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Star Trek: Discovery S1E13: What’s Past is Prologue

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With Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) revealed as a native of the Terran Empire universe – one who has manipulated the entire USS Discovery crew to get home to his own reality – Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) must ally with the Terran Emperor Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) to stop him from overthrowing the Empire and taking an invasion fleet back to Burnham’s own universe.

Star Trek: Discovery is certainly packing the quality into the second half of the season, with “What’s Past is Prologue” delivering another top-notch episode packed with action, strong moments of character, and hugely rewarding pay-offs for viewers that have stuck it out through the whole season. The episode is almost entirely climax, but it’s a 45-minute climax that feels genuinely well earned. It does not simply come with a ‘fist-in-the-air’ thrilling moment for the fans; it comes with several.

What seems particularly impressive is how the episode plays on elements from the season’s earlier, much shakier episodes. There is more than one callback to particular moments or themes, most effectively a brief scene between Burnham and Georgiou in which two women – each having lost the other in their own universe – both hold ID pins of the woman they lost. I recall a huge sense of disappointment when Discovery’s original set-up – two women – was disrupted and replaced by one woman working for a white middle-aged man. In that moment it’s tragically clear that the same white middle-aged man destroyed them both. Whether intentional or accidental, it feels like a potent moment.

The episode also allows the Discovery crew their moment to shine, since while Burnham is off fighting Lorca they are tasked with the parallel mission of saving literally every alternate universe in existence. It really shows how well these characters are now working on screen. Saru (Doug Jones) displays an appropriate sense of intelligence, bravery and level-headedness for his rank and position. Stamets (Anthony Rapp) is a much warmer and more accessible character. Tilly (Mary Wiseman) feels less grating and much more confident. Really it’s only the latter of these changes that feels intentional; the other two really feel like a writer’s room slowly homing on what makes the characters work and what pulls them back. It’s a process I’d have rather seen play out before the series was produced, but it is fantastic simply that it has happened.

Star Trek: Discovery is feeling like a much stronger series towards the end than it did at the beginning. It isn’t simply a matter of early episodes setting up revelations in later installments. The things that worked the best in this 2017 episodes have been retained and improved, and the bits that struggled or even flat-out irritated have been removed, pared away or at least temporarily sidelined. With two episodes to go, I have my fingers crossed that the series can jump from this current creative high to deliver something genuinely spectacular to keep the audience enthused until Season 2 begins.

 
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Altered Carbon Season 1

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Life is cheap when it becomes a less finite resource.

That’s one of the central tenets driving Altered Carbon, Netflix’s new prestige series that’s looking to occupy a similar niche in the cultural ecosystem as Game of Thrones, Westworld, The Expanse, and American Gods. Like those shows, it’s a big, beautifully designed expensive genre effort that’s steeped in sex, violence and mature themes. Like Westworld and American Gods in particular, it’s also digging into some heavy themes and intriguing ideas that are sometimes overwhelmed by the ubiquitous blood ‘n’ boobs, and sometimes foregrounded in jarringly obvious ways when the show worries we’re not paying enough attention. When it’s more concerned with telling its story rather than justifying its existence, though, it’s hell on wheels.

In the far future (’bout five centuries hence) first imagined by author Richard Morgan in his 2002 novel of the same title, humanity has colonised the stars, and technology allows human consciousness to be recorded, downloaded, and transmitted. This makes immortality an attainable, if prohibitively expensive, goal. It also makes people less attached to their physical forms – called “sleeves” – since the human form can be upgraded, repaired and replaced. The very rich have become the very old. Called “methuselahs” or “meths”, their hugely expanded lifespans have allowed them to concentrate obscene hoards of wealth and power – and distanced them to a nigh-unimaginable degree from the hoi polloi toiling further down the societal ziggurat.

Joel Kinnaman as Takeshi Kovacs

Our guide into this world is Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman for the most part, but also Will Yun Lee and Byron Mann in flashbacks – a man can wear many faces in this world), street rat turned elite soldier turned revolutionary turned criminal, decanted into a new body some 250 years after he was last killed at the behest of ludicrously rich Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy) for an important job: solve Bancroft’s own murder.

