Film Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

This review contains spoilers.

I really don’t want much from my summer blockbusters. Pretty visuals, moderately attractive actors, a well-plotted, simple story and gender politics that don’t make my eyes bleed. Is that really too much to ask?

I seem to have said this about a lot of things this year: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets has all the ingredients of A Good Film, or, at least, An Inoffensive Film. (That’s why I went to see it, after all.) In its first sequence, we see the titular city, Alpha, being built around the International Space Station, as a series of alien races shake hands with the human crew: it becomes a concatenation, an accretion of architectures as decades pass, until eventually it becomes big enough to threaten Earth’s gravitational stability (OK, if you say so, Hollywood) and sails off into the big black to find its own destiny.

Whoever designed Alpha did a brilliant job, by the way: it looks grown not made, as all real cities do.

So. Fast forward a century or so. (Possibly; I can’t actually remember the timescales all this takes place on.) Something is rotten in the heart of Alpha: an apparently toxic zone has appeared inexplicably deep inside the city; communications devices don’t work inside and police squadrons who have entered don’t come out again. Our Heroes, special police agents Valerian and Laureline, are sent to investigate. What’s growing in the city? And does it have anything to do with the mysterious ghost-planet of Mul, which seems to have vanished from the archives?

Spoiler: yes, it does. As it turns out, Mul, a seaside paradise occupied by a peaceful, iridescent race of humanoids called the Pearls, was destroyed during a war between humanity and another alien race; a casualty of a doomsday device deployed partly in order to advance the interests of the human race, without proper due diligence. The Pearls who survived are refugees hiding in the toxic zone until they can build a new paradise aboard a spaceship and leave.

So, the film nods at colonialism and the toxicity of capitalist self-interest; that’s one thing that makes it potentially more promising than much of the Hollywood blockbuster crop. It’s also, Star Trek-ily, mildly interested in the processes of democratic governance: there is much talk of summits and protocols and chains of command. It gestures at an awareness that, in a place like Alpha, systems are more important than individuals in maintaining peace and cooperation. That awareness feels radical, in a capitalist society that valorises individual competition and achievement.

The background of the film is fascinating. It’s the foreground that gives me pause.

Because the central relationship of the film is between Valerian and Laureline. There’s never any doubt as to where this relationship is heading: almost the first thing Valerian does on screen is ask Laureline – his junior, by the way – to marry him. She refuses; she doesn’t want to become another notch on his bedpost – or, in the parlance of the film, another track on his playlist. It quickly becomes clear that Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is going to be the story of how Valerian wins the love of his fair Laureline.

Excuse me while I gag.

(Do I really need to point out that this is effectively workplace harassment? That it’s completely inappropriate for a commanding officer to put pressure on his junior officer in this way? That no means no means no, and why can’t the film industry get a handle on that?)

What’s worse, Laureline is a Strong Female Character of the “Girl Power!!” variety. She’s superficially badass – wise-cracking, gun-toting – but she’s dressed in clothing that screams Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and also Totally Inappropriate For Military Action. She insists that she can handle things herself, but she shouts Valerian’s name when she’s in danger (and he’s not even there). She wants to be treated like a professional, but she has a tantrum when Valerian doesn’t thank her for saving him. She literally gets served up on a fucking plate to a man-eating alien. This is what director Luc Besson thinks a strong, self-assured woman looks like: eye candy, a reward for the man who can put up with her tantrums, a person whose world revolves around male approval.

And then there’s singer Rihanna’s character: a shapeshifting immigrant prostitute who spends three solid minutes doing a sexy dance for Valerian for no conceivable plot reason, who survives just long enough to save Valerian and Laureline from the man-eating aliens and then dies happy in the knowledge that she has secured Valerian’s explicit approval. Why. Why. Why.

The denouement of the film actually sort of answers that question, and the question of how such an interesting and promising background produced such a terrible foreground. There’s a lot of things that could be said about the ending; I’m interested in its sudden insistence that Valerian isn’t, and shouldn’t be, defined by Alpha’s rules and protocols, when the rest of the film – certainly to my reading, anyway – seems to be suggesting that actually rules and protocols and systems keep people safe, keep power accountable. The film industry likes its mavericks, of course, and that’s why Valerian needs to break the rules – because male blockbuster protagonists have (ironically) to conform to capitalist logics of individualism and competition. He has to “win” the film, to be better (morally) than the conglomerate that is Alpha, that is effectively the film’s world. He has to be the hero, and that means no-one else can be.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets doesn’t work because its character action and its setting don’t match up. Its setting is socialist, communal, collective, hopeful – a city, a community trying to make things work for everybody. Its character action is the complete opposite of that – competitive, oppressive, individualist. Maybe that list of things I want in a summer blockbuster really is too much to ask, because “decent gender politics” isn’t something summer blockbusters are set up to deliver.

Still. I live in hope.

