My weekly TV column is up at Torontoist.
Inspired by the news that came out recently that Peter Capaldi had once turned down the chance to audition for the role of the Eighth Doctor, which I intuitively know will be repeated to me for decades by people who think that they’ve found out a fascinating nugget of information that’s sure to interest me as a Doctor Who fan…what piece of geek trivia have you had shared with you the most often by people who think you don’t know it? Feel free to include your particular fandom, and how you managed to respond without being rude.
Recently, there’s been some controversial news regarding the upcoming rebooted Fantastic Four movie. Out of deference to those who don’t want to know anything until they go into the theater, let’s put this behind a spoiler tag, shall we?
continue reading "It’s Just One Interpretation (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Fantastic Four Reboot)"
Since I drew the short straw, I’m here to talk to you about the coming avalanche of superhero movies. For those of you who missed the giant chart detailing everything, the next five years will bring roughly forty movies drawn from Marvel and DC’s extensive library of characters. This has, if nothing else, forced both companies to budge just a little on their policy of aggressively screwing over the creators of all these properties, so there’s that going for it. However, a lot of people have had questions and concerns about so many movies in so short a time. Here are some answers, drawn from my random conjectures and personal biases. So you know it’s useful!
1) Is this too many movies? Probably not. Or maybe. On the one hand, the summer blockbuster season has been gradually extending for years now, so that it starts somewhere in early March and continues on through to mid-September (with the caveat that anything someone drops in mid-September is something they realized was going to sink without a trace if they released it in the middle of the summer, so they’re probably lousy. September is to popcorn movies as January is to prestige pics.) Basically, there’s plenty of room to spread these out so that you don’t wind up dropping a hundred dollars at the movies in one week. There’s plenty of reason to believe that fans will turn out for as many good superhero movies as they can afford.
On the other hand, there’s also plenty of reason to believe that they’ll wait for it to show up on Netflix if they’re lousy. And the tighter you squeeze them into the schedule, the higher the standard people will apply when deciding whether to skip seeing a movie in the theater. It’s not as though we haven’t already been seeing this in recent years with non-superhero blockbusters. Then again, a lot of those movies have been lousy. Assuming we get five years of movies like ‘Avengers’ and not five years of movies like ‘Jonah Hex’, it won’t be a problem.
2) No, really, this has to be too many movies, right? This has got to be the point where the superhero movie bubble bursts and executives commit ritual seppuku, doesn’t it? Look, people have been predicting “the end of the superhero movie trend” since ‘Daredevil’ came out. Every time one of these movies gets announced, some movie critic chimes in with their personal belief that people have to be pretty damn sick of these things. They’ve been wrong. Even when there have been individual flops, like ‘Green Lantern’, they haven’t been enough to sink the entire genre. More importantly, Marvel’s strategy (which everyone else is scrambling to adopt) has bolstered the performance of its lesser-known properties; a lot of people went to see ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ on faith due to the studio’s track record. Even Fox has had good luck with its X-Men spin-offs. The strengths of the “cinematic universe” concept have outweighed any weaknesses to date.
That said, Warner Brothers and Sony are trying this whole “cinematic universe” thing for the first time, and nobody really knows if it will go as well for them as it did for Marvel. Certainly, Sony’s got a lot to worry about; with only the rights to Spider-Man and its ancillary properties, they’re going to be pushing out a lot of movies about second and third-string Spider-Man cast members in the hopes they’ll catch fire. Based on the buzz for ‘Sinister Six’, that might whiff hard for them.
3) So who has the most to lose here if this goes badly? Warner Brothers, plain and simple. Marvel has established themselves as the “blue chip” superhero franchise; they can withstand a few flops and move on. Sony can always drop their plans for a ‘Venom’ movie and just go back to pumping out a Spider-Man pic every two or three years; they might not be the kind of properties you can build a mega-franchise out of, but they’ve never been unprofitable. Keep recasting the major roles with hungry young actors who will work cheap, keep the budget down to a manageable level, and there’s no reason to think they can’t do this forever.
Fox, likewise, has only one thing to worry about–get the production on the next X-Men/FF movie started by Date X, keep the budget reasonable, and rake in the dough. They’re not being particularly ambitious, despite Mark Millar’s random pronouncements on Twitter. Why would they, when an evergreen franchise like X-Men used to be the Holy Grail of movie studios everywhere? Just because they’re sticking to a string of reliable James Bond-esque hits instead of going for Marvel’s new levels of crazy money-making doesn’t mean they’re settling.
