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Posts Tagged ‘geeky meltdown’

Warning: I suspect we are about to go even further down the rabbit hole than is customary in these parts. Buckle up.

I have first-hand experience of the fact that you can be quite well-versed in your comics lore and still not really be fully cognizant of the sheer degree of obfuscation surrounding the superhero codename Captain Marvel: a colleague, who knows which SHIELD operatives have metahuman powers and who will happily discuss the provenance of the various Infinity Stones, turned out to be entirely unaware of the clutterbuck attached to this issue – then again, she is essentially a Marvel zombie, which may have something to do with it. The quick and easy version is that there are two versions of Captain Marvel in comic books, although this is really a significant simplification, given there are arguably nearly a dozen characters who have used this name at some time or other, to say nothing of related characters such as Marvelman (better known these days as Miracleman).

The original Captain Marvel first appeared in the early 1940s, boasting vast superhuman strength and resilience, the ability to fly, matchless courage, and so on: he went on to become the most popular superhero of the decade, comfortably outselling all his rivals, even DC Comics’ Superman (whom he was suspiciously similar to in some respects). However, just as Superman’s vulnerability is to Kryptonite, so Captain Marvel’s weakness is litigation – his publishers were sued by those of Superman on the grounds of plagiarism, and by the early 50s sales had declined to the point where contesting the issue wasn’t worth the legal fees. Captain Marvel vanished into comics limbo until DC Comics acquired the character decades later. By this point, of course, the word ‘Marvel’ had acquired a certain resonance in the world of comic books, with Stan Lee’s company trademarking the name and creating their own Captain Marvel character (one iteration of which is, at the time of writing, being played by Brie Larson in Marvel Studios’ blockbuster meta-franchise).

The upshot of this is that while it was possible for DC to publish Captain Marvel stories, they couldn’t actually call the comic Captain Marvel. Apparently this is such a big deal in the world of comics that a few years ago they made the somewhat baffling decision to rename the character Shazam, despite his long (seven decade) history in comics and TV. I am, as longstanding readers may already have guessed, a bit of a stubborn old purist in matters of this sort: this guy’s name is Captain Marvel, no matter what the company may say, and to suggest anything else is silly and does him and his creators a disservice.

All of which brings us (probably not before time) to David F Sandberg’s Shazam!, which is by any rational metric the second Captain Marvel movie in as many months, and the latest entry in DC Comics’ line of superhero movies. The story concerns troubled, streetwise foster child Billy Batson (Asher Angel), whose essential decency finds himself summoned via an enchanted subway car to the mystic Rock of Eternity, where he encounters an ancient wizard named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou, whom the attentive will have noticed has done the superhero movie equivalent of winning the double, by appearing in both of this year’s Captain Marvel movies). All Billy has to do is say the wizard’s name to be transformed into his champion (Zachary Levi), a vastly powerful superhero known as…

Yeah, well, the awkwardness with which Shazam! tackles this point is undeniably a weakness in the film – Levi is billed as playing someone called Shazam, but he’s never addressed or referred to as such in the film. This itself is not that uncommon in the world of the modern, credible superhero movie – both Wonder Woman and the other Captain Marvel movie do the same – but it’s usually handled much more deftly than it is here. The script even draws attention to the fact, by playing with the idea of giving him various other codenames such as the Red Cyclone and Captain Sparklefingers. (Shazam is surely a terrible idea as a codename, as it just means he’d never be able to tell anyone who he is. I’m just going to refer to him as (Captain Marvel) and let the writs fly as they may.) Anyway, there are less abstruse things to worry about, as a corrupted former candidate to become the wizard’s champion, Sivana (Mark Strong), is aware of (Captain Marvel)’s existence, and determined to steal his power…

It is, as has been noted, a crowded marketplace these days when it comes to superhero movies, and the main way that Shazam! makes itself distinctive is through functioning primarily as a comedy – partly as a spoof of superhero films in general, but also by playing on the comedic potential of the idea of (Captain Marvel) basically being a young teenager inside the body of a demi-god (it’s a bit like Big, but with superhero battles, something the film tacitly acknowledges at one point).

Now, this idea of the hero being a child in an adult body (perhaps they should have gone with the codename Boris Johnson Man) isn’t quite how Captain Marvel has traditionally been depicted in the comics – there, he’s really a child’s idea of the perfect hero, made incarnate. The problems with this are firstly that it makes him massively uncool, and secondly, that he becomes totally redundant in a comics universe which already contains Superman. Since being acquired by DC, Captain Marvel has only really been allowed to shine in situations where Superman is out of the way for some reason, or when the writers have required a character capable of fighting Superman to a standstill (which, given his effectively limitless physical prowess, he is quite capable of doing). So you can kind of understand why they have gone down this particular route in the movie.

Still, for all the entertainment value of scenes in which we see (Captain Marvel) knocking over ATMs to fund a trip to a lap-dancing club (as any teenage boy would do, I suppose), I have to admit that I still found myself harrumphing a bit, on the inside at least: probably because turning this kind of film into a comedy feels like the safe and easy route to go down. (I was one of many people quite relieved when plans to do Green Lantern as a comedy with Jack Black were abandoned in favour of a more traditional take on the character (also featuring Mark Strong, of course), but as this resulted in one of the most relentlessly-scorned films in the genre, I’m not sure what the takeaway value of that is.) The problem isn’t just that this is a superhero film with comedic elements, it’s that it can’t stop undermining even dramatic moments by inserting gag after gag, some of them slightly dubious (‘Touch my staff,’ the Wizard commands Billy at one point, which,  if it isn’t a misjudged double entendre, certainly sounds like it).

