Flashback: ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ – “Encounter at Farpoint”

Trek TNG Farpoint 2

An all-new Starship Enterprise for a new ‘Star Trek’ venture…

Starring:  Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton, Denise Crosby, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, Brent Spiner, Wil Wheaton, John de Lancie, Michael Bell

Series created by:  Gene Roddenberry

Written by:  D.C. Fontana & Gene Roddenberry / Episode directed by:  Corey Allen / 1987

What’s the episode about?

Captain Jean-Luc Picard and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise find themselves placed on trial by a powerful alien entity and must prove that humanity is no longer a savage race as they attempt to solve the mysteries of the enigmatic Farpoint Station…

Retrospective

It’s hard to believe that Star Trek’s second –and highly successful – foray into television is now thirty years old.  Whilst the original voyages of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and the U.S.S. Enterprise are arguably Star Trek at its purist and best, for many it was Star Trek: The Next Generation that was their gateway drug to a vast science fiction universe and a worldwide phenomenon that endures today.

With the popularity of the original Star Trek cast’s big screen adventures (which hit fever pitch with the release of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home in 1986) a new series made for an easy sell – albeit a risky one when the concept meant introducing a whole new set of characters and an all-new Enterprise and their adventures in the 24th Century, almost 80 years after the times of Kirk and his crew.

Paramount television felt it was worth a shot and enlisted Gene Roddenberry to create this new iteration – Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Assembling some familiar faces in his production and writing staff including Star Trek producer Robert Justman and writers Dorothy ‘D.C.’ Fontana (who also served as head writer on the vastly underrated animated series) and David Gerrold (mastermind of fan favourite episode “The Trouble with Tribbles”), Roddenberry set out to perfect his vision of the future.

Originally intended as a single hour story, written by Fontana, “Encounter at Farpoint” was expanded into a two-hour premiere at the insistence of Paramount and the reticence of Gene Roddenberry who would add a framing plot to the overall story – coupling Fontana’s Farpoint Station mystery – where every visitor’s needs and requirements are miraculously and inexplicably catered for – with the Enterprise’s encounter with an all-powerful alien entity known as the ‘Q’.  With impressive special effects (that hold up well today in the series’ fully remastered Blu-ray release) and production design the result is, though not a fair reflection of how good The Next Generation would ultimately become, remains entertaining and enjoyable despite some of its hokey execution.

Trek TNG - Farpoint 1

Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) faces the charges of ‘Q’ (John de Lancie).

In its premiere, the characters fans would eventually come to know and love are not fully formed and the actors not immediately in the ‘groove’.  Despite this and the odd piece of cheesy or clunky dialogue, the cast of The Next Generation turn in respectable performances.  Patrick Stewart is a strong lead albeit the Captain Picard here is a little different from the Picard we see later on, being a more distant and irascible version of the character who happens to have no patience with children (the Enterprise ‘D’ compliment including crewmembers’ families).  Stewart receives solid support from Jonathan Frakes as First Officer – aka ‘Number One’ – Commander William T. Riker as well as the rest of the Enterprise crew, most notably Brent Spiner’s Lt. Commander Data, a Starfleet android who yearns to be human – the Pinocchio analogy aptly drawn on by Riker during their first meeting.

The crew is rounded out by Security Chief Lt. Tasha Yar (played by Denise Crosby, granddaughter of Bing and who would depart the series before the end of the first season), blind crewman Lt. Geordi La Forge (Roots’ LeVar Burton), Chief Medical Officer Doctor Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) together with her son Wesley (Wil Wheaton, of Stand By Me fame), Ship’s Counsellor and old flame of Riker, the empathic ‘Betazoid’ Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) and significantly – Klingon officer Lt. Worf (Michael Dorn), his race now at peace with the Federation.

As for the main antagonist, John de Lancie is quite simply superb as ‘Q’ and so well received that he would go on to reprise the role in several more episodes of The Next Generation in addition to appearances in future Trek spin-offs Deep Space Nine and Voyager.  Much like Picard, the Q of “Encounter at Farpoint” is quite different from the lighter, more comical version of the character we would see in later seasons and this earlier take on Q is much darker, more malevolent and a credible threat to the Enterprise and her crew which drives the high stakes drama, his ‘trial’ of humanity and their handling of the great mysteries of Farpoint facilitating the morality play aspect of the narrative which Star Trek fans had become accustomed to.

