Thursday, 19 May 2022


 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.


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


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


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 


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


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




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?”

Thursday, 7 April 2022

WHO REVIEW: Mind of the Hodiac

Mind of the Hodiac - a classically old school Doctor Who title if ever there was one - is a hotly awaited title from Big Finish. The latest in the Lost Stories range, Hodiac has its origins in a script that Russell T. Davies wrote in 1986 or '87, which he happened upon when ferretting through his old materials looking for things for the lockdown events. 

One of the best regarded writers in the history of Doctor Who, and much beyond, he's certainly one of the most important. He brought the programme back sixteen years after its cancellation, and it's now been back for longer than that. This isn't the first time he's resurrected a script he'd submitted to the production team in the eighties. "The Long Game," back in series one starring Christopher Eccleston, was also a reworking of a script submitted to the latter years' production office..

But in these cases, remember, "submitted" means "rejected." Neither of these scripts were taken forward by the production team, who sent back positive-sounding notes to the young Davies. While "The Long Game" was substantially reworked for the modern series, it still felt the most old-fashioned episode of the series. Mind of the Hodiac doesn't even have that update going for it. Even though RTD's script was forward-thinking for the time, it's still very much Doctor Who of the eighties (and it's only forward-thinking in relation to the strange, idiosyncratic world of Doctor Who). 

Big Finish have a long history now of bringing Lost Stories to life. Some are really rather excellent, others make it very clear why they were dropped in the first place, but the production team always goes out of their way to make the audios sound like they're recovered soundtracks from the era they were first submitted. This is both a good and a bad thing. I love eighties Doctor Who, in all its weirdness, but there's no way you'd make television like that anymore. Creating an audioplay that invokes the era runs the risk of recreating the worst of it, from dodgy music choices to some, shall we say, "heightened" acting.

Hodiac sits in the odd position of being very clearly written by Davies, but also very evidently a bit of late eighties Who. Colin Baker and Bonnie Langford are present and correct, this script presumably having been submitted for season twenty-four, before Baker had been pushed out of the programme. It's a glimpse, then, of an alternative twenty-fourth season, in which the Sixth Doctor travelled with Mel, and their easy chemistry in Big Finish shows that they're a team that could have worked very well. Here, though, although both actors give it their all, they're characterised oddly. Mel seems to be in a particularly bad mood, sounding more like Peri for much of the first episode, while the Doctor has developed an obsession with The Wind in the Willows and keeps relentlessly quoting it. The behind-the-scenes interviews reveal that Davies had just scripted a stage version of the book and had become rather obsessed with it himself, but while it fits with the verbose Sixth Doctor it quickly becomes irritating. 

Potentially more interesting is the, unusually large, supporting cast. This is where the script is most obviously like RTD's other Doctor Who work. Hodiac features a strange juxtaposition of mind-bending sci-fi and mundane ordinary life, with a strong theme of family. T'Nia Miller (recognisable to Who fans as the regenerated General in "Heaven Sent" but better served by Davies's own Years and Years) is very good as Mrs Maitland, struggling to hold her family together after her husband abandoned her with her two daughters in an apparently haunted house. Sutara Gayle has hidden depths as her mum, while Loreece Harrison is brilliant as her forthright teenaged daughter Lisa. The pesky poltergeist activity drives them to the untrustworthy psychic investigator Mrs Chin. Another RTD favourite, Annette Badland, who of course played Margaret Slitheen in Doctor Who series one, brings Mrs Chin to brilliant life. A religious nutjob who thinks that somehow her work with the family will bring her closer to God, Chin provides an earthly villain and is pure Davies anti-religious theatre through-and-through.

All this works. Where things don't work so well is in the depths of space, in the hard sci-fi regions of the galaxy, where we meet a financial conglomerate that's willing to start devastating wars and recessions so long as it helps line their pockets. The anger at corporate greed is again very Davies, but none of this is very interesting. I work in finance, and frankly, hearing old men in space talk about it isn't any more exciting than hearing old men on Earth talk about it. Some middling performances by the many cast members in these scenes don't help. The Tungsten Warriors, while they sound cool, are faceless brutes, and while that's kind of the point of them, it's again pretty dull.

Sadly, the worst element of this is the eponymous Hodiac. From the same school of meaningless names as the Borad and the Lukoser, the Hodiac is one half of a being, separated in time and space. One soul in two bodies, reincarnated over and over, with nothing actually in common or to do with each other and, therefore, ultimately meaning nothing. Laurie Kynaston is giving it his best, I'm sure, but he isn't good enough to make the portentous sci-fi dialogue sound anything but risible. I do like the idea of a powerful space villain obsessed with the Doctor's coat, though.