And yet, somehow, I have to say that the film’s energy and sense of fun is infectious and somehow irresistible, not least because it does work hard to include so many references to the classic Marvel family mythos: Mr Mind appears, there’s a reference to Tawky Tawny the tiger, Billy and his foster-siblings attend Fawcett Central school, and so on. The performances are also excellent: Mark Strong is quite as good as you’d expect in what could have been a fairly two-dimensional role, giving it real heft and presence (let’s go down the rabbit hole one last time and note that his father is played by John Glover, who also played Lex Luthor’s father for a number of years).

In the end, Shazam! does work as a piece of entertainment, although it is certainly its own thing. It gets close enough to the classic version of Captain Marvel to satisfy anyone with fond memories of the character, probably, while it also does enough to work as a comedic take on the superhero movie for audiences not that familiar with him. I’m not entirely sure how it manages this ticklish balancing act, but I suppose it qualifies as an achievement of sorts. This is a solid movie that continues the positive trend in DC’s cinematic output.

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As regular readers may recall, not too long ago I shared my thoughts on David A Goodman’s The Autobiography of Jean-Luc Picard, which is hardly a great book, but still hardly deserves some of the venom heaped on it by dedicated Trekkies. What caught my eye was the fact that Goodman wasn’t actually being dissed for writing a bad book, but for ignoring what was apparently a much better one: namely, Christopher L Bennett’s The Buried Age. Now, I don’t much go in for tie-in fiction these days, but I was somewhat intrigued, so I decided to check out Bennett’s novel and see if it was as good as everyone seemed to think.

The Buried Age differs from the Goodman book in that it only seeks to cover one interlude in the life of Jean-Luc Picard, albeit a significant one: namely, the almost decade-long gap between the loss of the Stargazer to a Ferengi ambush and his assuming command of the Enterprise in the early 2360s. Bennett discharges his responsibilities with great punctiliousness – the book opens with Picard on one bridge, minutes before the attack, and concludes on another, just as the TNG pilot is getting underway. The question is whether the author does so in a way which is both satisfying and entertaining.

Anyone criticising Goodman for disregarding other tie-ins in his ‘autobiographies’ has a point, but then again he is equally wont to disregard generally-accepted parts of the canon if he doesn’t like them (the animated show and at least one of the movies, for instance). It’s certainly true that there is no way to reconcile the two books, for all that they cover the same events and the same period – the Stargazer has different bridge crew, just for starters, and The Buried Age depicts Picard taking a lengthy sabbatical from Starfleet, whereas Goodman just has him piloting a desk for many years.

It’s actually rather peculiar to compare the two books. Obviously both authors have done their research when it comes to the TV show, and are aware of certain established points of history which they have to abide by – Picard first saw Tasha Yar negotiating her way through a minefield, for instance, and met Geordi LaForge when he was on a piloting assignment – and as a result there are weird moments of them echoing each other, momentarily coming into synch.

But for the most part The Buried Age follows a wildly different path. It opens with an extended prologue, not having much to do with the rest of the story, depicting the Ferengi ambush, the loss of the Stargazer, and the subsequent court martial of Picard.

Following this, our man leaves Starfleet and becomes a mature student of archaeology at the University of Alpha Centauri, where he seems well on course to get his doctorate and become an academic. Guinan, of course, has reasons of her own for wanting to get Picard back in a captain’s chair, and beguiles him with tales of artifacts left behind by lost alien civilisations from two hundred and fifty million years ago, in the hope this will stir his spirit of adventure.

It does, but there are inevitably unintended consequences, chief amongst them the resurrection of the Manraloth, a frighteningly advanced and subtle alien civilisation from the ancient past of the galaxy, and an existential threat to the Federation as Picard knows it. Feeling responsible for the appearance of this new menace, Picard dedicates himself to ending it – but what will the cost to him be?

I don’t read much tie-in fiction, as I say, partly because I can’t help thinking of it as second-order stuff, and there’s still a lot of original fiction I’d like to get through in the comparatively few decades left to me. Also, so much of it is undemanding stuff – I used to write fan fiction myself, and I quickly learned that all you needed to do to be acclaimed as a ‘master storyteller’ was to have a reasonably competent prose style and insert the requisite number of continuity references for other fans to spot and feel smug about understanding.

Well, Bennett seems to have got this part of the job down pat, for The Buried Age is shotgunned with references to various bits of Trek, ranging from fairly obscure Enterprise episodes to song lyrics from the original series. There are doubtless many I didn’t even notice, what with me not being a Trekkie and all. However, they don’t get in the way, and many of them are there because they serve the plot.

One level, the book serves as an answer to one of those questions about the Trek world it never occurs to most people to ask – just why are there so many dysfunctional godlings knocking about the place? It also attempts to reconcile the different versions of Picard from the TV show, and explain just why he’s initially so aloof and withdrawn as TNG is getting underway (no spoilers, but let’s just say he’s been through a rough time) – also why, for such a keen archaeologist, it’s a couple of years before he even mentions this on the show.

