21 December 2016

Spoiler-Light Film Review | Rogue One: A Star Wars Story directed by Gareth Edwards


A good title can do a lot for something, and Rogue One is a case in point. It immediately calls to mind Star Wars without having to have “Star Wars” bludgeoned in there (much in the same way that Enterprise said Star Trek perfectly well before CBS hammered on its superfluous prefix in its third season), while at the same time setting the film apart as, quite literally, the first rogue one in the franchise’s live-action cinematic canon. Perhaps most importantly though, it eschews the pulp-fiction serial feel that the likes of The Empire Strikes Back and Attack of the Clones so purposefully engendered, setting the stall for the decidedly gritty tone of Disney’s first Star Wars Anthology tale.

All seven episodes of the
Star Wars saga to date have had much in common. Structurally, they all open in the same distinctive manner, share analogous themes, and even adhere to narrative beats as if they were stanzas of the same poem. All Rogue One shares with its forerunners is an opening card grounding it in the same universe – almost everything else is different. Tell-tale swipes and segues are gone, replaced with sharp cuts and text info-dumps. Once forbidden flashbacks are not only permitted, but embraced. Even the duty of scoring the action is given to a new composer, Michael Giacchino (Star Trek) who, whilst paying due homage to John Williams’ immortal themes where appropriate, imbues the movie with a mood that speaks to another genre entirely. 


However, what really sets this movie apart from the main saga is its angle. Episodes IV to VI presented heroic rebels battling the evil Galactic Empire. Rogue One presents psychotic terrorists, would-be murderers and a few heroic senators and soldiers looking to bring down the evil Galactic Empire, whose minions range from devoted to enslaved. Indeed, the whole plot turns on the machinations of a conscripted Imperial scientist standing up to his paymasters in the only way that he can. It’s therefore a much greyer, much grittier and much more plausible long ago and far, far away - if I didn’t know better, I’d say it was a Chris Nolan take on George Lucas’s most prized creation. 


And to say that Rogue One is the first Star Wars flick not to feature the Jedi, it doesn’t disappoint when it comes to its multicultural band of protagonists. From Vader’s twisted mirror Saw Gerrera (of Star Wars: The Clone Wars fame) to tragic Death Star designer Galen Erso, each supporting part is enthralling and distinctive, while the leads positively dazzle. Felicity Jones is superb as Erso’s unruly daughter, Jyn, whom we follow from interred criminal to galactic beacon of hope, and she’s matched every step of the way by Diego Luna’s clearly conflicted Captain Cassian Andor who, more than any other character, embodies both the physical and moral war waging at the heart of the movie. The standouts, however, are Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Îmwe and Jiang Wen’s Baze Malbus, failed guardians of the Whills. One’s blind to the world and the other to the Force, but together they see what must be done. 


Of course, Rogue One’s most controversial character wears the face of a dead man. Peter Cushing’s ghost is the face of the Empire here - a blend of CG effects and Guy Henry’s measured performance recreate Emperor Palpatine’s first and only grand moff almost perfectly. Nobody seems to have an issue with the terrifying veracity of this digital resurrection, but questions as to its ethics abound. Is it right? Well, yeah - of course it is. I don’t remember any complaints when Stephen Stanton breathed life back into Tarkin for his CG
Clone Wars and Rebels appearances. The only difference here is that the end result is photo-real, imbuing it with an unintended haunting quality that previous efforts have lacked.


And though his appearances in Rogue One are limited, Darth Vader still manages to enjoy his strongest theatrical appearance to date - at least in a literal sense. Taking a leaf out of Star Wars Rebels’ playbook, Vader is portrayed as an unstoppable force and immovable object; a creature so attuned to the dark side of the Force that his lightning speed and stupefying strength are only outmatched by his ferocious brutality. This is the Vader that I’ve always seen in my mind’s eye - not the lumbering cyborg of Revenge of the Sith or the reined-in, at-heel father of the original trilogy, but the Chosen One of Jedi legend gone bad; the ultimate Sith Lord who can throw a rebel to the ceiling with the flick of one wrist and cleave him in two with the bloodshine lightsaber that he holds in the other. Rogue One doesn’t limit itself to redefining Vader’s prowess in battle either. James Earl Jones delights in delivering deadpan dialogue that’s on a par with The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi’s most memorable one-liners, and what’s more he does so from within Vader’s obsidian black fortress on Mustafar, which makes its first on-screen appearance here - bacta tank, hooded apostates and all. 



And yet, Rogue One is in some respects even more of a love letter to the original Star Wars movie than even The Force Awakens. Bursting at the seams with cameos and Easter eggs, its very subject matter seeks to dramatise the first film’s opening crawl, making the tapestry of that long-ago galaxy far, far away that much more intricate and alluring. It’s quite apt that, in defiance of every Star Wars saga movie to date, none of the characters here manage to get out the line, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this...”, because it’s hard to see how anyone possibly could. Last Christmas the Force awakened - this year, it’s on fire.

