WandaVision Episode 8: Previously on…

This was an inevitable episode that was never going to have either the charm, humour or intrigue of earlier episodes. It does have some powerful emotional moments but I found those undercut by a couple of big issues. Lots of answers but few surprises.

Before we dive into spoiler territory, just a fresh reminder that Disney still haven’t paid Alan Dean Foster the money they owe him.

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WandaVision Episode 7: Breaking the Fourth Wall

Well that was very entertaining. As always an episode that is night on impossible to review without spoilers, even though the biggest twist was one I think most people had guessed. Aside from that, this was one of the most integrated of the episodes since the external-world plot was introduced. As our sitcom history has reached the 2010s, the inspiration is the mockumentary style of Modern Family. That’s a surprisingly effective medium as it allows several characters to talk directly to camera about the plot. Meanwhile Darcy finds herself part of the show and Monica gets a new toy.

The rest is spoilers.

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WandaVision: Episode 6 – All-New Halloween Spooktacular! (spoilers)

Safe to assume that all WandaVision reviews are spoiler filled. Before the fold, I’ll say that in terms of TV history, the town of Westview (huh…only just noticed that’s WV) has lurched not so much to the 1990s as the 2000’s. I guess the sitcoms of the 1990s are tougher to fit into the model. Roseanne would be the most iconic family-orientated sitcom other than The Simpsons (oh, but a nod to The Simpsons with a Halloween episode and I would have loved a cartoon episode of WandaVision). When I think of 1990s US sitcoms, Friends is the most obvious but that wouldn’t make any sense. Instead the vibe is a bit closer to Malcolm in the Middle with some fourth wall breaking asides to the camera from the kids.

Enough images have already circulate in publicity for the show, that I don’t think it is a spoiler to mention that Wanda gets to wear a home made version of her Scarlet Witch costume for Halloween (a Sokovian fortune teller, she says). Vision dresses as a ‘Mexican wrestler’ in a way that also resembles his comic book appearance. For added referencing we get the new-Pietro improvising a Quicksilver costume and hair style but he provides no rational for it. Which takes us into spoiler territory…

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Review: Sweet Home (Netflix)

Based on the comic by Kim Kan-bi and Hwang Young-chan (which is available on Webtoons here) Korea is once again facing a gory pandemic. The good news for recently orphaned teen Cha Hyun-soo is that the run-down apartment block he has moved into is not going to be the focus of a plague of zombies…the bad news is the growing number of “infected” people turn into something far worse…

Actually, I should say “somethings”. The bloody and disturbing charm of the show is its monsters. After initial symptoms of bloody nose bleeds and hallucinations, people transform into idiosyncratic monsters (from a hideous ghoul with a metres long tongue-tentacle, to a giant eyeball, to a spider monster, or an oddly benevolent green-goo creature). The transformations reflect aspects of their original lives but each one is nearly unkillable.

The monsters feel like a cross between The Thing and Attack on Titan but that weirdness aside, the story gradually drifts into a more conventional zombie-apocalypse survival narrative. The small number of survivors trapped on the ground floor of the Green Home apartment bloc, must find ways to band together to protect themselves from the surrounding nightmare. In later episodes they have to deal with an intruding human gang, as well as the secret agenda of the army which (as per usual) knows more about the plague than they are letting on. Luckily, by this point the viewer is more invested in the fate of the ensemble of characters who range from shop keepers to an improbable combination of people with bad-ass backstories.

I had read part of the comic before watching the show, and the initial episodes parallel the comic at times matching individual panels. The same themes of deep psychological trauma in the backstories of key characters (especially the central figure of Cha Hyun-soo) is repeated and in flashbacks we learn about extreme violent bullying and for other characters violent crimes or domestic violence. I’m told that the show and comic diverge quickly and there is a clearer explanation of what is going on with the monsters and how their forms connect to their past life in the comic.

As you can imagine, this is not a show with an even tone. Usually bloody, there is a large amount of quite brutal violence between people that is not directly connected to monster plague. Other aspects of it are comic or maudlin or tragic and the tone can shift dramatically.

Lastly, as I know this is something people like to be assured about, a recurring character owns a dog and by the end of the final episode the dog is alive and well.

