Tag Archives: Geek rants

Requiem for a Devil: Comic TV With Dan

Comic book TV is everywhere these days, and it’s happening all year. So I’ll hand out awards and rankings in June, but in the meantime, we’ll be reviewing shows one by one as they wrap up.

This instalment: I come not to praise Lucifer, but to bury it.

Short version: Now that the show has ended its third, and as of this writing, final season (fingers crossed for the #SaveLucifer movement), let’s talk about how it took a silly premise (the Devil helps the LAPD solve murders) and made it into the best procedural on TV.

I lied about not praising it. Deep down I think you knew that.

(Also, they renewed Lethal Weapon without Riggs instead of renewing Lucifer? I know the actor was impossible to work with but Riggs is the Lethal Weapon, that’s why it’s called that. Don’t introduce a new guy, just recast, Murtaugh and some guy is not Lethal Weapon, it’s a garbage show for a garbage network. Whichever Fox exec made that call, know that I hate you and whoever hired you.)

Book One: Genesis

Things were– that “book one” thing was a mistake, I’m not going to be able to keep that going, why do I post these live

In the Beginning

Saved it. Go me.

They started simple, using only slight pieces from the Sandman-spinoff comic that inspired the show. Mostly the idea of Lucifer Morningstar abandoning Hell to live in Los Angeles and run a nightclub called Lux with help from his ally/sometimes lover, the demon Mazikeen (Maze to her friends). But to sell a show to a major broadcast network, it helps to have a safe, familiar hook. Say… solving murders. So that’s what they went with.

Lucifer Morningstar (Tom Ellis), fallen angel, king of Hell, and poster child for daddy issues and rebellion has abandoned his post to live and have fun among the humans instead of punishing them with eternal damnations and tortures. The one thing about his old life, or at least his former reputation, that he’s hung onto is making deals: he helps out the glamorous citizens of LA in exchange for favours down the line. No interest in souls, just favours.

His brother, the angel Amenadiel (DB Woodside), wants him back in Hell, where their father placed him. Maze, who I mentioned above (Lesley-Ann Brandt), has her own questions about why they’re hanging around LA instead of going home. But when a singer Lucifer had done a favour for is killed outside of his club, he’s outraged that the persons responsible might not be punished. Lucifer joins LAPD detective and former actress Chloe Decker (Lauren German) in hunting down the killer, and finds he has a taste for punishing murderers. And for Detective Decker. Much to the chagrin of Chloe and her estranged husband Detective Dan Espinosa (Kevin Alejandro). Helping out with their investigations is a little trick of Lucifer’s: he can look into anyone’s eyes and compel them to reveal their greatest desire.

“That’s it?” I said. watching the trailer for the pilot. “That’s their hook? The Devil is solving murders and his big advantage is he can make people say what they want? This is a terrible idea. There is no way I’m watching this show.”

Anyway I started watching the show.

And within half a dozen episodes it was clear that I wasn’t going to be stopping any time soon.

First of all, Tom Ellis crushes it as Lucifer. Long-time readers may recall I’ve mentioned this a couple of times. His Lucifer Morningstar has charm and menace, he can make you laugh and cry in equal measure, to quote Community I can see why women find Tom Ellis attractive to the point where I might just as well be attracted to him myself, he is riveting. And so many of his relationships proved reliably fun. His sibling rivalry with Amenadiel, his more traditional rivalry with Dan (or as Lucifer knows him, Detective Douche), the constant sniping with Maze, his newly-found therapist Dr. Linda Martin (Rachael Harris) and her frequently futile attempts to advise Lucifer on dealing with human emotions and relationships, and as mismatched duos of straight-laced cops and unusual consultants go, Lucifer and Chloe were one of the better pairs. Lucifer even makes a fun pairing with Chloe and Dan’s daughter Trixie. And as for my doubts about Lucifer’s desire-powers, his ability to draw out a suspect’s motive for killing (or more often than not, their lack of motive) works just as well, if not better, than consultants aiding the police through OCDhypnotism, math, or being an agoraphobic who’s good at chess. The show was so much fun to watch it didn’t really matter that it started out as, essentially, Castle but with the King of Hell in place of a mystery novelist.

The main plot for season one was pretty simple. Lucifer and Chloe solve crimes, while Amenadiel’s attempts to return Lucifer to Hell collide with Chloe’s recent past: a shootout at a place called the Palmetto that left a cop Chloe insists was dirty in a coma, alienating her from the rest of her precinct. The cop (Kevin Rankin) makes a miraculous recovery, not unrelated to Lucifer’s presence in Chloe’s life, and turns out to have been an even worse cop than Chloe thought, and he’s about to make life difficult for Chloe and Lucifer…

But that’s not what made Lucifer such an addiction. Season two would bring the show to new heights, thanks to one cast addition that changed everything, and one that merely brightened the room.

Behind the Procedures

“Someone escaped from Hell,” Lucifer tells his brother in the closing moments of season one.

“Who escaped?” asked Amenadiel.

“…Mum.”

It is a daring move for a show this rooted in Judeo-Christian icons to abandon the concept of monotheism, but Lucifer went for it in a big way. In Lucifer’s origin of the universe, the “Big Bang” takes on a whole new meaning, as Heaven and the universe were created by two beings, not just one. But God’s wife… Goddess, I suppose… grew annoyed with his fixation on Earth, and plotted against it so much that Her Husband had Amenadiel lock her away in Hell, where she didn’t exactly enjoy quality time with her son Lucifer. I’m pretty sure they blame all of the Old Testament wrath stuff, floods and plagues and whatnot, on Mrs. God acting out. It was an unexpected take, to be sure, and one that worked much better than Supernaturals choice to give God a sister… mostly because Supernatural never quite got around to coming up with a better name than “The Darkness.” Honestly. I know you were bound to run low on ideas in season 11, but damn, dudes. Sorry, where was I, right, Lucifer. Having escaped from Hell, she comes to Earth, taking over the body of the recently murdered high-powered defense attorney Charlotte Richards.

Tricia Helfer joined the cast as Mrs. God, known as “Mum/Mom” to her sons, “Charlotte” to the humans, and various unkind terms by Maze. Also joining the cast was Aimee Garcia as the precinct’s new CSI, Ella Lopez, a devout Christian (but the nice “God loves you and so do I” kind, not the “God loves me specifically so I’m-a judge the crap out of you” kind) with a mild history of car theft.

I mostly want to talk about Charlotte and what she did for the show here but attention must be paid to what a delightful addition Ella was. A constant beam of sunshine and support, a source of humour (not that the show lacked those), a giver of hugs… there isn’t a bad scene with Ella in it, and Aimee Garcia made her absolutely adorable. She might not have been the thematic game-changer that Charlotte was, but damn was I glad to have her around.

Anyway, Charlotte.

They pulled a trick on Lucifer that I’ve seen once before, on the last show I watched to evolve from casual viewing to something I would clear my schedule to watch live: Person of Interest.   With Person of Interest, a post-Dark Knight, pre-Westworld Jonathan Nolan pulled a con on CBS. He pitched a simple crime-of-the-week show, in which a reclusive billionaire calling himself Harold Finch recruits a lethal ex-soldier calling himself John Reese to help him prevent violent crimes, with the help of a computer Finch built that can predict crimes and feed him the identity of either the victim or perpetrator.

Simple, CBS-friendly procedural stuff. And then once the show was established, Nolan started writing the real show, and subtly grew it into an amazingly compelling paranoid techno-thriller about emergent AI, privacy in the digital age, government overreach, and what the wrong people might do with total access to our digital footprint. (I’ve spoken to co-star Amy Acker, who’s delightful, and she basically confirmed that’s exactly what Nolan did.)

So, too, did Lucifer use the format of a crime-of-the-week cop & wacky consultant show to lure in viewers before turning into a look at the complex relationships of divine beings, the residual anger Lucifer Morningstar feels for his father, and this new idea of God’s angry ex-wife trying to find a way back into Heaven… and what that might mean for her ex. And everything else.

And it worked like gangbusters. The Goddess Charlotte was fascinating: loving to her sons, indifferent to humanity, scheming with and against anyone in her orbit, and played to perfection by Tricia Helfer, who nailed Charlotte’s scathing indictments of humanity such as “All they do is eat! And later the food comes back changed, and not for the better.” And the show hit new heights when Lucifer and Amenadiel’s little brother Uriel came to town, and the stakes of their mother’s plans became clear. It put Lucifer in impossible positions, gave Tom Ellis incredible material to work through, and along the way gave every single cast member better material as well.

And yes, the weekly murder cases also continued, even if they were overshadowed by the divine melodrama. They are, however, less vulnerable to the trope that affects a lot of procedurals, in which the most recognizable guest star is always, always the killer (looking at you, Elementary). But for the most part, the cases-of-the-week exist to act as a reflection of whatever emotional journey Lucifer is on that week. Often because Lucifer forces them to act as a reflection of his emotional journey, because he can be extremely self-centred and finding a murderer is often just a means to working out whatever’s annoying him that week.

Look, Dr. Linda tries her best, but Lucifer is not great at processing emotions or managing human behaviour.

And, well, if I had one note for the show, it’s that Chloe is relegated to the murder-of-the-week plot, because while she does have a role to play in the celestial melodrama… season one reveals that Lucifer loses his invulnerability when Chloe is around, which proves tricky for him, and season two begins to hint why… since she doesn’t believe Lucifer is who he says he is, she is always at arms’ length from the non-Palmetto central plotlines. Which… isn’t great, as I explained… in…

I haven’t written up Doctor Who series seven yet. Dang. I would have such a good explanation to link to if I had. Well, short version, when a character is not allowed to engage with a storyline, even when it’s about them, it’s not ideal.

But this doesn’t mean Lauren German doesn’t make a meal out of the material she’s given. She absolutely does.

Cain Leaves a Mark

The Goddess Charlotte arc was, simply put, exceptional. Amenadiel questioned his faith in his father, Dan turned to improv to process his feelings over his ending marriage (and ended up sleeping with a literal goddess without knowing it), Linda was first to learn that Lucifer isn’t speaking in metaphors and that her new best pal Maze is a literal demon, Maze found a purpose outside of Lucifer, Aimee Garcia was adorable, and Tricia Helfer owned every scene she was in, it was great. So how would season three follow it? They found a new biblical figure to hang a season on.

Lucifer, having had a couple of key parts of his identity messed with, found himself at odds with a mysterious gangster calling himself “the Sinnerman,” who had taken over Lucifer’s habit of granting favours, only with more murders on the side. In the quest to find the Sinnerman and find out if he’s behind Lucifer’s recent changes, Lucifer stumbles across another person of interest: Cain, the first murderer, doomed to wander the Earth forever, who has been studying Lucifer and his associates and thinks Chloe might be his key to finally dying.

If I had one additional note for season three. After the Cain revelation, the show forgets that there ever was a killer gang lord called the Sinnerman until the last few episodes. Although it’s hard to blame them, even the characters know that “the Sinnerman” is kind of a dumb name, and everyone’s reactions to Lucifer casually mentioning that he ID’d the Sinnerman months ago and forgot to mention it was kind of priceless.

Plus Tricia Helfer was still around, as Charlotte Richards returned to her no longer dead body after spending a year in Hell, and found herself searching for redemption out of fear of going back. Helfer made Charlotte just as fun as Lucifer’s mother in her own way.

Much like his mother, Lucifer‘s relationship with Cain went from frosty to friendly to adversarial, they were allies and enemies and rivals. And along the way, there was a great flashback episode in which Linda’s ex-husband spent years trying to figure out how to bring Lucifer down (“Off the Record,” a season highlight*), Lucifer and Ella went on a road trip to Vegas (“Vegas With Some Radish”), Lucifer and Cain pretend to be married suburbanites (“Til Death Do Us Part”), and everyone was just so much fun… then the last two episodes cut our hearts out right in front of us.

And in the last moments of the season finale, they opened the door to a whole new Lucifer, and it kills me that we might not get it.

*One of the better moments in “Off the Record?” Lucifer reveals the chilling secret of Hell… “You humans… You send yourselves, driven down by your own guilt. Forcing yourselves to relive your sins over and over. And the best part: The doors aren’t locked. You can leave any time.” The damned imprison themselves.

Left Unfinished

While every season arc ended satisfactorily, from the Palmetto to Mother to Cain, there was so much more for them to do. I wanted to see Ella learn that one of her new besties was, in fact, the very Devil she was raised to fear. How would that affect her faith, already challenged by the end of season three? I wanted to see more of Lucifer’s siblings, especially his sister Azrael, the angel of death, who must have had some thoughts about what her brothers did with her flaming sword.

Neil Gaiman, listed as the creator, because he wrote the Sandman story in which Lucifer quit Hell, inspiring his spinoff comic, was apparently set to play the voice of God. Which might not have been quite as fun as Psych’s Timothy Omundon’s take on someone who seemed to be God in season two’s “God Johnson,” but damn I wanted to see that.

But more than that I just wanted more time with these people. With snarky, clueless-about-humanity Lucifer Morningstar, so perfectly played by Tom Ellis. With no-nonsense Chloe Decker, who never got to learn the secret about her own past. With stern Amenadiel, who showed that even angels can have doubts about their Heavenly Father. With Dr. Linda and Maze and Charlotte and “Detective Douche” and perfect, adorable Ella and even little Trixie.

Even with a few unanswered questions, I have to recommend this show. It was a great ride, and I don’t regret a second of it.

…Right, just a bit of housekeeping for the rankings…

Overall Grade: A-

That Lucifer forgot all about the whole Sinnerman thing for like 11 episodes kinda bugged me, and it wasn’t hard to spot the five episodes that were meant to be part of season two, but this was a damn good season of television, and the finale might be one of their best episodes.

I miss this show already. Someone bring it back to me.

#SaveLucifer

Images: Fox

Lightning and Thunder: Comic TV With Dan

Comic book TV is everywhere these days, and it’s happening all year. So I’ll hand out awards and rankings in June, but in the meantime, we’ll be reviewing shows one by one as they wrap up.

Last instalment: C-list X-Men characters gathered for a tale of family, bigotry, and what it might be like if America’s law enforcement agencies were openly and dangerously racist.

This instalment: DC characters gather for all of that exact same stuff only it’s actually good this time.

Short version: With Black Lightning, the Greg Berlanti Mask-Based Action Fun Factory tries something different, and boy howdy it works out.

Premise

As a teen, Jefferson Pierce developed lightning-based powers, which he would learn to use to protect his home of Freeland from local gang the 100. Nine years ago, Black Lightning and the 100’s leader, the super-strong albino and City Councillor-turned-criminal Tobias Whale had a vicious supposedly-final battle which both men limped away from thinking the other was dead. Badly wounded, Jefferson put Black Lightning away for the sake of his young daughters and in hopes of repairing his relationship with his soon-to-be-ex-wife Lynn… against the advice of his mentor and surrogate father figure, tailor/hacker/designer of superhero costumes/possessor of some suspicious skill sets Peter Gambi.

Today, Jefferson serves Freeland by shaping the minds of the black community’s youth as principal of Garfield High School, believing he can do more good steering kids away from gang life. His daughters are flourishing (Anissa is pre-med, Jennifer is still in high school and the more rebellious one), he’s inching towards reconciliation with Lynn, he hopes… but the 100 is stronger than ever, with such control over Freeland the good people of the city are forced into protest marches against the local crime lords. Which is risky business. I mean, think about how the cops respond to protest marches… Anyway, Gambi pleads with Jefferson that the city needs Black Lightning, but Lynn has him refusing to return to action… until the 100 come for his daughters. Jefferson comes out of retirement to save Jennifer and Anissa, but when he’s asked (and rightly so) why only his children were saved, Jefferson makes a choice…

“It is time that people know that Black Lightning is back.”

From there, he’s taking on the 100, their chief pimp/dealer Lala, a still-vicious Tobias Whale, and the sinister cabal that they’ve been reporting to… a cabal with which Gambi has an uncomfortable familiarity.

Also… habitual protester Anissa is developing powers of her own, and has some thoughts about how to use them.

And they’d better get their heroic ducks in a row, because there’s a new drug circulating called Green Light that’s highly addictive, and is giving people powers. Powers mixed with PCP-like rageouts.

Sidebar: Is it part of the Arrowverse or not? Who knows at this point. Black Lightning is its own thing for the first season, but I feel that they’ve left the door open for crossovers with the Flash, Green Arrow, and company should the desire strike them later. They establish that other superheroes exist in other cities, but don’t mention Central or Star City in particular. They name drop Vixen, who exists on Earth-1 with everyone else, but also Supergirl, who merely visits Earth-1 on special occasions.

And those name drops aren’t definitive, since they also established that superhero comics exist in this world, in an amusing Easter egg where Anissa and love interest Grace discuss comic characters the Outsiders, the superteam where their comic incarnations met. So is Vixen a legit hero, or a comic book character? Do the people of Earth-1 know Supergirl from the 2016 alien invasion and the 2017 alt-Earth-Nazi invasion, or are we somewhere else, somewhere with a Supergirl and a Vixen? It’s unclear, and will remain unclear until someone in the Berlanti group says “Screw it, put Black Lightning in the crossover this year,” or Team Flash makes it clear that Black Lightning is on Earth-47 or whatever. Until then, Black Lightning stands alone, but luckily, it’s more than capable of doing so.

