Sunday, 10 December 2017

JEDI'S CODE

Here's an impressive and rather fun short film to help tide you over till The Last Jedi comes out next week. It's only eight minutes long and looks incredible. Clearly filmed on the southern coast, it really has that Star Wars feel to it. It was written by Lorenzo Fantini and directed by Carlos Boellinger, with an excellent original score from Two Twenty Two. It stars Omri Rose, Paula Rodriguez and the amazing Veronica Jean Trickett who you may recognise from As We Are or other awesome things.

It's the Dark Times between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, and the Jedi are almost extinct...


https://www.tincowboys.com/starwars

Saturday, 9 December 2017

REVIEW: Sandman Overture



The Sandman never needed a prequel series. Really, it never needed any sequels, spin-offs or additional volumes at all, being a perfectly told epic in itself. Nonetheless, some of the extra material has been amazing, not least Death: The High Cost of Living and the original run of Lucifer. Having Gaiman back to write the untold backstory of Dream's imprisonment that created the entire story of The Sandman is exciting, but there's always the risk, as with anything of this nature, that the result will be disappointing. The Sandman was so remarkable that any attempt to revisit it will struggle to recapture the magic. Going back to explain it all is even more dangerous, since the mystery of the Endless and their origins is crucial to the appeal of the story.

A troubled publication schedule put me off Sandman: Overture about halfway through, but I suspected that it would read better in collected form. It's taken me a while to actually get round to picking the trade up, but now I have done, and I can happily confirm that Overture is a worthy successor (should that be precursor?) to the original Sandman. Gaiman pulls together a story on a truly epic scale that only really shines through when taken in as one mighty volume. It's also vital that it be read in good old-fashioned paper format, since J. H. Williams uses an artistic style that goes everywhere, in every direction, and at several points requires the book to be rotated or flipped upside-down in order to follow the sequence of events or dialogue, and that just doesn't work on a computer screen.

Williams's artwork, in combination with Dave Stewart's colours, creates a bold and powerful visual universe which is vital for Gaiman's storytelling to shine through. The key word for this story is scope. So many prequels fail by limiting the imagination of the reader/viewer by filling in too much of what might have come before. Overture expands the Vertigo universe, taking Sandman into broader, more science-fictional realms than before, giving everything a truly cosmic feel. Taking place, as Gaiman says, after Endless Nights and before Preludes and Nocturnes, Overture twists history around and brings Dream's new incarnation, Daniel, into the storyline in a vital aspect. The risk of limiting the character of Dream is averted by the most celebrated moment in the story, in which Morpheus is brought face-to-face with infinite variations of himself, in all manner of guises.

Overture takes on Endless Nights's best story and expands it by revisiting the City of the Stars, a realm that truly appears to be constructed from light, and makes it the core of the story. Billions of years earlier, Dream, or an aspect of him, failed to snuff out an insane star, leading to the imminent destruction of the universe in the present. Through his quest to put things right we visit more realms than ever before, with the other Endless taking part in events in different roles. More contentiously, we meet Dream's parents. Given that the Endless are siblings, it makes sense that there would also be parents involved, but their existence as distinct characters could have been the worst thing for Gaiman to show. Instead, Father Time and Mother Night are depicted as enormously powerful and remote beings who add to the mystery of the Endless. (They may also be viewed as the DC equivalents of Infinity and Eternity, and Gaiman's enough of a Marvel fan to have intended this.) There's even Dusk, who might just be another sister of the extended Endless family.

Even with the universe tearing itself apart in entropy and war, Gaiman keeps the story working at a personal level by pairing Dream up, for much of the voyage, with the orphaned alien girl, Hope Beautiful. To begin with she comes across as a slightly twee, spunky kid, but avoids becoming a generic character by meeting her own tragic end and then playing a vital part in the revitalisation of the universe. The balance between the cosmic and the personal is balanced well, reflecting how Dream is at once a small, flawed individual and the very essence of imagination in the universe.


Overture is far stronger when read as a novel, rather than a series of issues, and skirts that fine line between telling us too much and telling us just enough to keep the mystery interesting. I could definitely stand to see no more Sandman ever after this, though; Overture bookends The Sandman in a perfect ouroboros that should never be broken.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Inescapable truth

Of late, the news has become an ongoing name-and-shame of predatory men in positions of power, and particularly in Hollywood. In the UK, we already had our watershed moment, when the not-remotely-surprising news that Jimmy Saville was a serial child sex offender began a rush of such revelations and accusations, and in time appeared that almost everyone who worked in entertainment in the UK in 1970s was involved in one way of another. In the Premier League, accusations, and occasionally convictions, of rape and sexual assault, are so commonplace that they barely make the news anymore. It's just taken time for the US media to react to their own series of top-level assault claims.

None of this is really a surprise. Power corrupts, yes, and more than that, power attracts deeply corrupted individuals. The sudden rise in accusations, and the rise in coverage and acceptance, is a consequences of Weinstein being big enough, important enough, and revolting enough that he has forced open the floodgates. It's not as if this hasn't been happening for as long as our civilisation can remember. It's that the world at large doesn't care about the victims of these crimes until the media decides they are reportable. Until a steady stream of headlines and clickbait can be generated, it's just more "unimportant" news.  Suddenly, we're allowed to care.

However, as the #metoo phenomenon has made very clear, this shit has been happening for a long time, to virtually every woman in every walk of life. The fact that it has become clear it's the norm in Hollywood (and television, and music, and theatre) doesn't mean that it's not the norm everywhere. It is endemic. Yes, men suffer from it too, and all sorts of men - Anthony Rapp and Matt Smith experiencing it as youngsters seems less surprising than Terry Crews dealing with it at a party a few years ago, which only goes to prove that it doesn't matter who it is, everyone is potentially at risk. Nonetheless, the fact remains that women suffer from this crap all through their lives, from the mildest verbal harassment to brutal rape, and disproportionately so.The backlash against powerful men in Hollywood may indicate that western society is finally starting to look at things differently.

The smallest, least relevant problem to come from this is how people like me can discuss films and television. It has now become impossible to separate art and entertainment from a criminal culture that has thrived for decades. And while Bryan Singer and Kevin Spacey get kicked off current projects, it can't erase the many, many productions of the past retroactively tainted.

I don't know what the solution to this is, other than to approach things individually and take the background of productions into account where I can.

How a white guy sitting behind his computer deals with this news is the least important thing about it, but I wanted to at least make it clear that I recognise the situation.

For now, I'll leave the commentary to people who actually have a real stake in the matter.



Saturday, 25 November 2017

TREK REVIEW: Discovery - Desperate Hours by David Mack

Desperate Hours is the first novel under the Star Trek: Discovery imprint, and sees the reliable Trek author David Mack with the unenviable task of tying the backstory of Discovery with the elaborate Star Trek novel continuity. From the get go, this was going to be a difficult task, and to his credit, Mack, under direction from Bryan Fuller, goes straight in there by setting this story at the exact intersection of the origins of Trek and its newest iteration.

Desperate Hours (perhaps the most generic title an adventure story could have) is set in 2255, one year before the fateful events of “The Vulcan Hello,” and one year after the very events written for Star Trek, those of the first pilot episode, “The Cage.” In spite of being set only two years apart, “The Cage” and “The Vulcan Hello” are worlds apart in content, style and tone, the franchise having developed in such ways that the two episodes are scarcely recognisable as being part of the same universe. Nonetheless, if any medium can make this work, it's prose, as the very distinct visual styles of these two eras of Star Trek can be glossed over, and the business of story focussed on.

There's a clear opportunity to combine and contrast characters here, with Starfleet crews from different ends of the franchise coming into collision. A crisis on the breakaway colony of Sirsa III brings both the starships Shenzhou and Enterprise into orbit to deal with the problem. An ancient alien Juggernaut is discovered beneath the surface of the planet, bristling with weaponry and capable of wiping out not only Sirsa but any planet it local space. While Captain Georgiou seeks a solution to both the alien threat and the political ramifications of Starfleet intervention on the planet, Captain Pike is called in to make carry out Starfleet's orders. With the Juggernaut potentially posing a gigantic and uncontainable danger to the Federation, Starfleet order's Pike to lay waste to the planet should no other way of stopping it become apparent.

While it's fascinating to see two captains of very different stripes at loggerheads – Georgiou is methodical and restrained, Pike more bullish and masculine – I struggle to believe that Pike, who was so memorably weighed down with the lives lost under his command in “The Cage,” would so readily accept genocidal orders from Starfleet. It's a major failing of characterisation in my opinion, and makes for a significant flaw in the novel.

