Monday, 24 July 2017

Trailer Trash - San Diego Comic-Con

Let's make last year's one off into an annual tradition, as I present my run down of the new trailers from SDCC, starting with the offerings from Netflix.

Stranger Things 2 – and yes, they are trailing it as a numbered sequel – promises more of the same glorious eighties retro horror that the first season gave us, with Will Byers' mind still half-trapped in the Upside Down, and thus able to see some vast, Cthuloid horror looming over the town of Hawkins Indiana. The trailer confirms that Eleven will be returning, alongside our other young heroes, and of course Hop the inexplicably badass, whom we will probably spend another entire season expecting to die horribly. I hope he doesn't. There's little sign of any human antagonists, but I suspect that there will be some.

Also, 'Thriller'. Vincent Price, still doing the business almost a quarter of a century after his passing. If that isn't a fitting tribute to a horror actor, I don't know what is.

Also in the field of original urban horror/fantasy (although definitely less original and more fantasy) is Bright, a sort of mashup of Alien Nation, any film where a group of ostensibly respectable protagonists find a fortune in hostile territory(1), and Shadowrun(2), with Will Smith as an LAPD veteran assigned the first orc cop as his partner in a world where humans live alongside fantasy races (presumably due to relatively recent shenanigans given the otherwise now-ness of the world.) From the looks of it, orcs have fallen into the lower class, while elves have joined the 1%, because fucking elves, dude.

Will and Orc arrest an elf carrying a magic wand, described as 'a nuclear weapon that grants wishes.' Several of their fellow cops appear to want the wand to 'disappear' into their pockets, and there are elves and all sorts after it, with our heroes trying to get it safely to... somewhere. So there's a bit of the Warriors in the old CNA(3) as well. It looks kind of mad, although a bit as if it might have benefited from a miniseries rather than a movie to be contentiously released only through Netflix. I mean, I'd pay out to see this at the cinema.

The latest trailer for The Defenders shows our team somewhat less united than they might once have appeared, with basically everyone but Danny Rand opposed to either a team up or Chinese food. From this brief glimpse I already feel more sympathy for Danny, as he's so obviously the little kid with the bad solo series situation who just wants to hang out with the cool kids and pretend he has a fanbase that love him. There are also some signs of him doing something more interesting with his chi powers than just punching really hard. However, most of what we get from this trailer is Sigourney Weaver's Alexandra and her plans for Manhattan, which feel distinctly League of Shadows. We see her coaching Elektra on war, goading our heroes on how they suck, and holding her own in a glowering contest with Madame Gao, which is no small feat.

There was also a character teaser, which ended with the Punisher putting in an appearance.
From there, let's jump to non-Netflix Marvel TV shows.

After a deeply underwhelming first trailer, Marvel's Inhumans (henceforth Inhumans) got a longer reveal with some added SFX, in particular Medusa's hair doing its thing. Also of significant note is a scene of Iwan Rheon getting some man of the people vibes, as well as being sassed for being 'only human.' As of now, I've got to say that I'm on team Maximus. Inhumans joins Agents of SHIELD on ABC and for my money looks to have the same slick production values and hints of the same lack of truly engaging characters. Black Bolt is a barely expressive beefcake, which is not a good start for a character who can't talk. There's a lot of work to doing that character well, and just looking noble and stoic doesn't cut it.

Anyway, I probably ought to get caught up on Agents of SHIELD at some point.

From the non-MCU side of things we get a longer trailer for The Gifted, Fox's upcoming offering within the X-Men multiverse (presumably a slightly different corner thereof than Legion.) It's your classic brother and sister mutants are hunted by the agency that once employed their father scenario, with said father reaching out to a group of other mutants – canon X-Men characters Thunderbird, Blink and Polaris, and light-bending newbie Eclipse – to help the family disappear. What's really interesting about this one is that, alongside Agents of SHIELD and a few other shows, it defies the unwritten convention that representation means 20-25% female cast and one minority. The Gifted has 50% female cast in its protagonist group (half of the established mutants, one of the newbies, one of the parents,) and Native American, Chinese and Hispanic characters in the lead group(4).

It's probably telling that my other takeaway from this is not the action, the effects or the poignant and tragic tale of vampire export Stephen Moyer trying to recreate the existential dilemma of Horn-Rimmed Glasses in the good season of Heroes, but that a male and female character are shown discussing relationships with no apparent UST.

From Marvel to DC now, and let's start where the CW started, with Arrow.

We open with a recap of the end of Season 5 and the explosion of Lian Yu. New footage shows that Will is haunted by what happened, and as he is seemingly living with single dad Oliver we can assume Mum didn't make it off the island. No sign of Felicity yet, or Diggle, but Echo Kellum shows up in some of the marketing, so we can hope that they're not burying the gay guy yet. The other confirmed survivors are the Dinahs Lance and Drake, apparently engaging in a protracted feud, and Slade Wilson, last seen leaving the rest of the team in the lurch (although a scene of him shaking hands with Oliver tells against him having gone full heel again.)

I'll be honest, I came out of this a little unclear who the villain of the series might be, and I'm worried it's going to be existential angst and that Arrow Season 6 is going to turn out to be Arrow's Buffy Season 6, all pain and misery and crushing mundanity. On the other hand, I could go for a proper musical episode(5).

The Flash goes into Season 4 lacking a certain... Flash. Barry is still stuck in the Speed Force, leaving Iris to coordinate the emotionally battered members of the team, including Caitlin, who appears to be going with a freeze ray look this season, but not Julian apparently. It pitches us a massive samurai dude as our major villain, although that might just be a lever for bringing Barry home. We get even less hint of the overall plot than with the other shows – this makes sense; most of their episodes probably haven't filmed yet, so we've only got some early episode stuff to show – but it's a sadder and a wiser world on display, and... well, I miss Season 1's sense of fun.

