Medicine Man

You may relax, your calendar is not broken: there are, as usual, two Marvel Studios films on release this year, it’s just that one of them hasn’t come out until now – not quite the first time the studio has done something like this, but not exactly their standard practice either. Anyway, not content to rest on their laurels and do another sequel with an established brand, Marvel have opted to press on with bringing what sometimes feels like their entire catalogue of characters to the big screen (well, except the ones that Fox still have the rights to, anyway). This time, Scott Derrickson has been put in charge of adapting one of Marvel’s less prominent properties, a bit of a cult character from years gone by, if the truth be told. Yes, finally, it’s a movie version of Night Nurse!

Well, not quite, although one of the Night Nurse characters does appear (another one is sort-of in the Daredevil TV show, of course). No, the new movie is Doctor Strange, based on one of the few major Marvel characters not to primarily be a Stan Lee-Jack Kirby creation – on this occasion Lee worked with Steve Ditko. This was the same pairing which created Spider-Man, so you would think that the omens were good. Well, sort of, but we’ll come to that.


Stephen Strange, a brilliant but egotistical and obnoxious neurosurgeon, is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who is probably overdue to be making a major appearance in this kind of movie. (Yes, this does mean that Dr Strange is technically one of those superheroes who operates using his real name.) Strange has sort of nibbled around the edges of a romance with fellow doctor Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) – the Night Nurse character to whom I alluded earlier – but having a relationship is tricky as he is really much more in love with himself.

Things inevitably change when Strange is involved in a serious road accident which leaves him with severely damaged hands, thus ending his surgical career. Exhausting his fortune in pursuit of some kind of treatment for his condition, he eventually learns of a school in Nepal where apparently-miraculous cures have been known to happen. (The school obviously isn’t in Tibet, because Marvel want to sell their movie in China.) There, he encounters a mystic teacher known as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her disciple Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and rapidly discovers that this is actually a school for your actual magicians and sorcerers…

Well, this isn’t enough to rattle a character played by a performer of the magnitude of Benylin Thundercrack, and so Dr Strange signs on to learn to become a magician, though he is excused the scene with the Sorting Hat and also quidditch practice. What he doesn’t know at first, however, is that a fallen disciple of the Ancient One (played by Mads Mikkelson) has entered into a pact with the dread Dormammu, tyrant of the Dark Dimension, and is planning to conspire in the world’s destruction in exchange for eternal life. Is there a doctor in the house?

It may seem a little odd for Marvel to have held Doctor Strange back until eight years into their franchise-of-franchises undertaking, especially when more minor characters (Ant-Man, the Guardians of the Galaxy) have already made their movie debuts. Maybe so, but Dr Strange has always been a slightly tricky proposition as a character – Steve Ditko’s extraordinary psychedelic artwork in the early issues from the 60s led many observers to assume that the only magic involved came from mushrooms, while from a story point of view, Dr Strange is often presented as so nebulously omnipotent that he can be very difficult to write for.

So, very nearly full marks to Derrickson and his team for coming up with a movie that is distinctively Strange while still remaining wholly accessible (I would guess) to the uninitiated viewer. (I’m sure casting a very popular performer like Cumbersome Bandersnatch won’t hurt the box office numbers either.) Marvel’s policy these days seems to be to offer up something which is partly very familiar and partly rather new, and it continues here.

I feel I should mention that one of my friends who I saw the film with disagreed, suggesting that every Marvel adaptation sticks close to exactly the same formula, basically that they all end with a city on the verge of spectacular destruction, and that this one is no exception – I should quickly add that he still thought this film was enjoyable. Personally I don’t agree – neither Ant-Man nor Civil War ended that way – but on the other hand, I do think Marvel have played it a bit too safe in the characterisation of Strange himself. At the beginning of the film, at least, he is wise-cracking and self-centred in exactly the way Robert Downey Jr was at the beginning of the first Iron Man, to the extent where they almost seem like the same character. I wouldn’t be surprised if the studio were attempting to position things so that Bellyhatch Cummerbund can take over as a mainstay of the series once Downey Jr’s salary requirements finally prove too exorbitant, but even so: for me this doesn’t excuse a scene where the traditionally reserved and courteous doctor calls an opponent a name for a body part which is not normally found in a medical textbook.

On the other hand, this film isn’t afraid to make some slightly eccentric choices, and I don’t just mean using a harpsichord on the soundtrack: there’s a very trippy sequence early on which seemed to me to be very faithful to the spirit of Ditko’s artwork, while the climax itself is considerably weirder than anything comparable from other Marvel movies. The film is well played by a strong cast and visually very striking, rather skilfully repurposing some Inception-style visuals in a more traditional fantasy-adventure context. I can even just about forgive the decision to make much of Dr Strange’s sorcery look basically like CGI-enhanced kung fu. (Not all – by the end of the movie his ability to warp space and time is so developed that one wonders just how they will be able to meaningfully challenge him during future appearances, although as mentioned this is a problem with the comics version of the character too.)

