Category: Reviews

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2

Can you make a light-hearted comedy space opera about abusive parents? Um, sort of I guess. Guardians of the Galaxy is back and with an opening fight scene in which the camera sticks with Baby Groot dancing to ELO, letting the tentacle space monster fighting action go on behind, it knows that the music, wonderful images and jokes will carry the day.

It is not a substantial spoiler to say that the plot focuses on the return of Peter Quill/Starlord’s father in the form of Kurt Russell. Unfortunately, that means the primary theme of the movie is how the rag-tag gang is really a family and family, family, family. It isn’t a terrible sentiment but with Fast and Furious franchise relying on the same schtick, it feels more cliche than heartwarming in places. Worse, two key characters (Gamora and Nebula) were brought up by wannabe death god Thanos, and his misuse of both of them as weapons growing up (not depicted but described) makes for some clumsy tonal shifts amid the jokes about blowing things up.

The plot feels thinner than Volume 1 but the jokes are more frequent and most play well. You’ll all watch it for Baby Groot dancing anyway and, well why not? Zoe Saldana and Karen Gillan get more a story arc than volume 1 but there is an element of a redemption arc for Nebula. There was a point where I thought she’d get her own band of space pirates and I’m kind of disappointed that she didn’t.

Review: Doctor Who – Smile

There isn’t much to say about the story in itself. The main feature is that it is a serviceable Doctor Who style SF story with a weak resolution and ending. The look and overall design, as well the cute/creepy emoji robots, mark it as recent but in other ways, it could have been a story from any era of Doctor Who.

So what’s that all about then? Stephen Moffat is many things but one thing he is is a very self-conscious producer of TV shows. He attempts to change rules and dynamics of the shows he runs, often unsuccessfully. He also tries to avoid doing a season of Doctor Who the same way twice – again often unsuccessfully.

Based on just the first two episodes it does sort of look like this time Moffat is trying to do Russell T Davis. Again, Moffat has tried to evoke past Doctor who eras before. We know that this season will have a major shout out to the William Hartnell Doctor with the return of the creepy and ungainly ‘Mondasian’ cybermen, but my sense of this season so far is more Christopher Ecclestone than Hartnell.

Is it an intentional ‘back to basics’ approach? Could be, after all, what could be more different from Moffat’s previous over-complex story arcs than shifting back to the first season of the revival? A new companion allows a new introduction to the Doctor, and with Peter Capaldi retiring at the end of this season from the role, it also marks a chance for a handover like Ecclestone to Tennant. That next week’s episode takes our heroes to Victorian London also means the first three episodes match the same pattern as the first three of the revived season 1 (ep 1: present, ep 2: far future, ep 3: Victorian times).

Currently Reading: Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

As I have a dead tree version, I thought I’d take occasional notes on the references made in the story to various things. Hmmm, I’ve made a lot of notes! I’m about a third of the way through and it is settling down and the [plot]:[classical/enlightenment/pre-twentieth century] has increased sufficiently that I’m not stopping every page for a post-it note. Nice to see some of my early ‘this is possibly a reference to…’ be confirmed by later parts of the text.

I’ll do a few posts just of the notes I think. Not sure how it all ties together yet.

Review: Great Britain

The latest plot twist in the long-running series called “Great Britain” is a General Election

This bizarre fantasy series set on a large island “just off the coast of France” imagines a European nation that is somehow also part of the anglosphere. While the deeply amoral but wonderfully costumed historical series of “Great Britain” won huge ratings in the past, critics have claimed that this was “largely due to a hugely powerful navy forcing us to watch”. The exciting World War 2 season of the series managed to recast the protagonist as a more conventionally heroic character, while scaling back on the now tired “Empire” story arc.

Later seasons have shown major ratings drops, as the focus shifted to a more introspective drama with a more diverse cast. Some have blamed the loss of viewers on that diversity, while others have pointed out that there are just so many other countries available to watch these days.

