Monday, 2 March 2015

Review: A Doctor Who Fan on Star Trek (2009)

To boldly go where no Whovian (well, this Whovian) has gone before...


Recently, hundreds of people across the world fell into mourning over the sad death of Leonard Nimoy, the perhaps most beloved actor from the long-lasting Star Trek. Myself, I felt the loss of such a bastion figure of popular culture and thought, in his honour, this would be a good time to rectify something: I'd never really seen any Star Trek.

Well, not properly. I'd vaguely watched Star Trek Into Darkness for Benedict Cumberbatch but most of it flew above my head so I don't think I can really count it. Initially, it might seem odd that I had never given that other great sci-fi show a go but Trek's sterile-looking, emphasis-on-big-ideas take was so far from the (generally) cheerful, ramshackle feel of Doctor Who that they might as well have been different genres. I didn't dislike the idea of Star Trek I just hadn't given it a go. Having committed to it now, though, I decided a good starting point was the film I probably should have watched first: the 2009 reboot.

Firstly, I certainly enjoyed it more than Into Darkness. That film (apart from being, I gather, a strange semi-remake of 'the' classic Trek film) left me feeling like I should be caring for the characters but I didn't know them well enough to. Here, however, I did and the film does a really good job of introducing the characters to fresh eyes, particularly Kirk and Spock. Chris Pine strikes me as something of a generic Hollywood leading man but he does fine as a young hot-headed Kirk while Zachary Quinto impresses as the apparently emotionless Spock. Much like Bond in Casino Royale, it doesn't feel like a cheap prequel but an interesting exploration of how these characters developed into their more familiar selves.  

While watching the film I wondered what the Who equivalent would be. While Doctor Who has had film versions separate from the series (two movies were produced in the 60s starring Peter Cushing as 'Doctor Who'), in terms of awe factor it's more similar to 'The Day of the Doctor.' They both use time travel to give the franchise a new lease of life (rebooting the universe/saving the Time Lords), different incarnations of characters (Three Doctors/two Spocks) and lots of kisses to the past (even I got references like 'I have been, and always shall be, your friend'). Much like I imagine a new Who viewer watching 'Day', I felt like I was missing out on something - being new to the party - but was still sufficiently swept along.

Overall, I'm impressed that the film manages to both keep the original in tact while rebooting it (I've always found straight reboots to be a boring way of ditching continuity - Who and James Bond know that all you have to do is ignore all the stuff you don't want and let the fans work it out) although the plot was a little convoluted. That said, I enjoyed it enough to be willing to watch more Trek in the future. So thank you, Mr Nimoy, for your integral role in Doctor Who's rival from across the pond. This Whovian (Vulcan) salutes you.

'Pleasure to meet you, Mr Spock' - Perhaps the two aren't quite so different, after all...

Friday, 27 February 2015

Scribble Creatures Spotlight: Lucifer Box

Kicking off last month with Return to Oz, a new regular feature on this blog will look at personal favourites - books, fictional characters, films ETC - which I think go unfortunately under-appreciated in the big wide world. This month, we turn to the exploits of a rather fiendish fellow...


Secret agents are going through something of a renaissance at the moment. On TV, there are shows like Marvel's Agent Carter and Toby Whithouse's The Game and the cinema is chock-a-block with retro, cool spies, such as those in Kingsman and The Man from UNCLE. Something tells me, however, that one retro secret agent you won't be seeing on screen any time soon is Mark Gatiss' debonair, if decadent, Lucifer Box.

Appearing in three novels by the Doctor Who and Sherlock writer, Lucifer Box is apparently a dandified artist - an early 20th century playboy who resides in No 9 Downing Street ('someone's got to live there'). In fact, Lucifer is the top agent of the Royal Academy, the front for Britain's Secret Service.
On the face of it, what with Gatiss being a big name on telly, Lucifer Box's stories seem perfect for an adaptation for a mainstream audience. However, his adventures are far wackier and more eccentric than the average spy thriller. And, even in 2015, possibly too risqué. Lucifer himself, as he carefully puts it, 'travels' on both 'the number 38 bus and the 19.' If you can imagine Captain Jack Harkness crossed with Oscar Wilde you have Lucifer in a nutshell.

