Saturday, 30 January 2016

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Name a good, recent sci-fi show on British TV aimed specifically at teens. It’s difficult, isn’t it? E4’s Tripped aims to fill that gap in the schedule.

George Webster stars as hapless stoner Milo, while ex-Inbetweener Blake Harrison plays it straight as his more grown-up mate Danny, who much to Milo’s annoyance, is engaged to Georgina Campbell’s Kate. And then a strange man with a sword tries to kill Milo, who’s rescued by another version of Danny, leaving behind a bracelet that can transport our heroes to parallel universes. Yes, they do get stuck in the wrong world, and yes, they do get into all sorts of japes on their quest to get back.

This Bill and Ted-esque concept comes from a good team of writers – Jamie Mathieson wrote some of the best recent Doctor Who episodes, and the Williams brothers also have varied comedy and drama credits. The three have a lot of fun with the parallel universe concept, starting small – a world where Milo’s dead gran is alive – before upping the stakes more and more, even taking us to a world on the brink of nuclear destruction. Throughout this, the boys are pursued by brutal killers from somewhere in the multiverse, but the plot never gets too complicated, wisely focusing on the characters and the humour.

Despite several very funny moments, however, the comedy doesn’t always hit its targets. At times, it’s very Inbetweeners, with jokes about drugs and various bodily functions, and yet it’s so invested in moving the plot along quickly that it doesn’t allow the jokes to play out to their full potential. 

Nevertheless, the pace of Tripped – whole new worlds are explored in each forty minute episode – makes it an enjoyable watch, and with only four of those episodes, it’ll only take an evening to get through. It’s neither the funniest comedy nor the most exciting sci-fi you’ll see this year, but it’s a trip you won’t regret taking.

Monday, 25 January 2016

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It’s 2042, and multinational corporations govern the world. Olissipo City, built in Portugal by a conglomerate of biotech companies, has become one of the world’s most prominent metropolises. But all’s not well here – anti-robot crime is on the rise.

Man:Plus is a dystopian thriller from creator André Lima Araújo. This first issue sees an unknown android get attacked by a gang of cyborg criminals, only to brutally kill one and escape. A crack police team – the Special Operations Force – is tasked to investigate the mess left behind.

In this squad, we meet futuristic versions of a lot of police procedural tropes – the rugged hero, the hardline veteran boss, the newbie – which helps us immediately get to know them, though this issue doesn’t dig much deeper than that. The time spent with the criminal gang, recovering from their botched operation, is more intriguing – Araújo sets up this odd bunch in a way that gets us wondering just what their motives are.

But the real strength is the way these two parallel stories show off different environments; the sleek, futuristic tech of the police station contrasts sharply with the murky slums of the city’s residential areas. Araújo has put a lot of work into the design of Olissipo City, and into the look of Man:Plus as a whole – there are hints of Blade Runner and Metropolis in the dystopian cityscape, and of Akira in the cyberpunk violence. The precise line art allows the details, carefully layered into every scene to draw you in, and Arsia Rozegar’s colours build up a mood that’s grungy rather than flashy.

And that complex world building is the strength of Man:Plus – it’s at once familiar and original, fantastic and real, and easy to become absorbed in. Though it touches on intriguing themes, the story feels like it’s not yet hit its stride – nevertheless, Olissipo City will be well worth a return visit.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Visit Starburst for the full version of this review.

It’s been a year since Tegan Jovanka ended her travels in the TARDIS, but when the Doctor comes back into her life, so does her ex Kyle. This may sound more rom-com than sci-fi, but rest assured, they’re all soon propelled into a time-travelling adventure including water-based goblins, a scheming Countess from a faraway planet, and spacecraft designed by Rembrandt himself.

The Waters of Amsterdam is a fantastically original adventure from writer Jonathan Morris, largely due to its focus on the emotional lives of its characters, an aspect sometimes neglected in the weaker of Big Finish’s productions. The opening episode, depicting Tegan and Kyle’s relationship through a series of flashbacks, is a refreshing break from the usual exploration of spaceship corridors, and is vibrant and touching.

What The Waters of Amsterdam also has to its credit is an abundance of humour: there’s Tegan losing her air hostess job in a characteristically loud-mouthed manner, there’s a number of good wisecracks from Peter Davison’s dry Fifth Doctor, and then there’s Rembrandt. Historical figures in Doctor Who are often romanticised, but this version of the Old Master is a grumpy old sod, entirely unimpressed by the Doctor and co.’s intrusion into his life, to very entertaining effect.