Naturally, a man of Bancroft’s wealth and privilege survived his own shooting thanks to a wireless digital backup of his persona, but he has some hours missing and wants the mystery resolved. Our man Kovacs must negotiate both the rarified and decadent world of the methuselahs and the dirty and dangerous streets of Bay City (future San Francisco) in the course of his mission, crossing paths and swords will all manner of weird characters and situations along the way.

It’s a noir/hard boiled pastiche, of course, and Kinnaman makes for a pretty great Chandler-esque hero, doggedly pursuing the truth while wrestling with his own bloody past of violence and loss. Showrunner Laeta Kalogridis smartly expands the book’s first person point of view, adding new characters for Kovacs to interact with, such as Vernon Elliott (Ato Essandoh), a former soldier who Watsons along with Kovacs’ hard-punching Holmes, and expanding others, such as Poe (Chris Conner), an artificial intelligence who runs the hotel Kovacs uses as his headquarters and who presents in the form of writer Edgar Allen Poe.

Atoh Essandoh and Chris Conner as Victor and Poe

Also in the mix is cop Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda), who has her own reasons for tagging along with Kovacs; criminal thug Dimitri (a nigh-unrecognisable Tahmo Penikett), who deploys sadistic violence in the service of unknown masters; Miriam (Kristin Lehman), Bancroft’s duplicitous and possibly guilty wife, and a whole host of corrupt cops, shifty lawyers, black market entrepreneurs, sex workers, and cannon fodder for our guy to interrogate, intimidate, and frequently obliterate.

Yes, there’s a lot of furious action in this one – one of the key elements that sets author Morgan apart from a lot of other heirs to the cyberpunk mantle is his unwavering appreciation of a savage smackdown. Altered Carbon has plenty of imaginatively-framed fight scenes and delights in exploring the possibilities inherent in a world where artificially enhanced fighters know that death is (probably) temporary. The ethical implications thereof get a good run-through, too; flesh is very much treated as a commodity in this world, with married gladiators murdering each other for the promise of an upgraded sleeve at one point, and at others, indentured prostitutes letting methuselah johns live out their sickest fantasies. Humans are resources to be exploited in the most horrible and debased ways, and while the immediate visceral effects might shock, its the inherent structural power imbalance the series depicts that continues to trouble after viewing, especially when you contemplate how well it mirrors our own lives, mired as we are in late stage capitalism.

Which is to say that Altered Carbon is at times a challenging work, but the violence and the sex is generally in service to the themes the show is exploring – even if it’s simultaneously indulging our more atavistic impulses at the same time. Indeed, the show works better when it’s grappling with its more philosophical themes through the action of the narrative; it’s actually when characters, such as revolutionary Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry), a figure from Kovacs’ past, are giving voice to their philosophical musings that it feels like it’s trying a bit too hard to justify its excesses by laying on a too-thick veneer of respectability.

These thematic concerns are pretty common to cyberpunk media, though, and Altered Carbon is definitely and defiantly a cyberpunk work, drenched in neon and smoke, steam and rain, the high tech and the low life codified by William Gibson back in the day and now arguably more popular than ever. It’s an absolutely gorgeous series and totally looks the business, helped in large part by Netflix’s willingness to throw shedloads of money at the project. The obvious visual template is, of course, Blade Runner, but let’s face facts – complaining that a cyberpunk series looks like Blade Runner is like grousing that there are too many people wearing hats in a Western. The show never feels small or set-constrained; this is a big universe we’ve been introduced to, and it feels like it.

Hopefully it’s one we’ll return to in the future. There are two further Takeshi Kovacs novels to be mined, but Kalogridis has also left space for further expansion, altering the source material in surprising and interesting ways that bode well for the future. It’s a dark, violent and exploitative future, of course, but we wouldn’t want it any other way.

