TV Review: ‘Lost in Space’ – Series Premiere

Netflix unveil their update of an old sci-fi classic…

Spoiler-free review

 

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Danger for Will Robinson? Netflix deliver an exciting update of Irwin Allen’s ‘Lost in Space’

Starring:  Molly Parker, Toby Stephens, Taylor Russell, Mina Sundwall, Maxwell Jenkins, Parker Posey

Series developed by:  Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless (Lost in Space created by Irwin Allen)

Written by:  Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless / Episode directed by:  Neil Marshall

What’s it about?

Stranded on an alien world, the Robinson family are thrust into a desperate struggle for survival and discover that they may not be alone…

Episode review

Netflix hit the mark again with another lavishly produced and compulsively watchable original series as the streaming giant launches their update of the cult classic television series, Lost in Space.  Originally running for three seasons between 1965 and 1968, Irwin Allen’s Lost in Space was of its time presenting family-friendly comic book sci-fi adventure stories on a far lighter and more simplistic level than Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek.  That’s not to say that the original Lost in Space isn’t without its charm and can still be viewed as a nostalgic guilty pleasure but in the age of sophisticated drama and blockbuster spectacle television viewers have become accustomed to, any new version of the series would need to be representative of modern times.

Developed by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless (Gods of Egypt) and sticking to Irwin Allen’s basic premise of the ‘Space Family Robinson’, the Netflix reboot of Lost in Space sees the Robinson family – Dad John (Toby Stephens – Die Another Day), Mum Maureen (Molly Parker – House of Cards) and children Judy (Taylor Russell), Penny (Mina Sundwall) and Will (Maxwell Jenkins) – crash land on an unknown alien planet following the destruction of their mother ship, carrying human colonists in search of a new home.  Forced to think on their feet in a desperate attempt to survive, the events of this first episode (aptly titled “Impact”) are filled with drama, crisis and fantastic visuals that’s sure to keep viewers hooked throughout the ten episodes comprising season 1.

What’s immediately evident is that the tone of the series is more mature and a little bit darker than the 1960s Lost in Space and indeed the 1998 feature film.  It’s certainly not bleak to the point of ‘grim’ but there’s a palpable sense of danger and a fairly realistic approach to how the Robinson family face their unexpected predicament.  It’s also of benefit to the characters that, here, the Robinson unit is more grounded and dysfunctional than the picture-perfect family of the original series, there are disagreements between parents John and Maureen, Judy and Penny bicker at times and Will, though a genius, has doubts and insecurities just like any real world 11 year old.  Despite some interpersonal tension, there is an underlying current of hope – and heart – as the Robinsons find a way to work things out together.  It certainly helps that the casting is solid (bolstered by good writing), Stephens and Parker are the typically strong leads but there’s much to be said of the talents of Taylor Russell, Mina Sundwall and in particular, Maxwell Jenkins whose believable portrayal of Will is a highlight.

Another masterstroke is the use of flashbacks that gently fill in the back story, from the catastrophic event that decimates the habitability of Earth and the subsequent initiation of the colony mission to the complications in the lives of John, Maureen and their children.  Just enough information is provided in episode 1 to offer a decent enough grasp on the essentials but it seems likely that the flashbacks will continue during the course of the season.

Of course, it wouldn’t be Lost in Space without the iconic robot and the 2018 version is a great twist on the original and a nifty element of ambiguity that comes with young Will’s companion (check out the episode to find out more).  Whilst there’s only a fleeting introduction of Dr. Smith (as well as Ignacio Serricchio’s Don West), Parker Posey (Superman Returns) makes an instant impression of a potentially more complex iteration of the character first played by Jonathan Harris (and Gary Oldman in the 1998 film).  It all adds up to a positive start for a promising series.

The bottom line:  With Lost in Space, Netflix deliver another binge-worthy original series with an epic reboot of an old favourite.

All ten episodes of Lost in Space season 1 are available to stream now on Netflix.

