Saturday, August 30, 2014

Shrinker Failure, Soldiers Die

Look as good when I'm 2000 years old, I will not. But I'd sincerely hope - unless senility sets in - I won't be demonstrating the sort of immature, blinkered view of soldiers that Doctor Who writers seem keen to impose on their central character. Maybe it's particularly difficult for those of us who retain a fondness for the UNIT family days of the show, but I was never a fan of this attitude when it was trotted out in the Sontaran two-parter of a few years back and guess what, I'm not a fan of it now.

You can't really have an episode in which the Doctor stands back and lets a soldier sacrifice herself, then refuses another soldier admission to the TARDIS because she's a soldier. Well, you can, because that's what happens in Into The Dalek. But don't expect me to like it.

We're all familiar with the Doctor's attitude towards the military over the decades, but back in the days of Lethbridge Stewart and the gang his disapprovals were delivered with some affection - because these people (yes, Messers Moffat, Davies and Ford, people) were the Doctor's friends. Despite - horror of horrors - wearing a uniform and carrying a gun. He used to be able to see beyond that and I'm not sure the narrow-minded view we're presented with today is much of a step forward in 21st century Doctor Who.

In some ways it fits with the Capaldi Doctor's brusque nature, but I guess it's just unfortunate that it reminds me of that example of supreme blind arrogance from Tennant's Doc, with his childish refusal to stand next to a man he'd just met simply because he was in the military.

It fits much less with a man who has waged war on the Daleks and who has seen so many people fighting and dying in their shadow. Who the hell does he think does most of that fighting? Of course, the crying civilians will meet with his approval but most of those would be dead without the soldiers and while that might gain them admission as companions in the TARDIS it might also change Doctor Who into The Walking Dead. It's utterly dumb. Maybe a rewatch of It Aint Half Hot Mum would provide a more progressive take on military personnel.

But no. What we get is, soldiers are evil. This in an age when Doctor Who feels the need to break away from a fascinating prospect - the Doctor heading into a Dalek, a la Fantastic Voyage - for a spot of soap opera romance at Clara's day job. Because, you know, that adds depth to the sci-fi adventure.

I hope that the introduction of Clara's soldier boyfriend is leading somewhere - perhaps to a re-education of the Doctor in the fact that soldiers are humans too. Not a lesson I need, so it rather dismays me that an intellect as sophisticated and complex as the Doctor's would need teaching in that regard, but hey, this is where we're at now, so there's always the chance that this new Doctor that some are still declaring is too old might also grow up.

Anyway, that shame aside, I still love the Capaldi Doctor and the actor makes the absolute most of every scrap of material he's given. Clara continues to shine, while the jury is out on her potential romantic interest. Despite the tear on cue, he struck me as a bit wooden and some distance short of companion material, but who knows.

Fortunately for the writers, we can side-step the issue of the soldier's self-sacrifice by virtue of her showing up in 'heaven' and drinking tea with Missy. I have my theories on the Missy mystery, but I'm willing to let that unfold and trusting it's leading somewhere interesting.

There were elements of the (better) Rob Shearman story Dalek here and elements (of course!) of the Tom Baker adventure The Invisible Enemy. And although the fx were far and away superior to that late 70s story (well done production team) the writing is no more sophisticated at all. In a show of this vintage, you expect a few characters over the years to be a little one-dimensional - but you don't generally expect that to include the Doctor.

In an episode where the Doctor strives to believe that there might be one good Dalek, you'd really hope that he'd wise up to the idea that there could be one good soldier. Or maybe more. And maybe give her a chance to travel with him.

Although ultimately it has to be said I'm not sure that one soldier was played by a great actress and if there's anybody being groomed for new companion material she'll have to be at least as good as Jenna Louise. And I didn't see anyone in this episode who could make a worthy replacement.

I did see a lot of pyrotechnics and those Daleks exterminated with extreme prejudice. But luckily the only people who died on-screen were soldiers so nobody of any importance. Phew.

All in all, not disastrous, but disappointing. I'd entertained hopes that collaborations would benefit the writing for the show but that doesn't appear to have worked out so far.

The Next Time trailer made me cringe, so the episode can only be better. Right?

SAF 2014

Thursday, August 28, 2014

One Deep Breath, Several Gasps And A Sigh

So it’s become clear to me that I’m not having much success maintaining a regular blog this year. Too busy. But I still drop by from time to time and I couldn’t let the advent of a new Doctor Who go unrecognised.

And let’s face it, he is unrecognisable.

Or is he?

