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.

21 November 2016

Alternative Doctor Who iTunes Cover Artwork: The Patrick Troughton Era

Continuing the series begun last year, below you’ll find more Region 1 Doctor Who DVD covers repurposed to make replacements for the existing iTunes artwork along with tidied-up versions of the second Doctor’s recent digital releases (the BBC logo isn’t near enough the edge of the image for me these days).

As of the time of writing, only The Best of the Second Doctor (The Tomb of the Cybermen, The Ice Warriors, The Krotons and The Seeds of Death), The Power of the Daleks: Special Collection, The Enemy of the World, The Web of Fear and The Krotons are available to buy from iTunes, with the rest no doubt to follow in due course.

To adopt the artwork, save the images below to your computer; go into iTunes; right-click the episode in question and select ‘Get Info’; go to the ‘Artwork’ tab; and then use the ‘Add’ button to integrate the new artwork.

As before, the resolution of the images is limited by that of the source material.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

The original Region 1 DVD artwork is copyright © BBC / 2 | entertain. These images are provided for personal recreational use only and no copyright infringement is intended.

25 September 2016

Rewriting History | Doctor Who: The [TV] Movie on Blu-ray


When it was first aired I raved about the Doctor Who TV Movie, before doing it to death with countless VHS viewings. Six years later, it became one of the first DVDs that I owned. With little to no restoration work needed and a whole host of special features ready-made, it was an obvious choice for an early release on the millennium’s new medium. Nine years later, the movie was impressively “remastered, repackaged and reappraised with exclusive new special features” which took a retrospective look at the movie and its significance for its headlining role in the lavish Revisitations 1 DVD box set. Fast-forward another six years, and here I am shelling out another £13.50 for the same film in yet another format – this time around, though, that format is criminally under-utilised.

Part I – What Might Have Been
Admittedly, the most crippling limitation of the TV Movie’s Blu-ray release is conceded by the text on its rear cover: “The feature on this disc has been upscaled from standard definition” - though I feel compelled to point out that the text in question is all of 5mm high. Had I had the time to have done a little online research before purchasing, no doubt I could have found this out, but with two children running circles around me now, even a one-click Amazon Prime purchase is too time-consuming for comfort. Whilst I have nothing against upscaled video, generally speaking, and indeed I prefer my upscaled Russell T Davies-era Doctor Who Blu-rays to their standard-definition DVD counterparts, I have a zero tolerance policy on material that has been lazily upscaled in 1080/50i when it could have been presented in true high-definition. As the TV Movie was shot on film, then it seems all but certain that the original film elements exist to allow for a true HD transfer, as CBS did so spectacularly with Star Trek: The Next Generation and FOX have more recently done with The X-Files (which, note, aired on the same US network as the TV Movie and during the same era).


And with no exclusive bonus material, the TV Movie Blu-ray has precious little to offer those who own an upscaling DVD player, The Day of the Doctor and Revisitations 1 beyond the convenience of having both of Paul McGann’s live action appearances as the Doctor collected together on the same disc (though with “The Night of the Doctor” serving as a much more effective lead-in to The Day of the Doctor than it does an era-ender for the eighth Doctor, even the value of this is questionable). It’s also galling that the bonus material on the Blu-ray has been presented in SD. The bulk of this was produced in 2010, and whilst previously it was only released in SD on DVD, I can’t believe that in 2010 the BBC / 2 | entertain were not shooting and producing their material in HD - even the series itself had gone HD a year prior to Revisitations 1.


Given the above, the front cover’s “2 DISCS” boast is just salt in the wound. Yes, there are two discs, but one of them is a 7.95GB DVD, the other is a Blu-ray disc with only 36.3GB of its 50GB capacity having been filled. You don’t need a degree in advanced mathematics to conclude that, if they were intent on selling consumers short with SD extras, 2 | entertain could at least have made this a single-disc release. Not only would this have been more convenient for viewers (as a devotee of voice-activated Apple TV, I get annoyed having to put a single disc in and pressing ‘Play’ before watching something, let alone swap one), it would have been much more environmentally friendly and a damn sight more honest. Hell, a single BD-50 would even have had room left for a decent rendering of the 2003 Shada webcast to boot; perhaps even a Big Finish audio adventure or two too, á la The Davros Collection.

