Rogue One: A Star Wars StoryBookmark and Share

Thursday, 5 January 2017 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Poster) (Credit: Lucasfilm)

STARRING - Felicity Jones: 'Jyn Erso',
Diego Luna: 'Cassian Andor', Alan Tudyk: 'K-2SO',
Donnie Yen: 'Chirrut Imweƒ', Wen Jiang: 'Baze Malbus',
Riz Ahmed : 'Bodhi Rook', + Ben Mendelsohn : 'Orson Krennic'

WITH - Mads Mikkelsen: 'Galen Erso', Jimmy Smits: 'Bail Organa', Alistair Petrie : 'General Draven',
Genevieve O'Reilly: 'Mon Mothma', Guy Henry: 'Governor Tarkin'
+ Daniel Naprous/ James Earl Jones: Darth Vader

AND Forest Whitaker: 'Saw Gerrera'


 Music By: Michael Giacchino, 
       
                Screenplay: Chris Weitz  + Tony Gilroy,

     Story By: John Knoll + Gary Whitta,

  Based On Characters Created By: George Lucas,

         Directed By: Gareth Edwards 
 



Released: December 2016 by Disney/ Lucasfilms

 

Please Take Care As Significant Spoilers Are Featured:


This prequel to Episode IV of the saga centres on Jyn Erso (Jones). As a child, she lives with both her parents in a small rural residence, on the planet Lah'mu. Then Imperial forces, led by Orson Krennic (Mendelsohn), demand that her father Galen (Mikkelsen) resumes his duties as a top engineer. In the struggle, Jyn's mother is gunned down, but the little girl manages to escape. She eventually is rescued by Gerrera (Whitaker), an extremist militant. As she grows up, Jyn learns many combat skills, and develops a heavy edge of cynicism, in no small part due to being abandoned by Gerrera, when he has to make a choice for 'the greater good'.

In the meantime, Galen begrudgingly helps the Empire with work for the Death Star, overseen by both Krennic and Grand Moff Tarkin, with powerful Sith Lord Vader lurking in the shadows.

As an adult Jyn is accosted by rebel agent Cassian Andor (Luna), and a struggle begins to take advantage of Galen's deliberate design of a small flaw, that can allow the lethal battle station to be destroyed. Along the way a tactless droid called K-2SO (Tudyk) lends his strength and skills, as do some human fighters, including a renegade imperial pilot (Ahmed), a blind monk with some Force powers (Yen) and a bearded strongman (Jiang).

Eventually a tumultuous struggle will occur on planet Scarif, where the forces of the Empire are amassed in great number. Yet, even with a Rebel fleet hovering in space above, this may turn out to be one gambit too far, and the Death Star plans may remain suppressed.


The second film under the helm of Disney interests, in that its climax is inevitable for anyone familiar with the classic original film that first introduced the world to Star Wars. Yet it is no less involving, as the sequence of events presented do ultimately tie in with the victory of the Rebellion, over the forces of the supremely confident (but fallible) Tarkin.

The main protagonists are a lot more flawed, and decidedly less charming than those from the various (completed and in-progress) trilogies. This is a brave move, and helps sell the darkest slice of cinematic Star Wars to date. The downside is there is a lack of charisma in general, and dialogue - often a hindrance in these movies - is particularly unmemorable. The back stories, apart from Jyn's, are also very rudimentary. Thus the film has a challenge in making cinema-goers care about the Rogue One team's fates.

The chief villain, Krennic, is despicable and we do very much wish his comeuppance. He however is - perhaps deliberately - far from scary, being more a creepy and grubby person, who is out for his own glory. There is that classic visual motif of an impeccable uniform, and a cape that swirls around him, as he marches onto his next agenda item.

Rather dramatically, Krennic dares to cross Tarkin, seeing him as someone in higher authority for the present moment. Later on he is rather more obsequious to Vader. In the end though he does  indeed "choke" on his "aspirations".

Director Orson Krennic (Credit: Lucasfilm; Starwars.com)

 It is good to have Vader in brief scenes spread across the narrative, and the classic movie villain has  great presence and the trademark sardonic wit. However it is also a little disconcerting to see yet  another face-mask reimagining, as well as a performance from James Earl Jones that feels strangely  off. The link between the suit/voice, and the Vader in A New Hope, is thus not quite what it should be.

 For me the key scene-stealer was K-2SO, (who vaguely resembles the creepy EV-9D9, from Jabba's  Palace, in Return Of The Jedi), but is programmed to aid the Rebellion. He does have perhaps rather  arch humour at times, but it usually works as light relief in such a generally grim story. (Despite its  intentions, Revenge Of The Sith did have both intentionally and unintentionally funny sections.)

 I did find the film a bit inconsistent in keeping my interest throughout the two hours-plus duration. This  was despite there being plenty of potential in the premise of the movie. Some of the plot threads do not  quite feel relevant enough, and the sense of both re-writes and re-shoots is inescapable.