To be honest, I expected Peter Capaldi to be good in the role. And he went further than live up to expectations – he managed to surprise me with how good. It’s no easy thing when you’re handed what amounts to entertaining waffle for many of your first scenes, rattling along so fast it’s in danger of derailment in the traditional serving of post-regenerative stress disorder from which all new Doctors suffer.

I don’t know that we as an audience needed the official handover from Matt on the phone (not least because it brought back memories of his deeply sorry swan song). Indeed, I’m not sure we needed quite that much pandering to the fan/viewer concerns about Capaldi’s age. We’ve gone beyond art imitating life to art responding to social media. But the whole issue off Clara’s acceptance of this (grey-haired, let’s not forget) stranger was handled beautifully throughout. And this idea of a companion coming to terms with a transformation is not an issue we’ve seen very often in this modern era of the series. Apart from Rose seeing in the Eccleston-Tennant change (and by comparison she took it pretty easily, as I recall), it’s generally been a case of new Doctor, new companion(s). Lots of newness, all in one go.

Here, as well as a new Doctor, we get a redecorated TARDIS interior, new title sequence and reworked theme music. Rather liked the cogs, by the way, hated the music. It’s way too busy and overcooked.

An accusation you could level at the adventure in which this new Doctor found himself. Forget Dinosaurs On A Spaceship – and believe me, I try – let’s step up a gear and have Dinosaurs In Ripper Street With Organ-Harvesting Clockwork Androids From Girl In The Fireplace.

The  dinosaur coughing up the TARDIS makes for a great attention-grabbing opener but would be more at home in a different story. It keeps us from the meat of this story for what seems like the first half hour, and when we get to the mystery involving clockwork organ-harvesting androids from the 51st century who crash-landed here in prehistory.

It’s all a bit, well, manic. And yet, despite there being an awful lot going on it feels so wafer thin even Mr Creosote might be able to keep it down without difficulty. It’s not a great mystery, certainly nothing to fill a full feature-length special. Barely enough meat to offend a herbivore. What it lacks in material, it pads out with the Pater Nosters – welcome, entertaining characters (Strax is getting a bit tiresome and one-note, albeit an amusing note, but I do love Jenny and Vastra). They’re more bright ingredients to the whole recipe but ultimately all they’ve done is turned a Victoria sponge into a marble cake. More colour, but an innovation unlikely to win anyone the Great British Bake Off. And served up after the succession of flimsy endings to last season’s episodes, I can’t say I’m too satisfied by a resolution in which the Doctor talks the bad guy to death.

What we have is an utterly affecting, strong human core at the heart of a highly mechanical Doctor Who tale. The organic elements are intricate and exquisite. The clockwork, despite the implied complexity of all those title-sequence cogs, much less so. And we’ve seen it all before.

This is the eighth year of 21st century Doctor Who and surely the longest the series has ever gone without a radical shift in format, style or tone. The handover from Davies to Moffat delivered what amounted to minor tweaks. The philosophy so far has been to throw every kind of cosmetic change at us, but very little that makes a dramatic difference. TARDIS set, theme music, titles. In essence, to redecorate.

Glancing ahead, I’m not encouraged by some of the episode titles in the coming season – Robot Of Sherwood, Mummy On The Orient Express. It smacks of a group of writers saying: Hey, if we bolt this onto this, how much fun would that be? Well, as far as it goes, sure, some great ideas can be born that way, but I’m guessing the answer is ‘about as much fun as the last time you did exactly that’. Because too often that is as far as the ideas go. Yes, they can be entertaining, but it’s like wallpaper – decorative, sometimes interesting but eventually you will tire of looking at the same recurring patterns.

So at this early stage, I’m tempted to chip in with a question of my own: hey, if we embedded our strong human story in a decently crafted, vaguely intelligent adventure plot, how much better would that be? It’d make a nice change.

Obviously, too radical a transformation might prove divisive for audiences. But opinions will be divided on the new Doctor, new music, new title sequence, even the Doctor’s outfit. And personally I’d rather see debates about story than superficial trappings. To say nothing of the fact that too much sameness will drive as many viewers away just as effectively as a creative change.

Still, there’s at least one thing the whole universe can agree on and that’s how awesome and lovely Clara is and I take much comfort in the fact that she’s staying with the Doctor. Her scene in which she dares the bad guy to ‘do it’ is superb.

I fully expect Jenna Louise Coleman and Peter Capaldi to turn out to be a perfect pairing and I’ve already no doubts that they will sparkle throughout this coming season.

