It’s Star Trek, Jim, But Not As We Know It – Discovery Arrives

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Star Trek: Discovery finally arrives, after troubling tales of behind the scenes problems and somewhat less-than-thrilling trailers, and I suppose the first question to ask is whether it’s the disaster many were expecting?

Happily the answer is no. The first two episodes, which dropped yesterday on CBS and the network’s CBS All Access subscription service in the U.S.A. and on Netflix almost everywhere else today, are generally exciting and well-told, with high production values and a decent cast. However, at least with the evidence at hand, it does veer away from creator Gene Roddenberry’s hopeful spirit of exploration, and this may be an issue for some.

Taking place some ten years or so before the original series’ tales of Captain Kirk and co (a point I’ll come back to later), Discovery features as its focus not the traditional Starfleet Captain (though there is one, played by Michelle Yeoh) but instead on the first officer of the USS ShenzhouMichael Burnham, as portrayed by Sonequa Martin-Green.

Burnham’s parents were killed by Klingons, which resulted in her being raised by Spock’s father, Sarek, on the planet Vulcan. This becomes important in the opening episode when Burnham’s ship is the first to engage in a direct encounter with the Klingons in almost one hundred years. Needless to say, the encounter quickly goes pear-shaped and we’re treated to a pretty epic space battle, alongside some interesting twists and turns for the characters (particularly in the second episode).

Michelle Yeoh is good value, and thankfully brings more humour and emotion to her role than the stilted trailers led us to believe, Science Officer Saru, played under heavy prosthetics by the always welcome Doug Jones, is also immediately likeable. Without these two the show would definitely have been lacking the human touch, as the rest of the crew singularly fail to register anything beyond dark-haired man, red-haired woman and grizzled admiral who only appears as a hologram, etc.

Viewers should be advised there’s also a lot of Klingon grousing about purity of race and what a rum lot we humans are. With subtitles. Of course, looking at the state of the world right now, it’s difficult to disagree with their summation of mankind. Let’s hope the show gives us enough of an opposing viewpoint to feel better about ourselves as it goes on.

Jason Issacs, another actor I usually enjoy, didn’t make an appearance in the first two episodes, so we have that treat to look forward to.

My biggest problem with Discovery was with Martin-Green, who faces the tricky problem of engaging us with a human raised by the emotion-subsuming Vulcans. It’s a delicate balance pulled off marvellously over the years by the late, great Leonard Nimoy, but across the first two episodes I found that balance to be weighted in favour of some stiff-sounding line readings and an inability to connect with the character.

Martin-Green faces a difficult task, especially being the viewer’s eyes through these shenanigans, but the cliff-hanging climax to the second episode at least suggests she’ll be getting a promising arc as we move forward. Of course, some better dialogue might help too. *cough*

My second big issue comes with the show’s setting. As mentioned above, we’re rolling around a decade before Kirk and co, but everything here looks WAY more advanced than the original series. Again, this was always going to be a tough nut to crack: you either embrace the 1960s-produced vibe of the original series or you say “Screw it, no one will buy that in the age of shiny CGI” and go for a modern design ethic. The producers of Discovery have chosen the latter.

Is this a geek-only problem? Will more casual viewers give a hoot that it looks more like the new timeline-set, JJ Abrams movies (particularly in its annoying overuse of lens flare) than a prequel show? Casual viewers may not care but this decision is baffling when so much of Discovery’s Klingon Cold War setting relies on understanding its place in Star Trek’s chronology. If nothing else it smacks of indecision at best, and downright carelessness at worst. The large number of producers and executive producers listed in Discovery’s opening credit sequence may suggest an answer to this…

What is for sure is that most of Roddenberry’s idealism is gone, as Discovery has more in common with a Game of Thrones viewpoint that humans suck and war is hell than it does with discovering Tribbles and dallying with green-skinned dancing girls, while it rams home analogies about fundamentalism with all the subtlety of a Klingon punch to the face.

Finally then, Discovery shows some promise in its set-up, but it’s likely to tick-off many long-term Star Trek fans. Personally, we have endless hours of Star Trek in its various forms before this, so I’m happy enough to see the franchise try something different. However, it’s so mired in Star Trek history (while simultaneously contradicting it left, right and centre) that I’m not certain how much it will appeal to Trekkies or non-Trekkies. Which could be something of a problem.

