Justice League: The Complete Series DVD Review

In 1992 Bruce Timm set the standard for small screen animation when he helped create Batman: The Animated Series, perhaps the greatest animated series of all time. Timm followed that landmark series with a his own take on the last son of Krypton that sadly failed to make the same kind of impact as it’s predecessor despite being of the same high standard. Once both those shows wrapped up Timm and his team set their sight on expanding the DC Animated universe they had created beyond just the adventures of Batman and Superman. Justice League was the end result. And once again Timm struck gold and gave us another one of the finest animated series ever produced.

Like the comic it was based on Justice League centred on a super-team that was comprised of some of DC Comic’s biggest icons; Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern (John Stewart not Hal Jordan), Martian Manhunter and…err, Hawkgirl (?). After two seasons the show was give a major shake up and morphed into Justice League Unlimited and against all odds actually got better instead of worse as is usually the case when executives mess with something that was already working. The scope of the show was expanded to include almost every single DC hero ever created. This was great because it meant less well known characters like Green Arrow, Booster Gold, Mr Miracle, Black Canary, Captain Marvel, Dr Fate, Huntress, Hawk and Dove, The Atom and the Question got to have their time in spotlight along with all the A-listers.

While Justice League was a great show on its own Unlimited is by far the superior series. It’s a more inventive and entertaining series with better story arcs and character development. Plus it’s obvious that the creators had a real love and passion for the entire DC Universe. It was also surprisingly mature for a kid’s series with the creators wisely deciding not to treat their audience like imbeciles. But when all is said and done this was still an action show. Being a kids series the violence is never overdone but still remains fast and exciting. Superman’s numerous smack downs with Darkseid are a personal highlight.

Another great feature of the series is the fantastic voice work done by the entire cast. In fact, the sheer number of celebrity vocals (many Joss Whedon alumni) that pop up throughout the series is staggering. Okay, deep breath, here goes; Nathan Fillion, Eric Roberts, Michael Ironside, CCH Pounder, Alexis Deninof, Adam Baldwin, Juliet Landau, Mark Hamil, Robert Picardo, John C. McGinly and Clancy Brown to name but a few I could remember without checking IMDB. Special mentions must go, though, to Amy Acker as Huntress and Jeffery Combs as the Question. In fact The Question is the breakout character of the series, a ridiculously paranoid conspiracy theorist who believes that the little plastic things at the end of shoe laces have a sinister purpose and is not above murder if it serves the greater good.


Like I said, this show was surprisingly mature.

Rating: * * * * *

The Sarah Jane Adventures: Series 2 DVD Review

Much as I adore Elisabeth Sladen and love her as the iconic Sarah Jane Smith I have to say that the second season of The Sarah Jane Adventures is sadly not as good as the first. While Torchwood has gone from strength to strength over the years, culminating in the exceptional Children of Earth, the more family friendly Doctor Who spin-off has become stuck in something of a rut.

Watching these six two-part adventures there’s a constant nagging sense that the series is simple going through the motions. The writers have found a way of doing things, a way that worked well last series, and they’ve decided to rigidly stick to it. This has left series two feeling safe, predictable and stagnant. They could do better, we know they can do better, but they don’t seem to want to try.

On the bright side at least there are no Slitheen around to ruin things this time around so we should all be thankful for small favours. Instead this series sees Sarah Jane and the kids face off against such galactic terrors as a vengeful Sontaran, Miss Moneypenny, Bradley Walsh trying (and failing) to do a Pennywise, that meddlesome Trickster again and Russ Abbot. Yes, Russ bleedin’ Abbot!

Now that’s positively terrifying.

In the opening story ‘The Last Sontaran’, a semi-sequel to the Doctor Who two-parter 'The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky', Sarah Jane’s faithful sidekick Maria Jackson departs for America with her dad. She's swiftly replaced in the next adventure by new girl Rani Chandra. Granted I use the word ‘new’ lightly. Rani and Maria, plus their respective parents, are so similar that part of me suspects they simply went through all the scripts and just changed all the names.

Once Rani has settled in and the new dynamic is established it’s back to business as usually. ‘Day of the Clown’ plays like a school play version of ‘It’ but the only thing scary here is Bradley Walsh’s American accent. Not to be outdone Russ Abbot hams it into the stratosphere in ‘Secret of the Stars’. Our semi-famous four battle the twin evils of has been light entertainment comedians and astrology. The Sarah Jane-lite 'Mark of the Berserker' is actually very good and the best story of the series. The same can't be said for ‘The Temptation of Sarah Jane’ which tries to recapture the highs of last series finest tale ‘Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane?’ but manages to fall short.

The final story ‘Enemy of the Bane’ see Brigadier Sir Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart makes a long overdue comeback but disappointingly he has little to do, no doubt due to Nicholas Country’s age forcing him to spend the majority of his screen time sitting down. Nevertheless, it’s still great to see him again after all these years.

One thing that this series does have over its predecessor is the quality of the acting. Sladen is as wonderful ever but it’s the younger cast members that impress the most. Both Daniel Anthony (Clyde) and Tommy Knight (Luke) have grown into their roles immensely this year. And despite her character initially being nothing more than a Maria clone Anjli Mohindra is fantastic as Rani.

Rating: * * *

DVD Extras
- Series 1 synopsis recap
- Character, Tools & Alien profiles
- Blue Peter interview with cast
- Audio clip from the Time Capsule
- Me & my movie with Tommy Knight
- Photo Galleries
- Trailers
- Quiz

Supernatural: Season 4 DVD Review

"The X-Files is a TV show. This is real"

You know what’s really great about being a Supernatural fan? Every year, regardless of the established laws of diminishing returns, the show just keeps getting better and better all the time. The first season was good but not great. The second was much better. And season three, despite being curtailed by the writer’s strike, was simply fantastic with a really dark and shocking twist at the end.

But season four has to be the show’s best season so far. This is no longer simply a show about two brothers roaming America, fighting monsters and ripping off crappy horror movies. The ante has been upped to Biblical levels as Sam and Dean are now at the centre of a epic celestial battle between demons and angels.

Don’t expect any Highway to Heaven-scale schmaltz from Castiel and co. These angels are, as Sam and Dean constantly reminded us all season, dicks. Yet they were the kind of dicks that could also smite a whole town off the map, fiddle about with the time space continuum, pluck the dead out of hell and turn demons to dust. These guys are Old Testament bastards to be sure.

While the central arc story goes from strength to strength this year the standalone episodes don’t suffer as a result. ‘Monster Movie’ is a great tribute and pastiche of classic horror movies complete with a scooter riding Dracula. The brothers find themselves against a suicidal giant teddy bear in the brilliant demented ‘Wishful Thinking’. Even the questionable nature of ‘Jump the Shark’ where a third, long-lost Winchester brother is introduced manages to defy preconception and be quite good.

It’s staggering to believe but there’s isn’t a single naff or rubbish episode all season. There are a couple of simply average and okay ones but that’s about as negative as it gets. ‘Metamorphosis’ and ‘Family Remains’ are perhaps the most average and okay, feeling more like leftovers from a much weaker season.

Oh well, nobody’s perfect.

Rating: * * * * *

DVD Extras
- Audio Commentaries
- Making of
- Deleted Scenes

Battlestar Galactica: The Plan DVD Review

“We had our foot on the throat of humanity and we failed to step down hard enough”

Written by Jane Espenson and directed by Edward James Olmos, The Plan chronicles events from the early days of Battlestar Galactica, the original mini-series right up to the finale of season two, all seen from the perspective of the Cylons, in particular John Cavil. This is essentially Cavil’s story. He was the mastermind behind the attacks on the Twelve Colonies and the chief architect of the Cylon’s infamous plan. The actually plan itself was rather straightforward; kill all humans. That’s it. Blunt, clear and to the point. A plan so simple and fundamentally robotic Bender constantly mutters it in his sleep. But like all well laid plans it eventually all fell apart.

Back in the mini the attack on the colonies was mostly depicted off-screen or only glimpsed from a distance. In The Plan we see the attack in full, up close and personal. And it is a truly awesome and horrifying sight as entire fleets of Basestars rain down devastation on the Colonies. For the first time we see glimpses of all of the Twelve Colonies as one by one they fall to the Cylon onslaught. It is by far the best part of the whole thing and here in lies the key fault with The Plan, it peaks too early. After such a spectacular opening everything that follows feels rather inconsequential.