Not forgetting its roots, a highlight of “Encounter at Farpoint” is a cameo from DeForest Kelley as the elderly (human life expectancy greatly increased by the 24th Century), even more cantankerous Admiral McCoy in a wonderful little sequence between McCoy and Data that hands over the baton from one generation to the other and is a real treat for fans.

Beyond “Encounter at Farpoint”, the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation was a little shaky and uncertain but things began to improve in its sophomore year (which saw the introduction of iconic villains the Borg) and further refined with changes to the writing staff in the third season which saw the series become more character focused, Star Trek’s return to television would prove to be a huge success and The Next Generation would run for seven seasons (a total of 178 episodes) and spawn four feature films.  Along the way it would gain Whoopi Goldberg as a recurring guest star, pick up numerous Emmy Awards (as well as being nominated for several more – including Outstanding Drama Series in 1994) and launch a golden age of small screen science fiction.  Star Trek: The Next Generation demonstrated that the appeal and durability of the franchise was strong and is a series that continues to be loved all these years later.

Geek fact!  Riker and Troi were based on officers Decker and Ilia, characters who were to be part of the aborted 1970s Star Trek: Phase II series.  They would eventually be portrayed by Stephen Collins and Persis Khambatta in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

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The cast of ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ as they were in 1987.

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TV Review: ‘The Gifted’ S1 E01 “eXposed”

20th Century Fox launch their newest small screen X-Men offering…

The Gifted Prem

On the run: The lives of the Strucker family are turned upside down in Fox’s new ‘X-Men’ series ‘The Gifted’.

Starring:  Stephen Moyer, Amy Acker, Natalie Alyn Lind, Percy Hynes White, Coby Bell, Sean Teale, Jamie Chung, Blair Redford, Emma Dumont

Series created by:  Matt Nix

Written by:  Matt Nix / Directed by:  Bryan Singer

What’s it about?

When an incident at school forces teenagers Lauren and Andy Strucker to reveal that they have mutant abilities, the Strucker family find themselves on the run and hunted by the authorities…

Episode review

Following the launch of Legion earlier this year, 20th Century Fox Television add another X-Men universe show to the roster with The Gifted, developed by Burn Notice creator Matt Nix with an enjoyable, if slightly flawed, series premiere.

Unconnected to Legion and taking place apart from the X-Men films, The Gifted is unshackled by the demands of shared universe canon that can sometimes by more of a curse than a blessing.  It’s a wise move in this instance given the loose, unclear approach to continuity of the big screen X-Men outings – The Gifted establishes a world where mutant groups the X-Men and the Brotherhood have disappeared, leaving the series free to chart its own course.

The premise is nothing new (mutants are of course still hated and feared) and The Gifted is more of a straightforward comic book action adventure series in the vein of Heroes or Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. than the arty head-tripping experience Legion is, yet it certainly doesn’t try to be anything else other than an entertaining watch.  As Reed and Caitlin Strucker, Stephen Moyer (True Blood) and Amy Acker (Person of Interest) are capable leads, along with their mutant teenage children Lauren (Natalie Alyn Lind) and Andy (Percy Hynes White), their characters are likeable and have potential but it doesn’t feel as though we get to know all that much about them and their backgrounds in this first episode in order to really root for them.  For example, we learn from the outset that Reed works as a mutant prosecutor but “eXposed” doesn’t quite delve into this properly and explore more deeply the fallout and consequences of him learning that his offspring have mutant abilities.  Hopefully this will all come later as the series progresses and the writers have had more opportunity to develop the principal characters.

Whilst there are no ‘A-list’ X-Men present (nor was it expected), the mutant underground sought by the on-the-run Strucker family does include fresh takes on iconic characters – Eclipse (Sean Teale), Polaris (Emma Dumont), Thunderbird (Blair Redford) and Blink (Jamie Chung).  They’re obviously not literal spandex-clad translations of their comic book counterparts but are a welcome addition that solidifies the show’s X-Men credentials.

