Bookmark and Share Survivors: Series Two

7/23/2015 08:42:00 a.m. - Reviewed by Chuck Foster

Reviewed by Richard Brinck-Johnsen
Survivors: Series Two (Credit: Big Finish)
Survivors: Series Two
Written by Ken Bentley, Louise Jameson, and Matt Fitton
Directed by Ken Bentley
Starring: Lucy Fleming , Ian McCulloch, Carolyn Seymour, John Banks, Louise Jameson, Bernard Holley, Tim Treloar, Fiona Sheehan, and Tim Bentinck
Released by Big Finish Productions – June 2015
The second audio series based on Terry Nation’s original series first broadcast in 1975, picks up events immediately following on from the last episode of the first TV series and approximately five weeks after the climax of last year’s first audio series. The audio series runs concurrently with the TV version, successfully allowing original TV characters Greg and Jenny to interact with new characters such as Daniel and Jackie, whose stories are picked up for this second series which exploits the rather generous continuity gap between the end of the first TV series and the start of the second. With most of the first audio series having taken place in the London area, the second returns to the West Country roots of the TV series with stories set mostly in the West of England and Wales. This provides the arc of this boxset with a more satisfyingly contained feel and yet some of the remote locations come across as being very dangerous thanks to some excellent sound design. It is also pleasing that having had the first series written mostly by regular Big Finish contributors this series has allowed two new writers to contribute, which adds a fresh feeling to the proceedings.

The set opens with Dark Rain, the first of two contributions from regular director Ken Bentley, who has a clear grasp on the characters’ voices from having directed the previous series. This cleverly serves to set the scene as we are reintroduced to Daniel and Jackie, the two main protagonists introduced for the first audio series, both sympathetically portrayed by John Banks and Louise Jameson. Simultaneously this story returns to the Grange community of the TV series, bringing with it the proper reintroduction of Carolyn Seymour as Abby Grant, alongside fellow original series actors Ian McCulloch and Lucy Fleming as Greg and Jenny. Having only heard her fleetingly in the first audio series, it is great to have Abby return to a central role in the proceedings as her ongoing search for her missing son forms a crucial part of the arc of this second audio series. The culmination of the A and B plots bring all the regular characters together before sending them off to new adventures whilst also adding Tim Treloar as Russell into the mix.

The second story, Mother’s Courage, features an all-female cast as Abby, Jenny and Jackie continue the journey to look for Peter and find themselves at an all-women community with extremely hostile views about men. They are joined on their way by another new regular, Molly, played very sympathetically by Fiona Sheehan. Sheehan makes a powerful impression in this and the subsequent episodes and will hopefully return although apparently not in series three. This unique episode is extremely well written by Louise Jameson, and provides an opportunity to delve deeper into the views and attitudes of the women survivors.

As a direct contrast, Ken Bentley’s second offering, The Hunted, features the male characters, who are joined by Big Finish and The Archers regular Tim Bentinck as survival expert Irvin Warner. This story really pushes the boundaries of how dark this series is capable of being with some scenes particularly towards the conclusion which are all the more distressing for being on audio. There are also some more pleasant surprises including a very touching scene, played with great sensitivity by John Banks and Tim Treloar.

The scene is neatly set for the finale, Savages by Matt Fitton, which brings together perfectly all the strands from the mini-arc that has run through this boxset. Without wanting to give too much away a special mention must go to Bernard Holley for his key role in the proceedings.

Survivors returns with a third audio series in November, with two further series already confirmed for 2016. On such strong form as this, long may it continue.

Bookmark and Share Game Of Thrones Season Five - Episodes Seven And Eight

7/18/2015 07:57:00 p.m. - Reviewed by Marcus

Reviewed by Martin Hudecek

7) The Gift 8) Hardhome. HBO/ Sky Atlantic - 2015
Tyrion: He did what he had to do to survive. ... I suspect he’s the main reason you weren’t slaughtered in your crib.

Daenerys: Jorah sent my secrets to Varys. For 20 years the spider oversaw the campaign to find and kill me.

Daenerys: But you trust him?

Tyrion: Yes, oddly. He might be the only person in the world that I trust. Besides my brother.

This season is the most radical yet in condensing and altering the storylines of the source novels by George RR Martin. But many decisions seem for the best. These latest episodes have much to do, and generally do those things with conviction. Pacing is no longer ponderous, and some wonderful production values are evident for all to see.

The Gift is a title with many different meanings; most obviously being Jorah's presenting Tyrion to his former Khaleesi, and Littlefinger assisting the Faith of the Seven's relentless pursuit of the 'truth' in getting Lancel to betray his own cousin Cersei.

Hardhome is rather clearer in its connotations; the heart of the episode involving a Battle Royale, but one rather one-sided towards the forces of darkness. The usual number of set up scenes and character development also feature, which ultimately make the episode a truly special one and rather difficult to top for the next pair. This is notable, as traditionally Episode Nine gets the most attention from Thrones' creative and production talents.

We now must bid goodbye to Maester Aemon, who has been a wonderfully acted by Peter Vaugn since the opening season of the show. It may be surprising but this is effectively the first character to die of nothing more than old age and related natural illness. The Night's Watch give him a suitable send off as Sam's speech emphasises Aemon's worth - particularly his decision to forsake his (limited) prospects of sitting on the Iron Throne.

However it also becomes clear that Alliser Thorne is still a difficult man to deal with; despite Jon's gracious decision to keep him as a second-in-command. Thorne threatens Sam, noting that his friends are diminishing. Worse ensues for the royally-appointed librarian as his girlfriend Gilly is almost raped by two of Thorne's sympathisers, which would be the first time since the dark days of her life with the now-deceased Craster.

Immediately after Ghost rescues both her and a depressingly outmatched Sam trying to scare off her assailants, Gilly is somehow able to not only tend to her beau medically but to proceed to deflower him. That makes one more Night's Watchman to forsake their vows, but given the innocence and decency of Jon Snow and Samwell Tarly very few viewers could blame them.

Sexual violence does unfortunately continue for fan favourite Sansa back in Winterfell, and it is soon established that her brave attempt to escape with help from a local supporter was doomed to fail. Ramsey's display of the old woman's partially flayed corpse and commentary on her degree of resistance to his handiwork is another fine bit of acting from Iwan Rheon. Here is one of the best villains on TV currently, especially with Joffrey now killed off.

I did find the lack of Roose in The Gift a touch unfortunate. It is all very well having his heir convey the information on Stannis' decreasing prospects, but the rich tones of Michael McElhatton would have been just perfect in drumming up interest for the impending battle of Winterfell. There are some misgivings with book purists over making the Jeyne Poole storyline into the present path for Sansa, but in all honesty this works brilliantly, and many will hope for a major climax in the near future. I also welcomed Sansa hearing of Jon's elevated fortune.

"Night Commander now, I've gone up in the world" would be a fun line to hear from her half brother, but this show is pretty grim at the best of times, and with Jon's plans to recruit Wildlings to the cause any meeting of these half-siblings is rather moot anyway.

The million dollar question however rests on whether Theon will help his childhood 'sibling' and enable an escape for her after all. That he has admitted that Bran and Rickon were not killed and thus may perhaps be safe is maybe an indicator. Yet one must remember the grievous mental and physical torture that he will never be able to exorcise from his soul. Alfie Allen is truly superb in this role, somehow avoiding hamming it up. He evokes true concern from many a cynical viewer.

There is not too much focus on Stannis in this pair of episodes, with just a brief scene in Episode Seven as his sum-total. Things have not got any more promising for the 'true king' since his departure from the Wall. He faces an increasingly hostile Winter, and now must resolve himself to either march onto battle or to retreat in abject fashion to the confines of the Night's Watch. Also he has lost some sell-swords, who would probably have been some of his best fighters in hand to hand combat. (As we know Bronn is certainly an accomplished warrior despite his lowly roots).

Most significant though is the Red Witch offering dark magic to gain an advantage. But this latest ritual would be something else. She point blank requests that Stannis' soul heir Shireen be burnt alive. Suddenly the touching moment seen in 'Sons of the Harpy' is looking shaky. Stannis' immediate reaction is to shout Melissandre out of the tent, but such is Stephan Dillane's skill of acting without dialogue that we know he is not discounting this most harrowing of chess piece sacrifices.

King's Landing does get a good amount of attention by contrast, with proper confirmation at last that Littlefinger did conspire with Olenna to take care of Joffrey once and for all. However the result yielded with Tommen, who is so passive as to be on the other end of the spectrum, has only allowed opportunist like the High Sparrow to turn the status quo on its head. Jonathan Pryce's latest work as the religious zealot is just as strong if not even better, especially when sharing the screen with the legendary Diana Rigg.

The High Sparrow for now is pulling quite a few strings, and not content with threatening Highgarden's influence in terms of food supply by mentioning the might of the 'many' who could take action to stop the crops being processed, he goes on to arrest another of the 'few'. None other than Cersei Lannister.

Yes, a proper comeuppance for the demented beauty, still believing she was the Queen proper has arrived. This works extremely well in both episodes. Her visit to Margaery where she displays mock sympathy is the effective pride before the fall. Cersei must listen to a well-articulated speech by the High Sparrow on the 'essence' that all people have beneath their appearance and status. She then is brutally given the same grim imprisonment that her daughter-in-law suffers.

Come episode eight we see Cersei struggle to survive both mentally and physically, and despite her arrogance she is having to seriously consider confessing to her alleged crimes. For the moment though we are not witness to a dramatic humbling of the most off-kilter of the Lannisters.

But what of the exiled 'Lion', who is now betraying his own family through and through by finally going through with his plan to ally with the enemy Daenerys?

Well he barely manages to make it into the open fighting pit which Dany and her new husband visit as spectators as part of their royal commitments. Just moments earlier Jorah had managed to defy the slave master's will and incapacitate other combatants that were left standing after one round of lethal gladiatorial action. However the 'Imp' timed his move well and helps Jorah's desperate attempt to win back Dany look credible by approaching the Royal Box and firmly stating 'I am the gift. It's a pleasure to meet you, Your Grace'.

