Saturday, 31 December 2016

REVIEW: Rogue One - A Star Wars Story

Right, we've all seen this now, yes?

The Force Awakens was a thoroughly enjoyable new episode, it was inarguably derivative of the original Star Wars. Rogue One, on the other hand, while being literally derived from A New Hope's backstory, feels considerably fresher. Although a prequel, it's far more its own thing than The Force Awakens managed to be.

It's easy to be sniffy when it comes to the now expanding roster of Star Wars productions, with this the first of what promises to be many "Star Wars Stories." Of course Disney are going to milk the property for all its worth, but really, is that a bad thing? The original trilogy is one of the most beloved film series of all time, and while the prequel trilogy has left many fans fearful of tainting it, there is so much scope for further exploration. It's a whole galaxy, after all, and the films and TV series so far have only scratched the surface of that.

The triumph of Rogue One lies in its embracing of new characters who are not linked to the Skywalker-Solo dynasty that has dominated each of the main episodes. While there are some remarkable characters, they nonetheless come across as relatively ordinary people, pushed to extremes by the terrifying situation they find themselves in. Luke was destined to become the first in a new generation of Jedi, while Leia was already a princess and an interstellar ambassador ebfore getting involved in the Rebellion. Sure, Han Solo was just some scruffy nerf herder, but even he had a mythic quality, one that has led to his character holding legendary status come Episode VII. The closest Rogue One has to this is Donnie Yen's character, Imwe, a Guardian of the Wills; sort of a wannabe Jedi who wields the Force but is apart from the eternal Jedi/Sith battle. The remaining characters all just want to get on with their lives, drawn into the Rebel-Empire conflict with varying degrees of unwillingness.



Jyn Erso is a case in point. Felicity Jones has rather a tough time convincing us who her character is supposed to be, but this, I feel, is more due to the last minute rewrites and reshoots which saw the film change quite considerably before its final release. Early trailers for the film included a number of now-excised shots, and portrayed Erso very much as a reluctant hero, fighting for the Rebellion purely from necessity. In the finished product, she transitions from the reluctant fighter to the hero of the Rebellion with jarring suddenness. Not that this unbelievable, but it could have been portrayed more fluidly. Nonetheless, Jones portrays Erso with charisma and resolve from her almost-broken beginnings to her heroic ending, and it's a pity we'll not get to see her in the role again. It's unlikely she'll ever reach the legendary status of the quite similar Han Solo.

Diego Luna is equally watchable and heroic as Cassian Andor, the captain of Rogue One and the secondary hero of the film. Unlike The Force Awakens, which presented Rey and Finn as dual leads, equally as important, Rogue One is very much Erso's film, with Andor as her support, something that the more aggressively masculine corners of the internet couldn't accept. Some of these actually argue that a woman in space is unrealistic, somehow ignoring the numerous actual women who have completed missions in space, as wellas the fact that this is a series about warrior-wizards with magic ruddy swords. I hope the next Story they announce is a lesbian romance with no male characters except Jabba the Hutt.

The central trio is completed by K-2SO, brought to sardonic life by Alan Tudyk, and undoubtedly my favourite character of the film. Frankly, this reprogrammed Imperial troop who cannot keep his trap shut is far more entertaining than C-3PO or R2-D2 ever were (although the old droids do turn up in Rogue One, since they are obligatory for every Star Wars film). Bring him back. Save his personality chip. Reprogramme another one, I don't mind.

The secret hero of the film is Galen Erso, Jyn's father and the mastermind behind the Death Star. Played by the mesmeric Mads Mikkelsen, who finally gets to portray someone other than an out-and-out villain, he's one of the most interesting characters in the film. His presence also clears up one of the most annoying elements of the original Star Wars, which is to say, the great big hole in the Deatn Star that's perfect for firing torpedoes directly into the engine core. By simply making this a deliberately engineered weakness, designed to stick two fingers up to the Empire, Galen Erso makes the original film a more coherent story in retrospect.

Disney's new Star Wars universe shucks off the gigantic Expanded Universe of supplementary material that it had accrued over the years, which has upset some fans and galvanised others. I've never been into Star Wars enough to be invested in the expanded material (it's always been Trek and Who for me), but it's surely a good thing to have the universe opened up like this for exploration. There is still, of course, plenty of canonical material to be mined. I'm sure to notice lots of little winks once I finally get round to watching Rebels, while I didn't realise the significance of Saw Gerrera, and just wondwered why Forest Whitaker had so little screentime compared to what the trailers suggested. I enjoyed the many nods to the earlier films, although quite how those two alien ne'erdowells found their way from Jedha to Tatooine without getting blown up, in time to meet Obi-Wan and Luke, what, a week later? But then, we have Darth Vader, voiced once again by James Earl Jones. He's used with commendable restraint, which maximise the impact of his scenes, although he really should realise that if he wants to destroy something on a spaceship, shooting the ship down and blowing up would probably work better than boarding said ship and stalking malevolently through it.

The most contentious aspect of the film is, undoubtedly, the use of CGI actors to recreate characters from A New Hope. It's a open question whether it's respectful to recreate a deceased actor, but in terms of its effectiveness, I think the CGI Peter Cushing/Grand Moff Tarkin worked astonishingly well. Yes, you can see he's CG, but only just. It's remarkably life-like, and Guy Henry provides a very good vocal performance. The story wouldn't work anywhere near as well without Tarkin's involvement, and his rivalry with Krennic (a great performance by Ben Mendelsohn) adds a lot of flavour to the Imperial scenes. I did feel that Tarkin came across as more moodily vindictive than his original, coldly monstrous self. This is the only guy who ever told Vader to stand down. You shouldn't see a flicker on that face.

The ending of the film is powerful, bravely going down thn the Blakes 7 "everybody dies" route. It is a war movie, after all, and the sacrifices of the characters hammer home the significance of the battle they've fought. Finally, the film segues directly into A New Hope, ending immediatley before the original's first scene. I can't wait to get this on disc and watch them back-to-back. The last thing we see is Leia, CGI'd the same way as Tarkin. Somehow, she's not quite as convincing (probably because a gaunt, wrinkly face hides the joins better than a smooth, youthful), but her appearance is fleeting, so it works. It's heartbreaking, though, to watch it now, after the incredibly sad loss of both Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds. (We can take some comfort from the fact that Fisher has already shot her scenes for Episode VIII, but still.)

Controversial matters aside, Rogue One works, striking out in a somewhat new direction for the franchise while still feeling 100% Star Wars. A triumph.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

WHO REVIEW: 2016 Xmas Special - The Return of Doctor Mysterio


It's been a desolate year for Doctor Who fans. A whole 365 days to wait between episodes, the longest gap we've had since the series was revived back in 2005. All we've had to fill the void in the meantime was the disappointing spin-off Class and the animated release of the fan favourite The Power of the Daleks. (At least, that's the case onscreen. Doctor Who has been exceptionally well-presented in other media this year, with six incarnations heading their own Titan comicbook series and a whopping eleven in Big Finish audios.) Still, we do have the now-traditional Christmas special, now such a mainstay that its absence from the BBC schedules is unthinkable.

The Return of Doctor Mysterio (named for the series' Mexican title, a name Peter Capaldi reportedly adores) is a straightforward adventure, light of complexity and high on fun. It doesn't feel particularly “special,” although its status as the only episode of the year gives it a little more clout. It isn't even especially Christmassy, with the festive trappings limited to the opening scenes. Still, after the exceedingly festive Last Christmas in 2014, a couple of years of less snow-covered adventures is no bad thing. It's an episode with nothing more sophisticated to say than “look, it's Doctor Who does superheroes!” and that's fine. I don't understand the view of some fans who attack this idea. Yes, it's derivative, but Doctor Who has often been at its best when it was copying other things. Do fans complain about The Brain of Morbius being “just Doctor Who does Frankenstein” or The Enemy of the World being “just Doctor Who does Bond?”

Specifically, this is Stephen Moffat's love letter to the Richard Donner/Christopher Reeve Superman films, although there are nods to other properties. Moffat has spoken at length about how Clark Kent is his favourite superhero, specifically the man behind the Superman, and it's easy to see why. Lois and Clark is a timeless story that asks us to accept a ludicrous premise – that a woman can't recognise a man in two different guises – in order to play a farcical love story. It's exactly the sort of thing that's up Moffat's alley, and Doctor Mysterio plays out pretty much as you'd expect it to. It's perhaps an oversight, though, to more or less ignore the modern superhero movie genre, something that is ripe for its own parody. Nonetheless, it makes sense for a Christmas Day treat; Superman – The Movie is exactly the sort of feelgood family film people sit down to watch together on the day.