Once again – and by the hoary hosts of Hoggoth, how do they keep doing it?!? – Marvel have produced a movie which is very comfortable with its own identity while meshing seamlessly with their wider franchise – although, to be honest, the rest of the world is kept in abeyance, at least until the closing credits. Dr Strange looks like being an engaging addition to the ensemble, and I’m looking forward to seeing Clumsylatch Bandicoot spar with some of the more established faces of the series. No one in the world is making more consistently entertaining and accomplished genre movies at the moment – Doctor Strange won’t change your life, but I suspect you’ll have a good time watching it. A good adaptation of a challenging book.

Now, as anyone who’s been following along will know, I stopped writing (and, for the most part, caring) about what I suppose we must call current Doctor Who about two years ago. Who knows, once Moffat finally clears off (only another fifteen months to go!), I may be minded to reconsider, but honestly I doubt it. But that’s a discussion for another time. Now, and not strictly covered by the no-Moffatt-Who embargo, we have the new spin-off to consider.

I don’t want to kick things off with more of a downer than is strictly necessary, but I have to say I was slightly astounded to hear they were even doing another new spin-off. The glory days of the late 2000s are a long time ago, are they not, and the parent show itself is not quite in an all-conquering imperial phase at the moment (or maybe I’m just biased). The fact that the new show is premiering on a network that isn’t actually a network isn’t a good sign either.

Or perhaps I’m getting it backwards and the very fact that BBC3 doesn’t have its own network any more (sacrificed by the corporation as part of its ongoing holding action against the hellhounds of the privately-controlled Tory media) may be exactly why the ‘channel’ ordered the show: the Who fanbase is guaranteed to deliver a big audience, by online standards, and raise their profile accordingly.

Either way, here we are: Class, created by Patrick Ness. Should I be watching this show? Well, it’s a YA piece of SF aimed at people who actually like current Doctor Who, so I’m guessing probably not. Much has been made of the fact that Class has had its premiere ten years to the day after the first episode of Torchwood was first shown, but – at first glance, anyway – the two programmes have little in common beyond the universe in which they occur (always a fairly fragmented entity, and – is this my bias again? – particularly now).


Torchwood, of course, was about a secret quasi-governmental organisation charged with investigating otherworldly phenomena in Cardiff, ‘made for adults’ as they insisted at the time. Class is about the travails of a bunch of London teenagers as they deal with alien menaces, not for kids, but definitely aimed at young adults. Quite different, of course.

Except… well, look at it this way. As was fairly clear at the time, Torchwood was basically an attempt to transpose the style and feel of Buffy the Vampire Slayer into a British context, which was why the members of the secret government team never really acted like secret government team members, and why that strange atmosphere of forced jollity prevailed a lot of the time.

Class, it goes without saying, is attempting the same trick, only playing it much safer: the American show about a high school at the epicentre of weird unearthly happenings has been retooled as a British show about a high school at the epicentre of weird unearthly happenings. There is the kid who is not all they seem, the member of staff who protects them and likewise has a hidden agenda, the popular kid, the geeky kid, the quiet-but-strong kid, and so on. Even some of the specific story beats in the first episode were very familiar.

(Although it does occur to me that Buffy finished well over ten years ago now and a lot of the audience for the new show may not be aware of it, so Class may not get called out for being a blatant knock-off as loudly as I thought would be the case.)

In short, with both Torchwood and Class we’re talking about two shows fishing from the same quite distinctive pond, both ticking all the necessary diversity boxes, both featuring gratuitous profanity, both with an unexpected level of gore, and both with a format built around people keeping an eye on a mysterious space-time rift.

Personally I find first-season Torchwood to be up there with early Next Gen in the painful-to-watch stakes, so I was pleasantly surprised when the first episode of Class turned out to be a rather less gruelling proposition: it looks much slicker, with effects that get the job done, and some of the jokes were genuinely funny. I was rather taken with Miss Quill the psychopathic teacher, and none of the rest of the characters were that annoying. The setting-up-the-plotlines stuff wasn’t especially laborious to watch, either.

In short, the first episode was solid, though I must confess I was looking at my watch waiting for Peter Capaldi to come on. (Interesting that there’s been a change of approach at the BBC – the rule was that the Doctor would never appear in Torchwood, as it might lure small children into watching an inappropriately ‘adult’ (when talking about Torchwood‘s first two seasons, the inverted commas are obligatory) programme, but here he was in a show where somebody shouted ‘****’ at one point.

