Tuesday 27 June 2023

WHO REVIEW: Once and Future 1 & 2

 There's something a little underwhelming about Big Finish's latest multi-instalment extravaganza, put together to mark Doctor Who's sixtieth anniversary. A story involving the Doctor in multiple incarnations, meeting friends and enemies in unexpected combinations sonds like the very thing to mark the occasion, but it's also exactly what Big Finish has been churning out in quantity for the last few years. With the company now given over to almost pure nostalgia, this is business as usual. I bought the first two releases almost out of a sense of obligation, rather than expecting anything new.

Admittedly, the idea of having the Doctor pushed back through his lives in a catastrophic "degeneration" is a fun one, and a good way of having multiple Doctors involved without just having them taken out of time or just bump into each other as they usually do. For real impact, though, this should be the current Doctor - indeed, setting this right after "The Power of the Doctor," with the Doctor regenerating back into David Tennant and then through all their past lives would tie in beautifully - but BF aren't allowed to do that. Instead, this is during the Time War, and we're not even clear on which Doctor has been injured. (It seems that it's probably the Eighth, going by the TARDIS sound effects and McGann's notable absence, but this isn't certain.)

It's also one of those conceits that would work better on screen than, in which case it would look essentially the same as the mysterious guardians of the Doctor's subconscious in the aforementioned "Power." On audio, there's just about enough variation between the different actors' voices for the incarnations to differentiate, with only Tom Baker and McCoy really distinctive enough from a single line to truly stand out. I also can't help but wonder: what's he wearing? Are his clothes changing too, or is he repeatedly regenerating while wearing the same, now doubt rather careworn, outfit?


First up is this episode from Robert Valentine, which does precisely what you'd expect it to. The Doctor settles on the form of Tom Baker, arriving back on Earth on the trail of the Monk, who he's sure has something to do with all this. (What the Doctor can and cannot remember seems to change per scene in this series.) For his own benefit, the Monk has abducted Sarah Jane, straight from her mistaken drop-off point in Glasgow, mere moments after The Hand of Fear. This is a nice touch, albeit one that plays merry hell with established contintuity, but that doesn't seem to be much of a priority with this series, and rightly so.

Rufus Hound is entertaining as always as the Monk, and Sadie Miller continues to do a good job of filling her mother's shoes as Sarah Jane. UNIT get involved, with both Jenna Redgrave and Ingrid Oliver returning as Kate Stewart and Osgood. While it's fun to hear this collection of characters together, there's really nothing else to it. A group of the most generic aliens you could hope to avoid turn up and cause complications, and the entire thing unfolds predictably. "Past Lives" just about works as the launch to a series, leaving us with more questions than answers, but barely works as an adventure in its own right,


The second episode, written by the reliable James Goss, is far better, giving us an original concept as the basis for the story. In the twilight days of the universe, a high-end art gallery displays works cribbed from civilisations in their final moments. Only it seems to be that, quite impossibly, they're all by the same artist. The Doctor, settling on his cricketiest form, arrives looking for a Time Lord so he can sample some DNA (buy them a drink first), and his clone-ish daughter Jenny arrives on the trail of the mystery of the artworks.

There are two big draws for this release. One is having real-life father and daughter Peter Davison and Georgia Tennant playing fictitious father and daughter together. Unfortunately, Big Finish already did that, ten years ago, for their fiftieth anniversary release. As you might expect, the two of them have wonderful chemistry together, and Davison's perfected older, grumpier version of his Doctor works well with the fast-witted, enthusiastic Jenny. Yet it again feels so predictable, bringing them together on the basis that, well, that's what we do for the anniversary, right?

The other draw is the inclusion of the Curator, played here by Colin Baker, giving us not one, but two, classic Who actors in the role. Given that the whole point of this series is that the Doctor is jumpig between faces, having Baker the Second in here as well seems a bit superfluous. Fortunately, the story makes it worthwhile, giving us a truly intriguing and affecting tale of the Doctor's far, far off future. This is seemingly a long way beyond the days when he was even calling himself Curator, now retired at the end of time and painting planets as they are about to bite the dust. Baker gives a lovely, melancholy performance that's similar to, but distinct from, the Sixth Doctor.

