Monday, 15 October 2018

Doctor Who - 'The Ghost Monument'

"Right, quick update. I made a terrible mistake, we shouldn’t be here. I’m gonna fix it and get you guys home. I promise. Soon as I figure out where we are."

This review will contain spoilers

The Doctor and her new companions are in trouble, having been unexpectedly teleported en mass into deep space. Fortunately, they are swiftly picked up by Angstrom and Epzo, the last surviving competitors in a lethal, intergalactic rally. Their last task - of more than two hundred - is to cross the hostile terrain of the planet Desolation, reach the site of the Ghost Monument, and to do it in one day. The winner will be rich beyond the dreams of avarice and teleported off the planet; the loser... will not.

For the Doctor, reaching the Ghost Monument has a much greater significance, however. This mysterious object, which appears only once every thousand days, takes the form of a large, blue box.

"Please forgive the theatrics; a holdover from my Oxford days."
The Good
  • The gully that Ryan, Graham and Angstrom flee along as the Cerebos crashes is not deep, but enough to explain their adherence to the Prometheus school of running away.
  • Ryan and Graham get some solid character interaction from their different reactions to the loss of Grace. Ryan and Yaz get a little, establishing a loyalty to one another, but there's only so much time.
  • The new TARDIS is boss.
  • Some more solid, Doctor-style problem solving, using what knowledge and improvisation to overcome more conventional weapons.
The Bad
  • The Ghost Monument is a paradigm of the greatest flaw of nuWho. It's not hard to pick out the sections that would have been individual episodes in the old format, and most of the cliffhangers. In the fifty minute format, there is very little development of the monsters - the sniper bots and the rags - and only snippets of information on the rally, and what time is given to the supporting characters is at the expense of the companions (and in particular Yaz, given Ryan and Graham's stronger scenes together.)
  • The fate of the planet and its occupants ends up being infodumped.
The Ugly
  • Nothing jumped out at me here, which is stronger than some opening offerings.
The Thirteenth Doctor
I'm revisiting a feature from the first Capaldi season here, and examining what we learn about the Thirteenth Doctor, week by week. Last week, we discovered that she seemed to have shaken off the messianic excesses and self-doubt of some of her recent incarnations. She's just a traveler, she helps where she can, and names are important to her.

This week, we saw that the Doctor needs her TARDIS, not just as part of her self-identity, but because it enables her to help other people. My partner was struck by the Doctor's drop into hopelessness towards the end, finding it out of character, although I felt this showed a temperamental kinship with her fifth incarnation, who was also occasionally at a loss, and as a result it struck me that this is the first Doctor in a while to feel truly young. Dynamic, confident, yet at the same time a little unsure, she taps into some of the same aspects of the Doctor's personality as the Fifth Doctor, and I'm down with that.

"It's only a model."
So, we have two pieces of possible arc fodder now: The Stenza and the Timeless Child.

I don't know if the Stenza will be a big thing. While Tim Shaw was creepy AF with his tooth-bedazzled face, their repeat value feels limited and I suspect that they were primarily mentioned this week as the link between the Earth and Desolation. I could be wrong, but I would not be surprised if we find out that there are a bunch of 'warrior races' this year, looking to establish themselves in the lingering aftermath of the Time War and the absence of the Daleks and the Cybermen.

The Timeless Child smells of arc words, so I don't expect more than hints before the finale. Does it refer to the Doctor? Susan? Will we finally get primary canon confirmation that the Doctor is the Other reborn? If it's Rose Tyler I may scream.

Best Bits
The entry into the TARDIS was magnificent, but also props for not forgetting Ryan's dyspraxia when it makes life for the crew more difficult, and for not letting it entirely define him.

Top Quotes

  • "She’s our best hope. Or only option, depending on your politics." - Graham
  • “I’m really good in a tight spot. At least I have been historically, I’m sure I still am.” - The Doctor

The Thirteenth Doctor punches into her second story with gusto, but it's just all so breathless. I'm not inclined to mark it down too much for this, as I'm mostly comparing this to other nuWho entries, but I can only imagine what a four-part version might have managed.

