31 January 2016

First-hand Fitness #7 | On Shredding: A Review of Jillian Michaels’ 30 Day Shred Series

Last summer the missus bought Jillian Michaels’ 30 Day Shred on the recommendation of a colleague of hers - the same one who sold me the C9 aloe detox. Equally lauded and feared, the Shred comprises three short workouts, each “level” more difficult than the last and all of them combining resistance training and cardio in an attempt to make its formerly portly subjects “shredded”. The wife and I intermittently did Level 1 together through last July and August; I was keen to encourage her keep-fit-at-home efforts, having cancelled her infrequently-used gym membership in a fit of thriftiness, but was still fearful that our shared workout was going to be as uninspiring and annoying as her many Davina McCall exercise DVDs. Fortunately I was immediately impressed with Jillian’s intense fusion of strength training; cardio; and abs torture, but unfortunately injury prevented me from going any further with the programme. After recovering, detoxing and then succumbing to the obligatory excesses of Christmas, though, I decided that the time had finally arrived for me to complete the full 30 Day Shred.

 
I started the Shred on 2nd January 2016 and finished it at about 7.30am this morning. Keen to “do it properly”, as well as completing a Shred workout everyday (on top of my usual thrice-weekly weight-lifting, cycling and walking regime), I also reduced my caloric intake to below what MyFitnessPal reckons I should burn for my size (which is actually well below what I need to eat to maintain my current weight). After all, it’s important to be mindful that the “big results” that the telly’s toughest trainer promises don’t automatically follow just completing her thirty-day regime – if you’re still eating poorly, or even eating well to excess, no number of travelling push-ups or stomach crunches is going to lead to a “shredded” bod.


Level 1 of the Shred is, as you’d expect, its easiest, but it’s also its most daunting if you’ve never attempted anything like this before. Used to working out solely with heavy weights, I’m accustomed to cracking out a set of anything from eight to sixteen reps, resting for a minute, then cracking out another. But there’s none of this rest nonsense on Jillian’s watch - you don’t even get a chance to swig water. This being the case, it’s important to choose your weights wisely, as I found out to my detriment early on. 10kg in each hand may sound like nowt to seasoned weight-lifters, but for three minutes at a time it might as well be 50kg. After some experimentation I settled on holding 5kg in each hand, with an additional half-kilo fastened to each wrist and ankle. This made Levels 1 and 2 duly torturous for me, but, crucially, still doable with good form. For potential Shredders, I’d strongly recommend starting low and building up, rather than deterring – and, indeed, humbling - yourself on day one.


Like the whole Shred series, Level 1 is built upon Jillian’s patented 3-2-1 Interval System, which, after a warm-up, you have to endure three times before the cool-down. Jillian’s three minutes of “Strength” are broken down into two repeated resistance moves lasting around forty-five seconds apiece, on average (sometimes the harder moves only take about thirty seconds, the easier a minute or so). The moves are generally straightforward – push-ups, squats with hand weights, rows, lunges and the like – but what makes the workout so hard is its incessancy. From “Strength”, you’re straight into your two-minutes of non-stop cardio – jumping jacks (star-jumps to us Brits), butt-kicks (arse-kicks), jump rope etc – and from there, onto a merciless minute of abs agony. There’s an almost imperceptible rest period of about two and a half seconds between each circuit; I didn’t even notice it until the third or fourth day as it’s so short. That’s the only breather you get. That’s not a complaint, mind – it’s why the Shred is so effective a workout, not just in terms of the results that it yields, but also the little time that it takes to do. No, my one and only gripe with Level 1 is its unevenness. To me, at least, whilst much of it was challenging in the extreme, other parts – the chest flyes, for instance – felt like a complete waste of time. To make this level work as intended for me I’d have had to have a whole rack of hand weights next to the telly, enabling me to increase the resistance as and when required.

 
On the eleventh day, Level 2 begins, and it’s as much of a leap in difficulty as it is going from GCSE to A-level. Push-ups? Forget it – Jillian has you doing “walk-out push-ups”, which are as punishing as they sound. Of course, it’s for a reason – this modified classic works abs; shoulders; triceps; and chest, maximising calorie burn while encouraging muscle growth or retention. This is effectively Jillian’s signature: combination moves designed to burn calories and build/retain muscle in the most time-efficient way possible. Level 2’s cardio is trickier too – the “skaterz” move, for instance, is as much an exercise in balance as it is anything else. And certainly, balance is a recurring theme in this level – which is probably why it’s my least favourite of the three. That, and Jillian’s penchant for deceptive lines like, “A few more,” which at one point I’d swear sees the dictionary definition of “a few” stretched to more than ten.


