30 December 2015

Ich bin eine blonder Spionin (Grand Review: 'Homeland' Season 5)

So, Homeland came back for a fifth season after a mostly high-quality fourth run that moved away from the original plot, sending its leads to a new location... from which not all of them came out alive.

This review contains spoilers from the get-go.

So, Carrie Mathison is back, defending the US from terr...

Record needle scratch

No, she isn't. She's left the CIA after the events of the fourth season (so she didn't crash her car then) and is now in Berlin, working as the head of security for a German billionaire, where she can look after her toddler daughter, who really has inherited her late father's hair colour. In addition, she's acquired a new boyfriend... and a new religion. Carrie Mathison is now a paid-up member of the Roman Catholic Church.

While she's doing this, a pair of hackers working out of a sex club (OK, was it really necessary for the plot for that to be their location?)  decide to muck around with a jihadi recruitment time at the same time as the CIA are taking a look... and somehow manage to accidentally access the CIA servers, downloading thousands of documents relating to a rather dodgy activity.

Namely the fact that in order to conduct domestic surveillance on dodgy people in the Federal Republic of Germany while dealing with restrictive privacy laws as a result of what previous governments did on non-dodgy people... by getting the US to do their electronic eavesdropping for them.

This naturally leads to quite a few problems...

I won't be doing a full plot breakdown this time due to a lot happening and sheer lack of time to write this, so here are some of the salient points.
  • Carrie in a balloon hat at a children's party? Both hilarious and adorable. Seriously, every scene in this could be improved by the balloon hat. The 1970s-style black wig is also welcome to return.
  • Ms. Mathison is useless at her Listen checks; she gets ambushed from behind twice in this show. Also, bright blonde hair isn't very good in a game of hide and seek. Also, it's not a great idea to offer your gun to a terrorist.
  • To try and figure out who is trying to kill her, Carrie decides to go off her meds to improve her thinking... which merely results in her going a bit crazy. Seriously, you don't do that sort of thing without professional medical personnel to hand. Also, I call scenes like that 'I want another Emmy scenes' as Claire Danes is clearly trying to get another one in them. 
  • Howard Gordon, the show runner here, worked on 24 and it really shows; there are multiple episode endings that just needed a "beep beep beep".
  • Also, Sean Callery's music remains superb; I'm looking to watch Jessica Jones at some point if I can find another legal avenue outside of Netflix and the fact that he's done the music for that is another reason to watch it.
  • Speaking of Jack Bauer, Carrie gets a distinct lot of Bauer action; notably running into a train tunnel to stop a terrorist... but jumping out of the way of an oncoming train. That's a James Bond move (Skyfall in fact). I did consider retitling this 'Blonde, Jane Blonde'. Mind you, she's not totally 'half-nun, half-hitwoman' (she's definitely no nun) - getting distinctly upset after killing the terrorist. I'm not sure she's actually killed anyone face to face before, but I may be wrong here.
  • Also, there's another distinctive mole in the form of Alison, who turns out to be working for the Russians. In one moment that would make Jack himself wince, she gets information from someone by shooting her bodyguard in the head, then kills him and then shoots herself in the shoulder to make it look like she didn't do it. As the seven F-bombs (I counted) she drops  immediately after makes clear, it would probably really hurt.
  • Peter "The Mighty" Quinn really goes through the wringer here; being shot, then nearly killed by sarin gas and almost killed when Saul tries to wake him up to get key info from him. At the end, he's in a coma and Carrie is about to seemingly smother him with a pillow when the sun lights up the room - a rather odd cliffhanger. I really doubt he'll be coming back for Season 6.
  • Saul Berenson is not a guy you want to mess with, especially in the bedroom. Alison ends up with the car she's in being shot up by four or five people with assault rifles, killing her and her Russian minders. That's definite overkill.
  • Dar Adal is a really dislikeable fellow. Far too much of a 'smooth operator' for my tastes.
  • The 'dissident journalist' Laura Sutton is very annoying, which may have been intentional on the part of the writers. She really isn't a sympathetic character, although recklessly releasing secret info onto the internet isn't a good idea. Exposing illegal practices needs to be done, but there are better ways to do it.
    • Re Sutton, the secret world's perception means that any real mess-up tends to be put down as conspiracy i.e. an actual suicide of a suspect here.
  • The shoot saw graffiti artists hired to write Arabic graffiti put 'Homeland is racist' instead of what they were meant to do. That said, few people really come out of this looking good. The Americans don't look great, the Germans are definitely dodgy... but the Russians come out worst of all, willing to let a major terrorist attack go down for their own ends.
  • Berlin Hauptbahnhof features extensively here (and very nice looking it is) as a potential terrorist target - although I would note a geographical error; the Berlin U-Bahn doesn't go to Potsdam; the S-Bahn does and there's only one U-Bahn line that serves that station, U55, which only goes as far as the Brandenburg Gate - an extension to link it to U5 has been delayed until 2020. Indeed, Berlin looks very good throughout.
  • The last episode does really peter out somewhat. 24 was able to keep the action going a lot better and not run out of steam 30 minutes before the end. The German billionaire's proposal (which sounded like he wanted to marry her!) was a bit out of left-field.

