Saturday, 16 January 2077

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After much debate (and some requests) I have signed up with crowdfunding service Patreon to better support future blogging efforts. You can find my Patreon page here and more information after the jump.

Sunday, 16 January 2022

The Expanse: Season 6

The Solar system is reeling from the massive attacks unleashed on Earth and Mars by Marcos Inaros. With Earth still under threat, the UN fleet is unable to take the offensive, leaving it to rebel Belters led by Carmina Drummer and privateers like the Rocinante crew to keep Inaros on the defensive. Meanwhile, on the colony world of Laconia a bold renegade Martian admiral is tapping the planet's resources to build his own empire.

The Expanse has reliably been the best space opera TV show of the last decade, shading higher-profile but dumber fare like Star Trek: Discovery and Foundation with its excellent character development, outstanding visuals and strong writing. It has also, perhaps surprisingly, ended with only six of the nine novels in the series having been brought to the screen.

The reasons for ending the show here are persuasive: six seasons is a hell of a long time for any space opera TV show, two better than the much more heavily-feted Battlestar Galactica reboot, and only one less than three of the Star Treks. Going for another three might have been a bit too ambitious. In addition, there is a substantial time-skip in the books between the sixth and seventh volumes, which would require the TV show to put all the actors in aging makeup (always iffy) or recasting the whole cast (also dubious).

In that light you'd expect the producers to rewrite the ending of the sixth book, Babylon's Ashes, into an ending for the whole series. But they don't really do that either. The season adapts Babylon's Ashes with some fairly logical changes (substituting Drummer for Michio, as they did last season) and also some eyebrow-raising ones. The season brings in and adapts Strange Dogs, a self-contained novella exploring the initial colonisation of Laconia and the discover of its secrets there, as a prelude to the massive role Laconia plays in the closing three novels of the series. Adapting Strange Dogs with no guarantee that the setup will pay off later on is...bold, especially when this final season only has six episodes to work with rather than the more normal ten.

That said, giving Babylon's Ashes only six episodes to work with is a good idea: the novel is one of the weaker in the series, acting more as an extended coda to the epic events of Nemesis Games then a novel in its own right, with a huge number of POV characters meaning that its pacing was shot to hell and it felt like the final defeat of the bad guys was done way too easily. Season 6 of the show, on the other hand, mitigates almost all these problems. The pacing means the story is tighter and more focused; most of the other characters aren't even in the show so the focus can remain tight on the Roci family, Avasarala and Drummer; and the defeat of the bad guys is here complicated and given more weight. As usual, the CGI is exemplary, clearly showing what's going on (the current trend for murky, "arty" CG in space shows which just means you can't tell what's going on can go die in a fire) and delivering excellent space battles on a tight budget. The actors are all as great as we're used to, but I have to say that Cara Gee as Drummer really, really steps it up this season and goes above and beyond the call of duty, and gets almost all of the season's best moments.

There are a few other weaknesses: the devastation inflicted on Earth in the prior season seems to have been written off more quickly than even the book managed to do, and having major characters die off-screen always feels cheap. It might have been better to have just not mentioned such characters rather than do that. It's also a bit unclear how the Rocinante managed to overtake an enemy ship which had a massive head start on them in one chase. But these are fairly minor issues, some inherited from the source material.

The final (for now, maybe) season of The Expanse (****½) is the show doing what it's always done well: telling great character stories intermixed with politics and war, backed up by outstanding vfx and one of the best scores on television. The season's excellence is mitigated by the decision to continue doing setup work for future episodes that might never come, time that might have been better spent with our main characters. Still, if there's one thing you can't fault The Expanse for is its optimism and its willingness to take risks. The season and the entire series is available to watch worldwide on Amazon Prime Television.


Seven thousand years ago, a group of super-powered begins known as "Eternals" arrived on Earth to safeguard the planet from mutated creatures called Deviants. Five centuries ago they defeated the last Deviant and split up, living undercover as humans until such time that they are recalled for their next mission by their masters, the Celestials. However, the return of the Deviants and the death of one of their number spurts the Eternals to reunite and face down a new threat.

The Eternals began life as a Marvel Comics team, created in 1976 by Jack Kirby after his defection to DC Comics in 1970 to work on the New Gods comics line. Unceremoniously cancelled by DC, Kirby brought the idea back to Marvel and reworked it (to avoid getting sued), where it was more successful. Though not quite a Marvel mainstay, the Eternals have resurfaced intermittently through the years, crossing over with other Marvel properties and characters.

The news that Marvel Studios was developing a movie based on the team was a surprise, given it was a relatively obscure group of characters and integrating the high-powered, celestial team with the more grounded characters elsewhere in the MCU was going to be challenging. However, the MCU's unexpected success in making characters like the Guardians of the Galaxy work gave the studio greater confidence in proceeding with the project, even tapping the much-feted Chloe Zhao to direct and co-write (Zhao won an Oscar for her previous movie, Nomadland, whilst working on Eternals).

The result is an ambitious movie. Most MCU films introduce one or at most two or three major new characters to the MCU at any one time. Eternals introduces a mind-boggling ten at once. Although the film does have some previous work to rest on - the Celestials were introduced in 2014's Guardians of the Galaxy - it doe have a lot of its own worldbuilding to bring into the mix. It also has to establish each Celestial's major power and ability, as well as their motivation and characterisation. This it achieves through flashbacks to different periods in Earth's history, showing where the Eternals were present and how events changed them and their characters.

Eternals also makes a very bold decision: to drop most of the MCU's snarky, pop-reference-laden humour. Not completely, of course, there are still some jokes and a few quips and a bit of family banter, but the humour is toned down here from the MCU norm, which will be a relief to those tired of the humour undercutting the seriousness of the action. However, it is also a problem in that leaves Eternals as the most serious - and occasionally dour - Marvel movie since Thor: The Dark World.