A big failing with the production is clearly that only the first half is actually by Davies. There never was a script of the second episode, since it never got commissioned, although there were copious notes from which Scott Handcock wrote a new script. But with Handcock, one of BF's jobbing writers, creating the whole second half and adapting the first, it all becomes pretty standard Big Finish filler. That the Hodiac plot collides with an takes over the Maitlands' plot for much of the second half doesn't help either, since it sees the more interesting material reduced to make way for dull sci-fi nonsense.

Even though Davies's material is clearly better than Handcock's, it's still very obviously the early work of a promising young writer who hadn't quite found his voice or polished his skills. At the end of the day, for all the work the cast are putting into it, Hodiac is simply rather lifeless, and is more interesting as a historical document than an entertaining adventure. 

Thursday, 31 March 2022

TREK REVIEW: PIC 2-4 - "The Watcher"

Wotcha! Another strong episode from Picard, and it seems we're now firmly in the serialised part of the storytelling, rather than the attention-grabbing stage of the opening two episodes. It's a quieter, more thoughtful episode, albeit with enough action to keep things fun and interesting, with some strong character moments.

By far my favourite part came early on, with Seven and Raffi on the bus, reenacting the “I Hate You!” scene from The Voyage Home, with Kirk Thatcher appearing as an older version of his punk character from that film. He's a lot more mellow and polite now, although perhaps he's having traumatic flashbacks to his humiliating nerve-pinching by Spock back in 1986. In the meantime, he'd got out of California and took a trip to New York to appear in Spider-Man: Homecoming. I like to think there's a Kirk Thatcher Punk Rock Guy in every reality.

Seven and Raffi get some angry bonding time this episode, but to be honest this isn't the strongest episode for either of them. Their main purpose at the moment appears to be to run around trying to find Rios while he's doing more dramatically interesting things. It's fun to see Seven driving (in a stolen police car which would have been perfectly fine to leave where it was if Raffi had just pinched the laptop inside and run, instead of getting in), albeit badly. It's a shame we didn't get a little nod to Voyager; who else could have taught Seven to drive 20th/21st century internal combustion vehicles but Tom Paris?

As said, Rios's experiences in ICE detention are more interesting, and damning. His character is consistent with how he appeared in season one: putting on a facade of charming nonchalance to cope with genuinely traumatic experiences. He continues to have great chemistry with the gorgeous Dr. Teresa, and this plot thread shines a light on the appalling state of the West, particularly post-Trump America, in the 2020s. I like that the writers are openly tying this into the future seen in DS9's “Past Tense,” with Rios being carted off to a Sanctuary District. The future shown in DS9 is looking more and more like the present we now inhabit. However, the Sanctuary Districts are a paradise compared to the conditions that many men, women and children experience in ICE custody, even after the States' regime change.

Alison Pill's toughened-up Agnes Jurati continues to be one of the best things this season. He relationship with the Queen is becoming very interesting. After their interface, they each have an insight into each other's psyche and are seemingly trying to out-manipulate each other. While Agnes gets what she wants, the Queen is nothing if not patient, and I suspect we'll see them connect once again further down the line. Our prediction: Agnes is destined to become the new Borg Queen after the current version finally breaks down, and will be revealed to be behind the mask we saw back in episode one.

The main talking point of the episode is, of course, the reintroduction – pre-introduction? - of Guinan. Ito Aghayere is brilliant as the younger, angrier Guinan, giving enough of a young Whoopi vibe while providing her own take on the character. There's a bit of a clash with existing continuity: a time-travelling Picard previously met Guinan back in 1893, when she was already living on Earth and played by Whoopi Goldberg, looking and acting quite differently. Obviously, Whoopi looks very different now, and I much prefer re-casting to attempting an extended de-ageing CGI effect. We know from the 2401 Guinan that El-Aurians can age if they choose to, so maybe they can take their physical age down or otherwise tweak their appearance too? Along with their time-sense (which I had previously supposed was down to Guinan's exposure to the Nexus in Star Trek Generations), it's all very Doctor Who.

As to why Guinan doesn't doesn't recognise Picard from their previous meeting... well, it was 130 years earlier, so she could be forgiven for not immediately clicking, but you'd expect once she'd heard his name and her time sense had been triggered she's recall. Then again, has that meeting even happened in this timeline? The Picard she met came from a future which no longer exists, after all. The time travel rules aren't quite clear here.

