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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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.

The Defenders: Better Together (And Shorter)

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After the double-stumble of the generally entertaining but stuttering Luke Cage and the thoroughly tone-deaf and lazy feeling disaster of Iron Fist, the Netflix/Marvel universe was on decidedly shaky footing. It was beginning to seem like the growing promise of Daredevil and Jessica Jones had been blown in two seasons of stretched-out superheroics, so I’m happy to say that The Defenders puts our heroes firmly back on track.

Marvel’s anti-team alternative to The Avengers began in the pages of Marvel Feature # 1, in 1971, before gaining its own long-running title the following year. The reluctant, non-team initially consisted of Doctor Strange, the Sub-Mariner and The Hulk, but soon expanded to include a rotating cast of heroes. Although both Daredevil and Luke Cage tagged along for a while, they were never core members.

Netflix’s The Defenders takes this group in name only, instead bringing together the casts of their previous shows: Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist. Also brought along for the ride are returning supporting characters and villains.

The first big plus point here is the big bad, none other than Sigourney Weaver. Weaver is quite obviously having fun with the role, clearly relishing her many arch lines of dialogue, but the character is given some essential moments of vulnerability too, leaving us with another in the stable of successful Marvel TV villains (after Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk/The Kingpin and David Tennant’s Killgrave).

But you came here for the heroes, and of course The Defenders delivers these in spades. Daredevil continues to be tortured (though with some welcome added humour), Jessica Jones is all-snark and snap, Luke Cage is the picture of wounded noblility and Iron Fist is, well, he’s actually rather likeable here. Consider that a triumph after being an asshole for thirteen episodes of his own show. In fact, for long-term comic book fans, seeing long-term buddies Luke Cage and Danny Rand spar off against each other will be a genuine buzz.

Which brings us to another big score for The Defenders. I’ve said repeatedly that the fixed thirteen episode season format has harmed the Netflix/Marvel shows (even the good ones), taking interesting stories and stretching them way beyond their shelf life. The Defenders is a relatively brisk eight episodes and boy, can we feel the difference!

The first two episodes take their time to get moving, somewhat pointlessly reintroducing the various characters and their supporting casts, but they soon begin to pick up speed and then the third episode is where everything comes together: narratively and literally.

Episode three is one of the best hours of Marvel TV to date, with a fast-paced, driving narrative, kick ass action sequences, snappy dialogue and great interaction between the leads. In fact there were one or two moments that had me punching the air in delight, definitely a first for Marvel TV.

From here the story moves deliberately and enjoyably, neatly pulling together a lot of threads which had been left dangling in other shows and at last we have a show which doesn’t feel like a chore to get through. Netflix/Marvel, please take note: eight episodes is the perfect format for these shows and unless you have an incredibly compelling reason otherwise, this should be your model!

There’s still the odd bit of clunkiness lurking around and overall I’m not sure there’s too much in the way of character development (except, surprisingly, something of a maturing for Danny Rand/Iron Fist), plus The Hand have proven to amongst the most ill-defined and ineffectual bad guys ever (after four whole seasons yet) but despite these failings, and in terms of watchability, Netflix/Marvel have definitely upped their game with The Defenders. Whatever failings the show has are more than compensated for by its brisk pace and fun antics. And there is a lot of fun to be had here.

With more seasons announced for all four main characters, plus a first run for Jon Bernthal’s Punisher, it’s clear the superhero train will keep on running on Netflix. Let’s hope they learn all the right lessons from this enjoyable Marvel team-up!

Netflix’s Empty El Chapo

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I’m a sucker for a good series about crime lords, gang wars and drug trafficking, so when I saw articles suggesting Netflix’s El Chapo might be their answer to The Wire, I was practically drooling.

Sadly, anyone seeing this show as being anywhere near as dramatically satisfying as David Simon’s classic tale of the narcotics trade in Baltimore is probably getting high on their own supply.

Co-produced by Netflix and Univision, El Chapo recounts the beginnings of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán in 1985, when he was a low-level member of the Guadalajara cartel until his rise to power and his last fall.