Star Trek Enterprise Review: Fight or Flight

Fight or Flight is the third Star Trek Enterprise episode, the sneakily nationalist Broken Bow having been spread over the first two. In it, the Enterprise, steering pretty aimlessly out into unexplored space, comes across an alien vessel apparently drifting in space. On scanning and eventually boarding the ship (against the advice of the Enterprise‘s resident Vulcan, T’Pol), the crew finds a bunch of dead aliens being harvested for chemicals; they leave, but Captain Archer is morally unable to leave the ship there, so they return, send a mayday message from the dead ship to its home planet, are attacked by the chemical harvesters and finally have to convince the ship returning to the rescue of the dead ship that they are not the culprits.

The emotional core of the episode is Ensign Sato, the linguistics expert who’s communications officer aboard the Enterprise. She’s on the initial expedition onto the alien ship, and she’s essentially traumatised by the dead bodies the crew find there; the rest of the episode sees her working her feelings of worthlessness and guilt out and finding her feet aboard the Enterprise.

So that’s a point in favour of the episode, for me: that it addresses what feels like a realistic emotional response to the dangerous work we see SF characters do so often, and that Sato’s supported through it in a reasonably healthy and well-adjusted way by her colleagues. We don’t often get to see functional work environments in SFF.

I enjoyed, too, the way the episode’s denouement isn’t an explosive space battle (the ship’s targeting software being offline or something) but an act of negotiation with an alien species, one that, moreover, requires a deal of patience on both sides as Sato tries to work out their language. It goes some way to redressing the irritation I felt about the last episode, in which humanity can apparently ride roughshod over interspecies cultural differences because American Values Conquer All.

Only some way, though, because this episode still requires a bit of riding roughshod on the part of the Enterprise; as I mentioned above, Captain Archer’s initial bioscan of the alien ship is a breach of space ethics. It annoys me that the episode weights the consequences of this decision so that we can’t help but agree his actions were correct, despite their cultural insensitivity; once again, we see human values (read: American values) uncomplicatedly held as superior to everyone else’s, which is the beginning of the route to colonialism and other unpleasantnesses.

Star Trek‘s fans always reference its progressiveness; so far, I’ve yet to see that. My mind, however, is open to changing.

Star Trek Enterprise Review: Broken Bow

It’s Armistice Day, 98 years after the signing of the Armistice that ended the First World War, and people around the world are remembering their war dead.

I want to use the opportunity to talk about nationalism, if I may.

I’ve not worn a poppy for a couple of years, after wearing it staunchly for several before that, because I’ve come to think that its original bipartisan purpose of remembrance has…shifted into something else.

By way of illustration: the English and Scottish football teams recently got into a bit of a spat with FIFA as to whether over whether they should be able to wear poppies on their armbands during football matches.

The argument turned on whether or not the poppy was a political symbol, which FIFA bans from players’ clothing. The English and Scottish teams, naturally, were scandalised by FIFA’s implication; which is telling, I think. Because the poppy is, self-evidently, a political symbol.

Originally, I think, it was a bipartisan symbol of grief: grief for a nation that lost an entire generation of young men in just four years, and then did it all over again twenty years later. But as the last survivors of even the Second World War die off, and that national tragedy fades from living memory, that narrative has changed. We no longer speak of the dead but of the fallen. We tell stories of Our Boys, our heroes who sacrificed themselves for their country, passing on the torch to us so we might be free.

Here’s another narrative, one that never gets told on Armistice Day:

The millions dead in the First and Second World Wars were not heroes. They were young people with their lives ahead of them, ripped from their homes and sent out to die on muddy killing fields by generals who didn’t understand trench warfare. Some may have fought for their country, but many would have fought only because they had no other choice: conscripted into a fight that was, particularly during the First World War, not theirs, facing death by enemy if they went into battle and death by their own officers if they refused.

Many of the war dead were civilians. Many (of course) were enemy soldiers, neither more or less to blame than their opposite numbers. Many were part of the Chinese Labour Corps, shipped over by the Allies to perform menial tasks in degrading conditions.

Of course, millions of people wear the poppy in November, for a whole host of different reasons, and I’m not saying that everyone who wears one is a raging nationalist. But the narrative around the poppy, the narrative of sacrifice for the greater glory of England, is very useful to the far right; and as such the rhetoric around the poppy is intensely political. I doubt the English and Scottish football teams were concerned about memorialising the French or German or Russian war dead; they saw FIFA’s “ban” (note the loaded language with which that story was told, by the way) as an insult to Our Boys and thus to England itself. Their failure, and the failure of others who objected to FIFA’s ruling, to see that the poppy has political implications, whether or not they themselves were planning to wear it for political purposes, looks very much like a failure of empathy: a failure to see what the poppy and its nationalist connotations means in a global context; a failure to look beyond our own small corner of the world, our own outrage, into the thoughts and feelings of others.