Level 3, though, is the business. Walk-out push-ups become the altogether more taxing travelling push-ups; lunges segue into full-blown, ankle-crushing plyometrics; pilates moves go nuclear as you go for an elbows-walk in plank position; you even get to graduate from stomach crunches to old-school sit-ups. It’s so taxing that, for the first time since starting the Shred, I was thankful that Jillian had one of her colleagues performing “modified” versions of the moves for me to emulate for a while, although I’d have preferred it if she’d have had a legitimate beginner on hand to do them instead of an über-lean blonde whose smile doesn’t even break, never mind her breaking a sweat. The cardio is made much more difficult again too as Jillian’s old and now familiar moves must be performed with hand weights – butt-kicks, with weights; shadow boxing squats, with weights… you get the idea. Again, I was wishing I’d got more hand weights ready to go in the living room, but this time for the opposite reason: jumping jacks with 5kg weights is downright dangerous.


Minor grievances aside, an unexpected bonus of completing the 30 Day Shred for me has been that in every single level I’ve discovered some arduous new move to fold into my own strength training repertoire: Level 1’s side-lunge with shoulder raise is a great example of Jillian working multiple body parts at once; it’s great to feel your core tearing as you work your arms and legs. I’d rank it right up there with a deadlift. The same goes for Level 2’s V-squat and Level 3’s travelling push-ups. Efficiently brutal, both.


Inevitably though, what I’m really interested in is the tale of the tape. Over the thirty days, my body fat percentage has dropped significantly - it’s down by 3.7% on 2nd January - and my overall weight has come down by 12.2lbs. Best of all, I’ve lost 3.5” off my waist, and when working out in the gym with heavy weights I don’t any feel weaker. Interestingly, despite the minimal food intake, my biceps have actually grown, which is quite hard to fathom – it certainly stands as a testament to the 3-2-1 Interval System’s capacity to shred fat but not muscle. Its cover slogan isn’t doing the Shred justice – it should say, “Extreme Fat Loss!” rather than “Extreme Weight Loss!”

Click to enlarge the table above.


More disappointingly, I haven’t hatched a six-pack yet, though this is perhaps more a reflection on my Christmas food orgies than it is the 30 Day Shred series. I can feel the strong abs lurking underneath, and even see the shadow of the top four like milk teeth poised to burst through a baby’s gums, but the bottom two remain encased in a centimetre or so of apparently ineradicable thirty-something fat. I suspect that were I to persevere for another thirty to sixty days with the Shred, then the residual podge would be shredded – if I survived, that is.

Only one thing is for sure: this programme is intense.

Jillian Michaels’ 30 Day Shred is available on DVD in just about every British supermarket for about £3.00 at the moment, mired as they are in that opportunistic “Get Fit!” window between pedalling Christmas crap and Easter eggs. Alternatively, you can download all three levels from iTunes to watch on your Apple TV or iOS device for £4.99 – there’s no excuse for skipping a day if your workout’s on your iPhone! Levels are otherwise individually priced at £3.99 each, but if you buy Level 1 as a taster, for example, you can later buy the rest of the series for just a pound. The iTunes version also has the benefit of not being emblazoned with the worthless enticement, “Lose up to 20 pounds in 30 days!”, which, as any pedant will tell you, only means that you can’t be expected to lose any more than 20lbs. Dial it in and stuff your face, and you’ll probably lose fuck all without contradicting the tagline.

24 January 2016

The One-Listen Lowdown #4 | Night Thoughts by Suede

A man drowns in the waters of a deserted beach at dawn. As he fights for life, his mind plays out the events that lead him to be there.


Night Thoughts is Suede’s first out-and-out concept piece. How many albums have a forty-eight-minute movie that sees the whole record played from start to finish as a promo video? None that I’m aware of. How many records see one song segue into the next, with themes and refrains returning as its lyrical narrative unfolds? Not many. Though still populated with memorable numbers capable of standing alone, such as singles “Outsiders” and “Like Kids”, Night Thoughts is primarily a post-punk homage to grand movie scores, developing ideas and refrains gradually over twelve tracks rather than just the customary one. As a result, it’s the most cohesive Suede album of the lot – a more tightly-focused Dog Man Star, with all the lush splendour thereto, but an even more harrowing underbelly that at times borders on the odious.

