What I thought of Star Trek: Deep Space 9

One of the good things about barely leaving my flat since March is I’ve done a few things I wanted to do; one of which is rewatching Deep Space 9. When it was on I did, and didn’t watch it. I did watch most of the last couple of seasons on its first broadcast, but overall I couldn’t be bothered with it. It was the 90’s and catching up with programmes were a lot harder if you failed to set your video recorder.

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I loved The Next Generation. It started badly but became a firm favourite after a year or so of it being broadcast in the UK, but DS9 was another matter. It was broadcast at the time on Sky which meant if you didn’t have a subscription you missed it, so for most of the first season, I only caught the odd episode which I generally didn’t like. This is supposed to be Star Trek yet they’re sat around a space station talking about prophets with a load of dull characters.

Even when I did start watching it every week I wasn’t especially taken with it, so when it finished I filed it away but over the years the series has come in for serious praise, and friends have asked if I’ve ever sat down and watched the lot. I never really had the time til Covid made the time so back in March I started watching DS9 from the first episode. The first season is a slog as it tries hard not to be TNG, but at the same time it is restricted by the station setting however by the second season everything starts to settle down, and the bigger picture begins to unravel. Also the characters start to become interesting, especially Sisko who til then has been bland but becomes something else as this man still struggling with trauma, but starting to realise there’s something in the religion of Bajor, the planet at the heart of the series.

Then there’s Major Kira. There’s no way in modern American TV would you have a terrorist as a leading heroic character, but here’s DS9 doing just that while struggling with some of the things she did in her past. While the others started to round out, even O’Brian who’d been a minor role in TNG turned into a solid leading character and showed that there’s a class hierarchy in Starfleet.  By the time Worf comes on board in season 4 the series is in full flow and has become something more than just another Trek spin-off.

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But although it is ‘dark’, it also protects the optimism for a future where the human race is just better, so much so that they fight a long, two year way which costs the lives of millions to protect it.

In fact DS9 is one of the best bits of television drama made. Even though the idea of binge TV wasn’t around in the 90s, it’s a show made for it by accident at a time when episodic TV in America at least, still ruled. It’s a complex show that doesn’t overplay the dark as Discovery did or was just a rambling mess as Picard was, but it’s also clearly the show which influences modern TV Trek the most, yet the producers of these shows don’t understand that preserving that positive vision is Star Trek. Without it, it just becomes a space adventure series which you’ll flick past on Netflix.

DS9 showed you can find hope in the dark and Gene Roddenberry’s vision was more or less preserved and even developed as DS9 showed how ordinary people lived their lives in a society where science and culture have advanced beyond what we could ever expect today. By the end of binging on it, I felt as if I’d missed out on something great at the time, but if there’s anything good about Covid is it gives folk like me a chance to reassess things and in this case, discover something wonderful.

 

 

 

 

The best comics channels on YouTube

Go onto YouTube and you’ll find channels for everything, but comics have been served very, very poorly as a medium there with many channels being unwatchable rubbish with the presenter/s showing little or no knowledge of what they’re talking about, or being of the opinion comics are purely superhero comics from America, or are endlessly bleating on about speculator value or are just plain shite.

Recently though things are improving. Over the last year or two, there have been channels providing some great material or some channels have improved vastly. Now there are thousands of channels out there, with about a dozen or so being ones I check on at least once a month.  Here’s what I think are the top three out there that you should be watching if you’re a fan of the medium.

Starting from number three…

3/ Strange Brain Parts

This channel is a solid channel dealing with mainly non-superheroic comics, but it does cover a wide selection of genres. These are archiving comics which for various reasons have fallen through the cracks in history, and never show up in the usual history of comics you tend to see or read. A good example of this is American Flagg! which should be more acclaimed than it is.

