Monday, 14 November 2022

R.I.P. Kevin Conroy - the late, great Batman



This is hardly the only piece you're going to read about Kevin Conroy this week.

The actor died on 10th November from a short, intense battle with cancer, aged only 66, and in the couple of days since the news broke, tributes to him have flooded the internet. Conroy was one of those rare performers who seemed universally admired, and it seems that no one has a bad word to say about him. Fellow performers, notably Mark Hamill (the Joker to his Batman) and other noted voice actors such as Tara Strong and Matthew Mercer, industry creatives such as James Gunn (new DC screen head honcho) and Paul Dini (the creator of Batman: The Animated Series) have been outspoken in their admiration. But it's the outpouring of love from the fans that says it all.

Conroy wasn't just Batman, of course. He appeared in front of the camera in shows ranging from Cheers to Kennedy, and in voice roles as various characters across his career, his last work being on the revived Masters of the Universe. None of these roles, however, will ever come close to being as fondly remembered as his time as Bruce Wayne.

I was six when Batman: The Animated Series began, exactly the right age for the seminal series. It is rightly regarded as one of the greatest animated series of all time, and certainly the greatest superhero cartoon. Heavily influenced by the dark fairytales of the Tim Burton films and the almost art deco style of the Fleischer Superman cartoons of the 1940s, Batman: TAS had a haunting, timeless art and music style that immediately captured the imagination. Combined with remarkably mature but accessible writing and some truly great voice performances, Batman: TAS is the definitive version of Batman for a generation.

This was, in no small part, down to Conroy's note perfect performance in the lead role. His gravelly voice was reassuring as Bruce-about-town, commanding as Bruce when on-mission, and powerful as Batman when facing his enemies. He gave the role a subtlety that many actors would not have bothered with for a children's series. Such was his acclaim and popularity in the role that he continued to be the primary voice for animated Batman productions and video games almost through to his death, from the follow-ups Superman: The Animated Series and The New Batman Adventures, the elder Bruce Wayne in Batman Beyond, cinematic and home video movies from the great Mask of the Phantasm to the dark, adult-oriented The Killing Joke, and the acclaimed Arkham Asylum game series. There have been other great Batman voice actors, but none have ever really approached Conroy's stature. It was beyond time when he finally got to play the character in live action, portraying the elderly Bruce of Earth-99 on Batwoman as part of 2019's Crisis on Infinite Earths event.

It's no accident that when James and Scott created their World's Greatest Detective audio series it was hugely influenced by Batman: TAS, with Terry Cooper often sounding uncannily like Conroy in his performance as Batman.

Conroy came out as gay in 2016, after facing years of hostility within the industry in his early career. He wrote the comic story “Finding Batman,” an acclaimed piece in which he explored his own years behind a metaphorical mask, in this year's DC Pride Anthology. DC have made the strip available for free on their website (you'll need to sign up for a free account to read it).

It may seem odd to take to heart the loss of an actor whose face I hadn't even seen until a few years ago, but to me and many others of my generation, Conroy was Batman, the most iconic incarnation of the most iconic superhero.



Sunday, 9 October 2022

A real life update

Afternoon all. It's been a while since I posted anything, so I thought it was about time I checked in and gave an explanation.

To start with, in August my laptop gave up the ghost completely, and since I can't really afford a new one right now I've been slumming it with an old lend and using phone or tablet, none of which is terribly suitable. I've also been tremendously busy, not least of which was preparing for the birth of my first child.

Suz gave birth to our daughter Astrid on 9th September and since then pretty much everything has revolved around her. However, I do plan to get back to some writing in the near future so keep an eye open. As has been the case lately, the bulk of my work will be for Television Heaven (with some potential new developments to the site) but I'll keep updating here with new material too. 

Right, with that I'm back to feed my beautiful one-month-old girl.

(And yes, she's at least partly named after the Fringe character, and we have not missed the fact that her name is an anagram of TARDIS).

Friday, 5 August 2022

RIP Nichelle Nichols

 


After only days, we've lost another one of the greats. Nichelle Nicholas has died, aged 89.

Nichols will always be best known for her role as Uhura on the original Star Trek series, which she returned to for the animated follow-up, the first six Trek movies and fan productions including First Frontier and Of Gods and Men. While Uhura's role in most episodes was fairly small, her position on the bridge of the Starfleet ship as communications officer was groundbreaking for American television at the time. With her understated performance and captivating singing voice, Nichols made Uhura a fan favourite, as well as inspiring a generation of black women. Whoopi Goldberg has spoken frequently about how she was inspired by Uhura's presence on the bridge as a black woman on TV “who ain't no maid!” Dr. Martin Luther King famously encouraged Nichols to stay on the series when she was considering leaving, aware of the positive effect her presence was having on the image of black people in an inclusive future.

Dr. Mae Jemison, the first black woman to travel to space, cited Uhura as an inspiration for her choice of career. Indeed, Nichols was recruited by NASA as a spokesperson to help bring women and BAME people into the agency, which remained almost entirely white and male in the 1970s. Among her recruits were Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, and Charles Bolden, later the NASA Administrator.

Zoe Salana and Celia Rose Gooding, who play Uhura in the Kelvin Timeline Star Trek movies and the new Strange New Worlds series respectively, and Sonequa Martin-Green, Burnham on Discovery, have spoken about how they would be unlikely to have the careers they have without Nichols and her example. They continue to promote the inclusion of BAME women not only in film and television, but also in STEM careers as their characters continue to show this as a desirable career path for women and people of colour.

Beyond Star Trek, Nichols appeared in such series as Heroes, Gargoyles, and Batman: The Animated Series, and films such as Lady Magdalene's and Snow Dogs.



Thursday, 28 July 2022

RIP David Warner and Bernard Cribbins

 

It's been a crushingly sad week for generations of viewers of film and television, as two of our most beloved actors have gone.

David Warner




died on the 24th of July, five days shy of his 81st birthday. One of my very favourite actors, possessed of one of the most distinctive and classy voices in the business, Warner was one of the most identifiable and prolific actors of the late twentieth century.

Sci-fi and fantasy fans will recognise him most. Iconic roles in The Omen (where he famously lost his head), 1984's A Christmas Carol (as Bob Cratchit), Tron, The Man with Two Brains, Time Bandits and The League of Gentlemen's Apocalypse. He appeared in Star Trek three times: rather wasted as disgraced diplomat St. John Talbot in Star Trek V, before he was brought back as the noble Klingon chancellor Gorkon for its sequel. He then starred as the sadistic Gul Madred in an electrifying two-hander performance opposite Patrick Stewart in “Chain of Command,” a two-part story for The Next Generation.

He was disproportionately cast in villainous roles, ironically considering that no one seems to have a bad word to say against him. He was none other than Jack the Ripper in Time After Time (in spite of the obvious fact that he would have made an excellent H.G. Wells), and had memorable appearances in horror films from The Company of Wolves, In the Mouth of Madness and the lead villain in Waxwork.

Warner was never shy of taking on voice work that other actors would consider beneath them. He was an everpresent voice of my childhood, lending his ever-so-English voice to villains in Batman: The Animated Series (as Ra's al Ghul), Mighty Max (as Talon), Men in Black: The Series (as the evil Agent Alpha) andd Freakazoid! (as the Lobe). He was a recurring voice in the 90s Spider-Man, Gargoyles (with many Trek alumni) animated series and even voiced a magical tree spirit in Jim Henson's Dinosaurs.

His best vocal work, though, was with Big Finish, for whom he played many, many roles, from Mycroft Holmes to Isaac Newton to the Doctor himself, portraying alternative Third Doctor in the Doctor Who Unbound series. One of my favourite portrayals of the Doctor, he was so popular he got a sequel and eventually was brought back to star opposite Lisa Bowerman in the latest Bernice Summerfield series, with the two of them, I was surprised and delighted to just learn, becoming an item. Warner didn't appear onscreen in Doctor Who until 2013's “Cold War” as a Soviet scientist opposite Matt Smith, but he has already recorded BF's 60th anniversary release with Christopher Eccleston, who has professed himself a huge admirer of Warner's. I hope this is one last turn as the Unbound Doctor. He was even Merlin in a wonderful BBC radio series, playing him pretty much exactly as he played the Doctor – and, well, you know they're one and the same.

