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Retro Review: Far Beyond The Stars

Original Airdate: February 11, 1998.

I’ve recently had the time to enjoy some Star Trek: Deep Space Nine reruns on SyFy here in the UK.  At present, they’re working their way through Season Six, probably my favourite season of any of the Star Trek shows.

Today, I noticed that Far Beyond The Stars was on.  I quickly announced that my housemate’s television plans for the evening were cancelled: we’d be watching this episode.

I remembered it fondly, and having not watched it for about ten years, I was curious to see how it had aged.

Splendidly is the answer.

It remains a fine hour of science fiction, and of Star Trek, and ranks up there with the best.  A challenging and thought-provoking look at racial struggle in mid-20th Century United States, all through the lens of hope that Star Trek offers.

Not only does it excel in its handling of the subject matter, it also excels as a piece of storytelling.  It’s fair to say that it is magnificently written with superb pacing.  The hour flies past, and I picked up on several parallels I missed when I was younger.  For instance, Sisko’s dreams of Benny Russell reflect the challenges he himself goes through.  He speaks to his father at the beginning of the episode of how every time he feels he’s achieved a victory, something happens that knocks him back to the start.  So too with Benny, as his glimpses of hope are shattered by circumstances outside his control.  And with the main villain of Deep Space Nine, the Dominion, being predominantly present far away in the Gamma Quadrant – an ominous distant danger represented by the limited forces they have in the Alpha Quadrant (Dukat, Weyoun et al) – in his dream the owner of the magazine, who is never depicted on screen, has the power to quash Benny’s hopes through his mouthpiece of the magazine editor, played by Rene Auberjonois.

All the while, it’s topped off by an acting tour-de-force from Avery Brooks, whose breakdown after failing to break through the shackles of racial prejudices is a simply mesmerising showcase of ability.  Not bad for the man who also directed the episode.

I’m quite certain more in-depth reviews than this exist.  However, I caught this episode in passing this evening, and it truly deserves an revisit.

It’s fantastic.  It’s challenging.  It’s possibly the best episode of Deep Space Nine there is.

And there are some pretty splendid episodes of Deep Space Nine out there.

So, while we’re at it, have your say: is it the best episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine?

Is Far Beyond The Stars the best episode of Deep Space Nine?

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Desolation-of-Smaug

Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

In Brief:

The Desolation of Smaug succeeds where its predecessor failed, but some issues remain.

In Depth:

I found myself smiling as I left the cinema last night. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug had, for me, succeeded where An Unexpected Journey had failed. It had transported me back to Middle-Earth.

Gone were the pacing issues of the first film, along with the ridiculously over-the-top Twilight wolves and the ability to jump from a dry grassland to a soaking woodland metropolis simply by climbing into a rock.

In our review of An Unexpected JourneyI wrote that:

The Lord of the Rings trilogy excelled in making Middle-Earth a living, breathing world inhabited by real yet fantastical characters.  It did so through taking the breathtaking scenery of New Zealand and seamlessly integrating CGI and fantastic prosthetics into magnificent sets and superb landscapes.  Yet, in The Hobbit, Peter Jackson almost inexplicably choses to tinker with this finely honed balance and go more all-out with CGI.

Make no mistake, there is very little attempt made to step away from CGI usage. It’s used aplenty. Yet, whether it’s improvements in the quality of the CGI, or more attempt made to integrate the CGI into the actual purpose of the scene (rather than it becoming a flashy portfolio of special effects), it feels far less intrusive this time around.

The computer generated orcs – a major problem the last time around for my enjoyment of the film – are of far higher quality this time around, and almost look real. AUJ made Gollum look real, yet failed miserably with the likes of Azog. While Azog still isn’t perfect, he’s a lot better.

And again, it felt like effort was made to make the environments more believable. There was far less of the fantastical colours, the glowing-eyed wolves, the moonlit forest fire that looked completely cartoonish.  Instead, Jackson and WETA appear to have opted for a more natural colour palette, particularly in Erebor, Mirkwood, the mountain tombs and Dol Guldur.

The result?  I felt like I was in a real world again, like I had in The Lord of the Rings. And since I wasn’t constantly being pulled out of the world, I was able to enjoy the film.

Leaving the effects aside (and I admit, they might seem an odd place to start a review, but they had been so pivotal in my frustrations with the first film it seemed a natural place to begin) The Desolation of Smaug is a stronger film than the first. The pacing issues that riddled the first film are gone, and while it still a long film (I did hear other cinema goers moaning about the length as we left), I felt as if it flew past faster than An Unexpected Journey.  The film gets down to business quickly with a meeting of the fantastic Richard Armitage’s character Thorin and Gandalf in Bree, and it never really slows after that.  It moves quickly, moving at good pace between the multiple plot lines: Bilbo and the Dwarves, Gandalf’s investigation into Dol Guldur and Legolas’ life in Mirkwood.  The new characters are well realised, particularly Bard in Laketown, and I particularly enjoyed the appearances of Beorn and Stephen Fry’s Master of Laketown.  I actually felt the fun, this time around.