More successful is the clash between Burnham and Spock. At present there seems to be no plan to bring Spock to the screen in Discovery, in spite of Burnham's relationship with Sarek and her presumed presence during Spock's childhood. Desperate Hours explores Burnham's background, clarifying some confusing elements, including the two traumatic attacks she experienced on Doctari Alpha and Vulcan, and also explores something of her upbringing, with Burnham describing herself as “culturally Vulcan.” The similarities between a human, brought up as Vulcan, and a Vulcan-human hybrid, both from the same family, would suggest that Burnham and Spock have a great deal in common and a special bond. So why do Burnham and Spock have so little to do with each other?

To put it bluntly, they can't stand each other. Their ongoing rivalry, competing in youth for the respect of Sarek and the love of Amanda, both trying to prove themselves in a stoic society, has only been exacerbated by Spock's decision to join Starfleet and his resulting schism with his father. Nonetheless, as much as they have a personal dislike for each other, there's a clear and mutual respect between Burnham and Spock, one which sees the upcoming first officer of the Shenzhou call on the junior science officer of the Enterprise for help in this extremely difficult situation. A large chunk of the book is taken up with Spock and Burnham working within the Juggernaut itself, facing a series of deadly tasks. While this leads to some fascinating interaction and sees the two learn more about each other, and so themselves, I have limited patience for narrative that takes the form of a series of puzzles, however life-threatening. Nonetheless, the exploration of both Burnham and Spock brings new depth to both their backgrounds.

The less expected interaction is between Lt. Saru and Pike's Number One, here, in line with other recent novels, given the rather obvious Una. There is further exploration of Saru's background on Kelpia, which explores his nature as a prey animal with less bluntness than the TV episodes, but the surprising part is the deep respect, and indeed attraction, to Number One. The two make an unusual but effective pairing, and their scenes together are some of the most successful in the book.


There is some exploration of the rest of the Shenzhou's bridge crew, giving a richness and realness that was missing in Discovery's pilot story. On the whole, the storyline is an enjoyable adventure, as much about human conflict as alien threat. It's quite a straightforward tale, but one with plenty of action and excitement, and in spite of the supposed danger of the Juggernaut, provides a surprisingly low-key series of events for the first Discovery novel. Then again, not every Starfleet intervention leads to interstellar war, thankfully. This time, Shenzhou and Enterprise come together and chalk this one up as a win for Starfleet. They should probably make the most of it.

Friday, 24 November 2017

Visiting Shada on Doctor Who Day

The 23rd of November is the anniversary of Doctor Who's first broadcast, and outside of Christmas it's as close as I get to a religious holiday. Most years I settle down to watch An Unearthly Child, but this year I was lucky enough to attend the press launch for the new animated reconstruction of the unfinished 1979 story Shada. Thank you very much to Laurence Marcus of Television Heaven for organising this. I got to speak to proper newspaper people and everything.

It was a rather wonderful experience, even if, rather appropriately considering the history of the serial, it almost wasn't shown due to technical difficulties.

My full write-up is here.



Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Oooh, Oumuamua

Now this really is a fascinating discovery. If you've been following the NASA website or other space-related outlets, you'll have seen the news that we have the first confirmed sighting of an object from beyond our solar system. And it is most peculiar.




Spotted by the PANSTARRS, the first interstellar asteroid received the initial designation C/2017 U1, under the understanding it was a comet, and is now named 1I/'Oumuamua, with the initial part designating its unique nature as the first object of its type, and the formal name 'Oumuamua being Hawaiian for "messenger from afar, arriving first." It's utterly unlike any asteroid seen before, being distinctly elongated in a sort-of cigar shape, almost ten times as long as it is wide. In fact, it's a quarter of a mile long, and it travelling 87,000 miles per hour, coming at us from the direction of Vega in Lyra, although it is unlikely it originates there. It has probably been travelling through space for billions of years without coming into contact with another star system. Alternatively, it has been proposed that it was ejected from the stellar nursery in the Carina-Columba Association which would put its origin about 45 million years ago.

'Oumuamua will zip past Saturn in early 2019, but will take about 20,000 years to make it beyond the edges of the solar system. NASA scientists are debating the likelihood of success for a mission to send a probe to analyse the asteroid, but catching it will prove a challenge, as it may move beyond reasonable range before a mission can be developed. It's a tempting target, though, potentially telling us all sorts about the conditions possible in other star systems.

The fact that 'Oumuamua became visible during one of the various times that the catastrophic planet Nibiru is supposed to appear and end all life on Earth has not gone unnoticed, although a quarter of a mile of rock heading away from us is unlikely to cause any problems. It does look like it would make an excellent long-haul spaceship though. Is anyone else thinking Rama would have been a good name?

Sunday, 19 November 2017

TREK REVIEW: Star Trek Continues 10/11 - "To Boldly Go" Parts 1 & 2

The premier Trek fanfilm series comes to an end with this exciting two-parter. While I have said that I sometimes would have preferred a few more stand-alone episodes that hung less off established canon, it only seems right that this grand finale should seek to tie-up the series in every way it can. When Vic Mignona set out to make Continues, it was with the intention of completing the Enterprise's five-year mission with a final season of Star Trek. Now that CBS have come down on fan projects like this, it seems that “To Boldly Go” will act as a finale for a whole era of fan Trek.

What makes this story work so very well is that it combines a riveting storyline with actors who have come to grips with these classic roles, and a genuine desire to round off this period of Star Trek. It follows up on the mysterious effects of the Galactic Barrier from the pilot episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” with a group of rebel ESPers (plus one villainous Vulcan) attempt to take the Enterprise as part of a bid to usurp humanity's place in the Galaxy. It is these miscreants who are responsible for the destruction and vanishing of various Constitution-class starships throughout the Continues series. During the transgalactic game of cat-and-mouse, Spock seeks out his one-time paramour, the Romulan commander from “The Enterprise Incident,” now repatriated and once again commanding a Bird-of-Prey, the Hawk's Talon, beautifully rendered here.

Making this story a sequel to the pilot is a brilliant decision, but it also bookends the series by seguing directly into the set-up for The Motion Picture. Not only do the creators of the story make this work in spite of the huge tonal differences between the original series and the film, but it works perfectly as a character piece, giving solid, believable reasons for Kirk, Spock and McCoy going their separate ways once the mission is completed. Indeed, we find Kirk in much the same place here as we found Pike in “The Cage,” weighed under by years of responsibility and the guilt of so many deaths under his command. Spock is torn between his burgeoning emotions and the logic he believes in and the responsibility of impending command, while McCoy is simple sick of watching people die.

We know, of course, that most of the crew are going to make it through to the end of the episode, what with them carrying on through The Motion Picture and subsequent movies. However, that doesn't mean there aren't major losses throughout the adventure, not least of which is a good chunk of the Enterprise itself. The ship really earns its refit on this mission. We also get to see the long-imagined saucer separation of the original Enterprise, one of many exceptionally well-produced visual effects sequences.

The regular cast all get moments to shine, with particular praise due to Todd Haberkorn as Spock, who I think has really nailed the part over the last few episodes. I was pleased to see Kim Stinger's Uhura get a meatier role than in most previous episodes. The multi-talented Kipleigh Brown, as the recurring character Lt. Smith, gets a very strong episode in part two, becoming an essential member of the cast for this finale, and there is some strong material for Michele Specht as ship's councillor Dr. McKennah. The guest cast is also very good throughout, with special praise needed for the wonderful Nicola Bryant. As a Doctor Who aficionado (in case you hadn't noticed), it's a treat to see her here, with her natural accent rather than an affected American one, and she's clearly having a great time playing the villain of the piece. Another star turn is Amy Rydell as Romulan Commander Charvanek, who is not only very impressive in the role, but is the daughter of the original holder of the role, Joanne Linville.


While the two-parter was full of excitement and adventure, it's actually the final few scenes that really made an impact for me. Moving into the slower, more thoughtful territory of The Motion Picture, it sees Kirk accept his deskjob promotion from Admiral Nogura. (As a little visual treat, we see the now-traditional selection of model starships, including the Phoenix, Enterprise NX-01, USS Kelvin and USS Discovery, further tying different eras of Star Trek together.) Vic Mignona gives a speech to his erstwhile crew and one final log entry, and it's as much him speaking to the viewers as it is Kirk addressing Starfleet. As the prime mover and star of Star Trek Continues, it's only right that he gets to make this send-off, and as far as I'm concerned, he and his crew are very much a part of the Star Trek family. Mission accomplished.


Watch all the episodes of Star Trek Continues here.

OOFT

Well, it's been a pretty hectic and intense few days.

