Screen Time [Captain America Month]: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier


First appearing in 1941, Marvel Comics’ star-spangled super soldier, Steve Rogers/Captain America, has become one of Marvel’s most recognisable and celebrated characters not just for his super patriotism but also for being a prominent member and leader of Marvel’s premier super team, the Avengers. Having successfully made the jump to live-action, Cap is now a widely celebrated, mainstream superhero and, since American’s celebrated Independence Day this month, I’ve been spending every Tuesday in July paying tribute to the star-spangled man with a plan himself!


Air Date: 19 March 2021 to 23 April 2023
Network: Disney+
Stars: Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Wyatt Russell, Erin Kellyman, Daniel Brühl, and Emily VanCamp

The Background:
Unquestionably, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has become more than a success; from humble beginnings, it has evolved into a nigh-unstoppable multimedia juggernaut that has brought some of Marvel Comics’ most beloved, and obscure, characters to life in a way that no one could have ever predicted. Only a handful of the films produced by Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios have met with any kind of negativity or mixed reaction, and in a world that is becoming increasingly bleak and cynical the MCU achieved an impossibility by making the Star-Spangled Avenger himself, Captain America, a blockbuster movie franchise. Although Marvel Studios had dabbled in television ventures before, most notably with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013 to 2020) and their various Netflix shows, they really ramped up their focus on TV productions to coincide not just with the MCU’s fourth phase but also the release of Disney+, the streaming service of their parent company. Unlike other MCU TV shows, these shows were spearheaded by Feige and focused heavily on maintaining and expanding the continuity of the MCU going forward. One of the first pitches for this concept was a “buddy cop” series the focused on the dysfunctional friendship and grating banter between Sam Wilson/The Falcon (Mackie) and James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes (Stan); the series aimed to not only explore this relationship and Sam’s struggles with accepting the mantle of Captain America, but also tackle relevant social issues such as racism and coping with grief and change. Although delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier eventually released weekly on Disney+ starting from 19 March 2021 and was the most-watched show on the service for some time. Critically, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was extremely well-received, with reviewers praising the show’s depiction of racism and the dynamic between the two leads, though some criticised the show’s pacing and execution. Still, the show was successful enough to earn not only a second season but also a fourth Captain America movie that will see both stars reprise their roles on the big-screen and continue the plot threads left hanging at the end of the season.

The Plot:
Six months after the events of Avengers: Endgame (Russo and Russo, 2019), Sam Wilson struggles to live up to the mantle of Captain America and Bucky is still recovering from his brainwashing as the Winter Soldier. The two are forced to begrudgingly join forces with not only each other, but one of their worst enemies, to investigate a terrorist group in a worldwide adventure that tests both their abilities and their patience.

The Review:
I am a bit late to the party when it comes to Disney+ and their various original content; the main reason for that is the sad fact that neither my television nor my service provider actually carry the app, and I didn’t really want to be watching the shows on a smaller screen. Ordinarily, I would wait for the home media release but it seems as though we might have to wait a while for that, or might not get it at all, so I finally decided to get started on working through them earlier this year and was excited to finally sink my teeth into The Falcon and the Winter Soldier since it was the one that looked most like what I enjoy about the MCU. Naturally, given the title, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier primarily focuses on Sam and Bucky and the fallout from Avengers: Endgame. At the start of the show, Sam continues to run missions for the United States military as the Falcon, quickly making an enemy out of Georges Batroc (Georges St-Pierre), and enjoying the chance to make a positive difference in people’s lives. Sam is determined (obsessed, almost) with helping people, trying to offer his services and council, and protecting others, even when it’s beyond him, but he is conflicted about taking on the mantle of Captain America.

Sam gives up the shield, feeling he can’t live up to expectations, and tries to help his family.

Believing that he’s not able to live up to Steve Rogers’ (Chris Evans) legacy, Sam delivers an emotional speech in Washington, D.C. at a ceremony (more like a eulogy) at the Smithsonian Museum for Captain America where he entrusts the shield to the museum so it can be displayed as a symbol of hope and unity. In a recurring motif throughout the show, Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle) questions this decision, believing that times have changed, and that the world is “broken” and in need of fixing, and that Captain America is more important than ever before. Sam, however, remains steadfast in his decision to give up the shield since he can’t shake the feeling that it doesn’t belong to him, and instead tries to direct his attentions to reconnecting with his family. Sam’s sister, Sarah (Adepero Oduye), and his nephews Cass (Chase River McGee) and AJ (Aaron Haynes), maintain the family fishing business in Louisiana, but fell on hard times during the Blip and have struggled to stay afloat since the snapped were returned. While Sam is still somewhat stuck in the pre-Blip past, Sarah is faced with the cold, hard fact that she is out of options thanks to getting into debt; Sam, however, is determined to help, despite her cynicism, and is sure that he can help broker a new deal/loan at the bank and turn the business around. However, despite the adulation of the bank clerk for his heroics, Sam faces greater hurdles than he expected; things changed after the Blip, Sam’s income is questionable (apparently Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr) didn’t pay the Avengers, which I find odd), and the Wilson’s don’t have the collateral or standing to qualify for a loan. However, there’s also an undercurrent of racial prejudice throughout this meeting; though Sam refuses to quit, Sarah isn’t surprised that they got turned away and somewhat resents Sam’s absence (whether by choice or by fate) and efforts to swoop in and save the day when she’s been struggling so hard for so long, by herself, to keep the business afloat.

Bucky and Sam clash over the shield, but are forced to unite against a new breed of super soldiers.

Already greatly troubled by these burdens, Sam is clearly conflicted when the United States government opt to reactivate the shield and pass the mantle of Captain America on Captain John Walker (Russell). The former Winter Soldier, Bucky Barnes, isn’t quite as shy about hiding his feelings regarding the matter, however. Although he’s received a full pardon for his past crimes, Bucky is legally mandated to attend regular therapy sessions with Doctor Christina Raynor (Amy Aquino) and continues to be haunted by vivid, explicit memories of his heinous past. Although he routinely lies to and criticises her, Dr. Raynor sees through his bullshit and he reluctantly relates that he’s been going through a list of his victims and trying to make amends with their families or bring those responsible for his conditioning to justice according to Raynor’s strict series of rules that prohibit him from killing, harming others, or doing anything illegal in order to help stave off his nightmares. Bucky is aggravated that Sam gave up the shield; he believes that Steve trusted in Sam, that he believed in him, and that Sam threw it all away like it was nothing and his stoic demeanour cracks when he states that if Steve was wrong to believe in Sam then maybe he was wrong to believe in him (as in Bucky) as well. This causes a great deal of tension between the two, who already had a pretty frosty relationship to begin with, which only escalates as they investigate a terrorist group known as the Flag Smashers. Led by Karli Morgenthau (Kellyman), the Flag Smashers believe that society was better during the Blip and want to restructure the world to remove all borders, both political and social, but are radical in their methods. Karli, and seven of her followers, have been granted superhuman strength and durability thanks to a new version of the super soldier serum, and use that power to launch a campaign against the oppressive governments and conglomerates, particularly the Global Repatriation Council (GPC), who seek to return the world to the way it was before the Blip. Sam is first alerted to the group by his military liaison, Joaquin Torres (Danny Ramirez), who is badly injured trying to fight Karli during a bank robbery in Switzerland, and the bulk of the series revolves around his efforts (and the efforts of others) to track them down. Karli comes across as very sympathetic and morally grey antagonist; her idea for a united world free from corruption is an admirable one, but she enforces her ideals through extremism and violence, which clearly puts her in the wrong. With slightly different methods and motivations, she could have rallied people into a productive force for good but, instead, she is a revolutionary posing as a freedom fighter. In a very short time, she has amassed a cult-like following of people only too eager to offer them food, shelter, and resources and Karli is determined not to let the same people who were in power before the Blip return to positions of authority, and to go to any lengths necessary to bring about “One world, One people”.

