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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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’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.
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.
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?
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.
From a point of bankruptcy in the 1990s, Marvel has built its comic-book properties into a billion-dollar film and television franchise that’s so omnipresent you never have to wait long for the next Marvel product. Two movies a year and multiple TV series are enough to sate the most avid fan, and while we may be nearing oversaturation, the quality has remained remarkably high so far. The latest two offerings—Avengers: Age of Ultron and Daredevil—represent Marvel working harder than ever to maintain that quality as it stretches the limits of what superhero fiction can do on screen.
A:AoU is of course the follow-up to Joss Whedon’s ensemble blockbuster movie, whereas Daredevil marks the first offering from Marvel’s tie-up with Netflix, presenting heroics at a more gritty street level than Avengers’ apocalyptic, primary-colour adventures. Having watched them both to completion over the past weekend, I thought comparing the two might prove interesting.
Spoilers abound below…
It’s been a surprisingly good year for mainstream cinema so far. We’ve had the best Disney animated movie in years (Frozen), a monster movie that knew it was a monster movie and played to its strengths while referencing 2001: A Space Odyssey and getting away with it (Godzilla), a superhero movie that managed to be way smarter than it had any right to be (X-Men: Days of Future Past) and another two that were way more fun than they were intelligent (Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Edge of Tomorrow), and even an arthouse biblical movie that was one of the weirdest mainstream releases in years (Noah).
Sure, there have been clunkers (Transcendence), overrated local offerings (Calvary) and blitheringly stupid drivel (The Amazing Spider-Man 2), but largely, things have been good. The film that I’m looking forward to the most, though, is Guardians of the Galaxy, not due until August. Why? Well, there’s a great sense of fun about the trailers, but beyond anything else, it looks completely bonkers.
Marvel’s movies have eased cinema audiences into the superhero mindset: from the vaguely realistic Iron Man to the space gods of Thor, the weird science and period setting of Captain America, and the alien invasion of Avengers. GotG, though, has a talking racoon with a really big gun and an ambulatory tree with violent tendencies. It’s Narnia and Lord of the Rings meets Star Wars, and if it’s a success it’ll be the biggest vindication of Marvel’s strategy to date.
My anticipation of the sheer insanity of all of this is something I’ve noted cropping up all over the place lately. While I enjoy straight drama as much as anyone, there’s something invigorating about entertainment that recognises its limits and takes a big hairy step beyond them. The kind of TV or film that can genuinely take you by surprise with its refusal to hew to well-worn plots and character archetypes.
It can be a tough approach to take though. The slightest hint that the writers or cast are winking at the audience and the whole thing can become uncomfortably camp. Take as an example the movie League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Based on an Alan Moore comic series that was itself a perfect example of storytelling beyond the bounds of reason (Victorian fiction’s finest team up to take on Professor Moriarty, Fu Manchu and Martians), it was turned into a movie that missed the mark all over the place. Most notably Sean Connery’s starring role as a character who clearly knew he was the star.
All the stranger, then, that where the LoEG movie failed so badly, there’s currently a TV series treading the same ground (filmed in Dublin no less) that gets a whole lot right. In Penny Dreadful, there are vampires, werewolves, Frankenstein (both doctor and monster), Jack the Ripper, big-game hunters, Egyptian deities and consumptive prostitutes, all thrown together in an over-the-top stew. It succeeds for a few different reasons: a consistent tone of darkness (slathered with gore), characters who are buried neck-deep in their own failings and committed anchoring performances from Timothy Dalton (who seems to be enjoying the latter part of his career far more than the early part) and especially Eva Green.
I had previously watched and enjoyed Dracula, a similarly bonkers TV series that mixed the Prince of Darkness with Thomas Edison and Nikolai Tesla and threw in Freemasons and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, yet never quite managed to make it all gel. Penny Dreadful is working a lot better so far, despite its tendency to have every one of its characters get emotionally or physically involved with as many of the others as possible.
It’s not the greatest TV show ever made, and it’s not going to threaten Game of Thrones or Person of Interest atop my to-view pile, but there are plenty of reasons to catch an episode. In fact, I can only think of one real reason not to, and it isn’t the buckets of gore thrown all over the place. It’s poor old Billie Piper, as the aforementioned consumptive prostitute (a role she really doesn’t want to get typecast in), who is saddled with one of the worst Belfast accents I’ve ever heard. One can only hope it’s less painful to those of you who didn’t grow up in Northern Ireland…
I’m an inveterate fan of the underdog, but sometimes the underdog gets squished. As an example, take Robert Hooke—something of a scientific underdog, despite being an inventor and polymath described as “England’s Leonardo”. It was Hooke’s misfortune that he picked a fight with one of the smartest men in history: master mathematician Isaac Newton, Mister Gravity himself.
Not that picking a fight was something that Hooke was shy about in his later years. In addition to his multifarious talents, he gained a reputation for being cantankerous, vindictive and petty. Once again, Hooke’s problem was that the man he picked a fight with was a spectacular example of cantankerousness, vindictiveness and pettiness.