And so, by a roundabout route, to Star Trek Enterprise. Broken Bow is the first episode of the show, which is set at the very beginnings of Starfleet: the first human deep space explorers set out in the starship Enterprise to, um, explore. Their departure from Earth comes about when a Klingon crash-lands on the planet and is shot by a farmer; Our Heroes (who are more or less interchangeable with any Star Trek cast ever) decide, against the advice of the Vulcans who actually know what the galaxy is like, to return him to the Klingon planet instead of leaving him to die as Klingon culture dictates they should.

Essentially this is equivalent to sending a North Korean deserter on a plane back to Pyongyang, but nobody points this out (apart from the ever-gloomy Vulcans) because “Humans have values!” as the Enterprise‘s captain says in a Richard III moment. And there it is again: that failure of empathy, that failure to remember that not everyone thinks as you do. Firstly, when he says “Humans have values,” he actually means, “Americans have values”, which, considering Americans just elected a racist homophobic rapist to the highest office in the land, is not exactly a ringing endorsement. And secondly, no-one seems to notice that “Klingons have values” is a just as valid retort to that statement; on the contrary, the Klingons are supposed to be grateful for their actions. Because the American way, because it is “our” way (“we” being the writers and presumed audience for Broken Bow), is automatically the most important and best way.

The world has never been more divided than it is now; not even, perhaps, when the armies of Europe squared off on battlefronts that stretched for thousands of miles. If we’re to repair these divisions, we have to start looking beyond our own noses.

Film Review: Star Trek Beyond

This review contains spoilers.

The third film in the Star Trek reboot series, cryptically titled Beyond, sees Kirk and the gang three years into their storied five-year mission in various states of motivation and employee engagement. Arriving at the space station Yorktown (a rather cool transparent bubble filled with skyscrapers), they’re alerted to a distress call: a captain speeding from an uncharted nebula claims that she’s lost her crew on a planet within. The Enterprise is despatched on a rescue mission which quickly turns out to be a trap as the film’s Big Bad, Krall, causes the ship to crash into the planet and kidnaps the crew so he can suck the life from them and thereby extend his own life. After many shenanigans, it turns out that Krall is a veteran struggling with the fact that the Federation has embraced those it used to fight; he plans to detonate a bioweapon in Yorktown to, um, kill everyone and sow discord. Can the plucky crew of the Enterprise stop him in time?

None of this, of course, makes much sense, but then it is not really the job of a Hollywood Space Blockbuster to make sense. The job of the Hollywood Space Blockbuster is to blow things up.

Actually, I think one of the key problems with Beyond is a clash between theme and genre. Thematically, it wants to be a story about the importance of unity, of diversity and inclusion. Generically, though, it can’t get away from the fact that it is a Hollywood Space Blockbuster, and needs to make money.

The effect of this is that the Hollywood Space Blockbuster’s need to blow things up and make everything bigger and bolder and louder sort of undermines the film’s more utopian gestures. Beyond‘s plot is quite invested in individual heroism: its denouement (following a series of ever more dramatic climaxes, which eventually get exhausting and irritating rather than tense and exciting) sees Kirk and Krall wrestling hand to hand over Krall’s bioweapon, with Kirk heroically sacrificing himself (only not really) to save everyone on the space station. What the film ignores, of course, is that in the kind of cooperative organisation Starfleet is supposed to be this scenario should never arise. The fact that the day has to be saved by dangerous heroics goes to show that Starfleet is an incredibly dysfunctional organisation – which is exactly opposite to the film’s intention.

I also want to talk about another incident in the film which prioritises individual heroism over cooperative and responsible working, and which also illustrates something far more insidious about Beyond; namely that, if you look closely, it’s a film not about unity but about assimilation. During a moment of mild peril when the male officers of the Enterprise are trying to rescue the rest of the crew from Krall’s clutches, Spock dashes off to rescue his ex-girlfriend Uhura, with Kirk’s permission. Firstly, this is just a gross failure of a Starfleet officer to do his job; Uhura is a Starfleet officer too, and should be relied upon to do her own job in a dangerous situation without someone rushing in romantically to help her like she’s a clueless newbie. (She seems to be managing perfectly well without Spock’s help.)

Secondly, this moment is symptomatic of the film’s flattening of difference. Spock is, canonically, a creature of logic. And logic in this situation says that the best way of getting everyone safely out of Krall’s camp is for everyone on the crew to do what they do best. Again: Uhura is a Starfleet officer, and not a new one. She can look after herself just as well as her male colleagues. (Spock is, in fact, guilty of workplace discrimination.) But in this film, Spock’s logical worldview (which is different from the worldview of most Western audiences) is softened to no more than an endearing quirk. We can’t cope with difference, you see. It has to be flattened out, erased, whitewashed.