As things went on, though, it seemed more and more and more apparent to me that this was a programme with very little in the way of its own distinct identity – there’s nothing about it that made me go ‘Hmm, this is strikingly original’, and so many ideas, gags and plot beats that were blatantly lifted from the same tiny handful of sources (Doctor Who itself, Buffy) that I lost count.

I mean, it’s fairly watchable, probably because it’s derived (and I do mean derived) from series which most of the time were quality productions, but… well, look, there’s even a moment where the characters discuss how similar their situation is to the format of Buffy. The intention is probably to be knowingly meta and self-aware about the whole thing (the same is probably true of the gag about the Bechdel test, something else which I haven’t quite got my head round), but I think that doing jokes about how derivative your programme is doesn’t actually excuse the fact that you’re making a very derivative programme in the first place. But perhaps I am too harsh.

Anyway, I expect I will stick with it: there’s not exactly a huge quantity of UK-made SF or fantasy around at the moment, though thinking about it Humans is back soon (even though I kind of lost patience with that near the end of the first series). In short – the makers of Class have some very clever, inventive and groundbreaking ideas. Which they have pinched from a show nearly 20 years old.

The 72 Step Programme

Context is important when you write about films. Writing about a new movie is different to covering an old classic; as you may have noticed if you’ve read around this blog, when I’m writing about an older film, especially a slightly dubious genre movie, I cover the plot in much more detail and am much less bothered about spoiling the end. There’s also the issue that with an older film, there’s often some sort of consensus, which I’m either agreeing with or kicking against (not that this isn’t often the case with new films too). Hindsight can often give you a whole new perspective on a film – I imagine it would be quite interesting to go back and read the original reviews of The Fast and the Furious from 2001, given this mildly credible crime drama has since gone on to spawn a ridiculous, world-conquering action movie franchise.

Speaking of mighty franchises, I see that a sequel to Creed is on the cards – currently trading under the imaginative title of Creed II. I don’t know, Creed II just doesn’t do it for me – and if you’re going to go with the whole Roman numerals thing, just bite the bullet and call it Rocky VIII, for that is really what we’re talking about, after all.

I imagine that the original Rocky, directed by John G Avildsen, got rather favourable reviews back in 1976 – this was a movie which won the Best Picture Oscar, after all – but anyone suggesting they would still be making sequels to it 40 years later would surely have been laughed out of their job. Five or ten years later, with an increasingly ridiculous sequel appearing every few years, that might not have seemed quite so improbable, but at the same time you possibly wouldn’t have predicted that the most recent films (thinking mainly here of Creed and Rocky Balboa) would turn out to be quite as accomplished as was the case.


This is, of course, the film which is the foundation stone of Sylvester Stallone’s career, following a slightly chequered past as a walk-on and in low-budget genre films (he was in the original Death Race 2000, for instance). Stallone plays Rocky (duh), a thirty-year old journeyman boxer, living in Philadelphia, whose career in the ring has never really taken off. He is, putting it frankly, going nowhere, and has been forced to take a job as a debt-collector for a small-time local mobster just to pay the rent and feed his pet tortoises. His attempts to romance the timid sister (Talia Shire) of his boozy friend (Burt Young) are meeting with equally unimpressive results.

But everything changes for Rocky when the incumbent world heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), finds himself with a big fight scheduled but no-one willing to fight him. Mainly for the publicity (and also, if we’re honest, because the plot demands it) Creed decides to fight an unknown boxer instead, and naturally his people decide his opponent, or victim, will be Rocky.

Looking at the original Rocky again now, it’s hard not to conclude that, for all his success, Sylvester Stallone has spent most of the intervening forty years essentially slumming it, as both an actor and in other roles. Whether or not Rocky actually deserved its Best Picture win is a moot point nowadays, but it is still a well-made and engaging story, powered by a strong performance by Stallone himself – Rocky may not be too bright, and makes his living by beating people half to death, but he is essentially a nice guy and a human being whom it is possible to relate to. The fact that he created this character indicates that Stallone is a cut above people like Arnie, whose performances usually struggle to maintain one dimension, let alone anything more challenging. And yet Stallone has spent a disproportionate amount of time appearing in knuckle-dragging action movies (is it worth mentioning that Expendables 4 is due to appear before Creed II?).

I suppose that’s just where the money has been, but it’s a shame, for Rocky shows the big man can do proper drama – I suppose Rocky is technically a sports movie, but it doesn’t feel at all generic, being more of a character study, and a carefully naturalistic one at that – there are many scenes of Rocky hanging around in his rather grotty neighbourhood, a long sequence depicting his first date with Adrian, some ever-so-slightly melodramatic stuff with Burt Young and also Burgess Meredith (playing Rocky’s trainer), and so on. (One piece of trivia in wide circulation is that this film marks the screen debut of most-credited-man-in-Star Trek Michael Dorn, who plays one of Apollo Creed’s bodyguards. Not that he’s exactly easy to spot. He isn’t even wearing the prosthetic forehead.)

