Saturday, 29 April 2017

Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War III (Video Game Review)

In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war. Those words immediately bring to mind images of bloodshed, greenskins and giant shoulder pads, and few have perfectly encapsulated them so well as Dawn of War. Offering fans a glimpse into the nightmarish bloodshed of a galaxy going to hell, the franchise has (with one glaring exception) stood strong over the years, and Relic are looking to extend their story into a new era with this latest release; following a three-way war between the Blood Ravens, Biel-Tan and the ever unkillable Gorgutz.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Star Wars Under Disney: A New Era of Disappointments

A friend once summed up my relationship with Star Wars as that of a classic Noir detective: Someone who wants to desperately cut his ties with a corrupt and failing regime, sickened by the repeated failings about him, and trying to do his best in a bad world. He finished it up with this line:

"Just when I think i'm out, they drag me right back in."

He's probably right. Three times now I have tried to sever my ties to this setting after Disney butchered it. Three times I have said, "That's it, no more," only to go back on my word for one reason or another. Well, looks like we're breaking that promise entirely this time. Star Wars meant a lot to me, anyone who has read this article will understand that. Because of this, many claimed that any initial derision of Disney's creation was simply too soon. Some claimed that I hadn't given it a chance to show its stuff. Others that my reaction was a knee-jerk response born of simmering hatred. So, with that in mind, I actually agreed to hold off for a time. Save for a few reviews of series I had already started and the odd article to help highlight past points, I have held off on Star WarsDisney has been allowed a full sixteen months to prove me wrong following their reboot. They have had over a year to create the coherent, "better" universe they wanted to stand out on its own, so let's see what they have accomplished.

Now, to be clear, we're going to be skipping the films here for the most part. Why? Because it would take an entire series of articles to cover the problems there, and I want to focus upon the universe they're building. The old films, the old Expanded Universe, used the two trilogies as a starting point to work off of. They respected the creative choices and concepts, but opted to expand and building upon the setting based upon their example, or focusing upon the areas the films couldn't hope to cover. In short, it's where any new setting should be able to stand on its own two legs. These are the elements which are supposed to fully flesh out a new franchise, accomplishing big events on a massive scale television simply can't deliver, and rapid updates film cannot perform. It was where the old Expanded Universe stood its ground and proved that Star Wars had more to say. It's also where this brand new franchise hit a brick wall. 

Every story produced, almost every tale developed surrounding this new setting focused upon the same thing the Galactic Civil War. Oh you had your odd exceptions, notably the Aftermath series, but everything else from Twilight Company to Lost Stars was all focused upon this one era. No one went backward, no one went forwards, it was as if the entire franchise was locked into a holding pattern surrounding this one small event in galactic history. Worse still though, even if you were to try and read many of the stories pushing onward, each of them was always looking back at what had come before. True, the Empire had left deep scars in the setting and it was going to impact all that had come before it, but it seemed that was all that the publisher was interested in.

Twilight Company, easily the best book to emerge from this new setting, focused squarely upon the Galactic Civil War and little else. We were given a better impression of how the Rebellion fought during this time and an idea of the conflict's grim nature, but even this was seen as extreme by the standards of the other tales. Tarkin ultimately proved to be the same in the long run, doing little to really push beyond the Death Star itself, and screwing up many other writers' ideas. Even Lords of the Sith, a book which stood the best chance of truly fleshing out and establishing new points, devolved into little more than repeating what many already knew. Vader is driven by his hatred and the Rebels want to kill the Emperor. Any attempt at character examination or pushes to flesh out this new world fell flat over and over again.

Still, surely some of the later books were exceptions, right? Well, no, not even then.
Bloodline tried to push the setting forwards with the idea of the New Republic being established, but it never took any definitive step forwards. Every twist hinged upon something which had happened in the films, every major life-changing event related directly back to the Empire, and even the core conflict itself rapidly turned back into an old Imperial plot. Even with these elements the story could have resolved itself by giving an impression of some new change in times, but it went back to preserving the status quo under a new name. All we ended up with was a Rebellion Resistance fighting a Galactic Empire First Order with the same old faces in command.

Each and every time any novel verged upon doing something interesting or pushing any boundaries, it rapidly fell back, taking shelter behind anything which was familiar to the audience. Reading any and all of them, you can practically see the moments between chapters where demands were abruptly placed upon the author or they were told to avoid something. It's likely why Heir to the Jedi ended up ping-ponging back and forth between a multitude of different disconnected sub-plots until the book was all over the place. You can practically see exactly where Disney got involved as, by the first act's end, everything goes insane. At one moment it suggested the Force of the Church's involvement in something major, at another it was a possible relationship between Luke and dead-meat-love-interest-No.-6, then it's abruptly about Luke's own history. Each offered no connection to the other, and the moment they started to go anywhere, the line was abruptly drawn in the sand and they were told to halt.

You see, the books here were trapped. Each seemingly denied any opportunity to explore the juiciest area of the new canon: The events between the ending of one trilogy and the beginning of the next. That massive decades long gap, that era of monumental change and grand opportunities was open to them, and Disney was terrified to let anyone near it. Why? Simple - It might allow the setting to evolve, and it might disrupt their brand new films.

While a previous article bashed The Force Awakens for simply rehashing many ideas of the Expanded Universe - a point I strongly stand by - even if you ignore this there are obvious problems. Nothing advanced. Nothing moved forwards. Nothing even tried to change. Instead, the entire setting was bent over backward to keep the same status quo of the very first film. Don't believe me? Consider, just for a moment, the arc that Han Solo and Leia Organa followed.

In the original trilogy, Han and Leia's relationship was one of the major highlights. We saw it grow from their conflict, their loyalties develop and their belief in one another solidify. The chemistry between the characters and actors elevated it further and, despite some often questionable dialogue, the almost traditional nature of this work meant you bought into it. It meant that you weren't questioning how two people, originally at one another's throats, were going to be together at the end, solidified in one final smile. 

Consider as well the friendship they had with Luke, Lando and Chewie. The reason that they have become so iconic is because they were such a tight-knit and well-rounded ensemble of characters. Each was so solidly defined that you didn't question what they were going to do, and never cared if one moment or another was overly predictable. So what if you knew Luke was going to race to Cloud City to save the others? That idealism was why you loved to watch him. So what if Lando's turn back towards the light was still expected, that kind of traditional touch was what helped give the film such a lasting appeal. The fact that the film's followed such a natural major arc, featured such a definitive end for that chapter in their lives, is why they have stayed in the minds of others for decades. You knew the Empire as it was had been crushed, you saw the group have a happy ending, and you knew that whatever followed this conflict had ended in the best way possible.