Onto the next episode then for Tyrion and we see that Dany (despite increased impulsive action since conquering Meereen) has at least granted a formal audience to the two outcasts at her court. Mormont is however on a hiding to nothing, with Tyrion quickly stating that he is a liability to Dany even if his intentions are borne out of the purest love (and lust!) for her. Then Tyrion must justify why he should breathe any longer by provocatively entering Meereen in the first place. We all know that Tyrion is a fantastic wit and intellect, and not long after there is a tremendous two-handed scene with Peter Dinklage and Emilia Clarke. This is perhaps the best character moment of the entire season, and I quoted a small portion at the beginning of this review.

That these two even meet at this particular time is a definite change to the much more protected events of Book Five in the source material. Yet it is most welcome and a brand new dynamic where two of the best characters verbally spar with one another.

 As with Stannis and his followers, the set of character over in Dorne are only required for the first of these episodes. I  will admit that the three Sand Snakes are ever so slightly more engaging this time round, but perhaps the credit really  goes to Jerome Flynn's Bronn. He really gets the audience's full concern for his welfare. Being threatened with a  brutal  poison that can only be cured with rapid use of an antidote certainly makes Bronn look a bit less than his usual  unflappable self. Yes we get a display of bare breasts from Tyne which is really of main appeal to the adolescents      that follow the show. I can give a pass on this as it fits the characterization established and the precedent shown by  parents Oberyn and Ellaria in Season Four.

 A little weaker is a generic scene where Jaime scolds Myrcella. She almost impresses in her defiance over just how  much she loves Doran's dashing son, but such is the lack of groundwork for the young couple, the whole exchange    just ends up as mere bluster.  Doran is nowhere to be seen, which disappoints me as well.

Arya's allotment of screen time by contrast is confined to Hardhome and is a reasonably diverting update for the most amoral of the Starks. She has a new occupation of selling seafood goods on a cart, but of course this is just cover for her latest mission for the Faceless Men, i.e. assassinating one of the more ruthless denizens of Braavos.

Lana (as she is for the moment called) is clearly disturbed by the so-called Thin Man's scheme of profiting from desperate sea captains. The men only are rewarded with death in reaching their destination leaving their widows and children facing abject poverty. This would be one enforced kill that would feel satisfying to Lana. Arguably this is one of the clearer instances of set-up out of what an episode charged with bringing significant progress to plot threads.

Arya rarely follows the status quo however, and she may well find herself either cheating to ensure the outcome, or using her new identity to try and meet her own agenda. And nothing has happened to suggest Mace Tyrell and Meryn Trant are not going to make it over to this location very soon now.

As the song goes, I have decided to 'Save The Best For Last' and the Battle at Hardhome is worthy of gaining special praise. It is a major feather in the cap for a perhaps harshly judged season of a TV juggernaut. Everything building up to this set piece is essential viewing, beginning with Tormund's brutal close of negotiations with the Lord of Bones, and then proceeding into the well directed debating scene in a wildling hut. Jon almost shoots himself in the foot by referring to his shooting of Mance Rayder in the heart, but Tormund again ensures that the Lord Commander's desperate gambit remains on track.

The tense moments in the hut featuring a pensive Giant in one corner, combined with Wildling chieftess Karsi and Thenn leader Loboda - both out for as much crow blood as they can get - is a good suspenseful section. But the real  excitement soon arrives as the King and Lieutenants of the White Walkers, and their myriad minions, burst onto the  scene. The chilling sacrifice of those Wildling who couldn't get to safety in time is a reminder of just how cruel a world  George RR Martin created in the first place.

What follows is a massive battle set-piece and one of the most demanding but perfectly executed use of talent and resources by the production crew. We are privy to so much detail with various types of shots and focuses used. Yes, the rapid jumps from the various sword fights or arrow assaults on the wights can potentially be tiring but something just works despite all the chaos. Ultimately the passing of time becomes irrelevant. Mood is dominant.

The aftershock from this episode, which ends in eerie silence, will never be forgotten by me anytime soon. Jon may have demonstrated that his 'Longclaw' sword can kill a White Walker emphatically and swiftly. The problem is that such a weapon is rare and difficult to make in bulk. And with each ally cut down by the Others' forces, another soulless zombie foe arises. The moment of purest horror is when the Wildling Karsi stares like a rabbit in headlights at Wight 'children' before being eviscerated. She later becomes a Wight herself as part of the brutal final defeat for the humanoid forces.

Perhaps one-in-ten of the fledgling alliance leaves Hardhome intact. And the overriding impression is that this is a deliberate stay of execution, and Winter Is Coming faster and with more fury than ever before.

I truly salute Deneiof and Wiss for having the courage to carve their own path. This epic battle was barely covered properly in the books, even if it had some significance. Yet by galvanising it so as to probably forge the jewel in Season Five's crown, the showrunners have once again proved just how worthy they are to be in charge.

Thrones is as cinematic as TV gets, and yet can also offer all the subtleties of character dynamics that can be found in the mediums of theatre or radio. The traditionally pivotal episode nine, and the season finale, will need to be strong to do justice to the many adventures, intrigues and battles unfolding. On the evidence presented recently, that goal should indeed see a translation of intent into substance.

Bookmark and Share Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Episode Seven - Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

6/29/2015 12:55:00 p.m. - Reviewed by Marcus

Reviewed by Martin Ruddock
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (ep 1) (Credit: BBC) Written by Peter Harness Directed by Toby Haynes First transmitted 28th June 2015, BBC One
All good things must come to an end, and the finale of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is the most spectacular episode yet. So much happens, with so much nuance crammed in, and so much startling imagery. The ensemble cast, all so good in previous instalments all crank it up a notch here. This is a satisfying end to a big story.

It opens ominously. The mirrors of England have all been smashed by Strange's trick with the ravens, Magic is in disgrace, its reputation in ruins, shouted down by the whole of government. Strange is still in his black tower, Norrell has taken his leave back to Yorkshire, and the Gentleman is still continuing his lengthy, cruel dance.

In fact, reputation turns out to be a major theme, it's hinted at in previous episodes, but really comes to the fore here. The disgraced Drawlight, his clothes in tatters, meets with Lascelles - who really has turned out to be a nasty piece of work. Drawlight has been reduced to a tragic figure, determined to deliver Strange's messages (and Lady Pole's missing digit). Lascelles refuses to let him near Norrell, and kills his former associate to preserve Norrell's reputation, and therefore his own.

Lascelles then visits Norrell, where Childermass quickly cuts through the bluster to the truth. Lascelles pulls a knife on Childermass and cuts his face (Norrell is too busy attempting to erect a magical barricade to notice), but Childermass takes the opportunity to steal back what Lascelles has taken. The two men neatly spell out that this version of England truly has its own North-South divide, Lascelles sees himself as a 'gentleman', and Childermass as 'from the gutters of Yorkshire'. Childermass, a man who's had a belly full over the last six episodes, calmly reminds Lascelles that he is in the North, where the Raven King lives on in hearts and minds, witheringly resigns from Norrell's service, and leaves like a boss.

This leads straight to the confrontation between the increasingly raddled Strange and scared Norrell, as Jonathan appears in Norrell's library. The two have shared little screen time over the last couple of episodes, but they finally lock horns here. It all ends with bathos, as Norrell has little recourse to Jonathan's onslaught but to make it rain. 

But the dying Strange doesn't want to kill Norrell, he wants his help. Norrell is still in denial about his bargain with the Gentleman, but ruefully says that didn't want Strange to fall into his mistake. When Strange decides to attempt to summon the Raven King, he and Norrell finally truly work together. Norrell even manages a compliment about Strange's book -  "The most beautiful book of magic I have ever read". The relationship between the two men is complex, but teased out beautifully by Bertie Carvel and the more understated Eddie Marsan, whose quiet, nuanced performance is never better here.

This leads to the showstopping arrival of John Uskglass, the Raven King - who sweeps in spectacular fashion, finding the hanged Vinculus, reviving him from the dead, and rewriting the book Vinculus has tattooed on his person. He may look like the singer from a Black Metal band and say nothing whatsoever, but this guy has serious presence. It's a shame he has so little screen time, but there is a lot to cover here.

Back at Chez Segundus, things finally come to a head, as a freshly resigned Sir Walter Pole learns Stephen serves the Gentleman.

Well-meaning Segundus finally reunites Lady Pole with her finger and her sanity, pulling her out of the Gentleman's dance, and incurring the Faerie Host's fury. Lady Pole finally gets to give the Gentleman both barrels, she is quite done with being bartered by 'gentlemen'. The malevolent Faerie manages a classic quip of "Why are you firing Walnuts at me?" before we see him at his cruellest, taking a different sense away from both the Poles, Segundus, and Honeyfoot in a scene of magical body horror.

Strange and Norrell's efforts to put all of English Magic into the Raven King backfire (much to Norrell's chagrin, as his entire library goes in the process, (in a nice touch, Norrell's wig is blown off) and, as a result of a misunderstanding of naming convention, all of the power goes into Stephen - who is promptly shot dead by Lascelles. Lascelles gets his comeuppance at the hands of the furious Gentleman, who turns him to shattering glass before taking Stephen's body back to Lost Hope, where he is revived.

The magicians pursue them to Lost Hope, where Stephen, the 'nameless slave' finally rebels against his bonds of slavery and kills the Gentleman in a huge, powerful set piece, that destroys the Faerie King's domain, freeing Arabella, and flinging her through a mirror into the care of the Greysteels in Venice.

Norrell and Strange have been both master and pupil and bitter enemies up to now. It's a joy to see their excitable chemistry at work as they finally become a team of equals. It's a little too late though. Strange is still somehow trapped in the 'Black Tower', and Norrell, a man not known for his valour or moral character, is trapped with him. They enter a sort of limbo together as friends, as the Raven King restores order, unseen, observed by Childermass and Vinculus.

An elegaic scene follows in Venice between Arabella, and Strange's reflection in a well. Jonathan, looking sane and healthy, speaks to Arabella from whatever realm he is in, reaffirming his love for her - but telling her not to wait for him and become a widow. It's emotional stuff, delivered well by Carvel and Charlotte Riley. Strange's love for his wife has powered the series, and his appearance to say goodbye is touching.

The last word is left to Childermass, in a scene echoing the first scene of episode one, revisiting the same gathering of would-be magicians to symbolically hand over the torch, bringing in Vinculus as the set text to study.