The Sentinel Services and their spider-like drones are also a nice twist on established lore, a television budget pretty much ruling out the inclusion of the gigantic mutant-hunting robots seen in X-Men comics (and reimagined in X-Men: Days of Future Past).  Likewise, mutant powers are somewhat restricted and less elaborate than what we’ve seen on the big screen but that’s understandable and director Bryan Singer – who has helmed four X-Men feature films (including two of the most popular, X2 and Days of Future Past) – brings skill and experience in utilising the tools available to him and where “eXposed” may falter a little in characterisation it compensates for with relatively tense pacing and satisfying action beats.

With its premiere, The Gifted establishes an interesting set-up, the fugitive scenario promising plenty of excitement and the intolerance and prejudice towards mutants offering some social relevance in these sadly turbulent times.  There’s work to do with the characters but if the writers are able to flesh them out and explore them more deeply in episodes to come then The Gifted could prove to be a solid accompaniment to Legion and a worthy addition to Fox’s X-Men universe.

The bottom line:  Despite some initial shortcomings, the season premiere of The Gifted is non-the-less entertaining and shows potential for the series ahead.

The Gifted airs in the UK Monday nights on Fox UK.  U.S. viewers can catch it on Fox every Sunday.

Film Review: ‘Blade Runner 2049’

Director Denis Villeneuve returns to the bleak future envisioned in Ridley Scott’s seminal masterpiece…

Spoiler-free review 

Blade Runner 2049

Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford star in ‘Blade Runner 2049’, from Warner Bros. Pictures.

Starring:  Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Jared Leto, Ana de Armis, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Dave Bautista

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve / Written by: Hampton Fancher and Michael Green / 163 minutes

What’s it about?

‘Blade Runner’ Agent K’s investigation of a long-hidden secret leads him to former Agent Rick Deckard who hasn’t been seen in thirty years…

In review

It’s always tricky to follow up a classic, perhaps even more risky when the gap between films stretches across the decades.  Thirty-five years after the release of Ridley Scott’s celebrated science fiction detective noir, Blade Runner (based on the Philip K. Dick novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”) comes the forever mooted sequel from Arrival and Sicario director Denis Villeneuve – Blade Runner 2049.  Whilst it doesn’t surpass Scott’s original, Villeneuve’s film deftly captures the look and feel of Blade Runner without merely imitating it, the filmmaker adding his own elements that serve as a progression, or continuation, of the ideas envisioned by Scott back in 1982.  This is one of the most visually striking pieces of cinema to grace the screen in recent years, the expansive, sprawling future Los Angeles cityscapes, seedy side-streets and sand drenched wastelands presented on a hugely epic scale that begs to be viewed on the largest of cinema screens.

Taking place some thirty years after the events of the original Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049 introduces us to Agent K (Ryan Gosling) who is in the same line of work as Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard – a ‘Blade Runner’, assigned by the LAPD to hunt down and ‘retire’ (i.e. execute) renegade androids known as ‘Replicants’.  World-weary and asking questions of his place in the world of a rundown, hopeless future, K’s latest mission finds him drawn into a deep and dark mystery that poses a great threat to mankind.  To say much more would spoil the goods but the story ultimately leads to a meeting of the new and older generation of Blade Runners as K seeks out the elusive Deckard (Harrison Ford).

Ryan Gosling takes the centre stage in a nuanced and introspective performance that makes K feel like an uncanny yet natural successor to Deckard whilst making his own mark on the beaten-up and worn-down archetype of this dystopic detective story.  Heavily laden by the demands of his profession and his LAPD chief (Wonder Woman and House of Cards star Robin Wright), he’s consoled by his only companion, Joi (beautifully played by Ana de Armis) who is the only light in an otherwise bleak existence.  As for Harrison Ford, it takes a bit of time to get to him but it’s assuredly worth the wait and as much as he did in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Ford slips comfortably back into another iconic role but certainly doesn’t rest on his laurels.  The meeting of K and Deckard is an anticipated moment and handled greatly.

There’s also Jared Leto (Suicide Squad’s Joker) who puts in a strong and carefully measured performance as blind corporate titan Niander Wallace, master of the newest generation of Replicants and the aspiring villain of the piece, his right-hand woman – an enforcer named ‘Luv’ (Sylvia Hoeks) – in place to deal with any potential threats from those who might try to interfere in Wallace’s goals in perfecting the “more human than human” design of his ’works’.