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG

Much as the Riddles in the Dark sequence in AUJ stood out, there are several similarly exemplary scenes in TDOS.  I loved the ominous scene with the Wizards at the tombs at the High Fells, Gandalf’s battle at Dol Guldur, as well as the sequence in Mirkwood with the spiders (which was a pretty terrifying action sequence).  Finally, there was a great sense of geographical continuity that had been lacking completely in AUJ. Here, I felt we were back on track, travelling through a believable world, and I think the long-distance shots over Mirkwood played a huge part in grounding the viewer, showing them the path ahead – much as the ending shots in The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers did.  I’d content they’re hugely underrated shots, and AUJ suffered without them. (I know they had the final shot of Erebor after the Eagles had rescued the Dwarves, but by that point I’d spent two hours and forty-five minutes wandering around a seemingly disconnected series of set pieces that changed faster than you could say “Fly, you fools!”

Anyway, moving on.  While there are some great scenes, some sequences fall short of excellence simply because they go on for too long. The pursuit through the rivers in Mirkwood goes on a little too long, and has a little too much of the gratuitous Legolas action. The Dwarves vs. Smaug in Erebor, similarly, goes on too long with little real progress. A good comparison would be Khazad-dûm in The Fellowship of the Ring: a fantastic action sequence with stages and consequences and humour.  The Erebor sequence – although visually stunning, and a magnificent representation of a decayed Dwarf kingdom, lacks the same emotional attachment and the ‘stages’ which allow it to avoid becoming repetitive. Some of the fire diving, as well, was a bit over the top.

The Tauriel storyline fell a little flat, too.  I appreciate the purpose it could give, since I assume she’s going to die in the next film at the Battle of the Five Armies, and thus giving Legolas a reality slap to move away from Thranduil’s isolationist stance and join the Fellowship, but I felt the dynamic with Kili, whilst well acted, just defied belief a little bit.

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG

I appreciate that some Tolkien fans are up in arms about how different these films are from the books.  I understand that point of view, being a huge fan myself. But I also appreciate the challenges Jackson has faced in putting these films together. He could have gone for a simple film version of The Hobbit book, which could have been fun, but would have fallen slightly flat as a standalone series of films.  The ring, for instance, would never really have been explained, the Necromancer storyline had to be dealt with and he couldn’t really not make links between The Necromancer and Sauron like the books. Jackson took the decision to make a prequel to The Lord of the Rings and a Hobbit series at the same time, taking content from the appendices to join the dots between the two.  This material is complicated, and written for the satisfaction of an academic mind and curiosity rather than for a Hollywood audience.

As a result, Jackson has had to improvise and invent to simplify and create a digestible film story.  And where in AUJ this sometimes came across as carelessness or a lack of the same love and devotion he had displayed in The Lord of the Rings, it feels like that’s beginning to come together in TDOS.  For instance, I can see more clearly the purpose of Azog’s character in exploring the Necromancer storyline (and I think this will be even more important in There And Back Again next year).  Jackson’s had to make some tough choices, and while The Hobbit series will never be as faithful as The Lord of the Rings was, I’m beginning to appreciate that it can’t be.  And that’s okay, because it’s still trying to be faithful to its continuity and film universe.

The last film was a disappointment.  This one wasn’t, and that may partially be because I went in expecting to be disappointed.  After all, with no Andy Serkis to blast out that wonderful scene again,  would this film make up for it?  I’m pleased to say that it did.  It’s no Lord of the Rings, simply because as nice as the Dwarves are, I don’t think you could do a scene as emotional as Boromir’s death (after two films) because we’re simply not as emotionally connected with them as we would have been with any of the Fellowship.  Whether that’s a failing of Jackson or Tolkien (gasp!), that’s up for the debate.

But I’m certainly excited by the next film.  It has the potential to be pretty brilliant, and The Desolation of Smaug is certainly a step in the right direction.

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG

YouView: The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug

We’ll be posting our own review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug tomorrow.

In the mean time, why not let us know your thoughts on the film?  We’ll display the best right here.

Your Reviews

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★★★☆☆
A good improvement over the last one, but it still isn't quite there. I'm not sure why Jackon's tried to fix what wasn't broken. Not everything has to be computer generated!”
- Amir2013

Loved It!

★★★★★
Superb. Much better than the first!”
- Daisy

Tolkien's Turning In His Grave

★★☆☆☆
Again, this is nothing on The Lord of the Rings. Too much CGI, too much MEANINGLESS action, and very little by way of empathy with the characters.

Sadly, it's too late in this series to turn things around.”
- Steve

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Review: The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey

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First up, let me just say that I am a huge fan of The Lord of the Rings.  By this, I do not mean I enjoyed a handful of films I saw a decade ago.  I love the books, I’ve read them and seen the films several times.  I like the mythology in The Silmarillion and clamber after every bit I can get.  Consequently, I really enjoyed The Hobbit.  And yet, it left me feeling frustrated because, for me, it came close to being a masterpiece, but fell perilously short several key areas.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy excelled in making Middle-Earth a living, breathing world inhabited by real yet fantastical characters.  It did so through taking the breathtaking scenery of New Zealand and seamlessly integrating CGI and fantastic prosthetics into magnificent sets and superb landscapes.  Yet, in The Hobbit, Peter Jackson almost inexplicably choses to tinker with this finely honed balance and go more all-out with CGI.  The most obvious is the character of Azog, who Jackson Gollum-ises, and Manu Bennett’s performance lost behind a thoroughly unrealistic looking computerised Orc.  There was no real need to do so, since Azog is largely seen in facial close-ups that expose the short-comings of the CGI.  The result?  It transplanted me from the magical world of Middle-Earth and back into my cinema seat faster than you could shout “RUN!” (which happens quite a lot in the movie).  If I could ask Jackson anything, it’d be that The Lord of the Rings trilogy didn’t need all this fancy CGI in every scene to work wonderfully, so why did The Hobbit?   If it ain’t broke…

