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.

 

RIP Max Von Sydow

As a child, my image of Max Von Sydow was from staring at pictures from The Exorcist, as at that point I was too young to watch it and it’d be at least 15 years before I did see it. I saw him as an old, frailish man.

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Yet when I saw him in Flash Gordon he was a relatively young man in all that film’s hot campy glory.

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Of course, it was a mix of Von Sydow’s wonderful acting and Dick Smith’s still astonishing makeup, and so for a while Max Von Sydow was my favourite actor. I’d eat up all his films when they landed on TV in those pre-digital, even pre VHS days so everything from The Seventh Seal to his still remarkable Jesus Christ (there’s something alien about his version of Christ I’ve never seen since) in The Greatest Story Ever Told, my favourite of the biblical epics with Ben Hur.

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There’s a ton of lost gems in Von Sydow’s C.V including the gloriously bizarre adaptation of Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf which simply has to be seen, preferably while off your face on MDMA.

1980 and 1981 saw him in some of my favourite films, including the mental Escape to Victory and Death Watch, a great SF film filmed here in a post-industrial, but pre recovery Glasgow. It’s a film I’m always recommending because it simply is a lost gem.

If I sat down and wrote a list of my favourite films, Max Von Sydow’s name would pop up over and over and over again in the credits, from Dune, to Dreamscape, to Hannah and Her Sisters, to Until the End of the World, to What Dreams Will Come, and fuck, even Judge Dredd has some moments.

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A great actor not afraid to play in genre film as well as mainstream film, and one who was such a talent he made it look effortless, but it really wasn’t. Another one who’ll be missed.

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!

RIP Russ Cochran

If you’re a casual comics fan the name Russ Cochran will never grace the same ‘geek’ documentaries or films that lay homage to Stan Lee or Robert Downey Jr, but Cochran is quite possibly one of the most important figures in comics who sadly died this week.

Cochran’s massive contribution is carefully caretaking, and releasing the work of EC Comics in formats which do the work justice. The giant hardback box-sets are the easy sign a comics fan is not just an historian but a lover of some of the best comics ever made.

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Cochran was a comics fan who loved EC Comics, as well as the work of Carl Barks who started the entire idea of releasing comics in carefully curated editions with serious academic as well as artistic intent to preserve them for current and future generations.

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These editions were, and still are, massively expensive but Cochran also released EC reprints in a variety of formats more affordable to the average fan.

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Cochran’s contribution to comics as a medium and its fandom is immeasurable. These comics will teach you storytelling, design, scripting, everything and they’re great but for many in the 70’s and 80’s these were how people learned their first steps into the industry.

My dream is that before I die to have a full set of EC’s comics. I’ve got around a shelfload, with the Mad books being some of the most well-read comics I own. Thanks to Cochran making these things available maybe one day I will.

Watch this Blade Runner convention reel from 1982

Blade Runner is one of my favourite films. Even if the UK poster is one of the worst posters you’ll ever see.

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In the early 80’s fandom was nothing like the organised beast it is today. Film companies knew enough back then though that keeping fans informed and happy would, hopefully, result in box office gold. Early efforts consisted of a few clips and some posters, maybe even an actor from the film would turn up and sell the film hard.

In 1982 I was a wee boy at one of Glasgow’s then annual science fiction conventions, Faircon, and one of the unsuspected highlights was a promotion by the film company for Blade Runner.  They gave away posters and badges, which are all now sadly lost throughout the years and yes, they’d be worth silly money now but the real highlight was a promo reel for the film which looked amazing.

I haven’t seen or even thought about it for nearly 40 years when looking at YouTube after the death of Syd Mead. It really is a great bit of archive not to mention it brings back al the nostalgia of being stupidly young and watching this all those decades ago.

What I thought of Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker

SPOILERS BEWARE.

The final Skywalker related Star Wars film (if you believe that, then I have a bridge or three to sell you), The Rise of Skywalker is not the worst film in the series. In fact, it manages to wrap everything up nicely in a bow literally, but it is a film that suffers from the problems of all this trilogy that came from a failure to sit down at the start of this and plot out three films in advance rather than make it up as they went along.

Director J.J Abrams returns to steady the ship after the fan mauling of The Last Jedi which was a Star Wars film which tried to be more than just a stepping stone to the next film. This takes things back to basics and panders wherever it can to fan service which at times is great, especially with the welcome return of Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian, but often it’s there to rewrite the last film. Also the film moves at some pace trying to cram as much into 2 hours 20 minutes as possible so in fact this film could have done with another 10-20 minutes to allow characters to breathe and develop. The exception to this is Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren/Ben Solo who lifts the film dramatically while working with an average script.

The problem with the film is the pacing. It is going through so much that the film doesn’t breathe; for example the new trilogy trio of Rey, Poe and Finn isn’t really formed til this film when it should have been done back in The Force Awakens. Then there’s the return of the Emperor (a gloriously over the top Ian McDiarmid channeling a similar look of Kenneth Cranham in Hellraiser 2) out of nowhere to give the film a grand villain after Snoke’s death in the last film, then there’s bringing back Billy Dee Williams which again should have been done sooner. A bit more room would have helped, so we’ve got what we have.

And what we have is a rushed, flawed ending (and if you expect there never to be another one with these characters at some point in the next 30 years you’re a tad naive) which is entertaining and fun which manages to tie everything up over the previous eight films. I do wish though the script had at least another six months work on it, and indeed, the film needed a longer time to develop as it does feel like an unfinished draft. For example, a legacy character’s death is teased twice but we don’t have any time to take it in before the characters are revealed to be just fine or the reveal of Rey’s parentage is changed from being insignificant to vitally important. That bit would have been more vital had it been built up in the previous film.

Which is a shame. A little bit more time would have helped, along with a plan akin to the Marvel films who plan a fucking decade in advance! So this aside it is fun, it is entertaining and you also get to see the Emperor ham it up, as well as Adam Driver show he’s an actor who is destined for very great things.

So go see Rise of Skywalker. Set your expectations and strap in for a ride that doesn’t stop for the entire running time.

The endless futile entitlement of fandom

This week saw pitiful cries of entitlement about Game of Thrones, and the casting of the new Batman. In the case of Game of Thrones, fans started a petition asking for ‘competent writers’ for a proposed remake of the last season. As of the moment I write this there’s over a million people who’ve signed it which is not a shock but these people basically want the programme to pan out as they want it to, so when they say ‘competent’ what they really mean is ‘someone I like writing something I like’.

The next bit of fan entitlement is the casting of Robert Pattinson as the new Batman. Shrill cries of outrage followed as fans cried a torrent of tears and anger that one of the star of the Twilight film should be cast. Some calmer voices pointed out that was a decade ago and he’s been carving a career as a pretty good actor since but no, outrage!

Back in 1988 when Michael Keaton was cast as Batman in the then forthcoming Tim Burton film fans were outraged and yes, a petition circulated round pre-digital fan circles.

There’s nothing new about fan entitlement. It is an old thing but it doesn’t stop people from complaining, or indeed, desperately doubling back once they’ve realised that Thing X isn’t actually as bad as it was or that complaining about Thing X makes them a bit of a cock.

So in around 18 months many of these people signing petitions will be praising Robert Pattison and wishing there was another series as good as Game of Thrones.All of this will be forgotten as these people move onto their next target and the cycle carries on throughout the generations…