This series has been one of the BBC's best efforts in some years. It never captured the public's imagination to any great degree ratings-wise, but as a prestigious production it may prove a watershed, the BBC doesn't traditionally go to town on anything that won't get a lot of commercial return back. At seven episodes and with no follow-up book to base a potential second series on, it stands alone - wonderfully adapted by Peter Harness and Toby Haynes. The cast is great, Carvel and Marsan are excellent leading men, but the show is often stolen by Enzo Cilenti's brooding, charismatic Childermass, and Marc Warren's malevolent Gentleman. It looks fantastic, and I'm running out of superlatives. I'll just sign off with this - it's been magic.

Bookmark and Share Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Episode Six - The Black Tower

6/23/2015 11:58:00 p.m. - Reviewed by Marcus

Reviewed by Martin Ruddock
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (ep 2) (Credit: BBC) Written by Peter Harness Directed by Toby Haynes First Transmitted 21st June 2015, BBC One
The Penultimate episode of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell finds pieces aligning for the endgame. 

In the background, we finally learn the true nature of Vinculus, and Stephen shows signs of beginning to wriggle free from the Gentleman’s thrall, as Vinculus reveals that his skin also has significance, and the two men share a moment. It doesn’t end well for Vinculus, naturally, but as he was as much book as man, can you really kill an idea?

In the foreground, Strange and Norrell are still at odds, even with Strange currently on the run. Norrell is appreciative of the quality of Strange’s book, but is making every copy of it disappear, and sending the disgraced Drawlight to spy on Strange, under threat of magical menaces.

Norrell’s involvement in this episode is mostly limited to hanging around in the background, plotting against Strange. And where is Strange?

He’s in Venice, trying to drive himself mad enough to summon a Faerie, in the mistaken belief that he can revive Arabella - who he still believes dead. Increasingly unkempt and raddled, he falls in with the Greysteels, suspicious Father James (Clive Mantle), and starry-eyed daughter Flora (Lucinda Dryzek). The latter is a bit too taken with Strange for her Father’s liking, even if he is tunnel-visioned on reviving Arabella.

Strange eventually turns a crazy cat lady into a cat herself in return for the hallucinogenic mouse that allows him to finally tip over the edge enough to see a Faerie. He really picks his Faerie as well, summoning the Gentleman, who’s somewhat aghast that Strange can finally see him. The tension between the two in this episode is electric, with an unwitting Strange first asking the Gentleman for the bargain of the return of his wife, before eventually coming to the realisation that the Gentleman - and by extension, Norrell is responsible for his loss, as Strange finds his way into the enchanted ballroom of Lost Hope, and finds the enchanted Arabella. The Gentleman is caught on the back foot for the first time by Strange’s power, and his fury.

A furious magic battle ensues between the two, with Strange only just losing, as the Gentleman imprisons him in a ‘black tower’ of darkness. The increasingly pathetic Drawlight is drawn in, and sent back out with tale between legs by Strange with a promise to Norrell. He is coming.

Toby Haynes outdoes himself visually again, with the scenes in Venice and the darkness of the sequences in the Black Tower and Lost Hope, as well as Vinculus's demise all standing out. The episode ends with hordes of ravens smashing through Norrell’s mirror, the latest in a long line of spectacular images. The scripts are superb. The central performances, from the understated Eddie Marsan, to the increasingly maniacal Bertie Carvel, and the quiet malevolence of Marc Warren's Gentleman are quite inspired. Within a week this series will be no more. We may not see its like from the BBC again.

Bookmark and Share Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Episode Five - Arabella

6/17/2015 10:09:00 p.m. - Reviewed by Marcus

Reviewed by Martin Ruddock
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (Credit: BBC)Directed by Toby Haynes First Transmitted 14th June 2015, BBC One
Things continue to go from bad to worse for our Magicians in episode five of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, as the Gentleman’s scheming continues.
Opening with a bravura bit of direction by Toby Haynes, we’re plunged straight into the battle of Waterloo. Haynes’ camera swoops in from high above and dive-bombs right to the thick of the action, where Jonathan Strange is back on the front-line – doing spectacular things, surrounded by explosions, mud, and weather of his own making. Wow, frankly.
We see this in flashback, cutting back to Blighty, where Strange is recovering from his time at war, and winding down with Arabella. Finally it seems, they’re free to move on together, but their domestic idyll proves short-lived. Arabella is summoned from their bed at night, where she accompanies Stephen in a Faerie carriage, under the impression she is to visit a distressed Lady Pole. 
Needless to say, it’s a trap, and part of the terrible bargain the Gentleman is trapping an unwitting Strange into, as she finds herself in the eerie ballroom from Lady Pole’s visions. Meanwhile, her facsimile, all bark and gleaming sap, is found in a state of confusion and delivered back to Strange – who accepts her as his wife, therefore sealing the real Arabella’s fate. 
The poor replica doesn’t survive long, her unnatural life soon expires, leading to Jonathan’s failed attempts to revive her from the grave. The Gentleman and Stephen observe unseen, with the former trying to persuade his flunky to flick Strange’s head – like a mean kid pulling the wings off a fly. By the end of the episode, a grief-stricken Strange has ended up behind bars for attacking Norrell, and escaped through the Kings Roads to destinations unknown. Bertie Carvel’s performance in this episode is nothing short of brilliant,  conveying variously fear, trauma, exhaustion, grief, and fury towards Norrell – who refuses to help him.
Speaking of Norrell, he’s having another fallow week, not much to report apart from his continued stick-up-posterior. Childermass has much more to do, brooding and trying to pick a side to choose – basically he’s prepared to nail his allegiance to whoever loses the passive-aggressive battle between Strange and Norrell. What a guy.
Meanwhile, Lascelles continues to be Norrell's vicious acolyte, whilst Drawlight is still, as we see, behind bars. Vinculus pops up again to sow intrigue, and Mr Honeyfoot - probably the slightest character so far, finds sense in the 'ramblings' of Lady Pole, and is decoding the meaning.
As the series begins to draw to a close, all these disparate threads are drawing together. However, this is Jonathan's episode, and rightly, his cliffhanger. We've seen what he is capable of in battle, what might such a magician do in anger?

Bookmark and Share Game Of Thrones Season Five - Episodes Five And Six

6/16/2015 05:02:00 p.m. - Reviewed by Marcus

Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
5- Kill the Boy, 6 - Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken
HBO/ Sky Atlantic - 2015
The middle section of this season starts to make good on its promise; tantalising as to what fates and allegiances will concern the many characters involved.

Kill The Boy is a title with several references to actions and decision. Most obvious is Jon Snow's growth as the Lord Commander, telegraphed by Maester Aemon uttering the phrase. Tormund is now truly developing respect for Jon, after already having been through a period of investing trust in the youth, only to have it damaged by the eventual actions of one who meant his sworn loyalty to the Night's Watch. 

There is some build up to the Hardhome set piece, which was a major event in the books, albeit one that never took place in the present. Jon needs Stannis to lend him ships for this controversial and risky mission. Enough good-will means that his wish is granted.

A rather more ham-fisted development sees Olly continue to despise the Wildlings after he lost his village to their attack. I wish I could assert that he is anything more than a thinly characterised and blandly acted entity. The Jon Snow storyline overall though continues to be both compelling and enjoyable. Despite his resolution in executing Slynt, he still has much to prove to his Brothers in Black, as he is distinctly youthful, and happened to break a clutch of vows not that long ago.    

In the much warmer climes of Meereen, we quickly find out that Barristan Selmy is indeed deceased, following his one last show of fighting skill against the massive group of ne'er-do-wells.  

Grey Worm though has just managed to escape death's door and is nursed back to some semblance of health by Missandei. I find this work featuring new characters to be quite shallow and underwhelming. The acting is fine here, but there just is no real reason to care about two stereotypes' relations, when their past and deeper thoughts can only be guessed at.  

However, I do find an improvement in the one on one dynamic of the Khaleesi and Missandei. Dany struggles to make decisions with two major players now gone from her own 'Small Council' - one exiled by her and the other slain by the rebellious Sons of the Harpies. Thus she has need of another young woman's opionon. Some off-screen connection between the two actresses may be playing out in a positive way now on-screen.

But the most arresting scene of episode five concerning the Targaryen Queen is when she scares major nobles of Meereen, by feeding one of them alive to her entrapped dragons. It truly is a standout visual moment, as the hapless man is burnt and torn to bits. Perhaps this is due to her anger over losing Selmy, or just knowing she has some major trump cards in her fire-breathing 'kin'. Also powerful is the about-turn when the Queen allows Hizdahr zo Loraq to be her intended - not out of love, but political expediency. He certainly has endured a memorable few hours, but will he still have a chance to assert authority as he did before Meereen was overthrown?

Jorah may be exiled, but he proceeds ever closer back to the Queen - with Tyrion in tow. A wonderful bit of poetry plays out as both men muse on the rich history of the land they are passing through. Also striking is the surprise appearance of Drogon flying far above the river they are on; seemingly disinterested in these desperate men.And come the bridge between these two episodes, Mormont is suddenly exposed to his first real danger in a long time.

Firstly he makes the mistake of passing through old Valyria, and thus being exposed to attack by Stone Men. He manages to save Tyrion and himself, at the cost of getting infected with greyscale. The question now stands as to how long Jorah can keep this hidden.  Also will he will infect anyone else and to what extent?

Secondly in losing their boat, the two men are forced to eat humbly as they march on the long road towards the City of Pyramids. Tyrion reveals that Jorah's father, the-then-Commander of the Watch, was murdered some time ago by mutineers. Tyrion also establishes that he was driven to kill Tywin after the betrayal with Shae. Mormont's actual opinion of this crime is not touched upon - a fine example of less-is-more writing by Bryan Cogman.

Despite this plotline being strong, a slight hiccup occurs when the duo are overcome by stealthy pirates/slavers. One would expect them to be more careful than they end up being. Thankfully the Imp rescues the scene by using a bit of ingenious logic that he should be intact for verification. It also cleverly makes the glib remark about his 'dwarf manhood' in episode three now look a little careless. Jorah needs no such cunning. Season trailers have depicted Jorah in a fighting arena, so it would appear that he will have a chance to prove how able a warrior he is, despite his grizzled old exterior. 