Guzmán’s story makes for rich dramatic picking. From 2009 to 2011 Forbes magazine ranked him as one of the most powerful people in the world, and named him the 10th richest man in Mexico in 2011, with a net worth of roughly US$1 billion. The magazine also called him the “biggest drug lord of all time.” The U.S. federal government considered him “the most ruthless, dangerous, and feared man on the planet.” So, you know, there’s quite a lot to get your teeth into here.

There is a wealth of great material: the cartels and their various squabbles, the involvement of the U.S. government, the rise of a lowly government official to a position of power involved with the underworld, a crusading reporter, appearances by Pablo Escobar (and the show’s first real dropped ball by not getting Narco’s Wagner Moura to reprise his role, robbing us of the chance to experience a Narcos shared universe) and of course, the trials and tribulations of Guzmán himself.

The show looks fine, though it doesn’t exactly drip with period feel, but what really lets down the whole endeavour is the writing.

As I’m typing this review I’m six episodes into the nine episode run and I know literally nothing more about Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán than I did at the beginning of the first episode. Oh sure, the events are all in place and there are sporadic bursts of excitement and bloodshed, but Guzmán remains nothing more than a cypher, as in fact does every single character in the show. Guzmán stays unknowable, as does his wife, his girlfriends, friends, allies, rivals and enemies.

No one speaks about their emotions, nothing happens that’s character-driven, and no one has an inner life of any kind. The scripts must have been a doddle to write, because never before have I come across a high-profile show of this kind where the dialogue is 100% functional. Characters tell us where they’re going, what they’re going to do, who they’re going to kill or pay off… but never why.

The nearest we get to an actual living, breathing character is Humberto Busto as conniving politician Conrado Higuera Sol “Don Sol”, but even he never gets a single line of dialogue that does anything but gloss over the veneer of his actions.

As a result El Chapo is purely functional, moving people you’re not allowed to care for, empathise with or hate from one situation to another. The events themselves are interesting, but ultimately it’s a hollow shell. As drama it’s a complete disaster and an object lesson in how not to write compelling, nourishing TV because there’s no meat on El Chapo’s bones.

UPDATE: the final two episodes deal with Guzmán’s internment and also give us a glimpse of his formative years (and therefore something passing for character development). It’s a mystery why this material wasn’t spread out as flashbacks throughout the season, as it would have added sorely-needed depth.

So finally, the show ends with some improvement but sadly it was a case of too little, too late for me.

The Doctor Falls – Emotional And Political As Doctor Who Gets

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*Caution – spoilers*

“I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone, because I hate someone, or because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun. God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works because it hardly ever does. I do what I do because it’s right! Because it’s decent! And above all, it’s kind! It’s just that… Just kind. If I run away today, good people will die. If I stand and fight, some of them might live. Maybe not many, maybe not for long. Hey, you know, maybe there’s no point to any of this at all. But it’s the best I can do. So I’m going to do it. And I’m going to stand here doing it until it kills me. And you’re going to die too! Some day… And how will that be? Have you thought about it? What would you die for? Who I am is where I stand. Where I stand is where I fall.”

For anyone who thinks Doctor Who is never political, last night’s astounding finale to the current season (ten, in reboot terms) saw Peter Capaldi maginificently deliver the preceeding speech.

As a marker for The Doctor, writer Steven Moffat gives us this defining moment not only for the character and for the show but also as a comment on the zeitgeist – make no mistake about it, conscious or not, this is a political statement against the prevailing political winds of the UK and the world as a whole.

Written and performed with the twin qualitities of passion and vulnerability, this speech could as easily be delivered at an anti-establishment rally, with several thousand Corbyn supporters roaring their approval. I have no idea of the personal politics of Steven Moffat, but if the likes of Theresa May and Donald Trump could be seen as the ultimate Doctor Who villains – uncaring despots seemingly determined to wipe out everything good and decent about mankind – then this speech can easily be read as the ultimate rallying cry against them.