 
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Star Trek: Discovery S1E12: “Vaulting Ambition”

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Still trapped in a parallel universe, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) is brought towards the Terran Empire’s Emperor Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh). While Burnham plays a dangerous cat-and-mouse game with the galaxy’s most powerful woman, back on the Discovery Saru (Doug Jones) fights to unravel the mystery of Lieutenant Tyler (Shazad Latif) while Stamets (Anthony Rapp) searches for a way back to reality.

A surprisingly good episode of Discovery is followed up by an even better one: “Vaulting Ambition” may be the shortest episode of Star Trek since 1974, but it packs a lot of plot developments and drama into its 35 minutes. By the time it ends, characters appear in different lights, events of previous episodes make a lot more sense, and there is now a very clear over-arching storyline to the season – and not necessarily the one you might think. This is almost certainly the most plot-critical episode of Discovery so far.

That also makes it a near-impossible episode to review without ruining it, and it absolutely is an episode worth watching before reading much else about it. Suffice to say it rewards the patience of those viewers that have stuck with the series this far, and it retro-actively repairs a solid proportion of the problems that dogged a lot of the early episodes.

It is wonderful to see Michelle Yeoh back, even if it is as the rather silly Emperor of the Mirror Universe’s Terran Empire. She is such a wonderful and likeable actress that she tends to lift whatever material or role she is given. It is particularly lovely to see her interact with Sonequa Martin-Green again; their interplay back in the series’ first two episodes promised a great relationship that was snatched away from viewers much too soon. It is also a great episode for Doug Jones as Saru: whenever the series backs off from emphasising Saru’s nature as a fearful empathic danger-senser the character sings.

While the episode is great, the series remains incredibly shaky and uneven. While some surprises here explain away a few of the more confusing creative choices of the past few months, they don’t explain away all of them. As we near the end of the first season, however, it is feeling less like the colossal misfire I feared it to be and more like the wobbly and uncertain first seasons that have affected many previous iterations of the franchise. Both The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine got off to deeply rocky starts, and if Discovery can hit its second season running with its already-strong cast, a redefined sense of purpose, and most of the more tiring elements stripped back or removed, this could actually be the series its initial potential suggested.

 
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Star Trek: Discovery S1E11: “The Wolf Inside”

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The USS Discovery is trapped in a mirror universe in which a violent Terran Empire subjugates all other civilizations. While Saru (Doug Jones) and Tilly (Mary Wiseman) attempt to cure Lt Stamets (Anthony Rapp) of his spore-afflicted state, Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and Tyler (Shazad Latif) masquerade onboard the mirror universe USS Shenzhou to gain the data needed to return home.

All due credit to writer Lisa Randolph: “The Wolf Inside” picks up an awful lot of tiresome and dramatically weak plot threads and weaves them into something that – for a week, at least – manages to be a genuinely entertaining hour of television. The core problems left from the previous episode do remain, but they feel somewhat mitigated. The mirror universe still feels a very worn-out Star Trek trope in which to place a story, but at least it leads to a solid moral dilemma: keep one’s cover by destroying an anti-Empire rebellion, or try to warn the rebels and risk losing any chance the Discovery getting back to its own reality. That feels authentically Trek in nature; to be honest, quite a lot of moments in this episode do.

Of course, Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) recommends staying undercover and murdering a bunch of aliens, thus re-confirming his status at Star Trek’s worst-ever captain. Isaacs is a fantastic actor, but he really does have to work hard to make Lorca even remotely believable given the way he is written. Much more convincing and enjoyable this week are Saru and Tilly. The latter gets another chance to show intelligence, ambition and drive – she works best when the writing moderates her gushy awkwardness – while Saru seems to act like a proper commanding officer in every scene he’s in. This really is the painful part of Discovery as an ongoing series: the characters are all great, but as a viewer one must roll the dice every week to find out what version of the character they’re going to get.