Stannis, his court and army have plenty to do at the Wall in before marching away to deal with the Bolton 'obstacle' that blocks the capital, in episode five. It seems they will not return until a week or two's absence from our side. In the lead-up there is a well-performed scene where Samwell reverently greets the 'Baratheon King'.

He commandingly encourages Sam to carry on finding out as much as he can on dragon-glass and other methods of defence against the Others. Also Sam's relationship with Gilly has been portrayed very well once again throughout this latest season, the chemistry between John Bradley and Hannah Murrah being truly endearing.

These two instalments also perform a welcome character exploration of the twisted 'father and son' duo that is Roose and Ramsey. Just as with Tyrion and Jorah, the casting and acting is stellar, although they are instead meant as figures of contempt. Initially Ramsey seems to have command of those seated at the dinner table, and makes Sansa and Reek suffer equally by forcing a 'reconciliation'. But this is overshadowed by Roose's carefree revelation that he is expecting a child with Walda, clearly hoping for another male heir. The earlier excitement Ramsey demonstrated when holding his (nude) lover Myranda and reminding her he must marry someone of similar status is suddenly undercut. 

And there is more. Roose explains later to his 'now-legitimate' son the exact circumstances as to how he was conceived. Ramsey's mother was forced to see her lover killed, moments before being assaulted by Bolton; the end-product being this sadist of a man.  This theme of women being treated as objects is an uncomfortable one, but Thrones is based on such real life time zones as the War of the Roses where such barbarism was still common in real-life history. 

All the same, the final moments of Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken make that episode title seem a misnomer. Sansa, now-married, quickly suffers a terrible fate. She may have dreamed once long ago of giving her maidenhood to a virtuous man of good title. Such hopes have disappeared with the last of autumn though.The ultimate indignity of Ramsey taking her innocence in a derogatory and humiliating fashion is worsened, as eunuch Theon is ordered to watch the act throughout. Whether this is because Ramsey was not satisfied with 'Reek's apology at dinner or just another way of torturing his 'plaything' is left open to discussion. Of course the main thoughts evoked as the closing credits come on with sad music are those of sheer disbelief and horror. Sophie Turner warned viewers some time earlier of an upsetting scene, and she was not misleading anyone. 

This is all the indirect work of Littlefinger abandoning Sansa to the mercies of the Boltons. We only find out what is happening with this schemer in episode six, as King's Landing is given a rest for one week. Baelish does indeed meet with Cersei as expected. He quickly shows a new approach in giving away Sansa's location and 'her actions' in siding with the Boltons. Given Littlefinger's seemingly deep love for Catelyn this surprises, but how much he means it is anyone's guess. He does placate Cersei's dark thoughts of revenge on the 'last 'of the Starks, by promising Sansa's head on a spike. But could this be done by someone else first, given the impending battle at Winterfell?

In one of the few truly funny moments of late, we have fan-favourite Olenna Tyrell return to court intrigue, as she curses the stench of King's Landing on the road leading to the city. An enjoyable verbal clash soon ensues as she denounces the Queen Mother as a 'Tart', upon being referred to as the 'Tart-tongued Queen of Thorns'. But Cersei is playing her cards just right perhaps. 

Despite both Margaery and Olenna's calm when Loras is forced to answer questions in a small enquiry run by the High Sparrow, a sudden turn of events sees trouble loom. Olyvar, the man who helped run Baelish's brothels until recently, testifies against Loras and gives enough evidence to satisfy the religious order that a full trial is justified. The precise detail could only have been known by someone who lay with Loras, and as we know from earlier episodes this union has happened quite a few times. Margaery puts herself in a corner by indirectly conceding she was aware of these actions, and is arrested for trial as well. This is one of the strongest King's Landings moments all season. Tommen is confirmed further as a weak boy, letting Cersei orchestrate the whole thing from start to finish.  And at the risk of repeating myself, Jonathan Pryce is just magnetic, boosting whatever he can without seemingly trying too much.

There is some improvement in the Dorne sequences that come in episode six. However the Sand Snakes still fail to excite as they perhaps should. Jaime clumsily tries to 'rescue' daughter Myrcella from the Dornish capital. But viewers now know just how much she has fallen for Trystane Martell. The love shown between two attractive, seemingly normal people is rare for this show. Perhaps only Ned and Catelyn, or Robb and Talisa have truly virtuous relations. Just as the pointlessness of the mission becomes clear to Jaime, he and Bronn must try and survive a lethal attack by the Sand Snakes. The fight plays out well enough, if lacking in any real tension. Having Bronn receive a likely venomous wound is very effective though. 

The casting of Alexander Siddig as Prince Doran gets further validity in his fleeting appearance; being everything I imagined from the books. Hopefully he gets a scene lasting longer than a minute or two before long, as the potential for such a fine actor looks stronger than what he had to do in Atlantis.

Perhaps the real disappointment lies in the Braavos sections. Sometimes what works well on the page, i.e. a narrative related in rather loose chronology, can be hard to adapt for the small screen. We care about Arya thanks to Maisie Williams' screen presence, but her change of image and lifestyle is so solemn and slow, it almost seems like no-one carried out the editing work.Jaqen's influence over Arya is undeniable, as she proceeds to play her part in giving the gift of death. But the lack of audience investment in characters we meet fleetingly before their deaths take away a lot of the effect presumably intended.

'The Room of Faces' sequence is almost the exception to the rule, an eerie set piece with many hours of production work, which demands to be seen on the biggest and best TV sets one can find. There are other moments of interest, but still perhaps not quite for this medium. The sequence where Arya tells the truth and lies in equal measure, being hit moderately by Jaqen whenever a falsehood is uttered. The complex feelings over Sandor Clegane, who she undeniably bonded with, get some welcome attention. Other past events from long ago see acknowledgement as well. And Ned Stark's shadow hangs over the show yet again.

To some extent the further material with the Waif intrigues, as Arya has a potential glimpse at what she might become: a servant of the House and its Gods who may not entirely know their own identity any more and yet knows how to present any number of personas. The lack of connectedness to new events in the show is a definite problem though. Once Mace Tyrell and Meryn Trant arrive, the better this storyline will be I feel.  

Lastly I will touch upon the likable heroic duo of Brienne and Podrick. They have very little to do, after a promsing start for them earlier on. Presently Brienne is keeping an eye out for developments at Winterfell, but as yet she has no confirmation of the need to take drastic action. 

As the final episodes are awaited by viewers worldwide, some of the anticipation will centre on how the 'true' Theon may help Sansa, or whether someone like Brienne or a Northener may respond to a lit candle in the broken tower. Also notable is the potential danger Cersei may face as earlier episodes established that cousin and sworn-Sparrow Lancel knew exactly what she intended against King Robert (and indeed other schemes). 

Overall this long-running show is doing respectably enough. Hopefully it finds another gear or two with the concluding four episodes.

Bookmark and Share Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Episode Four - All the Mirrors of the World

6/16/2015 06:57:00 a.m. - Reviewed by Marcus

Reviewed by Martin Ruddock
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (ep 4) (Credit: BBC) Written by Peter Harness Directed by Toby Haynes First Transmitted 7th June 2015, BBC One

Picking up immediately from last week's cliffhanger of Lady Pole's attempt on Norrell's life, this week's episode deals with the growing rift between Messrs Strange and Norrell - and the consequences of treating madness with magic.

Norrell is growing more and more paranoid by the day, his reputation is all to him, and he becomes increasingly at odds with Strange. Strange has become increasingly interested in the magic of the Raven King, and his discovery of the 'Kings Roads' - the surreal network of paths behind mirrors, whilst attempting to treat the madness of King George. Norrell is busy being immortalised in print by Mr Lascelles and establishing himself as the great reformer of English Magic. At the same time, Strange finds himself the subject of a hoax-cum-smear campaign orchestrated by Drawlight, who's been scamming money by post from people attempting to solicit him for freelance work. Drawlight is found via 

In fact, rifts are opening up everywhere. Drawlight ends up on the wrong side of everybody, even Lascelles, who threatens to kill him. Strange has become much more sure of himself, and he and Arabella fight about where his career is taking him. He ends up writing a damning review of Lascelles' book about Norrell, and severe ties with his former mentor by the end of the episode, and plans to move home to Shropshire and quit practical magic. Norrell makes a fairly insincere sounding attempt at reaching out to the younger magician, but the two part ways. Strange is more sanguine about the end of their association, but Norrell, with Lascelles hissing in his ear, now treats Strange as his enemy.

Visually and mood-wise the series continues to shine, with the stunning CGI of the Kings Roads a particular highlight. This is also the creepiest episode so far, filled with some startling imagery . The whole sequence surrounding Strange’s attempts to cure King George is memorably filled with dread,  the discordant notes struck repeatedly by the King at his harpsichord, his eerie appearance in the middle of the road before Stephen, who is almost compelled to run him through with a sword - and the fact that the King can clearly see things in his madness that others can’t.

Most chilling of all is the Gentleman wringing tears from a handkerchief and creating a facsimile of Arabella Strange from an old log – blinking, and covered in dew. On a quieter note, the scene of Childermass’s near-death experience is brief, but a stand-out. Did anyone else spot the Raven? Or, the Raven King’s more-than-passing resemblance to Childermass in that portrait later on? Coincidence? Possibly not. Time will tell.

Speaking of Childermass, he comes in for a rough ride of it this week, recovering from taking the bullet meant for Norrell, but with no thanks from his ungrateful master - who complains that he is recovering from a near-fatal wound when he could be serving Norrell. What is becoming apparent is that Childermass is very much his own man, and is starting to ask questions. He visits Segundus and Honeyfoot (now in the sanatorium business) looking for answers – still in the dark as to what exactly Norrell did to deserve the bullet he took for him, but they refuse to let him see Lady Pole, now in their care. There's surely a show-down in the offing when Childermass gets his answers.

The only slightly unsatisfactory thing about this episode is the slightly fudged bit of exposition at the end announcing that Jonathan Strange must go back to war. A bit of shorthand is necessary in TV storytelling every now and again, but it’s basically a scene of a man running in and saying “Napoleon is BACK!”, as if someone has noticed that there’s five minutes left to go until the next episode. It’s a minor quibble, it just feels slightly at odds with the leisurely pace of the rest of the series.

At any rate, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell continues to impress. The three remaining episodes are clearly building to something big, and it's almost a shame that it's ending so quickly. Sunday nights haven't been this much fun in a long time.