At times, the twelve-track LP evokes the latter half of the preceding Bloodsports as well as the aforementioned Dog Man Star, but its sound is very much its own, combining Suede’s distinctive indie sound with a full string section to create an abstract art-rock opera. Brooding from the start, the album is – almost – bookended by two linked tracks, “When You Are Young” and “When You Were Young”, both of which revel in the sort of symphonic grandeur that made “She’s in Fashion” such an indelible part of the fabric of the summer of ’99. Here, though, Brett Anderson’s falsetto is not admiring but haunting as, impenetrably, he sings of brothers’ guns and twisting on fists.


Lead single “Outsiders” is much more redolent of Suede’s highly regarded seven-inchers. A poor man’s “Obsessions” or a dark take on “Trash”, it’s the one track on the record where the Haywards Heath outfit play it safe. Catchy and radio-friendly, the track’s asocial angst bleeds into the altogether more interesting “No Tomorrow”, which also has all the hallmarks of a great single, but in addition boasts a level of depth that the previous track lacks. Question after question is framed (“How long will it take to break the plans that I never make?” / “How long will I shun the race and sit around in my denim shirts?” / “How long will it take to mend?”) as Anderson begs the listener - or, perhaps, the suicidal middle-aged man in the film - to “fight the sorrow like there’s no tomorrow.”

“Will you have courage of your tenderness?
When the wolf is at your door, the child against your breast…”

First-listen highlight “Pale Snow” is up next. Its relative brevity belies its significance as the melodic and thematic cornerstone of the album, and indeed its story. Mournful, morbid, and with heavy overtones of the worst kind of bereavement, its lyrics are amongst Night Thoughts’ most portentous as the singer’s questions collapse into grim acceptance. “And they always get away. It never works out for me...” A longer, similarly rich but slightly more animated number follows in “I Don’t Know How to Reach You”. Its mellifluous melody is sodden with despair; “I’d steal a shadow for you, I’d love you like a knife…” he wails. It’s not just another post-lovesong in which a “dappled and still unshaved” protagonist laments his lost love – it’s laden with shock, lending it a sense of immediacy and veracity that sets it apart from the many romantic post-mortems that came before it.
 
“There’s no room in the world for your kind of beauty.
Yours are the names on tomorrow’s newspapers.
Yours is the face of the desperate edge of now, when,
like the snows of yesteryear, I’ll be gone from this Earth…”
 
Despite its prosaic title and upbeat tune, “What I’m Trying to Tell You” continues the moribund protagonist’s slow submission to death. Of all the album’s tracks, it most calls to mind early Suede – songs like “Stay Together” in which Anderson would momentarily stop singing and switch into eerie voiceover mode. However far they’ve come, it’s pleasing to see the Britpop survivors injecting aspects of their old style into new material – particularly when it’s so perfect a fit. The horrifically sad “Tightrope” continues the old-school feel, calling to mind some of Dog Man Star’s most melancholy offerings (“You seem to love me when I am not around, but I have to go to ground…”), yet with the sort of torpid pace usually reserved for a CD2 B-side. Again, it’s an ideal match for Night Thoughts’ theatrical death march - measured and poignant.

“Oh through the red lights, the amber, the silent mannequins, the crumpled mothers in their seats pull into morning through the stations, the smell of chemicals. Do I want you because you are out of reach?”

The next couple of tracks offer a brief respite from the drowning; a last lungful of air. “Learning to Be” provides a gentle moment of romantic reflection for the album’s nameless drownee, “Like Kids” a flashback rumination on bygone days and roads not taken. Is it hope or resignation is Anderson’s voice as he sings, “I try to step away, but I’m too scared to move, like I’m in love again”? I wonder.

“So I turn my attention to the bruise that’s on her fist, feel the pulse beneath her almost perfect wrist… And her keys are falling from her coat as I weave my fingers round her perfumed throat…”

Then we get to the really fucked-up shit. Upping the ante on Bloodsports’ stalker anthem, “Always”, “I Can’t Give Her What She Wants” is an ode to suicide, or perhaps even attempted murder, tenderly sung like a serenade. Gentle, thoughtful and laced with violent death, it’s instantly one of the band’s greatest ever efforts – a daring, edgy masterpiece that calls to mind triumphs the like of smackhead split-up song, “The Living Dead”. Thankfully, age has given Suede the confidence not to relegate such controversial tunes to B-sides on interim singles.

