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The Defenders – Royal Dragon (Review)

Royal Dragon might just be the best episode of The Defenders. It is also the smallest.

Royal Dragon is in many ways the runt of the litter. It is an episode relatively low on action beats, particularly given that it is sandwiched between the closing scenes of Worst Behaviour and the opening scenes of Take Shelter. It also has a relatively small primary cast. There is no sign of supporting players like Colleen Wing, Misty Knight, Trish Walker, or Claire Temple. The episode also confines most of the four heroes to one location for the bulk of the runtime, even if Jessica Jones gets to take a breather. It could easily be the “bottle” episode.

Hero shot.

Royal Dragon is also an episode that accomplishes relatively little in terms of plot momentum or forward movement. There are no major revelations in the episode, with a lot of the exposition covering information that the audience already knows from the other four shows. In some ways, Royal Dragon feels like a void at the centre of the season. It does not tangibly push the season forward. In many ways, the cliffhanger is arguably just a retread of the ending to Worst Behaviour; these four heroes, standing together against impossible odds.

At the same time, Royal Dragon luxuriates in this space and this emptiness. It is an episode that essentially locks its four leads together in a confined space for most of the runtime, which affords the writing staff the opportunity to have the characters slow down and process what has happened to them, to bounce off one another. Royal Dragon allows for the first extended interactions between various combinations of these four players.

A taste of teamwork.

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Characters in Search of an Ending: Prestige Television and Literary Adaptation

The possibilities of prestige television seem limitless.

This is obvious just looking at the creative talent embracing the opportunities of the medium. Director Jane Campion observed, “The really clever people used to do film. Now, the really clever people do television.” It seems fair. Woody Allen has a television series at Amazon. Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon headlined Big Little Lies. Cary Fukunaga directed all eight episodes of the first season of True Detective, starring Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey. Quentin Tarantino reflected, “If ever there’s been a chance for somebody to truly do a filmed novel, it’s in this area.”

There is a sense that prestige television has come to occupy the space that used to be given to mid-tier mid-range movies, thrillers and character studies that were too small to compete with the blockbusters but also weren’t an easy fit for the traditional Oscar season. Television is arguably the place to go for smart character-driven narratives telling adult stories in a restrained and considered manner. It is an interesting shift that has in some ways redefined the relationship between film and television.

Part of this has seen an increased emphasis on book-to-television adaptations. In the past, the default path for audio-visual adaptations of successful novels has been from the page to the silver screen, cinematic takes on iconic and memorable pieces of fiction. After all, countless Best Picture winners have been adaptations of popular novels or short stories; No Country for Old Men, Million Dollar Baby, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, The English Patient, Forrest Gump, Silence of the Lambs. A lot of blockbusters are inspired by comic books or young adult novels.

However, as televisual storytelling has grown more complex and ambitious, producers and writers have increasingly looked to the storytelling opportunities afforded by the smaller screen. Television offers more space for writers and directors to tell their stories, to expand out novels with complex mythologies or epic scope. The gaps that had existed between film and television, in terms of budget and talent, are rapidly closing. It is entirely possible for a televisual adaptation of a beloved novel to have a list of credible writers and directors, and recognisable on-screen talent.

Still, as much as this shift might represent an important step forward in the development of television as an artform, it also illustrates some of the problems that still exist in how producers approach the medium. While television shows can do a lot of things that novels can do, they still struggle in one respect. Television shows have yet to truly embrace the power of brevity and the weight of a proper ending.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Covenant (Review)

Covenant is a flawed and fascinating episode.

In its own way, although obviously a much less extreme manner than The Siege of AR-558, this is an episode that could only have been produced on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. This is not simply down to matters of continuity, and how the episode ties into the mythology of the series. More specifically, it is an exploration of religious themes and ideas that is only really possible within the framework of this particular Star Trek spin-off. It is difficult to imagine Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Voyager tackling the idea of religious cults so effectively.

Altaring his plans.

Part of this is down to a lingering suspicion that the other Star Trek shows subtly (or not so subtly) consider all religions to be cults. After all, shows like The Return of the Archons, The Apple, For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the SkyJustice, Who Watches the Watchers? and Devil’s Due left little room for ambiguity. The other Star Trek series seem downright hostile to the idea of religious belief, even if episodes like The Cloud and Sacred Ground might suggest a more open-minded approach to spirituality.

Deep Space Nine has generally been more willing to engage with the idea of religious belief as something that is worthy of exploration and consideration, something that is for an individual to determine on their own terms. Some characters on Deep Space Nine are explicitly atheist, like Jadzia Dax or Odo. Some characters hold strong religious beliefs, like Kira or Nog. Some characters believe in spiritual traditions without ever seeming particularly devote, like Worf. Some characters even evolve over the course of the series, like Sisko.

Preach out and touch faith.

