Sunday, August 21, 2016

Star Trek Beyond

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I'm getting a bit old to be watching Star Trek films for reasons other than nostalgia. But this exists now, and there are always Sunday afternoons when you've not got anything better to do, aren't there? Anyway, my enthusiasm for the current movie brand is more on the side of forgetting it exists until they bring a new one out than seething about its canonical atrocities, so these are always worth a look. It couldn't be any worse than Into Darkness, surely?

If that was the only praise I had for the film, it would be a low bar indeed. But it might even be better than the first one too, making it positively just about alright. After the last film, there seemed to be two inevitable things that would happen in the new Star Trek 3, but they only ended up doing one of them. Maybe we'll get the reimagined Kruge/Chang/generic Klingon adversary next time?

What was never in doubt was that they'd shoehorn in a mad baddie with a superweapon for the umpteenth time, but that was even a cliche back in the days of the TNG movies, and this is better than the worst of those. Again, not the highest compliment in the universe.

It's nice to see the secondary characters getting some enforced screen time by splitting everyone up for a while. The peril feels more tangible than usual, for a pretty obvious reason, and it was nice to see some restraint in the referencing after last time. The nods this time around are more subtle, touching and satisfying, especially with the surprising emphasis on the Enterprise era which I tend to forget happened almost as much as these films.

But for all that, it's still largely a big, dumb action movie, and the big, dumb action sequences all felt unnecessarily confusing. But as I've established, I am an old man now.

"There is strength in unity" - Nyota Uhura

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Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Doctor Who: Death and the Queen (The Tenth Doctor Adventures 1x03)

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The initial trilogy's rounded out with a nice historical - what else? But less predictably, it's a mysterious, dark fairy tale with nary an historical cameo in sight.

James Goss is one of the more reliable writers of licensed Who merch, but this isn't one of his stand-out contributions. The positive that it's uniquely a Donna story rather than something generic is muted by it being very similar to the first Donna story, like failing to get married and sacrificed by evil aliens is all she does. And when a skeleton warrior horde and the Grim Reaper are mentioned, you're only making me wish this was on TV.

"Are you going to ruin all my weddings?" - Donna Noble

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Monday, June 6, 2016

Doctor Who: Time Reaver (The Tenth Doctor Adventures 1x02)

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Now that we've got the mandatory present-day London opener out of the way, we're free to go to space where things are instantly more atmospheric and engaging and that isn't a budget issue any more. A planet-sized interstellar transport hub is something that would have been realised reasonably well with 2008 CGI, but is really better served by the imagination.

Everything's a little better in this second outing, from the bickering banter to the emotional stakes, even if it still suffers from frankly rubbish aliens. For the die-hard nit-picking fans (who else will be listening to these, eight years after this power duo went out of date?) there are even a couple of gratuitous nods to continuity that are wholly appreciated.

If there's one aspect of these audios that isn't true to the source material, it's that they're allowed to last a little longer than a strict 44-minute deadline. It's just not right that the characters have a few minutes to chill and chat before all the shouting and corridor sprinting begins.

"I am a Time Lord. We are not strangers, eternity and I" - The Doctor

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Sunday, June 5, 2016

Doctor Who: Technophobia (The Tenth Doctor Adventures 1x01)

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Nostalgia's getting more recent as Big Finish has now properly branched into New 'Who. Having already mucked around with the likes of John Hurt and River Song, this is the big one that everyone was waiting for: new full-cast audio adventures with the least good of the four 21st century Doctors! (In his best companion dynamic, admittedly). Just don't expect it to be any better than the series itself was at the time.

Even if I don't have that much fondness for the Russell T. Davies years outside of a couple of ace stories per year, I do appreciate me a good authentic Big Finish recreation, and this one ticks all the boxes with their customary attention to detail. I might not have been enthralled by another tale of contemporary London being imperilled by dangerous alien technology, but this is how the seasons usually opened, and the pop culture gags are authentically awkward too.

They even chuck in a token Welsh background voice to complete the illusion that these are wiped series four episodes that have been fortuitously recovered in audio form. It's a stroke of cosmic luck that these missing episodes tended to feature more descriptive dialogue rather than relying too heavily on visuals. It's almost like they knew.

