September 30, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The Defector"

The Enterprise intercepts a rogue Romulan scout ship crossing the Neutral Zone. Its pilot is a low-ranking Romulan officer with information on a secret military base being established to threaten the Federation. He wants to defect - but is he telling the truth?

I have a soft spot for "The Defector", because it was the first episode of The Next Generation I saw in a really long time. I was a fairly obsessive viewer of the old VHS rental releases of Seasons 1 and 2, but then those releases dried up somewhere towards the end of the second season. It was about two years later than I managed to see this episode at a friend's place - they had been getting episodes mailed to them on tape from a fan in the USA. The episode seemed pretty amazing at the time, because it was the first I'd seen of the improved Season 3. Coming back to it now it's not quite as impressive, but it is still a highly enjoyable episode.

Rebirth of Mothra (1996)

I do wonder what the producers at Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros must be making of Mothra. It was announced some time ago that their upcoming Godzilla sequel would likely feature the famous giant moth as a co-star, which does make me wonder somewhat if those producers have seen a Mothra movie in their lives. In the hands of director Gareth Edwards Godzilla was a deadly serious, some would say somewhat tedious, epic, with every effort made to make the inherent absurdity of a giant radioactive lizard believable and rational. Mothra doesn't fit any of those things.

Mothra, for those who aren't familiar with her, is a giant rainbow coloured moth. She's from another planet, but arrived on Earth in our prehistory. She lives in an island in the Pacific Ocean, where the local indigenous tribes worship her as a god. She is assisted by the Cosmos, two small alien fairies that sing to her when they require her assistance. She shoots laser beams from her antennae.

What I'm basically getting at is that Mothra is pretty much as knowingly and wilfully absurd as Japan's kaiju (giant monsters) get, and thus the worst possible fit for gravitas-addicted Hollywood blockbusters. Back home in Japan, however? She fits like a glove, as is evident in her 1996 reboot Rebirth of Mothra (just titled Mothra in Japan).

September 29, 2014

AKB0048: "Emotion Relation"

AKB0048 prepare to hold a concert on the snow planet of Thundristar. With Minami still injured, Kanata is appointed to take her place - much to Minami's dismay. Before the concert begins Nagisa and her friends sneak out of AKB's spaceship to explore a nearby town. They find a group of small girls - all fans of the band - who remind them of their old childhood.

This is pretty much exactly the kind of episode I want from AKB0048: a little bit of pop star soap opera, but mainly a bizarre combination of cheesy pop concert and sci-fi guerilla warfare. It also ties things back to the series' first episode with a strong focus on the four main leads. I think this is a good thing: I feel like between this episode and the last I'm finally getting the show that was initially promised.

September 28, 2014

Doctor Who: "The Caretaker"

Clara is having difficulty keeping her life with the Doctor separate from her budding romance with fellow teacher Danny Pink. This separation becomes impossible when the Doctor turns up at school as the new temporary caretaker, and an alien menace threatens the safety of the children.

Watching "The Caretaker" is kind of like having two different TV shows, one excellent and one awful, both playing different takes on the same story on separate channels, and then someone sitting next to you keeps changing from one to the other. Some of the scenes work brilliantly. Others are actively painful to sit through. There's no rhyme or reason to it, it's just extraordinarily inconsistent. I have liked some of co-writer Gareth Roberts' earlier work on Doctor Who. I adored his Season 5 episode "The Lodger", which demonstrated that an all-out comedy can work in Doctor Who, but was fairly lukewarm on his Season 6 follow-up "Closing Time" and really didn't like his Season 3 episode "The Shakespeare Code". I do adore his 1990s novels, published by Virgin Publishing Ltd, and keep wishing he'd bring the qualities he demonstrated back then to the scripts he's writing now. To be fair to him, he sometimes does - just not consistently enough for me to properly enjoy it.

1,000 minutes

Let's say you had 1,000 minutes that you wanted to spend watching movies. That's about 16.7 hours in total, so you could in theory wake up tomorrow, start watching at 9:00 am and be finished just before midnight. What would you watch with those 1,000 minutes? Which films would you choose? You could pick a movie franchise and run through it, I guess. In 1,000 minutes you could burn your way through the entire Friday the 13th saga, barring the last 10 minutes of the 2009 remake. On the other hand you could go for a wider variety of films - pick stuff from different directors, genres, countries of origin, and so on.

I was wondering what I would recommend. If I was to give someone 1,000 minutes' worth of feature films to watch, which movies would I choose? Under the cut you'll find what I selected. These are favourite films, but more than that they're favourite films that I really wish more people could see. They're films that have stuck with me for years, and which I'm always telling people they should check out. I don't need to list Blade Runner (my favourite film) or Singin' in the Rain (my standard pick when someone demands I name the best film), because they're famous all by themselves. I want to look at what I'd recommend from all of the other films I love.

September 27, 2014

The Monuments Men (2014)

In the latter half of World War II an international mission is sent into western Europe with the explicit task of saving Europe's master art works from being stolen or even destroyed by the retreating Nazis. This true story (sort of - they underplay Britain's involvement in a long-running tradition of American war films) forms the basis of The Monuments Men, the most recent film from actor, writer, director, producer and all-round multi-hyphenate George Clooney.

Saving art from the Nazis is certainly a fresh angle for a war movie, and one that allows for a whole new perspective on the usual World War II genre. In practice it's a leisurely excuse for Clooney and an exceptional ensemble cast to perform a variety of beautifully constructed little scenes. This is an overly long film, and its narrative is rather flabby, but each individual section is wonderfully staged and performed that it's difficult to mind too much. It makes The Monument Men that rare movie that's highly enjoyable, but in which the parts are better than the whole sum.

Doctor Who: "Rider from Shang-Tu"

It's 21 Match 1964, and the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan remain trapped at the hands of Venetian explorer Marco Polo. While the Doctor has repaired the TARDIS, Marco has both keys - and he refuses to give them back. When a rider arrives from Shang-Tu, Marco learns that Kublai Khan demands his presence at the summer palace in Cheng-Ting. While the caravan members move on by horseback, the TARDIS remains behind with the other cargo - unless Tegana's latest plan succeeds.

We're now five episodes into this serial, and for the first time it's beginning to drag. This episode is, in broad strokes, a replica of the one before it: the Doctor and his companions are Marco's prisoners, Tegana has another plan up his sleeve, and Marco refuses to listen to reason over whether or not his Mongol warrior companion is a traitor. At the episode's climax they're all set to finally escape, but something gets in their way. Lather, rinse, repeat.

