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Doctor Who: The Ghost Monument (Review)

The Ghost Monument feels almost worryingly safe.

To be fair, it is almost churlish to complain about this. The Woman Who Fell to Earth seemed designed to assure audiences that the Chibnall Era would be a safe pair of hands, a stylishly produced piece of televisual science-fiction that visually upped the ante in terms of how Doctor Who looked and felt on the small screen. It was consciously designed to be safe and accessible to new viewers, to avoid anything that could be considered weird or strange.

Artful appearance.

By all accounts, this approach paid off. Reviews for the episode were largely positive. The ratings were spectacular, with Jodie Whittaker premiering to a larger audience than any Doctor since Christopher Eccleston and earning the series its highest ratings since the end of the Davies Era. There is a lot to recommend this relatively safe approach to Doctor Who, particularly following the ambition and experimentation of the Moffat Era.

Chibnall is very much adopting a back-to-basics approach. The Woman Who Fell to Earth demonstrated the way such an approach could work. This is the function of premiere episodes, particularly following a regeneration or a significant change behind the scenes. The goal is to comfort audiences still curious whether Doctor Who is the show that they love and to welcome those viewers who might be dipping their toes into the water. Rose and The Eleventh Hour did this as well, constructing tightly-wound accessible thrill rides.

Piecing it together.

However, the question then becomes “what about the second episode?” What happens after the premiere? Having welcomed both old and new audiences into the fold, what does a showrunner do next? In the case of both Davies and Moffat, the answer was to produce something ambitious and messy, something that showcased just how weird and strange the series could be. If the premieres lured viewers in, the following episodes suggested what that audience might be in for; consider the gonzo weirdness of The End of the World or The Beast Below.

The Ghost Monument is a much cleaner and much more streamlined episode than either of those two. It is an efficient action adventure that carries over a lot of the more effective elements of The Woman Who Fell to Earth. However, The End of the World and The Beast Below also suggested just how bizarre and wonderful Doctor Who could be, underneath their messiness. The Ghost Monument is simply effective.

Things went South (Africa) very quickly.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Repression (Review)

There is something almost obligatory about Repression, as if the production team have arrived at the point in every season where they are obligated to do a Tuvok-centric story but without any particularly strong ideas for that Tuvok-centric story. It is there because Tim Russ is a credited lead and Tuvok is part of the ensemble, and because there is a twenty-six episode season order to fill. It is not there because any writer thought that there was a story that needed to be told with Tuvok, some part of his psyche that needed to be illuminated.

The seventh season is populated with episodes like this, stories built around particularly characters in the most archetypal of fashions. Star Trek: Voyager is frequently criticised for recycling premises from other Star Trek series, especially Star Trek: The Next Generation, but the show is less often criticised for simply repeating itself. The supporting characters on Voyager don’t really have arcs, often simply having a handful of stories that the series dutifully cycles through on rotation.

“Another fine mess(hall) you’ve gotten us into, Tuvok…”

On Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, a marathon of character-centric episodes would reveal the slow and gradual evolution of the cast. Julian Bashir changes and evolves over his time on the series, from the generic any-character-will-do narratives of The Passenger and Melora into the weirder and more awkward Distant Voices through to his emergence as a distinctive person in Hippocratic Oath, Our Man Bashir and The Quickening. Bashir is not the same character in What You Leave Behind that he was in Emissary, and watching a chain of episodes based around Bashir would explain and explore that growth.

In contrast, a character-centric marathon on Voyager would be a much more frustrating experience, as the characters inevitably go through the same motion and repeat the same plots. This is particularly true in the seventh season episodes, where the obligatory character-focused episodes underscore how little these characters have actually and fundamentally changed since the first season. In Nightingale, Harry Kim is still insecure and lacking in experience. In Lineage and Prophecy, B’Elanna Torres is once again wrestling with her Klingon heritage. In Drive, Tom Paris is once again the careless flyboy who learns about responsibility.