The core of this issue of assimilation lies, ultimately, with the film’s racial politics, which are at best misguided and at worst actually racist. As I see it, we have two main “alien”-coded characters, both external to the Enterprise‘s crew: Jayla, a spiky castaway hiding out in an old Federation spaceship, played by Algerian-French actor Sofia Boutella; and Krall, the veteran who looks alien but isn’t, played by Idris Elba.

Jayla’s English is imperfect (and her vocabulary strangely inconsistent: she knows what “engineering” is but calls the speaker on her radio a “little mouth”), and the music accompanying her entrance is backed by African-style drumming. She’s coded, in other words, as “other”; specifically, as racialised non-Western. And yet: we never hear her speaking in her own language; she gives up her ship to the officers from the Enterprise with no more than token demurral, despite her spiky exterior; in fact, her one contribution to the crew’s mission is her very American rock music, which is used, in a sequence impossible not to read symbolically, to blow up Krall’s flock of drones. Already associated with Federation (which is to say, American) values through her music and the fact that she inhabits a crumbling Federation ship, her example of the non-threatening (because already part-assimilated) other is a deliberate contrast with Krall’s example. Krall, the film’s only original black character (I don’t think we can give Beyond‘s creators any credit for Uhura, who was written fifty years ago by Gene Roddenberry and whose role in this film in any case amounts to little more than being shocked and sad), has become literally inhuman through preying on the Federation – immensely problematic given the long history of the dehumanisation of people of colour. Desperately disenfranchised, as are so many black Americans even today, and conceivably suffering from PTSD, he is used as an example of how not to do assimilation. His worldview is perhaps the most radically different of all the film’s supposedly diverse characters’: he rejects the values of the Federation because they seem wrong to him.

What does the film do with the angry disenfranchised in this Federation that works always for unity? Work out a way around? Try to accommodate?

Nope, it flings him into the outer darkness.

Beyond is a film that talks at great length about unity, but it isn’t confident enough in its thesis or in its audience ever really to confront what that might mean in a properly multicultural universe; whether that’s by having its science fictional heroes behave like they’re in a functional workplace team, or by including diverse worldviews within that team and allowing them to coexist. In other words, it’s boring, it’s conventional, and it fails even as a disposable summer blockbuster.


The hours stop; the days unwind;/Moments pass; memories sigh/At half past the best of times.

Paul Shapera

So…I finally went to Nine Worlds! And it was awesome.

The con ran Friday through Sunday, with a couple of icebreaker events on the Thursday evening; we turned up about 8:30pm on the Thursday, hoping to go to the icebreaker quiz but a little bit too late (given that the quiz started at 8pm). But we did get to register and pick up our passes, so we didn’t miss *all* of the excitement.

Nine Worlds aims to be as inclusive as it can possibly be, so when you get your pass, not only can you write whatever name you want to use on it, you can also choose a sticker to indicate your pronoun (he, she, they, xe, or write your own). There were also coloured inlays you could use with the pass (basically a badge hung around your neck on a lanyard): red for “don’t talk to me unless it’s an emergency”; yellow for “don’t talk to me unless I already know you”; blue for “please talk to me!” And you could choose a yellow lanyard to indicate that you didn’t want to be photographed.

So once we’d managed to register we went off to have some dinner in the hotel lounge bar and then up to the hotel room to argue about the panels we wanted to go to. And then it was bedtime.

Friday morning, and the con started in earnest. The first panel I went to was “Representation Matters in Casting”, which actually turned out to be one of my favourite of the weekend: the panellists discussed the problematic casting of able-bodied and cis actors in disabled or trans roles, as well as whitewashing on screen and the general dearth of roles for disabled and trans actors and actors of colour, and how what representation there is is usually deeply unhelpful. It actually covered a lot of ground for an hour-long panel, with space for audience questions at the end, and was generally respectful and inclusive and interesting.

(This is going to be a long post.)

So the next panel was “Beginners Guide to Cosplay”, cosplay being a fascinating and terrifying unknown for me; there were lots of tips and examples around upcycling items you already own, and reassurance that it’s OK to buy a cosplay costume and wear it if you want to. We also met one of our TolkSoc friends there, and some more when we headed off to lunch after the cosplay panel (there was a 45 minute gap between each slot, which was great – there was plenty of time to move around the venue, socialise and grab food/water etc. and still get to the next panel a bit early).