Suffice to say that, yes, Bennett does a much more satisfying job of this than Goodman, and writes the Star Trek universe much more deftly too – I knew I was going to have a good time reading this novel when Bennett’s extrapolation of Ferengi culture included the fact that the commanders of their ships have to bribe the rest of the crew to do their jobs properly. He writes an excellent, authentic Picard, a superb Data, and pretty good versions of Troi, Yar, and Worf, too. How he deals with Janeway probably depends on how much you like Voyager: here, she’s a smirking cleverclogs.

However, The Buried Age goes beyond this and into the realm of what I would describe as genuinely classic literary science fiction – not just because the book attempts a higher standard of scientific rigour than most Trek, although it does (there’s a lot of stuff about quantum physics, and the intersect with how this influences and is influenced by transporter function), but also because it has clearly been influenced by the likes of Olaf Stapledon’s cosmic myths and Iain Banks’ Culture stories – in some ways, the book is about the difference between the Federation (a society still recognisably based on our own) and a genuinely transhuman milieu not entirely unlike the Culture itself.

There are well-drawn characters here, thought-provoking ideas, and well-written action sequences. Picard is, perhaps, written as a little too gullible in places, but then the point of the story is that he’s dealing with intelligences vastly older and more experienced at manipulation than he is, so perhaps this is forgiveable. On the whole, however, this is an enormously satisfying book, both as a Star Trek novel and a piece of science fiction. At the very top end of the tie-in genre; highly recommended.

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It is one of those curious and perhaps somewhat cherishable paradoxes that probably the most alien society depicted in any depth on Star Trek is that of the Federation itself, the one to which the vast majority of the various series’ human characters belong. When you think about it, this isn’t so surprising, given that the various other cultures are intended to illuminate less enlightened aspects of human nature as it exists today, while the Federation represents the Roddenberry ideal of an evolved humanity.

The Federation is a difficult concept to get your head around, in some ways. One thing that both admirers and critics of Star Trek have seized upon is the fact that the Federation, according to several of its more prominent citizens, does not use money. Critics conclude that the franchise is therefore a puff-piece for a spurious and imaginary socialist utopia. Supporters sometimes take a different view: and the most cogent explication of these that I’ve read is Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek, by Manu Saadia.

Saadia does not attempt to explain how the economies of the Alpha and Beta Quadrant function in the year 2370. This is probably quite wise, as – just between you and me – I don’t think there is much sense to be made of this. Saadia takes the ‘we don’t use money’ position, as stated by Captain Kirk (amongst others), at face value, and ignores the multitude of occasions where people casually talk about buying a boat, or selling a house, or paying for someone else’s dinner, or have a purchase charged to their account, or whatever. He assumes that the Federation, if not some of the other quadrant powers, is effectively infinitely wealthy, with its inhabitants living in a post-scarcity utopia, operating a reputation-based prestige economy. This arguably doesn’t match up with what is shown or implied on screen, and begs numerous questions about how and why the Federation engages in trading relationships with the other polities of the 24th century, but it’s one of the central planks of Saadia’s thesis: which is that Star Trek depicts a situation which could be achieved here on real-world Earth in the foreseeable future.

As always with this kind of The (Academic Discipline) of (Popular Franchise) title, the question is one how much it’s actually about the Academic Discipline and how much it’s just a grab for the cash of fans of the Popular Franchise. Pleasingly, Trekonomics combines impressive intellectual heft with a deep and loving knowledge of Star Trek – Saadia obviously knows his stuff in both departments, and Trekkies who check this book out will come away with a greatly expanded knowledge of theoretical concepts such as doux-commerce and the tragedy of the commons, while economists will gain an equally practical grounding in topics as diverse as the galactic warp-speed limitation crisis of 2371 and the legal status of authors who are holographic AIs in the closing years of the same decade.

This is more of a collection of essays than a book with a single coherent argument – there are opening chapters discussing topics such as the (apparent) absence of money from the Federation, the fact that everyone nevertheless seems to be working very hard for no apparent material reward, and the manner in which the Federation’s economy seems to be built around the principle that access to the replicator (a make-virtually-anything-out-of-virtually-thin-air machine) is available to all citizens at all times (money, the great metaphorical all-purpose conversion technology, has been superseded by the replicator, an actual all-purpose matter conversion technology).

From here the book moves on to touch on such topics as the limitations of natural resources, the management of common goods, and the place of Star Trek in the lineage of utopian science fiction (the Strugatsky brothers get a name check, as does Iain Banks for his wonderful Culture stories, but Saadia argues that Trek’s main inspiration was the SF of Isaac Asimov – a curious idea, given Trek features robots and the like less than arguably any other well-known SF franchise, but one which actually seems to be sound. Then there’s a whole chapter devoted to a look at Star Trek’s great economic adventurers, the Ferengi, and finally a discussion of what the genuine chances are of a Trek-like economic settlement being reached in the real world.

And it is, for the most part, a fascinating read. Apart from the fact that Saadia interprets the various ‘we don’t use money’ quotes to suit his argument, there are a few places where his suggestions seem a little bit overcooked – he suggests that the faction most similar to the Federation in Star Trek are the Borg, which seems a bit counter-intuitive. Admittedly the Borg definitely don’t use cash, but on the other cyber-prosthesis they are certainly consumers (even if it’s not in a strictly economic sense). His assertion that Deep Space Nine is on some level the story of the development and enlightenment of Ferengi society is also a bit much to swallow – although I have to say I am one of those people who finds many of the Ferengi-centric episodes of the series a bit wearisome. (For what it’s worth, I think the thematic core of Deep Space Nine is the issue of how to retain your enlightened principles when surrounded by people who don’t share them and are willing to exploit you for having them – which does have an economic angle to it, just not one which the show ever really dwelt on. How would a predatory merchant like a Ferengi really deal with a potential customer who was (effectively) infinitely wealthy?)

