Monday, 29 April 2013

WHO REVIEW: 2013-5: Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS



A title like Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS promises much. The Doctor’s trusty timeship is the single central icon of the entire series from its very first episode up to the present iteration, and it seemed that, in this anniversary year, we were finally going to get right into its inner workings and see what made it tick.

Only… well, we’ve had that episode, haven’t we? Two years ago, The Doctor’s Wife showed us the soul of the TARDIS, explored its labyrinthine structure and atemporal existence. The Doctor’s Wife already gave us our exploration of the TARDIS, providing the living machine with the equivalent of an origin story for a long-serving human (or human-like) character. This, then, raised the stakes even higher for the latest episode; not only did Journey have to provide an intriguing, exciting voyage of discovery, it had to outdo Gaiman’s episode and bring us even greater, more intimate revelations about the TARDIS’s character.

Under that criterion, this episode can only be regarded as a failure. I’ll accept that, with the shields down, the TARDIS was able to be severely damaged by some relatively primitive technology, even if it does make the ship seem disquietingly vulnerable. I’ll accept that the Doctor suddenly found himself outside the TARDIS and on the salvage ship, yet Clara found herself lost within the time machine’s corridors. I’ll accept any amount of frankly illogical plotting (although I’ll still revel in pointing it out) as long as it brings us to a powerful, affecting story. Journey didn’t.

There are some nice elements to the trip through the TARDIS’s interior. The rooms that contain whole environments hark back to highly imaginative moment sin the novel line, which finally gave the TARDIS the feel of something truly gigantic (even infinite, as it is claimed here). The architectural reconfiguration system, manifested as a techno-organic tree with glowing bulbs, was visually effective. The library, despite the rather obviously CG’d stacks, was an essential inclusion, the antique look summoning the baroque stylings of the eighth Doctor’s version of the Ship. I will come back to this. However, beyond these elements and some fun echoes of the past, the TARDIS seems rather hollow. Endless corridors do not make an exciting or interesting environment, even when they loop back on themselves in order to trap their occupants. Too much of the TARDIS feels just like any old spaceship.

Later on, we take a walk by the Eye of Harmony, an element of Gallifreyan lore now reinterpreted once more into something more visually impressive. The description of a star held in stasis at the moment of collapse from supernova to black hole is a fine science fiction conceit, but the roiling ball of flame by a bridge of death makes even less sense than the Eye’s previous iterations, even in the notoriously illogical TV Movie. Once we’re past this, the Doctor and Clara make it to the core of the TARDIS, an engine room that appears to be little more than a selection of gizmos spread-eagled across space with little regard to form or function. Yes, I understand that the engine had exploded and was being held in the moment, but it’s still presented as just an engine. If we’ve been taken past the mystical Eye of Harmony and into the TARDIS’s true heart, we should really be given something more than just a spacey motor.

So, yes, that library; a room with much information to impart. For Clara to find, displayed proudly on a pedestal, a book charting the Time War and the Doctor’s role within it, is potentially a hugely significant development. Not only does it promise revelations about the Doctor’s past, it also suggests that the TARDIS is eager for Clara to discover it. I’m not entirely sure if I’m happy with the prospect of the Doctor’s ‘secret identity’ being revealed; I really don’t think he needs secrets to be exposed. I will, however, wait until the promised revelation finally arrives before making up my mind. In any case, the ongoing mysteries regarding both the Doctor and Clara come to something of a peak here, only for the developments to be completely thrown out the window by the episode’s end. Clara discovers the Doctor’s real name from the book in the library, while the Doctor (and the audience) discover that Clara is, apparently, nothing more than a perfectly ordinary young woman. Then the Doctor presses a literal reset switch and wipes the entire episode from the timeline.

MOVIE REVIEW: IRON MAN 3

SPOILERS WITHIN

In 2008, Iron Man kicked off Phase One of the Marvel’s cinematic onslaught, surprising everyone by taking a B-list superhero and turning him – and Robert Downey Jr. – into an A-list megastar. (I saw it in Singapore.) In 2010, Iron Man 2 moved on from the origin story and forced the invincible Iron Man to face up to his history. (I saw it in Incheon, Korea.) Now, in 2013, Iron Man 3 is rightly given the task of beginning Phase Two, the first Marvel film to take place after Phase One’s culmination in The Avengers, taking Iron Man both back to his roots and into new places. (I saw it in Crawley. Oh well, it can’t always be glamorous.)

Based heavily, albeit loosely, on Warren Ellis’s acclaimed ‘Extremis’ storyline for the comics line, Iron Man 3 outdoes its immediate successor by returning to what made the first film so effective – Tony Stark, sans armour, relying on his prodigious intelligence and initiative. That first instalment was one of the best superhero movies made to date, falling down only in the last act in which the inevitable machine-vs-machine battle felt oddly anti-climactic after the exemplary character work that had gone before it. The second movie bettered the first in terms of physical spectacle, but, with the exception of the engaging dynamics between Stark and Pepper Potts, lacked the same level of character work as the first. Iron Man 3 manages, for the most part, to juggle these two elements successfully, as well as managing to stay out of the imposing shadow of The Avengers.

Quite rightly, this is an Iron Man film through and through, not Avengers-lite, but the events of the superteam flick do make their presence felt in their effects on Stark’s personal life. While Stark is, for the most part, the same cocky, vain swaggerer we know and love, he is a changed man. An opening sequence set in 1999 shows us how much more mature he has become over the course of the films, while the aftereffects of the invasion of New York have left him experiencing insomnia and crippling anxiety attacks. It’s a highly effective way of re-humanising a character who was on the verge of becoming too big for his iron boots.

