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Star Trek: Voyager – Friendship One (Review)

Friendship One finds Star Trek: Voyager trapped between its own past and the future of the larger Star Trek franchise.

Of course, there’s no small irony that that future would take the form of Star Trek: Enterprise, a prequel set almost a century before the original series and (to date) the television series set at the earliest point in the larger continuity. This gets at something very strange about the seventh season of Voyager, where it seems to be looking both back at and forwards to the past. In some ways, it is the ultimately literalisation of the “end of history” ambiance that pervades the series, articulated in stories like Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II. There is no future. There is just the past.

What ship can cause antimatter annihilation and has room for two people?
A friendship?

So Friendship One seems caught between two different versions of the past. In its most obvious sense, it is trapped in Voyager‘s own idea of the past. It is an atomic-era creature feature about the horrors of radiation, a pulpy fifties schlock-fest that feels of a piece with everything from Jetrel to The 37’s to Cathexis to Macrocosm to In the Flesh to Bride of Chaotica! This is the future as it looked in the fifties, the atomic (rather than “post-atomic”) horror. However, it also gestures very strongly towards Enterprise, even accidentally encapsulating some of the core anxieties of the fourth Star Trek spin-off in an eerily prescient manner.

The result is an episode that feels like it is suffocating in its own past, with no idea of how to chart a course forward.

Does anything really (anti)matter?

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Non-Review Review: X-Men – Dark Phoenix

It reflects the strange state of the modern multimedia landscape that X-Men: Dark Phoenix feels almost like a plucky underdog.

This is a major studio summer blockbuster with a budget of well over one hundred million dollars. More than that, it is the twelfth film in a series that has historically been both critically and commercially successful; the films have earned over $5.7bn dollars worldwide, eight of the twelve films have positive scores on Rotten Tomatoes, seven of those twelve have been popular enough to end on the Internet Movie Database‘s top 250 films of all-time. The current franchise stars a two-time Oscar winner. The last film in the series earned an Oscar nomination for its screenplay.

A hot property.

Dark Phoenix should be an event. Instead, it arrives with a relative whimper. The release date was pushed back repeatedly, first from November 2018 to February 2019, and then to June 2019. It has been hounded by largely unfounded industry gossip about terrible test screenings. It is tracking for the lowest opening weekend in the franchise. In the time between the film entering production and its eventual release, it has been somewhat overshadowed by news that Disney are to buy 20th Century Fox, and that this franchise will be rebooted.

“I am inevitable,” Thanos famously boasted in Avengers: Endgame, the literal manifestation of death and time who existed to be vanquished by the assembled heroes. He might have been speaking of the influence of Disney. Dark Phoenix crashes against that inevitability, shattering and snapping against those immovable objects. Dark Phoenix is a mess, a disorganised husk of a movie carved out in an editing booth and built from last-minute reshoots. However, it is not quite the disaster that it should be. Instead, it seems almost endearingly defiant, a blockbuster flavoured with passive aggression.

Raining on their parade.

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Jessica Jones – AKA Take a Bloody Number (Review)

AKA Take a Bloody Number is the penultimate episode of the season, and continues the process of narrowing the focus.

There is a sense that Jessica Jones is largely clearing away the clutter as it moves towards its final episodes. AKA Sin Bin found the show building to critical mass, and subsequent episodes have shrewdly decided to begin letting the air out slowly rather than bursting the balloon. AKA 1,000 Cuts resolved Jeri’s divorce subplot and killed off Hope Slottman. AKA I’ve Got the Blues disbanded the survivors’ group and took care of Will Simpson’s supersoldier plot. AKA Take a Bloody Number brings back Luke Cage, allowing the show to focus on the relationship between Luke and Jessica for the first time since AKA You’re a Winner! Luke seems to have missed the show’s climax, but he is still a matter than needs addressing.

jessicajones-takeabloodynumber29a

One of the strengths of Jessica Jones is a willingness to let its cast drift into and out of focus as the plot demands. Characters like Luke Cage and Jeri Hogarth are absent from consecutive episodes, and stretches of the season. This is likely due to actor availability issues, with Mike Colter soon to be headlining Luke Cage and Carrie-Anne Moss arguably the biggest star (and certainly the most recognisable “film” star) in the cast. Nevertheless, it does allow Jessica Jones a narrative expedience. Instead of having to constantly check in on various characters with a drip-feed of character development, the show can decide only to use them as is strictly necessary. It is a technique that works out quite well for the show. (Indeed, the show might have done better to adopt it with Kilgrave.)