Filled to the brim with wit and Gatiss' rich, descriptive writing style, the Box books are, as you would expect, something of a Bond pastiche but only to a certain degree. Unlike many perennial heroes, Lucifer Box ages, with each instalment moving the story forward several decades. The first sees a young Box in Edwardian times, the second a middle-aged Box in the 20s and the finale of the trilogy has Box, now an elder statesman, investigating one final case in the 50s. As such, Gatiss is allowed to unleash a tirade of pastiches, going from Edwardian garden party stories to the pulpy horrors of the 20s and 30s to the spy novels of John Le Carre and Ian Fleming. The books may be, as Gatiss puts it, 'bits of fluff' but that doesn't stop them from being an incredibly quotable, memorable and just genuinely enjoyable novel series.

So while Lucifer Box may deserve to rub shoulders (and probably more knowing him) with the likes of James Bond and Sherlock Holmes in the Hall of Famous Heroes, I can't see it happening. Still, with a fine trilogy of novels out there as it is, perhaps it is better that way. After all, some Boxes are best left unopened.

The Books


The Vesuvius Club

Lucifer is sent to investigate the disappearance of a number of eminent scientists in Naples - just when he has started courting the lovely Bella Pok. However, aided by his new valet Charlie Jackpot, Lucifer realises he has bigger problems on his finely-manicured hands when he uncovers the sinister machinations of the Vesuvius Club. Can Lucifer use his artistic license to kill to save the planet form a calamity of volcanic proportions?


The Devil in Amber

Lucifer, now feeling his age, is sent to New York to observe the suspicious activities of fascist leader Olympus Mons - but is framed for murder in the process. As resilient as ever, Lucifer escapes to Norfolk where he uncovers a plot to rule the world more diabolical than any he has faced. Is it possible for Lucifer, saviour of the world, to beat Lucifer, prince of darkness?
 Black Butterfly

An elderly Lucifer finds himself on his final case when pillars of the establishment keep dying bizarre deaths. The mystery takes him from Soho to Istanbul to Jamaica and back into battle with an old enemy - and into the path of the deadly assassin, Kingdom Kum. Will Lucifer, now well past his prime, survive an embrace by the lethal wings of the Black Butterfly?

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Missy Will Return in Series Nine

Get ready to say something nice, everyone - the Queen of Evil is returning to plague the Doctor and Clara's lives sooner than we thought...



Today it was revealed that Series Eight's big bad, Missy - the Master in female form, in case you didn't know - is coming straight back into the show in Series Nine's opening episode, 'The Magician's Apprentice.'

I, for one, am terribly excited for Missy's return, with Michelle Gomez's scenery-crunching performance being one of the highlights of last year. We had been starved of the Master for years before Missy so who can complain if we get more of her so soon?

As cryptic as ever, Steven Moffat has said that what brings Missy back into the Doctor and Clara's lives 'is the last thing they'd expect.'

Other details about the series opener have also been revealed, including the announcement that Jemma Redgrave will be returning as UNIT head, Kate Stewart. What with her also appearing in the Series Eight finale just as Missy did, it looks like this will be something of a sequel to the 'Dark Water/Death in Heaven' story. Also announced to be in the episode is Claire Higgins, the actress who previously played Ohila in 'The Night of the Doctor.' Could the Sisterhood of Karn be returning too? They were always linked to the Time Lords so will we finally learn more about what really happened to Gallifrey?

Also now known is that the opener will be a two-parter - the second episode being called 'The Witch's Familiar.' Firstly, has there ever been a two-parter with such well-matching episode titles as these? The eponymous Magician and Witch surely refer to the Doctor and Missy - but who is their Apprentice/Familiar? Clara is certainly the Doctor's apprentice and could be said to be Missy's familiar (the term for a Witch's pet, such as their black cat), as Missy was revealed to be behind Clara meeting the Doctor in the first place.

