Film, Reviews

BLACK PANTHER is thrilling, powerful & elegant black superhero myth making

Black Panther feels as much like a moment as it does a movie. There has been something transformative about the response to what, in another time and place, might have just ended up as another Marvel movie. It’s yet again proof that Marvel are expanding their reach, upping their game, and doubling their odds.

Ryan Coogler’s entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, adapting the successful if not widely known outside comic-book circles story of King T’Challa of Wakanda, is the second picture in a row from the comics studio, after Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, to feel like the true work of an auteur filmmaker. This has been a balance Kevin Feige’s game-changing franchise has previously struggled with since Jon Favreau’s Iron Man changed the course of blockbuster cinema in 2008; you only have to point to the wreckage of films such as The Incredible Hulk or Thor: The Dark World as good examples of how it took Marvel a while to truly embrace a filmmaker’s singular vision alongside the beats and overarching universal frameworks Marvel have spent a decade building toward, which will reach a conclusion with Avengers: Infinity War this year and its untitled 2019 sequel.

Could it be that the reason both Thor: Ragnarok and now Black Panther are such strong entities within the Marvel family is precisely because they didn’t have to particularly fit that framework? That’s a strong possibility. All Waititi had to do was position Thor in a space whereby he could be slotted back into Infinity War – beyond that he had carte blanche to re-imagine the world of Asgard as a neon, Guardians of the Galaxy-esque, 1980’s retro-futuristic blend of mythology and Antipodean eccentricity, and for the most part it worked beautifully.

Coogler has perhaps even greater freedom with Black Panther, allowed as he is to truly develop the internal mythology and world of Wakanda around what isn’t a traditional origin story for T’Challa, given his previous introduction in Captain America: Civil War, but something deeper: a liberal-minded tale of colonial rejection, imperialist globalisation, and the haunting embers of black persecution.

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Season Reviews, TV

STAR TREK: DISCOVERY (Season 1, Part 2): Reflections on the Journey

Star Trek: Discovery has enjoyed a fascinating first season, both in the context of its place in the television landscape and the historic Trek franchise as a whole.

For a start, it was a season of two halves, both shaped by different creatives with different aesthetics. Bryan Fuller’s original influence you can feel in the opening arc regarding the revered Klingon extremist T’Kuvma and how his death makes him a religious martyr, triggers civil infighting and launches a ‘crusade’ against the Federation who killed him. The parallels to modern religious fundamentalist terrorism are as potent an allegory as we’ve ever seen in Star Trek, with old series hand Fuller aware for any new show to work (especially one designed to relaunch the franchise on television), it would need to hold true to the precepts of what people loved about Star Trek: the fact it always reflected where we are as a modern 20th or 21st century society.

Those reflections became even more pointed following the mid-season break, as the combined stamp of Alex Kurtzman & Akiva Goldsman, plus key writers Gretchen Berg & Aaron Harbarts moved further into focus. The reflection became literal as the Discovery and her crew were thrown into the legendary Mirror Universe, a dark, inverse reflection of the Federation and humanity’s ‘future history’ first seen on The Original Series, and later continued on Deep Space Nine and Enterprise. For the most extended spell in the MU the franchise has ever given us, we are placed between the Terran Empire seen in ENT’s ‘In a Mirror, Darkly’ and TOS’ ‘Mirror, Mirror’, and the writers give themselves the freedom to explore this universe in much greater detail and tie together the majority of story and character arcs rumbling across the season, in the context of visiting this alternate universe.

What telling an extended story in the Mirror Universe affords the writers is the opportunity to make a pointed commentary and comparison with current global politics and social change. Many fans and commentators have made the point that given our current path as a species, our future is more likely to be the despotic, warlike, totalitarian Empire than the progressive, peaceful Federation – it’s not exactly a subtle point of analysis. What in TOS was a pulpy science-fiction concept designed to allow the main cast to play villainous versions of themselves, has now become far more of a genuine point of dramatic allegory.