It's a shame, because until now the serial has been damn-near faultless - yellowface casting not included. It's possible of course, as the caravan has moved from mountain to desert to forest, that the visuals would have made this episode a bit more distinctive. With the video missing, we'll probably never know.

September 26, 2014

The Pull List: 24 September 2014

Another week, another Boom Studios miniseries. They are launching these out with such rapidity at the moment that it's hard to decide which ones to pick up and try. This one is via the Archaia subprint, which means beautiful production values and a cardstock cover - the sorts of things that make a comic book appear high quality even before you've read a single page.

Inside it tells the story of a US spy burned by her masters and on the run from the Russian mafia. Obviously there's a bit more to the plot than that, but why spoil a 20 page comic in a three paragraph review? If you've read an espionage genre comic book in the last five years, then you will probably know exactly what to expect from this comic.

The book is written by Margueritte Bennett based on a story by Arash Amel. To be honest it doesn't tell me a story I haven't already seen many times before, and while Antonio Fuso's artwork is very impressive it all adds up to read like an issue of Edmondson and Noto's Black Widow. Is that a fault of this book? Absolutely not, but it does make me wonder how successfully it will find its niche. It's a reasonably strong book, just an unnecessary one. Hopefully issues two through four will expand the story into fresh directions. (3/5)

Archaia/Boom Studios. Story by Arash Amel. Written by Margueritte Bennett. Art by Antonio Fuso.

Under the cut: reviews of Aliens, Aquaman and the Others, Batman Eternal, The Flash, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Lumberjanes, The Massive, Saga and Umbral.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The Vengeance Factor"

When a Federation outpost is attacked by a group of maurading 'Gatherers', Picard orders the Enterprise to their home planet of Acamar. There he convinces the Acamarian leader to engage in a peace negotiation with the exiled Gatherers, and finally bring about peace after centuries of clan wars and tribal conflict. While the negotiations progress, however, it becomes clear there is a murderer in their midst.

"The Vengeance Factor" is a weird episode. I found it weird because it is based on a hopelessly generic and dull premise, with characters who are written as perfunctory cyphers to enable a perfunctory story. It should be tedious in the extreme.

Except it's halfway to being the opposite. The story is dull - that much is certain - but the episode kept tripping me up with little scenes and moments that showed a lot more depth and imagination. There's a beautifully played scene in Ten Forward between Wesley Crusher and Brull, one of the Gatherer leaders. Brull is coarse, rude and irritating. Wesley is visibly irritated, but then immediately guilty when called on his prejudice against Brull's behaviour. The resulting conversation gives both characters depth: it shows that there's something more to Brull, and it allows Wil Wheaton to actually act for a change. He really is one of The Next Generation's greatest assets, and was tragically overlooked or worse by the series' writers.

September 25, 2014

Hot Rod (2007)

Do you ever find yourself watching a comedy that you fully expect to hate, yet despite all your assumptions it turns out to be ridiculously, often inexplicably, funny? I feel that way about Hot Rod. I'm not quite sure why I rented it from a video library a few years ago, but I'm glad I did, because it wound up being remarkably funny and occasionally very weird, and it's that special sort of comedy that strikes me as funnier every time I watch it.

Amateur stunt performer Rod Kimble (Andy Samberg), aspires to be one of the great stunt artists like his father - who died testing motorcycles for Evel Knievel. With his crew of mostly incompetent friends - Rico (Danny McBride), Dave (Bill Hader), Denise (Isla Fisher) and half-brother Kevin (Jorma Taccone) - he spends his days failing to achieve trick stunts and jumps on his beated-up moped. When Rod's stepfather Frank (Ian McShane) - with whom Rod has a constant antagonistic and violent relationship - is diagnosed with a serious heart condition, Rod decides to undertake the jump of a lifetime to raise the necessary funds for a heart transplant.

September 24, 2014

Doctor Who: "The Wall of Lies"

It's 14 March 1964, and the Doctor and his companions remain the unwilling guests of Venetian explorer Marco Polo.

While Barbara is rescued from the Cave of Five Hundred Eyes, her companions fail to convince Marco that Tegana is working against him. What's worse, it's Tegana who proves the Doctor is entering the TARDIS without Marco's knowledge using a secret second key. With Marco furious and the second key confiscated, escape from 12th century China seems even further away than ever.

We've moved from the Himalayas down the Lop, then across northern China to the Gobi Desert, and now this sprawling epic serial reaches the Great Wall at last and beyond that the bamboo forests by the Yellow River. It's really quite surprising when you add up the length of time spent by the characters in Marco Polo's company. This journey has already taken weeks, and they've still got a way to go.

September 23, 2014

Red Snow, by Susumu Katsumata (2006)

The tone flows from sweet to mournful and back again in Red Snow, a beautifully packaged collection of manga short stories by writer/artist Susumu Katsumata. I borrowed this book from a library on a whim, having no prior knowledge of Katsumata's work, and was pleasantly surprised.

The stories follow a genre known as 'gekiga', of which I was not previously aware. Its name literally translates as 'dramatic pictures', and was an artistic movement founded in the 1950s to distinguish its works from the more all-ages, child-friendly manga being created by Osamu Tezuka and the like. While the artwork is simple, the stories are complex and mature. It presents characters full of sadness or regret, with more realistic or adult problems. In the case of Red Snow there's a share of sexual themes as well - I have no idea if this is a common component of gekiga.

The stories are united in their pre-industrial rural setting. It eschews typical Japanese period drama by ignoring samurai and higher classes, focusing instead on the lives of countryside farmers and dirt-poor townspeople. The book's use of folklore and fantasy is extensive, although by no means overwhelming; it's almost as if the supernatural is simply as much a part of the natural world as everyday life.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The Price"

The resource-poor Barzan have discovered the first-ever stable wormhole in their regional space, and plan to auction off its control to the highest bidder. With the Federation as one of several competing bids, the Enterprise acts as host for the negotiations. Counselor Troi begins a passionate love affair with one of the rival representatives - but he may be more than he seems to be.

"The Price" is a fairly significant episode of Star Trek, firstly because it establishes for the first time that the galaxy is divided into four quadrants named Alpha through Delta, and because it introduces the concept of a stable wormhole to the Gamma Quadrant - a story point that will be re-used in a much more prominent fashion in Deep Space Nine. The Delta Quadrant, which is briefly visited here, is the setting of Star Trek: Voyager. Indeed the Ferengi trapped there during this episode pop up again in that series some years later.

September 22, 2014

Doctor Who: "Five Hundred Eyes"

Condensation that forms inside the TARDIS overnight saves the lives of the Doctor, his companions, and Marco Polo's caravan. With sufficient water they finally make it to the oasis, where they find Tegana waiting. At the next way-station in Tun-Huang the caravan pauses to hear Ping-Cho's story of Ala-eddin and the Hashashins, before Barbara follows Tegana to the ancient lair of the Hashashins - the Cave of Five Hundred Eyes.

