May 31, 2016

The X-Files: "Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster"

It is 1 February 2016, and time for another episode of The X-Files.

Mulder (David Duchovny) is already disenchanted with his return to hunting down paranormal creatures and UFOs. While investigating a string of murders in which the victims have had their throats torn open, Mulder uncovers evidence of some form of humanoid lizard creature - but is he willing to believe what he sees?

Now that James Wong and Chris Carter have both returned to the kind of episodes they generally wrote for the original X-Files, the task now falls to Darin Morgan to deliver the kind of off-kilter, comedic take on the series that made him famous. Morgan was the writer of such episodes as "Humbug", "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose" and "War of the Coprophages". He brings his entire bad of tricks to bear on the series again, including humorous characters, satire, unreliable narrators and an energetic glee at puncturing the entire style and tone of the series in general. It is wonderful.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: "Flushing Out the Mole"

It is 22 October 1979 and time for the final episode of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Retired intelligence deputy George Smiley (Alec Guinness) has laid a trap for the Soviet mole inside the MI6 "Circus". With the traitor revealed, Smiley simply has one main question: why betray their country?

Perhaps the biggest surprise of this final episode of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is that in a 45-minute episode the mole is unmasked and apprehended within 10 minutes of the opening titles. The rest of the episode is dedicated to the fallout rather than the actual crisis itself. It is, on reflection, a typical move to make. A few episodes ago I referred to Tinker Tailor as a 'forensic drama', in that the real action has all pretty much already happened and the protagonist is primarily involved with picking up the pieces and making sense of it all. That is essentially the task of "Flushing Out the Mole": it gets the action out of the way as quickly as possible, so it can spend most of its time finally tidying up the whole story and showcasing the characters' reactions to it.

May 30, 2016

Sting: The Soul Cages (1991)

It always seems 'de rigueur' to mock Sting. Born Gordon Sumner, he rose to fame as the lead singer of the hugely popular British rock band the Police. After the band went on hiatus in 1984 he went on to record his first solo album, The Dream of the Blue Turtles. It was a massive hit both in the UK and internationally, and when the fractious relationship between his two Police band-mates finally collapsed he shifted into a full-time solo career.

I do not think it is a controversial claim to say that Sting is one of the UK's finest composers and lyricists. At the same time, and despite liking the vast majority of his work over the decades, I think it is fair to say he is an artist with a richly developed ego that often manifests as a tremendous self-importance. People generally do not appreciate hubris, and as a result Sting has left himself open for his entire solo career to scorn, ridicule and widespread dismissal.

Let us for the moment put aside the man's ego, however, and actually take a look at his work. His musical style is to my mind rather wonderful, combining at different points jazz, blues, rock, reggae and even classical music. His lyrics are more often than not stunningly good. I am a huge fan of his work, and of his 11 studio albums I think 1991's The Soul Cages is his absolute best.

The X-Files: "Founder's Mutation"

It is 25 January 2016 and time for another episode of The X-Files.

A computer programmer at a military-supported medical research company commits suicide. While investigating his death Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) stumble upon what appear to be genetic experiments being undertaken on abandoned children.

There is a big narrative jump between the end of "My Struggle", the season premiere, and "Founder's Mutation". That episode ended with Mulder and Scully deciding they need to return to the FBI and the X-Files. This episode begins with them already well into a professional routine of investigating the paranormal again. The jump may irritate some viewers. Personally I was thankful that the series is moving on from its pretty dire first episode and concentrating on doing what it does best.

May 29, 2016

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: "Smiley Sets a Trap"

It is 15 October 1979 and time for the sixth episode of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Smiley (Alec Guinness) has one more person with whom to speak before he is reading to move in on the MI6 mole: journalist Jerry Westerby (Joss Ackland), a one-time ally of the Circus now also out of service.

The end of episode 5 seemed to indicate that Tinker Tailor was swinging around for its final act, and this episode is pretty much an uninterrupted downhill run towards the climax. Smiley's list of suspects has narrowed to three, and he is finally prepared to step forward and lay a trap for the mysterious "Gerald" whose leaked intelligence has cost so many lives. It is enormously satisfying to see it all finally slot together.

The Pull List: 25 May 2016, Part 2

Uma, Dewydd and Katrin are three teenagers who have managed to escape the quarantined and oppressive planet Earth, steal a spacecraft and head off to explore the universe. They begin this second issue running for their lives through an alien shopping mall.

Joyride, by writers Jackson Lanzing and Collin Kelly and artist Marcus To, is an exceptional space opera. It is brightly designed and illustrated, boasts three well-defined and likeable characters, and has a story that is both fast-paced and nicely fleshed-out. I like a good science fiction comic, and now that we're two issues into this four-issue miniseries I am happy to claim this as one of the best being published at the moment.

It really is great value for money. The panel-per-page ratio is high, which leads to both a lot more plot than other single issues as well as many more opportunities for the characters to be explored. Literally the only criticism I have right now is that the book's only scheduled for four issues. At this stage I really quite desperately want either an extension or a sequel. Either would do. I just want more opportunities to see and explore this hugely entertaining set-up and cast. (5/5)

Joyride #2. Boom Studios. Written by Jackson Lanzing and Collin Kelly. Art by Marcus To. Colours by Irma Kniivila.

Under the cut: reviews of Batgirl, Daredevil, Doctor Strange, Ms Marvel and Obi-Wan & Anakin.

May 28, 2016

The X-Files: "My Struggle"

It's 24 January 2016, and time for the first new episode of The X-Files in close to 14 years.

Former FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) are reunited to meet with a conservative TV host named Tad O'Malley (Joel McHale). He claims that the alien visitation investigated by Mulder and Scully throughout the 1990s were simply a smoke-screen for a clandestine operation by the American government.

The return of The X-Files to Fox after a 14 year gap was certainly a surprise. All previous indications were that the franchise died when its second feature film, I Want to Believe, under-performed in cinemas. While surprising, it was to my mind a welcome development. I have always felt that The X-Files was a robust enough format that it could in theory run indefinitely. This new six-episode season was in a sense a victory lap, with key writers from the original series returning to tell all-new stories featuring former agents Mulder and Scully. This premiere episode is written and directed by Chris Carter, the series creator. I have always felt there were two kinds of Carter. One of them wrote some of the series' best key episodes in the early years. The other kept writing key episodes as the series went on, but they become tortuously complicated and dramatically inert. His series finale "The Truth", the last TV episode preceding this, was pretty much the worst thing Carter ever wrote.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: "Tinker Tailor"

It is 8 October 1979 and time for the fifth episode of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

As George Smiley (Alec Guinness) begins to draw closer to the mole in the Circus, he seeks out retired field agent Jim Prideaux (Ian Bannen) whose capture by Soviet forces in Czechoslovakia brought about Smiley's dismissal from MI6.

We last saw Prideaux screaming with pain and rage after getting ambushing and shot in the back at the Czechoslovakian border. Now he's a visibly traumatised and alcoholic mess, paying the bills by teaching at an English boy's school. Unlike many of the other characters visited upon by Smiley, Prideaux is actually established and effectively showcased well before Smiley arrives. We see his relationship with the students, and the emotional and physical wreck that he has become as a result of his torture and interrogation by the Russians.