Boiled down to it the rest of The Plan is basically a game of fill in the blanks. So much archive footage is used that you begin to think that you’re watching nothing more than a glorified clip show. Many of the loose ends left dangling from the first two seasons are finally tied up. Admittedly, some of this is interesting but at the same hardly essential to our understanding and enjoyment of the series.

It goes with out saying that Dean Stockwell is exceptional as always, relishing every Machiavellian witticism Espenson gives him. He’s at his best as the Galactica Cavil, a villain dedicated to the cause but consumed by frustration and disappointment as one by one his plans to destroy the fleet fail and his fellow Cylons continue to let him down. Special mention must also go to Rick Worthy who finally gets his chance to shine as the most neglected Cylon, Simon.

Fans hoping to see their old favourites one last time may come away disappointed, The Plan is strictly a showcase for the show’s supporting cast. Lee, Kara, Helo and Baltar only appear in stock footage, Laura is absent altogether and Adama and Tigh only have bit parts. But fans of Tyrol, Six, Sharon, Anders and Leoben will be happy to know they all get their moment in the spotlight.

Rating: * * *

DVD Extras
- Commentary by Jane Espenson and Edward James Olmos
- From Admiral to Director: Edward James Olmos and The Plan
- The Cylons of The Plan
- The Cylon Attack
- Visual Effects: The Magic Behind The Plan
- Deleted Scenes

Lost: Season Five DVD Review

“What lies in the shadow of the statue?”

Confusing, frustrating, thrilling, exciting, epic, intimate, funny, tedious, Lost is all these things and more. And perhaps nothing summed up the show’s good and bad points quite so much as the fifth season. Although not as good as the blistering fourth season season five is still more enjoyable than two and three and marks the penultimate chapter of one of television’s most addictive dramas.

It’s clear now that the writers no longer feel bound by the need to attract new viewers to the show (which might explain the ratings dip). Liberated from studio constraints they’ve indulged themselves with every single mad idea they might’ve previously held back on for being too out there, man. That means a butt load of time travel, a case of resurrection, some temporal paradoxes and Hurley writing the script to The Empire Strikes Back three years in advance. With improvements, of course.

The first half of the season is split into two separate storylines. The first follows those who escaped the island in the finale of season four, the so-called Oceanic Six, and deals with Jack and Ben’s attempts to persuade them to return to the island. The second, and my favourite, chronicles the events back on island and the struggles of those characters who were left behind. As a result of the Ben Linus turning that frozen donkey wheel the island has become unstuck in time, randomly yanking this helpless group of Billy Pilgrims back and forth through untold chapters in the shows back-story. This was a great way to delve into areas of the show’s history without having long, boring scenes of character talking. For example, instead of telling us what happened to Danielle and her crew we actually get to see it play out live.

The actual return of the Oceanic Six to the island is a rather muted and anti-climatic affair, almost as if the writers couldn’t be bothered to work it all out properly and just wanted everyone back on the island without delay. After a duo of fantastic episodes, “The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham” and “LaFleur” the momentum then grinds to a sudden halt as our heroes become trapped in 1977 and start hanging out with the Dharma Initiative. Initially this storyline seemed slow and directionless, enlivened only by Sayid shooting someone unexpected, until Daniel comes up with a bonkers plan to upend history, “Hi…err…guys…ahhh…we need to…Mmmm…nuke the…err…island”. Great plan, Dan.

The various plot strands finally come to a head in season finale “The Incident” an episode that is both stunning and infuriating in equal measure. Once again questions were answered only to lead to even more questions. After years of hints and clues we get to meet the mysterious Jacob only for him to be… oh, you’ll see. A new key player was introduced, although given the character’s nature it’s likely he was there all along we just didn’t know it. The season ends on the type of cliff-hanger that leaves everyone’s fate, and the entire fabric of the show’s reality, in some serious doubt.

Despites the many ups and downs this season the cast continues to remain strong. Michael Emerson earned his Emmy on more than one occasion. Looking back it’s hard to believe that he was originally only supposed to do five or six episodes. Ben Linus has become an indispensable part of this show’s mythology. On the other hand, Elizabeth Mitchell and Josh Holloway were both unforgivably snubbed this year. If anything this was the season that Sawyer and Juliet took centre stage and pushed Jack and Kate into the sidelines. Their touching, affectionate and ultimately tragic tale dominated the season and this particular viewer’s heart.

Rating: * * * *

DVD Extras
- Audio Commentaries
- LOST On Location
- Building 23 & Beyond
- An Epic Day With Richard Alpert
- Making Up For LOST Time
- Mysteries Of The Universe: The DHARMA Initiative
- LOST Bloopers - Deleted Scenes

Jonathan Creek: The Grinning Man DVD Review

After a five year hiatus Alan Davis finally returned to TV screens last year as that duffle coated solver of impossible crimes, Jonathan Creek. Creator David Renwick admitted that he stopped writing the series because he simply ran out of good ideas. The only reason he bothered to drum up a new script was to hold off retirement.

However, there is very little that is actually new about Creek’s encore. Certainly “The Grinning Man” bares similarities to the show’s previous Christmas specials, “Black Canary” and “Satan’s Chimney” including a gothic setting and tone, the dark secrets of a former magician and a classic locked room mystery. Revealing more would give too much away so I’ll stop there.

The central mystery at the heart of “The Grinning Man” is certainly a gripping and intriguing one but hamstrung by too many lousy sub-plots and narrative cheats. The solution to one mystery is far too convoluted even for Jonathan Creek. And the storyline involving Jonathan’s boss, sleazy magician Adam Klaus, borders on the farcical as Klaus become involved in the porn industry.

Davis slips back into the role with ease. Jonathon is older, bit out of shape, no wiser but still just as fiendishly cleaver as he’s always been. Joining him is Sheridan Smith as Creek’s latest sidekick. Sadly, despite a strong performance, Smith fails to offer anything new to the mix. Her character is reminiscent of Creek’s last partner, Carla. The two character are virtually identical. Seems Renwick has a type and he’s sticking to it.

After such a long absence, especially with so much pedestrian murder mysteries like Midsummer Murders clogging up the airwaves, it is great to see Jonathan Creek back on the box. “The Grinning Man” maybe far from the glorious comeback some might of hoped for but nor is it the bitter disappointment others feared. Despite it’s flaws this is simply a good old fashioned mystery tale and a welcome return from one of TV’s finest sleuths.

Rating:
* * *


DVD Extras
-Behind the Scenes
-Deleted Scenes

Sanctuary: Season 1 DVD Review

Originally starting life as an eight-part internet series in 2007 Sanctuary managed to impress the higher ups at the Sci-Fi Channel (as it was known at the time) who soon commissioned a full series which debut last year. Stripped down Sanctuary is pure, unadulterated pulp entertainment. It’s highly unoriginal yet at the same time truly innovative and groundbreaking.

The original web series was pretty much a side project for a trio of Stargate alumni, writer Damian Kindler, director Martin Wood and actress Amanda Tapping, something fun and new for them to do after nearly 15 years of gate travel. The two-hour pilot ‘Sanctuary For All’ effectively re-works the original web series into a stylish and engrossing story that manages to introduce the characters and set up all the relevant story arcs with ease. The following episode ‘Fata Morgana’ is also adapted from the web series but feels lightweight in comparison with the pilot.

Tapping stars as Helen Magnus, a woman 157 years old who leads the Sanctuary, a secret international organization that seeks out non-human intelligent creatures or Abnormals, as they are known on the show, and tries to help and learn from them, while also having to contain the more dangerous creatures. She is assisted by her daughter Ashley (Emilie Ullerup), a butt-kicking monster hunter, former police forensic profiler Will Zimmerman (Robin Dunne), a Bigfoot and Henry Floss (Ryan Robbins), their resident tech geek.

In many ways Sanctuary actually feels like a live-action comic book series and a less smutty (and Welsh) version Torchwood. The basic premise has shades of titles such as Men in Black, Planetary, B.P.R.D. The Middleman and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen only the tone is more overtly serious and Kindler and his writers lack the widescreen imaginations of Warren Ellis, Mike Mignola, Javier Grillo-Marxuach and Alan Moore. And while the overall quality of the series is consistently good most episodes are very routine and predictable while some are downright bad, the Fight Club wannabe ‘Warriors’ and Tribble tribute 'Nubblins' for instance. The central characters, despite being well played by the cast, all conform to established archetypes with Magnus as the wise and ancient leader, Ashley the action babe Henry the nervous geek and Will as the wide-eyed novice.

