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.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

COMICS TO SCREEN: Supergirl 2-19 & The Flash 3-20

SUPERGIRL: "ALEX"

 
Last week's episode, "Ace Reporter," wasn't the greatest in Supergirl's run. We had a great guest spot from Rahul Kohli (aka Ravi in iZombie), and some good moments between Kara and Lena Luthor, but the episode on a whole was pretty procedural and uninventive. Things picked up a lot this week with an episode that, as the title suggests, revolved entirely around Alex and her relationships. It must have been a hell of an episode to film as well; Chyler Leigh is put through the ringer here, spending half of the episode submerged in water. No wonder she was barely in last week's episode; she probably needed a holiday.
 
While this is a series about Kara, so far this season it's been Alex who's had the most interesting storylines. Her relationship with Maggie, her difficult position at the DEO, split between personal and professional concerns, and her ongoing responsibility for Kara's wellbeing have seen her being pulled in every direction. Maggie is the most interesting of these relationships, though, a genuinely well portrayed romantic relationship between two women with serious, high pressure occupations. Maggie clearly isn't an easy person to be in a relationship with, but it's easy to see why Alex wants to be with her. The final moments of the episodes, when they declare their love for each other, is just beautiful. Chyler Leigh and Florian Lima have wonderful chemistry.
 
The plot of the episode wasn't anything complex. Some pissed-off loser who lusted after Alex at school wants to hurt her because she rebuked him, or is more successful than him, or is gay, or whatever other issue he has, but he's worked out that Kara is Supergirl and wants to use that to get his murdering dad out of jail. He abducts Alex to use as a bargaining chip. It's all fairly predictable (although at one point I did wonder if they'd actually surprise us and kill Alex off), but it's all extremely well-played. It's not about the plot, but the relationships between the characters. Maggie and Kara don't see eye-to-eye because Supergirl's strong-arm tactics clash with the police's more careful approach (OK, maybe that's harder to believe). Kara doesn't cope without Alex to support her, and there are some nice moments between her and J'onn. On the periphery, Lena's story develops in an unexpected direction. It's forty-five minutes of television drama that's primarily about relationships and features all female characters for much of its runtime, and still is an action-packed and gripping story.
 
Oh, and apparently James wasn't in this episode. I hadn't noticed he was missing.
 

THE FLASH: "I KNOW WHO YOU ARE"

 
Meanwhile, The Flash barrels on to its finale, and things are getting interesting now. The Savitar storyline has not been gripping me; it's a third year with an evil speedster as the Big Bad and it feels like there's little more they can do with the concept. Even having him from the future isn't especially interesting, because Thawne/Reverse-Flash was also from the future. The mythological aspects to the character are different, though, indicating a real ego trip for the villain, but, until now, Savitar has been a monster, not a character. That changed with the big reveal at the end of this episode, which finally revealed the villain's true identity. I won't spoil it here, because not everyone will have seen it yet and the reveal is very well played. Suffice to say, of all the possibilities, it is the most satisfying, and it was also the popular opinion in Suz and Dan's Flat of Awesome. Actually, Suz guessed it ages ago, although we then second and third-guessed ourselves until we convinced ourselves we were wrong.
 
Last week we had a very effective trip to the future as part of Barry's quest to prevent Iris's death, in "The Once and Future Flash." "I Know Who You Are" follows on from that episode's revelation that one Tracy Brand will invent a way to trap Savitar, albeit too late to save Iris. Team Flash track down failing physicist Tracy, played delightfully quirkily by Anne Dudek. HR immediately falls for her, and they share some fine chemistry, which this version of Wells ahs been lacking with the main team. I think it's pretty clear that Caitlyn is not coming back, and will either remain as the villainous Killer Frost or be killed off at the end of the season. Tracy is obviously being set up as replacement lady scientist, and frankly I think this is a fine plan. She's a far more likeable presence on the team after only one episode.
 
The other main strand of the episode is Joe's relationship with Cecille. The couple finally admit their love for each other (Joe somewhat reluctantly), and while it doesn't hold a candle to the similar developments in Supergirl, it's still a strong element for the story. Joe really has been through the emotional wringer this season, arguably as much as Barry, and it's clear that it's taking its toll on him. We know that someone major is going to die by the time the season's done, and I fear that all signs point to Joe, who is being pushed to try to protect Iris, Cecille and Barry and who has never been afraid of stepping into the line of fire.
 