Whilst more original in story terms than The Force Awakens, a lot of the highlights do feel deliberately included as crowd-pleasing moments, and for Star Wars fans in particular. Although I enjoyed the thread with Tarkin, it was rather unnecessary to give (an admittedly solid) CGI effect/actor quite so much screen time. Maybe another character linked to the Death Star, who was not quite as iconic as the one played by the late Peter Cushing, would have been a better choice.

Perhaps the difficulty securing John Williams hurts the film, somewhat too. However the legendary composer is rather elderly now, and cannot produce the amazing quantity of soundtracks that he once could. The actual music score was completed in a matter of weeks, but on its own terms is decent enough. Also jarring is the lack of an opening crawl, alongside a subdued appearance for the Rogue One title caption.


The human resistance fighters of 'Rogue One' (Credit: Photo by Jonathan Olley and Leah Evans - 2015 - Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.)The very most accomplished actors - Forest Whitaker and Mads Mikkelsen - are somewhat underused. All the same, what little screen time they do have is certainly worthy material. Felicity Jones was a perfect casting choice in The Theory Of Everything, but perhaps any number of actors could have done an equal job, even a superior one, for this rather more venomous heroine. Luna is more than convincing as a morally grey and ruthless agent, but I never quite felt the inner turmoil that someone facing so many difficult choices would have to contend with. The supporting players, however, are great fun - in particular Tudyk, who provided a (now genre standard) motion-capture performance.

One thing is for certain, and that is how expensive-looking and polished the production comes across, with many stunning SFX shots. There is a plethora of detail, and this truly is a proper war film. Of course it is also less gory than some, so as to enable a huge turnout at the box office.

Almost every single battle, of which there are many, is utterly stunning. Both the close-up, hand-held shots of action, and the more traditional, vast space opera sections (ideal for big screens and IMAX) stand up as well as anything in the war or sci-fi film genres.

The final sequences, with Vader totally impervious to an onslaught of Rebel fighters' blaster fire, and slashing with his ruby-red lightsaber, are some of the best moments of any blockbuster film in recent memory. These fleeting seconds also help amp-up the tension over whether the Death Star plans will make it into Rebel hands.

At the time of writing, the tragic death of Carrie Fisher at age sixty in our home Earth dimension, means that the cameo digital recreation of Leia feels bittersweet, rather than the resounding counter to the downbeat final reel that Edwards and his team clearly intended.


This is a very enjoyable film on some levels. It ties in with the timeless 1977 film undeniably well. But something is missing and most of the main character's fates just do not resonate as they might do, when all the stars are in alignment. There is the disadvantage of this being a one-off, whereas the much-anticipated 'young' Han Solo movies will be able to take a bit more time. But ultimately this film was made to be seen on the big screen, and for some that includes 3D or IMAX variants, and it does enough good things to more than justify the massive amount of money Disney has put into it.

The force is strong enough with this one, but it sits firmly in the middle of the pack of (ever growing) entries in the saga.


Final Score: Three Lightsabers Out Of Five





The Confessions of Dorian Gray: The Spirits of Christmas (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 31 October 2016 - Reviewed by Richard Brinck-Johnsen
The Confessions of Dorian Gray: The Spirits of Christmas (Credit: Big Finish)
Written by Tim Leng and Alan Flanagan

     Produced and Directed by Scott Handcock
 
Cast: Alexander Vlahos (Dorian Gray), Guy Adams (Peter Jameson), Sophie Aldred(Sally Jameson), Tom Allen (Camberwell Haines), Samantha Béart (Catherine), David Blackwell (Simon Darlow), Lisa Bowerman (The Woman in the Woods), Jacqueline King (First Neighbour), Bruno Langley (Ben), Tim Leng (Second Neighbour), Colin McFarlane (The Narrator), Katy Manning (Isadora Rigby), Sarah Ovens (Teddy Quigley), Sakuntala Ramanee (Stella), Miles Richardson (Harry Wotton), Laura Riseborough (Holly), Hugh Skinner (Tobias Matthews), Bianca Stephens (Newsreader), David Warner (Santa Claus), Gabriel Woolf (The Man Upstairs)  

Big Finish Productions -  Released December 2015    

The Confessions of Dorian Gray first appeared four years ago in October 2012, originally as a weekly download only series. This seemed to be something of a risk for Big Finish to produce an original series created by Scott Handcock based upon a reimagining of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, with (at the time) relatively unknown actor Alexander Vlahos in the lead role.  However, the resulting series quickly gained a firm following amongst Big Finish listeners which has subsequently resulted in a further three series and several special episodes including appearances alongside Sherlock Holmes in 2012’s Ghosts of Christmas Past and 2015’s celebratory release The Worlds of Big Finish.