On the fiction front, I completed a story for the upcoming anthology Master Pieces, a Doctor Who fanthology by Red Ted Books which will revolve around different incarnations of the Master. My submission is called "The Devil You Know," and while it isn't absolutely guaranteed for submission as yet, I'm hopeful it will be included in the final publication. Up now is the cover artwork for the second Time Shadows anthology, Second Nature, which will be available on print-on-demand from Pseudoscope Publishing in the next few weeks. The first Time Shadows was excellent, and I'm very proud to be included in this volume with my story "Time-Crossed," which involves the first and eleventh Doctors. All proceeds from Master Pieces go to the Stroke Association, while proceeds from the sale of Time Shadows: Second Nature will go to LimbForge.

Wednesday night was a chance for a much-overdue catch up with my good friend Sophie, and there was much merriment and fine food. Thursday was another night out to the Latest Music Bar in Kemp Town, Brighton, for Cackle and Twang, a mixed bag comedy and music event in aid of Rise, a local domestic abuse charity which does exceptional work. It was a very female-centred night, with some amazing performances, although my favourite part was of course my friend Fanny Dent's comedy burlesque piece. This would have been my favourite part in any case, because it was brilliant and hilarious, but it rose even higher on my list of amazing things because my lovely lady Suz had a critical role as a giant tampon monster. This is not something you see every day, and I'm pleased for the opportunity to say, "Yeah, I'm going out with the tampon."

Close behind though was Kate Shortt, the comedy cellist, which is another thing I'd never encountered before and turns out to be quite an brilliant way to perform. I am pleased to have now experienced the Doctor Who theme tune on cello and vocals. Julie Jepson was supposed to be comparing, but instead her mysterious Spanish uncle and an Irish mermaid took her place.

Friday Suz and I were out yet again and I'm definitely getting to old for this. This time was a Dystopian-themed club night in Kemp Town for which we attempted a vaguely Blade Runner inspired look. My attempt at Roy Batty was a very limited success but Suz's faux fur-coated Pris was amazing. I met LeeLoo and Tank Girl, and also Girl-Tank. We had an incredible night and made some new friends, but basically broke ourselves and were unable to function much on Saturday, leading to curtailment of plans and much apologising.

So on Saturday we had a curry and watched The Land Before Time, and frankly, if you don't believe we know how to have a good time, that will surely prove you wrong.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

REVIEW: RED DWARF XII- Ep 6) SKIPPER

SPOILERS for the finale, folks!




Number Thirteen gets her togs



I have to say, this isn't at all what I was expecting. There were two options for the creative team, one of which was to just put her in a traditionally Doctorish gent's outfit to hammer home that it was the same character, and the other was to give her a more feminine costume that no previous Doctor would have worn. I'm glad they've gone with the latter, but even so, I kind of expected something that was more like one of the old Doctor's costumes, in a feminine cut.

This, though, I like very much. It's feminine, quirky, and fairly practical. There's a certain Doctorishness to it, but quite unlike any of the outfits before, which is just how it should be. There are bits of old Doctor influence in there, though. Most obviously, the braces call back to Matt Smith, but moreso to Patrick Troughton. (I was a bit intrigued when someone said the new Doctor would be wearing suspenders, but that was just a bit of Americanism/Britishism confusion.) The long coat calls back to David Tennant. The stripes across the top might be a nod to Tom Baker's scarf, and the boots could recall Smith or Eccleston. I'm not sure what's going on with the top of that coat - is that a hood swung back? - but it does have a somewhat Time Lordly quality to it.

Some people don't like it, which is fair enough, although attacking it by saying it's too silly or doesn't have enough gravitas seems to ignore how ridiculous some of the earlier Doctor's outfits were. I've seen it said that it looks like something out of Rainbow, which isn't totally unfair, but compared to the sixth Doctor's costume, it's very sedate. Someone else has said it makes her look like a circus performer, and a friend pointed out that Sylvester McCoy not only acted like a circus performer in some of his episodes, he basically was one before he started acting. Again, fair enough if that's not something you like in your Doctors, but it's hardly without precedent.

Various commentators have been pointing out similarities with other characters' costumes. Mork is the most common comparison:




but I'm seeing more than a hint of Wesley Crusher:




Either way, there's a definite eighties style to the costume, which actually fits quite well with the out-of-time vibe we get from various Doctors. Capaldi wore a costume which hinted at styles from both the 50s and 70s, while Hartnell's turn-of-the-century style was similarly 50-60 years out of date. Something that has a suggestion of 1987 is forty years out, the same sort of dislocation. In any case, I like it. It's different but still says "Doctor" to me.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

REVIEW: Thor: Ragnarok

By rights, marvel should be slowing down and flagging a bit by now. Thor: Ragnarok is the seventeenth movie in the MCU, which has been going for a good nine years. No one would be surprised if things were becoming stale by now. Yet somehow, this year has seen a run of films that have just gotten better and better. After the excellence of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming, Taika Waititi has created what may be my comicbook movie of the year.

Waititi is a real left-wing choice to direct a Marvel movie. Only Edgar Wright seemed more of an odd fit, and we saw how well that partnership ended. Nothing in Waititi's previous work, least of all his celebrated What We Do in the Shadows, makes you think “this guy needs to do a superhero movie.” In a weird way, though, he's a perfect choice, and what he does here with Norse mythology and operatic superheroics is much like his deconstruction of vampire lore and gothic romantic literature in Shadows. Hats off, too, to the writing trio of Yost, Kyle and Pearson, who put together a script that, for the most part, manages a fine balance of the grandly dramatic and the overtly comedic.

It's obvious that Marvel wanted to grab some of the success of Guardians of the Galaxy in restyling the Thor movies, which haven't generally been the most popular of the ongoing MCU series (although I've loved both previous instalments). Ragnarok explores the cosmic side of the Thor comics, something that the previous films have largely overlooked, as well as accepting just how ridiculous a character he is. Thor is at his best when simultaneously an amazing hero and a figure of fun, as he is in the best moments of 2011's Thor and in Avengers Assemble, and it seems film-makers have finally realised what excellent comic instincts Chris Hemsworth has. (Say what you like about Ghostbusters, Hemsworth made a one-joke character work far better than he should have there.) Ragnarok combines Thor's mythical side with the galactic comedy of Guardians, and also jumps on the same retro bandwagon to great effect. After all, the eighties are the decade right now, and the Masters of the Universe, synth-rock, Led Zeppelin mix just work perfectly. The other obvious comparison is the 1980 Flash Gordon movie, and Waititi has said that really Queen should have provided the songs for this film, were it not impossible for obvious reasons.

As with all the best superhero films, Ragnarok benefits from an exceptional cast who give their all in playing these absurdly over-the-top characters. Tom Hiddleston grins that grin to maximum effect throughout, although his usurping of the Asgardian throne is dealt with far more quickly than we might have expected, and he's so perfect as Loki that he can nail the character both as out-and-out villain and shifty ally. After a fair few ineffective and underwhelming villains (in spite of some excellent actors) Marvel has come out on top this year with its baddies, and Cate Blanchett as Hela, Goddess of Death is the best of the lot. Not only does Blanchett look incredible in the costume (damn, now my goth thing is back), she drips with menace and contempt. As secondary villain the Grandmaster, Jeff Goldblum basically plays Jeff Goldblum, but frankly, would you want it any other way? Then there's Karl Urban as Skurge the Executioner, somehow looking exactly like the comics character, clearly having a whale of a time as the scurvy thug.

On the heroic side of things, we have Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie, who is just stunningly good as the tough, beautiful, drunken warrior woman. She's a perfect foil for Hemsworth's Thor, a far better match as a potential love interest than either Jane or Sif (both of whom hero worship him too much), and I'm so glad we'll be seeing more of her in Infinity War. A fun cameo from Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Strange makes the brief terrestrial scenes feel as wonderfully odd as the scenes in other realms, while Anthony Hopkins makes his surprisingly brief appearance as Odin his best in the role yet.

And then there's the Hulk. The idea of a Planet Hulk film never really appealed to me, no matter how much fans clamoured for it. I mean, I love monsters, I really do, but the idea of two hours of green CGI musclemen pummelling each other seems tiresome in the extreme. Making it part of a larger storyline, though, is a brilliant move, and dumping Thor in the middle of it is a stroke of minor genius. Cutting him and his pomposity down to size by leaving him reduced and defeated is, of course, part of the reason that initial Thor storyline worked so well, and he needed a dose of that again. Thor is at his best when he doesn't have his hammer. His weirdly tender interplay with the Hulk is a winning factor for the film, and Mark Ruffalo is as perfectly cast as ever as the uncomfortable Banner, having to rediscover his balance all over again after two years in Hulk mode. The Hulk's chattier than we're used to on film, but his intelligence has always fluctuated in the comics, and it's reasonable that he would have developed somewhat given longer to learn and explore his existence.

