Comics Review: ‘Event Leviathan’ #1

Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev re-unite for DC’s new mystery thriller…

Event Leviathan #1

Alex Maleev’s evocative and moody cover for DC’s ‘Event Leviathan’ #1 (credit: DC Entertainment).

Written by:  Brian Michael Bendis / art by:  Alex Maleev

What’s it about?

Drawn together as they investigate the destruction of key intelligence agencies, Batman, Lois Lane, Green Arrow and The Question find that they must uncover the identity of the mysterious perpetrator known as Leviathan before more attacks can occur…

In review

Writer Brian Michael Bendis expands his DC Comics work with Event Leviathan a six-issue mini-series that unites some of the DC Universe’s greatest detectives – Batman, Lois Lane, Green Arrow and The Question to investigate the decimation of the intelligence community by Leviathan, an enemy whose true identity remains unknown.  Teaming up with his most celebrated collaborator, artist Alex Maleev (the duo having previously worked on titles such as Daredevil, International Iron Man, Infamous Iron Man and the creator-owned Jinxworld series, Scarlet), Brian Bendis provides a promising and intriguing start to this gritty mystery thriller.

Less of an actual sprawling ‘event’ in the traditional sense, which usually involves collecting a plethora of titles and numerous tie-ins, Event Leviathan spills out of the recent “Leviathan Rising” arc in the Bendis penned (with art by Steve Epting) Action Comics yet is a contained story in its own right, although a reading of that aforementioned arc (and forthcoming issues of Action) will enrich the experience of this first issue.  This isn’t an action and plot heavy premiere and Bendis incorporates a decent amount of exposition to recap the events in Action Comics and the groundwork laid there, making the book accessible to new readers.  This might make things a little slow and ponderous to those who do follow that Superman – who is actually absent here – title but it sets the mood and we are drawn in by the dialogue as Bendis reiterates the stakes, principally the destruction of the facilities of intelligence agencies ARGUS, the DEO and Spyral, the dynamics between the central characters (always a strength with Brian Michael Bendis) and the mystery they must work together to quickly unravel – the identity of the masked Leviathan.

Bendis has already been crafting a solid run on both Superman and Action Comics and has certainly nailed the core components of Lois Lane’s personality and that continues seamlessly in Event Leviathan, pinning down her drive and determination to the truth – and not unlike her Kryptonian husband, justice.  He also has a unique handling of Batman who is slightly more engaging and forthcoming with others as well as being prone to a dash of dry sarcasm, in comparison to the more bleak and troubled soul of Tom King’s Batman.  That’s no criticism of King’s work but that specific approach wouldn’t quite fit in with Event Leviathan where the Dark Knight needs to be committed to a common cause.  It’s not necessarily inconsistent, just appropriate for this story and Bendis ensures that there’s a focus on the skill and deduction we expect and enjoy in any representation of Batman.  Aside from Lois and Batman, Bendis delivers strong takes on Green Arrow and The Question giving both significant roles to play and the tension is heightened by an injured and defensive Steve Trevor, desperate to prevent his survival of Leviathan’s acts being seen as a source of suspicion.

Alex Maleev’s art (who also provides his own inks and colours) is, as usual, sublime with the dirty and gritty visuals giving Event Leviathan the sort of grounded, detective noir feel it needs and whilst there’s that certain street-level sense that came with his work on Daredevil, he’s also just as capable when it comes to creating epic scenes – the crumbling interior of the new ARGUS base and the establishing exterior shot of its prior state are stark and beautiful, respectively.

The bottom line:  Event Leviathan launches with a slow burning but interesting and atmospheric start, made all the more appealing thanks to a tried and trusted creative team.

Event Leviathan #1 is published by DC and is available in print and digital formats now.

Images used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

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Film Review: ‘X-Men: Dark Phoenix’

It’s farewell to the ‘First Class’ as Fox’s X-Men series draws to a close…

X-Men Dark Phoenix (a)

The finale to 20th Century Fox’s Marvel film series – ‘X-Men: Dark Phoenix’ (credit: 20th Century Fox/Marvel).

 

Spoiler-free review

Starring:  James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Sophie Turner, Jessica Chastain

Directed and written by:  Simon Kinberg / 114 minutes

What’s it about?