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Flashback: ‘Star Trek: Enterprise’ – “Broken Bow”

Sixteen years before ‘Discovery’, there was another ‘Star Trek’ prequel…

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The crew of first ‘Star Trek’ prequel ‘Enterprise’.

Starring:  Scott Bakula, Jolene Blalock, Connor Trinneer, Dominic Keating, John Billinglsey, Anthony Montgomery, Linda Park, John Fleck, Vaughn Armstrong, Gary Graham, Tommy Lister Jr

Series created by:  Rick Berman & Brannon Braga (based upon Star Trek, created by Gene Roddenberry)

Written by:  Rick Berman & Brannon Braga / Episode directed by:  James L. Conway / 2001

What’s the episode about?

On a mission to return an injured Klingon to his homeworld, the starship Enterprise and her crew are thrust into conflict with an alien race known as the Suliban…

Retrospective

Airing back in September 2001, “Broken Bow” is the feature-length premiere of the fifth live-action Star Trek television series, Enterprise (sans the ‘Star Trek’ prefix, which would be added from the show’s third season).  Created by Rick Berman, the franchise’s head producer (and its guardian following the death of Gene Roddenberry in 1991) together with Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager writer/producer Brannon Braga, Enterprise is a prequel to Star Trek: The Original Series set over a century prior to the voyages of Captain Kirk’s U.S.S. Enterprise and a decade before the formation of the galactic coalition known as the United Federation of Planets.

With “Broken Bow”, the story of Enterprise begins in 2151, almost a century after Earth’s first contact with the Vulcans (as seen in the 1996 feature film Star Trek: First Contact) at a time when the human race has recovered from the devastation of World War III and set their sights on the stars.  With the assistance and guidance of the Vulcan High Command, Earth has begun developing newer and faster starships, the latest of which is the Enterprise NX-01 – the first Starfleet vessel to incorporate the revolutionary Warp 5 engine that will allow humans to head out into deep space on a mission of peaceful exploration and contact with alien races.

“Broken Bow” opens with the crash landing of a Klingon on Earth, being pursued by mysterious alien soldiers from a race called the Suliban.  Wounded during the pursuit, despite the objections of the Vulcan High Command, Starfleet decides to launch Enterprise on a mission to Qo’nos, the Klingon homeworld, and return the injured Klingon – named Klaang (Tommy Lister Jr) – to his people.  It’s not exactly plain sailing however and when the Suliban capture Klaang mid-voyage, the crew of Enterprise are thrust into danger as they set out to locate and rescue the Klingon from his captors.

“Broken Bow” unfolds at a steady pace, its earlier sections taking time to introduce the main characters and the general setting of Enterprise, notching things up once the NX-01 embarks on her maiden voyage.  As the plot progresses we learn that the Suliban aggressors are a cabal of genetically enhanced soldiers, receiving orders from a mysterious benefactor (James Horan), communicating with them from the future and are fighting a ‘Temporal Cold War’ in which various competing factions are attempting to manipulate the timeline in their favour.  Here, the Suliban are planning to incite a Klingon civil war, evidence of which Klaang has obtained and which the Suliban are desperate to recover.

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The wonderfully designed Enterprise NX-01, ready to launch into deep space…

With a desire to return to more character-driven stories, Berman and Braga ensured that they populated Enterprise with engaging characters.  Always their first choice for the lead, Quantum Leap star Scott Bakula is Captain Jonathan Archer, whose father, Henry, designed the Warp 5 engine.  Bakula brings a grounded, believable quality to the role and the flashbacks to Archer’s childhood are a neat addition that bring dimension to the character as we see how his relationship with his father drives his determination as an explorer and pioneer.  The rest of the principal cast comprises Jolene Blalock as Sub-Commander T’Pol, a Vulcan Science Officer posted to Enterprise at the insistence of the High Command, Connor Trinneer as spirited Chief Engineer Charles ‘Trip’ Tucker III, Dominic Keating as Armoury Officer – and dutiful Englishman – Lieutenant Malcolm Reed, Anthony Montgomery as Helmsman Ensign Travis Mayweather, a ‘space boomer’ born and raised on an Earth cargo ship and Communications Officer and gifted linguist Ensign Hoshi Sato.  Completing the crew’s complement are Archer’s pet Beagle, Porthos and the ‘Denobulan’ Chief Medical Officer, Doctor Phlox played with a wonderfully quirky charm by John Billingsley.  The central threat of the Suliban is headed up by the nefarious Silik, played John Fleck (no stranger to Star Trek, having previously guest starred in episodes of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager).  Silik, the Suliban Cabal and the theme of the Temporal Cold War would be revisited throughout the four season run of Enterprise and would prove a compelling and intriguing storytelling component for the series.