The landscapes that were so beautifully natural and compelling in LotR are too often replaced with computerised scenes, and while in certain places such as Rivendell this works magically, later sequences with Azog in the forest feel like watching a cartoon.  A consequence of this reliance on CGI orcs and landscapes is a change in filming style from LotR, with a large number of quick shots and snappy cuts between sword slices and arrow shots.  Perhaps Jackson is attempting to avoid drawing too much attention to the CGI, but again the result is that it makes it a distinct challenge to get involved in the action.  The sublime action sequence in The Fellowship of the Ring in Moria is replaced by something more akin to a Saturday morning cartoon in Goblin Town, running over endless bridges and pushing computerised orcs off them.  It’s all very pretty, but never feels particularly like Middle-Earth to me.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about: a warg from The Two Towers above one from The Hobbit.  

 

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Both look quite computerised, yet the Two Towers warg seems to keep very natural colour tones all over, and feels to me like a very believable beast.  The Hobbit warg seems like an extremely cliched werewolf with a cliched sinister face and glowing eyes.  It just didn’t feel particularly real to me.

Some of the CGI is superb, however.  Gollum is even better than the stellar animations in the original trilogy, and there are times where he simply looks as real as the brilliant Martin Freeman in the ‘Riddles in the Dark’ sequence.  The opening scenes in Erebor at the height of Dwarf control are simply magnificent.  I always wondered how Moria would look in its prime, and Erebor answered.  As I mentioned, Rivendell looks superb, and I thought the sequence in Mirkwood with Radagast was excellent both in its CGI and the performance of Sylvester McCoy.

Speaking more generally of the film, I cannot disagree more with those who claim it is too long, or that the attempt to split the book into three films is a cash-grab.  It feels like neither.  The only sequence I could argue was a waste of time was the battle of the Stone Giants, which although mentioned in the book, is made a little too Transformers-esque for no real reason.  Everything included in the film I enjoyed being there, especially the cameos from Hugo Weaving’s Elrond and Christopher Lee’s Saruman in Rivendell.

The pacing is admittedly slow in the beginning, but with thirteen dwarves to introduce, understandably so.  Similarly, I found the dwarves interesting enough – particularly Thorin, Balin, Bofur and Ori – to sustain my interest through this period.  Once the action gets going, it never really lets up.  Which leads onto another criticism, which is that Martin Freeman’s titular Hobbit character seems somewhat secondary through large chunks of the film, particularly in Rivendell.  The trailer showed shots of Bilbo wandering through Rivendell, encountering the Shards of Narsil.  Not to be seen in the film however, and I feel the decision to give sole focus in the Rivendell sequence to Galadriel, Gandalf, Elrond and Saruman discussing Radagast’s news and the Morgul Blade a mistake.  Bilbo’s decision to leave the Company shortly afterward felt flat and somewhat out of the blue.  Some additional footage – although not in lieu of Saruman’s council – would have worked a treat here, both in developing Bilbo and helping his storyline flow into the next stage of the adventure.

Martin Freeman’s performance is flawless: his naivety, curiosity and bravery are perfectly characterised through Bilbo, and he is thoroughly watchable – perhaps even more so than Frodo in the original trilogy.  Similarly, Ian McKellen is fantastic and Richard Armitage is excellent as Thorin.  In general, the casting is superb.  Even James Nesbitt (coincidentally, my fourth cousin!) holds his own in his one conversation with Bilbo in the cave.

There are several magical moments and magnificent scenes in the film that hold their own against LotR.  The opening sequence in Erebor, the council at Rivendell, the trolls in the forest and the meeting with the Goblin leader stand out.  By far the best sequence, however, remains Bilbo and Gollum in the cavern, exchanging riddles.  Andy Serkis is – as expected – stunning, and Martin Freeman is an engaging and dynamic foil.  It’s sad that Gollum presumably won’t appear in the next two films, and they will have to find their own stand-out sequences – or better yet, stand out on their own as a whole!

Gandalf & Radagast-Ian McKellen & Sylvester McCoy

I think The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was confused about what it wanted to be.  In some ways, Jackson wanted to capture the up-beat nature of the book, making it more comical, exciting and dynamic than The Lord of the Rings.  And yet, at the same time, he seems desperate to have crafted a mythological partner and natural forbearer to the earlier trilogy.  He wanted the grand scale, the epic environments and stunning world of The Lord of the Rings.  Yet, The Hobbit is a very different kettle of fish as a novel in the first place.  It’s smaller, more intimate, and less epic than its successor novels.  Trying to blend both styles has left both falling short.  The innocence and fun of The Hobbit becomes secondary to the epic world of Middle-Earth and story of The Lord of the Rings, yet the Middle-Earth of The Lord of the Rings becomes diluted – more cartoonised and disjointed than we left it when The Return of the King faded to credits.

I read a review – and I can’t recall where, or I would cite it – that The Hobbit trilogy doesn’t have the benefit of three natural breaks that The Lord of the Rings had to capitalise on.  The result may very well be that the entire trilogy needs to be watched in a row to get a real sense of the balance and purpose of the films.  So in this sense, my judgement is reserved.  And I do think that I’ll get used to the CGI in later films, now I’m expecting it (reluctantly!).