There are still plenty of his appearances I have yet to see, such as Van Helsing on Penny Dreadful to the Monster in 1984's Frankenstein TV movie. Sadly, I never got to see him in any of his many stage performances, for he was also one of the classic Shakespearean actors. I never met him, but I am fortunate to be only a couple of steps away from him: my mother knew him a little, back in the day, describing him as a very nice, very shy man. A great loss.


Sir Bernard Cribbins



died this week at the remarkable age of 93. An even more recognisable face than Warner's and television's most comforting presence, Cribbins was acting, singing and performing for eighty years. Bringing himself out of a background of considerable poverty, he went on to become one of the most beloved actors for generation after generation of children, a love that never left anyone as they sadly had to grow up.

He'll always be best known as the voice of The Wombles and the greatest, most prolific reader Jackanory ever had, but he was a face in so many more screen roles. The Railway Children, multiple Carry Ons, a bit of Corry and as the fake hotel inspector in one of the very best episodes of Fawlty Towers, all these showed a great and versatile acting talent.

Of course, he was also a familiar face for Doctor Who fans, appearing as two entirely separate companions. Firstly, as policeman Tom Campbell with Peter Cushing in Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 AD on the big screen, and almost four decades later as Donna's grandad Wilfred Mott opposite David Tennant on the TV. Like Warner, he was working till the end, and will appear opposite Tennant and Catherine Tate again in the BBC's 60th anniversary special (how wonderful both actors got to appear specials for the anniversary, and how sad that they won't get to experience them).

Still, my most beloved bit of Bernard is his two hit singles, “Hole in the Ground” and the truly spectacular “Right Said Fred.” For these alone he shall never be forgotten.

Thursday, 14 July 2022

REVIEW: Thor: Love and Thunder

This review contains spoilers for Love and Thunder and just a brief one, in passing, for Ms. Marvel. On a related note, I swear I'll get those reviews of Shang-Chi and Black Widow up before they're two years out-of-date.



Wednesday, 6 July 2022

REVIEW: The Orville 3-5: "A Tale of Two Topas"

SPOILERS FOR EPISODE FIVE 


The Orville: New Horizons continues to deliver relevant surprising and important stories in its revitalised third season. The five episodes released so far have, on the whole, been excellent. After the powerful season opener, “Electric Sheep,” “Shadow Realms” built on the Krill-Union storyline while delivering an effective sci-fi horror story. Episode four, “Gently Falling Rain,” was a thriller with spectacular visuals, strong action and some genuinely touching moments. Further developing the Krill storyline, it commented on political popularism, while briefly taking a swipe at the abortion debate and religious extremism on the whole. Only the third episode, the throwaway “Mortality Paradox,” failed to really make an impact; obvious filler that isn't really about anything.

With episode five, though, the series reaches its zenith with the controversial and beautiful “A tale of Two Topas.” Once again, the series delves into the long-running storyline concerning the Moclans, their contentious culture, and their strained relationship with the rest of the Union. This kicked off right back at the very beginning of the programme, in episode 1.3, “About a Girl,” which introduced the truth of the Moclan civilisation: that although they are seemingly a world entirely of gay men, who can and do reproduce with each other, hatching baby boys, females of their species do exist. When Lt. Cmdr Bortus (Peter Macon) and his civilian husband Klyden (Chad L. Coleman) have a baby girl, the two men fall out over the decision to have her surgically altered into a boy, the standard Moclan practice.

That episode didn't quite come off, in spite of its lofty ambitions, in part because it tried to address too many issues at once. Nonetheless, it was impactful, and the consequences for Moclan culture continued in the later episode, “Sanctuary” (2.12), further exposing the existence of Moclan women. Bortus and Klyden's relationship also suffered, coming to a head in 2.2, “Primal Urges,” while Moclan culture's misogyny was further explored in 2.7, “Deflectors,” where Lt. Keyali entered a forbidden relationship with a Moclan man. These episodes managed better than “About a Girl” by focusing their stories on particular elements of the Moclan debate, hitting home harder as a result.

The Orville has continued to improve as it has developed and moved further from its comedy roots, and “A Tale of Two Topas” is once again an affecting, meaningful sci-fi story told straight. In the few years since “About a Girl,” Topa has grown into an adolescent (alien races always being a handy way to move quickly past the infant stage on TV). Now played by fifteen-year-old Imani Pullum, Topa is old enough to have decided that he wants to join the Union fleet and has begun shadowing Commander Kelly Grayson (Adrienne Palicki) as part of his preparation. The boy remains completely unaware that he was surgically altered as a child, or that he was born physically female, but still feels that there's something wrong with him.

Pullum, a very new actor, is excellent in her scenes as Topa. The young Moclan is very clearly depressed, something that comes through more in his demeanour than his words or actions. There's a visible weight on his shoulders; it's a remarkably strong and subtle performance. Palicki, who doesn't always have a great deal to challenge her on the show, is also very good as Grayson. We see, during Topa's shadowing, how much of her day-to-day work involves trying to keep the crew, made up from multiple different species, rubbing along together. There's a rare outright comedy scene early on where Grayson has to confront an alien crewman who refuses to wear clothes on the first day of the month, according to his religion's dictates. It's silly, but sets the theme of the episode of cultural clashes. Unlike with the naked crewman, who is persuaded to compromise by wearing pants, there is no easy resolution to the Moclan situation. (Although it would have been even simpler to give him the first day of the month off so he could be naked as he liked in his quarters, but I digress.)

Grayson is torn between her moral need to tell Topa the truth and save him misery, and her responsibility as first officer to maintain the peace and honour the decision that was made on Moclus. It's well played by Palicki, who hold her own as one of the focal actors of the episode.

Topa's depression worsens, in spite of Kelly's mentoring, and he begins to ask Isaac – the recently suicidal android – what it's like to be dead. For a horrifying moment I feared that the season opener was going to be followed up by another, irreversible suicide, but that, while sadly all too believable, would have been devastating. With this added pressure, Grayson helps Topa discover the truth, with the help of another, unknown party who provides access to protected files. What follows is the inevitable, but cathartic, confrontation between Topa, and, well, everyone in her life, all of whom kept the truth from her. She is most furious at her fathers, but also feels deeply betrayed by Grayson. Topa declares that she wishes to be female, her true self, and by this time Grayson, and soon others, have begun referring to her with she/her pronouns, the switch happening almost without notice, it seems so natural.

Bortus and Klyden's relationship is brutally wounded by this turn of events. Bortus had long been the one who championed Topa's right to live as she was born, but agreed to abide by the Moclan government's decision. The wedge this drove between the husbands seems to have just about healed by this point, but is reopened violently. Bortus is revealed as the one who supplied Topa with the password needed to access the files, while Klyden is as resolutely anti-female as he ever was. There's an additional level to Klyden's hatred of women, which has been tolerated as a cultural difference for too long: as was revealed back in “About a Girl,” he too was born female, and was altered. Only Klyden now reveals he wishes he had never known about his “defect,” and that he is merely trying to spare Topa the same pain.

While this paints Klyden in a more sympathetic light, there is never any chance he is going to be portrayed as right here. Bortus is torn up by the situation, breaking down in tears in a truly heartbreaking moment when he opens up to Kelly about it. Macon, who so often has to play the Moclan officer as stoic and resolute, is absolutely incredible in this scene. From here there is some debate among the command crew over what to do with Topa, who wishes to undergo gender reassignment surgery to undo the change that was made to her without ther consent. This only requires the permission of one parent, and Bortus consents, but Captain Mercer (Seth MacFarlane) is worried about the reaction from the Moclans. Predictably, the Union Council refuses to allow the procedure, fearing that the Moclans will pull out of the Union when their help is needed against the twin threats of the Kaylon and the Krill.