Walker is made the new Captain America, but his psyche deteriorates from the pressure.

While Sam actively sympathises with Karli’s plight, and makes every effort to try and talk her down, neither Bucky or Walker share his unique approach to the situation; a former high school football star, decorated soldier, and American patriot, Walker initially struggles with the weight of expectation placed on him by assuming this mantle of Captain America. His wife, Olivia (Gabrielle Byndloss), and best friend, Sergeant Major Lemar Hoskins (Clé Bennett), offer him their utmost encouragement and support and Walker quickly takes to the public limelight, signing autographs and appearing live on Good Morning, America, and coming across as humble and appreciative of the opportunity (despite his impressive military record, physical fitness, and intelligence quotient) and selling himself not as a super soldier, but as a brave man looking to continue Steve’s legacy. Walker’s position as Captain America causes a great deal of friction between him and Sam and Bucky; although he helps them to (unsuccessfully) fight Karli and the Flag Smashers, his repeated attempts to work with them are met with reluctance and hostility (especially from Bucky, who quickly senses something is off about Walker). Bucky and Sam’s resentment of Walker is only exacerbated by his increasing arrogance and bravado; Walker’s mental stability is fractured further when he’s repeatedly left one step behind (or out of the loop) in the pursuit of Karli, is met with scorn and disrespect by the Flag Smashers, and is repeatedly bested in combat by both super soldiers and the Wakandan special forces, the Dora Milaje. He’s resentful of those with enhanced abilities, and the judgement he faces from the likes of Sam, and being forced to sit on the side lines, which causes him to blunder into situations full of piss and vinegar and even disrupts Sam’s attempts to talk Karli down.

Walker is driven to the edge by Lemar’s death, but given a new opportunity by the mysterious Val.

Walker is joined in the field by Lemar, who fights by his side as Battlestar. While Bucky is ready to simply force Walker to give up the shield, Lemar acts as the voice of reason and not only manages to keep Walker focused but tries to keep the peace between them and Sam and Bucky to better pool their resources. When Walker is distraught at being so handily beaten by the Dora Milaje, Lemar admits that he would jump at the chance to take the super soldier serum since the benefits would far outweigh any side effects, arguing that they could have saved lives (and spared themselves a lot of bloodshed) during their time in Afghanistan. This is all the convincing Walker needs to take the serum for himself, but his already unstable mind and quick temper are only exacerbated by the serum, and by Lemar’s death at Karli’s hands. Walker’s grief quickly turns to outrage, and he takes his anger and pain out on Nico (Noah Mills), Karli’s close friend, beating him to death with the shield in front of numerous bystanders, many of whom record the incident on their phones. Walker is so traumatised by these events that he actually tries to justify them as being part of his duties as Captain America, and a brutal fight breaks out between him, Falcon, and Bucky when Sam tries to reason with Walker and Walker’s paranoia kicks in. Walker rips Falcon’s wings off, half-crazed by ego and madness, and Falcon is forced to break Walker’s arm to get the shield off him. Although Walker avoids a court martial for his actions thanks to his service record, he’s stripped of his rank, benefits, and the mantle of Captain America. Understandably, Walker is outraged at this betrayal but is given a second (well, third, technically) chance by Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), who sympathises with his plight and offers him a new assignment as the U. S. Agent.

Zemo adds an extra dimension to the show, offering a twisted but logical perspective on the world.

Walker’s instability isn’t helped by Sam and Bucky’s decision to turn to Helmut Zemo (Brühl) for help; although Zemo is a dangerous radical and terrorist who cannot be trusted, he knows more about super soldiers than anyone left alive, but even Sam is aghast when Bucky orchestrates Zemo’s escape from prison and convinces him to aid them based on their common enemy. Zemo is only too eager to help rid the world of super soldiers, who go against everything he believes in, and the two reluctantly agree to utilise Zemo’s wealth and resources as a baron (not to mention his knowledge of Hydra and the super soldier serum). Zemo adds an extra dimension to the abrasive relationship between the two leads, riling up both Bucky and Sam with his mind games and taunts; Zemo questions the logic behind giving symbols and people too much power as you forget their flaws and it brews conflict. Despite being a bigot and a terrorist, Zemo makes some great points about the parallels between good and bad, heroes and tyrants; Zemo argues that his willingness to murder Hydra scientist Doctor Wilfred Nagel (Olli Haaskivi) shows he has the will to complete their mission, indicating his intention to kill Karli, whose attacks are becoming more and more frequent and dangerous. He also makes a convincing argument that to be superhuman is to be a supremacist, that Karli will not be able to stop herself escalating her methods and her goals, and basically comparing the Avengers to the Nazis and other supremacist powers on principal alone, while also expressing respect for Captain America for his strength of character. Zemo’s poisonous philosophies and mind games continually grate on Sam and Bucky, and his very presence causes controversy, especially when Ayo (Florence Kasumba) and the Dora Milaje come looking for him. Ayo only allows Bucky (whom she still refers to as the “White Wolf”) eight hours to make use of Zemo out of a fraying sense of respect, however while nobody trusts Zemo (and rightfully so), he actually proves to be super useful to the group’s investigation: he leads them to Madripoor, a desolate, neon-drenched haven for disreputable types run by the mysterious “Power Broker”, and to Nagel’s knowledge of the new super soldier serum. He often slips away from conflict and is ordered to stay out of the way, but actually goes out of his way to help Sam and Bucky, even donning his iconic ski mask to clear a path for his unlikely allies.

Both the Dora Milaje and the jaded Sharon disapprove of Zemo, but Sharon is hiding a dark secret.

Zemo’s even able to use Turkish Delight and his way with children to lead them to Karli, but doesn’t show his whole hand to maintain his leverage, which riles Bucky up almost as much as Zemo’s smug, self-righteous, condescending hospitality. Still, his single-minded campaign against super soldiers causes some problems for the more righteous heroes; he not only executes Nagel, but he wounds Karli and angrily destroys the majority of her serum vials, which only serves to galvanise her extremism further. Zemo is instrumental not just in aiding Sam and Bucky but also in granted Bucky some of the closure he desperately needs; his code words no longer trigger Bucky’s conditioning, and Bucky opts to spare him so he can face imprisonment, and the two even part ways with a kind of mutual respect and understanding for each other. Zemo actually proves to be more of an asset than Sharon Carter (VanCamp), who was driven off the grid to Madripoor after helping Sam and the other Avengers during Captain America: Civil War (Russo and Russo, 2016). Resentful that she was left without the aid of the Avengers and to fend for herself, Sharon is less than welcoming to them, especially Zemo, because she’s been forced to live on the run, without contact with friends and family, and has been alone this whole time. Begrudgingly, she offers them shelter and has set herself up as the owner and proprietor of an art gallery filled with stolen, priceless pieces; recent events have left her cynical of the whole hero gig and she openly criticises their devotion to a cause she no longer believes in. Distrustful and bitter, Sharon agrees to help in return for Sam’s help in clearing her name and returning her home; while Sharon brokers a deal with some clients, the three blend in at her party, resulting in the now-infamous clip of Zemo partying down to some beats! Although Sharon’s information proves fruitful, and she’s instrumental in stopping Karli and the Flag Smashers in the finale, she is repeatedly shown to be somewhat shady and untrustworthy throughout the show, making suspicious phone calls and even hiring Batroc to add a wild card to the final episode. When Sam, Bucky, and Walker join forces to chase Karli down, Sharon is revealed to be the Power Broker in a tense showdown that sees her gun down Batroc for having the insolence to blackmail her and then shoot Karli to save Sam’s life after his attempts to reason with her fall on deaf ears. Despite her odd behaviour, Sam arranges for her to receive her full pardon, but, while she gratefully returns to a governmental role, she makes a suspicious call to an unknown party promising to deliver full access to the government’s resources going forward.

