“Star Trek Discovery” – Who Will Be The Torch Bearer?

Contains spoilers.

Who indeed?

This line, uttered in the first episode of the new Star Trek series by Klingon-with-issues T’Kuvma (and by “uttered” I of course mean “delivered in slow, portentous, guttural Klingon”), might well be seen to apply to Trek itself – who’s going to be responsible for ensuring the continued success of a multi-million-dollar franchise, now fifty years old and counting?

The immediate answer in the case of Star Trek Discovery is its executive producers, and some key figures are or have been involved in birthing the new series – Bryan Fuller, who started out writing episodes of Deep Space Nine and Voyager, created the main story and characters along with Alex Kurtzman (who co-wrote the films Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness), and a team was assembled that included Eugene Roddenberry (son of the famous Gene, Star Trek’s original creator) and Nicholas Meyer (who wrote and directed Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country). But Fuller stepped down as showrunner last year after tensions with the CBS network, and one wonders to what extent his original vision has been watered down.

Certainly, Discovery (which debuted here in the UK yesterday, on Netflix) looks luscious enough, with grand production design and a cinematic feel, and though it’s a shame it’s not available free-to-air as previous Star Trek series have been, the money from the subscription services it will be available on is right up there on the screen. However, like the recent Star Trek films, the visuals are often very busy, with sweeping camera shots, lens flare (enough with the lens flare already! It’s become a visual cliché. I’m surprised the characters can see what they’re doing half the time), and that strange, unnatural fluidity that computer effects, even now, still tend to have.

People who are interested in these things (like me) might care to note that Discovery is set in the prime timeline, not the “Kelvin timeline” of the reboot movies (I’m sure you know what I’m talking about), and that the Klingons, whose role as chief antagonists is crucial to the establishing pilot episode(s), have undergone a major design overhaul, during which they have mysteriously lost all their hair.

But the key to the success of Trek has always been character and story, and in this department, I’m afraid I felt that Discovery was somewhat lacking.

OK, OK, so I know I’ve only seen the first two episodes, and that we haven’t even had so much as a glimpse of the USS Discovery itself yet, as so far the story has been sketching in the background of chief protagonist Commander Michael Burnham (played by Sonequa Martin-Green – I wasn’t aware that Michael could be a woman’s name, but, hey, it’s 2017, and I don’t want to sound even more of an old fuddy-duddy than I already do most of the time). And I know too that pilot episodes are always tricky, as they have to cram in the premise, setting, themes, backstory and characters before the story proper can get going, and that it always takes a while for new series like this to settle down – but, but…

There were some strong ideas. Making Burnham the adopted (human) child of Vulcan ambassador Sarek (otherwise known as Spock’s dad, played by James Frain) was an interesting creative decision, and we were given a little taster of their relationship, and of Burnham’s difficult childhood on Vulcan, that left me wanting to know more. Also, the opening scene, of Burnham and her commanding officer Philippa Georgiou (captain of the USS Shenzhou, a somewhat underwritten role I thought for Michelle Yeoh) trekking (see what I did there?) across a desert planet to save its pre-warp civilization from drought introduced their characters and their surrogate mother-daughter relationship nicely. I also enjoyed Doug Jones as Saru, the gently nagging, slightly camp (and very tall) alien science officer, from a species – the Kelpiens – who can “sense death”.

But despite lengthy scenes of T’Kuvma (Chris Obi) and other Klingons getting tetchy with each other (and the Federation), and saying grammatically garbled things like “Remain Klingon!” (in Klingon, naturally), there didn’t seem much to these old Starfleet adversaries here beyond a bit of two-dimensional moustache-twiddling (metaphorically speaking, as the new design means they don’t have moustaches anymore). I missed the complexity and contradictions inherent in characters like Worf and Martok in The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. But deeper characterisation may come in later episodes, I suppose.