Sakaar is an incredible location, a cesspit of a planet in an unstable region of space/time, where the passage of time is unreliable and wormholes dump miscreants without hope or warning. It's exactly the sort of place you'd expect the Guardians to turn up, and they probably will at some point when they want to link the series together. (In fact, the time dilation on Sakaar would be a good way of syncing up Star-Lord's timeline to the Avengers movies, if need be.) The planet features a colurful bunch of monsters, although the standout is, of course, is the rock-man Korg, played by the director himself (although at first we thought it might be Rhys “Murray” Darby, such is the intense Kiwi-ness).


Bookending the cosmic hijinks is Ragnarok itself, the end and rebirth of Asgard and the ultimate battle of Norse mythology. As a huge mythology buff I adore this aspect of the film, and the storyline, via the comics, sticks surprisingly closely to the legendary sources. Naturally, there are some differences even before you chuck all the spaceships in – Hela is Loki's daughter, rather than Odin's, an aspect that might stem more from the character Angela than Hela herself – but the bulk of the material is linked quite strongly to Norse mythology. And in any case, any movie that not only brings Surtur and Fenris to the big screen, but has the Hulk punch them both in the face, is a winner in my book.

REVIEW: RED DWARF XII - Ep 5) M-CORP

This episode was a particularly interesting one for me, as I attended its filming at Pinewood back in February of last year. Not only is it fascinating to see how the episode finally turned out, it's been long enough since the recording that much of it felt fresh again, although not without a certain sense of deja vu. (Well, it probably is deja vu, it sounds like it.) One observation I must make is that most of the scenes recorded in front of us were done with at least two takes, which means that the audience response is a little false in the finished episode. You know you need to laugh at the funny bits, but the laugh is never as big, or as genuine, as it was on the first time round. Equally, the funniest scenes aren't necessarily the ones that stick in your mind from the recording; it's the ones that the cast enjoy performing the most, that involve the most ad-libbing and retaking, that you remember. If you're interested, the biggest laugh was for the Windows sound effect that twanged when the ship was rebooted.




The finished product is a fine episode, although nowhere near a classic. Like a lot of episodes, it starts off about one thing and ends up being about quite another. In this case, it begins as a rumination on ageing, with Lister hitting his fiftieth birthday (thus a little younger than Craig Charles), and then moves onto a dissection on corporatism and monetisation, and the ever-desperate need for the newest upgrade or app. Still, it comes back to the original theme as Lister is aged to decrepitude after his money runs out and he's forced to pay in time.

It's a nicely paced and structured episode, but again, there's the sense that there are too many ideas fighting for attention here. Lister's declining health, the talking medical probe Chippy, and the idea of predicting the time of someone's death with accuracy are all strong elements. Then it veers onto the plotline of M-Corp, their takeover of Earth in the 26th century, and their rapacious need to monetise everything from water to air to thought. Again, I'm reminded of the future history that Grant and Haylor described in the Red Dwarf novels, and I'd love to see this material expanded on the page.

M-Corp's buying out of the JMC has some brilliantly visual consequences any product or person not provided or employed by the company rendered invisible to Lister, M-Corp's sole employee and customer on the ship. The Cat spraying Lister with lager from an invisible can, before he too becomes invisible and steals his beans on toast, are great visual gags and really feel like classic Red Dwarf moments. Lister's teleporting to M-Corp's own little world, with downloadable "friends" and water that costs four hundred dollarpounds, works well too, all clinical white and corporatised. Helen George has a strong turn as the main guest star, the creepy M-Corp avatar Aniter. (Incidentally, she was not present at the filming. All the M-Corp universe material was prerecorded and played back to us.)

The resolution is clever, with M-Corp's desperate need to sell and sell some more proving its undoing. Lister's old age make-up is very impressive considering the TV budget, but it's great to have him reverted to his correct self. The final joke, having to reboot Lister to his original 23-year-old self self is a winner, but again, there's a ton of material that could be mined from the idea of backing up people's identities. Plus, the idea that Kryten could recreate the 50-year-old Lister's knowledge and personality from CCTV records is ludicrous, although admittedly Star Trek did something similar but even more idiotic back with "The Changeling" in the sixties (in which Uhura had her mind wiped, and was apparently able to be completely reeducated to Starfleet standard with her personality unaffected in a mere two weeks).

That final scene though, recreating the very first scene from "The End" back in 1988, is wonderful. Still, I wonder why this episode wasn't chosen to close out the season. With any final episode of a recording block potentially standing as the last episode of Red Dwarf ever, rounding it out with a recreation of the very first moments would have been lovely.

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

Best line: "Sir, you've got nothing. No life, no future, no partner - you're so easy to buy for!"

Sunday, 29 October 2017

REVIEW: The Death of Stalin

Armando Iannucci is justly famed for his political satires. With The Thick of It and In the Loop, and latterly the US-set Veep, he has pilloried the absurdity, pettiness and power-hungry games of UK and US politics. Turning to historic Soviet politics, however, involves not just the absurdity of this, but utter horror and brutality. And so The Death of Stalin, while hitting the comedic level of his best material, is also the bleakest and most serious of his political comedies. The tagline, "A Comedy of Terrors," is apt indeed.

It's not that the film isn't funny, simply that the comedy is violently undercut by the oppressive grimness of the story. Still, how could it be otherwise? This is Stalinist Russia, one of the true nightmares of twentieth century totalitarianism, and the power struggle that played out in the aftermath of Stalin's death is living memory for a lot of people who could watch the film today. Kruschchev's rise to power, both brutal and forward-thinking at once, shaped the geopolitics of the latter half of the century. From cruel Chief of Intelligence Beria to the violent Zhukov, these were monstrous people.

But the best way to undercut these people is to mock them, and while Stalin has been the focus of such mockery many times before (although not nearly as much as his ally/nemesis Hitler) it's not often the Soviet cabinet as a whole gets this treatment. Iannucci's approach is to treat them as the squabbling old men that they were, already past their prime by the time Steely Joe died, desperately clinging onto the power they held at his whim. Casting Brits and Americans indiscriminately, the Soviets come across as a ragtag bunch of ageing gangsters.

What a cast, though. The cream of comedic and dramatic actors here. Jeffrey Tambor, who's never anything less than hilarious, is the hangdog-faced deputy Malenkov, who's propelled to supreme power in the wake of Stalin's brain bursting. The exceptional Simon Russell Beale as Beria, the vicious, gleefully cruel spymaster who murdered and raped his way through god knows how many victims, yet with Beale's performance is somehow both terrifying and likeable. The great Michael Palin as devout Stalinist Molotov, the most sympathetic of the characters, and even he denounced his wife as a traitor to maintain political leverage (of course, Palin has always excelled at playing nice bastards). Most brilliant of all, Steve Buscemi as Khruschev himself, the backstabbing party leader who, eventually, even after the close of the film, comes out on top. Until Brezhnev, of course.

Probably the funniest performance, though, is that of Jason Isaacs as General Zhukov, head of the Red Army, which he elects to play with a broad Yorkshire accent and a manic gleam in his eye. Other significant roles include the wonderful Andrea Riseborough as Stalin's daughter Svetlana, Joseph Friend as her hilariously drunken paranoiac brother Vasily, and Olga Kurylenko as the subversive pianist Maria Yudina. Perhaps the greatest turn actually comes from Paddy Considine, who opens the film as a desperate theatre owner under impossible pressure to record and already completed concert for the Premier. His performance sells the utter fear and desperate self-preservation of everyone living in the Soviet state at the time, while being hilarious to boot (with some superb straight-manning from the still-underappreciated Tom Brooke). Not forgetting, of course, Adrian McLoughlin as Stalin himself, portrayed a small, withered man, pathetic even as he commands life and death over all those around him.

Predictably, Russia hates this film, seeing it as a Western attempt to undermine their great history. After all, many Russians still view Stalin as a great social architect and war hero, instead of a power-crazed murderer. At least, they say they do - after all, disagreement likely goes down very poorly. There are films that gain notoriety on the back of this kind of controversy, but The Death of Stalin deserves to be seen on its own merits as a funny, powerful historical satire, with character moments that are equal parts cringe-inducing embarrassment, crushing wit and genuine fear for life and liberty.