The running time of Blade Runner 2049 can be a little challenging given it’s protracted pace, but it does allow the viewer to become fully absorbed into the moody atmospherics and simply appreciate and be awed by those mesmerising and astonishing, Oscar worthy visuals by cinematographer Roger Deakins.  The screenplay from Hampton Fancher and Michael Green is suitably mysterious and fairly straight forward in the grand scheme of things but poses plenty of questions of existence and identity in a similar manner to the original Blade Runner and the dialogue is lean and purposeful.  At its core, Blade Runner 2049 is more of a thought-provoking, visually arresting piece of art-house cinema afforded the budget and scale of a $100+ million blockbuster than out-and-out popcorn action spectacle.  Where its action beats are called upon, Denis Villeneuve executes them with reserve and grace that, coupled with all of the film’s other elements make for a sequel should please both fans of Blade Runner and those who appreciate intelligently implemented cinema.

The bottom line:  Arresting, mysterious and delicately executed, Blade Runner 2049 is a worthy sequel to a revered science fiction classic.

Blade Runner 2049 is in cinemas now.

TV Review: ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ S1 E03 “Context is for Kings”

Michael Burnham begins her journey of discovery…

This review contains spoilers.

Jason Isaacs as Discovery’s mysterious commanding officer, Captain Gabriel Lorca.

Starring:  Sonequa Martin-Green, Jason Isaacs, Doug Jones, Anthony Rapp, Mary Wiseman

Series created by:  Bryan Fuller & Alex Kurtzman (based on Star Trek, created by Gene Roddenberry)

Written by:  Gretchen J. Berg, Aaron Harberts & Craig Sweeny (story by Bryan Fuller, Gretchen J. Berg & Aaron Harberts) / Episode directed by:  Akiva Goldsman

What’s it about?

Lost and without purpose, disgraced Starfleet Officer Michael Burnham finds herself aboard the U.S.S. Discovery – commanded by the mysterious Captain Lorca…

Episode review

After its two-part prologue, the latest episode of Star Trek: Discovery feels like a proper beginning as we’re introduced to the titular U.S.S. Discovery (looking more impressive than it did in that infamous first teaser) and her crew, led by the mysterious Captain Gabriel Lorca – played by Harry Potter’s Jason Isaacs.

Picking up six months after being handed a life sentence for her mutinous actions aboard the Shenzhou, which led to the break out of war with the Klingons, we see a dejected Michael Burnham living without purpose and any hope for the future.  Rescued from an ill-fated prison transfer, Burnham finds herself aboard the U.S.S. Discovery, a Starfleet science vessel harbouring secrets and populated by a crew uncertain and resentful of Starfleet’s shift from a mission of peace and, well, discovery, to being the first line of defence in an interstellar war.

Sonequa Martin-Green provides another strong turn in the role of series lead as Burnham grapples with feelings of remorse and guilt, accentuated in some bittersweet exchanges with an old face:  former shipmate Lt. Saru (Doug Jones), now serving as Discovery’s First Officer and who remains puzzled by Burnham’s betrayal.  Luckily there’s some much needed levity facilitated by Mary Wiseman’s Cadet Tilly, whose wide-eyed enthusiasm with touches of self-doubt – and one or two neuroses – brings a breath of fresh air to proceedings and perhaps a friend for Burnham in an otherwise hostile situation.

Anthony Rapp also makes a memorable first impression as Lt. Paul Stamets, encapsulating the frustrations of a crew being conscripted for a purpose they weren’t meant for, Burnham becoming the focus of these misgivings.  As for the enigmatic Captain Lorca, Jason Isaacs is excellent in the role skilfully balancing the strength and conviction of leadership with a good dose of ambiguity to help paint a character we don’t yet know whether or not to trust, his secret project concerning strange energy producing spores only adding to the intrigue.

“Context for Kings” also throws in a measure of action and a dash of horror as Burnham, Tilly and Stamets join an away mission to a stricken sister ship whose crew (and a Klingon boarding party) have fallen victim to a blood thirsty alien creature.  It’s a little reminiscent of the third season Enterprise episode “Impulse” but an entertaining and tense addition to the story non-the-less, allowing Sonequa Martin-Green to further demonstrate her capabilities.