08 March 2016

TV Review | Gotham developed by Bruno Heller


When Frank Miller rebooted the Batman comic book in 1987 with his seminal Year One story arc, he did more than just set the standard – and the style – for almost every iteration of the Dark Knight that would follow. An inspired shift of emphasis allowed us to witness the coming of the Batman through the eyes of a young and disenchanted Jim Gordon; a terrifying, “dark deco” reinvention of Gotham made the city every bit as crucial a character to the legend as the corrupt officials and career criminals that it harbours. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy was unashamedly grounded in the style and the spirit of Year One, and as a result it’s generally considered to be the apex of the whole franchise – a critical and commercial success that may never be bettered on the silver screen. Rather than try, DC have turned over the reins to Bruno Heller so that he may stretch Miller’s conceit to its natural limits in a television series built upon everything that made Year One such an influential piece of work, and more besides. Imagine Batman Begins, only twenty-six-hours long and counting instead of two hours twenty. What we have here is total immersion television: the king of comic-book television for the box-set-binge age.


Yet Gotham is more than another comic-book show. In conceiving it, Heller cherry-picked the best features of several popular genres and skilfully combined them to create a whole that’s not merely more than the sum of its parts, but something transcendent. Gotham’s comic-book heart is couched in the guise of the time-tested police procedural. However, rather than investigate run-of-the-mill murderers, homicide detectives Bullock and Gordon pursue nascent supervillains and budding monsters, unravelling corruption and conspiracies as they go. There are flavours of influential shows as sundry as The X-Files and The Sopranos, with all the thrills and chills thereto, yet Gotham stands very much alone, defined as much by its unique style as its substance.


A beautiful programme to look at, the steely blues of Gotham engender an ageless, graphic-novel feel as dense as the fog that darkens its alleys. Forties’ architecture, seventies’ cars, eighties’ music, nineties’ computers, noughties’ mobile phones… the city’s abundant anachronisms don’t beggar belief, but help the viewer to suspend it. Gotham City is its own world, in its own time, and this sense of splendid isolation only serves to heighten the stakes as the first moves are made in the war for control of it – or, perhaps, the war to save it.


What initially drew me to Gotham was the promise of exploring the back stories of Bruce Wayne and his DC Universe enemies and allies in a level of detail never before attempted, but what held there was Detective Jim Gordon. As the show’s central figure, it shouldn’t be surprising that he’s its most fascinating character, but given the company that he keeps, it really is. Ben McKenzie, who’s no stranger to the turf, having played Batman in the 2011 animated adaptation of Year One, imbues his interpretation of Gordon with an unyielding sense of honour and justice. He won’t be bought, he won’t be sold, and he won’t be coerced. He’s the viewers’ champion throughout; even the city’s champion. Surrounded by shades of grey and obsidian black, Gordon is a clean-cut, glaring bright white - and Gotham’s the story of how the fates conspire to have him dirty his hands and become the man who will embrace a vigilante.


Gordon’s GCPD partner, the oafish Harvey Bullock, is initially cast as Gordon’s opposite. Compromised and weathered, Donal Logue’s character represents everything that Gordon sees as being wrong with Gotham City; he embodies all the wrongs that Gordon is looking to right. But, as the season progresses, we see that Bullock is actually a time-delayed reflection of Gordon – he was once a white knight too, until the city knocked all the heroism out of him. It’s to Gordon’s credit that, just as the city begins to change him for the worse, he stirs the latent valour in his bedraggled partner. The dynamic calls to mind Life on Mars’ Gene Hunt and Sam Tyler – each man brings the other closer to balance.


The narrative catalyst for the first season is the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, which almost immediately introduces our newly-minted Detective Gordon to the teenage Bruce Wayne. With Heller following Bruce’s story from such a young age, I was surprised at how often and how heavily plots turn around the orphaned billionaire. Anyone concerned about Gotham “doing a Phantom Menace” shouldn’t be – Bruce is brilliantly, often disturbingly, drawn by the scripts, and fifteen-year-old David Mazouz brings an unsettling intensity to the part that calls to mind Christian Bale’s definitive turn in the Dark Knight movies. At the same time, though, here we get to see an aspect to Bruce that, inevitably, both Year One and Batman Begins skipped over: the vulnerability and doubt between boy and man. Much of the time, particularly towards the end of the season, you find it hard to remember that Bruce is just a kid, he’s so redolent of his future self. Indeed, the “World’s Greatest Detective” moniker has never fit better than it does here. But then, in an instant, he’ll made a fool of himself over Selina Kyle’s laissez-faire advances, or fall foul of a school bully, and he’s just a frightened little orphan boy again. It’s a gripping, layered portrayal - and utterly, utterly credible.