For reasons known only to the script writers, the current season appears to be trying to repeat a minor ratings hit from the late 1970s/early 80s. Viewers will remember that season as a transition from a politically divided country with rising far-right violence, the “Scottish” branch aiming for its own spin-off series (would definitely watch) and a sense of political malaise, to a country run by a right-wing authoritarian woman with a penchant for starting wars.

This twenty-teens riff on that earlier storyline is not playing with quite the same knife-edge drama. Instead of a taught political drama, the current season is a giant game of idiot-ball. The ruling “Conservative” party (could they not have thought of a less obvious name?) is portrayed as cartoonishly evil and incompetent. It simply isn’t plausible that these people who are both overtly unlikable and bumbling idiots would get any votes from anybody. The script writers are forced therefore to make the opposition party equally as bumbling.

While the theme of the “Labour Party” being prone to circular firing squads is a long running one (used repeatedly for dramatic effect in the “twentieth century” DVD box set), this time it feels like a lazy rehash. The left wing leader is written as having almost no capacity to build a broad political coalition on the left, while Labour’s technocratic wing are supposed to be both arch-schemers and also incapable of organising a coup and/or a piss-up at the Labour Party Conference bar.

Critics have suggested that the showrunners painted themselves into a corner when some hack in the writer’s room suggested: “why not let the Euroskeptics win?” Certainly, the “Brexit” story line was poorly written and made little sense as a plot development. The rising tension and the surprise reveal on the day was exciting but it left the story with nowhere to go but a bureaucratic muddle. Nobody wants to see idiots bumbling about unless it is a comedy. Yes, yes rival show “USA” is currently a rating hit with its very dark comedy about a low-IQ psychotic fraudster who somehow becomes the supreme leader of a nuclear superpower, but that is intended to be comedy (surely?) and the whole premise of that current season is driven by one OTT character replete with comedy catchphrases and clown make-up.

As for the big-bad that both “Great Britain” and “USA” are employing in what promises to be a cross-over event (seriously? That never works for Marvel and it won’t work for these shows), the idea of recycling both “Russia” and “Nazis” doesn’t count as a new idea even if you mash them together. It would be like Doctor Who deciding to run a whole season in which the Cybermen were secretly funding wannabe Daleks but in a really obvious way so that the VIEWERS can all see that it is actually Daleks but none of the main characters can. Just how can we take this seriously? And if we aren’t supposed to take it seriously then why aren’t the jokes funny?

Any hope for this series? Well, the “Scotland” spin-off currently under discussion has the advantage of an engaging, young cast and charismatic characters. However, if those characters leave the main series for their own show then what is the main show left with? Cheaper versions of 1980s characters with half the charisma and weaker dialogue.

Best move for the writers? Ditch the current story line. Yes, that requires a somewhat rapidly implausible set of events: Labour gets its act together, wins the general election, reverses Brexit, fights the Nazis, uncovers the Russian plot and sorts out whatever is going on with the Great British Bake Off (I don’t watch it but the cat does). Can they really pull all those plot lines together in less than a month? I hope so but it seems unlikely – in which case the show will descend into a kind of ethical entropy: somewhat nasty people with low competence bumbling around nastily for no good reason and with no direction. Who wants to watch that?

Details: “Great Britain: Season 482” available on Netflix, HBO, CNN, BBC and most encyclopaedias. Two stars.

Review: Death’s End by Cixin Liu – Hugo2017

About halfway through Death’s End, the central character Cheng Xin meets with Yun Tianming – a human who has been living within the hostile alien society of Trisolaris. Change Xin (and humanity) are desperate to discover how to survive in what they have come to realise is an inherently hostile universe. Yun Tianming is eager to help but the Trisolarans do not wish for humanity to gain any advantage. Under threat of immediate execution of Cheng Xin, if he reveals anything, Yun Tianming decides to tell her three interconnected fairy tales – ostensibly stories they shared as children.

The stories appear to be charming fables about magical paintings, a beautiful princess, giants and tyrannical usurpers. However, each one is a layered metaphor revealing deeper secrets about how the universe works. That each story contains some elements that are metaphors and some that are simply decorative flourishes is clear to humanity’s scientists and leaders but they have no clear way of separating the message from the medium.