Whilst on a mission to rescue the crew of a stricken space shuttle, X-Men team member Jean Grey encounters a mysterious cosmic force which amplifies her psychokinetic powers to dangerous and uncontrollable levels…

In review

Serving as the finale of 20th Century Fox’s mainline X-Men film series (although troubled spin-off New Mutants is still, presently, set for an eventual theatrical release) – the rights to the property now with Marvel Studios following Disney’s Fox acquisition – X-Men: Dark Phoenix follows 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse with a plot once again based on the iconic comic book storyline previously adapted (superbly) for the 1990s X-Men animated series and incorporated (not so successfully) into Fox’s original X-trilogy capper, X-Men: The Last Stand (released back in 2006).

Written and directed by long-term X-Men writer and producer Simon Kinberg, the 90’s-set X-Men: Dark Phoenix (simply known as just ‘Dark Phoenix’ in the U.S.) isn’t the rousing, wholly satisfying finale the series deserved but nor is it a crashing failure.  It doesn’t hit the heights of previous entries First Class or Days of Future Past but is comfortably superior to The Last Stand and a fair leap above X-Men Origins: Wolverine, arguably the franchise’s lowest point.  Aiming for a more grounded and character driven focus than the divisive Apocalypse, Dark Phoenix is unlikely to sway viewers left unimpressed by Bryan Singer’s X-sequel but it’s a laudable approach and Kinberg’s script packs an emotional punch whilst the sombre and dark tone lends some emotional maturity and tension to the proceedings.  The only issue here is that it doesn’t feel as though we’ve been given enough time to truly care about the newer X-Men team members introduced in Apocalypse and besides Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey they don’t actually get a whole lot to do in Dark Phoenix beyond playing their part in the action.  There’s also some drag in the pacing during the second act due to the slow-burn narrative, with much of the action saved for the finale which together with that desire for a more restrained and personal approach can leave Dark Phoenix lacking a larger sense of adventure and excitement, something First Class and Days of Future Past were able to accomplish whilst still delivering on character.

Cast performances are generally strong, Sophie Turner (Game of Thrones) does a solid enough job with a lot of dramatic weight to carry as Jean Grey, unable to control the temptation and danger of the Phoenix force descends into turmoil.  Returning First Class alumni Jennifer Lawrence is suitably dour and weary as Raven/Mystique and fellow first generation X-Man Nicholas Hoult has a poignant and contemplative turn as Hank McCoy/Beast.  Interstellar’s Jessica Chastain makes for a sinister if underdeveloped villain, her manipulation of the increasingly fragile Jean and her Phoenix force heightened powers providing high stakes and a cause for our heroes to rally against.

X-Men Dark Phoenix (b)

Tye Sheridan returns as Cyclops (credit: 20th Century Fox/Marvel).

Again though, it’s James McAvoy and Michel Fassbender – Charles Xavier/Professor X and Erik Lensherr/Magneto respectively – who are the standouts and both actors are provided with some good material, especially McAvoy as Xavier grapples with fracturing friendships, a reluctance to acknowledge his mistakes and an uncertain future for the X-Men and consequentially, mutantkind.  Sadly, despite having roles to play in the action, Alexandra Shipp’s Storm, Evan Peters’ Quicksilver and Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Nightcrawler are not afforded a large enough presence for the majority of the film and tend to withdraw into the background with no significant character arcs of their own.  Tye Sheridan’s Scott Summers/Cyclops fares better but, again, there hasn’t really been time enough for the actors and their respective characters to grow beyond their debuts in X-Men: Apocalypse.

Making his feature film directorial debut, Simon Kinberg handles it fairly competently – keeping things level and focused in the more character-driven scenes whilst skilfully staging the action which aside from the initial space rescue mission (accompanied by some nicely atmospheric music from score composer Hans Zimmer), includes a climactic battle aboard a speeding train that ramps up the tension as Dark Phoenix reaches its denouement.  Despite the months of extensive re-shoots, Kinberg’s film hangs together in a coherent manner.

So, although Dark Phoenix isn’t a runaway hit it’s not a disastrous misfire either resulting in an entertaining diversion that doesn’t live up to the high-points of the X-Men franchise or it’s potential as a grand finale but is a stronger take on a beloved story arc with some decent character beats and an action-packed final act.

The bottom line:  Not the train wreck it was feared to be nor the epic final chapter it could’ve been, X-Men: Dark Phoenix is still a reasonably enjoyable time for those willing to give it a chance.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix is in cinemas now.

Film Review: ‘Godzilla: King of the Monsters’

The kaiju king returns as Warner Bros/Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse continues…

Godzilla King of the Monsters

The mighty Titan himself: Godzilla (credit: Warner Bros/Legendary Pictures).