Perhaps this review has been somewhat hypercritical.  I really enjoyed the film, and I’d go and see it again.  Yet I feel as though I’ve been lift grinding my teeth – that only a few small scenes and less reliance on CGI would have propelled this film into true excellence, because it is fantastically performed and an exquisite telling of the story in the book.  Perhaps the next two films will rediscover the balance, but for now, The Hobbit must content itself with being a strong and excellent film, but falling far short of Jackson’s self-inflicted standards of brilliance.

Grade: B+

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Revolution Reviews

Sadly, I’ve decided to call it a day with reviews for Revolution.

I cannot see the show being renewed for a second series, and while I will continue to watch, the show simply doesn’t enthuse me enough to write about it.  It’s the same problems – or problem (Tracy Spiridakos) – every single week.  It’s holding back some excellent potential.

Should the show knock out a truly stellar episode, I will get back to reviewing with a brief recap of what’s come before, but for the time being, it’s just too predictable that the reviews aren’t worth writing.

Revolution - Season 1

Review: Revolution S01E04 The Plague Dogs

In Brief: Weak.

In Detail: Here we are again.  Another week of Revolution, and Danny still hasn’t reached Monroe, the tablets still haven’t been explained even a fraction more, and Tracy Spiridakos continues to annoy the hell out of me.

There are some positives in this.  Maggie’s death is at least realistic, being stabbed through an artery in the leg, and we see that in this post-apocalyptic society, there really are struggles from a lack of health care and medicine.  I would argue that everyone’s denim clothing is in remarkably good nick this far after the blackout.  Maggie’s death also solidifies Miles’ place in the group, which can only be good, since his constant um-ing and ah-ing over whether to stay or to leave was becoming quite tiresome.  It’ll also be interesting to see what comes of Charlie’s reaction to Maggie’s death.  Will she feel guilt?  Will it harden her attitudes?  Will it make her more cautious and less headstrong and consequently irritating?  Who knows, but I do know that Spiridakos will struggle to convey whatever emotion is written into the script.

At present, Billy Burke is carrying the show.  There isn’t enough of Elizabeth Mitchell and David Lyons, and when they are on screen, not enough is happening to make it interesting.  I’ve been impressed by Burke, and he really is the most watchable character on the show.  I hope that the Militia member who’s following them also manages to become part of the group.  It’ll open up a lot of trust issues, but he has the potential to be a hugely interesting character.

The problem with this week was simply that not enough happened.  Obviously, the writers wanted Maggie off the show, and it didn’t really matter how.  Getting stabbed by a crazed lunatic in an abandoned theme park seems a particularly hollow way to die, but I guess it does highlight the danger and realism of the universe they’ve set Revolution in.

As with previous weeks, the episode is pretty well filmed, and I was glad to see no gratuitous action sequences.  They all seemed fitting.  The tornado just happening to fall on the shack Danny and the Militia Captain found themselves in seems like a convenient plot device, and Danny being captured I believe the 19th time wasn’t particularly exciting.  I did enjoy the moral dilemma Danny faced when being forced to choose whether to save the Captain.  I do think it would have been far more interesting had he left him to die, and him being forced to live with those consequences, but I’ve enjoyed JD Prado on the show and wouldn’t like to see him depart yet.

I’m not going to rant about Spiridakos again.  She’s awful, everyone knows it, and I do wish they’d kill her off and replace that family’s representation in the group with Danny.  I also think they need to do something quickly with Nora, before she becomes pointless.

Not enough happens this week, despite Maggie’s death.  Quite who the Computer Geek will confide in now regarding the power could be interesting, and there’s enough in the show to keep me tuning in each week.  But this instalment is, sadly, markedly weaker.  It’s more generic, it’s less compelling, and I think surely the plot hole of the week is that they could have climbed into the roof, shot all the dogs from above, and been on their merry way.  The whole thing just fell flat.

It’s hopefully just that obligatory new-show-finding-its-feet episode, where the plot is contrived and the pacing feeling unnatural.  All shows have them, normally three to six weeks in.  Hopefully this isn’t the start of a trend, because if it is, the show won’t see a second season.

As a result, I’m giving this week a paltry two rabid theme park dogs out of five.

[easyreview title="At A Glance" cat1title="Acting" cat1detail="Billy Burke continues to save the day.  More David Lyons and Elizabeth Mitchell please" cat1rating="2.5" cat2title="Filming" cat2detail="Nicely realised, but the storm didn't feel hugely convincing and there wasn't much excitement in terms of the locations used (generic theme park)." cat2rating="2.5" cat3title="Plot" cat3detail="Convoluted, and not enough happened to keep it entertaining." cat3rating="1.5" summary="Improvements are needed, but they remain totally possible."]

Revolution-NBC-No-Quarter-Episode-3-6-550x365

Review: Revolution S01E03 No Quarter

In Brief: A mixed bag.

In Detail: The latest instalment of Revolution features continued improvement in some areas, but is let down by confused pacing and continued poor performances from Tracy Spiridakos.

I don’t want to rant each week about the pointlessness of Tracy Spiradkos’ character – Charlie – in the show.  Yet her continued weak performances and, quite honestly, lack of relevance to the interesting aspects of the show continue with week.  Revolution‘s most interesting aspects are without a doubt the relationship between Miles and Monroe, Monroe’s past and the power tablets.  Charlie, and her brother Danny, have quickly faded into insignificance after their headline role in the first week, and the show would do well to realise this quickly, and readjust smoothly.