What a strange episode. 50 year-old television is an odd country: last week the series featured a life-or-death trek across the Gobi Desert and a terrifying sandstorm, this week the entire series takes a pause so that Ping-Cho can tell a story about dope-smoking assassins. I'm not certain what part is more unexpected, that the series would indulge in a scene where a supporting character really does tell a story to everybody else, or that the story is so liberally sprinkled with talk of marijuana.

September 21, 2014

Doctor Who: "Time Heist"

Isn't it always the way? You're all set to go on a second date with your new boy and suddenly you're on the other side of the galaxy with your memory wiped, alongside the Doctor, a cybernetically augmented hacker and a shape-shifting mutant, and given a mission to break into the most secure bank vault in the universe.

As I have said on numerous occasions, Doctor Who must excels when it's performing a pastiche of something else. The series itself pretty much exists as a framework for telling stories rather than a prescriptive limitation on them. As a result you can quite happily make The Time Traveller's Wife with the series, or cross The Phantom of the Opera with Jack the Ripper, or tell an Agatha Christie mystery that co-stars Agatha Christie. In a similar vein, "Time Heist" sees Doctor Who undertake the heist genre, and the episode is correspondingly filled with slow-motion hero shots, unexpected twists and turns, revelations of secret identities and a group of unlikely companions - each of whom has his or her own specific skill with which the complete the perfect crime. It's basically Who's 11.

The Pull List: 17 September 2014

Some film and TV properties seem like shoe-ins for comic book adaptations. Doctor Who has been in publication as a comic book or strip since 1964. Star Wars has repeatedly proved itself rich fodder for numerous ongoing monthlies and miniseries. Comic shop shelves are littered with tie-in product of various descriptions: Adventure Time, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, The X Files, Transformers, Aliens, Predator... it just rolls on and on. Then from time to time you get a really weird tie-in. Jim Henson's The Storyteller has to be one of the weirdest.

I adore The Storyteller, which was a late 1980s anthology series created and produced by Jim Henson. The titular Storyteller, played by John Hurt, would tell a traditional European folk story or fairy tale, with each episode dedicated to the telling of a different myth. I'm not sure I see the creative point of turning that into a comic book. There's a benefit from brand-name recognition sure, and I suppose anything that gets people buying a comic book is potentially a good thing, but beyond that it's nonsensical.

Jim Henson's The Storyteller: Witches is a four-issue miniseries, with each issue presenting a self-contained one-shot telling a folk story. This first issue, with story and art by S.M. Vidaurri, tells the story of "The Magic Swan Goose and the Lord of the Forest". It's a stunning piece of work, told in a very visual and experimental style that's reminiscent of Dave McKean without really apeing him in any way. It's literature, clever and utterly beautiful. And this is where the Storyteller connection actually chafes. Hurt's Storyteller is nowhere to be seen, save a subtle silhouette on the final page, and the bottom line is that this book can and should be able to stand on its own merits.

Like all Archaia books it's impressively packaged with a cardstock cover and high quality paper. It's an absolute must-read, quite frankly - I just despair that it needed the corporate tie-in, however high quality, in order to get produced. (5/5)

Under the cut: reviews of Batman and Robin, Batman Eternal, Batwoman, Daredevil, Eye of Newt, The Last Broadcast, Miles Morales: The Ultimate Spider-Man, Multiversity, Thor: God of Thunder, The Wicked + the Divine and Wonder Woman.

September 19, 2014

ER: 20 years on

It's quite difficult to get nostalgic about ER. This enormously popular and commercial successful NBC drama may be celebrating its 20th anniversary today, but it ran for 331 episodes over 15 seasons and only ended in April 2009. There simply hasn't been enough time to indulge in nostalgia.

It's still one of my favourite TV dramas. It was originally written in the 1970s as a feature film script by novelist and screenwriter Michael Crichton, who was a doctor before he turned to full-time writing. The script lay fallow for almost 20 years before Steven Spielberg showed interest in it. While developing the ER film, Crichton told Spielberg about the novel he was currently writing - a sci-fi thriller involving cloning dinosaurs. The notoriously fickle Spielberg jumped ship and bought the rights to Jurassic Park, but he didn't entirely abandon ER - he had his production company Amblin Entertainment turn it into a weekly drama instead.

ER certainly hit the ground running. It debuted one day after a rival medical drama, Chicago Hope (happy birthday, by the way), but despite critical expectations that ER would run second it instead completely dominated the 1994 television landscape. More than 19 million people watched the first season across America. The second and third seasons got 21 million viewers and the fourth an astounding 30 million. The most popular episode of all, Season 2's "Hell and High Water" - in which Dr Doug Ross saves a boy from drowning in a storm drain, was seen by more than 48 million people. It was the highest-rated TV episode since Dallas.

Why was this show so successful? Who do I continue to love it so much? There are a few reasons why.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The Enemy"

While Lt La Forge is trapped on a stormy planet below, Captain Picard must face up against a Romulan warbird when it becomes clear the Romulan Empire has breached the Neutral Zone.

"The Enemy" is quite exciting on first inspection, since it's pretty much the first proper face-to-face encounter between the Federation and the Romulan Empire that The Next Generation has presented. Sure they made a little cameo at the end of "The Neutral Zone" in Season 1, but since then there has been nothing. They were a source of great drama back in the original Star Trek so it stands to reason they could inspire some great storytelling here as well.

And, in time, they shall. They just don't provide it here. "The Enemy" is a perfunctory episode that doesn't put a foot wrong, but at the same time it does nothing to stick in the mind or particularly impress the viewer. It just sort of sits there, jumping through enough narrative hoops to justify its existence without demonstrating a single piece of ambition anywhere in its 42 minutes.

September 18, 2014

Alien Nation: 25 years on

When Alien Nation was released in cinemas in 1988, it was a fairly ordinary near future sci-fi thriller with decent performances by James Caan and Mandy Patinkin but saddled with a by-the-numbers script and a lot of police action movie cliches. It sort of came and went: people watched it, some enjoyed it, nobody really cared.

For some reason 20th Century Fox did, because the following year they launched Alien Nation as a weekly TV drama. The cast changed, replacing Caan with Gary Graham and Patinkin with Eric Pierpoint, but the basic premise remained the same: an massive alien spacecraft crashed into California's Mojave Desert and it's population, spotty-headed extraterrestrials who were being transported as slaves, go on to become a large refugee population in the Los Angeles area. The series is set some years into a long process of integration, and follows two police detectives - one human, one alien - as they investigate crimes in a racially charged urban environment.