A central theme of the show is racism and overcoming oppressive labels and bigotry.

A central theme throughout The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is of racism and the power of symbols, labels, and Captain America; racist struggles and undertones permeate every aspect of the show, from Sarah’s efforts to keep the family business afloat to Sam being referred to as “Black Falcon”, and there’s even an unsettling scene were some cops randomly accost Sam, with the implication that they only backed down after realising that he’s the Falcon. These racial tensions are explicitly emphasised through the introduction of Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly), an African American veteran super soldier who fought, and defeated, the Winter Soldier in the Korean War. Jaded and betrayed by his country, Isaiah was imprisoned and experimented on for thirty years to help replicate the super soldier serum, leaving him a cynical and tortured individual. Sam is angered that a Black super soldier existed and has been buried and forgotten, and how many people got screwed over just to make the shield and Captain America a thing, regardless of how much good both have done. Isaiah bitterly talks about the oppression faced by Black people everywhere, especially soldiers who put their lives on the line for their country only to face bigotry and hatred upon returning. Isaiah reveals that his wife died while he was in prison, and that a bunch of prisoners such as himself were subjected to super soldier experiments and sent on missions even if they were unstable. After some of them got captured, Isaiah learned that the higher-ups were planning on destroying the camp rather than let their dirty little secret get out and rescued his comrades, only to be left a lab rat whose only salvation came from a sympathetic nurse. Sam is moved by his tale, and desperate to use every resource he has to tell it to the world, but Isaiah doesn’t share Sam’s optimism since Black people have been oppressed and erased for generations; he maintains that “they” will never let a Black man be Captain America, and that no self-respecting Black man would want to represent such a flawed symbol.

Sam finally embraces the Captain America mantle and delivers an impassioned speech about responsibility.

Although Isaiah’s tale causes Sam to contemplate if he should destroy the shield, Bucky emphasises that the shield is a symbol of hope to many, including himself. When Sam calls in the favours owed to his family by the neighbourhood, even Bucky gets stuck in with fixing up the family boat, and apologises for judging Sam’s decision. He helps Sam train with the shield and Sam encourages him to find his own path in life rather than looking to other people to guide him, and to “do the work” to make amends for his past by offer his victims closure, or a service, to properly put his sins to rest and, in that moment, they forge their friendship (though they still maintain their grating banter). Bucky’s support helps Sam to conclude that, while Isaiah may have a point, he owes it to all of those who suffered and sacrificed to stand up and keep fighting…and take on the shield, which he eventually manages to get the hang of after an inspirational training montage. This culminates in Sam making a dramatic appearance in the finale garbed in his all-new Captain America costume, courtesy of Wakanda, which is heavily based on his Cap suit from the comics and incorporates elements from his Falcon outfit, including the wings. As faithful as the suit is, though, I do feel like it’s a bit “busy”; it’s got white and blue and red and all kinds of different parts and details to it, which is fine, but it does seem like it could be streamlined and simplified going forward. Crucially, while Cap has (presumably Vibranium) wings and his additional technology and abilities allow for particularly exciting chase and action sequence involving a helicopter and a rematch with Batroc, Sam refuses the super soldier serum and uses his position to make an impassioned speech to the GRC representatives, the crowd, and the press about the dangers of labels and the importance of asking why people do the things they do. In a poignant address, Cap emphasises that that they all have a chance to make real change, to help those in need, and acknowledges that people will hate and judge him for being a Black Captain America but, despite that, he’s still there, a simple man with a strong belief that people can do better and the importance of setting a strong example and wielding power responsibly.

After much loss, Sam and Bucky form a real partnership, while Val prepares her own schemes…

This comes after a dramatic and tragic final confrontation with Karli and the Flag Smashers, who launch an attack on a GRC conference; earlier in the series, Nico expressed his belief that the world needs heroes that “look like them”, that can relate to their plight, and even suggests that Karli has the potential to be as influential as Captain America because of her willingness to fight for those in need and to get her hands dirty in the process. Karli believes that the shield is “a monument to a bygone era” and serves as a reminder only of the people history forgot, and that the serum is the only way to bring about real change, and as part of that she only plans on killing people that “matter”, like John Walker and even Sam, as it will send a stronger message. This dismissive attitude raises the ire of Walker in the finale, but Sam consistently sympathises with Karli’s plight; for five years, the world completely changed the way it operated, offering aid and co-operating in a way that had never been seen before, but things have returned to normal and that is a jarring transition for many, especially the poor, underprivileged, and oppressed, who see Karli as a freedom fighter. Sam attempts to reach out to her, and convince her to come along peacefully, and is met with aggression and resistance; Karli rejects the notion that she’s a supremacist because she’s fighting against big, oppressive corporations but Sam argues that she’s killing recklessly, and heading down a dark path. Even when Karli threatens Sam’s family, he continues to try and reason with her and, when they go head-to-head in the finale, he refuses to fight her…or to back down…even as when she flies into a rage and mercilessly attacks him. After Karli is fatally shot by Sharon, she dies in Cap’s arms, leaving him with only an apology and regret at the unnecessary loss of life, and that tragedy fuels his big speech at the end.

The Summary:
I really enjoyed The Falcon and the Winter Soldier; everything about it was indicative of a top-notch MCU production, from the music to the presentation, characterisation, and world-building. It was literally like watching a six-hour long movie rather than an episodic show, and a lot of that is due to how well the two leads characters are written. Sam and Bucky share some relatable and entertaining banter and dick measuring regarding their knowledge of pop culture, the craziness of their superhero lives, and it’s clear that they have a begrudging, grating, almost brotherly relationship. Bucky despairs of Sam’s reluctance to make or share his plans and goes out of his way to match his efforts, even leaping out of a plane at two-hundred feet without a parachute just to prove a point. When Karli threatens Sam’s family, Bucky insists on suiting up with him and has his back, despite the two having an abrasive relationship; this is best seen in an amusing moment where Dr. Raynor forces the two to sit down for some therapy and they push back against Dr. Raynor’s methods, rile each other up, and are forced to confront their issues. Although the two agree to part ways and never see each other again following this, they are soon bonded by their mutual respect and come to trust and even help each other with their doubts and issues. Bucky even has a little flirty banter with Sarah (which Sam warns him about) and, by the end, is laughing and enjoying himself with Sam’s family and neighbours. Their dysfunctional, brotherly, odd-couple dynamic is one of the highlights of the show and it’s great to see them ending the season as trusted allies.