Also lacking somewhat in her habitual joie de vivre is Supergirl, who is moping over the loss of Mon-el and deciding to 'retire' Kara Danvers to be a full time Supergirl. Now, Mon-el grew on me as a character, and I like the juxtaposition of Kara's self-sacrifice with Superman's commitment to personal relationships, but seriously if the moping goes on for more than a couple of weeks I may flip a table. It's not just that I like my happy Supergirl, because I accept that it's not unreasonable that the kind of shit superheroes deal with would wear you down, but that I don't want to see her brung low by love of a man. Mourn, mope, move on(6).

Anyway, we also get a glimpse of Adrian Pasdar as an evil businessman threatening to get all up in Lena Luthor's grill, Alex and Maggie being alternately adorable and badass as all hell, and Supergirl heat visioning the shit out of something. Again, no substantial sign of our big bad yet(7).

If I was worried that the Arrowverse was going into complete angst overload, Legends of Tomorrow drops a season 3 trailer to soothe my worries, with dinosaurs in LA and Mick Rory going after a clown wielding a giant hammer. With anachronisms all across history as a result of their Spear of Destiny shenanigans, modern-day Vixen's dead evil sister popping up, and some sort of time feds getting all up in Sara's face about her team's ability to handle a super-secret rising darkness situation, our band of misfits look to be saddling up for another season of balls to the wall goofball action and occasional moments of poignancy, more in keeping with its glorious sophomore year than its rocky beginnings.

As bad as the head-pasties were, I kind of got used to them, and I can't help finding the Kelvinverse Klingons a little offputting(8). Presumably we’ll see somewhere in this series the genetic accident that produces the Original Series Klingons, before they reverted to the movie/Next Gen appearance.

Where was I?

Right; so the new Star Trek: Discovery trailer promises action, thrills and war, and it's all our slightly gung-ho protagonist's fault. I strongly suspect, looking at this, that Michelle Yeo's character won't make it past the early episodes before being replaced by Lucius Malfoy, which is a bit of a shame, but it is as it is. All in all, the look is very Kelvinverse – not just the Klingons – even if the continuity isn't. I wonder if the show is going for more of a serial vibe than previous Star Trek series, which tended to be more a collection of individual stories than a single arc.

We open with William Hartnell morphing seamlessly into David Bradley, which is really uncanny. I assumed at first they just reshot with Bradley and showed the first bit in black and white. It seems to confirm that we're opening at the point where the First Doctor is about to regenerate, although what follows with its 'frozen moment' looks more like WWI. Mark Gatiss is a wide-eyed army officer known only as 'The Captain' at this point. Time Lord? Psychic projection of the Doctor's fear of being an officer? Lethbridge-Stewart senior, perhaps(9)? A reappearance for Bill as a physical being suggests to me that a lot of this is going to be in the Doctors' mind, which is not to say that I find it unlikely that super-powerful water-being Bill could find her way into such a construct.

Not much to go on here, but apparently we're looking at the adventures of Catherine Langford, action schoolgirl. Interestingly, if this is supposed to be in continuity with SG-1 and she goes through the Gate at all, then she was presumably lying through her teeth to Daniel and the others for years. On the other hand, perhaps the Stargate won't ever be opened; who can say.

Again, very little specific here. We see the hosts - led by Delores and her faithful Teddy - purging the park of tourists, and what looks to be a push back from the company, as well as the pianola being upgraded to juke box mode. Most intriguingly, we have the Man in Black still around. I kind of want to go back and remind myself where he was shot...

Okay, movie time.

It's obviously early days on production of the Pacific Rim sequel, with this teaser trailer featuring little footage and instead taking the form of a mock recruiting ad for the Jaeger programme, featuring a voice over by GLaDOS (once more, Ellen McCain's filters are at full GLaDOS for the trailer.) I want McCain to do a song for the credits on this one, I really do.

Steven Spielberg's much-anticipated adaptation of Ernest Cline's Ready Player One gets its first showing in this teaser, which is as packed with 1980s retro imagery as you would expect, from Duke Nukem to the Iron Giant.

The astute among you will of course have noted that both Duke Nukem and (the movie version of) The Iron Giant are from the 1990s, and this is indicative of a general problem with the movie. It's not 80s enough by a long stretch. The Oasis is a highly sophisticated simulated reality, yes, and much of it is no doubt super-futuristic and impossible high def, but especially those parts of it designed by Halliday really ought to look more eighties, and in these days of Stranger Things, Far Cry: Blood Dragon and even Thor: Ragnarok, there's little excuse for mucking this one up.

Now, don't get me wrong, I recognise that there is a huge step to be taken in adapting a novel much of which consists of the protagonist playing cabinet arcade games or being inserted into seminal eighties nerd movies, and the giant Hot Wheels track race is a great image, but overall it just looks too... 2017, and has too much from the 90s in it. Apparently retro-futurism – or is this future-retroism? – ain't what it used to be.

Kingsman was a divisive film in a lot of ways. I found it to be interesting, but flawed. From the looks of things, this sequel has managed to slim down the concept a lot by jettisoning the interest and keeping the flaws. Roxy/Lancelot, who got only a single shot in the original trailer, here has... nothing. She's gone. Eggsy, meanwhile, continues to be boorish, arrogant and rude, and yet his mentor seems to be questioning the American Statesman organisation's understanding of the creedo 'Manners Maketh Man.' At this point, I'm really more interested in Statesman.