However, it seems all good things must come to an end, and Halloween 2016 sees the release of the fifth and final series of Dorian’s adventures across his long life from Victorian London through to the present day. It therefore seems apt to first review this penultimate release in the popular range which consists of two stories both set in December of 2015 which serve to set the scene for the impending finale.

First up we have the gloriously macabre Desperately Seeking Santa by Tim Leng. Only Big Finish’s casting couch could provide a release which opens with Doctor Who alumna Sophie Aldred being viciously murdered by no less stellar a guest actor thanDavid Warner, whose portrayal of the eponymous Santa is at the heart of this story. Warner shares some great scenes with Vlahos, who has continually excelled in his portrayal of Dorian. The story returns regular listeners to early December 2015, following on from the present day setting that linked the whole of the third series before series four resumed the series’ original anthology format with stories set at various stages of the 20th Century. Dorian has been reunited with the true love his life, the vampire Tobias Matthews, sensitively portrayed by Hugh Skinner, who was first introduced in one of the standout stories of the first series, The Heart That Lives Alone. Dorian and Toby are preparing to celebrate their first Christmas together but the activities of Warner’s evil Santa threaten to cause problems. There is also a brief reappearance by another of Dorian’s former lovers which seems to a hint of things yet to come. The proceedings are given an extra sinister edge with narration by Colin McFarlane. Overall, a great start to this set which indicates that Dorian and Toby’s Christmas is clearly going to be memorable for all the wrong reasons and not just because of some really bad carol singing.

Events take an even more sinister turn as we rejoin Dorian and Toby on Christmas Day itself for All Through the House by Alan Flanagan. Toby and Dorian arrive at a very old and mysterious hotel (although those familiar with Lerner and Loewe musicals will guess the significance of its name) where they start to experience some very strange goings on when they encounter characters who bear a startling resemblance to Dorian’s old friend Harry Wooton (Miles Richardson reprising the character from Big Finish’s adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray) and more intriguingly his sister Isadora, once again brilliant portrayed by Katy Manningwho previously appeared in series one’s The Twittering of Sparrows. Without wanting to give too much away this is very much an adventure story which is as dark and twisted as the series has ever managed. It becomes clear that events are being manipulated by the mysterious Man Upstairs about whom this reviewer will just say that he could only have played by Gabriel Woolf. There are surprises in store which guarantee that this story is compulsory listening for all fans of this series, especially If you have any intention of listening to series five. Basically, this second story is excellent and will justify buying this special release.

Overall, the two stories which comprise this special release continue to push the envelope as part of a great series of audio dramas. The second story in particular sets the scene for the impending release of the finale. Big Finish clearly gambled a lot in commissioning this series but four years on it’s clear that the gamble has continued to pay off with the combined creative talents of Handcock and Vlahos providing some of Big Finish’s finest output.

 

The Spirits of Christmas is available to buy now from amazon.co.uk





Survivors Series Four (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Friday, 21 October 2016 - Reviewed by Richard Brinck-Johnsen
Survivors - Series Four (Credit: Big Finish)
 

Written by Ken Bentley, Louise Jameson, Christopher Hatherall,  and Matt Fitton

Directed by Ken Bentley 

Cast: Ian McCulloch (Greg), Lucy Fleming (Jenny), Louise Jameson (Jackie), Fiona Sheehan (Molly), Zoë Tapper (Evelyn Piper), Ramon Tikaram (Theo), Jane Maud (Mildred Sanderson/Sarah), Paul Panting (Colonel Stephen Adams), Jonathan Oliver (Lewis Bartholomew MP), Terry Molloy (John Redgrave), Sean Murray (Dr Stewart/Terry Levinson), Alex Lanipekun (Roy), Vinette Robinson (Davina), Laurence Dobiesz (Michael), Enzo Squillino Jnr (Stan)

Big Finish Productions – Released June 2016

With the release of Series Five only a few weeks away, it seems an appropriate time to catch up on the fourth boxset of Big Finish’s extremely successful, dark, gritty and powerful audio revival of Terry Nation’s original 1970s TV series Survivors. It is terrible thing to admit, but when contemplating this release this reviewer finds himself to be at a loss for words. The problem being that whilst, taken on its own merits, this box set is just as strong as the three box sets that preceded it, there is a real sense of déjà​ entendu in terms of the repetition of the format which links the four stories of this box set.

That being said, The Old Ways by Ken Bentley is a very strong opening entry which takes us back to the original outbreak of “the death”. As well as providing a welcome cameo from Terry Molloy reprising his character of John Redgrave from the first audio series, this gives a great introduction to new character Evelyn Piper, played by Zoe Tapper who starred as Anya in the re-imagined Survivors of 2008-10. A neat way of squaring the circle by uniting actors from both TV versions. There is also a strong central turn in this episode from Jane Maud as the Prime Minister’s widow Mildred Sanderson. Having had a paramilitary group of thugs calling themselves the “British Government” in the last audio series, it is a neat contrast to now discover the fate of the surviving remnant of the actual government. It is however to be hoped that having revisited the starting point of the original TV series now in the opening stories of three separate box sets (with only series two having opened several months later), Big Finish will allow the series to move on a little in future releases.