On a story front Sanctuary might be shamelessly derivative but on a technical front the series is ahead of it’s time. Making extensive use of CGI environments Sanctuary is able to transport viewers to another world, one like ours but different, a purely comic book world that looks absolutely nowt like Vancouver. Sometimes the effects are obvious but other times, as you’ll learn from the many commentaries, they are so subtle you’ll hardly notice. But while CGI sets are often impressive they do tend jar whenever the cast leave the studio and go out on location. Plus the creature effects and monster make-up for the Abnormals tend to let the side down on more than one occasion.

The series is also blessed with a strong cast lead by the wonderful Amanda Taping, although it does take a while to get used to the dark hair and British accent (she’ll always been Sam Carter to me). Christopher Heyerdahl, another Stargate semi-regular, is obviously having fun as John Duritt, Magnus’ former lover, Ashley’s father and, oh yeah, Jack the freakin’ Ripper. Dunne and Ullerup can both be rather bland most of the time but Robbins manages to compensate as Henry.

Rating: * * * *

DVD Extras
Commentaries on all episodes
3 Making-of Featurettes
Sanctuary: Original Webisodes
Season Two Sneak Peek
Photo Gallery
Bloopers

Heroes: Season 3 DVD Review

Not since the decline of Twin Peaks has a television series fallen from grace quite as quickly as Heroes has done. At least Peaks had the benefit of being cancelled before it could get any worse than it already was. Heroes has had no such luck.

Hard to think now but only a few years ago Heroes was a global phenomenon. It had everything; critical acclaim, high ratings, the cast splattered on numerous magazine covers, everyone was repeating the catchphrase “save the cheerleader, save the world”, overnight it had achieved near universal success. Then season two happened. “Meh” was the general response to this lukewarm season, mercifully cut short by that infamous writer’s strike. Creator Tim Kring promised that next season would be better. The writers had seen where they went wrong and wouldn’t make the same mistakes with season three.

I wasn’t there when Kring said all this but I’m willing to bet his pants were starting to overheat at the time. While season three is not as bad as season two that’s simple because it is much, much worse. This season is so bad you’d almost think Kring and his team were deliberately trying to scuttle the ship. Maybe they were. Must’ve come as a shock to them when NBC renewed the show for a forth season. Some might see this as a sign of network faith in the series. I see it as further evidence that 30 Rock is actually a documentary about how inept things really are at NBC.

The season is divided into two volumes; ‘Villains’ and ‘Fugitives’. The first volume had the potential to be brilliant and for a brief time it did seem as if the show was returning to previous form. But all our good faith was misplaced as one by one the episodes get increasingly worse. The characters we once loved and adored had all been replaced by pod people. They might look and sound the same but their thoughts and actions were radically differently from the people we knew in season one.

‘Villains’ was meant to make us loves Heroes all over again but instead turned everyone off even more. The second volume ‘Fugitives’ is a slight improvement featuring a much better adversary in the form of Zeljko Ivanek. Bryan Fuller briefly returns to the writing staff, injecting so much need fun back into the mix. But by this point the lasting damage has already been done and not even the mighty Fuller could salvage this shipwreck.

Throughout the season you struggle to care what happens to these characters anymore. That original sense of excitement and wonder that enticed everyone during the first season has been completely lost. The show’s fall from grace has been equally tragic and infuriating for those of us who were willing enough to stay with the show up to this point. As the season came to a close once again Tim Kring promised that the fourth season would be better. They’d learned all their mistakes from season three and wouldn’t make them again.

Tell it to someone who cares, mate.

Rating: * *


DVD Extras
-The Super Powers of Heroes
-Genetics of a Scene
-The Prop Box
-Tim Sale Galleries of Screen Art
-Alternate Stories
-Completing the Scene
-The Writer's Forum
-Deleted Scenes

Green Lantern: First Flight DVD Review

Hal Jordan, the Green Lantern of sector 2814 and one of my favourite comic book characters, has always been considered one of DC Comics b-list superheroes, a bridesmaid forever doomed to be overshadowed by the holy trinity of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman. But all that could be about to change.

A big budget live action film version starring Ryan Reynolds and directed by Martin Campbell (Edge of Darkness, Casino Royale) is already in production and should start shooting next year. Thanks to The Sinestro Corp War and Blackest Night the Green Lanterns and Jordan in particular are now major players in the comic world regularly topping the sales charts. And then we have this animated DVD movie, the latest in the DC Universe Original Animated Movies range following Superman: Doomsday, Batman: Gotham Knight, Justice League: The New Frontier and Wonder Woman.

As the title suggests Green Lantern: First Flight chronicles the early days of Hal Jordan’s career as a Green Lantern. The origin story is rushed through in the first few minutes as Hal is given his power ring by a dying Green Lantern who has crashed landed on Earth. First Flight contains many of the things I love about the Green Lantern comics but at the same time is a rather underwhelming experience that never fully satisfies.

Considering the source material the scope is suitable epic. The plot takes us from Earth to Oa, home of the Green Lantern Corp, to other alien planets, space ports and back again. The action sequences are fast and exciting with the animators taking full advantage of the endless uses of the power ring. But the main plot is hopelessly predictable. You can easily guess every single twist and turn it takes before reaching the inevitable action pack climax. Hal Jordan’s origin is rushed through in the first five minutes robbing the narrative of anything resembling character development. You never get to know Hal or understand why he would want to be a Lantern. He’s just a generic do-gooder while Sinestro is telegraphed as the big bad from the second he appears.

Perhaps the main area where First Flight fails the most is the one where Bruce Timm productions often always excel; the voice acting. The vocals performances are mostly flat and uninspired with few exceptions. Worst of all, Christopher Meloni is lacklustre as Hal Jordan. David Boreanaz did a much better job in Justice League: The New Frontier and it’s a shame they didn’t ask him to come back. The other characters are just as underdeveloped. Victor Garber does his best as Sinestro but Tricia Helfer phones it in as Boodikka while Michael Madsen just mumbles his way through the whole thing as Kilowog.

First Flight is a perfectly entertaining action adventure story for all the family. As an introduction to the colourful mythology of the Green Lanterns its functional. But as a character piece for Hal Jordan it is definitely lacking. Frankly, if you want a really great animated movie featuring Hal Jordan I’d recommend watching Justice League: The New Frontier instead.

Rating: * * *

The Avengers: Series 2 DVD Review

Is there any television series that is more quintessentially 1960s than The Avengers? Okay, granted there’s The Prisoner but was Number Six ever as much fun as John Steed? Did he have such iconic partners as Emma Peel or Cathy Gale? Thought not. No, all due respect to Patrick McGoohan but The Avengers remains the ultimate ‘60s TV series. But looking back on this collection of episodes from the show’s early days its shocking to see just how different The Avengers was when it first started out from the show it would eventually become.

The Avengers started life back in 1961 as a vehicle for Ian Hendry, star of the short lived series Police Surgeon. Hendry’s character, Dr. David Keel, teamed up with government agent John Steed (Patrick Macnee) to avenger the murder of his fiancée (hence the title) and fight crime on a regular basis. Back when the show started it was a far more tough and gritty affair than the flamboyant spy series we all know and love. Originally Hendry’s David Keel was the star with Steed as his rough and tumble, trench coat wearing sidekick, a far cry from the quintessential Englishman of legend. Only two and a half episodes still exist from the David Keel years and all have been collected in this set include a surviving episode of Police Surgeon.

After one series Hendry bailed to pursue a film career. Macnee was promoted to star status and saddled with a selection of rotating sidekicks only one of which was ever any good. Dr. Martin King (Jon Rollason) was a transparent David Keel clone which is no big surprise since all the episodes he appeared in were originally written for Ian Hendry. Meanwhile Julie Stevens’ Venus Smith was a night club singer, amateur spy and all round waste of space. The episodes that featured Venus were often more about showing off Stevens’ singing voice than her acting talent.

It was only when Steed was partnered up with Honor Blackman’s alluring Cathy Gale that the series really started to come alive. Gale was a revolutionary female character at the time; smart, confident, independent, quick-witted, capable of defending herself and had a fondness for wearing leather. British television audiences had never seen a woman like Cathy Gale before and were eager for more of her. By now Steed had ditched the trench coat, pick up his suits from Savile Row and pop on his bowler. Steed and Cathy sizzled on screen together even if their relationship never went far beyond some first-class flirting.

With the lead characters virtually established the series also began to slowly move away from being a gritty crime show and into more fantastical territories. Pop art sets, Cybernauts, diabolical masterminds and primary colours were still a few years away but by this point The Avengers was already well on its way to becoming one of the defining programs of the ‘60s and a classic of British television.