The episode could have ended like this, with the decision of those in power overruling that of the person who is suffering, as is so often the case in real life. However, the crew find a loophole that allows the operation to be completed without implicating the Union. Really, though, I doubt the Moclans would have ever gone through with their threat to secede from the Union: like Klyden, while their beliefs are strong, they are full of sound and fury but ultimately weak.

After her operation (far, far simpler and quicker than in reality, but then, isn't that what we hope for such things?), Topa once again has a body that aligns with her identity. Aided by only subtle changes in make-up, Pullum once again impresses by making this version of Topa clearly female where appeared male before. Again, the subtlety of her performance is astounding. While it's a happy ending, there's still a sting, as Klyden, appallingly, disowns his daughter, saying he wishes she'd never been born, abandoning her and Bortus. Again, all too believable.

The genius of the Moclan storyline has always been how closely it reflects debates in real life, but then puts them into sharp focus by inverting them. While on 21st century Earth, people in same-sex relationships still face discrimination, either illegally or enshrined in their country's law, the Moclans are all homosexual men, save for a few who are treated as pariahs. Topa pleas not just for gender reassignment surgery, but what is really a “de-transitioning.” This could have gone badly wrong had the episode not been written and performed as well as it was, ending up backing the common, but entirely false, claim that many transgender people regret their surgery. Instead, it's presented in the same way as the Moclans' sexuality: how dare you be straight! How dare you be cisgender!

The only element that aligns directly to real life is the Moclans' misogyny, which is all too common, and indeed a fundamental part of some cultures' ruling regimes. In “About a Girl” this veered close to xenophobia and racism, but here it's handled with more care. Still, it's hard not to agree with Mercer when he asks “How long do we put up with this?” Some cultural views are so aborrent to outsiders that it seems there can be no compromise. However, by refusing to engage with each other, there can be no learning. Still, it remains an element with a strong parallel in the 21st century.

A risky episode then, but one that comes off with great success, thanks to the skilled writing and direction of MacFarlane, and the performances of Palicki, Macon, Coleman and, above all, Pullum.



Wednesday, 29 June 2022

Forgotten Lives 2 - now available to pre-order!

I am very excited to announce that Forgotten Lives 2, the follow-up to 2020's fantastic Forgotten Lives anthology, is now available to pre-order from Obverse Books


Forgotten Lives collected eight stories, one for each of the so-called Morbius Doctors, mysterious regenerations of Doctor Who briefly glimpsed in the Tom Baker serial The Brain of Morbius, and since reinforced by the controversial retcons of "The Timeless Children." 

The second volume brings back the original authors and more, with each of these incarnations having new adventures and enjoying more fascinating exploration. Discover untold chapters of the Doctor's long life, experience new worlds and even glimpse a regeneration or two...

I am very  pleased to have been chosen to write for this collection by editor Philip Purser-Hallard (creator of the remarkable City of the Saved stories). I have contributed "The First Englishmen," an adventure for Morbius Doctor #3, who looks like 20th century TV producer Christopher Baker, and his mischievous children. Of my various silly little Doctor Who stories, this is one of my favourites. I've read the proof of the book, and I have to say, it really is a tremendously strong collection.

All proceeds from Forgotten Lives 2 will be donated to UK Alzheimer's charities. Be sure not to wait too long - the book is set to be released on August 8th 2022, and is only available by pre-ordering. Once these orders are in and they've been published, that'll be it.

Eight Doctors, sixteen authors, twenty-four stories, and a wonderful cover by the fabulous Cody Schell, Forgotten Lives 2 is available to pre-order from Obverse Books at this link right here.

Friday, 24 June 2022

New reviews on Television Heaven

 After something of a hiatus, I am back on a more regular footing with my reviews. (Big things occurring in real life I'm afraid, you know how it is). As such, there are a whole bunch of new reviews up on Television Heaven:


The X-Files comes to a close with its tenth and eleventh seasons - the revival years.

Buffy season four and Angel season two keep us moving in the Buffyverse.

Another long-running season-by-season review begins with DC's Legends of Tomorrow.

And a mere six months after Christmas, here's the David Tennant version of Around the World in 80 Days.


While you're there, check out these great reviews of Picard season two and Philip K. Dick anthology series Electric Dreams by John Winterson Richards.


Lots more to come in the near future!

Tuesday, 21 June 2022

REVIEW: Jurassic World Dominion

 


I don't really get the poor reviews Dominion is getting. I can absolutely agree that a sixth film in the franchise was unnecessary, but then, no sequels were ever really necessary or could hope to match the original Jurassic Park. Even Chrichton's The Lost World struggled to justify its existence in that respect, and the film version even more so. Dominion is about making a comment on the modern world and the commodification and exploitation of science, and the lengths to which those on the top of the capitalist world will go to to ensure their own dominion. That's what it's about, but it's not what it's for. It's there because we want to see characters we like running away from dinosaurs, because that is entertainment.

So no, I don't get the vitriol, because Dominion kept me thoroughly entertained throughout. On a purely visual level, there were elements here that surpassed anything that has gone before in the Jurassic Park saga. The raptor chase through Valetta – utilising the Atrociraptor mainly, I feel, for the cool name – is a fantastic juxtaposition of visuals and a truly breathtaking action sequence. Sights of dinosaurs sloping into town, a Brontosaurus blocking a highway because it just doesn't know where it's found itself, are beautiful (and far more effective than the T. rex-does-Godzilla attempt of The Lost World). The impossibly vast Quetzalcoatlus – inflated beyond even the giraffe-sized creature's natural scale – providing a hazard to aircraft is what this series is all about. Plus, we finally had proper feathered dinosaurs, the imaginary science of the films catching up with the real science of palaeontology, which has revolutionised our understanding since the novel was originally published.

It was fitting for the film to bring back the original three leads of Jurassic Park. I've said it before, but it's never really, truly a Jurassic Park film without Sam Neill as Dr. Alan Grant (one of the reasons I have a soft spot for the much maligned Jurassic Park III). Some viewers disliked that Grant, now old, bearded and solitary, is a rather lost figure at the beginning of the film, but it's absolutely fitting that he would gravitate back to the familiar world of fossil hunting, the last bastion of the world before dinosaurs walked again. He retains strong chemistry with Laura Dern's Ellie Satler, who gets to shoulder most of the trio's half of the film. Satler was always the most impressive of the characters when it came to surviving in the Park, and it's only right that she gets much of the limelight here.

Having been wasted in a cameo in Fallen Kingdom, Jeff Goldblum gets to play Dr. Ian Malcolm for real again. While he does, as always, play himself, Goldblum is able to make Malcolm into a character again with a genuine reason to be involved, instead of just a celebrity stop-off of quirky delivery. This half of the film, which stays resolutely away from the other side for much of the runtime, gives the old guard a chance to shine, without the newbies overshadowing them. There's able support from Mamoudou Athie as Ramsay Cole, the turncoat PA and communications head at Biosyn, who puts in a classy performance. Making Lewis Dodgson the villain was a clever idea. While it was a shame to have to recast him (but look, no one is going to work with Cameron Thor, if he was even out of prison in time to film it), Campbell Scott makes for a suitably nefarious billionnaire. Linking him back to the character who was barely seen but was ultimately behind the chaos of the first film is a great touch, especially since Dodgson was such a major character in the novels. Here, he comes across as less of a scientist than in the books, and more an evil Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk. Which is to say, a Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk.