As always, success hangs on the writing and the cast, which come together to produce a very enjoyable hour. As is traditional, the American characters are not played by American actors; Justin Chatwin is Canadian and Charity Wakefield is from very near my bit of England. They both inhabit their roles perfectly. Chatwin plays Grant as a kind, witty if unconfident gent, very Clark Kent indeed, although his mannerisms (and costume) as the Ghost are more Batmanesque, all steely earnestness and deadpan delivery. His power set is, however, 100% Superman, and this remains the main basis for the character. Wakefield embodies her pseudo-Lois Lane just as well, someone so focussed on certain aspects of her life that it's jut about believable she can miss something “too stupid to be allowed to continue.” Of course, a nanny is just about the worst possible job for a part-time superhero to take on, but that's all part of the conceit, and Moffat's script enjoys poking fun at these small absurdities.

The casting of Grant's younger selves is absolutely spot on, with Logan Hoffman and Daniel Lorente working perfectly as the boy and teen versions respectively. They share some excellent chemistry with Capaldi, who is finally being allowed to use his natural flair for kids in his performance as the Doctor. The high school scene is a particularly lovely little scene, but it's kid Grant who'll stick in my memory most. With that much comicbook art on his walls and a very snazzy set of dinosaur jammies, he's the coolest kid ever to appear on Doctor Who.

It's a very nice touch correlating the absence of Doctor Who with the Doctor's twenty-four year time-out with River. The real surprise here is how well Nardole works. As I've said before, I like Matt Lucas, but he was wasted in The Husbands of River Song with a stupid, one-note comedy character that wasn't very funny. This is isn't quite the revamp that Donna Noble got, but the refined new Nardole actually works very well as a companion. The comedy moments work better, and Lucas adds a real pathos to the serious moments. Nardole acts rather like a low-key agent in this episode, who keeps the Doctor focussed and points out his errors. I'm not convinced he can work well throughout a whole season, but we'll see how it runs.

There's a nice about-face regarding the villains of the episode. Adetomiwa Edun (another Brit) plays Mr Brock, blatantly set up to be the grand, Lex Luthor-esque villain, before the alien/German (delete as applicable) Dr Sim (Aleksander Jovanovic) pulls his brain out. It was a surprise to see the head-splitting aliens from last year's special return, but it was written right there, in the name Harmony Shoal. This is, of course, about three thousand years before the previous episode, making it even more of an expected and skewed two-parter. Also, I had hoped the brain aliens would be the Morpho brains from The Keys of Marinus, but that's ridiculously obscure. That'd be like bringing the Movellans back, or something.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Whotopia Issue 30

The latest issue of Bob Furnell and Jez Strickley's Doctor Who fanzine is now available for download. Boasting an interview with Peter Davison plus a variety of articles on Doctor Who and its spin-offs, issue thirty includes the third instalment of my "Master Who" articles, this time covering the barmy 1980s incarnation played by Anthony Ainley. There are also reviews, competitions and a details on how to make your own Dalek!

Download the issue here.






Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Comics to Screen: Supergirl 2-8 - Medusa

A highly enjoyable and important episode of Supergirl which pushes certain characters' relationships into new territory and ends with almost everything laid out on the table.

Most importantly, Alex comes out to her mum, who accepts it with perfect grace and none of the hand-wringing that Kara displayed. In the closing moments, Maggie gets over herself and she and Alex finally get together. Not only is it beautifully played by Chyler Leigh and Floriana Lima, it's all an important and moving example of lesbian representation on a series which was lacking in the LGBT department. It's already had a significant impact on at least one viewer, and my girlfriend Suzanne (who was chomping at the bit for the Alex and Maggie to get together) says it spoke to her strongly, reflecting her experiences with coming to terms with her bisexuality. Big thumbs-up.

There's also major developments in the relationship between Kara and both Mon-El and Lena Luthor. I'm warming to Chris Woo'ds Mon-El more and more. His absurd misunderstandings of human culture being very cliched but also very entertaining, mostly due to the doey-eyed cuteness he brings to the role, Katie McGrath continues to impress as Lena, now firmly established as one of the good guys (but there's room for a switcheroo there), and while making her mother the head of CADMUS is a bit of a stretch, it certainly piles on the drama. Similarly, the Medusa virus being used by CADMUS to wipe out aliens on Earth turns out to be created by Kara's biological father. Again, superbly dramatic, but having everyone involved in the major events of this series be related to each other is stretching credibility.

David Harewood gets to have fun, both as Manhunter, and camping it up atrociously as the real Hank Henshaw, aka Cyborg Superman. I'm not super-keen on the White Martian storyline, mostly because it sees Jonn being incredibly bigoted towards someone who has been nothing but noble towards him. Neither Kara nor Jonn are coming across as particularly decent people lately. At least Hank's White Martian blood let him have one good Hulk-out moment before getting resolved, hopefully for good.

Also, something was happening with Winn and James, but ti was boring and I've pretty much forgotten about it. More exciting was The Flash bursting into the episode after a couple of failed attempts. Anyone tuning into "Medusa" expecting it to be a major part of the Invasion! crossover will be disappointed, but on its own merits it was a great episode. Hooking Supergirl into the Arrowverse crossover was just the icing on the cake.

The cherry, on the other hand, was that gorgeous shot of the Fortress of Solitude.

CYBORG SUPERMAN

When David Harewood was introduced as Hank Henshaw in Supergirl, we all waited for him to be revealed as a villain and become the Cyborg Superman. Instead, the series swerved and revealed him to be a shapeshifted Martian Manhunter, the real Henshaw being long dead. With Alex and Kara's dad Jeremiah Danvers revealed as still alive, I had wondered if CADMUS would turn him into Cyborg Superman, but instead they stuck with the established identity and brought back Henshaw, giving Harewood two characters to play.

The comicbook version of Cyborg Superman has a ludicrously melodramatic origin story, which deliberately pastisches the origins of Marvel's Fantasic Four. In this case, though, the cosmic rays lead two of the space shuttle crew to become mutated and die, with Henshaw's wife later being killed and Henshaw himself becoming horribly damaged and forced to become a cyborg. Blaming Superman for this, because of reasons, Henshaw goes on the plague the superhero.

After the legendary Death of Superman storyline, Henshaw is one of four interlopers who come to take Superman's place. Using a mixture of cloned Kryptonian tissue and mechanical implants, Henshaw claims to be the real Superman returned but injured. The remaining three "Supermen" are John Henry Irons, aka The Man of Steel; the AI known as the Eradicator, aka The Last Son of Krypton; and Kon-EL, the modern Superboy. Unlike the comicbook version, the TV version of Henshaw couldn't pass for Superman because of their obvious physical differences, although with shapeshifting aliens around, who knows what the writers might come up with. He's also significantly less cyborg-y in appearance than the comicbook version.

In more recent developments, Henshaw went on to become a major foe for the Green Lantern Corps (who I would not be at all surprised to see turn up on Supergirl). In the New 52 continuity, Henshaw is a a major character, but the Cyborg Superman is none other than Zor-El, Supergirl's father.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Comics to Screen: Supergirl 2-3 - Welcome to Earth

Supergirl manages to present a surprisingly deep and intelligent episode about integration and discrimination, while still running lines like "I picked a bad time to get rid of all my kryptonite!" This is an extremely busy episode, marking the point where the series really seems to be kicking into high gear, throwing in all sorts of ongoing developments and new characters. We have the refugee alien (Chris Wood) waking up and eventually being revealed as not Kryptonian after all, but the last child of Daxam, Mon-El. We have the first appearance of President Marsdin, played by the legendary Lynda Carter, introducing the Alien Amnesty Act. We have the introduction of Maggie Sawyer (Floriana Lima) as a new recurring character for the series. And, right at the last moment, we have the reveal of M'gann M'orzz, aka Miss Martian.

So, taking each element at a time... I initially assumed that Wood's character was going to be Superboy, the variant of the character as a clone of Superman, and that this would lead back to anti-alien group Cadmus. This was obviously totally wrong, but the script has fun with the obvious inference that the super-strong guy in a Kryptonian pod is a Kryptonian. Instead, by making him Mon-El, we get an unexpected strand dealing with Kara's own prejudice against the people of Daxam, here presented as the sister world of Krypton. It's an interesting direction to take, with Kara's usual inclusive nature, exemplified by her fighting for the Alien Amnesty Act, at odds with her initial unwillingness to see Mon-El as anything but an undesirable element. Wood's natural charm and likeability makes Kara seem even more unreasonable in this regard, and he is initially more accepting of her than she is of him, even if it's a fine line.




It's heartbreaking watching this episode after the appalling result of the US election. The script is, if not exactly pro-Clinton, profoundly anti-Trump. "Who even voted for that other guy?" asks Kara, rhetorically, and the answer is, nearly half of America. God, it's depressing. Fortunately, we have Lynda Carter charming the pants off everyone present as President Marsdin to make it all much more bearable. Plus, two blatant and beautifully on-the-nose references to Wonder Woman ("You should see my other jet"? But it's invisible!) In a country where "alien" is still frequently used to mean "foreign immigrant," an episode championing alien integration into society is a profoundly left-wing statement. Such a pity more of America don't see things that way.