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Episode Reviews, The X-Files, TV

THE X-FILES 11×06 – ‘Kitten’ (TV Review)

One of the major criticisms of the previous season of The X-Files, the six-part revival series after many years of uncertainty about the show’s future, is that we didn’t see nearly enough of Mitch Pileggi and his character, Assistant Director Walter Skinner. It was a more than valid concern in regards to a character (and actor) who have been, without question, one of the key reasons Chris Carter’s series became such a pop-cultural success. Kitten is a clear, unashamed attempt to redress that balance, squaring the focus entirely on Skinner, his past and his present.

The fact it disappoints, therefore, is not only a touch unexpected, but more than a little frustrating.

The character of Skinner has been with The X-Files since late in the show’s first season, debuting in Tooms which aired early in 1994. Fitting the template of Agents Mulder & Scully’s boss, a template Carter had struggled to fill across the first season with a succession of potential, internal antagonists who came briefly and went, Skinner represented not just the FBI, but a bulwark of old-fashioned masculinity in a show with a female scientist and nerdy conspiracy theorist as leads.

Skinner is the equivalent of a small-town Sherriff in an American Western; a compromised man having to tolerate the lawless thugs who run his streets wild while proving sympathetic to the lawmakers and townsfolk he’s there to serve. Skinner described himself once by declaring to Mulder that “I stand right on the line that you keep crossing” and this contextualises his function, since essentially Season Two premiere Little Green Men, for the entire run of the series.

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Essays, TV

Revisiting… Ricky Gervais & Stephen Merchant’s EXTRAS

Looking at Extras, the second comedy project from Ricky Gervais & Stephen Merchant, a decade on, you realise for all the Leveson enquiries, disgraced newspapers and changing models of television, the world of media and entertainment looks a great deal similar. Few lessons have been learned. Most structures and institutions remain the same.

Because, let’s not split hairs, Extras was and indeed remains a quite clear cautionary tale about the lure and subsequent perils of fame. Not just fame either but fame for fame’s sake, both of which are areas Gervais’ show touches upon the deeper it propels into its narrative over the course of two six part seasons and a feature-length Christmas special finale.

Extras turned out to be much like The Office, its predecessor that took Gervais from a memorably offensive supporting player on late-90’s edgy Channel 4 comedy and made him a star of international, indeed Hollywood proportions. Not in style, not even in story, but in the sense of how it constructed a story arc around a concept and concluded in strong, often quite dramatic fashion.

Though it lacked the iconic nature of The Office, Extras had the heart, many of the laughs, and certainly had the point of why it existed, right up to the very final scene.

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Episode Reviews, The X-Files, TV

THE X-FILES 11×05 – ‘Ghouli’ (TV Review)

When plans for the latest season of The X-Files were announced, quite a number of fans were surprised to be informed by FOX head honcho Dana Walden that Season 11 would feature only two episodes concerning the ‘mytharc’, Chris Carter’s long-running, labyrinthian mythology which has coursed through the series over the last twenty-five years. Ghouli proves that statement was never entirely accurate, and continues what was already established in This – the mythology is being weaved in more with stealth than grandiosity.

Ostensibly, of course, Ghouli is a monster story – two teenage girls try and kill each other, each believing the other to be a tentacled beast from some kind of Lovecraftian nether realm. It recalls Season 5’s Folie a Deux, which memorably dealt with the literal idea of an unspeakable ‘thing’ hiding in plain sight, with a dash of Season 3’s cosmically apocalyptic black comedy Syzygy (just without the laughs). Before the episode, a neat level of viral marketing presented the fictional ghouli.net discovered by Agents Mulder & Scully in the episode as a real site fans could click on, reading the fictional urban legend recounting of people seeing or encountering the mysterious Ghouli. Everything about the episode, on the face of it, points to a classic monster of the week.

