Friday, 22 November 2013
"Quid pro quo. Yes or no?"
This is another film from the shocking list of films-you-must-see-before-you-die that I hadn't fully seen before watching it for this blog. I hang my head in shame. And it's an excellent thriller. Perhaps I was expecting something artier, given all the Oscar nominations, but Anthony Hopkins' performance is certainly a work of art. And I'm glad this film was made in 1991, and not now: these days it would be in danger of falling into the niche of "torture porn". Well, "torture porn lite". Instead, plenty of mainstream filmgoers got to see Hopkins be magnificent.
Of course, we don't see him for a while, and his first appearance is a big event which is built up. Instead we follow Clarice, the film's actual protagonist, who suffers both class prejudice and acute gender prejudice in the very masculine world of the FBI. That Crawford is a right bastard.
Buffalo Bill, the actual villain, is a bit of a cartoon figure in contrast to the far more nuanced and interesting Hannibal Lecter, and hardly a positive Hollywood representation of a transsexual, but he serves perfectly well in driving the plot and the element of mystery in a plot sense. Meanwhile we, assuming Clarice's point of view, get to explore the psyche of Lecter, a mystery in a much more character-based sense, as she tries to get him to cooperate.
Certainly, the relationship between them is fascinating. Clarice is used to being belittled on grounds of gender, but the wedge Lecter uses to keep her in her place is class, for he is a posh and cultured chap who quotes Marcus Aurelius and she is the daughter of a West Virginia coal miner. She is supposed to be the psychologist, but it is he who gets inside her psyche; indeed, the title of the film refers to her childhood trauma.
Hannibal is the only ultimate winner here, of course, gaining his freedom at the end, but he always appears to be the one in control on all the various mind games here: with Clarice, with the prison director, with the senator whose daughter is in the hands of Buffalo Bill, and indeed with Bill himself.
His escape is exhilarating to watch, being both fiendishly clever and bloody exciting viewing. Interestingly, his escape attempt doesn't come until after he's got Clarice to open up, which makes him seem even more in control.
It's surprising, though, how Lecter then vanishes from the film until the epilogue; contrary to popular belief he is not the protagonist in a film which is chiefly about Clarice's pursuit of Buffalo Bill and the gender issues of a film which concerns make violence to women, workplace misogyny and transsexualism. Great though Hopkins is, I was disappointed, perhaps unfairly due to the popular perception of the film, by his lack of screen time in this excellent thriller,
This is, of course, based the middle novel of a trilogy, and there is both a sequel and a prequel starring Hopkins to blog. -
And then there's a certain Brian Cox, who featured so prominently in yesterday's blog post...
Thursday, 21 November 2013
"You can't rewrite history. Not one line."
I'm watching the rerun of An Unearthly Child on BBC 4 as I write this, with a big grin on my face. Admittedly, this is mostly because tomorrow I get to see my fiancée again after eleven long days but, blimey, what a piece of telly that was! A real tribute, and amazing, from my perspective as a fan who knows about this stuff, that a drama is being shown on BBC 2 about this of all things.
The cast is superb, but is very much led by David Bradley, who simply is Bill Hartnell. His mannerisms when playing the Doctor are perfect, and the similarities and differences with the "real" Hartnell are brilliant too: the clip of the interview with Hartnell shown after the programme, presumably a major source of research for Bradley, shows us that he nailed it; Hartnell as himself was irascible, considerably less posh, and very prickly about his status as an actor.
Mark Gatiss' script is excellent too; indeed, this sort of thing plays exactly to the strengths of the arch-nostalgic. Gatiss takes the messy, complex reality of television production and selects he people and events on which to focus. The result is a tight, focused drama with real heart. The presentation of Hartnell, in particular, is a fine line; Gatiss and Bradley don't shy in any way from his difficult side, but we can't help but like this deeply emotional man who cares deeply beneath the gruff exterior, and who delights in his unexpected popularity with children.
