Saturday 18 May 2024

TREK REVIEW: DIS 5-7 & 5-8

 5-7: ERIGAH
 5-8: LABYRINTHS


Two solid episodes that ramp up the tension now that Michael Burnham's mission - and Star Trek: Discovery itself - are running out of time. I find I haven't a great deal to say about these two; they're extremely competently made episodes with some tight direction, some very nice performances from the regulars and nothing too unsual or experimental. There are some intriguing additions to Trek lore, with a real sense of history being built up. This latest series has felt connected to the wider Trek universe in a more organic way than in previous seasons.

"Erigah" works well due the continual increase in tension. There's some decent action, yes, but it's the gradual ramping up of the state of emergency as the Breen come after L'ak. We know this isn't going to end well, and there's a sense of doomed inevitability about the crew's attempts to stave off the upcoming conflict.

There are two threads to "Erigah" (I wish they'd made up a different word. I wondering who Erica is). Primarily we have the stand-off with the Breen, revolving around Starfleet's holding of Moll and the terminally injured L'ak (and whose fault is that Michael?) Making L'ak the Scion of the Breen Imperium, heir to their throne, is maybe a bit much, but it gelps up the stakes even more. Primarch Ruhn will stop at nothing to have him back so that he can use him to take overall power of the Imperium, with the erigah as the perfect excuse to pursue him.

There's some lovely work by Eve Harlow and Elias Toufexis. They completely sell the unique bond Mol and L'ak share, a love that unites them even across two very different species. Harlow, in particular, excels at the quieter, more anguished moments, far better than her gung-ho bad bitch persona, although it does suggest that this is just a front she puts on to survive in the dangerous world she inhabits.

Also shining in this episode is Callum Rennie as Rayner, who gets some deeper backstory here. We learn that Kellerun was conquered by another Breen Primarch in his lifetime, leaving the planet wasted and his family dead, among many others. It makes sense that Kellerun would be in the Breen's path, just as it makes sense that Rayner's been to the Badlands. They're all part of the same area of space, the DS9 neck of the woods. Rennie gives a very believable performance as someone trying to keep it together when faced with the people who destroyed his world as "collateral damage." From what we've seen of the Breen so far, you can't help but think his hatred of them is understandable; L'ak is the only one we've seen who has any redeeming features.

While it seems pretty brutal that Starfleet hands Moll over the Breen, it's hard to see what else they could have done. Frankly, the Federation were pushing their luck holding her and L'ak at all when the Breen demanded them. Still, Moll gets on fine, at least as far as the next episode.

The other thread deals with the mysterious metal card that they apparently picked up when they got the most recent puzzle piece. Stamets, Tilly, Adira and Book (for some reason) work on this clue to try to find out where the final piece is. This is a lot less engaging than the A-plot, but it has its charms. I love the idea that the Betazoids use what is, essentially, psychometry, imbing objects with telepathic impressions that can impart information. The reveal that the object is a library card is lovely, as is the entire aside with Jet Reno (still the most watchable character in the entire series thanks to Tig Notaro's perfect delivery), who used to peddle books for a shady antiquarian (blatantly this is Pelia from Strange New Worlds). So it's off to the Eternal Gallery and Archive for the final piece of the puzzle.

"Labyrinths" is a much calmer affair, although there's still a building tension as the Breen are never far away. It's fun to visit the Badlands, realised in a truly astounding set of visuals that are fully in keeping with its appearance on DS9 and Voyager, but more intricate and dynamic. The eventual reveal of the Archive, nestled in the eye of the storm like a castle beneath the clouds, is absolutely beautiful. 

It's pretty obvious that the Betazoid book will aslo be telepathic and draw Burnham into a mental exercise. While the script continues to remind us that Burnham is under threat while she's in the mindscape, it still feels very leisurely. Martin-Green plays it all very well, particularly Burnham's mounting frustration that gives way to calm acceptance. The tests surrounding the clues are becoming increasingly esoteric, but it at least means each step feels earnt. 

David Ajala gives a beautiful twin performance, as both Book and the avatar in Burnham's mind that takes his shape. For the latter he affects a subtly more proper accent and careful enunciation, which fits in nicely with the quiet characterisation, not to mention the Time Lord robes he's kitted out in. For the former he gives it his all when confronted with the clipping from a Kwejian world root, one of the last remaining pieces of Book's homeworld. I get a feeling this will tie in with the Progenitor tech's ability to recreate life and ecosystems (if they remake the planet Kwejian in the last episode I will not be at all surprised). Ajala gives a beautiful performance as Book is overcome with emotion. Not for the first time I feel that he's better than the material he's given deserves,

However, the stuff on the Breen ship drags the episode back. It's the only thing that really lets this pair of episodes down. The Breen politicking isn't all that interesting once you're in the middle of it, and the fact that the Breen all look the same and sound very similar makes it next to impossible to follow who's talking. It's even more difficult to tell them apart when they're speaking Breen, but it's at least alien and threatening, unlike the bickering in slightly modulated English.

Moll performs a classic bit of turning-the-henchmen-against-the-main-villain, but it's still hard to credit that she's seemingly managed to put herself in charge of this faction of Breen. Still, it should lead to an interesting final confrontation as we approach the grand finale.

Oh, and Reno should have a spin-off where each episodes shows us a story of one of her historic odd jobs.

Character points:
  • Yeah, T'Rina speaks Breen. You can't get anything by her.
  • Is Saru even in this show anymore?
  • Reno used to run a bar making cocktails called Seven of Limes, and worked as an engineer for the Hysperians, the Ren Faire-styled human colony to which Billups belongs on Lower Decks.
  • Pros to having an English actor on the cast: getting to hear someone say "shite" on Star Trek.
Alien life forms:
  • Betazed had no colonies in the 24th century.
  • The Breen, it appears, engage in scarification to signify marriage.
  • Hy'rell, the chirpy librarian lady, appears to be an Efrosian. This species, also known as Atreonids, appeared in the original cast movies; notably, the Federation President in Star Trek VI was Efrosian.
  • Ships seen in "Erigah:" USS Locherer, USS Credence, USS LaMar and USS Excalibur-M.
  • The Breen dreadnought is ridiculously mahoosive.
Dialogue disasters:

 "Labyrinth... labyrinth... oh, it's a maze!"  Well done, bullet.

Friday 17 May 2024

WHO REVIEW: 14-2 - "The Devil's Chord"


Of the two episodes chosen to launch the latest series, "The Devil's Chord" is easily the bigger. Everything about this episode is loud, confident and over-the-top. That doesn't necessarily equate with being better, though, and while "Space Babies" had some hidden depths, "The Devil's Chord," while a lot of fun, is basically shallow.

This is Doctor Who as pure spectacle, and on that basis, it works. 99% of this is down to Jinkx Monsoon. From the second she crawls out of that piano, she owns the episode. The Maestro is a character that starts out at eleven and cranks it up from there. We've had some camp villains in the past on Doctor Who, but nothing compares to Maestro. There's a sheer confidence on display simply in having a drag queen arrive and perform as the villain of the week without ever holding back or reducing her performance. The greatest queens have always had something otherworldly about them, due to their gender fuckery and the oversized nature of the performance. Of course a timeless god would appear as a drag queen and claw their way into the universe so that it's all a little more OTT for the week.

Given that no one has a hope in wrestling the limelight away from Jinkx, the rest of the cast do well. Gatwa continues to give an intense performance as the Doctor, swivelling between emotions at full volume. Gibson is left to play the normal human being, in spite of her apparent hidden depths, and to deal with the standard genre tropes. It's slightly odd to see such wellworn time travel story beats in such an outlandishly fantastical story, but there will be plenty of people coming to this who haven't seen the whole causality discussion. The devastated wilderness is, of course, straight out of Pyramids of Mars, and is a scene that RTD's been trying to fit in the series since "The Unquiet Dead." It's visually spectacular, haunting and for most of the audience, entirely new. Gibson plays her reaction to it beautifully, as much as Ruby's giddy joy to be travelling through time with a full wardrobe to match.