‘No Quarter’ improves from previous weeks in the sense that the action scenes are less gratuitous, excellently shot throughout, and the revelation that Miles was Monroe’s second in command adds a hugely interesting dynamic into the show’s backbone.  The flashbacks are brilliant this week, showing Miles as the more aggressive partner in his friendship with Monroe, and Monroe being largely pacifistic in his response to the post-blackout world.  I look forward to discovering more about the reversal of the partnership, and Miles subsequent withdrawal from the Monroe Republic’s Militia.

The large problem with the episode is that despite this game-changer, there’s not a huge deal of progress made.  Most of the characters remain stationary throughout, with Miles et al stuck at the rebel base until being rescued by Charlie and Nor, Aaron and Maggie in Grace’s house – Grace who has mysteriously disappeared, and we learned nothing more about – and Danny remaining stuck in Militia hands.  There’s not really enough progress, but at least the scenes in the rebel base and in Grace’s house were interesting enough to keep me watching.

I think the Charlie character – for the first time – has shown a flicker of potential.  She could turn into a good character if written well enough, but I have serious doubts about the ability of the show-runners and Spiridakos to achieve that.  Her watching the rebel die in the infirmary demonstrating completely the flaws in her character, leaping to aid the soldier without hesitation and then watching him die with very little emotional conviction.  Note, I said conviction, not emotion.  She appears upset, but I didn’t believe she was really upset.  Therein lies the difference between Spiridakos and the other actors on the show.  When Maggie’s children appeared on her iPhone late in the episode, I believed she was feeling upset, and Maggie isn’t even that interesting a character either, but I do empathise with her.

My love-in for David Lyons continues; I simply find him captivating as an actor, and Billy Burke as Miles appears to get stronger each week.  I particularly enjoyed Miles’ angry put-down for Charlie for being a brat, but that’s understandable given my dislike for Charlie.

There’s some clunky dialogue, especially between Miles and Nora, and indeed Nora’s character spilling her heart to Charlie didn’t seem entirely believable.  But all in all, it’s not too bad.

The pacing of the episode left me feeling a little flat.  At the end, I blinked and thought, “Is that it?”  Partially, that’s a good thing, since the episode flew past and I clearly enjoyed watching it, but it didn’t build and fall at a natural rate in my opinion.  This may, in part, be because the rescue of Miles from Militia hands was a decision made off-screen, therefore there was no build-up or expectation to it, and it came as a bit of a surprise.  It was also a bit too easy, considering how terrifying everyone says the Militia are as a military force.

On the plus side, I think next week Danny’s plot could become more interesting.  Now the Militia know where Miles is, and who he’s running around with, he becomes an easier target.  Danny is consequently of less importance.  I sincerely hope they finally take him to Monroe, instead of sitting around all day.

All in all, I think the show’s saved itself from the cardinal sin: sliding into mediocrity after a pretty decent pilot.  It’s kept its level, and retained my interest.  This is a strong episode, but it could quite easily have been the best episode yet by far with a few pacing changes.  I look forward to next week.

I’m giving this one three and half exploding bridges out of five.

[easyreview title="At A Glance" cat1title="Acting" cat1detail="Strong, but weakened by Tracy Spiridakos' continued poor performances." cat1rating="3" cat2title="Filming" cat2detail="Strongest so far, with excellent action scenes." cat2rating="4.5" cat3title="Plot" cat3detail="Most interesting episode so far, but let down by poor pacing and the pointless Danny plot line." cat3rating="3.5" summary="Probably my favourite episode to date, but it could have been better."]

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Review: Doctor Who – The Angels Take Manhattan

The Angels Take Manhattan

In Brief:

Detective Noir? Check. Pond Farewell? Check. Emotional? Very much check.

In Depth:

Beware: spoilers within.

At the close of David Tennant’s last episode of nuWho, the trailer for series 5 promised us that “The end is only the beginning” and before long we had Eleven, Amelia Pond, Rory Williams, space whales, Daleks, Weeping Angels, River Song, vampire fish, Dreamlords, Sontarans, River Song (again!), Romans and the list goes on…

And here we are again, at another ending, for now the end of the Ponds’ is nigh…

This is a beautiful episode in terms of setting, look, theme and atmosphere; this is very nicely assisted some more high quality musical scores from Murray Gold, and some brilliant work by returning director Nick Hurran; the production team also made a large portion of the filming for this episode over in New York, and this extra expense really helps to sell the episode as a genuine experience for a heartfelt piece. This is not an episode that uses a handful of establishing shots to say “Look at me! I’m in New York city”; instead the action shot in the real New York is woven gently into the narrative of the story and very nicely bookending (once we are past the opening credits) the episode, you could say.