“You’re a war dog, Alfie. You’re a cold-blooded, lethal war dog, is what you are.”

A great deal of the credit for Mazouz’s success here is attributable to the show-stealing actor that he has to play off: Sean Pertwee (ID, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, Elementary). The son of the late third Doctor plays an Alfred Pennyworth that’s unlike any other interpretation that I’ve seen on screen, and not just because of his comparative youth. Taking a lead from the Alfred depicted in Earth One, Pertwee’s ex-SAS, hard-as-nails but twice as caring butler is more surrogate father than he is confidante and manservant. Pertwee vests the part with a stylish sense of dry humour; his fifty-something Alfred is always sharp-witted and never ruffled, and he’s equally adept at smooth-talking and arse-kicking when it comes to dealing with the city’s underworld. In short, he’s fucking cool, and if I were to single out one character for especial effusive praise, it would be my fellow countryman.


The villain’s origin stories don’t disappoint either, which is particularly exciting when you consider that by the end of the first season only the surface has been scratched. Heavily nurtured by the first season is Robin Lord Taylor’s Oswald Cobblepot – the once and future Penguin whose rise, it seems, predated that of the Caped Crusader quite considerably. Introduced as “umbrella boy” to a mid-tier mobster, Gotham’s first year follows the evil mastermind as he expertly engineers a gang war that will see him claim the mantle of “King of Gotham” when all his enemies wipe each other out. As was the case with Christopher Nolan’s supervillains, Gotham’s production team have excelled in creating a character that, whilst heightened, is grounded in reality. He’s not a misshapen, sewer-dwelling monstrosity as Tim Burton and Danny DeVito would have you believe; he’s a wounded, vicious and supremely intelligent young man whose ambition is tempered by patience. Taylor’s performance is so dazzling at times that you almost forget that he’s an antagonist; Gotham City is such a dark place that a scoundrel like the Penguin, an underdog of a baddie with a little bit of charm and almost plausible veneer of empathy, can become any episode’s anti-hero. To me, this is the key to Gotham’s appeal: its ability to engender sympathy for the Devil, and to beg questions of heroes.


Whilst the focus of the show’s first season may be the Penguin’s Machiavellian rise to prominence, other big Batman-era players are introduced too – some in familiar guises, some not. Cory Michael Smith’s riddling Ed Nygma steals almost every scene that he’s in, and though Camren Bicondova lacks Catwoman’s traditional appeal, she more than makes up for this through her fascinating mentor / student relationship with the young Bruce Wayne and her hard, impenetrable façade. Meanwhile, Nicholas D’Agosto (Heroes, Masters of Sex) is excellent as bold attorney Harvey Dent, whose personality issues, it seems, pre-date the scarring of half his face. The street-dwelling Ivy Pepper is also a recurring character, albeit an understated one, while the episode “Viper” subtly sets up the coming of Bane and the “The Scarecrow” more explicitly introduces its eponymous villain. Perhaps most promisingly of all, though, “The Blind Fortune Teller” stars a pale, deranged maniac with a frenzied laugh that’ll give you goosebumps. It’s as if he’s channelling Heath Ledger.


Yet the first season isn’t so much about the up-and-coming Batman-era villains, but the old guard of mobsters who hold Gotham City in their fat and psychopathic fists. Opposing mafia bosses Carmine Falcone and Sal Maroni are marvellously conceived and realised, particularly the former whose gentle demeanour belies his startling ruthlessness. As the season progresses, John Doman makes Falcone almost likeable – as Gordon puts it, he’s the city’s “least worst option”, but it actually cuts a little deeper than that. Maroni is ambitious, cruel and cowardly; this version of Falcone is an old-school, “honour among thieves” sort of crook with a strong sense of respect, and even romance. He genuinely believes that what he does is for the greater good of Gotham, and what I find fascinating is that it probably is - at least for now.


The real underworld standout though is Fish Mooney, Gotham’s answer to Harley Quinn. Custom-created for the series, Fish’s season-long battle with her erstwhile “umbrella boy” is probably the first year’s most compelling storyline. Initially portrayed as a seductive but lethal “under-boss”, as Fish’s fortunes change, so does the audience’s attitude towards her. Thanks to some very clever writing and a precise, nuanced performance from Jada Pinkett Smith (The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions), Fish turns from loathed adversary into champion of the oppressed – a woman who garners viewers’ respect, if not their allegiance.


