Saturday, 24 June 2017

WHO REVIEW: 10-10 "The Eaters of Light"

I can't help but feel a little sorry for Rona Munro. Not too sorry for her - she's an award-winning, critically lauded playwright enjoying huge success in theatre, after all. Her Doctor Who credits, though, seem cursed to suffer ignominious fates. Her first story, Survival, was fated to be the last Doctor Who story of the original run. It wasn't meant to be - it was recorded third to last - but it was broadcast at the end of the 1989 season and as such has been tarred by the reputation of the story that ended the series. Twenty-eight years later, Monro becomes the first classic series writer to return to write for the new series, and her episode gets the lowest overnight ratings in the series' history. I think that people are making a bit too much about the ratings of the show - they have gone downhill, but then, BBC ratings have been dropping across the board. The new singsong show, Pitch Battle, which followed right afterwards got even less. Still, it's a kick in the teeth for Munro, which is a great shame, because both of her Doctor Who scripts are rather excellent.

The Eaters of Light is quite an old-fashioned script, which isn't too surprising. A historical mystery that turns out to be down to an alien life form, the Doctor and his companions getting split up, some heroic sacrifice and there you are. A nice, straightforward adventure. It also features some nice, strong characterisation and a potent anti-imperial. anti-war message. It's arguable that following Empress of Mars with this story was poor scheduling, but it also follows through on a strong thematic storyline that explores cowardice, readiness for war, and imperialism. The surviving members of the Spanish Ninth Legion are the ones who ran away in fear; the courageous soldiers all died. Of course, they all come good in the end, sacrificing themselves to protect the Earth. On the other side, we have Kar, whose fear provoked her to unleash the Beast against the Legion.

The characterisation of the regulars is a little off. Not Nardole - he's spot on, ingratiating himself with the proto-Picts and looking happy enough to settle down and learn "Scotch." Bill, on the other hand, has caught the same weird obsession with the Romans that both Amy and Clara had, something that seems to exist purely to give some reason to explore the mystery of the Ninth Legion. It's hardly like they need a reason to be there, beyond the Doctor fancying this period of history today. It's also a slightly odd moment when Bill realises that the TARDIS is translating for her. Both Rose and Donna had that scene, but at their first opportunity, not ten episodes in. It's very in character, though, that she immediately then realises it's a telepathic field, sci-fi savvy as usual. (The lip-sync line is great as well.) The Doctor seems to have regressed to his season eight persona, all Tucker-ish aggression and criticism. He's viciously dismissive of "brave people£ and is apparently "against charm." (It'd be fun to see Twelve opposite Ten someday - his earlier self would wind him the hell up.)

There's some intriguing characterisation for the Doctor, who seems thoroughly besotted with the Roman Empire. Only recently he was expounding the value of their imperial rule, and here he glibly raves about the indoor toilets to a young woman whose people were almost exterminated by the Romans. I do love his quiet acknowledgment that everyone in the universe looks like children.

The science of the episode is pretty flimsy, but then, this isn't a scientific episode. This is pure fairy tale, with the Beast's dimension being very clearly fairyland, right down to the differences in the passage of time on each side. The fate of the soldiers, reduced to bog bodies by the creature sucking the light out of them, is grim, but makes no sense scientifically. People's bones don't stay strong because they contain sunlight, they stay strong because the UV part of sunlight provides the activation energy for a chemical reaction within the skin that produces the needed vitamin D. As a storytelling device, though, it makes perfect sense; it just needs to be approached with a sort of child-like logic. Oddly enough, most viewers seem to have more of a problem with the use of light to hurt the Beast, but this makes more sense. The Doctor suggests the devices have optical cancellation properties, and the Picts say it poisons the light. Presumably, they remove the wavelengths of light that the creature needs to survive (UV, frequencies, I'm guessing), leaving only wavelengths toxic to it, rather like filtering out all the oxygen from air, leaving only nitrogen and carbon dioxide.

It's a sign of how far television has come that Munro can now have a casual discussion of homosexuality, instead of making sly references to lesbianism like she had to with Survival. I love the frank Roman acceptance of bisexuality, and Bill's surprise at the ease at which it is accepted. It's a timely reminder that cultural attitudes can vary wildly over time and location.

In spite of the slight old-fashionedness of the story, it kicks along at a fair pace, and is all wrapped up by about thirty-five minutes in. After this, there's the final scene, which exists as a set-up for the grand finale (which is just about to begin as I write this). I don't know if the scene was written by Munro, Moffat or both, but it's a far stronger characterisation of Missy than we've seen so far this season, and for once, I can believe that she might actually be able to change. As this is my last chance to speculate, I can't help but think of the Alastair Reynolds novel Harvest of Time, which posited that the Master's own existence through time was bearing down on him. Separated from the influence of his other selves, the Master was capable of acting out of goodness. I wonder if we are going to see something similar to this when John Simm's Master returns. Finally, the Doctor says that Missy needs to learn to hear the music. I think that the music have been the problem in the first place.


Stray thoughts: 

Nardole tells the Picts the true story of what happened to the crew of the Mary Celeste. Apparently they were eaten by the Enzomodans, who communicate by digesting people. We probably shouldn't believe everything Nardole says though - 1965's The Chase told us the real story: the Daleks did it.

Kar is the Gatekeeper. I am not clear on who the Keymaster is. The Easter of Light is clearly the Terror Dog though.

So, the Doctor was a vestal virgin, second class? Was he not able to become first class because he's a man, or because he's not a virgin? Or is there something we don't know about the Doctor's past? Is this another hint that he was once female?

As far as I know, crows can't talk, but ravens sure can.

Best line:

"Complete and total absence of any kind of sunlight."

"Death by Scotland."

Monday, 19 June 2017

REVIEW: WONDER WOMAN

I caught Wonder Woman on its opening weekend, but it's taken me this long to get round to reviewing it. Primarily this is because picking holes is often the most enjoyable part of reviewing a film, and Wonder Woman has very little wrong with it. I think we can all agree that it's by far the best of the DC Expanded Universe movies that have come so far, standing head-and-shoulders above Man of Steel (which I enjoyed more than most), Batman vs. Superman (which had its moments but was dreadfully flawed) and Suicide Squad (which started reasonably well but went rapidly downhill). Wonder Woman had, very unfairly,two things to prove: that a female-centred superhero movie could work, and that the DC movieverse wasn't doomed to collapse. Both of these it managed with aplomb, by being a brilliantly fun movie and showing just how fantastic Wonder Woman is when done right.

If you haven't seen it yet, I suggest you go out and watch it forthwith. And then come back and read this, because there will be SPOILERS.


So, the last time anyone attempted a movie focused on a female superhero was, what, Catwoman? That was thirteen years ago, and thanks to a complete misunderstanding of the character combined with cheap production and an almost offensively poor script, essentially killed off superheroine movies before they started. Sure, we've had plenty of superpowered and costumed women in comicbook movies over the last few years, but none have been allowed to headline. Even so, it's hard to lay the blame at the feet of DC and Warner Bros. because of Catwoman, however much of an easy target it is. There has been a huge reluctance to give superheroines their own films. This is apparent from the fact that, in her 76-year history, no one has made a live action Wonder Woman movie before (excepting a rather dismal 1974 TV movie). She's one third of DC's top tier trio, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Batman and Superman. They've had, respectively, eight and six live action films, more if you count their recent crossover and the old monochrome serials. Batman got his first big screen outing in 1943; Wonder Woman had to wait till 2017.





So, yes, there was a lot riding on this release, and much of that was squarely on the shoulders of Gal Gadot. Fortunately, not many people were worried that she might not carry the film; she was by far the best thing about Batman vs. Superman, outdoing the big boys in charm, style and bad-assery. In terms of physicality, she is perfect for the role, having been both a model and a soldier in her already storied career, but it's her performance that carries the film. Gadot's Diana is strong-willed, intelligent, noble, idealistic and naive, traits that are portrayed through confident writing and a powerful and believable performance. It would be easy for the film to fall into cheesiness as Diana strides into cabinet meetings and demands to know why she can't be heard along with the old white men, but both Allan Heinberg's script and Gadot's performance sell it perfectly.