With a touching emotional story, a sci-fi adventure, a lot of humour, and a historical figure thrown in for good measure, The Waters of Amsterdam is a very strong and, at times, very original Doctor Who story – just what we love to hear from Big Finish.
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At the end of the 1968 serial The Invasion, the Second Doctor and his companions defeated a fleet of Cybermen attempting to invade Earth. But did they? As it turns out, one Cyber-ship escaped. The Isos Network, the latest in the series of Second Doctor audio adventures from Big Finish, sees the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe pursue this ship to the planet of Isos 2, where they find a deserted city, giant slugs, and the Cybermen rebuilding their power.

The link back to The Invasion will please fans of the era, and writer/director Nicholas Briggs does a lot to recreate the classic ‘60s style, with monsters skulking about in underground tunnels, jumping out when it’s time for the cliffhanger, and with a reappearance from the original Cyber-Controller.

However, the adherence to the format of Troughton-era Who isn’t entirely a good thing in this audio’s case; the plotting feels generic and predictable, with certain plot points trying so hard to mimic classic adventures that they end up over-familiar, and it’s only in the final episode that the confrontation between Doctor and Cybermen really gets going.

Despite these story issues, the production is of as high a quality as ever. Original Jamie and Zoe actors Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury both play their characters and narrate the action, plus Hines puts in a very respectable Patrick Troughton impression.

With this much loved trio along with the classic Cybermen in a sequel to a fan favourite story, there’ll be enough in The Isos Network to please any devout fan of the Troughton era for two hours. But the story’s failure to do anything that feels particularly new or imaginative, as indeed Troughton’s serials felt at the time, means it’ll struggle to win over the unconverted. 

Saturday, 16 January 2016

The latest issue of Starburst Magazine is out now!

In this issue, I've taken over the regular Doctor Who news column, Outside the Box, from Paul Mount. If I manage to find some sort of news every month and keep it in half as good shape as Paul managed to, it'll be a success. My review of Doctor Who/Sherlock Holmes audio All-Consuming Fire is also printed.

Plus, there are features on Deadpool, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and much more from the worlds of cult entertainment.

As usual, buy from Tesco, WH Smiths, or online.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

A bit of a late review, this… When I watched the episode on Christmas Day, I’d had a drink or four, and so my opinion based on that viewing probably wouldn’t be very valuable. Then I got busy with other Christmas stuff, then my Wi-Fi broke… long story short, I’ve only just got around to a rewatch.

On my first, drunken viewing, I quite enjoyed The Husbands of River Song. On second, sober viewing… yeah. I quite enjoyed it. It’s a fun, jokey adventure romp, suitable Christmas Day viewing – probably more suitable for the festive season than last year’s better but darker Last Christmas. Some jokes land, some don’t. The enemies are there for comedy rather than serious threat. I liked the camp alien butler and his looks of disdain when the passengers couldn’t see him.

The plot, like many a Moffat script, feels like a series of ideas rather than a tightly structured piece of writing – a heist movie becomes a disaster movie becomes a festive romance. Some of the ideas are good, particularly visually – the guy with the money inside his head is nicely creepy, and the cruise full of genocidal murderers could even be a Douglas Adams idea – but none of them, the cruise in particular, feel played out to their full potential. It does feel that the passengers being killers is only there so it doesn’t matter when the ship crashes.

Let’s be clear on this, then – the purpose of the plot and the villains is purely to facilitate getting the Doctor and River in a room together, riffing off each other. That reunion is what this episode is about. And so repeat enjoyment of the episode depends on your tolerance for Steven Moffat’s trope of concentrating on the main characters’ relationships at the expense of supporting characters and plot depth.

Back in 2011, I was fed up of River Song by the end of series six – a good idea for a character ruined by messy plotting and by her personality revolving ever more around the Doctor. This was an interesting episode in terms of that last criticism, as the story, at least for the first half, allowed us to see River independent of the Doctor and doing what she does best, thus making her a little more enjoyable to watch (albeit obnoxious at times – her wiping her other husband’s memory is off-puttingly selfish). It also allows the great extended gag of her not recognising the Doctor, a clever twist on what we know about the characters which Moffat gleefully plays out to its full potential. Looks like Capaldi loved getting to do his own take on “it’s bigger on the inside”.

But the final act of the episode, once she realises who’s standing next to her, takes a very different turn. Though River’s speech about the Doctor not loving people (and its subsequent reversal) is Moffat’s fetishisation of the Doctor at its most annoying, even my River-cynical mind will admit that the final sequence, with the two of them having Christmas dinner overlooking the Singing Towers of Darillium, is a rather sweet ending. It’s nice, too, how well this fits in with both 2008's Silence in the Library and the 2011 minisode Last Night – especially given how little sense the rest of River’s storyline from 2011 made. Check out this neat fan edit of River’s two ‘endings’.

(And let’s ignore the blindingly stupid plot hole of “I know what happened to this ship, I dug it up” followed by, five minutes later, “This ship crashes on Darillium? Oh my god!”)