 

Spoiler-free review

Starring:  Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, Ken Watanabe, Ziyi Zhang, Bradley Whitford, Charles Dance

Directed by:  Michael Dougherty / written by:  Michael Dougherty & Zach Shields (story by Max Borenstein, Michael Dougherty & Zach Shields) / 131 minutes

What’s it about?

Faced with the onslaught of gigantic creatures, awoken from their prehistoric slumber – the organisation known as Monarch find that there’s only one hope for humanity: the mighty Godzilla…

In review

Following Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, the 2014 Hollywood reboot of Japanese studio Toho’s most famous monster and Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island (released in 2017), Godzilla: King of the Monsters serves as the next chapter in Warner Bros/Legendary Pictures’ ‘MonsterVerse’ film series (which is set to culminate in Godzilla vs Kong next year).  Directed and co-written by Michael Dougherty, Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a visual feast that’s a little dumb and sometimes overly frenetic, but ultimately a whole lot of monster bashing fun.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters picks up five years after the events of Godzilla in which the titular apex predator – or ‘Titan’ – emerged victorious in his battle against the ‘MUTO’ creatures, saving humanity but at great personal cost for some with the city of San Francisco left decimated.  Since Godzilla’s disappearance the Monarch organisation has continued its research and investigation of the various ancient Titans – amongst them King Ghidorah (a three-headed dragon), Mothra (aptly, a giant moth) and Rodan (a sort of demonic Pteranodon) – discovered in their dormant states at various locations around the globe.  When the creatures are awakened by eco-terrorist Jonah Alan (Game of Thrones’ Charles Dance), Monarch once again find their only hope in preventing annihilation may be Godzilla, the mighty king of all monsters.

Godzilla King of the Monsters (2)

Charles Dance and Millie Bobby Brown form part of the human cast (credit: Warner Bros/Legendary Pictures).

Although characterisation is patchy, the dialogue occasionally ropey (and the persistent volley of wise-cracks from Bradley Whitford’s Monarch boffin aren’t entirely successful) and cookie-cutter gung-ho military types dumbing things down a tad, like Gareth Edwards’ film there’s a certain amount of human interest – the broken family unit (torn apart by tragic circumstances) is nothing new but it provides some emotional depth with Kyle Chandler’s estranged father Mark Russell (and former Monarch employee), whizz-kid daughter Madison (Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown) and mother Emma (and Monarch scientist), played by Vera Farmiga, placed firmly at the centre.  Some of the character motivations are questionable, even far-fetched and Charles Dance is woefully underutilised but luckily a returning Ken Watanabe (as Doctor Serizawa) is well served by the script and given a satisfying arc.  The use of bio-acoustics as a method of controlling the Titans is also a neat concept as is the notion that their conflict as a way of restoring the balance of nature that humanity has corrupted.

Make no mistake though, this is a Godzilla film and not Citizen Kane and King of the Monsters is at its best when dealing with its monster action and it fully delivers in its CGI kaiju smack-downs (the creatures thankfully remaining faithful to their original Toho designs), saturated with jaw-dropping effects rendered on a behemothic scale.  An overzealous employment of quick-cuts and shaky-cam in the visuals makes the spectacle a bit messy and nauseating at times but that aside, director Michel Dougherty (who previously helmed the fantasy horror flick Krampus and has co-writer credits on Bryan Singer’s X-Men 2 and Superman Returns) maintains a steady grip on things.

In the end, King of the Monsters may lack some of the class and sophistication of 2014’s Godzilla (and there’s something to be said of that film’s divisive approach, the steady build-up facilitating a more rewarding pay-off) but with its spirited homage to the zany comic book B-movie sci-fi of Toho’s original films, Godzilla: King of the Monsters has value as a piece of popcorn entertainment and an enjoyable prelude to Godzilla vs Kong.

The bottom line:  Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a fun, undemanding slice of kaiju action that joyfully evokes the spirit of those kitsch Toho creature features.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters is in cinemas now.

All images herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

It’s a Classic: ‘Alien’

Looking at some of the best pop culture offerings in film, TV and comics…

“Ash, can you see this?”

Alien - xenomorph

The central terror of Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’.

Year:  1979

Starring:  Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto

Directed by:  Ridley Scott / written by:  Dan O’Bannon (story by Dan O’Bannon & Ronald Shusett)

What’s it about?