The script judges correctly how much to show of his rather bigoted opinions, I think, with just one quip to Waris Hussein about A Passage to India being a "one way trip" hinting at a side of Hartnell which would not much endear him to us. But there's a much greater focus on the tribulations faced by, and solidarity between, "the posh wog and the pushy Jewish bird". We first meet Verity Lambert (the excellent Jessica Raine) on an uber-trendy party straight out of Mad Men. This is her world; metropolitan, sophisticated and mostly populated by women like herself, who stop to turn on the telly to see Valentina Tereshkova do her bit for the cosmic sisterhood. The BBC, ruled by middle aged men in NHS specs who address Verity as "dear lady" is manifestly not her world, and she has to fight against its misogyny every step of the way.
Of course, Waris Hussein constantly suffers the racist digs that would have been everywhere in 1963, and can't get served at the BBC bar without Verity's help. There are also hints at his sexuality; he is doubly alienated, and not exactly the sort of person whom one would imagine getting on with Hartnell. And yet, a couple of years later, Hartnell is nostalgic for both of them, trapped in a show he loves but with familiar, friendly faces dropping away. The recreation of the speech from The Massacre may have used a little artistic licence, but it was wonderful, and as sublime a performance from Bradley here as the original was for Hartnell.
The whole thing is beautifully shot, and there are plenty of lovely touches, from the cameos by Jean Marsh, Anneke Wills, William Russell and Carole Ann Ford to the Cyberman who is allowed to puff away on a fag in his fibreglass suit by the 1963 Health and Safety bods. The many recreations- of The Daleks, The Edge of Destruction, Marco Polo, The Reign of Terror and many more are great fun. We open with the 1963 BBC ident, a lovely touch, and there are brief nods to Delia Derbyshire's work on the theme tube and Peter Brachaki's jobsworth genius on the TARDIS control room. We close with a highly appropriate cameo from Matf Smith. But this is Bradley's and Gatiss' triumph, and a triumph it surely is.
Monday, 18 November 2013
"I can bring back the world!"
What a very strange ending. Things are still a bit post-apocalyptic, and there are many individual tragedies (for me, the fact that Priya and Anthony split up us more heartbreaking than either Paul's or Topher's deaths), but Topher manages to unwipe everyone in the world. That's... A bit of a cheat. Yes, this means all of the Actives get reset, and "die", but still, the world is saved, however post-apocalyptic it still looks.
Not that it isn't a good episode character arc-wise, mind. It's just that the Miracle ending seems a bit if a cop out, however large a price is paid. It's impressive how well planned out it all is, though- this must all have been planned out from at least Epitaph One.
2020... Not too far in the future now, and not much further into the future back when this was made. And that's the point: this is the sort of science fiction that extrapolates from current trends and grounds the sci if concepts into present day reality.
Dollhouse has been an unashamedly political series, with a strongly pro-civil liberties and anti-corporate agenda. It may, as we discussed last time, end with a bit of a whimper in this episode, but that doesn't matter. It was magnificent, and this episode is just a postscript to last episode's brilliant season finale anyway.
We end with Echo, the worlds last Active, going to sleep in her old pod. And there's the temptation. I'm as guilty as anyone, writing this on a smartphone that can track my every movement, but our generation is choosing convenience over liberty, and we know it.
This is an extraordinary series. It knocks everything else Joss Whedon has done into a cocked hat. And that's saying a lot.
Sunday, 17 November 2013
"This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but with a whimper."
For the first time ever (as far as I recall) I've broken my iron rule, and not used a quite from the episode. Instead I've quoted the end of T.S. Elliot's poem, The Hollow Men, as it's obviously a deliberate allusion and particularly, I suspect, with this being the season finale, to those final lines.