For the Good of the Cause by Louise Jameson returns us to original series regulars Greg and Jenny (Ian McCulloch and Lucy Fleming on great form throughout) who are visiting a potential ally community with a quasi-religious outlook, The Belief Foundation, headed by an idealistic leader called Theo, played with great charm as charisma by Ramon Tikaram. As someone who was a teenager in the 1990s, Tikaram’s performance as Ferdy in the series This Life was extremely influential, and so this reviewer is delighted to hear this actor being regularly employed by Big Finish. I was also go as far as saying that of the four principal antagonists who have appeared in the audio series to date, Theo is by far the most compelling performance and after the chilling performance given by Paul Thornley in series three that is really saying something. However, herein the thorny issue of repeated formula begins to raise its head. Before moving on, some praise for Jameson’s excellent portrayal of Jackie, particularly in the scene where learns of the death of her friend Daniel whose loss is still felt by this reviewer.

The third episode Collision is a welcome contribution from a new writer Christopher Hatherall, who played Tyler in last November’s third series. It starts to become apparent that all is not quite as it seems in Theo’s utopia (this will ring bells for those who remember the villainous Gilligan from series one) as the survivors of the Tartarus bunker from the opening episode struggle to integrate with the Foundation. Meanwhile a young man called Michael seeks to make amends but a revelation about his past sets the scene for confrontation as Theo’s true motives become more apparent (although not especially surprising). There is a still plenty of tension as events build.

Forgive and Forget  by Matt Fitton brings about the expected crescendo. Perhaps the highlight is that the listener may not necessarily find themselves always supporting the decisions of the protagonists. There is, as expected, a predictably enjoyable confrontation between Greg and Theo but also some powerful scenes for Fiona Sheehan as Molly who continues to impress as she confronts her past head on.

Overall, this is another very strong entry to this audio series. However, having ended up with a very similar story arc to the three previous series each revolving around a single antagonist, it ends up losing something. It is to be hoped that the next couple of series can be less formulaic whilst maintaining the powerful storytelling and strong characterisation which continue to mark this series out as a must listen.

 

Survivors Series Four is available to buy now from amazon.co.uk





Dark Shadows: Echoes of the Past (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 6 October 2016 - Reviewed by Richard Brinck-Johnsen
Dark Shadows: Echoes of the Past (Credit: Big Finish)
 

Written by Jerry Lacy, Ian Farrington, Philip Meeks & Paul Phipps

Directed by Ursula Burton

Cast: Jerry Lacy, Kathryn Leigh Scott, Lara Parker & David Selby

Big Finish Productions – Released June 2016

Echoes of the Past is the second of two special releases to mark the 50th anniversary of the original television series of the supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows. Unlike the full cast anniversary tale Blood and Fire, this is a collection of four separate, standalone stories, each narrated in character by a surviving member of the original cast.

Big Finish’s previous Dark Shadows audiobooks have usually featured two characters in a semi-narrated format similar to their Doctor Who range of Companion Chronicles. It is perhaps a slight disappointment that for this and the next release expected later this year, they have only used a single narrative voice for each story.

The opening story Trask the Exorcist is both written and narrated by Jerry Lacy, who probably knows the corrupt Reverend Trask better than most. It is an enjoyable tale of temptation with some great dialogue between Trask and a possessed girl which the author/narrator delivers with great relish.

The second story is The Missing Reel by regular Big Finish scribe Ian Farrington and read by David Selby as Quentin Collins, a character much missed from the previous anniversary release. This story finds the long-lived werewolf in 1950s Los Angeles on the trail of a missing reel of film from a horror film, only to cross paths with a super-fan who is determined to see the footage from his favourite film. This is another enjoyable well-told tale if not hugely original.

Next up is Lunar Tides by Philip Meeks. This finds Kathryn Leigh-Scott as Maggie Evans in the aftermath of the departure of Barnabas Collins during the period of the original 1970s series, struggling to make sense of strange events caused by unusual tidal behaviour and coinciding with the arrival of a young English girl. Again, whilst Leigh-Scott gave a strong portrayal of matriarch Patience Collins in Blood and Fire, this is a very welcome opportunity to hear her back in her usual character role.

Last, but by no means least of these four stories is Confession by Paul Phipps, narrated by Lara Parker as the ever popular witch Angelique Buchard. Angelique is alone apparently writing her final confession, but as ever the witch is not always to be trusted. This is a neatly twisted final tale and definitely the highlight of this particular boxset.