Set against this, however, are a range of fascinating insights into Trek, both in terms of canon and theory, which make the book well worth reading even if you’re just not that into economic philosophy. Saadia draws the reasonable and pertinent conclusion that the miraculous replicator, source of the Federation’s immense material abundance, was not invented until some point in the (largely uncharted) decades between the end of the original cast movies and the beginning of TNG, which therefore means that the cashless economy (if you believe in it) came first (the most famous instance of a ‘we don’t have money’ line comes from a Kirk who hails from about the year 2285). He also suggests that it’s the material abundance enabled by the replicator which is responsible for the transformation in human behaviour by the time of the series set in the 2360s and 2370s – the reason why most of the characters from these shows are somehow not quite as vital and engaging as the original crew (according to Manu Saadia, anyway) is that by the 2360s everyone has gone a bit Spock – freed from economic concerns and pressures, they have fewer recognisably human drives and motivations.

Whether or not you agree with the author’s take on Trek, this is stimulating stuff, if you have the right kind of brain; certainly it made me want to revisit several of the episodes he examines (and also regret the fact the various shows didn’t find a way of exploring these issues in a more coherent and systematic way). If the future of Star Trek is in doubt at the moment (and we must admit that this is perhaps the case), then it’s because many people seem to have lost the capacity to be optimistic: there is no place for utopianism in a world where Trump and Putin are in power, runs the argument. Well, I’d say exactly the opposite, and I suspect that Manu Saadia would, too: his conclusion is that the paradise-like Federation depicted in the TV shows is not a fantasy enabled by improbable machines like the replicator, but the result of concrete social, political, and economic choices on the part of its people. The same choices are available to us now. He doesn’t suggest this will be an easy path – quite the opposite – but that the option at least exists. Is the book’s argument convincing? Well, perhaps not completely, but I think it makes more than enough points to qualify as worthy of consideration. One of the best books of its kind that I have read, and certainly one of the most relevant to the real world.

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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).

class1

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.

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There is sorrow enough in the natural way
From men and women to fill our day;
And when we are certain of sorrow in store,
Why do we always arrange for more?
Brothers and sisters, I bid you beware
Of giving your heart to a SF and/or fantasy franchise to tear.

-Rudyard Kipling (almost)

The sleeping colossus of the genre stirs once more, and an uneasy stirring it is too (if you ask me). For, yea, it is Justin Lin’s Star Trek Beyond, marking the 50th anniversary of the dearly loved series. Those who were less than delighted with JJ Abrams’ crack at Trek and overjoyed when he pushed off to finally make the Star Wars movie he’d clearly actually wanted to do all along could perhaps have been forgiven a brief mutter of ‘Oh no, not again’ when the director’s chair for this landmark was given to the gentleman responsible for The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, along with several other films in that series. Was this to be a worthy and respectful tribute to one of the most successful media franchises of all time? Or just Star Trek: Qo’NoS Heist, or something of that ilk?

stbey

Well, the movie opens with the Enterprise three years into its five year mission (i.e. at around the point the original show finally got canned). Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) is restless and considering his position, possibly because he’s not allowed to wear nearly as many hats in this film as the last one. Mr Spock (Zachary Quinto) also has issues nibbling away at him, but being Spock doesn’t really talk about them much.

Shortly after arriving at the Federation outpost of Yorktown (presumably a reference to Gene Roddenberry’s original pitch for the series back in 1964, when the ship was named the Yorktown, not the Enterprise), Kirk is given the mission of penetrating a nearby nebula (NB: probably not something you’d describe as a nebula if you were an actual astronomer, but I digress) and rescuing the crew of a crashed ship. Off they pop, confidently enough, but of course things never go smoothly for the Enterprise crew and they find a fleet of hostile aliens waiting for them under the command of the malevolent Krall (Idris Elba, who like many actors before him struggles a bit under heavy prosthetics). Krall, for reasons which a) constitute a plot spoiler and b) don’t really stand up to much in the way of scrutiny anyway, is determined to destroy the Federation using one of those alien superweapons which can be conveniently disassembled into portable bits, and the final bit he needs is somewhere on the Enterprise

In the movie’s first big set piece sequence, the alien fleet swats the Enterprise out of space with distressing ease, setting up the middle act of the film, in which the various crew have different adventures on Krall’s home planet before coming together again to do battle with him at the end. And I suppose this is a solid enough structure for what is a competently assembled SF action-adventure movie, if a bit hard to tell what’s going on at some points but what do you expect these days, fun for all the family with some not-bad jokes along the way (credit due, I suppose, to scriptwriters Doug Jung, whose only previous work I am aware of was the movie Confidence, and me ol’ mucker Simon Pegg, who does double duty as Scotty as in the last two movies).

And yet, and yet… In interviews about the film Pegg talked about the studio’s concerns with regard to it, and what particularly caught my attention was his revelation that ‘the studio was worried that it might have been a little bit too Star Trek-y’. The studio producing a Star Trek movie, concerned that their Star Trek movie might have been too Star Trek-y? What kind of Bizarro World (or, if you will, Mirror Universe) have we accidentally slipped into?