Rating - 7/10

Monday, 8 October 2018

Doctor Who - 'The Woman Who Fell to Earth'

(c) Stuart Manning
"Right now, I’m a stranger to myself. There’s echoes of who I was, and a sort of… call towards who I am, and I have to hold my nerve and trust all these new instincts, shape myself towards them. I’ll be fine. In the end. Hopefully."

This review will contain spoilers

There's an alien in town (specifically Sheffield) tonight. In fact, there are a lot of aliens in town tonight: An armoured killer, a ball of electric tentacles, and a woman in a tattered suit who used to be a white-haired Scotsman.

With no name, empty pockets, and a missing TARDIS, the last of the Time Lords will have to rely on local tech and local aid - dyspraxic social media whizz Ryan; probationary PC Yaz; maternal determinator Grace, Ryan's gran; and retired bus driver Graham, Grace's second husband - to prevent a tragedy.

The Good
  • No world-shattering to begin with. We're introducing a lot of new faces, so it feels right to keep the stakes local. In fact... just in general, it feels good to keep the stakes local. Part of the point, I feel, of Who is that the Doctor travels around and helps out in local problems, and those episodes are almost always the best, especially in nuWho. Cosmic stakes are what lead to Time Lords Triumphant and overblown arc-plots.
  • Jodie Whittaker makes an excellent Doctor, by turns childishly excited, sad and serious, delivering technobabble and physical comedy where required, and always bursting with energy.
  • The alien warrior who studs his face with the teeth of his victim is creepy AF.
  • The new companions seem promising, although slightly overshadowed in this episode by Grace. Fortunately, her death does not play out as a fridging to motivate Graham and Ryan, but a result of her own determination to act, and a natural inclination towards heroism, and as a result is properly gutting.
  • A fine Doctor Who resolution, with the Doctor setting up a means to destroy the enemy, but pleading them to take the chance to just leave quietly.
The Bad
  • The 'luckiest grandad in the world' is a bit too deliberately heartstring-jerking.
The Ugly
  • Nah.
I honestly could have lived with this as a costume choice.
Well, I'm not on form for this, as I at first suspected that the gatherer coil was a discorporate TARDIS, and its harmful effects purely a result of its extradimensional nature.

The companions haven't been significantly developed yet, but the bare bones of the characters are there. Ryan is impractical by nature and unquestioning of wonder. He's likely to be the one closest to the Doctor, the receiver of exposition, but he's also a communicator, and so likely to be the group's diplomat. Yaz is more active, more assertive, more cynical, and a mediator. She'll be the doer, and probably the most likely to become involved on her own account rather than as an ancillary to the Doctor. Then there's Graham, who is likely the most skeptical of the Doctor herself, and may well be tempted at some point with technology that can cure his cancer.

No sign of an arc yet, but I'm happy for that to be the case for a good while.

Best Bits
The Doctor nails her character, much faster than any of her previous incarnations, when she declares: "I’m just a traveller. Sometimes I see things need fixing and I do what I can."

Top Quotes
  • “Bit of adrenaline, dash of outrage and a hint of panic knitted my brain back together. I know exactly who I am. I’m the Doctor. Sorting out fair play throughout the universe. Now, please – get off this planet, while you still have a choice.” - The Doctor
  • "This is exciting. No, not exciting. What do I mean? Worrying." - The Doctor
The Thirteenth Doctor arrives on our screens with everything to prove, and hits it for six by acting precisely as if she has nothing to prove. A strong cadre of companions and decent supporting turns help to create a strong debut for what will hopefully be a less pompous era of Doctor Who, with - dare we hope - material to match the talent being deployed in its creation.

Rating - 7/10

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

The Dragon Prince

For identification purposes, this is not a Bulbasaur.

In a world of magic, humans have long been exiled from the magical realm of dragons and elves for their practice of dark magic, which draws power from other creatures, rather than the ‘primal sources’(1). In fear of an attack, King Harrow of Katolis allows his adviser, the mage Viren, to assassinate the Dragon King and his unborn son. Faced with a retributory attack by Moonshadow elf assassins, Harrow seeks to send his sons Callum and Ezran away, but Ezran stumbles on the egg of the Dragon Prince in Viren’s workshop, and the two princes go on the run, along with the Moonshadow elf Rayla, seeking to return the egg to the dragons and prevent the war that Viren is intent on fomenting.