Likewise, would the peaceable Vulcans really advocate a policy of shooting down all Klingon ships they encounter in order to teach them a lesson after one of their own craft is destroyed? And would Burnham be so quick to apply that to her own situation when the Shenzhou is facing off against T’Kuvma’s warbird (up to and including incapacitating her old friend Georgiou, earning herself – as the cliffhanger at the end of Episode Two – a life sentence for mutiny)? Such a dispiriting “force is the only thing these barbarians understand” approach is grim enough in the real world, but I always thought the Federation of the 23rd Century was supposed to have moved on from such a blunt use of power. Where was the moral complexity, the knotty ethical questions that Starfleet officers grapple with in the best episodes of Trek? Has subtlety and nuance been sidelined in favour of spectacle? I hope not, because if so that would not bode well for the future of this new series, and like every fan I want so much to like it.

So I will reserve judgement for now, and watch a few more episodes before making up my mind. It’s important to remember that even some of the classic iterations of Star Trek took a season or more to get into their stride. But they often had a thoughtfulness and intelligence which is all too rare in mainstream entertainment. Star Trek may be “just” a TV show, but it’s often been one that has nurtured and promoted humane, tolerant values, whilst also being exciting to watch. Gene Roddenberry understood that to build a better future, you first of all had to imagine it. I hope Discovery doesn’t lose sight of that.

 

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Hurrah for Jodie Whittaker!

 

Apparently some people in the Whoniverse (as I believe the kids call it) have been getting all worked up about the casting of an actual lady as the Doctor’s 13th incarnation, and I find myself thinking, Really? A fantasy sci-fi show about a centuries-old shapeshifting alien casting a woman as the title character actually bothers you?! You should get out more, etc.

Wisecracks aside, I think this is a really promising choice, and I thought Jodie Whittaker was superb in “Broadchurch” (written by next Who showrunner Chris Chibnall, and where of course she starred with 10th Doctor David Tennant).

Nicely atmospheric trailer, too, with a well judged soundtrack (and I really, really hope that under Chibnall’s direction they can lose the awful, syrupy incidental music that is one of my personal bugbears about New Who). And she rocks the greatcoat-and-hoodie combo, too.

“Logan” – somewhere between Heaven and Hell

Warning: spoilers

What is “Logan” trying to tell us?

The end credits roll to “The Man Comes Around”, Johnny Cash’s upbeat take on the Apocalypse and the Second Coming of Christ, though I don’t think you could call “Logan” a religious movie in any conventional sense.

Certainly the question of redemption runs through it like a thick seam, but it has this in common with countless other Hollywood movies, redemption being one of Hollywood’s favourite themes.

But there is no hope for an Afterlife here, no promise of a better world (though there is the possibility of it).

Some critics have warmed to the “darker”, more “serious” tone of this, the latest in a long run of X-Men films now stretching back nearly twenty years, and there’s no doubt that the central cast are getting on – Hugh Jackman, as the title character, is nearing fifty, and though playing the Wolverine has probably paid his mortgage several times over, he’s no doubt tired of having to spend all day in the gym to get into shape for it.

Patrick Stewart, of course, is now in his late seventies, though here he plays a Professor Xavier in his nineties (the film is set in 2029).

After a catastrophe which is only obliquely referred to, but in which we are led to believe people have died because of Charles Xavier’s inability to any longer control his great mental powers – a result of his encroaching dementia – both he and Logan are hiding out in an abandoned factory in Mexico, with the latter taking work as a limo driver across the border to raise money for Charles’s medication. The other mutants, we are told, have all gone – though the explanation for this, when it eventually comes, feels unsatisfying and incomplete, one of several frustrations I had with the script – and only Caliban (a revelatory and nicely understated performance from Stephen Merchant, who I’ve only seen in comedies before now) is left to help look after Charles in Logan’s absence.

Logan himself is grizzled and ailing, his ability to magically heal having stalled somewhat (again for reasons that are never fully explored, though apparently something to do with the adamantium that coats his skeleton slowly poisoning him), and his never-cheery persona is soured even further by the appearance of Laura (Dafne Keen, superb), a young girl who turns out to be his (cloned) daughter, and who has escaped from the lab of evil corporation (is there any other kind?) Transigen, who have been experimenting on children to create a new species of mutant. She, Logan and Xavier go on the run, trying to find a mythical “Eden” somewhere on the Canadian border, whilst poor old Caliban is captured by the bad guys, who force him to use his tracking powers to find his friends.

