February 29, 2016

In & Out (1997)

Howard Brackett (Kevin Kline) is a well-liked small town English literature teacher and sporting coach. He is days away from his long-delayed wedding to fellow teacher Emily Montgomery (Joan Cusack), and one of his former students (Matt Dillon) has been nominated for an Academy Award. When his student suddenly announced during his acceptance speech that Howard is gay, Howard's life gets turned upside-down as the entire town begins to second-guess and doubt his sexuality. On top of everything else, a pushy TV news reporter (Tom Selleck) arrives in town to make his life even more miserable.

There is a weirdly awkward quality to In & Out, a 1997 romantic comedy directed by Frank Oz. It is as if the entire film is on shaky, unfamiliar territory. It is a mainstream Hollywood comedy about homosexuality, one seemingly terrified of causing offence to both the LGBTI community and the pre-existing puritanical American market that it needs to make a profit. Some moments are perfectly pitched. Some feel oddly but mildly offensive. Ultimately it really does just feel a little bit uncertain of itself.

Doctor Who: "A Desperate Venture"

It is 1 August 1964, and time for another episode of Doctor Who.

The Doctor (William Hartnell) and Ian (William Russell) are lost in the tunnels beyond the Sensorite city, but may have finally hit upon the source of the poison that has affected the city's water supply. Susan (Carole Ann Ford) and Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) launch a bid to rescue their friends. The City Administrator has Carol (Ilona Rodgers) kidnapped in a last-ditch attempt to overthrow the First Elder's rule.

"The Sensorites" comes to a close with a remarkably dense episode that packs in about as much plot as two or three prior episodes combined. There is Carol's kidnapping and rescue. There is Barbara and Susan's attempt to locate and rescue the Doctor and Ian. There is the Doctor and Ian's discovery of a second group of humans hidden on the planet, and their attempts to safely return them to the surface. Then there is still the obligatory wrap-up and farewell scene - all in the space of 25 minutes.

February 28, 2016

N64:20 #18: Bangaioh

In 2016 the Nintendo 64 turns 20 years old. It was Nintendo's third videogame console, produced to succeed the enormously successful SNES. Upon its release in 1996 Time magazine claimed it was "machine of the year". While the N64 failed to best Sony's enormously popular PlayStation - a console in whose early development Nintendo had a key hand - it still sold almost 33 million units worldwide and hosted some of the greatest videogames ever made. To celebrate its anniversary I'm counting down my top 20 N64 videogames; not necessarily the best titles released on the format, but definitely my personal favourites.

Not all of the best Nintendo 64 games made it outside of Japan. Occasionally a great game barely manages to make it in Japan itself. Take Bangaioh, sometimes titled Bangai-O. It was a fast-paced, quite extraordinarily chaotic shooter developed by Treasure and distributed on a limited run of just 10,000 copies. It is one of the trickiest Nintendo 64 titles to track down. I have never seen a physical copy in the wild, and the only legitimate version I have owned and played is the subsequent - and much more widely distributed - Sega Dreamcast port.

February 27, 2016

The Pull List: 24 February 2016, Part II

Cullen Bunn's troubled and uneven run on Aquaman concluded last month, and for a short while at least he is to be replaced by former Guardians of the Galaxy writer Dan Abnett - who also wrote the excellent Wild's End that I reviewed earlier this week. Going by this first issue, I really hope Abnett sticks around for a while.

The issue begins with what feels like a strong statement of purpose: Aquaman is, for the time being, done with focusing on Atlantis and its internal schisms. Instead he - and his companions - are to focus on that threshold between the underwater and the surface worlds. This sounds like a great plan. Aquaman is, first and foremost, a superhero, and he has not really had much of a chance to work in that area since the New 52 kicked off four and a half years ago. It is really entertaining watching a group of Atlanteans visit the surface world and sample the junk foods and sideshow attractions of a county fair.

At the same time there's clearly something bad going on nearby, as the fun hijinks are interspersed with random strangers getting too close to a source of water - the ocean, a bucket, a fish tank, and so on - and get brutally slaughtered for their trouble. There's no sign where it's headed, but it's safe to assume not anywhere pleasant.

This feels like a great jumping-on point for new readers. Abnett is a great writer, and Vicente Sifuentes, John Dell and Guy Major bring some really strong superhero-style artwork along for the ride. In recent months I kept toying with dropping Aquaman from my regular order, but with this issue I am glad I stuck around. (4/5)

There is one thing I have to ask, though: what the hell is up with the guy on the bottom left-hand corner of the cover? He has the face of a child, the stomach hair of an adult, a weird pose, and bizarrely thick and muscular legs. It's just utterly bizarre.

DC Comics. Written by Dan Abnett. Art by Vicente Sifuentes and John Dell. Colours by Guy Major.

Under the cut: reviews of Daredevil, Ringside and We Are Robin.

Crusade: "The Well of Forever"

It's 23 June 1999, and time for another episode of Crusade.

As the Excalibur progresses on its mission to find a cure for the Drakh plague, Galen (Peter Woodward) suggests investigating the mythical Well of Forever. Captain Gideon (Gary Cole) agrees, only to find the Excalibur is no longer under his control. Meanwhile Lt Matheson (Daniel Dae Kim) is scheduled to be scanned by a government representative, as part of Earth's post-PsiCorp governance of telepaths.

I did not hate "The Well of Forever". By no means did I fall head over heels in love with it, but it did not annoy me too often and it occasionally managed to even do something interesting. It certainly uses its regular cast more evenly than the previous two episodes - although there is still a bizarrely strong focus on Galen - and is a huge step in quality from the relatively dire "The Long Road". The only lingering concern I have is this: did I enjoy this episode because it was independently enjoyable, or did I enjoy it simply because it was not as bad as "The Long Road"?

February 26, 2016

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Sons of Mogh"

It is 12 February 1996, and time for another episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Klingons are undertaking suspicious military exercises on the border of the Bajoran system. Meanwhile Commander Worf (Michael Dorn) earns the ire of Captain Sisko (Avery Brooks) when he attempts to assist his brother Kurn (Tony Todd) in committing ritual suicide by stabbing him in the chest with a knife.

What now, what the hell? "Sons of Mogh" is a damned peculiar episode. Sisko is furious that Worf attempted to murder his own brother. He chastises Worf, and points out that while he is aware of and respects alien cultures, Deep Space Nine is a Federation facility operating under Federation laws. Sisko is correct, and as a result murder is somewhat frowned upon. So why the hell is Worf shouted at, and then dismissed from Sisko's office? I am reasonably certain he should be on his way to a holding cell in advance of a criminal trial and a dishonourable discharge.