Maggie Sawyer is a welcoem edition to the cast of characters, and Lima is extremely likeable in the role. It's a different take on her character, making her part of an alternative cultural movement that accepts aliens in society, but the core elements are the same. She's a tough cop who is proudly out, and this is always good to see on TV. Her relationship with Alex begins with the most cliched Feds-vs-State cop rivalry dialogue I've heard this side of 2000, but it's essentially a meet-cute. The two characters are clearly being set up for a romance and I can't wait to see how it develops.

Finally, Miss Martian... well, we'll have to see how that one develops. Needless to say, it changes things considerably for Jonn Jonnz. I'm all for the inclusion of more aliens in the series, particularly less humanoid ones. I've said since season one that the series would be at its best going down a more Men in Black type of storyline, with lots of peculiar creatures and out-there weaponry, rubbing shoulders with everyday America. While it's a bit of a continuity snarl (so, everyday Americans know there are aliens livign amongst them now?), I think it really works for the series and adds something different to the mix, making it stand out more against the, largely alien-free, Arrowverse series. Plus, we get what's basically a low budget Cantina scene, only with lesbian cops, which can only be described as a good thing.

Along with all this, there's some more interesting developments in the friendship between Kara and Lana Luthor (Katie McGrath). We all know she's going to turn out to be a wrong 'un, but it's entertaining watching how far it will run before the characters are at odds. Among the male characters, Winn is far more successful a character working at the DEO, but James is just as dull as the unlikely new head of CatCo. At least we have Snapper Carr (Ian Gomez) to make CatCo life intersting, even if his brand of hard-boiled journalism seems to have stepped in from another show entirely. The episode was rather finely directed by Rachel Talalay, who has previously directed an episode each of The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow. She also directed the season closures for the last two runs of Doctor Who, and I'm excited to read she'll be kicking off the next series of Sherlock. Overall, a busy, fun and successful episode.



MAGGIE SAWYER

Detective Sawyer is a character I am very pleased to see join the roster. Sawyer is a character who has been a major part of both Superman and Batman mythos for the last thirty years, making her first appearance in Superman #4 in 1987. Part of a special unit that handles metahuman crimes, Sawyer represented the police force's response to alien and transhuman threats, opposed to vigilantes like Superman and Batman. Over time, Sawyer came to value the superhero role and worked well with Superman to protect Metropolis. In Action Comics #600, she made an enemy of Lex Luthor after she threatened to expose his illegal activities. Maggie was married to James Sawyer, a fellow officer, but later questioned her sexuality, becoming one of the few major LGBT characters in 20th century comics. Luthor threatened to out her as gay, but this eventually led to Sawyer accepting her sexuality and going public.

In the 2000s, Sawyer transferred to the Gotham City Police Department and worked her way up the ranks to become Commissioner, albeit briefly, in Jim Gordon's absence. Sawyer met Kate Kane, aka Batwoman, in Detective Comics #856, a significant moment that would led the two characters to begin a romance. Kane eventually proposed to Sawyer in the 2011 Batwoman title, Alongside Renee Montoya, Kane and Sawyer became the most high profile lesbian characters in comics. Unfortunately, DC dropped the ball by refusing to allow the actual marriage of Kane and Sawyer go ahead. Amid the controversy, head writers of the series quit the comic in protest to DC's corporate decision.

Maggie Swayer has previously been seen on live-action TV in the latter seasons of Smallville, played by Jill Teed. The castin go Floriana Lima in the role on Supergirl adds a new dimension to the character by being, in her words, "non-white, non-straight," making her particularly well-placed to understand discrimination in the USA.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Comics to Screen: Legends of Tomorrow 2-2 - The Justice Society of America

Catching up with Legends, and the second episode is a slightly more serious, but generally just as fun and silly as episode one. It's wonderful that a franchise that began with the Dark Knight-eqsue grim realism of Arrow season one has advanced to the point it can include a team-up with a 1940s superhero team to fight a Nazi hulk. Making the JSA a super-secret society helps with some of continuity issues of having a superhero team active decades before Arrow started, even if it is a bit hard to swallow. But none of this matters, when we have such great scenes as the Legends getting their asses thoroughly handed to them by the JSA, with Dr. Mid-Nite, easily the coolest member of the team, doing the full sonar-vision battle that he perfected years before Daredevil. I particularly love their low-tech outfits. Stargirl, in particular, looks like nothing so much as a sexy cosplayer (I must point out that this is in no way a bad thing). If she reappears, though, please may we also have her giant robot sidekick, STRIPE?

The undoubted highlight of the episode has to be Victor Garber flexing his vocal cords as Stein performs "Edelweiss" in a Nazi nightclub. The showrunners had better find some way of brigning him into the upcoming musical crossover with The Flash and Supergirl. Time-travellers fighting Nazis is a sure-fire recipe for a fun episode. There are plenty of effective moments throughout, and all the remaining Legends get a strong moment, with the exception of Rory who barely gets to do anything at all. Ray Palmer again shows he's at his best under extreme pressure (i.e. in captivity under threat of torture), the Stein/Jax relationship is played better than it has been in the past, and Sara Lance proves perfect for the position of new team leader having finally developed into a rounded and entertaining character.

The episode also acts as the required origin story for Nate Heywood as the new Steel. Nick Zano gives a sympathetic turn as the haemophiliac historian, out of his depth in a team of assassins and superhumans and overwhelmed at the prospect of meeting his legendary grandfather. The sequence of events unrolls with predictability, but that's not always a bad thing. These story beats work and it's fun to follow along, knowing where it's heading. Also impressive is Maisie Richardson-Sellers as the new (old) Vixen, set up to become a series regular. She has some good chemistry with Brandon Routh's Ray Palmer and it'll be interesting to see how the relationship between the teams develops, especially as Vixen presumably suspects the Legends are responsible for Hourman's death.

As readers of my blatherings will know, I love all this time travel stuff, and it's not coincidence that this episode openly references Back to the Future (in the same week as The Flash was, no less). Nate's past slowly disappearing after his grandfather looks certain to die is straight out of that movie. Completely nonsensical, of course, but narratively sound. Quite why ongoing villain Thawne is trying to so drastically alter his own past is a mystery, though - if the Nazis have access to supersoldiers, his civilisation will surely never come about. Just possibly we'll get some logical answer to this as the series carries on, although I'm not optimistic on that front.



The History of the JSA

The Justice Society of America was the first ever superteam, giving rise to the later Justice League and similar teams such as the Avengers. The Society made its first appearance in All Star Comics #3 at the end of 1940, featuring a bunch of superheroes from across the publications of National Comics and All-American Publications in what was a groundbreaking team-up. The original team-up consisted of Dr. Fate, Hourman, the Atom, the Flash, Green Lantern, the Sandman, the Spectre and Hawkman, many of whose modern equivalents continue as some of DC's longest-running heroes. I can only imagine how exciting this was for the kids reading comics back then.

Early on, characters with their own titles weren't permitted to appear in All Star Comics, so Superman and Batman were considered honorary members, with Green Lantern and the Flash leaving active team duty as they hit the big time. The exception to this rule was Wonder Woman, who appeared in issue 11 as the JSA's secretary, before eventually taking an active role in adventures. The inclusion of characters from the different companies varied a little over the years before National and All-American amalgamated to form Detective Comics Inc. Dr. Mid-Nite and Starman joined the team in issue 8, Johnny Thunder in issue 6. The JSA's archenemies, the Injustice Society of the World, debuted in issue 37, and the Black Canary joined the team four issues later.

The JSA disappeared as superhero titles were phased out over the years, but returned during the resurgance of the Silver Age. The Jay Garrick and Barry Allen versions of the Flash teamed up in 1961's The Flash #123 - "The Flash of Two Worlds" - which introduced the idea that the JSA existed on Earth-Two. This led to team-ups between the Society and the League across the two Earths against major threats throughout the sixties. The JSA members were expanded to include Quality Comics characters after DC's acquisition of the rights, and were presented as older, more experienced superheroes in contrast to the JLA. Later crossover events changed the nature of the DC universe, with the JSA becoming earlier heroes of the main continuity in some versions, and an Earth-Two team in others. Some versions included older versions of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, while others introduced equivalent characters. 

The JSA vanished for some time before being reincoroprated into continuity during the various shake-ups, but they generally remained as older, WWII heroes in most iterations. The New 52 impression had the Earth-2 title, in which alternative versions of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman had been killed, leaving the JSA behind to defend their Earth. Perhaps the most well-known modern interpretations of the JSA have been on TV, with appearances in the latter seasons of Smallville, or as the veteran crew in the animated Batman: The Brave and the Bold. There have been many members of the Society over the years; the Arrowverse team features Hourman, Commander Steel, Obsidian, Dr. Mid-Nite, Stargirl and Vixen. Of these, only Hourman and Dr. Mid-Nite actually date back to the 1940s.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Comics to Screen: The Flash 3-4 - The New Rogues

Catching up with my comicbook telly shows, and "The New Rogues" is a very fun episode which captures a lot of the spirit of the earlier episodes of The Flash. (Rather better than the following episode, "Monsters," in that regard, although that had some excellent character moments and is well worth a look too.) With Captain Cold missing, Central City has been lacking a really fun villain for a while and bringing in a couple of his old rivals spices things up. Sam Scudder is a charming and malevolent crook, and I'm hopeful he'll turn up again to cause more trouble as the Mirror Master. His girlfriend Rosalind Dillon makes for a great new twist on the Top, even if the actress is pretty dreadful, and I love that her codename, never one of DC's best, is a rather desperate attempt by a harried Cisco. The regulars and semi-regulars do well too. The aforementioned Cisco is back on form, always at his best when he has Wells to bounce off, while Caitlyn's gradual transformation into Killer Frost is making her more interesting than she has been in, well, ever.