 

2/ Comic Tropes

This channel was initially nothing to write home about. It was talking about mainstream comics in a way which wasn’t especially interesting, but then it started getting better and better so although it talks about superheroes, there’s a joy behind it rather than using comics as a way to get to talking about film or TV adaptations. Plus anyone introducing classic comics to an audience probably unaware of what’s being spoken about is a plus.

As an example here’s the film on the works of Bernie Krigstein.

 

1/ Cartoonist Kayfabe

If there’s a reason why many channels have made the step up then it can be put down purely at the feet of this channel run by creators Jim Rugg and Ed Piskor. Both men aren’t just creators but they have a love of the medium which may sound off to point out but you’d be amazed how many creators don’t especially love the medium, just a genre.

Piskor and Rugg’s tastes vary from proper grown-up work from the likes of Dan Clowes, through to 80’s black and white indies and early Image Comics, so we get a varied mix of what they love which comes over in their videos. Also their work in logging the history of comics via their history of Wizard magazine sounds initially a futile task but seeing it all play out with hindsight you can see just how it manipulated the market for the worst.

Then there’s the lengthy interviews with creators which aren’t just dribbling nonsense, but detailed and informed. Basically if you have any love for comics as entertainment, and as an art form then this is an essential channel. As an example here’s a couple of examples. First up is their interview with Todd McFarlane which should be essential viewing for anyone trying to break into the industry.

Next is their two and a half hour review of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight, which for someone like me who’s read it literally hundreds of times was still informative as it showed me things I’d missed in previous readings.

I’d recommend suscribing to all three channels to keep up to date with their output which is weekly at least with Cartoonist Kayfabe putting out almost daily videos.

The Poughkeepsie Tapes is the found-footage film that disturbed me

 

Back in the 2000’s things were all over the place for horror films. There weren’t that many great ones (the footprint of 911 cast itself over the first part of the decade) but as the decade progressed things improved especially on the independent film front. I’m a horror fan since a wee boy, so the odd gem that’d come up I’d swallow up like a hungry prisoner, and by the end of the 00’s most of the once-banned video nasties were coming out on disc either uncut, or close to uncut.

Tracking down video nasties used to be fun, but now everything was easy to buy from your local HMV or through Amazon. Then in 2007 a rumour flew around the internet about a film which was deeply disturbing even if it was a found footage film which even by 2007 was wildly overused and full of awful, awful films. The Poughkeepsie Tapes was a low budget film in the found footage/mockumentary style which was familiar by now but what made it attractive was it was bloody hard to get in those pre broadband days. Sure you could find it on P2P sites but it took ages to download, and when it did there was less than an hour of the film. It wasn’t until checking online that you had to use VLC Player to watch it. In short, it was a bit of a hunt to watch the bloody thing in an age when media was readily available at the click of a mouse.

Once I did see the film it was clear this was, well, fucked up. From the off the entire film felt wrong, in a deeply disturbing WTF type of way. Yes there were easy shocks but the entire thing uneased me and even the sometimes awful acting in these films washed me by as another disturbing set-piece came up. I can’t say I enjoyed the film, but I certainly remembered it afterward.

And so it passed into memory only to pop up in conversation during those drunken ‘what films freaked you out’ conversation you’d have. Then the other day this video popped up in my recommendations.

Apart from being a pretty good review of the film, it brought back that slightly disturbed feeling so I found my copy of the film and watched it again. Yes, it still disturbed. The crap bits are still crap. However, there’s that tone and feel that this is right, in that, the film is designed to make you walk away from it feeling like you need a shower which is the sign of a good horror film, but maybe not one you’ll watch over and over again.

So give it a go, but do it in the dark.

 

 

 

What I thought of Star Trek: Picard

There’s a point in one of the final episodes of Star Trek: Picard where I’m sitting there looking at a gigantic space battle where I have no idea what’s going on as the screen was just full of stuff. It looked fine but there was no real weight behind the battle but the producers of Picard thought it best through this scene to show how much money had been spent on the production. That for me summed the series up but I get ahead of myself.