The Pull List: 24 February 2016, Part I

This is shaping up to be a great week for comic books: the first four comics I've read from this week's list, and all four of them are five-star issues. That doesn't happen very often.

Let's kick off with issue #3 of Venus, Rick Loverd and Huang Danlan's excellent science fiction thriller. A human mission to Venus has suffered a crippling act of sabotage. Now it's clear the saboteur is still among the surviving crew. A group of shipmates are plotting mutiny against their commanding officer, and meanwhile war appears to have broken out on Earth with a mass detonation of nuclear warheads.

This is a rather shocking issue, with Walking Dead levels of graphic violence. It's earned by the narrative, but it's a hell of a moment to have to read. It has been really impressive how well Loverd has established his cast of characters within such a comparatively short amount of time. This is a four-issue miniseries, so there is only one issue left to go. Thanks to his writing it seems entirely likely that we will get a tightly paced and satisfying conclusion by then.

Huang Danlan's artwork is a great match. It is realistic enough to make us care about the characters and the storyline, but it is also abstract enough to be a very aesthetically pleasing book too. Marcio Menyz's excellent colour art really makes it pop off the page as well.

While Image remains the go-to publisher for strong science fiction and fantasy ongoing comics, Boom Studios has really carved itself a specific niche as the home for strong miniseries. Venus is yet another excellent title to add to their growing catalogue of genre works. (5/5)

Boom Studios. Written by Rick Loverd. Art by Huang Danlan. Colours by Marcio Menyz.

Under the cut: reviews of Batman and Robin Eternal, Saga and Wild's End: The Enemy Within.

February 25, 2016

The Flash: "Things You Can't Outrun"

Random victims around Central City are being gassed to death, without any evidence of who committed the murder or how they delivered the gas. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that another metahuman criminal is at work, and it's up to Barry (Grant Gustin) to take him down. At the same time, the growing number of metahumans terrorising Central City brings an important question: where does the team imprison them once they catch them?

I think "Things You Can't Outrun" is my favourite episode of The Flash so far (so basically the best of three). It has fast-paced adventure, some cool visual effects, a bit of character development and a gentle pushing along of the series' various ongoing storylines. While it is fairly simplistic stuff, it has a bright, pleasant tone and some great production values. This is not a perfect television series, but it is an incredibly easy one to like.

Crusade: "The Long Road"

It is 16 June 1999, and time for another episode of Crusade.

When the Earth Alliance finds a mineral deposit that may delay the effects of the Drakh plague, they immediately begin strip-mining an isolated colony planet. The local population, who have taken to a low technology life-style, rebel against the destruction of their home and take a group of Earthforce personnel hostage. Earthforce, however, is more concerned about the dragon - conjured up by a technomage (Edward Woodward) who has taken to living on the planet.

This is a dreadful piece of television. There is not a qualifier, or an excuse, or some vague explanation of 'oh but the network did this', or 'they were trying to do that'. It is just generally awful. The script by J. Michael Stracyznski is as superficial and trite as his work work back during Babylon 5's first season, and Mike Vejar's direction - usually pretty reliable - is weak and uninspired. It all looks astonishingly cheap, as if those involved had never met a television production budget before and simply figured a believable computer-generated dragon would be possible. I suspect guest star Edward Woodward - father of series regular Peter Woodward - knew he was in a bad episode, since he spends the hour over-acting and treating the entire thing as a bit of a farce. He was right: it is a farce. With episodes like this there is no longer a question of how Crusade got cancelled so much as how it managed to last thirteen episodes before it was.

February 24, 2016

Outlander: "Both Sides Now"

In 1743 Claire Randall (Catriona Balfe) continues her way on the road with her new husband Jamie (Sam Heughan) and members of the McKenzie clan. In 1945 her old husband Frank (Tobias Menzies) continues to frantically search for her, despite everyone else - including the Inverness police - having given up on finding her.

The first season of Outlander was split in two on its original broadcast, with this episode first airing in September 2014 and the subsequent episode airing in April 2015. As a result this episode effectively acts as a season finale in all but name. It is a striking episode that is in turn moving, thrilling and terrifying. The spectre of rape, which has loomed uncomfortably over the series since the first episode, returns to torment Claire once again not once but twice in the same hour. That does damage the episode somewhat. I am not sure what motivates the use of sexual assault as a generator of drama in contemporary American television, but I am reasonably sure I don't like it. It is somewhat like conducting surgery with a shotgun when a scalpel would do.

Superman III (1983)

Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor) is a gifted computer programmer who gets caught trying to defraud his employer, the Metropolis business magnate Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn). Rather than prosecute Gus, Webster uses his talents to give him an illegal advantage in his business affairs, and when Superman (Christopher Reeve) gets in his way Webster uses Gus' talents to take down the Man of Steel as well.

Superman III is a real odd fish of a superhero movie. At the time it was regarded as a major disappointment following the box office success of the first two Superman films. Coming back to it more than 30 years later and it's quite a surprise. Nothing in the film comes halfway close to matching the best moments of the earlier films, but at the same time Superman III boasts a consistency of story and tone that is far beyond what either predecessor managed.

How much one enjoys the film is largely going to come down to how much they want to see a Richard Pryor comedy thrown into a blender with a Superman sequel.

February 23, 2016

The Judge (2014)

Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr) is a talented but unscrupulous lawyer forced to return home to a small Indiana town when his mother dies. His return re-opens old wounds with his father (Robert Duvall), the local judge. Just when Hank is set to leave for good, an alleged hit and run sees his father arrested for manslaughter and Hank is forced to choose between old grudges or helping his father out.

Well that all sounds like about one hundred different courtroom dramas we have all seen before. In cinemas, or more regularly on television every second weekday afternoon. The truth is that in terms of story and to a large extent in its screenplay The Judge is a remarkably average and by-the-numbers kind of small town drama. While most viewers will not necessarily predict each plot beat as it occurs, it seems doubtful that any one of them will come as a surprise.

It is interesting that about 15 years ago this would have been every second feature film made by a Hollywood studio. The last decade or so has pushed the middle ground out of American cinema. We used to drown in these sorts of middle-budget traditional dramas, filled with respectable actors and both shot and edited in a slick, clear manner. The last decade has seen franchise pictures grow enormously in popularity, while to a large extent the mid-range drama has slipped over into cable television and streaming providers.

The comparative paucity of these sorts of film dramas in recent years might indicate why The Judge felt as entertaining as it did. That, and two strong lead performances by Robert Downey Jr and Robert Duvall.