Part II – What Is
Yet, believe it or not, this wholly unnecessary and potentially misleading Blu-ray release is worth a punt - but only for those classic Doctor Who fans who don’t already own both The Day of the Doctor Blu-ray and the Revisitations 1 DVD box set. For those nineteen people, and only those nineteen people, this Blu-ray release does offer a lot of content in a little box. As was the case with the one-off Spearhead from Space Blu-ray, the packaging is stylish and sits well with both Spearhead and the RTD-era Blu-rays. Alternatively, those keen to lose it amongst their classic Who DVDs can easily reverse it to display the familiar roundel-framed design. I even have to applaud the continued inclusion of a booklet that gives the same sort of contents information as the much-loved DVD booklets once did, as well an informative little write-up on the movie’s significance - particularly when such things are seldom seen these days. Trying to read the contents on one of my Warner Bros Arrow or Flash Blu-ray seasons involves almost completely dismantling them and pulling out the brainy specs.


Moreover, the 1080/50i  presentation is the finest the TV Movie has looked to date. For the most part, the image’s resolution is no sharper than when I play its Revisitations 1 incarnation on an upscaling player, but the text is noticeably clearer and some of the film’s darkest shots don’t suffer as much from artefacts. Most noticeably though, the colours appear much richer, making the film seem much more vibrant than it ever has.

However, like its DVD releases, the presentation continues to suffer from having been sped up from its native 24 frames per second to 25 frames per second. This is infuriating given that this flies in the face of Blu-ray conventions and isn’t even consistent with previous releases, which suffered from the opposite problem, slowing down UK-produced content to meet those very Blu-ray conventions. Now, every televised Doctor Who story between 1996 and 2008 plays either slightly too fast or slightly too slow on Blu-ray. Wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey? Speedy-weedy, slowy-wowwy!

Part III – What Was
A big positive for the release is of course the TV Movie itself, which I’ve always been a keen advocate of. For a one-off Tuesday Night film, it managed to successfully package the Doctor Who concept in a fast-paced and action-packed narrative that should really have blown away audiences Stateside, as well as at back home in Blighty - ‘should’ being the operative word. Rather than accentuate the alien Doctor’s inherent Britishness, which ironically accounts for a lot of the show’s appeal over the pond, the film had USA stamped all over it and through it. I’ve always thought of it as a comic book version of Doctor Who, complete with an origin story (the regeneration) and, of course, the ‘reverse’ / ‘dark mirror’ arch nemesis (the Master). Even the way its parallel scenes so often intercut was redolent of many graphic novels. As a Brit who’d never seen the Doctor step out of the TARDIS into gangland San Francisco before, this was incredibly refreshing for me – but not, sadly, for most Americans.


The look and feel of the film was also very striking, even cinematic. Images of the Doctor in the shroud on his knees whilst it stormed outside and the spectacular TARDIS interior were unforgettable, and I was probably one of the few people in the whole world who actually liked John Debney’s pompous title music and score.


Paul McGann’s portrayal of the Doctor was hard to gauge on such a short performance, but still showed flashes of the promise that has been borne out in his many audio adventures since. He came across as being a very energetic Doctor; more an amalgamation of all of his previous selves than a distinctive new incarnation. Of course, one thing that did set his Doctor apart on screen was his humanity; a concept made explicit by the reveal of his apparent pedigree. The Doctor’s mixed race went a long way to explaining his obsession with his “favourite planet”, Earth, despite being immaterial to the plot, rendering him a “knock-off Spock” as Kim Newman so succinctly put it. Less contentious was the Doctor’s evident clairvoyance, which again smacked of a page one rewrite, but at least did so in a charming fashion.


Eric Roberts’ Master was certainly imposing, and very well played, but he was much darker than the Master that we knew and loved from the classic series. The Master that we saw here was an evil reflection of the Doctor – whilst still playful, he was a selfish, hateful creature who thought only inwardly. Part Arnold Schwarzenegger and part Anthony Ainley, Roberts’ Master dominated almost every scene that he was in. To say that he was cast as a result of his repute and nationality as opposed to his suitability for the part, Roberts certainly did a sterling job of capturing both sides of the Doctor’s tortured rival.


For their part, Grace and Chang-Lee were two interesting nearly-companions. Daphne Ashbrook’s Dr Holloway might have stolen the limelight with that much-dissected kiss – a kiss that nowadays would scarcely be worthy of note – but Chang-Lang was even more remarkable, in my view. There were shades of both Ace and Turlough in the characterisation, only with more of an edge – it wasn’t until right at the death that the former gang member showed his true colours.

All told, whilst this movie may not have been everybody’s perfect idea of Doctor Who, for an eighty-minute slice it was pretty damn good. Abounding as it is with both dark and colourful characters and thrilling set pieces, even today it still stands up as being a brilliant little film - albeit an upscaled and high-pitched 4:3 one.