"He's an alien? He looks like he works in menswear" - Kevin

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Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Top 5 Angel seasons

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I just watched Angel for the first time. All of it, after not having bothered to watch a single episode in the last 17 years. I was never drawn to the series for starring the exact two Buffy characters I really didn't care about seeing more of after their departure, but they inevitably both improved. And I figured it couldn't be any worse than sitting through those four years of Anya.

I still prefer Buffy - good Buffy, at least - but it was mostly a delight to be proven wrong.

#1. Season 5

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I was immediately won over by the reformatting of the show (episode one was the first conspicuous Whedon script in a good long while), pushing the moral grey area to new shades of ambiguity and finally loosening up enough to permit weird, experimental episodes now that the other show wasn't around to take care of that. Spike was a good fit, but I was even more delighted to see Harmony promoted to series regular, even if it came several years too late.

#2. Season 3

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It's a bit of a toss-up between this and the previous year, but even with the sin of introducing Connor (I didn't find him anywhere near as annoying as Riley), the whole baby arc is the most memorable of the series, especially what it does to our "hero." Cordelia completes her journey to enlightenment before they took a golden shower all over her character thereafter, and with Fred and Lorne moving in, the classic line-up is complete.

#3. Season 2

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I think this is most people's favourite year, but I find the vampire flashbacks excessive, Kate's story seems pointless in retrospect (I liked her in season one) and the radical departure of the Pylea trilogy wasn't my preferred brand of bizarre. Gripes aside, the consistency of quality this year is on par with the celebrated Buffy season three... that didn't include many stand-out episodes either.

#4. Season 4

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I didn't hate this as much as most people seemed to, at least when I was actually watching it. When a new arch villain came out of nowhere in the last batch of episodes, I had my doubts. When it became clear that Cordelia was going to be denied any kind of satisfying pay-off, I was disappointed. When they pulled out the reset button for an ending worthy of Star Trek: Voyager, I was pissed off. The episodes with Angelus and Faith are this year's saving grace.

#5. Season 1

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It didn't take my wife long to decide that Angel was the superior show, even in its massively confused first year, but then she had only just watched through Buffy for the first time, so those disappointing latter year memories will have been stronger (plus, she likes detective shows). This uneven debut year didn't impress me so much, though it was usually better than the contemporaneous Buffy season four. And this side of the several Buffy/Angel crossovers always won.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Top 10 new Doctor Who stories

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Up to series 9, anyway. The sooner this list becomes hopelessly out of date, the better. Come on, let's have a few more corkers to topple those early classics from their provisional perches!

#1. Blink (3x10)

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Even by this point, Steven Moffat's annual contributions had established him as the name to look out for (his stories disproportionately dominate this list), but this is still the one to beat. For kids, there are the terrifying Weeping Angels. For sci-fi fans who can't get enough of twisty time travel, it's the ultimate indulgence. One of the best introductory episodes, despite the Doctor hardly being in it. I don't even mind that some parts are plagiarised directly from Back to the Future.

#2. Heaven Sent (9x11)

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Series nine had already impressed as a (generally) more mature and confident year before this creepy atmospheric puzzle box blew everything out of the skull-infested water. It doesn't even need the game-changing finale, which only complicates things if you're recommending this to a newcomer. If you're a Capaldi sceptic and this one-hander still hasn't convinced you, you might as well stop watching for a few years. Hopefully you'll have a long wait.

#3. Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead (4x08/09)

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Technically most noteworthy for introducing and killing off River Song - starting all that for better and worse (it was never better than this) - that's not the reason why it's so good. The vast Borgesian library is an inspired setting, the shadowy foes tap into primal fears (just add them to the pile), there are skeletons walking around in spacesuits, and the double length means there's plenty of time to mope in a tragic virtual purgatory too. Am I sure this is #3?

#4. The Eleventh Hour (5x01)

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When most of the internet was harrumphing about the new teenage emo Doctor coming along to inevitably ruin things, I had no time for premature opinions on casting and silly new logos - I was just excited that the best writer was taking over to put his own unique spin on the show. The fact that I'm ranking his first 'mytharc' story at the top of the pile suggests it wasn't the smoothest of rides, but then, this is a belter.