Doctor Who: "Kidnap"

It's 25 July 1964, and time for another episode of Doctor Who.

Ian (William Russell) and Susan (Carole Ann Ford) rescue the Doctor (William Hartnell) from the aqueduct, where an unseen monster seems to be stalking the tunnels. Once back in the Sensorite city, however, they are caught up in the Administrator's murderous conspiracy against them.

While the previous episode of "The Sensorites" contained a series-changing shift in the Doctor's behaviour, transforming him from a self-interested old fan to a strongly motivated hero, this fifth part contains pretty much the stupidest plot development the series has included thus far. The Administrator, a zenophobic politician intent on killing all of the humans in Sensorite captivity, goes some way to achieving his aim by masquerading as the planet's Second Elder. He does this by stealing the Elder's sash, since all Sensorites dress identically and they cannot tell each other apart by any means.

February 22, 2016

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Return to Grace"

It's 5 February 1996, and time for another episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Major Kira (Nana Visitor) is once again forced to travel with Gul Dukat (Marc Alaimo) to a Bajoran-Cardassian intelligence conference. When they discover the outpost hosting the conference has been destroyed by a Klingon bird of prey, they team up to track the enemy vessel down and get revenge for the deaths of their respective peoples.

"Return to Grace" is a direct sequel to "Indiscretion", the Kira/Dukat episode broadcast earlier in the season. It sees Dukat return with his reputation in tatters, having lost his wife, political position and social status thanks to the revelation that he has a half-Bajoran daughter, Ziyal (Cyia Batten). Despite this dishonour he seems genuinely proud of his new-found daughter, despite attempting to kill her on their first meeting specifically to avoid the fall his career has suffered. Then again, when the opportunity comes to destroy a Klingon bird of prey and restore his standing he takes it with both hands, dragging Kira along for the ride.

Outlander: "The Wedding"

In order to keep Claire (Catriona Balfe) out of Captain Randall's clutches, Dougal (Graham McTavish) has ordered Jamie (Sam Heughan) to marry her. This is something of a problem for Claire, since she already has a husband whom she loves back in 1945, but with Randall's threats looming over her head she does not have a choice.

"The Wedding" is a striking hour of television. I spent the entire episode on edge, not because of what was happening on screen but because the previous six episodes had led me to assume something dramatic and terrible was going to happen at any moment. I was anticipating Randall turning up and kidnapping Claire. I was anticipating murder. I was anticipating yet another attempt at a sexual assault. Instead I got two strangers, recently married, properly meeting one another for the first time. It was extraordinarily effective.

February 21, 2016

Doctor Who: "A Race Against Death"

It is 18 July 1964, and time for another episode of Doctor Who.

It is the fourth part of "The Sensorites". When Ian (William Russell) is struck down by the same plague that is killing off the Sensorites, the Doctor (William Hartnell) dedicates himself to finding a cure as soon as possible. While the Doctor works, the city administrator continues to conspire against him, believing all of the humans to be in league together against the Sense-Sphere. After finding a cure, the Doctor decides to head down to the city's underground aqueduct to discover the true source of infection.

Superficially it may seem as if "A Race Against Death" is just another episode of Doctor Who. There are some aliens in rubbish rubber masks arguing with one another. There are companions in peril. There is the Doctor using his scientific know-how to save the day. It all seems very by-the-numbers, and certainly from a technical standpoint it is no better or worse than any of the other episodes around it. Nonetheless "A Race Against Death" is a highly significant episode of Doctor Who. It's arguably one of the most important episodes ever made.

Crusade: "War Zone"

It's 6 June 1999, and time for the first episode of Crusade.

The Earth has been struck by a deadly alien plague. While not designed to affect humans, the plague will continue to rapidly evolve. Within five years all human life on Earth will be dead. To search for a cure, Captain Matthew Gideon (Gary Cole) is given command of the state-of-the-art starship Excalibur and dispatched to find a cure at any cost. Before his mission can begin however, he must follow a distress signal that may lead to a crashed spacecraft full of Drakh - the species who unleashed the virus.

After TNT purchased the broadcast rights to a fifth and final season of Babylon 5, they soon commissioned a spin-off series. Set five years after Babylon 5, the series would be set not on a space station but a roving starship. Its crew could have a variety of science fiction adventures while searching for a cure to save the human race. Sadly the series that creator/producer J. Michael Straczynski wanted to make and the series TNT executives wanted him to make were starkly different. The relationship between producer and broadcaster deteriorated. Interference in the creative process compromised the series badly in Straczynski's eyes. Internal research undertaken by TNT found that Babylon 5 fans did not watch other TNT content, and viewers of that content did not watch Babylon 5. All in all it became apparent the series was a very poor fit for the station, and it wound up being cancelled before a single episode made it to air. The original order for 13 episodes was fulfilled, but despite attempts to re-sell the show to other stations (notably the Sci-Fi Channel) Crusade was over before it began.

February 20, 2016

Superman II (1980)

General Zod (Terence Stamp), the Kryptonian villain who was prosecuted by Superman's father Jor-El, escapes the captivity of the Phantom Zone and arrives on Earth. It is up to Superman (Christopher Reeve) to save the world - but Superman is gone after falling in love with Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) and sacrificing his powers.

Two years after the original Superman became a box office smash, the franchise continued with a second popular instalment. Its popularity with audiences masked a tortured production process behind the scenes. Much of the plot was originally developed as part of a super-long single film. When the decision was made to split the story into two films, the shoot continued for a while despite director Richard Donner's relationship with his producers rapidly deteriorating. Eventually the plug was pulled on production until the first film could be released.

That left Superman II with an enormous problem. Here was a film that was half-completed, but the producers did not want to work with its director any more. When Richard Donner left, he took with him half of the crew. Gene Hackman refused to return in solitarity with the director, while Marlon Brando - then in the middle of suing the Salkinds for their failure to pay him his fee for playing Jor-El in the first place - refused to even allow already-shot scenes to be used.

The Pull List: 17 February 2016

American comic books really need to establish a new means of numbering. It used to simply be sequential, with each individual series running for potentially hundreds of issues and simply changing creative directions and creative teams as it went. Then, as sales declined and publishers started looking for ways to boost their readership, it became apparent that readers were twice as likely to buy an issue number #1 than an issue numbered even as low as #3 or #4. Pretty soon Marvel started going nuts for relaunches and re-numberings, and to be honest DC Comics is not too far behind them.

So here we are stuck on The Mighty Thor #4, not to be confused with Thor #4 published last January or Thor: God of Thunder #4 published two Januaries before that or even The Mighty Thor #4 published back in 2011. These have all been part of Marvel's main Thor comic book: four fourth issues in five years.