The first real disappointment was “Games in VR: Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes”; it was billed as a collaborative game using VR but actually turned out to be someone talking about various VR systems, which would have been very interesting for a gaming enthusiast but, given that the game I play most often at the moment is Candy Crush on Facebook, was a bit boring for me. This was followed by “Who Knew? New Who – 10 Wibbly Wobbly Years of Timey Wimey Canon”, a fun and lively panel about New Who‘s (lack of) continuity, taking in the number of regenerations a Time Lord is allowed, the effects on the show of introducing the Time War, and the retconny stuff around the Impossible Girl. I would have enjoyed it immensely had I not been thoroughly burned out by this point; the Circumlocutor was also kind of tired, so we skipped the next slot to go to the expo downstairs and spend enormous amounts of money (I bought: four books from Forbidden Planet – seriously, no-one should ever, ever let me near Forbidden Planet – some Tenth Doctor tea – zingy and lemony and bright – and an awesome steampunk hat which the Circumlocutor does have a picture of but has failed to send to me). Then we went to the board games lounge in the rest of the slot and played a game called Mysterium, which involved ghosts and psychics and dreams and was generally quite a lot of fun, and also proved that the Circumlocutor’s thought processes are utterly inscrutable.

Then it was time for THE MECHANISMS!

Well. Sort of. We waited for about an hour, because technical difficulties, but the wait was worth it: they were playing their new story cycle The Bifrost Incident, which is full of trains and eldritch monsters and electric guitars, and there is a Kickstarter here go and give them some money.

So by the time that had finished it was definitely dinner time. We went to the lounge bar again, and I had two glasses of wine and got very tipsy, and then we met TolkSoc Friends in the lobby for some low-key chat and then it was time to stumble off to bed.

Saturday was cosplay day.

I cosplayed Kaylee from Firefly.
(I also cosplayed on the Friday, but the Circumlocutor only did Saturday.)

The Circumlocutor doing a much better job as Childermass from Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.
The Circumlocutor doing a much better job as Childermass from Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

I also plucked up the courage to give out the five Awesome Cosplay tokens given out at registration (if you collected fifteen you got a prize): one to a Twelfth Doctor strolling around with impressively Capaldian insouciance; one to a highly realistic Izabel from Saga; one to a person in a knitted Dalek dress; one to a friend cosplaying Sabriel; and one to an Adora Belle Dearheart from Going Postal by Terry Pratchett.

Panel-wise, Saturday kicked off with “Changing Face of Representation for Immigrants”, which had the rather major flaw that all the panellists were white Europeans. The moderator (and overall organiser for the “Identity and Culture” track) admitted that they’d failed in that respect, although one of the panellists was being slightly an idiot about it and a couple of people walked out.

Moving swiftly on. The next thing we went to was “Storium Live!”, another gaming one that involved a collaborative roleplaying game, unfortunately interspersed with some plugging of the RPG platform Storium. (Which does, to be fair, look quite interesting, but I would have enjoyed some more gaming to the session.)

“Dresses of Future Past: how Costume Designers use historical clothing to create futuristic fashion” was a fascinating academic talk about costuming in far-future SF, including Star Trek, Firefly and The Matrix. After that was a Swordpunk workshop I’d pre-booked, with real – blunt – swords; trickier than it looks, but also quite satisfying.

Then we went to a Haberdashery Social Gaming session, which was fantastic, involving lemon jousting, nerf guns and slow-motion ninja fights: a lot of fun, and a great way to recharge from con intensity.

After that, I went for sushi outside the hotel with some TolkSoc friends who planned to go to the Bifrost Cabaret that evening (the Circumlocutor wanting to go to a panel instead): the sushi was good and the cabaret swung between fantastic and awful, as variety shows always do, but all in all was a lot of fun. I went to the Bifrost Disco immediately following the cabaret, but gave up after about forty minutes as my interest in dancing is directly proportional to how well I know the songs, which in this case was hardly at all.

Sunday seemed to roll around remarkably quickly, as Sunday often does, alas. The Circumlocutor wanted to go to one of the 9am panels, so we got up early and I read for a bit until the 10am panel on “The Limitations of a Strong Female Character”, another deeply interesting “Identity and Culture” panel on the difference between a “Strong Female Character” and an actually strong female character. The panel discussed the dearth of female friendships in films and TV, and the equation of strength with masculinity which makes successful women try to emulate men, and various insidious aspects of the male gaze: another panel that managed to fit a lot into its time slot, and props to the moderator who did a great job, having only been told that they were moderating about 50 minutes before the panel started.

The next panel I went to, which I’d been specifically looking forward to, was “LGBTQIA+ Representations in Saga“: a small panel with questions from, and discussion with, the audience throughout. I’m a relative Saga newbie, so stayed quiet, but the basic theme running through the panel was that Saga is generally about outsiders, people queered by their societies even if they’re not explicitly QUILTBAG, which made me wonder about the role of Saga‘s art. (Watch out for this in my next Saga post! Possibly.)