It helps make the transition into the production team created world of 1930’s New York that much more believable; speaking of which, what a glorious pre-opening credits teaser for the episode. We follow a detective in 1930’s New York as he investigates, for a local gangster, an apartment block inhabited by statues that can move when you’re not looking… The Weeping Angels are most definitely back, and they have regained some of their “Blink” scare tactics, as the episode feels a lot more claustrophobic as Team TARDIS are trapped by fate as it were, and they also get a new twist as Moffat has introduced Weeping Angel Cherubs, who, unlike their silent counterparts, giggle creepily when they cannot be seen…

The Angels have also returned to their original method of murder – transporting their victims back through time and/or space, and feeding off the subsequent temporal energy of the life that would have been lived… and the opening teaser shows us this trait so powerfully, you can’t help but worry for the fate of the Ponds, and when the secret of the apartment block is revealed, oh it’s good…

Launching fresh off the back of last weeks “The Power of Three” was a good move because this episode, for Team TARDIS at least, starts off so warmly; Eleven and the Ponds, picnicking in Central Park with some good natured banter. Rory leaves for coffee, while Eleven reads a story to Amy, from a book he found in his jacket, the adventures of a private detective in 1938 New York, Melody Malone…

As Rory walks back with the coffees, a Cherub is shown to be following him, and as the Doctor reads from his book, he suddenly becomes aware that what he is reading is exactly what is happening to Rory, himself, Amy and now River Song (yes, she’s back but this episode is not about her, it’s about the relationship of the Ponds) at that moment. That story book, then becomes what the rest of the plot builds itself upon; for the more that Eleven and Amy read ahead, the more set in stone (pun not intended) Rory’s fate becomes… it’s another time-twisting, head scratching tale from Steven Moffat (his favourite, I’m sure) as he examines how much time can really be rewritten, and what makes a fixed point in time, fixed.

Actually more than  a few people who have watched this episode have commented on how powerless and almost useless Eleven becomes when he realises what is happening is unavoidable; there’s two scenes in particular that stand out in my mind more than others. First when Eleven tells Amy to stop reading ahead in the Melody Malone book, it might help them find Rory, but what if she reads that Rory dies – once it’s written, once Eleven knows it will happen, he believes it will be unavoidable. The second scene is more powerful, and focuses on Eleven and River Song – trying to get spoilers without reading the full book, Amy suggests the chapter titles; her suggestion saves Rory, but Eleven spies one titled “Amelia’s Final Farewell” – this moment breaks Eleven; and he becomes a creature of impotent rage, powerless, angry, hurting. River serves a gentle counterpoint at this moment…

“I know that face. Doctor, tell me what’s wrong!” 

And the reason is, he is powerless. He knows that sooner or later, all his companions will leave him; the only questions have ever been how and when. But seeing it written down, the Timelord, the ageless God, is out of control of the situation. Well played, Matt Smith.

Let’s talk about River for a moment; this is a delightful return to some of her more flirty roots. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed last seasons story about Melody Pond/River Song, but I’m very glad to see a return to the in and out and companion, that flirts and brings out a new side to the man she loves (I did enjoy the Doctor’s final checks as he goes to meet his wife). She’s not here though for more on her story though; this as much as her saying goodbye to her parents as it is for Eleven saying goodbye to his best friends.

But it’s also the revelations she brings about; she’s now Professor Song (the Library comes ever closer) and she’s also been pardoned, a long time ago, for the murder of the best man she ever knew, because apparently, he never existed. We’ve had some hints of this so far this season (Dinosaurs on a Spaceship) but here it is confirmed that Eleven has been going around and deleting knowledge about himself from databases… 

“You told me I got too big…”

And now let’s talk about the Ponds; oh little Amelia Pond, how you’ve grown. You were a little girl two and a half years ago, then you ran away with a strange Raggedy Man on the eve before your  wedding to the man you love. You saw opportunity and adventure and you took it, and then when you apparently lost the man you love (Amy’s Choice) you chose to risk death because a life without him, without Rory Williams, was too much to bear 

I suppose, thinking about it, the way this story is set up, your choice was always going to be unavoidable.

Rory Williams, from the moment he’s touched by an Angel and thrown back in time, you worry about his fate. When we’re in the apartment block, and Team TARDIS, sees another version of Rory, old and dying in bed, coupled with Eleven turning away from the scene, not wanting to watch even though he’s seen too much already, his fate seems certain. And then Amy Pond, sorry, Williams, steps in – there’s a chance, a slim, near impossible chance, that if Rory can escape this fate, it would create a paradox, which would wipe the apartment block, the Weeping Angels from existence and stop the whole chain of events from ever occurring in the first place.

Like grabbing the hand of the man she loves, she takes this chance and Rory embraces it with her and they escape to the roof (enter the Statue of Liberty as a giant sized Weeping Angel; it’s cute but don’t think about it too much…) and then we get a touching, emotional scene between the lovers… Rory knows they cannot escape, at least not together, the Angels want him, but if he dies now, jumping off the edge of the building, causality is cheated, the paradox is created, and he might live again.

“For you, I can do anything.”

Amy chooses, of course, to fall with him; there are no guarantees, only hope, and she will not live a life without the man she loves 

“Together. Or not at all.”

Success! The paradox is created, everything resets and we find ourselves back in 2012, the whole of Team TARDIS together again. Naturally.

And then divided forever. Naturally.

A lone Weeping Angel has survived the paradox. It has found the team and once again Rory is thrown back in time; no big goodbye, just here and then gone. Eleven cannot follow in the TARDIS. Too many time distortions, a paradox that shouldn’t exist. He is so sorry, Amelia will have to live without her Centurion. But she won’t. She can’t, and much as before, she chooses to follow her man over the edge into the past through an Angels touch where they can live out their lives together…

That scene on the rooftop is really Rory, and by extension Arthur Darvill’s, goodbye scene. He plays it very confidently; he is funny, charming, brave and loving – Rory has always been capable of the greatest feats for his one true love, and his willingness to sacrifice himself for her has always been his best trait. It’s a damn shame we are robbed of a tender/emotional farewell for his character with Eleven and it’s not something I would have call a necessary move either. 