I loved Star Trek: The Next Generation. It was (eventually) a smart, clever science fiction series that most of the time didn’t insult the viewer, plus it managed to present modern-day issues through the lens of Star Trek which is something it’s done since the very first episode which Gene Rodenberry made back in the 60’s. TNG was for many people, the defining SF series of their generation but the Next Generation crew had an awful send off with their last film, Nemesis, so the chance to have a great send-off for these characters, especially Picard, was one many of us grabbed with both hands.

The first trailers for Picard were great. They had maybe too much of an action focus but warning signs were there in the names of Akiva Goldsman and Alex Kurtzman.  Neither have an especially great record and neither seemed like they’d be involved with what many thought would be, a revival of TNG with that programme’s intellectual and moral core.

And for the first episode or two things were fine. There was a lovely, slow introspective pace that allowed Patrick Stewart to act his socks off as we were introduced to Picard 20 years after we’d last seen him trying to deal with his failures at the end of his life. The new characters were interesting, especially the Romulan couple working with Picard. Yes there was a little bit of action plus the Borg subplot seemed possibly distracting but on the whole, the first few episodes were great. But there were real issues. Starfleet seemed wrong. Less of a fleet of exploration but more military feeling while the paradise of the Federation was reduced to people holding racist beliefs. Now Star Trek has dealt with these things before, especially in the excellent Deep Space 9, but there was always a positive message that ultimately humanity could be better, even if there were one or two who fell from grace. Here so many humans have fell from grace with manufactured failures that it doesn’t feel that humanity has evolved into a better place.

The problems lie with heavily thrusting bad analogies for Brexit and Donald Trump into the programme which are then promptly dumped for a generic space adventure plot which ends up with Picard being surrounded by a bunch of unlikeable characters we don’t give a fuck about, plus Jeri Ryan’s Seven of Nine from Voyager who has had four years of a careful character arc wrecked to become a generic space adventurer and all that character work was just thrown aside.

The best episode outwith the first few is the Riker and Troi episode where again, things slow down, characters breathe, things develop but even then the producers inflict misery upon two characters for no reason than to add some ‘character development’. This is the problem, there’s no attempt to do anything but blunt development, which mixed with the urge to make the new characters ‘flawed’ leads to a mess. Then there’s the failure to develop Picard. Having a character like him confront his death in one last mission would have been interesting, but having him bleat like a lovelorn puppy to Data (who does actually get a good ending here) that he loves him. Then of course there’s giving Picard an android body so he can carry on, which the TNG Picard would have been horrified with but this isn’t the TNG Picard, this is the movie Picard.

It’s all a bit too forced. It’s all a bit too generic. It’s all too flashy. It doesn’t feel like Star Trek. It is missing a trick by falling on easy options rather than giving us a Star Trek unafraid to be intellectual, to be slow-paced and to force audiences to think. Instead it’s Generic Space Adventure with big dumb explosions and guns that go pewww.

I hope next season improves. With the delay in everything thanks to Covid19 there’s no excuses in having no time in developing the scripts but with Kurtzman at the helm again I’m not holding out much hope of an improvement.

 

Comics to read in the time of Coronavirus

The entire world is locked down, and the comics industry is taking a massive hit. So, of course, are thousands of others, but here’s one which can provide you with something to do while the majority of the planet is in lockdown. Here’s some recommendations to help you pass the weeks ahead.

First up the obvious ones.

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

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In short the best superhero comic you will read. Forget the film, the TV series or attempts to integrate it into the DC Universe. This is a book I come back to about once a year and find something new in it, some 35 years after first reading it.

The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, Klaus Jansen, and Lynn Varley.

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The second best superhero comic you’ll read. Sadly some of the impact has been lost due to the book being mined by film, TV and comics without anything new to say about Batman or comics itself. Only dive into the continuation series if you really are desperate for something to read, though a quick word about the Dark Knight Strikes Again.