Investigating the source of a mysterious transmission, the crew of a commercial starship discover a derelict alien craft which houses a deadly cargo…

In review:  why it’s a classic

Carrying the ominous tagline “In Space No One Can Hear You Scream” and celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year, Ridley Scott’s classic science fiction horror, Alien remains one of the all-time greats of cinema.  Growing from an idea by screenwriter Dan O’Bannon (originally titled “Star Beast”), Alien sees the crew of the deep space commercial towing vehicle Nostromo awakened from hibernation when the ship’s computer intercepts a transmission of unknown origin.  Tracing the signal to a nearby planetoid, the crew touch down and discover a gigantic vessel where an encounter with a parasitic organism leads to unforeseen horrors and a fight for survival against a relentlessly lethal alien life form.

Alien is a benchmark in both science fiction and horror, but whilst there are otherworldly elements and futuristic (but credible) technology, much like Star Wars before it, there is a worn, lived-in quality to the production in respect of the Nostromo and its equipment.  This sense of believability extends to the memorable characters of Alien – essentially wary space truckers bickering about bonuses and regulations, sharply written and wonderfully acted by the cast – comprising Sigourney Weaver in her breakout role as Lt. Ellen Ripley (in turn creating one of the most iconic screen heroines), Tom Skerritt as Captain Dallas, John Hurt as Kane, Ian Holm as science officer Ash, Veronica Cartwright as Lambert and Harry Dean Stanton and the excellent Yaphet Kotto as engineers Brett and Parker, respectively.

Alien - Ripley

Sigourney Weaver as Lt. Ripley.

Another standout aspect of Alien is undoubtedly the incredible ‘bio-mechanical’ designs of Swiss artist H.R. Giger, startling and unsettling gothic creations used to bring the Alien and its world – principally the mysterious derelict ‘bone’ ship found by Dallas and co – nightmarishly to life.  The central creature itself (which would become known as a ‘xenomorph’ in James Cameron’s outstanding 1986 sequel, Aliens) is a thing of horrific beauty, intricately detailed and all the more terrifying thanks to Carlo Rambaldi’s Alien head effects and Bolaji Badejo’s simple but effective performance, making it something more than just the staple ‘man inside a rubber suit’ of old SF and horror ‘B’ pictures.  With Giger’s work and Michael Seymour’s production design there’s a lot of fine craftmanship on display and coupled with the meticulous model and miniature effects (the team including Brian Johnson, who had previously worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey and on Gerry Anderson’s Space: 1999 television series) that provide a tangible sense of reality in a way that CGI just cannot replicate.

Scott’s direction is flawless, gently leading the viewer through darkness and shadow then catching them off guard with several shocks and scares.  That approach, with the serious attention to detail and ambition for the project, coupled with Giger’s designs lifts Alien above the more primitive and potentially schlocky imaginings of Dan O’Bannon’s initial concept.  Music is of equal importance and Jerry Goldsmith’s eerie, tense and atmospheric score is the perfect complement to the visuals, accentuating all the terror, unease and chills of Scott’s unforgettable haunted house in space.

Standout moment

Exploring the cavernous belly of the derelict alien ship, Kane stumbles across a cargo of egg-like objects.  Taking a closer look at one of the eggs, Kane sees signs of movement from within…

Geek fact!

H.R. Giger would later contribute designs of the xenomorph in director David Fincher’s second sequel, Alien 3.

If you like this then check out…

Aliens : James Cameron’s sequel pays reverence to Scott’s film without repeating it as Lt. Ripley returns to the planet where her nightmare began with a unit of marines.

Predator : a spiritual sibling to Alien, John McTiernan’s science fiction action classic sees Arnold Schwarzenegger and his crack military team being hunted by a deadly extra-terrestrial.

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Film Review: ‘Avengers: Endgame’

Marvel Studios’ ‘Infinty Saga’ reaches its conclusion…

Spoiler-free review

Avengers Endgame

Preparing to avenge the fallen: the heroes of Marvel’s ‘Avengers: Endgame’.

Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Paul Rudd, Brie Larson, Karen Gillan, Bradley Cooper, Josh Brolin

Directed by: Anthony Russo and Joe Russo / written by: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely / 181 minutes

What’s it about?

In the wake of the devastation wrought by Thanos, Captain America and his allies set out to avenge the fallen…

In review

So, here it is, the cinematic event of the year or perhaps the last couple of years…but does Avengers: Endgame satisfy? Absolutely it does – not only is Endgame an epic and visually exciting ride but it’s an emotionally effective (and genuinely affective) journey that successfully ties together over a decade of a cinematic universe, bringing numerous story arcs to their conclusion and providing closure whilst gently laying the groundwork for the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

It’s almost impossible to discuss Endgame in any great depth without verging on spoilers but suffice to say the film picks up in the wake of last year’s incredibly successful Avengers: Infinity War in which galactic overlord Thanos (Josh Brolin), wielding the power of the infinity stones, extinguished half of all life in the universe. With Tony Stark stranded in space and the remnants of the superhero community back on Earth trying to come to terms with all they have lost, the outlook seems bleak and uncertain until events provide Captain America and his comrades with an opportunity to avenge the fallen. Beyond that lies an adventure that’s simply a landmark achievement in comic book blockbusters. There are moments where the plot of Endgame becomes a bit muddled and difficult to grasp, but in all likelihood this will diminish with repeat viewings and in the end it doesn’t matter too much given the pay-offs viewers ultimately receive as well as all the call backs to previous MCU outings, some of which can now be seen in a new light.