Here's the problem: Everyone knows this moment, everyone is aware of this finale, and Disney looks to mine that nostalgia. So, in order to do so, they hit the reset button as hard as they possibly can. The Force Awakens requires you to love that initial arc, enjoy the ending, and then accept that Han and Leia's marriage ended in complete misery just so film can regress back to the scoundrel and princess dynamic once again. Why? Because it's not what made sense or is the next natural step forwards, it's just replicating what people loved about the original; clumsily mashing it together with other plot elements to try and force it to work while aping other ideas. 

Where's Luke in all of this? The film requires you to believe that he would go through hell and high water twice over, losing his hand whilst trying and save them, and then bugger off to the middle of nowhere in their time of need. Why? Because he's a Jedi Master, and the original trilogy always had Jedi Masters in hiding. Why's he hiding? Because the Jedi Order were wiped out. Again. Because the original trilogy's ending, featuring him set to rebuild the force of peacekeepers, was accepted and then reversed like everything else. Every victory was abruptly omitted, every step forwards carefully reversed and back-tracked until everything was back to square one. The Death Star is gone? Here's the Uber-Killy Star! Darth Vader is dead along with all the Sith? Here's some whining replacement aping Vader's every effort! The Empire has been broken? Here's the Super Empire!

Abrams, Disney, the people behind this entire endeavor? They probably heard of Star Wars, they may have even watched it, but damn if they failed to comprehend the point behind any of it. Rather than building upon the films, rather than using them as a starting point to work towards something greater, the best they can hope to do is keep mimicking and copying ideas from other people in the hopes it will make some coherent sense. Because of this mentality, because of this stagnant refusal to budge forwards and rampant creative sterility present across the new franchise, the books were kept on a short leash. No longer are they there to press forwards and help plan things out, they're just present as a kind of auxiliary to the films, only being allowed to follow in their wake and do nothing that Abrams wouldn't.

Of course, I imagine a few people on here are screaming "Well, Rebels fixes all of this!" No, please, do not fool yourselves.

Even accepting that this was once more delving back into the Rebellion era and shirking any opportunity to build upon what came before, what we ended up with was a sub-par saga. A ruination of the setting and quite frankly a series which squanders any opportunity to have this new storyline stand out on its own by playing to the most cliched of tropes at every turn. Now, I used the above point to cite how predictability isn't a problem under the right circumstances. If an audience is engaged enough by the characters, if they are enthralled by the ongoing events, then a few predictable traits can be endearing and engaging. We all know that in the Marvel films Captain America is going to be the big hero, after all, but that never detracts from the experience of watching him on the big screen. However, Rebels took this to the next level, by turning entire story arcs into generic by-the-numbers pieces you have seen a billion times before.

Tell me if this sounds familiar: A foe is set up for the heroes. He does his job badly over and over again, being beaten at every turn, and has an enmity with one person in particular. Eventually, they're trapped in the same place, rely on one another to survive, and emerge with a respect for one another. When the threatening villain shows up, he acts as their informant and then switches sides.

How about this instead: A bitter down on his luck orphan is thrust into great events because he has a great inner power and potential. He is immature, lacks self-control and his personality begins and ends with bad jokes and snark. He uses an overly kiddy weapon and mockery to win fights, and repeatedly ends conflicts which should be well above his status. He is trained by an older member of a sacred order over years to master his skills, and an encounter with a villain starts to force him to become more serious over time.

Or, here's another one: A member of a warrior race is disgusted with her own kind. Having gone into a kind of self-exile, she is eventually convinced to return to them in order to change their ways and improve events, after lengthy self-reflection and the encouragement of others. This immediately fixes just about everything and is rarely ever mentioned again once this is done.

This is 80s cartoon levels of simplistic characterization, and despite the heavy continuity involved, it never rises above the most absolute bare-bones storytelling quality. Perhaps you can argue that this is a children's show, and that this shouldn't be a problem as a result. It's an argument I have certainly heard before and one which will certainly be made again. Like many defenses for this franchise though, it's riddled with problems. 

Firstly, western animation has retained more complex and mature storytelling than this without needing to dumb it down, even for children. Avatar, Transformers Prime (AKA What if the Michael Bay films were actually good?), and others have dealt with complex storytelling while subverting or sidestepping cliches. Secondly, if this is supposed to be the grand defense of your new setting, how is "Well, don't be too hard on it, it's just for children!" some excuse? Finally though, even when you accept and ignore this, you're still left with nothing of real value. In fact, you're left with a lot of old mistakes and missed opportunities, along with butchered potential.

Take for example the idea that this is a time dominated by the Empire, where the effects of the Clone Wars are still being keenly felt. Surely this was an opportunity for some dark storytelling and great ideas right, perhaps even a few hold-overs from the past series showing up? Nope. Beyond three clones and one episode the rest is effectively forgotten entirely, and even then it's rushed through like there's no tomorrow. Really, here's the Clone Wars episode in question summed up in three lines, with all the drama and intensity it offered:

"We're droids, we're still at war and we hate the clones!"
"You have the Empire to fight now."
"You're right, we're now your allies and there's no ill will between us."
"Yay, the Clone Wars are over! Thank you Ezra, you have fixed everything!"

If you think this is a joke, here's the scene in full. Yes, this was supposed to be taken seriously.

You might also notice a few oddities there as well, such as how utterly un-threatening and poorly trained the Stormtroopers are. Well, that's because Disney didn't want to explore the theme of heroes becoming villains or the programming involved with such a turn. No, rather than having the original troopers slowly replaced, all the clones were dumped at once with trite reasons and the show uses the excuse that "All Stormtroopers are new, poorly trained and rushed into service!" to turn them into jokes. 

Such a move would be bad enough on its own. Mooks or not, if you stop making your enemies threatening, if you turn them into literal jokes for the heroes to simply make a mockery of with no veneer of a possible threat, why become invested in any fight? However, in an attempt to mine the "herp derp stormtroopers badd" idea taken up by pop culture, the show doubled down on this. Again, and again and again.

They're not only rushed into service, but badly trained, ignoring even the bare basics of squad tactics. In fact, rather than being trained to work together, the show actively displays Stormtrooper cadets being told to screw one another over in order to gain personal glory. When it gets to their equipment, it promptly decides that their armour is worthless, their helmets hinder them, and their blasters are so pitifully inaccurate they're effectively useless.

So, whereas the Expanded Universe tried to subvert this, tried to make the Empire a threat and the Stormtroopers human, all Disney is concerned about is turning them into slapstick comedy and cannon fodder. So much so that, if the Rebellion were to simply wait, it seems that their entire military would collapse in upon itself.

Almost every criticism supposed fans of Star Wars level at the Expanded Universe, damning it a hundred times over for daring to exist, is repeated here. 