Steve Trevor is understandably bowled over by Diana's physical beauty, but it's her courage and conviction that make her someone that he will follow into a warzone, along with his mismatched gang of sidekicks. I really enjoyed Chris Pine's performance as Steve, with great charisma, wit and heroism, but never overbearing or too arrogant - bravery, not bravado. The times when he stands against Diana are when he is genuinely right, borne out by his greater experience in "Man's world" and a real modern war. Diana and Steve's relationship illustrates the core theme of the movie, the dichotomy between humanity's compassion and beauty, and its capacity for destruction and cruelty. Diana is overly enamoured with humanity, unable to believe that their warring is anything other than the influence of Ares, while Steve has grown cynical and war-weary. They both affect each other, coming closer to each other's worldview for a more rounded perspective.

The choice of a World War One setting is inspired, miring the narrative in the very worst of humanity's warmongering. It's not surprising that Diana is convinced that it is Ares who is responsible for this horror. Patty Jenkins's direction is excellent throughout, but it's in the battle scenes that it's exceptional, in the valiant defense of Themyscira on horseback, the real-world horror of the trenches, and the liberation of the besieged village. In all these, Diana is the most remarkable element, quite rightly the centre of events, particularly once she has accepted her destiny and left for the wider world. This is the big difference between Wonder Woman and the other DCEU films. While they're set in the same grimdark world of cruel tyrants and the worst of humankind, in Wonder Woman there's a true ray of hope in the form of Diana. She strides through the battlefield on the front, a golden figure cutting through the dismal greys of No Man's Land. She represents something better than humanity, a warrior for honour rather than a fighter for war's sake, and that's refreshing after the stolid brutality of the recent versions of Batman and Superman.

It would be very easy to focus solely on Diana and Steve, but the supporting cast are also excellently cast. A special shout out to Lilly Aspel and Emily Carey as the younger versions of Diana, with young Lilly being especially adorably spunky. Connie Nielson is powerful and intimidating as Queen Hippolyta. Perhaps the character who most needed more screentime is Etta, played by Lucy Davis, exactly the sort of actor you wouldn't expect to see in a film like this and yet somehow absolutely perfect when placed opposite Gadot's Diana.

On the villainous side, both Danny Huston as General Ludendorff and Elena Anaya as Dr. Poison are suitably monstrous in their roles, although they are unquestionably second-tier villains throughout. I particularly like the use of Dr. Poison in the story, although it might have been interesting to have her, as in the early comics, disguised herself as a man in order to further her advancement in her nefarious choice of career. What I really love, however, is the casting of David Thewlis as the Big Bad of the movie. It was inevitable that Ares would eventually turn up to battle Diana, although it might have thematically worked better if it really had just been humanity's evil alone that was dooming the world. Still, it's made very clear that Ares' hatred of humanity is down to their inherently flawed nature, and that they are casually monstrous even without his influence. Thewlis is one of those actors I love to watch in anything, and his initial role as Sir Patrick is exactly the sort of role an aging British actor can walk through. It's his true identity as the God of War that's inspired. Underneath his ridiculously overblown armour he's still a thin Englishman, not the hulking brute that you'd imagine Ares to be. It's extremely appropriate; the real warmongers of our history, from Hitler to Assad to the blindly cruel generals of WWI have always been scared little men rather than mighty warriors.

And that's the crux of the movie: that heroism, and the cowardice of evil, can be present in anyone, in any guise, from any origin. While it's another film that trots out the Germans as a villainous force, there's a more balanced portrayal than most, with the young German soldiers portrayed as terrified and relieved when the carnage of the finale is averted, and their commanders are desperate to stop yet more of them being killed. Human beings can be cruel or compassionate, just like the gods of Greek myth. It's a noble sentiment for a popcorn movie about a warrior woman with a magic lasso. You'll leave feeling that Diana represents the best of us, or at the very least, a little in love with Gal Gadot.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

XENOREVIEW: Alien: Covenant

I was chatting about Covenant with a friend during the build up to its release, and one thing he said was inarguably true: there is no need for another Alien film. In fact, there hasn't been a need for an Alien since 1986, when Aliens took the intense, terrifyingly suspenseful original and spun it out into an adreneline-fulled military nightmare (and I say that as a fan of Alien3). However, we are in the era of the franchise and there will be more and more new Alien films until the money stops rolling in, and for all their flaws, they are still enjoyable sci-fi horrors.

Alien: Covenant sees Ridley Scott continue the story he began five years ago with Prometheus. That film was deeply flawed, but I nonetheless remain something of a Prometheus apologist, and feel that much of the film's poor reception was due to the huge hype built up around its status as a prequel to Scott's seminal Alien. The problem lie in the movie's weird existential status, with Scott and the writers seemingly unable to decide whether it was a prequel or a new story. On its own merits, it was a fun slice of sci-fi hokum, albeit one that thought it was far cleverer and more original than it really was. As a lead-in to Alien, it was wholly disappointing, and the film fell uncomfortably between two stools.

Covenant, with four writers helping create Scott's vision, is still unfocused, but it at least accepts its place as an Alien film wholeheartedly, as well as a sequel to Prometheus. In fact, it makes Prometheus a stronger film, making some of the weirder story choices a little more sensible in retrospect. The utterly bizarre alien life cycle from Prometheus is laid down as little more than a runaway experiment, one that the android David has continued, creating a new stage of alien evolution. This version, beginning as an airborne spore that invades the body, has some similarities with the hotchpotch of monsters in Prometheus, but is perhaps more akin to the infectious version of the Alien that was originally suggested for Alien3. It hasn't the visceral horror of the the facehugger, but the so-called neomorph makes its marks, erupting from its victims' bodies not through the chest, but through any available route. The design of the neomorph is something of a success, especially its scurrying nymph stage, which would doubtless been dubbed "Rat Alien" if Kenner had produced a figure. Of course, the neomorph is just a stepping stone to the ultimate life form, with the final result being the xenomorph we know and love.

Well, almost. When the classic Alien finally reveals itself, it's a slick CGI creation, that is both faster and less cunning than the creature that infiltrated the Nostromo. The original man-in-a-suit had an ungainly, unnatural quality to its movements that made it far more unsettling than the ferocious creature of the Covenant climax. Still, the shower scene has to stand up there as one of the creepiest and most chilling scenes of the Alien franchise.

We're getting ahead of ourselves, though. Before all that, there's the tragic events of the colony ship Covenant, which leaves the command crew decimated. There's a big difference to those we've seen in previous films. Alien gave us a bunch of jobbing space truckers; Aliens a hardened squad of space marines; Alien3 and Resurrection criminals and Prometheus some of the least intelligent scientists ever committed to film. The crew of the Covenant are specialists chosen for the mission for their technical skills, and are also all couples, a requisite for a colony mission that needs to maintain close ties and build up its numbers quickly. It adds a different dimension to the cast interactions and its a welcome change. However, it's a large crew, and in such a frenetically-paced story, many of them are lost as characters. Really, the film belongs to three actors: Katherine Waterston, Danny McBride and Michael Fassbender.

Waterston is extremely likeable as the strong, emotionally intense yet very human Daniels, who is thrown into the spotlight when her husband (James Franco in a role almost completely confined to a prequel short film) is killed in a space accident. She exists in the Ripley role, that of the powerful female character that holds the film together, just as Noomi Rapace was in Prometheus. Some may complain that this has become a trope of the Alien films (even Sanaa Lathan in AVP fills a similar role), but I think a strong central female lead is a good constant to have. Waterston centres the film in the same way Rapace centred Prometheus, and makes the overall ensemble work. Out of all the remaining crew, it's McBride who makes the most impact. Partly this is because his character, the pilot McBride, actually makes it through the film, but he also brings a lot of charm and guts to a rare straight role.