If not for a character named Jackson van de Kamp, who very swiftly establishes himself as the raison d’être for James Wong’s entire piece. Look away now—no seriously, don’t say I didn’t warn you—but Jackson is, of course, Mulder & Scully’s long-lost biological son William (or Scully’s for certain, at least). William was born at the end of Season 8 having been coveted by alien super-soldiers and later bonkers cultists for being some kind of supreme alien/human hybrid being, indeed prophecies exist about how he may either save humanity or lead the aliens to their complete destruction (in Season 9, so we try and forget about all that). Nevertheless, William is important with a capital I. He was crucial to the last two seasons of the original series. He played a key, off-screen role in Season 10.

And he is central to everything about Ghouli.

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Episode Reviews, The X-Files, TV

THE X-FILES 11×04 – ‘The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat’ (TV Review)

There have been several back and forth opinions regarding the latest season of The X-Files as to whether or not the show has too often tried to layer its fantastical stories with too much overt American political commentary. The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat will definitively put that argument to bed – not only is Season 11 now almost certainly going to be the final run of this iconic show, Darin Morgan’s comedic entry is a pointed response to the Trump, Fake News, Post-Truth era. It is also, as you may expect from the man, a minor work of brilliance.

Darin Morgan’s comedy episodes have become their own sub-genre within The X-Files since very early on in the second and third seasons, delivering gems such as Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose or Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’, episodes which took the essential concept of Chris Carter’s series–two FBI agents investigate the paranormal–and inverted it into a comedic romp filled with one-liners, flashback gags and histrionic, heightened levels of reality.

Some have argued The X-Files was so successful precisely because each writer brought a different canonical sensibility to the series – Carter’s arch grasp of symbolic theme, Glen Morgan & James Wong’s fusion of pulp and thriller stylistics, or Vince Gilligan’s blue-collar horror tales, but Darin Morgan’s stand out the most for being almost non-canonical, a pocket universe of wry, format-breaking, ‘meta’ stories which shine an alternative light on The X-Files and prove, without a shadow of a doubt, it has a remarkable elasticity of tone.

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Episode Reviews, Game of Thrones, TV

GAME OF THRONES 1×03: ‘Lord Snow’ (TV Review)

If the first two episodes of Game of Thrones established the core characters and concepts the saga will pursue, Lord Snow makes us keenly aware not just of the underpinning geo-politics, but the deliberate level of fractious perception which makes up the realm of the Seven Kingdoms.

Though we have visited the city in previous episodes, King’s Landing is explored in greater detail, with the introduction of Littlefinger and his houses of ill-repute, and characters such as Lord Varys and Grand Maester Pycelle, all of them the kind of elite noblemen and courtiers you would have found in ancient Rome or the round tables of English Kings, part of a city which feels akin to a fusion of Roman architecture and the pulse of Tudor London. For the first time, we see the symbol of power many will come to desire in Game of Thrones – the Iron Throne, a seat constructed of the swords of past Kings, which with the greatest level of irony we’re introduced to as Jaime Lannister perches at the foot of it.

Jaime, being a Lannister, often goes out of his way to reinforce his own narrative about events of the past and present regarding his family. Even though he earned his soubriquet ‘Kingslayer’ for the fact he slaughtered Aerys ‘the Mad King’ Targaryen at the foot of the Throne, Jaime nonetheless blames the will of the people and realm for his murderous actions to Ned Stark, incumbent Hand of the King, taunting the man not only over his position “they say the King shits, and the Hand wipes” but that the noblemen of the realm stood by and did nothing when Ned’s father & brother were murdered in the Throne Room during Robert’s Rebellion. In one conversation, barbed with an undercurrent of hatred, the enmity of the Lannister’s and Stark’s is clear.

One family values truth, the other values their truth.

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The X-Files, TV, Writing

THE X-FILES 11×03 – ‘Plus One’ (TV Review)

Bread and butter indeed. There is a strong argument brewing that Plus One, the third episode of The X-Files eleventh season, is the purest example of a ‘classic’ X-File since the year 2000.