While not perfect and with some notable flaws, this is a strong season for Homeland and it will be interesting to see where our blonde spy goes next.

I don't want this killed with fire. I want Carrie to kill things with fire.


28 December 2015

Where's Your Head At (Review: 'Doctor Who' 2015 Christmas Special, "The Husbands of River Song")

Yes, I did get the TARDIS LEGO set for Christmas. It took me nearly 5 hours to assemble it and bar some minor niggles, looks very nice. I built my own TARDIS console room out of LEGO as a kid, so it's nice to have the real thing.


While having a sulk on a human colony in the far future, the Doctor is unintentionally roped into a caper with his missus, River Song. Unfortunately, she doesn't recognise him due to the fact that they meet out of order (and she's not met this version), with hilarious consequences.

This review contains spoilers.

The Doctor quotes Hamlet, or something close to it and does end up getting very hammy at points in this episode. All the Doctors have eaten scenery at one point or another, including Capaldi, who is a good enough actor that he can overact effectively - most notably the scene where he does the whole "bigger on the inside" speech. He does a good job here, having gotten the 'old grump act' down to a fine art, but he really needs a proper companion to fully ground him. He makes a rather Bond-esque quip at the demise of one character, which is definitely off and his comment at a crash site that there's no-one worth saving also seems very cold.

Alex Kingston's River Song, like Flynn Carsen from The Librarians (of course played by Kingston's ER co-star Noah Wyle), is best in small doses. While her flirty, lightning quick personality is enjoyable in this episode, once she gets all slushy towards the end, I was rapidly getting bored. Unlike Root from Person of Interest or for that matter the Doctor himself, she lacks the level of development and overall charisma to sustain a regular role. (Goes to check if there is Doctor Who/Person of Interest fan fic with Root in it)

River isn't alone in her operation, in which she is attempting to retrieve a very valuable gem from inside the head of a genocidal dictator, being joined by Nardole (Matt Lucas) and Ramone (Phillip Rhys, who is best known to me for being a terrorist suspect in Season 2 of 24), the latter who is married to River. These are two reasonably well done male companions, although I must admit I've never really watched Little Britain. Both of them end up losing their heads - literally.