Part IV – What is… Again
A ‘Revisitation’ was welcome. Revisiting a Revisitation is less so. The only thing that this release offers beyond the freshly-upscaled TV Movie is “The Night of the Doctor” iPlayer minisode that preceded the series’ fiftieth anniversary special. It’s been released before, of course, and on the one Doctor Who Blu-ray that you’re most likely to have even if you only own one, but it’s still hard to knock The Day of the Doctor’s pocket-sized counterpoint.


Ostensibly the most incredible thing about this minisode was that it finally provided the eighth Doctor’s ardent following with the regeneration scene that they’d waited more than fifteen years to see. To put this in perspective, you have to consider the sheer enormity of the eighth Doctor’s multimedia empire – his long-lived incarnation shouldered more of the responsibility for keeping the franchise alive during its wilderness years than any other. He enjoyed one of the most successful comic strip runs of any Doctor within the pages of Doctor Who Magazine, while concurrently propping up a groundbreaking, seventy-book strong series of paperbacks. He has now appeared in the equivalent of at a dozen seasons’ worth of television stories in full-cast audio dramas, alongside actresses as renowned as Sheridan Smith and Ruth Bradley, and as loved as India Fisher. For the self-styled “George Lazenby” of Time Lords, the extra-curricular stuff is what really matters – this release’s two telly outings are just the bookends.


And it wasn’t just any regeneration that “The Night of the Doctor” showed us. Far removed from the innocuous bang on the head that we long thought had done for Old Sixy, or the ravages of old age that killed off the Doctor’s first incarnation, this was a little death that had been speculated about with great fervour ever since Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor alluded to his role in the Last Great Time War, and as such it would have had the impact of la petite mort even without the Sisters of the Flame’s iniquitous, fan-pleasing intervention or the veritable pipe bomb of the eighth Doctor not regenerating into the ninth. As it happened, though, Steven Moffat’s mesmerising master stroke cut right to the heart of a contradiction that had blazed throughout the revived series, irritating everyone from the fans in the forums to those such as Davros sat on the other side of the fictional divide. Whether it was in the name of peace or sanity or both, in the most destructive conflict in the history of creation, the pacifist Doctor committed double near-genocide – and he did so himself. Whatever labels subsequent incarnations would give to Eight’s successor, it was the eighth Doctor who made a conscious choice to eschew the trappings of his carefully-chosen title and be reborn as a warrior capable of ending the Time War. The duress might have been extreme, but nonetheless the “man who never would”, most definitively did.


And McGann was so bloody good in this short; so bloody intense. Having become so accustomed to hearing that RP-veiled velvet Scouse in isolation, it really took me aback to actually see him bounding out of the TARDIS, his daft wig and dress-up cowboy costume long-since lost in the trenches of Earth’s Great War. His presence was immediately persuasive, and as the story progressed it became powerful, eventually frightening. “The Night of the Doctor”, far more so than this Blu-ray’s title track, really showcased how brutally short-changed he and we were when it comes to television, while at the same time embracing and celebrating the aural icon that he’s become, as he ran through the most notable of his Big Finish companions in a last-gasp salute.

 

But 6:50 is all we get in true HD, and so as we turn to the bonus material proper, we turn inevitably to SD extras from 2001 and 2010. The unarguable highlight of the release is Ed Handling’s hour-long Seven Year Hitch documentary, which candidly charts Philip Segal’s quest to resurrect Doctor Who; the making of the movie; and its reception. This incredibly thorough piece scrutinises everything from Segal’s pre-cancellation courting of the Beeb to Coast-to-Coast’s Spock gambit and Segal’s desperate deployment of the Steven Spielberg card, even examining Segal’s role in the abandoning of Adrian Rigelsford’s mooted 30th anniversary special, The Dark Dimension, which would have been a Five Doctors-style carnival of companions and monsters led by a fourth Doctor who’d never regenerated - effectively the antithesis of what Segal proposed to do, looking back instead of forwards.

 
As well as politics, The Seven Year Hitch also looks at the writing of the TV Movie, which is as frightening as it is interesting. Some early drafts saw the Doctor travelling the universe with Cardinal Borusa, searching for the Doctor’s lost father, Ulysses! Fortunately Spielberg dismissed that particular script out of hand, and English writer Matthew Jacobs was brought in to write his “Doctor Who am I?” interpretation, which ultimately became the story of rebirth that we would eventually see on screen. Even then though, matters were not straightforward, as each interested party insisted on having their say, and Segal’s idea to have incumbent Doctor Sylvester McCoy reprise his role at the start of the movie was met with resistance from all quarters, almost leading to the stunt casting of a celebrity ‘old Doctor’ at one point. The casting of the principal Doctor was no less contentious, with actors as eclectic as Liam Cunningham; Michael Crawford; and even Michael Palin all in the frame before producer Jo Wright forced Segal to watch Withnail and I. The rest, as they say, is history.