The times they are a changing, and no better sign of that – in this rundown at least – than the shift in Justice League's focus from Batman to Wonder Woman in this trailer as compared to last year's SDCC trailer. It's not that Batman has gone, but Wonder Woman is front and centre here, as befits the most experienced warrior, not just in the Justice League, but pretty much in the entire world, if Themiscyra really is going to be the first place destroyed by Steppenwolf. There's a reference to the Lanterns, and a few hints that Superman will turn up (because that would be a shocker at this point, right?) although I would punch the air if it turns out that our super-costumed cavalry was Kara Zor-el. There is also a shift to the Wonder Woman colour palette, and a few Whedonisms thrown in for good measure (most notably 'They really just vanished. That's rude.')

Other thoughts: The trailer is playing up the Flash's doubts to the point that I suspect they will remember that he is basically the most powerful of them all, since on his A game he's untouchable, unstoppable, and could phase a brick into Superman's heart if he really wanted to. Plus, time travel. I strongly suspect that we'll see him be pivotal to the final save in the film, and quite possibly getting lost in time as a consequence.

Also, boom tube! I wonder if they'll call it that in the movie?

And finally, on top of their TV shows, Marvel dropped a new trailer for Thor: Ragnarok which is epic AF. We get to see the actual Team Thor – sadly, Darryl doesn't seem to get a look in – with a prominent role for Bruce Banner/Hulk, as well as more scenes of Hela dominating the Asgardian forces. The rest of Team Thor is filled out by frenemies Valkyrie and Loki, with sadly little sign of recurring favourites, unless that's Sif leading the flying horse cavalry that Hela's winding up to slaughter. I hope they don't kill off Sif. It would be a poor lookout for all of the sub-franchise's supporting female characters to end up dead or absent. The other thing I noted was the bit at the end where he appears to have internalised the powers previously only granted by Mjolnir, which makes a certain amount of sense given that it was always described as 'the power of Thor.'

Of course, the really notable thing is that this trailer is way, way more eighties than anything in Ready Player One, from the music to the title card(10). It's a high risk design strategy, but one that seems to be paying off to judge by the response.

So that's this year's trailers. Of course there are others, but mostly for stuff I don't or won't watch, so I don't have much to say on that front.

(1) I'm thinking Three Kings, I'm thinking Trespass...
(2) And with shades of Defiance in its pale, fancy elves.
(3) Cinematic Nucleic Acid, the building blocks of film.
(4) After that it's pretty much Caucasians, all the way down, but progress is progress.
(5) Disappointingly, the Flash/Supergirl musical crossover only had one original number, tellingly the highlight of the episode.
(6) With life. I'm not advocating she get a new boyfriend straight away. If I haven't made it clear before, I would be more than happy with the character establishing herself as okay outside the bounds of a relationship.
(7) Not Doomsday, but a character actually called Reign, which I would have known if I were more of a DC nerd.
(8) Especially as this series is set in the Prime Timeline.
(9) Grandfather, rather than father.

(10) Even if not like this, there is no excuse for the title card for Ready Player One not looking like an arcade game ready screen.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Preacher - 'Viktor' and 'Dallas'

Another double-bill of God-seeking and bloody violence this week, as I catch up on two episodes of Preacher.

"There are three lights. Well, one."
Cassidy is worried about Tulip, who went off and hasn't come back. Jesse assures him that this is what she does when they fight, and is more interested in the secret society who seem to be taking an interest in his business; or at least in business that he considers his. Then Cassidy sees an infomercial about the aftermath of Katrina, featuring actors including the false God who appeared on the angel phone in the church. They track him down by pretending to be casting for Game of Thrones, but discover that his agent lost touch after he got the part as God. They watch his audition tape, which concludes with his execution in order to allow him to transition to heaven and take up the job. This is a dead end, but the coincidence of this happening in New Orleans intrigues Jesse.

Meanwhile, Tulip meets crime boss Viktor and is invited to take some time to consider her options. She tries to talk to his goons, the staff and even his daughter, but they all treat her as if she were the scum of the Earth; even Viktor's torturer gets all holier than thou. Finally, she beats us a henchman, steals his gun and tries to force Viktor to 'let [her] go,' but he refuses and she is recaptured. When she continues to be a no-show, Cassidy confesses the reasons for his concern to Jesse, who storms off to rescue her.

Meanwhile, in Hell, Eugene is picked on by the local bully and Hitler stands up for him. Hitler's Hell is a scene in a cafĂ© where he met a gallery owner, but he has learned to stop interacting with it. Apparently mellowed by the years, Hitler seems like a pretty chill dude at this point. The warden – somewhat snowed under by equipment malfunctions and the Saint’s escape – invites Eugene for a chat, telling him he seems like a nice guy, and that sort of behaviour won't fly in Hell. Mindful that she says she will be watching, Eugene joins in when the other inmates deliver a beat down to Hitler for going soft. Oh, Eugene.

Jesse busts into Viktor's place, freezing all the guards with the Word before getting into a brutal fight with the torturer, who likes to work with headphones in(1). He attacks Viktor, but Tulip tells him to let go, because Viktor is her husband.

And so to 'Dallas', in which we see the aftermath of Carlos' betrayal, with Jesse and Tulip living a rough life on the straight and narrow (in Dallas,) only for Jesse to discover that Tulip is still doing crimes, and is on the pill while he believes they are trying for another child. He opts to return to his father's church and she eventually hooks up with Viktor, only to abandon him when their former handler locates Carlos.