The emotional core of the Iron Man films is in Stark’s relationship with Pepper, which has here moved into the difficult middle stage. There are three people in the relationship now – Tony, Pepper and Iron Man, as Stark spends his every free moment tinkering with yet another iteration of his supersuit. Both RD Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow shine in their scenes together, although the abundance of characters does cut into the time they should be spending together. Still, this fits with the themes of the film, including Stark’s obsession with his work threatens to push Pepper away, and the enforced physical separation of the couple halfway through the film.

For all his emotional difficulties and his far humbler demeanour when alone with Pepper, Stark still has a great deal of confidence. When bodyguard-cum-security chief Happy Hogan (an adorable turn by former director Jon Favreau) is critically injured in a Mandarin attack, Stark makes the brash, overconfident, and incredibly stupid mistake of threatening him on national media and even giving him his address. It’s a moment when the old Tony shows through, and proves why it’s so important that he doesn’t fall back too far into his arrogant younger ways.

The aerial attack on Stark’s mansion is the film’s first major set-piece, one that cleverly separates the lead couple while reinforcing Stark’s love and protection for Pepper. It’s fine writing; earlier in the movie, Stark’s experimentation with bonding his suit to his system led to it attacking Pepper, visibly symbolising thw wedge his work was driving between them. In the attack, the suit flies to the rescue, enveloping not Stark but Pepper, showing not only how much he longs to protect her, but giving her a chance to protect him. It’s well-told, sketching in the essentials of their relationship while hinting at the eventual culmination of the film’s developments.

RD Jr’s finest scenes follow this, with him lost, dumped in the middle of snow-laden Tennessee, dragging his inert suit around behind him. Finally, Stark is back where he was at the beginning of the first Iron Man, relying on his wits, his engineering skill and the help of one unlikely companion. The inclusion of a snappy, precocious child may scream of Disney’s influence on their newly acquired Marvel property, but it works, avoiding any mawkishness by keeping Tony true to his character throughout. It doesn’t hurt that Harley is played by a very decent young actor, Ty Simpkins, who shares some genuine chemistry with RD Jr. some of the funniest moments of the film arrive during their working together, with Harley’s garage den making the ideal base for Stark’s repair work.


Wednesday, 24 April 2013

WHO REVIEW: 2013-4: HIDE




I knew there was a good chance I was going to love this episode as soon as they dropped a Ghostbusters reference in, just before the titles rolled. Not that the episode has much of a Ghostbusters feel to it; Hide come from a much earlier tradition of creepy ghost stories and pseudoscientific spiritualism, and such television greats as Kneale’s The Stone Tape. It’s long past time that Doctor Who did a proper ghost story, after dabbling with the form and feel with such episodes as The Unquiet Dead, The Empty Child and Blink. However, as much as it appeared we were finally going to have our ghost story at last, Hide changes into something quite different but no less effective.

Much of the fun in this episode comes from seeing how the story mutates as events play out, developing from a haunting to an interdimensional adventure, all the while being, underneath it all, a love story. Some commentators are even complaining now that Doctor Who is turning too many of its episodes into love stories, which is ridiculous. A love story is one of the most powerful, emotionally affecting story types ever devised and, as long as it’s done well, can be profoundly moving. It is, surely, something we can all identify with, those early, awkward glances and unspoken words that carry so much meaning. To combine it with the format of a ghost story brings fear and love, two of the most powerful, universal emotions, together.

Much of Hide’s success comes from Neil Cross’s fine script, which makes a much better case for his involvement in the series than his previous episode, The Rings of Akhaten. That script began with a love story, and then drops the protagonists, proceeded  tell us another story else entirely, only telling us how great the characters were in the final scenes. Hide shows us, letting us get to know Alec and Emma through their actions and reactions to one another, creating two very believable characters who centre the story. It’s easy to see how Cross got another commission on the strength of this script, written before Rings.

Of course, the script is nothing without decent acting and direction to bring it to life. Jessica  Raine and Dougray Scott are both excellent here, making Emma and Alec into  fully formed individuals. Between script and performance, Emma and Alec feel more real than any other character we’ve met so far this year, including Clara, now on her fourth episode and still feeling a little sketched in, in spite of some nice character moments and a fine performance by Coleman. Part of this is down to Raine and Scott’s acting style; both give very naturalistic performances that contrast well with the more stylised take by both Coleman, and moreso, Matt Smith. The contrast helps make Emma and Alec feel like part of the world, while the Doctor and Clara are clearly interlopers.

Which isn’t to say that either Smith or Coleman let the side down here. They are both on top form throughout, with Smith giving a particularly sharp performance in the episode’s quieter moments. The one standout scene for the two leads, when the Doctor takes the TARDIS on a trip through the Earth’s entire history, plants them firmly at opposite ends of the human experience, the (apparently) ordinary young woman and the ancient, alien outsider. Smith makes the Doctor’s discomfort with, and distance from, human emotion very clear, helped no little by Cross, who really seems to get this version of the Doctor.

What’s most satisfying about the Doctor’s experiences in this episode is that we finally see him genuinely frightened and out of his depth. He begins as his usual, supremely confident self, his boundless enthusiasm rubbing off on Clara (hence their cheeky introduction as “Ghostbusters!”) Clara is the first to get spooked out, but the Doctor has further to fall, and Smith portrays two distinct stages of fear. He freaks out during the wailing woman’s manifestation, and is clearly affected by the experience, admitting that he thought investigating her would be fun. Even then he’s working things out, and is on the case, using his vast knowledge to ascertain just what, and who, the witch of the well really is. In some ways, it’s a shame that there had to be a science fictional explanation for the Caliburn Ghast. It was inevitable that the Doctor would explain events away in a non-supernatural fashion, but it would have been satisfying to see him faced with something inexplicable for once. The only other time I can recall the Doctor truly afraid and baffled was in Midnight, an episode that has yet to be bettered in terms of a traumatic personal experience for the Doctor.