Shame the theme music was so crap. Someone get Laurie Johnson on the phone, pronto!

Rating:
* * * *

Fringe Season One DVD Review

When it debuted last year Fringe was being flaunted as the next big thing. Everyone was expecting uber-producer JJ Abrams to deliver another Lost sized hit. Instead what we got was a moderately successful remake of The X-Files. Co-created by Abrams with his Star Trek writers, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, Fringe shares the same basic premise as Chris Carter’s magnum opus with FBI agents investigating strange and unexplained scientific phenomenon. Only this time around Mulder is the cynical sceptic, Scully is the more open minded believer and the Lone Gunmen are condensed into a single eccentric mad scientist. Oddly enough it all works.

Mostly.

For the first half of its freshman season Fringe is a distinctly hit and miss affair. Great one week, average the next. By episode ten ‘Safe’ things start to improve although the standalone tales work less well than the mythology driven episodes. Although in true JJ Abrams style it’s a mythology dense in puzzling questions, obscure clues and cryptic answers. By the end of the season you’ll find yourself just as confused as you were at the start if not more so.

Besides the up and down quality of the episodes another of the series main problems is unfortunately its heroine, Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv). For the most part Olivia was difficult to like, too cold and distant, focused entirely on her job. It didn’t help that Torv seemed to be sleepwalking through her performance half of the time. She improves as the series progress. Introducing her sister and niece warmed up the character and made her more relatable. Not sure how I feel about her having possible super powers and a grand destiny (too much like Sydney Bristow) but so far it’s given the series some great episodes (“The Ability” and “Bad Dreams”).

The Bishops, on the other hand, were instant favourites. The delightful contrast between Walter’s childish enthusiasm and Peter’s sarcastic charm help bring some great moments of levity to what could have been a very dour and overly serious show. John Nobel does tend to overdo it as Walter in the early episodes but manages to tone it down later on. Joshua Jackson is the only one of the core three who arrives pretty much fully formed. Peter acts as the audience’s window into this world, decoding all the tech talking and ready with a sarcastic quip whenever things get a little too unbelievable.

The remaining characters add very little to the show's central dynamic beyond having someone else around to spout exposition or asking Walter to explain the technobable for all the dummies in the audience. Olivia’s partner, Charlie, is the weakest link, lacking anything even remotely resembling a personality.

Okay, so to quickly recap; Fringe is the basically The X-Files with some 21st century sheen. The mythology episodes are great while the standalone ones tend to be iffy. The central trio are strong, even if it does take time to warm up to Olivia, but the rest of the cast are weak and forgettable. And those lacking in strong stomachs should be warned this is not the type of show you can watch while having lunch. Seriously, there’s at least one gross out moment every episode. You’d think they have a gore quota to meet or something.

Rating: * * * *


DVD Extras
-Three Full-Length Commentaries
-Evolution: The Genesis of Fringe featurette

-Behind the Real Science of Fringe featurette
-A Massive Undertaking: The Making of Fringe
-The Casting of Fringe
-Fringe Visual Effects featurette
-Dissected Files: Unaired Scenes
-Unusual Side Effects: Gag Reel
-Fringe: Deciphering the Scene
-Roberto Orci Production Diary
-Gene the Cow montage

Smallville: Season 8 DVD Review

It’s hard to believe that Smallville is still on the air after all these years. What’s even harder to believe is that I bothered watching it again after all these years. I all but gave up on the series during it’s sixth and seventh seasons, catching the occasional episode mainly because of morbid curiosity and my unwavering love for Alison Mack (please, someone find her a better show, she’s too good for this one now).

Season 8 was the first without the show’s original developers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar. A new creative team was brought in to take over and hopefully shake the series out of its lethargy. This was the year they finally got Clark off that farm and start working at the Daily Planet. Mind you, he still lives on the farm, long distance commuting being no problem when you’re faster than a speeding bullet. This was also supposed to be the year that Clark final got over that wet blanket, Lana Lang (Kristin Kreuk), and started making gooey eyes at Erica Durance’s feisty Lois Lane.

Sadly this was not to be. Just when it looked like Clark and Lois were finally going to get together who should show up but the emotional black hole herself. Great, just what everyone wanted, more Clark/Lana moping. Like there hasn’t been enough of that in the last seven seasons. Worst of all Lois is given the boot in favour of Lana and vanishes completely for a several episodes (boo). Lex briefly returns (although not played by Michael Rosenbaum) leading the way for Lana to be finally written out. Hopefully for good this time.

The season's overreaching arc, the Doomsday storyline, limped along before reaching an underwhelming climax. Even the death of a few regular characters couldn’t save this from being anything other than a massive wasted opportunity. The problem with this entire arc is that Doomsday, even in the comics, is a very weak villain despite the very best efforts of Samuel Witwer.

The regular characters are all just going through the same motions they’ve been going through since day one. Bless’em, they try to hide it but you can sort of tell they are really not bothered anymore. Tom Welling’s face seems to be permanently set on ‘perplexed’. Green Arrow (Justin Hartley) is promoted to series regular and as such is dually wasted the entire season. New character Tess (Cassidy Freeman), a blatant Lex substitute, brings nothing new to the table except someone else to get on your nerves whenever Lana isn’t on screen.

But seriously, let’s all be brutally honest here, does anyone really give a shit about this show anymore? I certainly don’t. I struggled though this season in the vain hope that it would be a return to form and offer a promising new direction for the series. I was wrong. Smallville should’ve been put out to pasture years ago but instead it continues to be renewed, due to return for a ninth season at the end of September.


Rating: * *

Hercules: The Legendary Journeys Season Two Review

It’s hard to argue that Hercules: The Legendary Journeys was ever anything other than escapist fluff. Nevertheless, it was extremely well-made escapist fluff, crafted by a cast and crew who obviously loved and cared about what they were doing. After a successful freshman year the series went into its second season with greater confidence that is evident in these 22 episodes. The slightly darker tones of the first season had been ironed out and transferred over to spin-off, Xena: Warrior Princess, leaving Hercules free to fully embrace its place as a light-hearted hour of fun for all the family. The series had found its niche and never once looked back. At least, not until the dark days of season five but that’s a story for a latter review.

Without a doubt this was the year that the show’s wonderful supporting cast began to finally take shape. We got to meet Bruce Campbell’s dashing Autolycus, the king of thieves. Kevin Smith (no, not the chubby filmmaker) made his first appearance in ‘What’s in a Name’ only not as Ares but rather as Hercules other resentful half-brother, Iphicles. And ‘The Apple’ sees the arrival of Hercules shallow but adorable sister, Aphrodite, played with full Valley Girl ditzy cuteness by Alexandra Tydings. Despite the influx of new characters the strength of the series still remained the great partnership of Hercules and Iolaus and the wonderful performances of Kevin Sorbo and Michael Hurst. Wisely the producers give Hurst more to do this year, recognising his versatility as an actor by giving him the odd episode to carry solo.

Like most TV shows of its time the series was predominately episodic rather than arc driven. There isn't even so much as a two parter this season. The only recurring element linking many episodes together remains Hercules tiresome ongoing struggle with his wicked step-mother Hera. This plotline continues to go no where and just feels like its dragging on and on with no hope of ever reaching any sort of conclusion.

Standout episodes include season opener ‘The King of Thieves’ which, rather obviously, sees the introduction of Autolycus. Hercules journeys into the underworld in ‘The Other Side’ the series own take on the legend of Persephone and Hades. And ‘Once A Hero’ sees Herc and Iolaus team up with King Jason and their fellow Argonauts to go after the Golden Fleece again and battle some nifty skeleton warriors that would make Ray Harryhausen proud.
Rather disappointingly after such a strong run of episodes the season ends in low key fashion with a rather limp clip show (seriously, a clip show!). ‘The Wedding of Alcmene’, a reunion special that brought together almost every supporting character from the show’s first two seasons, would’ve made for a much more suitable finale.

It had a giant sea monster and everything.

Rating: * * * *

Stargate SG-1: Children of the Gods Final Cut DVD Review

Okay, so assuming you already own the complete first season of Stargate SG-1, would you be willing to fork out your hard earned cash for a fancy new edit of the series' original pilot, 'Children of the Gods'? That’s the choice facing hardcore fans of the durable sci-fi franchise as this new DVD release hits the shelves. But is there more to this release than a simple case of pimp my pilot? Frankly, the answer is a resounding 'hell no'. No matter how the distributor might try to spin it Stargate SG-1: Children of the Gods Final Cut can’t escape the foul stench of shameless cash-in.