Thanks to writer/producer Kenneth Johnson, who re-developed the movie concept for television, Alien Nation remains one of the best US science fiction TV dramas of all time. The day-to-day plots might have been a bit hackneyed and stereotyped, but no one before or since has developed an alien race and culture in such an interesting fashion.

Doctor Who: "The Singing Sands"

Marco Polo had confiscated the Doctor's TARDIS, forcing him and his companions to accompany him on his journey to Cathay. The first step? A potentially deadly crossing of the Gobi Desert - and there is a traitor in their midst.

As I mentioned in my previous "Marco Polo" review, all seven episodes of this serial were destroyed by the BBC in the 1970s, and no exported film prints have ever been returned. As a result we can only really appreciate these episodes by viewing a handful of screenshots made by television photographer John Cura and by listening to the audio soundtracks. Thanks to enterprising young fans in the 1960s we actually have a complete copy of Doctor Who's early years in audio form. The advantage of listening to these episodes rather than watching is that you're able to focus much more on the dialogue and, from time to time, the sound design.

"The Singing Sands" is a case in point. The episode features an enormous sandstorm that sweeps across the desert, encompassing Marco's camp and threatening the lives of Susan and Ping-Cho. Goodness knows what it looked like, but it sounds utterly outstanding. It's slightly abstracted, sounds beautiful, and is a simply gorgeous bit of audio design. It is hands-down the best element of the episode.

September 17, 2014

Goldfinger: 50 years on

The general wisdom is that sequels are never as good as the original film. There's an accepted law of diminishing returns that states that every time you revisit the well there's a little less creativity, a reduction of the originality. A little shine comes off each time.

Then there is the small group of sequels that actually manage to exceed the quality of their predecessors: The Godfather Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, The Dark Knight, Toy Story 2. Sure, individual people are going to quibble over which ones are superior and which ones aren't, but generally speaking pretty much anybody can identify at least one sequel that was better.

The third film, though? No one says they're the best installment. No one holds Return of the Jedi above Star Wars, or The Godfather Part III over Part I, or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade over Raiders of the Lost Ark. I think I've identified one, though: Goldfinger, the third EON Productions James Bond adventure, which celebrates its 50th anniversary today.

Three Resurrected Drunkards (1968)

Three young men go swimming at the beach. When they return to their belongings, their clothes have been stolen by Korean refugees. Putting on the clothes left behind, the three men are themselves confused for Korean refugees and go on the run from the police, the Koreans and a creepy pimp with an eye patch. Then it all happens again, Godot-style.

Nagisa Oshima is a pretty legendary filmmaker, primarily for his provocative sexual dramas In the Realm of the Senses and Empire of Passion. They were produced by French distributors in the 1970s, because the Japanese censors refused to allow Oshima to release them locally. He later directed several other widely acclaimed films including Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence and his final film Gohatto, about homosexuality among the samurai.

Three Resurrected Drunkards pre-dates all of those films. It's a 1968 comedy, styled very self-consciously in the vein of absurdist English-language films such as A Hard Day's Night and Head. At times it gets head-scratchingly weird, but it also makes a fairly significant step beyond its influences and presents a pretty confronting indictment of Japanese racism against Koreans.

Ashes of Time: 20 years on

20 years ago today Hong Kong moviegoers were presented with Ashes of Time, a long-gestating martial arts fantasy written and directed by Wong Kar-wai. At the time it was the most expensive Hong Kong film production ever staged. It had taken an inordinately long time to shoot, with Wong as good as holding his high profile cast captive in the Gobi Desert. The shoot was so long that the cast simultaneously used its sets and costumes to make a feature-length parody, The Eagle-Shooting Heroes, with another director, Jeffrey Lau. Post-production was so lengthy and difficult that halfway through Wong wrote, shot, edited and released an entirely unrelated film, Chungking Express.

When it was released 20 years ago, local critics were baffled by its obtuse plot and weird photography. Audiences, who had expected a crowd-pleasing adaptation of wuxia novel The Legend of the Condor Heroes, famously queued around the block demanding refunds. It ultimately lost its distributor HK$30 million dollars.

Ashes of Time almost killed Wong's career just when he was developing serious critical acclaim. Two decades later, however, and partly thanks to a 2006 re-edit by Wong, it is widely regarded as a Hong Kong classic: odd, mournful, near-impenetrable, and for many utterly unforgettable.

September 16, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Booby Trap"

While investigating a derelict alien spacecraft in the middle of an asteroid field, the USS Enterprise is caught by an ancient booby trap. With hours before the Enterprise's destruction, Lieutenant La Forge (LeVar Burton) utilises a holographic simulation of one of the Enterprise's original designers to find a way to escape.

Alternatively, "Booby Trap" is about how Geordi La Forge doesn't know how to talk to girls, so in the middle of a ship-wide crisis he manufactures one on the holodeck.

I found this episode deeply uncomfortable to watch. I've never been an enormous fan of La Forge's character, but he always seemed a stand-up and likeable guy. Here we see him go on a disastrous date in the episode's teaser, fumble his way through a conversation with Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) about how he doesn't know how to chat up women, and then create a holodeck simulation of noted physicist and engineer Dr Leah Brahms as some kind of weird half-romantic, half-sexual fantasy love interest. It's a profoundly misguided act of character sabotage, since it takes a character who was previously fairly noble and turns him into a creepy kind of stalker.

The Pull List: 10 September 2014

Before Dark Horse pinned half of their monthly sales of Star Wars, they pinned them on Alien and Predator. It was their faithful, clever exploitation of those 20th Century Fox licenses that enabled them to score the Star Wars rights in the first place. Now that Disney has shifted publication of Star Wars over to Marvel, what better properties for Dark Horse to fill that gap than Alien and Predator? And, in what is sure to be a contentious move, Prometheus.

Oh Prometheus. You could use the overwhelming and irrational hatred of hardcore Alien fans for Ridley Scott's 2012 prequel and use it to power a country for a year. While the film itself was a visually attractive and nicely paced sci-fi thriller with a tremendously awful screenplay, if you listened to some fans you'd assume Scott and writers John Spaights and Damon Linendorf had committed some weird form of war crime. I'm really interested to see if comic book readers accept a Prometheus comic. They should give it a chance, though, because Prometheus: Fire and Stone #1 is actually quite good.

The concept of this big Alien/Predator relaunch is a set of four four-part miniseries, each of which is self-contained but collectively form a larger narrative. We're starting off with Prometheus and in short order will be offered Aliens (note the "s"), Predator and Alien vs Predator. Based on this issue I'll probably at least sample them all.