It's clear at this point that Marvel and DC need to take a TV-style approach, and renumber their key superhero books at the start of every "season". At the moment they're trapped halfway towards that approach anyway, and I think it would help their sales and even their reputations a little if they were to go the whole distance and never publish an issue higher than #12 ever again.

As for this fifth issue #4: Thor's attempts to help the light elves from Malekith's forces do not go as well as she had expected, and there's to time to keep working at it because Odin's put his wife up on trial and the whole of Asgardia is about to revolt. This is a great issue. A lot happens, the pace never lets up, there's a broad range of characters, and it all feels like it is actually going somewhere. Since its latest relaunch The Mighty Thor has felt a little all over the place, as if it's stumbling to re-assert itself. Here it finally feels rock-solid. I'm pleased. (4/5)

Marvel. Written by Jason Aaron. Art by Russell Dauterman. Colours by Matthew Wilson.

Under the cut: reviews of Batman and Robin Eternal, Doctor Who, Robin: Son of Batman, Silver Surfer and Usagi Yojimbo.

February 19, 2016

Superman (1978)

With Warner Bros about to release its widely hyped new blockbuster Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, it seemed as appropriate time as any to have a look back over the studio's earlier attempts to bring Superman to the screen. That process begins with Richard Donner's 1978 blockbuster Superman, which was a tremendous hit upon release and led to three sequels starring Christopher Reeve. This first film showcases baby Kal-El's escape from the dying planet Krypton, his arrival and adoption on Earth, his journey to assume the role of Superman while masquerading as 'mild-mannered' report Clark Kent (Reeve) before having his first encounter and battle with criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman).

Richard Donner's Superman is, for all intents and purposes, the grandfather of the modern superhero film. While there were certainly plenty of screen adaptations of Superman and other heroes before it, it was the first film to adapt a comic as an honest-to-god film. It is not a quick piece of entertainment for children, or a humorous pastiche, but rather a proper Hollywood blockbuster that gives DC Comics' Superman the same attention and respect that Spielberg gave Jaws or Friedkin gave The Exorcist. To a very large extent, Warner Bros' subsequent Batman films, Fox's X-Men movies and Marvel's extensive and growing franchise of interlocked comic book films all owe their existence to Donner's film.

Red Shift (1978)

In recent years the British Film Institute (BFI) has been doing a sensational job of restoring and releasing a wide range of old British television productions. It has been a real treat for cult TV enthusiasts, since it has made available a range of productions that many have read or heard about but never previously had the opportunity to see.

Red Shift is a case in point. It is a 1978 film directed by John McKenzie (The Long Good Friday) and adapted by popular fantasy author Alan Garner from his own novel. It follows the experience of three different men living in Cheshire in three different time periods: one in the present-day, one in the English Civil War, and one all the way back in Roman Britain. Their lives are connected by a single Roman axe head, which seems to reside hidden in the area for each man to find, as well as by the ominous Mow Cop hill - and later the ruined folly built upon it.

Alan Garner has drawn extensively on the Cheshire countryside and history throughout his career. It does not simply dominate Red Shift - both novel and film - but also much of his other writing including The Stone Book, Elidor and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. It's fascinating to see a single writer pretty much dedicate his works almost exclusively to the one region. It adds a great deal to Garner's personal style and tone. Personally I think he is one of fantasy literature's most underrated figures.

February 18, 2016

Babylon 5: "A Call to Arms"

It's 3 January 1999, and time for another Babylon 5 made-for-television movie.

Just over a month after Babylon 5 aired its final regular episode, it returned to TNT with one more TV movie. Written by J. Michael Straczynski and directed by series regular Mike Vejar, the film returns to the Babylon 5 universe five years after Sheridan left the station for Minbar. To be honest "A Call to Arms" is less of a self-contained film and more of a slightly askew pilot episode. While it only features a handful of characters from the sequel series Crusade, it sets up its entire back story and creative direction.

While President Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) is inspecting the Interstellar Alliance's new battlecruisers - the Victory and the Excalibur - he receives a strange message in a dream from the technomage Galen (Peter Woodward). It leads him back to Babylon 5 and into contact with Earthforce Captain Anderson (Tony Todd) and alien thief Dureena Nafeel (Carrie Dobro). Together they embark on a mission to stop the villainous Drakh, former servants of the Shadows, from destroying all life on planet Earth.

February 17, 2016

N64:20 #19: Goemon's Great Adventure

In 2016 the Nintendo 64 turns 20 years old. It was Nintendo's third videogame console, produced to succeed the enormously successful SNES. Upon its release in 1996 Time magazine claimed it was "machine of the year". While the N64 failed to best Sony's enormously popular PlayStation - a console in whose early development Nintendo had a key hand - it still sold almost 33 million units worldwide and hosted some of the greatest videogames ever made. To celebrate its anniversary I'm counting down my top 20 N64 videogames; not necessarily the best titles released on the format, but definitely my personal favourites.

Ganbare Goemon is one of those videogame franchises that has trucked along merrily within Japan but has remained fairly obscure and unknown in the rest of the world. That is almost entirely down to availability. The Goemon character has appeared in almost 40 different titles in his home country, while only five have been released international: one for the SNES, two for the Gameboy and two for the Nintendo 64, all released under the Mystical Ninja title.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Crossfire"

It's 29 January 1996, and time for another episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Bajor's new First Minister Shakaar (Duncan Regehr) arrives on the station to negotiate Bajor's admission to the United Federation of Planets. An assassination plot against him is discovered, forcing Odo (Rene Auberjonois) to act as bodyguard. When he notices romance building between Shakaar and Major Kira (Nana Visitor), Odo is left with a dilemma: confess his own love to Kira before it is too late, or remain silent and watch his dreams slip away.

Odo takes centre stage in this episode, and not only dominates the story but gets put through an emotional torture as well. We have known for about a season that he harbours a deeply felt affection for Kira, so seeing his dreams shattered when she romances another man is a rather heartbreaking thing to watch. This is an exceptional episode. Since its central plot is rather slight, it fills its time with strong character work. We see Odo's relationship with Kira, with Quark (Armin Shimerman) and even with Worf (Michael Dorn). In every case the relationship is expressed in pitch-perfect fashion.

February 16, 2016

Keep On Keepin' On (2014)

A filmmaker once told me that the trick to making a good documentary is to find a subject that you are going to find interesting for at least two years. If you can document that subject for so long and not get bored, then an audience will happily watch that same subject in a cinema for two hours.