Lunch was Hasty Tasty Pizza from the shopping centre at Hammersmith tube station, five minutes down the road from the venue, after which I hurried back for the surprisingly busy panel “WELCOME TO CREEPYPASTA TOWN, POPULATION: YOU”. (Slender Man is a monster that still haunts my sleep.) The panel mainly annoyed me, talking about things like fictional texts being inseparable from factual ones as if they were new to storytelling; for gods’ sake, people in the seventeenth century were fooled by Gulliver’s Travels. The only really new thing about creepypasta, it seems to me, is virality: on the internet, you often can’t trace copy-pasted stories to their original sources, and that‘s the thing that obscures their fictionality and makes them scary. But there wasn’t really any discussion of that, and I was burned out by this point in the day, so once I’d met back up with the Circumlocutor we headed off to another rejuvenating Haberdashery session for the last slot of the con.

We’d been hoping to attend the Quiz at the End of the Con, but it was sadly full by the time we got there. Mildly disappointed, we drifted around with some friends, didn’t find anything better to do, and decided to wave goodbye to Nine Worlds for 2016.

Now to start planning for next year…

Star Trek TNG Review: The Masterpiece Society

You never really look for something till you need it.”

Star Trek

It appears that CBS Action (one of those free Sky channels hiding way down on the channel list that only ever shows reruns) is screening old Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes, which is an interesting fact to file away for future reference, and also handy when you’ve got a spare TV hour to kill before Masterchef. TNG-wise, I think I’ve only seen a couple of the films, and what really struck me about this episode was how similar TNG is to TOS superficially, but how much more complex it is ideologically.

Some context for the episode would probably be useful before I go on. The Masterpiece Society sees the crew of the Enterprise making contact with a genetically engineered society whose planet is threatened by an approaching piece of solar debris. They are unwilling to allow anyone in or out of their sealed biosphere, on the basis that any slight change could disturb their genetically balanced environment. So there is a dilemma: save the people and destroy their society, or let both be annihilated by space debris.

What’s interesting about The Masterpiece Society is that it’s less a plotted narrative than an exploration of a situation. Sure, there’s a little bit of the rather overdone romantic intrigue that plagues Star Trek, but here it feels rather less gratuitous than such interludes do in TOS: it stands as a furthering of the script’s project, which is to think about the intrusion of the Enterprise‘s progressive, exploratory ethic into the perfect yet stagnant society inside the biosphere.

It might be surprising that a show with such an unashamedly scientific outlook – there are whole scenes in The Masterpiece Society during which an engineer converses with one of the colony’s scientists in technobabble – seems routinely so squicked out by scientific advancement (see The Changeling, in which Robots are Bad, or I, Mudd, in which Androids are Bad), but it’s clear that in this episode at least the issue is precisely not science; or, to be more exact, the issue is treating science as it was never supposed to be treated. “They’ve taken a dubious scientific experiment and turned it into dogma,” says Picard angrily at one point: that is, the colonists, while acting out a seemingly scientific utopia, have forgotten the rigorous processes of questioning and testing that make science what it is and by doing so have turned science into religion.

Interestingly enough, there are clear Edenic subtexts to this: “We were innocent. We will not be so again,” says one of the colony’s scientists after the Enterprise‘s interference. It’s worth stopping to think about this because, although the show clearly doesn’t want us to find the biosphere society appealing, it is willing to consider alternative reactions to it – something that, to my memory, TOS never managed to do. The invocation of the old innocence/experience dichotomy suggests that there is perhaps something appealing about the semi-religious way of life the colonists experience, at the same time as rendering that religious, unsceptical mindset obsolete. It’s a much more nuanced look at anxieties regarding scientific advancement than Captain Kirk’s red-blooded American approach, which makes it that much more interesting as an exploratory rather than narrative episode.

Which is not to say that The Masterpiece Society is entirely perfect: the exploratory format is dull at times, with no real narrative tension, and the pseudo-scientific reasons cited at every possible juncture can get irritating (because they are mainly nonsense). But it’s good enough to watch again, and certainly better than some of what’s on the main channels at the moment.

Code of a Killer: Ep. 1

“Loyal service means telling hard truths.”

Game of Thrones

Code of a Killer is ITV’s most recent Showcase Drama, which seems mostly to be a platform for the slightly classier Murder Mystery. A two-parter (though each part is a fairly whopping and not entirely justified 90 minutes long), it’s somewhat loosely based on the story of the first murderer to be convicted using DNA evidence.

Despite an uncharacteristically muted but undoubtedly compelling performance by John Simm (he who used to be the Master, before the Master became Missy) as DNA Scientist Alec Jeffreys, the first part of Code of a Killer takes an unconscionable length of time to get going. Which is a kind way of saying that nothing actually happens – bar Alec’s eureka moment – until about fifteen minutes before the end. We are told a girl named Lynda has been murdered. The police loiter about for a few years. Then someone else gets murdered, and the police continue to loiter about until, in a twist that surprises absolutely no-one, they arrest the wrong person.

That is all that happens. For one and a half hours.