It's so good to have the charming Tom Cavanagh back as Wells, along with Violett Beane as his now-speederised daughter Jesse Quick. The characters bring out the best in each other, and even Wally is likeable when he's enjoying Jesse's company. The highlights of the episode are the silliest parts, though. Barry trapped behind a mirror; the hologram of Captain Cold; and, of course, the multiple Wellses from across the Multiverse. It's a ludicrous idea, fetching a Wells stand-in so that we still get to enjoy Cavanagh while they're not using his main character, but it works because it's played for such laughs. Hipster Wells from Earth-19 looks to be sticking around for a while, and to be honest by the end of "Monsters" I was a bit sick of him, but I imagine he's only a temporary stand-in for proper Wells. I'm enjoying the abandon with which the series is exploring parallel universe now. It should lead to some very fun situations.




MIRROR MASTER AND THE TOP

There have been a couple of Mirror Masters in the comics, but Sam Scudder is the main holder of the title. He first appeared way back in The Flash issue 105 in 1959, a small time crook who rose to prominence by using mirrors to create holograms, hypnotise people and cast illusions. He faced the Flash numerous times over the years, experimenting further with mirrors and eventually finding a way to travel through a mirror realm. The version seen in the episode is most like the New 52 version, who became trapped in the mirror dimension following a scientific accident. In this run, Scudder is in a relationship with the Golden Glider, Captain Cold's sister. 

The main secondary holder of the Mirror Master title is Evan McCulloch, who is mentioned in the episode as being the Mirror Master of Earth-2. The original Mirror Master was created by Carmine Infantino and John Broome, the latter of which receives a nod in the ep: Scudder hides out in a warehouse belonging to Broome Industries. None other than David Cassidy played Scudder in the 1990s Flash TV series, while the modern version is played by Grey Damon.

The Top is, in the world of comics, one Roscoe Dillon, a nutter who was obsessed with tops. First appearing in The Flash #122 in 1961, he found a way to spin round at superspeed, which somehow increased his intelligence, if not his sanity. He created a number of trick tops with various silly abilities and bothered the Flash several times. He even created an atomic top which was aparrently capable of destroying half the planet. He also dated Golden Glider for a time. Like many comicbook characters, Top was killed but brought back, now with the new ability to induce vertigo in his victims. In the New 52, Dillon is known as Turbine, having been trapped in the Speed Force, and could create tornadoes from centrifical forces.

For the TV series, Top has undergone a gender swap and become Rosalind Dillon and is now partnered with the Mirror Master. She has the vertigo-inducing abilities of the later pre-52 Top, leading to some peculiar scenes against Jesse Quick and the Flash. She wears a gorgeous yellow-and-green outfit which evokes the comic villains spandex costume. She is played by Ashley Rickards.


You spin me right round, baby, right round...




Friday, 11 November 2016

Which will end first - 2016, the United States, or the world?

I was going to blog about the result of the election, but after two days collecting my thoughts, I still feel too angry and depressed to write about it. Just, what the fuck is wrong with people?

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

REVIEW: Doctor Strange

Although Marvel Studios  have seemingly reached the point where they can't do wrong, Doctor Strange represented another gamble. Introducing not just another hero, but also magic and demons, into the Cinematic Universe had the potential to alienate viewers. That said, Marvel have successfully translated properties such as Thor, and even the obscure Guardians of the Galaxy, with great style and success, and while they took on sci-fi trappings, they were all essentially high fantasy films full of inexplicable powers and artefacts. It isn't a massive step to say, yes, there's real magic, plus a million other universes, populated by unstoppable forces and devils bent of world domination.

Like Thor, Iron Man and Ant-Man before him, Doctor Strange is another Marvel superhero who isn't unknown, but is far from famous outside the comics-reading community. As with those previous hits, what was required for success is deceptively simple: a reasonable script, a talented director and a charismatic star. Benedict Cumberbatch is perhaps the most obvious choice possible for the role, but sometimes the obvious choice is the right choice. Cumberbatch has said that Strange has "smatterings of the same colours" as Sherlock Holmes, but let's be fair. Strange is 100% American Sherlock (or, to put it another way, House). As an arrogant but nonetheless charming genius who, eventually, becomes a good man, Strange will no doubt remind most moviegoers of Tony Stark. Indeed, Strange runs through essentially identical story beats that Stark did in Iron Man, but it's been eight years, it's not a huge sin to be using these tropes again.

Other roles are equally well handled. Chiwetel Ejiofor reportedly also read for Strange, but that casting would have robbed us of his Mordo, actually a more interesting character than the good surgeon. An outright villain in the comics, here we get to know Mordo while he is still a decent, albeit single-minded soldier, and his gradualy disillusionment and loss of faith is powerfully portrayed by Ejiofor. We'll no doubt see him as the villain in Doctor Strange 2: Don't Text and Drive, and he'll provide what so many Marvel films have sadly lacked: a complex, interesting enemy.

Which brings us onto Mads Mikkelsen as Kaecilius, a character so obscure that most comics readres wouldn't recognise the name without checking the Marvel Database. Mikkelsen is, like Cumberbatch, a reliably powerful and charismatic presence, and faces off against him well. Kaecilius, however, is an extremely one-note villain, and without Mikkelsen's charismatic performance would be instantly forgettable. Sometimes, though, there's enough else going on in a film for a straightforward baddie to be perfectly adequate.

While Cumberbatch and Mikkelsen are safe casting choices, Tilda Swinton has to be one of the most controversial casting decision in years. Replacing the venerable, ancient Tibetan with an androgynous Caucasian woman immediately led to cries of whitewashing. I can't say I agree with this. For one, it seems drastically hypocritical to praise the race-blind casting of Ejiofor as Mordo and then criticise another race change. Also, casting a woman as the Ancient One, the most powerful and significant character in the film, makes up for a heavily male-skewed cast. Other than Swinton, the only significant female role is Rachel McAdams as Christine Palmer, and while she is excellent in the role, she never gets to really explore the character beyond her relationship with Strange.

It is certainly true that there should have been a stronger Asian presence in a film predominantly set in the Far East. Conversely, though, it would have been easy to fall into the trap of having sterotyped Asian characters, as indeed the original comics did. The Ancient One was very much a stereotypical "inscrutable Oriental" type, while Wong was a subserviant assistant to Strange. Benedict Wong is the only Asian actor to have a major role in the film, but his performance is also one of the most memorable. (He also manages to be both the only actor to share a name with his character, and makes this one of the very, very few films starring two actors named Benedict.)




What people will no doubt remember most about Doctor Strange is its astonishing visual style. It's certainly obvious that Scott Derrickson and his team were heavily influenced by Inception, but it's not as if that came out of the blue. Inception was itself influenced by The Matrix and many other fantastical productions. Elements of Doctor Strange reveal inspirations that go much further back than that; indeed, one brief sequence surely homages the climactic Star Corridor transport in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Whatever the origins of the film's visuals, the voyages into other dimensions and realms of mind are quite breathtaking, making Doctor Strange one of the very few film's I wish I'd seen in 3D. The director's skilled eye extends to the many fight scenes, including surprisingly effective fisticuffs on the astral plane. I particularly loved the look of the spells themselves, with magical weapons seemingly composed from the magical words used to conjour them. Alongside the visual treats and the mystical arts, there's a very effective current of humour throughout, perhaps the best example of Marvel's deftness of touch in its films compared to its rivals'. While far from being a comedy, there are some very funny moments in Doctor Strange, particularly the eponymous wizard's insistance on being called Doctor. (I'm still convinced he should be called Mr. Strange if he's a surgeon. Don't they do that in America?)

For comics readers and followers of Marvel movies, the script was pretty predictable. While just one of many magical artefacts, alongside the Staff of the Living Tribunal and the Pol'ish Remover of Na'il, anyone could have guessed that the great Eye of Agamotto would turn out to be an Infinity Stone. This leaves just one, I believe, unaccounted for, which will no doubt turn up in Thor: Ragnarok. Equally as easy to call was Dormammu's arrival as the Big Bad, played, uncredited, by Cumberbatch using his best scary monster voice. Dormammu's gigantic presence was another treat on the big screen, although I would have preferred him with his traditional big flaming head. There's room in modern film for demons with big flaming heads.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

REVIEW: RED DWARF XI - Ep 6 - CAN OF WORMS

Sorry to say I'm very behind on my reviewing. Moving into a new place is a very time-consuming and stressful undertaking, and one I like to do as infrequently as possible, but these last two weeks have been onwards and upwards and so televisual excursions have been reduced. Soon, though, I will find time to finish covering Space Dandy season two, get back onto Trek and return to working for Television Heaven. Now though, I can finish the latest run of Red Dwarf.