Too many super weapons? Rebels re-introduces the B-Wings as mini-Death Star laser equipped machines which can one-shot capital ships. Keep in mind, these are mass-produced attack fighters. 

Too much focus on the Jedi? The main character is a Jedi in training, the deuteragonist is a Jedi, and the series repeatedly cuts back to re-introduce Jedi from the past series. 

Too many Force related subjects? Entire sagas are about nothing but the Force, often getting many points wrong and hand-waving it away with "It's magic, so we don't have to explain it!" treatments.

Too many fantasy elements, fairy tale ideas and Lord of the Rings style ideas, often taking Force powers to supposedly insane levels? The show introduces an inexplicable gigantic Minotaur-ghost creature on some random world, who is capable of single-handedly decimating entire armies with Force lightning.

Too reliant upon unbelievable twists and elements? The show plays so fast and loose with physics that it quite literally thinks that outer space simply means you need a helmet. Yes, really, one scene has two characters without tanks, suits or protection save for unsealed Stormtrooper helmets go on a lengthy spacewalk bereft of any negative after-effects.

Too much focus and sheer reliance upon big names? The series drags up Wedge, Dodona, Vader, Tarkin and Thrawn later on. Hell, it becomes so desperate it resurrects Maul to keep the drama going.

Even then, Rebels can't even manage to get this one detail right, as it continually underplays or just ignores the capabilities of these figures as the story demands. Take Wedge for example, the man who keeps being screwed over by Disney in this new setting. He is no longer an ace pilot but someone presented as little more than above average at best, so the show can force the main characters into a more prominent role. Really, when you block off the nostalgia rush of seeing Tarkin, when you try to shun the brief joy of thinking how exciting it will be to see Thrawn on a TV screen, you realise they're non-entities. Their actions, behaviour and overall impact is reduced to the point where they could have been performed by just about any Imperial officer, and they're only notable because the show isn't treating them as a joke.

Really, think of the two Thrawns just for a moment. In the Expanded Universe, the Grand Admiral was an expert tactician and general. Capable of commanding absolute loyalty in his troops - with one very notable exception - he rebuilt the Empire's shattered remnants with little more than a single crew at his side and a few forgotten resources. At a time where the New Republic had been expanding on all fronts, he took on the best of them. Overcoming planet after planet and turning a rout into a near defeat for the Republic despite the heroes' best efforts, and lost only because he overestimated one critical factor in his plans.

Thrawn in the Disney franchise is an attack dog. He's sent in to try and hunt down the Rebellion, and what we're treated to is episode after episode of him racing around, trying to hunt down one ship and failing over and over again. Half the time he's not even there, wasting troops under incompetent commanders and unable to ensure the loyalty of those who follow him, and even his "victory" is only earned through sheer overwhelming force of arms. Hell, even then he ends up losing a sizable chunk of the army he brought with him.

One was treated as a genius because he was able to out-think his foes. The other was simply a genius because he was the only competent person with a basic grasp of long term strategies in the entire Empire. They weren't being added to expand borders or even experiment with new ideas, they were just shoved into the show for a ratings boost, and this laziness is inherent throughout much of the show and Disney as a whole. 

Many of the ideas the show is often praised for supposedly introducing were openly pillaged from the Expanded Universe, only to be just as quickly discarded without a second thought. The big, very obvious one is the Inquisition, of course. Originally the group of fallen Jedi and witch hunters used to help cull the remnants of the old Order, their role was more or less the same here. However, they ultimately served as a faceless villain with a recognizable name and little else. Oh, their role was supposedly the same and they were fallen Jedi, but that's as far as this new setting took things.

In effect, the Inquisition was treated as a gimmick squad for the good guys to rapidly take down. The sort of foes who would hang around for a short while, do a couple of things to get them noticed and then get bumped off. While the old setting offered lengthy articles about their hierarchy, the history of their members, what drove many of them to side with the Sith, and even their core tenants, Disney offered us nothing. Well, no, they offered us less than nothing. Rather than making them individually stand out, it gave each Inquisitor replaceable non-names and little to no personality short of "gets angry, hunts Jedi" and treated them like Sith-lite. So, it took away anything which might have made the group interesting or would have helped them stand out in any way, using nothing but an old nostalgic name from the Expanded Universe. What was the only thing it gave them? This:

Yes, again, this was supposed to be taken seriously. Please do not try to think how this works, you will simply end up with an extreme headache and a craving for pain-dulling alcohol.

Like the novels, most of the time Rebels itself seems hesitant to actually take any real steps forwards. It often just lifts concepts from the EU, but rather than building upon them or actually taking them in a new direction, they either do nothing or botch them horribly. The above example is obviously a point towards the latter, and the few times the show has tried to push any concepts into the limelight they lack even a fraction of the original's depth. It seems that, while Disney wants to use the recognition of the names and the ideas of the old EU, it lacks the commitment and skill to truly flesh them out. This is true across the board, as Disney's conservative and narrow-minded views have hindered this new setting over and over again. 

Whether or not you enjoyed Rogue One, you have to admit that it was a poor showing for the first film to try and "break the mold" as Disney put it. Rather than showing us something we have never seen before, rather than pushing to explore the ideas possible in this new setting, it resorted to the old Death Star plans theft plot. A story so overdone and returned to so many times in the Expanded Universe, that it practically became a running gag to see how convoluted the system could be. Returning to the most obvious of ideas, banking on the most obvious and easy nostalgic rush was hardly proving that they had any faith in developing this setting, but even then they managed to get things horribly wrong. Rather than sitting back and thinking about it, they merely went with "herp derp, exhaust port is because sabotage!" story. An idea which becomes more nonsensical and ludicrous the more you think about the actual effort of trying to exploit this weak point.

Now, some of you might already be prepared to argue that this was because Disney wants to ensure high standards in its works. It wants to take things carefully, and make sure that everything lines up perfectly, avoiding the conflicting canon of the old setting, or to ensure that everything is of the highest quality. These are points you would have to be blind to agree with. Why? Well, you have to first accept that the supposedly high standards of said editors are lax enough to stamp "approved" on books with this sort of dialogue in them: 

"“Oh ho ho, you think I’ve lost a step, huh?”

“Can’t lose a step you never had.”

Dengar guffaws. “You little scrap muncher. I was putting away bounties while you were still in your space diapers.”

“What’s it say about you that you’re still in your space diapers?”

“You don’t much like me, do you?”"

That's from page 182 of Star Wars: Aftermath, in a back-and-forth between Dengar and Mercurial Swift. Yes, apparently Disney not only thought that this was a practically Shakespearean exchange, but that name was a winner; the kind of one which is up there with Superfly Johnson on the scale of bad to apocalyptically atrocious names. Please also keep in mind, this isn't the exception to these new books, this is their average quality across the board.