I hope the quality of stories rises to meet this fantastic new Doctor. Then I can genuinely call this new Doctor Who.

SAF 2014

Sunday, June 01, 2014


A long time ago, when I first heard about that there was an Agents Of SHIELD TV series in the pipeline, I was hugely excited.

Then, when I heard they were changing the title to Marvel’s Agents Of SHIELD, I thought that was a bit of a mouthful and a bit surplus to requirement. The Marvel universe must have the kind of brand recognition enjoyed by Coca-Cola by now, surely. Still, it amused me that Disney owned Marvel and you could now form the acronym MAOS out of the title. You know me, I can’t resist an opportunity to take the Mickey. (Haha.)

Now that we’ve reached the end of the first season, I’m inclined to think they need to stamp the Marvel brand on more boldly.

It’s been a fun ride. A bumpy rollercoaster at times as it found its feet and direction like a newborn superhero discovering its powers, learning its limits. Presumably too, like any Whedon-produced show, it faced uncertainty as to whether it was going to have a future. Still, where weaknesses and a degree of tentativeness have been apparent, it has generally won me over with its Whedon school of humour and the charisma of its cast.

Clark Gregg is terrific as Coulson, natch: he doubles as a vital bridge between the TV and movie worlds and provides us with one of the season’s strongest load-bearing threads – i.e. the question of what the hell he’s doing alive. I’m not normally a fan of characters being brought back from the dead, but in this case they made something of it and the mystery surrounding the nature of Coulson’s resurrection dangled an interesting hook in front of us for much of the series. Good call.

My principal favourite is Agent May. And yes, this has much to do with my Ming-Na bias. I’ve been an admirer since first seeing her in Joy Luck Club and of course she was one of the many many reasons I was a fan of ER. In May, SHIELD have their own Black Widow for the home screen and in a superhero universe where female leads are still under-represented I do think the producers owe it to her and the series to give her a more prominent role. Her involvement showed steady improvement, thankfully, over the course of the first season, so that’s a start. Early on, I detected a tendency to treat her as ‘the cavalry’ – sidelining her until she was needed to come to the rescue – a name which, in case the producers haven’t yet gotten the message, she does not like being called.

I’ve also really liked Chloe Bennett as Skye and I’m looking forward to seeing how they further her character development, especially in light of the unfolding mystery surrounding her background. For the actress’ sake and ours, I do hope we don’t learn that she was exposed to a huge overdose of gamma-rays and is obliged to turn into a (very cute) She-Hulk every time she’s pissed off with Ward.

Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elisabeth Henstridge) are an engaging double act. The team could have gotten by with one science geek, but the decision to split them in a creative process not unlike cellular division turns out to be an inspired one. Good call. The way their initial comic banter flourished into a bond of real warmth and affection has been a treat to watch.

Ward was, well – I’m sorry, with the greatest respect to the actor (Brett Dalton), who delivers the role as per the job description - and then some when handed the better material towards the end, I found the character as interesting as Clark Kent. And just to clarify, for those that don’t know, I find Superman the least interesting of all superheroes. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Who cares.

There’s a strong possibility that Ward was never meant to be interesting to me – I’m guessing he was there for the female viewers. But there seems to be a belief in TV (and movie) land that strapping soldier types should never under any circumstances possess any personality. He would not be out of place in the list of Buffy’s boyfriends (before Spike). He improves as a villain – not merely by virtue (if that’s the right word) of being bad, but we are given some sense of the character’s growth and how he wound up on the evil path. The twists and turns of his closing few episodes worked wonders to redeem the character, if not in the moral sense then in terms of worth. So for that at least, Hail Hydra!

For our sake - and Skye’s, in case she does have that She-Hulk gene – I hope that his story is over and done and he won’t be back. Except, I have a feeling the show isn’t finished with him. But in the event he does return I trust that the producers have something more inventive planned for him than turning him away from the dark side.

In the meantime, the Agents of SHIELD are a team and I think it would serve the series tremendously if attention was paid to keeping everyone interesting. Sure, a large part of that is subjective, but in casting my mind back to Buffy, it was rare indeed for any member of the Scooby gang to be anything less than entertaining at the very minimum.

What else would I like to see for the second season?

First and foremost, what I think the show needs is the addition of more Marvel. It should be MARVEL’s Agents Of SHIELD. More than capitalising the prefix and rendering it in bold, it needs to build firmer bridges (Bifrost or otherwise) between its world and the Marvel universe. As it stands, it’s not Marvel-less, but it could do with being more Marvel-lous.