Walker becomes increasingly unhinged, but it remains to be seen if he’s truly redeemed himself.

A clear standout of the show was also John Walker, who gave a great turn as an unstable, violent, and unhinged version of Captain America. At first, he’s the humble, dutiful poster boy but it doesn’t take long for cracks to begin to show in his façade; the pressure of living up to Cap’s legacy weighs heavily on his shoulders and his ego and anger are only exacerbated by the disrespect and lack of recognition he receives from Sam, Bucky, and others. Walker has a tumultuous relationship with Sam and Bucky, who both see him as unworthy of the shield, and their attempts to join forces almost always become a war of words and very nearly lead to them coming to blows. The super soldier serum only escalates things further, finally granting Walker the power he so desperately craved but also driving him to sully his image by literally staining the shield with blood. However, Walker remains a complex and layered character; a tool of the system, he was used and abused just like countless other soldiers and left hanging after the government that made him washed their hands of him. After being stripped of the shield, Walker fashions his own, far less durable one and heads into the finale looking to kill Karli to avenge Lemar, but ultimately chooses to abandon his crusade in order to help save a truck load of hostages. Despite Sam and Bucky’s very valid reservations about Walker, he comes through in the end, but the series ends on a slightly ominous note with him rebranded to U. S. Agent and signed up to whatever Valentina has in store for him.

The longer run time allows for a deeper exploration of these complex and flawed characters.

Other highlights of the show obviously include Zemo, thanks to his moral ambiguity and his twisted philosophies that actually make a great deal of sense; his inclusion was a masterful addition and really added to the dynamic between Sam and Bucky, as well as allowing the character to shift gears towards a more comic-accurate depiction, and it was fun seeing him rile the two leads up. Equally, Karli proved to be a surprisingly sympathetic and relatable antagonist; just as Zemo predicted, she grows increasingly bolder and more violent in her methods, eventually becoming willing to die and execute hostages for her cause, which unsettles even her followers. Yet, even when pushed right to the edge, she has a vulnerability to her; her adopted mother gave her shelter and love, and she’s just looking to provide for those in need and to stand up for the oppressed, but has turned her crusade against corporate or governmental propaganda and symbols like Captain America and her physical strength more than matches the strength of her beliefs thanks to the super soldier serum, making for an extremely dangerous and unpredictable enemy to unite these unlikely allies. Another emotional highlight was Bucky’s quest for redemption; haunted by this past and lost in a world that has passed him by, Bucky is desperately trying to find some purpose in life but finds himself constantly hampered by his violent actions. Not even a cute little date with a waitress (Miki Ishikawa) helps to alleviate his guilt and it’s only through fighting alongside Sam and that he’s able to start to come to terms with his sins. This comes to a head in the finale when he finally heeds Sam’s advice and finds the courage to confess his part in death of his friend Yori Nakajima’s (Ken Takemoto) son; it’s clear that he’s still got a long way to go to find the peace he wants but he ends the show in a far better place that he started it thanks to the partnership (and friendship) he builds with Sam.

Sam resolves to use the shield as a positive for for real change, and to help Bucky through his trauma.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is full to the brim with the biting, witty banter you’d expect from an MCU production and some exhilarating and exciting action sequence; Falcon dives and barrel-rolls through the air in freefall, Bucky throws bombs with his cybernetic arm, and action scenes are given a real punch (no pun intended) thanks to the Flag Smashers being augmented by the super soldier serum. Sam’s refusal to enhance himself in this way might be a questionable decision given he’s taking on the mantle of Captain America, but it goes a long way to keeping him humble, vulnerable, and relatable; he’s just a normal man striving to do better, without the shortcuts that Walker takes. Ayo and the Dora Milaje also contribute to some epic fight scenes, particularly in the way they humble Walker and even subdue Bucky by disabling and removing his Vibranium limb. Even more impactful, though, are the socially relevant themes in the show, such as racism and the power of labels and symbols; it’s no surprise that Isaiah’s story is framed as a dark parallel to Steve’s, and it’s deplorable to hear about what he went through while Steve was heralded a hero for similar deeds. It thus carries a significant impact when Isaiah ultimately gives Sam his begrudging approval and respect after being won over with Sam’s determination to be a symbol of his people and all those who suffered to make America the country it is today. Isaiah is moved when he sees that Sam has made good on his promise and arranged for him and his fellow soldiers to finally be recognised and honoured at the Smithsonian’s Captain America wing, and I applaud the show for tackling these unsettling issues head-on, even if Sam’s big speech might be a bit on the nose. Overall, this was a fantastic experience; it was literally like a fourth Captain America movie and really helped to flesh out Sam and Bucky and the changes brought to the MCU following Avengers: Endgame. I do wonder how explicitly subsequent movies and productions will relate to the events of this show, but it was a fun journey to go on and I’m excited to see how all the loose threads will be connected together going forward and for Sam’s big-screen debut as the new Captain America.

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fantastic

Did you enjoy The Falcon and the Winter Soldier? What did you think to the banter between Sam and Bucky, and the dynamic added to the duo by Zemo? Were you happy to see Sam accept the mantle by the end or would you have preferred Bucky become the new Captain America? What did you think to Karli and her motivations, and did you enjoy the moral ambiguity of the show’s characters? Did you enjoy the introduction of U. S. Agent to the MCU and what do you think the future holds for him? Are there any Captain America stories and villains you would like to see make it to the MCU? How have you been celebrating the Star-Spangled Avenger’s debut this month? Whatever your thoughts on The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, or Captain America in general, sign up to let me know below or drop a comment on my social media.

Screen Time: Loki (Season One)

Season One

Air Date: 9 June 2021 to 14 July 2021
Network: Disney+
Stars: Tom Hiddleston, Owen Wilson, Sophia Di Martino, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Wunmi Mosaku, and Jonathan Majors

The Background:
It’s hard to deny that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has evolved from humble beginnings into a nigh-unstoppable multimedia juggernaut. Although Marvel Studios dabbled in television ventures before with the likes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013 to 2020) and their Netflix productions, the launch of Disney+ saw head honcho Kevin Feige produce a number of streaming shows that aimed to maintain and expand the continuity of the MCU going forward. Considering how popular Tom Hiddleston’s rendition of the Norse God of Mischief, Loki Laufeyson, has been since his first appearance in the MCU, it’s perhaps not surprising (or, dare I saw it, inevitable) that he was received his own spin-off series in which he would be revealed to have been causing mischief throughout history. The project was seen as the perfect opportunity to fill in some blanks in the MCU, expand Loki’s character and relationships, and help lay the foundation for Phase Four’s focus on exploring the vast multiverse and branching timelines within the MCU. Originally conceived of as a single-season show, Loki was extended into a second season to better develop the show’s intricate plot points, which explored the nature of Loki’s character and fate and the complexities of time and reality in the MCU. Loki’s debut episode was the most-watched series premiere on Disney+ the week it launched and the show was met with universal praise; critics loved the banter between Loki and Mobius M. Mobius (Wilson), the unique nature of its presentation and narrative, and the show’s focus on expanding the scope of the MCU beyond even the all-powerful Infinity Stones. While a second series is in development, the show’s fallout was established to have significant impact on the MCU’s fourth phase and immediate future thanks to establishing that time has been fractured and literally anything is now possible.