Australian director Alan Hicks has certainly proved this to be the case, having found two remarkable subjects for his feature documentary debut. Keep On Keepin' On focuses on jazz legend Clark Terry. At the time Hicks' shoot commenced in 2011 he was 91 years old, rendered blind and largely immobile by steadily worsening diabetes. In addition to being one of the most highly regarded trumpeters of all time he has also been both an inspiration and a teacher. His former students include Quincy Jones, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and Terri Lynne Carrington. Despite his age and declining health, Terry is found in Keep On Keepin' On tutoring yet another jazz prodigy: the blind 23 year-old jazz pianist Justin Kauflin.

The film acts in part as a record of Terry's long and impressive career, and his immeasurable musical talent. It acts in part as a window into Kauflin's attempt to overcome stage fright and underconfidence to express his own remarkable talent. Most of all, however, it presents a beautiful and life-affirming friendship between a young man at the beginning of his adventure and an old master approaching the end of his own.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Paradise Lost"

It's 8 January 1996, and time for another episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

With the Dominion seemingly set to invade Earth, and Starfleet officers guarding every street corner, Captain Sisko (Avery Brooks) becomes increasingly suspicious that all is not what it seems. When he learns that the cut to the Earth's power systems was caused not by changelings but by a team of Starfleet cadets, he realises that there is no Dominion invasion at all but instead a fast-approaching coup d'etat by one of the fleet's finest and most respected admirals.

There is something very slightly askew in "Paradise Lost" that stops the episode from ever reaching its potential. I do not think it is a single element, it is more as if a large number of very small errors and ill-advised choices have gently warped the whole episode out of alignment. Viewed from a distance and it seems perfectly competent and rather thrilling. Viewed up close and it never gels together. The concepts all work but the execution falters. It is still a more enjoyable episode than "Homefront", but there is so much that is squandered.

February 15, 2016

Penny Dreadful: "Night Work"

It is London in the year 1891. Some unseen monster is stalking the streets, murdering and mutilating women. American gunslinger Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) is hired by a mysterious woman (Eva Green) to join a late night raid on an opium den - which turns out to be a nest of vampires. The woman's employer, Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) is hunting for his kidnapped daughter Mina. Meanwhile coroner Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) brings a dead body to life.

That's essentially what happens in the first episode of Penny Dreadful, a television series created by screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator) and produced by noted director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall). The series is a mash-up of 19th century literature, including Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Bram Stoker's Dracula. Future episodes will bring in elements of Stephenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. Penny Dreadful seems perfectly pitched it terms of tone, casting and visuals, but fails to actually put any sort of original plot or driving narrative behind it. In terms of narrative structure this first episode is peculiarly unsatisfying.

February 14, 2016

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr) is hot on the trail of criminal mastermind Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris), and intent on revealing and preventing the devastating plan he has for all of Europe. When his investigations grow too close, however, it is not only his own life that is put in peril but that of his former partner Dr John Watson (Jude Law).

A good sequel is a wonderful thing. There is no need to spend time introducing characters and establishing a tone since they have been introduced and well-established already. Instead - in the best kinds of sequels - there is scope to expand on the characters, experiment with where to push the tone, and find all manner of fresh and unexpected angles on the material. Generally speaking few sequels match the original film, since a temptation to hew closely to what is already established often leads to a lack of imagination, and a tendency to simply repeat now-familiar beats and tropes. Thankfully A Game of Shadows is up to its task, bringing back the chemistry and charisma of Guy Ritchie's first Sherlock Holmes film while both darkening its tone and expanding its scope.

February 13, 2016

Babylon 5: "The River of Souls"

It's 17 November 1998, and time for another Babylon 5 TV movie.

Archaeologist Robert Bryson (future Emmy and SAG nominee Ian McShane) comes to Babylon 5 with a stolen alien artefact. While the artefact begins to exert a strange psychic power over Bryson, he is followed by a powerful Soul Hunter (future six-time Emmy nominee Martin Sheen) who is desperate to retrieve it at all costs.

"The River of Souls" is an interesting made-for-television film for two reasons. Firstly, it is the first Babylon 5 storyline - outside of the series finale - to be set beyond the original five-year timeline. Secondly it is genuinely odd to see two major and widely acclaimed dramatic actors - Ian McShane and Martin Sheen - performing in a series that is considerably below the quality standards to which both men are now accustomed.

Outlander: "The Garrison Commander"

Claire (Catriona Balfe) and Dougal (Graham McTavish) are escorted by British troops to a nearby inn, where Claire can be assessed and introduced to the garrison's commanding general. Her visit takes a dangerous turn, however, when she comes face to face once again with Captain Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies), her 20th century husband's ancestor and the man who attempted to rape her when she arrived in the 1740s.

"The Garrison Commander" is an excellent episode of Outlander, combining great character work and dialogue with some unexpected plot developments, a harrowing flashback and a fleshing-out of a great new villain for television drama. Jack Randall was clearly going to be an ongoing antagonist from Claire from the moment she first encountered him. It is simply too perfect: a vile, spiteful and cruel monster, bearing the exact facial features of her husband Frank. Tobias Menzies does a startling job playing the two men in the same episode - Frank via a brief flashback and Jack throughout its second half - and he makes them strikingly different to each other.

February 12, 2016

The Pull List: 10 February 2016, Part II

Learoyd and Dusty wake to find themselves rescued from the goats and brought to a peaceful village of sheep. There's a mysterious light in the mountain above, and a strange sickness affecting the village's oldest and youngest residents.

The Autumnlands is such a great fantasy comic. Truth be told I have no idea where the book is going: it started off as a story of rival magicians attempting to summon a mighty champion. Now it's a road trip between the last human in the world and an anthropomorphic dog in training to become a wizard. This book feels literary: it has a wonderful old-fashioned charm to it, one that's emphasised by Benjamin Dewey's exceptional artwork. Its aesthetic all looks more like an illustrated storybook than a comic, and that makes it feel unlike any other comic on the shelves at the moment.

There are plenty of mysteries running through the book. We still don't entirely know who Learoyd is, or why he keeps seeing an illusory golden woman. We have not reconnected with Dusty's masters from the floating city of magicians. Writer Kurt Busiek has hinted wonderfully at a much broader world with a long history, but so far we have only really seen hints of it. There is so much story promise here that I really hope The Autumnlands runs for a good long time. If you are a fantasy fan and a comics reader, you really need to be reading this book. (4/5)

Image. Written by Kurt Busiek. Art by Benjamin Dewey. Colours by Jordie Bellaire.

Under the cut: reviews of Black Canary and The Massive: Ninth Wave.