Interesting, then, that the imications should at first glance be so self-deprecating; personally, I think that this episode is a stunning triumph of a Seadon finale. Where, then, is the "whimper"? I suspect the answer lies in the fact that our heroes' victory is temporary, and the death of freedom is inevitable. This is the season finale, but it isn't the last episode. As with Season Four of Buffy and, more to the point, the first season of Dollhouse, there's another episode to go.
We begin with the inevitable flashback which has to follow the revelation, at the end of the last episode, that Boyd was the big bad all along. It's five years ago, and we see Caroline, in Boyd's office , being presented with a choice that is not a choice: life in prison for terrorism or five years as an Active? She's "special", apparently, and Boyd wants to be her handler himself. This makes sense of past events, but it ain't half creepy.
An unexpected pleasure is that we once again get to see Enver Gjokaj's performance as Topher, although it's also cool to see Anthony imprinted with ninja skills. Nice that they have time for such touches in this of all episodes.
I have to stop and praise Harry Lennix here, something I've shamefully neglected up till now. It's such a novelty to see him as an openly moustache-twirling baddie, but we can now see all his other performances in a different light. Like the actor who played Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects (I shall name no names. Spoilers, as Rover Song would say!), I'm sure that, if I was to research those earlier episodes, his performances would appear in a very different light.
Horrifyingly, we discover that quietly, in Tucson, Rossum has been developing Topher's technology so that anyone, anywhere, can be wiped and imprinted. There are no longer such things as freedom or individuality; we are all Rossum's hive mind slaves. This is a concept rich with political overtones, and it's not hard to see a dig, here, at those right wing American "Libertarians", many of them in the so called "Tea Party", who fatuously cast "freedom" in terms of the state versus the private sector, and see corporate entities as "people" who must be protected from state oppression. In fact, as we are shown here, the concept of "freedom" only makes any sense when applied to individual human beings, not fatuous and overly abstract binary divisions into public sector and private sector. Corporations can, and do, assault people's liberties, and the truly libertarian thing is for the State to protect us from this through regulation.
There is, of course, no hope here, whatever temporary victory our heroes can bring about. The technology has been invented. It cannot be uninvented. It will be used. We are all doomed.
Still, we can at least hope for that temporary victory, and for Boyd to get his eventual comeuppance. It seems he controls Dr Saunders, and has done for some time. This means it wasn't really here who killed Bennet, which takes some of the poetry away. Still, this is a minor point, and these are the only words of slight criticism that you'll hear from me about this superlative episode of television.
Adelle, only a few episodes from appearing to be an utter bitch, is stoic and brave, refusing to co-operate even at gunpoint and willing to sacrifice herself for the greater good. Other characters are unfortunate: Mellie's death is truly tragic. And Topher's realisation at what he has allowed to happen seems to be a sort of harbinger of the broken Topher we see in Epitaph One; "I did all this. I'm the one who brought about the thought-pocalypse."
Langton gets his just desserts in the end, being wiped and ending up as a suicide bomber. But, just as we think we have a happy endng, the epilogue skips a few years into the future and tells us that no, we don't...
"They roam like free range chickens. We keep ours more like veal."
Deep breath. Very close to the end now. And...oh yes. SPOILERS. BIG ONES. Seriously, if you don't want to know, look away now. Because this episode ends with a big, big reveal.
Right, they've gone. So... Wow. The big boss of Rossum is, in fact, Boyd Langton. He's been undercover as one of his own underlings all along. Thing is, it makes perfect sense.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. First there's the small matter of Caroline's back-up wedge that needs repairing, for which our friends have to kidnap Bennet from D.C: cue some simmering sexual tension between her and Topher. On top of this, Dr. Claire Saunders is back on the team (more Amy Acker- yay!) and, as we know, she's been sleeping with Langton, who at this point we don't yet know to be a baddie. It's complicated.
If it wasn't for the bombshell at the end, the big event if the episode would be Claire shooting Bennet dead. That's how much she hates Topher. He's distraught, of course, but it's lovely how Adelle mothers him.