It seemed to me that just as The X Files generally (until its latter years anyway) seemed to step up a gear in the ongoing arc episodes, MAOS was elevated and energised by the appearances of (the legendary) Samuel L Jackson (Nick Fury), Cobie Smulders (Commander Maria Hill) and Jamie Alexander (Lady Sif). The tie-in with events of (the quite brilliant) Winter Soldier was like planting a firm super-soldier boot on the accelerator. So, more Marvel, please.

Of course, I appreciate there are going to be rights, not to say money, issues with the various characters and properties under the Marvel umbrella. But the official Marvel pantheon is vast. I mean, it would probably give the Chinese pantheon a run for its money.

All right, maybe not that vast, but there are plenty of characters who are never, with the best will in the world, going to have their own movie franchise. And I say that even in the knowledge that Ant-Man is in production. (If Anteater Man is his first enemy, it'll be a short-lived franchise.)

Obviously, chucking in a lot of the dafter and possibly slightly rubbish super-villains is not going to improve things. But that still leaves the option of taking one of the dafter or slightly rubbish characters and improving on them. Superhero movies have by and large been all about that: re-creating comic book characters in a more credible context. As credible as they can be, anyway, in a world where monomaniacal super-rich guys build their own flying suits, self-irradiated scientists can turn big and angry and green and Norse gods drop in for the occasional visits.

Part of the reason Winter Soldier worked so well for me was that the Cap was up against an enemy who was pitched just right. Many of the lower-echelon Marvel villains would be a perfect match for the SHIELD team: powerful enough to throw down a real challenge, not quite so powerful as to wipe them out with a sneeze (e.g. Black Bolt) and – crucially for the series – a bona fide fully licensed paid-up badge-carrying member of the Marvel club.

We have Agent Carter to look forward to, with the excellent Hayley Atwell, and – depending on the writing – I anticipate that could do well without too many Marvel frills, albeit I’d like to see members of the Howling Commandos get more screen time, while their Cap is busy in the 21st century. For one thing, it will have the period-piece appeal going for it. For another, Hayley Atwell.

As the Marvel explosion continues, I think they’d do well to throw their weight around the way The Thing throws buses. Big and orange, bashful blue-eyed Benjamin Grimm isn’t actually all that shy when it comes to his superpowered activities. And yes, maybe some properties (FF, Spider-Man, X-Men) will be off-limits and others will be expensive. But even in the cases where cost would be an issue, I’d suggest to any Marvel execs listening out there to just chuck the dollars in the hat.

Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD is not going begging. It’s a fun show, with heaps of wit and chutzpah and slick production values. But I do know a few too many viewers who’ve dismissed it as a poor second-cousin of the movies. Which is a shame. A bit of an Injustice League. But it also suggests that an investment will see a good many returns. Viewers who might well be tempted back if they start to hear that the series is a bit more Marvel.

And the rest of us, who’ve stuck with the show from the beginning, will simply applaud and cheer and get all super-excited like the fanboys and fangirls that we obviously are. Maosketeers? Er, yeah. Let’s not call ourselves that.

Hail Hydra! More importantly...


SAF 2014

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Time And Towels

Tick tock.

Happy Towel Day! And here's to the late, great Douglas Adams.

Today struck us as a timely time to unveil the cover of the next volume in our Evil UnLtd series.

Evil UnLtd Vol 4: Tempus Sinister will, barring any chronic hystereses, be available in December 2014.

Lord, it's about Time.

SAF 2014

Note: 100% of royalties from all Evil UnLtd sales will continue to go to Cancer Research UK, at least for one more year.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Heyyyy Miss Carter!

“Everybody say, Hey Miss Carter.”

Hey Miss Carter!

“Everybody say, Heyyyyyyy Miss Carter.”

Heyyyyyyy Miss Carter!

Woohoo! Here I am! Over here! To the left of the stage. (Your right.) Not a million miles away, but it feels like maybe half a mile.

Too far away to get noticed, that’s for sure. But by this point in the show, you should have realised that it’s not about you. You didn’t come here for her to see you. You came to see her. Beyoncé Carter (née Knowles).

(And yes, you heard right. That was Miss Carter. It’s a southern thing, y’all.)

And even if you can’t see her very well from that distance, you can feel her. She has a global presence so it’s easy to fill a space like the O2. There’s no danger of the atmosphere thinning, no matter what altitude your seat’s at. The audience go so mental for this lady, they were cheering at the ad for her new perfume that flashed on the screens during the pre-show interval. They cheered for her Pepsi Max ad. They cheered – and by cheered I mean roared, every time – for her short promo for her Beygood campaign. Basically any reminder that she would be here some time soon.