This issue sees a salvage mission dispatched to LV-223 about two centuries after the starship Prometheus went there. The salvage team is expecting a desolate planet devoid of life. Instead they find an alien rainforest with more than one surprise. The last two pages really surprised me, and I'm now very keen to see where things are going. Paul Tobin writes the book, which features (so far) much better plotting and dialogue than Prometheus had. Juan Ferreyra provides distinctive and painterly artwork that makes for a nice contrast from the sharply inked stuff you usually see in comic books.

If you can move past your anti-Prometheus bias (assuming you have one), and are looking for another solid science fiction comic, this might just be a book for you. (3/5)

Dark Horse. Written by Paul Tobin. Art by Juan Ferreyra.

Under the cut: reviews of Annihilator, Batgirl, Batman Eternal, Batman, Copperhead, Dark Ages, Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor, Infinity Man and the Forever People, Ms Marvel and Wild's End.

September 15, 2014

Muppet Babies: 30 years on

Back in 1984, when Frank Oz directed the third Muppet movie The Muppets Take Manhattan, it was immediately clear which part of the film audiences were going to like the most. A dream sequence saw Miss Piggy imagining growing up as a toddler with Kermit the Frog and all of the other major Muppet characters. It was just a whimsical musical number in the middle of the film, but everyone who worked on the sequence recognised its appeal - including Muppet creator and producer Jim Henson.

At the time Henson had already been bombarded with offers by American TV studios to produce an animated series based on his Muppet characters. He had always resisted, being fairly wary of the quality of such Saturday morning cartoons. With the Muppet Babies, however, he had an idea that intrigued him, and so he put together a deal with Marvel Productions and Japanese animation studio Toei to put together a series.

47 Ronin (2013)

As popular saying goes: to know the 47 ronin is to know Japan. I can take it then, from his 2013 fantasy film 47 Ronin, that director Carl Rinsch does not, in fact, know Japan.

The tale of the 47 ronin is both a popular legend in Japan and, at least in part, a historical account. The story goes that one Japanese daimyo, Lord Kira, goaded and offended another, Lord Asano, into striking him in the emperor's presence. Rather than be executed on the spot for his crime, Asano was given the opportunity to commit suicide by a traditional Japanese fashion. Forty-seven of Asano's retainers, led by a samurai named Oishi, swore revenge on Kira. They waited for two years, put their affairs in order, and then stormed Kira's castle and murdered him. They then honourably surrendered themselves to the emperor - who had forbidden any attempts at revenge - and forty-six of them then committed ritual suicide as their master had done (one, considered too young by the emperor, was excused).

It is a critical story in Japanese popular culture, rich in codes of honour and the nobility of sacrifice, and it's no surprise that it's formed the basis for a number of feature films over the decades. It's been filmed at least six times in Japan, notably by Kenji Mizoguchi. You can even travel to Tokyo and see the graves of the forty-seven at the Sengoku-ji temple.

Carl Rinsch's film re-tells that story, and to a large degree it must be said that he tells it with reasonable faithfulness. Asano is there, as are Kira and Oishi, and no punches are pulled when it comes to the ritual suicide end of the storyline. What is added, however, are mythological creatures, bird-like demon monks, a witch that can transform into a fox and a dragon, magical faceless samurai, improbable geography, and Keanu Reeves.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The Bonding"

An officer is killed during an away mission, leaving her 12 year-old son orphaned. Lieutenant Worf, who led the mission, is wracked with guilt and wants to enter into a traditional Klingon bonding ceremony. Captain Picard questions why families are allowed on starships in the first place. Wesley is forced to confront his own feelings about the day Picard informed him of his own father's death. For the orphaned boy Jeremy things get confusing when his dead mother returns to their quarters, claiming to still be alive.

"The Bonding" is the Star Trek debut of writer Ronald D. Moore, who will go on to write some of the series' best episodes, before jumping ship to Deep Space Nine - where he writes many of that series' finest episodes. Beyond that he revived Battlestar Galactica for the Sci-Fi Channel and is currently showrunner on the time travelling drama Outlander. He's a pretty significant figure in American SF television, and he pretty much kicks it all of here. He kicks it off incredibly well.

September 14, 2014

Doctor Who: "Listen"

Last night I had a dream, or some kind of a waking episode - I'm not entirely sure what it was. Basically I could sworn there was somebody just outside my house, trying to get inside. Of course there was nobody there, and it happened in that weird sort of fugue state where I'm still not entirely sure if I misinterpreted a noise outside, or made one up entirely inside my own head. I figure these sorts of middle-of-the-night moments happen to everybody.

Obviously Steven Moffat does as well, because this morning I watched his latest episode of Doctor Who and was startled to find it focusing on precisely the same thing. And, in typical Moffat fashion, it asked the question: what if there always is somebody there?

"Listen" is a horror episode, which is a pretty significant jump from the outwardly silly comedy of "Robot of Sherwood" last weekend. It's written by series producer and head writer Steven Moffat, and it delves into very familiar territory to much of his earlier writing. It's beautifully staged and written, and very well acted, yet while praising it there's also no denying that it revisits an awful lot of things that we've seen before.

Bodacious Space Pirates: "Marika Sends an Invitation"

Marika returns to school following her piratical adventures chasing the Golden Ghost Ship. In her absence she has become a local celebrity. Her life is complicated when Princesses Gruier and Grunhilde turn up, freshly enrolled at Marika's high school and keen to continue their friendship.

Just when you thought the Golden Ghost Ship saga was over, there's this odd little epilogue tacked on at the end. It delivers mixed results. On the one hand it works as a bit of a palette cleanser between the first half of the series and the second. It also shows Marika having to deal with a rapidly growing reputation among her classmates. On the other hand I felt rather done with the Serenity princesses, and to have them return just one episode after leaving feels really bizarre and a little bit unwelcome.

September 13, 2014

Doctor Who: "The Roof of the World"

The TARDIS has materialised in the Himalayas in the year AD 1289. The ship has sustained damage that will take days to repair, and without heating the Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara are likely to freeze to death within hours. As the sun sets they are ambushed by a group of Mongol warriors, but saved by their leader - the Venetian explorer Marco Polo.

The historical story was a mainstay of Doctor Who's first four seasons, allowing viewers to see and learn from famous historical events and personalities via the Doctor's travels. Perceived wisdom among Doctor Who fans was that these serials were not as popular with viewers as the science fiction adventures, however viewing figures and appreciation index scores of the time paint a very different picture. When they were retired in 1966, it was likely because the production team wanted to focus more on science fiction rather than any desire on the audience's part.