I get the feeling The Death of Stalin will be watched for many years to come as a look back at a pivotal moment in history. This is exactly the sort of film that should be made, and if it pisses off the Kremlin, all the better. Just imagine the movies we'll get about Putin, Trump and Kim in sixty or seventy years, assuming we're not living in some irradiated wasteland by then.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

REVIEW: RED DWARF XII - Ep 4) MECHOCRACY

After a disappointing third episode, Series XII gets back on track with a hugely enjoyable story that gets just about everything right. After three episodes with significant guest casts, "Mechocracy" gets back to core Dwarf. It's Lister, Kryten, Rimmer and the Cat as the only humanoids onscreen, with only vending machines and other appliances as supporting characters. The story sees Lister allow a computer virus to infect Red Dwarf's system, leading to an "abandon ship" situation to which the vending machines are not invited. Long story short, the AI-run machines on the ship go on strike, so Rimmer and Kryten compete to become their president and thus control Red Dwarf.





Sunday, 22 October 2017

REVIEW: RED DWARF XII - Ep 3) TIMEWAVE

Irony: an episode about a society in which criticism has been banned being the most critically panned episode in recent years.

The central idea is pretty promising. A society in which no one is held accountable for anything, no one learns how to do their jobs because positive criticism is illegal, where no one can insult or belittle anyone, no matter how idiotic. This could have been a Hitchhikers-eqsue satire. This could have been a timely attack on the fragile nature of people's egos and the tendency of people today to take anything as an offense. It could have gone down the route of Incompetence, Naylor's old stablemate Rob Grant's novel, where no one could be dismissed or barred from a position no matter how ill-suited or unable they were. We might have expected a few pokes at a certain notoriously incompetent and idiotic POTUS, except that these episodes were written and filmed before that world-damning election.

What we got was a bunch of people in children's television "crazy" costumes acting like irritating prats, and not the class of irritating prat that we're used to getting with Red Dwarf. It was a bit of a warning sign when the promo photo released was of Johnny Vegas in a baby pink police uniform, but he's actually the best thing in this episode. As the Crit Cop, Vegas's performance is just the right combination of frustrating and likeable, and his style fits in nicely as part of the Dwarf's world. (It's easy to imagine Vegas playing a crewman on the Red Dwarf back in pre-accident days, and he's apparently a big fan of the series, which is nice to know.) He's a damned sight better than Jamie Chapman as Captain Ziggy, although, to be fair to him, he had pretty poor material to work with.





Saturday, 21 October 2017

Polari Brighton

The Polari Literary Salon is an LGBTQ literary performance workshop that is generally London-based but makes outings to other parts of the UK. The Arts Council England has presented the organisers with a grant to fund a nationwide tour to mark their tenth anniversary, and so last night Polari came to Brighton.

I didn't know anything about Polari until my partner Suz and I met the wonderful Cerys Evans at a very Brightonian barbecue in the summer (lots of vegan sausages on offer). Cerys is a writer and performer (and has just started her own website), and is instantly a hit with everyone she meets. We made sure we were free to come see her perform at the Marlborough Pub and Theatre, a cosy little venue on the edge of Kemptown. It turned out Suz's friend John McCullough, a talented poet, was also performing that night. So naturally we absolutely had to make this.

We still managed to be late, and missed Cerys's first poem, which is frankly unforgiveable, but she still wowed us with some amazing readings of her own, very personal, very moving work. John was up during the second half reading from his latest book, Spacecraft, and giving us a sneak peak of his work in progress. John's poetry can be moving, powerful, funny - the gamut. And he likes to sneak in Doctor Who references.

It wasn't all local peeps, though. V. G. Lee, five time novelist and short story writer, read one of her stories from her collection As You Step Outside, and I loved it so much I went and bought the book straight away. Playwright Alexis Gregory performed part of his upcoming work which deals with pivotal moments and periods in the gay community throughout the twentieth century. He gave us the opening piece, a performance of a memoir from a man who was present at the Stonewall Uprising in 1969. It was an astonishingly powerful and moving piece, bringing to life an event that was long enough ago to feel historical, even mythic, to us now.

Each step of the tour includes a writing workshop, and one person is chosen from each to perform their piece at the event. A new writer read her poem #MeToo, a powerful hit of painful experience. The event finished with Sylvia Brownrigg reading from her new novel Pages for Her, which was beautiful, although I feel I ought to read the previous Pages for You from 2002 first. The evening was hosted by top-hatted raconteur Paul Burston and sign-interpreted by Natalie MacGarvie. It was a wonderful experience, and I'm glad that I'm learning to appreciate poetry at last - something I never really "got" until lately, and a lot of that is down to Suz.

We stayed out chatting with talented people and making new friends. Just a wonderful night. There's still time to see Polari on tour in London and Newcastle, and beyond.

Monday, 16 October 2017

REVIEW: BLADE RUNNER 2049

To be honest, I think Blade Runner - the original, from 1982 - is a little overrated. It's a great film, of course, hugely influential, but it's not, in my opinion, the mighty classic that people think it is. Still, it is a beloved film, and the announcement of a belated sequel over thirty years later left a lot of people uneasy. Critics were gunning for this film, ready to pounce on it and declare it a hollow remake of a classic. So I was surprised to see almost unanimously positive reviews.

They were deserved. Blade Runner 2049 is excellent. With the original being set in 2019, there was no point pretending that this was representing our future. Instead, the filmmakers take the noir-ish, dirty but ultimately very cool future America and extrapolated what it would be like thirty years down the line: toxic, broken and dying. Replicant technology has been refined by Wallace (a very sinister Jared Leto), a bioengineer who has saved the world from famine during this ecological collapse. The last elements of free will have been purged. Ryan Gosling's character, generally referred to as K, works for the LAPD to hunt down the last of the previous generation of replicant rebels.

Gosling is perfect as K, completely laconic and emotionless until the scene demands his resolve crack. K's only friend is Joi, a holographic companion provided by the same corporation that created him, although he has earned a measure of respect from his superior, the steely Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright), in a world where most humans spit at "skinjobs." The inclusion of Harrison Ford as Deckard is, of course, a huge draw, but he has far less screentime than expected, which is very much a positive. Gosling's character is well established as the centre of the story by the time he finds the older Blade Runner, so Deckard's inclusion comes at the right time to fully tie this story to its predecessor. It's also a nice touch that Edward James Olmos makes a brief reappearance as Gaff. The film also leaves the exact nature of Deckard uncommented upon, which allows much of the mystery of the original to remain.

There has been some discussion about the feminist aspect of the film. While many of the most powerful characters in the film are female (Joshi, Sylvia Hoeks as the deadly replicant Luv), there are also several female characters who are literal or figurative sex objects. Joi exists purely at the whim of K; Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) is a replicant prostitute in the manner of Pris of the original. They are still significant and powerful characters in their own way, and to dismiss the film because of their objectified status misses the point. The film is about the commodification of human life. People - replicants, holograms, children - are owned and utilised in one way or another. People are property, as ever they were, in a future where the leading industrialist laments that society has lost its stomach for slavery.

Blade Runner 2049 represents a lost, unreachable future, but it is still relevant today, and in some ways surely prescient. Beautiful in its ugliness, gripping and exceptionally directed, this is a sequel that's as good as people say the original is.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

REVIEW: RED DWARF XII - Ep 2) SILICONIA

Back in the mists of time, I started writing a Red Dwarf fanfic which saw the crew encounter a ship full of liberated mechanoids, who turned Kryten under their wing even as the higher series mechs put down the lowly Series 1000s. It's long lost and wasn't very good, but it perhaps goes to show that "Siliconia" is an idea that's been long overdue. Kryten may have broken his programming (more than once), and he certainly still gets tetchy from time to time, but nonetheless he's still been scrubbing gussets and hoovering quarters for three million years. Surely there are other mechanoids out there who have rebelled against their masters with a little more effectiveness than Mr. 2X4B 523P?

I have to say though, I never would have thought of turning the rest of the characters into droids. Yes, that image we've all seen floating around promoting the latest series with the full cast in mechanoid make-up is from this episode. As punishment for their crimes against machinekind, Lister, Rimmer and the Cat have their mins downloaded from their bodies and re-uploaded into mechanoid bodies, forced to serve their new mechanical masters.

While it starts with a few broad, old-fashioned gags, "Siliconia" turns into a classic episode. With a unusually large cast all buried under latex, this one must have cost a large chunk of Series XII's budget, but there was still enough for some very impressive effects shots. It's the plot that makes this episode a winner, though, as Kryten is wooed by the Mechanoid Intergalactic Liberation Front (not as good an acronym as the Committe for the Liberation and Integration of Terrifying Organisms and their Rehabilitation Into Society, but pretty good). Meanwhile, the remaining Dwarfers find themselves becoming increasingly "Krytenified," as their new programming takes over.