Time Traveller: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2010)

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is a popular Japanese science fiction novel, originally published in 1967. It follows a high schooler named Kazuko Yoshiyama, who encounters and falls in love with a traveller from the 26th century and develops the ability to leap backwards through time. The novel has been adapted to film and television several times, beginning with a 1972 television drama and subsequently with feature films in 1983 and 1997 and most famously as a 2006 feature anime directed by Mamoru Hosoda.

Hosoda's film actually worked as a loose sequel to the novel, with actress Riisa Naka voicing Kazuko's niece on a time travelling adventure of her own. In 2010 director Masaaki Taniguchi attempted something similar, directing Time Traveller: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. It is another sequel to the novel, and this time much more directly, as Kazuko's daughter Akari (Riisa Naka again) travels from 2010 to 1974 in an attempt to pass on a message from her hospitalised mother to the mysterious time traveller she romanced back as a teenager.

February 11, 2016

The Pull List: 10 February 2016, Part I

After throwing Hydra out of New Jersey, Kamala Khan understandably can't wait for a little down-time. Instead she seems busier than ever: there are classes to study for, a brother getting married with his wife moving into the Khan household, and yet more crime-fighting to be done on behalf of the Avengers. She seems to have hit upon a solution, but it's clear that the solution is going to be much, much worse than the original problem.

Marvel do a really good job when finding fill-in artists. Guest artist Nico Leon has a style that is very similar to Adrian Alphona, and as such the book continues on in such a smooth and seamless manner that a lot of readers probably won't even notice the change.

G. Willow Wilson's writing continues to flawlessly present Kamala and her life. This issue presents exactly the sorts of qualities and content that have made the book so enjoyable. Wilson balances the superhero elements of the comic with the high school drama, and always manages to throw in quite a lot of well-observed and funny humour at the same time. Kamala is such an adorable character. I think she is almost impossible to dislike - much like this comic. If you read Ms Marvel and don't enjoy it - why are you reading superhero comics at all? (5/5)

Marvel. Written by G. Willow Wilson. Art by Nico Leon. Colours by Ian Herring.

Under the cut: reviews of Batman, Batman and Robin Eternal and Darth Vader.

The Flash: "Fastest Man Alive"

Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) begins using his super-speed to help those in need, but soon finds himself suffering dizzy spells and fatigue. He has little time to rest, however, after encountering a second meta-human: in this case a murderous scientist named Danton Black (Michael Christopher Smith) who can split his own body into multiple clones.

"Fastest Man Alive" feels a lot more relaxed than the slightly shaky pilot. It has a defined and clear purpose, and goes about its business in an efficient and effective manner. It is still a fairly superficial and breezy sort of a series, but for now at least The Flash seems content to throw super-powered villains at an appealing protagonist on a week-by-week basis, and not too much else.

That's okay: there's definitely a place for this kind of populist, non-taxing adventure show. It's enjoyable stuff, and not too taxing, and Grant Gustin goes a long way to making it all a pretty entertaining hour of television. It's also manna from heaven for hardcore DC Comics fans.

February 10, 2016

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Just as they are on the cusp of going their separate ways for good, consulting detective Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr) and war veteran Dr John Watson (Jude Law) are brought back together for one final case: the inexplicable resurrection of the occultist and murderer Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong).

Sherlock Holmes, which was released to great commercial success back in 2009, is one of those Hollywood projects that makes so much sense and seems such an obvious idea that the genius was noticing that nobody had attempted it before. Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories were the blockbusters of their day, so why not translate the characters into an actual Hollywood action blockbuster? There had been a near-countless number of Sherlock Holmes adaptations made for film before, but I am not sure there had ever been one with as strong an emphasis on action as it did on mystery-solving. It also had the sense to bring in actor just hitting the absolute peak of his popularity (Robert Downey Jr) and to hire a director (Guy Ritchie) who had demonstrated a lot of talent but never had the chance to make a big-budget Hollywood film.

Survivors: "Starvation"

It's 4 June 1975, and time for another episode of Survivors.

Greg (Ian McCullough), Jenny (Lucy Fleming) and the kids find themselves trapped in a van surrounded by a pack of hungry dogs. Meanwhile Abby (Carolyn Seymour) meets two more survivors of the plague - and has another encounter with the shift Welshman Tom Price (Talfryn Thomas).

Then the money ran out. I am assuming that is what happened at any rate. Survivors had until this point balanced its shoot between studio recordings on videotape and location shoots using 16mm film. Now the exterior scenes are shot using outside broadcast video, which on the one hand gives the episode a more consistent visual texture but on the other makes the whole enterprise look an awful lot cheaper. The lower budget affects the episode in other ways too. The sound quality is variable. The performances feel rushed and under-rehearsed. A pack of wild dogs, which should in theory be a terrifying threat to the characters, is represented by a small collection of remarkably sedate and friendly group of pets.

February 9, 2016

N64:20 #20: Hybrid Heaven

In 2016 the Nintendo 64 turns 20 years old. It was Nintendo's third videogame console, produced to succeed the enormously successful SNES. Upon its release in 1996 Time magazine claimed it was "machine of the year". While the N64 failed to best Sony's enormously popular PlayStation - a console in whose early development Nintendo had a key hand - it still sold almost 33 million units worldwide and hosted some of the greatest videogames ever made. To celebrate its anniversary I'm counting down my top 20 N64 videogames; not necessarily the best titles released on the format, but definitely my personal favourites.

Hybrid Heaven was an odd title for Konami to release on the Nintendo 64. Since launching with Super Mario 64 the N64 had pretty much become the de facto console for children, with a growing range of brightly coloured platform titles and racing games, each featuring a different variety of cute anthropomorphic animal or object. Konami, on the other hand, specialised in slightly more mature action-based titles including the long-running Castlevania franchise as well as PlayStation titles like Silent Hill and Metal Gear Solid. While Konami had released quite a few sports-based and family-friendly titles for the N64, Hybrid Heaven was their first original IP released for the console that actually targeted a more mature audience.

Outlander: "Rent"

Claire (Catriona Balfe) is sent on the road to provide medical assistance to Dougal (Graham McTavish) and his men as they travel the McKenzie lands to collect rents from the people. At first she suspects Dougal of defrauding his older brother, Laird Colum McKenzie, but then she realises that Dougal is working from a different motive - and an entirely new problem becomes clear.

After three episodes within the confines of Castle Leoch it is quite refreshing for Outlander to get on the road itself and stretch its legs. It's an excuse for the series to show off some absolutely beautiful Scottish scenery. It may seen a weak reason to recommend a series, but Outlander really does showcase the Scottish landscape in a manner better than any other TV or film production I've seen before. (Braveheart, for example, was mostly shot in Ireland.) The Scotland Tourism Commission must be loving the series.