But this is Fassbender's movie, as the twin androids David and Walter. He dominates his screentime in both roles, making each of the machine people distinct. He does make some questionable accent choices, but otherwise he makes the most of his roles, and is clearly relishing the out-and-out villainy of David, who has now set himself up as the creator of the next dominant species of the universe. His place as a sort of otherwordly Doctor Moreau is a highlight of the film, his disturbing genetic laboratory and the fate of Rapace's character Shaw providing more scares than the monsters he's created. Walter, the supposedly more advanced redesign, has had the emotions stripped out to make him less uncomfortable for humans to work with (they're basically Lore and Data from Star trek TNG). Nonetheless, he has a deep connection to Daniels, with some fine chemistry between Fassbender and Waterston. Plus, of course, we have scenes with two Fasseys opposite each other, which is going to sell a film to me regardless (although the droid-on-droid kiss is definitely creepy rather than erotic). I like that David and Walter are named to reflect original Alien producers David Giler and Walter Hill, but I'm oddly put out by how it buggers up the alphabetical naming of the droids in the franchise (Ash, Bishop, Call, David... Walter).

The film ends on a predictable but effectively chilling note, and the future of the Alien is ensured. We're still some way from the Nostromo's encounter with LV-426, and the semmingly inexplicable discovery of the Engineer spacecraft riddled with xenomorph eggs. There is a ninth Alien film currently in the works which fill, presumably, bring the story right back up to the original film. On the strength of Covenant, it's unlikely we'll ever see an Alien film that matches the horror of the original or power of its sequel, but there should be plenty of entertainment to be had on the way.


Thursday, 15 June 2017

WHO REVIEW: 10-9 -"Empress of Mars"

By George, that was jolly good fun, what?

"Empress of Mars" is inarguably the most straightforward episode we've had this year, and in a season that has seen a conscious attempt to go back to basics, that's saying something. There isn't a single surprising thing in this episode; even that lovely monster cameo at the end is about as predictable a bit of fanwank as you could get with Mark Gatiss in charge. Indeed, this is about the least surprising episode you could get from Gatiss; Victoriana crossed with Pertwee, with a touch of Troughton, is about as Gatiss as you could get.

None of which is a criticism. Straightforward and predictable is not always a bad thing. Sometimes all you want is a good, old-fashioned adventure where you know who's good, who's bad, and who appears bad but will ultimately come good. After a few episodes that tried to do new things with Doctor Who but didn't really pull them off, going back to the old days and just doing it bloody well is a tonic.

This is an episode that exists primarily to justify some arresting visuals. Mars is always a source of spectacle, and the conceit of the British Army colonising the planet, red tunics against red soil, couldn't be anything other than gorgeous. Opposing the red tunics are the iridescent green carapces of the Ice Warriors, and the Empress Iraxxa, with her crimson visor. It's an array of red and green.

The Ice Warriors always were the archetypal big green monster, huge clomping lizards with pincer hands and rasping voices. They've been refined a bit since then, both in the Peladon stories of the seventies (on which, more later) which introduced the Ice Lords in their fine capes and glitter, and again in 2013's "Cold War." This is the new Ice Warrior that Gatiss introduced then, thankfully not slithering out of its carapace for a sneak around some ducts. Ice Warriors, to me, should be towering, clanking brutes, and so they are here. But that doesn't mean they can't be characters. While the bulk of the Martian cast are lumbering monsters, the main man Friday is a rather interesting character, a being who has a genuine reason to be conflicted between his ancestral ties and his current situation. The success of the character really goes to actor Richard Ashton, who gives a quiet and dignified performance as the lonely Martian. He absolutely raises the episode up above the sheer silliness it could have been, portraying the noble creature who looks sluggish and cold-blooded but is actually passionate and possessed of a delicate enough touch to catch a saucer in one chitinous pincer.






Also impressive was Adele Lynch as Iraxxa, a character that veered close to becoming a walking cliche of the "Aren't men stupid?" variety but thankfully avoided it. She actually turned out as a rather well-written antagonist, one who never let her understandably strong loyalty to her people lead her to do something stupid. It's a good thing the decision was made to allow the Martians to speak with an easily understandable voice style, instead of hoarse rasping, although for a moment I was convinced Iraxxa was played by Sarah Parish, since she sounded exactly like the Empress of the Racnoss from "The Runaway Bride." Of course, the Martians would sound better here, because this is their natural atmosphere - that was established as far back as 1969's The Seeds of Death.

The human characters are almost as important in an episode like this, and much of the running is held together by Anthony Calf's excellent performance as the "coward" Colonel Godsacre. A note perfect performance of another archetypal character, that rises above cliche by virtue of strong writing and excellent acting. Also very good is Ferdinand Kingsley as Captain Catchlove, such an out-and-out prig that you can feel how hated he is by every other character on screen, Most of the remaining soldiers get little opportunity to distinguish themselves, although Bayo Gbadamosi made young Vincey very likeable.

There are some lovely visual moments in the episode, from the "God Save the Queen" message to the stars to the sonic disruptors that kill the Martian victims in a bloodless but horrible manner. Most arresting is the Warrior reaching up slowly from beneath the ground, and although this calls back to "The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood," that episode was seven years ago, and so hardly fresh in the minds of most viewers. Although, watching the episode with a normal person (well, relatively normal), suggests that most viewers won't remember there's a difference between Ice Warriors and Silurians. They are, after all, both green, scaly humanoids whose females are surprisingly curvy for reptiles.

Gatiss has already stated that this episode was, briefly, going to be set on Peladon, and that would have pushed the very unsubtle anti-Brexit element of the story to the forefront. The Curse of Peladon was, after all, about the UK joining the European Economic Community. However, we did at least get that wonderfully fanwanky moment when an individual from Alpha Centauri answered the Martians' distress call. Not only was this a direct callback to the Peladon stories - the very first foundations of the Federation that will form two thousand years later, perhaps - but they even got the original Alpha Centauri actor Ysanne Churchman out of retirement to voice the Cyclopean alien once more. Not that it could ever be anyone but the Alpha Centaurians - they are the next star system along, after all. I'm slightly amazed the production team would even show us the bizarre creature again, although its probably for the best that they elected to only show us its head, and not the, ah, shaft.

Capaldi gets to do his best Pertwee in this episode, raging against imperialism and war for its own sake while threatening the aliens with a massive great tank. Pearl Mackie, on the other hand, gets little to do, her presence in the episode being mostly made up of pop culture references and an occasional note that she is the only other female in the main body of the story. It's Nardole's brief presence that's most baffling. While removing him and TARDIS from the story gets rid of an easy escape route for the Doctor and Bill, there is no indication of why the TARDIS suddenly shifts back to Earth. Is it down to something the Master did, and if so, how? And what are we to make of Missy's sudden concern for the Doctor? The only thing I can take from it is that the Doctor has, indeed, already begun regenerating...

Victorian attitudes: There's some questionable racial politics in this episode, or rather, there aren't any. Godsacre's only problem with Bill being a space police officer is that she's a woman, with no mention of her racial background. There's no racial politics mentioned at all, beyond "We're British, we belong anywhere!" which is distinctly odd, considering they've just come from the wars in South Africa. Then there's the casting of Vincey. Bayo Gbadamosi is great, but the idea that a black man could fight not only serve in the British army, but marry a white girl, is almost without precedent. Indeed, Gatiss protested the casting; his interview here makes an interesting point about balancing representation with historically realistic casting. In another story, it might matter less, but in a story about imperialism, it seems a strange thing to overlook.

Best line: "Sleep no more, my warriors!" Mark Gatiss namedrops his own episode.


WHO REVIEW: 10-8 - "The Lie of the Land"



The final installment of the Monks Trilogy looks set to be a genuinely interesting bit of science fiction until about twenty minutes in. "You're stagnating," says the Doctor. "In fact, you're regressing." So it goes for the episode itself, which singularly fails to make the most of its many promising elements.

To begin with, it's 1984 all over again, with memory crimes as a thin cover version of thought crimes and the Doctor himself taking up the Big Brother position. The Monks have completely duped the human race into believing that they've lived alongside them as watchful guardians for the last however many millennia, and only a very few are (somehow) aware of the truth. In the era of fake news and alternative facts, it's a decent attempt at satire. Although, the situation presented, with a small group staying in power by peddling an obviously false history and violently crushing any voices of dissent sounds more like religion than any political regime currently in the headlines (although there are plenty of countries, such as Saudi Arabia and, increasingly, the United States, where the line between politics and religion has disappeared).