This supposed final edit is more a quick paint job than an extensive nip and tuck. Not much has really been changed from the original version; the run time is slightly shorter, Joel Goldsmith has recorded a new score and the special effects have been spruced up with some brand new CGI. The original cliff-hanger ending has also been trimmed to make this feel more like a complete movie rather than a series pilot. Oh, and the full frontal nude scene with Vaitiare Bandera (Daniel Jackson's wife Sha're) has been cut so you don't see any naughty bits (boo!).

Of course this fresh polish can’t change the fact that 'Children of the Gods' is far from one of SG-1’s better efforts. Being early days it’s somewhat understandable that the cast hadn’t quite gelled yet but that doesn’t stop a lot of the acting being on the stiff side of things. The plot is littered with holes and over stuffed with incessant exposition, often at the expense of character and action. Oh, and I’d forgotten how painfully dull Apophis was as a bad guy. Why they stuck with this plank for so long is beyond me.

Although, simply for nostalgia, it is refreshing to look back on a time when Richard Dean Anderson’s dialogue didn’t consist entirely of wisecracks and references to The Simpsons.

Rating: * *

Stargate Atlantis: Season Five DVD Review

Friends, Wraith, Replicators, lend me your ears. I come to bury the fifth season of Stargate Atlantis, not to praise it. Two years on from the end of it's parent series, Stargate: SG-1, and the lost city of Atlantis has finally been sunk once and for all. But the big question remains; does anyone really care anymore?

Having viewed the entire fifth season twice now I’d have to say ‘no’. Obviously even the creative forces behind the camera have all grown as tired and disinterested with their own creation as the viewers have done. This final season is a lacklustre assortment of the occasionally good, the horribly bad and consistently bland. Being the show’s swansong year several major plot threads are brought to a conclusion but often in an unsatisfactory way. The ending of the Michael arc is clumsily handled, turning one of the series best villains into a whinny teenager while the series’ grand finale ‘Enemy at the Gates’ is an exceptional disappointment. Clearly no one is bothered about wrapping things up neatly and giving everyone a memorable send off. That’s what the inevitable DVD movies are for.

There are a few diamonds in amongst all the rough. ‘The Shrine’ gives both David Hewlett and Jewel Staite the chance to shine with gusto. The midseason two-parter ‘First Contact’/‘The Lost Tribe’ is a great and features the return of Daniel Jackson (Michael Shanks). Although, that did have the side effect of making me miss SG-1 all over again. Finally, the series manages to slip out of format for a week with the brilliant, CSI inspired ‘Vegas’ an episode that gives us the sight of a Wraith strolling through as casino to the sound of ‘Sympathy for the Devil’. In a word, brilliant!

Sadly the rest of the season is primarily made up of filler material including a lousy clip show. The cast also don’t seem that enthusiastic this season. The majority of the time they seem just as bored making it as I felt watching it. With Amanda Tapping too busy with Sanctuary to put in any regular appearances Carter is replaced by Richard Woolsey (the great Robert Picardo) but he’s just as underused this season as she was last season. Another in a long line of season five’s wasted opportunities.

Despite it humble begins Stargate managed to achieve what Babylon 5 had failed to do and supplement the once mighty Star Trek as the dominate sci-fi franchise on TV. But at the same time it fell into the same trap as Trek, becoming so safe and stale that audience become disenfranchised and eventually switched off for good. It remains to be seen if Stargate Universe can be the glorious revival its creators are hoping for or will it be just another nail in the franchise’s coffin. Besides, it’s got to be better than Stargate Infinity, right?

Rating: *
*

Dollhouse: Season 1 DVD Review

Joss Whedon is more that just a writer and a producer to some people. He’s a god, an idol to be worshiped and adored. He created Buffy, Angel and Firefly, co-wrote Toy Story, gave us Dr Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog, wrote the best X-Men comic in a decade and is just a genuine nice and funny chap. You want to give him a great big hug every time you see him. But the truth is that he’s not the messiah, he’s just clever little boy. He’s flesh and blood, like you and me. He’s not perfect and can make mistakes (Alien: Resurrection for one). And for a long time it seemed that Dollhouse would be his greatest folly.

So far Dollhouse is a flaw creation, a work in progress that didn’t show any real promise until the half way point, the much touted ‘Man on the Street’. Before that Dollhouse was a dreary by the numbers affair as week after week Echo (Eliza Dushku) was sent on mission after tedious mission. The first five episodes are obvious attempt by the network to sledgehammer the show into an acceptable format that audience could easily understand and follow regardless of whether or not it was any good. Even a writer’s room made up largely of Whedon alumni struggled with this and produced some mediocre and tiresome episodes. After ‘Man on the Street’ the series hits it stride, only rarely missing a beat. ‘Needs’, ‘A Spy in the House of Love’ and ‘Briar Rose’ are the definite standouts of the season and demonstrate just how great Dollhouse could be when the executives took a step back.

Of course, that still doesn’t excuse them for some really stupid decisions that almost derailed the whole thing. Having now viewed the original pilot ‘Echo’ it is hard to understand why it was ditched in favour of the lousy ‘Ghosts’. Compared to its replacement ‘Echo’ is a far more interesting and dramatic episode that would’ve got the series off to as great start. Also included in this DVD set is the unaired episode 13, the original finale of the first season. Again it hard to fathom the network’s thinking. ‘Epitaph One’ (guest starring the awesomeness that is Felicia Day) is a brilliant piece of television, one of the best of the year and would’ve sent the series out on a massive high after the underwhelming antics of ‘Omega’.

But there is a great big ‘but’ coming. Hard as it is to say but Dollhouse has to be the first Joss Whedon show where I didn’t instantly love a single character. Even after viewing the whole series again I still don’t have any favourites that I love unconditionally. Unlike Whedon’s previous series Dollhouse lacks a strong central figure. Echo is for the most part a non-entity, a vessel waiting to be filled. It hard to relate and sympathise with a character when she’s constantly chopping and changing personalities every five minutes. Ditto Sierra (Dichen Lachman) and Victor (Enver Gjokaj). The supposed romantic lead, Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett), becomes increasingly off putting as the series progress to the point I cheered when he got the crap kicked out of him by Echo. Boyd (Harry J. Lennix) and Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams) are both interesting characters and fun to watch but hardly likeable considering what they do for a living. And I know Topher (Fran Kranz) is meant to be a loveable geek, the quirky nerd we all relate to but instead he comes across as an arrogant creep.

Back to the positives. I am fond of Dr. Saunders/Whiskey but that’s more to do with the fact she’s played by Amy Acker (she could play Myra Hindley and I’d still lover her). And I have a soft sport for sweet November (Miracle Laurie), hopefully we haven’t seen the last of her. Plus, the show has some great bad guys. Laurence Dominic (Reed Diamond) makes a great foe for Echo during the majority of the season until big bad Alpha (Wash!) finally steps out of the shadows.

Dollhouse could’ve been Joss Whedon’s first true failure and a blotch on a so far spotless record. While not a shinning success the series has proved that it has the potential to be something truly special. We just have to hope that the network will continue to give Joss the support he needs to fulfil that potential.

Rating: * * * *

The Middleman: Complete Series DVD Review

“I’m just the Middleman”

It’s the same old sad story. Boy discovers new TV show. Boy falls madly in love with new TV show. Mean TV executives cancel new TV show. Boy is heartbroken. Orders the DVD.

The deranged brainchild of Javier Grillo-Marxuach (Lost, The Dead Zone, Medium), The Middleman is a glorious celebration of all that is nerdy and geeky without resorting to the patronising mockery of lesser TV shows (yeah, I’m looking at you, Big Bang Theory). This is a show where reading comic books and knowing your B5 from your DS9 is not only socially acceptable but the height of cool and an essential requirement if you wish to foil the evil plans of bad guys on a weekly basis.

The basic premise is sheer elegance in it’s simplicity; aspiring artist Wendy Watson (Natalie Morales) is recruited by 50s throwback and fixer of exotic problems, the Middleman (Matt Kesslar), to fight evil, save the plant and exchange witty barbs and pop culture references. Week after week our dynamic duo battle everything from gorilla mobsters, Mexican wrestlers, flying zombie trout, alien boy bands, vampire puppets and doppelgangers from an evil universe where everyone has a goatee. Yes, it’s that kind of show.