Doctor Who has always been good at reflecting the world around us, whether through the filter of technological advances (the Cyberman chant of “delete, delete”) or even politicians being replaced by gas-expelling aliens, but it’s rarely as outspoken against the status quo as in The Doctor Falls.

While not the actual bowing-out of Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor (that honour comes at Christmas, in a meeting with David Bradley as the First Doctor), this episode served as a superb summation of his incarnation – fiery, humane and yet always inhuman – and also neatly wrapped up the arc for Pearl Mackie’s Bill.

Much of the episode ran at an exceptional pace, narrative and emotional drive running hand in hand to deliver an astonishing gut punch. The scenes between the Cyber-transformed Bill (as close to Cronenbergian body-horror as the family show can possibly get) and The Doctor were heart-rendingly written and performed, this was a terrifying fate for a companion and a warning to all those who travel with the Time Lord.

And if the final ten minutes seemed to wallow a little, it’s tough to argue that this wasn’t earned or deserved. For the children watching, Bill’s eventual fate was all-important for a show which ultimately needs to be aspirational and inspirational.

Steven Moffat, director Rachel Talalay and the Doctor Who crew seemed determined to send this much-improved season off with a bang, an emotional wallop and, by adding the zest of a sharp, humanist comment on the real world, something to truly value.

Twin Peaks: The Return – Buy The Ticket, Take The Ride!

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Writing a review of the first two episodes of Twin Peaks, or Twin Peaks: The Return, if you will, is a difficult task for a number of reasons.

Firstly, reviewing any David Lynch production is tantamount to trying to explain a night of fractured dreams to someone using only the art of mime. No amount of wild gesticulation can adequately communicate so much that’s based on symbolism and mood. Lynch’s tales come complete with codes to be deciphered and visuals and sound that defy narrative description but stain themselves onto the viewer’s psyche like blood on a carpet.

Secondly, these first two episodes are part of what Lynch sees as one eighteen hour long movie broadcast across consecutive weeks, so trying to make sense of the overall narative arc now is an impossibility. Especially given the Lynchian parameters as mentioned above.

What I can say is that it is both the Twin Peaks longtime viewers have come to love (or loathe) and yet it isn’t.

Familiar characters are introduced leisurely across episodes one and two (and “leisurely” is a word I’ll come back to), particularly in regards to Agent Dale Cooper still being stuck in The Black Lodge after twenty five years, but we’re also thrown into the deep end with a bunch of new characters – a young man in New York city watching a strange glass box, a principal in Buckhorn, South Dakota who may or may not be responsible for the brutal killing of his school librarian.

These new locales (and the vastly enlarged cast, including Matthew Lillard, Ashley Judd and Jennifer Jason Leigh in episodes one and two) open up the canvas of the series, giving a much more expansive feel to events. How Lynch will tie all these together with the more familiar surroundings of Twin Peaks (the town) is anyone’s guess. Or maybe he simply won’t.

Lynch moves everything along at a deliberate, leisurely pace, sometimes wonderfully frustratingly so. The episodes feel like absolutely nothing else on TV right now and that is a complete joy. The thought of spending another sixteen hours being amused, mystified, frustrated, amazed and horrified makes me give a big Cooper-like thumbs up to see how television drama has evolved to a point where an idiosyncratic master of dreamscape storytelling like Lynch can be afforded the opportunity to unfurl his tale in exactly the way he wants, at the pace he wants, without the horror of network executive notes telling him to hurry things along because he might lose those viewers not up for the journey.

Massive bouquets of blue roses should be showered upon Showtime for giving Lynch the room to breathe that modern cinema seems to have lost the possibilty of doing.

If you love his work, Twin Peaks: The Return will be like mainlining pure David Lynch. If you’ve resisted his unusual charms then this might not be the show for you. If you’re a complete newbie, then you’re in for an experience like nothing you’ll have seen on TV before: treading the gossamer line between dream and nightmare.

