Season Reviews, Star Trek: Picard, TV

STAR TREK: PICARD (Season 2) is a frustrating, contrived wallow in nostalgia

If ever proof were needed that the writers and producers of modern Star Trek study what audiences think and feel about their shows, then Star Trek: Picard’s second season is most assuredly it.

The first season was a defiant aberration even in the context of Star Trek’s modernisation. Ostensibly a character study, the first Star Trek series directly focused on a popular icon from the broader franchise, Picard was deliberate in just how determinedly it refused to play to the gallery of Star Trek expectations. We only saw Starfleet and the Federation in passing and they were reconceptualised, in the wake of the Trump Administration, as at best an insular, ignorant organisation driven by paranoia, at worst an openly corrupt government. There was no glistening starship our characters travelled on. No exploring new worlds.

This made sense, in broad strokes, given what Picard was designed to explore. Sir Patrick Stewart agreed only to return for a deconstruction of his legendary Enterprise Captain; aged, lost at the end of a century he no longer recognises, haunted by his inability to save a population formerly made up of ideological enemies from a natural catastrophe. Surrounding him with newly invented characters, placing him far from the world of Starfleet he was so closely associated with, the first season of Picard worked to take Jean-Luc on a journey to rediscover the spirit he had lost. A dark series, it dared to suggest the 24th century future fans had imagined after Star Trek: Nemesis was quite different from what would have been expected.

Which, in part, is why Season 2 immediately reverses track. Star Trek: Picard gives in to audience expectation, maybe even pressure, to try and tap not just a 1990s but also 1980s nostalgia for the franchise. It largely fails at both.

Continue reading “STAR TREK: PICARD (Season 2) is a frustrating, contrived wallow in nostalgia”
Doctor Who, TV

Book Review + Author Interview: THE LONG GAME (Paul Hayes)

We all remember the improbability of Doctor Who’s return in 2005 after sixteen years off screen, barring one semi-canonical TV movie in 1996. It seemed, for fans, an impossibility after years not only in the wilderness but in the perceived rear window of television history. Doctor Who was cheap, cheesy and passe in the post-modern world.

Russell T. Davies entirely reinvented the series and changed that perception from the ground up once he unveiled Christopher Eccleston as a stripped-back, modern Doctor with a jolly northern brogue, dress sense like your semi-trendy uncle, and the brooding angst beneath of a man who was transformed from the eccentric old man with flamboyant costumes into the last of the Time Lords. Taking the stylistic precepts British viewers had grown used to with a decade of American pop cultural imports, ‘RTD’ made Doctor Who relatable, likeable, down to earth and even a bit trendy in a way it probably had never quite been before.

We know this story. Some of us might even know the backstory of how the revival was produced, of how Davies and Bad Wolf productions turned BBC Wales in Cardiff into a 21st century TV producing powerhouse. It is all well documented. Less so is the premise of The Long Game: 1996-2003 – The Inside Story of How the BBC Brought Back Doctor Who, in which Paul Hayes does what the book says on the tin and sketches out a lost chapter in Doctor Who history. One of numerous reasons his book is a resounding success is for just how much he brings to light a story most of us won’t even necessarily know we wanted, yet it turns out to be a compelling, widespread tale not just about Doctor Who, but a much wider television landscape.

After reading The Long Game, you really will never quite look at Doctor Who again in the same way.

Continue reading “Book Review + Author Interview: THE LONG GAME (Paul Hayes)”

Film

Film Review: SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME (2021)

There is a debate coming about Spider-Man: No Way Home, set to go down in cinematic lore as both the end and a new beginning for Tom Holland’s Peter Parker. A debate around just how much fan service has now arrested control of popular cinema.

While No Way Home will almost certainly do gigantic box office business, even by the metrics of the hugely successful Marvel Cinematic Universe, not everyone is going to embrace the ambitious steps Jon Watts’ film takes. This isn’t, after all, simply the concluding beat of a three-film trilogy, such as we saw in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 (and let’s not forget there was talk of a fourth for a time afterward). No Way Home is the conclusion of seven previous Spider-Man adventures, not to mention Holland’s web as a character within the wider MCU itself.