I watched Star Trek – Lower Decks

At the risk of becoming some kind of Star Trek completist, I watched the animated series Star Trek – Lower Decks which recently made its way onto Amazon Prime in locations beyond the USA. Initially confined to CBS All Access, the show wasn’t available for some time internationally (unlike Discovery or Picard which could be accessed on Netflix and Amazon respectively in locales without CBS).

Pitched as humorous, adult-orientated animated series in the Star Trek universe, the series creator is Mike McMahan, a lead writer from Rick and Morty. However, the show’s humour is both less crude and less imaginative than that show, indeed overall it pitches itself at ‘amusing’ rather than ‘funny’. The obvious comparison is with The Orville, rather than Galaxy Quest or John Scalzi’s Redshirts. Parodies can themselves be love letters to what they parody but there is a point where there is a degree of respectfulness to the source material where parody is no longer viable. Instead, the show is at the edge the range of humour that already exists within Star Trek’s variety of tone. It is not an attempt to pull at the loose threads of Star Trek’s concept to see what unravels and more an attempt to provide a more sustained hit of that Trouble With Tribbles energy or the ensemble warmth of DS9.

Put aside any expectations of Rick & Morty But Star Trek or a Star Trek sitcom or Red Dwarf but Trek but also put aside any expectations of a kind of Becky Chamber’s style look at ordinary people in space examination of Trek. There are bits of elements of that but judged against those criteria, the show is a failure. Treat as a different variation on mainstream Star Trek but with a bit of army-humour and the show works.

What it does well is provide relatively short Trek-like episodes with an ensemble cast of engaging characters. Indeed, given how much Discovery struggles to give its supporting cast any attention, it is notable how much better Lower Decks is at letting multiple characters be engaging. True, most episodes focus on the main two leads, Ensigns Beckett Mariner and Brad Boimler (Tawny Newsome and Jack Quaid) but nearly equal time is given to their two friends/co-workers Ensigns D’Vana Tendi and Sam Rutherford (Noël Wells and Eugene Cordero). All four of them are to varying degrees hyper-competent (because the show accepts that everybody in Starfleet is the best-of-the-best as a baseline) but to varying degrees flawed. However, the extent to which they are varyingly insubordinate, accident prone or magnets for misfortune is implied to be things that they may/might/will grow out of.

Overall that set-up works. The ship (the USS Cerritos) is a designated “second contact” ship whose job it is to run follow-up missions but just as low-key missions have a tendency to spiral out of control in The Next Generation, so they do for the Cerritos. The paradox that Starfleet ships are essentially university research departments run according to the rules of the navy is just as apparent here as with the rest of Trek but less annoying given the comedy setting [yes, everybody really should have been court-martialled already but then we can make the same point about Discovery].

The only stand-out episode for me was Episode 9:Crisis Point where Mariner co-opts Boimler’s holodeck simulation of the crew (designed to help him succeed at promotion interviews) into her own cinematic version of Lower Decks. The holodeck lets the show finally shift gear into proper parody but late enough into the series that we have gained some affection for the characters. There are some funny and wry moments balanced with some character growth.

So overall, as an amusing hit of Star Trek energy, the show works so longs as you aren’t expecting anything either deep or funny or insightful. It leans towards being overly respectful of the source material but is sufficiently engaging to be enjoyable.

Review: The Left-handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix

Garth Nix has a neat way of creating fantasy stories that have a reassuring familiarity that nonetheless introduce novel or unusual aspects. With The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, plunges us into a slightly-alternative-universe version of 1980s London where the policing of the borders between the mundane and the mythic lies in the various hands of a clan of booksellers.

The conceit of the Torchwood/Laundry/Men-in-Black/Ministry-of-Magic type organisation operating in the mundane world as booksellers, allows the story to quite overtly name check the stories he wants to evoke. So expect overt nods to Alan Garner, Diana Wynn-Jones and JRR Tolkien but also plot nods to things like the Chronicles of Prydain. The early 80’s setting means we also get elements of The Sweeney and The Professionals (with some alt-universe twists).

Susan Arkshaw has come to live in London to attend art school but has a second agenda: discover the identity of her father. Rapidly, she finds herself encountering firstly a world of organised crime and then a world of magical beings, as her investigations stir up interest of multiple entities. And where London is a city of both shifty and colourful characters, it is also a city where the boundaries between criminals and law enforcement isn’t always clear.