AKA Take a Bloody Number works as a fairly streamlined piece of television, resisting the urge to escalate the scales (and the scope) of the story as it approaches its endgame. The climactic confrontation between Luke and Jessica is arguably just as effective as the climax of AKA Sin Bin, despite the smaller number of intersecting plot threads and involved characters.

jessicajones-takeabloodynumber10a

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X-Men: The End – Book Three: Men and X-Men (Review/Retrospective)

This May, to celebrate the release of X-Men: Days of Future Past, we’re taking a look at some classic and modern X-Men (and X-Men-related) comics. Check back daily for the latest review.

Chris Claremont struggles with endings. As a writer, Claremont works very well within the structure of a continuing narrative. His stories tend to resolve in such a way that story threads dangle, allowing him to pick up those threads for more stories. Claremont is very good at telling an on-going story, at keeping the wheels spinning and moving. One story leads to another, and that story leads to another. As The Dark Phoenix Saga wraps up Jean Grey’s arc, it introduces Kitty Pryde.

This isn’t really a problem on mainstream comic books. After all, Claremont wrote Uncanny X-Men for seventeen years, and it was structured as an on-going and evolving story. There are obvious “cut-off” points for certain sections of his run – The Dark Phoenix Saga and Inferno come to mind – but they never feel like they resolve everything. There are always just enough plot points carried over for the book to keep moving, to the point where saying “this run ends here” would involve chopping off significant story points.

.. in the name of love...

.. in the name of love…

Claremont’s difficulty with endings is reflected with the closure of his run on the titles in the early nineties. He left Uncanny X-Men with a minimum of ceremony. The book was handed from Chris Claremont to Fabian Nicieza in the middle of The Muir Island Saga. Claremont’s big goodbye to the title was the opening three-issue arc on adjectiveless X-Men, a story that found itself functioning as both a beginning and an end. In those three issue, it seemed like the only character arc Claremont resolved was that of Magneto.

So, it isn’t a surprise that Men and X-Men is a glorious mess. It is essentially one giant and protracted fight sequence between the X-Men and Shi’ar, drawing in cameos from across the breadth of X-Men history. The fact that this should be the last story told featuring these characters feels a little arbitrary, with quite a lot of Men and X-Men feeling like Claremont is running through a laundry list of things he needs to resolve before the curtain drops.

Flight of the Phoenix...

Flight of the Phoenix…

At the same time, there is something quite charming about Men and X-Men, as Claremont seems to suggest that this final gigantic superhero battle actually means very little in the grand scheme of things. Various plot points and threats resolve in whimpers rather than bangs, while Claremont suggests that this is an elaborate six-issue misdirection. We are not looking at what we should be looking at.

It’s the smaller moments that feel earned, even if the larger story around them is a complete mess.

One last stab at fixing everything...

One last stab at fixing everything…

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Ed Brubaker’s Run on Uncanny X-Men – Divided We Stand (Review/Retrospective)

This May, to celebrate the release of X-Men: Days of Future Past, we’re taking a look at some classic and modern X-Men (and X-Men-related) comics. Check back daily for the latest review.

Divided We Stand actually feels like the start of something interesting for Ed Brubaker’s run on Uncanny X-Men. It’s a story arc that heralds a bold new direction for Marvel’s merry mutants in the wake of Messiah Complex, taking the team out of their comfort zone and suggesting that Uncanny X-Men will be moving a little outside its comfort zone and trying something different. It’s a story arc that sees the team reflecting on the past and considering the future.

So, naturally, it is Ed Brubaker’s last solo arc on Uncanny X-Men.

A bad trip?

A bad trip?

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Nick Spencer’s Run on Ultimate Comics: X-Men (Review/Retrospective)

This May, to celebrate the release of X-Men: Days of Future Past, we’re taking a look at some classic and modern X-Men (and X-Men-related) comics. Check back daily for the latest review.