“The more things don’t change…”

At the same time, Tuvok has always represented a very particular challenge for the writers, in that he doesn’t even really have an archetypal story in the same way that Torres or Kim or Paris does. Tuvok doesn’t have a “lesson” that he needs to learn over and over again, or a default factory setting that he can fall back to in order to learn that lesson. At least at the end of Extreme Risk or Juggernaut, Torres had learned that she should not let her more destructive impulses guide her actions, even if she would forget it and learn again. This allows for a character arc that can be repeated and reiterated. In contrast, Tuvok was generally well-adjusted and well-balanced.

As a result, stories featuring Tuvok tend to take something away from him and watch him struggle to return to normality. As a Vulcan, Tuvok is often stripped of his Vulcan reserve and forced to recover it. The results can be interesting and compelling, with Meld and Gravity ranking among the best episodes that Voyager ever produced. However, these episodes can also feel very trite and formulaic, often reducing Tuvok to a passenger in stories nominally focused on him: he drives a lot of the plot in Random Thoughts, but Torres in the focal character; Riddles is about something that happens to Tuvok, but focuses on Neelix.

Looking at things from a new perspective.

Repression is notably the show’s last Tuvok-centric story. It is also perhaps the most archetypal. As with episodes like Nightingale or Lineage, it is a collection of familiar tropes for a supporting cast member trotted out one last time before the show crosses the finish line. Repression is an episode that has clearly been assembled from a variety of earlier episodes focused on Tuvok, right down to plot points and individual scenes or costume choices; it is Random Thoughts meets Meld, with an extended final-act homage to Worst Case Scenario. All of which reduces Tuvok to a passenger in his own story.

This is a shame, as Repression works about as well as any episode built around its core premise has any right to it. Like Drive before it, there’s a certain pulpy thrill to its core premise that fits comfortably within the heightened retro sci-fi surroundings of Voyager. The story of a detective who is investigating himself, spreading subversive ideas through telepathic assault, Repression is a patently absurd bit of television which feels very much of a piece with earlier stories like Cathexis or Macrocosm or Darkling or In the Flesh. It works much better as a trashy late-night B-movie than as a character-centric narrative.

There’ll be Meld to pay for this.

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93. Reservoir Dogs (#76)

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

This time, Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.

Following a disastrous botched jewellery heist, what remains of a criminal gang meets at an abandoned warehouse. Unsure of who to trust and unable to determine what went wrong, these violent men quickly turn on one another while navigating a complex web of shifting loyalties.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 76th best movie of all-time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Non-Review Review: Black Panther

Black Panther is something special.

In a lot of ways, it is a very typical Marvel blockbuster. The familiar formula is in place, and the movie follows the rhythms that audiences have come to expect from these films. There is a certain tempo and structure to the film, the sort of clean efficiency that delineates most of the movies produced under the banner of Marvel Studios. For a film advertised using a remix of The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, it is striking how conservative Black Panther is.

The Panther Strikes!

However, there is a lot to be said for the film’s more understated revolutionary qualities, the depth of understanding that the production team bring to the adaptation. Black Panther is acutely aware of what it means to construct a superhero fantasy epic about an African prince who leads a utopian society in the context of 2017, and there is something reassuring in how confidently and efficiently the film works within that framework. It is not merely that the existence of Black Panther is important, it is that Black Panther‘s assertion of its identity is important.

Black Panther is superior blockbuster by any measure, constructed with a great deal of care and thought about what it means. Much like its title character, there is a sense that the weight of expectation is upon Black Panther, and the most remarkable thing about the film is how seriously it takes that obligation without ever feeling burdened.

Heavy lies the head that wears the cowl.

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Black Mirror – Black Museum (Review)

One of the more interesting aspects of Black Mirror‘s migration from Channel 4 to Netflix has been the subtle shift from British science-fiction horror towards American science-fiction horror.

The two episodes bookending the fourth season – USS Callister and Black Museum – exemplify this trend, episodes that would seemed very out of place when Black Mirror was “just” a quirky British anthology. USS Callister is obviously steeped in the iconography of a very American science-fiction institution, and while its male entitlement is not a uniquely American experience, that attitude has been more firmly tied into modern American politics than to  contemporary British politics.