Bookmark and Share Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell Episode Three - The Education of a Magician

6/04/2015 12:10:00 a.m. - Reviewed by Marcus

Reviewed by Martin Ruddock
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (ep 3) (Credit: BBC) Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell Episode Three Written by Peter Harness Directed by Toby Haynes First broadcast 31st May 2015, BBC One
The BBC's lavish adaptation of Susanna Clarke's epic saga of magic and war continues with Jonathan Strange on the front line in Portugal, whilst in London the resurrected Lady Pole continues to unravel.

Unravel is the operative word here, she's taken to embroidering her nightmarish visions of the Gentleman's world, whilst Arabella tries to understand just what is happening, only to have her help and advice knocked back by the ailing Lady. Stephen, still in the Gentleman's thrall, is beginning to see the downside of the eyebrowed-one's patronage - this episode has the creepiest and most disturbing imagery yet, including the horror vision of Stephen's birth in slavery. Everyone the Gentleman touches, it seems, is not far from madness. 

The episode focuses on Strange's travails on the front line, initially mistrusted and dismissed by Lord Wellington (Ronan Vibert) and troops, eventually winning their trust and quite literally building a road - but at a cost - his valet takes a shell meant for Jonathan and he is forced to use the magic of the Raven King to revive dead troops for interrogation. By the end, Wellington's men are all raising their hats to him, but it's a harder, more pragmatic Jonathan that heads home to England.

These sequences are the most beautifully shot and cinematic of the series so far, almost recalling scenes from Wild West game Red Dead Redemption. Even the zombies come off well. Take a bow, Toby Haynes.

Norrell takes a back seat for much of this episode, but makes it count when he is on-screen. He's on-hand whenever anything generally untoward is happening - going through Arabella's letters to Strange, recommending that Lady Pole has no visitors to cover his back after filling her in on the lifetime of torment she is in for, sending Childermass to put the frighteners on Mr Segundus as he tries to establish his school for magicians. Mr Norrell, to be fair, does himself few favours this week. Even when Strange returns home, Norrell arrives almost immediately, but is more interested in getting his beloved books back - a fact that Strange ruefully acknowledges.

The episode ends on a cliffhanger, in a moment echoing Strange's valet's sacrifice - as Childermass throws himself in front of a bullet meant for Norrell, fired by Lady Pole. Whatever happens next week, it looks like it's all coming apart for Mr Norrell. As for Jonathan Strange, he's using the dark magic of the Raven King already, and his wife is in the sights of the Gentleman. Has he developed a taste for war?

Bookmark and Share Game Of Thrones Season Five - Episodes Three and Four

5/31/2015 08:50:00 p.m. - Reviewed by Marcus

Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
Game of Thrones 3) High Sparrow 4) Sons Of The Harpy HBO/ Sky Atlantic - 2015.
Note - Again, this review contains spoilers for the episodes, and some brief discussion of the source book material.

Season 5 progresses steadily enough with this next batch of Westeros Wonder. However some uncertainty is perhaps generated as the pace continues to be slower than the previous two years, and there is a firm choice by the producers over not being as faithful to the source material as they once were. An added problem also exists in that presently books six and seven are only available as speculation, and not as anything corporal. Some big decisions have been made therefore over quite how to achieve foreshadowing and keep the present story lively in its own right.

Arya having had a kind farewell from the ship's captain who she met at the end of last season is now trying to forge a new life in the markedly different city of Braavos. At first her entrance to the House of Black and White looked helpless, but come the third episode she is now getting somewhere in her quest to complete her 'hit' list of those who betrayed her family and friends. It certainly appears that Jaqen H'ghar is indeed back after a long break from the show. Of course it needs to be stressed that the actual person who had that name and face is almost certainly long dead. But for simplicity's sake I will henceforth name him Jaqen until any changes to suggest otherwise are implemented by the show. The chemistry between Tom Wlaschiha and Maisie Williams is as strong as ever. However the most memorable scene involves Arya on her lonesome, as she is parted from Needle for the short term; wordlessly hiding amongst some rocks.

Having hailed Williams forthcoming turn in the second Peter Capaldi series of Doctor Who, there is a further link between the two iconic shows with the presence of Faye Marsay, as the sullen 'Waif'. This actress impressed as Shona in the most recent Who TV story we have to date - 'Last Christmas' - and is given some excellent dialogue. She also tests the resolve of neophyte Arya to the limit. 

Having said all this, I do wonder just how much traction this Braavos section of the show has. In the books it worked well as a series of developments which made the reader do some of the guesswork as to how much time has passed. In a show like this, the 'knitting together process' a viewer is obliged with in order to comprehend the array of locations may lead to some weaknesses in terms of overall impact. However I must praise the sets, lighting and music, which all conjure a strong and brooding atmosphere.

Returning yet again to King's Landing, it appears that there is some potential for excitement after all, as most have come to hope for by now. The Tommen and Margaery storyline is very well done in this pair of episodes. Clearly the Boy King was feeling euphoria upon consummating the marriage, and  finally resolving the lust he had for his far more mature partner. She had stoked his fires initially when he was lined up to replace his murdered brother, visiting his bed and talking of their likely future together in 'Oathkeeper'. The brutal reality though, is that Cersei's one remaining son is little more than a pawn in others' games now grandfather Tywin is deceased.

Tommen is acted increasingly well by relative newcomer Dean-Charles Chapman. Also credible is his remorse over Joffrey's death, as clearly there were a few shreds of love that the 'mad idiot' had for his nearest and dearest. Margaery clearly likes her latest husband to a certain degree, but also knows just how to wrap him round her little finger and use him as a way to undermine Cersei.

Except.... that the Queen Mother does not take long to get her own 'back' on opposition, especially on someone like the Highgarden girl; believing the witch's gloomy prophecy. In order to set the record straight, Cersei accosts a very shabby looking individual who has the satirical title of 'High Sparrow'. This man is both very mysterious, owing to the lack of an official name, and yet very clear in his prerogative as he serves the Faith of The Seven. Jonathan Pryce is another newcomer in this episode and what a big asset the show has gained. I have always enjoyed his work, as he is always strong even when given some shaky material. His subtle style in 'Thrones' is most welcome when some veer near overacting, if remaining very watchable. This collaboration with Cersei is wonderfully portrayed in both episodes and it is crystal clear to the audience, if not the 'Queen Mother', that the High Sparrow will be quite a tricky customer, and more than able to wriggle his way round the powder keg that is Capital Politics. 

So, just as the new Queen feels she has the Court pandering to her whims, she finds out that brother Loras was arrested for being an affront to the 'Seven Pointed Star' with his 'deviant' sexuality. This then sees Tommen utterly powerless to reverse this development. He is not informed about events like he would have been with a proper Small Council and Tywin still around as his Hand. The King's attempt to get Loras out also sees him confronted with verbal abuse from the poorer citizens of King's Landing. The 'terrible twincest' of Cersei and Jaime is now seemingly common knowledge.

Meanwhile, in case some were wondering, Qyburn is still involved in some skulduggery. He seems to be attempting his own 'Doctor Frankenstein' project. The body lying in his laboratory is so large that is more than likely meant to be the grievously wounded Mountain. While just another instance of set up, the viewer will no doubt recall this brief moment later on when events become more explosive.   

Game of Thrones The Nights' Watch and Wall sections continue to ring true and    showcase excellent characterisations. Most dramatically,      Janos Slynt finally gets his comeuppance, after years of    scurrying away and favouring who had the greater money and    riches. Although Jon Snow does not yet know how Eddard  placed his trust in Slynt, it still feels like a major moment  forward for our favourite illegitimate son. He is now the Lord  Commander through and through, and people can't mock  flippantly and expect to get away with it. Stannis' approval of  Jon is also true to the books, and yet another moment where  silence in a scene is able to generate  considerable  impact.

 Also engaging is  the dynamic between  Stannis, his stern wife  Selyse, his sweet only child Shireen and the  unsettling presence that is Red Woman Melisandre. I do like  the slow burn pace that features, as it really seems as major  developments in both plot and character decisions' will unfold as the season comes to it's climax. The Jon and Sam relationship is still there too, and remains very entertaining. These two men are bound by being the outcast child. Jon struggled with 'stepmother' Catelyn and Sam was demeaned by his own father (who has never been directly featured on the show). A lot of changes have taken place that have nullified the opening season's relationships permanently, but these two kind-hearted men remain friends for life it would appear.

The definite highlight of episode four in terms of character development is when Shireen is reassured by monarch and father Stannis that he truly loves her, and explains exactly how he managed to spare her a terrible fate with greyscale. Both the old hand actor in Stephen Dillane and virtual newcomer Kerry Ingram absolutely convince the viewer of the complexity and depth that lies in that relationship. A bit more disappointing however is the throwaway scene where the Red Woman attempts to seduce Jon. It just comes off as sensationalism, and adds nothing to the scene where they were conveyed to the top of the Wall in the first episode. 'You Know Nothing Jon Snow' is uttered at the end, and it just feels pretentious. The showrunners seem obsessed with one significant character needing to show her bare bosom before long...just because. I give 'Thrones' more leeway than some other programs, as it never was meant to represent the underlying morality and societal standards of our world . Yet some artistic choices should be made with integrity at the same time.

There is no nudity to be found in Winterfell in this crop of episodes though. Not unless one counts a flayed corpse anyway. The Boltons have truly made this place 'home' now, and they are joined by Sansa Stark and Littlefinger. Yet another scheme is being implemented by the reigning Lord of the Vale. Although straining credulity a touch, there is some real conviction in the various scenes that culminate in Sansa meeting Roose Bolton, and her new intended husband Ramsey. One should remember that she never officially divorced Tyrion, but this is glossed over as she now encounters someone potentially even more dangerous and twisted than the late Joffrey.

The recently empowered bastard son of the treacherous Bolton lord makes a hollow promise to be kind and devoted, almost at the same moment as his 'partner in crime' Myranda gazes on with seething jealousy. If this were not bad enough, the audience also is seriously questioning what Littlefinger's plans are in all this. "Avenge [your family]" he tells his ward just before they get to Winterfell, but surely that will be a lot easier said than done...  Before he does abandon her though, there is a very well cinematographed sequence set in the lower depths of Winterfell as Baelish ruminates on the past and then the future he hopes to achieve. He kisses Sansa on the lips once again, and she even appears to enjoy it. But will she remain fond of him once events progress without him around to intervene at Winterfell?