Actually, if it hadn’t been for the DNA storyline, I might have stopped watching, because it’s here that the interesting stuff really lies. (I’m aware that I might well be on my own here, though.) It’s not often that a fictional TV programme, let alone a Murder Mystery, actually engages with science – real science, I mean, not the polarity-reversing positronic technobabble of Doctor Who and Star Trek – and Code of a Killer does it, as far as it goes, quite well. Alec has to explain the concept of DNA sequencing several times to scientifically clueless folk (including a bunch of first-year undergraduates who wander into Alec’s lab, which feels unlikely), and it’s details like that, along with vignettes like the paternity test which wins an immigration court case, which work to ground his search for the right enzyme (the right enzyme!) in the viewer’s reality. The episode also manages to convey the mundane repetition of scientific endeavour rather well – although this is somewhat undermined by the whole eureka thing, as if DNA had suddenly been “solved” once and for all. But science doesn’t really lend itself to narrative that well, so I’ll give it a pass.

So, yeah. John Simm is pretty watchable here, and SCIENCE. Unfortunately, the structure of the episode completely robs it of any tension. Like, we know that at some point the two interwoven strands – SCIENCE and Murder Mystery – are going to combine, and that inevitably anything that happens in the investigation before that point is useless. So making us wait almost 90 minutes for that confluence makes no sense. What’s the point of caring when we know everything’s going to be undone? And when, incidentally, we know pretty much exactly what’s going to happen, since it also happens in pretty much every Murder Mystery ever? (There’s a whole post to be written here about the irony of a real-life case failing because of the conventions of fiction, but to be frank it’s a quarter to eleven and I’ve been reading Middle English all day. Another day, perhaps.)

Will I watch the second half? Maybe. It depends what crops up on iPlayer and how much time I have to spare between revision (probably not much). The best I can say about Code of a Killer is that it’s not all bad. Which means it’s not good enough.

Star Trek: The Man Trap

“Money’s rather like a flock of migrating birds. It’ll follow if you know where you’re going.”

Our Zoo

This original series episode epitomises everything that is bad about Star Trek.

The crew of the Enterprise lands on a planet containing only a solitary scientist (because there is no other kind in Star Trek-land) and a woman who is apparently his wife (as well as, coincidentally, an old flame of McCoy’s). Soon, however, they discover that the woman is in fact a salt-hungry, shape-shifting monster who manages to sneak aboard the Enterprise and start killing crewmen – hence the title, although there’s no discernible reason why the monster is characterised as female (when it can just as well take on a male appearance) or why it only attacks male crew members.

The whole thing is a deeply offensive, deeply sexist little story in which all the women are either irrational and weak or evil seductresses corrupting male minds. It’s rage-inducing, not particularly well plotted and terribly acted. And people wonder why Star Trek has a bad name.

I really have nothing else to say on this subject. If you ever find yourself watching this episode, run a mile. Because otherwise you will be struck by an overpowering urge to punch Captain Kirk square in the middle of his stupid face.

Doctor Who: Listen

“It is ever so with the things that Men begin: there is a frost in Spring, or a blight in Summer, and they fail of their promise.”

J.R.R. Tolkien

Episode 4 of the Capaldi Administration is the Scary One. You know the one I mean: the episode in every series which will try to ensure that you don’t go to sleep for at least a week. It’s Doctor Who Does Horror. Blink was an excellent Scary One. Hide was a slightly less good Scary One. And Listen?

Listen was a very, very bad Scary One.

It was promising. It was actually very promising. About halfway through I thought to myself, “I’m literally never going to bed ever again.” The premise: what if there is a monster hiding under the bed? What if there is something out there in the dark? What if when you talk to yourself you’re actually talking to something you can’t see? You know those dreams you have? Where you dream you wake up, and you convince yourself there’s nothing in the room, and then something grabs your ankle? (I personally have never had this dream, but whatever.) What if it’s real?

It’s like the Vashter Nerata and the Stone Angels rolled into one. It’s terrifying. There’s a scene where Clara hides under a bed in an apparently empty room which just captures that feeling of absolute, petrifying terror you get when you hear a noise at night perfectly. At times, Listen is chillingly pitch-perfect.

At times. But the episode is too bitty to sustain that tension; jumping between the scenes of silent dark and a rather clunky storyline in which Clara goes on a dinner date with Danny From School, it lacks the claustrophobic focus of Blink or Silence in the Library.

And that’s even before we discuss the awful, awful finale, in which Stephen Moffat perfects the art of Tell, Don’t Show with one of the most syrupily dull monologues I’ve ever had the misfortune to hear. And I’ve watched The Time of the Doctor. The payoff is incredibly disappointing, quite apart from the fact that it doesn’t actually make sense even with the rest of the episode. (What was under the blanket, Stephen? Hmmm? Riddle me that if you will.)