So the set-up is in place for a road movie which promises – and delivers – plenty of gory action, and quite a bit of ripe language (it’s been given a 15 certificate here in the UK, unusual for a superhero film), but left me feeling pretty short-changed nonetheless.

Why?

Well perhaps it’s the undercooked plot, with what exposition there is, as I’ve already stated, feeling ill-thought-out and flimsy, and supporting characters who are never given much room to develop – Richard E. Grant, as villainous Zander Rice, does what he can with an underwritten, cardboard cut-out role, but neither he nor sidekick Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) are the antagonists Xavier and Logan really deserve, and I missed the chilling authority of Ian McKellen as Magneto. And we have hardly been introduced to the kindly family who give our heroes some (brief) respite from their troubled existence before they’re unceremoniously despatched by the X-24 (also played by Jackman), the latest of Rice’s clones.

I enjoyed the carefully chosen suggestions of a nightmarish near-future – driverless trucks hurtle down the freeway, and at one point Pierce mentions in passing that the tiger is now extinct. The metatextual references to X-Men comics – which Logan grumpily dismisses – are a nice nod for the fans, and the scene in a hotel when Charles has a seizure and Logan deals out retribution to his attackers – in violent slow mo – was genuinely exciting, the best action sequence of the film. But I’m afraid this wasn’t enough for me – the movie as a whole felt like standard formulaic superhero fare, its aspirations to grimy authenticity like those of a forger who has just dipped a supposed ancient manuscript in tea to make it look old. Logan may be greying and addicted to booze and painkillers, but he’s still ludicrously buff – no middle-aged flab here. And likewise Professor Xavier’s Alzheimer’s only manifests itself right at the beginning, when we see him spinning round in his wheelchair and babbling nonsense – after that, he comes across as an admittedly frail, but otherwise perfectly compos, old man.  There was no real sense of the humiliation and desolation of dementia, the way it takes everything from you. Jackman and Stewart are both hugely talented actors, but I didn’t feel either of them were really stretched here.

What is “Logan” trying to tell us?

I’m not really sure.

All the older mutants in the film die warriors’ deaths – in battle. No fading away in a care home for them – an ending which, I can’t help feeling, would have been much more radical. Just before the end credits, and that Johnny Cash song about Christ, Laura turns the cross on Logan’s grave on to its side so it becomes an X. She obviously knows the score. Christ may or may not return, but the X-Men certainly will, at a multiplex near you, and soon.

 

“Stranger Things”: the power of nostalgia

Warning: contains spoilers.

“Nostalgia,” reckons the journalist Alexis Petridis, “is a type of curation: you edit out the bad stuff.”

Seeing as “the bad stuff” is pretty integral to Netflix’s fantasy horror “Stranger Things”, which became an instant hit when it debuted back in July, it may seem odd that so many of the comment pieces about it have used the term “nostalgia” to identify a key ingredient of its appeal.

But like the blues being a sad music that makes you feel good, the best horror – and in my opinion “Stranger Things” ranks among the very best – is a paradox: scary, yet also comforting. John Carpenter – one of several directors whose work is knowingly referenced in the wonderfully named Duffer Brothers’ creation – says that audiences feel good after watching a horror movie because they survived it: they’ve experienced all the symptoms of dread and imminent death without any of the fatal consequences. The thrills are all vicarious, but they leave the cinema feeling more alive all the same – an echo of the strange elation we often experience after a genuine near-death experience, like a car crash.

The choice of setting for “Stranger Things” is revealing – the story unfolds in the fictional small town of Hawkins, Indiana, when local lad Will Byers disappears one evening when cycling home from playing Dungeons & Dragons with his friends Mike, Dustin and Lucas. On the outskirts of town lies a mysterious government laboratory (is there any other kind?), and it’s quickly obvious that Will’s disappearance – and the simultaneous appearance of an otherworldly young girl named Eleven – is connected to it. But it’s the time in which the story is set – November 1983 – that is the reason its many fans have come over all nostalgic (even though many of its viewers – and indeed even its creators – weren’t even born in 1983).