Brienne and Pod are on the periphery as they still continue to fret over what will happen to this Stark girl they are tracking for now. Some exposition features as the statuesque woman explains just how she came to be indebted to the (late) Renly Baratheon, and was thereafter looking to serve him till the end of her days. This is a bit of an odd scene, as it seems to clash with the striking debut of Brienne in Season Two when she revealed just who she was to Renly in her victory over a male knight. I do appreciate however the intrigue over her wish to avenge the most charismatic of the three Baratheon brothers, and perhaps Stannis had better watch his back if he were to go and attack the Boltons in the North. 

In a Volantis brothel, much further south, a certain erudite Imp utters "I need to speak some one with hair". And this latest come-back actually signals the 'Varys and Tyrion' show coming to an end. The exiled Jorah Mormont unceremoniously kidnaps Tyrion, just as he finishes urinating from a balcony, and bundles him from a beautiful city into a decidedly modest-looking boat heading somewhere perhaps less glamorous. Just before this downturn in fortune for Tyrion, his self pity is something to behold as he admits to a forlorn prostitute that he no longer has the same set of desires that he once had for women of her trade.

It really is quite a shame the show only has a few fleeting moments in Volantis; a by-product of the show's big budget and the enforced ten episodes a season. The sets and models for this city certainly stand out on any half-decent modern TV and show just how many talented people work behind the camera. Also, we get to witness the sermon of another 'Red Woman' - one who in our world is of Japanese ethnicity. The manner in which she stares back at the refugee Lannister is a terrific moment, and one that featured in early photo previews of the season for good reason.

And yet the kidnap by Jorah is a great development, featuring a wonderful cliffhanger generating confusion over whether it is Cersei or Daenerys who will receive Tyrion. Once Tyrion has a chance to speak, after being bound on the boat for an extended period of time, there is a lovely exchange as he realises why Jorah is doing all this. The only responses he gets are constant aloof glances away. At least until he makes one provocation too many, and gets a full-on strike of Mormont's fist to his bearded head. 

The Jaime and Bronn scenes in 'Sons of the Harpy' are very enjoyable if a bit thin on anything truly memorable or thematic when considering what the show is capable of. A link to Tarth features, as their incognito passage over sea to Dorne features a view of a neighbouring isle. Tarth was referred to by Jaime and Brienne during their excellent story arc together in Season Three, most memorably during the saving of the 'Maiden Fair' from the bear pit in Harrenhal. Another subtle link features in the accidental saving of Jaime's life with the golden hand. It works as a funny moment, with Bronn forced to fight the majority of the four Dorne warriors who realise that the newcomers' story is bogus. It also functions as a subtle way of showing how the late Locke - lackey to the Boltons - was not as smart as he thought he was when deriding the Kingslayer over what options he had left with a prosthetic right hand.

Less successful, and for sure the clumsiest scene thus far in the new season, is the introduction of the 'Sand Snakes'. To be fair to the producers of this show, they had a rather weak platform to work with in the first place as the books did not break much new ground with these cliched personalities. This still does not excuse the weak dialogue, delivery and production values - all of which  stick out badly for a series of this calibre. It also is underwhelming given the amount of hype that was generated in the build up promotions and featurettes that came out during this year.

Thankfully the Daenerys storyline continues to work more than well enough and culminates in a 'shock cliffhanger' with Barristan Selmy and Grey Worm victorious in battle but also seriously wounded. As preceding events unfolded, the Queen of Meereen seemed to be getting complacent, and perhaps being too 'pally' with Hizdahr zo Loraq - a man many viewers would suspect as knowing a lot more about the Harpy attacks than he would ever admit. There is a fine scene between Selmy and his Queen where he shows his gentler side, and she wishes him farewell, asking him to 'go and sing a song'. When things are this warm and fuzzy, it usually bodes very ominously. Overall this whole section of the show is at least a level up from last year's counterpart, and also happens to be less tedious than the books (to my mind). 

So we are four episodes in, and wondering just what will be the dominant story arcs of the latest season. Some weaknesses are certainly on display, but a lot of work has been put into making the adaptation of GRR Martin's broad vision work properly for TV. Perhaps the steady pace that is opted for presently will have bigger dividends later on. Time and Winter alike will tell.

Bookmark and Share Blake's 7 - Devil's Advocate/Truth and Lies

5/28/2015 12:49:00 a.m. - Reviewed by Marcus

Reviewed by Damian Christie
Blake's 7 - Devil's Advocate (Credit: Big Finish) Written By: Steve Lyons and Justin Richards Directed By: Lisa Bowerman
Stars: Paul Darrow (Kerr Avon), Michael Keating (Vila Restal), Jan Chappell (Cally),Steven Pacey (Del Tarrant), Tom Chadbon (Del Grant), Alistair Lock (Zen/Orac), Hugh Fraser (The President), Simone Lahbib (Pelora), Nigel Carrington (Kramer), Beverly Hill (Karine Mellanby)
"A case of better the devil you know?"

Avon, Blake's 7: Devil's Advocate

In a behind the scenes interview for one of the latest Blake's 7 audio releases Devil's Advocate, Big Finish producer Cavan Scott remarks that there has been a conscious effort to steer away from plotlines this year that feature Federation-type politics. The thinking was that BF had already done numerous storylines of that ilk and the politics of the period in which this micro-season of B7 adventures is set (the third season of the original TV series) had itself moved on, following the events of the Intergalactic War at the end of series two.

Of course, what Scott forgets is that it was Federation machinations that made B7 such a memorable, provocative TV program in the first place. Unlike other TV series of its era, B7 was not afraid to tell hardcore SF/realpolitik morality tales which explored the main characters' heroism and flaws and the impact their exploits would have on the political system they were trying to overturn. Indeed, the TV series illustrated time and again that Blake's rebellion was not without real consequences. Not only did members of the Seven die throughout the life of the series, so did a number of other good people encountered along the way. And unlike many other SF and fantasy sagas since (which are notorious for resurrecting characters), there was no way back. B7 was almost the Game of Thrones of its time!

Therefore, the return to Federation-style machinations and politics in the final two instalments of this micro-season is a welcome development. Devil's Advocate and Truth and Lies round out and (for the most part) satisfactorily tie up the loose "Search for Dayna" story arc with antagonists and scenarios that encapsulate Federation politics. They are certainly an improvement on the more fantasy-driven middle chapters Mindset and Ghost Ship.

Devil's Advocate marks the return of the Federation's enigmatic yet debonair President (Hugh Fraser), who was last seen in the concluding two-parter to the preceding micro-season of B7 plays. Fraser's character was the stand-out adversary of those instalments, providing a calculating, composed counterpoint to B7's regular baddies in the ruthless yet impatient Servalan and the reckless, obtuse Travis. I expressed at the time my hope that the character would return for future instalments.

In the wake of the Intergalactic War, the still anonymous President (we still don't know his full identity) is now as much an outlaw as the Liberator crew members, but still retains hope that he will eventually re-seize power from Servalan. With the help of his assistant Pelora (Simone Lahbib), he reaches out to none other than Tarrant (Steven Pacey) for help in his quest to restore his power. So prompts a debate amongst the Liberator crew that can be traced back to the events of the previous micro-series finale Caged -  would Blake really have precipitated the collapse of the Federation if he had assassinated the President, or would he simply have opened the door for another tyrant to assume control (as Servalan inevitably did)? And should the Liberator crew under Avon's (Paul Darrow) leadership now entertain the moral dilemma of aligning themselves with one of the most abhorrent figures in the Federation in a bid to topple Servalan?

With the exception of Avon, whose mystique has gone largely untouched, this micro-series of B7 tales has focused on specific members of the crew, notably Cally (Jan Chappell) and Vila (Michael Keating). Devil's Advocate puts Tarrant in the limelight, providing us with a back story that was never hinted at on television.

When we first met Tarrant in the B7 episodes Aftermath and Powerplay in 1980, he was revealed to be a Federation space pilot who had turned to smuggling and was on the Federation's "most wanted" list. Devil's Advocate suggests an entirely different back story for Tarrant, which while not specifically contradictory or implausible, does seem somewhat contrived for the purpose of Steve Lyons' plot. As if Tarrant's former lover Pelora tracking him down on the Nebula Interplanetary Way Station isn't coincidence enough ...

Nevertheless, whether it's coincidence or contrivance, Steven Pacey delivers one of his finest performances as Tarrant as he takes on the "devil's advocate" role of the story, asserting that the Liberator crew has lost sight of its long term objective and should now embrace the chance "to build something rather than just tearing it down". Tarrant is at his most persuasive and idealistic but his flaws are all too evident - as Avon alludes, he is a romantic at heart, keen to play the hero and behave impulsively, particularly (as Vila points out) when a woman figures in the picture!

Pacey's performance is virtually rivalled by Tom Chadbon as Del Grant. While Tarrant argues the merits of aligning with the President, Chadbon delivers an impassioned, fanatical portrayal of Grant that is an impressive reversal on the character's more laidback, reasonable demeanour. Of course, just as Tarrant has his flaws, Grant's almost prove fatal, thanks to his over-zealous pursuit for justice and the grief and betrayal he harbours for the death of his sister (and Avon's lover) Anna. Grant has been underused in this micro-series to date and Chadbon, like Pacey, finally gets the opportunity to stand out.

Hugh Fraser, of course, again upstages all of the regular characters with an almost warm, amiable, charismatic and composed performance that hides the President's calculating, ruthless and paranoid side. Despite being deposed by Servalan, the character has lost none of his arrogance and ambition, and it is implied heavily by the conclusion of the story that his hubris may in fact lead to his downfall. Certainly, the character does not seem as omnipresent as hinted in last year's finale Caged (when it was revealed the President engaged clones to, as Cally alleges, do his dirty work). Of course, I suspect the President's fate is not that clear-cut and that we haven't seen the last of him ... And given how impressive Fraser has been in this part over the last two years, it would be a shame not to keep the character around.  