They lose their heads (which remain alive, something of a Moffat trademark over the years) at the hands of King Hydroflax, a dying tyrant who likes to eat his enemies after battle, whether they are alive or dead, and is still worshipped by those on his planet. Doctor Who has done wonders over the years of conjuring up entire worlds and campaigns in dialogue, with images being created in the dialogue that the writers of The Blacklist or Game of Thrones wouldn't put onto screen. Hydroflax's head is played by Greg Davies, a stand-up comic who at 2.03m (6 foot 8) is the second tallest actor to appear in the show this year - being beaten by the tallest man in Europe, one Neil Fingleton, who played the body of the Fisher King- at 30 centimetres higher, he has also played a giant in Game of Thrones and did the motion capture for Ultron in the most recent The Avengers movie. He (Davies) does a very good job with only his head sticking out of a red metal suit, which is separately voiced by Nonso Anozie, who demonstrates a ruthless efficiency to the point where to survive he will happily disintegrate his own head.

(Answer re Root - one is here - S4 spoilers)

Effects Speaking of disintegrating heads, I'm not sure that reducing one to a pile of ash is entirely suitable for 6pm on a Christmas Day; we also get an alien opening up his own head to retrieve a metal ball from inside it. Anyway, the days of 'wobbly sets' are long gone (indeed, they were never as big a feature as popular myth has it - some of the set design was superb considering the budget and space available, most notably the TARDIS) and as a result, the CGI is looking very good, especially the stuff nearer the end on Darillium.

As mention earlier, this is a very zany plot; something that wouldn't be out of place in an episode of The Blacklist (no crossovers there sadly). This said, once we're done with the caper, the romantic scenes at the end, which are setting up the 'end' for River in her timeline (i.e. "Silence in the Library/The Forest of the Dead" from Season 30) weren't holding my interest and I really didn't like the "happily ever after" caption at the end.


While there is a brilliant madcap energy in the first half of so this episode, it starts to lose the pace badly and by the end, I'd kind of had enough. Sixty minutes is too long a time for a Doctor Who episode in general unless it's really good and this isn't.


25 December 2015

Jesus was a refugee and other thoughts - Christmas 2015

As a Christian, you end up hearing the story of Christmas so many times that you end up not always appreciating it. Recently, I attended an event with a series of monologues by various characters in the Christmas story that helped remind me of some of the practical matters relating to it.

Like the following:
  • Mary was a teenage girl who get unexpectedly pregnant out of wedlock. That still carries considerable social stigma in many cultures, including my own (adults much less so) and Joseph must have had one eye on his own reputation.
  • Nazareth to Bethlehem, as the crow flies, is about 111km or 70 miles. Today, it's a 3 3/4 hour journey by public transport that involves multiple changes and a detour around most of the West Bank; Bethlehem itself is in Palestinian territory. The direct route would have involved travelling on unpaved roads and that's a multi-day journey by foot or donkey; especially with a heavily pregnant woman, not to mention other attendant dangers, that's not an easy trek.
  • Giving birth at this time would have been hard and attendant with risks; giving birth is generally hard, even if the result is worth it.
  • Then, after Herod decides to kill a large number of babies, the family had to flee to relatives in Egypt until the puppet ruler had died. This basically makes the holy family refugees - and sadly, there have been far, far too many refugees being 'created' this year.
That said, Jesus came to bring hope for a better world. He has enriched my lives and many others. While a lot of bad has been done in his name, so has a great deal of good - such as the food banks in my own borough, helping needy people at this time.

Things will get better, God has promised that!

With that, I wish all my readers a Merry Christmas.

16 December 2015

Club Magicana, drinks aren't free (Review: 'The Librarians' 2.7, "And the Image of Image")

Since I reviewed the first episodes of this TNT series last year, The Librarians, the follow-up to the TV movie trilogy starring Noah Wyle (ER, Falling Skies) has become one of my favourite shows. It's very fun to watch, doesn't take itself too seriously and has great stories, with well thought out updates on ancient stories.

The second season has if anything improved further; everyone knows what they're doing and there's something enjoyable every week.

This review contains spoilers.