Judging the New 52: August 2014

With August we hit the end of the third year of DC's New 52 initiative. One wonders how long they're going to keep referring to it as "new". Or indeed "52", given they haven't been regularly publishing 52 monthlies for a while now. The big launch of the month was Grant Morrison's parallel universe maxi-series Multiversity, which launched with a very solid 90,551 units. At US$4.99 an issue it was far and away DC's highest-earning comic for the month. Last month there were four launches: Grayson, Star-Spangled War Stories, Teen Titans and New Suicide Squad. How did each book fare in its second month?

Star-Spangled War Stories is officially the New 52's least successful monthly book ever. In July its debut issue only sold 18,762 copies. In August it only sold 11,724, down almost 38% and beating previous worst-selling second issue Green Team: Teen Trillionaires by 2,600 copies. Discounting the original September 2011 launch, which arguably had unrealistically inflated first issue sales, the average second issue drop for a New 52 monthly is 28% - so not only did this book launch poorly it then promptly crashed ever harder.

Grayson #2 had a 30% drop with its second issue, down to 56,483 copies. That's actually pretty reasonable for what is essentially a relaunched Nightwing. It's still 29% above the last issue of Nightwing from May. The relaunched Teen Titans only dropped by 22% (40,687 copies), a softer than average fall that suggests this new iteration might have some legs to it. New Suicide Squad dropped by the same proportion, to 38,477 copies. Three reasonable launches, and one absolute disaster: it could be worse.

September 12, 2014

Party of Five: 20 years on

20 years ago today the Fox Network unleashed Party of Five upon the world, launching what is probably still the world's most depressing teen drama ever. The five Salinger siblings were orphaned from the outset, and then collectively struggled through six seasons of drug abuse, teen pregnancy, alcoholism, domestic violence and cancer. If there was a misfortune to make these kids miserable, it happened to them. If there was a mistake in life choices for one of them to make, he or she would make it. If there was an opportunity for the precocious younger sister Claudia (Lacey Chabert) to pout and whisper 'I am so ashamed of you', she would take it.

It was, all things considered, absolutely dreadful television. On the other hand the constant cavalcade of regret and misfortune became oddly addictive. I'm not ashamed to admit I watched Party of Five. Indeed for a few seasons at the beginning I was completely addicted. It was the 1990s' most exceptional car-crash television, for a while even topping even the soap opera histrionics of Melrose Place.

Bodacious Space Pirates: "A Return from Eternity"

Marika and Gruier board the Golden Ghost Ship at last. What treasure will they find at its centre - and what is the secret mission about which Gruier has not told Marika?

After six episodes, the Golden Ghost Ship saga hits a sudden and unexpected conclusion. Given the glacial pace of the first five instalments, I honestly expected at least one episode to go before this all wrapped up. This leaves me with a bit of a conundrum: do I criticise the episode for rushing its ending in comparison to the earlier episodes, or do I praise it for finally picking up the pace like I've been asking it to all season?

The rapid climax is all the more surprising given the rather gentle, leisurely way in which it begins. The time is taken to really give the enormous generational starship to attention it deserves. These opening scenes are highly reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke's seminal SF novel Rendezvous with Rama, with a similar sense of steady exploration into the unknown. Of course that isn't going to last forever, and before long Gruier and Marika are face-to-face with Grunhilde and a squadron of Serenity troops.

September 11, 2014

Doctor Who: "The Brink of Disaster"

It's Saturday teatime on 15 February 1964, and time for more Doctor Who. As the TARDIS continues to malfunction, the Doctor grows to realise that his companions have not sabotaged the ship, but rather something much more sinister has taken place. With only 10 minutes before the TARDIS is completely destroyed, can he find a means of averting disaster?

A few things about this episode immediately come to mind about "The Brink of Disaster". Firstly almost the entire episode comprises one 19 minute scene, as the TARDIS crew desperately attempt to work out what is going wrong. Early 1960s television always felt a bit like watching live theatre, but this episode really feels like it. Such a long take makes a few problems for William Hartnell, who stumbles his way through more than one of his lines - it's good that William Russell is standing next to him to jump in and keep the scene moving.

The second thing is the episode's big twist, that actually feels half-strangled by the time it comes out: the TARDIS has a sentient intelligence. For 21st century Doctor Who viewers this is taken as a standard part of the series mythology, but here even the Doctor seems surprised that the TARDIS is trying to tell its passengers something is amiss.

AKB0048: "To Whom Does the Name Belong?"

Takamina's crisis of confidence continues: is she destined to be replaced by Kanata, and if so should she do anything to stand in her way. AKB0048 head off to perform a concert on a planet suffering a total entertainment band; while the concert begins the 77th generation understudies are dispatched inside giant robots to fight off the DES.

This episode has angst, character conflict, Japanese pop music and - most important - giant robot dogfights. I think most things can be improved by a giant robot dogfight, certainly this episode benefits enormously. It's no surprise that, when forming a creative team to adapt AKB48 into an anime, the producers settled on Shoji Kawamori as director. He created Super Dimension Fortress Macross, which pretty much kickstarted Japan's mecha anime genre and (perhaps more pertinently) fused giant robots together indelibly with pop starlets. It's a very short line you can draw from Macross and Lynn Minmay to AKB0048 and their various ancilliary sci-fi trappings: it's basically the same kind of show, it's just that the emphasis has changed. Less robots, more pop starlets.

September 10, 2014

PSX20 #6: Final Fantasy VIII

PSX20 celebrates the 20th anniversary of Sony's Playstation videogames console by counting down my 20 favourite videogames for that platform. These aren't necessarily the best PSX games ever made, but they are the ones I liked and played the most.

I'm going to dive in and assume that if you're reading this blog you have at least a cursory understanding of Final Fantasy. It's a hugely successful Japanese role-playing game franchise that started out on Nintendo's Famicom and Super Famicom, but then made a very open and contentious jump to the PlayStation. This understandably upset Nintendo, who assumed they could use Final Fantasy sequels to sell their upcoming Nintendo 64 console, but tempted by the benefits of a CD-ROM-based system Squaresoft signed up with Sony. They made three Final Fantasy games for the original PlayStation; this was the second.

Squaresoft undertook a massive shift in visual aesthetics with this game. The first seven titles had all used rather cute, squat character designs with a strong manga/anime aesthetic. With VIII the company used comparatively realistic characters throughout, giving the game a visual maturity and depth that went far beyond its predecessors. When it was released in 1999 it looked jaw-droppingly good. People were comparing its look to feature films rather than games. Certainly it made enough of an impact that Columbia Pictures signed up to release a Final Fantasy feature film, released in cinemas two years later.