On the other side of femme fatale divide, the lovelife of Jim Gordon is not without its surprises. Erin Richards’ empty beauty, Barbara Kean, quickly becomes a much more riveting character than she initially appears, the production team bringing in animated series stalwart Renee Montoya as a love rival for our hero, before breaking totally new ground towards the season’s end when another former Heroes star makes a chilling appearance. Stargate SG•1 star Morena Baccarin also impresses as the gung-ho Arkham Asylum doctor, Leslie Thompkins. Barbara’s opposite in every possible way, Lie challenges the straight-laced Jim’s apparent double standards as frequently as she does Gotham’s criminally insane. I don’t know about Jim, but I’m in love.


And so, though the age of the comic-book movie is undoubtedly far from over, we now seem to be enjoying the golden age of comic-book telly. Arrow, Agents of SHIELD, The Flash, and now Gotham – a comic-book show with more than a twist; one that has the potential to run until David Mazouz is big enough to don a cape and cowl, and indeed beyond.

The first season of Gotham is available to download in 1080p HD from iTunes for £29.99. A Blu-ray is also available boasting similar bonus material. Today’s cheapest retailer is the Hive, which is selling the four-disc set for £17.29 including free delivery. You can keep up to date with the ongoing second season of Gotham with an iTunes series pass (£34.99 for 1080p HD).

28 February 2016

Book Review | Star Trek: Voyager - A Pocket Full of Lies by Kirsten Beyer

Of all the Star Trek television series, none annoy me more than Star Trek: Voyager. Its premise - the crew of a starship marooned some seventy-five-thousand light years from Earth and trying to find their way back home - is arguably even more alluring than that of the original series’ five-year mission of exploration. Yet Voyager failed to capitalise on its potential; so much so that, at times, I struggled to suspend my disbelief. Not only did the ship get through shuttlecraft like there was no tomorrow, but it fired more irreplaceable photon torpedoes than (the writers made a big deal of stressing that) they had; lost many crewmen, yet had an ever-increasing crew complement; and even had the uncanny habit of running into many of the same species time and again - some of them after having put ten or even twenty-thousand light years between their territory and the ship. Such inconsistencies speak to the show’s fundamental failure to deal with consequences - a general failing in episodic television of the time, but Voyager especially so. Indeed, I can think of only a single episode that saw the ship carry damage over from the preceding story, when, really, Voyager should have been a show grounded in attrition. In seven years and 168 episodes, only Captain Janeway’s morals and judgement can claim to have been gradually eroded by circumstance.


Yet in its fourth season, the show offered us a glimpse of what might have been in its spectacular “Year of Hell” two-parter. Under constant attack for months by the time-altering Krenim, Voyager suffers heavy damage and heavy casualties, bridge officers amongst them. Tuvok is blinded, the captain scarred. Of course, the Year of Hell, the most interesting thing ever to happen to Captain Janeway and her crew, never happened - it was all overwritten in an inevitable deus ex machina that saw the so-called “prime timeline” restored. Only an author as bold and as innovative as Kirsten Beyer, Voyager’s literary showrunner these days, could have both the imagination and the gumption to write a sequel to a story that didn’t happen - and to somehow make both count.


Whereas the Voyager television series became almost absurd in its eschewing of consequences, A Pocket Full of Lies, much like The Eternal Tide before it, is an in-depth exploration of them. The effects of things that never were and may not be are felt as keenly here as the devastating after-effects of the preceding trilogy of novels, as well as The Eternal Tide and even the Borg invasion several years prior. In just a hundred thousand words, Beyer plausibly reconciles the never-was Year of Hell with the Full Circle fleet’s first encounter with the Krenim, while at the same time introducing us to a quantum-duplicate Kathryn Janeway who’s betrayed her oath to Starfleet and is prosecuting an alien war to try to force the enemy into giving up her captured husband and daughter. In the process, she borrows Tuvok from the Titan and addresses his feelings about his own lost child, before moving on to deal with Harry and Nancy’s relationship in the wake of her possession by a malevolent alien consciousness in the previous story. She even takes the time to induct the newly-minted Ensign Icheb into the fleet with a charming little sub-plot that quickly sees the youngster learn that he’s a long way to go from knowledge to wisdom.

The story of Denzit Janeway of Sormana is what drives the book, and rightly so. Towards the end of the television series, and in “Year of Hell” in particular, we saw how far Voyager’s then-captain would go for her crew. Here, we see Sormana’s denzit go even further for her real family, before Beyer pulls the rug out from under us to reveal that things aren’t quite as “simple” as they seem. At the time, much was made of Voyager’s creators’ decision to put a woman in the captain’s chair, which is perhaps why the television series’ only ever rarely explored her femininity. Her maternal instincts were always writ large, divided amongst a hundred and forty-odd souls while she herself remained isolated. Well, Denzit Janeway shows what could have happened had she lost her ship and crew only to be rescued from years of torment by a dashing white knight who’d promptly knock her up, making her the only Kathryn Janeway in the multiverse to become a mother. In one of her most touching and terrifying portrayals, Beyer shows us the lines that this denzit would cross to get her daughter back, making our Janeway’s Borg alliances and Hirogen technology handovers seem almost sane in comparison.