“And who knows what we’ll become as we brave the weather. From the moment we are young, the fur and the feathers, the fox and the geese, the thrill of the chase…”

Growing out of the “When You Were Young” reprise, Night Thoughts’ story ends in “The Fur and the Feathers”, in which our drowning man ponders “meaning beyond the flesh” as he reflects on more worldly pleasures. It’s a predictable and slightly sub-par end to what is for the most part a bold and dazzling body of work, but it may prove to be a grower yet.

“Have Suede re-invented the album?” asks the Telegraph. Well, no - they haven’t. But they have released another bloody good one; one that’s markedly different from any of their previous efforts, and indeed most albums in general, but one that’s nonetheless a far cry from truly groundbreaking works such as The Wall and Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It’s too loose a tale to warrant comparison with the former, at least without the film’s telling images; it’s too tight a sound to compete with the latter. Yet I love its nihilistic brutality, its meandering amoral musings, the darkness thinly veiled by its attractive aural splendour. Come and play in the maze…

The Night Thoughts album is available to download from iTunes for £8.99, while the full-length promo movie is available to download from iTunes too in 1080p for £10.99. Amazon offer the album on CD for £9.99 plus delivery, and upon ordering you can immediately download the MP3 album at no extra charge.  The MP3 album alone is the same price as iTunes’.

20 January 2016

Re-Awakening the Force #2 | Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones directed by George Lucas

I love Attack of the Clones. By far the most underrated movie in the Star Wars saga to date, Episode II does everything that I wanted the prequels to do and more besides. It shows us Obi-Wan and Anakin fighting side by side as master and apprentice, with all the expected camaraderie and seniority squabbles thereto. It brings together the Skywalker twins’ parents in a duly overwrought, hearts-over-heads love story that all but seals Anakin’s fate. It completes the story of Palpatine’s rise to galactic dictator as the legendary Clone Wars begin in spectacular fashion. We even get to see Yoda fight.


Furthermore, the film’s plot is one of the saga’s most ambitious, with Obi-Wan and Anakin’s investigation into an attempt on Padmé’s life leading the former to the heart of a mystery a decade in the making, and the latter into a passionate but turbulent relationship that will test his commitment to the Jedi Order, and ultimately serve as the catalyst for his Episode III heel turn. Both tantalising threads converge as Darth Sidious’s master plan finally comes to fruition and the galaxy erupts in an all-pervading war that, one day, his Galactic Empire will rise from the ashes of.

“The thought of not being with you... I can’t breathe.”

Clones is most often criticised for George Lucas and Jonathan Hayles’ depiction of the Anakin / Padmé romance, not to mention Hayden Christensen’s performance as the troubled teen Romeo. I like both, for the most part. The screenwriters’ romantic dialogue is oddly formal, even bizarrely verbose at times, but this lends it the heightened feel of a play - something that I feel suits the nature of the story being told. As for Christensen, he comes off as moody and churlish, even Vader-monotonous at times - but that’s Anakin, particularly at this point in his life. He’s a loved-up teenager with attachment issues who feels like he’s being held back by his mentors - he’s supposed to be miserable.
 
“Well I should be! I will be the most powerful Jedi ever!
I will even learn to stop people from dying...”

Anakin’s return to Tatooine and search for his mother is also very well handled, again setting the stage perfectly for Episode III. The moment in which he cradles the dead body of his mother, his eyes wide and face contorted in horror and rage as John Williams’ score builds to a crescendo, is one of the prequel trilogy’s most defining; the aftermath discussion with Padmé in the Homestead is one of its best. In the latter, Christensen really shows us what he can do as Anakin’s tear-stained rage and remorse boil over into a chilling monologue that walks a terrifying tightrope between despair and determination. Years later, he would say to his son, “There is no conflict…” - but here there clearly is, and it’s arguably a much more fascinating area to explore.
 

Obi-Wan’s thread of the narrative is more traditional in the outer-space swashbuckling sense, but it’s also unusual in that in casts him in the role of detective. It’s great fun to see him turn to greasy-spoon friends and frosty Jedi librarians as he tries to piece together a puzzle that will lead him to an apparently Jedi-ordered clone army, conveniently ready-made to meet the rising threat of the Separatists. Such labyrinthine plotting is a marked contrast to the more straightforward films of the ’70s and ’80s, and really helps to sell the scope of the Sith’s master plan. Where it falls down, to a certain extent, is in the movie’s - and indeed the prequel trilogy’s - resolution, which isn’t explicit enough for many viewers. Was the army-ordering Syfo-Dyas an agent of the Sith, or Count Dooku in disguise? And how much does Dooku know of Darth Sidious’s true intentions? I don’t mind having to turn to spin-off media to elucidate, but the films should be able to stand alone, and they only manage to just barely.
 