Overall, the script for “Broken Bow” is decent, the direction (by experienced Trek director James L. Conway) solid and the cast and their respective characters are instantly likeable.  The Emmy Award winning visual effects are also excellent and hold up well today.  “Broken Bow” boasts numerous exciting action sequences, from the opening cornfield chase to the Suliban’s infiltration of Enterprise and the escape of Archer and his landing party from Rigel X through to the battle within the atmosphere of a gas giant and the climactic face-off between Archer and Silik onboard the Suliban’s ‘Helix’ base.

The show’s production design, by Herman Zimmerman (another Star Trek veteran, having worked on The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine as well as several of the feature films) is another strong component, the interior of the NX-class Enterprise given a cramped, submarine-esque layout with a nifty combination of LCD screen technology and physical, switch based control systems that gives the show a slightly retro-futuristic look that acknowledges the advancement of modern technology whilst retaining its place within the Star Trek timeline.  Along with the costume design (the flight-suit style crew uniforms a highlight), props and the ever impressive make-up by Michael Westmore and his team, Enterprise remains as visually appealing as it was over fifteen years ago.

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The Suliban: another example of make-up maestro Michael Westmore’s talents.

Having Enterprise take place before the original Star Trek allows the series to present some fresh takes on the familiar.  The Vulcans of the 22nd Century are not quite as noble as they are in the other Star Trek series and tend to have a condescending attitude towards humans (believing they are not yet ready to join the interstellar community), adding an element of conflict to the show.  Similarly, humans are more fallible making the characters more relatable whilst still injecting them with the drive to learn and improve in accordance with Gene Roddenberry’s positive vision for humankind’s future.  Another notable departure concerns the iconic Star Trek technologies, most of which here are in their infancy or don’t yet exist – the universal translator can be unreliable, there are no shields, phasers are called ‘phase pistols’ and the transporter has only just been approved for bio-transport and reluctantly used by the crew as a last resort.

It’s known that Paramount were nervous about producing a Star Trek prequel series, perhaps fearing that audiences had become accustomed to and seemingly favoured the 24th Century setting of previous spin-offs The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager.  In fact, the studio were even more hesitant about Berman and Braga’s initial concept for Enterprise, where they envisioned a predominantly Earth-based first season examining political and social concerns surrounding the construction and eventual launch of Enterprise and humanity’s first voyage into deep space.

“Broken Bow” is comfortably the strongest premiere of the Berman-era Star Trek series and although Enterprise would struggle with dwindling viewership and gradual loss of interest in the franchise at that point (which sparked the show’s edgier direction in season 3) it’s still an enjoyable, underappreciated chapter in the Star Trek story.

Geek fact!  “Broken Bow” features a cameo from James Cromwell as Warp Drive inventor Zefram Cochrane, reprising his role from Star Trek: First Contact.

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

How was Star Trek’s long awaited return to television?

ST Disc 01 - Title

‘Star Trek’ goes boldly once more in CBS series ‘Star Trek: Discovery’.

Warning!  Contains major spoilers for season one of Star Trek: Discovery

Starring:  Sonequa Martin-Green, Doug Jones, Shazad Latif, Anthony Rapp, Mary Wiseman, Jason Isaacs, Michelle Yeoh.

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

What’s it about?