Three episodes left, and things can only get harder for Team Flash.
 

REVIEW: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

The first Guardians of the Galaxy film was an unexpectedly huge hit for Marvel in 2014, rocketing a fairly obscure comicbook team to A-list status and cementing Chris Pratt's position as a superstar. The sequel continues the story mere months after the end of the first installment. It's fair to say that Vol. 2 delivers more of the same: imaginative galactic locations, snarky characters, zippy one-liners and a retro-flavoured soundtrack. However, sometimes, more of the same is exactly what's wanted. If it ain't broke, as they say.

However, for me at least, Vol. 2 actually surpassed the original. While I can't say yet if it'll have the same rewatch value as the first film, it builds on the character relationships established in that movie to give the story a strong emotional centre. As Gamora says, the Guardians aren't friends, they're family, and that's what Vol. 2 is, at heart, about: family.

The big guest star of the film is Kurt Russell, an actor who's never anything less than utterly watchable in any film, playing Star-Lord's long lost father, Ego. Russell's now old enough to give a powerful performance as a noble, patriarchal figure, and while he's begun to appear in such roles, only Marvel and James Gunn would have signed him up to play a planet. For the most part he's a relatively modestly-appearing humanoid avatar, although he elevates himself to his true god-like status in the film's climax. It's no big surprise when Ego turns out to be the villain of the piece; it's signposted pretty clearly from his first appearance and all but Quill are unconvinced by his seeming benevolence. He's the first villain to really convince in the Marvel movies since Tom Hiddleston's Loki, with other films drafting in fine actors but giving them paper-thin roles to play. Russell's performance as Ego is a mix of terrifying power, amorality and regret, and it makes for a far stronger antagonist than Lee Pace's Ronan in the first film.



It's no stretch to imagine Chris Pratt's Peter Quill as his son, and Pratt gets a stronger role here than the dashing ne'er-do-well of the first film. There's some real depth to his lonely, outsider status, and it's easy to see why he is so eager to accept his place with Ego. His sudden turning on his father is the film's most powerful moment, with Pratt giving a fantastic performance. Of course, while Star-Lord is an outsider, so are his fellow Guardians, and it's this that makes them his true family. Outsiders all together. Dave Bautista gets most of the funniest lines as Drax, who is less literal, but even stranger and unpredictable than before. Bautista is clearly revelling in being a fan favourite, but he also gets his own strange relationship, with the adorable Pom Klementieff as Mantis. Essentially Ego's pet, she's a sad, rather beautiful character, both powerful and pitiful.

Zoe Saldana gets much better material to work with than in the first film, with Gamora holding a great deal of her own adventure in the depths of Ego's planet as she deals with her own family issues. Karen Gillan returns as Nebula, adopted sister to Gamora, and she gets to be far more than the faceless assassin of the first film. She's a deeper, more real character, and this makes her sexier and more dangerous than she ever was in the previous film. While she is set up as a villain early on, there's far more to her story here, as we learn the extent of Thanos's maltreatment of her and her relationship with Gamora is explored. The sisters enjoy some of the best development of the film's characters, and as it looks certain we'll see Nebula again, I look forward to seeing how their damaged relationship can be developed further.




Rocket and Groot are present and incorrect, with the duo's friendship inverted from the first film. Groot is now Baby Groot, possibly the most marketable movie alien since the Ewoks and a highlight of every scene he's in. Groot was Rocket's muscle in the first Guardians, but now the tables are turned, with Rocket acting as Baby Groot's protector and teacher. Everyone looks after Groot at some point though; he's the team's little ward and needs constant supervision.

The real star of the film, though, is Michael Rooker. Returning as Yondu, Rooker gives an astonishingly sympathetic performance given that he's playing an interstellar mercenary and murderer. His story is violent but beautiful, as we follow his fall, rise and greatest moment throughout the film. At the heart of it, of course, is his relationship with Quill, again tying into the central themes of family and proving that Star-Lord didn't need to search the Galaxy for a father figure.