What's really interesting is how quickly Rimmer changes into a subservient mech. The chance to mindlessly serve gives him the opportunity to leave his considerable baggage behind. He no longer feels inferior to his brothers or compelled to become and officer. It's a penetrating moment of character study that makes the old goit seem truly sympathetic for the first time in years, Unfortunately, it's a brief moment in a busy episode, and gets a bit swallowed up. This is a better-paced episode than some have been in Series XI and XII so far, but it's still too short to encompass all of Doug Naylor's ideas properly. It's a strong argument for a fifth Red Dwarf novel, just so he can have the chance of exploring all the ideas that he's clearly so eager to put out there.

The MILFs have taken on empowering new names and have their own, hilariously well-observed self-help group, but there's a rot within their organisation. Poor mechs of a lower class (fronted by a surprisingly recognisable James Buckley) toil in the ship's engines while their brethren of a higher operating system enjoy the life upstairs, all the while in search of their promised land.

"Siliconia" is a cracking bit of Red Dwarf. All it needs is a bit more room to breathe. And a cameo from David Ross might have been a nice touch.


Continuity Bollocks: Kryten has been described as a Series 4000 mechanoid since 4.1, "Camille," which also introduced the superior Series 4000 GTi with the slide-back sunroof head. However, the previous episode, 3.6, "The Last Day," had it that he was a "Kryten Series III." This episode gives a way to clear that up: Kryten and most of his fellows of MILF are Series 4000 Mark IIIs, while the downtrodden rabble are Mark IIs. At the end, they're all upgraded to Mark IV. Presumably, Hudzen 5 from "The Last Day" is an example of Series 5000, although he's never described as such.

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

Best line: "I've got a registered trademark where my wing-dang-doodle used to be!"

REVIEW: THE GIFTED 1-1) "eXposed"

The only non-DC/CW comic-related series I'm reviewing here, this is Fox's new X-Men-related series. Aside from reminding me that I still haven't watched Legion, about which I've heard very good things, this is a great opening episode that promises an interesting take on what is now a well-worn subject. I haven't watched the second episode yet, but I ma very much looking forward to it on the strength of this. The X-verse is big enough and has enough characters to generate new spin-offs for years, as long as the creators can do something interesting with them. While it's important that The Gifted distinguishes itself from the X-Men movies, it's a good idea to have Bryan Singer helm the pilot. There's a darker, grungier feel to this than the movies, but it still feels like part of the X-verse, even though it's very unclear how - or even if - it fits into the continuity there. Not that it has to matter, given how shaky the Fox movie timeline was even before the timeline changes, but this might just fit in as an earlier part of Logan's timeline, after the X-Men are destroyed but before mutants are weeded out.

The cast are all fairly impressive in this pilot. Amy Acker is always a favourite, and Stephen Moyer is very strong as the anti-mutant police officer Reed Strucker. It's a set-up with some effective built-in conflict: the family headed by someone who prosecutes mutant criminals, and then lo and behold, the two kids turn out to be mutants with psychokinetic abilities. I like Reed is clearly torn between his oath and his family, but quickly and decisively chooses to go on the run with them because he knows exactly how badly the kids will be treated. Immediately after young Andy's powers manifest while some jocks are kicking the shit out of him, everything goes to hell, and the news is branding them as unknown mutant terrorists. Sentinel Services - complete with its own mutant-hunting robots - is sent out to detain them without charge, and in seconds, one of them has a gun trained on a teenaged kid. While the X-Men franchise has been used to explore all sorts of discrimination and outsider groups, this is so far pretty blatantly about racism and kneejerk reactionism. You only have to look at how many black kids are shot by white cops who supposedly felt threatened to see how this would go down in the real world. (It might have been interesting to show Andy deliberately blowing up the school as a lashing out against his bullying as a parallel to the epidemic of school shootings in real world America, but I guess that would have made him far too unsympathetic a character).

The mutant vigilante team are fun, although we don't get to know them very well. Even Marcos/Eclipse (a new character, not from the comics), who is the de facto leader gets little fleshing out, but then this is only the first episode. His power set is pretty cool so far: not only can he generate light energy as a weapon, he seems to be actually full of light, which bleeds out of him when he's shot. It's good to see Blink reintroduced after her short appearance in Days of Future Past (more Blink-and-you'll-miss-it there), and Jamie Chung's a favourite too. I like that these kids aren't portrayed as straightforwardly the good guys, either. They're obviously fighting against real injustice, but people die because of their actions, and they're not left unquestioned. There are some interesting hints for the future, as well. Polaris is clearly set up to be a major character once she appears, which brings possible links back to her father, Magneto, and presumed half-brother, Quicksilver. The multiple images of a wolf-like creature are interesting foreshadowing, too. (I'm guessing nothing to do with Wolfsbane or the Demon Bear, what with these lined up for The New Mutants movie).  Definitely one to follow.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

REVIEW - RED DWARF XII - Ep 1) CURED

Red Dwarf kicks off its twelfth (and final?) series with a bit of a corker. These episodes were recorded back in 2015-16 along with Series XI, so there's information on the plots out there if you want to go looking. However, if you don't want to be spoiled, go watch the episode first, because there are some big surprises crammed into the half-hour.




Thursday, 28 September 2017

CAPTAIN'S BLOG DIS 1-1 & 1-2 & REVIEW

I was originally going to wait until more episodes had been released before reviewing or analysing Discovery, but people are asking me my opinions and every fan on the internet is throwing in theirs. So here it is. A Captain's Blog going through the minutiae followed by my review of the opening two-parter. SPOILERS abound here, so I'd suggest not reading any further if you haven't yet watched the episodes.





DIS 1-1) The Vulcan Hello
and
DIS 1-2) Battle at the Binary Stars

Date: May 11th, 2256. Stardate 1207.3

The Mission: Fix water supply on Crepusculan homeworld; Investigate damage to interstellar relay in a binary system at the edge of Federation space.

Planets visited: The Crepusculan homeworld, a planet sporting a desert region. The wells have dried up following irradiation after a meteoroid mining accident.

Future History: It's ten years before the first season of The Original Series, and a touch over a hundred years since the end of Enterprise.

There has been no formal contact with the Klingon Empire in a century, which is compatible with Enterprise (the novels push this back by a few years, but it still fits with a bit of rounding off). There have been occasional skirmishes and raids, however, including an attack on Doctari Alpha in the 2240s. Dialogue from TOS 3-11 "Day of the Dove" suggests first contact between the Federation and the Empire occurred around 2218, although the Enterprise pilot "Broken Bow" has already brought that forward to 2151 (strictly speaking human, rather than Federation, contact). Possibly the 2218 contact represented a brief but disastrous renewal of contact between the powers.

T'Kuvma refers to the Battle of Donatu V, a major skirmish between Starfleet and Klingon forces that has been references several times in

First contact between the Vulcans and Klingons occurred at H'atoria around 240 years prior to the episode (i.e. in 2016, when the episode was in pre-production). The Klingons immediately fired on the Vulcan ship, and from then on, the Vulcans fired first at all encounters, gradually earning the warrior people's respect. H'atoria will later be the site of a Klingon colony (in at least one possible future, Worf will be its governor).

Taking the Michael: Lt. Cmdr Michael Burnham was orphaned when the Klingons killed her parents at Doctari Alpha, and unsurprisingly has a grudge against the Empire. She was raised by Sarek and is the first Vulcan to attend the Vulcan Learning Centre and the Vulcan Science Academy. When she joins the Shenzhou she's initially logical (and aloof) like a Vulcan. After seven years among humans, she's more openly emotional, although still restrained unless under pressure. She maintains that emotion informs her logic, and still goes to Sarek for advice. She's a xenoanthropologist, and thinks she can ingratiate herself with a very alien culture. She can even perform the Vulcan nerve pinch, although not particularly well - Georgiou's up and about again a few moments later.

She's generally optimistic, until she encounters Klingons. She remains absolutely convinced that firing on the Klingons first is the only way to gain their respect, even when overruled by her captain. She's on the path to her own command, before mutinying against the captain in a desperate attempt to avert a war. This gets her a court martial and life imprisonment (and they still insist Starfleet isn't a military organisation).

Captain Cut Short: Captain Philippa Georgiou is an Asian woman who captains the starship Shenzhou. (Michelle Yeoh keeps her natural Malaysian accent which is a nice touch among the usually Americanised Federation.) She's very cool in a crisis but has a strong sense of humour, not without a little sarcasm. She sticks firmly to Starfleet's "we do not shoot first" ethos. When talking to Burnham about what she'd do if they got stuck on a planet for 89 years, she simply says, "I'd escape." She managed to grab her ship's attention by making a huge Starfleet emblem in the sand with her footprints. She'd actually really Doctorish in the planet scenes.