Strengths

What we have here is the bulk of Luke Cage’s debut season polished up and done better.

Cast: There are some strong performers in this cast, most notably Cress Williams as Jefferson and Nafessa Williams as Anissa. China Anne McClain does well as the younger, brattier sister, though I do not comprehend why she’s second-billed instead of Nafessa Williams. Better agent? Anyway, by and large, the Pierce family kills it on a weekly basis, as does Damon Gumpton as the closest thing Black Lightning has to a friend on the police force. He’s neither racist nor on the take, so that’s a big advantage over most of the cops we meet in early episodes.

The 100: How fortunate for the series that Marvin ‘Krondon’ Jones III exists. Black albino actors who look capable of hoisting a grown man in the air and killing him with one hand cannot be that easy to come by, but Krondon is basically perfect for this role. Tobias Whale is a destructive force, a black man who hates other black men… well not exactly. As he explains to a henchman that’s been screwing things up, “No, I love black people. I hate incompetent, thick-lipped, scratch-where-it-don’t-itch Negroes like you.” If not on network television he might have used a different word than “Negroes.” He’s got a lethal assistant calling herself Syonide (who’s kind of fun to watch in a fight, if I’m being honest); gets his hooks into Jennifer’s boyfriend, a track star named Khalil; and later on has links to a difficult-to-kill gangster he calls the Tattooed Man, who has himself an interesting arc. Tobias Whale builds himself a small legion of super-goons, and they’re all pretty great, save for Khalil, who for the most part is just… eh.

Tobias is also well-developed beyond “evil drug dealer.” His childhood begins to explain how he came to be how he is, and he does have some moral lines. In one memorable scene, he executes a henchman for overstepping. “You killed someone’s mama?” he asks. “Any man that’d do that has no morals, no principles to live by, which means there’s nothing you’re not capable of, including becoming a rat.” And now he’s growing tired of being treated like a henchman by cabal leader/creepy mortician Lady Eve, and has thoughts about climbing the ladder.

Rise of Thunder: Before she even knows her father’s secret, Anissa sets out to become Freeland’s latest hero. There are some stumbles along the way. There’s a regrettable wig, a fun trip to a fetish store for costume pieces when it becomes clear that tights are not good fighting wear for her figure, and guilt over taking on a low-level drug dealer a touch over-zealously. But Thunder becomes every bit the hero Black Lightning is, strong, brave, clever, and she’s a gay hero of colour on top of it all.

Racial tensions: Having showrunners of colour means that Black Lightning joins Luke Cage in having the best examinations of the far-from-perfect race relations in the US. Twice in the pilot, Jefferson finds himself targeted by white cops who take an aggressive approach with black suspects. A government agency was using black youths as test subjects. And they touch on black people hating on other black people for not being, in their eyes, black enough. It’s a stark and honest take on American race relations, which is a nice change from having black people be the bigots. Looking at you, Gifted and Jessica Jones.

Vox Populi: The local Freeland news channel (which seems to be blissfully free of the Sinclair media propaganda machine) does person-on-the-street interviews at several major plot points, giving we the viewers a look at what the average people of Freeland think of Black Lightning and his crusade. It’s a fairly effective technique for conveying public opinion. My only beef is that the text crawl on the bottom of the screen never changes. Which… I guess it means you never have to pay attention to it, so that’s okay. Just saying, if one were to try to slip in a subtle reference to The Flash or Arrow that doesn’t get in the way of their own story, that would have been the place to do it.

Pacing: The multiple acts of Black Lightning’s first season help provide a steady clip for the show’s pacing. The season doesn’t lag the way Marvel Netflix shows tend to. Streaming shows are great for bingeing, but for strong episodic narrative it’s hard to beat broadcast.

Despite the fact that we’re not starting at the origin, but are in fact meeting Black Lightning nine years after he retired, the world of the show feels remarkably natural and lived-in. The history of the characters makes sense, and we understand the key relationships quickly. The people’s love for Black Lightning is crystal clear when he goes to storm Lala’s penthouse apartment, and the doorman not only sells out Lala without hesitation, he opens the door for him with a “Black Lightning! My man!” Someone else offers to hold the elevator, but Jefferson feels like taking the stairs, in order to stomp a few more gangsta asses on the way. 

I like how in addition to disguising his voice, Jefferson changes all of his vocal mannerisms, speaking more “street” as Black Lightning. He could teach Barry “reveal my identity to anyone who asks, except my girlfriend” Allen some tricks about keeping a secret identity.

There’s also solid action. Fight scenes have Arrow-level fight choreo (not quite Preacher but miles ahead of, say, Iron Fist), with occasional lightning-based effects thrown in.

Weaknesses

The Bigger Bad? Is this show a case of Villain Swap? At first, it’s all about Tobias Whale and the 100, but after Tobias and Black Lightning are briefly reunited, Tobias takes a few weeks off while the show’s attention moves to the ASA (American Security Agency). The ASA is the covert group that created Black Lightning when their attempt at a “vaccine” to make the black residents of Freemont “more docile” (openly and dangerously racist, remember?) accidentally gave people powers instead. Now ASA agent Martin Proctor is back in Freemont and restarting the experiment.

Eventually the show was going to come here. The ASA is a key player in Jefferson’s origin tale. Tobias Whale only became his nemesis because of ASA involvement. Gambi’s ties to the ASA, and through them Lady Eve and Tobias, were going to need explanation. It just… well, for the first few episodes it felt like this was going to be a season two thing. Season one would be Black Lightning taking on the 100, and in future seasons he could move up the ladder to the cartel pulling the 100’s strings. Instead, the 100 stepped aside and Proctor took over as the main villain.

It’s a more natural transition of primary villain than we saw on Luke Cage in its first season, or on Iron Fist every third episode, but it is still a swap of villain, and I did once identify that as a troublesome trend. In this case, though, I choose to defend it: the ASA made for a decent one-arc villain, tying the present say to Black Lightning’s hinted-at past. That’s good for one season. Tobias Whale, on the other hand, is the Nemesis. Black Lightning’s archest enemy.

And you shouldn’t write out the arch enemy in season one. You keep them around so they can go more rounds with the hero(es). And sure, death hasn’t exactly slowed down Reverse-Flash or Damien Darhk (yet), but it’s better to just keep the good villains around.

Other quibbles…

We get it. Thunder’s powers are linked to her breathing. Maybe you can trust us to remember that for a while? Because her big, echoey, “deep inhalation” sound effect is getting on my last nerve.

The Warriors’ James Remar does what he can with Gambi, but as an actor he is not quite on Cress Williams’ level.

Jefferson’s ex-wife Lynn spends a lot of the season being opposed to Jefferson being Black Lightning. As I’ve said in the past, this is rarely an interesting character choice.

I’m all for exposing conservatives as prone to being awful people, but maaaaaayyyyybe having sinister racist government agent Martin Proctor shout “Make America great again” twice in one episode was gilding the lily just a bit? Trust me, the first one landed.

High Point

Either “The Book of Little Black Lies,” in which Thunder suits up for the first time and Jennifer grapples with new knowledge, or “Shadow of Death: The Book of War,” (they’re all the Book of something) in which the ASA finds itself under siege from both the 100’s growing band of meta-villains and the entire Pierce family.

Also worth mentioning: “Black Jesus: The Book of Crucifixion” is less fun to watch than the ones I named, but its examination of the all-too-real threats faced by all African-Americans when confronted by white cops makes it one of the most necessary episodes.

Low Point

“Three Sevens: The Book of Thunder” is our obligatory ride on the “no, Main Hero, killing is wrong!” merry-go-round. Given that later on, they’ll go the same route as Daredevil season two and decide that “killing is wrong, but if you’re working with someone who happens to kill your enemies, hey, that’s okay,” it’s an awkward moral to push. And Khalil proves himself to be a jackass in Jennifer’s plotline, which is some go-nowhere filler stuff involving a mean girl nemesis whose attempts at cyber-bullying aren’t more effective or more interesting than her failed attempts at physically bullying Jennifer the previous week.

Anissa did use her powers to obliterate a Confederate statue, though, and that pissed off some easily-offended conservatives. So that was fun.

MVP

Nafessa Williams as Anissa Pierce. There are times when they’re simply using Black Lightning to tell Thunder’s origin story, and there ain’t nothing wrong with that.

Tips For Next Season

So Arrow has had at least half a dozen archers. Flash has had nine speedsters so far. Black Lightning uses electricity, and a new generation of Freeland youths are being given powers… so how long until Static makes an appearance? And why stop there? Why not bring in more of the Milestone Comics crowd? The 100 could find themselves at odd with the Blood Syndicate, Thunder could track down Icon and Rocket, Gambi could go head to hacker-head with Hardware... if Black Lightning intends to remain separate from the larger Arrowverse (we’ll see), there’s plenty of options for when you’re ready to expand beyond the Pierce family.

Overall Grade: B+

It’s honour, duty, family, and the shoddy state of US race relations with solid action and decent pacing. Not every piece fits together perfectly, but as first seasons go it’s solid and shows a lot of promise.

Might be the last full write-up for a bit. Most of the veteran shows don’t call for one and I’m not convinced Krypton deserves one. Guess we’ll have to find something else to talk about for a few weeks.

Image: CW

The Gifted not Quite a Gift: Comic TV With Dan

Comic book TV is everywhere these days, and it’s happening all year. So I’ll hand out awards and rankings in June, but in the meantime, we’ll be reviewing shows one by one as they wrap up.

This instalment: C-list X-Men characters gather for a tale of family, bigotry, and what it might be like if America’s law enforcement agencies were openly and dangerously racist.

Heh. “If.”

Short version: Fox’s Island of Misfit Toys is a lot less fun than the Arrowverse’s, I tell you what.

Premise

Theoretically set in the same, or at least a similar, world as the X-Men movies, things have taken a turn for the worse for America’s mutant population. A few years back, on July 15th, a mutant rights protest went bad, resulting in riots and violence. And where violence meets a whole bunch of mutant powers, collateral damage happens, resulting in new anti-mutant legislation. Worse still, both the heroic X-Men and the more violent Brotherhood have vanished, so there’s no one left to fight for the mutants in any context. All that’s left is the Mutant Underground, just trying to keep their people alive and out of the hands of the mutant-hunting agency Sentinel Services.

Years of government-mandated prejudice later, the Strucker family finds themselves in the middle of the fight in ways they didn’t expect. Kate Strucker (the delightful Amy Acker) is a nurse, while Reed Strucker (Stephen Moyer, from some obscure vampire show called True Blood) is a prosecutor specializing in mutant crimes. When their son, Andy, is pushed too far by bullies, the Struckers find out that both he and his sister Lauren are mutants. And the incident causes enough damage that the Struckers find themselves targeted by Sentinel Services, especially the dedicated mutant-hunter Agent Jace Turner.

They fall in with the Mutant Underground: John Proudfoot/Thunderbird, whose powers involve tracking, superstrength, and tough skin; Marcos Diaz/Eclipse, capable a firing intense bursts of heat and light; Lorna Dane/Polaris, with suspiciously Magneto-like control of metal, and who’s pregnant with Eclipse’s child; newest recruit Clarice Fong/Blink, who can open portals from one place to another; and several more support mutants. Together they must avoid Agent Turner, break various team members out of various prisons, and figure out how to deal with Dr. Roderick Campbell (Garret Dillahunt) and Trask Industries’ evil experiments on and against mutantkind.

Strengths

Race Wars: There’s a lot of diversity in the Mutant Underground. Hispanic, Asian, Native American… sure, the Strucker family are as white as it gets, but that’s actually better for the story. Only a middle-class white family could be that shocked by systemic racism in the US. Any POC family would see over-aggressive police, or doctors calling 911 on a guy in the emergency room because the woman he’s with is sporting a bruise, or neighbours forming a lynch mob on a dime, and say “Yep, sure, that’s white America for you.”

Which is to say, the first half of the season is an effective examination of systemic racism in law enforcement, corruption in prisons, and hate groups and hate crimes. And the fact that it’s all happening to pretty white people might make a certain mindset take it more seriously.

World Without Heroes: I wasn’t sold at first on the idea of an X-Men show with no X-Men in it. I wasn’t certain about Fox’s apparent lack of interest in a cinematic universe, with Deadpool and Logan and Legion and now The Gifted and soon New Mutants all existing in X-Men-related worlds with no connection to each other or the main X-Men movies whatsoever. And I have concerns that between this, Logan, and the fact that every main X-Men movie since 2006 has taken place in the past, Fox’s endgame seems to be killing off the X-Men at some point in the late 2000s, early 2010s. With the Disney buy-out in motion, one could wonder if Dark Phoenix is their “kill all of the X-Men before Kevin Feige reboots them” movie. But in the case of this show, a lack of X-Men works.

The entire premise, of mutants in desperate straights, hiding or on the run from Sentinel Services, works so much better when there’s no one to call for help. No super team giving mutants a good name by taking down Magneto and fighting villains while wearing colourful costumes. The real-world issues that The Gifted touches on are all complicated, and none have a solution as easy as “Just call the big-name Good Guys for help,” so it works that the Mutant Underground don’t have that option either.

Lovers in a Dangerous Time: Polaris and Eclipse are an engaging couple. It might have been nice if they hadn’t spent so many of the first few episodes apart, as Eclipse made a deal with the free Struckers and Polaris showed us how screwed up American prisons are. It took many episodes for the show to make a case for why the Struckers should be the leads and not Polaris and Eclipse, and it was not 100% convincing.

Blink and Thunderbird work well, too. Together, the mutant underground just about makes a team worth watching, save for the nonsense they tend to get bogged down in, which we’ll get to shortly.

Variety is the Spice: There are an impressive variety of mutant powers in play, and they’re all well-done visually. It’s still network TV-budget special effects, but they’ve got more money behind them than Legends of Tomorrow.

Skyler Samuels acquits herself quite well as the Frost triplets, telepaths with untrustworthy agendas.

If you need an actor to play a modern-day Joseph Mengele with no visible human emotions, you could do a lot worse than Garret Dillahunt.

The mutant riot that caused all of these draconian anti-mutant laws to be passed is rightly referred to as “7/15,” a term Americans would use. It is not called “the occurrence” or “the unpleasantness” or “the whoopsie-doodle” or, for those who don’t see where I’m going with this, “the incident.” Everyone gets this but you, Marvel Netflix.

Also they have yet to do a “forced to fight as underground gladiators” episode, and this show is a high risk for that, because historically rich people love to make minorities fight for their amusement, so every season they resist it is a triumph. Wouldn’t make a wager they avoid it for all of season two, though.

Weaknesses

No Plan: The Underground’s whole deal is that they’re trying to live up to the X-Men, to find a way to peacefully co-exist with humanity… but they never really seem to have a plan to make that happen. They spend the entire season either breaking people out of prisons/secret laboratories or trying to shut down said secret laboratory before it can do any more damage. There is zero plan for improving human/mutant relations, for undoing any of the anti-mutant laws. There is no hint that they might have a plan later. And this is a problem.

Without some indication that they have a plan to improve mutants’ lot in American life, what we have is a bunch of people hemming and hawing about using violence against the fascists, violent bigots, and mad scientists trying to commit a genocide against them, and that is… look, preaching non-violence is fine and all, but we are also back in a stage of history where people need to know that fascism must be fought. Not tolerated while you cross your fingers and hope that maybe eventually they’ll begin to see you as an actual person. As to those bigots…

Agent Turner is the Literal Worst: Agent Jace Turner is an asshole. He exemplifies what’s wrong with the American police. He is actually worse than the racist cops from Black Lightning because at least they’re honest enough to take bribes and be corrupt instead of pretending they’re the heroes. But I’m not convinced the writers know that’s the character they’ve created. Jace’s daughter died during the 7/15 violence, which should make him sympathetic, but it doesn’t. It just doesn’t. In the wake of 7/15, he decides that he doesn’t care which are the good mutants and which are the bad mutants, he just wants to round them all up and lock them away.

Which… this is their only major black character*. It’s not great having the one black guy in the main cast be the huge racist, saying he doesn’t see a difference between the “good ones” and the “bad ones.”

They sometimes seem like they’re trying to turn Jace into a good man unwittingly doing bad things, but he just isn’t. He sometimes furrows his brow in mild concern over the sinister and clearly immoral deeds of Dr. Campbell, but almost never raises a finger to stop them, and certainly enjoys the benefits of Campbell’s evil research. One time, after being shamed by his wife for letting his grief make him a monster and accessory to monstrous deeds, he agrees to trade down from cartoonish supervillainy to mere fascism, but that’s the episode that the Hellfire Club pulls some shenanigans and a whole bunch of his fellow agents end up dead, so it doesn’t take.