Then, on top of this, you have to also ignore all the times these same editors have completely thrown any and all coherency out of the window. We discussed this before when, within less than a year, Disney's authors managed to write two completely contradictory ways in which lightsabers work. This would be bad enough on its own, given they effectively screwed up arguably the most simple and essential idea behind the Jedi short of the Force itself, but they couldn't stop there. Oh no, instead we started to have books butting heads at every turn.

For example, Twilight Company and a few releases backed the idea established by the original films that the Jedi were some old forgotten remnant of history. Something which had been actively erased and destroyed until only a scant few people were even permitted to recall they had once defended the Republic. Aftermath, Rebels, the Marvel comics and others then promptly went in completely the other direction, by having everyone know about the Jedi. It honestly reached the point where more than once the same characters in these books suddenly had an in-depth historical knowledge of the Order at one moment, and then forgot everything in the next once you line up events.

Knowledge of the Force was censored and severely limited in every possible way, until its very name and nature had been forgotten by many people. This wasn't to the same extent as the Jedi, but it was present. Yet again half the releases accepted this, only for the other half to have everyone and anyone know everything about it, right up to an uneducated street urchin having knowledge of the Force on par with a Jedi Master.

No one seems to know whether Kashyyyk was enslaved or is entirely free. Despite Life Debt focusing entirely upon a wookiee uprising to take back their world, establishing that this slavery has been going on for decades, Marvel comics and others completely ignore this. In fact, they go so far as to feature multiple flashbacks on the planet, where it is prospering without any issues, at a time when the Empire was turning the place into a giant concentration camp.

How about the very nature of the Force and who can wield it? In Rebels, the Clone Wars and others, it's presented as an extremely difficult skill, a challenge to truly live with such power, and it requires incredible training to master. Then, all of a sudden, we have Force cults everywhere, with people displaying abilities on par with Padawans and Knights after training which is little more than "You have pain, use it!" and sending them into battle.

Hell, even some of the basic background ideas can't be decided upon. Several books treat the Krayt Dragon - an old and very exciting monster from the Expanded Universe - as alive and well, while the rest keep referring back to it as if it's extinct.

There are hundreds of these contradictions bridging across every book, interfering with every film. After Disney's big bold claim that it will improve everything, it's honestly amazing to see that they have so horribly botched this that multiple novels can refer to someone as both alive and dead between chapters (Arsin Crassus, for example, is shot dead in one book only for the next one to claim he's alive and well with no explanation). The sheer level of apathy and incompetence is utterly astounding at times, until you can be left just wondering if this is some bizarre gamble on Disney's part to try and make people apathetic to any flaws and failures in their works. It would certainly explain a great deal, given how they've already wholeheartedly embraced Sturgeon's Law within two years of taking over the license.

Oh, and to top all of this off, they're quite happy to perform acts of character assassination. If you think this is somehow exaggerated or an overblown claim, say hello to R2-D2, the murderous cold-blooded espionage droid:

The end result of all this is the kind of explosive cluster-fuck of poor planning no amount of training could ever hope to match. With bad stories, unoriginal pitches, new works rife with basic mistakes and a stubborn unwillingness to actually explore the universe without ignoring or spitting on everything Lucas' had originally established, it's amazing to think this franchise has been a success. Quite frankly the only reason it still seems to be standing at this point is the willing blindness of fans to accept anything with the logo on it, and the effectiveness of the Disney hype machine.

And you know what? On some level I could forgive most of this. Really, it wouldn't be hard at all, were it not for two things. The most obvious of these being if they were honestly just trying to do some good. If they were actively attempting to do something interesting, if they were trying to experiment and push ideas the EU never could have attempted that would be something. Perhaps if they were to turn Boba Fett into this universe's Dread Pirate Roberts, or even to delve deeper into the idea that the Empire had a stronger hold on the galaxy than anyone knew, I could support this. Instead, rather than determined to wallow in mediocrity, if it had pushed to deliver great ideas it could have garnered some goodwill for such effort.

And the other point? Well, that should go without saying - The Legends brand. The final mocking insult, with Disney executives openly pissing on everything which came before them. De-legitimising it and declaring that only their stories were the real ones, that anything anyone had read and loved before now was nonsense gibberish. The very label lists them off as a mere myth, a series of old wives' tales and falsehoods passed around a campfire, apparently all we had dreamed about, invested in and become hooked by was never important at all. No, apparently it was something, according to so many of their fans, which was never canon and we never should have bothered to even become invested in the first place. That we simply don't deserve to enjoy the Star Wars we liked.

Such a stunt naturally gives Disney the excuse to shun everything written before they took control, while pilfering everything they can get their hands on. If there's an idea they like, they have full permission to just up and steal it, without crediting the original writer, without referring back to the first book it appeared in, or even just creating their own name-swapped stand-in. They could have done anything to help bridge this gap, to separate this out and make their own mark on the setting. They could have made the Expanded Universe an alternate timeline, another dimension, or even just set their own galaxy decades on, welcoming those fans onto the next part of the saga. Instead, they opted to deliver one gigantic middle finger to those who enjoyed the EU's works.

Some people, as always, will defend this. As with everything else cited above, their arguments amount to nonsensical bullshit.

Two universes would just confuse people, you say? If that's so, why can you find Legends and Mouse canon books crammed together on the same shelves, both newly printed by Disney? Why can you find them all shunted together with no explanation of which one is which, and why does Disney not bother to even offer a cursory explanation of which is which?

No one reads those new books? Believe it or not, but the attention paid towards new books has dropped considerably since Disney took over. Whereas the old EU books were frequently appearing on the New York Times Best Seller lists, and a few of their related titles even reaching that golden #1 spot like The Star Wars, Disney's books are struggling. Despite Aftermath's initial splash, the numbers have been falling, with Life Debt: Aftermath only reaching #9 at its height, while Catalyst struggled at #15 and the Rogue One novelization bottomed out at #16.

There's too much storytelling and too much continuity to keep track of? An old argument and a very understandable one, but also a very flawed and failing angle to approach this one. Why? The old EU novels were usually good enough to explain things as they were introduced and recap old events up to a point, and even if they weren't you would usually get a re-introduction by the villains themselves thinking back on what had happened since their last appearance. Some people don't like that, claiming it's wrong not to let the readers easily see everything which has led up to that point, and it's somehow "cheap". To these people, I simply point to one of the most iconic visual elements of the films they claim these books don't live up to:

It's a basic storytelling idea to keep the ball rolling, but believe it or not, but Disney actually screws this up quite frequently. Bloodlines tried to ignore the necessary role of an opening act, instead favouring to just throw things in or update people as the book went along, meaning you were often left utterly baffled as things played out without any explanation. Equally, if you were to give the novel Ahsoka to someone who has never seen Rebels or Clone Wars, they would be at a loss for words. Why? It never stops to introduce elements for the book itself, instead relying entirely upon the reader having seen every episode from her past outings to keep up with things.