Black Museum is even more overtly American, to the point that even the lead character’s British accent is revealed as a sham. The episode opens with a montage that practically screams “Americana!”, a big American car driving through a big American desert, a long stretch of road dwarfed by a seemingly infinite stretch of nothing, where even the jutting mountains provide a sense of impressive scale. Black Museum is set in the mythological America, a country so large that it occasionally seems to be nothing but nooks and crannies, populated with curiousities and eccentricities.

Black Museum unfolds within one such curiousity, a macabre collection of the grotesque and the ghoulish, a twenty-first century freak show run by a twenty-first century P.T. Barnum. However, over the course of the hour, the shape of Black Museum comes into focus. This is not merely a story embracing American trappings, it is also engaging with a distinctly American horror. Slowly, over the course of seventy minutes, Black Museum reveals itself as a science-fiction allegory about the exploitation of African American bodies and African American suffering; one of America’s original sins.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Living Witness (Review)

Living Witness is a fantastic piece of television, and a great example of what Star Trek: Voyager does best.

Living Witness is in many ways archetypal Star Trek, a story that uses the franchise framework to construct a powerful allegorical story that comments upon contemporary anxiety. It is a story that could easily have been told on any of the other franchise series, especially Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Enterprise, but it is a story told well. Living Witness is one of the highlights of the fourth season, and one of the strongest episodes from the seven-season run.

Command and conquer.

In many ways, Living Witness is the culmination of themes and ideas that have been bubbling through Voyager from the outset. Some of these elements are less than flattering, with the episode’s racial politics evoking the clumsiness with which the Kazon were handled. However, there is also a fascination with idea of history and how history functions in a world rooted in postmodernism and recnstruction. At the end of history, is the past up for grabs? Are facts anything more than pieces to be manoeuvred on a political chessboard?

Given this archetypal quality of Living Witness, how it reflects the themes and pet interests of Voyager, there is some irony in the fact that the episode does not actually feature a single regular character from Voyager. The regular cast appear as holographic representations of themselves, exaggerations and distortions. When the EMH appears almost half-way through the episode, he is explicitly identified as “a back-up programme”, and thus distinct from the version of the EMH who will appear in Demon or One.

Core principles.

In some ways, Living Witness confirms one of the more interesting aspects of Voyager, the fact that the characters are themselves largely irrelevant to the show and that the series is much more compelling as a framework to explore archetypal ideas. Living Witness is just one of several episodes that treat the regular characters as a secondary aspect of the show, almost as guest stars who have crossed over into a completely different series. Living Witness is very much of a piece with stories like Distant Origin or Course: Oblivion, or even Muse or Live Fast and Prosper.

Living Witness is a story about the thin line between history and mythology. In doing so, it consciously reframes Voyager as a story within a story, as concept more powerful as an archetype than as a material object. Living Witness images the ship and its crew as history elevated to mythology.

Any which Janeway but loose.

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Iron Fist – Bar the Big Boss (Review)

It’s impossible to talk about Iron Fist without talking about cultural appropriation.

There are multiple reasons for this. The most obvious are baked into the character himself, from his origin all the way back in Marvel Premiere as a white guy who travels to a mystical Asian city and becomes better at kung fu than any of the inhabitants before returning to America. There’s also very much the conversation that has been happening around the television series, which has prompted larger debates about the role of Asian performers and culture in Hollywood. Finally, there’s the fact that show so expertly puts its foot in its mouth.

Shaping up…

Bar the Big Boss is the perfect point at which to address this. Again, for multiple reasons. The most obvious is that it represents the last point at which the most obvious aspects of Asian exoticism are in play; barring the closing scene of Dragon Plays with Fire, this episode is the end of the Hand and K’un Lun as narrative forces in the context of the larger narrative. It is also an episode that effectively allows Davos to lightly touch upon the issue of cultural appropriation before brushing his concerns aside by turning him into a stock villain.

But, really, the issue is so firmly baked into the Iron Fist mythos that it is impossible to talk about in isolation.

Warding off evil spirits.

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