George Caple and Chris Mason are pretty good as Paul McCartney and John Lennon, giving their roles a lot of heart and believability. Physically they seem to have been cast from a perverse desire to have complete non-lookalikes - are the Beatles' likeness rights just as fiendishly complex and expensive as their music rights? At least they can act and sing. The less said about the Cilla Black impersonator the better. Frankly the less said abotu Cilla Black the better, really.

It's quite bizarre though that the episode about music will be remembered mostly for its visuals (saving the song at the end, which is catchy but not nearly good enough to top off the episode). I admire RTD's thinking on the episode: rights to use Beatles' songs are prohibitively expensive, so work from the premise of a world with no Beatles music. The problem is that this leaves us with a period piece about pop music that lacks a soundtrack. What it really needs, more than anything, is for John and Paul to give us a triumphant moment when they find their muse, and for more than a few bars. Doctor Who has Disney money now, surely they could have afforded a few lines of "Penny Lane?"

Frustratingly, in spite of Jinkx's piano attacks, Murray Gold's usual audio histrionics and the genuine brilliance of "I've got a dog," there isn't much to the music here, which guts the episode. Of course, that's the point, with the Maestro leeching music and colour from the world, calling back, in fact, to the Blue Meanies in Yellow Submarine (which also featured unconvincing Beatles stand-ins).

This, though, highlights how the episode's plot doesn't make a lick of sense. Maestro crows that they are music, and they clearly feed upon it, and yet they want to stamp it out across the universe. Yes, we get some guff about wanting to reduce everything to the "pure" music of Aeolian tones, but everything else makes it clear that it's what's in the heart of the composer or player that makes it truly music. Underlining this is Maestro's desperately hungry assault on Ruby as the only human left with music in her heart. Surely they're dooming themself to slow starvation? As Ruby says, where's the win?

From the outset, there's a sloppiness to the writing here, as if they were all confident they could get by purely on spectacle. Timothy Drake lets Maestro into the universe through his musical genius, but while Maestro bangs on about it there's absolutely no indication of what his genius is. He's just a fairly enthusiastic piano teacher who apparently was too out there for the establishment. Sometimes you can get away with just telling, but this is something that absolutely needs to be shown, or it all rings hollow.

When it comes to the fantasy, the plot works fine. Maestro travels through realities by climbing in and out of pianos, wraps their victims up in musical notes and swallows quavers whole (and they're not even cheese-flavoured). This all works within the specific illogic of their character. The science fiction side mostly works just as well, from the cataclysmic potential future to the brilliant concept of using the sonic screwdriver to cancel out all sound and silence the villain. When it gets down to the actual story, though, nothing adds up. Maestro arrived in 1925 and perverted the course of musical history. Does their defeat undo all of this? Or are we now living in a world with no Elvis greats? Is Buddy Holly still living in obscurity in Texas?

Ultimately, that final song and dance number is the episode in microcosm. It looks fantastic, it's entertaining while it's on the screen, but the music is too mediocre for a story that's about the joy and importance of music. And, no, it doesn't make sense. There isn't a twist at the end of this story, other than the dance. Unless it's little Henry Arbinger hanging around, tipping us off that Maestro will no doubt be back at some point, but frankly that's barely a sharp turn of the head, let alone a twist.

Unless...

This is the first time the modern series has mentioned Susan by name. I loved the Doctor acknowledging that his younger self is living a mile or so away with his granddaughter (although the fact that this means his personal history has been altered as well is glossed over). It seems likely that we're finally going to meet Susan again after all this time. Then we have Susan Twist, who has sneakily appeared in "Wild Blue Yonder" and "The Church on Ruby Road," showing up again as a tea lady. Aside from being far more interesting than the mystery of Mrs Flood, there's the possible suggestion that twist is coming, and it's a Susan twist. I'm unconvinced. Firstly, why would you recast Susan when Carole Ann Ford is still around and acting? Secondly, I wouldn't put it past RTD to have cast an actor with that name purely to troll the fans.

I have a feeling that this episode will play better on the later rewatch once we know where all the foreshadowing is heading. Maestro may be the Toymaker's child, but it's "The One Who Waits" that remains the looming threat, presumably the same as "The Oldest One" they also mention. My money's on Fenric, but I'm probably wrong. As for Ruby's nature, there's a peculiar effect following her around. Since she turned up, characters are winking at the camera, the Doctor is suggesting trips to Star Trek, the composer is playing piano on screen and there's a full blown song-and-dance number to end an episode. The cleverest line of the episode, "I thought that was non-diagetic," could, just like all of these, be bit of fun, but taken together they suggest something strange is happening to nature of the series. Then again, maybe Murray Gold's music is so loud and intrusive that even the characters can hear it.

Maketh the Man: The Fifteenth Doctor is setting out to be the best and most variedly dressed incarnation of all. After wearing a red T-shirt and jeans in the TARDIS he changes into a Mod-ish blue pinstripe suit (it's all very Austin Powers). Given that he mentions the First Doctor living in London in 1963, I kind of wish he'd warn a black frock coat and checked trousers - that was how he dressed in the sixties, after all.

Maketh the Woman: Ruby, meanwhile, switches to a spectacular black and white number and a beehive hairdo. I'm kind of disappointed the TARDIS has a stash of wigs though, and not some kind of miraculous hairstyling system.

Cameos galore: As well as Murray Gold, costume designer June Hudson, who created the Fourth Doctor's burgundy look and the Fifth Doctor's costume, appears as the poor old dear who gets got by Maestro after playing piano. Plus there are some people from Strictly in the final dance off, but I'll be honest, I don't know them from Adam.

Beatlemania: The Eighth Doctor's companion Fitz collected Beatles albums from parallel universes. I hope the Doctor got him a copy of "I've got a dog."

Tuesday 14 May 2024

WHO REVIEW: 14-1 - "Space Babies"

Finally, I have time to rewatch and write up the new Doctor Who episodes; I should have "The Devil's Chord" up tomorrow or Thursday. And yes, I'm going with series fourteen, not season one. I understand that this is the big relaunch, but we didn't have a sixteen year gap this time, we had a thirteen month one, and then we had four specials before the season actually started. It actually feels quite comicbook-y: Doctor Who, Volume Three, Season One. Still, I just don't think it'll stick. They tried this with series five back in 2010, and that didn't even last until the DVD release. There's also the weirdness of following the sixtieth anniversary specials with season one. In old money, this is season forty.

Anyway, that's by the by. What's more relevant is that if this is the big relaunch, then "Space Babies" is a very odd choice for the first episode. A quick glance at people's responses online - when you ignore the Telegraph and the Daily Express and individual pearl-clutchers freaking out at the dreaded woke - shows that as many people hated this as loved this. Just from personal friends and acquaintances, I'm seeing long-standing fans and those tuning in for the first time deciding that no, they're not watching this crap. Then again, I'm also seeing some of my hardest of the hardcore fan friends embracing it wholeheartedly.

"Space Babies," then, is a Marmite episode, but then, I've always never had a particular like or dislike for Marmite. I enjoyed it, altough it certainly wasn't among the greats, and I sincerely doubt it will top many fans' best-of lists. I definitely enjoyed it more on second viewing. There's a lot more going on under the hood here than it appears at first, but that doesn't matter if people aren't sticking around to pay that much attention.

For one thing, this is RTD's second go at season one, episode one, and this hits a lot of the same beats as the first couple of episodes of Eccleston's series back in 2005 (and it still seems unreal that that was almost twenty years ago). On the other hand, there's the sense that RTD's learnt a lot from Moffat's stewardship, particularly the late Matt Smith era of series seven, when compressed storytelling reached a truly frenetic pace. This barely stops for breath, but when it does, it hits us with emotional scenes that have a fairytale quality to them. The snowfall in the middle of a space station is pure Moffat, as is the underlying idea that stories are vital to human development, even if that means conjuring up a bogeyman. 

So, while the essentials are there to introduce Doctor Who to a new audience finding it on Disney Plus for the first time, it's all done much faster. Back in the old series one, RTD was almost too cautious about drip-feeding the series' backstory. Ruby's been through Doctor Who 101 by the end of act two, and the Doctor's even namedropped the Rani (the only one of the other Time Lord titles we've actually heard before, so I'm even more convinced the Duchess will turn out to be her in the "Rogue" episode).