What’s most interesting about the denzit though is the reaction that she provokes in others - Tuvok in particular. Circumstances have conspired to push Titan’s tactical officer’s sympathies away from his old friend and towards this quantum echo of her whose pain he shares. I can’t recall an episode or novel that deals with the Vulcan so brilliantly, getting beneath his stoic façade without completely letting it drop.

Furthermore, having spent three books in the bureaucratic Confederacy, a novel with the ruthless Krenim as the principal antagonists comes as a welcome change of pace. Though Annorax, Voyager’s “Year of Hell” tormentor, is long-dead, not to mention revered, in the prime timeline, his descendants have not heeded his warnings about the “moods” of time and the danger of making temporal incursions to try to affect precise change. A complex character himself, I’m sure it’s no coincidence that this novel’s Krenim, Agent Dayne, shares Annorax’s passions and flaws. But what makes him even more fascinating is the fact that, unlike Annorax, he’s already got what he wanted from time, and it’s the timeline we already know. As such, the Full Circle fleet can’t look to undo his meddling, but merely understand it, and it’s on this understanding that the plot turns.

Another appealing aspect of Lies is how it expounds upon some of the Year of Hell’s most fascinating facets, such as the oft-mentioned but never seen on-screen temporal incursions that Annorax spent centuries planning. In one particularly memorable passage, Beyer takes us inside an incursion, and it’s a much more tangible, physical process than “Year of Hell” implied. Beyer’s imagery is as spectacular as it is chilling.


Coming out of the novel, as ever Beyer leaves threads hanging, the most intriguing and emotive of which concerns the fate of Voyager’s chief engineer, Nancy Conlon, and her on/off lover Harry Kim. Beyer could have glossed over Nancy’s possession in the previous novel with a brief acknowledgement or an aside, as the TV series probably would have, but instead she uses it to push both characters in a new direction that raises a whole host of moral dilemmas in true Trek style while exploring issues that I don’t think any Trek series has ever broached in depth: unwanted pregnancy and long-term, potentially terminal illness.

For me, A Pocket Full of Lies is the first Voyager novel since Admiral Janeway’s resurrection to trounce its Alpha and Beta Quadrant sister series’ offerings. By turns harrowing and bold, Beyer finally makes good on the Year of Hell premise, as well as, I dare say, that of the female captain.

A Pocket Full of Lies is available to download from iTunes for £4.99. Amazon charge the same, and also offer a paperback for £7.99.

11 February 2016

Spoiler-Light TV Review | The X-Files: "My Struggle"

Thirteen years after the original series run, the next mind-bending chapter of THE X-FILES is a thrilling, six-episode event series from creator/executive producer Chris Carter, with stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson re-inhabiting their roles as iconic FBI Agents FOX MULDER and DANA SCULLY.” - FOX

I was bloody annoyed when The X-Files was reissued in HD in December - largely because I’d spent the early part of last year re-watching every single episode on DVD in readiness for this month’s six-episode “event series”, and I’ll be damned if I’m watching them again for at least another five or six years. Nevertheless, losing myself again in even the standard-def supernatural casebook of FBI Special Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, which was first opened over two decades ago, I was still reminded what an “event” each week’s episode used to be; it was very much the highlight of my teenage week during the show’s halycon days of its seminal second and third seasons. The show had its own unique look, its own unique sound… even its own subject matter, which quickly became far from unique as it ran roughshod over pop culture, prompting countless cash-in alien autopsy programmes and so-called “real” X-file documentaries. Now The X-Files is back, and to both its credit and its detriment, it’s exactly the same.


Almost fourteen years ago, The X-Files ran into its dramatic end in the feature-length finale, “The Truth”. The series’ desolate conclusion left our heroes as outlaws on the run from the bureau that they once served, and set the stage for the extraterrestrial colonisation of Earth in 2012. Many fans of the show, myself amongst them, expected FOX to tie up the show’s lauded mythology with a big-budget feature film in or around 2012 – something somewhere between 1998’s The X-Files: Fight the Future and mass-market blockbuster movies the like of Independence Day. Of course, that wouldn’t have been very X-Files, and with a budget decreasing in sync with the show’s profile, showrunner Chris Carter decided to make his 2008 X-Files movie, I Want to Believe, a touching coda to the will they / won’t they / did they? Mulder and Scully relationship, rather than what would have surely been a cheap attempt to tie-up almost a decade’s worth of mythology. Couched in the mould of the series’ famed “monster of the week” episodes, I Want to Believe was unfairly hammered by almost all of the few who bothered to see it, driving what I thought would be the final nails into the series’ coffin lid. 