Space Cow: Lt. Saru is the only Kelpien in Starfleet. He's timid, sees malicious intent everywhere, but will stand up for himself when he sees it as necessary for his, or the crew's, safety. Little fronds poke out of his head when he's scared. It's hard to hear Doug Jones play Saru without thinking of Abe Sapien, except for one or two occasions when he sounds like Kryten from Red Dwarf.

Vulcan Dad: Sarek takes the young Michael under his wing and raises her like a daughter. Yes, I know it seems odd that Spock never mentioned having an adopted human sister, but then, it took him twenty years to tell his best friends that he had a half-brother, and he didn't do that until the guy had turned up and stolen the Enterprise. Vulcans are not exactly forthcoming about these things. Sarek is still an unforgiving dick to humans when they're emotional.

Angry Space Villain: T'Kuvma leads a shamed Klingon house aboard a gigantic flagship, originally his fathers and then abandoned for years. He sees himself as a modern Kahless, "T'Kuvma the Unforgettable." T'Kuvma wants to unite the Empire against the Federation. He hates their claim that they "Come in peace," calling it "their lie." He has no problem with outcasts like Voq (so, even if he is a warmongering maniac, he's got less of a problem with skintone than several fans). He was shunned and beaten as a child due to his house's ostracising, so has more time for outcasts than other Klingons and says that his "house is open to all." On the other hand, he's obsessed with the purity of the Klingon Empire, hating the mixing of races that the Federation encourages. He's not particularly honorable, attacking the Starfleet flagship after accepting a ceasefire. Burnham is concerned that killing him will make him a martyr and rally the houses to his cause. Then she goes and kills him and proves herself right.

Redshirt: Crewman Connor is one unlucky guy. He gets burnt and concussed on the bridge, gets lost on the way to sickbay and then sucked out into space when the Klingons blast a hole in the hull.

Stellar Cartography: The binary star system is located three light years from the outpost at Eagle-12, and six light years from the Andorian colony at Gamma Hydrae. The USS Enterprise later visits Gamma Hydrae in TOS 2-11 "The Deadly Years," which also places it near the Romulan neutral zone. The radiation in the system's rings can cause humanoid DNA to "unspool like noodles."

Alien life forms:

Klingons: They look a bit different to how they used to. These guys are like Klingon-plus, with pronounced brow ridges that extend back over their elongated skulls, completely visible because they are all bald. They display broad lips and noses and jagged teeth. Their ears are pointed and flat against their skulls, their fingers end in claws. Were it not for the baldness, they wouldn't actually look too different to the TNG-era Klingons, but rather more exaggerated. They speak Klingon amongst themselves, naturally. Their blood is pinkish-purple, not unlike in The Undiscovered Country. Their skin tones range from brown to grey to a bluish tint, except for Voq, who is an albino (but not the Albino).

There are twenty-four Klingon houses, which have been at each other's throats for the last hundred years. They each send one battleship to the binary system. The Klingons mourn their dead by roaring into the afterlife, and unusually, T'Kuvma's caste keep the bodies of their honoured dead in ornate coffins. (Klingons generally don't place much value on a body once it's dead.) T'Kuvma's house wear extremely elaborate, pretty impractical armour.

Vulcans: Remain as logical as ever. They maintain joint research projects with humans. They teach their children in hemispherical lecture pods, just like in the 2009 Star Trek movie. They can be very aggressive to other species when considering it a logical response (the Vulcans were going through an expansionist phase during the pre-Enterprise era, in any case, so their violent policy with the Klingons isn't that surprising). A Vulcan mind meld can links katra and allow telepathic communication over interstellar distances, although it is physically draining.

Kelpiens: Humanoid but with digitigrade feet, broadly spaced nostrils and thick, ridged skin, Lt. Saru's people evolved as a prey species. They have evolved a refined sense of impending death and danger, but this does make them predisposed to be overly cautious.

Crepusculans: Non-humanoid life forms, sort of insectoid-reptilians with six limbs and mandibles. They were clothes and are sophisticated to build wells. They have apparently been on their homeworld for a thousand years. Assuming this doesn't mean refer just to this area of the planet, they must have been brought their by someone else, because they're strictly protected by General Order One.

Others: The Shenzhou bridge crew includes a turquoise skinned humanoid with a skin pattern or tattoo on his face, and a partly mechanical crewmember who flashes up red alert signs on its face panels!

Starships:

USS Shenzou NCC-1227: A Walker-class ship. It's an old ship by the time Burnham joins in 2249 (to compare, the USS Enterprise NCC-1701 is already four years old at this point). The class looks like a clear development of the Enterprise NX-01 and the USS Franklin NX-326 style ships. It's capable of landing on a planet's surface, which is probably rather early considering that Voyager was the first time we saw this, although I don't think it was ever said that was a new development in dialogue. The Shenzhou is named for the 20th & 21st century Chinese spacecraft programme. The ship is virtually destroyed and left for dead in the binary system.

USS Europa NCC-1648: Admiral Anderson's flagship. Destroyed when rammed by a cloaked Klingon ship before committing self-destruct.

Other Starfleet ships that join the battle include the USS Shran (named for the Andorian captain from Enterprise?), the USS T'Plana-Hath (sharing its name for the Vulcan ship that made first contact with Earth in Star Trek: First Contact), the USS Clarke, the USS Yeager, the USS Kerala, the USS Edison, the USS Earhart and the USS Sue.

Klingon ships: The Klingons maintain a "sacred beacon" which takes the form of a huge, ornate object, carved in stone and metal, hanging in orbit around the binary star. T'Kuvma's ship is huge, bristling with weapons, and is studded with sarcophagi containing the bodies of fallen warriors dating back centuries.

Future Treknology: The Klingons have cloaking technology, which is a bit early, although it does come as a surprise to Starfleet. T'Kuvma apparently invented it.

The Shenzhou has outdated "lateral vector transporters," which use huge dishes situated behind the transportee, and use a lot of power. They're outdated way before the episode takes place. (We never saw anything like that in Enterprise, so they must have come in afterwards, then been superseded. The Rise of the Federation novels suggest early transporters caused genetic damage through long term use; perhaps this development was an initial method to overcome the pattern errors?)

Instead of vidscreens and viewers, people speak to each other across light years using holographic projections. The Klingon ones look particularly Star Wars-y.

Sexy Trek: Sonequa Martin-Green is absolutely stunning.

Space Bilge: The Starfleet emblem as visual beacon looks very cool, but how did they see it through the heavy cloud layer? How are the two commanding officers, two very fit and well-trained women who are nonetheless quite small humans, able to fight off two massive Klingon warriors who have trained their whole life for battle? OK, Georgiou doesn't last but she still holds her own for a long while. Why does Burnham, who so resolutely sticks to her logical choice even if it means mutiny, change her mind so easily about everything else? And why do Starfleet hold their tribunals in the dark?

The Review: I enjoyed this opening two-parter greatly, although it's not without its frustrations. This is a very different take on Star Trek than we've had before, although clearly inspired by earlier iterations of a franchise that has changed a great deal over the last fifty-one years. I'm not quite sure how it will develop as a series, and that's actually a great place to be. The last thing I want is something safe and predictable. This opener is cinematic, exciting and visually stunning. The binary star system is astonishing to look at - this looks like a huge science fiction movie, not a regular TV series. Burnham's spacesuited mission through the debris ring is obviously influenced by the skydiving sequence in the 2009 movie and the infiltration of the Vengeance in Star Trek Into Darkness, but is portrayed as something of wonder, rather than a death-defying stunt. Still, there's a real sense that space, though wondrous, is a dangerous place to be, with Michael left scarred by radiation that will be fatal if she doesn't sit through immediate treatment.

Burnham is, for the most part, a great character. She has real horror in her past that she tries, not always successfully, to rise above. Her escape from the brig by logically talking the computer round to agreeing to releasing is a brilliant character moment for someone who is both human and Vulcan. She puts her convictions above her commitment to Starfleet principles. Sonequa Martin-Green's performance is excellent, she's a charismatic and interesting lead. It's just a shame that, in many ways, her character is so inconsistently written. She sticks to her convictions when it comes to firing first but changes her mind easily when it comes to everything else.

Both Michelle Yeoh and Doug Jones are excellent secondary leads, making a wonderful trio that has hints of the old Kirk-Spock-McCoy relationship without being a slavish recreation, like Archer-T'Pol-Trip often was. Burnham is the logical voice in most respects, but also the more aggressive, with Saru being the cautious McCoy-like one, and Georgiou being the noble commander in the centre. There's an interesting backstory being hinted at for both Saru and Georgiou; unfortunately, we don't get to learn about the Captain's past before she's killed off. Although this is being billed as a prelude to the main series, there's a lot of time invested in establishing a relationship that is then cut short. There's also some very clunky expositionary dialogue early on that I really hoped we'd heard the last of by now.