The movie’s climax is unreservedly spectacular - it’s thrilling to see a group of Jedi going to war for the first time, even if it means that we only see several small lightsaber duels instead of one almighty one. Amongst them, of course, is Yoda’s first on-screen show of swordsmanship; something teased by Obi-Wan at the start of the movie and delivered in style by the saga’s first CG Yoda. The larger clones versus droids backdrop is impressive too, particularly with Christopher Lee’s underrated Count Dooku and his Flash Gordon-inspired cadre of Confederacy leaders presiding over the battle from high above. My only niggles are that both Anakin and Jango Fett are defeated a little too easily for my tastes, though in the case of the latter it does at least give us a haunting moment in which the young Boba picks up his father’s decapitated head, mirroring Anakin’s earlier scene with his mother and to the same end.
 

It’s become fashionable to lambaste all the prequels despite II and III’s evident quality, but I’ve never been one for fashion. By turns thrilling and haunting, Attack of the Clones is an overlooked gem in the Star Wars saga - one that, in time, I hope starts to get the recognition that it deserves.

Under its newly-shortened title Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, the home video edition of this movie (featuring an extended scene in the Homestead between Anakin and Padmé) is available to download from iTunes in 1080p HD for £13.99. A Blu-ray is also available, with today’s cheapest retailer being Zavvi, who are selling the steelbook for £16.99. The theatrical version of the movie has never been commercially released - not even on DVD.

19 January 2016

Book Review | Star Wars: Tarkin by James Luceno

Tarkin, by esteemed Star Wars Expanded Universe veteran James Luceno, has been my first venture into Disney’s all-new Star Wars literary canon. With all pre-Disney Star Wars books now seemingly retconned and rebranded as “Star Wars Legends”, even those yet (and probably unlikely) to be contradicted by Disney-era media, I’ve been both surprised and delighted to find that Tarkin is actually beautifully redolent of the author’s suddenly redundant, but still spellbinding as ever, bibliography - Labyrinth of Evil and Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader especially so.

Indeed, Tarkin is clear a reflection of Luceno’s late 2005 novel in particular - the only real difference is its subject. This isn’t a criticism; the author’s formula is as effective now as it was a decade ago. This time, rather than opening a window into the tortured mind of the recently-crippled Darth Vader, here Luceno turns his attention towards the grand moff of the Galactic Empire; the sector governor and tactical mastermind to whom even Vader would defer in the original Star Wars movie, Wilhuff Tarkin.

Despite some excellent exposure in Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and even a fleeting cameo at the end of Revenge of the Sith, before reading this book I knew precious little about the character whom Peter Cushing’s cold and clipped performance would make famous besides that gleamed from the silver screen. Set around the time of the Star Wars Rebels TV series, Luceno’s main narrative sees its protagonist constantly harking back to the events that forged him. We learn of his colonial upbringing in the Outer Rim, the literal ordeals / rites of passage that his ruthless family made him suffer through, the beginning of his military career and Sheev Palpatine’s subsequent steering it towards politics. Entire episodes from Tarkin’s youth are played out with colour and verve - he brings cybernetic fallen princesses turned pirates to heel, turns his governance of nature into the governance of his world; he even snubs Count Dooku over dinner on the eve of war’s outbreak, and in so doing saves his world. Each tale, each piece of the grand tapestry, feeds into the decisions Tarkin makes as he deals with events in the present - events that cast him in the unusual role of victim rather than perpetrator.


For me, the illicit joy of this book is its deceptively soft focus - its ability to carry along its readers at a frantic pace without ever allowing them pause to consider that its two chief protagonists are, in fact, antagonists, and that its “good guys” are really the perpetrators of the grand theft cosmos on which the plot builds. Reading about Tarkin; about Vader; even about the Emperor sat atop Coruscant in his opulent palace, their goals and doctrines unwittingly infect you as you read. Somehow, you want them to win.

 
 
Perhaps the book’s greatest success though is its understated, but still most insightful, portrayal of the Tarkin / Vader relationship, which has always been as difficult to quantify as the Sith Lord’s invisible rank. Who answers to whom? Even the Emperor washes his hands of the issue here, and as matters progress it becomes apparent that the question is immaterial: Vader and Tarkin are a partnership, and it’s implied that they each know it. Vader has his skills, Tarkin has his, and to their mutual credit they each know when to give a free rein to the other. It makes for a thrilling, page-turning read as in concert they must hunt down the turncoats who’ve stolen Tarkin’s ship, the Carrion Spike, and turned its might against the Empire in one of the earliest acts of rebellion. What makes this chase all the more alluring are the moments in which Tarkin stops to try to look behind those obsidian orbs that shroud Vader’s eyes in an attempt to confirm his gut feeling that the cybernetic monstrosity with whom he feels such unusual and begrudging kinship was once his only real Jedi ally from the Clone Wars, Anakin Skywalker.


