Outer Darkness

Many years ago when I was still into role-playing games, and in particular into Call of Cthulhu, I came across a magazine (remember those?) with a short adventure investigating a spaceship which crashed on a planetoid and – of course – eldritch horrors were involved. Someone had even created an image for the adventure involving an old Space: 1999 Eagle – an inspired choice since that show had great visual design and was at its (modest) best working the horror genre. I wondered at the time while no one had really mined the potential of Lovecraft and space opera. Of course, lots of people have combined horror and science fiction; even before I saw that magazine we’d already had Alien and George R. R. Martin’s novella “Nightflyers” (which has itself been adapted as a film and a recent TV series on SyFy), and they’re hardly the only examples. But I hadn’t seen instances combining specifically Lovecraft horror with SF.

I’m sure there have been plenty of instances by now of that combination – Lovecraftian fiction is bigger than ever and there has been a lot of it written in the last 35 years – but now we have something resembling it in comic book form: Outer Darkness, by John Layman and Afu Chan. It’s working a more overt form of horror (with large doses of terror), but it is, if you will, a second cousin to that role-playing adventure I came across decades ago. And it’s one of the comics I most look forward to each month.

The comic is on a slow burn to reveal its story, but the basic idea is this: Humanity has reached the stars, and there are horrible nightmarish things out there. Joshua Rigg is a former ship captain in a dead-end career when he’s asked by a fleet admiral to take command of his old ship, the Charon, to head into the outer darkness to retrieve – something. The ship now had a god engine, a ravenous being to which sentient lives have to be sacrificed to make the ship go. This is no Star Trek crew: The officers include an oracle, an exorcist, a mathematician, a mortician (!), and various others of various species. And apparently there’s a war on.

In the second issue, Rigg puts his crew through a brutal exercise to see what they’re capable of. And in the third we meet a couple of junior crew who come to a bad end – or so it seems. But this seems like the kind of universe where if something doesn’t get you in one issue, something else might in the next. The stage is still being set three issues in – we barely know anything about the characters’ pasts, or what’s going on in the universe, or what the Charon is heading out to retrieve. But it’s engaging stuff so far.

I was not a big fan of Layman’s previous long-form comic, Chew – I burned out on the shtick after about 30 issues – but Outer Darkness has a very different tone and is a solid read so far. It’s also got some fine and distinctive artwork by Afu Chan, whom I thought I hadn’t seen before, but it turns out I did buy HaloGen, though I don’t really remember it.

Honestly besides the space opera/horror mash-up, the slow burn resemblance to Babylon 5 is also a draw for me. If Layman wants to make this fan really happy, this series will have the sorts of revelations and changes in direction that were the keynote of that series, so that by the end we’ll be looking back impressed by how the story got from these simple beginnings to wherever it ends up. Here’s hoping!

Doctor Who, Season 11

After 37 (or so) seasons of television, the BBC cast a woman as the Doctor. Jodie Whittaker fit right in with many of her predecessors, perhaps not surprisingly most closely evoking David Tennant – the most popular Doctor of the modern era – and Peter Davison, with her portrayal of the Doctor being more consistently upbeat and less of a schemer who can’t entirely be trusted (a la the sad end of Matt Smith’s Doctor vis-a-vis Clara).

For me, the key question was whether the writing would improve, as the show’s writing these last few years has been inconsistent at best, and often just plain weak. Did new show runner Chris Chibnall succeed in elevating the storytelling? My answer… after the cut (along with spoilers for the season):

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi

We went to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi this week. I see this is the third consecutive Star Wars film in which I led with wondering whether I have enough to say about it to be worth writing a review, so I think I won’t lead with that this time, and instead just jump to the spoilers (after the cut).

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Doctor Who, Season Ten

While I’ve enjoyed Peter Capaldi as the Doctor well enough, I haven’t been terribly impressed with the stories in his first two seasons, although season nine did have two very good ones and one decent one. Did I like his final season in the role?

Find out (with spoilers) after the jump!

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Star Trek: Discovery

Sunday saw the premiere of Star Trek: Discovery, the latest installment in the Star Trek franchise. The first story was a 2-parter, only the first part of which aired on CBS; the rest of the season will air on the new “CBS All Access” subscription streaming network, which I have no interest in subscribing to, so I only saw the first episode, which ended on a cliffhanger.

As my readers may know, I’m working on over 30 years of disappointment in Star Trek. Despite the occasional good story here and there, Star Trek has been a dramatic, storytelling and characterization wasteland since Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered in 1987. I guess it’s a testament to how wonderful the original series (and Star Treks II and III) were that I keep trying the new series. (Well, okay, I passed almost entirely on Voyager, since Star Trek was entirely superfluous from 1994-1999 due to the presence of Babylon 5.)

Despite hoping that the decade-plus since Enterprise went off the air would lead to some philosophical changes in the Star Trek TV franchise, the first episode of Discovery, “The Vulcan Hello”, was about as mundane as ever. The series takes place in the original timeline (i.e., not the J.J. Abrams reboot timeline), approximately 10 years before the original Star Trek series (i.e., about 2 years after the events of “The Cage”, the one Christopher Pike episode), and it focuses on the (apparently last) adventure of the USS Shenzhou, which encounters an alien object while investigating damage to a remote yet apparently important satellite.

