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Doctor Who: Thin Ice (Review)

“How is that a screwdriver?”

“In a very broad sense.”

“Well, how is it sonic?”

“It makes a noise.”

Pilot fish.

Thin Ice is a fairly solid historical adventure, one that takes a fairly conventional Doctor Who template and puts a slightly self-aware spin on it.

As with The Pilot and Smile, there is a decidedly nostalgic quality to Thin Ice. As with the two prior episodes, Thin Ice feels like a conscious throwback to the structure of the Davies era. Moffat’s final season as showrunner has opened with the classic present-future-past triptych that recalls Rose, The End of the World and The Unquiet Dead, or The Christmas Invasion, New Earth and Tooth and Claw or Smith and JonesThe Shakespeare Code and Gridlock. This is a very familiar and comforting pattern.

Hat’s off to him.

As with Smile before it, Thin Ice is built upon a stock plot. A series of mysterious disappearances lead the Doctor and his companion to one inescapable conclusion: there is a monster menacing Regency England. Thin Ice feels very much like the kind of episode that Mark Gatiss has been known to write, an affectionate historical depiction of an iconic chapter in British history like The Unquiet Dead, The Idiot’s Lantern or The Crimson Horror. Indeed, Thin Ice looks lavish, complete with all the costume drama trappings that one might expect.

However, much like Smile, there is a slight twist on the tale. Whereas Smile attempted to subvert the classic “machines gone awry” plot with a clumsy last-minute twist, Thin Ice instead makes a point to weave its commentary and theme through the familiar structure of the episode. Thin Ice might be a very conventional historical monster story, but it engages with themes of race and class that are often under-explored in these stories.

The time travelers who came in from the cold…

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The 250, Episode #12 – Blade Runner (#138)

More human than human.

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, The 250 is a fortnightly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every second Saturday at 6pm GMT, with the occasional bonus episode between them.

This time, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.

A science-fiction film noir set against the backdrop of Los Angeles 2019, Blade Runner is a cult classic interrogating questions of what it means to be human. Rick Deckard is a blade runner for the Los Angeles Police Department, a specialist tasked with tracking down artificial humans known as “replicants”, but who finds himself questioning his own humanity.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 138th best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

podcast-bladerunner

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Inquisition (Review)

Inquisition is a superb piece of television, and a highlight of the sixth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

It is a very clever extrapolation of various themes and ideas that have been bubbling across the length and breadth of the series, particularly concerns about what happens when incredible power is concentrated in institutions that find themselves under threat. One of the underlying assumptions of the Star Trek universe is that mankind is somehow different than any other sentient life form, somehow more enlightened and more idealistic than the other major powers that make up the broader shared universe.

Luthless.

Deep Space Nine has always been wary of this assumption, in part because it is frequently made with no real exploration of what specifically makes mankind more evolved and more compassionate than the Romulans or the Klingons. More than that, Deep Space Nine has been openly suspicious of that idea because of the moral complacency involved. If Star Trek assumes that mankind is so special and so unique that it has evolved past all of its darker impulses, the franchise has a massive blindspot that could be readily exploited.

This is nothing new. Although the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation leaned heavily into the idea of mankind as a hyper-evolved species with much to teach the wider cosmos, that series really came of age when it followed this train of thought to its logical conclusion in The Measure of a Man. A society that deems itself beyond moral reproach is capable of anything, because it lacks the introspection to really consider the moral weight of its actions. Even in peacetime, the Federation was only a single court case away from re-instituting slavery.

Imperialist leather.

Inquisition is very much a logical extension of this idea. Beyond the sprawling epic six-episode opening arc, the sixth season of Deep Space Nine arguably works best when it sits outside the Dominion War and explores the impact that the conflict has beyond the space battles. Statistical Probabilities ponders the war in numerical terms. Honour Among Thieves inquires about life in the underground and at the margins. In the Pale Moonlight touches on the backroom politics and the moral compromises. Inquisition looks at how the Federation itself has been changed by the war.

Like Homefront and Paradise Lost, Inquisition has aged well. Less than half a decade after the episode originally aired, the United States would be trying “enemy combatants” in secretive military tribunals, detaining suspected terrorists without trial in secretive holding facilities, and engaging in “enhanced interrogation” including sleep deprivation to make subjects more pliable. Although the production team could have no idea at the time, the image of a dark-skinned man being paraded in irons is a lot more evocative two decades after the fact.

“Not quite the parade that I had in mind.”

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Star Trek: Voyager – Vis á Vis (Review)

Well, it was nice while it lasted.

The fourth season of Star Trek: Voyager had a nice little strand of continuity running through the fourth season, from the discovery of the relay stations and first contact with the Hirogen in Message in a Bottle through to the reaching of an accord with the Hirogen in The Killing Game, Part II. That six-episode run had demonstrated a remarkable attention to detail on the part of the production team. Even the relatively stand-alone episode Retrospect alluded to the ending of Prey and the threat of the Hirogen lingering from Hunters.

