Category Archives: Television

Heavy Sits the Arse Upon the Throne…

We’re only a few hours away from the finale of Game of Thrones. Having long ago outstripped the A Song of Ice and Fire novels it was based on, the series is now delivering an ending that author George R.R. Martin may not match for years. However, season 8 has already met with a mixed reception, so the odds that the last episode will leave viewers happy, or even satisfied, are not as good as they were. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the runners and riders for the Iron Throne and how they’ve been served by the last few episodes.

(Spoilers, obviously.)

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Game of Thrones—The Long Farewell

Quite a few long-running stories that I’ve been following across different media are coming to an end these days. In the cinemas, there’s Avengers Endgame, the climax of a story that started with Iron Man in 2008 (and which I’ve seen—more on that soon). In comics, there’s Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s The Wicked + The Divine, which has been running since 2014 and is on its final story arc. And on TV of course, there’s Game of Thrones, now two episodes into its six-episode final season.

Endings are tricky things, of course, all the more so when stories are as sprawling as these three examples are. But these stories have an advantage: a large cohort of dedicated fans, who have invested in and stuck with the story from the early days. Perhaps the key to getting the ending right lies in making sure that these fans feel a sense of payoff for their dedication. And from the two episodes so far, Game of Thrones‘ creators understand this well.

(Spoilers for Game of Thrones below, but also for sundry other endings.)

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Game of Thrones—In Praise of the Little People

Game of Thrones returned to our screens last weekend, in an opening episode to the final series that harked back to the very first episode. Once again, the major players were manoeuvring around one another, some of them meeting after years apart and others encountering each other for the first time. The Starks and Lannisters, together with Daenerys Targaryen, face the existential threat of the White Walkers and the Night King, while all around them everyone else just tries to survive.

Except that’s not really true, is it? One of the joys of Game of Thrones, both in televisual and novel form, is that its rich cast of minor characters don’t just exist to survive and support the actions of the major players. They have their own lives, their own lusts and drives, and they’re often just as entertaining as, if not more so than, the tragic Starks or the debauched Lannisters.

(There’ll be some spoilers below, but not too many. This is all about celebrating the characters who have enlivened and enriched the tapestry of Westeros for viewers and readers.)

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Not Quite Star Trek—Discovery and The Orville

These are, in theory, great times to be a Star Trek fan. Sure, the film series is currently on hiatus, its spangly attempt to reboot continuity having had, at best, mixed results. Even so, television (where Trek first found fame) has not one, but two Trek offerings. One is the official Star Trek: Discovery, which has just kicked off its second season. The other is the ersatz Trek, Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville, which is several episodes into its own second season.

Both of these series have struggled against a sense that they’re not really Star Trek. It’s an easy accusation to face in the case of The Orville, which was born out of MacFarlane’s love of all things Trek, but despite its often juvenile humour, it regularly harks back to the era of The Next Generation in its storylines and characters. Discovery‘s task as the latest incarnation of official Trek is, if anything, tougher, because treading on fans’ hallowed ground is a sure route to a firing squad at the first sign of deviation from the holy canon. And the first series of Discovery provided plenty of ammunition for those kinds of fans.

But just what is genuine Star Trek anyway? Can there be any such thing for a franchise that’s spread across six main TV series (not counting the animated series) and more than a dozen movies? How do those former offerings inform the Trek and Trek-like shows we’re getting now? Let’s take a look.

The Original Series: Born out of the remnants of 1950s golden-age science fiction and the optimism of the 1960s, Star Trek set the template in a lot of ways. “Its five-year mission, to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilisations,” is still what people think of when they think of Star Trek. But even Star Trek wasn’t Star Trek at first. The pilot famously had a different captain (Pike) and though the core trio of Kirk, Spock, and Bones was in place when the series began, the rest of the multicultural crew took time to fill in. Even so, the sense of exploration and of encountering the strangeness of outer space was always at the heart of the show.

The Movies (Original Cast): Though the original show died after three seasons and 79 episodes, it never really went away. Fan culture grew up around it, and the massive success of Star Wars in the late 1970s made its rebirth a real possibility. Once again though, Star Trek changed over time. The first movie had a lot of the original series’ wonder but lacked any fun and action. The second movie, the much-loved Wrath of Khan, and especially the fourth, The Voyage Home, redefined the template around the original crew, casting them as wisecracking renegades, with heavily emphasis on fan nostalgia. Sometimes it worked wonderfully, but often it didn’t—the rule of even-numbered movies being good and odd ones bad held for a surprisingly long time.