Yeah... this isn't going to last.
In the present day, Jesse strings Viktor up in the torture room, while Tulip – unable to intercede, thanks to the Word(2) – takes Viktor's daughter to visit Cassidy and their reluctant host. After much soul-searching and an intervention by Cassidy as the most unlikely conscience ever, Jesse opts to release Viktor, who goes home to rea with his daughter. Of course, this is not a happy ending for them, since Jesse's careless throwing about of the Word attracts the Saint, who shoots up the house and murders Viktor, but the daughter tells him that she knows where to find the Preacher.

So, Jesse continues to be a dick, while Tulip and Cassidy struggle to keep him on some sort of even keel. The fact that an unrepentant contract killer and a largely shameless vampire hedonist are the voices of his conscience is a concern that seems slow to impinge on Jesse’s peace of mind, and all in all I’m not convinced he was a very good preacher. Of course, it’s part of the point that he is a melding of good and evil, a man with both light enough and dark enough in his soul to coexist with the awesome power of Genesis without exploding. It’s interesting that neither of his companions represents the light in him – the nearest anyone came to an angel on his shoulder is currently shouting ‘zieg heil’ and kicking Hitler in the nards – and also that the combination of righteousness and rage manifests so specifically as a sort of smug, angry dickishness. He’s a monumentally unlikeable protagonist, and yet remains compelling, or at least involving enough you can be bothered to want to slap him instead of just hoping for him to take a bullet from the Saint.

(1) Speaking as someone who painfully tugs his own earphones out at least once a week, I want that guy's earphones, which did not come out once during the course of said brutal fight, even when impaled on a rail from a foosball table.

(2) Dick move, Jesse.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Genderless: Girly Robots and Geek Backlash

Girl robots. Confusing, apparently.
Back in my childhood, The Transformers: The Movie introduced something new and a bit baffling to the Transformers universe. Not that double definite article, although that was a head scratcher, but Arcee, the first (I think, more or less, anyway) female Transformer.

Why should that be confusing? Well, I suspect that it's closely related to the reason why the new Doctor is such a hot button topic for many people. The Transformers, like the Time Lords, are alien beings, and many would argue that they are, effectively, genderless. The thing is, by 'genderless', they – perhaps unconsciously – mean 'all dudes.' I suspect that many of these critics are legitimately weirded out by the fact that suddenly the Transformers are split between boy robots and girl robots(1), but the reason that a female transformer brings this to the fore is that they – that we – had been, consciously or not, screening out the fact that every other Transformer was coded male. Even if we never heard them speak with a male voice they had traditionally masculine proportions – broad chest(2), narrow hips, big arms – if they were largely humanoid, and were universally referred to as 'he' within the narrative.
"We're going with pink then?"
It's confusing, people argued, because robots don't have sex. Well, probably not; it's essentially a kids' toy line we're talking about. It's certainly true that, wrecking ball scrota aside, Transformers are as sexless as a Ken doll, but that doesn't mean that they don't have gender. They do, and almost all of them are coded male (12 in 13 in the current Unified Continuity, I believe, reflecting that only one of the 13 Primes was female(3),) both in voice acting and in their physical and character design. What people usually mean by arguing that the originals don't have gender is that, as long as all of the Transformers on screen are coded male, we can kid ourselves that actually no, they're genderless. We just use he for convenience; Optimus Prime isn't a dude(4), honest. As soon as one of them demonstrably isn't a dude, however, all of the others are. A distinction appears on screen and now you can't deny it; they're all dudes, except her.

Strongarm. Not pink.
The other problem in Transformers, of course, is that the original female Autobot was Arcee, who was pink and very, very girly, and basically killed any chance of increasing female representation in the franchise for the next ten years, before Blackarachnia and Airazor made their debuts in Beast Wars. She made a brief appearance in Revenge of the Fallen, in which she was unceremoniously killed off. Outside of the live action movies, female Transformers are becoming more prevalent (at least 1 in 13) and less... femme. Arcee returned in Transformers: Prime as a two-wheeled badass with a heart of gold under a forbidding frown and a crisp, dark blue paint job. She wasn't in the follow up, Robots in Disguise, but that had Strongarm, a tough and eager, if somewhat by the book, cadet with a much more conventional Autobot frame, including four wheels, angular body panels and those narrow, gunfighter hips, and just a hint of lippy (and a female voice actor) to code her as feminine. The nature of representation is, however, a completely different topic, for another time, perhaps.

The dissonance caused by the sudden presence of a female exemplar in a formerly all-male world doesn't just annoy your actual, card-carrying chauvinists. It also means that those fans who self-identify as liberal feminists while they nestle snuggly into their male-dominated media are suddenly confronted with the fact that, as much as they may not be active sexists, they live in a world filled with passive, institutionalised sexism. People deal badly with discovering that something they love is riddled with ingrained prejudice, and pointing it out to them – whether actively or as a side-effect of casting against that prejudice – tends to get a defensive reaction. In the former case, they will often angrily defend the intentions of the creators, which is all well and good, but good intentions only go so far. The latter is viewed as a betrayal, because the beloved itself is telling them that it was sexist before.