With the backdrop of war and the evident character conflict, Discovery continues to follow a darker path than the more optimistic iterations of Star Trek but that makes it no less appealing.  As the episode’s title suggests it’s all about context and the unfolding drama is affording great opportunities for character building.  There’s still some way to go as the writers and actors find their footing and hopefully the bleak situation the characters currently face will galvanise the crew and, as the show evolves, build the kind of relationships we’ve enjoyed in previous Star Trek series.

Lorca’s belief that Burnham has the ability to regain all she has lost points to a story of redemption and a re-discovery of those core values of the Federation that she still claims to hold dear.  The moral dilemmas laced into Star Trek: Discovery, coupled with the mysteries posed by and surrounding Discovery’s Commanding Officer – as well as the gentle unfolding of the narrative – infuses this newest Trek with intrigue and that ‘must watch’ quality that any good television series provides.

The bottom line:  Star Trek: Discovery continues to show promise as the introduction of the Discovery and her crew heightens the show’s appeal.

New episodes of Star Trek: Discovery (as well as post-show discussion After Trek) can be seen weekly via subscription services Netflix (worldwide) and CBS All Access (U.S. only).

TV Review: ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Series Premiere

The beloved science fiction franchise returns, boldly, to the small screen…

‘Star Trek’ makes a much awaited return to television in ‘Star Trek: Discovery’.

Starring:  Sonequa Martin-Green, Michelle Yeoh, Doug Jones, Chris Obi, James Frain

Series created by:  Bryan Fuller & Alex Kurtzman (based on Star Trek, created by Gene Roddenberry)

Written by:  Bryan Fuller & Akiva Goldsman (“The Vulcan Hello”) and Gretchen J. Berg & Aaron Harberts (“Battle at the Binary Stars”) / Episodes directed by:  David Samel (“The Vulcan Hello”) and Adam Kane (“Battle at the Binary Stars”)

What’s it about?

Investigating an object of unknown origin, Lieutenant Commander Michael Burnham and the crew of the U.S.S. Shenzhou are thrown into a direct confrontation with old adversary, the Klingons.

Episodes review

51 years after the debut of its original series, Star Trek returns to the small screen after an absence of twelve years, following the conclusion of Star Trek: Enterprise – which left the air back in May 2005.  Produced by CBS for their All Access streaming service and rolled out worldwide courtesy of Netflix, Star Trek: Discovery is a lavish and promising addition to the Star Trek universe that feels fresh yet comfortingly familiar for long term fans of the franchise.  Created by Trek veterans Bryan Fuller (writer/co-producer on Star Trek: Voyager) and Alex Kurtzman (co-writer and co-producer of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness), the series takes place ten years prior to the voyages of the U.S.S. Enterprise under the command of William Shatner’s Captain Kirk.

Serving as a prologue to the rest of the show’s fifteen-episode first season (the majority of the principal cast and the U.S.S. Discovery herself being absent until episode three), the two-part premiere gets things off to an engaging and intriguing start as we’re introduced to Discovery’s lead character, Lieutenant Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) as she serves as First Officer on board the U.S.S. Shenzhou, commanded by Captain Phillipa Georgiou (martial arts legend Michelle Yeoh) who quickly find themselves thrust into a tense confrontation with a rogue Klingon faction that places the Federation on the precipice of war.  Burnham’s back story is revealed via a series of flashbacks as we follow her from being orphaned as a child to being raised on Vulcan by ambassador-in-waiting and father of Spock, Sarek (Gotham’s James Frain) and her eventual assignment to the Shenzhou.

What’s clear from the outset is that the creators of Discovery have set about establishing something that manages to strike a delicate balance between producing a series that will not only appeal to fans but draw in a whole new generation of viewers.  After 51 years and some 700+ hours of television, engineering a fresh take on an old favourite is no easy task, yet Discovery achieves this quite successfully.  The first major departure is the decision to not have the series focus on the ship’s captain and proves a welcome one with Sonequa Martin-Green (The Walking Dead) turning in a decent performance and demonstrating plenty of potential as a strong and capable lead.  There’s also the heavily serialised nature of the story, whilst a construct employed in previous spin-offs Deep Space Nine and Enterprise it’s utilised to a more intricate degree here in accordance with co-creator Bryan Fuller’s intentions for the storyline to unfold episode by episode like the chapters of a novel.