This year's series of Red Dwarf has built on the successful approach of Series X, taking elements of the earliest series and rejigging them for a modern approach. Wisely not trying too hard to recreate the classic years, Series XI is retro Red Dwarf – taking the old and making it new. As such, it's been a very fan-pleasing run, but crucially, it's also the funniest series of Red Dwarf for a good long while (probably since series VI, for my dollarpound).

“Can of Worms” goes for broke with this approach, dredging up memories of favourite episodes while examining some, in retrospect, obvious questions about a character who hasn't ever really been in the limelight. This series we've had a strong Rimmer episode and a strong Kryten episode, and to a lesser extent, a Lister-focused episode, but never before have we had a Cat episode. The closest we've got was “Waiting for God” in Series I, and that was really a Lister story.

Finally, Danny John Jules gets to be the focus of an episode, with a script that revolves around the Cat and his mysterious, self-absorbed lifestyle. Of course the Cat, for all his arrogant self-aggrandising, has never been with a woman, and he's only even met about three. It's a very funny, very blokey set-up for an episode.

It's kind of a shame that, after introducing a female Cat person, the episode chucks the concept away. Back in Series VII, Naylor wrote a script called “Identity Within,” which revolved around the Cat's desperate need to have sex, a parody of Star Trek's “Amok Time.” That episode was scrapped due to budget constraints, but it's voiced storyboard has become generally accepted by fans as a “real” story, something this latest episode puts the kibosh on. Series VII would have given us a real Felis sapiens, but Series XI decides to make her a polymorph instead.

Still, it works. It's a brave move, trying to make a (second) sequel to one of the most popular episodes of the programme, but this latest shapeshifter attack hits an excellent balance of grot vs. comedy. The more seasoned spacers have little difficulty dealing with a whole swarm of polymorphs this time round, but there are enough jokes hitting the mark that it still works as a new take on the old monster.

Meanwhile the Cat gets some of his nest moments ever. It's hard to know whether “It still counts!” or “Pipe me!” will go down as his best-remembered lines (disturbingly, the ovipositor thing is an actual fetish). It's also fun to see the suddenly selfless mother Cat, a huge contrast to his usual self, and once again an idea that deserves more exploration than there is time for. Underneath it all, though, we get a glimpse at how lonely the Cat is as a character. There's a lot more that could be done with his character.


That last scene though, that could have been something. Yes, it was funny, but if only it hadn't been a dream. Of course, it would have made nonsense of the episode as a whole, but imagine the continuity arguments the fanboys would have had...

Best line: "No, Kinder eggs! Yes, eggs that hatch!"

Good psycho guide: Four chainsaws


Monday, 24 October 2016

Comics to Screen: Supergirl 2-1 & 2-2

THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERGIRL 

THE LAST CHILDREN OF KRYPTON

Supergirl kicks off its second season with a much-needed acceptance. The first run pussyfooted around the absence of Superman in a distracting fashion that just drew attention to the fact the Man of Steel was always hiding offscreen. Finally, he swoops in to help Kara face some celebrated Super-foes. So we get a new Superman, a new Lena Luthor and a new Metallo... and it really works. The dialogue is as corny and laboured as ever, but it's delivered with such well-meaning earnestness it's still impossible to not love this nonsense.

There's a lot going on in these episodes, with the decks being given a good shuffle for the new season. Cat Grant is signing off, and while it's all very beautifully played, the series really isn't going to be the same without Callista Flockheart's impeccable queen. Instead, we now have Kara working as a mild-mannered reporter, a development I'm not keen on. Must she be exactly like Clark Kent? Predictably, her boss is tough and impossible to please, but seemingly without any of the charisma or redeeming qualities her previous boss had... so he's just an arsehole. Meanwhile, the writers take a huge backtrack on Kara's relationship with James, presumably because they've realised he's actually quite dull.

In a series that has so far struggled to produce effective male characters (not that this isn't a refreshing reversal), Tyler Hoechlin is fine casting as Superman. While he doesn't have the cinematic charisma of Henry Cavill, he brings some of the purer character of Christopher Reeve or Brandon Routh. His joyful team-up with Kara is infectiously fun, even if they do start to become a bit nauseating, and the show's creators wisely allow Supergirl to retain top billing. Equally wisely, the Kara/Clark relationship is used to examine the Kara/Alex sister relationship. It works far better than a mere star cameo.

Superman's presence also brings out the best in characters such as Winslow and J'onn J'onnz. The Manhunter is initially at odds with Superman for his use of kryptonite, and while he eventually comes round to his way of thinking, I'm completely with J'onnz on this one. The Earth was just invaded by an army of Kryptonians - of course they need to keep some kryptonite on standby! On the villain side of things, I'm sure we can expect the lovely Katie McGrath to return to show a more sinister side to Lana Luthor, but it's only in the second episode that we get some genuine threat. Metallo is the immediate problem, but now Cadmus have revealed themselves to the world there's a new sense of danger to the core cast. However, I was quite convinced that the mysterious alien survivor who so violently awakes at the episode's end was to be Cadmus's planted Superboy clone, something I've since learned is completely wrong. Still, we'll meet him properly in the next episode.

Meeting Metallo

Metallo is a perfect example of the DC school of villain names. He's made of metal, do you see? Fiendishly clever. There were a few Metallos before the classic cyborg version debuted in the late fifties. Both John Corben and his brother Roger existed as Metallo at different points, each of them saved after a terrible incident left them at death's door. Their bodies replaced by mechanical exoskeletons and powered by a heart of kryptonite, both versions of Metallo became recurring nemeses for Superman. As well as the usual super-strength and near-invulnerability you'd expect from a cyborg, Metallo's kryptonite core emits radiation harmful to Kryptonians. In some versions, such as Supergirl's, he can fire beams of kryptonite energy from his heart. Later versions have been upgraded by such villains as Brainiac and Neron to have new abilities, such as a T-1000-esque metamorphic power, or the ability to absorb other mechanical items into his being. Some versions became absolutely gigantic.

The New 52 imprint rebooted Metallo as the John Corben in the supersuit "Metal-0," and linked his origins to the experiments of John Henry Irons, aka the superhero Steel. The John Corben Metallo has been a foe in several TV series featuring Superman, including Superboy, Lois and Clark and Smallville. Supergirl is unusual in forcibly creating a second Metallo so that both Superman and Supergirl can be battled in their own base cities.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Comics to Screen: Legends of Tomorrow 2-1 - Out of Time

To be honest, I'd gotten bored with Legends of Tomorrow. I've watched the odd episode on a sporadic basis but never actually finished the first season. However, I decided to jump back in with the beginning of season two, which has left me somewhat confused as to what has happened to various characters, but has also convinced me to give the series another chance.

It's not an original observation, but Legends is trying very hard to be Doctor Who with superheroes. This might become redundant at Christmas, when Doctor Who actually does superheroes, but right now, it's an approach that's working. Legends has taken the same track as Who by both creating an overseeing group of superiors - the Time Agents in this case - and then wiping them out so that the characters can actually have some fun. Now that Arthur Darvill's rogue agent Rip Hunter is policing the timestream, he's trying harder than ever to be a pseudo-Doctor, right down to a holographic farewell message in this episode lifted directly from The Parting of the Ways.

The new season works better than the last, though, having decided to just go for broke and have some fun. It's a bunch of superheroes with a timeship - this is not a show that should ever be boring. Sure, the dialogue is still atrocious, but it doesn't matter so much when the characters are charging from one situation to the next with such verve. Reducing the size of the team is a big help, too. There were just too many regular characters in the first series, and while I miss Captain Cold, at least we've got rid of mopey Hawkgirl Kendra. Of the characters we still have on the team, Mick Rory has proven to be the absolute highlight, while even Sara Lance was fun this time round, and I normally find her intensely annoying. Plus, she kisses a lot of women, which is bound to be reason enough to watch for plenty of people.

"Out of Time" mostly deals with Damian Darhk vs. Albert Einstein, which is a laugh, but we also get the Royal Court of France, the Salem witch trials and a bloody great tyrannosaur. Oliver Queen's in it too, not as the Arrow but in his tiresome Mayor of Star City role. Thankfully, the exposition sequences don't last long enough to detract from the overall fun of titting about in time, and the final reveals of the episode are masterfully done. I'm looking forward to episode two.