Well, I imagine the studio people will be quite relieved, for I doubt anyone will consider Star Trek Beyond to be too Star Trek-y. For those of us who do like Star Trek to be Star Trek-y, however, and can’t see the point of making Star Trek if it’s not going to be Star Trek-y, there will be the problem of how to come to terms with a Star Trek film that is (in various ways) quite Star Wars-y (again) but particularly (in some other ways) very Guardians of the Galaxy-y. The humour in this film isn’t a million miles away from that in the Marvel movie, the plot is to some degree similar, and its use of music in particular seems very much drawn from James Gunn’s film.

In short, for those of us who’ve (fairly) faithfully stuck with Star Trek since the late 70s, if not earlier, what’s on screen here has very little of the look and feel of the franchise in any of its previous incarnations. Yorktown bears no resemblence to any Starbase we’ve seen before, instead looking more like the space station from Elysium or a screen realisation of one of Iain Banks’ Culture Orbitals. There were claims that the script here would ‘deconstruct’ the whole premise of Star Trek and wrestle with the whole basis of the Federation and Starfleet’s mission statement. I saw no sign of that – instead there’s just a bad guy who’s gone a bit mad and wants to smash stuff up – not many shades of grey or opportunities for moral inquiry there.

The film-makers seem to be under the impression that the essence of Star Trek is limited entirely to the seven most prominent characters of the original TV series and their interactions with each other, and I suppose on these terms the film is something of a success: Quinto and Karl Urban are highly effective in replicating the Spock-McCoy chemistry and banter, but you never really forget that this is just a very accomplished act of homage or replication: karaoke Star Trek, which only works because it’s drawing on the work of other people long ago. All of the bits of the film which managed to genuinely move me were the ones drawing heavily on my affection for the old show and the old movies – how can you not feel a pang at seeing the Enterprise ripped apart? How can you not be moved when a picture of Leonard Nimoy as Spock appears, or one of the entire original cast? The fact remains that they feel weirdly out of place here, though.

The film makes a kind of stab at acknowledging Star Trek‘s heritage by inserting various references to things like the Xindi and Romulan Wars of the 22nd century, and including an old starship of a design that anyone who remembers Star Trek: Enterprise will find rather familiar. But even here I’m not completely sure the continuity hangs together, and it is kind of bizarre that the key acknowledgement made is to Enterprise, the version of Star Trek that got the franchise cancelled again after 18 years on TV.

Maybe it’s just me, but as I’ve said before, the joy and magic of Star Trek doesn’t lie in one particular set of characters, not even Kirk, Spock, and company – the great achievement of Trek is the sheer size and scope of its universe. Star Trek isn’t just the original Enterprise on its five year mission – it’s the Genesis Device, and Sulu captaining the Excelsior, and the battle against the Borg at Wolf 359, and Worf’s discommendation, and the Q Continuum, and the Dominion War, and even (God help us) the Kazon-Ogla and the Temporal Cold War and…

Needless to say none of these things are alluded to in Star Trek Beyond, but more importantly it doesn’t feel like any of them could even happen in the same universe in which this film is set. Star Wars is rock’n’roll, Star Trek is classical music – so goes the shorthand. This film feels more like hip hop, but even so, that’s still not the same thing.

Does any of this matter? To the wider audience and the suits at the studio, I suppose not: people will have a good time and the film will likely turn a tidy profit (a further offering bringing back Chris Hemsworth as George Kirk is already in the pipeline). If you don’t especially like or care that much about Star Trek this is a jolly blockbuster which will not challenge you too much. But if you do love Star Trek – all of the first 40 years of it, not just the original series and early movies – I can’t imagine it will do much for you, for it seems to me that it’s just using the name-recognition factor of the brand to promote a rather generic space adventure movie.

I am probably the worst person to give this movie an objective review. A rather dismal trend has developed over the last few years where all the things I used to love have taken on strange new forms which I find it hard to summon up much affection for: Moffat Doctor Who, Disney Star Wars, the last couple of James Bond films and Abrams Star Trek. So it may very well just be me unable to accept that the world has changed. But what can I say? When you come to love something as a child, then that love has a purity and intensity that never completely goes away, no matter how old you grow. So I will just say this: is this a competently made contemporary SF adventure with moments of warmth and charm? Yes, absolutely. Is it a worthy tribute to fifty years of Star Trek? Um, no, not at all – but in a sense there was never any reason to expect it would be. Return to your slumber, colossus.

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Regular readers and those who know me well may be surprised to hear this, but my record in the matter of New Doctor Debut Episodes is not great. In reverse chronological order, the roll of dishonour runs as follows.