Fortunately the film mostly overcomes that. The runtime is dangerously close to creaky at well over two and a half hours, but there's so many stories, characters and ideas on display here that the pacing generally doesn't flag. If anything, it could be argued that Eternals needed to be longer, say a six or eight-hour mini-series on Disney+ which could introduce the characters and add a lot more weight to their backgrounds. As it stands, the film feels like a truncated Greatest Hits of a band you've only just encountered which leaves a lot of great work on the cutting room floor.

The cast is stacked and for the most part excellent, particularly Richard Madden as Ikaris, Lia McHugh as Sprite, Brian Tyree Henry as Phastos, Salma Hayek as Ajak and Angelina Jolie as Thena. Lauren Ridloff (Makkari) is great but gets disappointingly little to do, whilst Kit Harington shows up solely to set up his role in a completely different project (likely the upcoming Blade reboot). Gemma Chan is fine as Sersi but feels like she needed some better writing, as she ends up being arguably the least-defined Eternal (power and character-wise) despite being our viewpoint character for most of the movie. In fact, the connections to the rest of the MCU - the Eternals defend why they didn't intervene in any of the previous incidents where Earth was threatened, and Kingo laments not being able to reconnect with old buddy Thor - feel very incongruous, to the point where this may have worked better as a completely stand-alone film.

Eternals does do something interesting and relatively original though, namely in that all the characters that matter are in the actual main team. The enemies are monsters rather than some nefarious, offscreen villain and the tension and drama comes from divisions within the team as they debate strategy. A late-film plot twist is effective in splitting the group apart and setting us up for a Civil War-style internal dispute, which is a bold move given we've only just met these characters. In fact, it feels like Eternals' plot might have been better saved for the sequel, with this first film instead focusing on meeting the characters in a more relaxed way as they fight a more generic threat. However, you can't fault the ambition here. Eternals seems to know that audiences are in danger of getting bored with the traditional Marvel formula and tries to spruce it up with a greater focus on internal dissent and a more well-balanced conflict between people whose powers, abilities and weaknesses (even the bad guys get those) are established beforehand.

The result is an interesting movie which isn't altogether successful. Eternals (****) has a great cast, a strong central plot, some genuinely impressive vfx sequences (increasingly hard these days) and surprisingly good pacing, despite its length. However, it also biting off more than it can chew narratively, not all the characters are as well-developed as others, the links with the MCU feel contrived and the film's lack of humour leaves it feeling a bit heavy on occasion (and the fewer moments of humour now feel incongruous). The things it does well, it does very well though, and it's definitely an MCU movie that at least feels like it's trying to do something fresh.

Eternals is now available globally on Disney+.

Arcane: Season 1

The city of Piltover is divided between its affluent "topside" and the poor "undercity," where people have to grind mercilessly to survive and are easy prey for crime and addiction. A gang of youngsters conduct a daring burglary in topside, stealing a valuable set of gemstones, but in the process set in motion a chain of events that will unfold over the next decade, and lead to the separation of two devoted sisters and their reunion, years later, in explosive circumstances.

Released in 2009, the video game League of Legends has become one of the most popular online games in the world. A "moba," (multiplayer online battle arena), the game pitches two teams against one another, with each player controlling a champion. The game originally had very light worldbuilding, but over the years has developed a detailed world and individual backstories for each champion. Riot Games made the decision several years ago to develop a spin-off TV series about these backstories.

So far, so uninteresting. But the resulting animated TV show, Arcane, has become a surprise smash hit, one of Netflix's globally-biggest shows of all time and showered with critical praise, with some calling it the best genre show of 2021 and maybe the best show, full stop. Foreknowledge of the game is absolutely not required, and the series stands on its own two feet.

Best described as an urban epic fantasy, the series depicts the two sides of the coin that is life in the steampunk metropolis of Piltover. Both sides of the city develop an intricate cast of characters, each with their own motivations and story arc. Most of the initial focus is on the undercity, where a band of young criminals including sisters Vi and Powder and their friends Mylo and Claggor (and occasional ally Ekko) work under the mentorship of bar-owner/surrogate father Vander. At first it appears that the story is going to be an animated take on Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora or Brandon Sanderson's The Final Empire, with a band of plucky young criminals rebelling against the system and trying to find a way to be free and prosperous. The first three episodes contrast this story against events topside, mainly Jayce Talis discovering a way of combining magic and technology together, aided by his friends Viktor and Caitlyn, and supported by their political ally, Councillor Mel Medarda. Eventually, the young gang run afoul of arch-criminal Silco, who is raising a criminal empire based on his control of the drug shimmer.

The third episode pulls off a massive game-changing shift in the story and results in a flash forwards by almost a decade, where the rest of the story unfolds in unexpected directions, with apparently evil antagonists showing a human side and formerly heroic protagonists showing a darker and more chaotic side as events unfold.

The most striking thing about Arcane's presentation is its remarkable art style. A lot of modern animated shows, particularly CG-animated ones, are limited by budget, accumulating assets and experience before cutting loose later on (the early episodes of The Clone Wars and The Dragon Prince are almost painful in how limited they are before they finally get to the point where they can really go to town later on). Arcane's budget, on the other hand, is extremely generous and allows it to splash on custom animations and an attention to detail that is remarkable. In terms of art style, comparisons have been drawn with Into the Spider-Verse and some of the better entries in Love+Death+Robots, but Arcane is able to sustain this style for nine 40 to 50 minute episodes, which is remarkable. The show's mixing of 3D elements with painterly, 2D backgrounds is also impressive.