The overall plot of the second season deals with the Librarians (plural - Flynn Carsen is now joined by the three others from the first episode, promoted to junior Librarians in their own right) having to face the threat of Prospero, the magician from The Tempest made real by the sheer number of tellings of said play and out to take over the world, with the aid of Moriarty, who seems to have a thing for Colonel Baird. You really don't need to be aware of this to enjoy this episode at all, which finds Cassandra and Jacob in London (more on that later) after a day of research heading for a drink... when a woman is hit by an 'invisible car' just outside a trendy nightclub. They soon discover that other accidents have occurred connected with it; people with no history of drug use having overdoses for example... and their magical 'clippings books' that alert them to stuff like this haven't logged it.

Thus Colonel Baird and her team of geniuses must enter a new and deadly arena of battle... they're going clubbing. At a club it turns out is owned by one Dorian Gray...


Flynn isn't in this episode at all, which is no loss - he's best in small doses, I've found.

Eve Baird, the Guardian (who it has been established is more there to prevent the Librarian from going power-mad than to protect his/her life; Flynn Carsen's 11 years so far in post is very long by the Library's standards, with it being mentioned here that they once went through three in eight months) continues to combine tactical skills with earthly grounding and an intense degree of snark. As well as, in this episode, a low cut corset and tight leather trousers. Rebecca Romijn was a former Victoria's Secret model (a reflection - this Victoria woman is useless at keeping secrets) but is far more than that. She's genuinely very funny in this episode, as the out of her comfort zone Eve and makes some good comments on how she's been perceived as just a sex object in the past. Also, "Worst. Plan. Ever!"

If Cassandra Cillian was in Doctor Who, the Daily Mail would be running (heavily illustrated) articles about her outfits - she wears shorter skirts than Amy Pond. Anyway... Lindy Booth is a lot more than a woman with a high Charisma stat (seriously, someone needs to make a RPG book of this), she's a superb actor and hilarious in this episode, in which Cassandra, through no fault of her own I should add, ends up very drunk, then very hungover - including some corkers when she does her hand-wavy math thing, akin to those bits in the Minority Report movie only in the air and a purple rhino turns up. Seriously, I don't know which of those Cassandra bits was funnier, drunk or hungover - an honourable mention goes to the slo-mo power walk in which Cassie ends up stacking it in heels.

Jacob Stone also has some great scenes, including an argument with a bouncer over the comparative literary talent of the US and UK, as well as having to make an ad hoc defibrillator to use on an unconscious woman. He also makes a brilliant point about selfies and historical portraits.

Eziekel Jones, resident thief and hacker (his clipping book is electronic) also gets some superb material. We learn that his way of dealing with retina scanners - hack the company that makes them so his own eyes are already logged (Hardison from Leverage is kicking himself for not thinking of that one) and that he continues to be a vain narcissist, but still on the side of the goodies.

Jenkins, the immortal caretaker of the Library, who is in fact Galahad, one of the Knights of the Round Table, whose job is to provide the team with information and guidance, as well as slightly disturbing stories about his routines and chorus scenes... Right, that's my Python reference done. He too is excellent here, played superbly by the multi-Emmy winner John Larroquette.

Humour is something that runs deep through this series; with many a comic line or moment. Things I've not mentioned are "Ezekiel. Be a comb", Cassandra's fascination with Eve's face (the show is dropping major hints that she is bisexual) and a line about Jenkins having gotten grey.

The villain is Dorian Gray, who is not in fact fictional here, but an immortal whose power is now based on selfies and the power of the Cloud to divert his sins onto others - this show is a genius at updating these stories to the present day. The way he is defeated is also clever.

Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner... but I do tend to pay special attention to works set there made by foreign networks. There are some howlers here - the use of some American English terms not used in British English ("blocks", "cellphones") and some of the accents are more than a bit off - the only real Brit was the bouncer.


Minor niggles aside, this is a superb bit of television and it's a shame we only got 10 episodes a year... but we will be getting a third season of this, something confirmed on Tuesday. This makes me very happy.


12 December 2015

Star Citizen Alpha 2.0 released

The latest alpha version of Star Citizen has been released to all backers - I'm downloading it at the moment.