The Next Generation: Born as the original-cast movies were at their height, The Next Generation (TNG) was an attempt to recreate the original series for, well, a new generation. By any measure, it was a massive success, but once again it took time to become itself. Its multicultural crew now included an alien and an android, as well as more than one woman, but it took a step back from the action of the movies at first. Only with the introduction of the Borg as an adversary with real thematic heft did TNG take flight. Likewise, the intellectual Picard was a contrast to the action-hero Kirk of the movies but not quite so far from the curious, emotional Kirk of the original series, showing just how the sense of what Trek was had divided. Moreover, just as the movies were telling an ongoing story, The Next Generation started to move away from single-episode stories towards longer arcs—a trend that would continue in both Star Trek and television series in the wider world.

Deep Space Nine: If TNG was an attempt to recreate the Original Series, Deep Space Nine (DS9) was an attempt to do something different. Different from Star Trek anyway—its resemblance to the contemporaneous series Babylon 5 was widely noted. In this series, humans were almost in a minority, acting as peacekeepers between multiple alien races. Actively political compared to previous series, it still suffered the Star Trek curse of taking time to become itself. Uncomfortably bumpy at the start of its run, it remains deeply loved by its fans, not least because it leaned into its own strangeness, mysticism, and character relations. An ever-increasing focus on long-running story arcs allowed it to develop real depth and the stories it wove to have massive payoffs across its seven seasons.

Voyager: By the time Voyager showed up, Star Trek was suffering from diminishing returns. TNG had just ended, DS9 was still running, and several more movies were released during its run. Like DS9, Voyager had a fascinating concept: a misfit crew flung across the galaxy trying to make their way home. Unlike DS9, Voyager never quite managed to make the most of that concept; unlike earlier Trek series, it never quite became itself. It had its high points, but the possibilities of a long-form story were largely ignored, and the characters remained mostly bland remixes of what had gone before. Kate Mulgrew’s Captain Janeway was easily a match for any prior lead, but her own crew’s voyage never inspired.

The Movies (Next Generation cast): With the original cast aging out of being action heroes, the obvious step was to replace them with the popular TNG crew. And at this stage in its evolution, Star Trek was nothing if not obvious. The Next Generation crew would get four swings at the ball, but only one of those proved to be a strike. Generations was a clumsy handover from the old to the new, giving Kirk an underwhelming death that spin-off media has done its best to retcon ever since. First Contact brought back the Borg in fine style, as well as plenty of the signature Trek optimism that TNG had done so well, delving into Trek history with a time-jumping plot that raised memories of The Voyage Home. Insurrection was mostly forgettable, though it wasn’t as bad as it is remembered, being mostly an expanded Next Generation episode. It was Nemesis that killed the franchise at the movies, flinging too much CGI at the screen and criminally underusing a young Tom Hardy as it stumbled through an action-oriented plot and chickened out of the one interesting character move it made.

Enterprise: At this point, the travails of Voyager and the movies had clearly spooked Star Trek’s guardians, because Enterprise was a weird mishmash of familiar elements, shoehorned into Trek continuity. With Scott Bakula (best known for the Quantum Leap series) at the helm as Captain Archer, the show centred around a previously unmentioned USS Enterprise, from the early days of Trek’s Federation. This put it in the odd position of being a step back from earlier series, as its crew was more homogenous and its world building was largely restricted to “first encounters” with already established bits of Trek lore. In the latter half of its four-season run, Enterprise did push towards becoming itself, rather than warmed-over Trek bits, but it was too little, too late. Enterprise died in a final episode that just reiterated everyone’s affection for other, better Trek series, and with it ended 18 consecutive years of Trek on TV.

The Movies (Kelvin crew): Once again, Trek was resurrected at the movies. This time, under the stewardship of JJ Abrams, the outcome was a reboot rather than a continuation. A new Kirk, Spock, and Bones inhabiting a glittering universe of action and drama, with wisecracks and high-flying action as standard. There was some of the Trek optimism in the new movies but little exploration, and in recreating the original series there was little room for anything new. The presence of Leonard Nimoy’s Spock in the first movie just drove that point home, as did the second movie, Into Darkness, a ham-fisted recreation of The Wrath of Khan. While the third film, Beyond, was altogether more joyful and interesting, it still hewed to the action and explosions formula. The three films made plenty of money at the box office but perhaps not enough, because whether or not they’re going to come back again is up in the air at this point.