 

Overall, it is a pleasure to have four of the most memorable original series characters appear in these stories. It also serves to remind that whilst all four actors appeared in the full-cast anniversary special Blood and Fire, only one of their original characters appeared in that story meaning it was perhaps not as much of a celebratory release as it might have been. It might perhaps have been nice to have a set of stories with a linking thread (although this reviewer notes that something similar was accomplished with an earlier anniversary release, The Crimson Pearl  in 2011) but this is still good stuff and bodes well for the next release, another collection of short stories entitled Haunting Memories, just in time for the Christmas ghost story season.

 

Echoes of the Past is available to buy now from amazon.co.uk





Game Of Thrones Season 6: Episodes One + TwoBookmark and Share

Monday, 22 August 2016 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
Image result for game of thrones season 6

EPISODE 1 - THE RED WOMAN

EPISODE 2 - HOME

STARRING: Peter Dinklage, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Lena Headey, Emilia Clarke, Kit Harington, Liam Cunningham, Carice van Houten, Natalie Dormer Alfie Allen, Sophie Turner, Maisie Williams, Isaac Hempstead-Wright, Iwan Rheon + Iain Glen 

WITH: Conleth Hill, Gwendoline Christie, Jonathan Pryce,
 Michiel Huisman,  Michael McElhatton, Nathalie Emmanuel, Kristofer Hivju, Alex Siddig, Tom Wlaschiha 

Guest Starring: Max von Sydow as 'The Three-eyed Raven'

Showrunners + Producers: David Benioff + D.B. Weiss

HBO/ Sky Atlantic 2016

*NB - Significant Spoilers feature for these episodes, and some of the preceding series. There also is comparison made with the original book series *

Game Of Thrones at this point in its history has become a true global phenomenon. Many millions of viewers, young and old, male and female, have been drawn into the political conspiracies and battle royales of the fictional lands of Westeros and Essos.

Come this new Sixth Season, much of the source material of 'A Song Of Fire And Ice' has been used up, or even bypassed. However such is the skill of 'D+D' - as the showrunners can be most succinctly referred to - and their close communication with George RR Martin as he writes his latest volume ('The Winds Of Winter') that there is the facility to still use up certain storylines by reworking the plot threads, with a bit of tender loving care.

 

Season FIve was at least to my eyes and ears, the weakest season of the bunch thus far. It had some great set pieces, but could at times drag, and the dialogue and character interplay was variable. Much of the new region of Dorne was host to borderline-amateurish efforts. A good number of the best characters are now written out including Tywin, Ygritte, Robb, Cat, Shae and Stannis. Even the more despicable ones could be missed every now and then such as Joffrey, Viserys, Pyat Pree, Craster and - despite his many fans who attest to his 'anti-hero' qualities - the Hound. Regretfully, there were not enough good replacements to cover the loss in dramatic potential

There was, however, a massive season cliffhanger involving Jon Snow. The most identifiable hero figure of the saga was last seen bleeding out from a number of deep stab wounds on the (appropriately enough) snow-covered ground of Castle Black. But, in our internet and social media age it was impossible to hide that Kit Harrington still was involved in the show in some way. Speculation was frenzied over just how delayed his resurrection would be, if such a miracle was indeed planned by the writers. And with no source material from Martin to confirm or deny Jon's fate, many millions again returned with bated breath. The hordes of fans now have access not just through conventional TV premiers on Sky Atlantic, HBO, and many foreign networks, but now additionally an online HBO streaming channel.

 

For this first review of the show to materialise onsite in 2016 I will divide the map by sections, and comment on both the progress in storyline, and how things are holding up in terms of program quality.

 

DANY/ DOTHRAKI:

Our favourite Mother of Dragons Dany was unceremoniously whisked away by her strongest 'son' Drogon, leading her to be left vulnerable in the Dothraki sea. Now she must endure a journey back to Vaes Dothrak escorted by a notably large khalasar. Indicative of Season Five's problems lingering, there is some rather cringe-worthy dialogue from the riders that escort her, accompanied by subtitles for the viewers that don't speak their language. All the same, after such a long spell without any Dothraki in her inner circle, this does make us reflect on just how far Dany has progressed in five quick seasons. It also is fun to be reminded that she can pretend to not understand a given language, even if her captors don't realise. But other problems arise in that there is a rather unimpressive 'replacement' for Khal Drogo. I do not mean any particular knock against new cast member Joe Naufahu, (who once played professional rugby before trying out acting), but he is neither that funny in unpleasant way or threatening as some of the best secondary antagonists in the show. Dany also more than holds own with him, even if rather dishevelled from the long march she had had.

Meanwhile Jorah and Daario are on their beloved Queen's trail, and rather predictably find the ring she left in a massive circle formed by the riders that accosted her. However Iain Glen and  Michiel Huisman do spark off one another well, and hopefully get a better script to work with soon.