The Plot:
After stealing the Tesseract during the events of Avengers: Endgame (Russo and Russo, 2019), an alternate version of Loki is brought to the mysterious Time Variance Authority (TVA), a bureaucratic organisation that polices time. They give Loki a choice between being erased from existence due to being a “time variant” or helping to fix the timeline and stop a greater threat.

The Review:
It’s actually been pretty fun catching up with the 2021 Marvel Disney+ shows this year; I was a bit late getting to them because my television and service provider don’t carry the app, and it just isn’t the same watching on a smaller screen. Since it’s looking like we won’t get a home media release, this seems like as good a time as any to catch up with Loki since Thor: Love and Thunder (Waititi, 2022) releases tomorrow, though I will say that I wasn’t too excited at the prospect of Loki getting his own spin-off series. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the character, but his death in Avengers: Endgame seemed like a fitting end to his story and continuing one with his character like a decision geared more towards cashing in on Tom Hiddleston’s popularity more than anything else. As it turned out, though, Loki proved to be one of the most essential and important aspects of the MCU’s fourth phase thanks to it delving deep into the multiverse and exploring the scope of the time travel elements introduced in Avengers: Endgame that would become so important throughout subsequent MCU productions.

Loki is apprehended by the TVA and coerced into helping hunt down a dangerous variant of his.

Loki begins by reusing footage from Avengers: Endgame to remind viewers that an alternative version of Loki stole the Tesseract from the Avengers during their time heist, and goes on to show that he teleported to the Gobi Desert; however, his attempt to subjugate a group of Mongolians is interrupted by “Minutemen” from the TVA, who arrest Loki for “crimes against the Sacred Timeline”. Although he is a formidable opponent thanks to his Asgardian durability and powers of illusion and deception, Loki is completely baffled by the TVA, who are able to slow his personal perception of time to a crawl while still allowing him to feel pain in “real time” and “rewind” him whenever he tries to escape thanks to fitting him with a “Time Twister” collar. Confused and insulted at the bureaucratic and humiliating methods of his captors, Loki is nonetheless powerless to oppose them and forced to stand trial for his crimes when he’s brought before Judge Ravonna Renslayer (Mbatha-Raw) in what amounts to a kangaroo court. He’s given no representation, has little understanding of the crimes committed against him, and makes a good point that it was the Avengers who disrupted the timeline rather than him. However, his proposition to hunt them down as recompense for their actions is dismissed since they were “supposed” to travel through time, but he wasn’t meant to escape. Naturally, Loki finds this accusation ludicrous; after all, how was he supposed to know that he wasn’t meant to take advantage of that situation according to his nature? His requests to meet with the Time-Keepers are denied as their “busy” dictating the “proper flow” of the Sacred Timeline, and is found guilty of his crimes and sentenced to be “reset”, much to his outrage. However, he’s spared from this vague fate by the intervention of TVA analyst Mobius M. Mobius, who recruits Loki to help investigate a series of Minutemen killings across the Sacred Timeline perpetrated by a mysterious individual who has also been stealing the “reset charges” the Minutemen use to “reset the timeline” after a divergence. The somewhat jaded but nonetheless approachable Mobius interrogates Loki to get to the root of his selfish ambitions; Loki desires little more than to rule the Nine Realms and believes that all life is beneath him, and that only he has the power and wisdom to maintain order across reality. Mobius is disappointed that Loki wants to squander his vast potential on merely oppressing others and forces him to relive, through a movie projection, his subjectively-recent failure against the Avengers and the mischief he caused as D.B. Cooper. Loki rejects the notion that he’s not in control of his own actions or destiny, which he adamantly believes is to rule, but Mobius questions Loki’s violent and selfish ways as they’ve brought him nothing but failure and, to press this point, shows Loki the life that his mainline counterpart lived: in a harrowing moment, Loki’s devastated to view the footage of his selfishness resulting in his mother’ Frigga’s (Rene Russo) death.

Mobius is a loyal agent of the TVA, which polices the Sacred Timeline, but has a fondness for Loki.

Mobius confronts Loki with the truth: that he wasn’t born to rule, he was born to cause pain and suffering in order for others to be the best versions of themselves. Mobius admires Loki’s mischievousness and adaptability, but is adamant that he can provide much-needed insight into his investigation. The vast, brass-hued offices of the TVA headquarters exists outside of time and is where disruptive “variants” such as Loki are tried for their crimes. The interior merges out-dated technology and aesthetics with advanced time-altering devices and a reality-warping science-fiction exterior. The TVA is all about rules, regulations, paperwork, and bureaucracy; time “passes differently” there, so no one really knows how long they’ve been there, and no magic works there. The purpose of the TVA is explained to a baffled Loki by Miss Minutes (Tara Strong), the organisation’s chirpy and pretentious anthropomorphic cartoon mascot; a long time ago, a devastating multiversal war threatened to destroy all reality itself before the enigmatic Time-Keepers (voiced by Majors) amalgamated the infinitesimal separate timelines into the Sacred Timeline, and stood guard over it to keep time flowing in the proper order. When “variants” deviate from the Sacred Timeline, it creates a “Nexus Event” which could cause full-scale madness as the timeline splits into multiple branches and heads towards another multiversal war. Thus, the Time-Keepers created the TVA to maintain and police the Sacred Timeline, removing variants and setting the timeline back to normal; Loki is not only sceptical but finds the prospect of “three space lizards” deciding the fate of trillions of lives to be an absurdity. He sees the TVA as an illusion, a desperate attempt at controlling “the weak” by inspiring fear in others, but is convinced of their power after finding that the Infinity Stones are powerless there (which is a fun shorthand to show just how the TVA is far beyond anything we’ve seen in the MCU up until this point). Curious, he views more of his counterpart’s life and, over the course of an emotional and distressing sequence, sees all of the character progression the “prime” Loki went through, including grieving for his father, Odin Allfather (Anthony Hopkins), reuniting with his brother, Thor Odinson (Chris Hemsworth), and ultimately perishing at the hands of Thanos (Josh Brolin) to protect his brother and his fellow Asgardians. Having witnessed first-hand the potential for heroism and honour within him, Loki admits to Mobius that he doesn’t enjoy killing or hurting others; it’s just part of his own illusion to assert control of himself and others.

Hunter B-15 and Ravonna distrust Loki and question Mobius’ fascination with him even after learning the truth.

Since he can’t return to the timeline, Loki is intrigued to learn that Mobius’s target is another Loki variant who has been specifically targeting Minutemen, and he agrees to assist in the hopes of gaining an audience with the Time-Keepers. Neither Ravonna Renslayer or Hunter B-15 (Mosaku) approve of Loki’s involvement, seeing him as both a liability and an untrustworthy, insubordinate backstabber. Mobius, however, fully believes that Loki can provide unique insight into his counterpart’s thinking and methods and that anyone, even a Loki, is capable of change, despite this being directly against the Time-Keepers’ design. Ravonna is the only one in the TVA depicted as having met and communicated with the Time-Keepers, who are eventually revealed to be wizened, amphibious alien creatures who sit in a huge, foreboding stone chamber beneath the TVA and lord their presence and power by positioning themselves above all others. Ravonna is absolutely loyal to the Time-Keepers’ vision for stability and order; she enforces their will without question and, even when their true nature is revealed and she’s fully aware that she and everyone in the TVA (to say nothing of everyone ever) have been deceived and manipulated. She has a particular vendetta against Loki, whose variants have a reputation as troublemakers and has personally seen to it that many different versions of him have been “pruned” for violating the Time-Keepers’ laws. She has a close relationship with Mobius, one based on a shared belief in the TVA and on mutual respect; while he’s never met the Time-Keepers and is a little off put that she keeps trophies of his investigations in her office, it’s clear that they have a lot of faith in each other’s abilities, and she thus questions Mobius’s trust in Loki and the two even end up set against each other by the finale. After Ravonna literally stabs him in the back since she maintains that the TVA can’t have been for nothing, regardless of the truth, Mobius tries to appeal to her morals in an attempt to rebuild the TVA into something better to avoid stripping people of their free will, but she refuses and heads out to find her own purpose, clearly hurt that he threw away their friendship and mission in favour of Loki.