He’s a bad man who does exclusively bad things and pretends he’s somehow noble for doing it. Every time something bad happens to him and his, instead of seeing his side of things, I think “You had that coming, you jackbooted asshat.” And it is possible, it is utterly possible to take a character like this and make them sympathetic. I know this because Legion did it last year. In one cold-open montage, they took a clearly villainous character from the pilot and made us see his side of things, showed us how he’s the hero in his own story, to the point where he’s a regular this year and I’m thrilled about it. Sure, not every show can be Legion, but no show has an excuse not to try. Quality-wise, I mean. Not aesthetically. Probably shouldn’t try that.

*Some of the mutants have pretty heavy makeup, and one of them is black underneath it, but he’s not exactly a major character.

Pacing Problems, Always Pacing Problems: Every single plot point on this show takes longer than it needs to because we need to wade through a stream of “This is wrong” and “This is too dangerous, but what choice do we have” and “This is/isn’t what the X-Men would have wanted” and the ever-popular “I don’t want my kids mixed up in this.” There are 13 episodes in season one, and between them they have maybe eight episodes’ worth of plot. The rest is just constant hand-wringing.

Also the Struckers are not the show’s best characters, which is a problem, because they are the main characters. And it pains me to say that, because one of the Struckers is Amy Acker, and to reiterate Amy Acker is delightful. But the generic, cliche dialogue they feed her, and others… oy.

Actually, let’s add that to the list. There is some bland, clunky dialogue all over this show.

High Point

[Deep sigh] Let me think… “threat of eXtinction,” in which Reed discovers some dark family secrets, and some things about his kids’ powers, and he is not happy learning any of it. The Strucker family finally became as interesting as everyone else.

Low Point

I’ll say “eXtreme measures.” Eclipse has to repay a favour to the cartel he used to work for, while Reed and Kate Strucker [gasp] don’t approve of Lauren’s new boyfriend! Honestly, this episode could have been cut and nobody would have missed it. The only lasting thing it accomplishes is making Sentinel Services even more purely evil than they had already been, which just was not necessary.

MVP

Emma Dumont as Lorna Dane/Polaris. This show could have a great deal of potential if they shaved off a bunch of the side plots (I’m counting the main characters as a “side plot”) and focussed on Lorna, Eclipse, their unborn child, and their growing philosophical divide. They might never be Stewart/McKellan Xavier and Magneto, not even MacAvoy/Fassbender Xavier and Magneto, but they could be as close as network TV is likely to get.

Tips For Next Season

Ugh. That asshole evil scientist is going to become an evil cyborg, isn’t he. Damn it.

Okay. So. We have a schism in the Mutant Underground. Some want to follow in the X-Men’s “co-exist” footsteps, some want to join up with the Hellfire Club, go the Magneto route, and start punching back. That’s cool. That’s sensible. That’s a logical direction for the show to go. Classic X-Men stuff right there.

Couple things.

Their opponents were all way too willing to hunt down, lock up, and wipe out mutantkind. So the whole “don’t kill, try to not fight, just pursue peace” thing is already looking like the wrong call. When the Frosts killed a whole bunch of Sentinel Services officers, it was really hard to see why this was a bad idea. I felt about as bad for them as I did any Earth-X Nazis Green Arrow put down back in December. When you’re fighting Joseph Mengele and the SS, damn it, you hit back.

The whole X-Men vs. Brotherhood thing only really works if co-existence is somehow on the table, if humans are willing to accept mutants in their midst. In the wake of 7/15, that seems to be a pipe dream. There’s talk of pro-mutant movements, mutant-rights-friendly congressmen, and that Sentinel Services is on thin ice with the Department of Justice, but… kind of seems like Polaris’ choice in the finale has put an end to all of that. Seems like all the Hellfire Club has accomplished is cranking up the heat on the war between mutants and humans. So for the Underground, well, to quote a certain King of Men… “Open war is upon you, whether you would risk it or not.”

In short, you’re going to have to work much harder to make the Underground’s anti-violence stance make sense. If you don’t want us to side with the Hellfire club, then the Underground needs a plan.

Also, you’ve dropped a lot of hints about Polaris’ birth father. Say his name. Say “Magneto.” Say it, or drop it.

Overall Grade: C-

You’ve got the ingredients of a good show here. But a pile of sugar, flour, yeast, eggs, and vanilla dumped on the counter ain’t a cake just yet.

Next time in this feature: the CW breaks some habits with Black Lightning.

Photo: Fox

Praise Beebo and Pass the Cold Gun: Comic TV With Dan

Comic book TV is everywhere these days, and it’s happening all year. So I’ll hand out awards and rankings in June, but in the meantime, we’ll be reviewing shows one by one as they wrap up.

This installment: the Arrowverse’s Island of Misfit Toys continues to be its best offering.

Short version: Take two parts Doctor Who, two parts A-Team, one part Flash, and a dash of Brooklyn 99, and you get the most fun superhero show on TV.

Premise

The Legends are former assassin and team leader Sara Lance (White Canary); inventor and size-changing superhero Ray Palmer (the Atom); Justice Society of America member and protector of Zambesi Village Amaya Jiwe (Vixen); genius physicist Martin Stein and mechanic Jefferson “Jax” Jackson, who combine to become the nuclear powered Firestorm; forensic historian and metallic metahuman Nate Heywood (Steel, on the few occasions they bother to give him a codename); and pyromaniac former thief Mick Rory (Heat Wave).

They’re a band of misfits, outsiders, and one covert war hero (that’d be Amaya) who’ve made a life on the time ship Waverider protecting all of history, ever since they wiped out the last group in charge of that. (In fairness, they did have it coming.) At the end of last season, the Legends managed to prevent the assembly of villains they called the Legion of Doom from re-writing all of reality, but in doing so employed big enough paradoxes that they shattered all of time, causing countless anachronisms: people, animals, and the occasional building displaced in history. As the third season opens, the Legends are still wrapping their heads around the damage they’ve caused, when team founder/former captain Rip Hunter pops up. Seems that in the few minutes since he left the team, he’s spent five years (time travel) building a new agency to protect time and fix all of these anachronisms: the Time Bureau. And they’re quite adamant that they no longer require the Legends’ help, especially Rip’s protege, Ava Sharpe.

Six months of unsatisfying civilian life later (mostly, Nate tries to stay in the crime-fighting game, but tends to get upstaged by Kid Flash), the Legends decide they disagree with this assessment and steal the Waverider back in order to repair the damage they’ve caused.

But it turns out there’s a greater danger behind the anachronisms. Amaya’s people once imprisoned a demon named Mallus inside of the timestream itself, and the anachronisms are loosening his cage. Mallus recruits a new legion of villains to cause further damage to history in order to free him: returning villain Damien Darhk, his now-grown and similarly magically powered daughter Nora Darhk, Amaya’s least noble grandchild Kuasa, and on special occasions (ie. when the budget allows for it), Gorilla Grodd.

The Legends must occasionally avoid, sometimes work with the Time Bureau to find a way to shut down Mallus and what they tragically never called the Darhk Legion before Mallus conquers all of time. Conquers? Destroys? You know what I’m sure they explained but I kinda forget. Evil demon, needs to be stopped, after that I get fuzzy.

Along the way they pick up a cynical, magic totem-bearing hacker from their future named Zari Tomaz, who’s based on a DC-adjacent character whose superhero name they can’t really use anymore, lose a couple of team members to the annual Arrowverse crossover, and eventually bring Kid Flash on board as the Flash writers found it hard to come up with reasons why any threat they wrote couldn’t be stopped by two full-time speedsters by the second commercial break.

Strengths

Having trouble deciding where to start. So many to choose from.

Fun With History: Legends of Tomorrow has stuck with the one thing that propelled them from the weakest Arrowverse show in their debut season (and this was the same year as Arrow’s least popular season, so ouch) to their best last year: embracing a spirit of zany, time-travel fun. There is very little brooding on the Waverider, just high-energy shenanigans as they blunder through history, hoping that they’re breaking things for the better. (They basically make that their motto.) And they also have even more fun with their historical guest stars.

Back in season one, what few historical figures appeared were just drop-ins. The child that Martin Stein risks history to save from illness turns out to be HG Wells, which means I guess Stein didn’t need to bother? A student in a science class Ray Palmer teaches in the 50s turns out to be Bill Gates’ father. That’s it. That’s literally the whole thing. There was no payoff. No point. In season two, they started actually having fun with their historical figures, and in season three, they doubled down on it. With historical figures scattered through time, they find all new hijinks to get into.

In season three, Julius Caesar tries to recruit a fraternity’s spring break toga party; PT Barnum gets his hands on a sabre-tooth tiger; Helen of Troy sparks a literal war between studios when she turns up in the Golden Age of Hollywood, accidentally damaging decades of technological advancement by stealing a breakout role from actress/inventor Hedy Lamarr; Napoleon Bonaparte must be prevented from getting his hands on a copy of Abba’s “Waterloo”; Viking explorer Leif Erikson decides against bailing on his new discovery North America when his sister embraces a time-displaced, fuzzy, blue, Tickle-Me-Elmo-esque doll named Beebo as their new god of war, I swear I am not making any of this up. Those are all real episodes* and it is glorious.

(*Fine, the Napoleon thing was a background gag they came up with as an excuse to put most of the cast is disco clothes for a week, but still.)

(This isn’t to say that it’s always fun and games. Legends gets sad too. They cut me a couple of times this season, cut me deep.)

#Avalance: The relationship between Sara Lance and rival-turned-ally Ava Sharpe was well developed, and Ava made a fun addition to the show. She won over the audience for a reason. Also I kind of love that if social media can be believed, actresses Caity Lotz (Sara) and Jes Macallan (Ava) are pals now, and ‘ship their characters as much as their fans do. Also nice to be watching a CW show where a romance plot doesn’t incite riots from a portion of the fanbase.

Keeping Up With the Darhks: Neal McDonough’s Damien Darhk was a delight back when he was trying to kill Green Arrow, but he’s flourished as a nemesis for the Legends. The faster-paced and goofier atmosphere of Legends fits his style of gleeful villainy better than the dour, grounded aesthetic of Arrow. The sheer joy he takes in villainy makes him too fun a villain to ever want to see defeated forever, and Courtney Ford brings the same level of campy fun to Nora Darhk that Neal does to Damien. Throw in John Noble as the voice of Mallus and it’s a stacked deck of evil. Also, and this is important, Damien celebrates being resurrected with both his powers from Arrow season four and his memories from Legends season two restored by having a fight scene choreographed to 90s jam “Return of the Mack,” and it makes sense in context of the episode. Not so much in this clip but here it is anyway.

But other than being delightful menaces played by top notch actors, the villains are also deeper characters than you’d expect. Damien is driven above all else by love for his daughter, compromising his commitment to the plan now and again, and making him more three-dimensional than he’s ever been. Nora is trying to raise an ancient demon and build a relationship with her father, who she hasn’t seen since he was killed when she was a kid. Kuasa, also back from the dead (apparently?) after the events of the Vixen animated series (which I should try to watch sometime), just wants to undo the destruction of her village… and keep her grandmother from continuing to hook up with that nerdy super-powered historian from the future, which could erase Kuasa’s existence. Mallus… Mallus is a literal demon whose unprisoned existence would be bad, I guess? Look, they can’t all be winners.

Zari and Ray: Zari is a fun addition. Actress Tala Ashe has a great dry wit that worked well for the character. She also played wonderfully off of Brandon Routh’s more upbeat Ray Palmer, who this season was tweaked into a perpetually cheerful, unbreakably positive Ray of sunshine (sorry) with a love of musicals and a faith in people that gets him into a little trouble here and there. Together they’re a fun double act, and this has been Brandon Routh’s most entertaining season as Ray Palmer… which is saying something.

Also Zari was rightly praised as a positive, non-stereotypical Muslim superhero, especially for the episode where she tries to explain to perpetual glutton Mick why she’s fasting until sundown. There isn’t another comic TV show with a hero who observes Ramadan.

New Friends: Matt Ryan’s back as John Constantine! Delightful. I wanted this for two years and now it’s happening. Also Kid Flash moving here from Flash is a decent fit.

Weaknesses

WHAT DID I SAY ABOUT WRITING OUT RIP HUNTER. WHAT DID I SPECIFICALLY ASK YOU TO STOP DOING.

Fine, I guess this season they used him similarly to Flynn Rider on The Librarians. He turned up at the beginning, the middle, and the end, and in between was off doing more big-picture stuff while the team chased anachronisms, but I don’t like the way they seemed to be weaning the show off of him. I don’t like it at all.

Okay, fine, sure, with Sara captaining the Waverider and his protege Ava Sharp gradually taking over the Time Bureau, there isn’t a clear need for Rip, so maybe it’s not such a bad thing to… no, no, you cannot make me approve of this.

Moving past that… I love the fun tone, I definitely do, but maaaayyyyybe it undercut the stakes a little? All of time and space was theoretically under threat from Mallus, but I just didn’t feel it, you know? Last season they showed us what a Legion of Doom victory would look like, with Mallus they asked us to take their word for it. (We needn’t discuss Vandal Savage from season one. Ever again.)

High Point

…Man, this one is not easy. Which to pick? “Here I Go Again,” where Zari gets stuck in a time loop? They earned name-dropping Groundhog Day on that one. “No Country For Old Dads,” in which Ray, Nora, and Damien have to team up against Younger Damien? Real-life spouses Brandon Routh and Courtney Ford had amazing comic chemistry and it began the road to possible redemption for both Darhks. “Guest Starring John Noble,” (yes that’s what it was called, yes this is real life, apparently) in which the Legends notice that Mallus happens to sound exactly like Denethor from Lord of the Rings, and recruit actor John Noble to con Nora? That’s a lot of highlights and I haven’t even mentioned Rip Hunter and Kid Flash going to 90s Japan for drunk karaoke.

Forget the goddamned “Snyder Cut,” give me an extended edition of that.

But ultimately it has to come down to one of two episodes. I don’t know for sure that they had Leonard “Captain Cold” Snart’s Earth-X doppelganger Leo “Citizen Cold” Snart stick around for two episodes post-“Crisis on Earth-X” to ease the pain of the crossover’s conclusion, but if they did, it worked, and since Wentworth Miller’s take on the various Snarts has always been one of the highlights of the Arrowverse, the season’s high point can only be one of those two.

(“Crisis on Earth-X” doesn’t count, that really played as its own four-hour event, not episodes of each individual series)

But which to pick? “Beebo the God of War” introduces the cuddly giggling toy Beebo that the fans embraced as their new god, has a great planning montage, and involves Leo providing grief counselling via puppet. That’s a tough line-up to beat. But “Daddy Darhkest” has Leo and John Constantine, and one of the better Ray and Zari team ups.

Tough call. But I’m going with “Beebo.” They were on that week.

Low Point

Also hard. They really brought their A-game this year. I guess… maybe… you know what, I’ll admit it, “Amazing Grace,” in which pre-fame Elvis Presley gains dominion over the dead, ran out of steam partway through. And the white male preacher from 1950s Tennessee being convinced that rock’n’roll music isn’t evil by a black man and a Muslim woman after one speech rang kinda false. That combo would have trouble getting through to white southern preachers now.

MVP

There are so many people doing such good work on this show, and everybody except maybe Kid Flash gets a great spotlight episode (Kid Flash comes closest in his recruitment episode, but drunk Rip Hunter overshadows him. Poor Wally. Always the sidekick), but the heart and soul of this show (plus all of the best fight scenes… save for the final duel against Mallus that cannot simply be described…) remains Caity Lotz as Sara Lance. Oh captain my captain, long may she reign.

Tips For Next Season

You know, Constantine was such a fun addition for his two episodes (and two cameos) that you should consider making him a regular– oh, that’s happening? Huh. Okay.

I’ll just have a Coke, then.

(Also there’s a couple of things in the finale I’d like you to walk back, if that’s okay, thanks much)

Overall Grade: A-

My only concern is that they might go a little too far with the wacky irreverence. Like how Happy Endings started overdoing the rapid banter just a smidge in their third season.

Also...

Also, you can’t kill two of my absolute favourite characters AND my favourite villain in the same season and get a full A, you just can’t, that’s the way it is. I hold that nonsense against Game of Thrones, and I’m holding it against you. That’s three of my original five absolute favourite characters gone, with only three new absolute favourites added. Yes that evens out to the same number, shut up.

[collapse]

Next time in this feature… either I’ll finally get around to finishing The Gifted, or I won’t and it’ll be time to cover Black Lightning. Only a week left on that one. Maybe hop on Netflix and try it out.

Next time in general: my subconscious is a jerk.

Comic TV With Dan: Runaways

Comic book TV is everywhere these days, and it’s happening all year. So I’ll hand out awards and rankings in June, but in the meantime, we’ll be reviewing shows one by one as they wrap up.

This installment: you know how teens begin to suspect their parents aren’t all that great after all? Well, what if your teen suspicions that your parents are jerks were way, way more correct than you ever thought? Based on the first Marvel comic to be written in the same seasonal model as TV shows, surely Runaways should be an easy fit for TV, right?

Right?

Short version: If you think the CW superhero shows don’t have enough teenage melodrama, does Hulu ever have a show for you. Well… half a show.