It's a manifestation of the backlash effect, of course. "If we cast a woman as the Doctor now, then all the times we didn't might have been - gasp - sexist. Well, I'm not going to stand by and hear Doctor Who derided as sexist! If the other Doctors were men, that must have been right and proper, because that means Doctor Who was never sexist." (And then there are your card-carrying douchebags, but what can you ever do about them except proper education funding?)
I mean, does this look like someone with two hearts to you?
Female Transformers still mess with people's heads, and the female Doctor raises the same issue in people's minds, with some arguing that making the Doctor female is wrong because the Doctor is an alien and has no gender. The same argument is advanced whenever someone suggests casting a person of colour in the role of the Doctor. It's political correctness gonne madde! The Doctor isn't a white man, he's an alien, so why do you have to drag race/gender into it? If the Doctor is black, they argue, you're corrupting the alien purity of the character with a racial agenda. They argue thusly because black is a race. Likewise, if the Doctor is female, then the Doctor has gender, because female is a gender. White and male on the other hand are not a gender or a race; they're a default. This is, of course, why it is important to cast a woman as the Doctor, or a person of colour(5), because unless it is challenged then white and male will continue to be viewed as the neutral setting, and they just aren't. I for one am glad to see Doctor Who finally stepping up on this.

They're also dark skinned, by the way.
I couldn't find this image attributed; if you can point me to the artist, I will
It's this perception that makes the Imperial Radch series so interesting. The Radch is an ungendered society, not differentiating at all between male and female. Citizens of the Radch are somewhat androgynous, but also do not code for gender cues, so that they struggle to recognise gender even in outsiders. In the text of the novels, this is represented by using female pronouns for all characters, save for a few instances in the first novel in which Breq, the narrator-protagonist, has to communicate with non-Radch in a gendered language(6). The impact of shifting the default setting is profound, not least in that it barely affects the narrative, but provokes the reader to examine their own expectations. It makes no difference to the story if any given character is male or female, but you catch yourself assuming they are all women until you realise that is... if not impossible, given the setting, then at least unlikely.

A similar effect can be excited in white readers by any novel in which black is considered the default, and only white characters are referred to by race. (White) authors Neil Gaiman and Ben Aaronovich both use this deliberately, in Anansi Boys and the Rivers of London series respectively. It's always a bit of an eye opener when your brain parses the dissonance of someone actually being described as a white man, instead of just a man. To my considerable shame, I don't think I've read enough black literature to know how prevalent this is there; I'm taking steps in that direction as part of this year's reading challenge, because there's no worth in identifying a lack and allowing it to continue.

You know you'e reaching when Michelle Yeoh isn't tough enough for you.
For further proof of the blinkered insistence in white male normalcy, one need look little further than the reaction to the early trailers for Star Trek: Discovery, which angrily denounced the idea of putting a woman in charge of a starship, let alone giving one the lead in a Star Trek series, and never mind a Chinese woman! Do these showrunners not understand Star Trek? Do they think that Gene Roddenberry created the original series in order to show women and non-white characters fully integrated into a multiracial, egalitarian society(7)? Honestly, I suspect that the only reason we don't have record of a similar outrage over the casting of Avery Brooks as Ben Sisko is that DS9 came out shortly before the internet exploded, so he was an established fact by the time a critical mass of aggrieved white men had access to proper forums.

I hope that the new Doctor will challenge the concept of genderless. She shouldn't be the female Doctor, or even 'the Doctor as female' particularly. She should simply be the Doctor, and like any other Doctor 90% of her lines should work for any other Doctor with minimal rewriting(9). If her personality has feminine affects, they should not be in any form so tangible as to be easily describable. She shouldn't be markedly more empathic and nurturing, at least not outside the usual bounds of regenerative variation. She should be compassionate, as the Doctor always should. Even the 12th Doctor, who has been broadly characterised as an insensitive ass, is compassionate. She definitely shouldn't be getting into a relationship with a companion, male or female, any more than her predecessors did (and less than some of the more recent ones,) and the same definitely goes for crashing the TARDIS(10).

I suppose what I really want the show to prove over the next few seasons is that in the last 12-14(11) regenerations the Doctor was truly not defined by his gender, by not defining the new Doctor by hers.

No regeneration posters with 13 yet, given that she doesn't have a look, so let's finish with some ponies.
(1) And what is the purpose of sexual dimorphism, indeed of sex, in robots? Don't ask, and definitely don't Google.
(2) Optimus Prime's truck windscreen has always turned into his pecks.
(3) The one who died of a tragic love story, incidentally. They're trying, but with mixed results. In fairness, she was also the weaponsmith of the 13.
(4) I love Optimus, but he is so a dude.
(5) Full disclosure, I am still committed to British, but I'm trying to escape that.
(6) Which incidentally means that the only major character whose assigned biological sex is known is Breq's defrosting ice queen sidekick; who is male.
(7) I'll be the first(8) to admit that Roddenberry was often hamfisted and misguided in his attempts to depict his post-scarcity, post-prejudice utopia, but he certain wasn't deliberately creating white man adventures in space. It just... came out that way sometimes.
(8) Okay, I won't, because this subject is waay old and loads of people have already done it.
(9) When Colin Baker took over from Jon Pertwee in The Ultimate Adventure, they basically changed one 'polarity of the neutron flow' and made a fight scene less aikido-y.
(9) Although, fair play, I've played LEGO Dimensions and I've stacked the TARDIS into just about anything and everything in the world.

(10) YMMV.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Game of Thrones - 'Dragonstone'

Buckle up, it's going to be a bumpy season.

Spoilers ahoy

We're going back to Westeros, and winter is here as we begin the first episode of seven in Season 7 of Game of Thrones with what I think is only the second cold open in the show's history. The last revealed that the Hound was still alive; this one that Walder Frey is surprisingly vertical and upbeat, gathering his leather-capped kinfolk for a feast to thank them for the murder of the Starks at the Red Wedding with a rousing toast and a generous cup of hemlock before ripping off his face a la the late Martin Landau to reveal the cherubic features and sinister smile of my daughter's namesake: Arya Stark. Leaving a message with a Frey woman (daughter, wife; it's hard to tell with Walder's household) that 'the North remembers,' she then heads south, where she runs into singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran.