This willingness to accept multiple facets and forms of religious belief allows Deep Space Nine to construct a story like Covenant. In any other Star Trek series, Covenant would seem like a knee-jerk dismissal of religious faith and organised belief, the tale of how a group of Bajorans were swindled by a charismatic leader with tragic consequences. It would be read as a generic condemnation of religious belief, an endorsement of an atheistic worldview that has developed beyond the need for such superstition.

Instead, Covenant is something more interesting and nuanced than that. It is an episode about a particular kind of belief, about a particular sort of religion. It is an episode about the dangers of a very particular form of worship. It is an episode about the perils of religious cults, but one which understands the distinction between that and other forms of spirituality.

He hasn’t a prayer.

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Doctor Who: Oxygen (Review)

Like every worker everywhere, we’re fighting the suits.

– the Doctor about sums it up

In space, EVERYONE can hear you scream…

Oxygen plays very much like a companion piece to Thin Ice earlier in the season. Both are essentially stories about monstrous capitalism, from nineteenth century London through to the depths of outer space.

Indeed, Oxygen pitches itself as something akin to a late seventies or early eighties science-fiction film, in terms of aesthetic and politics. The episode’s production design recalls the “used future” of films like Star Wars, while the heavy criticism of capitalism invites comparison to films like Alien or Outland. Indeed, Oxygen even borrows from a similar strain of horror movies, tapping into the fear of zombies as the monstrous face of capitalism that can be traced back to Dawn of the Dead.

Station keeping.

Jamie Mathiesen has been one of the most consistently impressive writers of the Twelfth Doctor’s tenure, turning in impressive scripts for both Mummy on the Orient Express and The Girl Who Died, along with a genuine masterpiece in Flatline. Indeed, Oxygen is the most impressive episode in the stretch of the season, a bold and ambitious piece of allegorical science-fiction, wedded to a genuinely scary concept, top-notch production design, and any number of clever ideas.

Oxygen is a brilliant piece of work, and a reminder of just how effectively Doctor Who can blend its disparate elements into a satisfying whole.

Give him space to work.

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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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Iron Fist – Immortal Emerges From Cave (Review)

Immortal Emerges From Cave might just be the best episode of the first season of Iron Fist.

Of course, Immortal Emerges From Cave is not a good episode of television. It is bedevilled by all the other issues with Iron Fist, from inconsistent characterisation to dead-end subplots to pacing issues. It even adds a few new problems of its own, especially with a ham-fisted and ill-judged attempt to bring the character of Bride of Nine Spiders into live action. Immortal Emerges From Cave is unlikely to make much of an impression, and it certainly doesn’t rank with the other best episodes of the Marvel Netflix series.

“Three men enter! One man (or two men) leave!”

At the same time, Immortal Emerges From Cave is the episode of Iron Fist that perhaps comes closest to fulfilling its own ambition. Immortal Emerges From Cave is a relatively self-contained narrative in the middle of the season, in which Danny finds himself forced to compete in a tournament against the Hand in order to save an innocent life. It is a hokey premise, but one that leads to a series of fairly middling set pieces in which Danny Rand works his way through various “levels” in pursuit of his goal.

Immortal Emerges From Cave feels very much like some forgotten z-list direct-to-video martial arts film from the nineties, a pulpy and absurd excuse to string together a collection of fight scenes. The result is not spectacular by any measure, but it is far more entertaining than the meandering story being told around it. Immortal Emerges From Cave might not succeed on general terms, or even on its own terms, but it at least has a strong sense of its own identity. That is enough to put it ahead of the rest of the season.

Glowing reviews.

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Non-Review Review: Mindhorn

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2017.

The first half of Mindhorn is a pretty enjoyable British show business farce.

Richard Thorncroft is a failed British character, struggling to keep his career alive following a run on the cult eighties television show Mindhorn. Throncroft made his name playing the eponymous detective with a bionic eye that literally allowed him to see the truth. Inevitably Thorncroft ended up washed up and forgotten, a failed star crashing to Earth. When he is offered one last job, he is forced to return to Mindhorn both literally and figuratively. It is a fairly standard set-up, with Mindhorn reveling in Thorncroft’s lack of self-awareness and decency.

Not a patch on Bergerac.

Not a patch on Bergerac.

However, the second half of Mindhorn is something to behold, as this familiar set-up gives way to a high-energy surrealist farce.

Around midway through the film, Mindhorn makes a sharp pivot into something altogether more outlandish than the familiar British “failed celebrity” farce and evolves into something much less grounded and familiar. The result is one of the most enjoyable comedies in recent memory, and a cult film in waiting. As Thorncraft finds himself wading deeper and deeper into the chaos and insanity, Mindhorn feels like a psychological horror played as absurdist comedy. The result is nothing short of astounding.

King of the Beach.

King of the Beach.

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