What else? November is still an Active in Washington, but is freed and rejoins the team. Good. And much of the episode is given over to a big flashback in which we learn just why Bennet hates Caroline so much. Oh, and Clyde is dead. And Rossum know about the L.A. Dollhouse freeing all of its Actives and plotting against them. Oh dear.
There's going to be a final battle. Rossum are after them, but, touchingly, there's time for Priya and Anthony to spend one last night together.
Phew. Looks like we only get big, important episodes these days. There's a slight jiggle in that the pacing and shocks serve to distract us from how rushed it all is by slight of hand, but I just can't deny that this is excellent telly.
"My real name's Echo!"
Wow. This is at the same time a surreal, virtual reality themed episode, redolent of Part Three of classic Doctor Who story The Deadly Assassin, and a massive, massive reveal. This looks absolutely nothing like the rest of Dollhouse. Even the opening titles are different: this is big. Very big. It's not all over yet, though. Not by a long shot.
It's hard to know where to start. Dominic is back, of course. There is surreal stuff, and Echo, Priya and Anthony face their worst nightmares in the weirdest possible way. That Japanese bloke... I shudder at the memory.
But the big revelation is that the supposed big bad, "Arcane", is in fact a British chap called Clyde, the betrayed co-founder of Rossum, who has been languishing in the Attic since 1993! Clyde, with his cyber- superpowers, can see a terrible future that must be avoided or, to be a bit more meta, he's seen Epitaph One. He's a human computer, powering everything, and has been replaced in real life with "Clyde 2.0"...!
Echo, Anthony and Priya, being heroic and, more to the point, the protagonists, naturally escape back to our reality. At this point another bombshell is dropped: Adelle was a goodie all the time, and only sent our heroes into the Attic so they would find enough information to bring Rossum down. Well, well, well. This is not entirely uninfluenced by The Matrix, but it's excellent stuff.
Oh yes, and Ballard is back. He's a doll. Imprinted with himself. Weird.
There's one person who knows the identity of Clyde's partner: Caroline. And we end with Echo declaring an intention to "meet" her...
"I'm Anthony, by the way."
It's clear that we're entering the final phase. Victor is leaving the Dollhouse, yet he and Priya are clearly still in love. But that isn't all, by any means, and Adelle finishes the episode seeming more if a total bitch than ever.
Our first doubts about Adelle's ethics surfaced last season, when we realising she was, in essence, using Victor as an escort which, like all other instances of this with Actives, is pretty much ambiguously rape. Except that this time it doesn't happen: although Victor's supposed to be imprinted, he "dumps" Adelle, and we know it's because of Priya. Victor (now Anthony) may have reached the end of his contract, but the mere fact that something like this can happen is a problem for Rossum. Love, it seems, is resistant to corporate control. How dare we pinko lefties have the temerity to feel such an emotion?
Echo, who is suffering quite a bit of nastiness from De Witt, is at pains to ensure that Victor says goodbye to Sierra before he leaves. At least one person cares.
So that's it. Victor is now Anthony, and he's free of both his contract and the post-Afghanistan post combat stress disorder that put him in the Dollhouse in the first place. But he's clearly institutionalised, perhaps by the U.S. Military as much as by the Dollhouse, sleeping in the same pose that he used in his pod. Things can't go on like this, and it's not surprising to find that he's soon kidnapped. So much for freedom.
There's an interesting contrast with Echo here. Echo is not free, but she has a personality that is, if not quite Caroline, her. She is, in a sense, freer than Anthony: what little freedom she has has been negotiated on her own terms.
Anthony has been kidnapped by Rossum's military wing in an act if outright kidnapping, and he's to become a member of a hive mind. This is totally outrageous, and the most heinous thing we've seen Rossum so far; they have as little loyalty to their promises to free people at the end of their contracts as they do to freedom itself.