By turns fast, furious and flagrant, Tarkin lifts the veil not only on its eponymous protagonist but also on his fellow agents of evil and the inner workings of the Galactic Empire that they now must defend. It’s right up there with Luceno’s finest efforts from this era, in my view, with which it sits remarkably well - a complement to, rather than replacement for.

Tarkin is available to download from iTunes for £4.99. If you think it’d be more fitting to download the book from the imperial might of Amazon, though, the listed price is still the same but you’re unlikely to find Amazon’s gift cards discounted as you will iTunes’, so iTunes remains the cheaper option. Alternatively, if deforestation and clutter is your thing, Amazon are flogging a paperback for £6.29 plus delivery.

03 January 2016

Audio Drama Review | Doctor Who: The War Doctor - Only the Monstrous written by Nicholas Briggs



There has never been a more exciting time to be a Big Finish listener. Last year, following the collapse of fellow BBC licensee AudioGo, Big Finish’s sudden expansion of their own Doctor Who licence led to what felt like a seemingly never-ending procession of mind-blowing announcements concerning upcoming releases featuring characters and elements from the new series, the most thrilling of which was Only the Monstrous - a full-cast mini-series starring John Hurt as the... um... ninth incarnation of the Time Lord formerly known as the Doctor (let’s stick with the generally favoured “War Doctor” for ease of reference, if not accuracy).


On the show’s fiftieth anniversary, The Day of the Doctor finally lifted the veil on the Last Great Time War that had been alluded to for so long. Unfortunately, in rewriting history to make the Doctor “the Man Who Won the Time War”, rather than the altogether more interesting soul who had to kill his own kind to save all creation, Steven Moffat all but killed my interest in the once quasi-mythical conflict, and indeed the ongoing TV series from that point onward. Yet seeing Tom Webster’s stunning cover for Only the Monstrous cut straight through my disenchantment. For the first time in two years, Doctor Who had piqued my interest.


I was nonetheless a little surprised to see Nicholas Briggs’ name on the cover as the three hour-long plays’ writer. Whilst predictable in the sense that he’s the company’s executive producer and has a proven - no, stellar - record in box sets such as this one, in the past he’d always emphatically slammed the idea of exploring the Last Great Time War directly due to the intangible nature of the conflict. I remember in particular one mocking rant in which he cried, “Launch timonic missiles!” in a sarcastic voice, before going on to question how one could possibly dramatise such an unfathomable war in any sort of meaningful way. I disagreed with him as to the impossibility of the storytelling mechanics, but not with the other, more important, limb of his argument: that the mystery of the Time War was better left intact. Having since starred in The Day of the Doctor, however, and thus experienced first-hand Steven Moffat’s explosive - if surprisingly prosaic - take on a temporal battleground, Briggs had been handed his ready-made template for Time War tales, not to mention his excuse for writing them. With the mystery of the war already evaporated, there was nothing to prevent him taking his love of old British war films and transposing it into the Whoniverse.


The result is perhaps a little underwhelming at first, given the thunderous expectations heaped upon this release; however, it’s important to be mindful this isn’t a one-off, theatrically-released, 3-D anniversary special but the start of a new era for a new incarnation of the Doctor, and as such its slow burn is essential. In fact, the set’s first episode, “The Innocent”, subverted my expectations in the most interesting and intimate of ways. Sensibly picking up long after the coming of the young War Doctor at the end of The Night of the Doctor, and thus taking full advantage of the centuries of suffering buried in Hurt’s legendarily craggy voice, Briggs’ introverted opener draws listeners right into the heart of a particularly fan-pleasing battle before the rug is pulled from under them and the injured War Doctor finds himself far from the front lines on a comparatively primitive world assailed by its own genocidal enemies (Dalek Empire super-Scot Mark McDonnell leading the charge). Tending to the wounded warrior is Lucy Briggs-Owen’s soft-spoken Rejoice, a would’ve-been / should’ve-been companion whose relationship with “Captain Grumpy” will have far-reaching consequences for both her and her people.
 