And so after having my hopes all but extinguished, I was incredibly excited at the prospect of The X-Files being closed properly; the prospect of the world either being saved or damned as the colonisation prophesised by “The Truth” began. “My Struggle”, however, is not what I expected. Texturally it has the feel of an old-school X-Files episode – its pace, its style, even its sweeping voiceovers and poorly upscaled title sequence (which seems to drop frames all over the place in the iTunes download) all reek of the once beloved show. I’d half-expected the series to conform to modern stylistics; to layer its sprawling story over its short season, as opposed to telling six stand-alone tales, but Carter has been uncompromising in his vision. Whether this pleases or disappoints is in the eye of the beholder, but I was certainly expecting something… more.

 
Yet, rather ironically given the above, “My Struggle” looks to draw a line under the whole X-Files story to date, dismissing its celebrated canon of mythology in favour of an easy-to-resolve, man-made conspiracy that, admittedly, is unlikely to deter new and casual viewers – but only at the expense of long-time X-Philes looking for a satisfying resolution. Granted, the series has thrown us curveballs before, fourth-season finale “Gethsemane” being a case in point, but the retcon feels different this time. With the script citing everything from constitutional violations in the name of defence to increasingly violent and unpredictable weather in support of its new conspiracy, the series’ change in direction is as much a change in tone as it is devilish detail. Unlike the unyielding format of the twenty-year-old series that houses it, “My Struggle” is very much a contemporary piece.


Of course, that’s not to say that “My Struggle” isn’t a gripping drama, or even good X-Files episode. Visually, the show has never done a better job of portraying alien bodies and ships – its pre-title montage alone is peppered with breathtaking UFO sightings and engagements, and that’s before we even get to the meat of the matter and the episode’s fiery resolution. More importantly though, the performances of the story’s two supporting stars, and particularly the returning regulars, are unreservedly excellent, Carter’s script beautifully building upon the emotional turmoil of I Want to Believe and thus giving the cast some incredible material to work with. Whilst Gillian Anderson’s ineradicable good looks belie the hell that her character has been through since we last saw her, David Duchovny’s Mulder is most definitely looking weathered. Unshaven and unkempt, the former agent’s depression and obsession have driven a wedge between him and his former partner - a wedge that this episode really drives in through the pair’s dealings with TV host and wannabe whistleblower, Tad O’Malley, before slowly and painfully pulling it out.


And so the truth is still out there, but it seems to have changed – only its packaging remains the same. “My Struggle”, and I suspect the whole “event series”, will live and die as such.

The X-Files’ six-episode event series is available to download from iTunes in 1080p HD for £12.99. Episodes drop on a Tuesday morning in the UK following broadcast on Channel 5 the night before.

09 February 2016

The Anti-Inflammatory Cookbook | New-tella Pro Chocolate Hazelnut Spread

Since posting my New-tella recipe last year, I’ve been hard at work refining it to try to make it more nutritious and less reliant on extraneous ingredients. At last, I’ve succeeded. Its distinctive taste is still present and correct, but it now also packs a protein punch that makes the indulgence at least a little more justifiable – particularly if it’s spread on top of one of my post-workout PrOAT Cakes.
Introducing New-tella Pro – a protein-rich, Nutella®-like chocolate and hazelnut spread that’s perfect for pancakes, but far easier to make.

 

200g whole hazelnuts [£1.79]

25g cocoa [I’d recommend Cadbury’s Bourneville as the ingredients are limited to cocoa. You can usually get it for about £2.00 per 250g, so 20p]

300ml skimmed milk [89p per 2.72l, so 10p]

125g clear honey [99p for 340g, so 36p]

150g Bulk Powders pure whey isolate unflavoured powder [£46.79 per 5kg, so £1.40]

TOTAL COST TO MAKE ONE BATCH (APPROXIMATELY 20 SERVINGS):

£1.79 + £0.20+ £0.10 + £0.36 + £1.40 = £3.85

 
TOTAL COST PER SERVING: £0.19


 


ONE
Pre-heat the oven to 180°c. 

TWO
Tip the hazelnuts onto a baking tray and roast them in the oven for 10-12 minutes.

THREE
Add all the ingredients to the blender. The roasted hazelnuts should go in last for best results.

FOUR
Blend the ingredients until the spread is as thick as you like it. The longer you blend the mixture, the more paste-like it will become. I find that it reaches the consistency of Nutella® within about a minute.

04 February 2016

Technology Review | Apple TV (Fourth Generation) by Apple Inc

I learned long ago that, as peerless as their products generally are, it pays to wait before upgrading to whatever new device or operating system it is that Apple are pushing. From time to time, their updates squash one bug only to unleash several more; their newer devices, meanwhile, have a troubling predisposition towards restricting their users’ control over certain functions while enforcing library-confusing “store integration”. Whilst I’ve no objection to buying apps and media from Apple, I have no interest in most streaming services and I don’t want the total sum of the iTunes Store’s catalogue mixed in with my own painstakingly organised iTunes library. It was with some caution, then, that I finally approached the long-awaited fourth generation of Apple TV. 