There isn’t actually a huge amount of your actual fisticuffs in Rocky, beyond a brief glimpse of Rocky in action right at the start of the film, and of course the climactic bout between him and Creed which makes up the third act. (There isn’t actually much Creed in the film, and the failure to establish more of a personal relationship between the two men strikes me as the film missing a trick – Carl Weathers makes the most of what he’s given, though.) I’m not quite sure why, but for me the concluding battle in the ring felt just a little bit perfunctory and underdeveloped – it felt like there should have been a few more peaks and troughs before the final bell.

Still, like I said, it isn’t really about the boxing, it’s about character (in every sense), whether that’s expressed by being a nice guy about the neighbourhood, refusing to break someone’s thumbs despite your boss telling you to, being resolute in pursuit of the girl of your dreams, running up a flight of steps a lot, or just being punched in the head two hundred and thirty times and still refusing to fall over. It may be that the reason why the Rocky series has retained the ability to keep bouncing back and producing surprisingly credible entries is simply because it started off as a straightforward, seriously-intended drama, rather than anything more brash or generic. I honestly thought Creed would mark the end of the road for this particular story, but as this original reminds us, you should never assume Rocky is out for the count.


A few years ago now I wrote a long and slightly smug thing (no pun intended) about the enormous influence of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness on the development of SF and horror throughout the rest and the 20th century and beyond – or, to put it another way, this is a story which people have ripped off a lot. It occurs to me now that, retentively comprehensive as I tried to be, I still managed to miss an instance of insidious-alien-threat-discovered-buried-in-the-arctic-ice, namely Regeneration, a 2003 episode of Star Trek: Enterprise (yeah, I know the show was just called Enterprise at the time, but come on).

I’ve been watching more Trek than usual recently, but I found I’ve been sticking mainly to Next Gen and DS9. The perception certainly is that Voyager and Enterprise mark the point at which the franchise started to run out of ideas and disappeared into a creatively unrewarding fannish grotto. I’m pretty sure I haven’t watched an episode of Voyager in nearly 15 years; I hadn’t watched any Enterprise in over ten, until I decided to give Regeneration another look.

The story starts promisingly enough, with a science team at the North Pole uncovering wreckage of a mysterious alien ship. One of the things about this story is that the discerning viewer is way ahead of all the characters pretty much throughout, but there is still a bit of a frisson when the scientists discover a Borg drone frozen in the ice. (These are the Borg who travelled back in time from the 24th century to the 21st in the movie First Contact, and who’ve been frozen for a hundred years at this point. Does this seem impenetrably convoluted in terms of back-story? If you think so, then I can’t honestly bring myself to argue with you.)


Well, upon being dug up and defrosted, the Borg initially do what comes naturally to them and assimilate the science team, but then, in a somewhat surprising but plot-enabling move, steal the research team’s starship (a research team at the North Pole have their own starship? Really…?) and flee the solar system. As luck and narrative demands would have it, their course takes them into the Enterprise‘s area, and Captain Archer and his plucky crew are ordered to intercept…

Now, am I going to restrict myself just to talking about this episode or use it to try and figure out if Enterprise as a whole is any good or not? Hmmm. I have to say that my impression is that this is a well-regarded example of a superior Enterprise episode, which – if true – leads me to confidently say that as far as the best TV versions of Trek go, Enterprise is somewhere in the top six.

It all starts very promisingly with a nicely ominous sense of foreboding as the innocent scientists completely underestimate the potential Borg threat, and some long scenes of them examining the mysterious cyborgs and trying to work out just what the hell they are (not a bad way of making the Borg seem fresh again, I suppose). But the problem is that this distorts the story rather, with Archer and the gang not even making an appearance until after the first commercial break and a rather frantic pace afterwards. The plot is almost entirely procedural from this point on. There is, I suppose, the glimmering of a character arc where Archer’s initial desire to rescue the assimilated scientists is replaced by the realisation that the only good Borg is a prejudicially-terminated one, and another one where jolly Dr Phlox gets partially assimilated and has a bit of a gaze into the abyss, but neither of these is what you’d call developed or honestly resolves itself in a properly developed fashion.

And it’s hard not to shake the idea that this story was essentially hobbled from its conception by the requirement not to muck up the established continuity too much. This is primarily achieved in classic Enterprise style by the cunning ploy of the Borg not telling anyone what their name is (what, does this even apply to Phlox, who was briefly a member of the Borg collective consciousness?). But the need to keep the Borg mysterious and unknown limits the ability of the characters to interact with them in a meaningful way.