How about that most obvious one though? The so-called fact that Disney did not owe fans anything, that they could not possibly work around such a lengthy history, and that anything which took place without their permission should be immediately non-canon. Perhaps they're right. Perhaps Disney doesn't owe the fans who have supposed Star Wars for a decade, and that they feel driving away a sizable chunk of a large established community is somehow a good thing. I'm not going to argue this personally, but I am just going to list what every other franchise did when confronted with this same situation.

Star Trek - The new timeline is established while often paying homage and thanking the old one. It was willing to use some of the same elements as the old series, but often only so it could twist or rework them for its own benefit, and explore things with new angles. The comics in particular favoured doing this, while both the 2009 film and Beyond tried to thank and respect the setting it was replacing without rendering it meaningless. In fact, the only disrespectful act of openly plagiarising elements of the old universe came from the same man who is currently doing this to Star Wars, and it was quickly reversed the moment he was out of the picture.

Battlestar Galactica - Unlike many others, this was a reboot which completely turned the entire franchise on its head. It was grim whereas the old series was oddly optimistic. It was realistic whereas the old series was filled with 70s camp, and it was determined to focus less upon the journey than the human element within the fleet. Yet, despite this, it still found ways to pay homage to its origins. Quotes were often thrown in, several actors were brought back to show a link between the two, the old Cylons showed up at multiple points, and the subject of spirituality was core to the series. In multiple commentaries, the creators cited that they were fans of the old franchise, and that their re-imagining of BSG was not intended to supplant or erase the past series.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe - For all the problems it has caused comics, the films have shown nothing but respect for the sources which have created it. At no point have they encouraged fans to overlook or ignore the originals, and quite often they will cite their inspirations and thank the publicly creators involved. Iron Man 3 in particular actually cited each arc and comic in turn, from Extremis to the Living Armour saga, saying it would experiment with ideas but wouldn't take any single one wholesale. Something which would allow others to pick them up and read them as needed.

In fact, this could extend to many other works and cinematic series. DC might be failing time and time again to get its heroes right, despite the best efforts of the actors, but then you have moments like this from those associated with Fox.

Doctor Who - This is the big one, the really big one, above all others. How so? Because it was in the same situation as Star Wars. The show ended, concluding the main series, and after a while other outlets were allowed to take over. Within a few years over a hundred novels began fleshing out ideas from the show, continuing on from where the last story had left off, and even going back to give past Doctors a second chance with new tales. Some were fantastic, some were bad, others were just middling concepts. It didn't just stop there though, as it set up a second alternate series running alongside it: The audio dramas, which eventually recruited every living actor they could get their hands on to create ongoing sagas, massive crossover events, ideas the series never even considered, and even fixed many old problems. Hell, it's what finally convinced fans to see that Colin Baker really was a fantastic Doctor when given a proper writer.

So, do you know what happened when the BBC took over and the series was brought back in 2005? They kept it all. They made multiple shout-outs to the audio dramas at several points, adapted a number of their concepts and ideas, eventually even solidifying the link between the two with Paul McGann's televised regeneration. While it wouldn't relentlessly rely upon knowledge of them, it understood that there was a massive fandom following this out there, and it respected that. The same even went for the novels, effectively treating them as an alternate setting within its own right, and treating them as something just as relevant as the big remake. 

Even when it did take ideas, even when it did adapt stories entirely, do you know what happened? It treated them as adaptations. It hired the original writers to adapt the scripts, gave them the same titles and said "Hey, this was originally a book and, if you're interested, check that out as well!" Something which is a far cry from The Force Awakens' decision to pick and choose which bits they wanted to openly steal from certain stories.

The immediate difference between Disney and everyone else is very quickly apparent. At every turn, at every choice, just about every other company with a major successful sci-fi reboot decided to show some degree of respect to its past. It actively avoided creating bad blood with its fandom, and always preserved the stories which had existed before it in some way. Instead, in the name of greed, Disney put a gun to its head and pulled the trigger.

It would be an easy thing to rail again Disney time and time again, to cite their failings and hammer them for their multiple errors. Yet, after over a year of nothing but bargain bin failures which have accomplished nothing besides looting half of their ideas from the EU, and utterly screwing up the other half, I am done. I do not wish to cover Last of the Jedi, citing a trailer which has already so badly screwed over the entire concept behind the Force that it contradicts even the bare basics Lucas set down. I could delve into the problems behind a company which is so creatively bankrupt that it's trying to present the idea of grey Jedi fixing everything, treating them as some brand new idea no one has ever thought of before, but we'll not be doing that.

Instead, we'll be doing something I should have been covering from the start. Many of you don't know why the loss of the Expanded Universe was such a tragedy, so let's remedy this issue. Alongside Warhammer 40,000, video games and Age of Sigmar, the Star Wars Expanded Universe will become one of our main wheelhouses, citing some of the best and worst the setting had to offer, and the underrated classics in this setting. Disney has failed to do anything good with this franchise, but I will be damned before I let people forget the great ideas it once stood for.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Order: Kharadron Overlords Part 1 - The Lore (Warhammer Age of Sigmar Battletome Review, 1st Edition)

First impressions are the single most important thing when it comes to products, people and even basic ideas. A bad initial image can leave products which are otherwise great to be overlooked, and it's something you can never fully get over. That said, cautious as this world and media has taught us all to be, there are some ideas which can instill sheer unbridled joy in people.

Where is this going? Well, upon seeing bronze clad steampunk flying pirate dwarves with airships, I quite simply could not stop grinning for days. This is, personally, an idea which is made in heaven. Something which jumps headlong into the angle that Age of Sigmar is the Spelljammer of Warhammer, singles it out from the past edition and helps it to fully stand out on its own. Combined with an undying love of steampunk, it does mean that this review might be just a tad biased in favour of the concept above all else; as the writers would have to monumentally balls this up to fully turn me against this. This coverage of the lore will still be critical to be sure, but expect it to have that sort of +1 bonus effect of having something which directly appeals to guy covering it.

So, with that brief disclaimer out of the way, let's delve into the lore behind this new army.

The Good

Like so many of the existing forces, the history behind the Overlords is one of failure and survival. Even in the wake of the End Times and Sigmar's crusade, this was a faction born out of necessity, scraping together what little they had left and surviving by almost any means necessary. While it's an idea which has been done to death by Games Workshop, it's one they do exceptionally well, and this is certainly no different. In this particular case, the opening lines note how the Overlords adapted, developed and reworked their society once the last of the Mountain Kingdoms fell to the relentless assaults by Chaos. At this time, what was the Overlords powerbase were little more than airborne mining stations, small forts and installations, all of which quickly became overrun by refugees.