In that sense, Marvel have crafted a sequel quite unlike any other here, by tapping into the burgeoning concept of the ‘multiverse’ in the way audiences have previously understood to be the point of parallel universe stories: to depict alternate versions of the same characters. The MCU has thus far established the concept on more of a conceptual level in outings such as Loki, or even irreverently in the last Spider-Man film Far From Home or in elements of WandaVision. Here, the franchise goes for broke in providing audiences with long-standing closure that, had the MCU not been as rampantly successful, would never have happened.

For some, like this writer, the result is joyful. Others will find it infuriating and strangely reductive. And either way, No Way Home could be a sign of times to come, should it be the huge success people are predicting.

Continue reading “Film Review: SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME (2021)”

Comics, TV, Writing

First Impressions: WANDAVISION ‘Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience / Don’t Touch That Dial’

It was never meant to begin this way.

Marvel’s true first foray into expanding their immensely successful cinematic universe beyond the realms of the big screen was not originally designed to start with an MCU take on Pleasantville; a surreal dreamscape inversion of two relatively important but not marquee characters in the Marvel tapestry, yet WandaVision leading the charge thanks to the continued preponderance of Covid-19 could well turn out to be unintentionally inspired. There is a boldness to having audiences tune in to such an unusual and decidedly ambiguous concept as their first salvo of the much-hyped MCU ‘Phase Four’.

The project, from newcomer Jac Schaffer (also boasting a story credit on the upcoming Black Widow movie), directed by Matt Shakman, certainly in the first two episodes at least, is rooted in the kind of pop cultural reference points Marvel have built an entire screen universe around. There will scarcely be an era or artistic style the MCU hasn’t adopted when the day is done, and WandaVision very clearly takes a cue from the classic American sitcom of old – The Dick Van Dyke Show or Bewitched – which encapsulated safe, charisma driven family friendly comedy. In a way, this almost feels like Marvel in on their own joke, having strived to develop a storytelling universe that caters both to hardcore, decades-long comic lore nerds and the common or garden punter.

WandaVision plays up to those accessible reference points with a sense of playful glee, a joy available only to a well-established universe with adaptable rules, an easy going confidence, and an understanding of the tropes it has adopted.
Continue reading “First Impressions: WANDAVISION ‘Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience / Don’t Touch That Dial’”

Star Trek: Discovery, TV, Writing

TV Review: STAR TREK: DISCOVERY (Season 3)

Star Trek: Discovery’s third season is both a step forward and, in many ways, a step back for the new era of the Star Trek franchise.

Buoyed by the ending of a second season that sent the crew of the Discovery far past the point of any canonical Star Trek story to date, the possibilities were endless. It could throw off the shackles of nostalgia, of existing trapped within the fan fiction canon of the 1960s, and truly emerge into something new. Incoming showrunner Michelle Paradise, under the stewardship of our modern day Rick Berman, Alex Kurtzman, chooses to throw the U.S.S. Discovery into a world of uncertainty: a post-cataclysmic, disordered galaxy with the reduced United Federation of Planets, an imperious crime syndicate in heavy control, and a central mystery for the crew to solve. Discovery builds on Star Trek: Picard’s notion of a shattered world order, a universe of futuristic certainties rent asunder by cosmic events, poor governance, and the rise of conspiratorial and sinister entities. Like much Star Trek before it, the seeming fall of the Federation as we knew it tracks with the steady collapse of the United States as the bedrock of post-war geopolitical order in the 21st century.

This allows Paradise and her team of writers to present Discovery as the kind of anachronism Star Trek itself, to some degree, now is. Michael Burnham leads her crew into this unknown future where she is greeted in almost hallowed terms by the first Starfleet officer she meets, who suggests the “hope” of a unified Federation, separated through travel and communications by the mysterious ‘Burn’ event a century ago, is her (and her crew, but more specifically her). It is as close to prophecy without venturing down the awkward road Picard trod on those lines, but Discovery the ship ends up serving as an avatar of righteousness and goodness from the distant past, from the “golden age of science” as a future character at one point puts it. In a world filled with Federation officers used to reactive, insular actions, Burnham and the Discovery arrive with a hopeful joie de vivre about the universe which, surprise surprise, challenges the status quo in a way no other crew had done in a hundred years. Discovery serves as Star Trek’s own attempt to provide light amidst ominous darkness.