The Eighties have been having a bit of a “moment”for a while now, and usually I find the recycling of fashion / music / politics that I have already lived through (I was born in 1974) pretty tedious. However, I’m willing to make an exception for “Stranger Things”, not just because of the way it smartly corrals a certain kind of pop culture of the period – from the blocky lettering of the opening titles, to the Tangerine Dream and Vangelis-inspired soundtrack, to the obvious debt to the work of Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante and Stephen King – but also because it’s a genuinely unsettling reminder that, though the Eighties can sometimes seem like a simpler time, at least for those of us who grew up in the West (no mobile phones, no Internet, no Islamist terrorism), this is in fact a seductive myth.

I remember my childhood being haunted by the very real threat of nuclear Armageddon, which found its cultural outlet here in the UK with work such as Raymond Briggs’s graphic novel “When the Wind Blows“, and TV dramas like “Edge of Darkness” and “Threads” (which I was too young to watch but was nevertheless aware of). And even in quiet, rural Somerset, it was impossible to ignore the enormous political upheavals of the Eighties, with whole communities left floored by the effects of Monetarism, privatisation, and rapid de-industrialisation.

“Stranger Things” certainly isn’t a political show as such – though, as with so many American dramas of this type, the government – at state and federal level – are definitely Up To No Good, its representatives invariably nefarious and prepared to use violence to protect their interests. Their interests being, in this case, pursuing experiments on vulnerable adults – and their offspring – in order to try and get inside the heads of the pesky Soviets. Unfortunately, they bite off more than they can chew when they open a portal into a parallel universe – and something very nasty indeed comes crawling out…

The idea of the “Upside Down” – as Mike and his friends come to call it – and the way it (quite literally) tends to burst through into our own world is hardly original, but brilliantly and convincingly realised, and the performances of the young cast – from whose point of view the story is mostly told – superb, especially Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven, and Finn Wolfhard (another great name) as Mike. David Harbour is well cast as the decent-but-troubled Chief Jim Hopper, and, in a neat piece of casting, two actors who first made their name back in the Eighties appear in prominent roles – Matthew Modine as Dr Martin Brenner, the man in charge of Hawkins Laboratory, and of course Winona Ryder, who plays Joyce Byers, mother of the missing Will. I wasn’t totally won over by her performance myself, but then she does have to play a character who’s pitched somewhere between wired and hysterical for the entire series – not an easy ask for any actor – as well as contending with the frumpiest wig of any TV drama in recent memory. And it’s good to see her back in a starring role.

The way the Duffer Brothers bring together the three main plotlines – Mike and his friends befriending Eleven; the shifting relationship between Nancy, Mike’s older sister, her witless boyfriend Steve Harrington, and Will’s brother Jonathan; and Joyce and Jim’s determination to get to the truth – is cleverly done, and moves towards something all too rare in dramas these days – a Proper Ending (as opposed to those open endings where all the plot strands are just left dangling so there can be another series). A well-crafted plot, where the various stories are actually resolved – God how refreshing! And with just enough of a hint of what a second season might hold (which the Duffer Brothers have insisted will be a “sequel” rather than a continuation), and “Stranger Things” seems to have hit the mother lode. It’s reassuring to know that, along with all the other Eighties influences they have picked up, its creators have also remembered something that was common back then but now seems to have been forgotten: how to tell a good story.

 

The stuff of nightmares – “Tale of Tales” review

 

I’d been looking forward to seeing Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales for quite a while, since I first read about its appearance at last year’s Cannes film festival.

It is, as the opening titles make clear, “loosely” based on the fairy tales of Neapolitan poet Giambattista Basile, originally published in the 1630’s.

Basile may not be well known to many readers these days, yet the Brothers Grimm greatly admired him, and he was a big influence also on Hans Christian Andersen. His versions of famous stories like Rapunzel and Cinderella are the earliest known.

This is Garrone’s first English language film (his previous movies include Gomorrah), and in one interview I read he expressed some misgivings about this, whilst acknowledging how its Hollywood cast (Salma Hayek, John C. Reilly, Toby Jones, Vincent Cassel) made funding and distribution easier to obtain (the film apparently cost over $14 million to make). But anyone expecting a Hollywood movie will be disappointed – this is very much a continental European – and specifically Italian – film, and watching it I felt the shades of Antonioni, Pasolini & Fellini hovering in the background.