Sylvie is obsessed with bringing down the TVA and confronting whomever is behind ruining her life.

Still, Ravonna remains a vindictive, bureaucratic administrator; she had no qualms about arresting a female variant of Loki for “crimes against the Sacred Timeline” when she was just a little girl (Cailey Fleming) and guilty of little more than existing and playing with her toys. Although terrified, she swiped Ravonna’s TemPad and fled into the timestream, and Ravonna has been pursuing her ever since. Everywhere the variant went caused a Nexus Event as her timeline was erased and she wasn’t supposed to exist, so she found sanctuary at the ends of worlds and civilisations and, over time, grew to resent and hate the TVA for taking everything away from her. Renouncing the name Loki, she grew up to become Sylvie (Di Martino) and used the TVA’s own technology to hunt down their Minutemen and swipe their reset charges with the express purpose of “bombing” the Sacred Timeline and throwing the TVA into chaos. Unlike Loki, who relies on his daggers and illusions to combat and deceive others, Sylvie is adept at enchantment; through physical contact, she draws upon her victim’s memories to enthrall them with lifelike illusions. This power has the additional impact of revealing that Minutemen like Hunter B-15 and Hunter C-20 (Sasha Lane) (and, in fact, everyone at the TVA) are all variants who were plucked from their lives and turned into the Time-Keepers’ puppets. Although they are as condescending, narcissistic, and deceptive as each other, Sylvie is very different from her male counterpart; she’s more direct and brutal, for one thing, has a greater knowledge of the TVA and time travel, for another, and has a very different history thanks to Ravonna’s meddling. Not only was she aware of her true heritage from an early age, but she spent the majority of her life on the run from the TVA and thus wasn’t trained in magic by Frigga. Instead, she taught herself and, as a result, her powers and experiences are very different from Loki’s; like him, she is alone and finds it difficult to trust others, preferring to use and cast them aside as a means to an end, but she’s also become paranoid and self-reliant after a lifetime of running. Her goal is to infiltrate the TVA, tear it down from the inside out, and confront the Time-Keepers directly; a goal she succeeds at, only to learn that the Time-Keepers are merely mechanical constructs and part of a greater deception. Thus, she sets out to find the puppet master behind the Time-Keepers and is forced into an alliance with Loki to reach her goals.

In the ultimate narcissistic move, Loki falls for “himself” and throws the multiverse into chaos as a result.

Mobius knew that Loki wouldn’t be able to resist proving himself the superior of the two, but even he is astounded to discover that Loki has fallen for his female counterpart; although they are antagonistic with each other and constantly playing a game of one-upmanship against each other, especially in the early going, Loki and Sylvie are forced to rely on one another to survive. When trapped on Lamentis-1 and facing their imminent death, Loki delivers a rousing speech painting Sylvie as a survivor who was able to slip through the TVA’s fingers and almost single-handedly destroy their entire organisation and, when they hold hands and take solace in each other’s company, it causes a Nexus Event greater than anything the TVA have seen before. After being apprehended and subjected to a time loop where Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander) repeatedly beats and berates him, Loki lies to Mobius in order to protect Sylvie and is visibly hurt when his former friend lies about her demise and relieved to learn that she’s still alive. Sylvie is furious when she learns that the Time-Keepers are mere puppets, and equally devastated when Ravonna appears to erase Loki from existence right before her eyes just as he was about to admit his true feelings to her. Since pruned timelines and variants are impossible to completely destroy or reset, they’re transported to the “Void”, a post-apocalyptic wasteland filled with relics from deleted timelines (it even includes Thanos’ helicopter!) and home to Alioth, a massive cloud-like creature that hunts and consumes all life. When Sylvie learns of this, she transports herself there specifically to reunite with Loki and to push past the Void and to the man behind the TVA; this involves a significant risk as Sylvie proposes enchanting the monstrous Alioth. As this venture could cost them their lives, Loki and Sylvie share an intimate moment beforehand, one made more awkward by their inability to properly express, trust, or connect with others; Loki promises that, despite this chequered past, he has no intentions to betray her even if he gained his coveted throne and they promise to figure out where they go next once they’ve achieved their goal.

The Void is home to the monstrous Alioth and a whole slew of Loki variants.

Loki takes the concept of multiple timelines and really runs with it; in the MCU, divergent timelines are created due to time travel or going against the Sacred Timeline, and this can lead to completely new universes and new variations on characters and worlds forming. The TVA is made up of these variants, who have no memory of their previous lives, and is built on a series of rules that dictate how the timestream works: Minutemen can’t just travel to before an incident occurred since Nexus Events disrupt the time flow and can only be pruned in real time, and variants like Sylvie can effectively avoid detection by hiding out at the worst Nexus Events in history, such as cataclysmic events like the destruction of Pompeii. Reset timelines and pruned variants are sent to the Void to be consumed by Alioth, and Loki is stunned to find this hellscape populated by more of his variants: Kid Loki (Jack Veal), “Boastful” Loki (DeObia Oparei), Alligator Loki (Wally), and Richard E. Grant in a 100% comic-accurate costume as “Classic” Loki! The variants encourage Loki to focus on staying alive rather than trying to escape and take him to their underground shelter and share their Nexus Events: Kid Loki killed his version o Thor, Boastful Loki claims to have defeated all of the Avengers and taken the Infinity Stones for himself, Alligator Loki(who the Lokis are able to understand presumably telepathically, though we never hear his thoughts) ate the “wrong neighbour’s cat”, and Classic Loki used his magic to fool Thanos with an illusion and was arrested the moment he tried to leave his a self-imposed exile. Loki is dismayed to see all of his worst attributes on show: Boastful Loki betrays his comrades to President Loki (Hiddleston) and his rag-tag group of variants, who promptly turn on him and cause them to waste their energies in petty squabbles and fighting. Classic and Kid Loki lament their fate to constantly lie and cheat and betray each other, and to be doomed to the Void as the “God of Outcasts” whenever they try to change their nature, but Loki remains determined to kill Alioth and bring down the TVA.

Quite unexpectedly, Loki forges some real friendships and relationships but is constantly judged for his past deeds.