As war rages between the Federation and the Klingon Empire, disgraced officer Michael Burnham is assigned to the U.S.S. Discovery, enlisted by her Captain to aid him in ending the conflict by all means…

In review

Launched last September, Star Trek: Discovery saw Gene Roddenberry’s beloved science fiction franchise return to television screens for the first time since the conclusion of Star Trek: Enterprise in 2005.  Received with trepidation from some fans but generating a generally positive critical response, season one of Star Trek: Discovery is arguably the strongest debut of a Star Trek series since 1966.

Created by Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman (both of whom have previous history with the franchise) Star Trek: Discovery takes place in the 2250’s – ten years prior to the adventures of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock et al and the U.S.S. Enterprise in Star Trek: The Original Series (and a century after previous prequel series Star Trek: Enterprise).  Given the advancement in real world technology, special effects in television and film and the tastes and preferences of audiences in 2017 there is naturally a certain degree of reimagining and modernisation in the look and feel of the series that, aided by a lavish budget afforded by it being produced for U.S. streaming service CBS All Access (and rolled out internationally via Netflix) provide Discovery with a feature film quality from the exemplary set, costume and make-up design to its stunning visual effects and beautiful cinematography this is a Star Trek series that truly blurs the line between television and film.

ST Disc 02 - Crew

‘Star Trek: Discovery’ boasts another solid ‘Star Trek’ cast.

Just as Star Trek: The Next Generation was a Star Trek for the 80’s and 90’s, Discovery is a Star Trek for the 2010’s where television dramas have become more complex and viewers more demanding.  Taking a long-form approach now common place for a TV series, the fifteen episode first season of Star Trek: Discovery forms one continuous story arc, commencing with the two-part premiere “The Vulcan Hello”/”Battle at the Binary Stars” which introduces Lieutenant Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), First Officer of the U.S.S. Shenzhou, under the command of Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) and whose crewmates include the Kelpien Science Officer Lieutenant Saru (Doug Jones).  In a refreshing departure from previous Trek series this premiere serves as a prologue to Discovery, the majority of its recurring cast and the titular U.S.S. Discovery herself not making their debut until the show’s third episode, in which Burnham commits mutiny, that despite believing she is acting in the interests of Starfleet and the principles of the Federation, leads to war with classic Trek adversaries the Klingons (sporting a radical and controversial new look that takes some adjustment to but ultimately gives the race a more elaborately alien appearance).

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A controversial new look for the Klingons.

Thus, the main narrative core of this first season becomes one about redemption as Burnham (who we learn was orphaned in a Klingon attack and subsequently raised by Spock’s father, Ambassador Sarek – played by Gotham’s James Frain) re-examines her values and strives to regain hope and her place in the universe.  This marks another departure from the other iterations of Star Trek in that the series is focused mainly on a character other than a Starfleet captain.

The premiere concludes with Burnham being stripped of her commission and sentenced to prison for her actions but in episode three (“Context is for Kings”) finds herself assigned as a ‘specialist’ to the U.S.S. Discovery, Starfleet’s most advanced vessel incorporating an experimental star-drive that allows the ship to tap into a universe-spanning, interdimensional ‘mycelial’ spore network and jump instantaneously to any given point in space.  The ship is captained by the mysterious Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs), an uncompromising commander prepared to do all that is necessary to win the war, with Lt. Saru serving as his first officer and a crew including Lieutenant Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp), who becomes the spore-drive’s ‘navigator/operator’ and is also Star Trek’s first openly gay regular character, his partner Doctor Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) and Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman), an awkward but optimistic Starfleet cadet whose burgeoning friendship with Burnham helps to define both characters.

What’s immediately clear is that Discovery is a somewhat darker take on Gene Roddenberry’s baby, but in a manner that simply allows the writers, in true Roddenberry fashion, to examine the human condition and discuss the social and political issues of the day, coupling it with compelling character drama…those optimistic ideals of Star Trek are still there and peppered throughout the series as it becomes more and more ‘Trek-like’.  There may be aspects that some fans will nitpick about, but Discovery has to be approached with an open mind and it’s commendable that the writers have managed to strike a decent balance between catering to hardcore Trekkies and engaging new viewers who may never have seen Star Trek before.