Boyd tells DeWitt who, interestingly, is rat-arsed- stress at work, perhaps? Priya is brought back with her own mind- and Topher does not, as he promised, delete her day of abuse by Nolan, so she can remember Victor- and teamed up with Echo on a rescue mission. This mission is successful, and it's nice, although admittedly something of a cliche, that there's still enough of Anthony inside his body to asset himself. Wonderfully, he starts to chat up Priya.
Echo heroically deals with the group mind and saves all the individual, while an increasingly sozzled DeWitt seems to be having a personal crisis. But just when it seems she might have an attack of crisis, she becomes more of a black hatted baddie than ever; not just Echo, but Priya and Anthony too, are going to the Attic...
"So... if she floats, she's a witch?"
If the situation wasn't volatile or chaotic enough already, throw in Alpha (Alan Tudyk is even better here, if such a thing is possible), stir, and wait for the excrement to hit the rotating device. This episode is full of shocks, from the pre-titles sequence onwards.
Adelle doesn't trust Echo so, naturally, she tortures her. Adelle is not winning any popularity tests at the moment with her sudden and apparent switch to the dark side and, indeed, in this episode Topher joins the growing conspiracy to bring down the Dollhouse. And the unwipeable Echo is quite a weapon.
Alpha is engaged in a killing spree aimed at Echo's former clients, as delightfully mad as ever. He's elusive, and toying with Adelle and her dysfunctional team. Adelle may be aware of the "cabal" arranged against her, but it's Alpha who's in charge here.
The ending, with Ballard apparently left brain dead after Alpha has tortured him, is a shock. Not only this, but Alpha is still at large. Things seem to be falling apart.
"You are the coldest bitch on this planet!"
And this is where it all starts to look a bit rushed: three months have passed, just like that. There are only seven episodes left to wrap up the whole series, thanks to Fox and their stupidity. I suppose Rupert Murdoch has much worse things to answer for, but the premature cancellation of Dollhouse has to go on the list somewhere.
Not that it isn't incredibly exciting to watch, of course. If we look at the series as it is, not how it could have been if given more time, then it has never been more exciting or addictive. But wouldn't it have been nice to see Echo slowly falling in love with Ballard, or Adelle slowly being undermined by Rossum? This episode alone could have happened over the course of a whole season.
Regardless, it's clear that never again on Dollhouse will there be such a thing as a status quo. Echo and Ballard have been training and plotting Rossum's downfall for done time. Echo proves herself worthy on her mission, and they return to the L.A. Dollhouse (one of 23 worldwide, we learn), to bide their time before they strike. Interestingly, Langton joins them.
Echo has now developed a sense of self, but is able to adopt any of her imprints at will. She is, it seems, an evolved being, a homo superior if sorts, to a far greater extent than Alpha ever was. She has fallen in love with Ballard, but he's far too much of a gentleman to sleep with her. He's right, of course; I think most men would recoil from the idea of sex with someone in Echo's situation; the whole thought feels far too rapey for comfort.
Meanwhile, De Witt is no longer running the Dollhouse, and moral standards have slipped accordingly. There is even talk of selling Sierra to the Dollhouse in Dubai, something which comes close to calling this what it is: slavery.
Terrifyingly, Topher has come up with a portable device that can imprint anyone, Active or not. And we just know it will be used eventually, like Chekhov's gun, and humanity will be enslaved by a corporation. Interesting metaphor...
He confides in Adelle, who has always been a mother figure to him and, shockingly, she betrays his secret and reveals the technology to Harding, thus regaining control of the Dollhouse. Is she just looking after number one, or is there an agenda at work?
Oh, and are prisons in America really as shockingly inhumane as this?
Thursday, 14 November 2013
"There is no Dollhouse."
Gosh. Where to begin?
I suppose I'll start by praising Enver Gjokaj's extraordinary performance as Victor implanted with Topher's personality, but there's so much going on, things are going so fast, and there isn't a status quo any more. Rossum seems to be winning, resistance is futile, Madeleine is enslaved again by that nasty Washington D.C. Dollhouse, Perrin is probably going to end up as Rossum's pet president (yep, definite political allegory there, given the outrageous extent of corporate manipulation of American politics), and both Echo and Ballard have gone rogue. It's enough to make you dizzy.