Sonequa Martin-Green makes for a promising lead in ‘Star Trek: Discovery’.

Michelle Yeoh provides another strong female presence as Georgiou and there’s a wonderfully nuanced relationship between herself and Burnham (affectionately referred to as “Number One” in a nod to Majel Barrett’s character in original Trek pilot “The Cage”), the former bringing an almost maternal quality to her ‘role’ as mentor to the younger officer.  Martin-Green also has some great interplay with Doug Jones’ Lt. Saru, the Kelpien science officer who has a fun sibling-like rivalry with Burnham.  Much like he did in Hellboy and Falling Skies, Jones is once again a master at conveying subtle strokes of humanity through the prosthetics and alien characteristics.  James Frain evokes the requisite measure of wise intellect and cold logic in the role of Sarek (originally portrayed so unforgettably by the late Mark Lenard) and similarly to Yeoh, there’s a paternal element to his dynamic with Martin-Green’s character.

The Klingon threat is spearheaded by T’Kuvma, with Chris Obi infusing the part with the right amount of that familiar warrior instinct, although the redesign of the Klingons themselves is likely to be the most controversial aspect of Discovery.  They’re radically quite different and take some getting used to, yet the make-up and costume design is certainly impressive and gives the iconic race an appearance that’s more alien whilst retaining the overall Klingon ‘feel’ with an adherence to their principles of honour and glory in battle.  What’s interesting here is that the Klingon Empire has fractured into numerous disparate ‘houses’ which T’Kuvma seeks to unite and lead, fanatically, into war against the Federation in the name of Kahless – the forefather of Klingon society itself.  It’s handled in a manner that’s not quite as black-and-white as that sounds and there’s a definite sense that the writers are seeking to add dimension to the conflict by offering a deeper insight into the Klingon’s motivations.

The Klingons are given a new look for this new iteration of the long-running franchise.

Visually, CBS have spurred no expense with feature film quality effects, make-up and set design fully on display.  Perhaps wisely, given the level of the production, the producers have leaned towards a look more reminiscent of the alternate universe established on the big screen by J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek.  As classic and iconic as the look of the original series is, a direct translation wouldn’t hold up to viewers in 2017 and it only increases the scope and cinematic quality of Discovery.

Star Trek is heralded for its ability to delve into the human condition and comment on the issues of the day and in this era of social and political concerns and the rising threat of terrorism and religious extremism, Discovery is no different and deftly weaves these themes throughout.  This is what Gene Roddenberry and the writers of the original Star Trek always intended, coupled with rich characters and a vision of a hopeful, inclusive future for humanity – even in times of conflict – and there’s great potential for Star Trek: Discovery to continue that tradition.

The bottom line:  Star Trek makes a confident return to television with a visually dazzling premiere, bolstered by a promising lead and the potential to explore real-world topics in an engaging and entertaining manner.

New episodes of Star Trek: Discovery (as well as post-show discussion After Trek) can be seen weekly via subscription services Netflix (worldwide) and CBS All Access (U.S. only).

What did you think of the ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ premiere? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

 

TV Review: ‘The Defenders’ Season 1

At long last, Netflix assembles Marvel’s street-level heroes…

 A note on spoilers : whilst this review doesn’t delve into major plot points there may be some light spoilers.

Starring:  Charlie Cox, Krysten Ritter, Mike Colter, Finn Jones, Elodie Yung, Jessica Henwick, Rosario Dawson, Scott Glenn, Simone Missick, Sigourney Weaver

Series created by:  Douglas Petrie and Marco Ramirez

What’s it about?

Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist unite to protect New York from the threat of the ancient order of The Hand…

Season review

Having established their core street-level heroes in their own individual series, Marvel and Netflix reach the culmination of their plans with the much anticipated team-up of Matt Murdock/Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Danny Rand/Iron Fist in The Defenders, a highly enjoyable – albeit not completely flawless – eight episode arc.