So we’ve had many different versions of Trek, born from the original series and spinning its ideals of exploration, optimism, and camaraderie in different ways. TNG succeeded in bringing back those values twenty years after the original, and DS9 successfully transplanted them to a very different setting, but every other Trek has had more limited success. Voyager never quite settled on an identity of its own, and that failure likely pushed a subsequent sense that sticking with already known Trek lore is the best idea. That need for familiarity is poison to a franchise that was once about discovery and the new, and Enterprise suffered from a fatal dose, for all its efforts to find its own identity as other Treks had done before it. Then there’s the movies: the blockbuster need for spectacle and action leaves little room for the wonder of the universe, though the one thing that the movies have consistently succeeded at is evoking the camaraderie between the various crews.

So we now have both Discovery and The Orville now on their second seasons, having spent both of their first seasons finding their feet. First-season Discovery took a lot of chances: shoehorning the story into existing Trek lore, set a few years before the original series, gave it little room to manoeuvre. Its season-long story arc was packed full of deceptions, and its sense of discovery was limited to the story of the war it revolved around. For all that, it was entertaining, with interesting characters trying and occasionally succeeding in building relationships as the plot and character revelations overturned things every other episode.

The Orville was a lot more predictable in its first season, using a Trek-like setting to tell Trek-like stories, leavened with Seth MacFarlane’s frat-boy humour and jokes about alien bodily functions. There was no ongoing story to speak of, but the show did make a gradual effort to deepen its characters as it went. Even so, it rarely hit levels that TNG had managed on its off days, and its sense of being Trek-lite was pretty solidly confirmed.

With the arrival of the second season, not much has changed for The Orville. It’s matured to the point where it’s a fun watch, and the juvenile humour has eased to the point where it won’t put off someone who can’t stand that kind of thing. It stands or falls by the strength of its characters though, as there’s no ongoing plot and only a paper-thin universe to inhabit. Luckily the cast is generally appealing, so it’s likely to hang around and maybe become even more Trek-like in its ability to find itself.

Second-season Discovery is a very different beast. The first episode of season two was an exhilarating left turn from the darkness and deceit of season one. With the arrival of Anson Mount’s Captain Pike, transferring across from the USS Enterprise to the USS Discovery, and the provision of a genuine scientific mystery to explore, this feels closer to the core of Trek than any series in years. Yes, it’s still shoehorned into existing Trek lore and filled with CGI and action sequences, but if one episode can be any indication, there’s a real sense that Discovery has figured out what worked about season one and decided to build on that. An increased focus on crew and camaraderie and the joy to be found in exploring the wonders of the galaxy seems to have been transplanted into the heart of the series. Maybe it’s just me, but that seems pretty hopeful.

And isn’t hope what Trek is really all about?

On Female Leads and Genre Fiction

Taken in the British Library. Sadly he was busy saving the universe. Travelling by train is all very well, but travelling by Tardis...
An encounter of my own, some years ago. Though time travel makes that a tricky thing to pin down.

On a weekend when Roger Federer won his 8th Wimbledon title and Disney announced its intention to release all the movies coming out over the next three years (these were the things that registered with me – your mileage will undoubtedly vary), the biggest news was that the newest incarnation of the Doctor will be, for the first time, female. This is not only a big thing for me – a viewer of Doctor Who since an unreasonably young age – but it means that the three big ongoing science fiction/genre fiction franchises (Star Wars, Star Trek (with its new Discovery series) and Doctor Who) will soon have female leads.

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JJ + SJW VS GG

Nowhere near as creepy as the character of Kilgrave actually was.
The promotional materials for Jessica Jones helped to tease the villain and set the mood.

Marvel’s Netflix offerings stand at a remove to the 4-colour heroics of their cinema offerings (and the connected Agents of SHIELD series). Drawing on modern iterations of street-levels heroes, the idea behind them was evidently to provide a darker and more complex take on superhumans than The Avengers. So far it’s working well. Daredevil was a promising beginning, and with Jessica Jones Marvel and Netflix kick it up a notch.

Spoilers for Jessica Jones below…

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SDCC 2015 – The Good, The Bad and The Doctor

Just stick this on your laptop and have a convention in the privacy of your own room.
The sceptical eye is probably a decent icon for this event.

One day I will go to the San Diego ComicCon (SDCC). This year, though, is not that year. Instead, while Northern Ireland prepares for its annual renewal of sectarian grudges, my brother provides me with my second niece, and my sister’s kids do their best to physically and mentally exhaust both my parents and myself, I’ve been keeping up with ComicCon online.

Over the past few years, as SDCC has risen to become the flagship event of the geek-driven media industry, the stars have been the movies of Marvel Studios’ superhero super-franchise. This year though, Marvel Studios is absent, presumably to await a dedicated event of its own later in the year. So the field was open to new challengers, with another Disney super-franchise foremost among them.