One long-teased plot development finally hits, likely to nobody’s surprise. It’s a little clumsily revealed and executed, but Randolph does pull it around in the end to a slightly unexpected and satisfying end point. There’s also an end-of-episode cliffhanger that again will likely surprise no one, but has a good chance of entertaining nearly everyone. It’s not the character return we likely wanted, but it’s a return many of us will be happy enough to take.

“The Wolf Inside” ends having ended one somewhat annoying plot thread, but there are still quite a few hanging out there. We’re still stuck in the mirror universe. Stamets is still in weird spore territory. Dr Culber is still in the same state that he was last week. What this episode commendably manages is to pass those problems along, and simply tell a dramatic and mostly enjoyable story around them. In the rollercoaster of quality that is Discovery, this is one of the fun bits of the ride.

 
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Star Trek: Discovery S1E10: “Despite Yourself”

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Please note this review spoils a major event that takes place during the episode.

When the last episode of Star Trek: Discovery aired back in November, a spore drive jump saw the Discovery thrown far outside of where it was supposed to be. Lt Stamets (Anthony Rapp) is in a coma and unable to operate the drive to get them back home. As this 10th episode commences, it soon becomes clear that the ship has been thrown into another universe entirely – one where the Federation does not exist, and a group of alien rebels fight against the brutal Terran Empire.

Indeed, and as most long-term fans of Star Trek predicted, we are back in the Mirror Universe. First depicted in the fun 1960s episode “Mirror, Mirror”, it was brought back and run into the ground in a succession of increasingly ineffective Deep Space Nine episodes before finally getting pushed through the late-series continuity meat grinder of Enterprise. Evil twins have their place in popular culture, but Star Trek has stretched the concept past breaking point so that its return here generated little more in me than an intolerant eye roll.

The episode runs through some cute little parallel universe motions. Ensign Tilly is the captain of the Discovery in the Mirror Universe, essentially for somewhat strained and painful laughs. Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and Lorca (Jason Isaacs) embark on a secret mission to gather intelligence on how to get home from the parallel version of the Shenzhou (Burnham’s original ship). Their adventures on the evil Shenzhou feel tiresome and worn out.

This entire Mirror Universe diversion does not work for a pretty simple reason. In the previous incarnations of Star Trek, it was a gleeful little sojourn into a bleak, violent opposite Trek. Characters could get brutally killed. Everyone was untrustworthy and unpleasant. It presented a stark and campy kind of contrast. The problem is that bleak violence, brutal murder and untrustworthy characters have been Discovery’s stock-and-trade for most of the season. There’s no campy contrast to be enjoyed here, just a slightly more unpleasant version of the same thing.

The entire storyline also feels weirdly misplaced at this point. When the Discovery left its own universe, the war with the Klingons had reached a critical stage. Now it’s been abandoned for what looks like at least two more episodes – and at this point there are only five more Discovery episodes for the whole year.

Meanwhile, Tyler’s (Shazad Latif) post-traumatic stress hits breaking point as he realises he is not who he thinks he is. Every viewer has surely worked out the truth by now – most have had it worked out since Tyler first appeared – and all that is left now is the wait for the series itself to try and make a shock reveal of something that is no longer shocking. In his “Manchurian Candidate” state – something the episode even name-checks – Tyler also snaps the neck of Discovery’s chief medical officer Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz). It is a shocking moment, not simply because this does not feel like the sort of thing that happens in Star Trek but because after making such a widely publicised step of giving the franchise its first openly gay couple they have now gone and killed one of them off.

Murdering LGBTI characters is one of the most awful trends in American television, inspiring the “bury your gays” movement less than two years. Culber’s murder puts Discovery in an unwinnable position. Keep him dead, and they have added to a disgraceful trend that absolutely needs to stop. Bring him back to life, and they have turned Tyler’s crime into a cheap narrative stunt. Either way it goes, it will come down to poor writing.