While some moments virtually replay key scenes from the Eccleston series - most notably the view of Pacifico del Rio from the space station visually echoing the view of the dying Earth from Satellite Five in "The End of the World" - there are striking differences. There's no evocative but exceptionally cheap "Outside those doors it's the New Roman Empire," this time we're right back in the Jurassic period. It's a visual extravaganza that has no bearing on the immediate plot, but serves the purpose of showing us the TARDIS can take us anywhere and anywhen. Then we have the almost gratuitous butterfly moment, which seemingly exists purely for the visual of Ruby becoming a butterfly-lizard-woman to drop into the trailer. Nonetheless, this all ties into the greater story arc of history suddenly becoming dangerously malleable, which has been running along since "Wild Blue Yonder." The "butterfly compensator" might be a stretch, but there's the sense that the rules are very much in flux now.

Most significant from a character standpoint is the Doctor's attitude to being the Last of the Time Lords again. It's a bizarre situation that RTD killed off the Time Lords, only for Moffat to bring them back and then Chibnall to kill them all again. The use of the word genocide appears significant in light of current, horrific events, but surely this was being filmed too early for that to factor in? Regardless, the Doctor isn't weighed down by centuries of guilt and loneliness anymore. He's revelling in the fact that he's still alive and enjoying the universe. It's a massive difference in characterisation. It's also significant that the Doctor is still referring to himself as a Time Lord, in spite of the revelation that he's adopted. The one doesn't cancel out the other, and I'm glad that RTD included this.

All of that, and I haven't even touched on the Doctor and Ruby as actual characters, or Gatwa and Gibson's performances. I think it would be hard to say that, whatever you think of the episode overall, they are anything less than captivating together onscreen. Gatwa's Doctor is, at once, the Doctor through and through, and completely different to previous incarnations. It's also a totally different kind of difference to how Eccleston did it back then. Gatwa is magnetically charming, unapologetically camp, joyfully alive and exuberant. He's a streak of glorious colour on the screen, embodying a Doctor who is empowered by their compassion and lust for life.

Millie Gibson, meanwhile, is almost as good as Ruby. She can't compete in the charisma stakes with Gatwa, but then, very few people can. She's gives a hugely likeable performance as a character who is convincingly swept up in the excitement of the Doctor's life, while equally terrified by it and haunted by her own questions of her past. The description Gatwa's given of the characters as naughty schoolfriends really comes through in this episode; they're thick with each other but without any romantic or familial side. Linking them by making Ruby a foundling and playing up this new side to the Doctor's backstory is a canny move, one which provides a bond that we've never really seen between the Doctor and their companion. It also doesn't hurt that they have to be the most gorgeous Doctor-companion pair we've ever had.

The Space Babies themselves are the questionable part. It's a choice, certainly, making an opening episode about a bunch of hyper-educated toddlers realised by unconvincingly synced superimposed mouths, something which has never worked convincingly on film or television. It's incredibly twee, and understandably a make or break move for some viewers. On the other hand, this is, we must remind ourselves, essentially a kids' show. Some episodes are skewed more that way. It's the same with the bogeyman, a wonderfully designed creature, but one that becomes a grotty joke when we learn that it's a literal snot monster. Yet I can imagine children in the audience howling at that one. The Slitheen were an arguable misstep back in the old series one, but kids loved them and they didn't do the show any harm. Is the snot monster any different to flatulent aliens? At least the fart jokes are subtler this time.

Where the babies work, once you accept the cloying sweetness of the idea and the visual, is in the emotional impact. How can anyone not feel something when Captain Poppy reveals that she's never been hugged? (I hugged my little girl a lot during this episode.) The faux reveal that the nanny is actually Nan-E, the Nanomatrix Electroform, is then broken by the true reveal that it's a real person after all. Gold Rosheuvel is very good as Jocelyn, and when she speaks about hiding so that she and the babies wouldn't have t watch each other die, it's heartbreaking.

While it's kids' stuff on the surface, RTD's habitual anger and cynicism isn't far below. The fact that the baby-making machine has to be left active by law, churning out children who are then abandoned and left to die, is such a scathing indictment of recent American legislation (not to mention a dozen other countries around the world), that it deserved to be shouted louder. Add in a quick attack at the UK's attitude to refugees and it's clear that the silly stuff is there to sugarcoat some serious themes. Unfortunately, for all its power, the overriding theme of found family overcoming abandonment is lsot on anyone who turns on and sees a toddler in a buggy as captain of a space station and switches right off again. But the kids won't, and the sooner they hear these messages, the better.

It's all wrapped up nicely, leaving us with a hint of things to come. The sneaky bio-scan of Ruby is another thing that recalls Moffat's era, both the confusion around Amy's pregnancy and the "impossible girl" mystery of Clara, while the Doctor's steadfast refusal to take Ruby back to the day of her birth lest she cause a catastrophic paradox shows they haven't forgotten the chaos Rose caused. Doubtless this will all come into play in the final two-parter. 

Setting: 

  • Wyoming area, 150 million BC.
  • Baby Station Beta, orbit of Pacifico del Rio, AD 21,506.
Observations:
  • Brachiosaurus did indeed live around 150 million years ago, and its remains are found in the Morrisson Formation, a region that spans Colorado and Wyoming. So top marks there.
  • The bogeyman skulking about the darkened corridors had a hint of Alien about it, and its almost getting sucked out the airlock reminded me strongly of the Newborn suffering that fate in Alien Resurrection.
  • The Doctor says that they should go visit Star Trek, a crossover that RTD's been wanting to do since he first brought back Doctor Who.
  • With that in mind, having the original crew of the station wear very Starfleet-esque uniforms is a nice touch.
  • As well as the Rani, the Doctor mentions Time Lords known as the Bishop, the Conquistador, the Pedant (that'd be me) and the Sagi-Shi.
Nitpicking:
  • The Doctor states that there's no one else like them in the entire universe. There's literally two of you, mate.
Best lines:
  • "This is the worse thing that has ever happened to anyone!"
  • "Most of the universe is knackered, babes."
  • "I've met a million ugly bugs - I'm an ugly bug!"
  • "No one grows up wrong."

Monday 6 May 2024

TREK REVIEW: DIS 5-6 - "Whistlespeak"

 A nice change of pace this week after the heavy lore and grand revelations in "Mirrors." "Whistlespeak" is a leisurely,old-fashioned episode that, in its own way, calls back to years of Star Trek storytelling with the sort of straightforward Prime Directive story we've seen many times before. There's nothing much here that's new, with the story suffering from the same sorts of issues these stories often have. The aliens are extremely human-like, their society feels sketched in, and they speak in an overly formalised way that can rob scenes of urgency and impact.

Still, overall this is nicely done. While they're lumbered with some stilted dialogue, the guest cast is uniformly solid. June Laporte is the standout as young Ravah, who's likeable enough that it's genuinely unsettling when they willingly going towards their death. It's also a nice touch that Laporte, who is non-binary, gets to use they/them in the episode. The Halem'nites explicitly recognise three genders, so just because they're at an earlier stage of development doesn't mean they don't get to be progressive. I'm sure the anti-woke crowd is spitting blood again.

There are other elements that add to the reality of this world. Cloud seeding with silver iodide is a tried-and-tested method of rain generation, while whistlespeak itself is used for long-distance communication by cultures all over the world. The sonic treatment that causes the elder woman to cough up the dust that's ravaging her lungs is more questionable, but there are similar techniques used in Asia with anecdotal effectiveness. It's a great moment, though, with the Starfleet interlopers shown that an allegedly primitive culture have achieved the same results as their high technology has.