But we begin with a little light torture as Bennett has fun with Echo, and our friends at the LA Dollhouse are experiencing a fair bit if red tape in getting her back, in spite of Topher and Bennett's mutual squeeing. We (and Echo, who is thus at one with the viewer here) are treated to a flashback as to how Echo dropped Bennett on it and did her arm in. Bennett is not the forgiving type.
We are learning more about Caroline's past, yet there is an ambivalence here: Echo is a person too, the sum of all her memories. As she puts it, "I'm afraid of Caroline. If she comes back, where will I go?" This, in a nutshell, is the philosophical quandary that haunts the whole series.
Things are, at this point, great. I have no idea where this is going. But things are, perhaps, moving a little too fast, given that Fox are once again being absolute arises to Whedon and forcing him to tie up all the plot threads by the end if the season. Here's hoping he can do so while maintaining the exceptional quality of television seen here.
"I'm the Doctor. But probably not the one you were expecting."
I'm not usually in the business of reviewing minisodes. Usually, they're inconsequential, previews and the like, not usually considered canon by those who care about such things.
This one's different. It's been on the I-player and YouTube for just a few hours, but already there has been enough squeeing to burst the heavens. Prepare for more squeeing, because this is an amazing seven minutes. Oh Moffat, you do spoil us.
The first shock is to see Paul McGann's Doctor, rescuing a woman called Cass from a crashing spaceship, as is his wont. But, as soon as she realises he has a TARDIS she recoils, refuses his help, and they both plunge to their doom. The dialogue here is stunning; the Doctor admits to being a member of that notorious race the Time Lords but, to Cass, they are indistinguishable from the Daleks, both races hated for their Time War and the collateral damage it causes. The Doctor has tried to remain aloof, an individual, but his refusal to take part on the war has not prevented him from dying in it.
Except, fortunately, this is Karn, and the Doctor is able to be briefly kept alive by the Sisterhood and their Elixir. Wonderfully, Maren is back, once again played by Cynthia Grenville. (Edit: no she isn't. I got carried away there!!!)
The Sisterhood know that the Time War will ultimately destroy the universe, and they desperately urge the Doctor to involve himself in it for the universe's sake, offering him use of the elixir to choose his body (one of the choices given is "Man or woman?", interestingly). The Doctor's usual quips fall flat and he is persuaded (rather too quickly, perhaps; a small criticism, but given the running time I will be more than forgiving) that there isn't any need for a Doctor anymore.
So he decides to become a warrior. And there's a possible suggestion that his upcoming incarnation will be known as the Warrior, not the Doctor. Be that as it may, he regenerates (new style) into some I, Clavdivs-vintage stock footage of a young John Hurt, and it's all rather well done.
And, if all that isn't enough, all of McGann's Big Finish companions get name checked.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm still buzzing, and I'm off to watch it again...
"Am I free?"
Hmmm. It seems we have a politician here who has quite literally been brainwashed by a corporation. Do you think we might have a bit of a political subtext here? Once again it's refreshing to see that Dollhouse, airing on Rupert Murdoch's Fox Network, has an essentially liberal left agenda, it's themes being the abuse of individuals' civil liberties by both public and private organisations, which in this day and age are so improperly intertwined.
This episode is all about Senator Daniel Perrin as we and he discover, on a nice twist, that it is he, and not his wife, who is the doll. This is already enough to elevate the episode to greatness. But on top of this we are rewarded at the end with an introduction to the Washington D.C. Dollhouse, far more unthinkingly loyal to Rossum, and to its own resident Topher, the unnerving, quiet and ruthless Bennett. And, in an episode that already features Alexis Denisof, she is played by Whedon veteran Summer Glau. Truly, we are spoiled. This episode kicks, as the day, ass.