 
Once nothing more than a Steve Jobs hobby horse, the third generation of Apple’s unassuming black box has served me and my family well since late 2012, all but eradicating our reliance on disc-based media. In fact, I found it hard to see how it could possibly be improved upon at all, save for perhaps loading our media library a little faster or embracing cross-media playlists. Indeed, I held out from upgrading until now as the vast majority of the box’s reviews have focused on the flashy new features that I care little about – little or nothing has been said about the fundamental features that I do. Well, that’s about to change...


Physically, the unit is about twice as thick its predecessor, presumably to accommodate the its new 32GB / 64GB disc space. As ever, Apple package it beautifully inside a luxurious obsidian box that doesn’t have to be torn open or half-destroyed to get at what’s inside, and if you buy from them directly you’ll also get a first-class service in which their couriers will text you a one-hour window that they’ll deliver within (they told me from 7:58am this morning, and the parcel arrived at 8:01. Take that, Amazon Prime). My only complaint about the ordering and delivery process was that I deliberately waited until after the 6pm despatch deadline on Tuesday to place my order, so that it’d be delivered today rather than yesterday, when I was out at work. Apple being Apple, though, they only went and pulled out all the stops to get it despatched in time for a delivery yesterday even though I’d deliberately missed their 6pm “next-day delivery” deadline. This meant that I had to contact their couriers to re-arrange delivery for today, which annoyed me. If I order after a deadline, it’s for a reason; I’m not a chimp.


Having opened the box up, I was pleased to find that I could simply unplug the power and HDMI cables from the back of my existing Apple TV and switch the units around (old Gen Three is being relegated to the master bedroom). I didn’t relish the prospect of dismounting an alcove-mounted TV and then trying to pull cables and plugs up through narrow canyons in the wall behind it without damaging them, so this was a major windfall for me. Almost as welcomely, the Apple TV was up and running in less than five minutes – it even obtained the necessary Wi-Fi password and “Home Sharing” settings directly from my iPhone via Bluetooth. Fair dues, I had to later alter the Wi-Fi network when I realised that it had connected to my slower iPhone / iPad / MacBook 2.4GHz network rather than my Apple TV-exclusive 5GHz network, but this was easily fixed.


Another relief was finding that I didn’t have to upgrade my media centre to the latest, store-integrated version of iTunes in order to connect to its iTunes library. I’d been really concerned about this beforehand, and couldn’t find any firm guidance on the point in other online reviews, so let it be known: I’m running iTunes 11.4.0.18 on my media centre and the new Apple TV connects to it quickly and without any fuss.

Once connected to Wi-Fi, the first thing to strike me about the setup was the new “Touch remote”. It’s larger, and with far more buttons than its metallic forerunner (seven, if you count the invisible touch-pad button). Having grown so used to just two buttons and a dial, I was as overwhelmed as a nonagenarian in front of a PC keyboard. Amongst the new buttons is a volume control that, without any setting up, alters my television set’s volume directly. Combined with the device’s automatic turning on and off of my telly along with itself, this neatly dispenses with the need for me to keep my TV’s comparatively colossal remote control within reach (it’s not as if we ever change the channel from Apple TV. Who watches broadcast TV these days?)

 
There’s also the much-hyped Siri button, which when held down listens to what you say and then scours online media providers (except for the enemy Amazon, obviously) to find it for you. This is an impressive weapon to deploy if you’re a frequent Netflix user, for instance, or are just after a Saturday-night movie to rent or buy from iTunes. If you say, “Show me a good film from the last year,” it really will present you with a selection of critically-acclaimed movies from the last twelve months. But what I was interested in was its ability to search and retrieve media from my own iTunes library. When I say “Breaking Bad” to Siri, for instance, I don’t want her to give me the options of either subscribing to Netflix to watch it or streaming it from my “Purchased” account within the iTunes Store online – I want it to take me to Breaking Bad in my own iTunes library on my media centre. Not only would this save me using up precious gigabytes’ download allowance and allow me to keep accurate play counts, but it’d also allow me to see the episodes as I’ve re-tagged and sorted† them, with my own custom artwork and all the spelling mistakes and typos corrected in the episode descriptions.

Incidentally, something that deterred me from taking the plunge sooner were reports that users like me, who’ve lost hours re-tagging every single item in their iTunes libraries, could no longer see their unique episode / movie descriptions on the new Apple TV. Either this issue has been fixed in an update since they flagged this up, or those users had only edited their files’ “Short Description” field within iTunes itself, as opposed to amending their “Long Description” field using third-party software (like MetaX). In line with iOS 9, the fourth generation’s tvOS actually goes further than the third did in displaying the “Long Description” for every meticulously-edited item in my library.