Because of this overpopulation and situation, each was forced to adapt and alter what they had on hand, turning their locations into vast airborne ports which rose up into the heavens to escape Chaos. Desperately focusing upon enhancing their technology and bolstering their strength through newfangled designs, the dwarfs' marvels reached a new level, rapidly turning them into the most technologically advanced force in the setting. Building fleets of airborne ships, they now hunt to make trading pacts to ensure their future and seek out the resources they need to keep their homes aloft.

This background is simple, direct and used exceptionally well, as it explains away why we see shades of old dwarf ideas here. They're culturally mixed up and had part of their society reworked as much out of displaced populations as the sheer necessity of survival. In a bad book this would often be used to simply say "Well, we're keeping this bit but not everything else" without adapting or explaining anything. In this one though, someone clearly put a lot of thought into this society. 

Take grudges for example, which still hold an important place among the Overlords and they will retain them until the end of time. However, the struggling initial years have forced them to alter their views on how best to approach them. Rather than, as the old dwarfs did, amassing huge armies to resolve a few grudges, and then writing down yet more grudges based upon the casualties, these are put on hold. If it is beneficial to follow them, as much to their coffers as their population, they will immediately chase after it, but if they feel it would only harm them, they will hold off for a time. A few examples are cited and, while it doesn't refer to it by name, part of it implies that this system is in place to specifically help avoid the likes of the War of the Beard, or anything which might doom their society. Yet, this is not universal, as some factions barely pay attention to grudges, while others will zealously record and follow them as needed.

Equally, the Overlords' nature and position was used to only enhance their love of profit and gold. Scavenging, desperation and a lack of the necessary metals are all obvious ones, but thanks to the long isolation this evolved to become their primary focus. So, politically each dwarf's standing is judged by his wealth and personal horde more than anything else, but socially it resembles a meritocracy, where helping society and others is the only way to truly rise above your station. It's certainly an interesting combination of elements to work with, giving them shades of the old brotherhood and close ties which made the dwarves stand out, but at the same time giving them an excuse to go full Ferengi as needed. The book even makes it clear that, while they are on the side of the angels, they're also in it for the loot. As a result they are willing to start a few skirmishes for personal profit, adding a shade of grey to their society.

The subject of trade and negotiations is the key driving force behind this entire army. While the book doesn't perform a truly in-depth look into this subject, it does lay down the foundation for just why and how such negotiations are handled, and their more open nature forwards even former foes. This partially ties into the subject of grudges (noting it is bad to start them with profitable partners, until you're in a very beneficial position yourself) but also with segments covering how they deal with lesser forces. For example, the Overlords might lay claim a mountain filled with treasures to claim them for themselves, driving off anyone performing a ritual there or attempting to claim it for themselves. Yet once they've done their business they will try to approach those same people to strike up a fair trading deal with them, with no ill will despite this.

Such a level of depth and thought when it comes to the basics of their society is very welcome indeed, as it helps to massively flesh out and set them up as their own force. Without it, you could easily just think at first glance that this was simply a fantasy steampunk rehash of the Craftworlds, but with stunties in place of panzees. Yet, with the ancestor worship dialed back, with tradesman aspect in full swing and more a focus upon craftsmanship, there are enough immediate changes to help them instantly stand out. The reason this is so well worth praising is that these cultural elements and thoughts are what makes or breaks an army in terms of lore, as without them they can easily seem far too one dimensional. By giving people context, tone and a basic idea of how day to day life works, you end up with a better idea of just what makes them tick and how to create a personal background from this.

Speaking of making things tick, the book also makes it very clear that each port needs a specific substance known as aether-gold. Besides also hinging on the dwarf love of gold, this is used to power their technologies, serves as a source of commerce and is vital to keep their society going. In fact, hunting it down is their primary priority above all else, and almost all of their fleets devote themselves to finding this stuff time and time again. It's illusive, notable for appearing and disappearing, shifting hundreds of miles at a time in vast streams, but the Overlords need it to keep their forces going. Like the above examples, this is another element where the book actually stops and points out how this stuff works. Rather than just stating that it's a vital fuel what we get are bits like this:

"Should a rich vein of aether-gold be discovered, the sky-fleets cordon off the surrounding airways while the rest of the armada set to work. Larger operations employ cloud dredgers and trawlers to sweep the area, siphoning and straining the raw aether-gold. If the fleet is small - an exploratory or prospecting flotilla sent out to find new veins - then it will be composed entirely of warships. Although equipped primarily for battle, the ever practical Kharadron also use such fleets for mining and trade operations.

Should the dangers of mining aether-gold be avoided, the extracted gas is stored within the holds of the airships or, in the larger mining fleets, within the vast hulks known as Krontankers. Many convoys transport the mined material in a steady stream away from the mine, heading back to the sky-port from which the fleets originated. This too is dangerous work, for even within the armour-plated holds of Kharadron ships, the siren call of the substance attracts beasts and airborne raiders that lust after it. Many a convoy has been smashed out of the sky by raging chimera packs, pulled down into sludgeclouds by tentacled nightmares or brought to battle by the aerial armies of the Grotbag Scuttlers."

What's so very notable about this? Many points and ideas here don't even have models. In fact, most aren't even reflected in the game at all so far, and this oddly helps to immensely flesh out the world. All too often recent books or tomes have seemingly been written to purely reflect what's on the tabletop, limiting themselves only to certain miniatures and idea. So, for example, whereas the older Gaunt's Ghosts works cited lesser known Imperial vehicles or designs, more recent books only feature Leman Russ battle tanks or the likes. Elements and ideas like this help to reinforce the fact that there's a much. much bigger world out there to find and explore, and sidesteps any risk of stagnation within the setting. Or, for that matter, too readily relying upon a few choices elements over themes over all else.

As a final note, it's also worth adding how the book handles the subjects of weaknesses. Every creation needs a failing or a weakness in some way, from major to minor ones, and interestingly this force makes most of their strengths into a double edged sword. They're only occasionally highlighted, only briefly brought up as major subjects, but it's enough for players and fans to latch onto if need be. The big one here is their reliance upon aether-gold, as the book makes it clear just how dangerous the subject of mining the stuff truly is, but also cites an issue that the ports need more of it every year. Without it, they will crash back down to the ground. 

Another key one is the code by which they live by. This defines them, guiding how they cooperate with others to a fair degree and even internal structures within their ports. Yet, while this is initially built up to be a relatively utopian angle on capitalism, there's a sinister edge to it which keeps cropping up. Often respect of others is based upon how well a dwarf adheres to this code, and even without that the code itself is rife with loopholes to exploit as needed. It was even the reason why they did not become involved with Sigmar's crusade and still try to remain relatively neutral despite the standing against Chaos. Both of these offer a good deal of depth to the force, and it gives some real substance for writers to work with.