Premise

Alex Wilder, Gertrude York, Nico Minoru, Karolina Dean, Chase Stein, and Molly Hernadez used to be the best of friends, hanging out during meetings of their parents, a group of wealthy philanthropists called the Pride: tech dynamos, scientists, construction moguls, and the leader of the Scientology-esque religion Gibborim. High school and the apparent suicide of Nico’s older sister divided the gang, but Alex attempts to get everyone back together during the latest Pride meeting… only for everyone to witness their parents ritually sacrificing a teenage runaway Gibborim had plucked from the streets for “help.”

Turns out Pride is up to something far more sinister than building a new school, and are working at the behest of a mysterious and extremely jerky man named Jonah, with an unknown past that– he’s an alien. Total alien. If they don’t want to spell that out for you in ten episodes, I’ll just go ahead and rip the band-aid off myself. Now the teens are the only ones who can uncover Pride’s real goals and try to stop them… if they can put their personal issues aside long enough to make it happen.

Along the way, they pick up gifts to help with the fight. Nico’s mother has a magic staff called the Staff of One. Chase, with help from his inventor father, builds a set of powered gauntlets. Gertrude learns that her parents have a dinosaur that responds to her thoughts, no you read that right. Molly has super-strength, though using it tires her out. Karolina can glow, fly, and fire energy blasts when she takes off the bracelet her parents have made her wear her whole life. And Alex… well, Alex has to rely on his wits. There’s always one who just has to make a superpower out of being clever.

And eventually, they may have to run away. As the title suggests.

If anyone still cares somehow, no, there are no references to the larger Marvel universe. None. Not even the half-assed references you get from the Defenders shows. Runaways flies under the Marvel banner, because they’re not stupid, but narratively they stand alone. And good for ’em, says I.

Strengths

There were a lot of complaints about the story in early episodes, specifically the fact that the titular Runaways had yet to run away at all. Sure, in the comics, that happened immediately. In the first issue, they were learning about their parents’ villainy, and by issue two they were on the run. On TV, they take a bit longer to get there. Essentially, they’re doing the same thing as Preacher: they’re taking the first story arc and making a season out of it. They’re taking their time to explore where the story begins instead of rushing past it.

There are good and bad points to this approach, but the header suggests which one we’re going to talk about first.

Not jumping to the running away part of Runaways allows a much more complicated dynamic between the teens and their various parents, and in the Pride itself. It’s been many years since I read the first volume of Runaways, but I don’t recall there being much definition to the Pride beyond what exact brand of supervillain they were: gangster, magician, alien, mad scientist, etc. Here, there are far more levels. There are shades of grey: some of the Pride are more evil than others. Some take to the human sacrifice thing pretty easily. Some are mostly good people stuck in a bad situation. And also having their benefactor around in person changes things up as well. In the comics, the Gibborim were a race of goat-like aliens that had bestowed gifts on the Pride, which we didn’t even meet until the end of the first volume. Here, it’s Jonah. Instead of mysterious goat-beasts, it’s Nip/Tuck’s Julian McMahon, which allows for more complicated relationships between the various Pride members and their extremely dickish benefactor. Not everyone is a true believer, and that is definitely something new.

Also, we dig more into the parent-child relationships, as each child is forced to see their parents in a new light. Instead of instantly becoming mortal adversaries (save for one Runaway who was secretly on the Pride’s side, a storyline the show might or might not pursue), they try to hide their new knowledge and grapple with what it means. Some kids start feuding with their parents. Some actually get closer to theirs. It’s a complex tapestry and a more realistic approach than “Cheese it! We live on the run now!” being their opening gambit. Not to mention it lets more and darker secrets slip out as the season continues.

Other strengths. The bulk of the parents are well cast, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s James Marsters as the brilliant but abusive Victor Stein; Ever Carradine as his long-suffering wife; 24‘s Annie Wersching as Karolina’s cult-leader mother; Alias’ Kevin Weisman (love that dude, he’s great, his character on Alias was the best… well, the best non-Bristow) and Brigid Brannagh as Gertrude’s dorky, cheese-loving parents (and foster parents to Molly); and Angel Parker and Ryan Sands as the cold, unflinching Wilder parents, a gangster and a lawyer who got their piece of the pie through the Pride and will yield it to no one, possibly even Jonah.

The teen cast, though not always on the adults’ level, are spot-on for each of their roles. Well, except maybe Molly, who is written as several years younger, but doesn’t really look it. (Making her latina works well, and reduces the whiteness of the group from two-thirds to only half–still really white, sure, but progress?)

Combining the Gibborim and whatever species comics-Karolina was into one singular alien, Jonah, was probably a good idea. Really, how many types of aliens does this story need?

That’s a pretty great dinosaur Gertrude has.

And props for breaking from the canon, comic-book relationships and saying “You know what, the gay girl gets a win, too.”

Weaknesses

Multiple times in this first season, Jonah or a Pride member would get caught doing something Hell of shady, and they would stare down the person who caught them, saying (often with murder in their eyes) “You have to trust me,” while providing no real reason why that should happen. That is the show speaking to us, the audience. To explain, let’s look at the flip side of their use of the Preacher model.

Stretching the first Preacher story from four issues to ten episodes worked, mostly because of everything they layered into it, which made the first season feel like more of a complete story. Jesse had an arc whose natural end was leaving Annville in search of God. Not so much with Runaways. In a way, this plays out like the average season of Game of Thrones. The various plot points build to a big event in episode nine, then the season finale is all about dealing with the fallout while setting the stage for the next season.

The problem here, though, is that the first story arc of Runaways doesn’t translate as well to a full season. The first volume of Runaways was meant to read as the first season, not the first arc. As a result, what we have here is a first season that offers zero closure on almost any storyline. We don’t know what Jonah’s really after, or what he even is, Geoffrey Wilder’s frenemy rival is still an ongoing thing, I think they only barely dealt with “Who secretly killed who.” And that’s not even covering the fact that when the season wraps up, the main plot has only just made it out of first gear. The gradual pace of the first episodes was forgivable when I thought they were building to a satisfying climax, but then the finale rolled around and it turned out we’d spent ten episodes only introducing the premise.

And if you’re going to go the Game of Thrones route, with each season only being one part of a bigger, more complicated story, man, you gotta be Games of Thrones level good. Because when everyone else is doing season arcs with beginnings, middles, and ends and you’re opening with one chapter of a multi-year arc? That is a risky move, and in this case, it felt like Runaways was writing a cheque we don’t know that they can cash. They’re Jonah, staring us down and saying “You need to trust me,” when the last two episodes did not make it clear whether I can.

So the ending had some flaws. What else?

The dialogue is often not naturalistic, and instead really awkward. There might be a way to make “The circumstances of my sister’s suicide are not something you can keep secret from me” sound natural but goddamn they did not find it. Someone at the first table read needed to be flagging awkward dialogue, and it just wasn’t happening.

The younger actors are not always on the level of their adult counterparts. Well, mostly Molly. Molly struggles the most. Nico and Alex… they just can’t always deliver the really weirdly awkward lines convincingly. And that’s understandable, it is, but… Veronica on Riverdale doesn’t always have dialogue you believe a human teenager would say, but damn it Camilla Mendes still sells it.

They must have blown their effects budget on the dinosaur, ’cause those are some 80s-direct-to-video effects they’re using when Karolina lights up.

High Point

Either “Kingdom,” when the kids suit up for the first time, trying out their new toys (minus the dinosaur) to protect Alex and discover what they can all do, or “Doomsday,” in which the kids suit up to try and stop the Pride’s big plan, and confront their parents for the first… time… actually that confrontation ultimately fell pretty flat. Yup, it’s “Kingdom.”

Low Point

“Hostile.” For whatever strengths the season finale had, I came into it thinking “So how to you top ‘Doomsday,'” and the answer turned out to be “Well we don’t.” “Hostile” is an episode you break for Christmas with, not for the season.

MVP

James Marsters gives Victor Stein the most dynamic character arc of any Pride parent, and I’m most afraid for the safety of the Yorkes, so that’s bonus points to Kevin Weisman and Brigid Brannagh.

Ideally, the MVP would have been Alex, the unnamed leader of the team, but that just didn’t happen. Love his hair, though.

Tips For Next Season

We’ve had ten episodes of setting the stage. Now tell a story. (Also, don’t even think about writing out that dinosaur.)

Overall Grade: B-

Was almost a B+ but then they forgot to write an ending and here we are. Still too much potential in the show to slip into C territory, though.

Next time… ugh. Fine. Time to finish The Gifted. Also some non-TV blogs to even things out?

Photo: Hulu

Comic TV With Dan: The Tick

Comic book TV is everywhere these days, and it’s happening all year. So I’ll hand out awards and rankings in June, but in the meantime, we’ll be reviewing shows one by one as they wrap up.

This installment: The Wild Blue Yonder is back on TV!

The Tick began as an independent comic from writer Ben Edlund, a loving satire of comic book superheroes in which a mental patient in a blue… outfit? With antennae? Or maybe it’s his skin?… anyway, he escapes, then starts fighting evil with the help of an ex-accountant named Arthur sporting a moth suit of unclear origin. It then developed into its most popular iteration, a 90s Saturday morning cartoon show featuring a softer satire of superheroes, dropping the mental patient angle and the notion that most sidekicks are required to have full, pouting lips for reasons they’re not sure about. The Tick and Arthur, would-be champions, guarded The City with the help of a cadre of fellow misfit superheroes, taking on bizarre and wacky villains ranging from Chairface Chippendale (his head was a chair) to Eastern Block Robotic Cowboy (a vending machine with robot arms, a stetson, and a Russian accent) to everyone’s favourite, The Evil Midnight Bomber What Bombs at Midnight. And one of the only villains to be imported from the comics, the 100+ year-old legacy villain the Terror (described by Tick as “One of the greatest villains of the 20th century! And parts of the 19th, I think.”)

Four years after the beloved cartoon ended, The Tick was adapted into a live-action comedy starring Patrick Warburton as the oversized would-be hero. The live-action version tried to bring back some of the edge of the comic version, while still being wacky superhero fun. Sadly it was short-lived, being sent to die as part of Fox’s futile attempt to bring down… what was it… whatever network shows were dominating Thursday nights in– 2001? Son of a bitch, time is a motherfu–

Anyway, now The Tick is back on television with a whole new take, thanks to Amazon Prime, with a 12-episode season that they dropped in two chunks, all of which is now available. And now we’re going to talk about it.

Short version: if you’re looking for the cartoon series brought to life, this is the wrong place. But The Tick show they’ve made worked out really damn well.

Premise

As a child, Arthur Everest saw his father die right in front of him… because when hyper-elderly supervillain the Terror (him again, this time played by the always impressive Jackie Earle Haley) nearly wiped out patriotic super-team the Flag Five, they crashed their ship onto Arthur’s dad. So young Arthur watched the Terror kill both his father and their city’s greatest heroes, after which the Terror strode up to him, gloated, and stole his ice cream. It’s a famous moment. Ended up on the cover of magazines.

Flash to the present, and Arthur is convinced that despite the world’s belief that the Terror was killed by the world’s first and greatest superhero, Superian, he’s still out there, still plotting. Arthur’s family, mostly his overprotective sister Dot (like Tick, Arthur, and the Terror, one of the four characters to appear in all four iterations of The Tick), thinks he’s dealing with mental illness in the wake of his childhood trauma. But Arthur gets unexpected support when the Tick, an immense blue superhero (now played by delightful British actor/Darth Maul voice Peter Serafinowicz) drops into his life. Superstrong and mostly invulnerable, the Tick claims to be taking his cues from destiny herself, and that part of destiny’s plan is that Arthur start wearing this experimental moth suit of unclear origin Tick just found while busting up an arms shipment Arthur was observing.

Arthur continues to search for the Terror while avoiding attacks from the Terror’s electric former henchwoman Miss Lint, dodging concern from Dot, dealing with his friendly but meandering stepdad, and managing a lumbering, somewhat clueless blue tank of a superhero. The Tick tries to guide Arthur to a heroic destiny, while also figuring who he himself is, what he is, where he came from, and why he gets a little fuzzy about his purpose when Arthur isn’t around.

Also Superian is dealing with a giant naked man known as the VLM (Very Large Man). That might be significant.

Fans of the cartoon should know… don’t expect to see any characters you know save for Tick, Arthur, the Terror, and Dot. Ben Edlund doesn’t own the rights to any characters created for the animated series, so no Die Fledermaus, Sewer Urchin, or American Maid. Nor their live-action counterparts from the Warburton series, Bat-Manuel and Captain Liberty (there is no way to make a version of Sewer Urchin that isn’t legally actionable). But the new supporting cast is pretty solid too.

In addition to Miss Lint and Superian, there’s Overkill, a rogue government agent turned murderous vigilante also hunting the Terror (Arthur’s description of their first meeting is priceless); Danger Boat, Overkill’s sentient aquatic headquarters, voiced by Alan Tudyk; Tinfoil Kevin, a surprisingly resourceful local homeless man; and Midnight, a talking dog that’s one of the only survivors of the Flag Five, voiced by Townsend Coleman, who provided the Tick himself his iconic voice in the animated series.

Those are players, how was the game?

Strengths

One of the main writer/producers is the Tick creator himself, Ben Edlund, who’s been busy in the years since the last two Tick series writing fan-favourite episodes of shows like Supernatural (basically any meta-episode) and Angel (he wrote the classic puppet episode “Smile Time,” and here reuses the phrase “Wee Little Puppet Man”). Which is to say, under his supervision, the show has tons of wit and a lot of heart. Despite some dark themes in the first act (we’ll get to that), there’s consistent humour, and it’s never a drag to watch. And the back half just soars. There are amazing lines in nearly every episode, and nobody knows better than Edlund how to write a great Tick narration monolgue.

Serafinowicz and Griffin Newman, who plays Arthur, make a great duo. Arthur’s panic, anxiety, and confusion over what to do next bounce well off of Tick’s clueless confidence, which is punctuated only by the occasional burst of existential uncertaintly. Arthur’s lovable, and the Tick is hilarious, and you can’t help but root for them to work things out and triumph over evil.

The rest of the cast is great, too. That Jackie Earle Haley is amazing as the Terror should go without saying, but he brings a wonderful joviality to Terror’s schemes. Yara Martinez is terrific as Miss Lint, beginning to question if she’s hitched herself to the right evil wagon. Valorie Curry presents what I suspect to be the best version of Dot thus far, a derby girl/med student/black market paramedic that is able to pick up details as to what the Pyramid gang are up to by healing their various crime-wounds. Brendan Hines brings just the right level of smug celebrity to Superian (whose name I like as a nonsense hybrid of various Superman clone names) without falling too far into douche territory. Alan Tudyk is predictably entertaining as the voice of Danger Boat.

Overkill is an interesting addition, with his dark, gritty, surprisingly graphic, stab-happy style of justice colliding with Tick’s Adam West-ian crusade for Sweet Lady Justice (Tick feels Overkill may need “The Talk”). It’s a great juxtaposition that ends up being a better Punisher/Daredevil team-up than Netflix is ever going to deliver. Also Overkill has a fun chemistry with both Miss Lint and Dot, when despite Arthur’s protests she inevitably becomes more heavily involved in the hunt for the Terror.

It’s not a huge thing but I love how Arthur figured out that only he could see or hear the Tick right in time for Dot to point out that no, in fact, she can see him just fine, he definitely exists. They set up the “Tick is imaginary” reveal well, then swerved away charmingly.

The lampshade hang over Arthur noticing that Tick’s costume received an upgrade after the pilot was shot and their full-season budget rolled in was cute.

Plus they fit in two Easter-egg references to the battle cries Tick and Arthur developed in the classic animated episode (which introduced the Terror), “The Tick Vs. Arthur’s Bank Account.” For the Tick, the classically nonsensical “SPOON!” For Arthur, the less iconic (and shorter-lived) “Not in the face! Not in the face!” That delighted me, especially the less-expected second one.

Weaknesses

You know it’s a little weird that so much of the first six episodes is devoted to exploring the very real mental issues brought on by Arthur’s horrific childhood trauma. It’s odd. It’s a darker take on Arthur’s origin than we’ve ever seen before, which was a key part in the tone being so drastically different from the two previous Tick series that it had me wondering who this radical departure from previous iterations was even for. People hoping for the exact sort of silly fun of the animated series, still the most popular version as far as I can tell, are in for a hell of a surprise.

Also, there’s way more swearing than I expected (limited mostly, if not entirely, to Overkill, which actually helps build the dichotomy of Overkill’s Punisher-style vigilantism vs Tick’s innocent, four-colour heroics). And you’ll catch some glimpses of VLM’s VL butt. And fair warning, VLM is not in shape.

But then you could also twist that into a strength, couldn’t you? This version of The Tick wastes no time trying to live or die on nostalgia. It doesn’t ask you to let it skate by on references to classic episodes (save for the odd Easter egg, like those battle cries I mentioned), and is aware that everyone who watched the cartoon as a kid either grew up or is being shown the DVDs by fans who grew up. So they’re doing their own, more grown-up thing. And if anyone’s going to reinvent the Tick for the current state of the superhero genre, nobody’s gonna be better at it than Ben Edlund.