 

MEEREEN:

In the first episode of the two to visit this massive former slaver city, Tyrion and Varys rather carelessly walk around, dressed as commoners. Their purpose is to inspect the state of a Meeereen which has a gap at the very summit of its power hierarchy. It seems rather odd that they are as relaxed and lacking in guards during the walk, despite plenty of the Sons of the Harpy knowing at least Tyrion - if not Varys as well(!) This is a rather rushed scene in a busy premiere, and feels tonally off due to its weak humour between these two fan favourites. In the past there were many serious and moving scenes that they share, but recently the focus is on broad comedy, which just doesn't quite work. Viewers requiring a bit of slapstick or loveable clumsiness are better served by the likes of Podrick or Samwell.

However, a better moment for the eunuch/dwarf duo comes during their reaction to Tyrion's 'testing the waters', by his risky sweet-talking of the dragons, as he loosens the restraints upon them. He manages to overcome any fears he had of a painful demise - not least relating to the trauma of 'Blackwater'' where he got scarred -  but still it is clear he does not enjoy being exposed to such high risks.

But problems remain in this second episode of Season Six, as the dialogue scene with Grey Worm, Missandei and Tyrion seems somewhat pointless. Whilst Peter Dinklage normally has automatic chemistry with each and every cast member, the alchemy fails to occur here. Certainly the words given to a good cast are not the most quotable, unlike the vast majority of dialogue stretches in Seasons One to Four. Plus, Meereen has been the slowest storyline in the show, barring the adrenaline-rush 'breaker of chains' introduction, and of course the colosseum set piece in 'The Dance Of Dragons'.

Yet most viewers would still be realistic in hoping that some major developments finally happen this season. Of course Tyrion arriving in Dany's court has overtaken the books, and more plot developments are continuing. Some of these by now will cause those who like the novels unspoilt to accept the inevitable.

 

DORNE: 

I made my feelings about this region of Westeros and the variable acting quality of its natives clear in my last batch of reviews on this site. Once again, there is minimal screen time for events, and plot developments happen in rather abrupt fashion. In this instance, there is little more than the seeming intent to shock outright. Prince Doran was a half-decent character in the books, despite his gout forcing him to be wheelchair bound. But in the show Alexander Siddig has been given little to work with, and so is one of the bigger wastes of a quality actor in the show. Various developments could have been made from the Sand Snakes and Ellaria betraying the trust of Doran, by their murder of Myrcella. The most efficient route for the showrunners, and least interesting for viewers is opted for, regretfully.

First Doran, and Areo Hotah are taken down with the barest of struggles. The death of Aero is itself galling as we never get to see his fighting skills, despite his considerable presence and intent persona. Many followers of Thrones will feel short-changed. Then soon after in a (possibly secondary) ship that arrived over in King's Landing, Prince Trystane is himself brutally killed, losing half his face in the process. With Ellaria declaring that 'weak men' will never rule in Dorne again, one does wonder where the season will go next in terms of the overall gender-balance of power. 

 

KINGS LANDING:

The season trailer built up some hopes for some enticing character moments in Westeros' capital. But thus far for these opening episodes, there is fairly slow progress made. This however may allow for suspense and then twists and pay-offs further down the line.

Margaery on the basic surface seems to kowtow to the 'pious' High Sparrow, but more almost certainly is going on, as she aims to resume her power play in court. Loras, whilst a great fighter, is not nearly as strong mentally as his sister, and continues to suffer grievously (off-screen).

Elsewhere, Cersei now is sporting a very different look thanks to the shearing of her atonement, and it seems to reflect her suffering as she only now has Tommen left of all her children. It could be seen that perhaps the Faith's punishment has changed her, and made her more humble. She is now seeing the prophecy from 'Maggy the Frog' continue to become cold hard reality. Yet her dismissal of Jaime in recent times is now forgotten, and the two are bonded closer than ever, if for the worst of reasons. And - similar to Charles Dance's cameo last season- there is the image of actor Nell Tiger Free lying commendably still, as the youngest female Lannister is mourned by her parents.

And as for Tommen, he is still involved in court, but otherwise is used as a crucial pawn by the likes of both the High Sparrow and his Uncle Kevan, now entrenched as the 'Hand' of the King. Whether Cersei can gain any access or real influence over her one surviving child will no doubt form a major hook for later episodes of this season.

 

THE WALL/CASTLE BLACK:

Jon's corpse somehow manages to look every bit as elegant as any self-respecting living character. Harrington is required to lie still and look very dead, as Jon's supporters (namely Davos, the Wildlings, and those brothers loyal to him such as Edd) try to protect his body.

The Red Witch's interest in him last season is built upon here, as she is enlisted to try and revive Jon. We get an insight into her insecurities which works nicely, given just how confident she had been in the show, right up until things went south in more ways than one for 'King' Stannis Baratheon. Her unfeasibly long life span, thanks to her magic, is revealed too. The withered face and body of an old woman replaces the presentable image that most associate with Carice Van Houten.