Enter the mysterious Booksellers. Recognised by charter since the time of Elizabeth I, the Booksellers have been granted the job of patrolling the shaky boundaries of the mythic elements of Britain. With an uneasy relationship with Special Branch, the Booksellers divide themselves as right-handed agents in their headquarters (centred around a rambling Foyles-like bookshop on Charing Cross road) and left-handed field agents.

The story arc contains few surprises and plenty of twists, as sinister plots are revealed and Susan learns more about her true identity than she may have wanted. It is a fun and exciting package and delivers on most of its promises.

Review: WandaVision Episode 3 – Now in Color!

Philip K Dick has an unenviable position: his stories have been frequently adapted and yet the films that capture his distinctive mix of average Joe’s caught up in worlds which are lies, are films (e.g. Terry Gilliam’s Brasil) that aren’t adaptations of his work.

Dick’s Ubik (1969) literally features an average Joe albeit one who is working for a psychic agency. Each chapter begins with a fake commercial for the amazing Ubik product, whose real purpose is part of the hidden mystery of the sliding realities that the characters encounter. There are shades of Ubik in Christopher Nolan’s Inception or even in how Paul Verhoeven weaves fake adverts in RoboCop (1987), a film that has oddly more Dickian elements in it that Verhoeven’s Total Recall that is overtly a Dick adaptation.

The third episode of WandaVision ramps up the Dickian elements to the detriment of the sitcom pastiche. The superhero couple are now in the colourful early 70’s with house decor to match but the comedy subplot is a magical pregnancy. The fundamentally sinister aspects of that for the time period is more suggestive of Rosemary’s Baby than mainstream sitcom fare. It does though, repeat the odd 1990s/2000s genre TV aspect of the show, where women characters might often have to face an episode-long pregnancy.

While Dick’s aesthetic is rarely included in the adaptation of his work, the suburban gnosticism has worked its way into popular culture through other means. As we do appear to be in 1990s TV land for the non-sitcom aspect of the show, the Twin Peaks sense of soap-opera concerns being a thin veneer over Manichean conflict of powers is given a notch up. Geraldine’s (aka Monica Rambeau, probably) sword (S.W.OR.D.) pendant looking like an inverted cross as she struggles to bring facts about the world beyond into the domestic bliss of Wanda Maximoff.

The laughs this week feel forced but intentionally so. The circumstance (a pregnancy lasting hours instead of months) is inherently disturbing and Wanda’s emotional pain surfaces not only as jokey practical effects but also a memories of her brother (the MCU’s killed-off early Quicksilver due to his ambiguity between cinematic universes). It is strong stuff and the show walks a tricky line, not as successfully as episode 2 but still another strong and interesting entry.

Review: Lupin (Netflix)

The obvious comparisons made about Netflix’s French language hit is with Sherlock: a modern day re-imagining of a turn-of-the-century character. The first episode suggests a slickness of form suggestive of Sherlock but Lupin as a show is less impressed with its own cleverness and more interested in the central character. The bold choice is that central character is not Arsène Lupin Gentleman Burglar but Assane Diop, the son of a Senegalese immigrant who has reshaped his life to emulate the famous (at least in France) character.

Omar Sy’s Lupin/Diop is at the heart of the show: clever and flawed, a master of disguise and cunning plans but struggling to maintain a relationship with his ex-wife and son. The first episode follows a classic heist movie plot, with extra revelations at the end. The other episodes each have their own cunning twists but the focus shifts more onto the surrounding characters and the backstory to Lupin/Diop’s long game for revenge and justice for his father.

Episodes 3 and 4 I thought were weaker and episode 5 ends on a cliff hanger with nothing in the main plot resolved. More episodes are on their way though and the show has reached that “surprise international hit” status that will mean we are likely to see a lot more.

Lupin plays cleverly into roles of race and class, using appearance to hide in plain sight. Vanishing from the police as menulog-style cycle food delivery man or creating an unassailable alibi by gatecrashing an auction as a brash IT entrepreneur. The mercurial shifts are given more character grounding by showing us more of Assane Diop as a character behind his Lupin persona. The contrast between both loyalty and duplicity as he juggles his twin lives moderates the portrait of Lupin as a criminal genius. He’s a man who makes mistakes and who has deeper issues with honesty than his life of clever of crimes.

Enjoyable and different.