Like some of the other Marvel/Netflix shows, The Defenders gets off to a relatively slow start that’s somewhat burdened by its reintroduction of the principal characters in a manner that serves to both reacquaint established viewers with our heroes whilst striving to be accessible to those coming in fresh.  In terms of the latter it’s not entirely successful given that so much has happened to the individual characters in their respective series (particularly in the case of Daredevil who has two whole seasons worth of story) which supplies The Defenders with a pretty solid foundation for viewers who have already followed Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist.  It also presents a few initial narrative problems, the most cumbersome and disappointing being Luke Cage’s all-too quick and all-too convenient release from prison, which on the plus side does facilitate the introduction of Elden Henson’s Foggy Nelson into the story.

The series opener does most of the work of re-establishing the main players and their current status quo – Matt has locked away his billy club in favour of carrying out pro-bono legal work, Jessica is still hitting the bottle but has a weakness for those in need of help, Luke is dead-set on protecting the innocent and Danny, together with Colleen, continue to track and fight The Hand, the central threat of the Marvel/Netflix universe as seen in Daredevil and Iron Fist.  We’re also introduced to the current leader of that organisation – the mysterious ‘Alexandra’, played by screen icon (and Academy Award Nominee) Sigourney Weaver.  The artificially produced earthquake at the climax of “The H Word” provides suitably high stakes and a cause for our heroes to eventually unite against and Weaver is excellent in a role that’s atypical for an actor largely known for her more heroic turn as Lt. Ellen Ripley in the Alien films.  The writers provide Alexandra with a good measure of complexity yet there are moments when the character feels a little weak and never seems to fully develop into as powerful and formidable a foe as initially promised.

Where The Defenders doesn’t disappoint is when it comes to gathering the team itself, which happens organically without being forced or rushed and the dynamics of the group are explored wonderfully in the confines of a Chinese restaurant in “Royal Dragon”.  By having the main protagonists simply sit down at a table together we get to see some great chemistry on display, they’re a dysfunctional group for sure and there’s plenty of conflict in viewpoints but it all feels natural and there’s a sense that they all want to get on the same page and put aside any differences in order to battle against The Hand for the greater good.  “Royal Dragon” really sets things in motion, with the team galvanising as the series progresses and there’s a good dose of wry humour (Krysten Ritter on top form as she delivers Jessica’s sarcastic jibes) and plenty of light hearted put-downs, affording Mike Colter and Finn Jones the opportunity to build the budding friendship between Luke and Danny.

Overall, the focus on each of the principal cast is well-balanced (although Charlie Cox is arguably the standout) and Finn Jones certainly gets a chance to expand his character and placate those critical of Danny Rand’s characterisation in his own series with a definite sense of growth and a stronger positioning of him as the ‘Immortal Iron Fist’ as he finds himself being targeted as part of the enemy’s unfolding plans.

Supporting characters are served fittingly in accordance with the story.  Rosario Dawson’s role as Claire Temple is generally more prominent, which is understandable given here connective appearances in the other shows but there’s still a welcome presence (among some other familiar faces) from Simone Missick as Misty Knight and the superb Scott Glenn as Stick.  Of course, with The Hand presenting the threat in The Defenders and given the events of Daredevil season two we get to see Elektra’s rebirth as ultimate ‘weapon’ the Black Sky and Elodie Yung tackles this rather well, offsetting the brutality of a lethal assassin with emotional nuance as she grapples with her true identity.

The series features, like previous efforts, some slick and decently choreographed martial arts action (including another corridor fight sequence that can’t match those seen in Daredevil but is still a highlight non-the-less).  It does become a bit overly frantic at times and even difficult to follow in some of the darker scenes but for the most part, it delivers.

Structurally, there was always the fear that eight episodes would end up being too short a run.  Despite some occasional pacing issues, it actually works out just about right – in fact it’s also evidence that Marvel’s other Netflix series could benefit from slightly shorter episode counts, which really would have benefitted Luke Cage and Iron Fist.  Things slow down a little in the penultimate episode but The Defenders reaches an increasingly tense and satisfying climax in its finale (aptly titled “The Defenders”), with an epilogue that helps tie up loose ends whilst setting up the future course of Marvel’s Netflix universe.