Whether or not that different feel is enough to sustain my interest in the long run remains to be seen, or to bring in those obviously much-hoped for casual viewers, but I’m certainly intrigued enough to see what this… sorry to use the word, but… grittier take on the final frontier has to offer. I had fun for its duration, and there’s something to be said for that, plus it’s good to see Star Trek back on television, its spiritual home.

Beam me up, at least for now…

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Netflix and King – 1922

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Netflix appear to be getting into the Stephen King business in a big way.

With their film of Gerald’s Game dropping this week and looking as kinky, creepy and gnarly as King’s book, the channel has now released a trailer for 1922, based on a novella taken from his 2010 collection, Full Dark, No Stars.

Starring the always watchable Thomas Jane as a farmer who manipulates his son into murdering his wfe, the Netflix film looks like it will fully embrace the ghastly goings-on as Jane’s wife (played by the equally watchable Molly Parker) comes back to torment him along with a plague of rats.

With the success of IT and these two new productions from Netflix, it’s good to see a rash of King adaptations that might just help us to forget 2017 was the year Sony made a trainwreck from The Dark Tower.

1922 arrives on Netflix on October 20.

Who Watches The Watchmen… Again?

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The news today that HBO have ordered a pilot for a new series of Watchmen, based on the comic book and graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, comes with a whole bunch of raised eyebrows.

The first question to be asked is whether or not the world needs another adaptation (if indeed that’s what this will be, rather than a continuation or expansion) of the material so soon after Zack Snyder’s somewhat underrated 2009 film (flawed but definitely with its heart in the right place and with a rather elegant solution to the climax)?

The second question concerns the creative in charge of this new iteration. Damon Lindelof arrives with a whole lot of baggage, not all of it boding well. While his show The Leftovers has garnered many fans and a great deal of acclaim, he was also partly responsible for the complete mess that was Lost and also for large chunks of the script for Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, which was chock full of irritating characters doing and saying stupid things. In other words, a complete mess. Again.

So the thought of Lindelof taking the comic book that Alan Moore describes as “inherently unfilmable” definitely comes with caveats. We can only hope to get a show from The Leftovers Lindelof, rather than the Prometheus Lindelof.

Allowing that this baby is going ahead regardless of (or in spite of) its creators’ blessings (Moore has been in dispute over creative ownership of Watchmen for decades), a TV show could certainly allow the concept some breathing room, possibly giving time to the Tales of The Black Freighter comic-within-a-comic that was exised from Snyder’s film. It could also, if we’re really lucky, look at the nature of storytelling in a fresh way from the approach taken in the comic and adapt that for the filmic medium.

I’ll certainly be watching this one as it progresses.

 

 

Anna and the Apocalypse – The Scottish Teenage Zombie High School Musical We’ve Been Waiting For…?

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If the above description of forthcoming movie, Anna and the Apocalypse (a Scottish, teenage zombie, high school musical for those who can’t remember anything above the header photo), doesn’t grab your attention as much as it does mine, then you’re probably reading the wrong blog. Oh, it’s also set at Christmas, but at this time I can’t confirm the involvement of either Tim Burton or Shane Black.

The film is directed by John McPhail, and stars Ella Hunt, Mark Benton, Paul Kaye and includes up-and-comers Malcolm Cumming, Sarah Swire, Christopher Leveaux, Ben Wiggins and Marli Siu.

Beyond its screening at this week’s Fantastic Fest in Austin, release details seem a little sketchy, but frankly the sooner this apocalypse is released upon the world the better.

What Year Is This? – The Triumph of Twin Peaks

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CAUTION: SPOILERS

Sunday night’s double dose of episodes finally (?) brought David Lynch’s magnum opus to an end. Of sorts.

But anyone expecting a cosy, happy denouement wrapped up in a neat bow for the residents of Washington State’s most bizarre town (and beyond, with these eighteen episodes) has either never paid attention to the auteur’s work or is going to have to try to take comfort from events in previous installments because Lynch was determined to go out with a take-no-prisoners bang of the bleakest kind.

