though, in the unapologetically silly opening, suggests they've been doing this for a while (there's the space for Big Finish's inevitable run of twelve boxed sets) between seasons. At last, Mandip gets to do something with her character, being proactive and impressive instead of just reacting and asking questions. Jodie seems more dynamic too, and I really feel we're missing out on not keeping the smaller TARDIS team for longer. Still, I like that Dan is the damsel in distress and that the two women have to come in and rescue him. 

As for the various new aliens... Karnavista is fun. I like that he's just an ordinary bloke doing a job he's not keen on but he's going to get it done, and the Doctor just keeps hassling him. The serious daffiness of an alien dog for every human dovetails into the reveal of the Flux, the infinity wave coming for the Earth. It's intriguing that Karnavista is, or was, part of the Division, which we'd assumed to be a purely Time Lord organisation.

As for our big bad... well, it's not Davros, in spite of every fan and his aunt's assumption because of the sunken eyes. Swarm (surely that name suggests a composite creature of some sort) is a gnarly skull-faced crystalline guy, apparently imprisoned by the Division donkeys ago. What do you want to bet the Doctor helped lock him up? Are we supposed to know who he is or where he's from? The first thing I thought was Eldrad, but that seems unlikely. Is Chibnall enough of a fan of the Eighth Doctor Adventures to link the Doctor back to the crystalline skeletons of the Council of Eight? Even more unlikely, but it would be hilarious.

Swarm gets out and goes on a little drive to Scandinavia, where he kills some guy who likes chillis and reverses the disguise of a human into his mate/sister/partner-in-crime, whatever, Azure. Swarm's intimidating enough, but the big reveal that the nice lady is actually another crystalline skeleton is a bit of a pointless twist. We don't care enough about her or her husband for it to mean anything, and we don't know enough about Swarm and Azure for the reveal to make an impact. When Ruth turned into the Doctor or O. was revealed as the Master, it was a shock, because the characters had been built up enough and the reveal meant something. This is just... stuff happening.

Claire's story is more intriguing. It's a pretty straightforward update of “Blink” so far, except that we're seeing it from the Doctor's perspective instead. We've a full-on Weeping Angels episode coming, so we'll find out some more then, but right now, it was an effective little tease. Is Claire perhaps being set up as the next companion? We've also the weirdness of Dan's crush Diane being abducted by Swarm and Azure with what seems like some vengeance in mind. This all suggests something much bigger underneath what we're seeing. Everyone has secrets this season, it seems. Is Dan just being cool when he jokes he has a mate with a TARDIS bigger than the Doctor's, or is he hinting at something?

“The Halloween Apocalypse” is, essentially, a string of set pieces introducing various characters and settings. Not much to say about Vinder yet except we know he's going to be a major character. We've still got the real-life mystery of the tunnels under Liverpool's Edge Hill, the promise of Mary Seacole next week and a Sontaran invasion in the offing. So far, it's largely style without substance, but that's OK for a opening episode. It's all flavour. We just have to see if the resolution backs it up.