In the wider context of Series Nine, it seems like this year will see a return to the multi two-parter series of yesteryear as Toby Whithouse (writer of several previous Whos and creator of Being Human) is said to be writing a 'spooky' two-parter while Moffat has previously spoken about the 'fantastic' cliffhanger he's written to lead into this year's finale, suggesting that will be a two-parter as well.

...

Is it August yet?



Saturday, 7 February 2015

Doctor Who: Step Back in Time - Spare Parts

Now and then on this blog, I get a little nostalgic and like to turn my thoughts back to the past and revisit some olden-times Doctor Who (olden times here meaning anything from 1963-2013). In this post, I take a look at one of the most significant of all Doctor Who stories - and it was never even on the telly...


I have a confession to make that may seriously damage my credentials as a Doctor Who fan - I don't often listen to the Big Finish audios. Don't get me wrong, I love hearing the Doctors and companions returning to their roles as much as the next person (or more, actually, as this metaphorical 'next person' is statistically unlikely to be a Who fan) but I don't purchase them regularly so I've missed out on some great adventures. Recently, I set out to rectify this by catching up with this story from 2002 which later influenced the revived series by filling in a previously-unseen part of the Whoniverse. The Genesis of the Cybermen.

Much like 'The Fires of Pompeii' and 'The Waters of Mars', the (Fifth) Doctor arrives in a place he never wanted to visit - Mondas, Earth's twin planet that he knows will become the homeworld of the Cybermen. He can't interfere this time, lest mess with established history, yet like always he really rather does.
Mondas is a planet on the edge of destruction. What's left of the populace is fooled with propaganda into offering themselves to the workforce - the heroes of Mondas who brave the planet's frozen surface. Really, the unfortunate souls are converted into... Cybermen.

Before we get to those silver giants, it needs to be said that the story makes great use of its TARDIS team. The Doctor and Nyssa as a pair works much better than the TARDIS-cramming gang that accompanied the Fifth Doctor on television. Their dynamic is somewhat reminiscent of the Fourth Doctor and Romana as it's a relationship of equals more than hero-sidekick like most Doctor and companions. And, unlike the TV stories, the heartache Nyssa has been through since meeting the Doctor - the death of her father and Adric, not to mention the destruction of her homeworld - are addressed here, helping to make Nyssa feel like a real person.

All right, let's talk about 'em. First and foremost, Spare Parts reminds you of how good the Cybermen can be when used correctly. In the modern series, the Cybermen's primary goal has been to upgrade and convert humanity. When they were first introduced, however, their aim was the survival of their species - converting others into Cybermen was just a by-product. Spare Parts rectifies this change and spins a scarily believable tale about the Cybermen being born from a species on the brink of extinction, desperate to survive - at whatever the cost.

This is the thinking of the scientist behind the Cybermen. Though this story goes against the expected idea of creating a Cyber-Davros - just as the TV series did in 'Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel' in John Lumic - it retains their creator as an important character, as well as giving the Cybermen a greater autonomy. She's certainly a more layered individual than Lumic's selfish Bond villain and suits the more tragic backstory of the Cybermen. These are not genetically-engineered monsters like the Daleks. The Cybermen are us.

For all its plusses, though, the audio has its flaws. While the world-building is well done, the smaller character moments which are meant to really ram home the horror of the Cybermen are not handled with as much emotion as they were in, say, The Age of Steel. That said, Spare Parts gets the most important thing right - the Cybermen. Returning to those strange squawking voices from 'The Tenth Planet', they are an impressive piece of characterisation through sound. For any Doctor Who fan wanting to upgrade to Big Finish, this is the story that will convert you.  

Fun fact: the Cybermen's ear handles conceal headphones which constantly play Big Finish audios to keep them motivated. 

Friday, 23 January 2015

Scribble Creatures Spotlight: Return to Oz

It's the new year (well, it's January anyway) so there's no better time to start a new regular feature for this blog! From now on, once a month I will put a spotlight on something - be it book, film, television series, fictional character or otherwise - that goes under-appreciated in the big wide world but I think deserves your attention. This month, we kick off this new feature with a trip to a magical world. And you and you and you'll be there...