Ch-ch-changes…

However, Vis á Vis represents a return to business as usual for the series. It is a light stand-alone episode that completely eschews any sense of continuity or character development. Credited to production assistant Robert J. Doherty, Vis á Vis feels like a weird throwback to the middle of the second season, a retrograde character-driven episode rooted in a version of Tom Paris that has not existed since Investigations at the absolute latest. The result is a weird body-swapping episode where the regular cast member seems out of character to begin with.

Vis á Vis is an outdated Voyager episode, even beyond the lame body-swap premise.

Grease is not the word.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night (Review)

Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night once again brushes up against the limits of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night is essentially two episodes wrapped up in one. Most basically, it is a character-driven melodrama that focuses on Kira and her relationship to her mother. Dark secrets are unearthed, and betrayals are revealed. Kira finds that she is much closer to Dukat than she once believed, and finds her own moral certainty tested as she confronts the reality of who her mother was and the compromises that she had to navigate in the context of the Cardassian Occupation. It is a bold and provocative episode, daring and unsettling.

Everybody has scars.

However, Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night is also trying to be an exploration of the kind of moral compromises necessary against the backdrop of the Cardassian Occupation, about the toll that such a horrific event inflicts upon a population. It is a tale of sexual slavery and brutality, about manipulation and abuse. It is a tale about power and violence, and how those aspects of an enemy occupation do not always manifest in brute force. This is story about the scars that such horrors leave. This is a clumsy episode, revealing the firm limits that exist within Deep Space Nine.

Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night does not work as well as it should, suggesting that there are some stories that Deep Space Nine simply cannot tell.

Screening her calls.

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Non-Review Review: Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

The most appealing aspect of the original Guardians of the Galaxy was its awareness of its arrested development.

James Gunn and Nicole Perlman crafted an ode to juvenile nostalgia, anchored in a protagonist who found himself drifting away from Earth following the loss of his mother. Superhero movies work best as extended metaphors or homages, as a vehicle to render the human experience in operatic terms. Guardians of the Galaxy was the tale of a young man who had lost touch with reality in the moment that he lost his mother, and who had escaped into an acid dream of eighties space opera tropes.

Mohawking his wears…

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 works best when it remembers this. If the first film explored Peter’s retreat from the death of his mother, then the second explores his relationship with his absentee father. Once again, the film is saturated with eighties iconography. Early in the film, Peter confesses that he used to pretend that David Hasselhoff was his father. It is hard to tell whether he is trading up or trading down when he meets a bearded Kurt Russell.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 has a very straightforward set of character and thematic arcs. The movie maintains a clear throughline, focusing on the relationship between fathers and sons. The film is not subtle, even working in Cat Stevens’ Father and Son. Of course, that archetypal relationship has been explored repeatedly and thoroughly within mainstream pop culture and particularly superhero cinema. Nevertheless, it provides a clear focus to Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, a sense of momentum and direction.

Turn up the volume.

This throughline is essential, because Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 suffers from significant bloat. The second act of the film is a mess, one compounded by a number of questionable creative decisions that seem to have been made because these beats are expected from the second film in a blockbuster franchise. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 follows the science-fiction sequel playbook just a little too well, occasionally losing sight of its characters and the chemistry between them.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 does not work as well as Guardians of the Galaxy. In large part, this is because it feels like a self-conscious sequel rather than an organic extension of the original film. James Gunn never forgets what worked about the original film, but he also cannot resist the urge to go larger with it.

A hole lot of trouble…

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Doctor Who: Smile (Review)

Smile is a retro future thriller updated for the twenty-first century. It is 2001: A Space Odyssey and Logan’s Run by way of Ex Machina or The Girl With All the Gifts.

On the surface, Smile is the story of a rogue computer program seeking to enslave or destroy mankind. Popular culture is littered with that particular nightmare, a sentient AI that embarks upon patricide; Skynet from The Terminator, Alpha 60 in Alphaville. Indeed, Doctor Who has a rich history of playing with the trope; the sentient computer in The Keys of Marinus, B.O.S.S. from The Green Death, WOTON from The War Machines, P7E from Underworld. It is a classic science-fiction trope, and Smile plays with the idea of help robots becoming self-aware and murderous.

Bad bots.

Indeed, even the aesthetic of the episode consciously evokes those retro stories. Smile was filmed in Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences, a beautiful architectural marvel defined by its smooth white surfaces and peaceful atmosphere. It feels very sterile and very clean, its minimalism evoking the set designs of those classic films and its relative lack of colour harking back to the time when Doctor Who was broadcast in black-and-white. For most of its runtime, Smile feels like a very old-fashioned piece of science-fiction.

However, around the halfway point, a shift takes place. All of a sudden, the smooth whites of the city give way to the grim industrial earth tones of the rocket. The episode seems to jump forward to gritty late seventies and early eighties science-fiction, the “used future” of Star Wars and Alien. As the episode continues, it pushes even further. Ultimately, it becomes a sly subversion of the archetypal “robot rebellion” story, instead exploring the implications of that narrative. The Vardi are transformed from renegade robots to freed slaves. It is a clever twist, albeit somewhat rushed.

Character arcs.

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