It's fascinating to see the progress of Madeleine's sincere yet doomed attempts to "out" the Dollhouse, something which Rossum could never allow: Perrin is merely one aspect of the political influence they wield: we are reminded of the sheer, untrammelled influence of corporate power in US politics.
Also fascinating, and disturbing in equal measure, is Topher's new invention which he tried out on Kilo, a new doll. It is know possible to remotely knock out a doll. We are reminded that not only can technology that threatens our liberties not be uninvented, but that new developments of potential oppression are being invented all the time. In a world where governments seek more and more control over the online world this is deeply relevant, and chilling.
No less chilling is the fact that Madeleine, although she has finished her contract, still has Active architecture in her head. Ballard is not pleased to hear this, and not should he be. It's interesting to see the moral conflict between outsider Ballard, now Echo's new handler, and the rest of the gang.
We end with Echo in Bennett's clutches, and she isn't the greatest of hostesses. To be continued...
"No, Mom. I'm giving up your dream. I'm going after mine."
Bit of a risk, this one: not the sort of film I'd normally watch by any means, but it's an old fave of my fiancee's, and I'm curious about my reaction to a film in a genre with which I'm unfamiliar. Also, it has Michelle Trachtenberg in it, and Joan Cusack, and that Hayden Panettiere off of Heroes.
So, what do I think? Well, it may start with the most horrible opening music imaginable, but it's a well made if formulaic film about a girl whose own dreams conflict with those her pushy mother has for her. Mother and daughter fall out and then reconcile at the end. It's much better than it sounds, with some interesting musings on feminism, with Casey's mother wanting her to not be trapped by gender roles in her career choices while her daughter's dreams of being an ice skater fit more into the traditional female gender role; this conflict between a feminist ideal and the imperfections of reality is a very fertile theme.
The standout performance is from Joan Cusack as the mother. Kim Cattrall is excellent, as too is the young Hayden Panettiere. Trachtenberg is a bloody good actress, as we knew, but unfortunately I'm not sure she has the presence or charisma for a leading role.
Still, I was impressed. There's no denying this film breaks no moulds with its formulaic plot, but the execution is very well done.
Wednesday, 13 November 2013
"I'm Agent Grant Ward, and I can shoot the legs off a flea from 500 yards, as long as it's not windy."
Ok, this one's much better, and gives us a bit of much-needed fleshing out for the characters of Fitz and Simmons. I really thought at one point that Whedon was going to pull a Doyle and kill off Jemma Simmons. DAMN YOU, WHEDON. You made my fiancée cry at the end. Definitely not me though. Heart of stone.
Fitz and Simmons are both more three dimensional after this episode, and they have a great deal of affection for each other in their very British way. Jemma Simmons is brave, principled and full of Dunkirk spirit, while Fitz is a bit more geeky and Scottishly grumpy, but with a heart of gold and with done real courage deep beneath the nervousness.
This episode comes at just the right time, just as the cognitive dissonance I've been feeling for Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D runneth over. I've been too kind to the first few episodes in hindsight, willing this, a Whedon show set in the Marvel Universe, to succeed. So far it's ho hum, with characters that lack that Whedon touch and dialogue that lacks that Whedon spark. The show may improve dramatically: neither Buffy nor Angel got off to the best of starts. But his two most recent shows before this one, Firefly and Dollhouse, were both great from the word go. I'm still a little worried .
Be that as it may, this is an episode about a MacGuffin, in this case a Chitauri helmet, that nearly kills Simmons and let's us see how extraordinarily brave she is, and compares us with a handful of others who, being red shirts, die of the same condition. It's instructive that one of then, approaching death, states that "It's beautiful!". Atheist that Whedon is, this is a far cry from Torchwood and "There's nothing!". Nonetheless, there's more than a little of Totchwood's first season in the use of alien flotsam and jetsam.