Monday, 22 April 2013

WHO REVIEW: Nemesis of the Daleks






Nemesis of the Daleks, the latest of Panini’s Doctor Who preprint collections, boasts an especially gripping and enticing title. It begs a question: just who is the Daleks’ nemesis? There are two candidates in the volume. One, of course, is the Doctor. The other is a chainsaw wielding maniac named Abslom Daak.

Daak has a special place in many fans’ hearts. Originating in Doctor Who Weekly’s back-up strips, the man dedicated to wiping the Daleks from the face of the universe is an eighties relic, who nonetheless made reappearances in the main strip in the later iteration of the magazine, Doctor Who Monthly, and even in the New Adventures. Two of his more memorable lines were even quoted, slightly paraphrased, in the 2005 TV series. clearly, he made an impression in Russell T. Davies, as well as countless young DWW readers. Personally, I can’t stand the character.

Previous to this, I knew Daak only by reputation and his solitary New Adventures appearance. This collection includes not only his original 1980 back-up strip appearances but his later 1989 return in the title comic serial.  Some commentators have suggested that Daak is a parody of the sort of in-yer-face, macho characters that 2000AD revels in, while creator Steve Moore suggests his emotional background gives him hidden depths. As far as I can see, though, all there is to Daak is an in-yer-face, macho thug, bolstered by some clichéd character traits and some diabolical dialogue.

In his first appearance, ‘Abslom Daak… Dalek Killer!’ Daak is charged with numerous counts of murder and pillage, and sentenced to exile as a Dalek Killer. He arrives on the planet Mazam, where he rescues the local leader Princess Taiyin, and then proceeds to battle the Daleks for the planet armed with his trusty ‘chain-sword.’ The death-obsessed lunatic is the only the way he is because his girlfriend dumped him for his partner in crime, the poor poppet. However, he forgets about her once Taiyin falls for him; naturally, every girl gets her head turned by a brutal murderer who threatens her and subjects her to continual danger and verbal abuse. Of course, Taiyin is killed too, making our ‘hero’ extra tragic. He then vows to “kill every damned, stinking Dalek in the Galaxy!” while carting her corpse around in a fridge for the rest of his life.

The extended sequel, ‘Star Tigers,’ is a considerable improvement. This serial explores both Daak’s history and the wider universe of Doctor Who’s 26th century. He accrues around him an untrustworthy crew consisting of Saladar, a disgraced Draconian noble; Harma, a sluggish Martian; and Mercurius, his wily ex-partner. The first segment takes place on Draconia and barely features the Daleks, instead focussing on the machinations of Draconian politics. Daak makes an impression by blasting his way through a Dalek force whilst off his face (yes, he’s a drunk as well). The second half collects the various characters together, setting up an ongoing story that never reached its conclusion. While all three parts of Daak’s original storyline are action-packed, and illustrated with Steve Dillon and David Lloyd’s excellent artwork, they strike me as little more than overblown macho dross. Perhaps I’m just too old to first encounter the character; I’m sure that he was terribly appealing to nerdy ten-year-olds who avoided P.E.

While I struggle to see the appeal of Moore’s original version of Daak, he’s a peach compared to the version who resurfaced in ‘Nemesis of the Daleks’ nine years later. Scripted by Steve Alan, this version of Daak loses what little depth he had and becomes little more than an angry retard swinging a razor-edged cock extension. As a back-up character he’s one thing, but forced into Doctor Who proper he makes a very uncomfortable addition. The storyline brings together various elements of Dalek fiction, even bringing in the bulbous, golden Emperor from the old Dalek Chronicles strips (something which  bemuses the Doctor, a character from an altogether different branch of continuity). These little winks are the best the story has to offer, with the Star Tigers – the interesting characters – killed off in the first few frames, and a very generic storyline. Only Lee Sullivan’s artwork is worth praising here.  Daak is killed at the end, but even that doesn’t stop him coming back for a future instalment. Joy, something to look forward to there.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

CAPTAIN'S BLOG: TOS 1.15-1.17



TOS 1.15-1.16: The Menagerie

or

Captain Kirk vs the Reused Footage




The Mission:
Discover why Spock has disobeyed direct orders and hijacked the Enterprise.



Planets visited: We return to Starbase 11 (now with a new officer in charge, Mendez), and to Talos IV, “the only forbidden planet in the Galaxy.”



Future History: The events of the first pilot, ‘The Cage,’ are described as having taken place thirteen years prior to this story.



Captain James T: Is shocked by Spock’s betrayal, and initially refuses to believe it. He says he would granted Spock leave to see Pike at a moment’s notice. He also has great respect for Pike.



Captain Christopher Pike: Now designated fleet captain (a senior title outside of the standard naval ranking heirarchy), Pike is one of the most respected officers in Starfleet. He remained commander of the Enterprise until gaining the promotion two years previously, when he passed command to Kirk. Engaged in training exercises aboard an antiquated starship, he saved a number of trainees when a baffle plate ruptured, flooding the ship with radiation. This rendered him a severe invalid, heavily scarred, crippled and unable to speak. He is now confined to a wheelchair, able only to communicate with a flashing light and accompanying bleep: one bleep for yes, two for no.



Green-Blooded Hobgoblin: Has incredible loyalty to Pike, even to the extent that he is prepared to betray the fleet in general, and Kirk in particular. A Vulcan is apparently incapable of disloyalty; evidently, loyalty to Pike is more important to Spock than loyalty to Kirk. He is incredibly clever in the first episode, hijacking the ship using pre-recorded voice discs (where did he get these?) to issue counterfeit orders and reprogramming systems to send the Enterprise to Talos on autopilot. He seems resigned to death penalty for his actions, although he may be aware that his trial is an illusion.