You could also argue that Regeneration also has the big problem of nearly every other Borg story from the 1990s onward, which is what you do with the Borg in the first place. Their reputation near the top of the pile as Trek antagonists rests on their first couple of appearances, in which they are pretty much the definition of an unstoppable menace. Part of the reason why the Borg are scary, particularly on their debut, is that the regular characters are themselves scared of them. Picard is clearly desperate at the end of the episode, openly admitting to being frightened, and his fear is partly because he has come to understand the nature of the Borg. Archer, on the other hand, never really seems that fussed about what the Borg exactly are and his attitude to them is more a sort of non-descript stoicism.

I suppose treating the Borg as the explicitly terrifying juggernaut of extinction that they started off as was never an option in a story set in the 22nd century and thus required to keep the characters in the dark is to their nature. Again, this kind of defies logic and common sense, as, given the ease with which Borg cubes have been depicted destroying large swathes of Starfleet, one would expect even a small infestation to go through a significantly less-advanced planet like a particularly salty dose of salts, and having the Borg simply run away into deep space rather than attempting to assimilate Earth is a bit out of character for them. But the needs of the story outweigh the needs of consistent characterisation (and isn’t that the definition of melodrama?).

So it’s hard not to be forced to the conclusion that this episode is mainly a result of the dog-whistle appeal of the Borg when it comes to the fanbase, which makes it rather unfortunate that these are the same fans most inclined to be nitpicky about Trek continuity. Shall we do this here…? Oh, I suppose not, suffice to say that there are, to put it mildly, differing indications as to when the Borg and the Federation and/or humanity first became aware each other, and when the Borg first started operating near Federation space, and Regeneration’s worst crime in this department is only to add to the muddle by pushing the date of their first encounter back in time by about 140 years.

Doing something with the Borg in Enterprise was probably a fairly obvious idea, but obvious ideas are not always necessarily good ones. Possibly if the story had been differently structured, with the Enterprise central to the story throughout and some of the Thing references trimmed, it might have meant there was more of an engaging story and that character arc for Archer might actually have worked. But I’m not entirely sure – the most engaging part of the story-as-broadcast is Phlox’s plight as the Borg slowly assimilate him, and yet even this is resolved in the most perfunctory manner, as he comes up with a cure with the greatest of ease. The story neither grips nor rewards, it just sort of trundles past. I must confess this is the first time I’ve watched an episode of Enterprise with my critical subroutines engaged since the pilot, but I have to say I still remember it being better than this. I’m just not sure I’m willing to make the time investment involved in finding out for sure.

Here’s a (probably borderline) interesting thing: both the movies of The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons came out on basically the same weekend in the middle of May (albeit three years apart), an extremely reliable release date for something aspiring to be a solid summer blockbuster. You can’t argue with success, one way or another, and so here we are with another film from the same people – Inferno, directed by Ron Howard, starring Tom Hanks, yadda yadda yadda. And yet, as a glance out of your window may already have revealed, we are in the middle of October, much more nebulous territory for films looking to make pots of money, and in some ways the preserve of those actually aspiring to receive a little critical acclaim and recognition. Has a multi-hundred-million dollar take gone to everyone’s heads? Or is this genuinely a more sophisticated and classy film than its antecedents?


Um, no it’s not. But it does have a go at being a rattling good yarn (I believe this is the term). One of the good things about these films is that you get the benefits of Dan Brown’s command of story structure without needing to be exposed to his prose style, and – following some prefatory material about someone falling off a tower in Florence while being chased by mysterious agent-types – we get a properly barnstorming opening, as maverick symbologist (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: hmmm) Robert Langdon (Hanks) wakes up in hospital with Movie Amnesia, having had a bang on the head. Rather to his surprise Hanks finds he is in Florence.

Events proceed apace as a slightly psychotic policewoman turns up and starts shooting at Hanks, leading him to take cover with the fortuitously English and pulchritudinous ER doctor, played by Felicity Jones. Sure enough, it seems that Langdon has got himself tangled up in another of those shadowy conspiracies he is so prone to encountering.

Basically, visionary cleverclogs Bert Zobrist (Ben Foster – he’s had a busy year) has come to the conclusion that the planet is hopelessly overpopulated and made what looks rather like a TED Talk to share his thoughts. Unlike most people who make TED Talks, however, Zobrist has also cooked up a lethal virus which will resolve the situation by killing off half the world’s population. (He really should have checked with Professor Hans Rosling first.)