When it comes to her character, though, Aghayere's version is perfect. After decades on Earth, living through the entire twentieth century, it makes perfect sense that Guinan has lost her faith in humanity and is getting off planet. Maybe it would have been different if she, as she pointed out, looked like Picard, but as a black woman in the United States, who knows what she's experienced in that time? Plus, it's the right time for her to leave, what with World War III coming and all.

Thankfully, Guinan is not revealed to be the legendary Watcher, which would have been too obvious, but she does at least know who is. The mystery is even greater now, though, as the alien overseer has turned up looking just like a human version of Laris. Meanwhile, Q is keeping an eye on a young woman who is no doubt vitally important to the future of Earth, Picard's ancestry or both. Only he seems to have lost his powers. More evidence that something has happened to reality and he is powerless to fix it without help from Picard? We're almost halfway through, so will likely be getting a few more answers soon.

Links and references:

Jurati calls Picard “Dixon Hill” for being clever, a reference to his favourite fictional detective, who he often cosplayed on the Holodeck. The mystery woman is reading a Dixon Hill novel, The Pallid Son, written by Tracey Tormé, who wrote for TNG back in its first and second seasons.

Guinan keeps a bottle of Saurian brandy in her bar. She drives a car with the registration S02 E01, referenceing the character's first appearance on TNG season two episode one (“The Child”).

The Europa Project where Q and the mystery woman were sitting is situated at Jackson Roykirk Plaza, named after the scientist who created the Nomad probe from TOS: “The Changeling,” twenty-two years earlier in the Trek timeline. Q's newspaper namechecks Brynner, the businessman who unsuccessfully tried to hook up with Dax in “Past Tense.”

Friday, 25 March 2022

REVIEW: The Batman

This is the... let's check... ninth live action Batman solo feature film. If you add in the animated features, old serial films, and shared universe movies, there have been... a lot. It's tough, against this background, to make a Batman film that stands out, not least considering that previous iterations have included some of the best superhero films ever made (although, admittedly, also some of the worst). Like Spider-Man a few years ago, this seemed like another hurried reboot far too soon after the last one. Just as then, though, Matt Reeves's new take on the now octogenarian franchise shows how well it can work when someone who really gets the character has creative freedom.

The Batman sets itself apart with its title, which now seems to be the method of dispensing with an uncertain past and heading off in a stronger direction. We've had The Suicide Squad, and I wholeheartedly look forward to The Superman, The Wonder Woman and, of course, The The Flash. It's a bit pretentious, that definite article, but it fits with the very serious, self-conscious tone of the film. Batman works best when it's taken seriously but also accepts the campness and absurdity in its concept. The Batman only really does the first part of that, and this leads to quite a dour experience. It's dark – so dark that it's hard to make out what's going on in some scenes – and by gum it's long, and on the whole it's extremely well done. Still, I do miss when a Batman film was entertaining (in live action at least – the perfect remedy to this is The Lego Batman Movie, this film's antimatter twin).

It's had a long and torturous upbringing, this film. Initially an intended as an installment of the DCEU, and virtually a vanity project for Ben Affleck, it was completely reworked when he dropped out and Reeves stepped in. One thing I continue to love about DC/WB's current approach to its films is the creative control it has given writers and directors. While the MCU becomes ever more expansive, swallowing up earlier franchises, it also threatens to become more and more homogeneous. DC, having failed to emulate the Marvel model (not for lack of trying) have allowed something different here. Unique interpretations of classic characters that can sit alongside each other, with no single one being the official, definitive version.

This is, semi-officially, the cinematic Earth-2, where a younger version of Bruce Wayne has only recently donned the cape and the cowl. I like how we've side-stepped the origin story (no need to cover that again) yet are still dealing with a very young version of the character. Yes, the death of the Waynes weighs heavily on the storyline, but this is still Batman as an established force in Gotham City. Only two years established, however, and still in the angry, emo phase of the Caped Crusader, stunted at an adolescent stage of development.

The casting of Robert Pattinson is perfect for this version of Batman. Like many, I was doubtful, but after previously surprising success stories I was happy to wait and see how he turned out. (Heath Ledger's Joker, of course, being the most famous example of “trust the casting director,” but most of the previous live action Batman castings have met with a undeserved backlash.) I was sniffy of the images of emo Bruce Wayne, with smudged make-up and lank black hair, but the character has always been an angry emo kid in a big bloke's body. This was just the first time he looked the part. Really, though, Bruce's character is almost – almost – irrelevant here. Pattinson's Bruce barely has an identity beyond Batman, subsuming himself entirely into the role of the vengeful vigilante.