That is Discovery’s core problem. The cast are great. The direction has been strong (including this week’s effort, by Next Generation star and long-term Trek director Jonathan Frakes). By contrast, the writing is all over the place, with inconsistent characters, weak motivations, and an overall tone that just feels crudely violent and regularly adolescent. That last episode in November was pretty good, and pointed to a series heading back up in quality. “Despite Yourself” just pulls it right back down again. There is not another series on television quite so frustrating.

 
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Eat Locals

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Young ne’er-do-well Sebastian (Billy Cook) fronts up in a quiet English country town for what he thinks will be a saucy rendezvous with the cougarish Vanessa (Eve Myles). Instead, he founds himself the unwilling guest of the council of elder vampires who secretly rule the British night. Every 50 years the group – which includes Charlie Cox (Daredevil), Freema Agyeman (Doctor Who), and Vincent Regan (Atlantis) – gets together to hash out territorial disputes and induct new blood into their ranks – hence Sebastian’s presence. This get complicated when an SAS squad, led by a determined and somewhat demented protest (Mackenzie Crook) raid their farmhouse meeting place, determined to put the vampires on ice.

Eat Locals is the directorial debut of actor Jason Flemyng (Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, Gemma Bovary), and he’s roped in a bunch of old pals to help him out – fellow Guy Ritchie alumni Dexter Fletcher, Nick Moran, and Nicholas Rowe all make appearances in this brisk horror comedy. It’s clear that Eat Locals wants to be able to stand alongside the likes of An American Werewolf in London, Shaun of the Dead, and Dog Soldiers, but it’s hampered by a somewhat hammy script and a budget that simply cannot encompass the ambitions of Flemyng and his screenwriter, Danny King (Wild Bill). Dodgy effects work is one thing, but when you find yourself noticing the poor cinematography in exterior sequences, something is seriously awry.

The proceedings are buoyed by a game cast, brisk pacing, and the odd stand out action beat. Plus, any movie where a granny vampire lets loose with a machine gun to the strains of The Damned has its heart in the right place. Still, the hit rate of jokes is maybe 50% and the whole thing never quite manages to rise to its obvious potential. If you’re in a forgiving mood you’ll have fun, but don’t expect miracles.

 
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The End of the F***ing World

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Alienated teenager James (Alex Lawther) thinks he might be a psychopath. He enjoys killing animals and once stuck his hand in a deep fryer just to feel something. Alienated teenager Alyssa (Jessica Barden) thinks she might be in love with James. She knows she hates her rich family and wants to reconnect with her absent birth father. She convinces James to steal his father’s car and come with her on a road trip to find errant dad. She thinks it’s romantic. He thinks she might be his first human victim. Kids, hey?

Adapted from the graphic novel by Charles S. Forsman, The End of the F***ing World takes the lovers-on-the-run model beloved of American cinema since the year dot and filters through an understated, wry, British sensibility. It is quite violent – two minutes in we have James dispatching a cat with a knife – but also thoughtful and self-deprecating, setting up our two protagonists as initially unlikable and self-deluded, but gradually evincing empathy as their tragic back stories are revealed over the course of the series, and they come to realise that their morbid self-obsession and instinctive acts of rebellion have real world consequences.

Still, why is it a series? The show is surprisingly slow paced, and it’s not hard to imagine a version of the series edited down to feature length that would retain its mood, themes, and black comedy. It feels like its current form is a concession to the binge-watch streaming model, but there’s not really enough story to justify it. Still, it’s an enjoyable enough slice of sardonic misanthropy.

 
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Romper Stomper

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Most of the skinheads are gone when we revisit the world of Romper Stomper, Geoffrey Wright’s incendiary and controversial 1992 film. Still the ethos remains, albeit under different colours. Instead of the swastika, the Southern Cross. Instead of bashing Vietnamese immigrants, it’s preaching hate while protesting a halal food festival. Instead of the hard, uncompromising gut punch of the original, it’s meandering and kind of pointless.