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Its clearly a reaction to the grim and gritty style of comics which came out of DKR and Watchmen, but the book changes tone halfway through when Miller took out his rage from witnessing 9/11 happen on his doorstep out on paper. It is more of a document of the time than a good read, so for that take heed before dipping in.

Maus by Art Speigelman

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Part autobiography, biography and historical document mixed with slice of life. Maus is a remarkable, if often hard to read book but it is a comic which should be read. It is one of the best comics ever made.

Judge Dredd: The Cursed Earth by Pat Mills, John Wagner, and various artists.

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You can dip into any of the first 20-25 of the Judge Dredd Case Files (which collects all of Dredd’s stories in order of publication) and find a classic, but this is the story which made Dredd what he is today. This is the one which turned Dredd into the top feature in 2000AD and it’s a cracking story that ties right into the Judge Cal storyline. Wagner and co. were on absolute fire at this time.

Crisis on Infinite Earths by Marv Wolfman and George Perez

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This is the comic that turned DC’s superhero line around and is still the Big Event comic that set the benchmark for the dozens of subsequent events since. This is big, sweeping superheroics and is just huge fun.

Daredevil by Frank Miller

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There’s various editions of Frank Miller’s revolutionary run on Daredevil, but however you get it, these comics redefined superhero comics at a time where they were at a low for experimentation. Miller’s work here casts a shadow today with many a less talented creator trying to ape what Miller did.

Miller did a second run, Born Again, in the mid 80’s with David Mazzucchelli.

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This is my favourite superhero story ever. It’s a genius bit of storytelling from a set of creators at their peak.

Love and Rockets by the Hernandez Brothers

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To say Love and Rockets is influential is underestimating things. Created by Jaimie and Gilbert (with occasional work from Mario) there’s two main strips; Gilbert’s tales of working-class Hispanics and Jaimie’s tales of west coast American punks growing up.  Both strips run more or less in real-time so we’ve seen characters age with new characters coming in. I’d recommend starting at the beginning then spending all the free time you have (which is a hell of a lot right now) working up til today.

Swamp Thing by Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette, John Totleben and others.

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One of those massively influential comics that stands the test of time. Moore brought a talent and style to mainstream comics that’d previously only been hinted at with the likes of Steve Gerber. This is probably Moore’s most easily accessible work and it is gloriously drawn by his co-creators.

Justice League International by Keith Giffen, J.M DeMatteis, and Kevin Maguire.

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Superhero comics have drawn from many other genre but this was really the first time it’d drawn directly from sit-coms and the result was a self-aware, funny superhero comic which still had big fights and superheroic conflict but in a way that didn’t distract from the tone.

A Contract With God by Will Eisner

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Arguably one of the first ‘graphic novels’, but that aside this is one of Eisner’s greatest works as he tells a handful of stories from pre-WW2 New York which may, or may not be semi-autobiographical in places.

So there’s a dozen to keep you going for now. If you do want to buy them please go check out your local comic shop first before Amazon as they need your money more at this time.

Alex Ross is a tediously dull artist

I find Alex Ross tediously dull as an artist. Great to look at, the quality of work is outstanding, everything looks as it should but it’s all so, so dull. There, I said it.

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I like Kingdom Come and Marvels. Both are great works of superhero comics.

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Marvels especially as it gave Marvel a critical and commercial hit at a time when the majority of their output was rubbish as well as cementing Ross as a superstar artist.

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But I’ve always found something wrong with Ross’s art. Nothing technical as every stroke, every line, is right and correct with everything being in the right place. Which is great but there’s too much perfection there. He’s essentially milked the life out of it. I don’t get a sense or power or energy as say with Jack Kirby’s work, or John Byrne or George Perez’s sense of storytelling, or Todd McFarlane’s visual flair.