I've always been fond of the Oz books. If memory serves, I believe they were the first of the classic children's fairy tale fantasies - the Chronicles of Narnia, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan - that I read. Equally, everyone's favourite 1939's The Wizard of Oz was watched over and over again. But my favourite story set in the marvellous land of Oz was definitely Wizard's often misunderstood younger sibling, Return to Oz. While its predecessor is forever lauded, Return is often consigned to 'Weirdest Movie Sequel' Lists. Weird it may be but, rather than being a failing, that is really one of its charms.

Six months after her first journey to Oz (but actually made 46 years after Wizard), Dorothy has been having trouble sleeping so she is taken to Dr Worley's asylum to be cured by electrotherapy. But a storm one night saves her from the horrible place and puts her back in Oz which once again desperately needs Dorothy's help...

For starters, Return makes a cleverer move than most film sequels by actively aiming for something new. Unlike the passable Oz: The Great and Powerful, Return to Oz does not just leech off the original, instead translating elements of the classic film to suit its own purpose. One of the most striking ways in which it does this - at least for a child - is by literally bulldozing through the unhampered gaiety and joy of Wizard's Oz. The shining Emerald City is reduced to ruins and all your favourite characters - the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion - have been petrified into stone. From the off, the film makes sure we know we are in a different kind of Oz.

Possibly the film's most famous attribute is its scares, with many claiming it to be too scary for children. Personally, I wouldn't agree with that as I think its scares are one of the great delights of watching this as a child as well as underlying an important message. There is something sinister at every turn in this film - Nurse Wilson and the screams in the asylum, Princess Mombi's severed heads and, of course, the cackling, creaking Wheelers - yet like all the best fairy tales, this is offset by the knowledge that it will get better. Through the course of the story, Dorothy bands together with some new allies (who could be boring analogues of her more famous friends - Tik Tok = Tin Man, Pumpkinhead = Scarecrow - but they have enough of their own personality to set them apart) and is sure that she will be able to restore everything to the way it should be.

The reason Return to Oz is, I think, unfairly compared to Wizard is because people expect it to be full of songs and cheer. Instead it is a completely different beast, an alternate take on the same ideas. A wonderful, dreamlike film, it emphasises the questionable nature of Oz as a real place or a hallucination by the use of its surrealistic, offbeat stylings. The Wizard of Oz may be a delightful daydream but this is the scary yet meaningful nightmare that never leaves you.


More Like This: 

Tin Man

Return to Oz is by far from the only subversion of the popular Oz image. A few years ago there was this SyFy mini-series remixing of the Wizard of Oz story which employed more overtly fantasy genre elements. Starring Zooey Deschanel, it saw Kansas girl DG sent by a storm to the other world of The Outer Zone to stop the evil witch-queen Askedelia. It's a strange idea, to take one of the very first fantasy novels and redo it with modern fantasy clichés but if you can accept the premise it is a likeable runaround with comic relief coming from Alan Cumming's Glitch, a man missing part of his brain (you don't have to go see the Wizard to have the brains to guess who he's based off).

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

It would be easy to assume that Return to Oz was inspired by Tim Burton's own gothic fairy tale films, if it wasn't for the fact it came out before he was around. While many of his works have a similar tone to Return, the closest film to it in his oeuvre would be Alice, another creepier retelling-cum-sequel to a classic children's fantasy story. It is certainly inferior to Return but it is far from as bad as the critics say, featuring a likeably spirited Alice in Mia Wasikowska and, as ever from Burton, an eye-catching visual style.