The show also eschews the traditional fantasy orchestral score for something more innovative that mixes pop, rock, electro and rock. It doesn't always work, but it's ambitious and interesting (typically, the Imagine Dragons theme song is probably the least-impressive bit of music in the show).

These things are important but much more crucial to the show's success is the writing, which for the most part is very good. Each character is carefully delineated and characterised. Powder, whom League of Legends fans know is destined to become a very different character when she grows up, gets the lion's share of development and her mental health issues are handled with surprising nuance. Vi, the closest thing we have to an outright heroine, makes for a charismatic lead. Both protagonists are helped with outstanding voice acting from Ella Purnell (who is also one of the main stars of Yellowjackets, 2021's other main claimant to being Show of the Year) and Hailee Steinfeld (Hawkeye, Into the Spider-Verse, Dickinson). The rest of the cast also gets terrific development, particularly boo-hiss villain Silco (Jason Spisak) who develops into a much more complex character, and Viktor (Game of Thrones's Harry Lloyd), who starts off almost as a side-character but becomes more central as the narrative unfolds.

The story is divided into three acts, each lasting three episodes, which helps overcome Netflix's recurring issue with stodgy pacing. Each three-part story has its down focus and themes which pushes forward the overall arc as well.

There are weaknesses in the writing. Characters have a slightly annoying tendency to stand and look on in slack-jawed disbelief at things that are clearly about to explode three feet away, hit them, fall on them or otherwise do them harm rather than getting out of the way. There are moments of confusion in the animation when it's unclear if a character is supposed to have been killed, knocked out or simply got out of the way and was fine. Most of the dialogue is very good, but there's moments when the writer can't stop themselves descending into cliche. There's also shout-outs to fans of the video games which mean nothing to people unfamiliar with it; I'm still uncertain what Heimerdinger's role in every episode is except to be proven wrong about everything. There's also an MCU-level of vagueness to the physicality of the fight scenes: will these relatively minor hit kill someone or leave them crippled for life, or will this huge being-hit-by-a-rhino-level of physical impact result in only a minor level of inconvenience? Your guess is as good as anyone's.

Despite a plethora of minor issues, most of which are eminently ignorable, Arcane's first season (****½) emerges as an excellent slice of on-screen fantasy. Mostly well-written, with an outstanding cast of characters you want to learn more about, and with intriguing worldbuilding and excellent pacing supporting superb visuals and a solid soundtrack, it is well worth a watch. The show is available globally now on Netflix.

Friday, 14 January 2022

RIP Dave Wolverton

News has sadly broken that science fiction and fantasy author Dave Wolverton, also known by his pen-name David Farland, has passed away at the age of 64 due to injuries sustained in a fall. He was best known for his Runelords epic fantasy series and his contributions to the Star Wars universe.

Born John David Wolverton in Monroe, Oregon, he began writing speculative fiction whilst in college. His career began taking off after he won the Writers of the Future contest in 1987 for the novella On My Way to Paradise (revised and published as his debut novel in 1989). The novel was also the runner up for Philip K. Dick Award for Best Novel in 1990. Wolverton later served as a judge in the contest and edited the spin-off annual anthology from 1992 to 1998, and again from 2013 to 2019.

Wolverton continued to write SF with the Anee duology and the Golden Queen trilogy. He also branched into tie-in fiction, writing the Star Wars novel The Courtship of Princess Leia, which introduced major recurring factions in the Star Wars Expanded Universe such as the Hapes Consortium and the Witches of Dathomir (who were referenced as recently as this week's episode of The Book of Boba Fett). He wrote several additional novels in the same universe.

Wolverton's career went up a notch when he began writing epic fantasy under the pen-name "David Farland," starting with The Sum of All Men (1998). Wolverton didn't want readers to know it was him, and was reportedly unhappy when he was "outed" in by a UK SF publication; in their defence, they noted that the author biography in the UK edition immediately revealed his true identity. The resulting Runelords sequence became a successful fantasy series, expanding to eight novels by 2009. A ninth volume was promised, but had so far not been published.

Using the Farland name, Wolverton also published the Serpent Catch and Ravenspell series.

Wolverton was also a noted writing teacher, giving lessons and classes on the nature of writing over many years. Among authors he tutored and mentored were James Dashner (the Maze Runner series) and Brandon Sanderson (The Stormlight Archive, Mistborn).

Dave Wolverton was a popular author with a strong drive to encourage others to write and write well. He will be missed.

NBC greenlights QUANTUM LEAP sequel series pilot

NBC has greenlit the pilot for a successor series to Quantum Leap, the popular time travel show which ran for five seasons from 1989 to 1993.

The new series is set thirty years after the previous show ended and will see a new team investigating the disappearance of Dr. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) in the original Quantum Leap Accelerator programme. Beckett randomly ping-ponged around time for five years under the watchful eye of the super-computer Ziggy and Beckett's friend and monitor, Admiral Al Calavicci (Dean Stockwell), before disappearing altogether in the series finale, which ended on the sombre note that Sam never returned home, but continued helping people through time. Quantum Leap achieved significant critical and commercial success, making both Bakula and Stockwell household names, before its divisive ending.

Rumours of a remake or continuation have continuously circulated since the original show ended, with most reports circulating about a feature film spin-off or a full remake unconnected to the previous show.

The pilot will be co-written by Steven Lilian and Bryan Wynbrandt, previously best-known for showrunning God Friended Me and working on La Brea, Gotham, Hawaii Five-O, CSI: NY, Alcatra and Kyle XY as writers and/or producers. Original Quantum Leap creator and showrunner Donald P. Bellisario will produce and advise on the project.