This is a haunting end to episode one, but easily trumped by the terrific misdirection as a seemingly failed attempt to revive Jon is of course a calm before the storm, and one of the great TV moments of 2016.

It is also deeply satisfying to see both Alliser Thorne and Olly, plus several more forgettable traitor, taken away to the cells of Castle Black after their wretched betrayal of Jon. One can only wonder if they will be forgiven, now their victim is very much alive and well again, but possibly very different in spirit given the precedent we had with Beric Dondarrion in Season Three.

 

NORTH OF THE WALL:

A lot of off-screen time has passed, since we last saw Bran's party make the relative safety of the weirwood tree, with of course Jojen Reed biting the dust in the eventful 'The Children'.  Isaac Hempstead-Wright has clearly aged some years, with a change in looks and voice that is rather remarkable.  But, as is rather common in Thrones, the Three Eyed Raven is now played by someone else completely, and looks distinctly different. Most discerning viewers would have no complaints surely though, as it is the redoubtable Max Von Sydow who now can flesh out a character, previously only seen in glimpses here and there.

The biggest draw for these scenes, which could seem too disconnected to mainland Westeros, is the sheer thrill of seeing young Eddard Stark along with other denizens of Winterfell, most notably a young Hodor who can actually speak properly. Bran's sheer interest in these visions is clearly significant too, and one senses it is not just the ability to see the past, but that something truly supernatural and significant is going on here altogether.

 

WINTERFELL - AND OUTSKIRTS 

The literal cliffhanger over the fates of Reek/Theon and Sansa is quickly resolved, in that the leap they took neither injured them nor slowed down their run away from the confines of Winterfell - a prison for them both for some time, when previously it was a beloved home. A little leap of faith is needed at times from the viewer though. Given the quantity of Roose's men, it seems a little easy that the duo get as far away into the woods/stream area as they do. Then the manner in which Theon tries to draw off the men and hounds is rather silly, and is compounded by the 'teleporter' quick entrance of Brienne and Podrick, as they save the escapees from a likely grim fate at Ramsey's hands.

On the plus side, it is great to see Theon can still handle himself in battle despite being so emasculated and physically broken. Podrick may have some competence at times, but is still very clumsy, and it feels right that Theon should save him, despite no former friendship. It is also a sign that the traitor to the late King in the North may still have some redemption left in him.

Then, having had some good build up, in the form of Brienne's failed attempts to bring home first Arya, and then Sansa, the greatest warrior of Tarth is finally able to convince her 'Lady' that she should be her sworn sword. In the following episode, a similarly moving scene occurs as Theon insists that Sansa is now suitably protected to make the risky journey north to Castle Black to seek help from Jon (who of course they all assume is still alive and unharmed). 

Back in Winterfell itself, a quick succession of events see Lord Bolton meet poetic justice. His joy as he has a 'true heir' is quickly extinguished. Ramsey had felt undermined already in the middle sections of Season Five, and now has taken proactive action to pierce his cold-hearted father in a vital organ. This act mirrors just how Roose gave Robb the Lannisters' 'regards'. Having an ally in the form of Harald Karstark was a smart move, and it looks like Ramsey will gather other houses in the North to support his hold on the region.

However the most memorable part of these episodes' visit to Winterfell is also the most harrowing. With Roose dead and deposed, Ramsey has little love and time to spare for his father's widow and for his newly born half-brother. Whilst their murder by Ramsey's hounds is off-screen, it is still one of the darkest moments of horror in a show that is well-known for its grim subject matter.  

 

IRON ISLANDS:

Compared to the books there is a by now long overdue death for Balon Greyjoy. The leeches-on-fire blood magic Melisandre used to doom both Joffrey Baratheon and Robb Stark had taken effect quite a while back now for those two, but the Lord of the Iron Islands remained a half-forgotten factor in the equation. It certainly is a dramatic end for Balon, even if he was probably not the most memorable character, and overshadowed for creepiness by the likes of Walder Frey.

There has been a long wait for Euron Greyjoy to be portrayed onscreen, given that other material in A Feast For Crows and A Dance With Dragons was adapted last season. Thankfully, his entrance is played quite well. This man has no issue murdering his own brother to take the regal seat on the Iron Islands. Although weak, old Balon still at least attempts to kill Euron first, rather than just meekly succumb. However, such is their respective ages, and fighting prowess, there could only be one winner.

The question then arises: will Yara Greyjoy fight to become ruler, or will Theon, who decided to head 'home' be involved in some way, despite needing to travel countless miles away from Winterfell?

 

BRAAVOS:

These sections with Arya, the Waif and Jaqen H'ghar are really just laying the groundwork. It is fun to see Arya truly tested in having no sight, as she fights the malicious Waif. It is an arguably fair punishment for her vicious indulgence in using up one of the names on her kill list. I found much of the previous year's sections in this city somewhat ponderous, but am hopeful that there will be some pay-off, and perhaps some vivid new characters unique to the location.