The problem ends up lying with a mixture of repetitive elements, unoriginal storylines, at points poor writing and a chronic over-reliance on a main character who is lionised, even almost canonised, to the point of a climactic moment that is not just unearned, but also truly, when you think about it, absurd. Continue reading “TV Review: STAR TREK: DISCOVERY (Season 3)”

TV, Writing

TV Review: DOCTOR WHO – ‘Revolution of the Daleks’

One of the curiosities of Doctor Who is that the series is an ongoing continuum, and despite an almost two decade gap, has been so since 1963.

Characters, even Doctor’s, come and go. Unlike most other science-fiction shows such as Star Trek, which rotates casts and time periods within different stylistic eras, Doctor Who is a constant. The concept has not changed, in essence, for almost sixty years. Yet the show does not always consider the journey as opposed to the destination, given how it careers from one universe bending, shattering narrative to the next. Revolution of the Daleks chooses, amidst a traditional world-threatening story, to take that breath and wonder. To consider quite what the journey with the Doctor means, and how to appreciate it.

Chris Chibnall’s era has rightly been castigated for a lack of significant character depth or development, with rather flimsy storytelling that avoided, certainly in his first series as showrunner, long-form Steven Moffat-style narrative construction. His second year saw him try and fuse Moffat’s plotting with Russell T. Davies’ earthy bombast, with mixed success. In both cases, the show has lacked a key element that made the previous eras distinct in their own way. Davies’ managed to take Who’s dated, kitsch concept and inject a modern, American-influenced level of production, and Moffat built on those foundations to deconstruct the show as a sci-fi fairytale. Chibnall’s era, to date, has lacked that signature difference.

Until, perhaps, now. Revolution of the Daleks suggests that, possibly, Chibnall might at last be finding in Doctor Who what he wants to say.
Continue reading “TV Review: DOCTOR WHO – ‘Revolution of the Daleks’”

Film, Writing

SOUL (2020 – Review)

Pixar’s penchant for life affirming messages holds firm for Soul.

They really do have this down to a fine art now as the world’s premier animation outlet, their ability to fine tune very clear conceptual ideas and frame them in the context of extraordinary worlds and scenarios. Soul, co-directed jointly by Pixar chief Pete Docter and writer Kemp Powers, focuses exclusively on the ephemeral without leaning too heavily into the spiritual. It frames the individual journey, the meaning of existence itself, through vivid representations of an ‘alien’ world. The animation here is truly outstanding, even for Pixar, combining the buoyant realism of New York with geometric shapes, childlike landscapes and glorious star scapes.

In this sense, it moves away from the quest narrative of Onward, which never quite reconciled its Weekend at Bernie’s central plot with the broad fantasy trappings of the story, and moves closer to the cartoonish depiction we saw in Inside Out. The souls of the ‘Great Before’ might look like the Adipose fat creatures from Doctor Who at points but they more adequately represent ‘pre-emotions’, blank slates on which life experience has yet to be etched, and Docter & Powers look to tell a story about what that experience, what life, can do to the soul, and what we really should place importance in.

By the end of Soul, there is no doubt this crystallises the traumatic experience of 2020 as an existential year, and is undoubtedly the reaffirmation we all needed as we leave it.

Continue reading “SOUL (2020 – Review)”

Film, Writing

Film Review: SOUL (2020)

Pixar’s penchant for life affirming messages holds firm for Soul.

They really do have this down to a fine art now as the world’s premier animation outlet, their ability to fine tune very clear conceptual ideas and frame them in the context of extraordinary worlds and scenarios. Soul, co-directed jointly by Pixar chief Pete Docter and writer Kemp Powers, focuses exclusively on the ephemeral without leaning too heavily into the spiritual. It frames the individual journey, the meaning of existence itself, through vivid representations of an ‘alien’ world. The animation here is truly outstanding, even for Pixar, combining the buoyant realism of New York with geometric shapes, childlike landscapes and glorious star scapes.