Blake's 7 - Truth and Lies (Credit: Big Finish)
Hubris is also the key tenet of the villain in the finale Truth and Lies. Nigel Carrington's Kramer is revealed to be one of the Federation's psychostrategists, modelled on a similar character played by Scott Fredericks in the 1979 B7 episode Weapon. Carrington also puts in a competent performance as the baddie, although the character is hardly as memorable as the President, Frederick's character Carnell or even Adrian Lukas' performance as another psychostrategist Bracheeni in the B7 Liberator Chronicle Incentive. Nevertheless, the reason for Kramer's failure is without doubt the highlight of the play and even if it doesn't have you laughing out loud (which can be rather embarrassing if you're listening to these audios in public!), it will certainly have you smiling or may be even wincing. At any rate, you won't be disappointed.

Kramer's incompetence, though, is unfortunately the only twist in a serial that provides a rather flat, predictable conclusion to the "Search for Dayna" storyline. Perhaps this is partly because the reason for Dayna Mellanby jumping ship and striking out on her own was hinted at as early as this micro-series' third instalment Mindset - that Dayna's mother Karine Melanby (Beverly Hill) had survived the massacre of her father's resistance movement. The President mischievously drops further hints in Devil's Advocate that he also knew Karine, implying that she is a Federation agent, but in the final wash-up, Karine's true nature proves to be a damp squib. Beverly Hill tries her best as Dayna's mother, delivering a compassionate, poignant portrayal, but ultimately her presence in the serial fails to give this second micro-series the memorable send-off that it needs. Indeed, Avon and Vila's closing remarks truly illustrate just how run of the mill Truth and Lies is as an episode.

I queried at the start of this micro-series how the writers were going to skirt around Dayna's absence, given the original actor Josette Simon is not interested in reprising the character. To his credit, Truth and Lies author Justin Richards provides a plausible enough scenario to set up Dayna's reunion with the Liberator crew but given this micro-series contains subtle hints for storylines that are likely to be explored in a third full cast audio series, it would seem to me inevitable that Dayna will have to be in that series and the character will have to be recast (on the strength of her performance as Dayna's mother, perhaps Hill deserves to play Karine's daughter!).

I must admit to also being disappointed with the under-utilisation of Tom Chadbon as Del Grant throughout this micro-series. With the exceptions of Truth and Lies and Fortuitas (which are very good ensemble pieces for the whole cast) and Devil's Advocate (where Chadbon gives his character some teeth), Grant has for the most part played second fiddle to the other TV series regulars. No doubt there are still further stories to be told about Grant's exploits on the Liberator before (in continuity with the TV series) the writers send him off to pasture. It can only be hoped the character is done some justice before that inevitable send-off occurs.

As all regular BF listeners would expect, the sound quality of these audios continues to be exceptional, feeding the imagination and provoking a larger than life visualisation of each serial, despite the relatively small ensemble cast (usually the seven regular characters plus two or three more guest stars). A special mention also goes to the director in BF regular Lisa Bowerman whose performance as the tannoy announcer on the Nebula transit station adds some black humour to some quite tense moments in the first half of Devil's Advocate. "In the event that weapons are discharged, please lie flat on the ground to ensure your personal safety!" Bowerman's tannoy announcer says when Federation troopers start indiscriminately firing on passengers!

Devil's Advocate is by far the best of the last two instalments and certainly the pick of this second micro-series of B7 plays. While this series as a whole has been enjoyable in parts, the first full cast audio series still remains the superior of the two. Despite Cavan Scott's reluctance to focus on Federation politics and hi-jinks, it is clear that the superior serials, in line with the original TV series that inspired them, are the ones steeped in space opera, not fantasy. The audio serials should stay true to their roots and it can be but hoped that in the next micro-series, we see not only more Federation machinations but also Jacqueline Pearce's triumphant return as Servalan as well. 

Bookmark and Share Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: Episode Two - How is Lady Pole?

5/26/2015 04:37:00 p.m. - Reviewed by Chuck Foster

Reviewed by Martin Ruddock
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (ep 2) (Credit: BBC)
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell Episode Two
Written by Peter Harness
Directed by Toby Haynes
First transmitted 24th May 2015, BBC One
Following on from last week's impressive debut, the plot thickens in episode two of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and the threads dangled in the first episode begin to entwine. This series continues to impress, with the strong leading performances of Bertie Carvel, Eddie Marsan, and Marc Warren right to the fore. Peter Harness's script and Toby Haynes' direction are both hugely compelling. This is a class act

Anyway, back to the story....

Set several months after Mr Norrell's arrival in London and the resurrection of Lady Pole by the Gentleman, Norrell - at first knocked back by the government, is enjoying himself in the corridors of power, and quite literally making waves against Napoleon's troops. The episode opens with the first of several jaw-wobbling set-pieces, as the spooked French row out towards an armada made entirely from rain - Norrell's handiwork. 

At the same time, Mr Segundus, having talent-spotted Norrell in episode one, is at it again - this time he accidentally finds Jonathan Strange, who has come on somewhat as a magician, but isn't really quite in control yet.

Strange and Norrell finally come face to face. Their dynamic is interesting. Norrell is clearly impressed with the younger, far more deferential Strange, but is also extremely worried about being outstripped by the competition. Strange is a raw talent, but capable of incredible things, like the horses that rise from the sand in a spectacular beach sequence. Norrell is keen to teach him, but is protective over his territory, and his precious library of books. When Strange is selected to go to war, Norrell's greatest discomfort is at Strange ransacking his library to take to the 'dirty' front line.

It seems that as soon as they meet, various outside forces are trying to pull them apart. Mr Drawlight is unimpressed by the newcomer, and sows seeds of dischord with his co-conspirator, Lascelles by suggesting that the magical library contents of the late Duke of Roxburgh could be bid for by Strange at auction. Meanwhile, Arabella Strange soon has reason to distrust Norrell after speaking with Lady Pole, whose disintegration is a large part of the episode. 

Plagued by strange nightmares and feelings of dread, the recently resurrected Lady Pole is the subject of the machinations of the Gentleman, who makes his presence further felt in this episode. He also begins to pull the strings of servant Stephen Black, who is shown a vision of the Gentleman's spooky ball and the plans he has for Lady Pole. He also has an eye for the ladies, setting his sights on Arabella.

These plot elements build up to the climactic auction, where Arabella bids against Norrell for the Duke's library, and the Gentleman is sat next to her, giving Norrell a knowing smile. A storm, in every sense, is coming.

Bookmark and Share Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: Episode One - The Friends of English Magic

5/26/2015 03:35:00 p.m. - Reviewed by Chuck Foster

Reviewed by Martin Ruddock
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (ep 1) (Credit: BBC)
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell Episode One
Written by Peter Harness
Directed by Toby Haynes
First transmitted 17th May 2015, BBC One
The BBC, it must be said, really ‘gets’ period drama. It’s always been a cornerstone of Auntie’s output, and intrinsic to her DNA.  In recent years there have been a fair number of stabs at a ‘modern’ take on history-set adventure series, sometimes with a SF or sword and sorcery twist. Some of them designed to fill Doctor Who’s slot when it’s off the air. Some have been a Sunday evening affair. These shows have had varied fortunes, the more adult grit and faint steampunk flavour of The Musketeers works in its favour, but an earnest Robin Hood talking about Ethnic Cleansing? Not so much. Sometimes, the fantastical elements have been jarring. Sometimes they haven’t caught the public’s imagination, like the recently cancelled Atlantis, which tried to marry the same formula to myth and legend like the more successful Merlin.

All of these series have succeeded on some levels, but floundered on others. Robin Hood sagged because it was trying too hard to hammer home social relevance, when it was set in the Twelfth Century and people simply didn't talk that way. The Musketeers does well at the swashbuckling action and stylised depiction of the period, but doesn’t have an SF or magical angle. Merlin mixed various tones but didn’t really hit stride until several series in, when Arthur went from Prince to King and the tone darkened. Atlantis just didn’t catch on.

Based on its first episode, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell might just have finally got it right. It’s early days, and there’s six more episodes to go, but everything seems to be in the right place.

Adapted from Susanna Clarke’s epic novel by recent Doctor Who scribe Peter Harness (the man who gave the Moon a yolk), and helmed by by one of its finest directors, Toby Haynes - this is ambitious stuff. Set against the background of the Napoleonic Wars, it’s the story of a meeting of two very different magicians in an alternative Britain where magic has returned after several hundred years of absence.

Opening up North with a magic circle entirely comprised of people who don’t practice magic, the curious Mr Segundus meets dour, fearful magician Mr Norrell (Eddie Marsan) and his manservant Childermass (Enzo Cilenti), and leads his circle (“The most magical men in Yorkshire”) to a spectacular demonstration by Norrell which not only scares them rigid, but contractually obliges them not to practice magic. 

Having eliminated any possible competition, Norrell then relocates to London to offer his services in the war effort, but is quicky knocked back. He soon meets a vivid and scene-stealing cast of characters, menacing street magician Vinculus (Paul Kaye), preening would-be impresario Mr Drawlight (Vincent Franklin), and most fatefully – The Gentleman with the Thistle-Down Hair (A sinister and impressive-haired Marc Warren, possibly channelling David Bowie's Goblin King from Labyrinth). The Gentleman offers Norrell a bargain, a bargain that will doubtless lead only to bad things. Eddie Marsan gives an excellent, layered performance as Norrell - a gifted user of magic, and a man of some principle, but scared and flawed at the same time.

Meanwhile, likeable fop Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) seeks a purpose in life whilst pining for his best friend’s sister, and is unexpectedly given it when he finds Vinculus under a hedge. The street magician recognises him (and also Norrell, who he's already scared half-witless in London) as one of two magicians named in a prophecy, and sells him some spells. It turns out Jonathan’s a natural. Carvel is great fun as Jonathan, a sort of cross between Withnail and Bertie Wooster. He gets far less screen time than Norrell, and the titular duo don't meet in this first episode, so it remains to be seen whether they have chemistry or not. I have a feeling from preview clips released so far that they'll complement each other nicely.

This is by turns witty, creepy, and visually stunning stuff. The pace is luxurious, and the script crackles with well-observed dialogue from Harness. The supporting cast is superb, with particular props to Cilenti's Childermass, (who looks wearily on the verge of hitting people throughout), Warren's lithe, whispering, malevolent Gentleman, and perhaps most of all - Kaye, who walks a line between sinister and cartoonish, but unsettles through his manic energy, and rants obliquely about a Raven King whilst still sounding believable. 