Today, of course, it doesn't look quite that impressive. Not really. Context, as always, is king.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Who Watches the Watchers"

Who watches the watchers? We do, which is a bit unfortunate because the watchers turn out not to be outrageously watchable at all. This isn't the worst episode of The Next Generation, but it's certainly not a very good one.

The Enterprise travels to a remote low-technology planet, where a Federation survey mission is secretly observing the local population. When a holographic generator explodes, members of the survey team are critically injured and their presence on the planet is exposed to the superstitious natives.

There's something very slightly creepy about people setting up a secret observational hide so that they can watch other, less technologically advanced, people go about their day-to-day lives. Is this really the best method of doing this? What do they gain from sitting inside a secret room behind a holographic cliff that they couldn't get using a starship's systems from orbit? Of course they're hiding because no one wants to break the Prime Directive: that old chestnut, responsible for - I'm just guessing here - precisely no brilliant episodes of Star Trek ever.

September 9, 2014

Bodacious Space Pirates: "Wanderer of Light"

The Bentenmaru continues its quest for the Golden Ghost Ship, with the Serenity fleet hot in pursuit. When all of the ships are caught in a spacial rift, things look difficult for Captain Mariko - until the source of the rift turns out to be the Golden Ghost Ship itself.

"Wanderer of Light" is the 11th episode of Bodacious Space Pirates, and the fifth in this current "Ghost Ship" story arc. It features a nice amount of action and suspense, but it remains an incredibly slow series. There's just too much padding going on. While we do finally reach the Golden Ghost Ship, and its arrival is pretty awe-inspiring, we don't actually get inside yet. Just finding the ship has taken something in the region of two hours of screen time. I like the characters in this series, and the visual aesthetic, and the basic set-up, but they're really dragging their feet in terms of actually doing things.

Doctor Who: "The Edge of Destruction"

It's 8 February 1964, and time for the 12th episode of the BBC's Doctor Who. An explosion has rocked the TARDIS console room and thrown everyone to the floor. When they wake their memories are foggy, their situation is unclear, and the TARDIS seems to be malfunctioning. Paranoia sets in, and the TARDIS occupants slowly turn on one another.

"The Edge of Destruction" is a remarkable episode. It follows the series premiere, followed by three weeks on prehistoric Earth and seven weeks on the planet Skaro fighting Daleks. Now we have an episode set entirely inside the TARDIS, where a lot of the plot threads woven through the first 11 weeks come to a head. For Ian and Barbara it's the realisation that they're travelling through time and space on an alien spaceship, with no end to their journey in sight, trapped with a mad old man about whom they know absolutely nothing. For the Doctor it's a realisation in pretty much the opposite direction: he doesn't know these people, he's kidnapped them and is incapable of returning them home, and they could do anything to force his hand and try make him take them back to 1963. When you're moving from one high-pressure situation to another, and you don't really know a thing about your travelling companions, sooner or later something's going to break and the paranoia's going to set in.

September 8, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The Survivors"

The Enterprise arrives at a Federation colony, only to discover that all but two of its 11,000 residents have been destroyed by some cataclysmic attack. Why are the survivors, elderly couple Kevin and Rishon Uxbridge, still alive?

"The Survivors" is an episode that starts as a rather perplexing mystery, then segues into being a fairly light-hearted encounter with a charming old couple, and then concludes with an ethical dilemma over genocide. Talk about a rollercoaster ride.

It begins with some wonderfully surreal imagery. There's a devastated planet, with all traces of human colonization burned to ashes, except for one perfect square of lawn with a house in the middle of it. It feels an awful lot like an episode of the original Star Trek, which reveled in this sort of strangeness. The two surviving residents (played by John Anderson and Anne Haney) are incredibly down-to-earth and shockingly normal, going so far as to invite the Enterprise away team in for tea.

Doctor Who: "Robot of Sherwood"

Clara wants to meet Robin Hood, but there's only one problem: there's no such thing as a real Robin Hood. To prove it the Doctor takes her to England in AD 1190, where they immediately discover killer robots disguised as knights, an evil Sheriff of Nottingham... and Robin Hood.

"Robot of Sherwood" is a remarkable achievement. Doctor Who has been running for more than 33 seasons over 51 years. The BBC has broadcast 243 of the Doctor's adventures, so for an episode like "Robot of Sherwood" to be so egregiously awful as to raise the question of it being the worst episode of all time it has to be some impressively terrible television. This is an episode that wallows at the bottom of the league tables, jostling for position with the likes of "The Doctor's Daughter" and "Timelash".

There was a mild controversy this week when the BBC confirmed it had cut about a minute from the episode over concerns the action (a beheading) would be insensitive in light of the murder of journalists in Iraq. I actually didn't have a problem with the BBC making the edit. In retrospect I just wish they'd edited out the remaining 44 minutes.

September 7, 2014

Samurai Flamenco: "Idol Devastation"

Hazama's crusade as Samurai Flamenco seems to be taking off. He's receiving combat training from tokusatsu legend Kaname Joji, he's successfully intervening to stop genuine street crimes, and his popularity online seems to be growing and growing. When he steps in over his head, however, things look grim - until the sudden arrival of Flamenco Girl, the sidekick he didn't know he had.

Ever since I started watching Samurai Flamenco I've been noting how it's skirted the line between being something specifically Japanese and being a riff on American works like Mark Millar's Kickass or James Gunn's Super. This episode pushes things pretty firmly on both directions. It draws pop starlet Mari Maya into Hazama's superhero plans, after some pretty clear foreshadowing last episode. It's great to have another female character in the series, even if she appears to slide pretty smoothly into stereotype.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The Ensigns of Command"

The Enterprise receives an unexpected message from the reclusive Sheliak Corporate, a dangerous and territorial civilization with whom the Federation has a tenuous peace treaty. Humans has been detected on a planet in Sheliak territory. The Enterprise is given a narrow deadline by which they must evacuate all colonists before the Sheliak move in and murder them all. While Picard debates treaty law with the Sheliak to buy time, Commander Data travels down to the planet to rescue the isolated humans - only to discover an entire colony that's been there for 90 years.

While "Evolution" was shaky but promising, "The Ensigns of Command" is flat-out great. It's so great, in fact, that part of the production team stole the idea a few years later to make the Deep Space Nine episode "Progress". Due to radiation in the planet's atmosphere, Data is the only member of the Enterprise crew able to travel to the surface of negotiate with the colonists. They want to stay and fight the Sheliak. Data assures them that the Sheliak will easily kill them all. They don't believe him, or want to take the chance to save their homes. When all Data is capable of is logical argument, and the logical argument has failed, how does he convince the colonists to leave and save their lives?