With the weekend mostly over, then, it’s time to take a completely subjective look at some of the standout offerings.

Doctor Who

SDCC is well-timed for Doctor Who, which is returning to screens this autumn. So at the panel this year, in addition to the cast and crew, audiences got their first peek at the new season. And it all looks…very Hollywood and action packed. Which isn’t a bad thing in a trailer, but part of the appeal of Doctor Who is a protagonist who eschews violence in favour of intelligence. Nu-Who (the series since its relaunch) has had some great moments but the last few series in particular varied wildly in quality. So a polished trailer raises hopes that those variables might come into alignment this season, but it doesn’t do much to convince.

Sherlock

Speaking of variable quality, when Sherlock is good, it’s very, very good, but when it’s bad it’s…still watchable, due mainly to the two leads. Instead of a new season, there’s only a special episode on the way (Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch both being in heavy demand these days), and accordingly we got somewhat less than Who provided: a snippet of a scene instead of a trailer. Given the success of retelling the Victorian-era stories in the modern day, it’s odd that the special takes the characters from the revamp and puts them back into the Victorian era. It’s all a little odd, if not counterproductive, and the scene released online does suggest that it’s all going to lean on humour rather than drama. Which, given the indication that the eventual return of the show proper will see some very dark and dramatic turns, is probably a good thing.

Marvel Comics

With movies absent, Marvel’s comics presentations had a prominence that they haven’t had in years. Which is well-timed, as the company’s current Secret Wars crossover is probably its most critically acclaimed in years and looks set to lead into something of a soft reboot, with the best parts of its Classic and Ultimate lines mashed together and cleaned up by its stable of writers in order to welcome in a bevy of new readers. (Multi-media marketing being what it is, there’s some alignment with upcoming movies as well.) There were plenty of new titles to announce and discuss, but my detachment from the majority of superhero comics these days can be measured by the fact that one of the characters depicted in the fourth blurry image on this page was by far the most exciting thing in their entire presentation for me. (If you can guess which one, you get a cookie.)

Marvel TV

Marvel’s TV output stands as the poor relation of the movies, which is a shame, as the quality is quite high. But they were definitely lost amid the rest of SDCC. Not much was to be heard of the new season of Agents of SHIELD, though the midseason miniseries Agent Carter got a welcome push, with its period glamour and post-war pulp stylings boosted by a move from New York to Los Angeles. I’ll be tuning in for that, as well as Marvel’s Netflix series: the return of the excellent Daredevil and the upcoming Jessica Jones. Neither of those were brought to SDCC, but we got images and casting information to keep the hype bubbling away and keep existing fans paying attention.

Pseudo-Marvel Movies

Sort of an unfair description, but then Marvel sold off the rights to its key properties years ago, back when it was in bankruptcy and long before Iron Man paved the way to cinematic dominance. Sony has since moved its Spider-Man into the orbit of Marvel’s franchise, but 20th Century Fox’s X-Men and Fantastic Four properties are still out on their own, and they have a fair amount to recommend them. Their presentation was a mishmash of everything they have planned, from the upcoming Fantastic Four to the further-out X-Men Apocalypse and the R-Rated Deadpool. There’s a lot of talent involved, but not much in the way of coherence, and in the age of colour-coordinated mega-franchises, that’s actually a little refreshing.

Star Wars

What is this strange feeling? Could it be the human emotion called…hope? In my head, JJ Abrams has a lot to make up after the twin travesties that were the two nu-Trek movies (wherein the corpses of the classic movies and TV shows were savaged and the result ground up with an excess of lens flare and quality actors, then slung in the oven until undercooked and served to the rabid masses), but I can’t really complain about anything that’s been done with Star Wars so far. True, we still don’t know a lot about the upcoming The Force Awakens, but I like that. Keep the trailers few and far between, and maintain a bit of secrecy in this era of instant gratification. What we’ve seen so far looks to be in the spirit of the original trilogy, with a dusty, lived-in universe inhabited by dashing scoundrels, noble heroes, imposing villains and the scum of the galaxy. In short, it looks like Star Wars, on the kind of epic scale that modern CGI allows. If Jurassic World showed just how bad the overuse of CGI could get, The Force Awakens might—just might—show how good it can be when it’s done right. (The free concert for convention attendees may have been a stunt, but it was an impressive one.)

And now I’m doomed to be disappointed, aren’t I?