Indeed, in spite of some very impressive tech on display here - I particularly like the contact lens tricorders - there's a nice theme of there always being someone more advanced elsewhere. While the Federation has technology that looks like magic to the Halem'nites - and has done for at least eight hundred years - the Progenitors have tech that massively outstrips them. The Halem'nites worship the creators of the weather towers as gods, but it's not really much different to how Starfleet look at the Progenitors. Again, this is wellworn stuff from classic Prime Directive stories (the good ones, at least), along with the resolution. The Denobulan scientists (a nice bit of detail) who installed the weather towers saved the population from drought, but altered their social development for centuries, leading to a religion obsessed with blood sacrifice (albeit in a terribly sanitised way). Burnham's interference is less a breach of the Prime Directive than partly putting right an earlier breach, much like many of Kirk's actions back in the day.

As for the regulars, it's very much a Tilly episode, with Mary Wiseman providing the heart and humour of the episode. I like that the bigger girl gets to be the "queen of endurance" here. The script takes pains to remind us that Tilly's now a teacher, obviously so we're not surprised when she goes back to the Academy (and to star in her own series, almost certainly). She shares great chemistry with Laporte, as does Martin-Green with Alfredo Narciso as Ravah's father Ovahz.

Back on the ship, outside the main storyline, the focus is on Culber, as he tries to come to terms with his experience as a temporary host for the Trill scientist's consciousness in episode three. This ties in nicely to the spiritual themes of the episode, and the balance between science and faith, Culber being convinced there's a physiological reason for his changed outlook and feelings. Stamets is being extra spesh and can't fathom why his husband might feel different after a) dying and being resurrected and b) hosting a centuries-old alien consciousness. You'd think Hugh would speak to Adira more about it, given that they still are hosting a centuries-old alien consciousness. There's a strange story thread involving Culber's spending time with a holographic recreation of his abuela, which, while not entirely unheard of in Trek terms, veers close to Black Mirror territory when he starts considering recommending it as therapy. I expect he'll be essential to the eventual realisation of how to use the Progenitors' tech once it's finally recovered.

Bits and pieces:

  • The eventual discovery of the next puzzle piece was ridiculously throwaway - basically, "Oh yeah, we beamed into that other tower and there it was."
  • Although it's generally assumed the Denobulans joined the Federation, there's no indication of whether they were members when the towers were set up on Halem'no or if they are in the 32nd century.
  • Why is the control unit for the tower miles away in the woods? And why is it leaking radiation? The Denobulans really didn't think this through, did they?
  • Given that they were looking for planets that suffered droughts in the distant past, I wondered if they'd be heading back to the Crepusculan planet Burnham and Georgiou visited back in the first episode of Discovery. That might have been a nice touch, although they'd need some serious disguises.
  • Kovich gets ever more mysterious. He owns some 21st century legal paper, for some reason. I'm wondering if it's going to turn out he bought it firsthand in the 2020s and is either a time traveller or hundreds of years old.
  • We've got a full list of 24th century scientists involved in the mystery now: Jinaal Bix of Trill; Vellek of Romulus; Hitorishi Kreel of Denobula; Carmen Cho from the Mirror Universe; and Marina Derex of Betazed (named after Marina Sirtis, I assume).
  • Culber's Mofongo con pollo looks delicious and I am definitely getting some plantain and having a go at making it.



Saturday 27 April 2024

TREK REVIEW: DIS 5-5 - "Mirrors"

We reach the halfway point of the final season with a strong episode that gets away with being the second bottle episode in a row by keeping things interesting with character moments, lore revelations, new questions and some effective action sequences. Yes, it's a bottle episode but it doesn't feel like it, partly due to cleverly pinching the sets from another series. There will, however, be a couple of big spoilers below the cut.

Sunday 21 April 2024

TREK REVIEW: DIS 5-4 - "Face the Strange"


Time travel episodes are always fun, and "Face the Strange" is no disappointment there. Even though this is very clearly a bottle episode designed to recoup some of the money spent on the big flashy openers (and no doubt even bigger, flashier series end), it uses its limitations well. Given that Trek has done a lot of time travel episodes before, including a number that saw a central character jump back and forth through their timeline, there was inevitably a sense having seen this before. However, the episode embraced that, referencing a number of the time travel episodes from the past, but in a natural way. There's a bunch of references in this episode that make the die-hard fans go "aha!" but just sound like extra colour to the less obsessed viewer, which is exactly how it should work.

In the past, when we've had a character thrown back and forward through time, it's generally just been them alone, struggling to convince the rest of the crew of what's going on: Picard in TNG "All Good Things;" Kes in VOY "Before and After;" and Chakotay in "Shattered." The last of these is perhaps the most similar to this, as there the ship had been thrown into different points in its timeline, while here, Discovery itself is being thrown back and forth, along with its crew. The difference here is that we have two characters working together, able to rely on each other, with Burnham and Rayner unaffected thanks to being mid-transport at the very moment the time bug activated. (I love that: time bug. Such a simple, silly sci-fi idea, and such a simple name. On Voyager they'd have called it a "chronometrically disaffected ambulatory arthropod" or something.)

As much as the central idea of shifting everyone else along the timeline doesn't quite make sense (where do all the crew in the future when they're dead? Where does Airiam come from when it goes back to the past?) it's a fun conceit. It's also a good opportunity to finally have Rayner work closely with Burnham and adjust to her way of doing things; had he carried on being an immovable object much longer, he would have become tiresome. 

The episode is focused on the theme of change, and it works so well as a final season instalment it's surprising it was written before they knew the series was ending. Like "All Good Things," this works well because the series has changed so much since its first series. Having Rayner there, who wasn't present for the earlier episodes, underlines this, as he can act as an external observer to remark on this. In this regard, it works better than Voyager's "Shattered" or the quite similar-in-approach "Relativity" (down to the scene on the ship pre-launch), where, in spite of characters coming and going, the series still felt much the same throughout. 

It's gratifying that the writers remembered that Stamets exists slightly outside of time, calling back to the previous (and somewhat better) season one time loop episode "Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad." This allows a third character to take part in the time-jumping proceedings, but in a different way, affected by the jumps but aware of them. (Really, what the hell happened to him while they were all dead?) It was nice to have Hannah Cheeseman back as Airiam one last time, and frankly they should never have killed off a character with such potential. Ultimately, the time jumping was worth it to see today's more measured Captain Burnham face off against her angry, chip-on-her-shoulder mutinous younger self. (A touch of the Captain America fighting himself there; she could do this all day, I bet.)

Other bits to like: breaking the warp bubble, with a (fairly solid) conception of what suddenly falling out of warp would do to time relative to the ship's frame of reference when back in normal space; a fun, gruesome intro that shows us just how much Moll and L'ak aren't to be messed with (and that L'ak seems to be the more timid and weary of the two); the jump forward to a ruined Federation being genuinely eerie and foreboding. The only disappointment there was that it really looked like we were getting a glimpse at what led to the situation from the Short Trek "Calypso," when Discovery has been abandoned and Zora has continued to evolve into a sophisticated but lonely being. While clearly that scene was meant to evoke the mini-episode, it can't be related, showing instead a different future that, presumably, Burnham and crew will avert.

A fun, standalone adventure then, but it'll be good to get moving with the main storyline again after treading water for an hour.

Looks back and forward:

  • Pretty clear now that the Breen are set to be the big bad this season, being the main bidders for the Progenitor tech and out to take down the Federation.
  • We get the briefest of glimpses at a 32nd or 33rd century Breen ship.
  • Kind of nice that we see the Golden Gate Bridge out the ship's window while it's still in drydock, seeing as it was the Breen who destroyed it 120 years later during the Dominion War.
  • I thought the lizardy guy who sold Moll and L'ak the time bug looked familiar, but couldn't place the species. Apparently he's an Annari, from the Voyager episodes "Nightingale" and "The Void." It makes sense that this far in the future, species from all over the galaxy can turn up.
  • Also from the Delta Quadrant, the time bug is Krenim technology left over from the Temporal Wars. Again, it makes sense that the Krenim, who used time as a weapon, would have been involved in that.
  • This might be the first time travel episodes that sees someone jump into the middle of an earlier time travelling trip.
  • We got some great Linus and Reno moments in this episode.
  • The title's a nice nod to the episode's theme: a line from Bowie's classic "Changes."

