August 27, 2014

Babylon 5: "Grey 17 is Missing"

A missing maintenance worker leads Garibaldi to discover an entire secret level buried within Babylon 5's Grey sector. Delenn is invited to lead the Rangers, sparking a fresh conflict with her former Grey Council rival Neroon.

"Grey 17 is Missing" does not have the best of reputations. Like a lot of Babylon 5 episodes it is a story with two halves, one of which is broadly satisfactory, the other of which is tedious in the extreme. The better half focuses on Neroon's veiled threats towards Delenn: Minbari have a very strict moral code about murdering each other, and this code has been well emphasised through earlier seasons. As a result Neroon's murderous plot brings a lot of dramatic weight. It seems that Minbari society may be hovering on the edge of collapse. This is a revelation that the series fully earns, because it's been simmering away in the background for some time.

The storyline allows the series to showcase Delenn's faithful aide Lennier, who is a badly underused and underrated character, as well as Ranger Marcus Cole. I'm not a very big fan of Marcus. He hasn't really been used that much in the series, and when he has he's been saddled with some fairly excruciating self-aware dialogue. I've spoken in the past about Babylon 5 characters speaking dramatic dialogue rather than simply speaking - Marcus is one of the worst culprits. It's not helped by Jason Carter being a relatively limited actor; if he were more accomplished, like Peter Jurasik or Andreas Katsulas, he'd probably be able to draw mileage out what he was given on the page.

The other half, however, with Garibaldi becoming trapped within the previously undiscovered Grey 17, leaves a lot to be desired. He is ambushed, shot by a dart from a ventriloquist's dummy, lectured to about religious by a scatty madman (Robert Englund) with some vacant-faced henchmen, and then defeats a giant monster using some old-school bullets he happened to have been playing with that morning. This is dreadful writing. This is absolute ham-fisted amateur hour stuff.

August 26, 2014

Star Trek: Enterprise: "Azati Prime"

The Enterprise finally reaches Azati Prime. While Archer heads off on a one-way mission to destroy the Xindi weapon, the Enterprise - under T'Pol's increasingly erratic command - is attacked by a group of Xindi starships.

Wow. It's taken Enterprise an interminable number of episodes to reach Azati Prime, the home of the planet-killing Xindi weapon that's about to destroy Earth, but once they reach the Azati system it's a non-stop explosive drama every step of the way. This is season finale-level drama and peril, and it's only two-thirds of the way through the season. To say I was enormously impressed with this episode would be to understate my response. This is a stunning hour of SF television.

Babylon 5: "Walkabout"

Dr Franklin wanders the corridors of Babylon 5 on a spiritual journey. The new Vorlon ambassador arrives to replace Kosh. Sheridan decides to test the Shadows' vulnerability to telepaths first-hand.

I honestly don't know what has made Franklin such a dull character to watch. Is it just Richard Biggs' performance? He certainly has a very limited range. Is it the dialogue that J. Michael Straczynski gives him? In most episodes he works like a bizarre form of cliché magnet, dragging in and grabbing onto the most tedious of plot threads and the the most trite and obvious dialogue. In this episode he goes wandering in "Down Below", meets a sultry African-American lounge singer, with whom he falls in love, has sex and then discovers she only really wants him for his prescription pad. No, wait! She's not a drug addict - it turns out she's actually terminally ill and has months to life. It's all so ridiculously banal and predictable. There's a galactic war going on, alien conspiracies coming from all directions, countless lives in the balance but by all means let's suspend all of that because Franklin needs to learn to embrace life again via a bundle of stereotypes. It's all just utterly dreadful.

August 25, 2014

The Black Beetle: No Way Out (2013)

Francesco Francavilla is a stunning comic book artist, whose work I've been admiring for some time. He's completely in his element with Black Beetle, a deliberately old-fashioned pulp adventure about a 1940s masked American crime fighter. "No Way Out" is the first four-issue arc for this ongoing series of comic book miniseries, and it's been collected into a handsome hardcover edition by Dark Horse Comics.

The Black Beetle is a caped vigilante with a string of gadgets who fights crime in the north-eastern American metropolis Colt City. When an explosion takes out the key members of a local crime dynasty, the Beetle is hot on the case to find the culprit.

In terms of plot there is nothing particularly original going on here. It is, however, an extremely solid pastiche of pulp crime stories. It immediately brings to mind The Shadow, Batman and even other pastiches of this genre, notably Dave Stevens' The Rocketeer. Sometimes, if the script is tight and entertaining enough, you don't need too much in the way of original ideas. This is one of those comics: well-written, fast-paced and very entertaining.

August 24, 2014

Babylon 5: "War Without End, Part 2"

While Delenn's team work to send Babylon 4 back in time to the last Shadow War, Sheridan is lost in time - and gaining unwanted insights into his own future.