Either way, load up with pie, donuts and coffee, buy the ticket and take the ride. Who knows where Lynch and Twin Peaks will take us!? But I have a definite feeling it will be a place both wonderful and strange…

Iron Fist – Not Such A Master of Kung Fu!

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Regular readers will know me as an unabashed fan of the Marvel franchises, heck I’ve even been known to say kind things about Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. This act alone, while possibly wiping out any standing I have as a critic, should firmly place me as a fully-fledged Marvel geek. I carry my F.O.O.M. card proudly.

So it’s with a heavy heart that I have to label Marvel’s Iron Fist on Netflix their first real misfire.

So full of problematic elements it’s kind of difficult to know where to begin, but let’s start with an issue common to all the Marvel/Netflix shows: folks, it’s just too darn long! The first four or five episodes are a genuine slog to sit through, it’s the first Marvel effort I’ve had to convince myself to continue. All of the Netflix shows have suffered from this, eight or at most ten episode seasons would make things feel far more palatable. It’s possible a shorter season would have made Iron Fist more entertaining but then there would still be… well, Iron Fist.

Boy oh boy, the showrunners make Danny Rand, A.K.A. Iron Fist, tough to like. Brash, entitled, aggressive and… well, I’m not quite sure what else he’s supposed to be. There’s a final moments line about Iron Fist becoming a shining beacon in the darkness, yadda yadda, but by this point we’ve sat through thirteen episodes of him generally acting like a complete ass to everyone around him with only a few glimmers of anything nice from star Finn Jones shining through.

And, Marvel… come ON!! Thirteen episodes of Danny Rand wandering about in a hoody is just plain dull. Audiences are now so well versed in the Marvel world that we’re quite happy to accept masks and long johns… Thor and Doctor Strange even wear capes. Without the costume this frequently comes off like just another straight-to-DVD action flick. The costumes are what makes the characters visually distinctive, so please stop wussing out when it comes to getting your characters to suit up!

Finally, for a series about a legendary, mystical kung-fu dude, the fight choreography was unforgivably dull. There wasn’t a single sequence with the gusto or panache of Daredevil season one’s hallway fight or season two’s stairwell scrap.

There are still pleasures here, including Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple, an increasingly important thread in the Marvel Netflixverse (ouch) and the nods to the wider universe are fun – not to mention vital since Iron Fist leads to the forthcoming all-star mash up show, The Defenders. Good value is also provided by Tom Pelphrey and Jessica Stroup’s Meachum siblings, whose arcs are infinitely more interesting than that of Jones’s Rand (who pretty much remains an ass throughout).

But these few pleasures are unfortunately outweighed by a storyline that’s too afraid to let the crazy elements of its central character through, and so it ultimately lands with a dull thud instead of a kick to the groin.

Sorry Marvel, you know I love you, but Iron Fist felt more like a limp slap.

The OA -A Metaphysical Triumph!

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When Netflix drooped the trailer for their new show, The OA, last week, it raised a lot of questions. Happily, by the climax of the eight episode show, the creators are happy to answer some of them, leave others hanging, and gift you with a whole bunch more.

Created by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, in their third collaboration together (after the films Sound of My Voice and The East, both well worth seeking out, by the way), this tells the story of Prairie (Marling), a young woman who returns home after disappearing several years before. That she was blind when she vanished and returns with sight is only one of the many mysteries explored across the series.

The OA asks big questions, explores wild concepts but never strays away from emotional truth. In fact it’s an amazingly affecting story and its climax left me in floods of tears (for a number of reasons I’ll avoid for the sake of spoilers). Suffice to say I needed to sit and quietly process what I’d experienced before starting this review.

It’s a bold, smart story, subtly creepy, a psychedelic head-fuck, desperately sad and astonishingly hopeful all rolled together in one tour de force of script, casting, directing and acting.

Allow yourself to be pulled along by it and you’ll be enveloped in a philosophically challenging, emotionally captivating drama unlike anything Netflix has produced to date.