Introducing Nate Heywood

So, in this episode we do get one new member of the team: Nate Heywood, a likeable if not terribly interesting historian, who is understandably excited at the prospect of cavorting around history. He's played here by Nick Zano, and while he doesn't do much here beyond kickstarting the plot by looking for the Waverider, we can probably expect bigger things from him in the future. In the comics, Nate becomes Citizen Steel. He's grandson of Henry Heywood, the original Commander Steel who fights as part of the Justice Society of America. Given the JSA's purported major role in this season, I think we can expect Nate to inherit some kind of tech from his granddad that will super him up in time for the climactic showdown at the end of the run.

Monday, 17 October 2016

REVIEW: RED DWARF XI - Ep. 5 - KRYSIS

"Krysis" sees Red Dwarf XI hit a high with the best episode of the year so far. It has a gloriously simple and effective central idea, that of Kryten hitting his midlife crisis, and runs with it to a bizarre and poignant conclusion. The script moves from a brief but classic bunkroom scene into the main plot rapidly, with plenty of funny moments for each of the Dwarfers but always focusing on Kryten. Series X allowed the characters' age to show, with this series (and the next, from what I've seen) following that train of thought. Lister seems fairly comfortable with himself, the Cat is supremely self-assured (who can blame him in that glorious pink suit?) and while Rimmer might seem the obvious choice for a middy, he's so neurotic permanently it would make little difference.

So it's Krtyen who gets to face the crisis, and I guess that makes sense, as he's the one who's actually had to experience millennia of solitude, hard work and existential dread. We might consider this the latest step in his evolution from servile android to, well, gobbier, angrier servile android. His new red sportscar look and impromptu dance-off skirt the line between funny and naff, but that's the point with a midlife crisis. It should look embarrassing.

Pitting Kryten against his more accomplished predecessor gives this storyline legs. Dominic Coleman is perfect as Butler, the effete and genius mechanoid. His delivery has a touch of de Niro's Captain Shakespeare (from Stardust) to my ears, and arrogant as the character is he's likeable and seems to be taking real joy in everything he does. I'd be happy to see him again in a later episode, especially as he brings out the very worst in Kryten. The old Series 4000 really is part of the Red Dwarf crew: a somehwat deranged old bastard, like the rest of them.

The final act takes an unusual turn for the series, delving into a more philosophical area before turning it into a very funny scene with more than a hint of Hitchhikers to it. Conversing with the universe itself is not something I expected the series to give us, and it sets Kryten on a rather heartwarming resolution. It all adds up to a rather wonderful episode.

Good Psycho Guide: 4.75 chainsaws.

Continuity bollocks: Krtyen here gives his age as 2,976,000 years old. Given that he was created in 2340, this places the current series in AD 2,978,340, with possible allowances made for time dilation, the most accurate date we've ever had for the setting. Clearly, Holly was rounding up a bit when he said he kept Lister in stasis for three million years.

Pretty astonishingly, mechanoids can be expected to last for six million years. Butler is described as Series 3000 mechanoid, which is something of a continuity howler. In the sixth series episode "Out of Time," we learned that the Series 3000 droids looked like realistic humans, but were recalled. Perhaps some of them were fit with new, Series 4000 styled skins? Less problematically, the Nova 5, Kryten's ship, turns out to be the name of a series of ships, with the Nova 3 originating a century before.

We also meet a new breed of GELF, the Sakinyako, who aren't dissimilar to the Kinatawowi.

Best Line: 
"I've got an ingrowing toenail, it's killing me!"
"Thank it for me."

Saturday, 15 October 2016

REVIEW: RED DWARF XI - Ep. 4 - OFFICER RIMMER

Rim Rim Rim Rim Rim Rim... Mister Rimmer...

After an average third episode, Red Dwarf XI serves up two belters. I'll be reviewing "Krysis" a little later after a second watch, but first, "Officer Rimmer." Rimmer episodes are always a treat - "Me^2," "Better Than Life," "Rimmerworld." OK, maybe not "Only the Good," but you get the picture. "Officer Rimmer" is another cracking episode, one which sees Rimmer finally achieve his life's (and afterlife's) ambition. Not content with being acting-advisory-senior-crewmember, Rimmer finally becomes an officer and gets to legitimise his arrogant separation from the rest of the team.

The results are hilarious, with Rimmer intentionally segregating himself from Lister and the Cat, and positioning Kryten as his personal valet. Series XI continues its obsession with Red Dwarf's lifts, introducing a scummy, barely usable service lift for the grunts, and an executive lift for Rimsey himself. Then there's the officer's club, Rimmer's attempt to set himself up in a club for people like him. Just like him...

Although Rimmer's supercilious arrogance is the core of the episode, there's a brilliant science fiction concept underpinning it. Back in the Golden Age of Science Fiction, authors wrote about the terrible consequences that could follow from teleportation. Now we know that matter transmission is almost certainly impossible, but we have developed the incredible technology of 3D printing. Considering that we are now able to print replacement organs and mechanical limbs, it's not such a huge leap to speculating about printing entire people. As such, the Nautilus and its crew compliment, kept on file until needed, is a horribly believable use of a miraculous technology.

The printer leads to some surprisingly effective body horror. The Nautilus's captain, printed with his face on the top on his head, is really disquieting, and I actually felt very uncomfortable looking at him. Rimmer then uses the printer to create endless duplicates of himself, instigating a hierarchical structure with him on top... until the printer goes wrong again and creates a horrific mash-up Rimmer Monster. After the deranged surgeon droid of "Give and Take," it's another effective to the dark side for the series.

This is an episode that expertly blends sci-fi, comedy and horror, but once again, one that has far too much material for its runtime. The bioprinter is a fascinating concept with huge scope for further exploration. The ethical and philosophical consequences could power a whole series of programmes. There's a brilliant moment where we learn that Lister sold his genome, and that his duplicates have been manning call centres for years. It's one of the best bits of the episode, but again, it's just a moment, where it could be the basis for a full episode. And, as with the first two episodes of the run, it just stops. In fact, it's the worst example so far, with the episode being cut off mid-battle. I can only assume both time and money ran out, and the climactic destruction of the Rimmer Monster was just too expensive to show. It's a major flaw that prevents "Officer Rimmer" from being a five star episode.

Good Psycho Guide: Four-and-a-half chainsaws

Continuity bollocks: As with previous episodes this year, "Officer Rimmer" harks back to the early days of the series. Kryten mentions previous occasions where having more than one Rimmer hasn't gone well, but Rimmer Prime brushes it off, saying there'll be lots of him this time. Sure, "Me^2" was one-on-one Rimsey war, but has he forgottent the entire planet of his clones in "Rimmerworld," where ended up in a dungeon for 557 years? At least he still remembers to always carry a pen.

There's a definite sense that lately Red Dwarf has been moving back into the populated area of space, which makes sense if they've been travelling back towards Earth all this time. We're meeting multiple ships on deep space missions, including the Nautilus, the Nova 3 and the SS Samsara. We also get a little more information about the Space Corps rank system. The lowest officer rank is simply called Officer, with First Lieutenant considerably higher.

Best line:

"Of course we're sure - it's as plain as the nose on your head!"

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Comics to Screen: The Flash 3-1 - Flashpoint

It's comicbook telly season again, and this time round, I'm going to try something a little different. Rather than review as much as I can find time for, I'm going to cherry-pick the odd episode here and there, review it and then take a look at the comic or character that inspired it.

So, we'll kick off with "Flashpoint," the first episode of The Flash season three. Which was, on the whole, entertaining, and appropriately fast-paced, but on the whole, dissatisfying. A lot of people weren't keen on Barry's choice to finally change his own past and save his mother from the Reverse-Flash. To be fair, I wasn't either, but mainly because he had finally gotten past this in one of the ebst episodes of the series so far, only for yet another tragedy to push him back over the edge. On the other hand, it's very hard to argue that it was actually the wrong decision, and this is where "Flashpoint" failed to convince me.

Throughout, Barry is told that his changing of history is wrong, and will have consequences. But he's told this by Thawne, the Reverse-Flash himself, who explicitly changed history by killing Barry's mum in the first place. You can't play the "You can't change history, not one line!" tack when it's already been changed. Barry's actions put events back on their original course, or near enough. There's all this hand-wringing over how terrible this new timeline is... except it's not. It's better, for the most part. Yes, Joe's got a drinking problem, and Wally gets himself stabbed due to his, entirely in character, extreme cockiness. But both Barry's parents are alive and happy, and his dad hasn't spent half his life in prison. Cisco is rich, and Caitlyn is successful (who's honestly saying that being a paediatric ophthalmologist isn't a great thing to be doing?) Iris is her normal, fairly uninteresting self. She says she's felt that things are "off," but it's hard to understand why that is. It maks Barry's eventual decision to send Thawne back and allow him to murder his mother again utterly baffling.