Star Trek: Discovery boasts a superb cast with well-defined characters who grow and develop in leaps and bounds during the course of the season.  Sonequa Martin-Green is the reliable lead and Burnham’s journey is an interesting one, a human raised as a Vulcan who we see slowly regain her human heritage and deal with the mistakes she has made.  Doug Jones is a huge highlight as Saru, proving once again how adept he is at conveying raw emotion through heavy prosthetics, Jason Isaacs is gripping as the devious, sometimes brutal Lorca, Anthony Rapp infuses Lt. Stamets with a pleasing dose of Bones-esque irascibility and Mary Wiseman projects Tilly with the right mix of nervous energy and general likeability.  Joining the crew in “Choose Your Pain“ is Security Chief Lieutenant Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif) which is also one of two episodes to feature another original Star Trek character: intergalactic conman Harry Mudd, played with verve by The Office’s Rainn Wilson who returns in “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad“, a rather excellent time-loop romp in the vein of TNG classic “Cause and Effect”.  Much like Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise, there’s an initial element of conflict between the various characters but as the series begins to take shape the relationships gradually start to settle and by the season finale there’s that definite sense of family we’ve had with other Star Trek crews beginning to blossom.

It’s fair to say that Discovery’s Klingon arc isn’t always consistently prominent (although recurring guest star Mary Chieffo plays an important role as L’Rell) but the backdrop of war gives the writers the opportunity to tackle various moral and ethical issues and dropping more character-driven episodes into the mix – -including Trek novelist Kirsten Beyer’s superb Saru-centric episode “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum“ – helps the cast to really start hitting their groove.

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The incomparable Doug Jones as Lieutenant Saru.

Following a mid-season break, Star Trek: Discovery’s six-episode ‘second chapter’ saw the U.S.S. Discovery transported to Star Trek’s Mirror Universe (first featured in fan-favourite TOS episode “Mirror, Mirror”), ruled by the evil Terran Empire.  It’s an arc that sees the series kick things up a notch and numerous threads come together, culminating in revelations concerning two of Discovery’s crew – not only do we learn that Lorca is in fact his Mirror Universe counterpart but also that Tyler is actually Voq, the albino-skinned Klingon from the series premiere, a sleeper agent surgically altered and conditioned to appear human.  These twists, whilst more anticipated than unexpected (the seeds quite clearly planted) lead to dramatic consequences – not in the least for Burnham who had begun a romantic relationship with Tyler.  Shazad Latif handles the ensuing struggle between Tyler’s two identities with aplomb and the shifting dynamic between Burnham and Tyler is beautifully played.

Similarly, Jason Isaacs is able to let loose with uninhibited villainy as Mirror Lorca – right through to his blazing demise.  The same can be said of Empress Georgiou, with a returning Michelle Yeoh in delightfully devilish form, whose uneasy alliance with Burnham becomes a key aspect of the final episodes of the season.

Both the Mirror Universe and Klingon War arcs are wrapped up pretty quickly in the final two episodes of season one, not quite the intense earth-shattering finale some viewers may have anticipated but leaves the viewer with hope as Burnham, her status as a Starfleet officer restored, gives an emotional and poignant address about the true virtues of Starfleet and the Federation as entities of peace, understanding and exploration.  Saving its biggest punch for last, the finale (titled “Will You Take My Hand?”) closes as Discovery, en route to Vulcan to pick up her new captain, encounters another Starfleet vessel…the U.S.S. Enterprise!  This certainly opens up a galaxy of possibilities for season two of Star Trek: Discovery, a series that has shown good potential in its first season and can surely only get better? As Picard once said, “the sky’s the limit…”.

The bottom line:  A promising start to the newest Star Trek series, season one of Star Trek: Discovery boasts a solid cast and decent writing, that, coupled with strong production values has much to offer fans and new viewers alike.