The plot is a portmanteau of three different stories, set in three different, fantastical kingdoms, and the film moves between them rather than telling them each in turn:

In The Queen, the titular monarch is played by Salma Hayek, who so longs for a child that she invokes the help of a necromancer (played with ingratiating creepiness by Franco Pistoni, who, like many of the supporting cast, looks like he has stepped straight out of an Arthur Rackham or Brian Froud illustration – or perhaps, more savagely, something by Goya, whose Los Caprichos prints  were apparently a big influence on the look of the film). “Violent desires such as yours can only be satisfied by violence” he tells her, and, though she acquires a son and heir, the price is indeed bloody.

In The Flea, Toby Jones is the muddle-headed king of Altomonte, more interested in looking after his pet flea (which ends up growing to monstrous proportions) than his teenage daughter, Violet, whose Mills & Boon fantasies about a handsome, courageous husband are seriously dashed (along with quite a few skulls).

And in The Two Old Women, a lustful king, played by – who else? – Vincent Cassel (whom we first encounter enjoying the company of a couple of naked lesbians) is entranced by the singing of a washerwoman below his castle walls, not realising that she and her sister are old and ugly – though this doesn’t stop one of them from tricking her way into his bed, in a scene that is both cringe-making and horribly funny. Then she actually does become young – through the intervention of a witch (played with much otherworldly chuckling by the wonderful Kathryn Hunter) – and then things get really nasty…

The film looks beautiful – much of it was made on location in Italy, in such places as Castel del Monte, and Roccascalegna, and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky makes the blue skies and white walls blaze out of the screen. Likewise, the costumes are ravishing, and some of the scenes – Salma Hayek eating a heart, or an undersea battle with an albino sea monster – unforgettable. But you probably can’t weave together three strange stories like this, and tell them with such ambition, without a few strands coming loose – and there were moments when I felt Garrone’s reach exceeded his grasp. The impact of Basile’s dark morality tales is lessened by some longueurs, and, though God knows I’m not advocating Michael Bay-levels of frantic editing, perhaps a bit of judicious cutting here and there might have helped focus the story(ies)?

I’m sure many will argue that such slow pacing is precisely the point of this kind of film-making, and Garrone himself says, ‘Don’t try to understand it, just feel it’. And despite my niggles I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend you see it if you can – it may well divide opinion, but at its best it’s both sumptuous and spellbinding, and, like the most vivid of dreams, will linger long in your memory.

“X” at the Royal Court – review

 

Yesterday I went along to the Royal Court Theatre here in London to see “X”, a new play by playwright Alistair McDowall.

I blush to admit that, in 18 years of living in the capital, this was my first ever trip to the Royal Court, which has been an important centre for new writing for sixty years.

The theatre’s really easy to get to as it sits right next to Sloane Square tube station, at the top of the King’s Road, and as well as its main auditorium, the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, has a smaller studio space (the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs). There is also a bookshop and a bar and cafe, cosily tucked away beneath street level (I always like places like this, their secrets hidden under the paving slabs – it’s one of the reasons i love the Curzon Soho).

As I receive regular emails from the Royal Court on upcoming productions, I was intrigued when I saw the trailer for “X” (see above), and read some of the accompanying interviews – a play inspired by dystopian Seventies sci-fi? Count me in!

In fact “X” is not quite all it seems.

The set-up is this: five astronauts are on a research base on Pluto, and by the time the story opens they are already strung out and paranoid, and not surprisingly – the ship supposed to take them home after their tour of duty is months late, and Earth isn’t responding to their messages. From the crew’s conversations, we gather that Earth itself is a wasteland, one where the flora and fauna have mysteriously perished, and Mankind is making a new home for itself on the other planets of the solar system (“Mars is full of blonde Americans. It’s like they’re building the master race out there”).

All of this made me think of classic films like “Silent Running” and “Soylent Green”, with their themes of overpopulation and ecological catastrophe – and when “X”‘s characters start seeing a young girl roaming about the station – a young girl who couldn’t possibly be there – and realise that the base’s clock is faulty (“Everything’s linked to Earth through the main clock. And the main clock’s wrong”), I was reminded also of Duncan Jones’s “Moon”, and settled in for a nice couple of hours of psychological horror.