 

**

And there we have it. A lot of new plot threads are knitting themselves together, as other sections of the massive jigsaw storyline are requiring a bit of urgency and development. But the early signs are this will be a solid season. The dialogue could do with some improving, but the production values and acting efforts are as strong as ever.


 





Dark Shadows: Blood & Fire (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 18 July 2016 - Reviewed by Richard Brinck-Johnsen
Dark Shadows: Blood & Fire (Credit: Big Finish)
Written by Roy Gill
Directed by Ursula Burton & Joseph Lidster

Cast: Lara Parker (Angélique Bouchard), Kathryn Leigh Scott (Patience Collins), Mitchell Ryan (Caleb Collins), Joanna Going (Laura Murdoch Stockbridge), Andrew Collins (Joshua Collins), Daisy Tormé (Abigail Collins), James Storm (Abraham Harkaway), Lisa Richards (Euphemia Spencer Stockbridge), Christopher Pennock (Uriah Spencer Stockbridge), Marie Wallace (Dorothea Summers), Nancy Barrett (Isobel Collins), David Selby (Theodore Collins), Matthew Waterhouse (Reverend Samuel Cunningham) and Jerry Lacy (Malachi Sands) with John Karlen (Alfred Loomis), Ursula Burton (Peggy Griffin), Alexandra Donnachie (Sarah Filmore), Scott Haran (Lamech Gifford), Walles Hamonde (Roderick Haskell), Daniel Collard (Robert Hanley), Michael Shon (Wolf) and Natalie Britton (Storm Elemental).

Big Finish Productions – Released June 2016

This is the first of two releases to mark the 50th anniversary of the original television series of Dark Shadows. Of the two releases, Blood & Fire, on paper at least, would appear to be the more exciting prospect of the two as it is a full cast audio drama featuring numerous surviving members of the original TV cast alongside several actors from other series who have appeared in several previous dramatic readings and full cast releases including Matthew Waterhouse (Doctor Who) and Scott Haran (Wizards vs Aliens). However, where this prospect falls down is that most of the original series actors are not playing the characters with whom they are most readily identified, as such fans of some popular Dark Shadows characters such as the vampire Barnabas Collins and the werewolf Quentin to name but two of many, will be rather disappointed that they do not appear. This isn’t quite the same level of disappointment that was experienced by Doctor Who fans over their 40th anniversary special Zagreus which purported to be a multi-Doctor story but for this reviewer at least it was a similar experience.

Aside from opening and closing scenes set in hell, again another slight disappointment as the uncredited person playing the Dark Lord for this release was not anything like as sinister as the portrayal given by Nigel Fairs in previous audiobooks, the story is set almost entirely in 1767 which is established in the TV canon as a momentous year in the lives of the Collins family and the birth of the infamous haunted house Collinwood in which almost the entirety of the original TV series run from 1966 to 1971 was set. The witch Angelique has been sent back in time by the Dark Lord to destroy the Collins family a generation before the birth of Barnabas, the playboy turned vampire with whom she has been obsessed for the last 200 years. As ever Angelique is portrayed by Lara Parker who knows the character well and gives a strong performance. She encounters another original series character in the form of Joanna Going as the first incarnation of the tragic Laura Murdoch Stockbridge who is destined to be continually reincarnated throughout the history of Collinwood as a phoenix, as such Laura proves to be very much of a match to Angelique as she gains her powers for the first time. The Dark Shadows audio series is normally fairly accessible to those such as this reviewer who have never watched any of the television series, so it was rather a shame that I was left feeling the need to check on Wikipedia as to the significance of Laura Stockbridge’s appearance in this story. However, many long-term fans will have found plenty in this release to enjoy. As already mentioned it is littered with cameos from surviving cast members with prominent roles given to actors who have been the mainstays of the dramatic readings including Katherine Leigh-Scott as the matriarch Patience Collins, and Andrew Collins as her son Joshua who is destined to become the father of Barnabas, the role which Collins inherited on audio from the late Jonathan Frid. Jerry Lacy portrays one of the best original characters of this story, the sinister architect Malachi Sands and David Selby appears as another Collins ancestor Theodore, whilst John Karlen appears a direct ancestor of the caretaker Willy Loomis.

Overall, there is plenty of fan service to be had in this celebratory story which does include some suitably epic scenes and any fans of both Angelique and Laura will be particularly pleased. Anything that encourages listeners to want to delve into the history of this rather unique series can’t be all bad and along with everything else Big Finish have produced in their extensive Dark Shadows range, it remains a much more worthwhile use of one’s time than watching the travesty that was Tim Burton’s 2012 Dark Shadows film. This reviewer will however be looking forward to the other anniversary release, Echoes of the Past, a collection of dramatised readings featuring not just Angelique but also Reverend Trask, Quentin Collins and Maggie Evans.