All episodes of Star Trek: Discovery season one (as well as post-show companion series After Trek) are currently available to stream via Netflix (worldwide) and CBS All Access (U.S. only).

All images belong: CBS, used for illustrative purposes only.

TV Review: ‘Altered Carbon’ – series premiere

A Blade Runner for the smaller screen? 

Spoiler-free review

 

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Joel Kinnaman stars in the dazzling and intriguing Netflix Original ‘Altered Carbon’.

Starring:  Joel Kinnaman, James Purefoy, Martha Higareda, Kristin Lehman, Will Yun Lee, Chris Conner

Series created by:  Laeta Kalogridis (based on the novel by Richard Morgan)

Written by:  Laeta Kalogridis / Episode directed by:  Miguel Sapochnik

What’s it about?

250 years after his death, Takeshi Kovacs awakens in a new body to find he’s been enlisted to solve the murder of a wealthy industrialist…

Episode review

A Netflix Original, Altered Carbon is an intriguing and stylish piece of dystopic cyberpunk science fiction that takes themes of identity and society and infuses them into a futuristic murder mystery that, in its first episode – titled “Out of the Past” – gently absorbs the viewer into this rich and visually astonishing world.  It’d be fair to cite that for seasoned fans of classic SF, Altered Carbon doesn’t necessarily offer anything completely new and original – the lavish, expansive cityscapes, existential ponderings and societal examinations are well worn tropes that have been represented in various cinematic classics including Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis but it’s more a case of homage and acknowledged appreciation than outright uninventive riff.

Following a violent and bloody opening, we’re transported 250 years into the future as the ‘terrorist’ (as he’s perceived at this point at least) Takeshi Kovacs is ‘re-sleeved’ into a new body – introducing series lead Joel Kinnaman (RoboCop, Suicide Squad) – thanks to bureaucrat Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy) who wishes to enlist Kovacs to investigate his ‘murder’ 48 hours prior.  You see, in the world of Altered Carbon the human personality is digitally stored in a ‘cortical stack’ that can be transferred to a new body and Bancroft has survived thanks to a regular backup of his stack to an orbiting satellite…albeit any memory of his ‘death’ lost due to the murder being conveniently timed before the next backup.  This appears to form the central narrative of the series and “Out of the Past” plays out as more of a tease for what is to come, instead serving to establish the main players of Altered Carbon together with its visual aesthetics and the ideas it wishes to emulate, the notion of the human body as something that’s disposable, like an old mobile phone, proving the most evocative (and the re-sleeving of a seven year old girl into the body of a middle-aged woman the most alarming).

Initially, a little attention is required as Altered Carbon makes efforts to explain its future jargon with terminology akin to Ron Moore’s reimagined Battlestar Galactica but it’s soon easy to grasp if one focuses on the more or less self-explanatory basics of ‘stacks’ and ‘sleeves’ and the concept of the ‘Protectorate’ as a state or ruling entity.

In terms of the cast, Joel Kinnaman is clearly the focal point and does a decent job of presenting a weary and brooding (yet darkly comic) persona uninterested in redemption and second chances, instead favouring a blast of excess before going back on ice for an indefinite period.  The supporting characters are a little sketchy to begin with, with a particular air of mystery and ambiguity surrounding James Purefoy’s Bancroft (together with his wife and son) who draws the suspicions of Police Lieutenant Ortega (Martha Higareda), whose presence facilitates some of the establishing exposition.  With this being merely the opening chapter, it’s surely a given that the series will delve more deeply into the characters as the story progresses across this ten episode first season.

The bottom line:  Slickly presented and with some substance to go with its style, Altered Carbon opens with an interesting and visually absorbing premiere.

All ten episodes of Altered Carbon season 1 are available to stream now on Netflix.

TV Review: ‘Doctor Who’ 2017 Christmas Special – “Twice Upon a Time”

It’s two Who’s for the price of one as the Twelfth Doctor prepares for change…

Spoiler- free review

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Once more unto the breach: The Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is united with the First Doctor (David Bradley) for a fitting final adventure…

Starring:  Peter Capaldi, David Bradley, Mark Gatiss, Pearl Mackie

Written by:  Steven Moffat / Episode directed by:  Rachel Talalay / aired in the UK and U.S. :  25/12/2017

What’s it about?