But though “X” delivers its fair share of scary moments – and full credit to the design team of Merle Hensel, Lee Curran, Nick Powell and Tal Rosner, whose aural and visual effects were superb – it gradually becomes apparent that the way McDowall is playing with time and memory – and identity – is about more than just shocks. He begins, slowly and brilliantly, to turn the story inside out, leaving us at first bewildered, but then moved, by what we are seeing (or think we’re seeing), and in its second Act “X” unspools into a tale above all about grief and loss (if you’re familiar with Stanislaw Lem’s “Solaris” – which has been adapted several times for the screen – you will recognise a certain similarity in tone, though “X” is also very much its own creature).

The actors have to work really hard to sustain the tension, including one bravura sequence where Jessica Raine (as Gilda, the base’s second-in-command) and James Harkness (as Clark, the resident techie) spout apparent nonsense at one another for several minutes. It’s not easy to make someone like Gilda – who is constantly on the verge of bursting into tears, and eats cereal out of the box and chews her hair like a little girl – a sympathetic character, but Raine manages it, and holds our attention throughout (even if you do occasionally want to give her a good shake). The rest of the cast are likewise excellent, and if I occasionally strained to hear the odd bit of dialogue, this didn’t affect my enjoyment (and besides, I bought a copy of the playscript so I can check it again). Director Vicky Featherstone and her team provided a powerful and clever afternoon’s theatre, and ensured that I left my first visit to the Royal Court wanting to come back, and soon.

The Truth Is (Still) Out There – disinterring “The X-Files”

 

When The X-Files made its debut on BBC Two in 1993, I was a young student, living in digs in a small town in Sussex, and still had cheekbones and all my own hair. My friends and I watched it on our little portable black-and-white TV, and at one point it scared me so much I couldn’t take out the rubbish (one of my allotted domestic tasks) as going out after dark after watching an episode was a no-no.

23 years on, The X-Files is back, with its original cast and production team, and I’m somehow still here. The first of the new episodes, My Struggle, aired on Channel Five here in the UK on Monday night, and like a lot of people I was keen to see if it had aged better than me.

Channel Five prefaced the episode with one of those “documentaries” that look like they’ve been edited by a goldfish, in which everyone goes on about how great it is to work together again – though it was interesting to hear show creator Chris Carter acknowledge how much the world has changed since the show went off air in 2002, and how that might affect the new season.

The answer, on last night’s evidence, was: not much. Even the title sequence was unaltered, Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny’s younger selves appearing on their old FBI ID’s (that’ll never pass muster with the authorities if they try applying for a Young Person’s Railcard).

The story, too, was familiar fare: shady characters from the secret government were running a programme to combine human and alien DNA – had been since Roswell! – and conservative talk show host Tad O’Malley brought Agents Mulder and Scully back together again to investigate, introducing them to Sveta, a traumatised young woman who claimed to be the victim of multiple abductions / experiments.

The pace was frenetic, and it felt to me like Carter was trying to cram too much into this season opener: there was a hurried sense of, “Let’s re-establish the setting and characters, then we can get on with the rest of the story”. That said, I was pleased to see The X-Files back in its old Vancouver home (digitally altered to look like Washington DC) – I always thought those misty pine forests of British Columbia were a wonderfully atmospheric backdrop for the early episodes.

Anderson and Duchovny’s performances were perhaps a little uncertain, but that’s only to be expected perhaps after such a long time away (is that a slight paunch Duchovny has there? Bless!), and they were soon back to wielding flashlights like true pro’s, and it was good also to see Mitch Pileggi (as Skinner) and William B. Davis (as the Smoking Man) make their return. The idea of a conservative, Bill O’Reilly-type having some kind of hotline to the Truth was somewhat worrying – but I’ve heard good things about the rest of the season, and personally I always preferred the “Monster of the Week” episodes anyway – the best of them were perfect little horror movies – and sometimes found the endless conspiracy theories about alien invasion tiresome.

But am I glad it’s back? Of course I am – it’s The X-Files! It has survived, and so have I, just about. I still miss the Lone Gunmen, though – but you can’t have everything.