Coraline

It really wouldn't surprise me if Neil Gaiman was a fan of Return to Oz, as his work and the film share a similar 'scairy tale' tone. The crossover between the two is no more evident than in Gaiman's Coraline. Both feature capable young girls thrust into a nightmarish other land containing twisted versions of people they know in the real world. The finale of Coraline always reminds me of the climax of Return in that they both feature the villain letting the girl play a game to find an object which will save her loved ones.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Monthly Mini-Reviews: December - Christmas Special

Well, it's that time again. Christmas has come and gone and it's literally only just turned New Year...
Oh, I can't lie. I'm afraid there's been a technical mishap here at Scribble Creatures HQ. This post, my Monthly Mini-Reviews Christmas Special, should have gone out in the first days of January but that doesn't seem to have occurred. I do apologise - I've no idea how that happened. It seems there is a Ghost of Christmas Past in the machine...
And speaking of ghosts in machines:

Black Mirror: White Christmas

It was only natural that Charlie Brooker's techno-paranoia anthology series would get a Christmas special. After all, what says Christmas more than a reminder that the future is just around the corner? Acting as the series' usual trilogy of stories all in one, this feature-length episode serves us three interconnected tales from a chilling near-future (all based around Jon Hamm and Rafe Spall who both give terrific performances). First and foremost, Brooker's writing is once again on top form - the bleakness and the strangeness are cleverly ofset by the razor-sharp wit and satire that runs throughout. The second segment is the weakest and I have to say I saw some of the twists coming but that does not take away from the... enjoyment seems like the wrong word to attach to something so grim. So was it a white Christmas, after all? No, No, it was black. So very black.

Good Omens (radio series)

Following on from the terrific radio series of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere it was a no-brainer to adapt Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman's comedy about the end of the world as a festive treat.
The story  - a distinctly British way of approaching the apocalypse - transitions well to the medium, ably helped by the drama's amazing cast. Comedians Peter Serafinowicz and Mark Heap are great choices for the roles of angel/demon partnership Aziraphale and Crowley (though I imagine many are still holding out for Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston if the story ever makes it to film) and are well supported by Merlin's Colin Morgan, Paterson Joseph and Louise Brealey amongst others. Overall, I may have preferred Neverwhere but this was still a wonderful slice of alternative Christmas entertainment. Well, you can't get more 'alternative Christmas' than the Antichrist.

The Golden Compass

I've been avoiding The Golden Compass for years now due to its lacklustre reputation for being a poor adaptation of Phillip Pullman's popular His Dark Materials books. This Christmas, however, I gave in and gave it a go. Sadly the general consensus is right. Clearly made in an attempt to create another Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter franchise, the film has neither the flair nor confidence of those films and on top of that struggles to adapt Pullman's plot to the screen. That said, there are some pluses- if the script and direction are a bit lacking the visuals are terrific as Lyra's alternate world is brought to life with a vivid psuedo-Steampunk feel. Likewise, Nicole Kidman exudes icy evil as Miss Coulter and Dakota Blue Richards makes for quite a good Lyra. Despite these successes, though, The Golden Compass is not quite pointing in the right direction.

The Sleeper and the Spindle

Leaving behind the Christmas viewing, we turn to something I was lucky enough to get for Christmas - Neil Gaiman's latest book! In it, Gaiman weaves together two traditional tales to form an original feminist fairy tale. As the book's blurb says 'no one is waiting for a prince to appear on his trusty steed here' - it is a queen who risks life and limb to save the sleeping beauty in this story. Gaiman's prose is as crisp and as evocative as ever but in truth the book belongs to both author and illustrator as Chris Riddell's illustrations, beautifully rendered in monochrome and gold, are as equally impressive as the writing. I have been a fan of Riddell since reading The Edge Chronicles when I was younger so am over the moon he is now Neil Gaiman's resident illustrator. A true piece of art, The Sleeper and the Spindle is a proper old-fashioned storybook that takes us back to once upon a time...

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Doctor Who - Review of the Year: 2014

Happy New Year, everyone! Now that 2014 has been engulfed in volcanic flames only to be reborn as the completely different 2015 (this is a ham-fisted Doctor Who reference, by the way) it's time to take a look back at the year just past. But this isn't a review of trivial things like world events, this will be a review of what's most important: the year in Who.