All in all, then, a fun adventure romp that, while nothing exceptional and falling prey to some of Moffat’s usual shortcomings, knew exactly what it needed to be, and then became an interesting and fitting addition to River Song’s timeline. One best watched after a festive tipple.

Oh, and a big tick for avoiding the Who cliché of mopey callbacks to recently departed companions – not a single Clara reference.

Monday, 4 January 2016

Remember how good the first episode of Sherlock was?

It was incredible television.

And now… what went wrong?

After a two-year break, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ modern-day updating of the Victorian detective returned for a special set in, erm, Victorian times. I was very skeptical about that element – surely the whole point of Sherlock is to be a modern updating of the Holmes stories and to show that the period setting isn’t necessary, and this gimmick sounded like a step too far into the self-referentiality that hampered the third series. 

As it happened, the 1890s setting didn’t work too badly, with the case well suited to it; a ghostly bride stalking London is a very Victorian horror idea, and the nighttime stake-out outside the grand mansion most likely wouldn’t be as atmospheric if Watson had his smartphone instead of a revolver. Plus, the repartee between Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes and Martin Freeman’s Watson, like a crime-solving Blackadder and Baldrick, would work in any period.

And, importantly, I actually liked the explanation that was given – modern-day Sherlock was immersing himself into a nineteenth-century cold case in order to help him figure out the secret to Moriarty’s survival. Sherlock meets Waking the Dead. A neat link tying the episode’s gimmick into the overarching story.

But Moffat and Gatiss aren’t able to leave it at that, and the episode starts to fall apart when it throws in a number of seemingly random tangents from the plot, pulling not one, but two unrelated tête-à-têtes between Sherlock and Moriarty out of its deerstalker. It’s all over the place, to the extent that there’s a fifteen-minute stretch midway through the episode where the mystery isn’t even mentioned.

Look, too, at this episode’s handling of its themes – is it about Sherlock as an addict? Feminism? Friendship? Sherlock vs. Moriarty? Answer: all of them and none of them. And at its insistence on putting all the famous Sherlock Holmes scenes into the Victorian setting – why must we watch Watson and Sherlock meet for the first time again? What does the Reichenbach Fall scene have to do with anything? So much is superfluous.

And then there’s the issue of the gender politics. With this and recent Doctor Who, Steven Moffat seems to be actively trying to make up for accusations of misogyny that were rightfully thrown at his first few Who series. And good on him for trying. But, well, it’s more than a little clumsily handled. Firstly, seeing Watson being a dick to his wife and maid is uncomfortable watching. The Sherlock formula worked because Holmes was the abrasive, arrogant one and Watson the moral compass who held him back; if they’re both dickheads, there’s no reason to root for them, and that’s the case here, with his personality having been adjusted to make the twist work (there’s a comparison to 1970s Doctor Who – when Jo Grant was introduced as a more explicitly feminist companion, the writers had Jon Pertwee’s Doctor make sexist jokes just so she could call him out on it).

And secondly, maybe portraying feminists as a murderous cult who dress up as the KKK for no reason at all isn’t the best way to make them sympathetic. I mean, what is up with that cult? Sure, the motive of fighting back against sexism is a good one, but why did these men in particular deserve murdering, and why do they go about it using the most needlessly bizarre scheme since the Silence tried to kill the Doctor by dressing his friends’ daughter as an astronaut? They say Emilia Rossellini dies as a martyr for her cause, but what does her death actually achieve other than a creepy story for the Penny Dreadfuls? From the writers’ perspective, the whole purpose of the ghostly scheme is to facilitate the moments of horror, and it shows in the lack of plot logic. Similarly, them being a cult is there for the visual moments only, with little justification in the plot and it being handwaved away as ‘it’s all in Sherlock’s imagination’.

And this is the problem with current Sherlock; it’s presented to us as a series of moments, cool scenes which its writers think will create immediate reaction and will be turned into tumblr gifsets (again, those superfluous scenes of the Reichenbach Fall and the first Holmes/Watson meeting). And yet these moments have no binding narrative; Moffat and Gatiss seem to have forgotten that what made the first few episodes so good is that they gave us solid, satisfactory detective drama with the cool tumblr-able moments drawn out naturally from within that structure.

Perhaps Sherlock’s format is a problem, with the sparsity of episodes pressuring its creators to make every one into a mini-movie with as much crammed in as possible. Perhaps if we had more episodes with shorter running times, then, like Doctor Who, all the big character-developing moments could go into openings and finales and we’d get time to breathe and enjoy the team solving crimes in between.

Either way, The Abominable Bride’s indulgences hold it back. The Victorian setting works well for the case, allowing some good scenes of horror and period detective work, and there are some fun comedic moments with Holmes and Watson back together again, but that’s all they are – moments, with no satisfying whole.