(A side note – the current main actors for Batman, Superman and Spider-Man, the three most bankable superheroes in the world and often considered quintessentially American characters, are now played by Englishmen. Funny old world.)

The cast are all impressive. Jeffrey Wright is, for me, the best version of James Gordon we've ever had on the screen; gruff, straight-down-the-line and noble. Not yet the commissioner of lore, but still an established figure, much like the young Batman. There's a mystery about what happened during the last two years that made Batman such a notorious figure, yet one trusted by Gordon, but I suspect we'll learn that in time. Andy Serkis gives a version of Alfred who's both recognisably the butler and pseudo-father figure we know and a more formidable character, a veteran who you'd never cross and who has almost lost faith in his charge.

Zoe Kravitz plays Catwoman (for the second time – see again Lego Batman), or rather the Cat, as the character was originally known. Her version is more Selina Kyle than Catwoman, but you can see her slowly going down the route that Bruce himself has and being subsumed by her alter ego. Catwoman is always best as a morally complex antihero rather than a straightforward villain, and, of course, a romantic interest for Bruce to further muddy the waters. Kravitz portrays Selina as a sexually-charged figure, but this also comes across as just as much a mask for someone who has had a brutal and exploitative upbringing. It's an excellent performance.

The main villain, though, is the Riddler, virtually unrecognisable from his comicbook counterpart and previous big screen outings. Paul Dano's version of Edward Nashton (no Nygma in this telling) is a twisted but ultimately sympathetic individual. Dano's performance is remarkable, giving us a young man who is clearly mad as a jacket full of question marks, yet on whose every word we hang. Even under a mask that makes Batman's seem revealing, Dano gives Edward a depth and power, and he deserves to be remembered as one of the great Batman screen villains.

The gangsters are strong too. Colin Farrell is utterly unrecognisable as “Oz” Cobblepot, the Penguin, lathered in latex and donning a broad accent. We might ask why they didn't cast someone who looked and sounded at least a bit like the character they wanted, but Farrell's performance is suitably impressive. This scarred, arrogant version of the Penguin works, as the best iterations of the Penguin do, as a power-hungry crook who's out-of-his-depth. Perhaps the scariest of the villains is John Turturro's Carmine Falcone. No outlandish make-up, no scary mask, no voice modulation. Just a man who's cruelty and greed is outstripped only by the power he's accumulated. Tying him into the Waynes' murder is a good idea, giving the story greater structure, much as Tim Burton's Batman tied in the Joker to the origin story.

The Batman's strength as a story is its deconstruction of the vigilante hero's existence, positioning him as just as much a threat to the safety and structure of Gotham as the villains. Throughout, it's made clear that a noble mission can be easily perverted by human weaknesses, be it in Thomas Wayne's poor judgment in the face of a threat, the various lawmen and politicians of Gotham giving into corruption and greed, or Bruce's own spiral into violent vengeance. Like all the best Batman stories, it positions Batman as a reaction to Gotham's brutality, but also as a catalyst for the worst to come. It's far from the first story to suggest that Bruce's costumed crusade acted as inspiration for the various outlandish villains who came after him, but it makes it explicit and holds him to account for it. (It's exactly the opposite take to the last “young Bruce” attempt, the Gotham TV series, which had it entirely the wrong way round.)

Notably, it's not entirely down to the Batman's example, but the insidious, ongoing radicalisation of young men (particularly young white men) online. Edward commands a small but loyal following of angry men, and he has broken away from a deeply isolated existence into a world where violence is the only means of making the wider world pay attention. Like Joker, which similarly explored the explosion of violence that lies beneath masculine social conditioning, it has its real life reflections in young men and boys who dressed up in Joker make-up before shooting at cinemas full of people. We don't know the backstory of the Joker in this version of events (a recently released deleted scene gives some hints, but it's clear why it was deleted, not least because it's almost impossible to make out what Barry Keoghan's version of the Joker is saying), but it's easy to imagine that the Riddler is inspired by both the Joker and Batman (he's long been something of a Joker copycat, after all).

There's a note of hope in the climax, as Bruce turns away from the pursuit of violence and starts to actually help people, rescuing those in danger rather than simply beating up villains and abandoning their victims. Still, it's hard not to think that he's missed the point. It's an improvement, sure, but as the new mayor has been trying to tell him, his money would be put to better use in philanthropic programmes than in whatever else he's been spending it on. Thomas Wayne's failure at the last doesn't mean that his goal of using his wealth to improve people's lives was wrong.