Pearl Mackie earns her keep on this episode alone, delivering a heart-wrenchingly strong performance as Bill clings onto her reality ever more desperately. She really is exceptional when given strong material to work with, and her horrified reaction to the Doctor's betrayal is only bettered by her stoic acceptance of the necessity of her sacrifice.

Almost as good is Capaldi, who shines as a manic, powerful Doctor, grinning terrifyingly out from omnipresent TV screens, blithely lying to the populace and calmly instructing people to inform on family members. He carries the pretense of the Doctor's defection so well that the viewer can truly believe he has sided with the aliens. After all, there is a strong argument to be made that humanity doesn't deserve free will, and after all the centuries of saving us from ourselves, the Doctor might finally believe that.

The problem is, it would have been much more interesting if the Doctor had been serious. It's fascinating that Bill turns on the Doctor so suddenly. After all, she sold out humanity in order to save him, on the strength of her faith in him, and it takes very little to finally shake that faith enough for her to gun him down. It's a tremendously powerful moment that is unfortunately wasted by the Doctor revealing the entire thing was a huge joke at her expense, a highly contrived way of testing to see if she was still on the side of truth and free will. It even includes a glimmer of faked regeneration energy, which seems to have been included solely to spice up the early season trailers.

From this point on, events plod on with a certain inevitability. Missy finally returns, and while Michelle Gomez is as delicious as ever, she's largely wasted as an exposition source in this episode. Revealed in her prison, playing piano and basically hammering home that the Sherlock finale was a dry run for this season of Doctor Who.

Missy claims that her life doesn't revolve around the Doctor - which is blatantly untrue in itself - but her claim to have defeated the Monks in an earlier adventure also rings false. Why would the Master care if the Monks have control of some planet? Far more likely that she once aided them in taking over a world, and she is relating how they were defeated. After all, the Monk's memory control technology isn't all that dissimilar to the hypnotic network the Master used back when (s)he became Prime Minister. And do we think, for a second, that Missy is really crying over all her many victims? Not on your nelly.

The cast are, by this stage, strong enough together to keep the episode watchable up until the end, but they're carrying all the work and the plot is doing nothing. It's fine having a serviceable resolution to a story, but this seems particularly uninspired. Bill remembering her mum to save the day through her emotional strength is far too much like Clara's "blown in on a leaf" story, which wasn't very convincing when they used it back in season seven. And then - it's all over, the Monks bugger off, and everyone forgets any of it ever happened, in another dissatisfying retcon. Although they've turned out as more style than substance, I hope the Monks do return to the series, because there must be something more interesting to be done with them than this.

Links and references: Nardole uses a "Tarovian nerve grip" to disable a soldier, blatantly riffing on Star Trek's Vulcan nerve pinch and also harking back to the Venusian martial arts favoured by the third Doctor. His jokey aside about his training and his new hand sounds very Doctorish, in fact. Imagine David Tennant delivering those lines as the Doctor and tell me it sounds any different.

Maketh the man: I really like the Doctor's new raggedy denim coat.

The Regeneration Game: So, the Doctor is now seemingly able to control his regenerations to such an extent that he can emit enough regenerative energy to put on a light show. Apart from the fact that this was rather pointless in story, seeing that Bill doesn't actually know what regeneration is yet, it raises some big questions about how much control has over his regenerations. If he can use the energy with such precision, why couldn't he just fix his eyes himself? Unless, of course, those weren't blanks when she shot him, and the Doctor has actually begun his regeneration, which would actually be a brilliant way to end the run.

Best line: I should probably choose the Doctor's rant against fascism and fundamentalism, but I can't help but love Bill to Nardole: "I'm gonna beat the sh-!"


Wednesday, 31 May 2017

WHO REVIEW: 10-7 "The Pyramid at the End of the World"

After last week's strong opening, part two of the "Monks Trilogy" was something of a disappointment. While it definitely had its moments and was quite an enjoyable episode overall, "The Pyramid at the End of the World" failed to hold together logically. And yes, I know, it's Doctor Who, and that frequently fails to hold together logically. However, it's one thing when an outlandish setting in a haunted house or some other galaxy doesn't quite make sense; it's another when an ostensibly realistic story is riddled with logical flaws.

Which is a shame. The story is well-structured, with an escalating threat that has a palpable sense of inevitability about it. The use of the Doomsday Clock is clich├ęd, true, but it works because the Monks are using it as a blatant attempt to unsettle the assembled humans. It's also a potent reflection of the times - the clock starts at three minutes to midnight here as a sign of impending apocalypse, but the real life committee that sets the time of the hypothetical clock have recently set it to two-and-a-half minutes to. 


Perhaps that's the problem though. It looks good and has some potent imagery, but the story doesn't hold up to even the lightest scrutiny. I love the idea that armageddon will be the result of human careless and incompetence, and let's be honest, that's pretty likely. The events in the lab run alongside the seemingly more important events in the pyramid and the TARDIS, and it's never anything other than obvious what they're leading to. It's that inevitability that makes it compelling. It's the logical flaws that damage this half of the story so much, though. There are simply too many of them piling up. Is there really no one who can take over this extremely delicate work from the hungover guy and the woman with no glasses? Are there no safeguards built in to prevent a mistyped element being put into the mix? While it's easy to sympathise with poor Douglas about the hangover, there's no excuse for his staggering stupidity: taking off his mask, leaving the airlock door open. For that matter, what kind of airlock allows both doors to be opened simultaneously? Have neither of the writers ever seen an airlock? This lab, with its potentially deadly biological samples that must be kept in strict quarantine, vents into the atmosphere periodically. The list goes on - it's too many little problems to shrug off, and makes it all feel too contrived.


There's clearly some interesting thoughts behind the Monks' plans and their strange modus operandi, but it's not clear what those thoughts are. I'm hoping the final third of the story will provide some perspective. There's a case to be made that this is an anti-democratic story, or, at least, a story that examines the potential problems of democracy. The episode ends with Bill making what is, objectively, the wrong choice (although it's a choice she makes out of faith in the Doctor, faith that is not unfounded. He will, after all, save the world again next week as she believes he will). This comes in the same episode that establishes that Trump is the POTUS in the Doctor Who world. The flaw with democracy is that anyone can make the wrong decision and send us down the wrong road, and we've seen plenty of that in the last twelve months. 


This, in a story that brings back the Doctor as the President of Earth. He's brought in by the Secretary General of the UN, and doesn't go unchallenged by his human colleagues, and in the end, doesn't get to make the decision that seals the world's fate. Nonetheless, he's back in an unelected position that even he didn't want. It worked fine when it was a one-off joke in Death in Heaven, but I'm not keen on the Doctor being able to step in as ruler of the world at any time. It's different when it's Gallifrey (of which he has been President three times now), that's a fantasy world. Putting him in charge of the Earth gives him too much potential power in any contemporary-set story.


The Monks remain opaque. There's some fascinating insight into their psychology, although it raises more questions than answers. Their appearance is apparently their attempt to pass as human, raising some questions about just what sort of creatures they are really (including the obvious: have we met them already?) Their need for consent to invade the Earth is intriguing in itself, their equating consent with love more so. There's no clear meaning here, and again, I hope that "The Lie of the Land" sheds some light on matters. Selecting three military leaders is a poor move if they do not allow decisions made by way of tactical judgment. They have, after all, modelled all this in their simulation - shouldn't they know exactly who to bring in to give them the right response? Charitably, we might assume it's all calculated to leave Bill there at the right moment for her to hand over the world to save the Doctor. There's also the obvious difficulty when using consent as a theme in SF - it's a heavy metaphor. "Fear is not consent" immediately suggests a rape allegory, something that isn't held up by anything else in the story but is the first thought of almost everyone watching (but not those, apparently, writing it).


This trilogy of episodes is the modern equivalent of the old six-parter, and they always had difficulty keeping momentum in the middle. The only other recent equivalents are the final triptych from last season, and further back, the Master trilogy at the end of series three. Like those, the success of "Pyramid" will depend on how the story holds together as a whole.