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”But he draws superheroes realistically’ you might say which is great if you want pin-ups, but I find his work emotionless, with all the honesty of an Athena poster. Everythings too posed, too perfect and made flawless to a tedious degree which makes his work just too glossy to be enjoyed plus superheroes aren’t meant to be realistic. They’re power fantasies, so drawing them like normal people negates some of that power and removes the cartoonish aspect from superhero comics plus his style has remained the same since he came onto the scene.

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I’ll make it clear, he’s not a bad artist. Christ almighty, there’s enough of them working in superhero comics or the variant cover game, he’s just dull. There’s no fun there because he’s screened out the bit and bobs which make artists great, out. There are no errors that end up being wonderful idiosyncrasies of greats like Kirby, Ditko, or McFarlane but he helped bring in an era of copycats who are equally technically great but tediously dull who worked out they can make more money drawing covers than comics.

But hey, he’s made his money and continues to but for someone with clear and obvious talent I wish he was able to put some life into his work.

 

The Comics Journal review of Doomsday Clock

The aftershocks of Doomsday Clock grind on with the 3 Jokers (oh fuck off Geoff Johns) and the critical fallout for something that creatively had the value of a roll of toilet paper. Just when you think it’s all going away, along comes The Comics Journal and R.C. Harvey’s review of the series.

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It’s a good review in that it doesn’t tear the book apart. Seeing Harvey despair of the writing as the series drones on is worth a read but it’s a curiously positive review, and I present it here purely to provide some shade to my own opinion of it as a steaming heap of shite.

What I thought of Doctor Who season 12

Jodie Whittaker’s first year as the Doctor was patchy at best, shite at worst. Not as bad as  Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, in the seventh season but bad so much was riding on this season. The main criticisms for me were an overcrowded Tardis, a Doctor barely allowed to develop regardless of how hard Jodie Whittaker grafted to make some awful scripts fly while the programme was directionless with new showrunner Chris Chibnall seemingly lost now he’d got his hands on his childhood love.

Then they all went away, had a think and came back this year with a bang with a two-part story which brought back a truly crazed version of The Master played by Sacha Dhawan channeling Anthony Ainley a lot of the time and then we had the return of Captain Jack and a totally new Doctor in the shape of Jo Martin which created plotholes and canon anguish for fans but it turns out Chibnall had a card up his sleeve.  For those of us of a certain age Tom Baker was our Doctor, and one of his, and the programme’s finest stories is the Brain of Morbius, a retelling of Frankenstein not to mention a serial which featured a lot of new lore for the series, including this.

For 44 years there’s been a running argument about who those faces are after the Hartnell Doctor, with some saying they’re previously unknown incarnations to some saying they’re the faces of Morbius or just it was something to lengthen the scene so they just took a load of pictures of the crew and slapped them in. Yet the dialogue makes it clear, ‘how long have you lived Doctor?’, and it really is a push to make these faces anything else but related to the Doctor so how does that work?

And after 44 years Chris Chibnall explained that (yes, they are previous incarnations of the Doctor) as well as tiny little plot points only the uber fanboy cared about. It was an audacious bit of housekeeping that made me laugh, yet I’m not sure it worked yet. I’ll have to watch it again however this entire season has been a vast improvement. Better scripts which gave Whitaker some work, plus the Tardis crew were less annoying. Sure, there were some awful scripts but overall things moved in the right direction even if Chibnall has now done a reboot and tie up plot points at the same time. Has it worked? I dunno, but it is getting people excited for the programme but I do wish it was just well-done stories of the Doctor’s travels rather than universe-altering plots every season.

Basically things are moving in the right direction. There’s still rubbish though Jodie Whitaker is turning into a very good Doctor, if she gets the scripts. Hopefully her third year sees that happen more consistantly.

I’m now off to watch that last episode again, just for a laugh!