#5. Human Nature/The Family of Blood (3x08/09)

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The first on this list that accepts other people can write Doctor Who, and it's a very different type of story. More personal, emotional and objectively human, you can leave your paradoxes and unsynched time streams at the door this week. There are still weird aliens and zombie scarecrows though, so you don't have to grow up completely. Seeing the old Doctors canonised by a drawing was a big thing at the time.

 photo day_zps3ktpafyu.jpg#6. The Day of the Doctor (50th anniversary special)

Overblown, fanwanky and often nonsensical, it's the golden anniversary so it can get away with anything. Apart from not bringing Christopher Eccleston back. Even just to stand still for a couple of seconds, how hard is that?

#7. The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon (6x01/02)

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It's only enigmatic on the first go around, but as much as it now smacks of wasted potential and weak resolutions further down the line, I can't shake the feeling of awe I had at the time. I think what impressed me most was Moffat casually ageing the Doctor a couple of centuries - a brilliantly cheeky reaction to the tragically brief lifespan of his predecessor(s?).

#8. Midnight (4x10)

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I was never the biggest fan of Russell T. Davies' stories. I only watched casually in the early years, eventually catching up and getting attached towards the end of his tenure when I didn't have much else going on. This is the only one of his episodes I like a lot. Probably because - being minimalist, claustrophobic and ambiguous - it's the antithesis of his trumped-up finales.

#9. The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances (1x09/10)

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Moffat's early classic ('The Curse of Fatal Death' was great too), this was a milestone pair of episodes for the series, and again, not just for introducing a popular supporting character. Damned creepy and full of relatable tragedy (right, like most of us lived through the Blitz), I also appreciate it for giving brief candle Christopher Eccleston a stand-out story that doesn't involve Daleks.

#10. Mummy on the Orient Express (8x08)

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I always had confidence in Peter Capaldi's Doctor, but that first series didn't give him the best material to work with. Even my favourites from that year feel some distance short of classic status, but 'Mummy'  (and 'Listen' before it) were welcome signs of better things to come when those things are kept stripped down and sombre. No surprise that I reacted so favourably to 'Heaven Sent' then.

Top 10 classic Doctor Who stories

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Foolishly not having been born until the mid-1980s, I didn't have the chance to watch Doctor Who (in its original or current incarnation) when I was the appropriate age to do so.

The only story I have any memory of seeing is 'Ghost Light,' when I would have just turned four, as the golden ghost and glowing taxidermy heads were staples of my nightmares for several years to come. So I'm glad I didn't miss out on that experience completely. The next thing I saw was 'Dimensions in Time' in 1993, and bizarrely that didn't put me off for life.

Over the last three years I've made the effort to watch the whole damned lot, or as much as that's possible with 90 episodes missing from the archives. I didn't do it in any kind of sensible order either, but that's time travel for you. In the end, my opinions of respective eras still ended up disappointingly conforming to the mainstream, but I wasn't going to force quirks just for the sake of it. Who am I, a 1980s Doctor Who costume designer?

 photo the-brain-of-morbius_zpsb3a29e50.jpg#1. The Brain of Morbius (13x17-20)

Going into this blatant Frankenstein riff in an era of classic horror homages, I had no idea it would come out as my all-time favourite. It's probably a fanboy thing, for expanding on the mystique of the Doctor and his people shortly before we'd see Gallifrey in arguably too much detail and that mystique rapidly diminished.

 photo city-of-death_zps7b0e749f.jpg#2. City of Death (17x05-08)

Possibly overrated - I may be doing that right now - but it's so much fun, and certainly the most quotable installment ever. Notably one of the few classic era stories to really explore the possibilities of time travel beyond just going to a place.

 photo terror-of-the-zygons_zpsc42901f8.jpg#3. Terror of the Zygons (13x01-04)

Postponed from the previous year just to make season 13 that much more difficult to topple (four of its six stories are in this list), this is definitive Doctor Who. Gloomy location filming, unpleasant aliens, inept soldiers, mild racism, paranoia and a hilarious beastie to boot.

 photo the-seeds-of-doom_zpsba2a0a30.jpg#4. The Seeds of Doom (13x21-26)