Thoughts on casting: The regulars, who continue to be brilliant together, own this episode, which has a fairly forgettable guest cast. The exception is Rachel Denning as Erica, who makes for a very likeable and relatable scientist. High praise is due to the BBC for casting an actor of reduced stature without it ever being part of the role or mentioned in dialogue - exactly the sort of equal representation we should be working towards.


Tony Garner tries his best as Douglas but, since he only gets to play "hungover tit," has little to work with in a dramatic setting. A pity, this, because he's a decent actor. He's been in plenty of things, but I'll remember him best for My Parents Are Aliens (in which he was the alien foster parent who didn't regenerate).


Also, it's come to light that Sean Pertwee was up for appearing in the series, but couldn't because of commitments to Gotham, another good argument for the cancellation of that show. Assuming they weren't going to ask him to reprise his dad's role, surely he was originally going to play the soldier actually played by the quite similar Nigel Hastings.


General stray thoughts: Given the apparently random choice by both the aliens and the production team to make the spaceship appear as a pyramid, is there anything more to it than "what looks cool and imposing?" On the same lines, is there any actual limit to the Monks' powers, beyond "whatever the story needs right this minute?"


Also, where were UNIT during all this?


Best lines: 


"You look like corpses."


"You are corpses to us."


This review is for my sister Rebecca, who already covered the most salient points.

Monday, 29 May 2017

REVIEW: MINDHORN

You can't handcuff the wind
If you try, you're going to fail
It's like trying to put thunder in jail

Mindhorn is a film about the mistaking fiction for reality. To begin with, it posits that the legendary Isle of Man, home to cats with no tails and corporal punishment, is a real place, even going as far to claim that is was made by the Isle of Man Film company. What absurdity. Next they'll expect us to believe that there really was a successful 1980s detective series called Mindhorn, starring one Richard Thorncroft, as a man who can “literally see truth.”

One person who thinks Mindhorn is real is Paul Melly, a disturbed young man who became obsessed with the series after seeing his parents killed as a child. Now the main suspect in a murder investigation, Melly insists he'll only speak to Detective Mindhorn. Thus, the Isle of Man police force is given no choice but to bring washed-up actor Thorncroft out of his sad life and back to the island, to be Mindhorn once more.

Mindhorn, the film and the fictitious series, is a tribute to two beloved TV genres: the provincial British detective series, most obviously the Jersey-set Bergerac (1981-91), and the OTT, technologically-enhanced American adventure series, such as The Six Million Dollar Man (1974-78) and Knight Rider (1982-86). It's the sort of series that plausibly could have existed in the early eighties, lovingly recreated by the film's creators for a host of clips, interviews, crappy tie-in merchandise and a fantastic music video.





The murder mystery makes up one strand of the film's plot, but it's mostly concerned with the trials and commiserations of Thorncroft. Julian Barratt is perfect as the hopeless and hammy actor, desperately clinging onto his lost fame after foolhardily fucking off to Hollywood after three seasons of Mindhorn. Equally brilliant is the much underrated Simon Farnaby, who co-wrote the script with Barratt, playing Thorncroft's stunt double Clive, one of his many cuckholds. Melly is played by the ever excellent Russell Tovey, as the most sympathetic lunatic I've seen in a long time, clinging onto his love of Mindhorn because reality is too much.

Steve Coogan (who is listed as exec. producer along with the likes of Ridley Scott!) plays Peter Eastman, Thorncroft's main rival, a complete arsehole who has spent the last few decades living off the success of his far better spin-off series. The magnetic Andrea Riseborough plays DC Baines, the officer heading the case, while Essie Davies plays Patricia, Thorncroft's one true love and the most sane and normal person in the whole ensemble.


Mindhorn is an absolutely brilliant, very British comedy, with Barratt making the most of some spectacular lines, and as the plot kicks into high gear in the final act, showing that he really does have the makings of an action hero (if you squint and run him in slo-mo). With something of the feel of Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa and some of the aesthetic of The Mighty Boosh, this is is a fantastic love letter to risible TV shows, overzealous fandom and dreadful, dreadful actors.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Comics to Screen - Supergirl and The Flash season finales

Both The Flash and Supergirl followed up on some powerful cliffhangers from their penultimate episodes to deliver stonking season finales. With SPOILERS, here are my reviews...




NEVERTHELESS, SHE PERSISTED


Rhea and the Daxamites have invaded Earth. Superman has joined forces with Rhea to destroy Supergirl.

Yeah, that's a pretty strong cliffhanger. It was pretty clear that Superman was going to turn out to be mind-controlled by Rhea, so the reveal of the silver kryptonite wasn't in any way surprising. However, it shows how this series has learnt since its first season, which was continually trying to sidestep the issue of Superman's whereabouts. There's an honest-to-goodness alien invasion going on, a pretty impressively visual one with tons of spaceships. If Superman exists on this world, he's going to be there, and not sleeping somewhere off screen. No, this time, the writers put him right in the thick of the action, but still keep Kara the centre of the narrative. It's all a rather contrived way of getting the two heroes to slug it out, as heroes are wont to do surprisingly often in comics, but it works, and not just because of the exciting visuals. The writers have the guts to let Supergirl win this fight, knowing how much the fanboys will bitch. OK, so maybe the kryptonite did weaken Superman to an extent, and he was just sparing Kara's pride, but it never came across as anything but sincere in Tyler Hoechlin's performance. 

It might be considered a contrived way to prove the feminist angle of the show right, but the reason that Kara wins the fight is not because of a heavy-handed "strength of women" mission. It's because this is her show, and she is the centre of its story. And to make that abundantly clear, the script follows it up with a strikingly powerful speech from Cat Grant (who of course absolutely knows that Kara is Supergirl, she's not galactically stupid). "The thing that makes women strong is that we have the guts to vulnerable." That's why Supergirl can win a fight with Superman on her own show, because there's more than one kind of strength, and on this series, traditionally feminine strength has as much value as traditionally masculine. 

It's a barmstormer of a finale, one that puts Kara through an emotional wringer but never feels too contrived by doing so. In fairness, there are too many characters running around, but again, when there's an alien invasion going on and it's the finale, everyone deserves a moment. What's great is that, as this series has consistently shown, it's possible to have an action adventure show dominated by women talking about problems. While Winn, James and J'onn all get their moments, the finale is owned by Kara, Lena and her monstrous mother, and the villainous Rhea. Of the main female cast, only Alex and Maggie are sidelined, and this is an unfortunate side effect of the number of characters in play. (It might have been a good idea to give some of Cat's pep talk time to Alex, but we should make the most of Calista when we have her.) 

Of the men, only Mon-El is given significant screentime, which is fair.  Chris Wood has been a major star of this season, Mon-El's relationship with Kara has been the spine of her story this year, and the fractious relationship between him and Rhea has been a major driving force for the last few episodes. It's a pity that we don't get more time between Lena and Mon-El, who had some strong moments in the previous episode as they were forced together, but the focus is rightfully on him and Kara. The decision that Kara ultimately makes - to flood the atmosphere with lead to make it toxic to Daxamites - is crushing, all the more so for its inevitability, and Mon-El's stoic acceptance of it affirms how far he's come as a character. 

The finale leaves us with some lingering questions, not least of which is "do the writers not know that lead is also very toxic to humans?" In a FarScape-esque moment, Mon-El's pod is pulled into a wormhole, which could lead absolutely anywhere or anywhen. Most likely, he's going on a trip through the Phantom Zone, and if they're following his comicbook story, he'll rematerialise in the 31st century. There have been rumblings of a Legion of Superheroes series, after all. There's a noble force of White Martians on hand for when we need them, and we're bound to follow up with that - I sense a trip to Mars coming in season three. And then there's that mysterious someone - or something - being launched from Krypton. Season one ended with an unknown arriving in a pod, so this really is the last time they can pull that trick, but it's still intriguing.


FINISH LINE


Barry has failed. Savitar has killed Iris, and escaped.