The whole of Death’s End can feel like Yun Tianming’s fairy tales – some of it feels like filler, sets of events that are there just to move the characters further into the future, while other parts feel like they are attempting to make a wider observation about human society. The core character, Cheng Xin is portrayed as both clever and compassionate but also repeatedly placed in positions of almost dictatorial power over humanity – and on each occasion, she fails to make the ‘right’ decision by being too considerate and too inclined towards peace.

Given the basic premise established in the previous book, The Dark Forest, that each and every intelligent species in the universe is locked in an inescapable kill-or-be-killed conflict, it isn’t surprising that throughout the book borderline psychopathic men are shown to be right in retrospect and Cheng Xin’s humanism is repeatedly shown to be disastrous. Indeed, Cheng Xin’s one cynical act early in the book (involving Yun Tianming) is what proves to be her wisest choice.

As with the previous novels in the trilogy (The Three Body Problem, and The Dark Forest), Death’s End is clever and ambitious, spanning centuries (and eventually aeons) and rarely following predictable beats. At times it really sparkles but much of the time it falls into the same trap as The Dark Forest, recounting sequences of events with shallow characterisation that feel oddly inconsequential given the momentous themes of humanity’s survival.

In the latter half of the book, Cheng Xin is woken from hibernation to find that humanity is mainly living in space habitats, orbiting the Sun but hidden behind Jupiter and other gas giants. The story spends some time discussing the different styles of shapes for each habitat and Cheng Xin visits several. Why? Like much of the info-dumps in the book it feels both perfunctory and important – rather like a fairy tale or something like the Voyage of Saint Brendan where he visits one unusual island after another but the deeper significance is unobvious (or just not there). So, rather like Yun Tianming’s fairy tales, you are left wondering what is of deeper significance and what is simply the connective tissue of a story.

Undoubtedly epic in scope, the moments of sparkle feel overwhelmed by a focus on details that feel irrelevant. Inherently trapped between fatalism and endorsement of a merciless view of survival at all cost, this is not an easy read. In the end though, I am reminded of the immortal words of the Simpson family:

Marge: Well, then maybe the moral is, no good deed goes unrewarded.
Homer: Wait a minute! If I hadn’t written that nasty letter we wouldn’t have gotten anything.
Marge: Mmmm… then I guess the moral is, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.
Lisa: Maybe there is no moral, Mom.
Homer: Exactly! It’s just a bunch of stuff that happened.
Marge: But it certainly was a memorable few days.
Homer: Amen to that.

It certainly was a memorable few days.

Review: Doctor Who – The Pilot, Season 10 Ep 1

A cheeky title for the first episode of Steven Moffat’s last season as show-runner. Doctor Who has two kinds of required episodes: the new companion intro and the regeneration episode and keeping those episodes fresh can be a challenge. The Pilot does what it needs to do very well – it keeps the focus on Bill, a cafeteria worker at Bristol University, a without belabouring a backstory, gives a sense of a three-dimensional person grounded in the real world.

Without delving into the story, it has the nice balance of spooky, silly and running away that you might want out of a Doctor Who episode. No startlingly original ideas but rather a focus on a fresh take on the familiar.

Framed as both an introduction to a new companion and a re-introduction to the series, there are lots of nods to the past from the pictures of River Song and Susan on the Doctor’s desk to a Dalek cameo. Something for everybody.

Review: Black Mirror: San Junipero – Hugo2017

Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror is known for its twisty and cynical stories of society and modern technology (particularly media technology) in conflict. Unusually for a critically acclaimed show during the new TV golden age, it isn’t spawned from some other media nor is it a long-form, story-arc dominated serial. Each episode, although tied by common themes, are standalone stories, which puts it closer to the SFF TV tradition of the Twilight Zone and the Outer Limits.

Twisty as it tends to be, it can be hard to review because the central premise of an episode can either be misleading or revealed as a plot twist. San Junipero has elements of both. So beware, some major spoilers after the fold but I’ll say this upfront – this is a touching love story and yes, I did nearly cry a little and it might make you cry a lot by the end.

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