Now, this cameo has aroused considerable ire, presumably from people who dislike Sheeran on principle, because while nothing especially noteworthy, it isn't inherently offensive to my eyes, as someone whose life has yet to be impacted by the artiste's music. He's an okay actor, and mostly is required to sing(1) a song about ladies and hands of gold in a scene which seems intended to open Arya's eyes to the possibility that the Lannister troops may not be her enemies, even if Cersei is. She tells them she's going to King's Landing – which they describe basically as 'worse than Detroit' – to kill the Queen. They all have a good laugh, none of them try to rape her and no-one gets murdered. It's all rather sweet and it's perhaps disturbing that we've reached the point that I'm kind of moved that no-one commits a major felony over dinner.

In King's Landing, Cersei is redecorating, but her floor map mostly proves that she's short on actual kingdoms under her rule. Surrounded by foes, she nevertheless intends to overcome through sheer spite, and dismisses Tommen's suicide as a betrayal. Even Jaime seems to be working out that she is batshit insane at this point. Nonetheless, she is able to hold her own in negotiations with Euron Greyjoy, who offers her his part of the Iron Fleet in exchange for marriage. When she refuses, on the grounds that he's a dodgy bastard, he offers to return with a great gift, and I'm thinking he's planning to kidnap Tyrion.

In the North, the Brotherhood – still accompanied by the Hound – stop at an abandoned farmhouse, where the owner and his daughter have died. Of course, this is the family that Sandor Clegane robbed while travelling with Arya, but now his pragmatic douchebaggery seems to be crumbling under the weight of guilt and fire-born revelations of the approaching Army of the Dead, and Thoros finds him digging a grave for the family in the bitter cold of the night.

Jon decides that women are going to train to fight the White Walkers – with a storming endorsement from Lady Lyanna 'Don't Fuck with Me' Mormont – and then once more defies Sansa's advice and restores the Umbers and the Karstarks to their castles under the command of their spotty, teenaged lords. Sansa is livid that he doesn't use those lands to pay off loyal northerners, and I think that Jon missed a trick in not pointing out to her that, in addition to not winding up the houses with more executions – which is what got Robb betrayed – he's placing them back in control of, as they have just discussed, ground zero of an impending White Walker invasion. He receives a raven from Cersei telling him to come to King's Landing and bend the knee or face destruction, but his eyes are on the north. Sansa is watching his back so far, and giving Littlefinger the coldest shoulder she feels she can get away with, delivering a sick burn that you couldn't have imagined from the Sansa of even a couple of seasons ago when she tells him not to bother trying to get the last word. "I'll just assume it was something clever."

Up at the Wall, Meera Reed brings Bran to the gates, where they are admitted after Bran is all uncanny at Jon's buddies. Further north still, the army of the dead – now including giant wights, because that was necessary – advances.

In Oldtown, Sam is doing drudgework, mostly involving shit, and damn little Sam is growing fast. Sam asks his Archmaester – Jim Broadbent getting his Dumbledore on – for access to the Library's restricted section. The Archmaester believes that he has seen the Army of the Dead, and explains that the Maesters of the Citadel are the memory of the Seven Kingdoms; the wisdom and the foresight that keeps men from acting like animals. He assures Sam that the Wall will always stand, but maybe it's just me, but I'm sure that talk about foresight was a kind of nod for Sam to do what he does, which is to break into the restricted section and make a few withdrawals. Back at his lodgings, Gilly finds reference to the mountain of dragon glass on Dragonstone which Stannis mentioned, and he sends word to Jon. Then he is accosted by Jorah Mormont, currently resident in a leper cell in the Citadel, who asks if the Queen has come yet.

In Westeros, black - or at least dark - is the new black.
Down at Dragonstone, the Queen indeed arrives, sweeping into the abandoned fortress of Stannis Baratheon to reclaim her birthplace and ask her advisers rhetorically: "Shall we begin?"

Yes. Let us begin, if not the beginning, then the beginning of the end. It feels as if the dummies are played out now, and the real players all revealed. Cersei, Jon and Danaerys; Sansa, Littlefinger and Tyrion; Euron and Yara; the Mountain and the Hound. Events are moving towards a conclusion, even if not a definite one, although I am trying to brace myself for some devastating reversal in episode 7.7 where everyone dies but a few babies and Season 8 is Little Sam and Lady Mormont in Game of Thrones: The Next Generation.

Next week(2): plans, plots, girl-on-girl action and the return of the direwolf in 'Stormborn'.

(1) Perhaps in a slightly modern style.
(2) By the short preview.

Killjoys - 'A Skinner, Darkly'

Dutch wants a war, so it's time to get an army.

I say army; it's more of a logistical support corps.
With Johnny still on the lam and a data retrieval mission going bad due to lack of technical savvy, Turin decrees it is time to get a new brain. Thus he digs up three of the RAC's finest lab rats and sends them on a mission with Team Dutch to determine if they've got the stuff. The mission in question takes them into a facility where a contagion is on the loose. With all five infected and terminal sterilisation protocols in effects, the nerd squad will have to come good to get them out alive.

Meanwhile, Johnny gets Olli checked out – after asking the barkeep those pointed questions - and finds that her 'kill switch' was triggered. Learning that the false-faced assassin had received treatment from a rejuvenation clinic, our intrepid pair infiltrate and learn that the clinic is killing and skinning hackmod owners, in order to allow mods to wear their skins. The skins are preserved with plasma, which is of course of great interest to Johnny. Clara's friend Yuki, who works at the plant, warns them off, revealing that Olli is Clara, with her memory blocked and her face changed due to scheduling conflicts. They meet with Yuki later, but one of her mods emits a pulse that disables all of the hackmods in the bar, leaving Johnny to be captured so that Niko can infiltrate the RAC by giving someone his face.