Hmm. I’m kind of spinning the weakness into strengths, aren’t I. Let’s see…

Well, Arthur’s attempts to flee from Destiny and not wear his iconic moth suit surely did stretch on an episode or two longer than I would have liked. It basically took the entire first half for Arthur to accept heroism, which was a really great moment, but it wasn’t until right before the mid-season break, aw damn it that made it a perfect end-point before hiatus, I can’t even criticize this show…

That whole thing about Miss Lint being forced to share a condo with her ex got dropped pretty hard in the second half. I’d have to rewatch the series as a whole but it’s possible I could have used a little more of that? Also the Terror having an Alexa was kind of blatant as product placement goes.

And they came so close to including Eastern Block Robotic Cowboy. One cowboy hat. All it would have taken.

High Point

Can I just say “Episodes seven through twelve?” Or to put it another way, who among you thinks you can stop me from saying “Episodes seven through twelve?” Because I’m not sure I can whittle it down further.

Low Point

Ummm… hmm… well… maybe… “Secret Identity?” Arthur loses the suit, that was more of a setback than I wanted three episodes in.

MVP

There are a lot of talented people doing a lot of good work here, but it has to be Peter Serafinowicz. Townsend Coleman and Patrick Warburton were tough acts to follow in this role, but he’s nailing it with every single line. He’s called this “the best job [he’s] ever had,” and he’s making the most of it.

Tips For Next Season

This is gonna be tricky. But let’s see…

Really now… exactly how jealously is Fox guarding the rights to Chairface Chippendale? Could we at least have the scene from the comics where Tick tries to throw a sinister monolith into space? That’s a classic.

Honestly, though, just do this again and we’re probably fine.

Overall Grade: A

I finished it yesterday and I’m just about ready to rewatch the whole thing.

Until next time, remember… never let your sister talk you into the “normal” thing.

Picture: Amazon

Comic TV With Dan: Welcome Back, Jessica

Comic book TV is everywhere these days, and it’s happening all year. So I’ll hand out awards and rankings in June, but in the meantime, we’ll be reviewing shows one by one as they wrap up.

This instalment: Jessica’s back! Two and a half years after Jessica Jones’ first season arguably set the high bar for the Marvel Netflix franchise (only Daredevil’s first season can compete), was the best comic book show of the season according to highly credible sources, and after being one of the highlights of last year’s slightly disappointing team-up, Jessica Jones finally gets her follow-up season.

Man. It’s good that Netflix has started cranking these things out faster, because that was too long a wait.

So how’d it turn out? Marvel Netflix hasn’t been doing that well since. Is Jessica Jones season two a return to form, or another Iron Fist?

Short version: It’s okay. Not as good as it was, not as bad as it could have been.

Premise

We rejoin Jessica and pals… ex-child star-turned-radio-host Trish Walker; Jessica’s assistant, ex-junkie Malcolm; and high-powered attorney Jeri Hogarth… a year after season one, and some unspecified and unknowable amount of time since The Defenders. This is the first show starring a Defenders lead to drop post-crossover, but if you’re hoping to see how the big team-up has changed life at Alias Investigations, you’re gonna be disappointed. The events of The Defenders and her temporary super-powered cohorts are never mentioned, even in passing. Other than cameo appearances by Foggy Nelson (mostly to acknowledge that he still works with Hogarth and would care about her plotline) and Manhattan’s most persistent black market gun salesman Turk Barrett, the other Defenders shows are utterly ignored. There’s not even a visit from Marvel Netflix’s number one utility player, Claire Temple.

And you know what, that’s basically okay. First off, Jessica was so annoyed to be involved in Hand-based shenanigans that I utterly believe her not even wanting to mention them now. I can picture a few annoyed “I don’t even want to talk about its” getting thrown at Malcolm and Trish the week after it all happened, and then everyone moving on. Second, there’s not much call for guest appearances. Daredevil’s still off the board until his third season (maybe later this year?); this show has enough hand-wringing over the ethics of killing as is that an appearance by Claire would have just been redundant; and no circumstance exists where Jessica would even consider calling Danny Rand for help. Or conversation. So really, it’s just Luke Cage that’s conspicuous in his absence, given what a key part of season one he was, but it’s still fine. There was only one point, in episode 12, when I thought “You know what Jess, maybe this is the moment you call your super-strong, bulletproof pal in Harlem,” but given everything that had just happened in episode 11, Jessica was in no headspace to trust other people or ask for help. So I’ll allow it.

Weirdly this is the most that any Marvel Netflix show to date has referenced the Marvel movies. Captain America gets referred to by name, not simply as “the flag-waver,” and a threat hanging over the season is the Raft, the superhuman prison introduced in Captain America: Civil War. This isn’t enough to get me to rethink my position on whether the films and TV shows actually co-exist. There are still far too many ways they don’t, and accepting that they’re separate just makes things easier. But hey, kudos for the effort.

That was a bigger diversion than I expected. Where was I. Right.

Premise (For Reals)

One year after season one (two and half years ago for us, Marvel timelines are messy), Jessica is still haunted by having killed Kilgrave with her bare hands–hand. That people consider her a “vigilante superhero” potentially willing to kill people for money isn’t helping. She’s as lost in booze and anger as ever, causing a rival to exclaim “Super? You’re the weakest person I’ve ever seen.” Malcolm, her ex-junkie neighbour, is now working as her assistant/apprentice. Jeri Hogarth comes back into Jessica’s orbit when some bad health news requires some drastic actions. And most notably, Trish, Jessica’s adoptive sister/best friend, feels that the solution to Jessica’s rage issues is to look into how she got her powers in the first place.

It turns out some people don’t like Trish asking questions about the company behind Jess’ powers. When bodies begin piling up, Jessica starts chasing her own past, confronting the death of her family… and digs up some things she hadn’t expected.

I could criticize this season for ensuring that their sophomore outing has all of the tired tropes of a first season, those being origin stories and reluctant heroes, but… the fact is, Jessica’s origin hasn’t fully happened yet. It might never fully happen. She’s a reluctant hero because she hasn’t decided to be one yet. Maybe she never will. That’s Jessica, folks. Love her or watch Legends of Tomorrow. Or both. Yes, both. That one.

The Killer, as they’re referred to… damn. “The Killer.” That is seriously the only codename they think up. Marvel Television needs a Cisco Ramon to think up better villain names in just the worst way. The Killer becomes Jessica’s dark reflection: not only created by the same company, The Killer is also possessed of incredible strength, also isolated from society, and also driven by rage they can’t always control, only more so in all cases. The Killer is what Jessica is afraid she herself might become, especially with Kilgrave’s death on her hands.

How does it work? Well… there are good points and bad points.

Strengths

Ripping off the bandaid, “They’ve finally fixed their habitual pacing problems” is not on the list of strengths. It took the film branch nearly a decade to finally start writing decent villains, who knows how long it will take the Netflix branch to learn about pacing or episodic television?

That said, there is one improvement. In the back half, where Daredevil‘s second season and Luke Cage fell apart, Jessica Jones season two actually picks up speed. Instead of collapsing into Hand or Diamondback related nonsense in episode nine, they actually find their footing in episode seven. Sure it’s not all smooth sailing from there, but we’ll cover that below. This right here is the good stuff. And the first and most obvious strength of the show should go without saying, but here it is anyway…

Krysten Ritter is goddamn phenomenal. 

She was always good with the anger and the one-liners, but she gets some heart-wrenching material this season and she absolutely crushes it. Even when her material was weak or inconsistent, her performance never was. Someone give her an Oscar movie while we’re waiting for season three, because she is an incredible talent.

Also on that level this year? Carrie-Anne Moss as Jeri Hogarth. The early episodes drop some heavy stuff on her, and damned if she doesn’t rise to the occasion. And a good thing, too, because if not, her entire story would be under “weaknesses,” on account of it being only slightly connected to anything else that happens. Jessica is off dealing with mad science and the monsters it creates (and whether she might be one of said monsters), Jeri is confronting mortality and deciding who, exactly, gets to take anything else away from her (spoiler: it ain’t a long list), and sure the two stories share some common characters but they’re basically in their own worlds. Fortunately, thanks to Moss, Hogarth’s story is consistently one of the best parts of the show, connected to the main story or not.

Other strengths… Trish Walker isn’t her best self this season, but Rachael Taylor is still nailing it playing her. Jessica’s new love interest ultimately works as an arc, even if it starts with that old chestnut of “They dislike each other immediately, and we all know where that goes in the long run.” (Paraphrased quote courtesy of the late, legendary Terry Pratchett)

Good news: This is the first Marvel Netflix show to have Asian characters who aren’t part of or connected to a ninja death cult! Bad news: they are both still assholes. So… not a huge win for Asian representation.

I won’t tell you much about The Killer here, ’cause you should let the show tell you if that’s something you care about, but… they made some really interesting choices, and they pay off in Jessica’s arc. Also the “mad scientist” is an interesting ethical grey area. He’s not exactly doing ethical science, but he’s not a bad person. He’s authentically trying to do good, there are just a few shortcuts he really shouldn’t be taking but is anyway.

And seriously, I can’t remember the last time I ended episode nine of a Marvel Netflix show and didn’t think “Jesus, four more hours?” So good job putting all the bad pacing up front.

On that note.

Weaknesses

There is so much goddamn padding on this show. I want to say “If you can’t fill 13 episodes, don’t write 13 episodes,” but Defenders was only eight episodes and it was still badly paced, so honestly I don’t know what it would take at this point. Let’s take a quick tour of pointless subplots they stuffed this season full of in order to fill 13 hour-long episodes.

  • Trish’s storyline is about a recovering addict’s desperate need to feel as powerful as her adopted sister, and how it drove a relapse into addiction. So why did we spend so much of the first five episodes with her boyfriend, the impossibly noble journalist Griffin, only for him to be wished away to the fucking cornfield just as her story is hitting its stride? Did they think we needed to see her lose a boyfriend to understand her life was spiralling out of control due to addiction? Because we didn’t. Trish’s life had plenty going on to lose to addiction without creating and almost immediately tossing out a love interest. He was such a big deal and then he was just gone in an instant with no payoff whatsoever. Waste of time.
  • Also introduced this year is Pryce Cheng, a rival PI trying to push Jessica out of business. He eventually creates two inconveniences, one of which convinces Jessica she should work with the police, and the other of which is the third of at least four times that Jessica thinks “You know what, I take it back, The Killer does belong in jail,” and that is it. That’s not enough plot to require four episodes of building up a character and his go-nowhere conflict. He’s a main-credits regular, by the way, while the scientist who gave Jessica her powers is a “Special Guest Star,” despite being in exactly as many episodes and being far more important to the story. Which might be mostly about Callum Keith Rennie’s agent figuring “Special Guest Star” gives more status than being, at best, fourth-billed as a regular, but it suggests they plan to bring Pryce back next season, which… BOO. Pryce Cheng would lift right out of this season and nobody would miss him. He is dead air. Only worse.
  • There is a major reveal just before the halfway point but in order to ensure that it was at the halfway point… of a 13 episode season… they make getting there so convoluted. They reveal that Trish was sexually abused by a director so that they could threaten him into pressuring a hospital he donates to into giving them some information (what?) that points them towards a homeless ex-nurse that directs them to a mentally handicapped convict who gives them a name that leads to an encounter which points them to a university which sends them to a lawyer that can be pressured into sending Jessica to a house that finally leads to the reveal… what the hell. That journey takes six episodes. That is the very definition of padding. And every single thing that happens along the way (save for the homeless ex-nurse being tossed into Jeri’s arc) is basically meaningless to the back half of the show. I’m not saying that giving Trish a “Me too” story about an abusive director from her child star days was a bad idea, if they’d stuck with it then maybe it could have informed her need to feel powerful, but only including him to be one rung in a convoluted ladder then dropping it immediately is a weird choice.
  • A flashback episode at the midway point introduces an old boyfriend of Jessica’s who was apparently a pivotal figure in her early 20s, yet was never mentioned before that episode. And only once since. Kind of tacked on, there. (I will give the flashback episode this… for a spot-on satire of empty, insipid, top 40 pop music, Trish’s big hit “I Want Your Cray-Cray” is kind of a jam.)

Now, besides all of that, there are a few things beyond the padding that just don’t really work. To wit:

  • There’s a whole thing about prejudice against powered people. It doesn’t really work. Do you know why it doesn’t work, Marvel Television? Because you’re not the X-Men. Do not try to be the X-Men. The Gifted is kind of cornering the market on being hated and feared by the common people, don’t try to steal their bit. The Inhumans aren’t replacement X-Men and neither is Jessica.
  • Also, every person who’s prejudiced against the powered is a POC. Every single one of them. I don’t love that. There aren’t a ton of major POC characters on this show as it is, do they need to be the only bigots? Does the only black woman on the show for more than one scene need to use the phrase “you people?”
  • Jessica flip-flops back and forth over what’s to be done with The Killer (what I would not give for a better codename) constantly. Which wouldn’t be a bad thing if they’d handled it well, because she should be conflicted over this person, she should be torn as to what they deserve, but it doesn’t play out as being conflicted. It plays out as swapping back and forth as to which side she over-commits to. I should turn you in, I should help you escape, you need prison, you need help, you’re going to the Raft and that’s good, you’re going to the Raft and I’ll help you escape, nothing can redeem you, only I can redeem you… never grey area. Either she’s willing to do whatever it takes to bring The Killer to justice or she’s willing to do whatever it takes to protect The Killer from the police, and the change happens on a dime. One noble act changes Jessica’s mind instantly and utterly, even though last season Kilgrave proved that one noble act doesn’t change who a person is. It doesn’t play as Jessica being conflicted, it plays as Jessica being inconsistently written.
  • How is it that addiction and substance abuse are such a key element for two characters on this show, yet Jessica’s obvious alcoholism never comes up. Save for one moment where she admits she’s not the best person to be around when you’re an addict who’s fallen off the wagon.

So in short (too late, I know…), while there is a lot of good stuff in there, the first half is mostly filler and the second half forces Jessica’s arc to go in circles in order to fill enough time.

Stop doing 13 episode seasons. You don’t know how to fill 13 episodes.

High Point

AKA Three Lives and Counting. Jessica begins to unravel as her friends screw up, the line between her and The Killer begins to dissolve, and a familiar face is all too willing to push her over the edge. Absolutely their best hour.

Low Point

AKA Pork Chop. “So we need Jessica to cross a line on behalf of The Killer. Let’s introduce someone unambiguously evil so that her crossing the line isn’t so bad.”

“But we’re playing it as being super bad–”

“Yeah, sure, fine, but the audience should think he had it coming. We have all this cake, we just need to eat it, too.”

MVP

Krysten Ritter. She even makes Jessica’s third trip through the “You’re irredeemable, no wait maybe not” loop-de-loop mostly work.

Though props to Carrie-Anne Moss for selling Jeri’s arc so hard that it didn’t end up on the list of filler arcs that served nothing. That it was the most consistent and well-written arc of the season helped, but a lot of it was her.

Tips For Next Season

Look… are you married to this whole skeevy, power-hating-rival Pryce Cheng thing? ‘Cause I’m not loving it. Could he just shuffle off to whatever island for discarded supporting characters you sent Trish’s boyfriend to? Please? And maybe, in general, avoid having characters and plotlines with no payoffs. Write as many episodes as you need, but use them wisely.

Aside from that… I think Jessica hit rock bottom where “pushing away the people in her life” is concerned, only to end the season by reaching out and trying not to be isolated anymore. You need to build on that next season, not just regress. I wouldn’t normally think that was an issue, but you just did a second origin story for Punisher, so who knows.

And maybe in addition to repairing her relationships with her core cast, she could also try being willing to consult with Luke Cage or Matt Murdock or… nope, can’t think of a third person for that list.

Overall Grade: B

I thought it would be higher, but the season just takes so long to get out of first gear, and Jessica’s flip-flopping bugs me enough that it kind of blew the ending.

Next time: I’m probably finishing at least one of The Gifted, The Tick, and Runaways this week.

Photo: Netflix

The Arrowverse in Review: Year One

Not everyone agrees with me on today’s topic, but I can’t help it. I loves me some superhero shows, I loves me some DC heroes, and the CW delivers me both of those things through a series of shows that, while flawed, I find overall much more entertaining than annoying. And while they have their own sets of recurring flaws, they lack Marvel Netflix’s habitual pacing problems, failure to understand episodic narrative, disastrous third act twists (goddamn Diamondback), and all things Iron Fist, and their annual crossovers have managed to improve year by year, setting a high bar for what superhero TV can be that The Defenders (and a certain movie) just did not manage to reach. The franchise has grown from one show trying to escape the shadow of the teen-drama-with-occasional-superheroes that preceded it to a five-show empire slightly too big for its network.

So I wanna talk about ’em. And I have a blog, so I’m gonna, in a five-part series chronicling the first half-decade, the highs and lows, successes and failures, twists, turns, and tragedies of what should be called the DCW-verse, or if you prefer whimsy, the Greg Berlanti Mask-Based Action Fun Factory, but remains called the Arrowverse because the internet makes bad choices.