Frankly, the classic characters overshadowed the Jurassic World crew. Chris Pratt still remains a likeable presence as Owen Grady, but by now his Velociraptor whisperer schtick is getting a bit old. Still, he handles the action scenes excellently and has great chemistry with Isabella Sermon. As the teenaged clone Maisie Lockwood, Sermon steals her scenes: a gobby, angry posh girl with an entirely justifiable chip on her shoulder due to her unique and unexplained past. Bryce Dallas Howard does well as Claire Dearing, especially in her action scenes where she portrays a tangible desperation (the slow escape from the Therizinosaurus is one of the most nail-biting moments in the franchise), she lacks chemistry with Sermon and, surprisingly, with Pratt.

DeWanda Wise, on the other hand, has palpable chemistry with Pratt. So much so, in fact, that the only way to keep her character Kayla from falling into Owen's arms is to make her gay. Kayla could be a stock action film character – she's a daredevil pilot, a criminal finding her principles again, etc. – but Wise has enough charisma to carry the part off and make her a success.

Are there problems? Of course there are. While keeping their storylines linked but separate for so long helps, the film does feel overstuffed two sets of heroes: six adult leads and one child is a lot to juggle. This means some elements feel a little cut short: Grant and Satler's revival of their relationship seems a bit forced, and Maisie's discovery of her mother is swamped by the many other elements jostling for attention. The monstrous locusts work as an immediate threat, but not a world-ending catastrophe. Surely even a company as powerful as Biosyn would be investigated if their crops were the only ones not being threatened by this sudden and impossible strain of genetically-engineered insects?

The fight between the Giganotosaurus and T. rex is presented as being a climactic moments, but neither has had much impact on the film by that point, and so feels unearned. While there's something more to it if you know that this is the same T.rex Grant, Satler and Malcolm faced in the original film, nothing is made of this in the film itself. In the end, I was cheering more for the poor, blind, herbivorous Therizinosaurus than either apex predator, but the final fight fell flat. The similar battle between T.rex, Indominus rex and the Mosasaurus, that this was clearly meant to evoke, worked far better, even if it was more far-fetched (even the utterly mismatched Spinosaurus vs. T.rex fight in JPIII was better).

There are some huge logistical problems with the set-up, of course. Supposedly, all these dinosaurs are roaming loose after they escaped from the house at the end of Fallen Kingdom – really, all of them? Even the Brontosaurus that clearly couldn't have fit in there? Even the Mosasaurus that lives in the bloody sea? Dr. Wu's redemption is nice, but far too easy, with the final end of the film feeling anticlimactic.

In spite of those hard-to-swallow pieces, this was a cracking dinosaur movie. Anything that presents a dinosaur black market, complete with dinosaur smugglers and trained raptor attack dogs, in the bowels of the Maltese capital, with a truly gorgeous, beaten-up old Carnotaurus as the main attraction, is a winner in my book.


Thursday, 16 June 2022

WHO REVIEW: Wink (Out of Time 3)




The third, and officially final, release in Big Finish's Out of Time series (although I'd be astonished if Tennant doesn't return with McCoy, McGann or Even Eccleston in the future), is "Wink," a clever response to the 2007 classic "Blink" and subsequent stories featuring the Weeping Angels.

Having faced the Daleks with his fourth incarnation and the Cybermen with his fifth, you might expect that the Tenth Doctor would face another classic Who monster alongside his sixth self. However BF instead pit them against the Angels, further  cementing their status as the top monster created for the revived series. It's not the first time BF have used the Angels, and they still seem a difficult and strange choice for audio.  Lisa McMullin's "Wink," though, utilises them in a genuinely inventive and effective way. 

The story sees both Doctors arrive on Lucidus Silvara, a planet that is bathed in all-encompassing white light that blots out everything else, rendering anyone who arrives there essentially blind. The colonists on the planet have therefore developed into a civilisation that doesn't even have a concept of sight. McMullin puts real thought into how such a society might function, including a fascinating art gallery based entirely on immersive soundscapes. The people's use of a vague, undefined sense called "intuit" is a bit of a handwave though. Props, though, for crafting a script in which the dialogue is as natural as it is here, without any of the "point and describe" style that Big Finish so often falls victim to.

Such a place would seem like a perfect hinting ground for the Angels, but it's more complex than that, and the beings are fleshed out in some interesting ways. The Angels have been drastically overpowered in return appearances, but "Wink" makes some of the these abilities a strength, notably including their use of a dead victim's voice in a far more dynamic and effective fashion than originally managed in "Flesh and Stone." We're also given a fascinating insight into the Angel's reproduction, a cleverly high-concept development from their previously seen abilities. 

Putting the Sixth and Tenth Doctors together was bound to result in something of a stand-off. Pitting the Sixth Doctor against the only incarnation who's more full of himself than he is could have been explosive, but Six behaves with remarkable restraint. Baker gives a strong performance, while Tennant occasionally veers into the self-parody he was guilty of in his alter episodes. It does lead to some fun sniping between the two incarnations, who are more similar than they might like to admit. 

Together with fine support from Joanna van Kampen and Ayesha Antoine as one-off companions Estra and Padilla, and Clive Hayward as the Angel Dax, "Wink" works very well and is ultimately the strongest of the Out of Time line. 

Placement: The Tenth Doctor appears to be on his runaway side-trip between The Waters of Mars and The End of Time, but isn't spouting on about Time Lord Victorious stuff so probably nearer the latter. For the Sixth Doctor, more uncertain, although Ten gives him the idea of dressing in blue so before he first does so in Real Time. Given that he's travelling alone, perhaps just before he meets Evelyn in The Marian Conspiracy.

Wednesday, 15 June 2022

Friday, 3 June 2022

BRIGHTON FRINGE REVIEWS 2022 - Part the Second

Unfortunately my fringing has been somewhat reduced due to both foreseen and unforeseen circumstances. I was very much looking forward to Christian Jegard's "Ol' Red Eyes" on reliable recommendation, but it was sadly cancelled due to health concerns. That one will have to go on the "see it when you can" list. However, the missus and I did get to take in one show which we have been meaning to catch for several Fringes.

THE GEEK SHALL INHERIT...


Hattie Snooks of Clap Back Club performs her one-woman show about the comforting joys of sci-fi and geekery. Definitely one for the slightly obsessive among us, this is packed with knowing references to Star Trek, Buffy, Doctor Who and more, as Hattie takes a sick day and dives head first into a sci-fi marathon. 

More than just a sci-fest, "The Geek Shall Inherit" is an honest and relatable look at anxiety and depression, and the pressures of life that lead us to take comfort in imaginary worlds. Plus it's a musical, packed with parody songs. My favourite was the technobabble song, but they're all awesome. 

A must for Reg Barclay fans. 

Last showing TONIGHT June 3rd at Sweet@The Poets (also bloody good food there), starts at 19.30. £12, £9 for concessions 


DO THE THING: UP TO, BUT NOT EXCEEDING, TEN MUSICALS


If that doesn't suit you, I can also recommend Do the Thing in their latest show, which I have sadly been unable to attend this year. Based on previous shows, this will be a raucous and unpredictable comedy where the manic musicaleers Simon Plotkin and Tim Meredith do strange and unexpected things with audience suggestions. 

Previously limited to two improv musicals a night, the gents have played with the format to allow anything up to ten audience influenced performances of variable length. If previous shows are anything to go by, this should be hilarious. 

Not strictly part of the Fringe, Do the Thing is performing at The Electric Arcade on Madeira Drive. The last show is TONIGHT, June 3rd at 20.00 for £11

Thursday, 19 May 2022

BRIGHTON FRINGE REVIEWS 2022 - Part the First

 It's that time of year again, when I become so incredibly busy in the evenings and weekends that I don't know whether I'm coming or going and all my money seems to mysteriously disappear. Yes, it's the Brighton Fringe Festival, our annual celebration of creativity, artistry and hilariosity. 

I never manage to see as many shows as I intend, but here's a quick rundown of some of my favourites so far. More to come at the end of the month when we take in the last chorus.