Dutch's mission goes further south when bio-nerd Zeph sacrifices herself to complete the mission objective. The whole thing is revealed to be a simulation, and Zeph alone fails Turin's test by not getting out alive. She insists that she knew it was a simulation, but Turin is not interested, dismissing her and recruiting the two tech nerds to the fight. Dutch, however, finds Zeph at the Royale and tells her that she needs biologists to fight the Hullen.

"Let me tell you about my mother..."
Niko reveals to Johnny that she plans to destroy the hackmod owners and their factory using her skin-grafted infiltrators and the properties she is discovering in the plasma. Olli busts into the clinic and fights Niko. It's a close fight, but Johnny escpaes the surgical chair using his laser finger and calls in the other hackmods to shut Niko down. Johnny retrieves Niko's list of plasma sources and heads back to the Quad, leaving Clara/Olli to continue the fight for a hackmod homeland at the far end of the Jay.

As Dutch welcomes Johnny home, Delle Seyah revives in a ship, where she is taken to meet Aneela.

I have to say, I'm not loving that Karma Houdini at the end, although from her attitude Delle Sayah knows that she's not come up smelling of roses. Normally in control of every situation, faced with Aneela she's basically bricking it, and that's something. Olli/Clara is a pretty fair replacement for Stephanie Leonidas, and Niko subverts the classic femme fatale tropes of her look by being her own brains and muscle. Zeph looks like being a good addition to the team, although her male competitors are pretty forgettable. Also, she might be a mole; always so hard to say.

All of which pales beside the heartfelt reunion of Johnny and the team (I would say Johnny and Dutch, as the Brothers Jaqobis are sort of 'sup', but there's also Lucy to consider, who informs Jonny that if she could cry, she would be rusting.) Yay!

Monday, 17 July 2017

Doctor Who - Jodie Whittaker, the 13th Doctor

I'm actually a little sad this is just a placeholder outfit. It's got a lot going for
"You know the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. They don't alter their views to fit the facts. They alter the facts to fit the views. Which can be uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that needs altering."
- The Fourth Doctor predicts the internet

So, there's a new Doctor in the TARDIS, and it's a woman. Naturally enough, the internet has exploded with comments ranging from 'the Doctor has always been male' to 'BBC PC liberal agenda' to 'I look forward to seeing this fail the way Ghostbusters 2016 failed'. Particularly popular, with each commenter presumably imagining themselves to be original, are: 'What next, James Bond as a woman(1)', and 'I'm not sexist, but...'

Special mention to the individual who expressed the hope that now that the lead in this family show was a woman, the Doctor would be flashing her bits in the TARDIS. Keeping it classy, internet.

So anyway, as an outspoken would-be superfan, here's my take on the casting decision that has propelled Whittaker past Foster as 'most frequently searched Jodie on Google.'

A female actor paying the Doctor(3), and why not? Seriously, the only even slightly convincing argument I've seen is that the Doctor was one of a small number of positive, non-violent role models for boys on television, although anyone who's been paying attention lately would have a hard time mistaking the Doctor for a role model as Steven Moffatt set out to remodel him as a dangerous, amoral, petty lunatic. Besides, if we don't have the Doctor, there's always the companions, as I'm sure women who have complained about the lack of a female Doctor have been told for decades.

I have no problem in-universe either. Based on regenerations that we have seen, it's apparent that Time Lords tend towards a given gender, but can fluctuate (the Master always went male except Missy, the Doctor always male until now, whereas the General in 'Hell Bent' is clearly relieved to be back to her more accustomed female form. I get the feeling that the Corsair was more fluid than most, but we really have no evidence. No, there is no in-universe issue with the Doctor being a woman.

"Everyone hates her. Not because she's a woman, but because she sucks."
The main worry I have now is the same one I had about Wonder Woman. Jodie Whittaker is now the test case for a female Doctor, and by extension for anything outside the white male mould. After several seasons of hit and miss stories and twelve years of the still problematic 45-minute single-episode story model you didn't see anyone protesting the casting of Peter Capaldi on the grounds that 'no white man could ever be the Doctor', but if they fuck up Whittaker's freshman year that's the takeaway re casting anyone else. This coming season needs to be gold, and that's a tough demand when you consider that this must surely be the aim every year. On the upside, we have a new incoming showrunner, and traditionally the first year of a nuWho showrunner's residency has been a humdinger. RTD gave us the Ninth Doctor, and Moffatt the excellent freshman of Eleven. It wasn't until later in their runs that the good began to be overtaken by the self-indulgent claptrap(4), messianic bullshit or incomprehensible deconstructive assassination of the main character. If Chibnall can come in with an equally strong opening, with good writing by good writers, then we could be looking at something to convince all but the most diehard naysayers(5).

And what about the Doctor herself? Well, that's going to be fiddly. The fact that the 13th Doctor is a woman can neither be the be all and end all of her characterisation, nor a purely cosmetic thing, although for my money it should tend towards the latter. At all costs, they should avoid the route taken by Exile of making the female Doctor a joke(6). She needs to tap into a previously underexplored node of the Doctor's core personality, but whatever her script is, it should on some level work for almost any Doctor, give or take a few mannerisms and catchphrases. She needs, above all, to be the Doctor, as difficult a thing as that is to get hold of in these days of Time Lords Triumphant and self-loathing hissy-fits. They should probably steer clear of making her the empathic Doctor or the nurturing Doctor, and conversely avoid anything too cold and prim.