Along the way we meet a delightfully quirky and loveable cast of characters including Wendy’s adorable roommate and Middleman crush Lacey (Brit Morgan), their neighbour Noser (Jake Smollett), the Middleman’s cranky robotic assistant Ida (Mary Pat Gleason), the exceptionally named Manservent Neville (Mark A. Sheppard) and the wonderful Sensei Ping (Mark Dacascos).

Throw in subtle and not-so-subtle references to everything from Star Trek, Star Wars, James Bond, The Avengers, Indy, Buffy, Doctor Who, Ghostbusters and too many more to mention and you have possibly one of the greatest TV show ever! So, of course, it was cancelled after just one season.

Phooey!

Rating: * * * * *

Hercules: The Legendary Journeys Season One Review

Wherever there was evil, wherever an innocent would suffer, there would be…Hercules!”

This is the story of a time long ago. A time of myth and legend. When ancient TV producers were petty and cruel and they plagued mankind with increasingly drearily programming. Only one show dared to challenge their power… Hercules!

Back in 1994, long before the Spider-Man films catapulted him into the Hollywood A-List, director Sam Raimi, along with his producing partner Robert Tapert, produced a collection of action-adventure TV movies for Universal Media Studio’s syndicated Action Pack series. Starring Kevin Sorbo and shot in New Zealand these movies portrayed a more light-hearted and often tongue-in-cheek take on the adventures of that classic hero of Greek mythology, Hercules.

The five Hercules TV movies soon proved hugely popular with audiences (unlike William Shatner’s Tekwar) and eventually a full series was ordered. Hercules: The Legendary Journeys debuted in 1995 and proved a massive success, going so far as to dislodge Baywatch as the No. 1 show in the world (fact). Seems even the Hoff was no match for the son of Zeus. The success of Hercules led to a mini revival of fantasy programming in the late 90s with (mostly crap) shows like Sinbad, Conan, Beastmaster and The Adventures of Robin Hood popping up all over the place. Oh, and it also managed to spawn a spin-off series. You might’ve heard of it.

In an age dominated by cop shows, medical dramas, legal dramas and even more cop shows Hercules: The Legendary Journeys was a welcome breath a fresh air. It was light-hearted fun for all the family and unapologetically proud of it. True, a lot of the time it could be exceptional cheesy but luckily the series also possessed a brilliantly knowing sense of humour that helped you to overcome the b-grade special effects and the occasional blunt moral lesson for the kiddies. In the wrong hands the role of Hercules could’ve been nothing more than a bland hulk of muscle, a vacant tough guy with sawdust between his ears. Luckily Sorbo turned out to be warm and likeable leading man, both heroic and noble with a laidback and friendly charm. He was amiably supported by Michael Hurst as Iolaus, Herc’s best friend and sidekick. Their affectionate bromance was defiantly the heart and soul of the entire series.

Alas, as fun as the series was the original TV movies are a mixed bag when it came to quality. ‘Amazon Women’ is pretty dire, notable only for an early appearance by one Lucy Lawless and the first death of Iolaus (he could give Daniel Jackson a run for his money). ‘The Lost Kingdom’ is much better with a feisty performance by a young Renee O’Conner and a great sea monster yet still feels a little ropey around the edges. ‘The Circle of Fire’ and ‘In the Underworld’ remain the best of the lot while ‘Maze of the Minotaur’ is just a great big clip show with some serious plot holes. Throughout Anthony Quinn is permanently on autopilot as a randy old Zeus while, as Herc's wife, Tawny Kitaen proves that her acting talents clearly don’t extend beyond her cleavage.

The first season of the series proper are as equally hit and miss as the movies. Without a doubt the standout episodes were the Xena trilogy (‘Warrior Princess’, ‘The Gauntlet’ and ‘Unchained Heart’) that introduced everyone’s favourite butt kicker from Amphipolis. Apart from Xena we saw Hercules battle all sorts of enemies over these 13 episodes, including monsters, war lords, demons, slave traders, centaurs, giant beasts, gladiators, the odd misunderstood Cyclops and, as the voice-over man reminds us every week, the minions of his wicked step-mother Hera, the all powerful queen of the gods. However, unlike later seasons the Olympian Gods are kept strictly in the clouds, operating mainly through their lackeys and minions.

At this early stage in the show's development it had yet to fully establish its wonderful array of supporting characters. Favourites like Autolycus (Bruce Campbell), Jason (Jeffrey Thomas), Aphrodite (Alexandra Tydings) and Nebula (Gina Torres) wouldn’t be introduced until later seasons. Iolaus and Salmoneus (Robert Trebor) are both present and correct but the blind seer Tiresias (Norman Forsey) didn’t work out and was ditched after a few episodes.

The first season of Hercules is hit and miss to be sure but even at this early stage the series remains immensely enjoyable with some strong hints laid in of the series true potential. At the end of the season, after Xena rides off into the sunset (and spin-off glory), Hercules and Iolaus are left alone to continue their adventures together. Proving once and for all, that even in ancient Greece, bros always came before hoes.


Rating: * * *

Ashes to Ashes Season Two DVD Review

Ashes to Ashes will never be as good as Life on Mars. It’s a sad fact but one we can’t escape. It’s a sequel for starts, which automatically makes it less good than Mars. It will always feel like an inferior retreat no matter how good it gets. And it certainly got good this series.

After a hit and miss first series that saw modern day DI Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes) shot in the head and sent back in time to the 1980s where, like Sam Tyler, she finds herself working for that mighty dinosaur of policing DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), this series has the writers finally finding their footing and gave us the worthy spin-off that Mars deserved.

The first series centred around Drake’s quest to save her parents and get back to her daughter. Series two expands the scope onto the more complex topic of police corruption, a recurring theme in both Ashes and Mars. Corruption personified here in the form of Detective Superintendent Charlie ‘SuperMac’ Macintosh (Roger Allam), a character in the same vein as Captain Dudley Smith from James Ellroy’s LA Quintet, warm and friendly on the outside but rotten to the core.

However, Mac is not the main villain of this series. That would be the enigmatic Martin Summers (Adrian Dunbar), a bent copper who, like Alex, is also from the future. With the Bowie clown now retired, Summers becomes Alex chief tormentor and nemesis throughout the second series. But Summers is too enigmatic and mysterious to be a credible adversary to Alex and his storyline becomes tiresome after a few episodes only to explode back to life after he commits one hell of a head twisting paradox.

After that we get a betrayal from within the team that isn’t as earth shattering as it should’ve been followed by a cliff-hanger ending that defiantly is. If John Simm hadn’t decided to jump ship I’m willing to bet this is how the second series of Mars might’ve ended.

Despite a quality dip in the middle the second series is defiantly stronger overall than the first. Gene Hunt is no longer the cartoon caricature of the first series. He’s a changed man, old and if onlyperhaps a little bit wiser. Forced to fight corruption within his own department as well as criminal scum. Alex Drake has improved and become a less annoying character, while the new hairstyle make Keeley Hawes even more gorgeous than ever. In fact everyone is given substantial character development this series with the exception of Shaz (the ever adorable Montserrat Lombard), who continues to be underused to the point of criminal neglect.

But I digress. If the writers can maintain the same high standards for the third and final series next year than maybe, just maybe, Ashes to Ashes will finally be as good as Life on Mars.

Rating: * * * *

Torchwood: Children of Earth DVD Review

Wow! Now that is more like it. After a muddled first series and an improved second Torchwood has finally become that great sci-fi thriller we all hoped it would be. This is not the work of the same Russell T. Davis who gave us farting aliens in Downing Street, Kylie on the starship Titanic and flying double-decker buses. This is the Russell T. Davis that wrote The Second Coming, Touching Evil and Doctor Who’s darkest episode ‘Midnight’.

After the devastating events of ‘Exit Wounds’ everything is business as usual back in the Hub. Gwen and Rhys are looking for a house while Jack and Ianto get used to being a couple. Then things get eerie as all the children, everywhere in the world, stop and start chanting in unison (and English) “We Are Coming! We Are Coming!” over and over again. The Torchwood team begins to investigate. Or they would if only the British government didn’t want them all dead for some mysterious reason. Seems the past has come back to haunt Captain Jack again.

The new five episode mini-series format works amazingly well giving us further insight into the remaining members of the Torchwood gang. With the team slimmed down to three (four if you include Rhys) the focus is tighter and more intimate. We get to know more about Jack and Ianto in the first episode alone than we did in two series, while Gwen and Rhys have become one of TV’s most adorable couples. All the flaws from the previous series have been carefully ironed out. No more smutty innuendo, pointless swearing, inconsistent characterization and adolescent daftness. The stakes are higher than they’ve ever been before so the time has come to grow up. Children of Earth also works as an exceptional political thriller. Some of the best scenes of entire serial are just politicians, generals and civil servants sitting around tables talking to each other. Of course, there are still the requisite shootouts, explosions and punch ups to keep all the action junkies happy.