Yes, Romper Stomper Redux was always going to be controversial. Hell, it was meant to be, and a quick tour of the comment thread of any article on the new Stan series proves that, in that regard, it has been hugely successful. But controversy and quality are not synonyms. Is it any good? Well, no, not particularly.

Whereas RS ’92 kept the focus squarely on the crew of bovver boys run by the charismatic Hando (Russell Crowe, Sir Not Appearing in This Series), RS ’18 spreads a wider net, trying to encompass the complexities and factions of the current state of extremist politics. So we get Patriot Blue, a pastiche of a number of far right outfits but mainly drawn from the True Blue Crew and the Soldiers of Odin, run by mouthy, paunchy, would-be voice of the silent majority, Blake Farron (Lachy Hulme). New blood is introduced when Blake is rescued from a kicking by young ex-soldier Kane (Toby Wallace), a charismatic nationalist who is soon de facto 2IC of the Patriot Blue crew.

That’s the blue corner. In the red corner, Antifasc, Romper Stomper‘s answer to Antifa, a loose and largely ineffectual cell of uni students led by Petra (Lily Sullivan) and Danny (Tysan Towney), who are beginning to move beyond soup kitchens and waving placards to more direct and violent tactics.

Around these two blocs orbit a number of characters, including opportunistic right wing talk show host Jago Zoric (David Wenham); moderate Muslim law student Laila (Nicole Chamoun), thrust into the spotlight after the Patriots and Antifasc clash at a halal food festival; ageing skinhead Magoo (John Brumpton), still holding onto the toxic ideology of his youth; independent Senator Anabasis (Simon Palomares, and that’s a hell of a pun for students of the classics) and more. More than the show can easily track, in fact, and therein lies at least part of the problem: in trying to cover so many elements, so many moving narrative parts, some are given short shrift.

When in doubt, the series defaults to spending time with the racists, who are easily the most complex and intriguing characters presented. This is not necessarily a problem of sympathy, but one of focus; for all that original creator Wright and his co-writers, James Napier Robertson, Omar Musa, and Malcolm Knox, may be trying to present “both sides of the argument”, there’s one side that is always the more engaging – and they’re unarguably the bad guys. Plenty of research has gone into the presentation of Patriot Blue; considerably less has been done for their opposite number, who come across as a fairly undifferentiated rabble of university-radicalised malcontents. One character even unironically trots out the old “property is theft” cliche, just to underline their political ideology. It’s pretty laughable stuff, especially if you’re at all familiar with the fringe left, who are neither so joyless nor so unified (The Left’s problem is that they’re too busy fighting their age-old enemies, the Left, to really push in the same direction. Romper Stomper‘s estimate of about half a dozen people able to agree on any one thing is about right).

Still, the show does at least refute the notion that they’re all as bad as each other; as presented, Antifasc may not be as charismatic as the right wing rabble-rousers, but at least they’re not stockpiling machine guns and grenades in a back bush hideout, which Patriot Blue most certainly are. To its credit, Romper Stomper draws a direct line from the openly Nazi skinheads of the past to the crypto-fascist “patriots” of today, although that’s undone a little by having the organisation’s most violent plans put into action by a ghost from the past, rather than coming from Hulme’s bush poetry-spouting demagogue.

Indeed, the series has no small amount of trouble reconciling the past with its current concerns, and elements of the previous film are often worked in awkwardly. In addition to old Magoo (Brumpton, an absolute treasure of a performer, delivers a great, pathos-filled turn here) we also get the return of Gabe (Jacqueline McKenzie, killing it), former skinhead arm candy turned successful businesswoman. When we reconnect with her she’s dealing with caring for her dying father, who sexually abused her when she was younger, and also worried about her son – none other than Kane, who is immersing himself in the racist world she has fought to free herself from.