Visually, musically, and directorially distinct, The Batman succeeds in standing out as its own animal amongst all the many Batmen that have gone before. It's a strong, solid dark detective story with an important message, but one that's a bit muddled in the telling. Clearly open for a sequel (with an entire new Bat-verse franchise planned, whether or not this is a wise direction), it's not quite the triumph some are making it out to be, but it has the potential to be the start of something truly great.

Thursday, 24 March 2022

TREK REVIEW: DIS 4-12 & 4-13

 4-12: SPECIES 10-C 


Season four ends with a two-part adventure that is both pacy and thoughtful. Quite a bit happens in these two episodes, recalling the pacing issues of the first season of Picard: languid progress through the season followed by a mad rush to tie things up. In this case, the finale works well on its own measure, although as the culmination of a three-month arc it doesn't quite hit the mark.

To begin with, we have a fascinating encounter with an alien environment. As I mentioned in the last review, we've had any number of Earth-like planets over the years, with only occasional excursions to more exotic worlds. Now Discovery enters a truly unique location: a gigantic forcefield surrounding the core of a star system, within which a megastructure orbits the sun, and within this three jovian planets that are home to totally new alien life forms. It's wonderful to have Discovery actually discovering something again, for once something that doesn't seem like a rehash of something we've seen before.

There are some wild visuals as the ship is pulled inside by a tentacle of who-knows-what, as the 10-C's technology makes short work of Discovery's defences. There's some fundamental good work in the first contact department, with the Starfleet crew offering a gift (some handy boronite) before the process of communication is attempted. Dr. Hirai leads the team in trying to communicate with a gigantic, nebulous entity that speaks through a combination of light sequences and olfactory molecules... it's a genuinely interesting look at how an alien life form might operate differently than us. We can barely communicate with other species on our own planet – hell, sometimes we can barely communicate with each other. This is the sort of problem we're going to face if we ever do meet intelligent extraterrestrial life.

It's a bit hard to swallow just how quickly the team go from tenuous mathematical concepts to full blown conversation. One minute they can just about say, “nine,” the next Michael and T'Rina are speechifying with all manner of idioms and metaphors. Still, it works well overall, tying into a season-long theme of communication fostering understanding and overcoming otherness.

Meanwhile, Tarka and Book come to blows, when the Risian scientist reveals he's not to be trusted after all. Shock! Horror! The least-surprising development all season, signposted as it has been since he first started peddling his scientific wares. It's a bit of a shame, since Tarka has been among the best things this season, and he's so obviously a wrong'un that setting him up as a proper villain earlier, rather than Book's shaky ally, would probably have worked better and given the season some focus. Still, his plight is a sympathetic one, even as his delusions overcome his sensibilities. The idea that there was a perfect universe out there that he could beam to was always a bit unbelievable, but we've had more outlandish ideas in Trek. Like so many villains before him, his final acceptance of the truth, sudden heel-turn and redemption come too quickly. It would have been good to see a last shot of him, in some idyllic world meeting Oros, left open for the viewer to decide if he had reached his goal, died and passed to the other side, or was simply imagining his heaven in his last moments.

There's some good material on Book's ship, though, as Jet snarks her way through captivity and uses licorice as a combined food/distraction/building material. It's classic Trek engineer work, taking low-tech materials and using them on incredibly high-tech problems. It's the sort of silliness we can get behind. Less so is the fact that it takes the rest of the crew hours to even notice that Jet has gone. The abandoned communicator trick got old with The Next Generation. Equally disappointing is the abandoned plotline of Discovery being lost in the depths of extragalactic space, having burnt out the spore drive escaping from one of the 10-C's impenetrable bubbles. A decades-long journey home at conventional warp could have been an interesting, Voyager-esque direction for season five. Still, this is far from the first time Trek's pulled that trick; by now, it almost feels like a tribute.

Some of the best material takes place far away from the ostensible main action. Naturally, the threat of the DMA was going to be magnified by having it threaten Earth directly (and Titan and Ni'Var, not that we see any of that). While some scenes of the chaos on Earth itself might have made it more powerful, there's a real sense of impending doom during the crisis. Starfleet HQ proves to be not merely a space station, but a gigantic starship, one that can speed all the way to Earth and even split into smaller ships to help with the evacuation. It helps hammer home not just the scale of the crisis, as the whole of Starfleet, every ship and the entire HQ come to the rescue, but also the level of technology in the 32nd century. In turn, the 10-C, being so much more advanced than this, appear even more powerful.