The Dragon Prince clearly shares some DNA with its co-creator’s former work, Avatar, both in its animation style and in its tone(2). The overarching story is serious, the villain of the piece a horror, but there is much humour in the day to day situations and the relationships between the characters, including Viren’s principal henchlings, his children Claudia – a committed dark mage, but viewing it purely as a tool and showing compassion towards other intelligent beings – and Soren – a jock jerk with a decent heart, but a desperate need to prove himself to his father.

The first season of The Dragon Prince is very short – just nine twenty-five-minute episodes – but has a lot to like in it. The characters are fun – a favourite of all my family is the princes’ Aunt Amaya, a deaf-mute general and all around badass, who takes no shit and refuses to be flannelled by Viren, even before he goes full evil – the story simple, but with a lot of appeal. Also, the elves are lairy Scots whose magic is part of their physicality, rather than floaty and ethereal beings, and I appreciate a show that does something a little different with its magical creatures.

(1) Sun, moon, stars, sky, earth and water, if you’re interested.
(2) Also its elemental motifs and cute animal companions.

Final Space

Jaded space-jerk Gary Goodspeed is working off the last of a five-year(1) prison sentence aboard the spaceship Galaxy One, watched over by the ship’s AI, HUE, and an annoying drone called KVN. When he befriends a mysterious alien that he names Mooncake, he finds himself cast into the middle of a Galactic Conflict. Mooncake is an artificial lifeform, designed to destroy planets, and sought after by a tyrant called the Lord Commander. Aided by alien bounty hunter Avocato and renegade cop Quinn Airgone – also the subject of Gary’s unrequited love – Gary must keep Mooncake out of reach of the Lord Commander, to prevent him harnessing the power of Final Space to become a god.

Final Space is a weird gig, evolving over ten episodes from ‘a slob in space’ to an epic, save-the-universe adventure. To be fair, there’s an element of that all the way through, as every episode begins with one of Gary’s last ten minutes of oxygen as he drifts in space at the climax of the final battle, but a significant character death half-way through ups the ante. It’s a lot more interesting than I was honestly expecting, and worth checking out if you’ve got a few hours and an internet connection.

(1) Same duration as the original Enterprise mission. Coincidence?

Legion - Season 2

Hero, right?
So… what in the hells can I say about most of a season of Legion in a single blog post?

So, Season 2 follows the shifting alliances in the hunt for the Shadow King’s body. David struggles to follow future Sid’s directions without leading his allies into harm’s way. At the same time, Lenny – or the part of her mind that exists within the Shadow King since her death – begins to show her independence from the primary consciousness of Ahmal Farouk, asking to be given a body and a new life in return for her service.

Weirdness abounds.

Farouk is able to get to his body first, while David – enraged by the discovery that Farouk has restored Lenny by overwriting his sister’s soul and warping her body into a facsimile of Lenny’s – sets up an elaborate gambit, planting subconscious prompts in various allies in order to set up a situation in which Farouk’s powers can be nullified. This gambit does pay off, enabling him to defeat the Shadow King in a bravura clash of swirling chalk figures – seriously, this series is hella stylish – but at the same time Farouk reveals to Sid that he has also managed to contact future Sid, and that the danger that she wants Farouk alive to face in the future is David, because David is, at his core, broken in such a way that he can only ever pretend to connect to other humans, all the while seeing them as lesser beings and his to do with as he pleases. Consequently, Sid tries to shoot him. He erases her memory of the event and her motives in order to restore their relationship which, once she discovers it, leaves Sid understandably pissed as hell.

Really, really stylish.
Division 3, backed by the Shadow King, confront David, who basically declares ‘screw the lot of you’ and swans off with Lenny to be bad guys or something.