The alien threat, the ominous 456, is kept mostly in the shadows for the duration. We get glimpses here and there at what they actually look like but never a fully picture, which only adds to their unsettling presence. What we do get to see of them is horrifying enough, especially when we finally discover what they intend to do with 10% of the children of earth. Meanwhile, the scenes on the council estate with Ianto’s family help ground the story in the real world, something Davis has always been very good at.

By the fourth episode Children of Earth has become something truly special to behold. The chilling scenes of cabinet ministers rational planning the rounding up of 10% of the nation's children recall the casual horror the Wannsee Conference as the Nazis calmly planned their final solution. The final episode comes as a massive punch to the stomach swiftly followed by a serious kick to the face. Hard decisions are made, lives are lost, and victory comes at a terrible price.

Throughout John Barrowman, Eve Myles, Garth-David Lloyd and Kai Owen all give exceptional performances, with Barrowman especially really giving it his all in the final episode as Jack is forced to make a harrowing choice. Unquestionably, through, the star of the show is Peter Capaldi as John Frobisher, a civil servant as far from Malcolm Tucker as you can get. His story is the most tragic of all and if there is any justice in this world Capaldi won’t be going away empty handed when award season comes around. Also of note, Liz May Brice brings just the right amount of icy bitchiness to the role of Johnson, the government assassin tasked with eliminating Torchwood, while Ian Gelder is delightfully slimy as Mr. Dekker. In fact there’s not a single bad performance from anyone. Even the kids are quite good.

Thrilling, exciting, bleak, brutal, harrowing, disturbing and emotionally shattering, Torchwood: Children of Earth is without a doubt one of the finest television productions you are likely to see this year and proof that sometimes good things do eventually come to those who wait.

Rating: * * * * *

Robin of Sherwood

“Nothing’s forgotten. Nothing is ever forgotten”

With the news recently that the BBC has decided to finally pull the plug on its current (rubbish) version of Robin Hood I decided to take a look back into the distant past, to the decade that style forgot, and remember another take on the legendary bandit, Robin of Sherwood.

Forget what you think you know. This is the definitive interpretation of the popular English myth, reinventing all that came before and influencing everything that would follow. Even the BBC’s naff version, which basically just rips-off the Kevin Costner movie that in turn ripped-off Robin of Sherwood.

Created in 1984 by Richard ‘Kip’ Carpenter (creator of Catweazle) , on the surface Robin of Sherwood seemed like just another run of the mill version of the Robin Hood, chronicling the adventures of Robin of Loxley (Michael Praed) and his merry band of thieves, Marion (Judi Trott), Little John (Clive Mantle), Will Scarlet (Ray Winston), Much (Peter Llewellyn Williams) and Fairer Tuck (Phil Rose) as they robbed from the stinking rich and gave to the poor. Added to the mix was the Saracen warrior Nasir (Mark Ryan), not a traditional part of the myth but the producers and cast were too amazed by Ryan’s performance not keep him around. As a result now every future version of Robin Hood would include a token Saracen character (something that still irritates Carpenter). As always the big guys were the Sheriff of Nottingham (Nickolas Grace), his brother, the corrupt Abbot Hugo (Philip Jackson) and their ever so blond lackey, Sir Guy of Gisburne (Robert Addie).

Beside the inclusion of a Saracen warrior, what really set the series apart from all the other Robin Hoods through the years was the way Carpenter presented us with a world that was a perfectly balanced mixture of authentic medieval dirt and grime, historical fact and pagan mythology. This was a Robin Hood who, when not battling Norman soldiers or vengeful Templer Knights, nattered with ancient forest spirits, was the chose one of Herne the Hunter (John Abineri), fought evil sorcerers, witches, satanic nuns, demons and even Lucifer himself. All with total conviction and sincerity, no room for hokum and cheese.

Amazingly all the fantasy and magic never clashed with the series' medieval realism. Carpenter was eager to avoid all the usual clichés of previous Robin Hood series and show a realistic and historically accurate 13th century England. Unlike the writers of the new Robin Hood Richard Carpenter actually bothered to read a history book and not just watch all the old movies. In this series, Richard Cœur de Lion was no longer the kind and noble king but an arrogant brute, more concerned with foreign wars and claiming territory than with the well fair of his own people. His return didn't end the merry men’s troubles only prolonged them. His death only allowed for his brother, Prince John, to became king. The series would latter chronicle key events of John’s reign including the dispute over the throne with Arthur of Brittany, his marriage to the 12 year old Princess Isabella of France, and the build up to the Welsh uprising of 1211.

No casino heists for this band of robbers, that for sure.

Above all else the series was propelled by an exceptional cast. Michael Praed made for a heroic and decent Robin, trading cocky bluster for an ethereal grace. This Robin was not a disgraced nobleman nor a veteran of the Crusades, he was a simple peasant, an orphan of Norman tyranny. A genuine man of the people. Plus, unlike some other Robin Hoods he could speak with an English accent. Along with Praed's Robin there will never a Marion as gutsy and bewitching as Judi Trott, a woman who didn’t need to dress up as a ninja to prove how tough she was. Elsewhere, Clive Mantle, later of Casualty fame, made for a kind and gentle giant as Little John and Mark Ryan proved that less is indeed more as Nasir. But the real standout was Ray Winston was Will Scarlet. Yes, that Ray Winston! Winston said he based his entire performance on football hooligans and you believe him. His Will Scarlet is a vessel of barely controlled rage, a borderline psychotic one step way from snapping.

While the series had many great villains, including Anthony Valentine’s demonic Baron De Belleme, Rula Lenska’s satanic nun Morgwyn of Ravenscar, Phil Davis’s unhinged King John and Richard O’Brien’s bog-eyed Gulnar, it was Nickolas Grace’s deliciously Machiavellian Robert de Rainault, Sheriff of Nottingham that rained supreme. This Sheriff never became a hammy caricature or shameful scene-stealer easily putting both Alan Rickman and Keith Allen to shame.

It may seem like a cliché to say this but you do get the sense that these people really did enjoy working together and took pride in making the series. Everyone plays it absolutely straight, no ham or cheeky winks to the camera. Despite all the mysticism and magic this felt real and genuine. Good people died. Episodes didn’t always end with a freeze frame of our heroes looking smug at having foiled another of the Sheriff’s plans.

Along with the excellent acting and some terrific scripts by Carpenter, the series was always brilliantly shot and directed. Just look at the opening scenes from ‘The Swords of Wayland’ as the Hounds of Lucifer ride out of the morning sun and prepare to be completely wowed. The soundtrack by Irish band Clannad may seem dated by today’s standards but a lot of it still stands up and is not cheesy as some would have you believe.

Sadly all things must eventually pass. At the end of the second series Praed decided to depart for Broadway and, later, Dynasty. Rather than call it quits Carpenter decide to incorporate the other myth of Robin Hood, that of the nobleman Robert of Huntington, into the series and introduce a brand new Robin. In a move motivated more by media buzz than common sense Jason Connery (son of Sir Sean) was brought in to take up Praed bow and arrow. The producers all but admit he was cast due to his famous name rather than thespian ability. Connery, despite his nice hair, often came across as stiff and lifeless, he was fine with the action sequences but the romance scenes with Marion could be excruciating. Along with the inferior leading man the third series also suffered a downturn in overall quality. Carpenter took a backseat, handing much of scripting duties over to other writers. As a result the third series was more uneven than the previous two, dodgy episode such as ‘The Inheritance’ and ‘Cromm Cruac’ clashing with classic like ‘The Sheriff of Nottingham’ and ‘Herne’s Son’.

After one series with Connery under the hood the show was cancelled due to Goldcrest, one of the key financers, being forced to pull out of the venture after one cinematic flop too many. But Robin of Sherwood remains a lyrical, elegant and emotional series. A true unsung classic of our times. It has not been forgotten, it will never be forgotten.

Battlestar Galactica: The Final Season DVD Review

"She was a grand old lady"

Perhaps the most shocking thing for me about the grand finale of Battlestar Galactica wasn't the controversial Starbuck revelation or that fan dividing Time Square coda. It was that after all the heartache, all the pain and misery, after all the darkness, death and destruction, the most shocking thing about the ending of Galactica is that it was a happy one, pretty much just about everyone lived. Admittedly it was no Disney level schmaltzy happy ever after. There was pain, suffering, death, some serious shit being blown up and one final heartbreaking, but inevitable, loss.