Mainly, though, these scenes work so well because of the much-missed Tilly, staying behind and working with Admiral Vance. The good Admiral has been underused this season, and here Oded Fehr finally gets to make his character seem human, displaying good chemistry with Mary Wiseman's character. There's definitely the sense that the two leave the situation as firm friends. When they give us that Starfleet Academy spin-off (come on, it's bound to be coming), I suspect lots more Tilly-Vance time. Get Jet Reno in there too – she'd suit perfectly as a crabby engineering instructor.

Ultimately, everything turns out for the best, and unfortunately, this is where it all falls down. The 10-C's immediate capitulation is too sudden to be satisfyingly dramatic. Had this been a standalone story, as most episodes had been in the old days of Trek, then it would have worked fine within those confines, but as the culmination of a season-long arc, it's all too sudden. The 10-C are sad apologise, switch off the DMA and their forcefield and send Discovery home. Oh, and they bring Book back from the dead while they're at it, undercutting some strong material by Martin-Green as she mourns her lover. Perhaps Book, Gray and Culber can form a support group for people who were dead for a bit and then got brought back in unlikely ways?

Speaking of Book, it must be said, he gets off lightly here. Having committed serious crimes against the Federation (although not treason, whatever people are saying, since he was never a Federation citizen or official member of Starfleet), the rogue gets a few months community service. That's pretty slight for stealing classified technology, attacking a starship and almost triggering an intergalactic conflict.

Much like the season as a whole, the finale involves a string of solid and effective elements that together are simply dissatisfying. Less than the sum of its parts, the season ends with everything almost exactly as it started. Except that Earth has rejoined the Federation, and to be honest, even that was a bit quicker and easier than it should have been.

Cool bits:

Species 10-C are a Kardashev Level II civilisation, at least, meaning that they can harness the entire energy output of their home star. Human civilisation has yet to reach Level I, but we might assume that they've managed it by the 32nd century.

President Rillak mentions the Borg and their hive mind, suggesting the Collective is still active in the 32nd century.

Perhaps most satisfyingly, we finally know the Tellarites' status: they never left the Federation, unlike the other founding worlds.

The Earth President is played by Stacey Abrams, a major American political figure, activist and lawyer, who has been working to address voter suppression in red states.

The USS Mitchell, oft-mentioned and finally seen, is named for Discovery guest star Ken Mitchell, a rare tribute to a still-living cast member.

The final episode is dedicated to April Nocifera, a long-time Trek producer who died from cancer late last year.

Sunday, 20 March 2022

TREK REVIEW: PIC 2-3 - "Assimilation"


Another solid episode which pushes the story onto what seems to be its main trajectory – setting the path of history right back in the 21t century. After a gripping (and pretty bloodthirsty) intro, La Sirena is catapulted back in time in a classic slingshot round the sun, just like in the good old days before Red Angels and tachyonic subspace rifts. It's not as trippy as The Voyage Home, but it's still a pretty cool sequence as the ship heads back in time under the Borg Queen's control.

Time travel episode are, of course, common as muck in Star Trek, and trips back in time to roughly contemporary settings are nothing new either. It's an obvious idea, of course, letting the characters comment on our way of life directly, but Trek has been running so long now that the present is catching up with the future. DS9's classic two-parter “Past Tense” was set in San Francisco in 2024, just a stone's throw from LA. There are hints towards it in the rundown homeless area that Raffi materialises in, and plenty of commentary on how we live in a society on the brink of collapse.

Raffi has a rough episode all through, first seeing Elnor die and then being thrown into, from her perspective, a primitive society. And she's understandably furious at all this, especially as Picard prioritised the Queen's survival over Elnor's. Seven fares better in the 21st century, suddenly “liked” by people she meets instead of being met with fear or awe. Seemingly because she no longer has Borg bits on her face, she's not threatening, by I wonder if she's actually different in this timeline; if not having her implants has changed her physiologically and mentally.

Seeing Raffi and Seven doing the couple-y thing is fun, of course, and aside from some odd lines (“You and 2024 should get a room,”) they have great chemistry in this episode. Among the storylines in contemporary America, though, it was Rios's plotline that I enjoyed the most. Having Chris, a Hispanic man who commands a starship, suddenly thrown into the world of immigration raids and back alley medicine illustrates the brutality and injustice of our society more effectively than having Raffi pass judgment on the homelessness crisis and beat up a mugger. Sol Rodriguez is a great addition to the cast as Teresa. She has excellent chemistry with Santiago Cabrera and will no doubt be our present day point of contact for the story. More of an Edith Keeler than a Rain Robinson though...