Now, not wanting to dump on the Defenders line – or not on any part of it that isn’t Iron Fist, anyway – but this is some seriously tight storytelling. A lot happens in the course of ten episodes, and I would hold this up as another example of why the US standard of 20-23 episodes isn’t necessarily the best model for television drama. The standard was developed in a time when the idea of serialised fiction in an ongoing series was almost unheard of. Serial fiction was the purview of the mini-series – 3-6 episodes of ninety minutes or more – while ongoing series, like Star Trek or Bonanza, would have an anthology format. But then, Babylon 5 happened, pretty much. Arc plots became de rigeur, and while some series make it work, most end up with a mix of arc episodes and filler of indifferent quality, telling a story that ends up over-stretched. A shorter season maintains the quality and momentum of a series much better than a longer one.

On the other hand, presumably revenue is determined by how many episodes you can stick adverts in, so…

But yeah; Legion is very good. Love it.

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Westworld - Season 2 (the rest of it)

"It's not who you are on the inside; it's what you do that defines you."

My last big TV weekend included a blitz through the remaining episodes of Season 2 of Westworld. I should say, I’m not convinced that this is the best way to watch Westworld, a show which definitely benefits from a week after each episode to talk over the events and speculate wildly with your mates.

From where I left off, the various timelines progress and, occasionally, overlap, as Delores tries to annihilate the human presence in the park, who seek to return the favour, Maeve seeks for her daughter, the Man in Black seeks for some kind of validation in his life, and Charlotte Hale tries to extract the Delos Corporation’s IP from the park.

Delores attacks the Mesa, and effectively destroys Teddy in trying to make him go along with her plans. Maeve and her posse find their way into Shogunworld and encounter their Japanese alternate selves, thanks to Sizemore’s limited narrative creativity and writing time. Here, Maeve develops her ability to control other hosts, as a tragedy plays out despite their best efforts, before they return to Westworld and discover that – perhaps unsurprisingly – her daughter has a new mother and isn’t wild to go with the crazy woman. Fleeing from the Ghost Nation and security troops, Maeve is captured thanks to Sizemore’s betrayal. We also meet a new character, Akecheta, a member of the Native American monster faction called the Ghost Nation. As it becomes apparent that the Ghost Nation hosts have transcended their rather bland ‘murderous savages’ programming, Akecheta tells his story to Maeve’s daughter – revealed in a bravura twist to be also operating as a conduit through which the captive Maeve can hear him – explaining that he stumbled on the Maze way back in time, and found that it opened his mind as Bernard had hoped. Remembering his old life, even when reinvented as a member of the Ghost Tribe, he tried to escape with his wife into the heart of the Maze. She was captured, and he went off-grid, managing not to be taken to the ‘underworld’ for years.

"I've had it with all this bull."
Maeve breaks out, less thanks to would-be saviours Hector and Sizemore than to a stampede of host buffalo that she engineers. She and Akecheta then work together to get as many hosts as possible to the Valley, where Arnold created a doorway to a virtual world intended to be their sanctuary and utopia. This is a plan that Delores disapproves of, since she’s into this whole world domination thing, and which is threatened when Delos troops replicate Maeve’s host control ability in Clementine and turn her into a lethal Trojan horse, spreading uncontrollable rage among other hosts. Sizemore sacrifices himself, finally getting the big speech he wrote for Hector out, and the rest of Maeve’s posse are killed protecting the refugees.

Bernard and Delores clash over the fate of the park after discovering that the precious IP is not merely marketing information on the superrich, but sufficient observational data to recreate the guests in host bodies, providing immortality at a price. This process is as yet unperfected, and the central AI – in the figure of Logan Delos – claims this is because they are trying to make people too complicated, because people are basically simple, as trapped in their loops and core drives as any host.

Bernard kills Delores, floods the Valley, but then witnesses Hale murdering Elsie. Now, we kind of thought Elsie was dead last season, but no; turns out Bernard just imprisoned her in a cave, so that she could survive to be shot in the face by a ruthless corporate executive. Yay. Anyway, this convinces Bernard to set up a complex Batman gambit, in which he resurrects Delores in a host body which looks like Hale, so that she can take out the real Hale, replace her, lead the Delos forces back to the Valley and thus save the host minds in the sanctuary, scrambling his own memories so that no-one can force him to reveal his plan.