Now that issue of allowing yourself to be pulled in is an important one. In this post-truth age of ever deepening (and often fully justified) cynicism, The OA could be seen as frequently skating close to thin ice. To get maximum effect from Marling  and Batmanglij’s story you will need to loosen up and go with the flow. Do so and you’ll be rewarded with a truly exceptional experience, occasionally frustrating but wildly ambitious and wholly satisfying.

Let’s have more from Marling and Batmanglij please, Netflix, because The OA is an absolute triumph!

Sweet Christmas arrives early with Luke Cage (No Spoilers)

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Riding the crest of a Blaxploitation wave, Luke Cage was created in 1972 by Archie Goodwin, John Romita, Sr. and George Tuska (with help from Roy Thomas). It’s taken a long time for one of Marvel Comics’ most important black heroes to reach the screen, but boy has it ever been worth the wait.

With this latest series from Netflix, the cooperation between the two companies has really hit a creative peak. Featuring often lower key (but always entertaining) superheroics, touching on hot button topics to give the drama satisfying depth, and with a top notch cast (highlighting beyond due but very welcome diversity, which also extends to the production team behind the cameras), Luke Cage comes in both barrels blazing and feels as unstoppable as its titular hero!

We’re introduced quickly and confidently to the cast of characters – central to which is Harlem itself, given far more of a distinct personality than Hell’s Kitchen in Daredevil and Jessica Jones – in a relatively slow burn first episode, in fact the pacing throughout is charmingly classical, there’s no tearing through ADHD storytelling – everything proceeds at an even, steady tempo, giving characters time to live and breathe and allowing us to understand or care about each one. By about the third episode this approach really starts to pay dividends and then with episode four giving us a revised version of Cage’s origin from the comics, suddenly everything seems to click into place and you realise you’re hooked for the rest of the run. It’s an approach that will give this show long legs and I suspect will play well for repeated viewings (and yes, this is definitely a show that will stand up to more than one watch).

As I mentioned earlier, the cast is uniformly excellent. Colter is magnificent, striding through the episodes like a powerhouse (or even a “Power Man”, a neat in-joke used several time in early episodes – a name used by Cage in the comics), completely owning his show – all quiet dignity with fire and steel just below the surface. Cage is morally conflicted, enough to ensure there’s more than a single layer to enjoy, but at his core he is filled with a sense of righteousness and acts on that until the world forces him to step out of the shadows.

In one scene midway through the season, Cage eulogises the death of a neighbourhood friend and in doing so, gives a stirring speech to rival the kind usually given by the likes of Captain America. Cage is firmly established here as not just as man who will do whatever it takes to get the job done, but as a man to look up to, a hero.

For old time fans longing to see Cage in his traditional comic book outfit of metal headband and yellow blouson, let’s say you won’t be entirely disappointed (though you’ll be glad it doesn’t hang around long – some comic book conceits don’t translate to film). That’s just one of many nods to the character’s four-colour origins and to the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe. There’s also a stronger sense here of the Netflix shows slowly coming together, as we gradually head towards the eventual team-up series, The Defenders (in fact, now we’re only waiting for the last of the key characters to be introduced, in next year’s Iron Fist).

They say a hero is only as good as his or her enemies, and Luke Cage has some great villains. These aren’t pantomime, moustache twirling cardboard cut-outs, however, Mahershala Ali and Alfre Woodard (as Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes and Mariah Dillard) are nuanced people, misusing the tools of power and money, both of who believe themselves to be the hero of their particular story. There are great fireworks here, not only between them and Cage, but between each other, and we’re allowed to feel empathy towards them as much as we’re allowed to find their actions repugnant. It’s this kind of layering which elevates drama and what helps to make these shows so engrossing. Cottonmouth and Mariah are fine additions to the Netflix rogue’s gallery established by Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk and David Tennant as Killgrave. Ali brings a lizard-like cunning to Cottonmouth and Woodard is sharp and brittle, making it as pleasurable to spend time in their company as with the lead character.