As with Infinity War, Endgame comprises an expansive roster of characters and each have a pivotal role to play, yet, wisely, the focus largely remains centred on the primary Avengers – mainly the trio of Iron Man, Captain America and Thor but with significant support from the likes of the Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye and Ant-Man. The cast performances are great, especially in respect of Robert Downey Jr and Chris Evans – arguably the pillars of the MCU who are afforded rich arcs for their characters and likewise, Mark Ruffalo gets to explore the continued evolution of the Hulk which began in Thor: Ragnarok. As for the Odinson himself, Chris Hemsworth gets to flex his humour muscles again with a dishevelled and drunken Thor providing a number of laughs – it’s perhaps a little too dialled up in places but along with Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man it provides a necessary measure of levity and doesn’t devalue the dramatic aspects of Endgame. Of course, it’s no secret given her own recent solo outing (and following Infinity War’s post-credits tease), that Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel joins the fight and although her role is somewhat smaller than expected it’s still of importance to the overall proceedings.

Despite its lengthy running time, Endgame doesn’t overstay it’s welcome. Sure, It unfolds at a steady pace and it may feel a tad leisurely for some but there’s a sense of building momentum throughout as the film progresses towards its rousing and spectacular final act – an exciting, gigantic, effects-laden showdown on a scale that even exceeds what we saw in Infinity War but without sacrificing the deep and personal elements of Endgame as it integrates a lot of small but wonderful character moments into the chaos. At this stage, directors Anthony and Joe Russo are masters at what they do and deliver on all fronts – that the duo have managed to guide Endgame to completion with such skill, care and unwavering enthusiasm is no small feat and helps make the final product all the more exquisite. Coupled with a screenplay (from returning writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) that provides plenty of pathos, humour, heart and action and superb cast performances, Avengers: Endgame is a total triumph.

The bottom line: Avengers: Endgame is an impressive and fitting finale to an era of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with rich characterisation and powerful visuals.

Avengers: Endgame is in cinemas now.

TV Review: ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ – Season 2

The crew of the U.S.S. Discovery embark on a new mission with the help of one of Starfleet’s finest…

Warning! Contains SPOILERS

Disc S2 - Pike & Burnham

Anson Mount joins Sonequa Martin-Green in season two of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’.

Starring:  Sonequa Martin-Green, Doug Jones, Anthony Rapp, Mary Wiseman, Anson Mount, Wilson Cruz, Shazad Latif, Michelle Yeoh, James Frain, Tig Notaro

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

What’s it about?

Placing Enterprise captain Christopher Pike in command, Starfleet orders the U.S.S. Discovery to investigate a mysterious and dangerous cosmic phenomenon…

In review

Star Trek: Discovery’s now concluded fourteen-episode second season is proof that the series has a bright future.  Season one may have had its detractors and provoked controversy amongst sections of the Star Trek fan community but those who may have neglected continuing with the series are missing out.

Season two of Discovery took the series in a slightly more hopeful direction in comparison to its darker war-focused (and although the Klingon war is over, they still have a role to play) first season but not without sacrificing the more mature and morally complex approach to the characters and storytelling we saw in the previous season.  Once again presenting viewers with a serialised season-long story arc, season two of Discovery deals with the appearance of the mysterious ‘Red Angel’ – an apparent saviour trying to prevent the destruction of sentient life across the universe.  Accompanied by cosmic red bursts of devastating energy, the Red Angel enigma initiates an emergency mission by Starfleet, who place Enterprise captain Christopher Pike in temporary command of Discovery who together with Commander Michael Burnham, Saru, Tilly, Stamets and the rest of the crew face the challenge of unravelling the mystery and securing the survival of everything and everyone they hold dear.