Although Dean Stockwell sadly passed away two months ago, it sounds like Scott Bakula may possibly reprise his role, although it sounds like the premise will be searching for his character, so he is not expected to be a regular character, despite the frequent fan suggestion that Sam Beckett take the Al role in advising a new leaper on their mission through time (possibly Sam's daughter or grandchild).

Tuesday, 11 January 2022

Doctor Who: Series 9 (Season 35)

The Doctor receives a summons to meet one of his oldest and greatest foes, Davros, creator of the Daleks. Davros is dying, and wants to provoke the Doctor's guilt after the Doctor realised he had an opportunity to help the young Davros on Skaro and instead abandoned him after realising his identity. But this encounter is only the start of a journey presaged by a warning, of the coming of a hybrid warrior who will stand in the ruins of Gallifrey. The Doctor and Clara must identity this threat and learn more about it...or if even refers to one of them.

Doctor Who's eighth series was an interesting foray into the psychologies of its two lead characters, and what happens when they become codependent on one another, developing a toxic relationship (though it does not appear so on a surface level), rooted in Clara's addiction to the danger and excitement and the Doctor's willingness to indulge it. The season ended with the Doctor and Clara realising the unhealthy nature of their relationship and calling it a day, a result of Jenna Coleman initially choosing to leave the show. However, she reversed that decision, allowing showrunner Steven Moffat to dedicate the following season to an even darker thematic idea: what happens when an addict relapses?

It's interesting stuff, but decidedly heavy, and the result is arguably the darkest continuous run of episodes that Doctor Who has experienced since its return in 2005. However, Moffat thankfully realised that dedicating fourteen episodes to this idea would be a bit much, so also remembered to include a more obvious long-running plot point - the search for the enigmatic Hybrid - and an experimental format change, where the season shifts from self-contained episodes to a series of multi-part stories. Only the Christmas specials and a single episode, Sleep No More, stand alone in this season.

Things kick off with Last Christmas, which starts when what appears to be Actual Santa Claus (Nick Frost) turns up on Christmas Eve and effectively recruits both the Doctor and Clara to help investigate a mystery at the North Pole, where a remote Arctic base has run into trouble. It's a pretty deranged episode, but ultimately makes sense with excellent performances from a stellar guest cast including Nick Frost, Michael Troughton and theoretical future companion (if Coleman had indeed left) Shona, played by Faye Marsay (whose then-imminent Game of Thrones recurring role is nodded at in an in-gag). The episode is fun, drawing on a variety of movies for its influences. Alien, The Thing, Miracle on 34th Street and Inception are all clear inspirations for the episode, which cleverly remixes them into something quite entertaining, which handles tonal variation between broad comedy and horror with skill. But the episode's most important moment is when Clara rejoins the Doctor on the TARDIS and admits to having missed the dematerialisation sound with all the energy of an addict relapsing in front of our eyes. Yikes.

The Magician's Apprentice and The Witch's Familiar form the first story of the season and sees the Doctor accidentally landing on Skaro during the height of the infamous Thousand-Year War between the Kaleds and the Thals. He is offered a chance to help the young Davros but freaks out when he realises who he is. Davros, remembering the incident, calls to the Doctor for help as the end of his life draws near, and concocts a plan to get Clara and the inevitably-not-dead-after-all Missy to help him find the Doctor. The result is one of the best Dalek stories since the show's return, with the Daleks being more incidental than normal whilst the bulk of the story centres on relationships: the Doctor's with Davros, and the decidedly iffy partnering of Clara as a temp companion to the Master. The fact that they make an effective team (up to Missy's inevitable betrayal) is rather concerning, given Missy's lack of morality, honour or ethics. As a two-parter, it's surprisingly well-paced and threads the needle of horror, drama, comedy and pathos. Peter Capaldi and Julian Bleach sell the absolute hell out of the Doctor-Davros two-handers that make up the bulk of the two episodes, and the realisation of Skaro is terrific. Almost unfathomably, this is the first story to definitively be set on the Dalek homeworld after the events of the very first Dalek story in 1963, and the set designers have fun recreating some of the sets, props and sound effects from that original story. Even the Doctor's "midlife crisis" opening (playing electric guitar and taking a main battle tank to a medieval duel) is well-handled.

The subsequent two-parter, Under the Lake and Before the Flood, is a creepy story involving ghosts appearing in an underwater base a hundred years in the future. The Doctor has to navigate a story that, in its second half, is split between two time zones, with events in the past dynamically changing events in the future. There's an excellent supporting cast - one of the best, in fact, of these kind of "base under siege" stories - and the fact that the underwater base is under the aegis of UNIT for once means most of the "who are these people who've just shown up?" tedium can be skipped. The abrupt shift in location halfway through means that - for the second story in a row! - we can have a well-paced two-part story, and the cliffhanger ending to part one is a doozy. What lets the episode down is a slightly iffy and convenient ending, and the surprising ease with which the apparently powerful, semi-immortal enemy is eliminated. Also, the sets in this episode are excellent, but almost too good, and are repurposed for several more stories across the next two seasons which does start to get over-familiar (presumably another result of the show's growing budget issues).

The next story is only nominally a two-parter, instead being more two self-contained episodes linked by the recurring character of Ashildr (Game of Thrones' Maisie Williams). In the first part, the Doctor and Clara have to help defend Ashildr's village from an alien race known as the Mire, after Ashildr goads them into attacking. The result is a pretty standard Doctor Who story of aliens menacing a small community, which the Doctor first tries to rally by training them for battle (complete with montage sequences) before hitting on a cleverer stratagem. The actual story is fairly disposable - the Mire might manage the impressive task of being the least memorable alien race created for the show since its return - since it's all a framing device for Masie Williams' excellent performance and the accidental "immortalising" of her through a merging of Mire medical tech and the Doctor's sonic screwdriver.