I just never expected as series as unrelentingly bleak as Battlestar Galactica would end on a positive note. I was fully expecting a Wild Bunch-style last act blood bath. Sure, we did lose some good people in these final episodes, some by their own had others facing a firing squad, but the death toll was never to the extent we were all dreading.

It’s a given that no matter how Ron Moore and co decide to end the series they were never going to please everyone. It is strange, fans often shout and scream to TV executives that creators and showrunners be given the freedom and the chance to end their shows on their own terms. But then fans grumble and complain when those same creators and showrunners end their shows the way they wanted but not exactly the same way the fans wanted. Its a no-win scenario even James T. Kirk couldn't scheme his way out off. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

I’m not sure what narked off the fans more but if I had to guess I'd go with the entire Kara/god/angels hullabaloo. It seems that to some there is just no room for the spiritual in science-fiction. Many wanted cold, logical, if no doubt convoluted, answers to all their questions not a load of mystical mumbo jumbo. Personally I like the ambiguity of it all. So what if Kara Thrace is an angel of whatever supreme power is pull all the universal strings. Sometimes giving everything a clear and logical explanation can often just end up making things worse not better. Just compare the ambiguous end of the original (and still best) Life on Mars with the more cut and dry finale of the American remake and tell me which is best.

But enough of this rambling, lets get down to the nitty gritty of the matter, is this final half season any good? Answer: defiantly! This final batch of episodes is consistently stronger than the first half of the season even if the emphasis remains more on character than action. Admittedly there are some bumps and one uncharacteristic soapy misfire (“Deadlock”) along the way but the quality rate remains high, especially in "The Oath"/"Blood on the Scales", the two part mutiny storyline, by far BSG’s strongest since the Cain/Pegasus arc in Season Two.

Without a doubt Galactica’s most consistent asset has always been its phenomenal ensemble cast. If there’s one thing I’m going to miss most about the series it is seeing all those wonderful actors together. I'm feeling like one of my favourite bands has broken up. Special mention must go to Alessandro Juliani, undoubtedly the star of the season, who would’ve thought Felix Geata would become the tragic Judas of this saga.

Battlestar Galactica started with the ending of the world as we followed the last survivors of humanity from utter heartbreak to crippling depression and bitter disappointment. No one expected there would be a bright, shinning light at the end of that dark tunnel but Galactica was never a series that aimed to be predictable. It was a show that took risks and set out from the beginning to do things it own way. I seriously doubt we’ll ever see its like again.

But, you never know. Apparently all this has happened before and if we’re very lucky maybe, just maybe it might happen again.

So say we all.

Rating: * * * * *

Caprica Pilot Review

“You can’t copy a soul!”

Staring: Eric Stoltz, Esai Morales, Paula Malcolmson, Polly Walker, Alessandra Toressani,

Review:
Ron Moore isn’t one to flinch. Right from the first the beginning of Caprica we’re plugged straight into the techno decadence of the planet Caprica, 58 years before the fall. The place is Rome on acid, where anything, and everything, goes. In their virtual temples of sin the Capricans are free to indulge every impulse, every unspeakable desire without remorse or fear of consequence. Makes you wonder what the Enterprise crew really got up to in the holodeck on their off hours.

Caprica certainly has promise. Moore and Eick have made a conscious decision not to repeat themselves by simply giving us Galactica: The Previous Generation. Too many spin-offs these days are more concerned with milking the original rather then establish their own identity. The only thing that distinguishes the various CSIs from each other is geographical location. Instead of an epic space saga chronicling the struggle between the last remnants of humanity and their Cylon pursuers, Caprica is a more grounded and intimate family drama centred around two very different families that will both play crucial roles in the future for their species, the Graystones and the Adamas.

This certainly has the potential to be an intriguing series but, so far, it doesn’t seem to be a entirely gripping one. It’s hard to completely judge how the show might turn out just from the pilot, because most pilots are weak anyway but things move at a slower, more meditative pace then Galactica and humour is noticeable only by its absence. If Caprica is to survive it will need a Gaius Baltar. Stat!

Oh, and anyone expecting colossal space battles, tense dog fights or general Starbucking will be deeply disappointed.

Being a prequel it is said that Caprica will lack any dramatic tension as we already know how this story and civilization will invariably end. Which is a rather minor and silly criticism as it can be applied to any historical drama were the outcome is common knowledge. Caesar will always be assassinated, the Titanic is going to hit that iceberg and the allies will win World War II every time. Just because we know what is going to happen does not be we cannot enjoy seeing how it happened and, crucially, why.

On the acting front no one puts in a bad performance with Paula Malcolmson, in particular, doing so much with so little as Daniel’s wife, Amanda. Defiantly looking forward to seeing more of her when the full series airs. Anything with a Deadwood alumni is automatically 27% better. But the series rest on the characters of Daniel and Joseph both brilliantly brought to life by Stoltz and Morales.

Like its parent series it takes a horrifying event, the suicide bombing of a commuter train, to bring these two very different characters together. Under normal circumstance its unlikely these two would ever have met, Daniel is the Bill Gates of his world and part of the Caprican elite, Joseph is an immigrant from Tauron and a lawyer for the local mafia. Both men have lost loved ones in the bombing and are numb inside, they spend their first meeting just hanging out, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, neither saying anything. They don’t needs to, each man perfectly understanding the other’s pain. It’s a small, elegant moment something they both needed.

While the acting is generally strong and the leads are exceptional some of the other characters may need some fleshing out. Zoe is your clichéd, annoying spoilt rich kid whose angry at her parents, the Tauron mafia all seemed to have majored in Mob Acting 101 and Polly Walker’s character is so underdeveloped she’s almost non-existent.

While there are many similarities and difference between Caprica and Galactica one theme remains constant between both shows, the question of what it really means to be human. Is it simply a matter of flesh and blood? Are we nothing but information on biological motherboard? Can you indeed copy a soul? Caprica ask these questions but like its predecessor doesn’t spoon feed it’s audience any easy answers. For Daniel the answer is simple, it doesn’t matter. As far as he is concerned the virtual copy of Zoe that he discovers is his daughter. The only difference is hardware, Zoe was flesh and blood while Zoe 2.0 is a glorified flash drive. Daniel’s obsession does eventually verge into Frankenstein territory but like Joseph he is simply a father desperate to connect with his child. Only his grief has blinded him to the point that he never stops to think that just because he can bring Zoe back doesn’t mean that he defiantly should.

Remember mate, all this has happened before…

Other Thoughts:

-Clearly all the explicit scenes of a sexual nature will be cut for broadcast. Unless SyFy wants to be a bit more HBO.

-Never thought I’d ever hear anyone refer to the Old Man as ‘Willy’ ;)

-The prototype Cylon, the Cybernetic Life-Form Nod, initially had a yellow eye instead of red. And the aim of an Imperial Stormtrooper.

-Joseph: “I understand, another five seconds I’m jumping off a bridge myself”

-The Tauron mafia are a lot like Russian mobsters, especially with all the tattoos.

-Joseph: “You know us Taurons, we’re nothing if not a stoic people”

-Daniel owns the Caprica Buccaneers the same Pyramid team Sam Anders would eventually play for.

-Taurons speak a different language from Capricans. This was never seen in BSG where everyone spoke the same language.

-Lacy: “Back that way are the group sex and drug dens keep going past that and you‘ll find the really gross stuff”

-The Caprica defence minister was played by X-Files alum William B. Davis (Cancer Man) who, in a nice Blade Runner nod, had some nifty Dr Tyrell style specs.

-Lacy: “Yeah right, the Porn sites were the first to licence that technology everyone knows that”
Daniel: “That’s different, that’s for adults
Lacy: “Zoe always said you could rationalise anything”

-Joseph is an atheist and doesn’t believe in the gods. Like father like son.

-Prototype Cylon: “All targets naturalised. Program completed. By your command”

-Like their decendents everyone on Caprica smokes a lot. Ron Moore really is a bad role model for kids :)

I’m not hooked, not yet anyway. I am fascinated by most of the characters, especially Joseph and Daniel, and many of the issue raised it’s just that Caprica comes off as a little too sombre and needs to lighten up a tiny bit. But I’ll defiantly be back next year to watch the full series. Shame we have to wait a whole year to see to it. Frak!

Ratting: * * * *