I’ve discussed previously how we need to start thinking of the first nine seasons of The X-Files the way we do 1960’s Star Trek, as the ‘classic’ series of the show. The revival seasons have proven The X-Files, in order to adapt to an evolving and changing television landscape, has found for better or worse (and fandom are strictly divided as to the answer) the need to reinvent itself, to some degree. Season 10 was filled with episodes which reconceived the series’ legendary ‘mytharc’, indulged in the nostalgia of the show’s comedy episodes, and fused both ‘monster of the week’ stories with character journeys for Mulder and Dana Scully, alongside a bizarre experimental piece from creator Chris Carter. Not one of those episodes, truly, felt like the ‘classic’ series.

Plus One is the first episode since the show returned to buck that trend. Season premiere My Struggle III bravely took the mythology to controversial new places and This, Glen Morgan’s follow up, pitched Mulder & Scully in the middle of a breakneck Hitchcockian conspiracy thriller with shades of that same mytharc. This had plenty of touches to please any ‘classic series’ fan but equally engaged in action stylistics and storytelling choices which kept it firmly in the realm of ‘revival series’. You can see why Carter would have wanted to write Plus One, because for the first time in years he has the space, breathing room and position to create a true ‘monster of the week’ tale, even if that term can sometimes be used too broadly. Plus One doesn’t have a Tooms or a Pusher or even a Rob Roberts.

Yet at the same time it’s the most standalone piece The X-Files has given us in a long time.

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Essays, TV

THE X-FILES and Alternate Universes

As the much-anticipated eleventh and almost certainly final season of The X-Files kicks off 2018, a remarkable fan theory has begun to arise in certain social media groups from the first two episodes: that The X-Files has slipped into an alternate universe. On the face of it, the notion sounds as crazy as the kind of cases Agent Fox Mulder has in his basement office, but could some nugget of possibility ripple beneath this theory?

A major factor backing up the assertion was confirmed in season premiere My Struggle III, in the fact Agent Dana Scully imagined the previous Season 10 finale My Struggle II in her mind’s eye, a remarkable twist eradicating the events of an entire episode only sold to the audience by virtue of Scully having been gifted of it thanks to a vision from her long-lost son William.

The catastrophic, world-ending, apocalyptic events of the Season 10 finale ended up simply as information for Scully to understand, a warning perhaps of knowledge to help she & Mulder prevent the release of the deadly Spartan Virus that wipes out humanity. So the theory goes, however, Scully’s vision wasn’t just a prophetic warning of terrible events to come, but rather an entire alternate reality she, and we, have experienced since The X-Files returned to our screens.

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Episode Reviews, Game of Thrones, TV

GAME OF THRONES 1×02: ‘The Kingsroad’ (TV Review)

Game of Thrones, in many respects, has more than one pilot episode. There is an argument the entirety of its first season, or at least a sizeable proportion of it, constitutes the introductory beginning. The Kingsroad very much continues layering in themes, concepts, symbols, ideas and character arcs which will pay off across the next half a dozen seasons.

This is where, of course, serialised television differs significantly from traditional storytelling, particularly when adapting literary source material. Game of Thrones isn’t the first serialised show to be described as a ‘novel for television’ (you can go back, at least, to J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5 in the 90’s which considered itself such), but never before had a TV show attempted to adapt such a grand, complex series of novels as George R.R. Martin’s. Unlike plenty of serialised series before it, and indeed which launched afterwards, Game of Thrones from the beginning knew in broad strokes the beginning, middle and at least part of the end, given the majority of A Song of Ice & Fire has long been written. This gives the beginning of the series a confidence many other shows struggle to find or maintain.

Game of Thrones in later series has been accused, not unfairly, of racing through plot beats. Seasons 6 and particularly 7-8 are almost certainly guilty of this, for better or worse. Season 1, however, is already taking its time. The Kingsroad merely builds on what was established in Winter Is Coming, which essentially was not much, in the grand scope of Westeros. It gave us our primary characters around which the entire show would orbit (given if you look at the pilot, the majority of key players are still with us in the final episode). It set up the principal antagonists of the series, and the main narrative through-line of Season 1, being the conspiracy at the heart of King’s Landing.

Foundations. Good foundations but with a huge amount of scope to add more scaffolding to.

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