However, Zobrist’s ability to carry out his cruel-to-be-kind scheme is limited as he fell off a tall building at the start of the film, and no-one knows where the virus has been hidden. Except, of course, that before his death, Zobrist created a trail of terribly erudite and subtle clues, all referencing the works of Dante, which will ultimately lead to the location of the virus. (As you would.) So the authorities have got Langdon in to find this very valuable, not to mention spectacularly dangerous, commodity. But is there something else going on? Did Zobrist have a back-up plan which is even now unfolding? Could be…

Well, Awix’s handy guide to the Robert Langdon films runs as follows: Da Vinci Code – a bit weird but actually quite thought-provoking and certainly original, in its own way. Angels and Demons – utterly ridiculous but secretly quite fun. Inferno may not feature skydiving pontiffs or photon torpedoes under the Vatican, but it definitely inclines more towards the preposterously daft end of the Dan Brown spectrum.

Things adhere very much to the style of the previous films, with a lot of breathless jogging from one art treasure to another while Hanks holds forth on the history of whatever it is they’re going to see – I’ve made the mistake of over-doing my schedule on a holiday and ended up having a similar experience, come to think of it – and then some pointing. One sequence sees Hanks and Jones fleeing a team of heavily armed men while Hanks tries to complete an anagram; this is kind of the level of the whole thing.

While it is, as I believe I mentioned, almost absurdly over-plotted and with a few truly outrageous twists along the way (the main one of which I must confess to having figured out well in advance of its appearance), on the whole this remains a pacy, slick and good-looking film – very much a potential apocalypse sponsored by the Italian and Turkish tourist boards. It may be nonsense, but it’s such busy and engaging nonsense that you never completely focus on this, though it’s a near thing.

Hanks is his usual personable self and a steady presence at the centre of the film; I don’t think he quite gets the material he deserves, though. As befits a film on this kind of scale, a top-rate cast has been assembled to try and keep a straight face around him – as well as Foster (who’s in the film an impressive amount considering he dies in the first five minutes), there’s Omar Sy, but my award for Best Thing in a Dodgy Movie goes to Irffan Khan, who delivers a bizarrely deadpan comic performance as the leader of a fairly improbable secret organisation. Howard’s direction is as competent as ever, and he stages some interestingly nightmarish hallucinations at the start of the film – these sort of fade away as it continues, which I thought was a bit of a shame, as if nothing else they gave the film more of an identity of its own.

I’m not sure what else to say about Inferno: the actual content of the story may be implausible cobblers, but the narrative structure itself is utterly sound, and there’s enough talent involved for the film to pass the time rather agreeably, provided you disconnect your critical faculties. (I’m still not sure if there’s some significance to a film about overpopulation ending with someone having a baby.) I will be utterly staggered if Inferno has any presence in the major categories of next year’s awards season, but it should probably make a tidy sum. A solid piece of rather hokey mainstream entertainment.


The Unlikely Lads

If someone makes a really great movie, does that mean you automatically go and see their next movie? There is something to be said for caution, after all: it does seem like some people only have one really great movie in them – look at Robin Hardy, who did The Wicker Man, or Douglas Hickox, who directed Theatre of Blood. But if someone makes two great movies on the spin that does earn them a pass, I think. Which brings us to John Michael McDonagh, who in 2011 made The Guard, a scabrous black comedy thriller which I loved, and in 2014 made Calvary, a drama which really impressed me. So naturally I went along to see his new film, War on Everyone.


War on Everyone is probably – we will discuss this – a jet black parody of Hollywood buddy movies, with McDonagh’s usual erudition and willingness to rip up the rulebook subtly stirred into the mix. The leads are Bob (Michael Pena) and Terry (Alexander Skarsgard), a pair of Albuquerque police detectives. It is quickly established that these guys take a very flexible view of the whole ‘serve and protect’ ethos as the opening sequence depicts them running someone over solely so they can nick his stuff.

Basically, they show no interest at all in actually, you know, upholding the law, and spend all their time trying to get rich in any way they possibly can: extorting bribes from criminals, ripping off the proceeds of successful bank robberies, and so on. ‘Utterly and enthusiastically corrupt’ only begins to describe these guys. Bob is also a fairly appalling parent, though his wife seems very fond of him, and Terry has various substance abuse problems too.

The arrival in town of Lord James Mangan (Theo James), a well brought-up English criminal mastermind, proves significant for the boys, as he sets about orchestrating a huge heist at the local racetrack. Scenting an opportunity to advance themselves, basically by waiting for the robbery to succeed and then stealing the money from the robbers themselves, Bob and Terry obtrude themselves into Mangan’s business, and things quickly turn quite nasty…

Well, this is obviously much more of a piece with The Guard (loud-mouthed, lairy) than the more thoughtful Calvary, and for all of the film’s mostly-American setting and style McDonagh has brought along one of that’s film’s supporting cast (David Wilmot). But where The Guard had an undeniable warmth and an almost sitcom-like gentleness at times, War on Everyone is more of a full-throttle experience, uncompromising, harder edged. It almost feels to begin with as if McDonagh is prioritising outrageous jokes and situations over remotely credible characterisation – Bob and Terry aren’t just corrupt, they are absurdly corrupt, Bob isn’t a bad father, he’s a ridiculously bad father. And it’s so over-the-top that it’s difficult to engage with the story for a while.