But then we don’t always get what we want, and I think that lack of satisfaction can be a good thing in some ways – always leave us wanting more.

And then there’s Amy’s goodbye; she gets two really.

There’s the moment before she chooses to follow Rory into the past, without Eleven or River, is a powerful one and Karen pulls at all the right heartstrings. It’s very quick, it’s very sudden; she holds her hand out to her daughter, and tells her to look after her husband, she has no time for heartfelt speeches. There’s just a reaction in the heat of the moment – it’s very Amy Pond, and it’s also very right given everything that has come before.

And then there’s her epilogue, her afterword of sorts. It’s very sweet; it’s not a particular long one but it carries long after she’s finished speaking. It’s the last page of the Melody Malone novel (early on the Doctor makes point of ripping out the last page, he doesn’t like endings you see), so Eleven reads it to himself, back in Central Park (bookends, get it?) as she tells him they were happy, and gives him the words he needs to move on, and then we get a very nice call back to the start of little Amelia Ponds journey – another story at an end.

“Hello old friend. And here we are. You and me, on the last page.”

I suppose thinking about it, the fact that this is a story, and this episodes hinges around a book that tells their fate, is what Steven Moffat’s been writing about all along; Eleven was always Amy’s Raggedy Man, he came back to life after rebooting the universe through telling Amy his story as a fairytale that she would remember on her wedding day; and here it is again, in black and white. The last page of this story, of Amelia Ponds story.

And that’s that – it’s not an all out, universe saving, explosion filled affair; it’s a much more emotional and personal story; I loved Eleven’s selfishness at full force as Amy chooses to go back with her husband at the end of the story, he almost begs her to stay with him, and it brings a real sense of irony to their lovely banter at the start of the episode where she jokingly suggests that she needs to get a babysitter for him.

Am I entirely happy with their exit? I know it came at the right time and I’m definitely looking forward to a new companion, and the new story just waiting to be told… Personally I don’t think it thematically fits with what came before; Amy and Rory struggling to adapt to a life half in and half out of the TARDIS… but I suppose there’s some irony in having that choice taken away from them…

For this reviewer, I would have been far more satisfied, if after this last adventure, after surviving against all the odds once more, Amy chooses to leave the TARDIS life to never have to face the chance of losing her husband again. Her sacrifice for him if you like.

It also makes some thematic sense given that, given that we’ve had a few references to how Amy is unable to have any more children due to the events of “A Good Man Goes to War” I thought we might be heading into territory where she becomes miraculously pregnant and chooses not to potentially have another incident where her baby is taken from her… or given that the episode is set in New York and the newly regenerated Melody Pond/River Song from the end of “Day of the Moon” would end up there in the 60’s, perhaps both Amy and Rory would end up in a  timey-wimey shenanigan where they DO end up raising her as a young girl, in the 60s, and are also responsible for bringing her over to England to live in Leadworth with their younger selves! Phew!

Complicated? Yes! But I really thought that’s where we were heading…!

This ending though did give us some beautiful moments; all the aforementioned, but particularly the powerless Eleven scene as he rages against his inability to avoid their fate, and some very quiet but personally affecting scenes as River reveals how badly the Doctor deals with the aging of his friends (did he really not notice her glasses, or was he pretending not to notice to not show how uncomfortable it made him?), and his distaste for endings…

At the end of the day, their ending is now written. I have questions (how does the Melody Malone book get into Eleven’s pocket?!), I have quibbles (why can’t he just go and look them up in New York in 1940?!) but I can also use my own reasoning; perhaps Eleven chooses not to go looking for them, he’s left them behind once for their own good (The God Complex), why can’t he do so again?

What I do know is that I was moved by this episode; it told a very different story to the best episode of this series so far, Asylum of the Daleks, but it was no less powerful, or affecting, if anything it was more so; and I will miss both Rory and Amy, Arthur and Karen.

And I think that’s all I need – bravo Mr Moffat, congratulations Arthur and Karen.

4 and a half last pages sitting in picnic hampers out of 5.

Next Time

Christmas. The Doctor. Jenna-Louise Coleman. How many weeks is that?!

Feedback 

Do you agree with me? Do you disagree? Let us know, we love a good discussion here at Sci-Fi Heaven!

 

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Review: Revolution S01E02 Chained Heat

In Brief:  Better, but still some way to go.

In Detail:  After last week’s pilot, I wasn’t holding huge amounts of hope when I sat down to watch the second episode of Revolution.  It was formulaic, predictable and the pacing wasn’t great.

This week showed improvement in some areas, but worsening weaknesses in others.

I felt the pacing was stronger.  Splitting Charlie and Miles from the others has helped speed things up, and seeing more of Munroe alongside three other plot lines has made the show feel more complex and interesting than it had.

I think the strongest two characters so far are Miles and Giancarlo Esposito’s great portrayal of the militia captain.  I’m looking forward to learning more about Grace, and the attack on her by someone known only as Randall only made that section of the plot more interesting.  Furthermore, Nora seems like a strong character – and her implied history with Miles will surely come to light in later episodes.  I think the show needed her introduction, and I’m glad it’s come along quickly.