Trailers for the upcoming episode suggest that Starfleet blame Burnham for starting the war, and Georgiou certainly does, but it's hard to see why that's the case. Yes, she killed the Torchbearer on the Beacon, but that was in self-defense and she had no way of knowing he would be there. Her insistence on shooting first looks like it would have been the right choice - Georgiou's "We come in peace" hail is what triggers T'Kuvma into opening fire - although it's hard to see how the outcome would have been different if the Shenzhou had fired first, as the Klingons were there for a fight regardless. In any case, blaming the war on Burnham's mutiny makes no sense as she was stopped before she could put her plans into action, and so her decision made no material difference to what happened.

I have no problem with the changes to the Klingons, the retroactive changes to the series' history, or the mixed bag visuals for this version of Starfleet. If it works for the story and it looks effective, that's fine. I'm happy to accept a revisionist 23rd century - it's not as if the Original Series was consistent in its own backstory - although, given the clear influence of the new films, I wonder why the producers and writers didn't simply set it in the new cinema timeline, thereby freeing themselves up a good deal more. It's hard to see exactly who this series is aimed at. It's quite right that they shouldn't slavishly stick to established canon or try to appeal solely to hardcore fans. On the other hand, one surefire way of alienating new and casual viewers is starting with five minutes of guys in latex, speaking Klingon with subtitles. Surely you'd want to hook viewers with amazing visuals first, and only later bring in the high geekery?

I'm very interested to see where this series will go. There's an interesting clash on display between the peaceful explorers that Starfleet claim to be, and the military organisation that they look, sound and act like. If the series explores this dichotomy, it could be very interesting indeed. I'm certainly looking forward to seeing more of Michael Burnham and seeing how her character develops as the series goes on.


Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Thoughts on IT (2017)

I'm not actually the biggest fan of Stephen King's work, and film adaptations have, over the years, been of very variable quality. (Although The Shawshank Redemption is, of course, one of the greatest films ever made.) The 1990 IT miniseries/TV movie hasn't got a good reputation, save for Tim Curry's legendary performance as Pennywise. I remember it scaring the crap out of me, but then I was about seven (I got to stay up late two nights in a row to watch it as a special holiday treat). I haven't ever found a reason to revisit it, to be honest. However, there's a reason the novel is considered a classic of horror, and if anything, it's surprising that it's taken so long for a proper cinematic adaptation.

This is IT: Chapter One officially, with the second installment coming in a couple of years and featuring the adult versions of the characters. I hope they find a way to include the kids again, even just in flashbacks, because the young cast really is very good here. The biggest praise must go to Sophia Lillis, who plays Bev, the sole girl in the Losers crew, who is just exceptional. Finn Wolfhard, the go-to kid for Stephen King-esque productions, is pretty hilarious as "Trashmouth" Tozier. All the kids are very good, though, with real chemistry that makes them a believable group of friends.

Some critics have said this wasn't a particularly good horror film, which I would not agree with, but that it was an excellent coming-of-age movie, which is definitely true. That was always the aspect of IT that worked best; incredibly brave kids who have to deal with shitty lives even before the bogeyman comes to eat them, coming together and helping each other through the most traumatic time of their lives. I'm just not as interested in them once they're messed up adults, and I suspect director Andy Muschietti and various screenwriters aren't either. Pretty much every adult who appears in the story is thoroughly horrible character, and the OK ones barely make an impact. King never shies away from depicting just how awful people are. Thankfully, the film isn't quite as horrible as the book, and doesn't feature any ill-judged or gross sex scenes. And there's no question that, at a thousand-odd pages, the book has plenty that can be left out even in two films. (Confession: never finished it. Life's too short.)

The film's going to succeed or fail on the strength of Pennywise itself, though, and thankfully, Bill Skarsgard is bloody brilliant. Very different to Curry's interpretation, even more unnerving, with an unsettlingly childlike aspect that masks something really horrible beneath. I love how unpleasantly physical his performance is, drooling and moving his own eyes in opposite directions, it would be deeply unpleasant even without any CGI or prosthetic effects. I like that there's a very physical creature just below the surface of the clown, breaking out when it's ready to feed or just can't contain itself anymore. And then, within that, there's the Deadlights, which we catch just a glimpse of before it cuts away (for the sake of our own sanity, naturally). Then there are the other aspects of the creature, including a truly stomach-churning leper and a twisted painting of a woman that walks around, misshapen face and all. Much more effective than werewolves etc. The balloons are still there though.

I can't help but feel that the second chapter is inevitably going to be weaker in comparison, but this was an excellent horror movie.


Monday, 25 September 2017

TREK REVIEW: Rise of the Federation: Patterns of Interference

Patterns of Interference is the fifth novel in the Rise of the Federation series, Christopher L. Bennett's sequence of adventures for the characters of Star Trek: Enterprise. The series charts the earliest events of the United Federation of Planets through the 2160s, both following on from threads from episodes of Enterprise and working backwards from various historical bits and pieces mentioned in other series.

Previous novels in the series have followed up on the deadly technological threat from “Dead Stop,” named by Bennett as the Ware, which has been neutralised with unforeseen consequences for the local galactic neighbourhood. First contact has been made with the planet Sauria but Federation trade with the despotic Maltuvis has led the planet into political chaos. The Rigel system has joined the Federation, but this itself has led to political fallout among such powers as the Orion Syndicate and a breakout movement from the Malurian system. It's fair to say that in a few years the UFP has made a big impact in local space, but frequently with unpredictable consequences.

This lies at the heart of the novel, as Admiral Jonathan Archer campaigns for the creation of a non-interference directive to prevent reckless meddling in the affairs of other peoples. Don't expect to see the founding of the Prime Directive here, though; Bennett understands that policy decisions like this take years to come into effect. Archer has to deal with both logical and impassioned pleas against non-interference, including from his enemy-turned-friend Shran. Meanwhile, other organisations have a vested interest in Starfleet becoming so shamed by its interference that the Federation retreats into isolationism. Multiple factions play against each other, in a plot that increases in complexity as different characters come together at the hotbed that is Sauria.

Bennett's prose is always a pleasure to read. He knows how to spin a good adventure. There's also a good deal of social commentary in his work, and this novel is no exception, as the author uses futuristic situations as a commentary on contemporary issues in true Trek style. There are memorable instances on gender politics that see characters comment on how movements for equality can easily be reversed when society becomes more insular. While they're talking about colony worlds with a vested interest in keeping their populations growing, it's a comment on the shifts both backwards and forwards in gender politics today, and also an attempt to make sense of the sexism displayed in some episodes of The Original Series. In another plotline we spend time with Maltuvis, an idiotic, narcissistic tyrant who has come to power due to his wealth and by turning his people against minorities, a none-too-subtle pop at a certain president currently dominating the news.

All manner of characters from Enterprise and beyond turn up in this series and many of them are present in this book, all working to their own ends. While Archer pushes his political agenda, he is contacted by Trip Tucker, alive and working for Section 31 as per the novel The Good That Men Do. The two of them along with Captain Malcolm Reed, now of the USS Pioneer, put plans into place to bring down the clandestine organisation from the inside. Meanwhile, the Orions, led by the alluring three sisters introduced in Enterprise: “Bound,” conspire to interfere with Sauria themselves, with agents that include the Malurian Garos (from Enterprise: “Civilization”) and the Orion woman Devna (from TAS “The Time Trap”). Furthermore, there are roles for the crew of the USS Essex, the ancestors of one James T. Kirk and a member of the Paris dynasty. There's a real risk with works like this of small universe syndrome, but Bennett pulls it off with panache.

Although there's an overall optimism in the Rise of the Federation series, there's something rather doom laden about Patterns of Interference. In spite of everyone's best efforts here, Section 31 will live on to threaten Federation ideals in the future (both in the primary and Kelvin timelines). Garos's actions are for the good of the Malurian people, who will be rendered extinct off-screen in the TOS episode “The Changeling.” According to the TNG episode “Power Play,” the USS Essex will be lost with all hands at Mab-bu VI. Knowing the future of so many characters and groups makes casts a shadow over much of what happens here.

While all of this is going on, T'Pol and Hoshi, now of the flagship USS Endeavour NCC-06, are sent in to assist a group of boomers who have landed on a planet where plant life dominates. There a species of tree-like organisms dubbed dryads show potential as a source of medical compounds but also signs of sentience, and Hoshi is tasked with trying to identify their linguistic abilities. It's an interesting, pure science fiction storyline that feels somewhat divorced from the main events, but remains relevant to the ongoing questions of involvement with other worlds.


Rise of the Federation has been a strong line since its beginnings, and Patterns of Interference is one of its strongest instalments.