The only six-parter that didn't feel like it dragged to me, probably because the first two are a completely different story set in an Antarctic base before shifting to provincial Blighty. About as dark and creepy as the series ever was, it's even got Boycie being serious.

 photo spearhead-from-space_zpsplqvydoa.jpg#5. Spearhead from Space (7x01-04)

Doctor Who flares into colour with style, traumatising 1970s children with moving mannequins, murdered pets, bloody windscreens and a Jon Pertwee shower scene. I was worried about being Earth-bound with the most foppish of Doctors, but Robert Holmes eased the transition.

 photo pyramids-of-mars_zps83a41814.jpg#6. Pyramids of Mars (13x09-12)

The definition of romp. There's quite a lot that's stupid about it, from the mild racism to the Crystal Maze denouement, but it's all jolly fun, featuring the most memorable one-time villain and scratching my ancient astronaut itch again. Plus, Sarah Jane in a wedding dress with a rifle - come on. Just me?

 photo the-daemons_zpsdlyu5yde.jpg#7. The Dæmons (8x21-25)

Doctor Who does Quatermass and the Pit with less cutting social commentary and more rubber gargoyles, exploding helicopters, sinister Morris dancing and sexism. The first of their gothic horrors, which were hardly every original but reliably fun.

 photo enlightenment_zps2m8aqsce.jpg#8. Enlightenment (20x17-20)

Peter Davison's final story is fairly unanimously considered his finest, so I'm delighted for a chance to break with tradition - I liked this earlier tale of apathetic gods and impractical space galleons better. Plus, the resolution to one of the best companion arcs.

 photo the-caves-of-androzani_zps7k9twuef.jpg#9. The Caves of Androzani (21x17-20)

I don't usually like my Doctor Who sombre and serious, but this list has contradicted that a couple of times already, so there's room for 'Androzani.' This story of selfless sacrifice exemplifies what the Fifth Doctor fondness is all about. Unfortunately, there are few other examples to back it up.

 photo the-key-to-time-2_zpsa3260010.jpg#10. The Pirate Planet (16x05-08)

I think this one's generally regarded as a dud, but I still have a lot of love for it. Douglas Adams is his own script editor this time, so expect undiluted, ingenious nonsense. If you prefer something serious, you've got 'Androzani' haven't you?

Worthless stats!

Average rating (158 stories): 2.94 / 5

William Hartnell (29 stories): 2.58

Patrick Troughton (21 stories): 2.90

Jon Pertwee (24 stories): 3.13

Tom Baker (41 stories): 3.24

Peter Davison (20 stories): 3.10

Colin Baker (11 stories): 2.18

Sylvester McCoy (12 stories): 2.83

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Doctor Who: Slipback

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This is one of the weirder phenomena in the Who canon, up there with that episode where Tom Baker fellates the giant green genitals. The series was put on death-defying hiatus for 1985, during which the BBC permitted one original radio story to be broadcast instead. And it didn't do any more favours than the 'Doctor in Distress' song to prove the show was worth saving in its current form.

Eric Saward was one of the better writers of the '80s, but this is his shamefully transparent attempt at doing Hitchhiker's Guide with the same type of characters and none of the charm. Because Doctor Who fans aren't going to notice that.

It might be the most throwaway story they ever made, but it's still not quite the worst. There's at least one story on either side that deserves that accolade. I've read that Colin Baker's Doctor is supposedly redeemed by his Big Finish work, but it'll take a lot of those to shake off the bad associations.

On a personal note, this is the closest thing my birth story. It's a wonder I ever became a fan.

"There's nothing I hate more than a cocky computer" - The Doctor

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Doctor Who: The Children of Seth (The Lost Stories 3x03)

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Another two hours of imperial space politics and boring androids, it's not even lifted by the audible authority of David Warner and Honor Blackman. The Peter Davison years aren't my favourites even among the 80s, but I felt I should get the full picture of what might have been by sitting through these apocryphal odds and ends. It might have been slightly worse.