Fighting to prevent his inevitable regeneration, the Twelfth Doctor goes on one final adventure as his path crosses with his original self…

Episode review

The Doctor Who Christmas special is all the more poignant this year in that it marks the end of an era and like “The End of Time” all those seven years ago we wave goodbye to not only the current serving iteration of the Doctor – played by Peter Capaldi – but also headwriter/showrunner Steven Moffat who took over the reins from Russel T. Davies in 2010.

“Twice Upon a Time” certainly is poignant, although it isn’t necessarily Moffat’s finest hour it’s still a fairly good one that’s bolstered by the reliably brilliant Peter Capaldi who delivers a strong, passionate and moving final performance.  It’s quite a sombre affair at times but Steven Moffat still finds the odd moment to inject a stroke of sly wit and warmth into proceedings.  The central plot is surprisingly quite light and what’s there is a bit overly complicated and slightly befuddling – something basically involving memory-stealing avatars made of glass and frozen time but woven in, true Moffat style, a bit of a twisty-turny manner.

There’s also a heavy dose of reverence and nostalgia to the franchise’s history that casual viewers will not fully appreciate, for hardcore fans it’s a sweet treat – particularly the transitions between archive footage of classic Who serial “The Tenth Planet” and modern recreations of scenes from that 1966 story.

These niggles aside, it’s the union of Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor and his original self that provides the special’s most enjoyable aspect.  Played by William Hartnell between 1963 and 1966, the role of the First Doctor in “Twice Upon a Time” is taken on by David Bradley, who portrayed Hartnell so wonderfully in 50th Anniversary docudrama An Adventure in Space and Time and is equally captivating here.  Bradley skilfully melds elements of his own performance with an unabashed homage of Hartnell and the argumentative but affectionate interplay between the two Doctors – of very different eras and attitudes (jokes surrounding the changing social landscape and political correctness adding a chuckle or two) – is a real highlight.  Mark Gatiss is also solid as the First Wold War army captain drawn unwittingly into the Doctors’ adventure as they attempt to repair the damaged time stream and Pearl Mackie has a touching final bow as the endearing and sprightly Bill Potts.

For an episode of modern Who, “Twice Upon a Time” unfolds at a more gentle pace than expected, there’s a perhaps unnecessary tie back to series 8’s “Into the Dalek” that serves to up the ante but ultimately draws things out, but it’s in the focus of the characters and themes of regret, acceptance, change and hope in the face of darkness that are the main narrative thrust, it’s most ‘Christmassy’ part a fitting tribute to the Christmas Eve truce at Ypres in 1914.

As a regeneration story “Twice Upon a Time” isn’t as impactful as previous outings, it doesn’t quite achieve the gut punch of David Tennant’s sorrowful and dramatic exit in “The End of Time” or the tearfully heartfelt swansong of Matt Smith in “The Time of the Doctor” but this is arguably down to the fact that much of Capaldi’s departure had already been dealt with in the series 10 finale.  It does make it all feel a little anti-climactic but it still pulls the emotional strings somewhat.

So, with a twinge of sadness, in a nicely executed (if a tad familiar) regeneration scene we see Peter Capaldi leave the TARDIS but it’s with a hint of excitement that we get a brief tease of Jodie Whittaker’s incoming Thirteenth Doctor and a promising glimmer as to all the fresh creative possibilities a female incarnation of the iconic Time Lord (Lady?) will bring to the franchise.

The bottom line:  An enjoyable final romp for the Twelfth Doctor, “Twice Upon a Time” isn’t the strongest Christmas special for Doctor Who but a fitting exit for its outgoing lead non-the-less.

Doctor Who returns in 2018.

What did you think of this year’s ‘Doctor Who’ Christmas special?  Share your thoughts below!

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

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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.

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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.

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.