In fact it eventually started to seem to me that War on Everyone might in fact be a surreal, deadpan deconstruction of the classic Hollywood buddy movie, maintaining the general shape and conventions but emptying out all the content and replacing it with such bizarre material that the limitations of the form are thrown into sharp relief.

At one point, for example, Bob and Terry are looking for a suspect who they are basically looking to shake down for some immoral earnings, but they learn he has gone into hiding. In Iceland. So the scene changes to Iceland for literally about five minutes, until they go back to New Mexico, and it’s very strange. Compounding the oddity is a moment where one of them asks the other what their plan is to find the man, who is African-American. The other admits he doesn’t have a plan, but says something to the effect that ‘there can’t be many black people in Iceland, if we just stand here in the street we’re bound to spot him sooner or later.’ And the guy promptly walks past them.

There are parts of War on Everyone which almost move into the ‘a film with something to offend any decent person’ category – and again, you wonder if McDonagh is just looking to satirise the excesses of political correctness, or satirise racism itself, or doesn’t give a damn and is simply going for the most outrageous, near-the-knuckle jokes he can come up with. We see the boys down the police firing range at one point, and sure enough all the practice targets take the form of pictures of black men, some of whom have clearly already surrendered. You can’t fault the director’s willingness to go way out there, but given what’s happened in the US recently, is that really funny?

The film becomes slightly more engaging as it goes on, and McDonagh is too good a director not to make a good-looking film with strong performances and moments along the way – he’ll just switch off the plot for a moment for a dance routine, for instance, and the images and the soundtrack will conspire to create something genuinely great. But the need for a strong conclusion requires the film to become more conventional, and Bob and Terry inevitably discover some remnant of decency within themselves, provoking a heroic confrontation with the bad guys (their motivation for this is somewhat hackneyed).

In the end I would say War on Everyone isn’t really close to the standard of either The Guard or Calvary, and it really is one of the strangest and most difficult to figure out films I’ve seen in a long time. In the end, McDonagh’s intelligence and wit keep it watchable, giving the film a certain level of style – but while the film succeeds because of its style rather than its substance, I don’t really think you can call it a triumph.


Captain James T Kirk of the USS Enterprise gets his shirt off. A lot. Websites exist chronicling just how often the audience is treated to the sight of his exposed abdomen. People openly speculate as to just why it is that the captain’s shirt is of such poor quality that it tears so easily in so many episodes. Stepping back from the fiction for a moment, the captain-gets-his-shirt-off/torn bit is so notable that they do a gag about it in Galaxy Quest. (They also do a gag about it in Star Trek Beyond, but I’m tempted to suggest we restrict ourselves to the better class of Star Trek movie. Like Galaxy Quest.)

And it’s a decent gag, though perhaps a bit weary now from overuse. The same is probably true of the other done-to-death original series of Star Trek gag, which is the one about the fact that when Kirk, Spock, McCoy and a new guy from security beam down to a planet at the start of an episode, the security guy should have his will and life insurance sorted out, because his life expectancy would probably make an actuary blanch. (The best example I can think of is at the start of Friday’s Child, a (and this is perhaps significant) pretty poor episode of Trek.)

Now, you wouldn’t write a whole novel based around the idea that Kirk’s shirt gets ripped a lot (although as – and perhaps I’m assuming too much here – a fairly sane person, constant reader, you probably wouldn’t write a Star Trek-related novel of any kind). But someone has written a novel about the fact that the guys in the red shirts get killed at a frankly alarming rate, and… I still can’t quite believe it… it won the Hugo. The book is (duh) Redshirts, and it was written by John Scalzi.


The novel focuses on a bunch of new lower-decks crew members aboard the United Universe starship Intrepid, who very gradually become aware that the world they live in is, to put it mildly, statistically and scientifically unlikely. Why do most of the experienced crew spent much of their time hiding from the senior staff? Why is so much of the ship’s scientific research literally meaningless technobabble? How is it that ship’s navigator Kerensky can be beaten virtually to death every week and make a miraculous recovery time after time? And just why do they keep sending a navigator down on scientific survey missions anyway?