Alien Life Forms: The Talosians, now much more pleasantly disposed towards humanity in general, and Captain Pike in particular. They are capable of projecting a totally convincing image of an individual onto a ship in orbit, interacting realistically, such as posing as Mendez as they do here. They are also capable of presenting playbacks of past events, which gives us the odd sight of Kirk and Spock sitting back to watch Star Trek.



Space Bilge: It’s a shame we couldn’t have Jeffrey Hunter back in Pike’s role, instead of another actor hidden beneath prosthetics. Does Spock need to engage in such elaborate, cloak-and-dagger tactics? How did he contact the Talosians about the matter?



Trivia: This is the only two-part story in the original Trek. An edited feature-length edition was originally released on video. It’s rumoured that Roddenberry originally wanted to use the pilot footage to make a feature film with new effects scenes specially recorded, but it proved too expensive. Reusing the footage to make two new episodes enabled him to keep on target with a struggling production season without creating much new material.



Pop Culture: Futurama’s Trek parody episode ‘Where No Fan Has Gone Before’ draws heavily on this episode; Fry is put on trial and has to use Pike’s wheelchair to communicate in Morse Code.



Verdict: A rather clever way to reuse the unbroadcast pilot episode. Inevitably, ‘The Menagerie’ falls down somewhat when viewed now, when we can all see ‘The Cage’ in more-or-less its original form. Nonetheless, the first half is a genuinely exciting episode, presenting a riveting mystery when Spock begins to act totally out of character. However, the explanations in part two are disappointing, revealing Spock’s behaviour to be totally illogical. The reliance on the reused footage in the second half also slows things down, splitting the attention between two incompatible storylines. Nevertheless, this is surprisingly successful, although it certainly remains better if you haven’t already seen ‘The Cage.’


Friday, 19 April 2013

Kepler continues

The big announcement in astronomy circles this week was the discovery of three more Earth-like planets by the Kepler spacecraft. There's a ton of coverage out there, but the New York Times is a good place to go for straightforward rundown of the finds.

Kepler-62e and 62f have 1.6 and 1.4 times the radius of the Earth, and lie comfortably within their stars theoretical habitable zone. Kepler-69c has a radius about 1.7 times that of the Earth. System K-62 lies around 1200 light years away, K-69 about 2700 ly.


Here's a nice artist's impression of all four Earth-like planets next to the Earth itself.




From left to right, we have the previously discovered K-22b, K-69c, K-62e, K-62f and Earth. The planets are shown to scale, but the look of the four new worlds is down to artistic licence.

Many of the articles turning up feature pretty rampant speculation as to how wonderfully hospitable for life these planets will be, with thick moist atmospheres and rolling oceans. However, these claims make a hell of a lot of assumptions as to the makeup of the planets and their systems. With only our own solar system to go on, we have little knowledge that is useful in predicting just how planets in other systems are likely to develop. Remember, also, that planetary scientists use 'Earth-like' in this context to mean any planet of size similar to Earth with a likely rocky makeup. This doesn't necessarily mean that the planet will have oceans and rolling green hills; Venus and Mars are Earth-like under these criteria.

A more illuminating look at the nature of our system compared to Kepler's discoveries can be seen here, at New York Times once again. It's a fascinating inforgraphic comparing the Kepler star systems.

Additionally, the good folk at Planet Hunters have had their own planetary discovery, provisionally named PH1b, accepted by the Kepler team and officially designated as Kepler-64b. The Planet Hunters website is open to all, allowing anyone to review the data and see if they can spot a previously unknown planet.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

CAPTAIN'S BLOG: TNG 1.10-1.11

Where does the time go? It's way past time I put up some new installments of the Captain's Blog. Here's a TNG one to be going along with, and expect some more TOS very soon.


1.10) Haven
or
‘I Dreamt of a Plague Girl’

The Mission: Sort out the wedding arrangements for the Deanna Troi and her betrothed, Wyatt Miller.

Firsts and Lasts: It’s the first appearance of Lwaxana Troi, Deanna’s mum. Hurray!

Planets visited: Haven, “the Beta Cassius planet.” Presumably that’s the name of its star system. It’s a beautiful class-M planet. It’s a popular tourist destination, and the two parties have chosen it to be the location for the wedding. Legend has it that Haven has miraculous healing properties. The one inhabitant we see - the Electorine, a European-sounding bad actress - is human or humanoid. The planet has a treaty of protection with the Federation.

Alien Life Forms:

Betazoids: Practise arranged marriages, despite professing to be an enlightened culture. Whether Deanna can leave the arrangement isn’t really clear, but she seems to feel duty-bound to go through with it. Betazoids are highly telepathic, communicating psychically almost always; Deanna, who is only half Betazoid, has no trouble thought-speaking with her mother, but can only manage it with humans she is especially close to - like Riker. Betazoids are, due to their open thoughts and telepathy, extremely honest. They’re completely humanoid, but can be distinguished by their dark irises, and seem to have some kind of aristocracy, to which Lwaxana (and, by extension, Deanna) belongs.

Tarellians: Natives of Tarella, the equally humanoid Tarellians were divided into two power blocs that almost wiped each other out in a biological war. A few survivors escaped in spaceships, carrying the terrible plague from the planet but not immediately succumbing to it. They were thought to be extinct - the Alcyones hunted them down - but another ship turns up here, carrying the last survivors of the species. They’ve come to Haven to die.

Mr Homn: A very tall, pasty-looking humanoid who acts as Lwaxana Troi’s aide. He’s immensely strong, is adept in sign language, and can put away booze like a trooper. The only time he speaks is as he leaves: “Thank you for the drinks.”

Sexy Trek: The traditional Betazoid wedding requires that all present be completely naked.