Kane’s paternity is a key plot point, which is an interesting direction to take in a text dealing with poisonous ideologies that put so much emphasis on blood and race, and while the final revelation of the nascent blackshirt’s father is a clever irony, it’s a little lost in the noise. All politics aside, Romper Stomper‘s key problems is a lack of thematic unity, with an over-reliance on shock tactics rather than solid plotting coming a close second. The series may want to show us the current state of race politics play, but it doesn’t have anything to actually say about it; there’s no thesis, no lesson to be learned, either by the audience of the characters. Great actors – and there are some fantastic performances here, have no doubt – are stuck with roles that have no arc. As for the shock tactics? Look, at one point a major character basically dies from slipping on a banana peel – that’s something that should never have gotten off the writing room whiteboard.

Romper Stomper was always supposed to be ugly and confrontational – that’s its brand, after all – but it only manages the former. To be confrontational, it would actually have to interrogate the ideas and worldviews that it presents. At this task, the series fails. But it also fails on a basic narrative level; after three episodes of set up, we’re left with three episodes of barreling towards a foregone and clumsily handled climax that offers no respite, no answers, and, most damningly, no point of view.

What galls is what a wasted opportunity this is. After four and a half hours, Romper Stomper leaves us with nothing; no insight, no voice, no lessons, no discernible point. You could argue that simple representation is enough, but what is being represented? If we want to know the awful state of racial discourse, we just need to look at our news feeds. Good drama offers something more than that – and Romper Stomper is not good drama.

 
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Doctor Who: “Twice Upon a Time”

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Two Doctors – the First (David Bradley) and 12th (Peter Capaldi) – meet in the Antarctic. Both are near the end of their lives. Both refuse to regenerate, and would rather die than change into another person. When they encounter a British Captain from the First World War (Mark Gatiss), thrown decades out of time and chased across the snow by a glass alien, they are thrust into one final adventure before each man dies.

After three seasons, Peter Capaldi hangs up his coat as the 12th star of Doctor Who. Departing along with him is writer and executive producer Steven Moffat, who moves on from the series after eight years and 84 episodes. It is the end of an era, and with new showrunner Chris Chibnall and 13th Doctor Jodie Whittaker waiting in the wings “Twice Upon a Time” presents Capaldi and Moffat with the chance to go out on an absolute high.

Sadly, the episode feels more whimper than bang. It has a storyline that is oddly busy yet frustratingly simple. The ingredients all seem to be perfectly suitable, but they have been baked together in weirdly sub-standard ways. While it has glimmers of greatness, and certainly its final minutes pull everything together for an emotive farewell, overall it fails to impress or convince. Things happen, but they do not sufficiently build to a satisfying conclusion. The episode simply seems to run until it stops. To its credit the episode does pull things together during its lengthy epilogue, but at that points it’s more about softening the blow of a bad episode than in being anything exceptionally good.

One major hurdle that Moffat fails to clear is how precisely to incorporate the two Doctors alongside one another. While David Bradley (Game of Thrones, Broadchurch) gamely replaces William Hartnell in the role – and wisely does not attempt to directly recreate it – Moffat’s script forces an unnecessary contrast between the two Doctors by making the original an insufferable sexist. It is not a characterisation that rings true, and winds up running a fair amount of character assassination on an iconic television character. Contemporary audiences may not notice so much; dedicated fans will be up in arms.

There was an opportunity here for the 12th Doctor, tired of life, to be reinvigorated by the possibilities of his future by seeing those same possibilities on his younger self. Instead the episode works in the opposite fashion: the original Doctor is convinced to regenerate by seeing his future, and the 12th simply changes his mind and allows himself to change. It feels more than a little muddled throughout.

Both Peter Capaldi and David Bradley do excellent work here, as does Pearl Mackie in a return appearance as companion Bill Potts. Sadly Mark Gatiss’ anonymous “Captain” is more of a list of stereotypes and tics than an actual performance, and weakens most of the scenes he is in. An ever more damaging element is the surfeit of comedy gags and sexual references. They have been a growing bane of Moffat-produced Doctor Who, and with one episode left he goes all out with the smutty jokes and almost derails the entire enterprise.