The Red Angel narrative proved to be an intriguing one, precipitating a central debate of science vs faith and with numerous teases and twists keeping viewers on their toes – the final reveal of the Red Angel’s identity (more on that later) a surprising one and subverting expectations and speculation.  As with the first season there are a number of other subplots interwoven throughout, the result of which at times threatens to convolute the main storyline but manage to unravel by the end of the season.  The addition of Captain Pike is one of the season’s most successful components, played wonderfully by Anson Mount (the only positive element of Marvel’s dreadful Inhumans series) who brings an assuring quality of leadership and humanity to the role.  It also helps that the character is serviced well in the writing as Pike is given a satisfying arc, with a bittersweet touch of the sombre as it deals with the gallant Starfleet captain’s eventual fate in the original series of Star Trek (as seen in classic two-parter “The Menagerie”) courtesy of some ‘time crystals’ – a convenient albeit necessary plot device that plays it’s part in the overall seasonal arc.

Disc S2 - Red Angel

The Mysterious ‘Red Angel’.

Discovery season two also sees the inclusion of the fan-favourite shadow organisation known as Section 31, except unlike how they are depicted in Deep Space Nine (which takes place a century after Discovery) they are an acknowledged, functioning black-ops division of Starfleet.  A point of confusion for long term Trek fans, perhaps, but it seems likely that this will be explored further and reconciled next season and/or in the Section 31 spin-off series which is currently in development but as it stands, the organisation has a significant presence that facilitates conflict with the regular Discovery group without disrupting the camaraderie between them.

Dealing with the pointy-eared elephant in the room, Discovery introduced us to a younger version of Spock with Ethan Peck tackling the role originally played by Leonard Nimoy and portrayed by Zachary Quinto in the J.J. Abrams film series.  After several weeks of baiting the viewer, Peck made his debut in episode six, entitled “Light and Shadows“.  Peck’s introduction is unexpected, presenting a mumbling, near catatonic Spock whose contact with the Red Angel has left him mentally frazzled.  The situation results in the delightful surprise of a visit to Talos IV (the setting of original Star Trek pilot “The Cage” – read the retrospective here) where Burnham enlists the help of the telepathic Talosians in restoring Spock’s faculties in “If Memory Serves” – one of the season’s standout episodes.  It’s from hereon we get a sense of Peck’s performance and whilst no-one could ever truly compare to Leonard Nimoy, he does a solid job of encapsulating those intricate elements of the character we know and love.  The writers of Discovery also, maybe to the chagrin of some, add new layers to Spock as we get glimpses of a less than perfect childhood where we learn of his struggles with a form of dyslexia.  It’s actually a very interesting addition to the history of the character and expands the decades old mythology of Star Trek in a way that doesn’t trample on what has gone before but only deepens it.

Disc S2 - Spock

Ethan Peck as Lt. Spock.

The characters of Discovery continued to grow during the season as do the relationships between the various crewmembers.  The inclusion of Spock, of course, provides an exploration of the bond – and disconnect – between Burnham and her adoptive brother and both Sonequa Martin-Green and Ethan Peck share some great moments.  Martin-Green has certainly come into her own this season with consistently strong performances, bolstered by the efforts of the show’s writers.  Not only does Burnham have to grapple with her relationships with Spock, Tyler and the Mirror Universe Georgiou – both now Section 31 operatives (under the command of Alan Van Sprang‘s Captain Leland) – but also the revelations of her past, principally her parent’s involvement with the clandestine organisation.  This triggers season two’s biggest and cleverly executed narrative flip (those wishing to avoid major spoilers should skip to the next paragraph now) which occurs in the aptly titled “The Red Angel“.  It’s here that we learn of the identity of the Red Angel: Michael Burnham’s mother (played by The Wire’s Sonja Sohn), long thought dead but in fact jumping through time as she attempts to prevent the decimation of all life in the Federation by the acts of an evolved A.I. known as ‘Control’.  This sets-up the conflict of the latter end of the season as the crew of Discovery fight to stop Control from unleashing universal devastation.  Again, the plot does tend to become tangled at times with so much crammed into the narrative, particularly in the final stretch of episodes but it’s a small criticism and something that can be applied to a lot of other contemporary series (think Westworld).

Doug Jones and Mary Wiseman – Commander Saru and Ensign Tilly respectively – continue to be standouts and get their share of screen time, with Saru returning to his home (following up on the Short Trek instalment “The Brightest Star”) as he and his people find themselves facing up to the predatory race overruling their existence and being unshackled from their fears as a prey species and Tilly wrestling with her spore-induced connection to the mycelial network via visions of her old childhood friend, May.  The Tilly/May subplot does perhaps go on longer than necessary, but it does tie into the welcome, if not wholly unexpected, return of Wilson Cruz’s Hugh Culber, ‘reborn’ courtesy of the mycelial realm which leads to some interesting soul searching and identity crisis.  This also affords Anthony Rapp the opportunity to further flesh out his character as Stamets’ reunion with Culber isn’t what he expects and causes him to reassess his future aboard Discovery.  The only black sheep in the casting is Tig Notaro’s engineer, Jett Reno, whose inclusion felt out of place with sporadic appearances and no substantial development, although their may be future potential for the character.