Well, you’re probably ahead of me on this one, but the protagonists eventually figure out that they are minor characters on a rather crappy TV space opera show, and their primary role is to die meaningless and slightly stupid deaths in order to serve the demands of the plot. The question, of course, is what on earth they can do about this not insignificant problem…

It’s to Scalzi’s credit that he takes what sounds very much like a one-joke conceit and spins it into a decent-length novel without it feeling too strained, although in order to do so occasionally feels like a bit of a stretch (the fictional characters in the book are not completely fictional in terms of the TV show, they exist in a genuine future which is warped, via inexplicable means, by the activities of TV writers in a parallel timeline). Do I even need to mention that this is a deeply recursive, very meta book? At one point even the characters start talking about how recursive and meta everything is, and you can’t get much more meta-recursive than that.

The book’s relationship with genuine Star Trek is a slightly peculiar one. Scalzi makes the joke in the acknowledgements that the book’s TV show is not remotely based on Stargate Universe (on which he apparently was consultant for a bit), but actual, proper, genuine Star Trek is explicitly name checked in the text of the novel itself, as someone figures out the only ship in the history of the universe with casualty rates like the Intrepid is the (explicitly fictional) Enterprise. It’s impossible not to conclude that the crappy TV show messing up the protagonists’ lives is an extremely thinly-veiled piss-take on Star Trek itself.

Hmmm, well. It’s not the most flattering depiction, nor is it (I would say) an especially fair one. The Redshirt Trope (as I suppose we should call it) obviously exists, and is certainly at its most visible in some of Star Trek‘s less impressive episodes – there’s Friday’s Child, as mentioned, plus also The Apple , in which an alien planet turns into a virtual shooting gallery for anyone in a scarlet sweater. There’s a fairly clear instance in The Omega Glory, too, which is on in front of me as I type – although I must confess to a sneaking fondness for this particular episode. (Is it worth mentioning the numerous episodes in which guys in blue and yellow shirts also meet sticky, plot-advancing demises?) But the thing is that the better episodes are not propelled along by casual slaughter – you won’t find any dead redshirts in Amok Time, or Doomsday Machine, or Trouble With Tribbles. Plus, very occasionally, you get an incidental crewmember death which is neither meaningless nor stupid – there’s Lt. Newlywed from Balance of Terror, not to mention Yeoman Scared from The Deadly Years. (Although I suppose there’s the question of whether these really count as ‘incidental’ deaths, given they’re significant. Recursiveness beckons again…)

Am I not getting just a bit too defensive about a book which, ultimately, appears to be at least somewhat knowledgeable and affectionate when it comes to Star Trek? (Especially when I am obviously not a Trekkie myself.) Mmm, well. The thing is that the portrayal of the show-within-the-book is wholly negative – even the characters making it admit it’s a cheap, incoherent piece of hackwork – with no mention of the many virtues or laudable things about real-life Trek. There’s a suggestion that Scalzi admits that making this kind of action-adventure genre show almost demands occasionally hokey writing in order to function at all, but not much more than this.

There’s an odd and presumably unintentional way in which Redshirts even shows up how well-written Trek is, in some respects at least. One of the things which writers on the show – during the Berman era, at least – complain about most bitterly was the difficulty of writing 24th century dialogue that sounds natural without being absurdly contemporary in tone. Good Trek dialogue has a slightly stylised quality to it, something classic, somewhat exaggerated. Having the characters just talk like regular people would somehow be ridiculous. The thing is that the characters in Redshirts do just talk like young people from the 2010s. It makes the achievement of creating characters like Picard and Sisko and the rest all the more impressive.

At various points in the book characters talk about Gawker (a popular if slightly disreputable US website, your honour) – there is eventually a time travel element to the story – and it seems to me that all the main characters talk and act like the millennial types you find hanging around on a site like io9 (a Gawker affiliate) – they’re bright, snarky, terribly aware of genre conventions and all that sort of narrative metajargon, and for all their talk about their lives being significant they treat everything with a distinctly ironic level of detachment. They drop the F-bomb and talk about oral sex virtually non-stop, too, which may mean they have a lot in common with Gene Roddenberry (I’m not sure, depends on which stories you believe), but they’re not really recognisable as being in any way akin to actual Star Trek characters.

I can see why Redshirts has proven so popular, if this is the audience which has adopted it – it’s a bright, snarky, knowing, media-literate book, which bright, snarky, knowing, media-literate people which are understandably going to enjoy. But it just seemed to me to be second-order science fiction at best, which it doesn’t strike me as being that difficult to write.  It is clever and inventive, but I found it rather lacking in warmth and depth – despite a concluding and slightly wrong-footing attempt at giving it all some emotional significance and heft. It may just be that I was expecting an affectionate and knowing Star Trek parody, and despite appearances this is not that book. It’s just a little difficult to work out what it actually is.