Simone Missick gives us a great Misty Knight, another name which will send frissons of glee through comic book readers, her resolve in the law becoming increasingly conflicted by both the corruption she sees around her and the growing issue of superhuman vigilantes. In fact, she’s so good I’d be interested to see her go onto her own show (and be given the bionic arm she sports in the comic books). There are more than strong suggestions that Knight is already “enhanced”, so the rest wouldn’t be that huge a leap.

On the downside, this still suffers from an overlong running time. Like all of the Marvel/Netflix shows to date it’s at least three or four episodes too long. A more sensible eight to ten episodes per season would really have helped every show, and Luke Cage suffers from some narrative diffusion in later episodes (and a less effective villain) in the season’s second half.

Luke Cage is also gifted with a fine soundtrack, with both its funky as heck, 70s soul-inspired music score as well as excellent diegetic and non-diegetic use of soul, r ‘n’ b, blues and hip hop – the sequence of Cage rampaging through one of the bad guys’ stash houses set to Wu-Tang Clan’s ‘Bring Da Ruckus’ is particularly inspired and indeed, kickass rousing. I can pretty much guarantee you’ll be whooping as Cage smashes his way through armed henchmen using a ripped off car door as a shield. I know I was.

And let’s not beat around the bush here, this is an important show for Marvel, the diversity behind the scenes and onscreen is both vital and energising. The show takes the time to bring in real world issues that affect a community like Harlem, and doesn’t shy away from wider issues of race, diversification and bigotry. It’s all handled deftly and intelligently, mixed in well with the superhero antics.

Marvel TV is already streets ahead of its cinematic kin in terms of diversity, having already headlined its first female lead we’re now given Marvel’s first headlining person of colour (and yes, I know we’re getting Black Panther and Captain Marvel movies, but Netflix will probably be on second seasons of their two shows by the time the films are released). These things are important. They matter. More so than ever in a world where a candidate for the U.S. presidency can openly spout invective of racial hatred. The fact that Marvel hit the target with superb dramatic productions each time is the icing on the cake!

Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker has done something I wasn’t sure was going to be possible, he’s continued the upward ascendancy of the Marvel/Netflix productions and, Sweet Christmas, he and his talented cast and crew have given us the best version of Luke Cage we could ever hope to get.

Welcome back, Jean-Claude Van Johnson

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There are certain sentences you never expect to find yourself typing, one of those being: the funniest show on TV right now is executive produced by Ridley Scott and features 1980s action movie star, Jean-Claude Van Damme.

But there it is. One of three new comedy episodes aired by Amazon for their pilot season, the fate of the shows will be determined by the responses they receive, and I can only hope that by spreading the word like this, I’ll be helping Jean-Claude Van Johnson go to a full series, because it’s something quite special.

The story posits that Van-Damme has been appearing in B-grade actioners for years simply as a smokescreen for his real job, a covert ops agent. The episode opens with him in the midst of ennui-riddled retirement, gliding around his magnificent home on a Segway and microwaving Pop Tarts.

A chance encounter with the love of his life at a pop-up ramen restaurant sees him hankering to get back into the field, but age has taken its toll and he’s no longer quite the splits-capable Muscles from Brussels  of younger days.

Van Damme has eased into a fine and often remarkably subtle comic talent, providing laughs big and small, frequently at his own expense, and the writers and producers have garnished their star with some finely observed and detail-driven humour (note the parade of dog photos he walks past in his living room, or the name of the community that houses his mansion – Circles On The Point – literally, going nowhere). That the episode ends with a reworking of the theme song from 1970s sit-com Welcome Back, Kotter is perhaps the final topping on this Belgian waffle.

If this goes to series (and you should all go out and watch this now, then write to Amazon, your local broadcaster, MPs, doctors, vets and anyone else who’ll listen to your pleadings), I hope it continues to mine the rich seams of self-depreciation and even poignancy that run deep throughout the pilot.

And really, who doesn’t want to see Jean-Claude get out of the house more to beat people up!? Or get beaten up himself, as is likely the case here.

Welcome back for the first time, JCVJ.