Starring: Peter Capaldi (the Doctor), Jenna Coleman (Clara), Samuel Anderson (Danny), Ellis George (Courtney) and Michelle Gomez (Missy) with Nick Frost (Santa Claus)
Written by: Steven Moffat, Phil Ford, Mark Gatiss, Stephen Thompson, Gareth Roberts, Peter Harness and Jamie Mathieson
Directed by: Ben Wheatley, Paul Murphy, Douglas Mackinnon, Paul Wilmshurst, Sheeree Folkson and Rachel Talalay

Best Episodes

Robot of Sherwood
While it won't be one of the most remembered episodes of Series 8, I have a great deal of affection for Robot, particularly the way that it completely ignores the new moodier tone of Series 8 and delivers a hilarious swashbuckling adventure that could have come from any year of 21st century Who.

Flatline
Both of newcomer Jamie Mathieson's stories this year were belters but this one just pips Mummy on the Orient Express to the post. It's a creepy, clever story with a terrific monster in the Boneless and applause must be given for the amount of comedy mileage that is made from the Doctor being stuck in the tiny TARDIS.

Death in Heaven
'Dark Water' was really just a 45 minute long teaser trailer but this second part of 2014's series finale certainly packed a punch. With emotional moments abound, it gave us two well-executed monsters in the Master and her Cybermen as well as the amount of action and surprises as is customary for these occasions. The best finale since Series 5.

To read my reviews of all of Series 8, click here.

TARDIS Team

Firstly, surely the biggest change to the Doctor's character since the show's revival was made in 2014 as Mr Capaldi took over the role. A lot has been said about him returning to the style of classic Doctors but really the Twelfth Doctor is in a league of his own. He may have the dress sense of Pertwee and the crotchetiness of Hartnell but the hatred of soldiers, forgetfulness and gloomier outlook on the universe is new. That said, he may have already developed some of his own quirks but I don't think the Twelfth Doctor is one who has arrived fully formed. Whereas Ten and Eleven began their lives like baby kangaroos and gradually got weighed down by responsibilities and losses, I imagine we will see Twelve go in the opposite direction and have his lack of faith in himself and the universe overturned.
Perhaps for the first time in the show's history, both Doctor and companion underwent a regeneration this year - in a manner of speaking. The Clara of Series 7 was a bubbly young woman still raw from her mother's death when she was younger: she was the Doctor's 'impossible girl' who was absolutely devoted to him. In Series 8, Clara was a much more mature woman, with a life away from the Doctor in her job at Coal Hill School and in her doomed relationship with Danny Pink. Importantly, cracks also began to show in her relationship with the Doctor. The change wasn't a gradual one but rather - in classic Doctor Who style - an instant reboot, done to spice things up. As much of an improvement as it was, the difference in the two personas of Clara is a little jarring. But then, if any companion was to have different personalities it would be Clara 'Scattered throughout the Doctor's timestream' Oswald. As 'Last Christmas' ended with the two still travelling with each other, maybe we will get another regeneration of each character next year.

Story Arc

Ostensibly the main story arc of Series 8 was 'the Missy mystery' which consisted of the aforementioned Mary Poppins making enigmatic appearances at the ends of certain episodes. In reality, though, this was the B Story Arc, relegated to tagged on scenes. Due to this series' renewed emphasis on character, the real story arc of this year was the triangle of relationships between the Doctor, Clara and Danny. I can't say I was the biggest fan of this 'love' triangle as I think it tilted the emphasis of the show away from ordinary people travelling with the Doctor to a sort of quasi-superhero/secret identity story with Clara struggling to keep both sides of her life in check. However it was a brave experiment that must be commended and resulted in many fine performances from the three main cast members. Next year, however, I do hope the show will once more be about, as Rory once said, 'planets and history and stuff.'
On the other hand, when 'the Missy Mystery' reared its... umbrella in the series finale I was pleasantly surprised. I hadn't particularly been inspired by Missy's scattered cameos but I loved Michelle Gomez' madcap performance as a female Master and, in a series of brave experiments, I count her as one of the most successful. While it would perhaps be a tad predictable to have Missy at the heart of next year's story arc here's hoping she comes back as soon as possible.

The Doctor and Clara will return in 'The Magician's Apprentice'...
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