The second part, where the Doctor encounters Ashildr - now only calling herself "me" - in England hundreds of years later, is far more interesting. Williams gives a different, more powerful kind of performance and the Doctor has to confront what happens when a primitive human gets the kind of life and perspective only a Time Lord can normally be expected to enjoy. It's a much more interesting episode, even if the ending is kind of abrupt and easily resolved. It does set up the edgy relationship between the Doctor and Me which will permeate the rest of the season.

The next story picks up some dangling plot threads from The Day of the Doctor, namely the revelation that there are now millions of Zygons living on Earth in secret thanks to a peace treaty negotiated between UNIT and the Zygon High Command (mediated by three incarnations of the Doctor). The result is a tense game of cat and mouse as a renegade faction of Zygons tries to spark war between the peace-desiring majority and the humans, playing on the paranoia of the latter. It's fun to see UNIT semi-regulars Kate Stewart and Osgood back, and Jenna Coleman gets a hell of an acting showcase as both Clara and her villainous Zygon counterpart, Bonnie. Capaldi also gets arguably his biggest and best "Doctor speech" as the Doctor tries to stop the wheels of war after they've started turning. The main problem here is the lack of fallout (the presence of millions of Zygons on Earth is one of those things that later episodes kind of forget about) but the story is great stuff. It is possibly the only multi-part story this season which does adhere to the new show's traditional problem of having too much story for 45 minutes but not quite enough for 90, though.

Sleep No More is the season's single standalone episode, but even this gets a format upgrade. The episode is told through "found footage" only, with us only seeing the events from the perspectives of the character's helmet cams and the space station's camera system. This gives the episode an interesting feeling of claustrophobia and it even plays metatextual games with the found footage format itself. Unfortunately, the episode falters on several levels: the sets are very clearly exactly the same as Under the Lake and Before the Flood, and some minor redressing and fancy camera angles can't really hide that, which does make the story feel cheap. The monsters also feel a bit random, without a strong rationale for their presence. The episode also has a confused ending, seemingly setting up a sequel that never comes (a result of the episode's lukewarm reception on original ending). The result is, despite some good performances, the weakest episode of the season.

Face the Raven kicks off a three-part story with the Doctor and Clara rushing to help save the life of their friend Rigsy (from the previous season's Flatline) who has gained a tattoo which is counting down to his apparent death, an execution for a murder he allegedly committed. This leads them to the discovery of a Diagon Alley-style hidden community in London, this once consisting of alien refugees and fugitives living under the protection of a returning Me. This results in a puzzle box of a storyline as Clara and the Doctor try to find a way to stop Rigsy's death. What appears at first to be a solid stand-alone episode abruptly takes a turn for the catastrophic when Clara's overconfidence, fuelled by her increasing capability as an ally of the Doctor, leads her to make a horrendous mistake and one of the absolute dooziest of cliffhangers in the show's run.

The cliffhanger directly leads into Heaven Sent, an almost one-hander, acting masterclass for Peter Capaldi as he is transported to an apparent prison, an ancient castle in the middle of an ocean, and is haunted by a spectral figure. The Doctor realises he is being interrogated in a highly obtuse way and the castle, whose walls shift like an immense clockwork mechanism, is a puzzle that he might be able to escape if he can find the way. Eventually he finds the solution, but it is so horrendous and mentally taxing that it seems unfathomable...unless the Doctor can find the right motivation to carry on.

Heaven Sent has occasionally been cited as the greatest episode of the show since its return and maybe the greatest single episode of the entire run of the series, with a series of puzzles leading the Doctor to a horrifying conclusion. Capaldi does all of the lifting - heavy or otherwise - for the episode and it at times invokes hard SF, fantasy and the surrealism of The Prisoner, not to mention the Clockwork Mansion of the Dishonored video game series (which was almost complete when this episode aired and came out a year later, so clearly no influence was shared, they just developed a similar idea at the same time). The invocation of the Doctor's "memory palace," where he can retreat to study a problem at hyperfast speeds (thus explaining the number of times he's come up with a plan in the nick of time), is clever. The fusion of Steven Moffat's best script and Rachel Talalay's outstanding direction results in something very special.

Hell Bent finally gives us what fans had wanted to see for ten years by that point: the Doctor's triumphant (?) return to Gallifrey following the events of the Time War. It's a fast-moving episode as the Doctor has to deal with Rassilon and the High Council, find a way of trying to rescue Clara and delving into some of the mistakes of his own past. It's a busy episode, maybe too busy for even its extended run time, but some excellent performances (including Donald Sumpter as a post-Timothy Dalton Rassilon and a frequently-fancast-as-the-Doctor T'Nia Miller as the General) keep things ticking over, even if the ending is the very definition of having your cake and eating it.

Things round off with another Christmas special, The Husbands of River Song. This episode is a definite lighting of the mood after the previous season, with the Twelfth Doctor inadvertently recruited by River Song (who does not recognise him, believing the Doctor to have exhausted his regenerations and died after the Eleventh) to take part in a diamond heist, with the problem being that the diamond is located inside the skull of a powerful alien ruler (played with gusto by comedian Greg Davies). The very definition of a fun, knockabout romp with some able support from Matt Lucas as companion-in-waiting Nardole (well, he's just playing Matt Lucas, but Matt Lucas in Doctor Who works better than it perhaps should). Given how Moffat overused River Song earlier in his tenure as showrunner, she works much better here in an isolated appearance, as Moffat effectively wraps up the story arc he began seven years earlier with Silence in the Library.