I played a batch of the test versions before the 'live' release and compiled my first YouTube gaming video as a result for Phoenix Roleplaying's account - you can watch it here.

09 December 2015

57 fanfic writers just punched the air (Review: 'Doctor Who' 35.12, "Hell Bent")

This contains major spoilers.

The third and final part of this season finale sees the Doctor back on his home planet of Gallifrey, where he is very, very cross at what has happened to Clara. So he intends to do something about this. Unfortunately, this is going to cause problems for the universe, because he her death is a fixed point in time.

This is very much an episode where we see the Doctor really lose it. He basically 'kills' someone without provocation (OK, he's a Time Lord and he's going to regenerate, but still), banishes Rassilon despite the fact there's not really anywhere in the universe for him to go and is fully prepared to destroy the web of time to save Clara. This is all superbly played by Capaldi, who convincingly portrays someone who really doesn't like having you interrupting his tomato soup, especially after you've trapped him in a castle for 4.5 billion years. It's also a nice change to have the Time Lord lose his memories of travelling with someone.

Clara appears in this more than I'd expected - in fact, she's very much the focal point of this, plucked out of a time a moment before she gets a raven in her chest. She demonstrates why the 'Impossible Girl' is one of my favourite companions; she's witty, intelligent and willing to sacrifice herself, knowing when the Doctor has gone too far, as he most certainly has here. She realises that she needs to go back at some point to Trap Street and 'face the raven', but there's not exactly a rush. The next companion will have a lot to live up... I'd say big shoes to fill, but Jenna Coleman is only 5'2; at any rate, I look forward to seeing her play Queen Victoria.

Me/Ashildr return in this episode and she has become a lot calmer after living for several billion years. Her scenes with Capaldi are great and while this is effectively the end of her time on the show, it's made me look forward to the next season of Game of Thrones more.

Each season of Doctor Who has a central mystery, and in this one it revolved around the identity of 'The Hybrid', a creature that is supposedly the combination of two warrior races. Moffat has some excellent fun teasing the reveal and stringing the fans along over the whole 'half-human Doctor' thing (cf the 1996 TV movie). His actual reveal is quite genius, drawing up a nice link between Clara's first episode and her last. The showrunner has a knack for setting things in motion that take years to play out; we also get a return of his own contribution to the Monster A-List, the Weeping Angels, which remain very frightening creatures. Seriously, the only people I know with more warped minds than this on television are in the writers' room of The Blacklist.

As mentioned this occurs mostly on Gallifrey, being rather heavy on the Time Lord lore - indeed, the Sisterhood of Karn turn up again. Rassilon (Donald Sumpter in his fourth appearance in the franchise) is a bit of a busted flush who seems to have lost most of his power - it would have nicer to have Timothy Dalton back, but the other Time Lords are very good, most notably the General that the Doctor shoots - leading to our first on-screen sex change regeneration. I've become a lot more accepting recently of the idea of a female Doctor in fact, with the great job done with the Master/Missy. The planet is back, but out of the way enough that it won't impact things too much.

The ending is a triumph. Clara and Me get to go off and have their own adventures in a TARDIS stuck as an American diner (the same one from "The Impossible Astronaut" in fact, with the console room a replica of the original, complete with some features that were only in the first episode in 1963 then dropped for budget reasons) - there will be fanfic. Meanwhile, the Doctor returns to his own TARDIS, where to the triumphant strains of "A Good Man", Twelve's own leitmotif, he gets a new sonic screwdriver and heads for new adventures. The former is going to inspire a lot of fan fiction, while the latter allows the BBC to sell yet another toy - I've got two sonic screwdrivers myself; namely the RTD era version (which was a present from the Anglican Chaplaincy at my university when I turned 21) and the version now lying on Skaro.