  • The Eleventh Hour: missed it on original broadcast. I was in Sri Lanka, where the internet is so atrocious I could never afford to spend long enough in an internet cafe to watch the whole episode. Eventually saw it all the way through nearly a month later.
  • The Christmas Invasion: saw it. Actually forced virtually my entire family to watch it at my brother-in-law’s grandmother’s house (this was back in the days before my brother-in-law pronounced that Doctor Who was ‘occult’ and thus not welcome on any TV he was watching).
  • Rose: saw it. Well, I was hardly going to miss this one, given the length of the break leading up to it.
  • The TV Movie: missed it on TV broadcast. I was on holiday in a TV-free environment at the time. That said, I had of course bought it on tape the day it was released, the previous week.
  • Time and the Rani: saw it. Whether actually watching Time and the Rani is ever something to be proud of is another matter.
  • The Twin Dilemma: missed all but the last five minutes of the first episode due to not having a watch at the time and getting quite involved in watching Quo Vadis on the other side when it was broadcast. The shame, the shame.
  • Castrovalva: missed the odd-numbered episodes due to being forced to attend meetings of a religious paramilitary organisation on Monday nights. Said organisation reliably shifted the nights it met on throughout the early 80s to ensure I routinely missed half the Davison episodes on first broadcast. Possibly this is why I have such an antipathy towards organised religion these days.
  • Robot: missed it, probably. I was rather less than a year old at the time, so my memory is not entirely reliable.
  • Spearhead from Space, Power of the Daleks, An Unearthly Child: missed them, definitely, but I have the good excuse of not actually existing when they were broadcast. I did faithfully catch the repeat of An Unearthly Child in 1981, though (and in 2013, come to that).

This is quite a poor record, for someone who for decades has lived and breathed Doctor Who. Recently, of course, I have found myself perhaps living and breathing it less than in previous years, mainly because – as documented at some length in these pages – I have become increasingly unimpressed by the storytelling since the beginning of Matt Smith’s second season. The show’s hold over me remains undiminished – I become as instinctively transfixed by any casual reference to the series in my presence as ever – but I have increasingly got the sense that I was giving more to the series than I was perhaps receiving in return, and also that the programme was more and more being made for other people, not me: that the day was coming when it would in truth not really be for me at all.

Perhaps this was why I found myself initially a bit reluctant to fully engage with the looming arrival of Peter Capaldi’s Doctor: too many previous disappointments and the awareness that despite all the talk of a new direction and a different sensibility, the recasting of the Doctor was the only significant change in personnel from the last Matt Smith episodes.

Of course, one of those episodes was The Day of the Doctor, which I genuinely enjoyed, not least because of the experience of seeing it at the cinema. So when it was announced that Deep Breath was also going to be shown on the big screen, I found myself booking a ticket almost reflexively. As this one isn’t in 3D, the Phoenix – my favourite Oxford cinema – was able to join in with the fun, and this was where I went to see it.

Due to not reading my ticket properly, and perhaps also a small case of brain failure, I turned up at the Phoenix about an hour before the episode started: but with their typical creativity the Picturehouse staff had mocked up a set of TARDIS doors at the cinema entrance, organised a menu of somewhat dubious-sounding Doctor Who-themed cocktails in the bar, and – most striking of all – had engaged the services of a replica Dalek which was on sentry duty in the foyer when I arrived. The black and shocking pink colourscheme was perhaps not entirely authentic, but otherwise this was a spiffing fan-built casing, and it was nice to speak to the Dalek’s handler in the full knowledge I could talk about Ray Cusick and Terry Nation’s contractual affairs and be pretty sure he would know what I was on about.

And seeing the reaction that the Dalek got from other people either arriving at or leaving the cinema was, well, really lovely: selfies by the dozen and everyone smiling. This was all before the Dalek’s operator got inside, and it did make me remember that, when it comes down to it, Doctor Who isn’t actually about me sitting in my garret complaining about Steven Moffat’s plots and trying to work out what year The Seeds of Death is set in, but families and young people enjoying something which brings them together, entertains, and – one would hope – enlightens them, a bit.

My new-found epiphanous bonhomie was dented a bit when I had to help lift the Dalek up the stairs so it could get to the actual auditorium – the irony was not lost on any of us – and the prospect of the entire event being cancelled due to the Dalek getting jammed in the auditorium doors briefly seemed a distinct possibility. (I learned later the casing took some structural damage from being forced into such cramped quarters.) But this was averted and the cinema soon filled up with a genuinely broad cross-section of society, all of whom seemed equally entertained by the Dalek until the main event got under way.

As you probably know, the cinema screening was accompanied by a number of bonus items. Probably the least essential was ‘Doctor Who Extra’, which is essentially an ultra-cut-down, even-more-enthusiastic version of the old Doctor Who Confidential. Rather more fun, though containing a high percentage of Zoe Ball, was the Q&A beamed from the Odeon Leicester Square, which opened with Capaldi, Coleman and Moffat rising from the pits of the earth like Reginald Dixon and his organ, and was perhaps most memorable for the Doctor and his showrunner arguing about whether or not the Tenth Planet Cyberman design is any good (I’m with Peter Capaldi) and Steven Moffat’s reaction to the suggestion that a live link-up to One Direction might be in the works.

The oddest element was the opener, which was another comedy item from Strax, this time giving his guide to the Doctors. Considering Mark Gatiss was practically banished from the Doctor Who family for making irreverent jokes about old Doctors back in 1999, to have lines like ‘the third Doctor was half-man, half-granny’ and ‘the fifth Doctor showed a grasp of the basic principles of camouflage, by having no distinguishing features whatsoever’ beamed across the nation was rather startling.

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But what of the episode itself? Well, starting with a few rather cosmetic and peripheral issues: exactly how big was that tyrannosaur supposed to be? (It was a tyrannosaur, wasn’t it?) To be able to fit the TARDIS down its throat without choking, it would have to be three or four times bigger, at least, than any specimen known to science – getting on for Godzilla (or, given the setting, Gorgo) proportions. Then again Doctor Who‘s grasp of facts when it comes to dinosaurs has always been shaky. It was with great relief that I realised that the theme music had reverted to its original, non-mucked-about intro, though on reflection I do think it sounded a bit too Christmassy: heavier on the bass for the next arrangement, please.