Furthermore, after some playing around, I’ve found that if you drill down into your own library’s menus – “Movies”, for instance – and then use Siri to say the full name of a film in there, it will start playing it; similarly, in “TV Shows”, it will take you to the most recent season of the series that you say. Now that’s useful, but with future updates I’d still like to see items retrieved from my own library when I access Siri from the main menu. Even if they were to appear as a third option behind the iTunes Store and Netflix, it’d do for me. 

Something else that I was curious about were playlists. I love ’em, but I seem to be on my own when it comes to visual media. As with the previous version of Apple TV, I had to opt-in to accessing my playlists for non-music media, and even now I still can’t play a full playlist through if it contains different types of media. This continues to infuriate me, but at least I’m no worse off than I was with the third-generation box. In fact, as one TV episode now finishes and the next begins to play automatically, as in iOS 9, I’m actually a little better off as I can do away with many of my daughter’s straightforward TV playlists, which I’d only made to avoid having to jump up every five minutes to press play.

The fourth-gen box has absolutely wowed me in some unexpected areas too. General performance is unreservedly excellent – my large library loads in seconds, and media plays almost instantaneously, as if it were stored on the device itself to begin with rather than beamed and buffered. I started to play an extended episode of Star Wars Rebels in 1080p (“The Siege of Lothal”, which sees James Earl Jones reprise his role as Darth Vader throughout the whole episode) and paused it after ten seconds to see how much of it had been buffered, and it was about three-quarters loaded. Even for my 5Ghz network, that’s fast.

There’s also a fantastic audio tweak that was absent on the previous device – you can choose to limit loud sounds, which is ideal if you’re watching a movie late at night when everyone else is in bed. There’s nothing worse than having to keep turning it up to hear dialogue and then hurriedly turning it down whenever a bomb goes off – in that situation, I always lacked the Jedi-like reflexes not to wake the family. The tvOS interface is slicker too – it’s iOS 9-white, and everything blends and slides and feels super-slick. If you’re watching something and swipe down to read its description or toggle the audio / subtitles settings, the box smoothly slides down rather than just popping up as it did with the last model.


Best of all though are the apps. Apple’s marketing of the new Apple TV has been built around apps, and I see why – these days everyone is streaming and gaming, there’s an app for everything on our phones and tablets, so why not our tellies too? The last version of Apple TV had certain apps pre-installed, while others were automatically downloaded whenever the firmware was updated, which for a curmudgeon like me meant going to great labours to hide the various NFL and BBC News apps that I was never, ever going to use. This new version, though, allows you to download what you want – and only what you want – from the App Store. The only apps that you’re stuck with are the ineradicable iTunes Store links, but even these can be moved out of sight if you hold down the play/pause button and then use the pad to rearrange them. I was therefore able to download the few apps that I’ll actually use – BBC iPlayer now amongst them! – and have these set out alphabetically along the top row, along with the orange “Computers” link to my iTunes library, which means that the shortcuts that now automatically populate the top half of the screen aren’t advertising trending movies that I have no interest in, but offering quick links to the eclectic mix of children’s and adult’s cartoons that account for almost all of our recent family viewing.

There’s no doubting that this latest incarnation of Apple TV has once again made Apple a player in the media player market, and I have little doubt that it’ll become a market leader on the strength of its distinctive features that are tailored to most of today’s consumers. Obviously, I’m not one of them – I’m a fastidious, easy-to-irritate and borderline obsessive geek who needs the box that buffers his media library to do it exactly how he wants it to, and not how someone else thinks that he’ll probably want it to. The fact that it comes so close to pleasing even me is a testament to its greatness.

Apple TV is available directly from Apple Inc from £129.00 including free delivery.


† I noticed in the iTunes Store that someone had actually given the Star Wars Digital Movie Collection a poor review on the basis that the six Star Wars movies appear in alphabetical order in his iTunes library, as opposed to chronologically or even in release order. Whilst for serious librarians I’d recommend getting hold of some decent third-party software like MetaX, which gives you complete control over your iTunes files’ metadata (DRM-protected or not, you can still amend those tags - there’s no law against it!), you can very simply alter a file’s “Sort Name” by right-clicking on it in your iTunes library, pressing “Get Info”, going to the “Sorting” tab, and then altering the “Sort Name” to, say, “Star Wars Episode 4” and so on. You can then label The Clone Wars movie as “Star Wars Episode 2.5” and, once it’s out on home video next year, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story as “Star Wars Episode 3.5”. Alternatively, go for “Star Wars 1977” etc to see the films listed in release order.