The Picard Manoeuvre: Hilariously wrong-footed by Lwaxana’s in-your-face flirting. It’s great to see the normally unflappable Picard embarrassed like this.

Number One: Isn’t nearly as bothered by all the flirting, or the naked wedding idea, but naturally has problems with Deanna’s marriage plans.

Feeling vine
Elementary, My Dear Data: Sees the big pre-wedding social as wonderful opportunity to observe humanoids and their rituals. He’s visibly fascinated by the blazing arguments. “Could you please continue your petty bickering?”

Trek Stars: Majel Barett-Roddenberry plays Lwaxana. She had, of course, been there from the beginning, as Number One in ‘The Cage,’ became Christine Chapel in the series proper, provided all the Starfleet computer voices from TNG to the 2009 movie (after her death), and was married to Gene Roddenberry. If there’s any one actor who is more a part of Trek’s ongoing story, I cannot think of one.


Future Treknology: Some interesting things pop up in this episode. The wedding invitation that’s beamed aboard is a silver box with a face on it (it’s Armin Shimmerman, who’s already appeared as a Ferengi and will go on to be Quark, although this was recorded early and is actually his first Trek role). It talks and explodes with jewels, which makes Tasha go all girly. The Tarellian ship is pretty cool, a proper spacey-looking thing with a big, purple sphere in the middle. Intriguingly, the Electorine of Haven mentions that it came through their Stargate, but we get no elaboration on this.

Space Bilge: No two people pronounce Tarellian the same way. The pseudo-mystic explanation for how Wyatt and Arianna have dreamt of each other for years is so vague they’d been better off leaving it completely unexplained.

Hair of Tomorrow: My God, the haircuts in this episode! Deanna’s space-age hippy beehive with tail! Lwaxana’s feathered birds’ nest! Wyatt’s sexy romantic man-locks! Tarellian lover-girl’s 80s uber-perm!

Missing: Worf and Wesley take a holiday this week. Not together, I’m sure.

Verdict: Lwaxana Troi is a hoot. Barett and Stewart have some brilliantly uncomfortable scenes together. The storyline is pants, a cod mystical fairytale about destiny and other such things that seem very out of place in Star Trek, but introducing Lwaxana makes up for that.

The 'To Be Read' Pile



Here we go, inspired by Paul Magrs, my pile of books I have yet to read. Not including those which have already been pinched by my mum, or are electronic, or simply didn't come to hand when I was taking this picture.

Some are new acquisitions or recent gifts, others have been lying around for ages waiting for me to be in the right mood for them. They will all be read, eventually.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

REVIEW: IDW Ghostbusters 4: Who Ya Gonna Call?

We're gonna need a bigger trap..

This, the latest trade paperback in IDW’s Ghostbusters range, collects issues 13 to 16 of the ongoing series, wrapping up Volume One while setting up plenty for Volume Two, currently enjoying monthly release. A number of plot strands come to a head here, most notably the arrival, at last, of the Ghost Smashers, the Ghostbusters new rivals in the field of spectral decontamination. We’ve had the occasional glimpse of uber-douche Ron Alexander, working behind the scenes to create his own busting equipment. Now he’s gone into business, accompanied by three lovely lady assistants, and the four of them are beating the Ghostbusters at their own game.

The Smashers have one big advantage over Busters, in the public’s eye at least: they don’t capture and contain, they destroy. Arriving on the scene to battle an opera phantom, Alexander and his girls blast the spook to smithereens, the ectoplasm dispersing into the atmosphere. The Ghost  Smashers are a big hit; the Mayor loves them, Peck hates them even more than the Ghostbusters, and the record levels of psychokinetic activity in New York are finally coming under control.

Monday, 15 April 2013

TREK REVIEW: Countdown to Darkness


What’s the opposite of ‘hot on the heels?’ Hot on the shoulders? Whatever the term should be, Countdown to Darkness is it, leading us up to the hotly anticipated Star Trek Into Darkness, due to finally reach our cinematic screens next month. In fact, judging by the final page of the fourth and final issue, leading us right into the movie. Don’t worry, there are no actual answers here, just questions, and it’s not like this is going to be required reading if you want to understand the film. We don’t discover the true identity of John Harrison, or anything like that. Countdown to Darkness (or hereafter, ‘C2D’) tells a discreet story that jots in the general political background of Trek’s New Universe while telling a decent yarn in its own right.

C2D follows on from IDW’s ongoing Trek series (which, I’ll admit, I’m not completely up to date with), exploring these new, younger versions of the classic series’ core characters. Kirk is experiencing a steep learning curve now that he’s in the captain’s chair for real. Spock continues  taking unnecessary risks as a form of self-punishment, an expression of his trauma at his world’s destruction. He’s experiencing survivor’s guilt, made particularly acute by the death of his mother, and his decisions are becoming increasingly illogical and emotionally driven. Naturally this is putting a strain on his relationship with Uhura, who remains the third part of the core trio in this new version of Star Trek (Bones having been relegated to a stalwart regular secondary character, on the same sort of level as Sulu and Chekov). On the flipside, their mutual concern for Spock has improved the relationship between Uhura and Kirk. I suspect we’ll see further developments in this vein once STID arrives.

C2D concerns an observational mission to the planet Phaedus IV gone awry. The Phaedans are a species developing nicely through their preindustrial phase, and are pleasingly far from the generic humanoids Trek always used to rely on – David Messina’s insect-like designs are highly effective, somehow managing to convey some little emotion through a mandibular beetle-like face. Someone has been interfering with Phaedan society, supplying both an overbearing, genocidal nation and a downtrodden racial group with sophisticated weaponry. The first issue ends with a fantastic reveal of who is behind the interference on the underdogs’ side: Captain Robert April.


(New) Super Mario Busters

I had no choice but to share these wonderful videos with anyone who had yet to see them. Truly, these are the two greatest videos in the history of the internet.