The Wilderness Years is something of disappointment though. Though it does what it says on the tin and looks at how Doctor Who was kept alive during the hiatus, at just under twenty-five minutes everything is skirted over too quickly. Much of the running time is wasted talking about Doctor Who Magazine and its comic strip, which is explored in much greater depth in the Stripped for Action featurette, and the productions of Reeltime; BBV; and even the 30 Years in the TARDIS documentary are given more screen time than the Virgin New Adventures; BBC Books; and Big Finish. For me, it’s the latter trinity that the wilderness years were all about.


Conversely, The Doctor’s Strange Love is a surprisingly enjoyable eleven-minute feature that sees writers Joe Lidster and Simon Guerrier and comedienne Josie Long critique the TV Movie in a refreshingly good-natured manner, hence the Kubrick homage subtitle: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the TV Movie. Lidster draws some intriguing parallels with “Rose” and the revived series generally, whilst Guerrier makes some interesting structural comments that left me thinking how much better the film would have been had he been the script editor. Oddly though, it’s the layman who makes the most piercing observations. As fans of the series, Lidster and Guerrier’s views are largely as one would expect, whereas Long is continually pulling things out of leftfield. Her wry comments about Chang-Lee’s Stockholm Syndrome are especially amusing, for instance.

Adrift alone is the second instalment of the Who Peter documentary, “A New Regeneration”, which looks at the support given to the series by Blue Peter during the hiatus and following the series’ return. There is a lot of ground covered here, both before and after the resurrection, though it’s not something that I was terribly interested in.

Furthermore, as Revisitations 1 was the eighth Doctor’s final DVD release, by necessity it had to include his era’s instalments of both Stripped for Action and Tomorrow’s Times, both of which are carried over to the Blu-ray. The former is the apotheosis of the comic strip commentary series; it’s quite clear from watching it that the DVD producers had been desperate to talk about these seminal strips ever since they came up with the idea for Stripped for Action, and rightly so. Whilst I’ve never delved into the eighth Doctor’s graphic adventures, armed as they are with gay companions; Masters; Cybermen; and even nearly-regenerations, the general consensus seems to be that they represent a golden age for the DWM strip. The Radio Times adventures aren’t neglected either - fans of Stacy and Ssard will be pleased to see Transformers legend Lee Sullivan appearing to discuss his work. Tomorrow’s Times is altogether more painful, mind - Nicholas Courtney may make for a great anchorman, but as for the news he’s reading... oh boy.

The main feature is complemented by two commentary tracks. The most recent features Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann and is moderated by the voice of the Daleks and Big Finish executive producer Nicholas Briggs. Whilst this doesn’t contain any shockers the like of that found within Geoffrey Sax’s lone commentary - for instance that he did the Dalek voices last-minute, and no-one in the production team “…knew what they sounded like,” hence their voices sounding so strange - it is far more entertaining than the director’s 2001 effort, possessing the feel of an informal podcast rather than a technical overview of the production. Sax’s original commentary is still preserved on the Blu-ray, however, together with all the other special features from 2001. The isolated score is still present and correct as are the two alternate takes, the BBC1 trailers and all the multifarious publicity material that showed up over here on either the BBC or the Sci-Fi Channel back in 1996. The original interviews, TARDIS tours and ‘electronic press kits’ are then married up with VFX tests from both June 1994 and March 1996, allowing viewers a telling glimpse of what might have been had Amblin’s infamous Spider Daleks seen the screen, as well as VFX build-ups from the actual movie.

Part V – What Will Be
When I looked at the Spearhead from Space Blu-ray, I noted that, were 2 | entertain minded to do so, entire seasons of the classic series could be released as they stand on Blu-ray in slim, two or three-disc sets with all the individual stories’ respective bonus material preserved thereto. Little did I realise that they’d end up going with a bastardised, money-spinning take on the idea, essentially just re-releasing the Revisitations 1 version of the TV Movie together with “The Night of the Doctor” as a poor man’s “Complete Eighth Doctor” with only a miniature disclaimer to dispel the common consumer misapprehension that Blu-ray = HD.

Thankfully the future lies in downloads, as the Beeb have finally realised, with its fledgling BBC Store proudly preparing to unveil its long-awaited reconstruction of The Power of the Daleks… and in full-colour, 16:9, HD too. I’ve a feeling there’ll be a less venomous Who review on the way very soon...

Doctor Who: The Movie is available on – upscaled! – Blu-ray from various online retailers, with today’s cheapest being Amazon, who are charging £13.50 with free delivery on orders over £20.00.

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).