Again, there are oddities to ponder. I'm fine with the idea that the Curator varies his appearance over time, either by regenerating again or simply picking a face for the week, but shouldn't the Doctor recognise that face? Given that this is seemingly the Eighth (or later) Doctor, just wearing the face of the Fifth, isn't he surprised to meet someone wearing the face of the Sixth? Also befuddling is that the Doctor is now fully aware of his daughter's existence, again bringing into question when this takes place for him, or just how memory is supposed to work in these stories.

Quibbles aside, though, "The Artist at the End of Time" is a strong story, giving apocalyptic stakes in the most genteel, personal way. On this basis, I think I'll give the third episode a try, but whether I can be persuaded to stay for the whole story is another question.

Thursday 15 June 2023

In recognition of the fortieth anniversary of The Black Adder (which means it's perilously close to my fortieth as well), why not take a quick look at my complete, exhaustive historical coverage of the whole bloody saga at Television Heaven?


Sunday 11 June 2023

REVIEW: Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse


I will attempt to keep this review fairly spoiler-lite, as while I'm eager to gush about all the wonderful things in this film, it's also one where much of the fun comes in spotting and experiencing things for the first time. If you haven't seen it yet, and you're not certain whether you'll bother to go, I say: go see it. If you're in any way a Spider-Man fan, you will love this movie. Somehow, Phil Lord and his team have managed to make a sequel that is superior to the original, which was already the best Spider-Man movie of all time.

Lord is the only one on the lead team who's come back for this one, again acting as chief writer. He's joined by his film-making parter Christopher Miller, who was credited as one of the many producers last time, and Ant-Man and Zombieland scripter Dave Callaham. There's a completely new se of directors, with Joaquim dos Santos and Kemp Powers making their directorial debuts after much animation experience, and jined by Justin Thompson. That seems like a risk, when the first film came together so perfectly, but this large team, supported by biggest animation armies in western cinema history, has created a stunning sequel.

The first film could only do so much, with so many characters and universes coming together, so certain elements went underused. This film corrects some of that. Hailee Steinfeld's Gwen Stacy gets as much focus as Shameik Moore's Miles Morales, and their hints of romance are expanded and explored this time round. It's a paradox that raising the female lead to equal status and giving her a full story of her own sits comfortably with making her a love interest, as so often female characters get to be lover or hero, and rarely both. 

This strong character focus also benefits Miles's parents, Jeff and Rio (Brian Tyree Henry and Luna Lauren Velez) and new player Miguel O'Hara, the Spider-Man of 2099 (Oscar Isaac), although Peter B. Parker, Miles's mentor from the first film (voiced by Jake Johnson) gets less focus than in the first. Still, he's clearly living his best life, having made up with MJ, now balancing his Spider-duties with fatherhood (I especially loved these bits, having had the tricky business of balancing filmgoing with looking after a wriggly nine-month-old. Thank you, Suz, for taking this one and letting me see the whole film!)


After the first film expanded to include six main Spideys, plus a couple of cameos, the only way to go was to make this bigger and better. The original Spider-Verse comic event (and its increasingly overblown and unnecessary follow-ups) made the most of their limitless scope by including just about every Spidey you could think of, and inventing several more. Across the Spider-Verse follows this lead and goes absolutely nuts. Some are major characters, such as the beloved Pavitr Prabakhar (Karan Soni) aka Spider-Man India, and Hobie Brown, here a British version of the Spider-Punk (an exceptional vocal performance by Daniel Kaluuya, whose retro-anarchist insights are frequent highlights of the film). Others have less screentime but remain important, particularly Spider-Byte (Amandla Stenberg), whose virtual reality abilties are significant and I suspect will play a larger part in the third film.

Beyond that, there are dozens of cameos, both visual and vocal, which I am certain I have barely even begun to uncover. This is a film that will benefit from freeze-framing at home in the future. The uber-angsty Scarlet Spider (Andy Samberg!) is probably the funniest, while I was very pleased to hear Josh Keaton, returning as the beloved hero of the Spectacular Spider-Man series. Once the Miles is brought to the Spider-Society, the floodgates really do open. There are good guides out there to all the many, many cameos and Easter eggs in the film, but it's more fun to try spotting them yourself. Then you have the live-action sequences as well, just enough to bring everything together (albeit the Sony-owned films)