 If you though that little bundle of amazingness was good, try the brand new sequel, only posted to the tube two days ago:


 


 Those six minutes brought me more nostalgic video game joy than all of Wreck-It Ralph and Scott Pilgrim combined. With all credit and respect due to the superbly talented James Farr, who is also responsible for the similarly wonderful 'Blink to the Future'. Also with thanks to my brother Joe for bringing the new video to my attention.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

WHO REVIEW: 2013-3: COLD WAR



1983 is just about the latest year that I can consider to be historical. I was born in February 1984, so anything after 1983 feels like the present to me, or at least the modern period. Even though I don’t remember much of the first five or six years of my life (or much from the ages of about fourteen to seventeen, come to think of it, although I think that might be more alcohol related). The year of our birth is kind of hardwired into our perception of the world, with anything that comes before feels somehow separate.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that tonight’s episode of Doctor Who felt to me to have a historical setting. The Cold War is a sort of backstory to my existence, over by the time I became aware of the world at large, represented only by hazy memories of a wall being knocked down on the news, the knowledge that there had been until recently been something important called the Soviet Union, the hand-me-down current affairs of my parents and a whole host of eighties movies on the subject.

This means I lack the experience of Cold War paranoia that would, I imagine, give this episode the frisson of urgency it lacks for me. Intellectually, I know that if Skaldak presses the Big Red Button, a chain reaction of missile launches will send the Earth into a new dark age. Nonetheless, I fail to engage with the threat. It’s old news – the world didn’t end in 1983, after all, just as Clara says. Maybe we need a Pyramids of Mars moment in which we see a devastated world in 2013; or maybe I just need to be five years older to fully appreciate this episode’s setting.

Which is a shame, since Cold War, the episode, holds so much more for me to embrace than just nostalgia for the Cold War, the lengthy threat to international peace.  It’s all nostalgia for something, though. Nostalgia is, as I’ve pointed out before, what Mark Gatiss trades in. It’s his medium. The setting is recognisable to anyone who has seen any submarine drama, but primarily evokes The Hunt for Red October. It was probably a wise decision not to have the cast attempt Russian accents. It makes the characters easier for us to recognise, avoids any embarrassing accent anomalies, and further evokes Red October, with Sean Connery’s famously Scottish Soviet captain.

Most of all, it’s about nostalgia for Doctor Who itself. After all, we’re all here for one thing really: the big, green Martian. The Ice Warriors are one of the classic monsters, despite lacking much in the way of a concept. They are just big, green Martians, and, much like the Zygons (who are also set for a comeback), their appeal lies in their striking appearance. Gatiss, a writer steeped in the series’ mythology, recognises that to make the Ice Warriors work now he needs to do something new with them.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

WHO REVIEW: THE AZTECS Special Edition - including GALAXY 4


The Aztecs is one of the few Doctor Who stories that are loved throughout fandom. It’s an obvious choice for the special edition treatment, unlike some of the more peculiar inclusions (The Visitation next month? For why?) Nonetheless, I’m not entirely sure that this serial benefits terribly well from being seen on DVD. The VidFire process used to clean up the stock often causes blurriness in scenes with lots of motion, and The Aztecs, with its many action sequences, suffers badly. There are points in the story that I struggled to make out at all, so smeared as the overall effect. Conversely, still elements in the longer, calmer scenes are picked out in clarity, such as the backdrops of the Aztec city, now robbed of much of its impact by being shown very clearly to be painted backgrounds. This is not to denigrate the work of the restorers, but I do feel that this story is one that looked better on scratchy old film.

Where DVD serves The Aztecs well is in the sound quality. This story boasts a lyrical, almost Shakespearean style of dialogue and some effective incidental music, and to be able to hear all this with clarity is essential. This story has a glowing reputation for a reason, with a straightforward yet thought-provoking plot that is brought to life by an excellent script performed by some of the series’ finest regulars and guest actors. The special edition provides, as I understand it, the single disc of the original release, along with a second disc of newly included material, including the much awaited ‘Air Lock,’ the recently rediscovered third episode of Galaxy 4.

THE AZTECS


Some commentators accuse the most recent episodes of Doctor Who of being too complicated to follow. While I disagree with this, I do see their point, and The Aztecs provides a perfect example of a script with plenty of incident, intrigue and surprising developments that nonetheless remains very easy to follow. From the moment Barbara arrives in Yetaxa’s tomb and foolishly tries on the dead priest’s bracelet, she and her fellow travellers are pulled deeper and deeper into a situation beyond their control. Their efforts to extricate themselves from danger and return to the TARDIS merely pull them further into the mire, leaving them prone to the machinations of their hosts and thus pitting them unwittingly against each other. It sounds complicated, but the leisurely pace and straightforward explanations of developments keep everything clear.

One criticism that can be made of The Aztecs is that is suffers very badly from Doctor Who’s early educational remit. There are some very clunky info-dumps in this serial, as Barbara and Susan discuss Aztec culture as if they were in the schoolroom. However, this actually works to the story’s favour, emphasising the main reason Barbara has brought them all into this mess. She treats her presence in ancient Mexico as if it were a history project. She enters the tomb and begins routing around in the remains as a golden opportunity for archaeological exploration. It never occurs to her that the remains are merely years old, not centuries, and that the Aztec Empire continues to thrive just outside the temple in which she stands.

She continues to treat her situation like this even once she has been pulled into the Aztecs’ world. It may seem absurd that the Aztecs would immediately assume that the strangely clothed woman in the stolen bracelet is the reincarnation of their high priest and a living god, but these are the people who supposedly believed the invading Cortes was the avatar of Quetzalcoatl and welcomed him with open arms just a matter of year after this story is set. (This claim is believed to be a myth by most modern historians, but Valerie Singleton still happily proclaimed it in the 1970 Blue Peter feature included on disc one). Barbara’s steadfast belief that she can help the Aztec civilisation move beyond its reliance on sacrifice and thereby save it from Cortes’ Christianising demolition of their culture is profoundly arrogant, but stems from a genuine love of a culture she has studied in depth.