What is great about season two of Discovery is alongside the growth of the principal players, the writers take effort to give small but key roles to the ancillary characters (some of whom you would’ve been previously hard pressed to recall by name) with the likes of con officer Detmer (Emily Coutts) and navigator Owosekun (Oyin Oladejo – who gets to join an away mission in the excellent “New Eden”, one of the season’s most ‘Trek-like’ episodes) feeling more integrated than they were during season one.  More pivotal though is Airiam (Hannah Cheesman) in the Jonathan Frakes directed “Project Daedulus“, written by Michelle Paradise (wisely appointed as co-showrunner with Alex Kurtzman for season three).  Discovery’s cyborg officer had felt like a missed opportunity, yet this is undone in a single episode that boasts solid scripting and powerful acting from not only Hannah Cheesman but the likes of Sonequa Martin-Green, Mary Wiseman and much of the rest of the cast.  It all adds to the increasing sense of family amongst the crew, something which has always been key to the success and appeal of any Star Trek series and will hopefully continue to be nurtured in subsequent seasons.

Disc S2 - Enterprise & Discovery

Starships Enterprise and Discovery unite to save the universe.

Discovery’s second season came to a dramatic and energetic conclusion with the gripping two-part finale “Such Sweet Sorrow” (fan-pleasing ties to the original Star Trek further enhanced by the sight of the beautifully realised Enterprise bridge, given a respectful 21st Century makeover to fit in with Discovery’s more modern design aesthetics) where there’s an additional twist to the identity of the Red Angel and the revelation of what exactly those cosmic red bursts are, culminating in a rousing and epic final battle with Control (now merged with the body of Leland in a manner that’s slyly reminiscent of Borg assimilation) and a game-changing set-up for season three that seeks to not only chart new territory for Discovery but also reconcile its place in canon, a task that’s somewhat messy and impossible to neatly sync-up given the five decades of continuity established beyond the original series.

In terms of the production, Star Trek: Discovery continues to present the viewer with feature film quality visuals and cinematic direction (especially when in the hands of either Jonathan Frakes or Olatunde Osunsanmi) that enhances the writing and together with the excellent cast performances results in a superb sophomore outing for the series.

The bottom line:  Star Trek: Discovery season two is an exciting, if occasionally jumbled, outing for the newest Star Trek crew that boasts decent writing, strong cast performances and quality production values.

All episodes of Star Trek: Discovery’s second season are now available to stream via CBS All Access in the U.S. and via Netflix internationally (Canadian viewers can watch it via the Crave TV service).

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Flashback: ‘Star Trek’ (2009)

In 2009, the ‘Star Trek’ franchise made a bold return to the big screen…

Star Trek 2009 a

The cast of J.J. Abrams’ ‘Star Trek’ (c. Paramount Pictures).

Year:  2009

Starring:  Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Ben Cross, Leonard Nimoy, Eric Bana

Directed by:  J.J. Abrams / written by:  Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman

What’s it about?

A young James Kirk and Mr. Spock meet for the first time aboard the newly commissioned U.S.S. Enterprise where they soon find themselves tasked with saving the universe from a vengeful out-of-time Romulan…

Retrospective/review

With the underwhelming box office and tepid critical reception of Star Trek Nemesis in 2002 and the cancellation of television series Star Trek: Enterprise in 2005 due to declining ratings a creative refresh of the Star Trek franchise was needed in order to rekindle fan interest and bring in a whole new audience that would help carry Gene Roddenberry’s creation into the future.

Whilst Star Trek would remain dormant on the small screen until the arrival of Star Trek: Discovery in 2017, it’s theatrical voyages would recommence just four years after the conclusion of Enterprise.  Enlisting J.J. Abrams (together with his Bad Robot production company) to produce, direct and help craft the story – with screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (co-creator and executive producer of Discovery) – Paramount Pictures commissioned Star Trek for the big screen.