Into the Spider-Verse was a visual extravaganza, and Across surpasses it. This is quite simply the most brilliantly and beautifully animated film I've ever seen. Not only does each of the main universe have its own style of artwork and animation, it's raised to a level of complexity and originality way beyond what we've seen before. Spider-Punk's style might be the most striking, a constantly changing array of design schools heavily influenced by scrappy, underground artwork. The use of colour in this film is just stunning, not only for how visually rich and engaging it makes the film, but how it tells the story. Gwen's world is infused with stripes in the trans colours, heavily suggesting a deeper meaning to her story and her father's acceptance (although I missed the blatant trans flag badge on Captain Stacy's jacket). When Miles shifts to Earth-42, purple and green suddenly become prominent, notably in his own clothes, hinting at the eventual surprise (albeit very well signposted) ending.

The decision to use the Spot as the main villain is inspired. As well as being one of the most visually arresting villains in Spider-Man's rogues gallery, his ability to create holes into another dimension is clearly only a step away from reality jumping. Jason Schwartzman is great in the role, perfectly handling the comedy and tragedy of the character. The fact that the Spot is normally such a lightweight villain makes this work perfectly, with even the heroes dismissing him until it's too late. Plus, it's revealed that his existence is very much Miles's fault (albeit unwittingly), as is the threat to Pavitr's reality and the Multiverse altogether.

For all the incredible visuals and fan-pleasing elements, the reason Across the Spider-Verse works so well is that the writers recognise that none of this matters without a strong story. Indeed, story is a fundamental theme of the script, with Miles, Gwen, Miguel et al being made painfully aware of their status as characters in a larger narrative, one which has predestined their fates and can't be fought with. From Gwen's reluctance to become involved with Miles because she knows what happens to Gwens in Spider-Man stories, to Peter B's acceptance of Uncle Ben's death as essential for his and other Spiders' lives as heroes, acceptin or fighting against ones pre-written fate is the core of the story. 

The concept of Canon Events is basically identical to the fixed points in time from Doctor Who... which eventually showed that these points aren't so fixed at all, even if changing them can have catastrophic consequences. That era of the show also gave us the beautiful line, "We're all stories in the end. Just make yours a good one." Miles vows to do exactly that, fighting against the ending fate has written him, while wrestling with the revelation that this wasn't supposed to be his story in the first place. He fights to do what's right, to protect the people he loves, in spite of the entire Multiverse standing against him. It's a brilliant way of keeping his story focused and personal while the overarching plot is beyond the cosmic, something that's key to it still working as a Spider-Man story. 

From the very beginning, though, the filmmakers realised that all this was too big to fit into one film, so, even at almost two-and-a-half hours, Across the Spider-Verse is only halfway through its story. Ending on a pitch perfect cliffhanger, it leaves the upcoming Beyond the Spider-Verse in a daunting position. Surely they can't outdo themselves again?

Thoughts and observations

  • The nods to the MCU were fun, even though rights presumably prevented them from using any actual material. Particularly nice was the inclusion of Miles's best friend Ganke, poking fun at the nature of his MCU equivalent Ned.
  • Donald Glover - the original template for Miles and his voice on Ultimate Spider-Man: Web Warriors - returns as the MCU version of Aaron Davis, following his appearance in Spider-Man: Homecoming.
  • As well as the comic event Spider-Verse and the earlier Spider-Men series, these films owe a debt to USWW, which first gave us alternative Spider-worlds with their own signature animation and art styles.
  • Spot's exploration of alternative Earths is fun, but his arrival in the "Sony Spider-Man Universe" - you know, the one with no actual Spider-Man in it - is a bit pointless, seeming to exist purely to remind viewers that Sony is still releasing those films for some reason.
  • Preston Mutanga's Lego-verse sequence is a highlight. Hats off to the filmmakers for reaching out to him and offering him the chance to be involved.
  • Every version of J. Jonah Jameson is voiced by J. K. Simmons, and frankly I'm not sure anyone else can play him ever again.
  • The papery, Rennaissance version of the Vulture is a brillaint addition, even if he does get rather forgotten about as the story gets going.
  • Characters I want to see more of in the final film: Spider-Byte, Issa Rae's  version of Jessica Drew/Spider-Woman, and the horsebound hero the Web-Slinger.
  • Characters to bring into it: Hobie Brown as the original Prowler, just to complicate matters.