Except for naming new road gritters in Doncaster, UK, David Plowie and The Gritsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Anti-Slip Machiney. That’s brilliant.

(Don’t worry, still gonna alternate TV and non-TV blogs, I haven’t forgotten that.)

Arrow: Year One

Hard to believe it started so simply. One show, trying to bring Batman Begins to television via a different DC character that the parent company was less protective of. Yes, let’s cover that right away… Arrow is very much a Batman show, with Green Arrow (or rather a crime-fighter who grows into being the Green Arrow) replacing Batman. The switch isn’t a difficult one to make… Oliver Queen and Bruce Wayne are both billionaires who use their seemingly endless fortunes to wage war on crime, sometimes with a lair and a young sidekick. There are a few key differences, though. Oliver Queen, unlike Bruce Wayne, has a tendency to go broke from time to time to change up the character. And most significant to Year One… you can have Green Arrow kill people without all of the controversies that happen when Batman does it. I mean, seriously now, Oliver… or “The Hood,” as he’s known throughout season one… racks up more of a body count in a handful of episodes than Ben Affleck did throughout Batman V Superman, even by the most liberal of estimates.

Why the body count? Well, and this is just for starters, he does use a bow and arrow. Not the easiest weapon for non-lethal combat. Not impossible, but not natural. And second, if you’ll permit some wild speculation on my part, I feel like Arrow had a large priority in its first season: don’t be Smallville. Now I could be wrong about this: Smallville was a big enough hit for the CW and its predecessor, the WB, that it ran for a decade. And it’s doubtful that anyone would have greenlit a TV show about Green Arrow of all people if Justin Hartley hadn’t made him a highlight of Smallville’s back half*. That said… if they wanted more of that, it was probably an option. They could have just spun Smallville’s Green Arrow (and probably Chloe) off instead of starting over from the beginning with Stephen Amell in a world with no Superman.

So they kept the things that made Smallville work: a blend of season arcs and villains-of-the-week, and plenty of fan service, in the form of nerd-friendly guest stars and appearances by other comic characters, which we’ll be looking at below. They abandoned almost everything else, especially Smallville’s mission statement of “No flights, no tights.” Well– he doesn’t fly. Green Arrow can’t fly. That’s not a thing he does. But instead of spending four years in high school foiling random monsters while refusing to wear a costume, Oliver’s in a green hood seeking arrow-justice against his city’s worst millionaires in episode one.

Sure it takes him three more years to start using the name “Green Arrow.” I’m not saying Arrow isn’t an origin story, it’s just a different kind of origin story. A five-year flashback story recounts Oliver’s journey from a spoiled, arrogant trust-fund kid marooned on a hostile island to the hood-wearing, justice-seeking, archery-based-vigilante we meet in the pilot, and in the first four(ish?) seasons he grows from a killer fixated on a list of names his father left behind to the true hero of Star City.

*Because Smallville wasn’t allowed to use Bruce Wayne. When Batman’s unavailable, Green Arrow is close enough.™

The Rough Spots

Now, Arrow didn’t shake off all of Smallville’s flaws, and in them, we see the biggest flaws of the Arrowverse. First off, and I feel this is a network mandate of some sort because this flaw just screams “CW,” there is a definite over-reliance on pretty people having teen-soap-style romantic drama. Now I’m not against romance in my superhero shows. I prefer the characters in my entertainments to be decent facsimiles of three-dimensional people, with hopes and objectives, rather than simply bundles of personality quirks and sunglass manoeuvres that solve murders with science. Which means that yes, sometimes they’re going to hook up and fall in love. So that’s not the issue. The issue is that the romance arcs tend to be overwrought and kinda cheesy.

In season one, that’s the triangle between Oliver, his ex-girlfriend Laurel, and his best friend and fellow trust-fund billionaire Tommy. Irresponsible Tommy and lawyer-for-the-common-folk Laurel were having an affair before Oliver came back from the dead, and former womanizer Tommy is hoping to make that a more official, ongoing thing, but he worries how his resurrected best pal will react. Oliver is still very much in love with Laurel, but there are a couple of problems. First, she is still pretty angry about Oliver a) cheating on her with her sister Sara; b) bringing Sara along with him on his doomed yacht trip to China; and thanks to that c) getting her killed* when his yacht sunk, marooning him on the mercenary-infested island of Lian Yu. Second, he is launching a plan of arrow-infested justice-vengeance, and doesn’t think he can do that and make things right with his high school sweetheart. Who, again, he betrayed pretty epically before his five years away from home**. He tries to push her away, but Oliver’s about as good at staying away from Laurel as I am at staying away from extra cheese on a pizza, so he keeps popping up in her life. It’s very Dawson’s Creek.

I assume. I have seen precisely zero episodes of Dawson’s Creek but I’m led to believe overwrought romantic drama was a thing they did, yes?

The second major flaw… there is almost always one character per series who gets savagely underwritten, and what stories they do get are cringe-worthy. This year, it’s Oliver’s sister, Thea Queen, who for the first half of the season just complains about how closed-off Oliver is, does ecstasy and the new designer drug Vertigo, and is generally a brat. She begins to improve a little as the season progresses, but overall she keeps soaking my Green Arrow show in Gossip Girl nonsense.

I also have never seen Gossip Girl but that feels apt.

*The presumed-late Sara Lance comes up a lot in season one, including a mini-arc where Laurel’s mother thinks she might be alive. Given that Mother Lance’s lead turned out to be false, I don’t think they’d decided that Sara wasn’t actually dead yet, let alone that she was coming back as a badass assassin. They definitely didn’t know she’d end up the leader of a time-ship filled with misfit superheroes. But that’s later.

**They must have known he didn’t stay on Lian Yu the whole five years. They established he was somehow a captain in the Russian mafia within three episodes, and they can’t have thought that would happen on a remote island in the North China Sea.

The Name Quirk

Not technically a flaw of the series, unless you’re a longtime fan easily disturbed by small differences. Like me. I mean, change the races, genders, or sexualities of whoever you want, but tell me Metropolis is in Kansas, like Smallville did, and I will freak out. In the Arrowverse, the little details that keep annoying me are changes to the names. Character names get changed for reasons I have never understood. Dinah Lance is the classic alter ego of the Black Canary, but on Arrow she went by her newly invented middle name, Laurel. (“Dinah Laurel Lance,” Tommy says, in a promise to fans, “Always trying to save the world.”) Star City is Starling City… although that’s a shorter leap than in the Rebirth era, where the recently renamed Star City was formerly known by the even stranger name of “Seattle.” At least when Arrow finally fixed the city name, they didn’t have to blow up a famous landmark to do it.

In three more years, they’ll introduce Curtis Holt, clearly modelled after the comics character Michael Holt. I don’t understand. There might be multiple Dinahs (her mother is also named Dinah) but no Michaels, and even if there were, there are two Rays and two Rorys…  Why do they do this. I don’t get it, I don’t get it at all.

The Heroes

Oliver Queen is not good at heroing when we begin. Sure, he wins some victories early on. He successfully steals from the rich and gives to the poor, stops assassins, foils some bank robbers, does some minor hero stuff pretty well. Known by the press and police as “The Hood” (a name even Oliver thinks is awful, though around Christmas he rejects “Green Arrow”), he’s got a list of names of corrupt millionaires his father left him, a quiver full of arrows, and a thirst for justice, but doesn’t know the first thing about how to protect a city. He merely takes vengeance on those who betray it, never asking where the List came from and what it might mean. And by Christmas, this gets his ass kicked, as his first encounter with the Dark Archer goes brutally bad, and he learns that the List isn’t what he thought. It’s concealing a darker purpose than he ever imagined.

All of this means that the best thing Arrow did in its early days was introduce John Diggle. First he’s Oliver’s would-be bodyguard, an annoyance to be ditched at the earliest opportunity, but by episode four he’s being asked to join Oliver’s crusade. This accomplished two things: it let them drop that godawful voiceover they had Stephen Amell do in the first few episodes because they didn’t trust us to follow what was happening, and it gave Oliver a conscience. Diggle pushed Oliver to be a better hero and a better man. He is the first and still greatest of Oliver’s allies, although year one introduces a few of the others: Felicity Smoak is gradually worked into the cast, a genius computer hacker from Queen Consolidated’s IT department who fans either love or hate*. Laurel’s father Detective Quentin Lance is there from the start, who wants to put the Hood behind bars, but gradually gets drawn into helping him out. He and Oliver will have a complicated relationship for the next few years, hood or no hood. And last but not lea… actually, since he’s the only one not still on the show, I guess he technically is least… late in the season Thea meets a surprisingly nimble street thug with a heart of tarnished gold named Roy Harper, who comics fans know as Green Arrow’s original sidekick.

The boldest part of Oliver’s journey in season one, and the final example of how The Hood isn’t enough of a hero for his city? Oliver loses. He got in a fight he didn’t understand, underestimated his adversary, let rage and vengeance take the wheel, and it costs him and the city in the end. Your five year journey from castaway to vigilante may have ended when you came home, but you still gots some learning to do, son.

(Meanwhile, Flashback Oliver is just trying to stay alive and deal with the mercenary army led by Edward Fyers, with the help of an Australian soldier named Slade Wilson, a mentor named Yao Fei who betrays him constantly, but not for no reason, and Fei’s daughter Shado.)

*The so-called “fans” who hate Felicity are the second most odious and obnoxious faction of Arrowverse fandom, so side with them if you like, but know that I’m judging you for it.

The Villains

The Arrowverse tends to do surprise twists with its villains, and thus far most of them have been far more successful than when Marvel Netflix tries a third-act villain-swap (the replacement villains have never been improvement, Netflix). As such, this section will be reliably packed with spoilers. Y’all been told. Anyway.

Does it get better than John Barrowman? Maybe. But not often.

Doctor Who veteran and living treasure John Barrowman plays the List’s architect, Malcolm Merlyn, yes he does have the same last name as Oliver’s best friend Tommy, no that isn’t a coincidence. They roll Malcolm out pretty gradually… first he’s just the sinister figure who created the List, and is aggravated that the newly arrived vigilante is targeting his cabal’s members. Only after establishing this did they reveal that he was, indeed, Tommy’s father and a long-time friend to the Queen family. And once we knew that… in the fall finale (last episode before the Christmas hiatus) he’s revealed to secretly be the cabal’s enforcer, the Dark Archer, the man who earlier that episode beat Oliver like a pinata.

Malcolm Merlyn is one of the better villains the Arrowverse has come up with, based on comics villain Merlyn, an archer assassin. (They leave out his ridiculous mustache, not only because covering any part of John Barrowman’s face is a crime.) His season one motivation is simple, understandable, if twisted. This is a trademark of the better Arrowverse villains. Plus menace and great performances. John Barrowman brings the performance, his mask-wearing stuntman brings the menace when the Dark Archer goes to work, and motive-wise, he’s fittingly Oliver’s polar opposite. Oliver fights a crusade against corrupt one-percenters for failing his city; Merlyn recruits corrupt one-percenters in a crusade against the city for failing him. His wife was murdered in the Glades, the poorest and most crime-riddled neighbourhood of Starling City. His solution? Reduce the Glades and everyone in them to rubble. 

A monstrous overreaction, sure, no question, but in season three we do learn that his wife’s killer was a total dick. An atrocity born from grief is much easier to relate to than an atrocity born from “I just love killing.”

Merlyn’s backstory is also part of a long game the producers were playing, slipping in less and less subtle references to DC A-lister Ra’s Al Ghul, to see if they’d get in trouble. They did not. Whether it was worth it… well, that’s a year three thing. Merlyn is an ex-member of the League of Assassins, which is why he’s so good at fighting and uses arrows instead of, like, guns or something.

Fan Service

Fan service in the Arrowverse comes in three varieties: the good (characters from the comics and geek-friendly guest stars), the bad (characters grossly misinterpreted), and the weird (characters named after comics characters but not even vaguely similar to them). Examples? You got it, ’cause we have all three this year.

The Good: 

  • Slade Wilson, known to comics fans as Deathstroke the Terminator, is one of Arrow’s best comic imports.
  • Deadshot makes his debut three episodes in, and Arrow Deadshot is probably, no, definitely a better take on the character than Will Smith in Suicide Squad. Hm. Flash, Superman, Deadshot… is the only character the DC movies do better than the Arrowverse Captain goddamn Boomerang? Maybe Amanda Waller.
  • The bank robbers Diggle uses to teach Oliver that heroism extends beyond the List are the Royal Flush Gang, DC’s go-to expendable robber villains. In the comics, the Royal Flush Gang have been taken down by so many heroes in so many cities, they eventually revealed the name had been franchised.
  • Farscape’s Ben Browder plays Diggle’s ex-CO, who may or may not be someone the Hood needs to cross off the List.
  • Seth Gabel, best known at the time for Fringe, makes a couple of appearances as The Count, designer of the drug Vertigo. This is a clear reference to DC villain Count Vertigo, and based (probably) on this, Count Vertigo was brought into Green Arrow’s comic. So it goes. The Count is almost certainly the most ridiculously over-the-top campy villain this series… no, this franchise has ever had. And I say this knowing that the Flash has fought both a giant, hyperintelligent, telepathic gorilla and a similarly giant man-shark. Really, only Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff is giving him a run for his money, and that’s five years later.
  • Our first Batman villain to be borrowed by Arrow is Firefly, here a fireman out for revenge against the old boss who left him to die. I almost never say this, but… Gotham did this one better. Ugh. That did not feel good.
  • Dinah Lance the Elder is played by Dr. River Song herself, Alex Kingston.
  • Battlestar Galactica’s James Callis and Tahmoh Penikett make appearances, because BSG actors tend to hang around Vancouver (where all Arrowverse shows, if not the entire CW network, film) and are easy to cast in nerd-friendly projects.
  • And one of my favourite TV villain actors, David Anders (who I became a fan of in Alias and now peddles brains on iZombie) drops by as well, as the would-be kingpin of Starling City.

The Bad:

Helena Bertinelli, The Huntress, was almost in “The Good.” Based on her first episode and a half, she seems to be a decent take on the post-Crisis Huntress (please don’t make me explain “post-Crisis” right now). Then in the end of her two-part debut, she turns on Oliver, and eventually goes full villain. Same thing with the Blackhawks: heroes of World War II in the books, a corrupt security firm on Arrow. They keep doing this, taking lower-tier heroes and using them as villains. I don’t get it. Expect everyone in “the Bad” to match this description.

In her third appearance, Huntress gets a comics-accurate costume… but only when she’s pretending to be a stripper. Says a lot about female superhero costumes in the 90s, doesn’t it. Yeah. Not… not great.

The Weird:

Edward Fyers and Shado are both key characters in a classic (if controversial) Green Arrow story called The Longbow Hunters, which was apparently influential enough that John Diggle gets his last name from the story’s author, Andy Diggle (John’s brother gets the full name, which turns out not to be the best tribute). They both became long-term recurring characters in Green Arrow lore, and other than Fyers’ mercenary background and Shado’s fondness for archery, neither of them are what you’d call similar to their comics counterparts. Fyers was ultimately his friend, for Zod’s sake, whereas he and Shado (lovers on the show) do not get along at all.

One-off villains Dodger and Drakon are also pretty dissimilar from their pre-Flashpoint (Google it if you’re so damn curious) comic incarnations.

Also worth noting here that there was, back in the 80s, a comics character named Felicity Smoak. She was a nemesis and later stepmother of Ronnie Raymond, one half of the hero Firestorm. It’s pretty obvious they just borrowed the name and nothing else. But in their defense, they didn’t know they were creating one of the series’ central characters. It just kind of went that way.

The Crossover!

There isn’t really a crossover this year. I mean, how can there be, there’s only one show. Now, the episode when the crossovers typically happen, episode eight, is the episode where Helena Bertinelli puts on a mask and costume for the first time. But it’s also the episode where she and Oliver have their falling out and she begins her fall to full-on villainy, soooo…. wouldn’t really call it a crossover, per se.

RIP

There’s always deaths in the Arrowverse, and it’s usually someone you didn’t want to go. I’ll be putting this section in spoiler text for best practice.

Year one casualties

Oh, Tommy Merlyn. In actor Colin Donnell’s hands you had wit, charm, and were the second best friend Oliver could have had (after Diggle). The show tried to pull you to the dark side over the season, giving you more and more reasons to lash out at Oliver and side with your maniacal, poor-person-murdering father, but you never went bad. It’s a shame your storyline just got grimmer as the year went on, ’cause Donnell has a way with a one-liner that was delightful in the early episodes. See, for instance, “Have you noticed how hot your sister’s gotten? [very brief glare from Oliver] Because I haven’t.” On rewatching, Oliver being forced to watch his best friend die in the rubble of an attack Oliver failed to stop is pretty crushing. Donnell acted the hell out of his last moments.

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Parting thoughts

Two of the names on Oliver’s list are Isabel Rochev and Hannibal Bates. Shoulda… shoulda tried to cross them off sooner, Oliver. Could have saved yourself and the good people of Central City some grief down the line.