There is a lot of fun to be had here. It's great to see Wally finally get to be Kid Flash, even if it does turn out to be just for this one episode. Carlos Valdes is great as super-rich Cisco - I love how Cisco turns out to be a prick in every alternative reality. There should be a version of him in Supergirl's world who's an utter douche. Iris and Barry's relationship is more believable than before without the slightly creepy pseudo-sibling thing going on. On the other hand, I'm still massively underwhelmed by the Matt Letscher version of Thawne. Tom Cavanagh's cooler, creepier portrayal as Wells/Thawne remains superior.

It's interesting to see Barry essentially playing the villain here. While I'm not sold on the endangering time aspect, he seriously crosses a line by keeping Thawne prisoner. It's actually not that different from Star Labs' questionable metahuman containment, but even more disturbing. What the hell was he planning on actually doing with the guy? Plus, he's a bit stalky around Iris. It's all resolved too quickly though. This could have lasted for weeks, with more cracks appearing in the positive new timeline each episode. It could have actually sold the concept that things had been damaged by the interference. Of course, the CW can't do that because it'll have a knock-on impact on their other superhero shows, but that would have worked. The Legends of Tomorrow would have detected the timeline change and been brought back into the fold. Arrow could have been interesting for a few weeks. Instead, we got one episode of slightly underwhelming fun, and while there are seemingly still some consequences for Barry's life, it's hard to shake the feeling ti could have been more.

THE ORIGINAL FLASHPOINT

Back in 2011, DC decided to do one of their massive, convoluted events to try to clean up continuity once and for all. As always, this actually made it all much more complicated and contrived, but still, Flashpoint did have some pretty cool ideas. It ran as a limited series, but crossed over into most of DC's flagship titles. Like the TV episode, it sees Barry's world changed so that his mother is alive, but otherwise the changes are much more significant on the page. Barry never became the Flash, which makes more sense, since the initial event that changed him never happened. Captain Cold is Central City's greatest hero, which would have been amazing to see on screen. Thomas Wayne was never killed, and is Batman. Things are going wrong in complicated ways and need to be sorted out, over many issues. 

Flashpoint was basically a way to shake things up in the comics for a while, before rebooting the DC universe to make it, supposedly, simpler and more accessible, as The New 52. Since then, it's been un-rebooted, and made more complicated than ever, in the DC Rebirth event. Oh, and it's been revealed that it wasn't Barry who changed history. It was Dr. Manhattan, because, you know, screw logic.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

REVIEW: RED DWARF XI - Ep. 3 - GIVE AND TAKE

SPOILERS OCCUR

After two episodes that combined clever ideas with genuine laughs, the third episode of Red Dwarf XI gets the first criterion right but doesn't quite hit the second. There are some great elements here, and once again, Naylor's script revolves around some brilliant concepts, but fundamentally, "Give and Take" just isn't especially funny. 




There are a few good laughs, the best of which being the drive room scene, which includes the dialogue around Kryten wiping Rimmer from his memory bank. This is one of the clips that was shared before the series started, and it is a belter. After that though, there's not many good laughs to be had. It's a fairly average episode on that score. Where it does rate above other episodes, surprisingly, is horror. The deranged surgeon droid Aschlepius is creepy as hell, and the sequence where he menaces Lister and the Cat works very well. It's not long before the episode moves back to the comedy. The Cat's selfishness has returned to its spectacular Series I levels, and this leads to some memorable exchanges. Snacky the snack droid is pretty poor though, and we've got enough talking snack dispensers on Red Dwarf. It's not a bad episode, all told, just an average one.

Once again, there's a link back to a previous episode, although rather subtler this time. We've already seen a stasis booth allow travel back in time, way back in Series II's "Stasis Leak," so the dodgy engineering on display here to turn such a booth into (yet another) time machine fits in with the dubious science of Red Dwarf. The time loop involving Lister's kidneys is cleverly done, although it lacks any real peril, because we know that the plan has already worked. There's also a huge logical conundrum: whose kidneys were in the dish in the first place? Lister's kidneys were only missing because the Dwarfers went back in time and removed them in the first place. It's a classic time loop, but doesn't explain the kidneys that get accidentally blasted. Perhaps Aschlepius detected that Lister was missing his organs and got some out of storage to transplant?
 
Good Psycho Guide: Three chainsaws

Best Line: "Oh, there's a folder in here called "Captain Bollocks!" Could that be you?

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

REVIEW: RED DWARF XI - Ep 2 - SAMSARA



Red Dwarf XII continues with another episode full of clever ideas. Doug Naylor seems to have been the more sci-fi-oriented of the Grant Naylor pair, going by his solo work since they split (the oddity of Series VIII notwithstanding). "Samsara" continues to show Naylor's strength as an ideas man, with an ingenious central conceit that leads to some laugh-out-loud moments.

The karma drive is explicitly based on the Justice Field from Series IV's "Justice," but is an original and different enough idea to feel fresh. Indeed I doubt I would have even thought of "Justice" if Kryten hadn't specifically mentioned the technology of that episode. The idea of karmic retribution as a means of maintaining "moral order" on long missions is one that is clearly ripe for abuse, and the episode touches on this, but understandably the script focuses on the humour of the concept.

Although this is an episode with high concept sf at its heart, much of the runtime is taken up with very traditional, straightforward sitcom scenes. The opening scene, in which Rimmer and Lister play a game of "Mine-opoly," is a lengthy, simple and very funny string of bickering between the characters. Equally, aboard the SS Samsara we get a long conversation between Lister and the Cat, two characters who rarely get to interact at length without the others. The Cat's history lesson is hilarious, as much a throwback to the distorted Cat myths of Cloister the Stupid as it is a showcase for the Cat's bizarre idiocy.




"Samsara" is an unusual episode structurally, less linear than is usual for Red Dwarf. Jumping back and forth between the SS Samsara's mission and the series' present, three million years or so later, almost half of the episode features the guest cast with none of the regulars present. Maggie Service and Dan Tetsell are pretty great as the illicit lovers aboard the Samsara, holding their own while the Dwarfers are out of sight. They make believable, if not particularly likeable, characters and hold their own well. In fact, their story is probably more interesting than what's happening to the Dwarfers in the future.

Both "Samsara" and "Twentica" showcase great ideas that lead to memorably funny scenes, but plotwise both have suffered from trying to do too much with too little time. More so than last week, the second episode simply stops, while there is clearly scope for more misadventures within the karmic field. It's enough to make me strongly hope for a fifth Red Dwarf novel, to allow Naylor to expand on, and make the most of, his ideas  and characters.

Good Psycho Guide: Three-and-a-half chainsaws.

Title-Tattle: Samsara is a Sanskrit-derived word referring to the cycle of karmic reincarnation in Hinduism and Jainism.

Best Line: "Bam! Invents gravy!" (Somehow even better out of context.)

Saturday, 24 September 2016

WHO REVIEW: Time Shadows (ed. Matt Grady with Samual Gibb)

I believe we're on the cusp of a new golden age of fan fiction, at least in the worlds of Doctor Who. After a few years when professional and semi-pro unofficial fiction all but dried up, there has been a resurgence in this area lately, and some of the projects have been excellent. The latest such project, from Pseudoscope Publishing, is perhaps the best in a recent run of impressive publications.

Time Shadows sees an impressive group of new and established writers come together to raise funds for the Enable Community Foundation; a charity dedicated to providing needy communities with access to the latest technology and techniques to provide replacement limbs and prostheses. It's a remarkable organisation, supported by a remarkable book.

Time Shadows gives us a wide variety of story styles and themes, although a number of them revolve around a concept of time becoming twisted or undone. The stories are of a very high standard. It's a cliché to call these collections a mixed bag, but it's true. Inevitably some stories are better than others, or, at least, better suit a particular reader's taste. However, Time Shadows is the most consistently well-written collection I've read in a long time. There's only one story in the book that I didn't particularly enjoy, and even then, I can see that it would likely suit another reader. In terms of quality, this is a huge achievement.

Going through every story, one by one, would make this a very long spoilerish review, so I'll be content to pick out some of my favourite stories. “Time's Shadow,” by Simon Blake, not only sets the overall feel of the book with its tale of time out of joint, but provides an unsettling and entertaining story from the very beginning of Doctor Who's history: that dilapidated junkyard back in '63. Also tied in with the earliest elements of the series is David McLain's story, “Indigo,” a fun diversion for the first Doctor with a fun punchline.

One of my favourite stories of the collection, “The Godfather,” has nothing to do with Mario Puzo. Rather, it's a quiet, rather beautiful story by John Davies, about the difficulties of growing up, that gives us a glimpse into the later life of two of the Doctor's companions. “The Neither,” by Ian Howden, is a very effective little adventure for Mike Yates and Sarah Jane Smith. They make such a fine pair in this story that they could have had their own spin-off series together.

There are two Cyberman stories that are particularly noteworthy for their very different approaches to the fifty-year-old monsters. “Iron Joe,” by Abel Diaz, sees the sixth Doctor and Peri encounter a Cyberman in the old West, an arresting and unlikely combination of images that make for quite an adventure. Andrew Blair's story, “Confirmation Bias,” is an absolutely devastating story that looks at the Cybermen from the opposite angle, focusing on the unbearable reality of becoming a Cyberman.