Released in May of 2009, received to favourable reviews and a healthy worldwide box office of around $385 million (a fairly respectable figure at a time when $1 billion grossers were few and far between and comparable to Marvel’s Iron Man), Star Trek would prove to be a rollicking action adventure that, although favouring popcorn spectacle and Star Wars-style visual grandeur over the deeper philosophical explorations of previous iterations, excels in its characters and engaging story.  In order to be free from the burden of decades of continuity whilst still tying into the established universe, Star Trek would employ the popular time travel trope by bringing Leonard Nimoy’s (gifting the project with true Trek royalty) Spock back in time in an event that would create an alternate reality – now referred to as the Kelvin timeline – allowing a new series of Star Trek films to forge their own creative path.

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Eric Bana as Nero (c. Paramount Pictures).

Star Trek opens with the arrival of the Romulan ship Narada, thrust back in time after the destruction of the Romulan homeworld in the wake of a catastrophic supernova, which Ambassador Spock and the Vulcan High Command pledged, and fail, to avert.  The Narada, under the command of the embittered Nero, is discovered by the U.S.S. Kelvin which is subsequently attacked and its captain killed – leaving Lt. George Kirk (a pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth) in command.  The Kelvin’s crew, including Kirk’s wife (played by Jennifer Morrison) – about to give birth to their son, are evacuated as Kirk sacrifices his life to save others.  Jumping forward several years we meet a young trouble-making James Kirk and an equally troubled Spock, struggling to reconcile his half-human/half-Vulcan heritage.  Little do both know that destiny awaits (which for Kirk includes the captain’s chair of a certain starship), events drawing them together as the fate of both their worlds hang in the balance.

Finding new actors to inhabit the roles of the beloved original series crew was undoubtedly a daunting task and fortunately, the casting of Star Trek is exceptional.  Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto are perfect choices for the roles of Kirk and Spock, respectively, both actors bringing respectful and recognisable performances to classic characters whilst making it their own and their chemistry helps drive the core narrative.  Likewise, Karl Urban is a revelation as the cantankerous but loyal Doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy – the final component in the celebrated Kirk/Spock/McCoy troika that was such an important part of the original series.  There are equally strong turns from Zoe Saldana as Communications Officer Uhura, John Cho as Helmsman Sulu, the late Anton Yelchin as the incredibly eager Ensign Chekov and Simon Pegg as Engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott.  Bruce Greenwood’s portrayal of Captain Christopher Pike (played by Jeffrey Hunter in Star Trek’s original pilot episode, “The Cage” and by Anson Mount on Star Trek: Discovery) is also a highlight, particularly in his relationship with Pine’s Kirk as he inspires the bright but directionless young rebel by daring him to be better and enlist in Starfleet.  Playing the part of the villainous Nero is Eric Bana, who had previously starred in Ang Lee’s Hulk.  He’s not necessarily the most complex of antagonists but Bana gives it his all, delivering a decent measure of menace.

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A slick redesign for the U.S.S. Enterprise (c. Paramount Pictures).

The design of Star Trek is exemplary, from the Academy Award winning make-up, costumes and props (both nifty updates from the original series) to the lavish, brightly lit sets by Scott Chambliss and the sleek redesign of the Enterprise herself, providing viewers with a pleasing new look which respectfully adheres to the overall configuration conceived by Matt Jeffries.  Whilst there’s a comforting sense of the familiar, Star Trek also takes some creative risks – primarily the destruction of Vulcan by Nero and his cohorts in retribution for the failure to save Romulus from its own obliteration in the future.  It’s a shocking and dramatic sequence that establishes the highest of stakes to unite the Enterprise crew and allows for a more emotionally vulnerable depiction of Quinto’s Spock.

As director, J.J. Abrams (who made his feature film debut in 2006 with Mission: Impossible III) brings energy and enthusiasm to Star Trek, keeping the viewer invested whether it’s in his execution of action and visual splendour or the tight and attentive focus in the quieter, more intimate character moments.  A good film is always enhanced by a great musical score and composer Michael Giacchino’s soundtrack is a memorable one, exciting, emotional and wonderfully intertwining cues from Alexander Courage’s original Star Trek theme with fresh themes to take the new big screen franchise forward.

Star Trek may have been divisive so far as the fanbase is concerned but there are those that enjoyed it for what it was, a polished and highly entertaining rejuvenation of an ageing franchise that opened up the universe to a whole new audience which is something that shouldn’t be undervalued.

Geek fact!

The story of Star Trek was fleshed out via tie-in comic books from IDW Publishing (and overseen by co-screenwriter Roberto Orci) with prequel titles Star Trek: Countdown and Star Trek: Nero adding a lot of insightful detail and background to the narrative of the 2009 film.

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).