Elsewhere, we learned lady week that S.H.I.E.L.D has a presence in Hong Kong, and we can now add at least one unnamed country in West Africa to that list. We see more of Coulson's maverick tendencies, which have increased since his "death" and his loyalty to his team. The episode ends with his intimate chat with Agent May, perhaps the only one of the team whom he sees as a peer. He admits to feeling different since the incident with the spear. But what exactly happened? How much longer will we have to wait?
"Oh crap. They gave him a name!"
I suppose, given that it echoes the pilot somewhat, that this is the first time we can call an episode somewhat typical. Yet again our heroes and some mysteriously nefarious organisation are competing for the attentions of a super powered individual. In this case said individual, Hong Kong street magician Chan Ho Yin, can generate fire and is persuaded to call himself "Scorch". Unlike previous episodes (I'm kicking myself for not realising that Dr Franklin Hall was Gravitron), he's not a character from the comics, and he is, essentially, destroyed by greed and made doomed by the narrative because of his failure to accept the great responsibility that comes with great power.
What to say about such a by-the-numbers episode? My fiancée suspects, and I agree, that there may be signs of incipient romance between Skye and Ward, the flames of which are stoked a little here. Time will tell. What else? S.H.I.E.L.D has a presence in Hong Kong: is it a US or international organisation in this version of the Marvel Universe?
The main event of this episode, and far more interesting than the A plot, is Skye's mini-betrayal of the team to her lone wolf friend and sometime fuck buddy Miles Lydon. This gives an interesting twist to her relationship with her team mates; it isn't a fatal blow, but Couldon feels betrayed, as well he should.
I don't like the way Lydon is portrayed, incidentally: I'm a big civil libertarian and happen to largely agree with his stated aims, so it's somewhat galling to see someone whose views I share bring shown as both a hypocrite and an arsehole. I'll reserve judgement on whether there's some authoritarian or pro-security lobby agenda at work here. It seems that he, like Scorch, fails to show the great responsibility that Marvel morality decrees must come with great power.
So, essentially, meh. I suppose we get a bit of development for Skye, and a bit more hinterland in that she wants to know what happened to her parents, but this episode was largely forgettable. Here's hoping for better next time.
"Girl parts and boy parts are different. And our parts aren't penises."
We're a few episodes into the first season and, not that I mean to set alarm bells ringing (Buffy and Angel both started out as somewhat meh: I have faith in the Whedon), it has still to really take off. This episode, yes, is a good bit of television, but it's a story of the week. It's time to declare that I don't feel overly attached to any of the characters, and that is starting to worry me.
Still, as I said, this is a damn good story of the week. The pre-titles teaser, with a load of identically besuited men in the Stockholm underground in their eerie V for Vendetta masks being offed by Akila Anadour, a mysterious yet tragic female assassin straight out of the Whedon playbook. The episode intrigues by developing her tragic story: a former protege of Agent Coulson (and thus a salutary glimpse into Skye's future if it all goes tits up), she went off the rails and is now controlled by some mysterious organisation which has replaced her eye with a bionic camera through which they can a) give her instructions to off people, and b) blow her up if she refuses.
It's a winning conceit, made more compelling by the jaded nobility of the character and her existential indifference to whatever law enforcement hell awaits her at the end, as she is now free in the existential sense. Parallels to The Outsider here, methinks.
We end, rather wonderfully, with the revelation that Akila's handler is himself being controlled in exactly the same way. Perhaps the same is true of his controller, like Russian dolls. Creepily, our ultimate antagonist here must remain faceless.
Thing is, great though all this stuff is, it's about a guest character, and our main cast desperately needs work to make us care about them more. Yes, Akila is a signifier of Coulson's mysterious past and yes, she is a cautionary tale, of sorts, to Skye. But otherwise we establish little else about our regulars aside from Ward's fluency in Russian and more hints about what happened to Coulson.
What about that alien script, though? I'm sure we will hear of it again...