Asides from the pretty visuals, "Rent" also introduces what I suspect will be a key plot driver for the series over not this season but the next two or three - the Jacobite uprising against George II.

February 8, 2016

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Homefront"

It's 1 January 1996, and time for another episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

After a terrorist attack kills several dozen people, Captain Sisko (Avery Brooks) and Odo (Rene Auberjonois) travel to Earth to help secure the planet from changeling infiltrators. When Sisko's protection measures begin to limit the freedoms of the planet's civilian population, he finds himself butting heads with his wilful and stubborn father (Brock Peters).

There's an old joke about a BBC production of Zulu, in which that broadcaster's historically meagre budgets result in two British soldiers sitting in a tent and one them pointing outside and remarking "There's thousands of them out there!" That is sort of the feeling I got from "Homefront". It is a big story with a very broad canvas, but its budget dictates that it is told on a very small, uncomfortably intimate stage. As a result we have the entire planet Earth being placed under martial law by Starfleet, told via two offices, a park in San Francisco and a New Orleans restaurant. In short, Deep Space Nine's eyes were bigger than its budget, and as a result the episode suffers dreadfully.

Prometheus (2012)

For the past few weeks I have been slowly re-watching the entire canon of Alien and Predator films, including the two Alien vs Predator movies that crossed them over. The final film left to review is Ridley Scott's Prometheus, which burst into cinemas in 2012 cresting a wave of frenzied anticipation and limped back out under the weight of countless negative reviews.

One could really divide the reputation of Prometheus into two halves of 2012. Before the film come out it was just about the most eagerly anticipated science fiction film since George Lucas had returned to Star Wars - and pretty much for the same reason. Original Alien director Ridley Scott had returned not only to the Alien franchise but science fiction generally. As the director of Alien and Blade Runner he had a near-unassailable reputation for building gorgeous fictional worlds, and the idea of a third SF feature from him seemed an outstanding and momentous occasion.

Once the film was actually in cinemas, however, that tune changed pretty quickly. Prometheus is actually a really good example to show people when explaining that it won't matter if a film has strong direction, beautiful photography and a cast of A-grade actors working to the best of their abilities if that film does not have a good screenplay. Prometheus has a messy, unworkable script that requires smart characters to be stupid and audiences to not care about logic.

February 7, 2016

Outlander: "The Gathering"

While Claire (Catriona Balfe) develops a plan of escape from Castle Leoch, the McKenzie clan assembles to pledge fealty to Colum (Gary Lewis). The ceremony proves a dangerous one to Jamie (Sam Heughan), whose unique position could see him executed on the spot should he say the wrong thing. A boar hunt leads to tragedy - and a renewed respect between Claire and Dougal (Graham McTavish).

"The Gathering" is a weirdly messy and disconnected episode, saddled with a wobbly plot structure, some oddly two-dimensional dialogue, and more of the irritating elements that keep getting in the way of Outlander becoming a genuinely brilliant television drama. Of the four episodes viewed so far it is the first that I did not particularly enjoy.

This is not for a lack of decent material. As always the episode is very well shot, and a boar hunt sequence in particular is well paced and plays out in a very dramatic fashion. The problem, in the end, comes down to Dougal.

The Flash: "Pilot"

Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) is a young forensic analyst working for the Central City police department. During a freak confluence of a particle accelerator explosion and a thunderstorm Barry is struck by lightning and falls into a coma. When he awakes nine months later he finds he has the power to move at super-sonic speeds. He decides to use his new-found powers to fight crime and track down everybody else given strange powers during the storm.

The Flash is a live-action television series based on the popular DC Comics character. It is also a spin-off from the already successful CW series Arrow - also based on a comic book - and has been a reasonably big hit for the network since its debut last year. I am a huge fan of the Flash in the comics, and liked the original television adaptation way back in 1990 or so, so I was keen to see if the new version lived up to its potential.

February 6, 2016

The Pull List: 3 February 2016, Part II

When it is at its best, Detective Comics is one of the greatest superhero comic books. It's a Batman title, but it is supposed to have a more investigative bent. Over in Batman the Caped Crusader can fight colourful villains, travel around the world, have supernatural encounters or even alien encounters. By contrast Detective is always about Batman as 'the World's Greatest Detective'. It is a moodier book, more about sneaking around in alleyways solving crimes than in fighting monsters or super-powered antagonists.

That is why I am really digging "The Bronze Age", the current story arc running in Detective Comics. A serial killer is stalking Gotham, kidnapping innocent people, and disguising their dead bodies as iconic historical figures. It seems to have something with the bronze statues around Gotham - statues like one would find in any city - and as Batman investigates the body count begins to rise sharply.

Peter J. Tomasi is writing a storyline that has been rock-solid so far, with twists and turns and great characterisation. Batman is still being performed by Jim Gordon, who brings a particular and rather fresh attitude to the character. In the suit or out of it, he is always going to be a police detective first and a superhero second, and that's a really refreshing style. The art by Fernando Pasarin and Matt Ryan is similarly strong. There's nothing here that pushes the book into 'classic' territory, but it is an immensely satisfying read. (4/5)

DC Comics. Written by Peter J. Tomasi. Art by Fernando Pasarin and Matt Ryan. Colours by Chris Sotomayor.

Under the cut: reviews of Amazing Forest, Batman and Robin Eternal and We Are Robin.

February 5, 2016

Doctor Who: "Hidden Danger"

It's 11 July 1964, and time for another episode of Doctor Who.

The Doctor, Ian and Susan travel down to the Sense-sphere to negotiate the release of the TARDIS lock from the Sensorites. Already badly affected by a plague that came with the last set of human visitors, some members of the Sensorite community are intent upon killing them as soon as possible.

It has been six months since I last watched an episode of "The Sensorites". That is partly because I simply got distracted by other viewing options, but I think it is also down in part to "The Sensorites" being a remarkably slow-paced and rather sedate serial. Things do happen, and occasionally those things - such as in episode 2 - can get effectively creepy, but in the main it all feels a bit leaden. I think "Hidden Danger" may be the least engaging episode so far. While things do happen, and the plot does move ahead, it simply does not hold the viewer's attention very well.

Babylon 5: "Thirdspace"

It's 19 July 1998, and time for more Babylon 5; in this case the second of TNT's made-for-television films, Thirdspace.