Tuesday 16 April 2024

TREK REVIEW: DIS 5-3 - "Jinaal"

After a cracking start to the season, the third episode of Discovery is a middling affair that suffers from trying to do too much at once. There are four main plotlines running through this, which is perfectly fine for a serialised story, but as Discovery is trying to manage that middle ground between serial and episodic adventures, none of it really gets the time it needs to thrive. 

The core story, the quest for the galactic puzzle pieces, brings us to Trill, a planet we were bound to go back to if only to resolve Adira and Gray's story. There's some deep Trill lore on offer here, with the zhian'tara ritual performed again - Jadzia Dax manifested all her past hosts using this on DS9, with Ezri using it to manifest her murderous past host Joran in the final season. Those weren't portrayed in the same way, and what we have here is closer to the original, with Jinaal, the first host of the Bix symbiont, taking control of Culber's body, while the rickety old lady its currently inhabiting just waits for permission to die.

Thanks to Wilson Cruz, this is by far the most successful part of the episode. He gives a great performance as Jinaal, tweaking everything about his persona: his vocal delivery, his walk, his overall demeanour all change, without ever being over the top. Jinaal is a lot of fun to be around, thoroughly enjoying the chance to go for a walk in the wilds after centuries of being a quiet voice in a succession of heads. This section of the quest really is contrived: those old scientists expected someone to find the previous clue, decipher it, find the right Trill who by rights was expected to be dead by now, seek out their new host, and then go on a perlious journey, survive a monster encounter and still be around for when said Trill reveals the next piece still, luckily, hiding under a rock. 

Still, it's fun, with Michael and Book making a good team as usual, always more enjoyable to be with when they're out causing trouble and getting into scrapes. It's always strangely reassuring to be back in a quarry standing in for an alien planet, and while the big, bug-like monsters are a little generic, watching the adventurers work out how to deal with them while trying to not get killed is entertaining.

Meanwhile, Adira and Gray have an awkward but mature conversation about their relationship, which basically means they break up. This is the least interesting part of the episode, in spite of Blu del Barrio's attempt to keep things engaging. Even the chemistry they shared with Ian Alexander isn't present anymore. Frankly, now that Gray's got his body back and isn't haunting his ex, he's not a very interesting character. Gray and Adira were once two parts of the same being, which was fascinating and gave the actors something to work. Now they're in a long-distance relationship and it's not working for them or the story.

Back on the ship, some more engaging relationship antics are going on with Saru and T'Rina, who have their first, very mild-mannered argument, when the Kelpien does the man thing and tries to protect his fiance's interests in the political arena. This rather overshadows his first assignment as ambassador, but Doug Jones and Tara Rosling keep the scenes working. T'Rina is proving to be a quietly awesome character; she should end up president of the whole Federation. I suspect we'll see something of the Vulcan purist threat in future (a 32nd century follow-up to the "logic extremists" of the 23rd, I suppose).

Finally, a fun but throwaway run of difficult introductions for the backbenchers and job-doers as new Number One, demoted Commander Rayner does the worst breaking-the-ice in workplace history. There are some entertaining titbits in the crew's 20-word party pieces, but mostly this is here to expand upon the friction between Rayner and Tilly. It works, but feels unnecessary to the story, using up time that might be more valuably spent elsewhere.

That kind of sums up the episode. It all works, just about, but the balance is off, and while it's a perfectly watchable instalment, it's a bit of a disappointment after two such strong opening episodes.

Nods, winks, promises and revelations:

  • It turns out that Trill spots form a pattern that is unique to the individual, like human fingerprints or Saurian ridge scales.
  • On the subject of Saurians, they are revealed to reproduce parthenogenically, with Linus having already laid several clutches. Perhaps he'll look up his descendants.
  • It's said that it's unusual for a Trill symbiont to live 800 years, but not unheard of, with Bix having made it this far but being on its last legs (metaphorically speaking). That almost seems included just to rule out a new version of Dax, who would be 1273 by now (the Dax symbiont was born in 2018, fact fans). We can hope though.
  • Starship watch: we glimpse the USS Locherer, named for the late cameraman JP Locherer who got a nod in the credits of "Red Directive." 
  • The diplomatic conference includes a Selay, who previously appeared in the first season TNG episode "Lonely Among Us," as well as in a couple of cameos since. This one is quite redesigned since then, and is reddish instead of green.
  • There's a second mention of the Breen Republic, so I'd not be at all surprised that those icy bastards turn up this season.
  • Next, we're off to Tzenkethi space - could we finally, after all these years, find out what they actually look like?

Wednesday 10 April 2024

TREK REVIEW: DIS 5-1 & 5-2

5-1: RED DIRECTIVE 
5.2: UNDER THE TWIN MOONS

(SPOILERS WITHIN)



After two years, Star Trek: Discovery returns with its fifth and final season. We'd been promised something special with this run, with the showrunners intending to deliver something that even the naysayers of this divisive series would enjoy, and that was before it was decided it wouldn't be renewed. The double-episode season opener delivered on that promise, giving us a pair of episodes equally rich in action, mystery and heart.

"Red Directive" starts with an almost absurdly action-packed teaser that sees Burnham surfing on the hull of a starship, before jumping back to the events that lead up to this. I'm not sure Trek has done this before; it reminds me of classic episodes of The Outer Limits. It's a fun introduction, but borders on being too much; hasn't every season Discovery season opener had Burnham in freefall in space somehow? In a way, it's comforting: for all the promise of this being season doing something different, it's still full of OTT action setpieces, and Michael still has to place herself right in the centre of the action.

It isn't long before we learn of the Red Directive itself, seemingly 32nd century Starfleet's highest priority order, put in place for when it's absolutely imperative something doesn't fall into enemy hands. It was open knowledge that this season was going to have a quest element that revolved around some galactic mystery. However, I don't think anyone expected for it to act as a sequel to a sixth season episode of The Next Generation that'snow over thirty years old. "The Chase," while designed as a way to silence critics who couldn't suspend disbelief at a galaxy full of human-shaped aliens, was a fun episode that hinted at deep mysteries of the Star Trek universe. Sure, the science was wonky, but when isn't it on Trek? We already knew that no one writing for the franchise understands how evolution works.

It's a story that, in retrospect, is begging for further exploration. If anything, the chase across the galaxy was a bit lacklustre in the 24th century, and this longer, more action-packed version is far more entertaining. On the other hand, the original version had the Progenitors hiding clues in our very DNA; this time, they've scattered bits of a stone jigsaw puzzle across the galaxy, which isn't quite as fun from a sci-fi perspective. Still, it allows for lots of Indiana Jones-esque gallivanting across the place, exploring ruins and colourful locations and getting into scrapes. 

This means new planets - two in two episodes! Sometimes it feels like this series forgets what its name is. Q'Mau is a classic desert world with a hint of the Tatooine to it, while Lyrek, the world with the twin moons, is a proper, Republic Serial jungle adventure location, with haunted ruins and killer mechanisms, albeit a bit more on the high-tech side. Lyrek calls back to The Next Generation as well: while it mostly recalls the weaponry showground of Minos from season one's "The Arsenal of Freedom," it's actually a tombworld of the long-dead Promellians, whose abandoned ship caused trouble for the Enterprise in season three's "Booby Trap." It's a fun detail that the Romulan ship that kicks all this off is almost as old in the Discovery era as the Promellian ship was in The Next Generation.



There's plenty more callbacks but, unlike in Picard's final season, none of feels gratuitous. It all adds to the sense of a rich universe, full of history. Making an obscure, one-off Romulan character one of the greatest scientists in the universe is a nice touch, as is washing up a classic Romulan starship. There's also Fred, the delightful Soong-type android - sorry, synth - who's been knocking around since at least the 26th century. It's nice to see Data's family is still going strong in the far future (and we're bound to see more of Fred, just as soon as Culber and Stamets get him fixed up).

Which isn't too say there isn't plenty of new material here. Eve Harlow and Elias Toufexis are great fun as dastardly duo Moll and L'ak, whose simple money-motivated approach makes for a nice contrast to the high-minded ideals of science and learning of the Federation team. Of course, Moll turns out to be Book's long-lost sort-of-stepsister, because everyone knows everyone in this universe, but this offers some promise for future tension, especally if she has links to the now-lost planet Kwejian. 