For all that, though, the basics are still here. The script is smuttily hilarious, the violence cartoonishly OTT, and the visual effects absolutely beyond compare. Really, aside from the odd moment that looks a little too cartoonish, I don't recall another space opera that looks quite this good. It's gorgeous, a riot of explosive colour. CG rendering has even reached the point where a creature like Rocket actually looks realistic. The soundtrack isn't as rocking as the first, although douze points for starting the film with "Mr. Blue Sky," one of my absolute favourite songs.

There's a huge amount to pick apart here, too, from secondary villains the Sovereignty and lesser but still massively entertaining roles from Sylvester Stallone and Sean Gunn, the latter who, as Kraglin, gets more screentime than expected and will also clearly be coming back for another trip round the Galaxy. (In a film about family, it's perhaps appropriate that one of the most likable performance comes from the director's brother. He also does Rocket's motion work on set, making him one of the unsung heroes of the production.)

Volume 3 is a way off yet, and before that, the Guardians will be appearing in Avengers: Infinity War, where they will, presumably, finally go face-to-face with Thanos. However, I doubt that film could top this one's cosmic ensemble. This is a film that, while dealing with a genuinely universe-toppling threat, still manages to be about the most personal of concerns. Ten out of frickin' ten.

Monday, 1 May 2017

WHO REVIEW: 10-3 - "Thin Ice"

Sarah Dollard has delivered a script that, when brought to life by some of the best acting and design we've seen on the series in years, has all the makings of a minor classic. Not an anniversary special, not a barn-storming finale, just a little, meat-and-potatoes episode that turned out to be something truly wonderful.

Firstly, there's a good, old-fashioned deductive adventure for the Doctor and his companion, working out just what those lights under the ice are. That back-to-basics approach of the first few episodes is working wonders for the season so far. The tried-and-tested formula of present-future-past for the new companion works, so it makes sense to bring it out again, with the new girl's reactions to the set-up being the newer element. The BBC is never better than when it's creating a period drama, and the production team excels in this episode. The frozen Thames is so believable, it's astonishing; a remarkable work of set design, backed up by a bustling crowd of extras in period dress. No one does this stuff better. The model work is also impressive - how many viewers realised that the Doctor who takes a swim was not Peter Capaldi, but a lifelike sculpture of him instead? Everyone's skills come together to make a truly effective setting.

I find some strange satisfaction in that the Doctor's detective work never actually gets as far as explaining what the creature under the ice actually is. He's far more concerned in the why's and the who's than the what-on-earths. We never find out whether the creature is alien or earthly, quite what its little piscine companions get out of their symbiotic deal or just how long the beast has been there. It's fun to speculate, but it's not important right now. It's not the point of the story.

Because, as with the frozen Thames, there's a lot more going on under the surface. This is a story about morality, and especially, exploitation, in its many forms. It's Bill's turn to question the Doctor's ethics, ethics that have been coded by millennia of experience and an alien viewpoint. It brings to mind episodes such as "The Fires of Pompeii," but it's better written than an argument about going against the flow of history. The Doctor doesn't give a damn about that here (in fact, he openly alters history without the least regret). It's far more like the fourth Doctor at his most alien, in Pyramids of Mars, brushing off the death of an individual because there isn't time for outrage. The Doctor's logic at the situation is faultless, but it's so... unpalatable to someone like Bill. It's also the first time, I think, that we've really focused on how a companion reacts to her first immediate encounter with death. Mostly, we've seen the difficult truth of confronting death when a companion has faced someone close to them: Rose and her father, Clara and Danny. Bill doesn't know young Spider for more than a few minutes, and yet his death is intimately and profoundly upsetting for her. It's a brutally realistic picture, and one that makes the Doctor's position more believable. Not as an alien, but as an old man who has seen (and caused) death time and again. It's someone from a cosy civilian life facing death alongside a soldier.



The episode flirts with the race issue when Bill first steps out onto the ice. Of course she's going to be worried about how people react to her. She'll have experienced so much shit from white people in the 21st century, let alone going into the 19th. (We don't have time to explore attitudes to her sexuality, which is a pity, but one 45-minute episode can't cover everything.) Again, it recalls an earlier episode. Martha's first trip in the TARDIS was to Shakespearean London, and she was similarly concerned. However, this time it's handled with so much more finesse. As much as I loved "The Shakespeare Code," I hated the Doctor's dismissal of Martha's concerns. "I'm not even human," and "Just act like you own the place." Very easy to say when you look and sound exactly like a white Englishman. The twelfth Doctor accepts Bill's concerns and admits it will be dangerous, but persuades her it's worth the risk if she wants to experience this life.