"It's someone else's gun. Loophole!"
If I were going to write this(7), I would go for something in a compassionately pragmatic Doctor, willing to go the extra mile for a stranger, but able to make a hard choice when needed(8). I'm inclined towards the Bakers for a characterisation guide, big and bold, yet capable of quiet intensity and introspection, but that might just be the coat in the trailer. Oh, but definitely not RP. It's well established that lots of planets have a north, so let's stick with that. She should be physically able, but non-violent. There's precedent for a violent Doctor from Pertwee and both Bakers, and even Davidson a little, but nuWho has – I think wisely – steered towards a characterisation that avoids physical conflict most of the time. The 13th Doctor should stick to that. I'd like to see problem solving and improvisation; quick wits and incisive intelligence, and the kind of understanding of people that you should have after millennia moving among them and involving yourself in their lives. And less sonic, but definitely still a screwdriver(9).

And most of all, I want them not to fuck it up. I want for this incarnation of the Doctor to be as beloved as any other; more so than some, I dare say.

(1) Or as we like to call it, Atomic Blonde. Now, I have an idea: James Bond as a decent excuse for a human being(2). Now there's radical.
(2) Male or female; there are women called James.
(3) I prefer this to 'a female Doctor', as the latter suggests a gimmick.
(4) There is a definite case to be made in probably all art for not allowing the creative mind to get comfortable. I'm sure I'd write more if I didn't have the day job. On the other hand, I have a daughter to support, so the day job isn't going anywhere.
(5) And let's be honest, you're never going to convince someone whose stated position is 'I have never watched Doctor Who, but this is a betrayal of all the series means and another sign of the liberal PC rot in British society.'
Now there's an idea for the next round of Start to Finish...
(6) Exile was the sixth Doctor Who Unbound audio play, and saw the Doctor switch gender after committing suicide to force a regeneration and avoid the Time Lords at the end of 'The War Games'. As a woman, the Doctor hid out on Earth, numbing her mind with alcohol and working at a Tesco. That she was a woman wasn't the core of the joke, but we still ended up with a female Doctor who was a joke. She finally got to become the Doctor she should have been all along at the end of the play, moments before it was heavily implied she was tricked by the Time Lords into triggering her own destruction by seeking to evade imprisonment within her own TARDIS, which was one hell of a tonal whiplash.
(7) Chris? Chibbers? Email, yeah?
(8) And, vitally, to make a hard call even when it impacts on her companions. Being able to sacrifice strangers is callous; being able to sacrifice yourself is noble; being able to sacrifice a friend to save strangers, and to live with it, is heroic. Not that I'm saying they ought to throw a companion under the bus, but to show the Doctor willing would not only emphasise a different aspect of the character than nuWho's more typical irrational, overriding love of the companion, it would also create an interesting new Doctor-companion dynamic if they knew what had almost happened.
(9) Okay, I could live with a variation on the 11th Doctor's used-once sonic cane made from the handle of Missy's umbrella, but if they switch the sonic to a 'girly' accessory then I'll rage quit. Sarah Jane's sonic lippy was her thing, and was something that no-one would think to confiscate because she was a sneaky, undercover journalist. The sonic screwdriver is a tool, not a spy gadget.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Castlevania – Season 1

"I don't care."
A young woman begs Dracula to teach her medicine, and to come out of the shadows to teach humanity to be better; to escape the bonds of superstition and ignorance. Some years later, she is burned as a witch by a tyrannical priest, unleashing Dracula's fury upon all of Wallachia.

After giving a year's grace to clear out, in order to properly raise an army from hell, Dracula sets about his dread work, unleashing nocturnal beasts upon the towns and cities of Wallachia. In the city of Gresit, itinerant former vampire hunter Trevor(1) Belmont falls in with a group of Speakers – nomadic oral historians and occasional magicians – who have been accused by the Bishop – the same who burned Lisa Tepes(2) – of bringing down the demonic infestation by being insufficiently god-fearing. Trevor protects the Speakers and fights the Bishop's clerical leg-breakers. Then he and Magician-Speaker Sypha Belnades lead the townsfolk against the attacking demons, before falling into the catacombs of the wandering Castle Dracula and waking Dracula's son Adrian(3) from his slumber to aid them in the destruction of his father.

And that's it. Just four episodes in this opening season of Netflix new animation. Atmospheric, dark, and packed with as many f-bombs and sassy comebacks as they could get Richard 'Thorin' Armitage to set to audio, it's pretty damn good. The cast is excellent, although Armitage is the clear standout just because he has the best writing. Everyone else is pretty sobre and serious, but Belmont gets to snark like a boss. Armitage is a really good straight actor, but for full value you really need to let him sass a bit, and this show lets him roll. The line 'Ask your floating vampire Jesus' is one for the ages.
"Fine. We'll do the badass walk, but I still don't care."
While overtly anti-clerical, deep down the series reserves its scorn for false shepherds. The Bishop is dedicated not to God's work, but to his own glory, and reminiscent of Pratchett's Deacon Vorbis. His acolytes are bruisers and assassins in clerical garb, and the one 'proper' priest is genuinely able to bless water so that it burns demons. This is much more interesting than just dismissing religion altogether.

Anyway, that was all there was so far. A longer Season 2 is expected next year. I just hope they keep the cast intact.

(1) A good, solid Wallachian name.
(2) Yes, as a married woman she went by 'Mrs the Impaler'.

(3) Another fine Wallachian name, although he also goes by Dracula's favourite impenetrable alias, Alucard.