THE BURLESQUE IMPOSTER



Alexandra Shaw is Fanny Dent, and Fanny Dent is the Burlesque Imposter. A brilliant one woman (well, almost) show, The Burlesque Imposter takes burlesque back to its roots as a way to satirise and dissect society's weird little ways. As Fanny tries to make it in the world of burlesque, she confronts the expectations that society has of women, and those she has of herself. 

It's an ingenious show, bringing burlesque back to what it used to be about - making people laugh and think - and away from the modern view of it being purely for titillation. What we get is a show that's sexy and smart, funny and fabulous, with some powerful moments that will make you stop and rethink your attitudes even as you're laughing or straining your neck to try to get a proper look around that tall person in front of you.

Far from being an imposter, Fanny brings us some of the wittiest, most creative dance routines ever seen. If you've seen the show in years past, then go along to see experience a perfected script and a performer at the top of her game. If you've not seen it, treat yourself to one of the funniest, sexiest and cleverest shows on the Fringe.

£8 - £10  Spiegeltent Fri 20th May to Sun 22nd May, 19.45 
click for ticks

A TRANS FAIRYTALE




Cerys Evans, now with the Clap Back Club, brings back her one-woman show that sold out at the 2019 Fringe (you remember, the one in the before time). In another world, Miss... something-or-other is trying to make a living as a fairy godmother. This isn't like the fairytales you know, and our struggling fairy has to deal with shallow royals, a gobby disembodied narrator and the trials of fitting in in a trans-unfriendly world. 

This revamped, perfected version of A Trans Fairytale has new puppets, up-to-the-minute jokes and plenty of silliness, but it's the emotional heart of the story that will get you, as our heroine searches for her elusive happy ending. In a time when trans people are facing a horrifying upsurge of bigotry, Cerys faces issues head-on with a heartfelt and captivating performance. 

This hilarious, foul-mouthed and powerful play will make you laugh and hit you in the heart. An intensely personal show, Cerys has made this already great play even better for what will likely be it's last ever time on stage. Not to be missed.

£8 - £10   Latest Music Bar  Thurs 19th May (TONIGHT!) and Fri 20th May,  22.00

PETE STRONG: GREENFINCH





Bridport Poetry Prize nominee Pete Strong returns for an entirely new performance, combining poetry, comedy and audiovisual experience to powerful effect. An intimate look inside his life, from Ulster boyhood to Brighton adulthood, exploring the experiences that shaped him and learning to move beyond them. It's a profoundly personal show, yet one that speaks to anyone about identity, growth and hurt. 

In spite of how hard this one hits you, it's also wonderfully, weirdly funny, with Pete's unique turn of phrase shifting you through the full spectrum of emotions. This one really got me, just beautiful. 

My favourite poem was the one about the pickles, though.

£8 - £10  Phoenix Art Space  Thurs 19th May (TONIGHT!), Sat 20th and Sun 21st, 20.15

Sunday, 15 May 2022

TREK REVIEW: PIC 2-9 & 2-10

 


Hide and Seek 

Farewell

An over-the-top, occasionally silly but overall satisfying end to the second season of Star Trek: Picard, this final two-parter fair belts through plot beats like there's no tomorrow. Which, had our heroes not succeeded, I suppose there wouldn't be. As with the first season, and the recent run of Discovery, there have been some major pacing problems with this season, with an awful lot of side-steps and a leisurely pace through the middle of the run, leaving everything to be rushed for the finale. Perhaps this is a deliberate choice to make the end more climactic, but it does make it harder to fully appreciate the finale.

There are a lot of hard-to-swallow elements to this story, and you need to allow a lot of coincidences to make it work. Not everything quite adds up in the end, but for all that, it's so much fun, and the final episode in particular, so touching, that it's hard to be too unhappy about this. Alison Pill blows it away as the new Borg Queen, by now a convincing amalgam of Jurati's character and Wersching's Queen. We've had false dawns for a new kind of Borg before (whatever happened to those self-aware drones with commanding whole cubes from VOY: “Unimatrix Zero?”), but this time it looks like Jurati's new Borg really are a new era. (Although the news that Pill is not returning for season three suggests we won't be seeing them again, at least not anytime soon.)

Seven's rebirth as a semi-Borg (rather unbelievably, given the circumstances, with her implants in exactly the same places as before) was both predictable and disappointing. It would have been a nice culmination of Seven's development for her to finally be fully human. That said, her acceptance, with Raffi's help, of her part-cybernetic nature is satisfying, especially since she helped birth this new strain of Borg and prove that there's potentially another way of forming a collective. (Maybe they'll meet up with the voluntary hive mind from VOY: “Unity”... or maybe not.) Finally, Seven and Raffi get the smooches on, and everything is all lovely.

No surprises at all that Rios decides to stay in 2024, with the beautiful Dr. Teresa and her precocious sprog. Perhaps leaving him there isn't the best idea, given that this guy is a walking butterfly. I'm half-convinced that Chris is staying just for the cigars, but it's the only way this could play out – Teresa couldn't very well travel to the 25th century with her littl'un in tow.

TREK REVIEW: PIC 2.8 - "Mercy"

 


2-8 Mercy


“Mercy” is the first episode of the season that doesn't really work. There's something to be said for a straightforward adventure, but this side-step into the FBI's least wanted is so unnecessary to the main plot, while also being not terribly interesting in itself.


It's a fun bit of trolling on the part of the showrunners to cast Jay Karnes in this episode. After having so many actors reappear either as their popular characters or someone related to them, casting Karnes in a time travel story immediately makes us think he's reprising his role as 29th century time traveller Ducane. They even name his character Agent Wells, not only suggesting H.G. Wells, father of time travel fiction, but the Wells-class USS Relativity on which he served. (Apparently this all actually a reference to his role in Matalas's Twelve Monkeys series.)

So it's funny when it turns out he's just a regular 21st century agent after all. Unfortunately, having him as nothing more than a Fox Mulder rip-off makes him a fairly uninteresting character, in spite of a decent performance by Karnes. It's a nice touch that he's spent decades looking for aliens after freaking out due to a brief contact with some Vulcans in his childhood, but it's still not enough to make this diversion worthwhile.

The best material this episode is between Guinan and Q, here meeting for the first time from Guinan's perspective (I love time travel). Aghayere is excellent here, occasionally sounding astonishingly like Goldberg but mostly creating a new version of Guinan. She's terribly creepy when projecting herself to Picard, another previously unseen El-Aurian power. De Lancie gives an amazing performance as Q, now facing the end of his life and waning powers. We've never seen Q so vulnerable before. (It's hilarious to think of Q, unable to teleport, having to make his way to Guinan on the bus.)

Meanwhile, Agnes is going around eating battery acid (I wonder if her stepmother is an alien?) while Seven and Raffi sort out their problems. There are some nice moments between Ryan and Hurd, and Alison Pill looks incredible stomping about LA in her ballgown, assimilating nasty blokes. Eventually, the new Queen joins forces with Soong, who's own life is falling apart thanks to Q deciding to help Kore. Quite how Soong thinks his destiny as saviour of the Earth is going to come about when the Queen wants to conquer humanity is anyone's guess, but baddies gotta be bad, right?



Bits and bobs:

Judging by his age, Wells probably met the Vulcans in around the 1970s. We know from ENT: “Carbon Creek” that they were observing Earth as early as the fifties and there was another one due in about twenty years.

Do the Vulcans even have transporter technology that early? Doesn't seem to quite line up with Enterprise, but then, Enterprise didn't quite line up with what came before either.

Jurati's ballgown-and-boots look brings to mind Harley Quinn in The Suicide Squad, by far her best live action look.




Thursday, 12 May 2022

For National Limerick Day

John Smith, a troubled man, saw

To his horror, I truly am sure,

His younger sister,

Marry a man from Bicester,

And take on his name of Featherstonehaugh.