The ninth season of Doctor Who (****½) since its return makes a convincing case for being the best of the entire reboot series to date, with a run of very strong episodes culminating in one of the greatest episodes of all time. It is, though, a serious, more adult season with less knockabout larking, which may explain why Doctor Who's long-term (if slow) ratings decline really started becoming noticeable here, as kids moved on to other franchises. The season is available to watch on BBC iPlayer in the UK and on Britbox in the USA.

  • 9X: Last Christmas ****
  • 901: The Magician's Apprentice ****½
  • 902: The Witch's Familiar ****½
  • 903: Under the Lake ****
  • 904: Before the Flood ***½
  • 905: The Girl Who Died ***½
  • 906: The Woman Who Lived ****
  • 907: The Zygon Invasion ****
  • 908: The Zygon Inversion ****
  • 909: Sleep No More **½
  • 910: Face the Raven ****½
  • 911: Heaven Sent *****
  • 912: Hell Bent ****
  • 9XX: The Husbands of River Song ****

Sunday, 9 January 2022

Doctor Who: Series 8 (Season 34)

The newly-regenerated Twelfth Doctor is cantankerous and irritable, and a long way from the boisterous young man Clara Oswald joined on his adventures through time and space. But the Doctor is still the Doctor, still a champion for justice and the downtrodden. As their adventures resume, Clara finds herself torn between her time in the TARDIS and a new relationship. Meanwhile, an old enemy's of the Doctor has taken pains to throw the two of them together and is now planning her triumphant return.

The eighth series of the relaunched Doctor Who sees the arrival of Peter Capaldi as the twelfth (mainline, numbered) incarnation of the Time Lord. Capaldi was a huge fan of Doctor Who as a youngster, even visiting the set and meeting Third Doctor Jon Pertwee, executive producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks, and has cited his correspondence with Letts over several years as a key reason he decided to become an actor, writer and director. Capaldi had twice appeared before in the franchise, as Caecilius in The Fires of Pompeii and Frobisher in Torchwood's third season, Children of Earth. He was the oldest actor to play the role on a regular basis since William Hartnell's First Doctor in 1963.

The arrival of the new Doctor coincided with a shift in filming formats, with the show adopting much greater use of handheld cameras to make the viewer feel more part of events, and the use of higher-profile film directors such as Ben Wheatley and Rachel Talalay. However, there were also some signs of creaking budget problems: a dependence on standing or redressed sets, small or enclosed settings and using already-extant locations. The episode count was also dropped by one due to budget and time constraints.

There was also a marked uptick in the maturity and seriousness of the stories (up to a point), with the primary season-spanning arc being about the relationship between Clara and the Doctor. In the first episode of the season, the Doctor "resets" their relationship to one of friends and allies, noting his predecessor incarnation had liked to think of himself as Clara's boyfriend, which he does not. However, it becomes clear that Clara has become "addicted" to travelling with the Doctor and the danger she encounters. This is repeatedly referenced through the season as she tries to balance her adventures with the Doctor with her day job as a teacher at Coal Hill School (a storied school from several appearances in the classic Doctor Who series) and a burgeoning romantic relationship with fellow teacher Danny Pink. Clara's repeated claims to be able to handle the stress and balancing three wildly different parts of her life are shown to be incorrect, and she very easily slips into lying and deceiving Danny even after he has learned the truth about her. In the face of this, the more obvious season-spanning arc, about a mysterious woman named Missy greeting people who've died during the Doctor's adventures in an afterlife, is very low-key.

Things kick off with Deep Breath, in which the Doctor suffers from post-regeneration confusion in 19th Century London. Clara and the Paternoster Gang - in surprisingly their last appearance on screen to date (likely a correction to them almost being overused in the previous season) - try to help the Doctor recover whilst simultaneously dealing with a mystery involving spontaneous human combustion and a man with only half a face. This is an odd episode - the longest episode of the series since its return bar only 50th anniversary special The Day of the Doctor (and then only by a minute) - with the actual alien plot being very slight and most of the episode being given over to the new Doctor trying to get a handle on himself. It feels like Steven Moffat wanted this new incarnation to be utterly unlike the hyper-charismatic, fast-talking and young two that preceded it, but was also slightly paranoid about not making the new Doctor unlikeable (a mistake that had previously damaged the popularity of the Sixth Doctor, Colin Baker, way back in 1984). It's an episode that's a bit too long and too heavily focused on characterisation at the expense of the SF action/drama element of the series, but it does have a lot of great stuff with the Paternoster Gang, including some major laughs from Strax's antics. The CGI dinosaur is also impressive. Capaldi is, of course, outstanding.

Into the Dalek sets up the Clara-Danny romance, but it's main focus is on a Fantastic Voyage-style story as the Doctor and Clara are miniaturised with a bunch of guest actors (including Fresh Meat's Zawe Ashton and Game of Thrones' Ben Crompton) to go inside a Dalek that bizarrely seems interested in defecting, but is injured and needs to be repaired so it can help defeat others of its kind. It's an oddball story, but given the difficulties in finding new ways of telling interesting stories about Daleks, it works out reasonably well.

Robot of Sherwood is a very silly episode, and may as well have been dubbed Monty Who and the Holy Grail, but it's good fun. Mark Gatiss turns in a witty script with some good laughs and guest stars Tom Riley and Ben Miller are clearly having a whale of a time. Robot knights and exploding archery targets round off a disposable story, and it feels like the idea of Robin facing losing his identity as a real person in favour of becoming a story could have been explored in a more interesting way.