The other major new character, Callum Rennie's Captain Rayner, is a joy to watch. We may have lost our hero Shaw, but we get new grumpy, bullish officer to enjoy. However, Rayner is quite the opposite in command style, taking risks and considering the mission ahead of individual lives. We can only ask what other skeletons are in the closet if his poor decisions on Q'Mau were enough to get him forced into retirement, especially considering the sorts of breaches of protocol that Burnham, Tilly and the rest get up to on the reg. Of course, it's all an excuse to get him in place as Burnham's new Number One, in the most most predictable move of the two episodes (and one that makes a mockery of any kind of disciplinary system Starfleet has going on here). It's an interesting choice to make Rayner a Kellerun; so far, it's had no bearing on the story, but it's always gratifying when a one-off species isn't completely forgotten about. (The Kelleruns were one of two warring people's seen in the second season DS9 episode "Armegeddon Game," the one where O'Brien does take coffee in the afternoon.)

The regulars and semi-regulars are all well-served. Doug Jones in particular gets some choice material, getting some heartfelt moments with both Burnham and his now fiance T'Rina, and some very fun stuff as "Action Saru" down on Lyrek. It's always good to see Tilly back, absolutely not setting up her new role as a lead on upcoming spin-off Starfleet Academy, no-sirree (and don't ask Mary Wiseman, whatever you do). Oded Fehr and David Cronenberg get to play to their strengths as Admiral Vance and Dr. Kovich, the latter who seems to have his own personal version of the Matrix on hand for super-secret mission briefings. 

Experience tells us that Discovery has a tendency to start a season well, before floundering in the middle and rushing the ending. Still, I remain optimistic that the final season will continue to deliver. A shorter, ten-episode season will hopefully fix some of the pacing issues that have affected the series in the past, and with another four pieces of the puzzle to find, more than half of the run should be taken up with missions to mysterious planets. Next stop: Trill.


Questions, references, observations:
  • No one has any idea what L'ak's species is, and I can't help but wonder if that will be significant to the story later.
  • We're convinced that President Rillak, with her mixed heritage, will somehow be instrumental to decoding whatever miraculous technology is finally recovered from the Progenitors.
  • They've shelved the Spore Drive, much to Stamets's chargrin, in favour of the still mysterious Pathfinder Drive. Probably for the best: has everyone forgotten that they're not supposed to use the spore drive because it hurts the people on the mycelial plane?
  • Starship watch: Rayner commands the USS Antares, another well-worn Starfleet name.
  • Picard callback: the Romulan puzzlebox that kicks off the quest also had a role in that show's first season mystery.
  • Why does Moll think that a Romulan ship would be beyond the Federation's jurisdiction? The Romulans are members now, since Ni'var rejoined.
  • The sands of Q'Mau have "unknown radiative properties." That's got to come into play somehow later. I hope no one has space cancer.
  • Three cheers for everyone's favourite future knick-knacks, the self-sealing stem bolts!

Wednesday 27 March 2024

REVIEW - Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire

 This review contains some spoilers



Having relaunched the franchise again with Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Jason Reitman and Gil Kenan return with what might be described as an episode of the ongoing Ghostbusters series. In spite of some negative reviews, Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire has done well enough that it's likely we'll get a run of films, coming in every few years, continuing the paranormal exterminators' adventures. Kenan has said that he and Reitman have storylines ready to go for future movies. This, then, is basically the first regular episode after the pilot.

On the whole, I preferred Frozen Empire to Afterlife, for several reasons. First and foremost, this film was simply a lot of fun, something which seems so low on people's priorities for movies these days. Reitman and Kenan stated in interviews that they were going for the feel of an episode of The Real Ghostbusters, magnified for the big screen, and they absolutely achieve that. It's a funny, busy, silly adventure that still finds time for character work, like all the best episodes of RGB.

It massively helps that this film features a new villain, instead of the retread of the first film we got with Afterlife. Of course, it's understandable that a relaunch of the original continuity after decades would bring back the classic Big Bad for a rematch, but Afterlife reused some of those elements so slavishly it verged on a remake. Frozen Empire, on the other hand, gives us a brand new monster to threaten New York and the world.

Still, this film ostensibly ties in with the original's fortieth anniversary (although you'd have expected them to release it in June for that), and as such it has plenty of characters, ghosts and settings included as references to the past. While the Oklahoma setting of Afterlife was a breath of fresh air, it feels right that we're back in New York for this one (although excursions to other cities, state and even countries was par for the course on RGB). As with Afterlife, the bulk of the original's surviving core cast return. However, while in the previous film this was little more than a bunch of glorified cameos, here the characters feel more integrated into the story.

Winston and “Dr. Ray” benefit the most from this approach. Winston, now a hugely successful business, is now the owner of the firehouse and seemingly the Ghostbusters organisation itself, financing research and development while the new team get on with the everyday business of busting. Ray, on the other hand, is where he belongs, running his spooky little shop, helping out with research where he can and tenuously entering the 21st century with a new YouTube series on allegedly haunted artefacts. Ernie Hudson is a class act as always, wile Dan Aykroyd basically just is Ray at this point.

Less well served are Venkman and Janine, who come across as a little shoehorned in, but at least they have a reason to be there. Venkman gets to do his somewhat dodgy parapsychologist schtick in the service of the mission, while Janine finally gets to suit up, itself a much deserved reason to include her. Annie Potts seems to be having a great time, but Bill Murray comes across as running on autopilot. The final actor to return from the original is William Atherton as the hated Walter Peck, rather brilliantly now mayor of New York and still determined to shut the Ghostbusters down. He's great in the scenes he has, but he's a bit underused here. Still, it's a nice way to tie events back to the beginning without just repeating things.

It's the new cast who continue to impress the most. While it's very much an ensemble film, McKenna Grace still stands out as the star. Phoebe Spengler is now fifteen, becoming more frustrated and confrontational with her family, particularly when they acquiesce to Peck's demands and bench her until she comes of age. (Peck, like in the original, isn't wrong in his judgments, but he goes about enforcing them in a destructive way.) Phoebe gets a wonderful storyline to herself in which she bonds with Melody, the ghost of a girl who burned to death years before. Emily Alyn Lynn has a real presence as the ghost, whose friendship (and hints of romance) with Phoebe aligns with her increasing isolation and advances the plot.

Finn Wolfhard gives a solid performance as Trevor, now eighteen and struggling to prove himself as an adult and a Ghostbuster. Logan Kim is pitch perfect as Podcast, now working with Ray at the Occult Bookstore and managing his online activities. Kim has grown up a lot between films and steals a lot of his scenes with his infectious humour. A little underused is Celeste O'Connor as Lucky Domingo, who at least gets some great busting scenes interning for Winston's team.

Carrie Coon and Paul Rudd gives the film an emotional centre as Callie Spengler and Gary Grooberson, now an honorary Spengler, now a running the Ghostbusters street team as a couple. Rudd has some sweet moments as he slowly learns how to become a father to Phoebe, although he does get saddled with some awkward exposition to bring audience members up to speed with developments from the previous film.

Some of the best material goes to entirely new characters. Surprisingly essential to the story after a seemingly throwaway introduction is Kumail Nanjiani as Nadeem, a dropout looking for a quick buck who turns out to have a powerful secret hidden even from him. Nanjiani gets some of the funniest moments of the movie,carrying what could have been a ridiculous character by just running with it. I was a little dubious of James Acaster's casting, knowing him purely as a stand-up comedian rather than an actor, but his curt inventor character Dr. Lars Pinfield is a joy. Plus, it's good to have a Brit in there at the heart of the Ghostbusters team, heading up research and development for the new generation. Stealing his scene is Patton Oswalt as the enthusiastic occult historian Dr. Hubert Wartzki, although he is in the film for only a brief time. Still, he manages to make a long run of exposition highly entertaining.