For a moment, it looked like they had the guts to actually kill Iris off, devastating Barry and Joe. The get-out clause was one of the silliest moments in the series. And I loved it. The Flash is predicated on tragedy, but Barry's adventures have always appealed more than those of Oliver Queen because of the essential silliness of the concept and the fun the creators and cast have with it. The last season-and-a-bit have moved the series further and further into tragedy, though, and a lot of the fun has been drained out of it. The third season has still been tremendously entertaining, arguably the most consistently well made of the three, but it's been lacking the spark of the series when it started. Barry deserved a win, and to get that in the daffiest way possible felt like the show going back to its principles. HR and Iris swapped places using technology that had been seeded into the storyline throughout the season.

I hadn't been as keen on HR as I was on other versions of Wells, but he's absolutely come into his own in the latter part of the season, almost replacing Joe as the "average guy" for the viewers to relate to. He makes mistakes but his intentions are always good, so it fits his character perfectly for him to make the ultimate sacrifice to fix his own fatal error in revealing Iris's location. (It's also satisfying that the characters finally stop discussing these things with Barry so that his future self doesn't remember what they're about to do.) Of course, it's a bit of a cheat. We knew someone was going to die, and it turned out to be the most replaceable character in the series. Another version of him turned up mere minutes later. We're definitely going to have Tom Cavanagh back as one version of Wells or another. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if having a different version of Wells for each season doesn't become a standard element of the series.

As with Supergirl, this was a very busy episode, and not everyone got the time they needed, but on the whole, most of the characters were well-served. The showdown and eventual reconciliation between Caitlyn and Cisco was handled well, with Danielle Panabaker and Carlos Valdes showing the chemistry they shared back in the early episodes. I've never really bought how manifesting her powers makes Caitlyn completely change personality, so it was satisfying to see her find a middle ground between her ordinary self and Killer Frost. She'll be back, of course, and we'll have to wait and see how that pans out, but I'm hopeful that they've finally made an interesting character out of her.

Huge praise is due to Grant Gustin's twin performance as Barry and Savitar. As the scarred future version of the Flash, he could have descended into pure emo melodrama (as he came close to in episode 19, "The Once and Future Flash"), but he actually makes Savitar into a compelling and sympathetic villain. I was a little disappointed that the headway they made with Savitar didn't pan out. There's a fascinating moral discussion to be had about Barry's ethics when creating time remnants, and the series never really went into it enough for me. Savitar has every right to feel bitter and betrayed. I had hoped that we'd see the two versions of Barry merging back together somehow (hell, the Speed Force can do everything else the writers need), but instead he reverted to villainy as his time ran out. (Don't try to make sense of the time travel "logic" in this episode, it's more obtuse than ever.)

However, what was great was seeing Iris take ownership of her fate and showing more steel than Barry ever has. She's definitely her father's daughter. And while Barry's final fate, stepping into the Speed Force to be imprisoned in Savitar's place, smacks once more of the extreme tragedy the series has been leaning towards, this time it feels right. Barry's decision to sacrifice himself comes across as far more mature than his rash, desperate actions in the past. The character has genuinely matured over the season.

How this pans out in season four remains to be seen. I can't imagine we've seen the last of Barry, but how long it will be before he returns and how Team Flash release him is the question. Of course, the series has the potential to carry on as long as it needs to without him. There are plenty of speedsters who can take his place for a time, although I'm not sure I could stomach a season with Wally as the Flash. Then again, if Jay Garrick is along for the show, maybe it could work. On the other hand, now that we've had the first, second and third Flashes from the comics, should we expect the fourth, Bart Allen, to make an appearance? Barry and Iris still seemingly have a future together, so their grandson turning up from the future isn't beyond the realm of possibility.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Star Trek: Discovery trailer released




After a bunch of delays, Star Trek: Discovery is finally on its way, set for an autumn launch on CBS Access (in the US) and Netflix (everywhere else). A trailer has been released, with a couple of different edits, but the overall impression is of an exciting series with a mix of galactic conflict and weird space phenomena. The main character seems to have spent time on Vulcan, which brings in a Spock-esque element without being a rerun. Some new aliens and new takes on classic alien races make for a good mix. I'm really looking forward to it.

Everyone is bloody complaining about it.

I honestly don't understand the aggressively negative reaction so many fans have had to this series so far. Before a second of footage was shown, fans had written it off. Most of the fans seem to have watched this trailer with the sole purpose of attacking it. Discovery might turn out to be crap, but it might turn out to be a masterpiece. It'll probably turn out to be pretty good. We'll find out. for now, I'm going to address the many criticisms I've seen for the series based on this one trailer and dismiss them completely.

It doesn't fit the timeline
No, it probably doesn't fit very well. There seem to be several elements that clash with its setting of ten years before the original series. I don't really care. Continuity is a fan game, and I shall enjoy picking apart the episodes, but it won't limit my enjoyment of the series. CBS want normal people to watch this too, and if telling a good, exciting story means that some fifty-year-old continuity point is contradicted, then so be it. How narrow does your idea of entertainment have to be if continuity is the most important thing to you?

The uniforms aren't right
The uniforms here look more like an evolution of Enterprise's style than a predecessor to the original. In fact, this is set around about the same time as "The Cage," so the uniforms should consist of fairly shapeless jerseys with roll necks over navy trousers. There's a reason the original series had such basic uniforms - they hardly had any money.

It looks like the Abrams movies/it looks too good
Christ, to think that people are actually complaining that something looks too good. Even fan productions such as Star Trek Continues, whose raison d'etre is to recreate the original as closely as possible, update the effects. Things have moved on in fifty years, they're supposed to look better. People should want to watch this. The reason it looks like the Abrams movies? Because, for all their flaws, the Abrams movies look amazing!

The Klingons don't look like Klingons
Fair point, they do look very different. I prefer the 24th century look, which is itself completely different to the various looks in the TOS movies which were themselves barely recognisable from the original look. That said, if you got rid of the bizarre outfit, these Klingons wouldn't look all that different.

 I, myself, hate it when the uniforms are changed or the Klingons are redesigned, so I refuse to watch The Motion Picture or any Star Trek production since.

Aren't they allowed to cast white actors anymore?
Seriously. This was the second comment on the YouTube link for the US trailer when I checked in earlier. Because aliens are fine, but if human characters don't look exactly like me, I just can't relate anymore.

The ship looks too sophisticated to be before Star Treki
The same complaint as for Enterprise and the Abrams movies. Technology has moved on since 1966, so not only can we create more sophisticated props and systems, having tech like the original wouldn't be remotely credible. Even Voyager looks ludicrously primitive now.

They've hired crap actors
Seriously? Michelle Yeoh? Doug Jones? Are you joking?


Sunday, 14 May 2017

Comics to Screen: The Flash 3-21 - "Cause and Effect"

SAVITAR SPOILERS!

After the huge revelation of Savitar's true nature last week, The Flash follows it up with... a quick chat and a dappy comedy episode. Season three of The Flash is perhaps taking some inspiration from Buffy season six: we've had a musical episode and now we have a memory loss one. Tabula rasa, etc.

This is a fun episode, but it unfolds with a crushing inevitability. What do Cisco and Julian think is going to happen when they start dicking about with Barry's memories? Especially without Caitlyn, who, as they say, is the one who would normally be doing the brain surgery. It does, however, lead to some tremendously fun scenes, as Barry tries to blag his way through a trial without the faintest idea about his identity or his qualifications. It's also a very cute touch that he prefers to call himself Bart - Bart Allen being the name of the fourth Flash in the comics.

The interesting part, of course, is that Barry is so much happier without his memories. The script draws attention to this, but it's evident straight away, and brings back a lot of the innocence and joy of the first season of The Flash. Both Grant Gustin and Candice Patton get to give some of their best performances for a while; the latter has had little strong material to work with lately, oddly considering that she's playing a woman facing imminent, seemingly inevitable death.

Having Caitlyn back on the team one last time, albeit as Killer Frost and out of necessity, is fun, but I still prefer Tracy as Team Flash's lady boffin. She and HR have far better chemistry than Caitlyn and Julian ever had. Also, someone tell Julian that falling for Caitlyn never ends well for any man. "Cause and Effect" was a welcome bit of silliness before what promises to be an intense season finale. With only two episodes left, we are promised King Shark, Captain Cold and some random technology to power Savitar's imprisonment, and this is one of those times I feel out of the loop for not keeping up with Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow.