Listen is the season highlight and one of the best stories since the show's return in 2005. The story works on two levels, as Clara goes on a date with Danny which turns awkward due to her not knowing how to handle the revelation that he used to be a soldier, something she knows the Doctor would disapprove of. Clara leaves the date several times, each time to help the Doctor with a somewhat bizarre obsession he's developed about the possibility of the existence of an alien race with the perfect ability to hide. Each revelation from this mystery allows Clara to return to the date (thanks to time travel) with a renewed desire to make it go right. Ultimately Clara discovers what caused the Doctor's obsession, putting the Doctor in the difficult position of having to give Clara far more faith and trust than he usually does with his companions. Impeccably-directed by Douglas Mackinnon from one of Moffat's best scripts, it's a showcase for Capaldi and Coleman, with a strong supporting turn by Samuel Anderson as both Danny Pink and his apparent, distant descendant Orson Pink (whose existence after the events of this season is a whole other argument).

Time Heist is a fun romp, with the Doctor having to break into an apparently impervious, futuristic vault without the use of his TARDIS. He collects together a band of allies and has to work out how to pull off an impossible heist, whilst facing formidable foes in the bank manager (an excellent Keeley Hawes) and an alien that can sense criminal intent. It's a fun episode which plays around the heist concept, but it feels like it needs to rush through some things to fit into its time slot. Really, they should have dropped some time from Deep Breath and giving it to Time Heist to allow the ideas to be better explored. Still, it's a fun, if fairly standard, run-around corridors adventure.

The Caretaker is something of a thematic sequel to the earlier stories The Lodger and Closing Time, with the Doctor have to blend in on modern-day Earth among "normal" people with no knowledge of aliens or time travel. It also directly addresses the problems Clara is experiencing in trying to balance the three different parts of her life together and her growing sense of recklessness. It makes what could have been a more disposable episode into a more consequential and meaningful piece, which works well. Although personally I would have preferred a nod to the fact that the Doctor's granddaughter once attended the school (1963's An Unearthly Child), and two factions of Daleks fought a small-scale but brutal civil war around its grounds (1988's Remembrance of the Daleks), since otherwise if feels making the school Coal Hill is completely pointless.

Kill the Moon is effectively two episodes in one. The first half is a taut and solidly claustrophobic "base under siege" story as the Doctor, Clara and companion-for-an-afternoon Courtney Woods (one of Clara's students who saw the interior of the TARDIS and got a free adventure in return for her help in the prior episode) visit the Moon to investigate the fate of a missing previous expedition. A bunch of standard and enjoyable shenanigans involving moon-spiders abruptly turns into outright incredulity as it is revealed that the Moon is an egg which hatches a giant space dragon which...does absolutely nothing. And leaves behind a second giant egg as a replacement moon. Or something. It's rare to see a Doctor Who story launch in such a promising way only to fall flat on its face in pointlessness. The episode's highlight is Clara's anger at the Doctor passing responsibility for resolving the crisis to her and refusing to help with his superior knowledge, but even this feels contrived.

Mummy on the Orient Express has a daft premise - there's a space recreation of the Orient Express but an alien mummy has gotten loose and is killing people - but superb execution. The mummy only appears to the person who is about to die, who has sixty-six seconds before they perish. The Doctor therefore has to defeat an enemy he can't see (unless it's about to kill him) and with only limited information from the understandably-panicking afflicted before they are wiped out. This central tension is ramped up admirably over the episode, supported by outstanding performances from David Bamber and Christopher Villiers (and a rather indifferent one from comedian Frank Skinner).

Flatline has a great premise, the idea of two-dimensional aliens who cannot perceive the third dimension coming into contact with Earth and attempting to communicate, resulting in deaths. The Doctor's attempts to intervene result in the TARDIS's external shell being reduced to a fraction of its normal size, forcing him to act as the "man in the van" for Clara, who effectively takes on the role of the Doctor for this adventure. She even recruits a young graffiti artist, Rigsy, as her companion for the duration of the crisis. There's a number of interesting ideas at work here, and the Doctor being trapped inside a shrinking TARDIS is played for both laughs and jeopardy. The 2D aliens are convincingly horrible, killing people by flattening them into walls or floors, and Clara's resourcefulness is impressive, especially the Doctor reluctantly surrenders some of his secrets such as how he judges a leader emerging in a small group under threat and the tricks he uses to take control of the group. Although the tactics save the day, it adds to Clara's growing feeling of power and authority, something arguably that a companion should not have.

In the Forest of the Night draws on the iconography of the Doctor Who New Adventures novel Blood Harvest, in which the Doctor visited contemporary Earth to find it an overgrown jungle, ruled by dinosaur-riding Silurians. The dinosaur-riding Silurians are unfortunately missing, but the visuals of London completely overgrown by a forest that appeared overnight are equally powerful. The mystery of the forest and how it hinges on a group of kids in Danny and Clara's care is also compelling to start with, helped by the kids being pretty good actors. The episode does lose steam in its second half, with the fact they are shooting the episode in a studio or a location with London iconography dropped into it being pretty obvious. The simple absence of large numbers of people - the London forest should have hundreds of thousands of confused people in it - doesn't make much sense. The fact there isn't a huge sense of jeopardy isn't a problem as such, but the episode kind of fizzles out rather than climaxing. Some great ideas, but poor follow-through.

The season ends in Dark Water and Death in Heaven, a standard epic Steve Moffat two-parter, which is to say that the first part is excellent, being chilling and well-paced with a terrific cliffhanger, and the second half has the threat too easily dismissed, whilst an interesting recurring character is summarily dealt with by being killed off in the most awkward way possible, leaving the audience scratching their head. There is some great stuff though, like the return of UNIT and the revelation that the excellent Michelle Gomez is playing a new (and female) incarnation of the Master, with the Doctor having his very own big plane being quite amusing. The emotional climax, in which Clara and the Doctor apparently "break up" but in the most bittersweet way possible (with both lying to protect the other), is fairly well-handled.