When it comes to the various ghosts and goblins, Frozen Empire serves fans well. For celebratory purposes, Slimer is back, still hanging around the firehouse after Ghostbusters II and now hiding out in the attic, while Eleanor Twitty, the library ghost, has a brief cameo. The latter is pointless but fun and over in seconds, while Slimer actually has some impact on events, with Trevor having a fun little sideplot dealing with attempts to catch the critter. Of all the classic ghosts, it's Slimer who really had to be there, especially as he was absent from Afterlife. Surprisingly, given that this film follow up on the post-credits danger signs on the containment unit from the previous film and everything eventually breaks free, we don't get a ton of cameos from ghosts from the classic films. We do, however, have a lot of little Mini-Pufts running around; they're fun, but the joke's wearing thin with those guys. Time to melt them down.

There are plenty of new spooks, courtesy of Winston's new spectral research facility. Pukey, a revolting little spud, is no doubt included to be the new kids' favourite, while the simply but effectively realised Possessor makes for fun and threat as it jumps between various objects which it brings to life. Starting out with a major bust, in this case the thrilling car chase after the wonderfully realised Sewer Dragon, kicks the main body of the film off nicely, and it's satisfying that both puppetry and CGI are utilised together here.

The Big Bad for the film, the great demon Garraka, is a suitably threatening creation, an inhumanly thin, ghoulish creature with impressive horns. He's a striking image, and his power, to freeze people using their own fear, is enjoyably nasty. However, while I'm pleased that the film has considerable build-up to his eventual appearance, once he's there he's dispensed with far too quickly. It almost feels like we're missing an act, giving the film a rushed ending which badly affects its overall pacing.

Afterlife notoriously and controversially brought back the late Egon Spengler as a ghost, there to help and reconnect with his family. Here we have Melody, and while her motives are complex, she's another ghost who is very human in her thoughts and actions, rather than the monstrous manifestations we usually see. The majority of entities in these films have been godlike things far beyond humanity, virtually mindless creatures that never were human, or the ghosts of humans whose evil has made them monstrous in their afterlife. There's a lot more room for exploration here, to see more traditional ghosts who are intelligent, self-aware and altogether human, and the questions that raises for the Ghostbusters and their treatment of spirits. There could be some dramatic consequences there, along with the fact that, while they're praised as heroes at the end, the Ghostbusters and their new ally Nadeem are responsible for everything bad that happens in this film.

Altogether, Frozen Empire is good fun, and while it can't hold a candle to the original, it's a step up from Afterlife. Where it works best is in its original elements, and this is where the franchise needs to go next. While the old guard are better used here, this really should stand as the final handover to the new generation. The inclusion of the classic crew, the Spenglers and the new characters leaves this film (ghost)busting at the seams. The next film really needs to let the past go for good, focusing entirely on the modern team and more new ghosts for them to face. Let's really evoke The Real Ghostbusters and bring is some truly weird stuff.


Spoiler-y elements lifted straight from The Real Ghostbusters:

  • The possessed Ecto-1 and a haunted stone lion both appear in the first RGB season.

  • The possessed pizza brings to mind the pizza monster in the title sequence for the Slimer and the Real Ghostbusters iteration.

  • Phoebe temporarily leaving her body is not unlike the times her father was discorporalised/forced from his body in RGB.

  • Even the Mini-Pufts originated in The Return of Mr. Stay Puft, a comicbook collection from 1990.

Wednesday 20 March 2024

REVIEW: The Black Archive - Midnight by Philip Purser-Hallard

Obverse Books' Black Archive range is something of a marvel. I wouldn't have thought it was possible to find a book's worth of material to say about each and every Doctor Who story, but here we are, at the 69th volume. Philip Purser-Hallard (The Pendragon Protocol, The Vanishing Man, Of the City of the Saved...) delivers his fourth entry in the series with Midnight, analysing the 2008 episode widely considered one of modern Who's finest hours (or at least, one of its finest 43 minutes). It's even more impressive to create an engaging full-length piece on a single episode, although that this is even possible shows the depth of many of Doctor Who's 21st century episodes. Midnight itself is an episode that is crying out for a dissection like this, so it's surprising it's taken so long for the range to reach it.

In spite of episode's simple storyline and production, a consequence of the need to produce an episode cheaply and quickly before season four's big finale, it's a narrative filled with questions and room for exploration. Purser-Hallard delves into the traditions of the script, both televisual and theatrical, drawing fascinating parallels with productions both within the series (such as The Edge of Destruction) and without (Arthur Miller's The Crucible). Purser-Hallard analyses the social commentary within the episode, delving into each character's background, taking them apart to show remarkable depth for what, at first glance, may seem like sketched-in characters. He notes that the script's author, Russell T. Davies, picks out easily recognisable archetypes to populate his story, but that this adds depth and complexity without the need to spell everything about the characters out. Some of the analysis of the character names seems to be taking things a little far, though, seeing parallels that unlikely to be deliberate. Similarly, the seemingly counter-intuitive name for the planet and story, Midnight, was probably chosen for no deeper reason than it sounded cool.

Purser-Hallard takes a very writerly perspective on the episode, viewing it in context with the traditions of storytelling. As well as more contemporary forms of story, he adroitly links Midnight, with its nameless horror that steals the very voice of the protagonist, to fairytales and folklore. Even then, he brings it bang up to date by comparing it with the most recent Doctor Who episode, The Church on Ruby Road, with its own take on fairytale monsters. From a fan perspective, some of the most interesting parts of the book deal with the fiction itself. After all, with the possible exception of Listen, Midnight features the most obscure and unknowable monster of any Doctor Who story, simply asking for an essay discussing just who or what it is. Equally intriguing is the later section dealing with the Doctor's character in this episode, one which takes him to task for his many flaws; again, Purser-Hallard's essay reflects the story itself while also looking at it through the lens of the most recent Doctor Who episodes, in which David Tennant returned as an older, more refined version of his Doctor.

As effective as the main essays are, the part that was most informative for me was the appendix, which details the three stage productions of Midnight. This was news to me, and it was fascinating to read the differences between the productions in their approaches to performance and casting, backed up by interviews with some of the creatives involved. Altogether, a very strong entry to the Black Archive, giving the reader plenty to think about next time they watch this acclaimed episode.

Friday 26 January 2024

Television Heaven update

Here are all my Television Heaven articles and reviews since the last quarter of 2023 up to January 2024. Gradually picking up the pace as I slowly get back in the swing of the writing thing. We have modern and vintage telly from across the decades, beginning with the charming teen superhero series Ms. Marvel within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Perhaps the best show on television right now, never mind that it's aimed at five-year-olds: Bluey. A surprise release late last year of the pre-Python comedy series The Complete and Utter History of Britain. More up-to-date is the comedy-drama that's swept the awards lately, Only Murders in the Building. For Hallowe'en I took a look back at the Steven Moffat's take on Stevenson's classic, BBC serial Jekyll. Most recently, I polished off my teaspoons and revisited a gem from my childhood, T-Bag. And finally, I brought my overview of 21st century Doctor Who right up to date.

Tuesday 2 January 2024

WHO REVIEW: 2023 Christmas Special - The Church on Ruby Road


Doctor Who
returns with its first Christmas special since 2017, also serving as a second relaunch of the programme following the sixtieth anniversary specials. While The Church on Ruby Road has a more magical, fantastical feel than most of Doctor Who previously, and the show has been modernised since Russell T. Davies first revived the programme in 2005, it still feels very much like his recognisable style of Doctor Who.

Ncuti Gatwa finally gets to have the role of the Doctor to himself in his first full episode, and he absolutely owns the role. Of everything in the episode, it's his Doctor that stands out as a new and exciting element. I can't say I'd ever expected to see the Doctor dancing with abandon in a club, but it fits Gatwa's version of the character, one who simply throws himself into every experience. It tells us that this is a brand new Doctor, unlike any we've seen before. (William Hartnell did go to a club back in 1966 in The War Machines, but he wasn't twirling around in his vest.) The new Doctor is charming, passionate, sexy, and full of the joy of exploration and discovery. As with “Rose” all those years ago, though, we learn about the Doctor through an ordinary girl, with the Time Lord kept at a distance for much of the episode until the plot cranks up a notch (the pacing is, admittedly, a little sluggish for the much of the runtime, with a great deal of time spent on Ruby's introduction and the Doctor's flitting about on the sidelines).