This episode includes one of the most enjoyable Cisco geek references, as he refers to the classic Star Trek episode "The Enemy Within," and it turns out that on Earth-19, they only have Voyager. To which Cisco responds that he hates spin-offs, which raised a smile. He is completely wrong about Savitar, though - he's nothing like the good and bad Kirks being split apart by a transporter accident. What Cisco should be referencing is the original Doctor Who. Savitar is, he explains himself, a time remnant, and so seemingly a possible future version of Barry that is all that remains of a future timeline. While this raises some interesting questions about the nature of time travel and Barry's morality, it also means that if anything, Savitar is The Flash's version of the Valeyard.

Also, 38.6 terajoules is, by no means, more energy than the Sun. Not by several orders of magnitude.

GODS OF SPEED


Barry has a worrying moment of hubris when he suggests that he, and speedsters like him, could become gods. It's easy to see how his evil future self has gone down the twisted path to become Savitar. In the comics that inspired the series, however, Savitar had a different origin.

First appearing in The Flash #108 in 1995, Savitar was originally a fighter pilot who's plane was struck by lightning when flying at supersonic speed. His original identity remains unknown, but he fought for the Eastern bloc during the Cold War and the incident infused him with the power of the Speed Force. Suffering delusions of grandeur, he became obsessed with speed and his own greatness, taking the name of the Hindu god Savitr, a generally benevolent deity who represented the Sun, motion and mutability. Gaining a cult of followers, he went on to fight speedsters in various timeframes. He first battled Johnny Chambers, aka Johnny Quick, the father of Jesse Quick in the main continuity. Later, he battled Golden Age speedster Max Mercury. This early speedster was thrown forward in time along with Savitar when they collided with the Speed Force Continuum. Emerging into history before Savitar, Mercury became mentor to various Flashes in order to prepare them for Savitar's inevitable attack. (I would put money on a version of Max Mercury appearing in The Flash season four.)

When Savitar reappeared, he took it upon himself to become the one true speedster, battling various superfast heroes but mostly existing as an enemy of the third Flash, Wally West. It took an alliance of numerous speedsters to defeat Savitar and finally trap him in the Speed Force, although he did, briefly, escape in The Flash Rebirth series. The TV series has given us an even more complicated origin story for Savitar, although I'd still expect a coalition of speedsters to come together to stop him. Say, Barry, Wally, Jesse and Jay?

As well as this, the TV version of Savitar has similarities to the most recent Reverse-Flash, aka Daniel West, Iris's brother in comics continuity. Due to his own mental difficulties, Daniel became committed to killing their father and changing his own timeline in the process.


WHO REVIEW: 10-4 - "Knock Knock"

Series ten, so far, represents a real return to form for Doctor Who. Not every episode is an instant classic, but we don't need twelve unmitigated wonder-episodes. Good, solid episodes of Who that may not be perfect but give us plenty to enjoy and talk about. "Knock Knock" is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an original piece of work, but it's supremely effective as a chilling, family-friendly horror story.

"Knock Knock" is, really, a very straightforward haunted house tale, with the twist being a sci-fi explanation for the "ghosts." This isn't remotely original in itself; Doctor Who did this back in 1989 with Ghost Light, and plenty of other productions and stories have taken a similar approach. It's sci-fi by the back way in; a fantasy episode through-and-through with some minor scientific trappings. In fact, I don't think we've had a less scientific episode of Doctor Who for quite some time. It wouldn't have played out much differently if the woodlice had been replaced with actual dryads.

There's a slight theme developing here, with the Doctor, for the second episode, admitting he's not sure if the strange-creature-of-the-week is terrestrial or alien, not much caring, and just getting on with taking care of the problem. It's fun to see him theorise about gaseous entities and dryads and whatnot and then happily leave without ever finding out what he was actually dealing with. Earlier Doctors would be driven mad by not knowing.

This is another fine episode for the Doctor and Bill's developing friendship. Every companion needs an episode that brings them back to Earth, giving them the opportunity to use their new time-traveller's nous in their own environment. This is Bill's, and it reinforces the generational gap between her and the Doctor. For the first time since Eccleston's tenure, the Doctor is being presented as explicitly of the older generation to the companion. Even Twelve and Clara didn't have this, being presented on a more equal footing due to Clara's ever-growing importance to the Doctor's life. The Doctor is positioned explicitly as a teacher to Bill, and while they're friends, he's exactly the wrong sort of person to be hanging around her new digs with her studenty friends. It's the first time he's been called "Grandad" and it's been more than just a throwaway joke. There's a reinforcement of the traditional Doctor/companion relationship, that of an old man and his long line of granddaughter substitutes, with the more recent romantic element removed from the equation by the actors' ages and the companion's sexuality. Whether this is building up to Susan's reintroduction as hoped, or just a return to first principles, it's a new dynamic for the fans of the modern series.

While Bill gets to run her own strand of the storyline and acts as a capable adventurer, none of her housemates are especially interesting. All likeable enough, and the cast all put in perfectly good performances, but none of them have enough time spent on them to be anything other than bug-bait. Only Harry (Colin Ryan) gets to do much, acting a short-term substitute companion to the Doctor and coming pretty well out of it (he just wants to get out of there, which, on the face of it, is a very sensible option). Otherwise, though, these kids are there just to get killed off, which they do very effectively, although they are also miraculously restored at the end, and while this is a fantasy story, I find it harder to believe that people can get better from being devoured by crustaceans or absorbed into wood.



Any episode like this stands on its performances, and the stand-out one here is, of course, David Suchet. One of our most beloved actors, having him appear in an episode of Doctor Who is a huge treat for fans. As the Landlord, he runs the gamut from respectable yet mysterious, through to sinister and quietly threatening, to, eventually, childlike and pitiful. Also deserving of praise is Mariah Gale as Eliza, who manages to give a moving performance from beneath layers of prosthetics and CG animation. As for the twist about their relationship, I feel it works well, adding a stronger emotional element to the story than it otherwise had.

While there's not much of originality in the set-up, it's hard to fault a story about a man-eating house for its creep factor, especially when it's done as well as here. The effects and soundscape come together beautifully to create a very unsettling episode. If you have access to BBC iPlayer, I recommend watching the Doctor Who Enhanced version, which boasts 3D "binaural" sound. I'm not up on the technical aspects, but it does make for an immersive and disquieting experience. On the visual side of things, the creepy-crawlies are bound to give plenty of people the creeps, although their most effective moment, crawling into Shereen's foot, was cribbed directly from the 1999 version of The Mummy, which did it far better. Although, in fairness, that would hardly be acceptable for the family audience the series is going for.

The episode is also replete with foreshadowing. Bill learns in passing that the Doctor is a Time Lord, which might set up some more of his kind turning up later in the season, while his almost accidental mention of regeneration is clear preparation for Twelve's upcoming departure. Is the Doctor aware that regeneration is on the way, or is his saddened look at the mention a more general malaise? Then there's the biggest revelation about the contents of the Vault yet. I'm going to put my pound in and say it's Missy in there, but we'll find out soon enough.


Thursday, 11 May 2017

There is no dino, only Zuul

How's this for a news item that combines my interests? Palaeontologists in North America have released their newest discovery, an astonishingly complete ankylosaurid dinosaur fossil that they have named Zuul in honour of the monstrous Terror Dog from 1984's Ghostbusters. The find is exciting because complete dinosaur fossils are rare enough, but a complete ankylosaur is virtually unheard of. Zuul has the first complete skull and tail club ever found for an ankylosaurid, and includes many osteoderms - the lumps of bone that were embedded in the skin and used as armour. These usually wash away over time due to being disconnected from the main skeleton.

Given the resemblance of the ankylosaur's skull to the horned face of the Ghostbusters monster, the discoverers named the species Zuul crurivastator. The specific name does not mean "ankle biter," as some outlets are reporting (for a start, this thing was huge), but "shin destroyer," in reference to that great tail weapon. 

The LA Times has a video of Dan "Ray Stantz" Aykroyd with the fossil.



Monday, 8 May 2017

COMICS TO SCREEN: Guardians Vol. 2 Continuity Capers

Who is Star-Lord's father?