The Bad

There are a number of definite bad points which crop up here, but it's honestly not nearly so many as you might expect. In fact, unlike many examples in past books, much of this is down to the ideas behind the Kharadron Overlords not being taken far enough over an actual mistake. For example, while we are given a basic description of the ports and their defining traits, it is always very brief. It lacks anything more than a few notable traits and ideas to hinge on, and it pales compared to better established forces. As such, while it's enough to leave an impression and get you interested, you can be understandably irked that there's nothing more to it. To give two examples, Barak Zubar is known for its monster-slaying and cutthroat trading deals while Barak Ziflin has the best navigators. However, we don't get much beyond this about their unique nature or societies, such as differing cultural trends or even aesthetic choices. Again, it's not bad but a few more paragraphs could have seriously helped bolster their individual images.

Another aspect which is problematic stems from the book going towards the other extreme most oppose. You see, whereas the likes of the Sylvaneth lacked a detailed analysis of their society and nature, they had a surprisingly compelling saga to work off of. In this case, the society is remarkably well fleshed out and you have some fantastic building blocks to start working with for a broader force, but few to no tales to truly help exemplify their capabilities. What little we do get is limited to small side texts (such as a hilarious one known as Aethersson's Gambit) or rolled into character backgrounds, and this book definitely needed at least one big two page story to help flesh things out. Plus, in this same note, it doesn't help that the timeline is very brief on this end.

The Overlords themselves also share a few too many distinct similarities with the dwarves they stemmed from and more generic steampunk factions. This might sound a little odd at first, but once you look at the listings of Admirals and Warrant Officers, it doesn't take much to see where the old Engineering Guilds or the like stemmed from. While each is to their own of course, I personally feel that more adaptation and development was needed at this end and a little less direct translation in this regard, along with perhaps broadening the focus of the faction a little more. You do get within the first few pages that profit is a great boon and necessary to these people, but it's difficult to find any subject where it doesn't come up. This might sound odd but, just to continue the Star Trek comparisons, think of how often klingons bring up "honour" then replace that word with "profit" and you might understand how overdone this is after a while.

The book's text can also end up repeating information you already know at more than a few points, either citing stuff which it had established only a few pages before or simply rewording it. There's certainly nothing wrong with reminders or some basic repetition, especially when it's not committing the sin of giving entire pages to single units only to repeat it later on. However, when the intro is being cited again just a few pages on, some of this stuff has clearly gone a bit too far. Combined with the rampant use of "pragmatism" to describe their behaviour and outlook on life, and it can be a difficult thing to get through at certain points.

The Artwork

It's stunning. Really, I wish I had a better criticism for it, but looking at this you can definitely see where the money for Games Workshop's art department has gone of late. It seems that the creators were going the extra mile and looking into the likes of Dishonored when thinking up this stuff, because I simply cannot single out a single negative work. While a few of them are definitely repetitive in showing airborne assault scenes more than anything else, they do try to at least diversify the angles and foes they're combating. Better yet, not all of this is wholly devoted to big battle scenes and we do get quite a few moments to help punctuate certain points. From what the ports look like to a slain sky-beast - and a very atmospheric look at an Overlord standing before his armour - there's plenty here to work with which again helps to give the army more of a definitive feel as a whole society.

While the book does also delve into a few too many splash pages for my liking, especially during the intro, this is also one of the few times where it is somewhat excusable. Unlike long established forces like the astartes, there's no singular iconic image to work with here. So, by adding in two major splash pages at the start combined with some very distinct imagery, it immediately leaves an impression upon the reader while also laying down the foundations for later works. You can argue that every codex or rulebook should be expected to do this, but the criticism I had with this was that said imagery always seemed to serve more as padding. To the point that, with Codex: Imperial Knights, we gained more pages but lost a massive amount of lore due to the new structure. With a first attempt like this, combined with such fantastic new artwork, it's very hard to complain.

The Verdict

In terms of lore and visuals, this one gets a definite thumbs up. Again, you will probably find harsher critics among those with a more negative disposition towards steampunk elements, but even were that removed this would likely still stand out from the crowd. Besides a few somewhat problematic points it offers a very strong start for this new army, and the lore here is genuinely interesting; establishing some of the best storytelling and ideas we've seen in a Warhammer rulebook for quite some time. It's at least on par with the original Codex: Tau in terms of basic details, and there are plenty of seeds left for later ideas to bloom. Definitely have a look at the synopsis first, just to get a feel for the army, but if you like what you see you'll be buying a faction with a very strong starting background.

So, that's a major point in this book's favour then. Join us in a few days when we move on from the fluff into the tabletop crunch.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Narcosis (Video Game Review)

Even today, there are few places on this planet more terrifying than the ocean. As proven by Subnautica, SOMA and Zelda (because who doesn’t still fear the Water Temple?), the very idea of something awaiting below the waves is chilling. As a result Narcosis, takes this to an absolute extreme, trapping you at the bottom of the ocean in an armoured suit, with seemingly no way up.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Doctor Who: The Pilot (Episode Review)

So, here we are, back again with the time travelling (mostly) immortal alien. With Capaldi's long announced departure having taken up a lot of attention recently, along with some odd attempts to draw figures by pointing out the companion is openly gay (though, i'd personally argue Jack Harkness beat her by several years) there have been mixed thoughts over this start. Some people think it'll be a mess of different ideas and conflicting influences, others are hopeful that the lessons of past series have been learned at long last. Well, it's too early to tell which is right, but if The Pilot is any indication, we're up for a series of good, solid entertainment.

The Synopsis:

The story here is set some time after the prior two episodes, with the Doctor having hidden himself away in England. Sitting about a university and staying as a lecturer, he seems at first to be effectively on holiday, almost taking a break from past threats, but it's clear something more is at work. The only one who truly seems to pick up on this is Bill Potts, a cafeteria staff member with a knack for picking up on certain odd details. Yet, even as she and the Doctor enter an odd mentor and student relationship, other alien forces are at work on the local campus. Ones which have a specific target in mind, and will stop at nothing to claim who and what they need to return to the stars.

The Good:

The best thing about this whole story is simply this - It's basic. Now, that can certainly sound odd or even insulting, but after so many ambitious efforts to be complex for complexity's sake, often resulting in failure, this is a welcome return. We have a companion succinctly introduced, a new status quo established, a few questions set up for the series, and a definite resolution. It's probably the most straight forwards story we've had in the past two years, and because of this it's effectively told. It's something which leaves room to develop characters, play with a scary idea or two, and to close it out with a definitive end. 