Season one sets a trend that lasts into season two: the costume tends to appear before the iconic character. Yao Fei was first to wear Oliver’s green hood (from which he gets his first nickname), Slade Wilson’s mask first appears on a thug we learn is his old partner Wintergreen (another departure, he’s basically Slade’s Alfred in the comics), and down the road Dinah Laurel Lance will not be the first person to use the codename “Canary.”

Another trend: names of key writers and artists from the comics are everywhere in this franchise. John Ostrander, Dan Didio, Gail Simone, that’s just off the top of my head. Suffice to say, if an address has names instead of numbers, they’re the names of comic creators.

Next time… Arrow opens the door to a larger, stranger world, multiple presumed-dead characters prove hard to kill, and no fewer than three cast members of The Flash make their debuts in what many considered to be Arrow’s best season.

Overthinking Doctor Who 6: Silence Will Fall

There’s a new Doctor on the horizon. The first female Doctor. This has some people wondering if it’s time to try out this show I love so much.

Well, that’s what I’m here for. Because when you love a show as much as I love Doctor Who, you have opinions.

These are mine.

It’s Christmas!

“On every world wherever people are, in the deepest part of the winter, at the exact midpoint, everybody stops and turns and hugs. As if to say, ‘Well done! Well done, everyone! We’re halfway out of the dark.'”

“Hey,” said Steven Moffat, as his first Christmas special approached. “What if, right, what if the Christmas special was actually about Christmas, instead of coincidentally taking place on Christmas?”

(I mean really, Donna Noble, getting married on Christmas Day? Dick move, if’n you ask me.)

And so came A Christmas Carol, which may well still be my absolute favourite of the Who Christmas specials. (Last Christmas, which we haven’t reached, is competitive.) On Christmas Eve Amy and Rory, mid-honeymoon, are stuck on a spaceship about to crash due to unstable clouds covering the planet. The one man who can stop it, Kazran Sardick (Dumbledore his own self, Michael Gambon), refuses to do so. The Doctor has one night to turn a mean, rich, old man nice.

Fortunately his old pal Charles Dickens had a recipe for just that.

Over a series of Christmases*, The Doctor tries to find a way to make Kazran a good person… but he might do more harm than he expected. And along the way there are flying fish, visits to the Rat Pack, fezzes, and a for old school fans, a brief appearance by a familiar giant scarf.

It’s love and loss, hilarious and heartbreaking, and it features a tour de force performance from an extra energetic Matt Smith. Moffat explained it thusly: in The 11th Hour, Smith was an unproven quantity. He was replacing the beloved David Tennant, no easy feat, and he knew he had a crowd to win. In A Christmas Carol, he’d won them over. Some might still prefer Ten to Eleven (not I, though it’s super close), but Eleven was still a hit. Which means Smith got to strut. The second The Doctor arrives via chimney (it’s Christmas, he got excited), he is captivating.

*Moffat also said “What if this show about a time traveller used time travel a bit more?”

Series Six: River Song and War With The Silence

Moffat believed that Doctor Who should always be event television. It‘s arrival should be an event, which meant not being predictable like American network television shows. This meant rarely premiering at the same time any given year, and in the case of series six, it meant taking just under three months off around the halfway point.

He had another new idea for series six as well. This was the year he said “Let’s open with the finale.” The two-part premiere, The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon, is every bit as epic, sweeping, dramatic, and eventful as most finales tended to be, with the exception that the stakes are less universal and more planetary. It’s a knockout opener that sets the stage for the year to come… the Silence, hinted at in series five, make their terrifying debut, there’s a mysterious girl who might be a Time Lord, a woman with an eye patch only Amy can see, River Song’s back, Amy has a secret, and The Doctor dies in the opening minutes. Although a Doctor 200 years older than last time Amy and Rory saw him… and the next, as it swiftly turned out.

Of course, once you’ve opened that big, you have to keep the the momentum going. So just saying “Bad Wolf” once a week is off the table. They needed equally big moments at the mid-point and the finale, and A Good Man Goes to War, the last episode before the three month hiatus, didn’t disappoint. It’s a huge showstopper of an episode, filled with twists and action and unforgettable characters (plus a couple of returns), and it sent us off to break with an instantly intriguing promise: “The Doctor Will Return in… Let’s Kill Hitler.

And if the title of the finale, The Wedding of River Song, doesn’t have your attention, what show have you been watching?

Things get big in series six. The show embraces The Doctor as a galactic hero, only to have him realize he’s taken it all too far.

Although there’s a whole other reason the Silence is gunning for him… there’s a question The Doctor is destined to be asked. The first question, the oldest question in the universe, hidden in plain sight… a question they feel must never be answered. The Doctor must die. Silence must fall.

There’s a lot of prophesying in the back half. And worry not, it’s going somewhere.

The Doctor

Moffat realizes that The Doctor has been fighting off the worst that time and space have to offer for a long time now. Long enough that he’s become a figure of legend, heroic or horrifying depending on who’s telling the legend. Maybe this is one of the issues anti-Moffat people have… they preferred the anonymous wanderer to the man who stares down entire armies with a glib speech. But in fairness, this has been building for a while, since back in the Davies era. If not Dalek and The Parting of the Ways, then certainly when Ten stared down the Vashta Nerada in Forest of… the… Dead…

That’s a Moffat episode. Son of a bitch, that’s a Moffat episode.

In the back half, The Doctor himself realizes he’s become too big. He never meant to inspire the kind of fear that raises armies against him. So it’s time to step back. And, well, he is scheduled to die in two centuries, unless he can figure out a way around it.

(The continued existence of the show, and the two subsequent incarnations of The Doctor, might indicate he has a decent chance of figuring out a way around it.)

We also see a trait that has become a key part of the 11th Doctor: the old soul with a young face. Despite being the youngest actor to ever play the Doctor, Smith excelled at showing the weight of the Doctor’s 908 (1100 and change by the last couple of episodes) years of life. When his scheduled end draws near, he can’t pretend he hasn’t gotten tired.

That said, this might have something to do with having spent two centuries travelling more or less on his own. Sure, there’s some escapades with River Song along the way, but for those two centuries we don’t see, he’s mostly alone after parting ways with two returning friends.

The Companion(s)

Amy Pond is the first returning full-time companion since Rose Tyler. And she remains as Amy as ever.

Rory’s back as well, and now he’s a full companion instead of just popping in and out. He expands on his role from last year as the man willing to call out The Doctor when necessary. He loves the travel, and he loves doing it with Amy, and sure he likes to help people, but while he likes The Doctor fine, he’s never been under The Doctor’s spell. When a line’s being crossed, when Amy’s life is being risked, when there’s hypocrisy to be called out, Rory is on it. Also he dies a lot. But if you’ve made it this far that’s not news. He died twice last year alone.

Series Five Spoiler

Oh, and he can remember those 2000 years he spent guarding the Pandorica while made of plastic. Sometimes he can, anyway.

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Series six also dips its toes into a whole new concept where companions are concerned: the idea that they can be dropped off at home for a spell. Classically, when a companion leaves the Tardis, that’s it. They’re done. An odd few might pop back for a visit (Rose, Martha, Sarah Jane), but in general, good-bye was good-bye, not “see you in a bit.” But The Doctor wanted to give them a chance at normal married life. Maybe a kid or two, which… well… you’ll see.

When we rejoin the Ponds in Impossible Astronaut, they’ve been on their own since the honeymoon. A month, maybe two, not more than three. But then after watching the older Doctor die, they’re back on the Tardis with younger Doctor for ooo, six or seven months before getting dropped back off after A Good Man Goes to War. No, yeah, that’s accurate, I have reason to know that time frame is about accurate. And after a realization hits late in the series, The Doctor sends them home again, to a new home he’s purchased for them (somehow), this time for good. Well, he thinks. The thing about The 11th Doctor is that he can never turn away from Amy forever. And even when he does, he can’t replace her. For two centuries, she leaves a void he can’t bring himself to fill.

(Some anti-Moffat people decry series six for two scenes in which The Doctor asks Rory for permission to hug Amy, rather than asking Amy, claiming that The Doctor is acknowledging Rory’s ownership of his wife’s body. To that I say… be serious. The Doctor and Amy hug all the time, he knows Amy is okay with hugging him, this is well and truly established and has been since The Beast Below. Rory, on the other hand, can be sensitive about his place in Amy’s life compared to The Doctor, and there are moments when The Doctor wants to make sure he’s not setting that off. He asks Rory for permission to hug Amy because Rory is the only person who would mind. Come on, people, surely there are better ways to fight rape culture than attacking platonic, consensual, mutually appreciated hugs. Because when you blow things like this out of proportion, you make it harder to talk about the real stuff.)

(Yes, hugs do require consent, so if Amy were uncomfortable about hugging him, this would be an entirely different conversation, but she’s not and it isn’t.)

The Life and Times of River Song

Sure our main story is the Silence’s latest effort to kill The Doctor, and the reason why they’re trying so hard to do so, but along the way we answer a key question… who is River Song? Who was she, and who will she be to The Doctor? Is she The Doctor’s wife (do not expect this question to be answered in The Doctor’s Wife)? Is she a murderer? She is good with that gun.

Look… I shouldn’t talk about it here. But suffice to say, it’s a satisfying story, every bit as twisted and timey-wimey as it deserves to be.

The Supporting Cast

Hmm… Amy, Rory, River… that’s about it, really. There are some spectacular one-offs along the way, some of whom even survive meeting The Doctor, but none I’d call a “supporting cast.”

Oh, except this. Remember when I said that Silurian Neve McIntosh (The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood) and Sontaran Dan Starkey (The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky) would be back as more notable characters? Well, it’s happening. A Good Man Goes to War introduces us to their more popular selves. McIntosh plays Madam Vastra, a Silurian who started solving murders in Victorian London (including catching– and eating– Jack the Ripper) with her maid/wife Jenny following a run-in with the Doctor. Starkey is Strax, a Sontaran The Doctor punished by making him serve as a combat nurse. Vastra, Jenny, and Strax are some of The Doctor’s first stops assembling his task force to hit Demon’s Run. We’ll be seeing more of them, even the one who seems to be dead.

The Monsters

The Big Bad: Chief among the Silence, and the species known by that name, are aliens who look a little like the classic grey aliens, with a suitably spooky twist. The trick of the Silence is that the second you stop looking at them, you forget they exist. They could be in the room with you and you wouldn’t know, because unless you’re looking at them you forget anything was there. They also work alongside some of the Catholic marines we met back in Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone.

(Some anti-Moffat people used The Doctor’s method of dealing with the Silence in Day of the Moon as a way of decrying Moffat and Eleven. To this I say… they had enslaved the Earth, they killed innocents on a whim, The Doctor gave humanity the only way of driving them out he could… and you’re taking their side? Who hurt you? And why didn’t it stick? Also, the scene where he springs his trap is amaze-balls, so nuts to you.)

This Year in Daleks: They mostly get the year off. One unfortunate Dalek gets a cameo appearance in the finale, but other than that, Moffat decided that maybe the most dangerous yet also most defeated race in the universe could use a year off to recharge. The Cybermen drop by a couple of times, though.

Classic Monsters Revived: None this year, but they double up with some deep-dives in series seven.

The Good: The Flesh are a good sympathetic creature, providing another two-parter where it isn’t clear whose side The Doctor should even be on. Actually there’s a lot of “monsters” who aren’t as bad as they seem this series. A siren preying on the sick and injured who’s less sinister than she appears; a minotaur feeding on faith that’s as eager as anyone for The Doctor to stop him; killer robot nurses who just want to help, it’s not their fault their medicine is lethal to humans; a shapeshifting person-shaped time machine with a minaturized human crew that actually wants to do some good for the universe, even if their idea of good is a little… Black Mirror. The giant wooden doll zombies with children’s voices, however, they’re just jerks.

You heard. Giant wooden doll zombies with children’s voices singing an ominous nursery rhyme. One friend snapped at that point, screaming “Fuck everything about this episode!” Also the nursery rhyme contains the theme for the rest of the year… “Tick tock goes the clock, he cradled and he rocked her… tick tock goes the clock… even for The Doctor.”

The Bad: They all work for me, really.

The Ugly: They don’t avoid having a lot of closeups of the minotaur just because that episode has some weird directing choices.

High Point

Back in the Davies era, Moffat would come in, write one story, and it would be the best one of the year. In series six, Neil Gaiman arrived to do the same thing to Moffat with The Doctor’s Wife. Although… when someone on Twitter attempted to get Gaiman to talk smack about Moffat, he not only heaped praise on Moffat as a writer and person, but also gave him credit for “all the best lines in The Doctor’s Wife.” And there are some great lines in that episode. Gaiman’s initial goal was to explore the larger Tardis interior, and to make it a hostile environment, but along the way he tripped over something wonderful.

The Doctor gets a distress call from a Time Lord named the Corsair, leading him to take the Tardis outside of space as we understand it to a meteor calling itself House. Soon the Tardis goes dead, because the soul of the Tardis has been planted into a woman named Idris. Finally, for the first time in seven centuries, The Doctor and the Tardis meet face-to-newly-acquired-face, and it’s amazing. Or, as The Doctor and Amy put it…

“She’s a woman and she’s the Tardis.”
“Did you wish really hard?”

The Doctor is hoping that he’ll find living Time Lords here. He thinks that if he does, maybe he can explain why he did what he did in the Time War, wiping his own people out.

“You want to be forgiven,” says Amy. The Doctor freezes, half turns back, and with just a hint of a crack in his voice, asks “Don’t we all?” Amazing moment, subtle and profound, utterly relatable and just a touch crushing.

Great lines. Fun episode. Really touching end. And I knew Moffat had to have written at least one line, the one about “the only water in the forest is the river,” but it wouldn’t be the first time Gaiman wrote a TV episode and left a note for the showrunner saying “put a prophecy in here.”

Low Point

Curse of the Black Spot is pretty forgettable, and it’s sandwiched in between the far superior Day of the Moon and The Doctor’s Wife. But frankly that is as bad as series six gets: fun, interesting, but somewhat disposable. It’s a pretty solid year, all told.

Highlights?

The primary arc episodes–Impossible Astronaut, Day of the Moon, A Good Man Goes to War, Let’s Kill Hitler, and The Wedding of River Song– all range from really damn good to utterly spectacular. God Complex may have some really spotty directorial choices, but is notable for its sweetly tragic end, and the introduction of Tivoli, the most invaded planet in the galaxy (“Our anthem is ‘Glory to Insert Name Here.'”) Closing Time brings back an old friend, and it’s a perfect reunion.

Skippables?

Curse of the Black Spot and Night Terrors are adequate episodes that don’t add a lot to the overall year. I doubt you’d hate them, you’d probably enjoy them, but if you didn’t watch them you wouldn’t really miss much.

Actually, I kind of see Night Terrors as what Fear Her should have been. At the centre… spoilers… is a child who is actually an alien, but instead of trapping people inside of drawings out of selfishness, this alien child traps people inside of a doll house out of terror. Replacing an extended tantrum with a child’s nighttime panic attack makes all the difference in terms of sympathy. At least I felt so.

Parting Thoughts

Notable Guest Stars

  • Professional Awesome Guest Star Mark A. Sheppard, best known as Crowley on Supernatural but also a veteran of Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Chuck, White Collar, Leverage, and that’s just off the top of my head, brings his usual growly charms as ex-FBI agent Canton Everett Delaware III in the two-part premiere, one of those temporary companions that you wish could stick around. And his older self is played by his father, William Morgan Sheppard.
  • Craig’s back! James Corden returns in Closing Time, as Craig pitches in for what The Doctor thinks will be his last ride. Every series could have involved a Doctor/Craig adventure and I’d have never minded.
  • Supermodel Lily Cole is the siren-like figure haunting the pirates of Curse of the Black Spot. A phantom-like figure who lures men to their doom but doesn’t talk much is right up her alley, I feel.
  • Perpetually underrated but always excellent British actor Michael Sheen, Frost in Frost/Nixon, Tony Blair in The Crown, and many other things, plays the voice of sentient meteor House in The Doctor’s Wife.
  • Imelda Staunton also lends a voice as the Interface in The Girl Who Waited.
  • Apparently Raquel Cassidy was on Downton Abbey. Not sure as who. Look, if you want Downton Abbey cast spotted, you’re mostly on your own.

Between the end of The God Complex and the start of The Wedding of River Song, The Doctor is happy to keep running, pretending he doesn’t have an unmissable appointment at Lake Silencio. The thing that changes that? The moment when he decides it’s time to head back to Utah (albeit after pulling one little trick)? He tries to call up his oldest human friend, Brigadier General Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, friend to Doctors Two through Seven, for a night on the town. But the nurse on the other end of the phone informs him that the Brigadier has passed on. This isn’t just a sad moment for The Doctor. It’s the show acknowledging the recent passing of Nicholas Courtney, who played the Brigadier across three decades of the original series and two episodes of more recent spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures. The Brigadier may have never made it to new Who, but his legacy, and his importance to the show’s history, aren’t forgotten.