Millie Gibson (Coronation Street) is excellent as Ruby Sunday, our new companion. She's immediately a very likeable character, someone we're happy to spend time around on Christmas. Her character might have come across as a somewhat generic “plucky assistant” were it not for the additional detail of her status as an orphan and foundling, which itself could have been twee had it not been written and performed with such realism and nuance. A baby left outside a church on Christmas Eve is fairytale stuff, and while this fits with festive setting and the magical nature of the adventure, it wouldn't have worked if Ruby's life wasn't so mundane and believable. Not that this translates as dull: her adopted life is clearly busy and very happy, but it's not the fantastical story her origins might suggest, and her tears when she learns there's no trace of her birth mother speaks volumes as to a deeper sadness she's hiding.

For all the claim that he was now over his baggage following The Giggle, the Doctor is also barely hiding a deep loneliness and isolation that comes out when he reflects on his origins. Davies continues to make a virtue of Chris Chibnall's new mythology of the Timeless Child, with the Doctor confiding in Ruby that he, too, was adopted after having been found, an important link between them that is bound to be explored further in the upcoming series. As both of them are searching for more truth about their origins, it's Ruby who we'll no doubt learn more about, with the identity of her mother and the reason she was abandoned surely to provide an ongoing mystery for the upcoming season. All of this secondary, though, to the immediately tangible chemistry shared by Gatwa and Gibson when they're on screen together, and it's this that makes the episode work.

Making a gaggle of goblins the enemy for the special is in keeping with RTD's more fantasy-based direction for the series, picking up on hints dropped in The Giggle that all manner of things will be finding their way into the universe. The idea of goblins being behind accidents, nudging their prey into sequences of coincidence to bind them and season them, is a fascinating one, that at once feels straight out of folklore and part of Doctor Who's peculiar, time-bending universe. The goblin plot is very much a combination of classic fantasy films, with elements of Labyrinth and Gremlins (itself a Christmas favourite), although the Goblin King, in this version, is less David Bowie and more Jabba the Hutt. The goblins themselves are a stunning creation, a horde of creatures rendered with CGI and physical performances where required, while the King himself is a huge, physical puppet with real presence, a truly loathsome creature. The goblins' ship is a thing of beauty, straight out of the highest fantasy but no more ridiculous than physics-defying spaceships. For all the Doctor enthusiastically refers to this as a new kind of science, Ruby's right when she calls it magic, and perhaps at this stage, there's really no difference.

Then we come to the most controversial element of the special: the Goblin Song. The inclusion of a festive song goes back to Davies's earliest Christmas specials, but then they were background rather than central to the action. Christina Rotondo provides the gorgeous voice of the wonderfully-named Janis Goblin, singing the gruesome song of baby-eating with goblins excitedly dancing around her. It's a show-stopper, and easily the most Labyrinth-like part of the episode (although the lyrics are a bit more Mighty Boosh). It also fits with the goblins own brand of magic, where story and rhythm seem to be the driving force. So it makes perfect sense that the Doctor, having learned the language of the goblins' science, launches into a song-and-dance number himself to fight them. Frankly, when you've actors who can sing and move like Gatwa and Gibson, you want to make the most of them, but it works with the kind of story Davies is telling this time round.

The supporting cast is largely strong. Michelle Greenridge (Afterlife, It's a Sin) is very good as Ruby' adoptive mother Carla, but the stand-out is Angela Winter (EastEnders, Death in Paradise) as Cherry, Ruby's bloody-minded, bedridden, wonderfully flirtatious grandmother. It's clear that they make Ruby's life a happy one, with Carla, foster mother extraordinaire, the rock on which the family is anchored.

All this shifts when the newest foster child, baby Lulubelle, is rescued from the goblins and Ruby is taken instead, written out of time as the creatures use the web of coincidence to go back and snatch her away as a baby. The episode shifts from Labyrinth-cross-Gremlins to It's a Wonderful Life, as Ruby's absence entirely alters the dynamic of the Sunday family's lives. The effect is immediate, with even the colouring in the scene shifting as their home becomes less vibrant and comforting. We don't see much of Cherry in this scene, but she's clearly deteriorating. It's Carla, though, who's most visibly changed, having shifted from foster mum to 33 to the reluctant carer for “five or six,” all her happiness and enthusiasm lost. Greenridge really is excellent in this scene, showing a complete change in her character who is just as forthright and outspoken, but now embittered and aggressive.

Of course, the Doctor goes back in time and puts it right, dealing with the goblins in a rather brutal fashion (he's lucky he doesn't kill the baby with his actions – or are the rules of storytelling and coincidence such that he knows his aim will be true?) Again, the pacing is odd here, with the story slowing down considerably, and while there's an emotional heft to these scenes in Ruby's past, it feels like an epilogue, rather than the climax to the story.

Some inclusions in the episode don't entirely work. Anita Dobson (EastEnders) gives a broad if entertaining performance as outspoken neighbour Mrs Flood, but her character is so obviously written as “the big mysterious guest star” that it's awkward overall. Already everyone is talking about who she's going to turn out to be, and how she knows what a TARDIS is. The best answer is that she's just a busybody who's seen Time Lords comes and go in London over the decades – it's not as if the Doctor or any of the other renegades have ever been subtle in their travels. Davina McCall's inclusion is an oddity. While Davies has spoken about her series Long Lost Family as being a partial inspiration for the episode, her involvement as a fictionalised version of herself is clunky, and her acting ability is way behind everyone else in the production. Equally clunky is the scene with Barney Wilkinson as a policeman, which is clearly there because Gatwa was kept out of the main events for too long. It's a rather sweet scene, though, and worth including.

Mark Tonderai's direction is excellent, and the effects are uniformly impressive (you can see where that Disney money is going). While the pacing issues do impact it, there's plenty of incident and excitement, and yes, while it's often silly, it's Doctor Who on Christmas Day – silliness is the point. Altogether, it's a very fun introduction to our new Doctor-companion team. Based on this, they're going to be a lot of fun to watch together, which is the single most important thing to get right in this show. 

Observations:

  • Controversial theory to piss everyone off: Lulubelle is the Timeless Child and will one day grow up to be the Doctor. She was a little black girl in her first incarnation, after all, and the Doctor did say he loved the name.
  • Good to see the trans representation continuing, with Mary Malone playing Ruby's mate Trudy.
  • The episode was the third most-watched programme on Christmas Day according to the overnights, and the most-watched drama.
  • A tenner says we meet a younger Cherry in the upcoming sixties episode and she's after the Doctor.
  • The other goblins in the goblin band are apparently called Pixie Not, Bryan Fairy and Gob Dylan.
  • The mavity thing is still going. While I suspect it'll be dealt with at some point in the upcoming series, it'd be funnier if they just called it that from now on and never commented on.
  • The Doctor talks of his "long, hot summer" with Houdini. The Thirteenth Doctor had mentioned a "wet weekend" with Houdini, but as far as I recall, the Doctor's earliest reference on screen to having met Houdini was the Third Doctor in Planet of the Spiders. So it was the Pertwee Doctor who shagged Houdini.
  • This isn't Davina McCall's first appearance on Doctor Who. She provided the voice over for the futuristic Big Brother in "Bad Wolf." Given that absolutely everyone knows what Big Brother is, and Long Lost Family has run for over ten years yet I, and no one I know, had heard of it till now, shows how far her public image has faded. RTD's first run was aggressively on-the-minute, while now he seems to be lagging behind pop culture.
Maketh the Man: We've heard already that the Doctor will be wearing a new outfit in every episode, but he actually gets through three-and-a-half in this one alone, beginning with the brown checked jacket and trousers with orange jumper from the initial promo shots, followed by an orange vest and a kilt (with and without black leather jacket), and for most of the episode, the signature look of a long brown leather coat, orange-and-striped top and blue trousers, with a final change of top at the end. Looks like this main colours will be brown and orange, but everything gets a turn here.