Monday, 9 May 2022

On a very British alien

 I've read a few of the usual sorts saying that Ncuti Gatwa can't be the Doctor because he's not British. 


He was born in Rwanda, but moved to Scotland aged two when his family fled the Rwandan genocide. His nationality is British. 

Richard E. Grant, that most English of actors, was born in Swaziland (now called Eswatini). It was a British Protectorate at the time, but became independent when Grant was 11. He didn't move to Britain until he was 25. He has dual British and Swazi nationality. 

In 2003, Grant was cast as the Doctor in an animated series. It didn't last and was overtaken by the live action series starring Christopher Eccleston. Some fans dismissed Grant's casting because they didn't like him, or dismissed it because it was only animated.

No one ever said he didn't count because he "wasn't British."

I wonder what the difference is now.

REVIEW: Doctor Strange in The Multiverse of Madness


 SPOILERS!

Ncuti Gatwa IS the Doctor!

 



Well, we now know who's playing the Fourteenth Doctor, and I'm absolutely livid.

He's YOUNGER than me!

Well, it had to happen eventually. Ncuti Gatwa (I am advised his first name is pronounced "Shoo-tee") is only twenty-nine, making him the same age as Peter Davison was when he got to the role, and therefore joint second youngest lead Doctor (Matt Smith being the youngest at a mere twenty-six when he signed up).

Of course, time passes, and where Christopher Eccleston was the first Doctor to be born after the original series started, Mr. Gatwa is the first to be born after it ended

I'll be honest, I am not familiar with Gatwa. I'm aware that he's in Sex Education, one of those shows that's been on my "I must get round to watching that, I hear it's good" list for some time. A quick look at his profile shows that he hasn't been in much at all, but what he has been in, he's been absolutely lauded for. Baftas and Pal d'Or awards, he's definitely a talented gent.

I'm pleased to see a person of colour in the role, finally. Of course, we've had Jo Martin as the Fugitive Doctor and various, very brief appearances of actors of colour as the Timeless Children - oh, and Lenny Henry in that sketch - but it's about time we had someone as the series lead who isn't white. I didn't think they'd have the guts to go with a woman of colour as the lead - not yet - so my prediction of a non-white male was correct, but that's the extent of my predictive abilities. Here's my guess though: the Fifteenth Doctor will be female, and they'll alternate for a bit. 

I'm fascinated to read about Mr. Gatwa, whose family fled the Rwandan genocide when he was a toddler and settled in Scotland, and who almost gave up on his acting dream before he got the Sex Education role. This is someone who has some stories to tell, and I look forward to seeing what he'll bring to the role.

Russell T. Davies cast both Eccleston and David Tennant, who each revolutionised the role in their own way, so I'm very excited to see where his latest choice will take the character. Very interestingly, though, Davies has said that he'd almost cast someone else as the Doctor when Gatwa auditioned, and I can't help but wonder who almost got the part. We love our what-ifs in Doctor Who.

Looking forward to seeing this young gent taking the TARDIS on new adventures. 

Wednesday, 20 April 2022

TREK REVIEW: PIC 2-7 - "Monsters"

An interesting and powerful episode that delves into Picard's character in a way we've not seen before, showing clearer than any script beforehand the influence that Patrick Stewart has had on the direction of this series.

It's not secret that the Trek showrunners tempted Stewart back to his best known role by ensuring him he'd have some creative control over the character and series, and that the stories would be dealing with serious contemporary concerns. Stewart has long been outspoken on the subject of domestic abuse, not only on the suffering of the abused but also the need for understanding for the abusers. Growing up in an abusive home, he recognises that these behaviours rarely come from nowhere and that there's is often a cycle of abuse and mental illness that perpetuates.

Quite rightly, then, that Star Trek should turn to this issue and address it in its own, science-fictional way. I'm sure that Gene Roddenberry would be incensed by the idea that there would still be such abuse going ahead in the 24th century, but really, no matter how far we develop in the next few centuries, humanity isn't going to magically overcome its demons en masse. The only way we can move forward is by listening and understanding people's individual struggles.

The early hints at little Jean-Luc's brutal upbringing were hinted at earlier in the season, but we finally get some real exploration of his childhood. It's no shock when the mysterious Starfleet therapist who plagues his subconscious turns out to be a representation of his father. James Callis is excellent as Maurice Picard/the psychologist, channeling the best of his Gaius Baltar arrogance and sharing remarkable father/son chemistry with a man several decades his senior. Stewart, of course, gives an exceptional performance too, showing us an angrier, more raw side of Picard that we don't get to see often enough.

Madeline Wise is almost as good as his troubled maman, engendering tremendous sympathy even when we realise that she isn't entirely as she seems. The revelation that the abusive Maurice is actually not the monster Jean-Luc sees him as, but that the Admiral has spent decades burying the memory of his mother's own mental illness and potentially deadly behaviour moves this story beyond the tried-and-tested bastard dad route.

In the circumstances, the absence of Jean-Luc's older brother Robert is odd, given how much of a father stand-in he was portrayed as in his one appearance on The Next Generation (season four's remarkable “Family”). There would be little room for him, though, given that Tallinn was given the role of entering Picard's mind to help him battle his internal demons. Orla Brady is great in this role, convincing when fighting monsters, playing with impossible technology or reassuring Picard's inner child. (Are they still looking for the next Doctor Who? Because she's a candidate if ever I saw one.) The reveal that Tallinn's actually a Romulan is about the least surprising thing so far this season, what with the little clues at first and finally the massive giveaway of the pointy-ear attachments on the tech, but it's a fun moment. Whether she's really Laris's ancestor, are actually gets some kind of extended lifespan as part of her deal with the Supervisors and is therefore Laris herself, remains to be seen.

While Picard deals with his demons, the rest of the plot treads water. We barely got a glimpse of what Queen Jurati was doing, something I'm desperate to get back to. Rios gets an entertaining plot to himself, revealing that Picard has become a father figure to him while also proving that he's learned absolutely nothing about the rules of time travel from him. Dr. Teresa is gorgeous and amazing, yes, but he basically gives up all pretence and shows her everything so he doesn't have to risk upsetting her with more lies. I'm starting to think that, whenever the original divergence was, this lot have now completely preempted it and the timeline will never get back on track.

In the closing scene, Picard goes back to bother Guinan, in a strange meeting that makes huge revelations about the El-Aurians and the Q while also posing all sorts of new questions. It seems the Listeners are more powerful than we realised, having actually formed a treaty with the Continuum centuries ago. I can only assume that the magic bottle that can be used for Q-summoning isn't the actual one from centuries past, but that an El-Aurian can use anything like that to focus the ritual. Otherwise it'd be a bit hard to believe she was allowed to just keep it in her bar on some backward planet. Of course, we know Q won't show up because his powers have failed him, but shouldn't another Q appear? This suggests something is very wrong with reality altogether – more indications that the timeline has already diverged?

Finally, Jay Karnes turns up as a slimy FBI agent, who promptly arrests both Picard and Guinan for teleporting on camera. Karnes previously played Lt. Ducane of the Federation timeship Relativity (on the eponymous Voyager episode), and I half suspect/hope that he turns out to be the very same temporal policeman, which is rather more interesting than a cut-price Mulder.

Quote of the week: “I'm from Chile, I just work in outer space.” Rios channels Kirk at his best.

Tuesday, 19 April 2022

Doctor Who: The Fossilist

 If you like Doctor Who adventures featuring the Sea Devils and remarkable women from history, why not try this story written by James P. Quick and myself for The Doctor Who Project?






Monday, 18 April 2022

WHO REVIEW: Legend of the Sea Devils

 Legend of the Sea Devils is only the second Easter special for Doctor Who, which is an oddity since it seems even more suited to that holiday than to Christmas. The last three regenerations have aired on Christmas, yet surely the day marking death and resurrection would be more appropriate?