But Warner Brothers…they have the character library to compete with Marvel, they need a string of mega-hits bad now that the sweet sweet Harry Potter cash is drying up, and they have exactly one shot at showing they can compete here. If ‘Batman v. Superman’ fails (either at the box office or in the Supreme Court, not sure) and ‘Suicide Squad’ tanks hard, they’re looking at possibly tainting their entire slate of superhero movies as crap. They’re looking at having to scrap the next eight movies from their summer plans through 2020. They’re looking at falling back on endless Superman and Batman reboots every six or seven years while Marvel/Disney rakes in billions. That’s a pretty humiliating possibility, there.
4) Why do you sound like you’re getting out popcorn when you say that last bit? Because I’ll be honest, Warner Brothers have had a terrible track record when it comes to superhero movies that aren’t about Superman or Batman. They don’t have an Avi Arad or a Kevin Feige who fundamentally gets the properties and has the clout to make other executives back off from inserting giant mechanical spiders into every movie. The result is ‘Jonah Hex’, ‘Catwoman’, ‘Green Lantern’, and ‘Batman and Robin’.
I don’t see this changing. I think we’re due for some epic flops, some hilarious nerdfights, and some executives having to exercise their golden parachutes (primarily because they were just pushed out of their penthouse offices). And yeah, I think that’ll be entertaining even if the movies aren’t, because I am perpetually fascinated by failure.
5) Um…so what about the diversity? That’s good, right? Yes. It is. We’re finally getting a Wonder Woman movie, we’re getting Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel, we’re getting a Black Panther movie, and we’ve been promised a Cyborg movie but I guarantee you that’s the first thing on the chopping block if Warner Brothers gets cold feet. These are all good things.
That said, there’s no reason not to greenlight a Black Widow movie–Scarlett Johansson has proven box office clout, and the character is popular and well-known. And we have no idea whether the Wonder Woman movie will be any good, or whether we’ll get another ‘Catwoman’. And I want a ‘Ms. Marvel’ movie, because “Embiggen!” has to be one of the best battle cries ever. But still, the needle is moving on this and it’s about damn time.
6) ‘Civil War’, huh? Didn’t you say that was going to suck rocks? Yep. Hope I’m wrong!
There’s always a feeling of sadness that comes when Halloween ends. It’s easily the most fun holiday of the year; any holiday that’s solely about dressing up in costumes, watching scary movies, and obtaining vast quantities of candy has to top out even Christmas and Easter in the “fun” sweepstakes. And while it’s great that there is a holiday like that for the horror aficionados out there, and while there’s a lot of overlap between horror and sci-fi/fantasy, I still feel like there should be a holiday out there just for random geekery. February 8th, birthdate of Jules Verne, seems like it has a lot of potential; February is generally a sucky, bleak month at the arse-end of winter when everyone needs an excuse to do fun things before the cabin fever sets in and we all axe-murder each other (sorry, my Halloween viewing included ‘The Shining’ and the metaphor is low-hanging fruit right now). And Jules Verne definitely has a place as not just a founder of the genre, but as someone who demonstrated the ways that describing the future you imagine can inspire people to create it. He showed us that our stories can inspire future generations, and if Christopher Nolan is any example, that’s something we’re still trying to do today.
But no holiday is complete without a name and a bunch of goofy traditions. So what would you call this day? What would you do on it? Would you exchange delicious chocolate gears with your friends, or dress up as Jedi and stage elaborate lightsaber duels? What carols would you sing? And most importantly, what would we eat at the feast of Jules Verne? Leave your ideas in the comments!
It occurred to me that the novelization of ‘Shada’ might be something that readers here would be interested in, if they knew about it, and that it might also be something that readers here might not know about. So this is both a review, and an explanation of what exactly ‘Shada’ was, and how there came to be a novelization of it by Gareth Roberts from Douglas Adams’ original script.
In addition to being tremendously famous for his ‘Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ series, Douglas Adams also spent a bit of time as a writer and script editor for Doctor Who. This was just before ‘Guide’ hit it big, when he was mainly known for contributing a few bits to the final series of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”. (The one without John Cleese.) His big breaks came in a sudden burst, which is why he wasn’t on Doctor Who for very long. But he did do three scripts–the modestly successful “Pirate Planet”, the incredibly well-regarded “City of Death”, and “Shada”…which never actually completed filming due to a strike at the BBC, and which wasn’t remounted for the ensuing season because incoming producer John Nathan-Turner had no interest in doing anything his predecessor Graham Williams thought was a good idea.