And we keep running up against the fact that Capaldi simply isn’t up to the part. He has none of the charisma that the Doctor needs to carry the episode, especially now that Clara’s role is being considerably (and, it has to be said, gratifyingly) beefed up. Jenna Coleman is really growing into that part; but Capaldi isn’t growing into his. That’s a problem, for Doctor Who, especially when each of these episodes is geared towards exploring the Deep and Inner Psyche of the Doctor. It’s all very well exploring his Issues (and actually quite interesting, if done properly – see also The God Complex), but if the actor can’t consistently and convincingly portray those issues, it’s all rather pointless.

And while we’re talking about the Doctor and Clara: can I say how incredibly disappointed I was by the Doctor’s treatment of Clara. The Doctor actually, shockingly yells at her like she’s a child: “DO AS YOU’RE TOLD!” And does she shout at him? Does she argue, defy, stay put? Does she heck. This was simply awful. Would the Doctor have treated a male character like that? I’m not sure, but I know this felt wrong, and offensive. No, it doesn’t make it any better that she said it to him later.

I thought Into the Dalek was bad, but Listen takes badness to a whole new level. I’ve literally watched episodes of Star Trek better written than this, and they weren’t even the good episodes. The frustrating thing is that there were genuine flashes of excellence here; old Moffat excellence, the excellence that made Blink a fan favourite. But, like so many Doctor Who episodes recently, it simply – failed of its promise.

The Xenocide Mission

“I’ll face it with a grin;
I’m never giving in;
On with the show!”


I took this particular book from the Wild Books shelf at the Oxford Story Museum (where, in the spirit of full disclosure, I’m currently interning), which, if you are interested, is a shelf full of books which you can take, for free, read, and leave somewhere public for someone else to enjoy. It’s like World Book Night but permanent. Also not sexist.

The Xenocide Mission looked good, and I’m trying not to buy too many new books because I have to carry them all back home on the train in two weeks. I should have realised from the ridiculously hyperbolic cover copy that, in fact, this wasn’t really worth reading:

From the first totally unexpected laser bolt, we know we are in the hands of a master storyteller. With heart stopping action sequences and unbelievably alien aliens, this amazing novel marks Ben Jeapes’ arrival as a super-nova talent in science fiction.

I can only imagine that whoever wrote this piece of sycophantic guff was being ironic, because even a cursory glance at any single page in this book will tell you that The Xenocide Mission is at best a relatively run-of-the-mill story of exploding plasma lasers and high-speed spaceship chases. Actually reading it will tell you that, while its concept and premise is initially promising and thought-provoking, it’s really a disappointing piece of unremarkable, characterless storytelling.

The set-up: a space station named SkySpy orbiting a planet inhabited by an alien race with apparently xenocidal tendencies (they’re called XCs by the humans, in a stunning display of originality) is attacked by said aliens, causing a panic back on Earth as the Powers that Are scramble to assemble a task force to pick up survivors and, more importantly, retrieve humanity’s FTL technology before the aliens use it to blow up the universe. Because they would do that, obviously. Meanwhile, two survivors of the attack, Joel Gilmore and his alien companion Boon Round, crash-land on the Dead Planet, a world allegedly destroyed by the XCs, only to uncover an interesting and potentially game-changing secret.

Okay, so, iffy logic aside, that doesn’t sound like such a bad set-up. And it isn’t. It’s a good starting place to explore a range of issues: racism, war and peace, humanity (in both senses of the word), politics, et cetera. To be completely fair, The Xenocide Mission makes gestures towards all of these themes. But it never really gets very far, since any serious engagement with anything at all is swiftly interrupted by the noise of gunfire and exploding spacesuits.

The characterisation is extremely weak: main characters are sketched in with all the finesse of the latest summer blockbuster, right down to their clunky and obvious psychological motivations, which are worse, in my opinion, than no motivations at all. Four hundred pages later, I’m none the wiser as to who Joel Gilmore is, or what he does in his spare time, or why his attention to duty fluctuates so conveniently. And while there is an attempt at making the aliens, well, alien, it feels like a desultory one: the humans and the XCs are able to communicate within a couple of hours of first contact, first via sign language, and then through the aid of a handy magic translator. Let’s remember that this isn’t the world of Doctor Who or Star Trek; the races in question are not part of an established Federation of aliens with an established protocol for dealing with first contact events, or a large database of alien languages. It’s just too easy for them to understand each other. Sometimes I think SF writers forget what space actually means, how vast and lonely and distant everything is out there.

I like to think of The Xenocide Mission as a sort-of literary equivalent of Guardians of the Galaxy. Like Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s a disposable, obvious, fairly cliched SF story which is heavy on the gun battles and cool semi-futuristic technology wrapped in a light covering of morality so as not to upset the children. Unlike Guardians of the Galaxy, it has no pretty pictures, 3D visuals or whimsically-named space rocks. This is a shame, because then I might have had some slight compunction about leaving it behind for some unsuspecting tourist to enjoy. As it is, I couldn’t care less.