Of course, later on the script stops flirting with the issue and goes right for it, in what is, for me, the most triumphant scene in the series since "No sir, all thirteen!" After lecturing Bill on maintaining detachment and controlling her temper (Peter Capaldi lecturing on controlling your temper!) the Doctor smacks the bastard Lord Sutcliffe square in the mouth for his racist tirade against Bill. It's beautiful. (And anyone who wants to counter it with "But the Doctor's a pacifist!" I suggest you actually watch virtually any episode of the series broadcast since 1963 and question where you got that idea.)

From the punch, we move rapidly to that most powerful speech. There's been a lot of rubbish written about how the BBC has a "left wing bias," which I find bizarre considering its continual towing of the line under the Tory government. The writers of Doctor Who though, they're left wing, and this is the moment it comes to the fore. That fantastic, socialist, anti-elitist speech against Sutcliffe and his exploitative ways... it's what this series is made for. How old do you have to be before you can make a speech like that? You just need to be a 37-year-old Australian scriptwriter. Sarah Dollard should be bloody proud.

For this script is not about monsters, or fancy coats and top hats, or Regency colour. It's about exploitation, and how it drives industry and "progress." Exploitation of other races, of children, of the poor, and yes, of animals, be they real creatures or a fabulous sea monster. An absolute triumph.


WHO REVIEW: 10-2 - "Smile"

There's a very odd structure to this episode. I appreciate the more relaxed pace that we're looking to get with this season, and "Smile" in particular takes a very languid stroll through the story for the first half hour or so. It had the feel of a sixties or early seventies episode, particularly the choice to have only the Doctor and Bill for much of the runtime. This is how serials used to start - twenty-five minutes of investigating a new location, possibly with only the regulars, with the nature of the story only becoming apparent in time. On the other hand, "Smile" actually begins with a scene that lays out the central idea of the episode. There are killer mini-robots that tear you to bits if you can't convince them you're happy. The reasoning behind it isn't clear, but the basic idea is. Going in, we as an audience have a much better idea of what is going on than the Doctor and Bill. We just have to wait for them to catch up.

Fortunately, Capaldi and Mackie are more than capable of carrying the bulk of the episode on their own backs with no supporting cast. There's a very relaxed interaction between them, and one that feels earnt, as the Doctor and Bill have already known each other for some months by this point. These travels in time and space are merely the next big step in their friendship, and it's always fun to see a new companion's first outing to a future world or alien realm. It also helps that the visuals for this episode are so striking. The colony itself is filmed at the City of Arts and Sciences, a huge cultural centre in Valencia. It's a truly remarkable location, which, combined with the rolling crop fields for the outer parts of the colony, makes this episode visually unique. There's never been an episode of Doctor Who that looks quite like this.

Equally, the emoji "robots," that act as interfaces for the tiny, mechanical Vardies, are a striking visual hook for the episode. It makes the episode feel both old-fashioned and up-to-date. Depending on how our culture and language develop, in ten years this episode will either look remarkably prescient or hopelessly dated. Other than the emojibots, though, there's nothing new here. It's mixed up in fun new ways, but it's still highly derivative, with elements of The Happiness Patrol, The Ark in Space and sundry science fiction stories coming together to create what feels, at times, like a kid-friendly episode of Black Mirror. That's not to say it's not a well-written or enjoyable episode; some of the best stories are derivative. Still, there's something of a "best of" feel to this one.

Peter Capaldi is scarier when he's smiling broadly than when he's scowling furiously at people. Pearl Mackie is just a joy to watch in her interactions with him. "Smile" is a pretty great episode up until the last ten minutes or so, when we realise the Doctor has been astonishingly dense by not checking if there's anyone alive in the spacecraft. (And sorry to disappoint, those who thought the Doctor had finally gone full Malcolm Tucker, but he shouts "Pods!" not "Bollocks!") The crew wake up, quintupling the cast but proving to be mostly pointless. The celebrated appearance by Ralf Little turns out to be less than ten minutes of him playing an aggressively stupid person. It's a shame, because the final resolution is pretty sound. It even manages to make the much-maligned reset button a virtue. That little dip aside, "Smile" is a fairly strong episode.