September 6, 2014

PSX20 #7: Tekken 3

PSX20 celebrates the 20th anniversary of Sony's Playstation videogames console by counting down my 20 favourite videogames for that platform. These aren't necessarily thebest PSX games ever made, but they are the ones I liked and played the most.

Namco's Tekken was a 1994 arcade fighting game, later ported to the PlayStation, which used the then reasonably new technology of polygon-based 3D graphics to make a more exciting experience. It lagged a year behind Sega's similar title Virtua Fighter, which was a significant hit in arcades worldwide. I was never a particularly big fan of Tekken, vastly preferring both Virtua Fighter and its 1994 sequel.

This all changed with Tekken 3, released in arcades in 1997 and then ported to the PlayStation in 1998. Graphically it represented a huge leap forward for the genre. In terms of gameplay it was more instinctively playable: you could pick up the controller and have a reasonable time, employing a fair number of special attacks and combos (combinations of button-pressing creating high-powered attacks) in pretty short order.

September 5, 2014

Porridge: 40 years on

Happy 40th anniversary to Porridge, one of the greatest television comedies ever produced - and one of the few with a pretty solid claim to being the absolute best comedy of all time. It would be ridiculous to actually pick a single-greatest comedy series, but if you were going to at least write up a shortlist then Porridge deserves to be on it.

Porridge originated in an anthology series, Seven of One, commissioned by the BBC to test out potential comedy formats for Ronnie Barker. Each episode allowed Barker to play a different character in a different situation, and whatever format seemed the most popular would be subsequently expanded into a full series. It was Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais' "Prisoner and Escort" that was deemed the most successful. It followed career criminal Norman Fletcher (Barker) on his way to prison under the supervision of guards Mackay (Fulton Mackay) and Barrowclough (Brian Wilde). The subsequent series, named Porridge after a slang term for a term in prison, premiered on 5 September 1974 and ran for three seasons, plus a feature film and a one-season spin-off titled Going Straight.

The Pull List: 3 September 2014

Caleb Monroe and Mariano Navarro's Cloaks is a new four-part miniseries from Boom Studios. I'm really digging what Boom has had to offer in recent months. I think there's been a real renaissance at that company, where they've taken a chance on a wide variety of projects and really upped their profile in the best way possible. While the market's going to be dominated by DC and Marvel for the immediate future, I think all of the really interesting stuff is now getting produced at Boom, or Image, or their elder sibling Dark Horse.

Cloaks basically takes magicians - the performative kind - and transforms them into crime-fighting superheroes, or at least that's where it seems to be headed. The first issue focuses on Adam, a street magician who uses his skills to make a fairly decent profit as a thief. Obviously that career has its risks, and it's his failure to avoid those risks that leads us into the story proper.

It's a decent set-up, and draws the reader in very nicely. Mariano Navarro's artwork is strong and distinctive, without being too showy or experimental. It was, all up, a really enjoyable comic.

While Monroe is the writer of the book it was actually created by David Henrie, star of Disney hits The Wizards of Waverly Place and That's So Raven. It's not difficult to imagine this book as a proof-of-concept pitch for a feature film, and based on this first issue I wouldn't be surprised to see Cloaks in cinemas or on television within the next two to three years. (4/5)

Boom Studios. Written by Caleb Monroe. Art by Mariano Navarro.

Under the cut: reviews of Action Comics, Aquaman, Batman Eternal, Batwing, Black Widow, Detective Comics, Lumberjanes, She-Hulk, Usagi Yojimbo and The Woods.

September 4, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Evolution"

The Enterprise has arrived at the Kavis Alpha system to enable a noted astrophysicist, Dr Paul Stubbs, to observe a rare but easily predicted stellar phenomena. While Stubbs prepares for his once-in-a-lifetime chance, nanotechnology developed by Wesley Crusher accidentally infects the Enterprise's systems, putting the mission - and the lives of the Enterprise crew - at risk.

The second season of The Next Generation was famously beset by production difficulties. A writer's strike hampered the development of episodes and led to a four-episode cut to the season. Personality conflicts and disagreements over the series' creative direction led to the departure of Tracy Torme and Maurice Hurley. After a brief three week period where Michael I. Wagner assumed the role of executive producer, the position was transferred to newcomer Michael Piller. It was the luckiest hire than The Next Generation ever made. Piller was not only one of the best writers that the series ever had, he also had a formula for ensuring the series went from one creative strength to another.

Piller had two rules for every script he supervised: firstly, it had to be about something; secondly, it had to be about a character's growth. With Piller's arrival, Star Trek: The Next Generation stopped being a series of self-contained weekly episodes and started becoming a continuing science fiction drama for the first time - and the rest of American SF television followed suit.

Babylon 5: Season 3 in review

I remember, back when Babylon 5 was originally broadcast, that it was Season 3 that I enjoyed the most. Season 1 had been shaky as all hell, but I was at an age where if a TV series had a spaceship in it I'd doggedly watch it anyway. Season 2 was a sudden and marked improvement that actually got me hooked into the series. Season 3 struck me as genuinely great television, and I finished the season finale on the edge of my seat, desperate to see what happened next.

It's been 18 years since that first viewing, and to older eyes the season is perhaps less impressive in some aspects and more impressive in others. The overall arc is remarkably well told, and the Shadow War is introduced incrementally. It's quite a shock, after watching "Z'ha'dum", to jump back to "Matters of Honor" and see how far the story has moved in just 22 episodes. The war is fully in motion now. New characters have been introduced, others have died. Enemies like Bester have become allies, and allies like Kosh have been swapped with distanced, threatening replacements.

September 3, 2014

Who might be the next producer of Doctor Who?

Doctor Who has had many producers over the decades: Verity Lambert, John Nathan-Turner, Barry Letts, Philip Hinchcliffe, Graham Williams and a few others. In the modern post-2005 era the series has had two showrunners (a term basically describing an executive producer and creative head): Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat. Davies produced the first four seasons and some specials. By the end of 2014 Moffat will have also produced four seasons and some specials.

Steven Moffat is a broadly popular writer. He just won an Emmy. He can't produce Doctor Who forever, and nor should he: new ideas are what's kept the series running for so long. While nothing has been announced or to my knowledge even believably rumoured, it can't be too much longer before Steven Moffat hangs up his TARDIS key and hands control over to the next showrunner. It's a difficult job, since it's a technically demanding series and the BBC's flagship drama. Who could possibly take charge?

Let's have a look at some potential names. I suspect some of these guys at least will be on the BBC's shortlist. I've listed them in alphabetical order by surname.