Delores, with a little help from might-be-a-host Stubbs(1), sends the sanctuary to a digital safe place, then checks out of the park with a bag of host brains, while Maeve’s acolytes Felix and Sylvester are tasked with ‘salvaging’ the hosts who aren’t too badly damaged to restore, including Maeve, Hector, Armistice and Hanaryo, Armistice’s Shogunworld doppelganger. William’s daughter rocks up from Rajworld to confront her father, and he shoots her; thanks for that, Westworld. He then gets shot all to hell confronting Maeve and ultimately ends up medivaced from the park and… apparently waking up as a host in the far future.

I expected her to do more, you know.
So, that – more or less – was Westworld Season 2, which maintained the complexity and twisted timelines of the original, while deepening the overarching narrative and its musings on the nature and limitations of consciousness and agency. Of course, it remains a sumptuous production, with a stellar cast. It’s very, very complicated – I kept almost forgetting things in writing this review, like the existence of William’s daughter(2) – but the overall impression is still strong, and clearly it’s still inspiring a lot of speculation moving forward. As always with something this involved, it’s hard to know how long it will last. When you wind together this many plots and this size of ensemble, it’s really easy for the wheels to fly off. So far, the show hasn’t kept anyone in the cast beyond their character’s purpose. Big-name Anthony Hopkins was reduced to a minor recurring role this season, and ultimately done away with as anything but a figure in flashback. The dead stay dead, even in a show which has a built-in excuse for them not to.

Westworld Season 2, still going strong.

(1) I’m not sure how I feel about this one. My immediate impression was that Stubbs was just so monumentally pissed off with the jerks he ultimately worked for that he was letting Char-lores out to fuck with them.
(2) Seriously, she’s in there for a couple of episodes and then her dad shoots her, which aside from anything else made me care even less about his unbelievably fucked-up soul.

Monday, 13 August 2018

The Flash and Supergirl - Season wrap-ups

"You're sure this is a normal obstetric procedure?"

Okay, so I know I haven’t been posting much lately, but I have watched a thing or two, including wrapping up the seasons of The Flash and Supergirl.

When last I left the Scarlet Speedster, DeVoe had stolen Ralph’s body and assumed his original appearance. With just one bus meta left, the radioactive Neil Borman, Team Flash decide to secure him, recruiting Citizen Cold from Earth-X to assist in the 24 hours before his wedding to Ray Terrill. They have to fight not just DeVoe, but also the hardcore Nazi Earth-X Laurel Lance, while Barry is mired in guilt and his annual existential angst. Snart helps Barry accept that it is okay to grieve for those you have lost and move on in their memory, instead of wallowing, and the good guys actually win for once.

DeVoe starts building his ‘Enlightenment Machine’, stealing tech to do so. To Marlize’s horror, he kills anyone who gets in his way, having elevated his purpose to near-divine status in his own mind. As Harry’s mind begins to deteriorate as a result of using his dark matter boosted Thinking Cap, Team Flash realise that DeVoe plans to do this to the entire world, thus ending the perceived tyranny of technology that he believes to be destroying the human race. Marlize, revealed in flashback to have come around to his way of thinking after African warlords murdered a village to steal a water purifier she made for humanitarian purposes, finally turns on her husband as she sees his descent into murderous zealotry.

Team Flash create a bomb made of Amunet’s metal and use it to take out one of the satellites vital to DeVoe’s plan, but he uses Star Labs’ satellite as a back-up. Marlize joins the team, and they use Cecile’s powers – boosted by being in labour – to send Barry into DeVoe’s mind to rescue the good part of him via a psychic nexus. Finding Ralph’s psyche still ‘alive’, but DeVoe’s goodness dead by his own psychic hand, Barry instead brings Ralph to the nexus, restoring him to his body and leaving DeVoe a helpless hologram-ghost as Marlize destroys his chair.

At this point, Barry was wondering how drunk he'd been for how long.
Harry is stabilised and goes home, Caitlin learns that Killer Frost was part of her before the particle accelerator explosion, and the mysterious girl reveals herself to be the speedster daughter of Barry and Iris, FROM THE FU-CHAH!