This story wasn’t as radical a reinvention of the series as The Eleventh Hour, and perhaps less obviously successful as a result. Still, the inclusion of more low comedy business from Strax (the newspaper gag is admittedly funny) and some 50 Shades of Green stuff between Vastra and Jenny should have appealed to the Matt Smith fanbase. This story seemed to be spending a lot of time actively soothing people who might be thinking the new guy was too old and remote for them, as opposed to just letting him be himself. Given that apparently Peter Capaldi has not yet been confirmed for a second year, I sense wariness from the BBC on this topic. Perhaps this was why the episode made such a big deal about Clara’s own doubts and eventual acceptance of the new Doctor, and why Matt Smith was wheeled on to give his seal of approval: an unimaginable decision on any other such occasion, and surely a risky one in that the last thing Peter Capaldi would want, I expect, was to potentially be upstaged by his predecessor in his debut episode.

He hardly needed it, for me at least. I am aware I am biased as I am, as you can probably tell, a fan of the old-school style Doctors anyway, but I thought Capaldi rocked the house down: not as unremittingly dark and spiky as I had expected, but angular and unpredictable and alien when he needed to be, and subtly vulnerable at the end of the episode. My only concern is that a lot of his dialogue was functionally interchangeable with the kind of lines Moffat routinely gives Sherlock Holmes: the conceptual distance between the two characters seems to be getting smaller and smaller. Much potential for a truly great Doctor here, given a chance and some decent material. (My take on the ‘why did I pick this face?’ issue: the Doctor remembers it as the face of a man who needed saving…)

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My overall impression of this episode was very positive, but this is more in terms of its tone and atmosphere than its nuts and bolts. I liked the dingy and macabre steampunk overtones – all the hints of an old enemy, plus the presence of the Chinese droid in the cellar, almost led me to expect the bad guy to be someone from Talons of Weng Chiang, but alas no – plus the more relaxed and character-driven pace of it. Set against this I feel obliged to point out the story was reliant on a blatantly unresolved plot device – exactly who is Michelle Gomez’s character, beyond being arch-villain the Mistress of the Nethersphere? (And yet another woman apparently with designs on the Doctor…) Not to mention the fact that Clara’s big scene (fending off the Half-Faced Man’s threats) was predicated on her either forgetting or declining to make use of the fact she had heavily armed back-up outside who could be summoned in seconds.

Largely recycling elements of The Girl in the Fireplace struck me as a questionable choice: it’s a quick and easy scenario for people in the know, but possibly a little baffling for anyone not as familiar with that episode as the likes of me: I discussed it with a family member who isn’t one of the faithful and he confessed to finding it somewhat confusing. But then again, as usual this episode wasn’t really driven by the plot but the characters, and in that sense it was very much business as usual.

So, much cause for optimism there, in terms of the tone and the new dynamic between the characters. It will be interesting to see if the new, more measured pacing survives into regular-length episodes, and if the quality of the plotting genuinely improves. But as I say, for the time being I am hopeful.

 

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Okay, in the course of this piece I’m fully expecting to find myself in some fairly abstract and definitively trivial areas, so let’s start with a nice simple, easy question that cuts straight to the matter we’re here to discuss. Observe, please, the picture below with the five gentlemen in it.

Now: do they look the same, or different? And if so, why?

cybeflavours

It’s not actually a trick question, but it does lead us into some fairly peculiar (and, to me, quite interesting) areas connected with how people – fans, mainly – engage with and think about Doctor Who. I’ve been thinking about writing this piece for ages but always shied away, simply because it is such an esoteric area. But now it seems to me that it has a certain relevency, simply because some Doctor Who fans are worrying about, essentially, a very similar question. Observe the second picture below.

Now: do these two men look the same, or different? And why?

twocaps

The key question here is basically this: how realistic is the Doctor Who TV series in how it represents the events of the stories it depicts? As you can see, straightaway we’re off into the depths of the Fan Zone, as the question presupposes the actual existence of Who-world as something separate from the TV series that created it. It’s not real, of course. It’s a meaningless question. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that we can’t have a go at answering it.

Many visual aspects of Who-world have radically changed over the years, one of the most discussed being the appearance of the Cybermen, as documented in our first picture. This is largely due to improvements in costume-making, of course, and changing standards of what is perceived to be credible to the audience of the day. The Cybermen of The Tenth Planet look very different to those in Nightmare in Silver – to the viewer, at least. But do they look different to the characters in the story?

Let’s choose a slightly different example and consider the destruction of Earth (or a close lookalike). The demise of Earth in The End of the World is a great-looking special-effects triumph, of course, as convincing as such a thing can be. The destruction of Mondas in the first Cyberman story, on the other hand, more closely resembles a blob of polystyrene melting off the end of a stick. In story terms, the two events are almost identical – but their realisation is vastly different. Yet, in terms of the fiction, it’s safe to assume that they would have appeared the same to observers within the universe of the story. So isn’t there a clear gap here between the events of the story and how they are presented to the TV viewer?

I think there is. The real question is when we are dealing with this gap, and when we can take what we see on screen at face value – in other words, how can we tell when a change in Cyberman design between stories is intended to represent an in-universe change, and when it simply represents an improvement in costuming or creative choice on the part of the production team?