The third episode of Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos: A Spactime Odyssey retells the story of Hooke and Newton as part of Tyson’s celebration of Edmond Halley of Halley’s Comet fame, a contemporary of both men and a notable polymath in his own right. However, as the story is told from Halley and Newton’s point of view, Hooke is shown as Newton saw him: a hunchbacked, dwarfish figure, with lank, greasy hair and a face always in shadow (the lack of a contemporary portrait of Hooke is often blamed on either neglect or deliberate destruction on Newton’s part).
It’s a fascinating story*, to be sure, replete with accusations of plagiarism, a vendetta lasting beyond the grave and some of the most important scientific discoveries of this or any era. Nor does Tyson shy away from Newton’s own strangeness: not only was he far more of a recluse than Hooke, but he also focused much of his time and intellectual energy on alchemy and the search for hidden messages from God in the bible. It’s hard not to feel that Hooke is a bit hard done by in Tyson’s portrayal—his many achievements are mentioned, albeit more briefly than accusations of plagiarism and credit claimed for other scientists’ work that could just as easily be levelled at Newton.
The feud with Newton was to sink Hooke’s place in scientific history for centuries. Although the two men had very different areas of expertise—Newton was the master mathematician and theoretician, whereas Hooke was an experimenter and thinker in almost every field available—they ended up quarrelling wherever their interests intersected. Famously, his “standing on the shoulders of giants” comments is often thought not to refer to his illustrious predecessor but to be a pointed jibe at Hooke, who was shorter even than Newton.
When Newton became president of the Royal Society shortly after Hooke’s death, he did much to conceal his predecessor’s achievements. In more recent years, scholars have rescued Hooke’s reputation somewhat, but only those with an interest in the history of science or the Regency era in England are likely to know much about him. Newton, by contrast, is generally reckoned one of the finest minds in history and gets his face plastered across banknotes.
It’s a pity that Cosmos doesn’t even the scales a little more, because otherwise it’s a great show, striking a fine balance between entertainment and education. Tyson conveys the march of our understanding of the universe around us in unapologetically positive tones, and if he doesn’t always match the quasi-mystical sense of wonder of Carl Sagan (to whose Cosmos: A Personal Journey series Tyson’s namesake show is a sequel/remake), he may yet be delivering something that could inspire a new generation of scientists.
*Told in much more detail, and to my mind more even-handedly, in Neil Stephenson’s massive-yet-fascinating Baroque Cycle of novels.
Doctor Who is a funny phenomenon. (It’s often a funny TV show too, but let’s look at the phenomenon first.) Fifty years old as of this weekend, it’s enjoying a heavily promoted anniversary period, and while a lot of the current level of publicity has been driven by the BBC, it’s a show that inspires a degree of devotion from its adherents that’s unusual even in the world of science fiction.
Part of that is down to its two-part history: the original show, which ran for over three decades before petering out into low-budget irrelevance and a misguided attempt at a U.S.-led revival, and the new show, which launched in a blaze of glory in 2005 and is still going strong, despite sometimes iffy quality (something the show has always endured). Fans of the former are mostly fans of the latter, but fans of the latter aren’t always aware of the former.
Befitting its status as a celebration of all 50 years of the show, the 50th anniversary special, The Day of the Doctor, does its damndest to bridge that gap.
When the show was relaunched, one key element was altered: rather than being one of a race of time travellers, the Doctor instead became the last of them. More than that, it was revealed that he was responsible for their doom, together with that of their archenemies. This had the double effect of making the Doctor unique and adding a melancholy tone to his character that quality actors like Christopher Ecclestone and David Tennant were able to mine to good effect.
So for writer Steven Moffat to not only reveal this hinted-at element of the Doctor’s history in detail but also to effectively rewrite it during The Day of the Doctor was suitably ambitious. For him to succeed so thoroughly was a delight. Inevitably for a show with as convoluted a timeline as Doctor Who, there are some very visible plot holes and seams, but on the whole it makes for a thrilling adventure.
If The Day of the Doctor manages to bridge the gap between old and new though, it does so using the materials of the new. There are plenty of hat-tips and Easter Eggs relating to the old show embedded in the episode, but with the exception of a rather odd cameo towards the end, none of the actors who played the role in the old series make a showing (they did, however, get a cameo-filled anniversary special of their own).
Despite the hopes of some of the old-time fans, this was clearly the best choice. The old actors look nothing like they did when they played the role, and Moffat makes the absolute most of the three Doctors he has to play with (Tennant, Matt Smith and a war-weary John Hurt), making their commonalities and differences central to the unfolding of the plot.
The result is a special that’s all about the show itself, and all the more satisfying for that. I was lucky enough to see it in the cinema, where I was able to enjoy some very decent 3D effects and the reaction of the crowd around me to every grace note of the script and special effects. So many people there were not only dressed for the event but also knew all the show lore, resulting in laughter and applause in all the right places.
Those cinema showings may have been a gift to those fans whose love of the show extended back beyond the 2005 revival, but they weren’t solely enjoyed by them. The show is now bigger and deeper than it used to be, and the fan base is global in a way that only the Internet could allow.
With The Day of the Doctor, Steven Moffat not only celebrates the first 50 years of the show, tying together all of its constituent parts, he also ties a bow on the show as it has been since the relaunch. With a new Doctor in the form of Peter Capaldi incoming at Christmas, The Day of the Doctor strikes the right note: a celebration of all that has come before together with an opportunity to enjoy something new.