It's interesting that the Queen remains as a major character in the series. I was expecting them to just leave her in her self-induced coma. Wersching's Queen, now that she has her marbles back, seems more like Krige's than before, manipulative and insidious, but has a sassy arrogance that's all her own. Alison Pill gives her best performance ever as Dr. Jurati, as she very inadvisably links with the Queen to try to kickstart her and get data off her. There's definitely a lot more to come from this strange pairing. Really, the only character who doesn't come off well here is Picard, who's perhaps proving too single-minded and inflexible for his crew. I'm wondering just what sort of test Q is running him through.

One more niggling element is the inconsistent attitude to their presence in the past. They worry about “butterflies” but simply being present on Earth in their own past is inevitably changing events. I'll be frankly surprised if it doesn't turn out that Picard and co's interference isn't the very thing that sends history down the wrong path. At least Agnes is thinking about causal loops, even if no one else is.

It's a great episode, the pacing settling down a little since the frenetic opening episodes. The direction, by time travel sci-fi veteran (and huge Trek fan) Lea Thompson and strong performances by the cast make this is a gripping instalment.

TREK REVIEW: DIS 4-11 - "Rosetta"


Catching up with my Disco reviews, and finally the season gets moving. I feel that this is probem with this season; the individual episodes are mostly good, but the overall pacing of the season is so slow that the arc plot never seems to go anywhere. In a truly episodic series this wouldn't be an issue, but when there's an ongoing mystery all this treading water is frustrating.

Still, at least now we're getting somewhere, having breached the Galactic Barrier and reached the 10-C's home star system. There's some proper sci-fi stuff here, as we enter a star system with one solitary planet, the rest having presumably been demolished to build the huge Dyson ring that is the sytem's main habitat. It's immediately clear that we're dealing with an incredibly advanced civilisation, who can create a structure like this and encase an entire system behind a forcefield. I just wish we got to see more of it.

Instead Burnham and co. go exploring on the planet, the lifeless core of a former gas giant. This is first time we've seen an environment like this on Trek – a Chthonian planet, unlike the many, many Earthlike worlds we usually see. The virtual sets have been an absolute triumph this year, bringing us some truly imaginative and remarkable worlds. I love the gigantic skeletons that litter the planet, and the concept of a people that leave chemical signs to signal emotions as markers for their dead. It's rare that we get something truly alien in Trek, and this is evocative stuff.

It's good to see Saru back in season one mode, showing us how much he's changed since the series began. Unlike back then, though, Saru's fear at “the coming of death” isn't something extrasensory. He's just the first person to inhale the hydrocarbons that the 10-C use to transmit emotions. It's a huge step forward, finding out how the aliens communicate, but you have to sympathise with Ndoye and the others when it comes to Burnham's attitude. Naturally, she's proven to be right in all this, but her pacing's as off as the series. This little excursion turns out to be the answer to contacting the 10-C, but it's bloody lucky that it worked. At first it seemed much more likely that the planet wasn't the 10-C's home, but their first victim, seeing that it was bombarded by asteroids just like the ones currently being flung towards the Earth by the DMA. It turns out that yes, the aliens have left this world alone, out of respect for their ancestors, but going for a walk around the graves of their children might not have gone down so well either. The Disco crew are lucky the 10-C's first message wasn't “You have desecrated the Tombworld!”

Meanwhile, Book and Tarka tread water, unable to actually do anything until they can follow Discovery into the hyperfield. As part of all this, though, we get some more depth for Ndoye, and after a long absence (due to health concerns around COVID), Tig Notaro is back as Jet Reno. I'm also becoming a big fan of Hiro Kanagawa as Dr. Hirai, the wonderfully blunt, perpetually snacking linguist. There are some good moments for Culber, Detmer and Stamets, but it's largely Saru and Burnham's episode. “Rosetta” works mostly for its ideas, but there are some nice character moments too. Mainly, though, it's good to be making progress, even if it is in fits and starts.

Monday, 14 March 2022

TREK REVIEW: PIC 2-2 - "Penance"


Picard storms ahead with another belter of an episode that barely gives the viewer a chance to take in what's happening. The episode leaves you breathless, but under the excitement and strong performances, it's not as solid as it appears.

Resolving last week's cliffhanger by barging us into a different reality altogether, “Penance” acts like a second introduction to the season that, on the face of it, has little to do with what went before. “The Star Gazer” set us up with the characters in a new dynamic, and with a mystery surrounding the Borg's strange new behaviour, before essentially blowing it all up and starting over with a new story about Q and his interference in the timeline.