Strangely enough, it’s the second relaunch of the Ultimate comic book line that feels like it is finally dealing with Ultimatum. Jeph Loeb’s “kill ’em all and let editorial sort ’em out” event had served as the catalyst of a relaunch for the entire line, ending long-running books like Ultimate Spider-Man, Ultimate Fantastic Four and Ultimate X-Men. The line was re-tooled and re-focused and relaunched following that event.

However, that relaunch quickly fizzled out. Mark Millar’s run on Ultimate Comics: Avengers could not quite measure up to the dizzying heights of his original run on The Ultimates. Jeph Loeb’s Ultimate Comics: X shipped sporadically at best and his run on Ultimate Comics: New Ultimates was something of a mess. Meanwhile, Brian Michael Bendis continued his run on Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man as if nothing much had changed.

A song of ice and fire...

A song of ice and fire…

Oddly enough, it was the second relaunch that seemed to click. Coming out of The Death of Spider-Man, the slate was cleaned and the various books all got new beginnings. Jonathan Hickman took over Ultimate Comics: The Ultimates, Nick Spencer helmed Ultimate Comics: X-Men, while Brian Michael Bendis launched Miles Morales in a new volume of Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man. This was a very real shift in the status quo, and one that marked a clear departure from what came before, with bold new vision.

One of the more interesting attributes of the latest relaunch of the Ultimate line was the sense of heightened continuity between the various books. In particular, Jonathan Hickman’s run on The Ultimates overlapped quite heavily with Nick Spencer’s work on X-Men. As a result, the first year of each of the three titles seemed to be building towards Divided We Stand, a massive crossover between the various titles.

Sentinels-of-not-quite Liberty...

Sentinels-of-not-quite Liberty…

Spencer’s X-Men doesn’t work quite as well as Hickman’s Ultimates, suffering from the fact that nothing seems to get resolved. Dealing with a massive cast and an epic scope, Spencer’s Ultimate Comics: X-Men spends its first year establishing where all of its characters are and how their situations reflect on the larger story that is in motion. It’s an ambitious storytelling model, as Spencer crafts one big story from the ground (or the sewers) to the heights of the Oval Office, but it means that everything is barely set up before it is time to knock it down again.

Spencer’s Ultimate Comics: X-Men is a run with no shortage of great ideas and impressive scale, but one that suffers from the fact that the writer never gets to follow through on the world that he has built.

Shocking treatment...

Shocking treatment…

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Roy Thomas & Neal Adams’ X-Men – X-Men Omnibus, Vol. 2 (Review/Retrospective)

This May, to celebrate the release of X-Men: Days of Future Past, we’re taking a look at some classic and modern X-Men (and X-Men-related) comics. Check back daily for the latest review.

Roy Thomas and Neal Adams (with the odd fill-in here and there) brought the first era of the X-Men to a close. At the end of their run, editor Martin Goodman would cancel the title due to low sales, only to bring it back as a reprint magazine a few months later. The title would continue as a reprint magazine until the publisher decided to resurrect it with Len Wein and Dave Cockrum’s Giant-Sized X-Men and Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum’s subsequent revival of the original magazine.

The last stretch of issues on this initial run is fascinating. While it lacks the raw energy and sense of direction of Claremont’s early work on the title, it’s easy to argue that Thomas and Adams helped to pave the way for their successors. Thomas and Adams’ X-Men lacks focus and vision, but it does have its own quirky style. The duo would introduce and tease all sorts of ideas that would remain with the X-Men after the cancellation and into the revival.

Suit up...

Suit up…

It may be too much to credit Thomas and Adams with saving or redeeming the franchise – although, apparently sales were increasing during their run- but their influence on the creators that followed is obvious. There are a number of clever ideas and premises that were effectively introduced by the duo, which would become almost expected from an X-Men comic book. Even if it seemed like Thomas and Adams were really just making it up on the fly, their work fits quite comfortably with what would follow.

It may not have been enough to save the mutants at that moment in time, but one could argue that it did provide Claremont with a solid base to build from.

They certainly do...

They certainly do…

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