Immediately she makes enemies in this land. Tlotoxl, the Priest of Sacrifice, is rapidly and dangerously against her. He’s one of the great villains of the series, played with relish by John Ringham in the mode of Olivier’s Richard III. An intelligent, amoral schemer, Tlotoxl portrays himself as a defender of the Aztec faith against a false god, but he’s anything but. He is perfectly happy to serve Yetaxa until she threatens his position by calling off a sacrifice to the rain god. Tlotoxl is perfectly aware that the rains will come and the eclipse will end with or without a sacrifice, but his position of wealth and influence relies on the rest of his people believing the continual sacrifices are essential to secure their way of life.

On the other hand, Barbara develops a strong friendship with Autloc, the High Priest of Knowledge. While his initial respect for is based on his belief that she is Yetaxa, Autloc and Barbara develop a strong mutual respect for each other as people. At the end of these events, Autloc’s faith is shattered, and the script takes a surprisingly even-handed view of this, considering Doctor Who’s usually anti-religious stance. While Barbara shows tremendous guilt at how she has lied to and damaged the one man she respected in this place, the Doctor points out that, in his self-imposed exile, Autloc might well survive longer than he would had he stayed, with the Spaniards on the way. Keith Pyott’s performance is quietly dignified and provides a perfect counterpoint to Ringham’s scenery-chewing.

While it’s Barbara’s story, the remaining leads are all at their best. Ian is declared to be Yetaxa’s warrior, pitting him unwillingly against Ixta, the greatest warrior of the city. He’s an untrustworthy little maniac and Tlotoxl’s pet thug, only seeming to care about being the best soldier in Aztec history and winning fights through any means possible. He’s probably compensating for something. Thankfully, for a science teacher Ian’s a bit of a ninja, using his Coal Hill nerve pinch on the warrior and even holding his own for some time after Ixta drugs him with a poison cactus thorn. Susan is on fine form in this story, ironically considering that Carole Ann Ford was on holiday for half of it. Instead of the usual screaming and falling over, Susan gets to rail against the teachings of the Aztec culture. Unlike Barbara’s more constructive outlook, Susan has no time for superstitious primitives, and refuses to marry the Perfect Victim, a big hunk of man who’s going to be dead in a few hours anyway. (The less said about this guy the better, though. Perfect Victim but a dreadful actor.) As far as she’s concerned, the Aztecs are monsters – and this is from someone who was facing down Daleks not long ago.

It’s also a very strong story for the Doctor. It features one of Hartnell’s best-remembered scenes, his set-to with Barbara forbidding changes to history, with the famous “Not one line!” speech. By this stage, the relationship between the Doctor and Barbara had already grown into one of respect – not unlike her friendship with Autloc, come to think of it – and so there argument here is serious. This isn’t the Doctor squabbling, this is genuine anger against something he believes in fully. While he happily describes Tlotoxl as a butcher, he makes no judgments of the Aztecs’ culture and clearly admires them as much a Barbara does. Nonetheless, he refuses to entertain for a moment the prospect of saving them from their fate.

While this angle is among the most celebrated of the story, equally as illuminating of the Doctor’s character is his romance with Cameca. Wonderfully portrayed by Margot van der Burgh, Cameca steals the Doctor’s heart from the moment he spots her in the walled garden. Whatever some fans might claim, the Doctor is clearly besotted with the woman, and there’s a genuinely sweet sundowner romance played out throughout the four episodes. While it’s played for laughs as much as drama, it’s a clear indication that romance for the Doctor wasn’t the taboo subject it was later made out to be. There’s a somewhat cruel side to the Doctor here, going along with the charade of an engagement while all the while using Cameca’s connections to further his escape. Nonetheless, their final parting says it all – the Doctor really is smitten.

However, for all Hartnell, Ford and Russell bring to the serial, The Aztecs belongs to Jacqueline Hill as Barbara. Her desire to save the Aztecs is misguided and never had a chance of success – their civilisation was pretty much doomed anyway, with ever more people sacrificed as their culture turned inwards on itself, even without the devastation wrought by Cortes and his men. Still, if anyone could have pulled it off, it’s Barbara Wright, a woman brave enough and ballsy enough to take up the mantel of a living goddess and able to fight her enemies with words as easily as a swiftly drawn knife. All due respect to the Doctor; I wouldn’t have argued with her.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

WHO REVIEW: 2013-2: The Rings of Akhaten


I’m not 100% sure where my opinion lies on this episode. There’s so much to praise here, and yet, it doesn’t quite hold together. The second script from Luther scribe Neil Cross (the first being for the upcoming episode Hide) comes across as very, very Moffat. Either the showrunner wrote a lot of this or Cross has got his vision of the series nailed. As with the eleventh Doctor era as a whole, it all comes down to the power of stories. The Doctor accepts the Akhaten religion, before it does something to actively offend him, because it’s “a nice story.” The Doctor takes astrophysics, and, like Carl Sagan before him, turns it into a story. The currency in the system, and the power that defeats the monster at the end, is the value of stories.

Doctor Who is a very visually impressive series, these days, and this episode is an absolute stunner. The eponymous Rings provide a beautiful setting with a genuinely cosmic sense of grandeur. Inside the habitat things are very clearly studiobound, but that’s not a problem when the inhabitants themselves are so varied and wonderful. Apparently, the prosthetics chief Neill Gorton has been working on monster costumes for years so that, once an episode like this came up, he’d have a ready-made menagerie of aliens with which to populate it. He doesn’t disappoint; the array of aliens is astounding, many of them sporting an unsettling Guillermo del Toro style to their look (indeed, while most commentators are comparing to the classic Mos Eisley Cantina scene, to me it is far more reminiscent of the Goblin Market in Hellboy II.)