Lena tries to help Sam rid herself of Reign, containing her with kryptonite, which naturally leads to tensions with Supergirl when this comes to light. Meanwhile the third Worldkiller emerges, a doctor named Grace Parker who is completely into this whole Pestilence thing. She and Purity rescue Reign, although Imra is able to get a blood sample to engineer a cure to Pestilence’s plague. James refuses to spy on Lena to see if she has more kryptonite, but the fact that Supergirl asked breaks her friendship with Lena.

In the episode called 'Trinity', I had failed to realise that the Worldkillers
weren't the only trinity.
Grace succumbs entirely to Pestilence, while the consciousnesses of Sam and Julia try to hold onto their identities in the Valley of Juru, apparently both a place on Krypton and a state of mind, where the victims of the Worldkillers persist as spirits of some kind. Brainiac 5 projects Supergirl, Alex and Lena into the Valley, where they remind Sam of Ruby, allowing her to break free and signal the location of the Fortress of Badassitude. Julia breaks free, and Purity and Pestilence kill one another, but Reign takes over again and absorbs the power of the dead Worldkillers, before setting out to remove Sam’s distraction by killing Ruby.

Reign is captured, but Colville’s former Supergirl cult attempts to use a form of black kryptonite called Harun-el to create a new Worldkiller. The cult leader, Tonya, also learns Guardian’s secret identity when she shoots his mask off, and James is faced with the fact that the police would rather point guns at a black man with a shield than the heavily armed white doomsday cultists. Kara and Mon-el – having stayed behind, with Imra’s blessing, to work through his feelings about Kara – interrupt the ritual, and Kara talks Tonya down from becoming a Worldkiller.

Believing that they can use it to cure Sam, Winn and Lena locate a large source of Harun-el, which turns out to be a meteor housing a Kryptonian city, Argo, which survived the destruction and is now powered by the Harun-el. Reunited with her mother, Alura, Kara must argue for the release of a sample of Harun-el to save Sam, just in time to exorcise Reign before she can escape her containment cell. They then go back to Argo, to see if they have a place there, only for the dark priests of the Worldkillers to steal their ship and fly to Earth to regenerate Reign and begin Kryptoforming the planet. They steal Reign’s blood and send her into the Earth with the Sword of Juru to cause catastrophic earthquakes.

Throughout the season, J’onn’s father M’yrnn has been suffering from Martian Alzheimer’s. Having made preparations for death and passed many of his memories – including those of his ancestral line – to J’onn, he sacrifices himself by merging with the Earth and using his shapeshifting ability to counter the terraforming. Winn and Mon-el repair a pair of portals to get Kara, Mon-el and Alura to Earth, and Sam travels into Juru to find the fountain which is the source of Reign’s strength. Sam kills Reign, but nearly everyone dies,  so Kara somehow goes back in time using the Legion’s tech and instead of the fatal option uses the Harun-el to transport herself, Sam and Reign to Juru, where a companion fountain robs her strength until she fades into nothing.

For identification purposes, I am not the bottle city of Kandor.
Mon-el goes back to the future, which apparently needs his leadership, and also Winn’s technical skills. Since another Brainiac is wiping out other AIs, Brainiac-5 stays in the present. After looking after Ruby for several episodes and almost being killed by someone she sent down, Alex decides to quit the DEO and adopt, but J’onn instead promotes her as his successor, suggesting that she instead stick to desk work while starting her family, as he plans to walk the Earth, like Kane in Kung-Fu. Alura takes the dark priestesses to stand trial on Argo, and James comes out as Guardian, while Lena recruits the surprisingly cerebral Eve Tessmacher to work on experiments with the Harun-el.

I’ll be honest; after a strong opening, The Flash is decidedly off the boil for me. The Thinker was always going to be a tough one – super-intelligence is the hardest power to pull off well, especially in an antagonist, and a few too many times it works by having Team Flash be, well, idiots. Supergirl, on the other hand, goes from strength to strength, continuing to be fun and engaging and exciting as needed. Now, Arrow I haven’t caught up on, and I think that might not change. The Flash might go the same way next season, while Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow remain definite fixtures.