The last Easter special, 2009's Planet of the Dead starring David Tennant, was an enjoyable but unremarkable adventure that boasted a fun central concept and some lovely location shooting. Legend of the Sea Devils leaves a similar impression, and like Planet of the Dead it is rather overshadowed by the impending climactic regeneration story it foreshadows.

It stands out more thanks to its returning monster. The Sea Devils, making only their third appearance on the programme and fifty years since they first appeared in the appropriately named The Sea Devils. That serial, starring Jon Pertwee, was a contemporary(ish) story, while the belated follow-up Warriors of the Deep (starring Peter Davison and broadcast in 1984) had a futuristic setting. It seems quite right, then, that the aquatic creatures return for a historical adventure, and it suits them well. Warriors of the Deep reworked them as a samurai-like warrior caste, and this seems to have inspired the Eastern setting of this new adventure.

They look fantastic. Like the Zygons and the Ice Warriors before them, the Sea Devils have been updated but kept fundamentally in line with their original appearance. Of course, they look faintly ridiculous, with their bulbous eyes and too-long necks, but if you can't handle a bit of ridiculousness then Doctor Who probably isn't the show for you. Their new outfits are perfect. They combine the pseudo-orientalist look of their eighties reworking with the string vests of their seventies originals, and make them into something actually feasible, while griming them up with an encrustation of barnacles. These old-but-new Sea Devils are gorgeous.

There's not much in the way of character for the Sea Devils, though. Their leader (referred to by IMDB as Marsissus, but nowhere in the episode itself) gets to be suitably scheming and nefarious, but otherwise the reptiles are little more than generic monsters there to swish swords then fall down. They also seem significantly more technologically advanced than the previous clans we've seen, with the macguffin doing all sorts of near-magical things, but then neither the Sea Devils nor Silurians have ever been very consistent in their background or abilities. I did love how they refer to the humans as “land crawlers,” but it was a bit daft that the Chinese was translated as “ocean demon,” which really means exactly the same as Sea Devil.

The human characters fare better, but even there we're a bit short-changed. Crystal Yu is excellent as Madame Ching, the pirate queen who dominated the seas around China in 1807. She's convincingly confident and ambitious, yet has a humility and quiet thoughtfulness as well. She's, quite correctly, devoted to her family, but the real Ching Shih was also the de facto commander of a huge pirate confederation. There's no mention of her husband Zheng Yi, so this is presumably late in 1807 after he died and she'd taken his place as leader. It was only a few short years before pirate dominance in the region was ended, but at this time she was at the height of her powers. Fine, her crew has been captured before this story, but where are the other crews?

Of course, I assume the budget (and Covid conditions) precluded a huge army of Chinese pirates, but in that case why isn't there more focus on Madame Ching herself? She deserves to dominate the plot more than she does. In reality Ching was a formidable and ruthless opponent, and we just don't see enough of that. There just doesn't seem much point using her in a story if it's not going to use her to the fullest extent.

There's the impression that the episode has been cut down from a much longer edit. Some things are minor, but nigglingly missing: where exactly were the TARDIS team going dressed up like in Chinese clothing or, in Dan's case, a pirate costume, in the first place? Others are more significant. When the episode jumps back to 1533 for no reason than to fill in a bit of the plot that could have been covered in the show's usual heavy-handed exposition, there's the impression that this side trip was originally longer and added more to the story. Still, it's a lot more fun seeing Ji-Hun battling a Sea Devil than having him turn up in the main section and explain it all. There are other points where it looks like a scene has been chopped out to streamline things, which makes it pacey but not always entirely clear what's going on.

The floating ship looks fantastic and, pleasingly, even the Chief Devil himself admits it serves no purpose other than to look menacing and impress people. As for the gigantic sea serpent, the huasen, it certainly puts the myrka to shame, but that's another element left outstanding: is that thing still swimming around out there?

Where the episode works best, other than spectacle, is the personal drama between its characters. While I'm not so convinced by the pseudo-parental relationship between Madame Ching and Ying-Ki, the young warrior is well played by Marlowe Chan-Reeves and actually has some decent chemistry with John Bishop. Ying-Chi and Dan make a fun double act and, again, really deserved a little more time on screen. However, it's pretty hard to believe in Dan's sword-fighting skills. Arthur Lee brings gravitas to the out-of-time warrior Ji Hun and works well alongside the Doctor in a touchy but respectful alliance.

However, it's the quiet moments between the Doctor and Yaz that really stick in the memory. The feelings that Yaz openly admitted to, and the Doctor merely hinted at in Eve of the Daleks are thankfully not forgotten. The Doctor, at first, is her usual awkward self, but this passes and there are some honest and tender moments between them. The Doctor's reluctance to allow herself to become that close to someone again is perfectly understandable and in character, and now that we've seen her shoulder some of the stories her impression of Yaz makes sense. Whittaker gives a strong performance in this scenes, but Mandip Gill really stands out.


Although not without its flaws, Legend of the Sea Devils is a fun romp with real heart. It's never going to appear on a list of the series' classics, but it's a decently entertaining way to spend fifty minutes.

Thursday, 14 April 2022

TREK REVIEW: "Living Memory" by Christopher L. Bennett

Bennett's ongoing mission to plug the gaps in Star Trek continuity and reopen forgotten storylines reaches what might be its ultimate expression in Living Memory, as he takes on two unrelated elements from Trek's early history that have been largely ignored.

Firstly is one of the original Star Trek's most idiotic plot points. In season two's “The Changeling,” the Nomad probe wipes Uhura's memory as it tries to understand her illogical human mind, leaving her with only her basic functional and linguistic skills. The viewer is then expected to accept that Uhura is able to relearn her entire education, skills, training and presumably every event in her life so far. You can't help but feel sorry for Nichelle Nichols as she has to play the now childlike Uhura with a straight face, and the full knowledge that this time next week she'll be all back to normal.

In an otherwise excellent episode, it's a moment that destroys all suspension of disbelief, so it's unsurprising that we never hear of it again onscreen. Bennett, however, takes it as the starting point of a moving character journey, as well as a vital missing piece to the puzzle at the heart of the novel's major threat. Unforeseen phenomena dubbed “vacuum flares” have begun appearing in space, threatening ships and eventually inhabited planets, and the only clue as to their origin is that they appear to be following the route of the USS Enterprise, specifically those planet's where Uhura made planetfall. Her past actions are somehow linked to this new danger, which is a bit of a problem now that she can't remember anything earlier than season two.

Exploring the “in-between” era that links The Motion Picture and The Wrath of Khan, Bennett has provided a great deal of depth to the familiar characters in the past, and this book is no exception. While Uhura's quest to recover her lost memories is essential to solving the plot, but more importantly it's a heartfelt personal mission for her. We have a rare opportunity to learn more about Uhura's life, as she struggles to reconnect with her family, and abandoned friends and lovers, who she no longer remembered and couldn't bear to see before, reminded as she was only of her loss. It's a brilliant way of taking a very silly sci-fi plot point and exploring the actual long-term effect the trauma would have one someone suffering it, something that didn't happen much in the very episodic series itself.

Within this storyline we also have more exploration of Uhura's close relationship with her Enterprise colleagues, who become her replacement family after the memory wipe. She is particularly close to Scotty – who has his own traumatic memories of the Nomad encounter – and to Spock, her commanding officer and something of a mentor in this novel. We also see that she has remained close friends with Sulu and Chekov, although they're both called away on their own work for much of the book. For Chekov, this is investigating the vacuum flares, while Sulu becomes involved with Starfleet security. Admittedly, this does seem like it's the wrong way round.

The second major storyline deals with the Arcturians, an only briefly seen alien species that was created for The Motion Picture and described in background materials as running a clone army. This is, of course, pretty hard to reconcile with the Federation's ethical code, but since it was never mentioned on screen most writers have ignored it altogether. Bennett, instead, tries to rationalise it as a misunderstanding of the Arcturians' elite soldiers, the Warborn, who were genetically engineered centuries earlier and have been kept in stasis since. Now, with the stasis failing, they're being thawed out, and a handful of them are admitted to Starfleet Academy to see if they can integrate and find a new purpose in life.