As well as the impressive visuals, sound plays a more important part than in any episode previously. Murray Gold’s music is absolutely gorgeous, although there are times where it is far too loud in the mix. The culture revolves not just around stories but through song; the song that Merry sings to Grandfather is really rather beautiful. On the other hand, the whispering voices of the Vigil are chilling, elevating them to effective monster status in spite of their very limited concept.
The acting, as always, is absolutely top notch. Clara’s parents make an impression even in very limited screentime, while Coleman herself is note-perfect. Clara asks the right questions and has an explorer’s attitude, with a touch of no-nonsense northerner to keep things in line. Quite rightly, Clara isn’t flattered or overwhelmed by the knowledge that the Doctor has stalked her and her family through her life. Frankly, it’s pretty creepy. Coleman brings Clara to life perfectly; she has a magnetic presence on screen. The star if the episode, however, is Emilia Jones as Merry. What an incredibly talented young lady.

So, why is it that this episode somehow feels less than the sum of its parts? There are some wonderful ideas here: a mummy trapped within a golden pyramid on an asteroid; a giant planet with inhabited rings; a song being handed from chorister to chorister for millions of years. Ironically, considering the subject matter, the story as a whole just doesn’t quite cohere. Perhaps it’s due to the necessary rush of the format; these concepts need room to be explored. This story is probably better suited to prose. In the second half of the episode, things do become incoherent. There’s little reasoning; things happen just because. The alien mummy turns out not to be the soul-devouring Grandfatherafter all. This should be a huge revelation, but it’s just thrown out there with little opportunity to understand why the villain is now not a mummy but a sentient gas giant. Again, a soul-devouring planet is a fantastic idea, but not ideally suited to being realised on the TV screen.

There are other major weaknesses. The sonic screwdriver is more of a magic wand than ever before, the Doctor waving it about and stopping plot developments in their tracks. The Doctor’s attempt to sate Grandfather with his vast store of memories makes thematic sense, but ultimately doesn’t work. He loses nothing – his memories aren’t gone, so where’s the drama? Ultimately it boils down to another “I am the Doctor!” speech which is fast becoming a tired cliché of the new series, although Matt Smith’s performance here is far more powerful than the similar scene in The Pandorica Opens. Clara’s scene, defeating the beast with the untold stories of her mother’s life, does redeem the conclusion considerably and works thematically.

Ultimately, this is a beautifully realised episode, albeit one that doesn’t quite hold water. One to sit back and enjoy without thinking about too closely.

Doctor Data: The Doctor reads The Beano. I knew he wouldn’t be a Dandy fan. He’s previously been to Akhaten with his granddaughter – back when he looked like popular character actor William Hartnell, and presumably before the start of the series, since he doesn’t mention Ian and Babs. He pronounces scone as ‘sconn’ not ‘scoan,’ and rightly so.

Hanky-Panky in the TARDIS: Does anyone else find Clara’s bark at Doreen the scooter-hirer a tiny bit erotic? No? Just me then.

Monster Monster Monster: The alien mummy is a great creation, even if it is rather wasted here. The various aliens present include the Ultramancers – pretty groovy looking robots with red glowing eyes – and members of the species that represented the City State of Binding Light, right back in The End of the World in series one in 2005. The Doctor points out a Hooloovoo – according to The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, this is a “super-intelligent shade of the colour blue.” Doesn’t much look there’s one of them floating around though. The Vigil seem to be some kind of cyborg race, with skull-like faces and some nifty superpowers.



Best line: “There is one thing you need to know about travelling with me… we don’t walk away.” 
Pretty perfectly summed up the series’ mission statement right there.


Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Everyone's watching Doctor Puppet

Quite right too. After posting her adorable images of the puppetty Doctor on Tumblr, Alisa Stern has now created an ongoing series of two-minute adventures in time and space. If you can't wait till the anniversary, you'll get an extra special kick out of these.

Watch the Christmas special and the first two regular episodes here.


Iain M. Banks

Very, very sad news from one of my favourite authors. Our thoughts are with you, Mr Banks.

http://www.iain-banks.net/2013/04/03/a-personal-statement-from-iain-banks/

They came from... um, Tau Ceti?

The big news for Whoheads today is the official announcement that the ZYGONS shall be returning in the 50th anniversary special episode this November. As if the return of David Tennant and Pipey Biller wasn't enough. I'm even more excited to see the Zygons return than the I was to see the Ice Warriors, and so, in the grand tradition of my previous post, here's a quick look at the new Zygon and his 1975 ancestor.


Much like the Ice Warrior, the 21st century Zygon has been designed very much in keeping with his forebear. The original costume was so effective that it could actually pass muster reasonably well today, although the harsh light of HD would probably be to much for the rubber nasty. It was that design that led this one-off monster to go down as a fan favourite, so it's no surprise the new team have done their best to emulate it.

Aside from the improved texture of the flesh, there are some notable differences. The ribbing on the chest is more prominent in the new version, although it has been toned down on the forearms. The numerous sucker-like warts that covered the original have been reduced in number considerably, while the ridges of the face are more pronounced. Colouring is hard to judge based on one image taken in daylight, but it remains similar to the original. I don't recall seeing the Zygon's teeth before, but I like the snaggle-toothed look he's going for now.

What's particularly nice about the Zygons return is that David Tennant will get to face his favourite monsters after all. However, the question still remains: will this be the real tenth Doctor, the half-human clone from Journey's End or nothing more than a Zygon duplicate?