This inspired setup gives Sir John the opportunity to make his mark in a relatively quiet and personal setting, showing us aspects of his character that The Day of the Doctor didn’t have the time to dwell upon. Quite rightly, Briggs is keen to stress that, despite his renunciation of his name and his apparent embracing of an alarming “ends justify the means” mentality, the War Doctor is still the Doctor whether he likes it or not. This much is borne out very quickly, as the self-loathing and battle-weary Time Lord finds himself inclined to aid the peaceful underdogs in what appears to be the Time War in microcosm. Even more so than on television, the heroism of the War Doctor is palpable - he just can’t see it himself.

As the story moves into its second and third instalments it picks up a lot of pace, but, pleasingly, not at the expense of substance. Briggs’ plot cleverly pits “Granddad” and an older, similarly war-hardened, Rejoice (now played by the perpetually regal Carolyn Seymour, veteran of countless 24th-century Star Trek episodes) against Seratrix, a dangerous Time Lord idealist who’s hell-bent on appeasing the Daleks in a desperate bid for peace. This unexpected anti-antagonist highlights the gulf between the Time Lord’s warrior incarnation - the “War Doctor”, if you will - and the Doctors either side of it. In any other story, and against almost any other enemy, the Doctor would be the one advocating peace. It’s a story that could only be told amidst the terrors of the Time War, yet there’s not a timonic missile in sight. Mr Briggs, it seems, has proven himself wrong.

Regrettably though, the Big Finish exec does succumb to the temptation to make his Time Lord turncoat morally bankrupt - the fascinating parallels with the Doctors dissipate once the accepted cost of the Dalek collaborator’s plot becomes plain. For me, the story would have been more compelling had Seratrix been less ruthless and more Doctor-like, as in the end it is questions of morality that make the Time War with its non-Doctor Doctor so fertile a field for storytelling.

And, inevitably, I’m a little disappointed that Briggs avoids Gallifrey, for the most part, limiting the War Doctor’s dealings with his own people to Jacqueline Pearce’s (Blake’s 7, Doctor Who: The Two Doctors) new character, Cardinal Ollistra, and her lackeys. This was to be expected, of course, given Big Finish’s ongoing Gallifrey series; 2017’s planned eighth Doctor Time War box set; and Briggs’ understandable reservations about tying up continuity (Steven Moffat and company could just merrily contradict whatever Big Finish establish in the future, should it serve the TV series for them to do so, so it’s wise for Big Finish not to get too specific or tackle key events). This is still frustrating as fan, though, as questions of the Gallifreyan presidency; of Ace; of Omega; of the Master; and of the last-seen-in-another-universe Rassilon; are all ones that we’ve waited a long time for answers to. And if Big Finish can get a legend like Sir John Hurt on board with relative ease, then maybe they can ensnare Sir Derek Jacobi and/or Timothy Dalton too? I’d pay good money to hear Dalton reprise his role as Rassilon in a handover from Don Warrington, pipe-dream though it may be.

For now, though, the promise of more from the mercurial John Hurt and the innovative Nicholas Briggs is more than enough enticement to ensure the success of subsequent box sets. Just like Paul McGann before him, the silver-screen legend is using Big Finish to bring his incarnation of Gallifrey’s most infamous son into the same stratosphere as the better-known, full-time TV Doctors. But, of course, Hurt has an edge that his chronological predecessor didn’t: his War Doctor is unique, in attitude if not necessarily in deed, and his theatre isn’t one of adventure – it’s one of war.

Doctor Who: The War Doctor – Only the Monstrous is available to download from the Big Finish website for just £20.00 until 29th  February 2016, at which time the price will rise. If you are prepared to make an additional £1.50 postage contribution, select the ‘CD’ option instead of ‘Download’ to receive a magnificent four-CD box set in addition to the download.

02 January 2016

Book Review | Transformers: Exodus - The Official History of the War for Cybertron by Alex Irvine

Despite its bold claims, Transformers: Exodus isn’t the first work of fiction to tell Optimus Prime and Megatron’s origin stories or delve into the fabled civil war that all but destroyed the Transformers’ home planet of Cybertron - but it is the only one so far that purports to be “official”. I originally thought that this was rather an odd claim, given the franchise’s many contrary continuities (almost all of which are directly contradicted in author Alex Irvine’s reimagining of Cybertronian history), but having now read Exodus along with its two sequels, Exiles and Retribution, I’m not so sure any more. Whilst you’ll struggle to reconcile this book with The Transformers classic episode “War Dawn” or the live-action sequels that followed Paramount’s 2007 blockbuster, it maintains much of their flavour, cherry-picking the most successful elements from the franchise’s rich mythology and presenting them in a surprisingly stylish and sophisticated manner. It’s little surprise, with hindsight, that Transformers: Prime would later draw upon Exodus and its aligned continuity as if it were its own, as the book embodies everything that the Hub’s award-winning series would strive to be.