The first, and most obvious, point the story plays with is the introduction of Bill, our new companion. This is someone who had alarm bells ringing in fans ears from her initial announcement, for reasons outlined above, but surprisingly it's actually proven to be a strong initial outing. While the Rose Tyler influence is certainly obvious in many places, Bill nevertheless stands out well as the every person while still brimming with energy and personality. There's a quirky edge to her dialogue at all times and the episode manages to strike a careful balance between ingenuity and missing the obvious. While certainly fairly heavy handed (a point we'll get to a bit later on) it's nice to see a companion with a talent for outdoing the Doctor in certain areas without taking over the show or overshadowing him. 

The chemistry between Capaldi and Pearl Mackie (Bill's actress) proves to be the highlight of the episode time and time again. While each is certainly quite eccentric, the fact they're coming from opposite ends of the insanity or energy spectrum means that they nicely counterpoint one another. This is especially clear during the later office scenes with the Doctor, and each of them are quite capable of shifting back and forth between humour and possible threat as needed. Surprisingly though, Matt Lucas manages to avoid being the third wheel in this trio. For a character briefly introduced as a small part of a very minor episode, his presence seemed almost tacked on, but there's a nice element of humour he injects into each scene while handling some of the more techno-babble related heavy lifting. While it's unclear just how long he'll be here for, the unconventional angle between these three nicely contrasts the more typical trios usually found in Classic and modern Who alike. Plus it should go without saying by this point that Capaldi is on point as ever, because he's frigging Capaldi.

Of course, every story needs a villain and this one proves to be no exception here. With a remarkably slow build-up and gradual introduction, there's no obvious threat at first, but the story uses this lull as an opportunity to establish the setting first. It avoids the old sin of front-loading everything at once, and by introducing events in stages, it allows the story to have more impact. We see the normality of this work at first, the hints of something odd thanks to the Doctor's presence, we get to know a few basic elements of the characters, and by the time the monster shows up there's more room for it to leave a dramatic impact. The creature in question, while problematic in terms of its origins, also proves to be a creatively creepy one. Water based in nature and seeking to claim others, it's by no means original but the presentation surrounding it proves to be outstanding. How it initially establishes a possible threat, how it develops into this unstoppable force and the abilities it displays give it an almost Terminator-esque level of unstoppability which definitely helps it stand out.

However, above all else, what has to be praised are the choices of editing and cinematography. While certainly unconventional and veering into the overly stylised elements of television, they nevertheless manage to hit a very exact balance between knowing when to let a scene play out, and editing around objects. You'll notice this very quickly, as both the first office scene and the Doctor's opening talk with certain students. One allows the actors to get away with anything they need with minimal editing, using a choice of camera angle which opposes what you might expect but works in favour of the setting. The other is heavily edited and reworked, but it's used to help build upon the Doctor's monologue about time and reflect upon the subject he is discussing, giving a literal visual image to his words. Plus, given Capaldi's ability to make any monologue engaging, it's a chance for the episode to work in something which has always proven to be a strong point in the past, even in bad outings. 

While The Pilot also worked in a number of shout-outs easter eggs and fun moments rather well, these were hit and miss. Welcome as they were, the presentation of them sometimes worked and sometimes fell short of what was needed thanks to certain editing choices. A point we'll get onto in the next section.

The Bad:

The bad here stems from a few unexpected angles. Without getting into a few of the more negative comments, many thought that the show was openly advertising Bill as a lesbian and black was a push to be overly PC. Thankfully, as mentioned above, she's a well rounded character backed with an actress who knows how to handle such eccentricities. That said, The Pilot does spend too much time focusing upon her at the expense of everything else. It's a very Doctor-lite experience, which could work, but despite this many points seemed to be stretched thin. 

The details about her life don't develop via a montage or even a typical more visual display, but exposition a lot of the time and despite the excellent editing it comes across as rushed. This isn't helped by how, to compensate for a few of the more grandiose speeches and establishing scenes, certain points are blitzed through as well. The events surrounding Bill's mother, both biological and her step-mother, lack any real impact. Both seem to be set up as important figures, but because there's no room for it to breathe or the actors to really show their stuff, much of it lacks the impact it needs.

Another definite issue which stems from the structure is simply how predictable certain twists are. Now, if this was building up to a jump-scare or two this would be fine and, in fact, the one time the more predictable moments are used to establish a jump scare does work in its favour. It's used as any good one should, to build up dread and a creeping sense of fear. However, at other stages you're just left scratching your head at certain turns or leaps in logic. Even ignoring some of the more awkward dialogue here and there, and there are some rather dumb bits, the decisions made are difficult to truly follow. For example, we know the monster is after Bill. It has followed her first and foremost from start to finish, but the story diverts itself to help set up a future plot arc surrounding something underneath the university. They think it's might be trying to raid it, when there's little established to truly confirm this fact.

A further, and very notable, problem also stems from the sheer lack of subtlety within many scenes. Now, on the one hand, the unconventional style and presentation helps to excuse this. It's stylized and interesting enough to really keep you hooked, while also being very big and bold throughout the tale. However, when the script hinges on a clever twist and many of the shout-outs to past events are being actively shoved in your face, it can seem a little insulting to your intelligence. This is especially bad when it comes to the initial scene which, in an otherwise wonderful format which is excellently presented, feels the need to pause an then perform close-ups on each meaningful easter egg is infuriating. As are more than a few points where it really keeps repeatedly highlighting anything remotely relevant to the plot, until the audience is left with little to nothing to figure out for themselves.

However, perhaps the most irksome part is the sheer lack of answers we get when it comes to the villain. Okay, there's a few basic hints and suggestions here and there, but besides that we don't get much at all. What spacecraft did this come from? How does it work? Where does it originate from? Why was it even there? None of these are ever answered, and for a force so powerful as this one, that's not enigmatic that's just infuriating. If there had just been a few more answers, something to help add a name to the face and to build upon the concepts established that would have greatly offset this. Instead, we're left with a scary and effective villain for the episode, but one which lacks any real depth or purpose beyond plot requirements.

The Verdict:

This one will likely split fans on just what they favour the most, and how well they think many of its ideas were executed. Personally though, while it's certainly a bit less ambitious than some previous efforts, there seems to be a concerted effort to just get things right. This isn't so much reaching for the stars and repeatedly failing so much as asking "So, what did we get right last time, how can we improve on that, and what can we experiment with?" Overall, this definitely works in its favour so far as I am concerned, as while the story itself is relatively simple and the character drama is mostly straight forwards, but it's executed well enough that you can understandably forgive that.

If you do find a few of the more obvious twists mentioned to be irksome or the push to be overly quirky for its own sake, then I will understand entirely why you'd dislike this. Given Doctor Who's often unconventional nature and the fact this is the series finding its footing again though, it's enjoyable enough for an outing setting up the new status quo.