Part of the pleasure of "War Without End" is seeing how the mysteries of the Season 1 episode "Babylon Squared" are resolved and what was actually going on. I can't think of another TV series where a writer deliberately set up a mystery and then waited two years to resolve it. The match-up between the two episodes may not be entirely precise - Zathras' capture in one contradicts events in the other, and his definition of "the One" feels awfully tacked-on to accommodate the series' change in lead actor - but all in all it's a mightily impressive achievement.

There is some remarkably bold storytelling going on in this episode. It isn't content to wrap up a two-and-a-half year-old mystery, it also showcases future events and pushes the series forward. That's pretty impressive for an episode that's all about sending people back in time. We now have several major plot developments on the horizon, with no real idea of what they mean and how they get there: Sheridan and Delenn have a child, Londo and G'Kar are close friends, and the future Delenn has urged Sheridan not to visit Z'ha'dum. We've heard of that planet before of course, and its return here is an ominous piece of foreshadowing.

Babylon 5: "War Without End, Part 1"

Former station commander Jeffrey Sinclair returns to Babylon 5, setting off a mission that will take the White Star through a temporal rift and six years into the past. There a special team comprising Sinclair, Delenn, Sheridan, Marcus, Ivanova and the idiosyncratic alien Zathras must prepare to steal the earlier space station Babylon 4 and sent it 1,000 years into the past.

Time travel can give you such a headache when you start thinking about it. The two-part "War Without End" kicks off with a bundle of revelations and plot twists, and in the process sets itself up as a masterwork in forward planning. Two seasons earlier Sinclair and Garibaldi travelled to Babylon 4 when it mysteriously popped back into existence four years after vanishing without a trace. That episode, "Babylon Squared", left an enormous number of questions unanswered, and it's a genuine pleasure to see Straczynski revisit that storyline two seasons down the track to replay the events from the other side.

Doctor Who: "Deep Breath"

Doctor Who is back, for its eighth season since 2005, with an all-new lead actor in the shape of Peter Capaldi. There's a Tyrannosaurus Rex loose in 19th century London, and it's just coughed up the TARDIS, with a new and disorientated Doctor inside. Shenanigans ensue. Dark forces are at work. Clara doesn't know if she can trust the Doctor any more. And so on.

There's always a huge amount of pressure on Doctor Who when change comes. People who liked the old Doctor didn't want him to leave. People who hated the old Doctor are desperately hoping the new one will be better. Everything the series has been and is doing gets shoved under a microscope by the series' fans: what's changed, what's working, what's not working. Doctor Who fans can be incredibly loyal, but they can also be savagely critical at the same time. Expectations can be an absolute killer.

So what did I expect?

August 22, 2014

The Pull List: 20 August 2014

Since 1997 Grant Morrison has been on a slow-boiling gradual journey through the DC Universe. While he obviously wrote a bunch of stuff for DC prior to 1997 it was then that he and Howard Porter launched JLA, a high-profile and bestselling all-star version of the Justice League of America. Since then he's written for The Flash and Batman, as well as 52 and his massively hyped, somewhat divisive miniseries Final Crisis. Multiversity is pretty much his follow-up to that miniseries, since it prominently re-introduces Nix Uotan - the final surviving monitor of the DC Universe - and once again explores the 52 parallel universes that form DC's self-described "Multiverse".

Despite the extra length of this first issue, it's actually quite difficult to take a proper step back and assess what's going on. Some horrible Lovecraftian creatures - one of them's basically a giant bat-winged eyeball - are eating their way through the multiple realities of the DCU, and so Uotan pledges to assemble heroes from all 52 Earths to save the day.

Readers of Morrison's earlier DC work will be on familiar territory here, with a combination of weird ideas, characters that challenge the confines of the comic book medium, callbacks to obscure characters or points of continuity, and a blind assumption that the reader will either keep up or be patient enough to see it all made clear by the series' final issue. Reis and Prado do a great job illustrating it, so all in all this is a dense but entertaining package. Our star, for this issue at least, is actually Calvis Ellis, the Obama-inspired African-American Superman of Earth-23. He's great: I'd happily read a monthly comic with him as the star.

One idea that crops up here that I absolutely adore is that the superheroes of one reality bleed into the other via their pop culture, so the Superman of Earth-23 might be able to pick up and read a comic book that's actually relating events in the life of the Batman of Earth-5, or what-have-you. It's bonkers, but it's brilliant.

The bottom line is that if you appreciate Morrison's dense, "everything thrown at the wall" superhero events, then you're going to most likely enjoy Multiversity. If his work leaves you cold or annoys you, there's not a moment here that's going to change your mind. Personally I liked it. (4/5)

DC Comics. Written by Grant Morrison. Art by Ivan Reis and Joe Prado.

Under the cut: a big week, with reviews of Batman and Robin, Batman Eternal, Batwoman, Daredevil, Eye of Newt, Infinity Man and the Forever People, The Last Broadcast, Ms Marvel, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Umbral and The Wicked + the Divine.