It's an interesting addition to the wider Trek universe and examines the Federation's supposedly all-inclusive nature. The Warborn's introduction to Starfleet raises a lot of tensions, from peace protesters already concerned with the apparent militarisation of Starfleet, to those in Starfleet itself who worry that the Warborn would be used again in a war setting – or even lead to war by inflaming tensions with the Klingons or Romulans.

The Warborn cadets get their own distinct characters, as do several other new recruits from various Federation races. None of them really stood out for me in the same way as the established Trek characters, although I was taken with Ashley Janith-Lau, a highly intelligent peace activist who forms a relationship with Dr. McCoy. The good doctor and Admiral Kirk are largely confine to Earth in this story, as Kirk is essentially the Warborn's sponsor in the Academy. The tensions rise to the point where a murder is committed and one of the Warborn are suspected. This brings a murder mystery element to the latter part of the book, although it's a little underdone.

The two storylines run in parallel but there's little to link them, although one nice touch is that “Arcturian rapid learning techniques” that are used on Warborn soldiers were also used to help Uhura get back up to speed after the Nomad encounter. There's a lot going on in both storylines at the end of the book, but ultimately it's a little anticlimactic. However, I adored the eventual explanation for the phenomenon that's threatening local space, and Uhura's link to it. Without spoiling it here, I can say that it's ingeniously thought out, and hinges on a truly fascinating science fiction concept that brought some of the greats, like Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter to mind. Altogether, not the strongest of Bennett's books but still with a great deal to recommend it.

Monday, 11 April 2022

TREK REVIEW: PIC 2-5 & 2-6

 


FLY ME TO THE MOON 

TWO OF ONE

Picard continues on its way in a muddled but still highly enjoyable couple of episodes that move the season-arc on, giving us as many new questions as answers.

So, who had Gary Seven in their Trek bingo? Not me for one, although there were hints that the mysterious Watcher was linked to that sci-fi secret agent and his unseen “Supervisors.” It's remarkable that Trek has never returned to Gary's employers before (onscreen, at least, they're all over the books and comics), but that's hardly the biggest mystery here. Why does Tallinn look just like a human version of Picard's Romulan ladyfriend Laris? She claims to know nothing about Q, but then, would she be aware even if he had created her as a trap for Picard? It's good to have Orla Brady back, either way. Equally mysteriously, just why is she assigned to watch over Renee Picard, whose importance to the timeline is surely impossible to know in 2022?

Of course, individual people being vitally important to historical events is a common sci-fi trope, even if it does seem to be oversignifying one woman's space mission by making it the crux of future history. We're assuming that Picard is correct in trying to ensure Renee completes her flight to Europa. Could it not be the other way round, and that something she encounters leads humanity to become aggressively anti-alien?

On the other hand, we have Adam Soong, the latest (or rather, earliest) in a long line of Soong men played by Brent Spiner. It wouldn't be Picard without him somewhere, and to his credit, Spiner creates a character who is both reminiscent of his descendants and entirely his own person. It's interesting to see the Soong timeline come together slowly, as Adam's work in human genetics clearly leads to his descendent Arik's work with Augments a couple of hundred years later, before Arik himself switches to artificial life eventually leading his own descendent Noonian to create B4, Lore and eventually Data. All of whom look remarkably similar.

No prizes at all for guessing that his daughter Kore is a flawed clone, and that her genetic disease is the result of some error in her creation. Clearly, the image of this girl is embedded in Data's mind, having been presumably passed down to Noonian, and finally leading to the creation of Soji and Dahj and numerous other synths allied with Inigo Soong. Not a bad way of saving costs – an entire family across four hundred years, all played by two actors. It's a little hard to swallow that Kore has never googled her dad before, although I guess he could have programmed in some kind of aversion to that sort of thing that she's only now breaking. I expect this will be skirted over though.

Now that Q has lost his powers, he's rather wonderfully reduced to putting on silly accents and pretending to be Renee's psychiatrist. He seems dead set on stopping her from joining the Europa mission, but there must be simpler says of doing it. Soong tries to simply run her over, while Q is going about it in a much more Machiavellian way. Are there some kind of rules he has to play by, and if so, why? I'm still not convinced that he's actually in the wrong here – I wonder if he's actually working to prevent the Confederation timeline. Could his alliance with Soong actually be a way to discredit him, to stop him from becoming the influential figure?

The wider team get to have a lot of fun, although the Raffi and Seven storyline doesn't really go anywhere. I like how Raffi has started seeing Elnor's face everywhere. It's first played just after we've met Tallinn, looking inexplicably like Laris, so for a split second we wonder if this really is Elnor recreated. But now, it's seemingly Raffi cracking up. Nonetheless, she and Seven have spent a lot of time getting in and out of trouble just to swoop in and shut down Rios's storyline, although thankfully he reconnects with the good doctor after Picard is injured.

Everyone gives their all to their characters, with Stewart getting to make one of his trademark speeches to Renee, who is portrayed with great character and sympathy by Penelope Mitchell. (Fifty quid says we see her return to play a descendent in the fixed future at the end of the season.) Michelle Hurd gets to bring some real pain to the grieving Raffi, struggling to stay on the wagon, while Santiago Cabrera is at his charming best as Rios becomes ever-more enamoured with the 21st century that Raffi despises. (Got to wonder how he got away with smoking indoors in California though. This really isn't our timeline...)

Orla Brady makes Tallinn into a solid character, even as we kind of just want Laris back, while Spiner, de Lancy and Isa Briones all give excellent work as new players or revised versions of classic characters. The only one of the main cast underserved in these two episodes is Jeri Ryan, who as Seven just doesn't have much to do but react to Raffi and various unlikely plans.

Both episodes belong to Agnes Jurati and the Borg Queen, who are just about one character by the end of it. Annie Wersching continues to impress as a wholly different type of Queen, one who appears to be becoming increasingly human in her attitudes and personality as she spends more time disconnected from the hive and reconnecting with Agnes. After her twitching, insectile performance in episode two, Wersching's Queen has developed into a completely new creature. Stealing every scene she's in though is Alison Pill, who brings new depths and desperation to Agnes. It's no surprise that she'd shoot the Queen – we've seen her murder people she cares about far more – nor that she'd break down under pressure, although her misstep in letting herself get partially assimilated is a bit of a foolish moment.

Pill owns the show during the elaborate gala event, literally when she, under the Queen's influence, channels Pat Benetar and belts out a scene-stopping number. While the logistics are a bit hard to take – she's just been taken in as a gatecrasher, and now the band are supporting her with no instruction – Pill is so great it's impossible not to love the scene. Indeed, sashaying through the party as the advance scout, looking absolutely gorgeous while carrying off a performance as someone gradually losing their identity, Pill's is the standout performance of the season so far.

Links and observations:

All of Kore's deceased sisters are named after figures from Greek myth. In fact, several are named after the same one: Kore is another name for Persephone, the name of the first girl, and there is also a Prosperpina, Persephone's Latin variation.

Two spacecraft make cameo appearances as the gala/expo/party: Nomad, the space probe from TOS: “The Changeling,” launched in continuity in 2022; and Renee's favourite, the OV-165, a fictitious shuttle that appeared in the title sequence for Enterprise.

This, along with references to treaties outlawing certain types of genetic treatment, make it very clear that this is not our timeline, but one that simply looks a lot like it, and otherwise matches (as best can be expected) various events in Trek history.

After directing two episode, Lea Thompson appears in front of the camera as the head of the committee that slams Soong. Jonathan “Riker” Frakes takes over directing duties for these two eps.

Best lines:

He's had some transplants.”
“Which ones?”
“... all of them?”