The eighth series of Doctor Who (****) since its resurrection is a mixed bag, with some weaker moments but also, in Listen, one of the best stories of the entire series. The idea of exploring a toxic and codependent Doctor-companion relationship is fascinating and somewhat well-handled (with Capaldi and Coleman doing great work), but it does feel like it takes precedence over the adventure-of-the-week element of the story, which is more variable this season. But, Kill the Moon possibly excepted, there isn't a really awful episode in the bunch. One oddity is that it does feel that known Doctor Who fan Dan Harmon binged this series before working on Rick and Morty's fourth season: Time Heist seems to have inspired Once Crew Over the Crewcoo's Morty, whilst Mummy on the Orient Express has similarities with Never Ricking Morty. Not enough to be derivative, but enough to feel like more than a coincidence.

The season is available on the BBC iPlayer in the UK and HBO Max in the USA.
  • 801: Deep Breath ****
  • 802: Into the Dalek ****
  • 803: Robot of Sherwood  ***½
  • 804: Listen *****
  • 805: Time Heist ***½
  • 806: The Caretaker ****
  • 807: Kill the Moon **½
  • 808: Mummy on the Orient Express ****
  • 809: Flatline ****½
  • 810: In the Forest of the Night ***
  • 811: Dark Water ****½
  • 812: Death in Heaven ***½

Saturday, 8 January 2022

RIP John Jos Miller

News has sadly broken that science fiction and fantasy author John Jos Miller has passed away at the age of 67. He was best-known for his contributions to the Wild Cards superhero shared universe.

John J. Miller and his wife Gail Gerstner-Miller were science fiction fans living in Albuquerque, New Mexico in the early 1980s. They joined a roleplaying group for a Superworlds campaign hosted by George R.R. Martin, after Victor Milan had bought him the game as a birthday present. The resulting campaign lasted over two years and involved other writers including Melinda Snodgrass (soon to become a writer on Star Trek: The Next Generation) and cyberpunk author Walter Jon Williams (author of Hardwired). Realising the game sessions were efficiently creating material for fiction, Martin floated the idea of turning the campaign into a series of shared world books, with the overall title Wild Cards. Martin was particularly inspired by the shared world fantasy series Thieves' World, co-edited by Robert Asprin and Lynn Abbey.

Miller contributed characters and ideas for most of the books in the series, but he wrote actual stories for Wild Cards (1987), Aces High (1987), Jokers Wild (1987), Aces Abroad (1988), Down and Dirty (1988), Dead Man's Hand (1990), One-Eyed Jacks (1991), Jokertown Shuffle (1991), Dealer's Choice (1992), Black Trump (1995), Deuces Down (2002), Inside Straight (2008), Busted Flush (2008), Fort Freak (2011), High Stakes (2016), Mississippi Roll (2017) and Low Chicago (2018).

His biggest contribution to the series was the 2006 entry Death Draws Five, a novel entirely written by Miller, and the final book before the series was transferred to Tor Books for its 2008 relaunch.

Miller also wrote the Wild Cards supplement for the GURPS roleplaying game and contributed several Wild Cards sourcebooks for the official Wild Cards RPG from Green Ronin.

Miller's work outside the Wild Cards universe comprised the books Dinosaur Samurai (1993) and Dinosaur Empire (1995), with Stephen Leigh; the Twilight Zone book Shades of Night Falling (2003); and the Witchblade books A Terrible Beauty (2002) and Witchblade Combo (2005), the latter with John DeChancie. He also wrote short fiction, most recently for Dreamforge Magazine, and was a Fellow of the Society for American Baseball Research.

John Jos Miller was a familiar sight at SFF conventions and was well-known as a friendly fan up for a discussion about science fiction in general or his work on Wild Cards in particular. He will be missed.

Friday, 7 January 2022

FALLOUT TV show recruits showrunners

Amazon's Fallout TV series has recruited its showrunners: Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Graham Wagner will helm the show on a day-to-day basis, whilst Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy will write and executive produce the show as part of a broader slate of projects they are working on (including more Westworld for HBO).

Robertson-Dworet previously worked as a writer on the 2018 Tomb Raider reboot and on Captain Marvel. She has also been attached as a writer to the new Star Trek movie, a Gotham City Sirens movie and a potential adaptation of Andy Weir's Artemis, with Phil Lord and Chris Miller attached to direct. Wagner is a more experienced TV writer with credits on Silicon Valley, Portlandia and the US iteration of The Office.

It sounds like wife-and-husband team Joy and Nolan have already written the first episode and Nolan will also direct the first episode. Joy and Nolan previously worked on Person of Interest as well as Westworld, whilst Joy worked on Burn Notice, Pushing Daisies and feature film Reminiscence. Their next project to reach the screen is an adaptation of William Gibson's novel The Peripheral, also helmed by Amazon and starring Chloe Grace Moretz.

The Fallout video game series is set in the aftermath of a nuclear war that took place in 2077 between the United States and China. Much of the world is laid waste, but enough people survive to start rebuilding society in the aftermath. This leads to a mishmash of technological capabilities, with settlements struggling to find water but defended by laser-equipped robots. Most of the Fallout video games start with someone emerging from a Vault, an underground nuclear fallout shelter, and having to adjust to life in the new world. Six major games in the series have been released (most recently Fallout 76 in 2018) along with a number of spin-offs. There are also highly popular tabletop roleplaying games and miniature games based on the property. Almost 50 million copies of the video games have been sold to date.

According to another report, the show has also set out a casting call, presumably with a view to film the show this year for a 2023 debut.