Despite his untrustworthy and deceptive nature, Loki forms a bond with Mobius that quickly develops into an unlikely friendship; a self-confessed fan of Loki’s, he fully believes that there’s more to the God of Mischief than the Sacred Timeline would suggest, and he’s personally hurt when Loki appears to have betrayed him and joined forces with Sylvie, a notorious killer. However, when he learns of Ravonna’s deception and the true nature of the TVA, he and Loki reach an understanding of trust and true friendship, only for Loki to be left devastated when Ravonna seemingly erases Mobius from existence in a scene that has more than a few visual, thematic, and emotional parallels to Loki’s murder of Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). Thankfully for Loki (and the audience), Mobius is merely transported to the Void, where he has an emotional reunion with Loki before sharing a heartfelt hug with his newfound friend and heading back to the TVA to “burn it to the ground”. Loki also finds allies in his Void variants; while they refuse to leave the Void since it’s now their home and find the idea of challenging Alioth laughable, Kid Loki gifts Loki with a blade and Classic Loki, moved by Loki’s plight and ambition, uses all of his powers to distract Alioth with a full-scale recreation of Asgard at the cost of his life. Of course, his greatest and most unpredictable ally is Sylvie; although they are united in their desire to confront the one behind the TVA and in rejecting the idea that they’re not in control of their destinies, Sylvie is absolutely obsessed with getting revenge for her stolen life and refuses to make any compromises. Thus, the two come to blows since Loki has managed to change his true nature but Sylvie is unable to let go of her past. Seeing his intervention as a betrayal, she fights him in the Citadel at the End of Time with all of the multiverse in the balance, but he repeatedly tries to reason with her; he doesn’t want to hurt her, or anyone else, and tries to convince her that the situation is bigger than either of them but she sees it another of his deceptions to achieve his “glorious purpose”. Although Loki believes that he’s gotten through to her and the two share a tender kiss, he’s devastated when she uses the TemPad to send him back to the TVA and has her revenge on the one responsible for her pain.

Unable to let go of her pain, Sylvie kills He Who Remains and seemingly dooms the multiverse to all-out war.

This would be the enigmatic “He Who Remains” (Majors), an eccentric man clearly driven mad by untold aeons of isolation and the pressure of presiding over all of time and space in the Citadel at the End of Time, a surreal cosmic wasteland devoid of life where time has no meaning. There, the Sacred Timeline exists as a perpetual stream of boundless energy, like a concentric ring of water surrounding the ancient, decrepit, cracked citadel. Upon arrival, Loki and Sylvie reject his offer to reinsert them into the Sacred Timeline in a non-disruptive way and allow Loki to reign over all of his universe with the Infinity Gauntlet and give Sylvie the happiness she desires. He Who Remains is said to see all, control all, and be all that is left at the beginning and the end of time; accordingly, he’s easily able to avoid Sylvie’s attempts to kill him using a pre-programmed TemPad since all of life, our decisions, actions, and words, is recorded in volumes of typed up pages, like a movie script, providing him cosmic awareness. Although they’re angered and insulted at the idea of one man dictating the course of their lives, and everyone else’s, he admires their tenacity and adaptability but fully believes that his deceptive methods, and the TVA, were necessary to protect the Sacred Timeline from multiversal war and his far less benevolent variants. He reveals that, long ago, his variants discovered the multiverse and came together in narcissistic and self-congratulatory peace. Soon, some of them saw it as an opportunity to conquer new worlds and all-out war broke out; contrary to the Time-Keeper dogma, He Who Remains explains that he found Alioth (a creature “created from all the tears in reality”), experimented on it, and harnessed its power to consume all of time and space end to the mutiversal war. He then isolated his timeline and set up the TVA to not only keep divergences from arising but also keep his evil variants from creating more explicitly “evil” havoc. He then offers Loki and Sylvie two choices: kill him and risk something worse taking his place or take over as the overseers of the Sacred Timeline to ensure stability. Naturally, Loki and Sylvie are incredulous, but his explanation is simple: he’s tired and far older than his appearance would suggest and desires someone young and eager to take on the burden. Unable to see past that point in the conversation, and with the timelines beginning to diverge, he’s genuinely excited to see what path they choose. Fully aware that, eventually, he will end up back there as always, He Who Remains doesn’t resist when Sylvie kills him, resulting not only in the Sacred Time to rapidly and uncontrollably splintering into an infinitesimal number of branches but Loki finding all memory of him has been erased and a variant of He Who Remains has replaced the Time-Keepers as the overseer of the TVA!

The Summary:   
I was pleasantly surprised by Loki; as mentioned, I had become a little burnt out by the character (even though I initially believed that Avengers: Endgame would end with the revelation that he was still alive and causing mischief in the universe) because of how often he crops up and how popular he is, but Tom Hiddleston absolutely kills it in the role and it’s a joy to see him given more time to shine in this show. Like the other Disney+ shows, Loki’s presentation is absolutely top-notch and on par with that of its silver screen cousins; I initially wasn’t a fan of the multi-font title, but the shifting fonts really sold the idea of there being countless variants of worlds and characters and I absolutely loved the anachronistic, nonsensical presentation of the TVA. Nothing there makes any sense as there’s outdated computers and naïve office workers existing side-by-side with reality-warping technology and futuristic gadgets, all of which makes it very surreal and visually interesting. Even the sight of Loki garbed in a mundane shirt and tie and going through files of paperwork to get a lead on Sylvie ties into the bizarre nature of the show; for all their power, omniscience, and ability, the TVA is still reduced to filing paperwork and going through the motions of bureaucracy as dictated by an unseen corporate overlord. While it was jarring to have “Lamentis” (Herron, 2021) set largely on a train mid-way through the season, this allowed for a fantastic introspective discussion of Loki and Sylvie’s nature, differences, and characters and the show more than made up for it with the spectacle of Lamentis-1’s impending doom, the many visual Easter Eggs to spot scattered around the Void, and the cosmic eccentricity of the Citadel at the End of Time.  

Loki is full of great, and surprisingly emotional, performances from all of its cast.

As mentioned, it’s the performances that really help Loki to shine; although Hiddleston is playing a different, far less humbled and heroic version of Loki (this Loki was literally leading an alien invasion of New York City and causing untold death and destruction for his own ends mere moments before he was arrested), the implication is explicitly made that Loki has always been this misguided and tortured character. His issues go far beyond being overlooked in favour of his brother or undervalued because of his true nature as a Frost Giant and instead tie into the show’s overall themes regarding destiny. Loki believes it is his right to rule, to subjugate others to his will, but admits that he has no real desire to hurt or kill others; it’s simply part of the nature and the illusion of being in control he is projecting. His relationship with Sylvie and the other variants helps him to see the ugly side of his true nature almost as much as the noble end to his mainline counterpart and he very quickly grows beyond his own selfish desires. However, despite his growth as a character, he’s continuously judged because of his past misdeeds and his reputation as a trickster; even those closest to him, such as Mobius, Sylvie, and the other Lokis, have difficulty trusting that he’s not just playing some larger endgame to seize power for himself and, in the end, he has to prove it by physically opposing the one person he’s grown to care about (who is, ironically, “himself”). I was also surprised to find that Owen Wilson was a standout addition to the cast; I’m no fan of his but he excelled in his role, projecting a friendly and affable demeanour while also being somewhat conflicted. He truly believes in the TVA’s mission but also believes in free will and people’s capacity for change; little things like his desire for a jet ski and his loyalty to Loki above even the TVA help to make him an enjoyable character and I really liked the rapport between him and Loki.

Loki’s experiences see him change from a selfish trickster to fighting to ensure the stability of the multiverse.