“Shada”, in other words, is that rare beast – an unproduced screenplay by a now-deceased legend of science fiction at the absolute height of his skill, which can’t be filmed at this point due to a simply insurmountable number of practical hurdles. But this is where a peculiar tradition of Doctor Who comes in, a legacy of one of the few sci-fi/fantasy series out there to predate video recording in any of its media. Virtually every single episode of the classic series of Doctor Who was adapted as a novel, in order to allow fans to experience episodes that had been broadcast before their time and which (due to the BBC’s policies at the time on repeats and the previously noted lack of home media) they would probably never have the chance to see again. These novels were occasionally done by the original author, but frequently they were adapted by other hands.
While he was alive, Douglas Adams’ stories were among the few that had not been adapted into novels; Adams preferred to adapt his own stories, and the company with the rights to the Doctor Who books simply couldn’t afford his page rate. (According to Adams, every time a new editor took over the line, they had the exact same conversation with him about the chances of adapting his books, and he politely gave them the exact same responses each time.) But tragically, Adams died far younger than anyone that brilliant has a right to, which meant that even the adaptations seemed like a longshot.
Enter Gareth Roberts. Those of you who are fans of the new series might recognize him as the screenwriter of “The Lodger” and “The Shakespeare Code”, among others, but he made his reputation on Doctor Who as an author of several pastiches of the Graham Williams era of the show. His novel ‘The English Way of Death’ (now sadly out of print) is considered to be one of the finest encapsulations of that period’s whimsy, effortless humor, and penchant for borderline fantasy, and he’s always been an outspoken fan of Williams and Adams. As such, when the rights issues were finally sorted out with the Adams estate, Roberts was the first choice to adapt Adams’ unfilmed script into a novel. (For the pedants in the crowd, yes I am aware that the script was also adapted for audio by Big Finish Productions with Paul McGann reprising Tom Baker’s part, and that there is an unofficial animated adaptation done by Ian Levine using Paul Jones as a Tom Baker impersonator. This is the first mass-market adaptation.)
(Yes, I’m also aware that the sequences that were shot were released on video and DVD, with Baker providing linking narration. That’s not a proper adaptation. Sheesh.)
So now that you know what the novelization of ‘Shada’ is, the question that undoubtedly follows is, “Is it actually any good?” And the answer is, “Yes. Not as good as you’d expect a lost Douglas Adams masterpiece to be, but it’s definitely a fun read.” Roberts doesn’t quite have Adams’ deft touch for comic prose, but singling him out for that is almost entirely unfair. He’s not trying to be Douglas Adams. He’s trying to write Gareth Roberts’ very good adaptation of a Douglas Adams story, and he succeeds magnificently at that. His opening line alone is one of the better starts to a novel that I’ve read lately: “At the age of five, Skagra decided emphatically that God did not exist. This revelation tends to make most people in the universe who have it react in one of two ways – with relief or with despair. Only Skagra responded to it by thinking, ‘Wait a second. That means there’s a situation vacant.’”
The plot is a fairly classic Doctor Who concept – a megalomaniac (in about as literal a sense as you can get this time) plans to take over the universe using forbidden Time Lord secrets that have been concealed at Cambridge, and the Doctor (accompanied by Time Lady Romana and robot dog K-9) have to stop him. But there are a number of clever twists and elegant misdirections between Cambridge and the lost Time Lord prison of Shada, and I really don’t want to give any of them away for the benefit of those of you who haven’t had the whole thing summarized multiple times in old Doctor Who episode guides. Suffice to say that this is a perfect example of doing something new and clever with an old idea, and the story hangs together very well.
The only issue I had with the book, and this may be my reaction as a long-time Doctor Who fan who had heard about this one for years as a “lost classic”, was that I couldn’t help spending my time wondering which bits were taken directly from Adams’ original script and which were added by Roberts with the benefit of thirty-odd years of hindsight. (The joke about “edible ball bearings”, for example, I’m reasonably sure belonged to Roberts.) I wound up wishing they’d also simply published the shooting script, so that I could see what had been done and when and by whom. It was a bit of a distraction, but one that a less obsessive person might not have to deal with.
On the whole, though, I thought it was a great story well-told, and I think that any fans of Douglas Adams will enjoy it. Pastiches of classic authors have a shaky track record, especially of Douglas Adams (I don’t think, for example, that I’ll ever recommend Eoin Colfer’s ‘And Another Thing…’) but this one stands out as a fun read in its own right.