The major problem remains Tracy Spiridakos.  She cannot act.  She seems completely out of her depth in this show.  She isn’t helped me nauseating writing of the character.  It feels like there’s been some feministic empowerment attempted her, infusing her character with a desire to be strong and meaningful, but it’s at the complete detriment to common sense.  She’s a nuisance, she’s irritating, and to be honest, I wish she weren’t in the show.  I’m all for having a female lead, but not Tracy Spiridakos.

The beautiful filming remains, although the reliance on the action scenes with loads of sword-fighting will quickly get boring.  I thought the assault on the Militia prison was good, although the fight scene could have been half as long.  I’m not sure what they add when they run for over a minute, especially if it’s just killing and combat without stages and progression of battle to keep it interesting.

The standout performer so far, Giancarlo Esposito.

Furthermore, I’m not sure what the flashbacks are adding to the show.  They’re good, sure, but they just feel a little obtuse.  They stick out a little, like a very sore leg.  They’re interesting, mostly, but they feel like a furious attempt to add some character to Charlie.  The infant Charlie is a better actor than Tracy Spiridakos, coincidentally, so I guess that can’t be too bad.

There’s enough here plot wise to keep me watching.  The more we see of David Lyons the better, he’s just such a tremendous actor.  They just need to sort Charlie asap,  and keep the plots interesting (easier said than done).  It also wouldn’t hurt if Danny got off the back of that truck sometime soon, but I guess we can’t have everything can we?

As a closing thought, I hope the show doesn’t make getting the power back on its primary focus for the duration of its run.  I feel the show could do that for a season, maybe two, but partial restoration of power, and watching people re-industrialise and adapt, would make for very interesting viewing.  Unfortunately, I can see the show messing around with these mysterious stones and plot lines about the power for seasons without making significant headway.  That may be a pessimistic observation after just two weeks, and if it’s proved to be wrong then I’ll be delighted.

Since this was a marginal improvement over last week, I’m giving this three expensive sniper rifles out of five. 

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Review: Revolution S01E01

In brief: Beautifully made, but ultimately falls flat.

In depth: Revolution, NBC’s new post-apocalyptic sci-fi drama, is a real kettle of very mixed fish.

It’s got epic production all over it, courtesy of Bryan Burke and J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot.  But once you get past the visual splendour of the show, it’s easy to see that there’s suddenly not that much substance behind it.

The plots presented in the pilot are both formulaic and not overly exciting, and the pacing is so tedious that it’s difficult to get drawn into the show as it moves along.  Daddy dies, daughter resolves within seconds to travel the whole way to Chicago, taking along the obligatory overweight comic relief and scary step-mother, only one of whom has any charisma.  It didn’t enthuse me for the series to come.

There are certain actors in the cast who have plenty of talent.  David Lyons is responsible for one of the best acted scenes I’ve ever seen on television when he was in ER, but whether or not Revolution can correctly flex the acting muscle of its lead stars remains to be seen.  Specifically, I found Tracy Spiridakos to lack a lot of believability in the conviction of her performance.  This is a big, break-out role for her, and I can’t help but feel she’s got cast in it just because she’s “hot”.  It’s not that her acting was that bad, necessarily, but it was slightly flat, and when the whole show didn’t blow me away, it really needed one of the actors to sit up and take the bull by the horns, turning in a wonderful performance along the way.  Sadly, we didn’t get that.  Maybe in future weeks we will, but I don’t know if the show will last long enough.

There’s not much here to keep me coming back for me.  It took me a while to motivate myself enough to sit down and watch the pilot, and I don’t feel like I’m overly excited about the next episode.  The only vaguely sci-fi element of it is ‘the device’ that can turn power back on, but in all honesty, it’s like taking the mysterious element of Lennie James’ character in Jericho, but making it even less interesting.

Perhaps I have a certain cynicism attached to productions of these new American shows.  I’m skeptical that they’ll last more than half a season; I’m skeptical that the writers are willing (or capable, thanks to the networks) to take  risks.  I’m skeptical that the same faces keep getting cast ( such as Billy Burke from 24, Elizabeth Mitchell from Lost and David Lyons from ER) in all these network shows.  There are almost certainly capable actors out there who are gifted and could take a script like this and lift it to the next level.  Perhaps if the casting director behind Firefly got a hold of something like this, it wouldn’t feel quite as bland.

I’m at risk of descending into full-blown rant here, so I’ll dicuss what’s good about the show.

It is beautifully put together.  The scenes of overgrown cities and towns are atmospheric and believably set.  Furthermore, it’s just a great universe to set a show in.  The Fallout-3 style world has so much potential that I don’t think has been realised yet.  Hopefully Revolution will manage that, but for the time being I remain cynical.  Also, what’s the deal with everyone still having perfect hair and skin in a cosmetic free world?  Are Americans really that scared of ugly people on their screens?  Apparently.

I do want to know what’s going on, but only just.  The “mystery” is so idiot-proof and one dimensional, it’s barely a mystery.  This isn’t like Lost where a dozen strands could come together in infinite ways, at the moment, it’s just too predictable.  I don’t know what the mystery about the power will be, but I’d imagine it’ll be one of: an inside job from someone seeking to gain a lot of power/a government project gone wrong/private company or small group’s evil plot to take over the world.

I can’t help but agree with Mary Ann Johanson, who said that “Revolution is science fiction for people who don’t want to be bothered with any of that tedious thinking stuff that tends to go along with true science fiction”.  So far, that seems accurate.

Two and half flickering light bulbs out of five, on this one.