Episode 17 gave us a more conventional climax (or as conventional as anything can be with Lynch), seeing many of the characters driving the narrative coming together (in the Sheriff’s office of Twin Peaks, naturally) and the evil spirit of Bob finally (perhaps, we’ll come back to that) laid to rest. But Cooper says “Now there are some things that will change…” and seemingly the first thing to do so (after a conversation with David Bowie, now played by a steaming teapot, of course) is that Cooper attempts to go back in time and save Laura Palmer before her terrible final night. But is he successful? The infinity loop image made in the steam produced by David Bowie’s teapot (and isn’t that a hell of a sentence to type) suggests otherwise.

Lynch still has another fifty minutes to go and he doesn’t waste a second of them as he makes even more sweeping changes, launching Cooper and Diane into an alternate time/world where they have adopted different personas (Richard and Linda) and where Laura Palmer – in the persona of Carrie –  is now living in Odessa, Texas, and still apparently in a world of trouble, with a dead body in her apartment. So perhaps Cooper’s plan to save Laura did work…

Cooper persuades Carrie to travel with him to Twin Peaks, and much of the episode is taken up by their largely silent journey, and its here that Lynch begins to ratchet up the tension. Along the way, Lynch drops in hints and portents that things are not as they should be (the white horse which appeared in Sarah Palmer’s visions, character names which harken back to clues spread out over the past twenty five years).

Arriving at the old Palmer house, both Cooper and Laura slowly come to the realisation that evil is eternal in a deliciously directed and acted scene, leaving us with an ending both shocking and horrifying, and one for which we may never receive answers. Will the evil which has haunted Twin Peaks play out again and again? Will the fight for Laura’s soul ever end? Does this speak to wider questions of evil’s ever-present existence in the world (theirs or ours)? Will Cooper and Laura ever free themselves from wherever they are now, or have those characters ceased to exist? Would this set off a whole new set of mysteries were the show ever to return (though I guess that last question answers itself, but still…)?

“The past dictates the future,” Cooper intones, during the penultimate episode, further suggesting an endless cycle of events, in which our characters appear to be trapped.

How often are we given drama that truly challenges us, that manages to leave us with a resolution which makes perfect sense yet leaves us with more questions than we started with? How often are we given eighteen hours of drama only to be left screaming for more?

Lynch has given us the show he wanted to make back in 1990, except now he deals with a network (Showtime, and plaudits to them) which understands that in order for this to happen the artist must be allowed to unfurl the story at his own pace, in his own way: each week has given viewers a unique and thoroughly new experience, from romance to comedy to outright existentialism and finally, returning to horror, where it all began.

Art exists to challenge and provoke, to make us view the world from other perspectives, and Lynch and his team have done this for eighteen hours. The return to Twin Peaks has been more than any of us could have oped for,  in this viewer’s eyes it is a triumph which will enthrall, amuse, terrify, frustrate, mystify and even make you cry. It is one of the most astonishing pieces of TV ever.

And we shouldn’t expect answers from Lynch anytime soon. However, in the 2004 book Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film, by Joseph Maddrey, Lynch says:

“Being in darkness and confusion is interesting to me. But behind it you can rise out of that and see things the way the really are. That there is some sort of truth to the whole thing, if you could just get to that point where you could see it, and live it, and feel it … I think it is a long, long, way off. In the meantime there’s suffering and darkness and confusion and absurdities, and it’s people kind of going in circles. It’s fantastic. It’s like a strange carnival: it’s a lot of fun, but it’s a lot of pain.”

That would seem to be a statement which not only fits with his entire body of work, but also feels quite specific to this last season of Twin Peaks.

Cooper/Richard’s chilling final line and Laura/Carrie’s final, blood-curdling scream will resonate with you for days after, as in its final seconds Twin Peaks returns to the horror which has run through its icy veins from the show’s first moments of discovering a teenage body wrapped in plastic on a lonely beach.

“She’s dead… wrapped in plastic,” said Pete Martell on discovering Laura’s body back in 1990, and perhaps she always will be.