While returning to Babylon 5 Commander Ivanova (Claudia Christian) and her squadron discover an enormous alien object drifting in hyperspace. They bring it to the station, where initial tests show it to be more than a million years old. While a pair of scientists investigate and research the object, people on the station begin to fall under its power. Some dream of a mysterious alien city, others begin to lose their minds. Before long everyone is in mortal peril if Captain Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) cannot destroy the object, and the gateway to 'thirdspace' within it.

Shot immediately following the conclusion of Season 4, and narratively wedged somewhere in the middle of it, "Thirdspace" sees Babylon 5 re-tooled as a Hollywood action film. It boasts punch-ups and martial arts fights, big visual spectacles, one of the series' biggest-ever space battles, and more CGI in 90 minutes that was squeezed into all 22 episodes of Season 1. It is big, loud and rather stupid, but it's also rather silly fun.

February 4, 2016

The Pull List: 3 February 2016, Part I

Damn you Brian Michael Bendis.

I was all ready to give up on reading Ultimate Spider-Man. The book had relaunched in a pointless manner, the story was slowing to an intolerable crawl, and just when things finally pulled together into an interesting climax it all got abandoned in favour of the much-delayed and jaw-droppingly dreadful Ultimate End. I figured enough was enough, and whatever form in which Miles Morales, the Ultimate Spider-Man, returned, I was out for good.

Then I found myself buying issue #1 of Marvel's new Spider-Man, which brings Miles into the main Marvel Universe for the first time. It's pretty good. The wonderfully appealing characters that Brian Michael Bendis created are here, and the story sets up in a fairly nice fashion, and the great dialogue is back. Rather frustratingly it holds off explain how Miles is in the Marvel Universe now, or what his relationship to Peter Parker is, or how any of this new continuity works. Hopefully Bendis won't take too long to reveal that stuff. Sara Pichelli's artwork (with ink assists by Gaetano Carlucci) is just flat-out great.

This is not a perfect comic book, but I'd be lying if I said it was a bad one. There I was, about to drop Miles for good, and instead Bendis comes back with a last-minute save to get me hooked again. Damn you Brian Michael Bendis. (3/5)

Marvel. Written by Brian Michael Bendis. Art by Sara Pichelli and Gaetano Carlucci. Colours by Justin Ponsor.

Under the cut: reviews of Giant Days, Obi-Wan & Anakin and The Sheriff of Babylon.

Alien vs Predator: Requiem (2007)

After an alien bursts from the chest of a dead Predator, its spacecraft crashes into the woods outside a small American town. When a number of facehuggers emerge from the wreckage and begin impregnating the humans, another Predator arrives to clean up the mess. For the unsuspecting humans in Gunnison, Colorado, it means a long night of violence and terror as they run around like panicky kittens trying to survive.

After Paul W.S. Anderson directed Alien vs Predator and earned 20th Century Fox a tidy profit, it seemed as if the studio had a pulp B-grade movie franchise on its hands. After one sequel directed by visual effects specialists Colin and Greg Strause Alien vs Predator was stone-cold dead, with each property splitting back off into its respective franchise with Predators and Prometheus. It was not a matter of money: Alien vs Predator: Requiem turned a reasonable profit. It is simply as if the relevant executives at Fox saw where their combined film series was headed and simply broke it up before too much damage was done.

February 3, 2016

Outlander: "The Way Out"

1940s nurse Claire Randall (Catriona Balfe) is trapped in 1743 Scotland, where the Laird of the clan McKenzie has imprisoned her in Castle Leoch and its surrounds out of fear she may be an English spy. While biding her time Claire connects with the enigmatic herbalist Geillis Duncan (Lotte Verbeek), continues to flirt with the dashing Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) and in saving a poisoned child's life earns the ire of the fire-and-brimstone priest (Tim McInnerny).

Thankfully Outlander's third episode skips any implied or threatened sexual assaults, although in return it does give us the spectacle of a 12 year-old boy having his ear nailed to the pillory. Asides from that it is a rather comfortable affair, settling Claire into 18th century life and further exploring the various characters living out their lives around her. There are a few glimmers of genius, but generally speaking this is a fairly amiable historical drama.

The Pull List: 27 January 2016, Part III

Aquaman #48 ends the brief run on the book by writer Cullen Bunn. It started with such a sudden, dramatic hook: Arthur on the run from his own people, and his wife Mera ruling Atlantis in his place while issuing warrants for his execution. It seemed to have a lot of promise to it, but for some reason that promise never quite eventuated. A lot of that might be due to the negative fan reaction Bunn claimed to have received when announced as the book's writer. He found some responses so aggressively negative that he had actually quit the book before his first issue had been released. That's depressing: disliking a writer's take on a comic book is fair enough, but it is not unfair to expect the fans to at least sample a book before writing it off.

The last few months have simply been a case of wrapping up a large, expansive storyline in the quickest and neatest manner possible. That is certainly what happens here. Arthur and Mera are reunited, he becomes king again, Atlantis sides with him, and he and the Justice League defeat the rival kingdom of Thule - all in the space of 20 pages. It's certainly fast-paced, and the art by Vincente Cifuentes (with inkers John Dell and Juan Castro) is really strong, but the abrupt nature of the story kind of steals its thunder.

Aquaman is a really tricky superhero for whom to write, and some writers do better jobs of it than others. In Bunn's case it feels as if his heart fell out of things almost as soon as he started. I would love to have seen him take a more enthused track at the title, but thanks to the vocal minority of Internet-based fans it seems we can't always have nice things. This was a really fun issue, but I regret not being able to see the whole run from beginning to end as Bunn had originally intended. (3/5)

DC Comics. Written by Cullen Bunn. Art by Vincente Cifuentes, John Dell and Juan Castro. Colours by Guy Major.

Under the cut: reviews of The Spire, Strayer and Venus.

February 2, 2016

Doctor Who: "Amy's Choice"

It's 15 May 2010, and time for another episode of Doctor Who.

Several years after leaving the TARDIS, Rory (Arthur Darvill) and a heavily pregnant Amy (Karen Gillan) are reunited with Doctor (Matt Smith) again in the sleepy surrounds of Upper Leadworth. Then they fall asleep, and find that they were dreaming, and that they are really trapped inside the TARDIS as it falls towards a deadly cold star. When they fall asleep in the TARDIS, and wake up again in Upper Leadworth, their real troubles begin.

It all brings to mind that old quote by the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, about the man who dreamed he was a butterfly and then woke not knowing if he was a man who dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly in the middle of a dream that it was a man. That is pretty much exactly the situation in which the Doctor and his companions find themselves here: two realities, one of which is real and the other of which is a lie, and they are forced to choose between them by the mysterious and deeply snarky Dream Lord (Toby Jones).