The bottom line:  The Defenders is a reasonably enjoyable team-up event that successfully unites the street-level heroes of Marvel’s Netflix shows.

All 8 episodes of The Defenders season 1 are available to stream now via Netflix.

Defenders S1

Taking it to The Hand: Marvel’s street-level heroes assemble to save New York in ‘The Defenders’.

Film Review: ‘Ghost in the Shell’ (2017)

An empty shell or a captivating experience? 

Spoiler-free review 

Starring:  Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbaek, ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano, Juliette Binoche, Michael Pitt, Chin Han, Danusa Samal

Directed by: Rupert Sanders / Written by: Jamie Moss, William Wheeler & Ehren Kruger / 107 minutes

What’s it about?

In a future where technology has advanced to incredible heights, a cyber security operative known as ‘Major’ – a cyborg marrying a human brain with an artificial body – investigates a wave of hackings by a mysterious terrorist named Kuze…

In review

Based on Shirow Masamune’s iconic manga “The Ghost in the Shell” and owing far more to director Mamoru Oshii’s classic 1995 anime, the live action version of Ghost in the Shell received a lukewarm reception, amidst controversies of ‘whitewashing’, upon its theatrical release earlier this year.  Now that the dust has settled, is Ghost in the Shell a worthy adaptation of the popular Japanese property?

Firstly, there’s no doubt that Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell is visually stunning, the vast, futuristic cityscapes juxtaposed against the grimy, seedy backstreets creating an immersive ‘cyberpunk’ Blade Runner-esque environment, complemented by the film’s deftly executed action sequences and production design that are extremely faithful to the original source material and the subsequent anime.  Therein lies part of the problem though, Ghost in the Shell is constructed with so much reverence to, most specifically Oshii’s anime (through which most will no doubt be familiar with the franchise) that it fails to emerge from the shadows and form an identity of its own.  It certainly doesn’t help that the script is a little drab and predictable with long stretches of almost purposeless ponderousness that at points can make you feel every minute of the – compared to most modern blockbusters – relatively slight running time.  It tries hard to evoke the mesmerising qualities, mystery and atmospherics of the beloved anime but just doesn’t have the same effect and the recreation of several iconic scenes, whilst laudable (and the opening birthing or ‘shelling’ sequence is certainly beautifully realised) are too numerous and will likely leave fans wanting to turn to the anime instead.

It’s well known that Ghost in the Shell’s reception was blighted by criticisms of whitewashing in its casting, which is a little unfair as a more multicultural troupe of actors is evident.  As ‘Major’ (fans will note the lack of ‘the’), Scarlett Johansson is a reasonably effective, if uninspired choice for the lead role, her slightly robotic movements and mechanical delivery injected with just the right amount of subtle humanity to carry it all off.  She’s mostly supported by Pilou Asbaek’s Batou but also shares a decent amount of screen time with ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano as the cantankerous chief, Aramaki and gets to flesh out some character in her exchanges with Dr. Ouelet, played by Juliette Binoche.  To be perfectly honest, partly due to the lightweight script, the cast as a whole rarely rise above being functional and subservient to the striking visuals, sure the character of ‘Major’ (that lack of ‘the’ sounding clumsy and awkward) is intentionally detached and cipher-like but those familiar with Oshii’s adaptation (and indeed the amazing Stand Alone Complex series) will be disappointed at how small an impact Asbaek’s Batou makes and that the rest of the characters are so unmemorable in comparison to their animated versions – whether that be voiced by their original Japanese cast or the English dub performers.

When it comes down to it, Ghost in the Shell does have its moments – mainly during its action sequences, but even then it still comes off as being a little too generic and maybe even a little pretentious and far too derivative and reverential for its own good.

The bottom line:  A disappointing adaptation of the much loved manga, Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell fails to match the brilliance of the 1995 anime and to become a compelling endeavour of its own, it may be worth a look if only out of curiosity and for an appreciation of some commendable visuals.

Ghost in the Shell is available to own and to rent via home video and on demand formats now.

GitS 2017

Scarlett Johansson bursts into action in ‘Ghost in the Shell’.