A totally unexpected reappraisal of Justice League

Yesterday I activated my free month of Amazon Prime to take in Picard, the new Star Trek series. That was excellent and I especially loved the subtle Brexit reference, but that’s for another day. After that I had a look at what Amazon offered, and had Zack Snyder’s Justice League film recommended to me, but I’d found the film a mess not to mention a chore to get through when I’d seen it the only time a few years back. I thought I’d give it a few minutes to see if things had changed expecting to stop and have an early night.

And I liked it lots more than I did previously.

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Maybe some distance has passed, and although the issues still stand it really is more enjoyable than a number of other superhero films, plus it has an actual sense of a directorial vision which the Marvel films, on the whole, have lost.  Sure, the scenes shot by Joss Whedon stand out a mile, the villain is badly done, the script has gaping holes, and that CGI lip is an awful bit of work to appear in a big-budget Hollywood film.

However, the League themselves are actually interesting. Affleck’s Batman is an interesting portrayal of an older man who’d lost his way finding redemption. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is the standout star character of the DCEU and should be its bedrock as Iron Man was for Marvel. While Jason Mamoa’s Aquaman and Ezra Miller’s Flash have a genuine spark on screen. Hell, even Cyborg seemed less tokenistic this time round.  The big loser here is Henry Cavill and his Clark Kent/Kal El/Superman as once he’s allowed to play Superman not as a brooding Emo type, but actually as Superman, he’s a revelation.

It’s a flawed experiment and yes, I’d be interested in seeing what a full ‘Snyder cut’ would look like because again, there’s a bland generic quality creeping in to the point you couldn’t tell who directed one Marvel film to another. With this it is pretty clear it’s Snyder’s vision. You may not like it, but there’s a clear vision which makes the Whedon footage clash so badly, and also, there’s a bit of irony as the Marvel template is based on what Whedon did with the first two Avengers films.

It is unlikely DC/Warners will do a Justice League film again in some time, which  is a shame as it’d be good to see this group together again but in a film free of studio meddling.

But there you go, I never thought I’d write any of that but it shows opinions do change…

What I thought of Crisis on Infinite Earths

Imagine trying to do Avengers: Endgame on a budget akin to Scarlet Johansen’s hairdresser? That’ll be the CW’s version of Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s comic Crisis on Infinite Earths.

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A five-part series designed to partly clean up issues with the CW’s Arrowverse and to act as this year’s big crossover event to end all events. Overall it manages to just hold together, and just work though the problem as usual with the Arrowverse programmes is the budget holds back the ambition so what should be a cosmic level event (something Marvel have shied off adapting fully as yet) comes over as sometimes small, and in the case of episode two, slow and stretched.

The other problem is that when it needs action we get exposition, or worse, exposition from people standing round the set looking a bit stiff. However the producers clearly love the source material, and they clearly love what they’re doing so for all the multiple flaws they manage just about to live up to this fan made poster from a few years back.

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Crisis works because they realise the entire thing is daft, and they know that superhero comics are essentially melodramas so they embrace that, so we have all the usual aspects of a CW show mixed with these overaught moments of superhero comics, mixed with possibly the biggest, and first, comic book mega-crossover.

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They manage to tie every DC TV series to the Arrowverse bar Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman series and the Shazam! series from the 70’s due mainly to the reason that Warners have successful film versions but remarkably, everything else did make an appearance from the Titans, to Tom Welling from Smallville, Brandon Routh reprising his role as Superman which means the Christopher Reeve films are canon, through to the surprise cameo of Ezra Miller as the DC film version of The Flash.

I enjoyed the entire crossover a lot, with that Miller cameo especially making me like Miller’s depiction of my favourite superhero more than I did. Yeah, some of it is awful, cheap and badly acted/written at times but this is soap opera and it’s also great entertainment which has the good guys beating the baddies which in 2020 is a great message to send out.

My last fanboy wish would be they repay the cameo and bring in the TV Flash for the film due sometime in the next few years, but that can’t happen can it?