There isn’t really a way to discuss the episode without spoilers – frankly, there isn’t enough story here to discuss otherwise – so I’ll continue after the cut:

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Doctor Who, Season Nine

Doctor Who didn’t have a lot farther to sink after last season, so season nine was almost by definition something of a rebound. With Jenna Coleman having announced beforehand that she’d be leaving the series, many stories seemed to tease her departure by putting Clara in positions where she could be plausibly killed off.

(Much) more – with spoilers – after the jump.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens

We finally went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens today. It’s fun! Action-packed. Great special effects. And Max Von Sydow!

But it’s by no means a perfect film. I wonder if it’s even worth reviewing a Star Wars film, because historically they’ve been either fun-but-not-very-deep, or utter crap. But I’m not going to let that stop me, so: Spoilers ahoy!

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Doctor Who: Heaven Sent

Because I Have Opinions, I’m going to write about this past week’s Doctor Who episode, “Heaven Sent”.

In isolation, the episode instantly became the best of the Peter Capaldi episodes to date. Not that that’s saying a lot, since his run has been extraordinarily weak so far, with only “Under the Lake”/ “Before the Flood” being above average. (Most of last season was completely forgettable.)

What sets this episode apart is that it seems Steven Moffat remember what made his four stories during the Russell T. Davies period among the best of that era: While his stories didn’t always hold up to close scrutiny, they always had a successful emotional resonance and felt true to the characters and situations. But as show runner, Moffat’s stories have lost that emotional resonance and often feel downright manipulative. And his plots have gotten increasingly contrived, and just needlessly complex. While there is some of that here, fundamentally “Heaven Sent” is a simple story which works on an emotional level, relying heavily on Capaldi to pull it off, which he does, in perhaps his best performance in the role to date.

Much more spoilery discussion after the break. No plot summary, though; read the Wikipedia article if you need a refresher.

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Supergirl

We watched the premiere of the new Supergirl TV show last night. I’m not sure why I decided to watch this one while I sat out The Flash last year. Maybe because Supergirl isn’t up against shows I already watch (my interest in Gotham is somewhere south of zero), and I sometimes feel like I watch too much TV anyway.

The pilot episode’s first act was the closest thing I can recall seeing on TV to a true cinematic experience: The staging, the pacing, the effects, even the particular wittiness of the dialogue, all felt like I was watching a movie. If that’s what they were going for – and, frankly, I thought it worked really well – then they nailed it.

I’ve seen a little criticism that Kara’s secret identity is too close to that of Clark Kent’s, but I’m okay with it, especially since Melissa Benoist carries the role off with a fair bit of nuance (I actually liked her better as Kara than as Supergirl). Of the people at her workplace, Mehcad Brooks as James Olsen is the clear standout. I haven’t seen Man of Steel so I have no idea how much Supergirl’s world matches up with that one, but I thought this was the best portrayal of Jimmy Olsen since, well, maybe the 1970s (thought the version in Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman was also pretty good). Calista Flockhart has a one-note role (in this episode, anyway) as Cat Grant, and Jeremy Jordan is fine as her cow-orker and would-be romantic interest Winn Shott.

But the episode kind of went to pieces in the second act. Already overburdened with too many oblique references to Superman, the series throws us both a spaceship of criminals who have escaped onto Earth (with the attendant feelings of guilt since they followed Kara out of the Phantom Zone, not that she had any control over any of that), and the Department of Extra-Normal Operations, which Kara’s sister Alex (Chyler Leigh) works for. Presumably intended to provide some structure to the first season (giving Supergirl some people to work with and also feel suspicious of, and some people to fight every week), both of these elements are really just cheap contrivances, and it immediately made the show feel more run-of-the-mill. If the series turns into monster-of-the-week even for just a few episodes, its quality is going to sink like a stone. And I’m so done with Superman and his cast being threatened by menaces lingering from Krypton long after it’s destruction. Doing away with all that was one of the best parts of the 80s reboot of the comic book, and staying away from it (except for Brainiac) was important in the Superman cartoon of the 90s. Just say no.

Also, while I don’t mind repurposing names of minor comic book characters for a new medium, the fact that Winn Shott and Hank Henshaw both ominously share names with Superman villains is not at all welcome. Another thing that sucks the life out of adaptations like this is the slow reveal of some character we know about from the original material. (This is one reason I have no interest in Gotham.) If Hank Henshaw (David Harewood) turns into the Cyborg Superman, you’ll know the series has jumped the shark.

The third act was a fairly run-of-the-mill “heroine overcomes self-doubt” resolution, with a lot of punching and things blowing up. Which is not bad – before seeing this episode I felt the keys to the series would be a witty script and not welching on the superhero action (which is what sunk Lois and Clark back in the 90s). But the back end of the episode did not live up to the execution of the first 15 minutes.

Overall it was a pretty good episode, but I think they missed the boat by throwing Kara into the mess of the DEO and the ship of escaped criminals, which essentially prevents her from finding her own way to being her own hero. The premise is already burdened by her living in the shadow of her famous cousin without being able to ever show him on-screen in a satisfying manner. So the show should be about her establishing herself and building her self-confidence, not rounding up someone else’s criminals or worrying that the DEO is going to capture her again. I think it’s going to try to do both, and I worry that it’s not going to work.