Closing Time opens with a nice parallel to the opening of The Lodger, as Craig once again swings open the door expecting to see Sophie but instead is greeted by The Doctor. And on the subject of Craig, turns out that spaceship that was parked over his flat in The Lodger was an abandoned Silence craft.

One night in 2011, after a few nightmares, it was clear I wasn’t getting any more sleep, so I got up a few hours early and decided to catch up on Doctor Who. What did I get? God Complex. A hotel full of nightmares. Thanks.

Speaking of God Complex… every room in the hotel The Doctor and the Ponds find themselves in has someone’s nightmare in it. Including The Doctor’s. He finds his room, but we aren’t shown what’s in it. If you think that’s a cop-out, well, I used to think so too… but be patient.

Six years, six years I have been convinced that in one episode, The Doctor called Rory “Mickey,” confusing him with former companion-boyfriend Mickey Smith. I finally found the moment. It’s in The God Complex… but he didn’t say “Mickey.” He called Rory “Beaky.” Needless to say, I’m crushed.

The Doctor’s Wife is also the first episode I can think of to establish that Time Lords can and do shift gender during regeneration, beginning to pave the way for Jodie Whittaker. Sure it took six years to get there but, hey, it was a start.

Shoulda paid closer attention to that diner in Impossible Astronaut, Doctor. It’s gonna turn out to be significant in a while.

Impossible Astronaut changes the saddest moment of series four, as it shines a new light on when River and Ten crossed paths.

If you didn’t notice, a lot of complaints about Moffat and Eleven were aimed at series six. And these were the complaints that made it hard, if not impossible, for me to take the anti-Moffat crowd seriously. Two of the ones I flagged? Nonsense. Shenanigans. Although next series there’s… well… we hit a problem.

Doctor Quote of the Year: “Those were the days.” Nobody infuses that line with sadness like Matt Smith.

Historical Guest Star of the Year: The most notable comes in the first two episodes. Moffat and the writers thought “We keep having The Doctor meet all these really great characters from history, so this time why not have him meet someone who was a little bit rubbish?” And so did The Doctor team up with President Nixon in Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon.

In addition, Winston Churchill is back when time breaks in The Wedding of River Song. Charles Dickens also has a cameo in that episode, as a news team asks how he plans to top A Christmas Carol. Seemed a little meta, since the next episode would be the Christmas special, and people must have been wondering how Moffat would top his own A Christmas Carol. (Spoilers… he didn’t, but he tried.) And Hitler does predictably make an appearance in Let’s Kill Hitler.

Saddest Moment: “I just wanted to say… hello. Hello, Doctor. It’s so very, very nice to meet you.”

Overthinking Doctor Who 5: Enter Eleven

Been a while since the last one of these, huh? Well, I was working on a script, had a tight deadline facing me, and was about to hit a six-episode stretch of pure Doctor greatness, and thought it would be too distracting. And so the 2017 Doctor Who Rewatch hit a pause for a spell. But we’re back. So, where was I?

Ah yes.

There’s a new Doctor on the horizon. The first female Doctor. This has some people wondering if it’s time to try out this show I love so much.

Well, that’s what I’m here for. Because when you love a show as much as I love Doctor Who, you have opinions.

These are mine.

It’s Christmas!

…No it isn’t. Tennant’s farewell tour took up the last two Christmas specials, so the Moffat era begins in the regular series. Moving on.

Series Five: “The Pandorica will open. Silence will fall.”

When Nine regenerated into Ten, the show didn’t change much. Sure, The Doctor changed. Became more cheerful, more open to people, ever so slightly less haunted by the Time War. That… that never goes away completely. Not yet, anyway. But other than that, things stayed the same. Same companion, same supporting cast, same Tardis, same Doctor’s Theme, same will-they-won’t-they relationship between The Doctor and Rose, only amplified.

Not so this time.

In series five, everything is new. Steven Moffat took the reigns from Russell T. Davies, he had a new Doctor to break in, so he cleared house. New Tardis interior (after the cliffhanger-resolving cold open, the first cold open in a season premiere since the revival began), new sonic screwdriver, new opening credits, new opening credit theme, new theme for The Doctor (I Am The Doctor, one of my favourites), new supporting cast, new everything. 

This included a new approach to the arc for the year, but we’ll talk about that below.

Also returning for a few episodes is River Song. Who she is and the nature of her relationship with The Doctor is still a mystery, but the truth is coming. In the meantime, she’s around for two key adventures… and does her best to curtail The Doctor’s newfound love of fezzes.

The Doctor

Matt Smith was… still is, by four months and 25 days… the youngest actor to ever play The Doctor. I would say that this meant he brought a new, youthful energy to the role, but he followed David Tennant, and his Doctor was energetic enough to power London. No, being young enough to be unfamiliar with The Doctor meant that in the year (about) between being cast and staring filming, he had to do his research. And as Moffat tells it, one night Matt Smith called him saying “I just watched Tomb of the Cybermen. I’ve got it.”

Matt Smith took his inspiration from the Second Doctor, Patrick Troughton. And what Troughton brought to the role was a surface-level clownishness that hid how dangerous he truly was from his enemies, and an alienness that comes from never being 100% sure how to interact with humans, resulting in awkward shenanigans.

Also a bow tie. The bow tie is key. Bow ties are cool, or so he assures us.

Eleven combined The Doctor’s brilliance with a general cluelessness about social cues or normal behaviour that was reliably good for a laugh. Witness his attempts at dancing in The Big Bang, his efforts to blend in with the lads in The Lodger, and, of course, the bow tie.

But it’s not just humour Smith can nail, either. Witness the subtle tragedy when Amy asks him if there are other Time Lords: “…No. There were, but there aren’t… just me now.” And then his anger. Ten’s rage burned hot like a volcano, Eleven’s is cold as ice. It’s all there in his six word warning to the Atraxi in his first episode: “Hello. I’m The Doctor. Basically… run.

There’s something about Eleven that spoke to me. That I connected to more than any Doctor before or since (fine, at the time of writing, “since” is two guys). The way he loved the people around him, but never fully knew how to connect with them. And that while Amy was the most important person in his life (something they dig further into down the road), he was not the most important person in hers… and that was okay. He didn’t need to be. Not as long as she was happy. Seeing Amy happy made his own loneliness easier to bear.

I get that.

Also I’m obviously going to connect to an awkward Doctor more than a confident, handsome god who won hearts wherever he went.

The Companion

Amy Pond. The Girl Who Waited.

Being a Scottish redhead in a miniskirt could have been enough to make Amy my favourite companion, but she’s so much more than that. Amy is what saved The Doctor. After an unknown amount of time on his own, after having his hearts broken losing Rose and Donna in one day, after crossing the line on Mars, after being the least ready to face regeneration/death since Six banged his head on the Tardis control panel and became Seven, encountering young Amelia brought him back to himself. He took on a companion again, albeit partly because he saw that she may have needed more help than she knew thanks to the pesky crack in her wall.

Amy is strong, resourceful, and clever. She saw solutions The Doctor was missing on her first day in the Tardis, and she acted as his conscience, his drive to be better, even after she ultimately left. The Doctor becomes the hero he was meant to be because Amy won’t accept anything less. And because there’s no crisis, no enemy, no army he won’t stare down in her name. Although I guess that’s true of all Doctor/Companion relationships since the revival, isn’t it? With the possible exception of Nardole. Who’s Nardole? Spoilers. We’ll get there.

Also, while Amy does develop a crush on The Doctor, she’s nowhere near as passive about it as Rose or Martha. She makes her move early, allowing The Doctor (Not quite so pro-kissing as Ten sometimes was) to try and pump her brakes a little.

No, I heard it as soon as I said it. As Eleven would say… “Oh… shut up, not like that…”

The Universe is Cracked

Moffat’s “everything new” approach included a new way of tackling the season arc.

Russell T. Davies was happy just to say “Bad Wolf” or “Torchwood” once an episode, then finally pay it off in the two-part finale. Well, more “explain why he kept doing that” than “pay it off.” Moffat, on the other hand, likes to dribble out details of the main plot over the course of the year, while often keeping a mystery or two close to his chest while he does it. In the case of series five, the universe is cracked. The Doctor runs into this fact minutes after regenerating, in fact while still finishing his regeneration cycle, clad in the raggedy remains of Ten’s signature suit. A young girl named Amelia Pond asks him to examine a crack in her wall, which turns out to be a crack in time and space, which allows a toothy worm named Prisoner Zero to escape into Amelia’s house, which results in a high-octane real-time adventure that ends in Prisoner Zero having a laugh at The Doctor’s expense. See, he thought Prisoner Zero made the crack. That he doesn’t know where the cracks came from amuses it.

“The Doctor in the Tardis doesn’t know,” it laughs, before delivering a warning: “The Pandorica will open. Silence will fall.”

The cracks follow The Doctor and Amy through time and space, but unlike his previous selves and the Bad Wolves, Eleven isn’t willing to just ignore this until it comes back to bite him. When he and Amy spot the cracks, he does his best to look into why one specific crack is following them wherever they go. And the results point him towards a secret Amy’s been keeping about her plans before she left with him.

Basically, every multi-part episode reveals another piece of the puzzle. But in the end, the Pandorica opens. Silence?

Well, you’ll have to wait and see.

The Supporting Cast

Ladies and gentlemen, Arthur Darville as Rory Williams. Rory is introduced as Amy’s boyfriend (a label she is reluctant to fully grant him, possibly because she was having slightly squelchy thoughts about The Doctor at the moment). Later, he’s her fiance (a lot happens to Amy in her first episode). But he’s not the new Mickey, even if I’m occasionally sure there’s an episode where Eleven calls him that by mistake.

Rory is at first terrified of everything Doctor-related, from the aliens of death (his words) to the time travel, and most of all what being around all of this does to people. Girl-people, more specifically. Amy, most specifically. That said… he does grow to love it. He has his worries that Amy’s going to get herself killed trying to impress The Doctor, but one trip to Venice, fish aliens pretending to be vampires notwithstanding, and he’s hooked.

Also Arthur Darville has his skills at comedy and drama. He’s one of my favourite Legends of Tomorrow for a reason.

The Monsters

The Big Bad: It’s a crack in a wall. Or rather a crack in the universe. Anything else I could tell you, you should really learn yourself.

This year in Daleks: In Victory of the Daleks, The Doctor discovers Daleks (or Ironsides, as they’re being called) being used as Britain’s secret weapon during the Blitz. Which he is correct in assuming isn’t a great sign. And… spoilers… it’s not called Victory of the Daleks for no reason. Steven Moffat decided to get off of the “Oh no the Daleks survived somehow! There, killed all the Daleks. Oh no the Daleks survived somehow!” rollercoaster once and for all. Sorry, universe, the Daleks are back to stay. That said, it is a pretty great episode. I mean, some fighters get modified weirdly fast, but other than that, great episode.

Classic Monsters Revived: The Silurians, lizard people from the age of the dinosaurs, who put themselves into suspended animation deep underground… and don’t care for being woken up to find that monkeys have taken over the world and driven it off a cliff. The Silurians are great for moral dilemma episodes, because it’s always hard to claim that they’re in the wrong. This was, after all, their planet first. The main antagonist Silurian(s) is/are played by Neve McIntosh. Like Dan Starkey in The Sontaran Stratagem, she’ll be back… but not as the same Silurian(s).

The Good: The Weeping Angels are back for a two-parter that’s basically a Jack Harkness appearance short of being titled “Steven Moffat’s greatest hits.” There are those who claim that they don’t fully live up to Blink this time, but they’re still effective.

The villains in The Beast Below might not seem like much, until you realise that the real villain is humanity yet again.

Pay attention to that spaceship in The Lodger. You’ll be seeing a similar one soon.

The Doctor gets jumped by an all-star rogues gallery towards the end.

The Bad: I actually didn’t love the Silurians. Just as well they don’t tend to get used as villains after this.

The Ugly: The CGI on Prisoner Zero must have set someone back $12.

High Point

I cannot, will not, shall not downplay my love for The 11th Hour, what may well be the greatest introductory episode for any Doctor ever, even Rose. Remember how good I said The Christmas Invasion became once Ten finally woke up in the last ten minutes? The 11th Hour is a whole episode of that, and it never gets tired. An amazing showcase for Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor, and the perfect antidote to the End Of Time blues.

Low Point

You know what I don’t love The Hungry Earth. Cold Blood is decent, but Hungry Earth is just a lot of set-up for part two.

Highlights?

Gonna have to set a higher bar for this, because series five is great. If I don’t get picky I’ll be naming most of the series. Okay, speed round, and then two of particular note… The Beast Below is solid throughout and the moment Amy first shines as a companion. Time of Angels and Flesh and Stone unite two of Steven Moffat’s three best inventions during the Davies era, as River Song recruits The Doctor and Amy to help with the Weeping Angels. Vampires of Venice brings Rory into the fold. The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang was, at the time, my favourite two-part finale. Did it make a ton of sense? Maybe not, but next to The Journey’s End or Last of the Time Lords or Parting of the Ways it’s downright straightforward.

Okay. So. Vincent and the Doctor and The Lodger. Two episodes that would have been the high point of any season that didn’t contain The 11th Hour.

In Vincent and The Doctor, The Doctor sees something alien and nasty-looking in one of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings. Having done so, he whisks Amy off to meet the sad, tortured, brilliant artist, despised by the local villagers, but the only man who can save them from the invisible beast stalking their village. It’s one of the greatest examples I can name of how sadness can be beautiful. Well, after all, Moffat creation Sally Sparrow put it best… sad is happy for deep people. And if you don’t tear up a little when Vincent sees the museum, you, sir or madam, are dead inside.

In The Lodger, a man named Craig is trying to figure out how to tell his best friend Sophie that he’s in love with her. This is complicated by the fact that his new flatmate is The Doctor, a strange bloke in a bowtie who begins to outshine Craig in every aspect of his life. Also there’s a sinister being upstairs killing passers-by and leaking an incredibly toxic rot into Craig’s flat but honestly that is not his biggest concern right now. Third biggest at best. This episode is just a delight through and through (despite minimal Amy Pond), and the ending gets to me every time. It’s not only one of my favourite episodes, it became one of my favourite Chameleon Circuit songs.

Skippables?

Once again, my least favourite is indispensable to the main arc, so… not really, no.

Parting Thoughts

Notable Guest Stars: 

It’s almost weird to talk about notable guest stars when the leads of this season are some of the best known and most visible Who veterans of the past ten series. Matt Smith is now Prince Phillip on The Crown (let’s all just try to forget Terminator: Genysis); Karen Gillan is a full-blown movie star now, most notably a Guardian of the Galaxy; in addition to Broadchurch, Arthur Darville founded the Legends of Tomorrow as DC’s time travelling Rip Hunter; and Alex Kingston’s been a notable name since ER. And yet there are more.

  • Watch enough British television and you’re bound to come across Olivia Colman. Peep Show, That Mitchell and Webb Look, The Night Manager, Broadchurch, she keeps busy. She was even a favourite to become the first female Doctor, but her Broadchurch co-star David Tennant said that he knew her schedule, and there was no way she had time. Anyway, she’s the most vocal of Prisoner Zero’s disguises in The 11th Hour.
  • Actor, late night host, and Carpool Karaoke innovator James Corden plays Craig in The Lodger. Or from my perspective, Craig from The Lodger is currently hosting The Late Show.
  • Toby Jones, particularly notable as Arnim Zola from the Captain America movies, torments The Doctor and the Ponds in Amy’s Choice.
  • Bill Nighy is a tour guide who shares The Doctor’s taste in ties in Vincent and The Doctor.
  • Mark Gatiss lends his voice to the pilot Danny Boy in Victory of the Daleks.

Game of Thrones Guest Stars: Iain Glen, who plays Daenerys’ stalwart and Snow-icide Squad member Jorah Mormont, is Octavian, head of the Catholic marines in Flesh and Stone/Time of Angels. And Robert Pugh, known briefly as Caster, the worst person north of the wall (possibly including the ice zombies), is a geologist in The Hungry Earth and In Cold Blood.

In The Beast Below, the people of the UK are fleeing Earth due to deadly solar flares making it uninhabitable. This is a time in human history that The Doctor pops by from a lot of angles. A neat coincidence: the second Matt Smith story and the second Tom Baker story (The Ark in Space) both involve ships of humans fleeing the solar flares.

The Daleks discover that The Doctor does not, in fact, have a self-destruct button for the Tardis: “Okay, it’s a jammie dodger, but I was promised tea!” This will be Eleven’s favourite biscuit for the duration.

“It’s a fez. I wear a fez now. Fezzes are cool.” They get that particular fez off of his head, but he’ll never give them up entirely.

Doctor Quote of the Year: “Bowties are cool” and “Come along, Pond” are real contenders, but in this, Eleven’s first series, it can only be “GERONIMO!”

Historical Guest Star of the Year: Prime Minister and friend to The Doctor Sir Winston Churchill commands the totally-not-Daleks-don’t-worry-about-it Ironsides, and we already mentioned Vincent Van Gogh. Both turn up a second time as part of a historical chain that gets The Doctor to the Pandorica.

Saddest Moment: “I don’t understand. We were on the hill, I can’t die here.”