I will say one further thing about the music here; we get a return for "The Doctor's Theme" (as known as the "Bad Wolf" theme) that dates back to the RTD era as well and it's very nice to hear it in some scenes.

Drawbacks? The episode does drag a bit and some aspects, namely Clara's actions, are a bit predictable; also, as mentioned, Rassilon isn't very good.


While a bit dragging at points, this is an episode that managed to have its cake and eat it. Clara both survives and dies; the Doctor goes off the rails and returns to them before totally destroying himself, while we also get the return of Gallifrey without it being a problem.


06 December 2015

Lawyers... in space!!! (Review: 'Star Trek' 1.20, "Court Martial")

Now, I'm a fan of The Good Wife and Suits. I'm also a fan of Star Trek. However, I don't generally expect those two genres to mix.

After an ion storm that resulted in the death of a crewman, Captain Kirk reports to a Commodore at the nearby Starbase as how it became necessary to leave him behind... unfortunately, the computer says something different and Kirk ends up facing a court martial...

It's clear from the outset that this is an episode that's not had the largest budget spent on it. Most of it is done in only a few rooms and with some model shots (obviously improved for the DVD version), with no exciting trips to Kirk's Rock or places like that. Indeed, there is no Sulu or Scotty in this one.

The ion storm in question isn't even shown; just a scene on the bridge with people shaking about a bit (not even a proper flinging yourself across the room). It isn't fully explained why Kirk has to eject the pod containing the dead crewman, one Lieutenant Commander Finney (who it is soon established has had problems that Kirk has kind of contributed to), in the first place, just that it's necessary to avoid the destruction of the ship.

So we get a courtroom drama of the sort made most famous in A Few Good Men among other things. Kirk can handle the truth, but he has problems handling the prosecution lawyer, who, quelle surprise, is yet another former girlfriend of his. How many has that man had?

His defence lawyer is an eccentric 'dead tree publishing' fan played by Elisha Cook, Jr. (best known for his role in The Maltese Falcon, but also one of those actors in a lot of things with a distinctive look) who decides not to bother cross-examining the prosecution witnesses. We also get the rather irritating daughter of Finney, who seems to have come out of Central Casting's 'airy young woman department'.

The trial, in which we hear the words 'Starfleet' and 'Starfleet Command' for the first time, is a standard clichéd affair with dramatic interventions worthy of Perry Mason and Spock being his logical best. It's noteworthy that Commodore Stone (played by Percy Rodriguez, a man known for a very authoritative voice), who presides over the court martial as well, is the highest ranked African-American character in the original series.

The conclusion sees the discovery of what really happened, a piece of technological use that would make the team from the late CSI scratch their heads at its implausibility and a fight scene which not only involves yet another incident of Kirk's tunic getting ripped, but also some very, very obvious use of stunt doubles.


Definitely not your usual episode of Star Trek and it's clear this was done on the relative cheap. If I wanted to watch JAG in space, I'd watch something else.


02 December 2015


MPs will vote tonight on whether the UK will conduct air strikes against Daesh (as I will now call them) in Syria as well as Iraq.

If I was an MP, I would have to reluctantly vote in favour. We are already attacking them in Iraq and they have already tried to attack us - indeed, they have killed British holidaymakers in Tunisia already. They will probably try to attack us in the UK and will probably succeed. What they choose (and they have free will) to do should not impact what we do.

There is a real need for a comprehensive peace strategy in Syria and I have not yet seen one. We do need to cut off their sources of money and arms. However, they already have weapons and money, which they are using to commit mass murder of anyone who will not accept their poisonous world view. Leaving it to the Russians, who are using unguided mass carpet bombing, will increase the risk of civilian casualties. We may well need ground troops and I'm not sure they are there in numbers at the moment - however, there is a real and active attack going by Daesh forces, which we need to impede. Every vehicle we destroy is one not being used by them to carry out their crimes.

We need to bring peace to Syria; but I sadly cannot think of a way in which the continued existence of Daesh helps that.