Peter Capaldi has been a fine Doctor, but his entire tenure has been hampered with irregular script weaknesses. Despite some great episodes in recent years – “World Enough and Time”, “Listen”, and “Heaven Sent”, to name a few – looking back from the end his time on the series feels somewhat like a missed opportunity. Thankfully there’s every chance Jodie Whittaker’s first series in 2018 will be a breath of fresh air.

 
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Bright

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What if one of the po-po in End of Watch was an orc? That’s the basic conceit of Bright, which blends director David Ayer’s usual Los Angeles cops ‘n’ crims concerns with the sort of high fantasy elements usually found in Middle Zealand: elves, fairies, magic wands and what have you.

Written by Max Landis, Bright follows uniformed officers Daryl Ward (Will Smith) and Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), an orc, as they patrol the mean barrios of LA in a world where magic works (but is heavily regulated) and various fantasy races have carved out a place in the great melting pot. Elves are rich and presumably immortal, living in a Beverley Hills-alike enclave, while the tusked and scaly orcs are an underclass due to backing the Dark Lord in some epochal battle two millennia ago. In the modern day, orcs are viewed as thugs or worse, and Jakoby, the first orc police officer, is the subject of much attention and derision, both from the humans he works with and the orcs who view him as a traitor to his own kind (the racial politics are as subtle as a Mjolnir to the face).

Things go pear-shaped when they come into possession of both a magic wand – described as “a nuclear weapon that grants wishes” and Tikka (Lucy Fry), the runaway elf sorceress who wields it. The unlikely trio soon find themselves on the run from a whole panoply of opponents who want the wand for themselves, from corrupt cops to vicious gang bangers, with none so fearsome than Noomi Rapace’s evil elf cult leader and her host of machine-gun-toting, acrobatic elf ninja assassins. Can they survive the night?

If that phrase “machine-gun-toting, acrobatic elf ninja assassins” fires a neuron or two, you’re gonna have a good time with Bright. Ayer’s LA mean streets aesthetic aside, the influences on the film are fairly obvious: Terry Windling’s Bordertown shared world books, the Shadowrun roleplaying franchise, the feature film Alien Nation and its subsequent TV series, and more. Landis’s script takes the common tropes here and wraps them up in a standard action run ‘n’ gun plot, not doing anything too original with the ideas but handling them competently nonetheless. For Ayer’s part, he reaches for the most familiar tools in his box, giving us a tone that isn’t too far off that of Harsh Times or Street Kings – you know, apart from all the pointed ears and the odd dragon fly-by.

The action is great – a shoot out in a petrol station is the high point here – but the real fun is in the background details. The broad history of this parallel universe is handwaved, leaving the production design and narrative window dressing to do the heavy lifting when it comes to scene-setting: we get orcish graffiti and music, a nuisance fairy buzzing around a bird feeder, a Federal Department dedicated to investigating magical crimes, and more. There’s a snappy, glib “just go with it” vibe to the proceedings – if you question it too hard, it might very well fall apart, but at a glance it’s all a good time.

It helps that the cast never winks at the audience, treating the proceedings with, if not the somberness of a heavy drama, then at least the macho seriousness of a good action thriller (Bright is, it must be said, surprisingly and pleasingly violent and foul-mouthed). Men in Black veteran Smith is an old hand at this sort of thing, and the ethereal-looking Fry looks as at home here as she would at a medieval fair, but the standout is the unrecognisable Edgerton as Jakoby. Completely masked by latex prosthetics and tinted contacts, Edgerton really disappears into the role, offering up the most well-rounded and interesting character in the film, a misfit not aggressive enough for the orcs and too awkward for the human world, who is struggling to find his own place to stand. It’s a really great turn.

That it’s in the service of a somewhat disposable – but still very enjoyable – actioner is almost besides the point. For all the ballyhooing Netflix has done about the blockbuster budget ($90m+) and the big names attached, Bright feels very much like an opening salvo – a very pricey, very enjoyable feature length pilot. Hopefully a return to this world is on the cards sooner rather than later.