DC Movies

Though I’m a Marvel fan, not a DC reader, I’ve seen most of the movies that DC have put out though (even if Green Lantern was only because it was free and on a trans-oceanic flight). Given how little I thought of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and how my opinions of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns have trended downwards over the years, I really wasn’t expecting much from a movie that looks to be the product of an orgy between those two and every other major DC comic hero, all desperate to generate a franchise to match’s Marvel’s billion-dollar success. So, perhaps it’s my low expectations talking but…that’s one hell of a trailer. The grimdark tendencies of the Nolan Batman movies are balanced, if not exactly tempered, by Snyder’s operatic excesses, and enough of the story is hinted at in order to suggest that Ben Affleck’s Batman might actually be justified in kicking the crap out of Henry Cavill’s Superman. Plus, Jesse Eisenberg as a Mark Zuckerberg-esque Lex Luthor remains an inspired piece of casting. It could still all collapse into a complete mess, but there’s a spark of excitement that wasn’t there before, and DC might just have lit a fire under Marvel’s ass that could benefit everyone further down the line.

Random Other Stuff:

The new season of The Walking Dead and its spin-off Fear the Walking Dead both received new trailers and heavy promotion. And I…don’t really care. I’ve stuck with The Walking Dead way longer than its entertainment value warranted, and I couldn’t even be bothered to fire up the new trailer. I’m sure it’ll be a huge hit.

I’d put Quentin Tarantino in the same category—his movies can be fun, but have always seemed more flash than substance to me. Still, the news that the western he’s working on will be scored by Ennio Morricone? Worthy of your attention at least.

One of my favourite ever comics series was Vertigo’s Lucifer, which used Milton’s rebel angel (as first shown in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman) to examine obsession and self-determination. It’s now being brought to TV as a…police procedural? Where the devil helps cops fight crime while running a piano lounge in Los Angeles? It sounds utterly terrible, but early reviews suggest it could be fun. I’ll be tuning in out of morbid curiosity if nothing else.

The Man From UNCLE is one of those old TV shows that was regularly repeated when I was a kid. I even had a Man From UNCLE annual once upon a time. So this hits my nostalgia button squarely on, and I don’t mind admitting that I love the look of it. Suave secret agents butting heads, feisty women, 1960s glamour, and action aplenty. Again, there’s only a couple of trailers to go on, but Henry Cavill could be getting some more of my cinema money in the year to come.

Joss Whedon has earned a deserved break after the madness of Avengers: Age of Ultron, and his next project is…a Victorian female Batman. Which from anyone else might seem odd but seems right in Whedon’s wheelhouse. Sadly, it sounds like we’re going to be waiting a long time for Doctor Horrible 2, but such are the vagaries of life.

My experience of Warcraft the game was limited but fun, much like the information released to the public on the upcoming movie. Duncan Jones is a director to trust, and the cast and early imagery are very promising, but even though the built-in fanbase is sizeable, it’ll have to work to reach beyond it. Taking the Star Wars path of teasing rather than showing could be a wise move.

DC’s other movie properties (unlike Marvel, their movie and TV properties operate in unconnected universes) operated in the shadow of Batman V Superman, and they’re too far out to judge as yet. A lot’s going to depend on whether BvS is a success, but they seem to have learned from the mistakes of the past at least. As for the TV properties, Arrow and Flash have a lot of fans, and while I’m not among them, I may just tune in to Legends of Tomorrow to catch Doctor Who alumnus Arthur Darvill in a new role.

HBO makes good TV. Jonathan Nolan (Christopher’s brother) is responsible for one of my favourite series in Person of Interest. So bring the two of them together for a relaunch of Michael Crichton’s Westworld and you have my interest. Sadly, Vladivostok’s favourite son Yul Brynner is no longer available to reprise his role as the deadly android gunman, but this could be something special.

Speaking of good TV, Bruce Campbell is always worth watching. Bruce Campbell revisiting his Evil Dead glory days in a TV series? Practically required viewing. Do yourself a favour and watch the only trailer that rivals Deadpool in the humour stakes.

Also in the quality TV arena is Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle. It’s an impressively faithful adaptation of one of Philip K. Dick’s best books, and the pilot episode showed massive promise. The fact that it’s going to be made into a full series makes me very happy.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies kicked off an entire subgenre of rewriting classical literature to include fantastic elements. Diminishing returns kicked in long before publishers lost interest in the idea, and the movie version of the original of the species languished in development hell for ages. It’s here now though, and it looks to be adopting a straight-faced approach to the silliness of its concept. That may help it to avoid being a complete mess, but the amount of trouble it had getting to the screen does not bode well.

One Last Thing

The sheer quality and amount of cosplay on offer at SDCC never ceases to amaze. I’m genuinely impressed by all of it and not a little jealous. If I ever do get to attend SDCC, a decent costume will definitely be part of the agenda, no matter how overheated San Diego in July is likely to be.