As I say, this is not a question many people are likely to lose sleep over. I would have said it was mainly an issue to dedicated continuity cops and writers of fictional history. The first widely-distributed attempt to tackle this problem was David Banks’ history of the Cybermen in his book of the same name – and Banks does take the design of the Cybermen as being a true representation of their in-universe appearance, the appearing and disappearing ear-muffs on a number of designs leading him to postulate a whole series of dynasties of different sub-species of Cybermen cross-pollinating with each other. If you simply assume that all Cybermen look more or less identical no matter what their origin, writing this sort of history becomes a bit easier, but the results are much less interesting.

Changes in Dalek design over the years have mostly been less obvious – the two most recent updates excepted – but nevertheless they have taken place. I haven’t seen a concerted effort to write a Dalek history incorporating the shifts in design, the main issue being that the two main designs from the 20th century series – the small, light grey ones first seen in The Dead Planet, and the larger, darker-coloured ones first appearing in Day of the Daleks – seem to appear almost at random (if viewed from an ‘historical’ perspective), with the dark greys being the first Daleks created in Genesis of the Daleks, but also appearing in 2540 (Frontier in Space, et al) and the final years of the original Dalek history (Destiny of the Daleks, et al), while the light greys show up in the 22nd century (The Dalek Invasion of Earth), the year 4000 (Mission to the Unknown, et al), and the last days of the original Dalek Emperor (Evil of the Daleks).

One could go on and on – the number of fingers possessed by Sontarans varies between stories, the Silurians look very different in their first two appearances, and so on. Changes in the appearance of gadgetry and places also abound, particularly the sonic screwdriver and the TARDIS interior.

However, while most of these (possibly superficial) changes go unremarked-upon in the 20th century series, major changes in the TARDIS usually do. The peculiar TARDIS interior decor of The Time Monster is referenced in the script, the switch in control rooms at the beginning of The Masque of Mandragora likewise. The new console in The Five Doctors is lovingly showcased in the opening shot of the story.

It’s a rare example of the 20th century show acknowledging this sort of change. One of the things that makes the 21st century programme (particularly under Steven Moffat’s curatorship) subtly but distinctly different is the way in which these changes are not just acknowledged but foregrounded. Another change in TARDIS interior is a significant element of The Eleventh Hour, while Victory of the Daleks is a bit of a watershed moment: not only do two clearly different models of Dalek appear in the same story for the first time – the story demands that they really are as different as they appear to the viewer – but this fact is central to the plot, it’s what the story is on some level about. Nightmare in Silver attempts something similar by including two different makes of Cybermen at different points. It would seem, then, that the gap between the fiction and its realisation is no longer present in the current show – or, if it is, it’s much less obvious.

But what about when it comes to casting? There are many actors who have racked up numerous Doctor Who appearances playing different parts every time. Are we to suppose that – to pick an example at random – Supervisor Lowe from The Invisible Enemy and Laurence Scarman from Pyramids of Mars (both played by the inestimable Michael Sheard) really were spits of each other? The Doctor doesn’t comment on it and under the standard conventions of TV one isn’t surprised by this. No-one comments when a character in The Macra Terror is played by different actors in different episodes, after all; this sort of thing is standard in soap operas too (though it’s something that happens relatively rarely in Doctor Who – perhaps the very existence in-universe of the idea of regeneration, where characters can be ‘visibly’ recast, makes it difficult to ‘invisibly’ recast them like this).

There is the odd moment when the show seems to be winking at the audience about this, though – one comes quite early on, in a missing episode from The Daleks’ Master Plan, when William Hartnell makes some tongue-in-cheek ad libs about a particular character seeming oddly familiar (the same extra had previously appeared in The Crusade) – but no-one comments on Steven Taylor’s uncanny resemblence to Morton Dill, for instance, the sixth Doctor’s potential sideline as a Commander Maxil lookee-likee, or Amy Pond’s doppelganger in Pompeii.

On the other hand, there have been times when casting a previously-used performer as a regular has resulted in an in-universe reference to this. Romana admits to copying Princess Astra’s appearance for her second incarnation (mainly because they’re both played by Lalla Ward), while Smith and Jones gives us the biologically unheard-of phenomenon of identical cousins to explain Freema Agyeman’s appearance as different characters in two stories set in the same time and place.

Which, I suppose, brings us to the question of what reference – if any – they are going to make to Peter Capaldi’s previous appearances in Who-world when he appears as the Doctor. Some people – I say people, I mean fans – are actually fretting about this, complaining that having seen Capaldi as Caecilius in Fires of Pompeii and Frobisher in Children of Earth they can’t now accept him as the Doctor. Others are engaged upon heroic attempts in continuity-copping to explain the similarities.

Well, I can’t believe they’re going to go that far in the TV show, but I wouldn’t bet against a little reference or two just as a nod to the fanbase. Then again, I may be wrong. One of my issues with the current version of the series is that it does sometimes feel like high-class fanfic, or something inspired by browsing through the DWM lettercolumn or Q&A page from thirty years ago: Why not do a set of stories about the Doctor meeting someone out-of-sequence? Why not do a story set entirely inside the TARDIS? Which is the most advanced type of Cyberman? And so on. It seems to me that the current show’s willingness to do episodes actually about changes in monster design and the in-universe reasons for this is a sign of somebody’s fannishness running out of control. I’m not sure all the stories have been strong enough to justify these conceits – and if they’re going to continue in this self-regarding vein, that’s something that needs to be addressed.

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