Star-Lord goes back to the 1970s and there have been a couple of versions of his backstory, but generally the comics agree that the father of Peter Quill is J'Son of Spartax, heir to and later ruler of the Spartax Empire, who crashed on Earth in the late seventies and was taken in by Meredith Quill. The MCU has gone down a different route, with James Gunn setting up some mystery at the end of the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie by questioning Quill's parentage.

In this version of events, Quill's dad is Ego the Living Planet, an enormously powerful entity that caused trouble across the Marvel comics universe. In the film he calls himself a Celestial (see below), but in the comics he's said to be one of the Elders of the Universe, a group of extremely ancient and amoral beings that includes the Collector an the Grandmaster (as played by, respectively, Benicio del Toro in Guardians 1 and Jeff Goldblum in the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok). There doesn't seem to be any reason he can't be both, though, as far as I can see.

Ego's enormous power and his control over matter and energy explain why Quill was able to handle the purple Infinity Stone without being vapourised. Until he severed his link with Ego, Quill displayed some remarkable powers, but now he's presumably a relatively normal mortal (then again, we shall see). Although Ego is killed in the course of Vol 2, there's not really anything stopping him slowly piecing himself back together again. It'll probably take him a few million years though.

Given his description of his development, I'd say Ego in the film can best be described as a Boltzmann Brain.




How did Marvel get to use Ego in the film?

It's actually quite surprising that Ego was able to appear in the movie. Although he was introduced by Jack Kirby in Thor i#132, as a character he is normally associated with the Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer and the X-Men, the film rights for his appearances lie squarely with 20th Century Fox. However, James Gunn was insistent on using the character, and Marvel Studios negotiated his use by allowing Fox to completely change the powers of Negasonic Teenage Warhead, whom they wanted for Deadpool. So the new question is, why did Fox need to negotiate that, considering everything they were allowed to do to Doctor Doom over three films?

Who are the Celestials?

The Celestials are a group of extraordinarily huge and powerful alien beings that date back billions of years to the early days of the universe. Their origins are mysterious, although recently The Ultimates suggested that they were created by the First Firmament, the sentience of the very earliest primal universe. They resemble impossibly tall armoured humanoids, and were responsible for the creation of the human offshoot races the Eternals and the Deviants. All of these beings were created by Jack Kirby for Eternals #1 in 1976. I'd strongly recommend reading Neil Gaiman and John Romira Jr's 2006 Eternals minieries, which is a work of art.

To give a rough idea of how powerful they are, the Celestials are considered gods by the Eternals, and the Eternals became several of the pantheons of gods of the human race. They are gods to gods. Thanos is also an Eternal, so there's an interesting link that may be explored in the MCU. So far, the MCU has given us a brief rundown of the Celestials thanks to the Collector's informative film in Guardians of the Galaxy, where we learn that they were responsible for the creation of the Infinity Stones. The planetoid Knowhere from that scene is constructed from a Celestial's severed head; in teh comics, the Guardians use this as their base.





Who are Sly Stallone and his friends?

Stallone is the big name cameo for the movie, playing an old Ravager named Stakar. This character, also known as Starhawk, was part of the original Guardians of the Galaxy team, created by Arnold Drake for Marvel Super-Heroes in 1969. The original Guardians made on-off appearances over the years before getting their own title in 1990. Set in a different timeline to mainstream Marvel series, it ran till 1995. Dan Abnett revived the title in 2008 with a new team of his own invention, featuring characters cribbed from various sources for the Annihilation storyline, and it was this team that became the focus of the movie Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014. Through the complications of time travel, the original Guardians made appearances in the new title, before getting their own title again, Guardians 3000 in the follow-up to the movie.

As with many characters in the Guardians films, Stakar and his cronies have much more complicated backstories in the comics, and this has been avoided by just making them assorted aliens in the MCU. The assorted Ravagers that Stakar gets together to "steal some shit" in the aftermath of Vol. 2 are versions of most of the original Guardians team. As if Stallone wasn't big enough news, Michelle Yeoh plays Aleta. She and Stakar were brother and sister/husband and wife/alternative counterparts in the comics (see what I mean about it being complicated?). The crystalline being is Martinex, played by one-time Lex Luthor Michael Rosembaum, while the gigantic strong man is Charlie-27, played by Ving Rhames. The CGI monster is Krugarr of Lem, while the artificial being is Mainframe, voiced by Miley Cyrus, of all people. These guys will definitely be appearing in future movies. Oh, and you know who else was in the original Guardians team? Yondu Udonta.

Who is Adam?

In one of the many credits scenes, Ayesha is seen to be creating a new being to be the next evolution of the Sovereign race and to battle the Guardians of the Galaxy. She names him Adam. This is Adam Warlock, aka Warlock aka "Him," an extremely powerful superhero from the Marvel canon, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby for Fantastic Four in 1967. Initially wielding Superman-like powers, Adam Warlock has only grown more powerful over the years. Adam Warlock was created on Earth in the comics, by a group of scientists calling themselves the Enclave, and was matured in/regenerated in a large cocoon. A cocoon very much like this could be glimpsed in the background in the Collector's lair in the first Guardians of the Galaxy, a deliberate Easter Egg by Gunn, but it looks like this won't be developed now that Ayesha has been set up as Adam's creator. In the comics, the two characters are linked; Ayesha, aka Kismet aka "Her" has a very different backstory and is basically Adam's female equivalent. Adam Warlock was a major player in the the 2007/8 Annihilation storyline, joining the Guardians of the Galaxy afterwards. He's the main foe of Thanos in these comics, and wields the Soul Gem. Given the equivalent of this is the blue Infinity Stone, it seems likely that the Vision will be taking his role in Avengers: Infinity War, with Adam Warlock turning up later in Guardians 3.




Who can speak Groot?

Not many people, that's for sure. The language of Planet X is extremely subtle and full of nuance, with most beings hearing only "I am Groot." To begin with, it seems only Rocket could understand Groot, but after a long time together, the other team members are beginning to pick up his ways. By the time Groot is going through his second adolescence, Quill seems to understand him quite well.

However, if you really want to know what Groot was saying throughout the film, you'll have to find a copy of Gunn's special Groots-only script, which he gave to Vin Diesel so that he would know how to perform each line (in no fewer than sixteen languages this time).

Who's that duck?

Howard the Duck, as voiced by Seth Green, makes a cameo in the bar on the seedy sex planet (I forget the name, so I'm going to call it Eroticon 6). Green cameod as Howard in the final post-credits scene in the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie, having been part of the Collector's collection of weird galactic stuff. I don't foresee the interdimensional traveller from Duckworld becoming a star in the MCU, but given that Squirrel Girl is set to appear in an upcoming TV series, nothing is impossible. Although the 1986 Howard the Duck film is considered to be its own, separate entity, I see no reason we can't include it in the MCU. Obviously Howard looks a little different, but it's been a few years and he's clearly been through some rough times.

What's up with Stan Lee's cameos?

There's a fairly long-standing fan theory that the reason Stan Lee can appear in different contexts in multiple Marvel movies (including Big Hero 6 and films from Sony and Fox and so across multiple universes) is that he is, in fact, portraying the Watcher, an immensely old and powerful being that appears in order to witness significant events in the marvel universe's history.

Vol. 2 reveals that, while he might not be a Watcher, he certainly hangs out with them. Both of Stan's cameos in the movie see him with a group of Watchers on an asteroid, before they move on to places unknown. The Watchers have made appearances throughout the Marvel comics, usually in the person of Uatu, generally known just as The Watcher, who first appeared way back in Fantastic Four #13 in 1963. Co-created by Stan Lee, they are among the most powerful of the Marvel universe's many races, but usually remain uninvolved in the universe's affairs. In his cameos, Stan regales the Watchers with stories of his previous cameos, which goes to show that, whoever he is, he's the same being in each of his appearances.

Is that guy really called Taserface?


Yep. The funniest ongoing joke in the film is named after a character from the comics. Taserface was introduced in the first issue of the 1990 Guardians of the Galaxy comics, an alien cyborg who fought the gang to a stalemate. He later ditched the stupid name, going as "the Nameless One" for a bit before settling on Overkill, which is marginally less silly than Taserface.