In this sense, it moves away from the quest narrative of Onward, which never quite reconciled its Weekend at Bernie’s central plot with the broad fantasy trappings of the story, and moves closer to the cartoonish depiction we saw in Inside Out. The souls of the ‘Great Before’ might look like the Adipose fat creatures from Doctor Who at points but they more adequately represent ‘pre-emotions’, blank slates on which life experience has yet to be etched, and Docter & Powers look to tell a story about what that experience, what life, can do to the soul, and what we really should place importance in.

By the end of Soul, there is no doubt this crystallises the traumatic experience of 2020 as an existential year, and is undoubtedly the reaffirmation we all needed as we leave it.
Continue reading “Film Review: SOUL (2020)”

Film, Partisan Cinema, Writing

Partisan Cinema: BREXIT: THE UNCIVIL WAR (2019) – The Origin of Cummings

In a recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…

Brexit: The Uncivil War is current, fascinating, terrifying and quite frankly absurd in equal measure.

It came as no surprise to find out a major consultant on this joint Channel Four and HBO drama was Tim Shipman, the author of All Out War, a comprehensive, forensic exposure of the battle central to Toby Haynes’ film: the Leave and Remain campaign’s divisive, controversial conflict to decide the outcome of the EU Referendum in June 2016, which very quickly became known as ‘Brexit’. For anyone in the UK, there is no word you are more likely to see, read or hear about politically right now than Brexit, save perhaps the surname Trump or the word Covid. It is all pervasive, all-consuming, and Shipman’s book places into clear context just how we ended up where we currently are.

The Uncivil War is, essentially, an adaptation of his non-fiction tale of events from both sides of the camp, though it is framed around, frankly, the far more interesting side of the divide: the Leave campaign. The campaign who won. The campaign with characters far less milquetoast than anyone who fought to Remain. The campaign who fought a dirty war of new frontiers and who the Remain organisation were, almost always, two steps behind. I say this as a firm Remainer—let’s get that pretty clear right off the bat—who thinks Brexit is the single greatest British catastrophe since appeasement.

Nevertheless, The Uncivil War attempts to show us the real story. The story behind all of the news reports, and the political briefings. The story you have heard on fringe websites or even via conspiracy theorists, or slanted from newspapers right and left. The story of how Brexit changed democracy and changed politics, in a way nobody in Britain, the EU or beyond, ever expected. All Out War is teeming with inside jobs, murky suggestions of dark political wizardry, and schemes upon schemes in a battle often outside the minds eye of the public.

What we actually end up with is Brexit: The Panto, with Benedict Cumberbatch as the veritable Peter Pan.

Continue reading “Partisan Cinema: BREXIT: THE UNCIVIL WAR (2019) – The Origin of Cummings”

TV, Writing

DOCTOR WHO Season 12 is Regenerating… Back into Itself

Hands up if you were truly excited by Doctor Who Season 12? Nope, me neither.

I can remember the days I used to plan my entire Saturday night around this show, particularly in the era of Steven Moffat, who decrypted and deconstructed the very premise of the BBC’s strangest show, still on air after almost sixty years. Nights out with friends would be regularly predicated on whether new Who was watched or taped or somewhere in between. That started to change, in fairness, before Chris Chibnall’s era arrived. The final season or two of Moffat’s run, with Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, lacked the same kind of narrative or creative impetus than earlier years. The show began, to some degree, to eat its own tail.

Many fans, those who hadn’t been inexorably alienated by Moffat’s eternally divisive, glib and throwaway style of meta-fiction (or in this case meta-science-fiction), saw with Chibnall and the first ever female Doctor, as played by the already strong character actor Jodie Whittaker, a chance to clear the decks and provide something fresh and new. A move away from Moffat’s style of long-form narrative arcs, inverted stories that chewed away at traditional ideas, and the innate cynicism of Capaldi’s slightly curmudgeonly take on the character. Which is, by and large, exactly what we got with Season 11. It was lighter. It was self-contained. It had no real narrative through-line of note. And it was deliberately unburdened by eras past.

It was also, almost universally, rejected by critics and fans alike. Very few people enjoyed Chibnall and Whittaker’s first year. The knives were out. And as Season 12 premiere two-parter Spyfall proves, Chibnall has course-corrected in the most inevitable of ways. He’s turned back.

Continue reading “DOCTOR WHO Season 12 is Regenerating… Back into Itself”