"I'm no monarchist, I'm a fully paid-up Aussie republican" - Tegan Jovanka

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Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Doctor Who: Hexagora (The Lost Stories 3x02)

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The Doctor and Nyssa are chilling in a Brisbane villa while Tegan meets up with old mates, what could possibly go wrong? Apart from one of those mates getting abducted by aliens and turned into an insect. They should have gone to the Eye of Orion, then they'd have been none the wiser.

It's another story about annoying royals, splitting the gang up to play against stock characters in repetitive scenarios. An easy contender for the worst of whichever season it was ejected from. I would have liked to have seen how they realised Tudor London on screen, but it's not like the audio has that going for it. I imagine I'd be less fond of 'The Visitation' if I couldn't see the location filming.

"It really is rather relaxing here. I can't see there'll be much to disturb us..." - The Doctor

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Doctor Who: The Elite (The Lost Stories 3x01)

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It's not my favourite era by a long way, but it's my first Davison audio and the actors all sound just great. It certainly helps that it's post-Adric, and not only for continuity reasons.

Like many of the (arguably deservedly) Lost Stories, I don't feel the series missed anything by dropping this one for whatever reason, and while I don't doubt there are plenty of original Davison Big Finish adventures that are more worthy of my time, the main appeal lies in pretending I'm listening to the resurfaced audio of a deleted season 20 mastertape. It didn't take much imagination, thanks as much to the synthesiser as the typically miserable set-up. Just go in expecting all the children to be dead by the end and you might not end up feeling so bad when some of them make it.

Were we supposed to not realise that was a Dalek until the half-way cliffhanger "reveal?"

"You can't scare an Australian with imprisonment, it's in our blood" - Tegan Jovanka

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Monday, March 28, 2016

Doctor Who: The Valley of Death (The Lost Stories)

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Shouldn't there theoretically be loads more Lost Stories from the longest-reigning Doctor? Maybe they'll dust them off and record them some day. It's not like they only went ahead with the worthy entries, since this is one of those that deservedly ended up in the bin.

It's set in the Amazon, so there was an opportunity for another nice jungle set, but it also smacks too heavily of existing stories. Leela isn't the only one who's reminded of her debut with a false god and dumb acolytes. There's no shortage of stories involving alien invasions and duplicates, and the metafiction isn't as good as when 'Remembrance of the Daleks' made the same joke. What's more, the chanting tribe lumps it in that oft-derided category of episodes that includes 'The Power of Kroll' and 'The Creature from the Pit.'

Actually, I quite like 'Kroll.' Not so much the giant green cock.

"I think they want to take us to their leader. When you've been captured as many times as I have, you start to recognise the signs" - The Doctor

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Doctor Who: The Foe from the Future (The Lost Stories)

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This is my first Tom Baker Big Finish, the legend having finally been persuaded to join the roster after a decade or so, and hearing that inimitable voice once again bringing life to that peerless incarnation, I tried not to feel too disappointed that we'd been stuck with mediocre Doctors for so long. Yes, sorry, but come on.

Louise Jameson is less authentic as Leela now that she sounds conspicuously older, it has to be said. but I got used to it after a while and enjoyed the chance to spend more time with pre-rapidly-civilised Leela in this proposed six-parter for season 14. We got 'Talons' instead, which no one would deny is the superior alternative, mild racism and all, but this still would have been a worthy entry in the show's gothic era.

It's got mad scientists, a haunted house, ghosts on the grange and an insectoid time vortex dweller that's got to be the number one Lost Cliffhanger I would have loved to see brought to shaky, rubbery life.

"Someone tried to kill me within a minute of my arrival, and that's quick even by my standards" - The Doctor

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Sunday, March 27, 2016

Exploration Earth: The Time Machine

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By the time it was immersed in classic horror remakes, Doctor Who had let its original educational brief slide somewhat, but this BBC Schools special helped to make up for it. Starring Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen at the height of their powers, I'm surprised the series didn't do more things like this - though Sylvester, Sophie and K-9 would eventually give it a shot.

Alright, so as an adventure it doesn't stand up to the 'rest' of season 14, but you have to take it in context. These kids were going to learn about the formation of the Earth from someone, and they got to hear it from the best Doctor.

"Order is coming to this planet, a vast and lovely process. See how the surface quakes. See how it opens yawning wounds of fire" - The Doctor

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