So you can imagine the volume mustered by the crowd when she actually turned up. I swear she could’ve stood on stage and done nothing and the whole place would have gone wild. Indeed, she did just that at one point. Waiting, it seemed, for the crowd to make sufficient noise. And they did.

What a tease.

A great moment. A pause in which you fully appreciate the extent to which she commands an arena with a simple pose, a look. It’s as effective an illustration as when she conducts an arena full of people in singing an entire verse and chorus of Irreplaceable. Probably more effective, because the understatement speaks volumes. It’s a role she plays, this alter ego of hers – Sasha Fierce – and she plays it spectacularly.

Of course, keeping folks waiting is the privilege of a diva. It works brilliantly when she’s on stage. Not so much when we’re actually waiting for the show to start and to be fair, like Shakira before her, she takes her own sweet time to kick things off. Similar to that show, we had a (poor) support act on for half an hour followed by a lengthy delay before the main event. Sheesh, I don’t know why you ladies take so long to get ready.

Okay, okay, I was only joking. You know you’re totally worth the wait in gold.

While we had some mediocre (I’m being kind) gurl band warming us up for Shakira, we had some Dee-Jay for this show. Frankly, I’d never heard of him and if I pay to see live music that doesn’t mean watching someone queuing up records on his deck and occasionally stepping out to wave his arms in the air. A large part of the crowd appeared to enjoy his act, but for me it just made the wait longer.

To be fair, I’d struggle to think of anyone who could do the occasion justice. I’d read that it was supposed to be X Factor’s Screwbo supporting, but that would have been an odd match-up. And anyone would be in danger of seeming like a drone compared to Queen B.

Anyway, this minor disappointment was promptly blown out of the water once the main show launched. Beyoncé’s Countdown followed later in the set, but it was definitely blast-off from 9pm.

A spicy mix, as you’d expect, of back catalogue and standout numbers from her latest ‘visual album’. And that is pretty much the show she gives – not literally translating all those videos to stage, but she’s so abundantly a performance artist, shaking up a cocktail of bootyful dance routines and big pyrotechnics and a lot of bling lighting displays. With (in part, I’m sure, to cover for those crucial costume changes) linking video installations. You get the impression everything is planned meticulously. Most of all, you’re just impressed.

There’s not really a screen large enough to convey the scale. But that said, I am hoping there’ll be a DVD I can pick up as a souvenir.

On occasions the band – the Suga Mamas – disappears behind a curtain to make way for the displays, left to play their hearts out behind there, unseen. They’re a vital element, underpinning the whole experience – that’s them you can feel pumping around your veins alongside the adrenalin – but like the dancers and the fireworks and the raining glitter and all the rest they’re just part of the system. Planetary bodies orbiting the central star.

Of course most astronomical stars have the decency to stay relatively still. Beyoncé manages a few spells which could almost be described as static, if only because of the electricity. And there are quieter songs, like the wonderful 1+1 where she confines her movements to some gentler writhing around on top of a piano.

The energy is incredible. And even if the dancing is often of the sort some husbands go to see at clubs, she’s elevated it to an acceptable mainstream artform. And my wife was perfectly happy to let me go see her.

There were two or three notable tracks I missed seeing and hearing, but if she’d done them all she’d probably have been on stage for four hours. Which I wouldn’t have minded, but I gather she was due to do the whole thing again the next night. And the next. And so on. So that might have been unreasonable to expect.

She does a clever job of stringing together a few medleys, which at least give you a flava (as they say) of some favourites.

Individual highlights for me had to be 1+1, the supremely seductive Naughty Girl, the sublime Halo, the irresistibly uplifting XO and Partition, which included a provocative and memorable chair dance.

Alas I have no photos to illustrate these – the images are stored in my head. My camera let me down – I think I would have needed one of those Nokia phones with the 42x zoom.

Yes, it’s true I wish I had been closer. Especially when you’re watching Bey being all flirtatious with those pressing around the front of the stage. Sigh, colour me envious.

But ultimately, half a mile, a quarter, whatever. It’s thousands of miles closer to Beyoncé than I find myself on a daily basis.

And the thing with stars is you can admire them from afar, you can bask in their light, soak up some of their energy and take it home with you.

Shakira warmed us up on a winter night a few years back. Beyoncé poured heaps of of honey n suga on this year’s pancake day.

In the end I was happy enough to be able to say, I Was Here.