Q's scene with Picard is a highlight of the episode. Stewart and de Lancie have the same great antagonistic chemistry they had back in the TNG days, but overlaid with an angrier, more impatient drive, made fierier by the fact that the streaming platform doesn't need to watch its language for primetime. “I don't have time for your bullshit!” snarls Picard at Q, and you feel him. It's two old men lashing out at each other after years of furious history. Picard insists that Q has gone mad, but perhaps he's just lost his patience as well – who knows what bizarre pressures are playing on him?

This new reality, not a parallel universe like the Mirror Universe but an altered timeline, is well-realised, a dark, fascist state where humanity rules with cruelty and brutality. Some of the details are chilling – First Contact Day replaced by Eradication Day, famous aliens slain by the ruthless General Picard, Romulans as slaves and no ban on synthetic servants – but others are harder to understand. After introducing the Stargazer, Rios is now captain of La Sirena again, now a warship for the Confederation of Earth. Annika Hansen is the President of Earth, never having been assimilated by the Borg and changed into Seven of Nine. It's a bit too neat.

Of course, there's the question. Is this really an altered timeline, or some huge fabrication of Q's? On the other hand, given Q's apparent insanity, is something else going on? Has something else changed history in 2024 (only two years away from our present, but also notably the year of the crucial turning point of the Bell Riots in Trek lore)? If that's the case, Q must be pulling strings somewhere to have put everyone (except the unfortunate Elnor) in positions of power that allow them to escape and travel back.

The bigger question, though, is: just how is this different from the Mirror Universe? Aside from Q pointing out it's not an altered rather than alternative reality, this is the Mirror Universe in all but the details. The Confederation instead of the Empire, Nazi-esque black instead of imperial gold. In the Mirror Universe humanity was overthrown by its subject races, while here its still in power and ready to wipe out Vulcan and execute the last of the Borg. Really, though, that's just pushing things forward by a century or so. We still have versions of the regular characters, however unlikely that would be after centuries of divergence, but twisted to become utter bastards. Why not just make it the Mirror Universe and be done with it if you're going to be that clichéd?

Still, it's hard to worry too much about that when it leads to such a gripping thriller as this. Where this works, while the Mirror Universe episodes of Discovery didn't, is that it keeps things moving and focuses on the “real” characters instead of mincing supervillains. Stewart is impressive, of course, convincingly frightening when he pretends to be the cruel General Picard. The most effective part of the episode, though, is President Hansen waking up, with Jeri Ryan beautifully portraying the slow realisation that she is no longer Borg, testing her reality to make sure she's not dreaming it. It's a shame the trailers spoilt the reveal, because it's a wonderful moment when we finally see she has no implants.

On the Borg side of things, Annie Wersching's new iteration of the Queen is also a triumph. Whereas Alice Krige played her as oily and creepily sexual, and Susanna Thompson with a sort of twisted maternal instinct, Wersching's Queen is the most inhuman, twitching and insectoid and more concerned at the change in time than her own imprisonment. The idea of forming an uneasy alliance with the Borg Queen as she's the only one with the brains to calculate the trip back in time is a brilliant one. Making these scenes even better is Alison Pill as the entirely out-of-her-depth Dr. Jurati. Agnes obviously never got parallel universe training and is terrible at undercover work, but watching her wing it is hilarious.

As fun as it all is, I'm glad that it looks like we're on our way back to the past in the next instalment. Just like the Mirror Universe proper, this new evil empire could outstay its welcome quickly. I'm more interested in seeing how all this ties together than spending time in fascist central.

Observations (and evil observations with sinister beards):

General Picard keeps the skulls of his most high-profile vanquished foes on stands in his trophy room. They include Gul Dukat, General Martok, Ambassador Sarek, an unidentified Ferengi (but probably the Grand Nagus, given the staff included), a Borg and uncertain reptilian species (update - it's a Saurian!)

Brilliantly, we learn that the Ferengi have bones in their ears.

General Sisko is namechecked. I would have loved just a quick cameo from Avery Brooks, if only to punch Q in the face again.

The Queen says Annika was assimilated in 2350. That was actually the year of her birth, and she was assimilated when she was six, so in 2356 or '57. Still, the Queen was having an off day.

Apparently, the Queen can hear her counterparts in other realities through higher dimensions.

Patton Oswalt voices Spot 73, Jurati's cartoonish hologram and homage to Data's cat Spot.

The Magistrate/First Husband is played by Jon Jon Briones, the father of Isa Briones who plays Soji, which may well end up being significant (or not).

Picard even has a synthetic body in this reality, as unlikely as that seems, thanks to a nasty altercation with Dukat.