Christopher Colley manages to create both the funniest story of the collection, and one of the most affecting. “After the Ball Was Over” begins as light-hearted, frothy, almost Hitchhikers-esque romp before veering into an tale of guilt, that goes exists to explain the huge change in the fourth Doctor's demeanour between seasons seventeen and eighteen. “The Redemption of Vequazon,” by Nick Walters, has an outlandish fantasy title but delivers quite a powerful tale of morality and deliverance.


As with many collections of this nature, Time Shadows has a framing story. However, while most such stories are contrived and often quite ineffective, “A Torch in the Darkness” is one of the best Doctor Who stories I've read in a long time. Dale Smith, David N. Smith, Violet Addison, and Christopher Colley work together on this overarching tale, that brings the twelfth Doctor and Clara on a voyage throughout time, from the days of classical myth to the end of the universe itself. As well as capturing the Twelve/Clara relationship down to a tee, this five-part story sees the Doctor's own history explored. The stories throughout the collection are explicitly referenced as newly created events - intrusions into the Doctor's past. Indeed, isn't that what all these missing adventures are? New elements that we've fashioned to make our favourite character's life even more packed full of incident. “A Torch in the Darkness” also riffs on the same ideas as Listen, but takes it further and to a more powerful conclusion. In a collection that features all thirteen Doctors (and more besides), it's the crowning achievement. Exceptional.



Purchase Time Shadows in print or as download here.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

The new Porridge and Goodnight Sweetheart

I finally got round to watching the new episode of Porridge, having watched Goodnight Sweetheart a week or so ago, just after it was aired. The originals are both favourites of mine, and though the trailers didn't do much for me, there's been enough positive talk about the episodes that I decided to give them a go.

The BBC has produced a bunch of comedy pilots, and although there's some brnad new material, it's the remakes and sequels that are getting people talking. It's always controversial when popular series are revived. I try not to listen too hard to what the public say on these things; after all, Mrs Brown's Boys was just voted best sitcom of the 21st century, which just goes to show how terrible popular opinion can be. There are four revivals in the season so far. Young Hyacinth offers little to interest me; even though I enjoyed Keeping Up Appearances as a kid, it's not something I've ever felt the need to go back to. As for the recast Are You Being Served?... well, that wasn't very in the first place, and just seems embarassing now. So, it was Goodnight Sweetheart and Porridge for me.

I think the sequel route is a wise one to take. It's an easy enough thing to do with GS; after all, it finished a relatively recent seventeen years ago, so all the key players are still with us. As for Porridge, updating it for the 21st century might be trickier, but it's still a better idea than trying to remake the style of the seventies original.

Porridge centres, as always, around Fletch, but this is Nigel Norman Fletcher, grandson of Norman Stanley. Played by current comedy darling Kevin Bishop, he's a cyber-criminal, which is something no one could have dreamed of when the original was made. I can buy Bishop as the grandson of old Fletch; he's got some of his mannerisms down to a tee without ever looking like he's trying to copy Ronnie barker's performance. I can accept them as related. The episode was written by the series' original creators, Dick Clement and Ian le Frenais, and it really does feel like a new episode of the original. Admittedly, not the best episode of the original, but still good fun and with some pretty funny moments. I can see it working as a full series if the Beeb decides to go with it. The only thing I'd change would be removing Mr Meaker, who is just too similar to Mackay and comes across of a poor copy. Still, it's definitely better than Going Straight.

Goodnight Sweetheart was a great series back in the 90s. The update really is obvious - just move it forward in real time on both sides of the timewarp, so that it's now the 60s in the past era. It's cleverer than it might at first seem, because the modern day is far stranger and harder to deal with for Gary than the 60s ever could be. Nicholas Lyndhurst steps easily back into his role as Gary Sparrow, adn all the cast return to their main roles. (Well, the second cast. The series was never really the same after Michelle Holmes and Dervla Kirwan left.) I was dubious about Gary having teenage kids, but both Tim Preston (as Michael, in the past) and Esme Coy (as Ellie, in the present) are pretty great in their roles, and very likeable. Stupid Reg isn't funny, but then, he never was, really.

GS became more sci-fi oriented in its last season, focusing on the time travel aspect more than the relationships side of things. It's not surprising that bringing Gary back to the present involves a classic of time travel fiction - meeting his own father, and his infant self. He's thrown back to his native time in a burst of energy when he holds himself as a baby, which also busts open the timewarp. (We call that the Blinovitch Limitation Effect in Doctor Who.) It's not hilarious, but it's still good fun, and also has plenty of scope for more specials or a full revival.

Now, I need to get round to watching the recreations of comedy episodes lost from archives. I still ahevn't seen "A Stripe for Frazer."

REVIEW: RED DWARF XI - Ep. 1 - TWENTICA

Red Dwarf comes back with a bang in "Twentica," the first of twelve episodes that will be broadcast over the next two years. Part of Red Dwarf's appeal and success is its ability to change and embrace different styles of story. Series ten embraced the best elements of the show's various styles, combining outright sci-fi adventures with odd couple sitcom style. When it got it right, it was spot on. The eleventh series begins with an episode that sits on the sci-fi side of the spectrum, as much as anything in the highly regarded fourth and fifth series (which included such contrived environments as the Waxworld of "Meltdown" and the Psi-Moon of "Terrorform"). "Twentica" is perhaps most similar to series seven's "Tikka to Ride" or last series' "Lemons" - a one-off excursion to Earth's history through yet another means of time travel. In fact, "Tikka to Ride" is the best comparison from the series' past, with "Twentica" also taking place in a version of America altered through time travel.


The difference is that the alternative America seen here, while a dystopian setting, is played predominantly for comedy. It's a fantastic idea; a version of the twentieth century where any technology beyond the level of the 1920s is outlawed. A Prohibition Era episode of Red Dwarf is a great idea in itself, but twisting it round to make it an anti-technology setting is an inspired idea. Indeed, it seems wasted on a mere twenty minutes of screentime. This could easily have been the setting for a two-parter, or even a full season of episodes. (Perhaps, if we ever got a fifth Red Dwarf novel, Doug Naylor could explore this world in more depth?) Part of the cleverness of the idea is that it automatically makes Rimmer and Kryten illegal by their very nature, although this isn't explored very much. However, some of the episode's best moments occur in the brilliant "science speakeasy" scenes, where former scientists go to indulge in their proclivities under cover of drinking and dancing. Naylor takes the joke just far enough, and the climactic scene is brilliant.


All the regular cast get a moment to shine, with a strong emsemble feel to the episode. This is a wise choice for a series opener, especially as we seem to have episodes coming up that are more heavily based on one character. I've got to say, all the boys look great in their Prohibition-style gear (but then, what man doesn't look better kitted out like that?) In fact, the episode as a whole looks amazing. Dave, along with new co-producers Baby Cow Productions, are clearly spending more money of the series after the success of series ten.

This extends to hiring a great guest cast. Lucie Pohl stands out as Harmony de Gaulthier, and veteran actor David Sterne as Bob the Bum (aka not Einstein). The best addition to the cast, though, is Kevin Eldon. He's one of those actors it seems odd hasn't been in the series before, but then, the main part of his career has been in the years that Red Dwarf was off air. Here he gives everything as Four of Twenty-Seven, leader of the Exponoids, a new variety of Simulant armed with time travel. As well as an ingenious opening scene that embraces the twisted logic of time travel, the Exponoids turn up throughout the episode to pose a threat and squabble. They're essentially a bitchy version of the Borg and provide laughs and peril in equal measure.

The plot does seem to be cut a little short, but the episode as a whole is a success, with some real laugh-out-loud moments. It does seem, though, that Naylor didn't think the full logic of the premise through. Although the Exponoids are defeated, they've still altered history, and there are potentially a few bits of Starbug left in the twentieth century. Either this is a big oversight, or there will be some repurcussions further ahead. Then again, Red Dwarf's timelines never did make much sense.


Good Psycho Guide: Four-and-a-half chainsaws.

Title-Tattle: "Twentica" is an odd title, to be sure. It's never explained in the episode, and it presumably refers to the Twenties-style alternative America.

Time Travel: In "Twentica," an Exponoid device called "Chronos" which allows time travel, and creates a vortex through which Starbug is drawn back in time. Previously, the Dwarfers have time travelled via a stasis leak rift ("Stasis Leak"), mutated developing fluid that created magical photographs ("Timeslides"), a time hole ("Backwards"), a malfunctional rejuvenation shower ("Lemons") and a 29th century time drive (in "Out of Time," "Tikka to Ride" and "Ouroboros"). Not to mention the time distortions they experienced in "Future Echoes," "White Hole" and "Pete," plus the pseudo-time travel in "Back to Reality," "Gunmen of the Apocalypse" and Back to Earth. That's an awful lot of time travel by many different means.

Best Line: "What happened to your head?"
"...I went bobbing for apples in a cement mixer!"