Irvine’s presentation is highly unusual, but also highly effective. He doesn’t waste words describing what readers already have in their heads, for one thing - there’s a dearth of description, especially when it comes to the Cybertronians themselves. As well as allowing the author to incisively cut to the heart of the things that his readers bought the book for, this bold and rather clever non-device leaves interpretation wide open. If you want to picture a G1 Megatron as you read, you can; if the movie Prime’s your man, he’s the iteration that you’ll think of. This lack of description is also a great fit for Exodus’s pseudo-history-book format. Though key formative events are presented as traditional drama, much of the book provides dispassionate snapshots taken from eons of conflict. There’s a lot to cover, so inevitably Irvine doesn’t drill down too deep, focusing instead on the broad strokes.

The most notable exceptions to this are Alpha Trion’s bridging, first-person monologues. The last of “the Thirteen” [original primes] to remain on Cybertron and the custodian of the Covenant of Primus (Primus being one of the two Cybertronian gods in this continuity, his evil opposite number being Unicron), the Autobot-sympathising prime offers readers a unique perspective on the tumultuous present by virtue of his knowledge of all that’s passed and his insight into all that’s to come.


For me, though, the most interesting aspect of Exodus is the author’s portrayal of data clerk Orion Pax and underworld gladiator turned freedom fighter Megatronus. Evidently inspired by James Hill’s “State Games” strip for the 1987 annual, Irvine’s Megatron is a much more intriguing character than The Transformers’ two-dimensional villain or even the movies’ megalomaniacal monstrosity. For starters, he’s right about the political state of Cybertron - its strict caste system is oppressive, leaving the likes of him and his brothers to toil in the mines or fight in arenas for the benefit or amusement of higher-caste ’bots. More than that though, just like Hitler and countless cult of personality dictators in reality, he’s a masterful and almost hypnotic public speaker - far more persuasive than the calm librarian who would have the rank of prime thrust upon him. This makes Irvine’s Megatron a complicated and charismatic antagonist, much as he would be played in Transformers: Prime. Megatron doesn’t think he’s evil – he thinks he’s right. At times he’s almost noble; you really respect his fierce defiance and refusal to bow to supposedly superior ’bots.


Pax is intriguingly drawn too, taking the form of a self-righteous and opinionated data clerk rather than the brash youth of “War Dawn”. Little more than a politically-sensitive, middle-caste ’bot at the book’s start, Pax’s monitoring of Megatronus’s sudden infamy in the media compels him to learn more about the gladiator’s manifesto before becoming directly involved in the beginnings of what he dubs the Autobot (“Autonomous ’bots”) movement.

Together, these two brothers from different castes start a revolution, only to realise that whilst they share a vision of autonomy for all Transformers, their views on how to achieve it couldn’t be further apart. Pax’s self-styled Autobots and Megatron’s media-branded Decepticons finally splinter when, as Megatron’s finest hour is at hand, rather than grant him governance Cybertron’s ruling council anoints his most vocal supporter “Optimus Prime” instead, prompting the former gladiator to turn against the newly-minted Cybertronian leader and begin the civil war.


However, once Optimus Prime and Megatron take up arms against one another, the book suddenly becomes less interesting - its heart is clearly the foundation and destruction of their friendship. The war, whilst spectacularly drawn, offers up little that’s new; it just sees Irvine roll out a number of popular faces to take part in decisive engagements. Only Jazz and Starscream come close to their leaders in terms of exposure and development, with the black-and-white Autobot lieutenant being cast as a drinking buddy and confidante of Optimus Prime, and the self-serving Seeker brought seamlessly in line with his Transformers: Prime characterisation.

With an animated prequel to the Paramount movies in the works, there’s no telling how long The Official History of the War for Cybertron will remain “official”, or indeed how much of its content will find its way onto the silver screen, but in the meantime it remains a must-read title for any fan of modern Transformers continuities - particularly those with a fondness for Transformers: Prime or any of the “aligned” video games.

Transformers: Exodus – The Official History of the War for Cybertron is available to buy from The Book Depository for £5.89 with free delivery.