Haynes was always one of Who's more filmic directors, and he impresses throughout - good with a camera, and with some impressive set pieces up his sleeve - like the creepy arrival of the Gentleman, Vinculus's unsettling tarot card trick, and Norrell's animation of the stone figures that sends a whole magic circle of scared Yorkshiremen packing.

So far so good. Will it catch on with the public? Who knows? Ratings do the talking, but, based on this first episode, this is going to be seven Sunday evenings well-spent.

Bookmark and Share Game Of Thrones Season Five - Episodes One and Two

5/04/2015 12:59:00 a.m. - Reviewed by Marcus

Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
1) The Wars to Come  2) The House Of Black And White HBO/ Sky Atlantic - 2015
Note - This review does contain spoilers, and some discussion of the books' storylines.

"I will bury him. I will mourn for him... [but we will not go to war]"

"The Sand Snakes.. will avenge their father [unlike you].... [let me send Myrcella to Cersei] one finger at a time.."

"I loved my brother and you made him very happy. For that you will always have a place in my heart. But we do not mutilate little girls... Not while I rule"

- Prince Doran Martell arguing with Ellaria Sand.

There has been a lot of talk of Dorne in preceding seasons of the global hit fantasy serial; most notably when a select number of their people showed up led by Oberyn Martell. With the headstrong but charismatic Viper slain so memorably in last season's trial-by-combat, there are some immediate consequences that will shape ensuing events in this new season of the show.

Yet it may surprise many that this entire section of the Westeros map and wider society was at one point considered for the chop. That fate has befallen the potential developments that involved Balon Greyjoy's wider family from the Iron Islands. And other intriguing storylines from the fourth and fifth books in the 'Song of Ice and Fire' series also have been omitted or reshaped into pre-existing characters' arcs.

This is still thoroughly entertaining and engaging TV though. At some point the books were getting so elaborate in scope that even attempting two-thirds of all the storylines and subplots would be impossible. This show must concede that it has certain confines. Just ten episodes fill a season, running at fifty minutes; give or take a slither more, depending on what needs to be achieved on the weekly basis.

'Thrones' has reached a peak thus far in terms of audience reaction and following, with the premiere episode gaining around eight million viewers watching live transmissions in the U.S. But those viewers must have been somewhat surprised by the choice of flashback in the very first scene.

Rumoured flashbacks have persisted for a while now, with Ned Stark being amongst those that most tantalised. Charles Dance is named in the premiere's credits, and hoped to see the child version of Cersei interact with her authoritative father. No such luck as Dance is only required to lie in a state of 'rigor mortis', his eyes covered with painted stones. The past memory we do get is still important though, and gives some real context to the Queen's politicking thus far. More specifically it builds on the cat-and-mouse game of wits and plotting between her and Margaery, who has been looking to supplant Cersei as monarch ever since the finale of season two.

As for the man who played his part in King Robert's demise, a lot has changed since he last crept off-screen during the sublime 'Blackwater' episode. Cousin Lancel is now no longer easily cowed by harsh words and dismissive looks, and has a new direction in his life - religion and prudence. His hair is short, and he seems to have a focus and sobriety that would deter even the most powerful of harpies (should such creatures exist in this fantasy realm).  Uncle Kevan is also back, albeit only briefly. He now seems to recognise that he has the power in Casterly Rock, and rightly see's his niece's authority in Small Council meetings as losing solidity. A very good performance from returning Ian Gelder, but one that is brief for plot reasons that make perfect sense, 

And in general King's Landing feels an oddly sterile and empty place nowadays. Even with Tyrion in chains for  much of last year, he still made a massive contribution to proceedings. Now he is missed. King Tommen may  be a likeable lad but he quite frankly lacks either his uncle's or his grandfather's charisma. The absence of  Lady Olenna is somewhat noticeable too, as she was played so well by Diana Rigg. I still can hope that she will  be called in by one of her grandchildren to dispense more brilliant and forthright advice. And of course now  Jaime and Bron have left the city as well, in order to try and rescue Myrcella. As the quoted dialogue shows,  she is far from being safe nowadays.  

However Qyburn (Anton Lesser) has seemingly graduated from a minor character to one having  notable influence. He takes advantage of the latest bungled attempt to return Tyrion's head to Cersei, and there  are some strong indications that someone assumed dead not so long ago, may be under the care of this very  strange 'maester'.  He also now has a seat at the Small Council and that will infuriate Pycelle (Julian Glover  - brilliant in this role). Despite putting on a front of frailty the old Grand Maester is still relatively spry, but he may  have to readjust his game plan if he wants to make a mark in any seasons that follow this one.

So what can we say that is new concerning Tyrion (once again played by top-billed Peter Dinklage)? His departure from the capital in the preceding finale saw him return to being a traveller who must decide which people he meets will aid him and not betray his confidence. For now he must rely on the supremely wily Varys. Their interactions play out almost like a buddy movie; another sign of 'Thrones' transcending its dungeons-and-dragons stereotype label. Both men can produce come-backs without barely mustering any visible effort and the result is TV gold. It also helps that they are both in a beautifully sunny part of Pentos, and free to drink wine and gaze at the Narrow thanks to the hospitality of Varys' associate Illyrio Mopatis. There is also a terrific establishing 'point of view' sequence as Tyrion's tiny box/home is carried around shakily from the ship he escaped on. Lovely direction from Michael Slovis and his team.

But being free to walk and talk again cannot hide the fact that the former Hand of the King is in a dark place mentally and totally unable to forget the way he murdered treacherous lover Shae and bullying father Tywin. How this impacts on Tyrion's actions in later episodes and events to come will be something to anticipate keenly. My only issue with the subplot is that once episode two checks in on these two in their carriage, there is no energy or revelation. It feels a waste of two first-class actors in Dinklage and Conleth Hill.

One cast member who has really grown on the show and continues to do so is Kit Harrington. His Jon Snow character has gathered considerable momentum for some time now. Admittedly he barely registered with me in the second season (with flame-haired Ygritte stealing the show), and was also somewhat handicapped by the Night's Watch scenes being oddly static for much of the original season. 

Nowadays much enticement is generated by having all of Stannis' court and army, plus the nefarious Red Woman. This section of the show is a real treat. Davos is also still firmly at 'King Stannis' side, and being as measured and wise as ever. Liam Cunningham is such a terrific actor who never makes the audience feel they are watching a performance. Most of us surely want him to be around till the final stages of the entire run. Stannis himself is still brusque, dour and lacking in that intangible that all great rulers have. But Stephen Dillane is very good in developing this role and his acting chops are more than sufficient, as various dynamics play out with the surviving Baratheon's family, advisors and those he aims to rule over.

The striking end of Mance Rayder is a good move arguably for the show, even if he was played by a particularly talented actor from a cast that has few weak links. He may have briefly survived season four's finale with some dignity, but his determination was never going to keep him alive for much longer. His hope for the Wildlings to be living south of the Wall was his prime intent, and without concessions - quite  unacceptable to the unflinching Stannis. Jon's actions in sparing Mance a horribly painful death are a further development of his man of action and add more requisite gravitas.

And Jon's heroism and decisiveness in last season's key set piece battle are now bringing dividends. Stannis knows he needs this man very much on his side. Jon eventually is voted in as Lord Commander proper in a snappy, engaging sequence set in Castle Black. Yet the eldest of Ned's surviving sons knows just what a poisoned chalice leadership and authority can be. His reserved response to the vote's outcome ties in strongly with the show's key themes.

On the opposite side of the map is the storyline concerning Queen Danaerys' court, which of course has banished Jorah Mormont. I was far from overwhelmed with the various political intrigues and soap opera romances set in Meeren last year on the show. But maybe things are picking up quickly now, as 'Khaleesi' must make some difficult decisions and risk alienating her devout citizens. Although the Unsullied are an awesome fighting force on a battlefield proper, they are beginning to look a little restricted in more intimate surroundings. One of their number tries to find a substitute mother figure in the shape of a prostitute, and pays for it with his life. Eventually one of Dany's newly installed council takes the law into his own hands and avenges the murdered warrior, and this boldness is punished by a public beheading.

Rather clear parallels are drawn in showing how Stannis' and Danaerys' courts are both alike and unalike simultaneously. Choosing to end back-to-back episodes in similar fashion is ultimately a smart idea, although the second instalment does have a fine coda in the fleeting return of the renegade Drogo. Dany still loves all of her three dragons - the other two remain imprisoned - despite all the devastation and death Drogo in particular has caused.

Moving onto one of the more unpredictable pairings of the show, I will discuss next Littlefinger and Sansa. Further stark deviation from the source material is notable. Sansa clearly trusts Baelish despite all of his ruthlessness and self-serving plotting. He clearly loved her mother and sees her as another in that mould.

It remains open to interpretation just what Brienne achieves in demanding that the elder Stark girl come home, on the wishes of the late Catelyn. The entire section in the tavern does feels forced and indeed far-fetched. Despite being performed and presented well on-screen it seems to ignore the reality of Westeros' scale as a kingdom. The chance meeting with Hotpie that set Brienne on her way to the Eyrie last season felt rather more natural. Luckily the show turns its fortunes around immediately with the strong set piece in the courtyard and neighbouring woods. Brienne's slaying of Littlefinger's lackeys is exciting and pleasing, as is her timely rescue of ever-faithful squire Pod who had struggled to fend for himself  

For now I will leave a proper exploration of Arya's new storyline for next time, but she certainly makes an arrival in Braavos in style, looking ever more like a fully-fledged (if somewhat diminutive) woman. Her determination to gain entry to the eponymous 'House of Black and White' draws the viewer in, and Maisie Williams has lost none of her poise. A lot of things have gone right in this young lady's career. She has proven her range in several TV shows and even a feature film proper in 'The Falling '. I am also sure that all 'Doctor Who' fans will not miss her two episode debut in Series Nine later this year. 

A lot of characters have now been written out, and only a smaller proportion have been introduced but this epic still demands full attention from viewers.  By the same token it is thoroughly re-watchable and never fails to provide a twist or two. As grim as much of it seems, there is plenty of wit and dark humour to prevent even the slowest episodes from feeling like a drag. Must-watch entertainment.