Mobius and the other variants help to tie into another of the show’s themes, that of destiny versus free will. Even Classic Loki finds it difficult to believe that a Loki could ever be more than a conniving, backstabbing traitor, and Mobius is driven to reveal the truth of the TVA to Hunter B-15 and all of the Minutemen simply because he believes it’s not their right to take free will away from anyone, regardless of the will of the Sacred Timeline. Loki actively and adamantly resists the notion that he’s not in control of his actions; he recognises power, for sure, but not that he’s some mere puppet, even when the truth is staring him in the face. However, his desire to be free from the TVA’s machinations become secondary to the fate of all reality when he learns that killing He Who Remains will result in rampant timelines and the coming of an even worse, far less reasonable threat. He battles Sylvie not because he desires to be lord of all space and time but because he feels it’s their responsibility to keep the timeline safe and that they can be far more benevolent overseers of the Sacred Timeline. When the first trailers for Loki came out, I was concerned that it was going to be a throwaway show depicting Loki popping up throughout time to cause mischief but, instead, Loki greatly expands upon the idea of time travel in the MCU, showing that this rather mundane-looking organisation routinely prunes and maintains the Sacred Timeline but also opening up the possibility of different actors playing different versions of these characters. This not only gave us the great Richard E. Grant as a comic-accurate Loki but also opens the door for potentially limitless stories to be told now that the multiverse has been broken as a result of Sylvie’s actions.

Despite having grown close, Loki is unable to keep Sylvie from splintering the timeline into infinite paths.

Sylvie presented a unique opportunity for Loki to see himself in a new light and to discover new things about himself; primarily, how alone he’s been and his capacity for love. The romance between the two is volatile and chaotic, but it’s what separates him (both of them) from all their other variants. It’s something that simply shouldn’t be, and gives them the power to overcome Alioth and, effectively, confront “God” face-to-face. However, Sylvie has spent too much time alone and her nature is to be distrustful of everyone, even “herself”, whereas Loki undergoes significant character growth to form a true friendship with Mobius and to actually care about the fate of all reality. He’s aghast when he learns that Mobius and the others are variants who’ve lost their worlds and lives and his desire to expose the TVA is motivated as much by his own rejection of their dogma as it is his wish to open their eyes to the truth. While the other Lokis are content to live out their lives in the Void, he has something worth fighting for: his friends and, more importantly, Sylvie. When they come to blows over He Who Remains, he constantly tries to talk sense into her, which shows just how far he’s come, and is heartbroken when she sends him back to the TVA and seals the fate of the multiverse. His first thought isn’t for himself but to warn Mobius of He Who Remains’ malevolent variants, only to discover that his friend has no memory of him and that he’s too late: a variant of He Who Remains has conquered the TVA and Loki may be the only one aware of what’s happened to the multiverse as a result of Sylvie being unable to see the bigger picture. This ends the show with Loki in a unique situation; before, everyone judged him as a deceptive trickster but, now, people will have no reason to trust him because they have no idea who he is!

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fantastic

Were you a fan of Loki? What did you think when the show was first announced? Did you enjoy seeing Tom Hiddleston take centre stage and what did you think to Loki’s character arc throughout this first season? Which of Loki’s variants was your favourite and what did you think to Sylvie and the romance between her and Loki? Were you surprised by the reveal of He Who Remains and what do you think will happen now that the Sacred Timeline has been disrupted? Are there any of the Loki variants you hope to see in the future? Feel free to sign up to drop your thoughts on Loki below, or leave a comment on my social media, and be sure pop back next Thursday (and next month) for more Asgardian content.

Screen Time [Captain Picard Day]: Star Trek: Picard (Season One)


As amusing detailed in the Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 to 1994) episode “The Pegasus” (Burton, 1994), the crew and children of the U.S.S. Enterprise-D celebrate “Captain Picard Day” on Stardate 47457.1, which roughly translates to this day, the 16th of June. They do this by producing drawings, models, and paintings that the bewildered Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) must then judge. I, however, am using this as another good excuse to delve into some more Picard and Next Generation content.


Season One

Air Date: 23 January 2020 to 26 March 2020
UK Distributor: Amazon Prime Video
Original Network: CBS All Access
Stars: Patrick Stewart, Isa Briones, Alison Pill, Michelle Hurd, Santiago Cabrera, Evan Evagora, Harry Treadaway, Jeri Ryan, and Brent Spiner

The Background:
After the lacklustre critical performance of Star Trek: Nemesis (Baird, 2002) scarpered plans for further films featuring the lauded cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 to 1994), the Star Trek franchise (1966 to present) moved on to other shows before being expertly rebooted with Star Trek (Abrams, 2009). Star Trek returned to the series’ roots while still paying homage to the rich history and lore of the franchise with its split timeline. While the franchise saw something of a resurgence following this that generally explored the early days of Star Trek lore, showrunner Alex Kurtzman pushed to revisit the character of Captain Jean-Luc Picard in the original timeline and, alongside writer/director Akiva Goldsman, were able to convince Stewart to return to his famous role with the strength of their pitch. Upon being released, Star Trek: Picard immediately set a new streaming record on CBS All Access and was met with largely positive reviews. The show’s dark vision of Star Trek’s future was met with praise, as was Stewart’s performance, though some took exception to the pacing of the show; still, overall, the first season proved successful enough to justify the production of two further seasons.

The Plot:
Twenty years after the events of Star Trek: Nemesis, Jean-Luc Picard, former admiral and captain of the U.S.S. EnterpriseE, has resigned from Starfleet and retired to an obscure life at his family vineyard. However, when the mysterious Dahj Asha (Briones) visits him seeking sanctuary, Picard is intrigued to find that she is an android created from the remains of Lieutenant Commander Data (Spiner) and drawn into a conspiracy to suppress all synthetic life.

The Review:
The season opens with Picard playing poker with Data on the Enterprise-D in an amusingly heart-warming scene that depicts two old friends engrossed in a friendly game; Picard is desperate for the game not to end but is woken from this dream by the violent destruction of Mars. Disturbed and haunted by this vision, Picard awakes on his vineyard in France where he lives in solitude with his faithful dog, Number One (Dinero) and a couple of Romulan aides, Laris (Orla Brady) and Zhaban (Jamie McShane), for company. They help prepare him for his first-ever sit-down interview to commemorate the day that Romulus was destroyed by a supernova (as seen in Star Trek), an event that he was tragically unable to prevent. When the interviewer calls into question his efforts to aid one the Federation’s most lethal enemies, and the subsequent actions of a rogue group of synthetics in destroying Mars, Picard defends his motivations to save lives and vehemently opposing the ban on synthetics, and adamantly condemns Starfleet’s dishonourable actions during both events. Meanwhile, in Boston, the gorgeous Dahj is suddenly attacked by insurgents who attempt to kidnap her and end up absolutely decimated when she showcases superhuman strength and speed. Confused, scared, and hurt, Dahj is suddenly bombarded by visions of Picard following this incident and, after seeing Picard’s emotional outburst while walking the streets, Dahj seeks him out and desperately asks for his help.

Picard is devastated when Dahj is killed but quickly learns that she has a twin sister out in the galaxy.

Sympathetic to her plight, Picard is intrigued by her visions and familiarity with him and immediately takes her in and cares for her, exuding a grandfatherly warmth towards her. Picard’s visions of Data lead him to his archives at Starfleet and the discovery that Dahj is his (as in Data’s) “daughter”; Dahj is overwhelmed by this as androids have been vilified over the last twenty years and she is frightened at the prospect of being a synthetic, but Picard reassures her that her “father”, Data, was one of the most courageous and human men he ever knew and vows to protect her and guide her towards the truth. Dahj’s pursuers are revealed to be Romulans and soon track them down; though she viciously attacks them, she is immolated when one of them spits corrosive blood on her and causes her to explode. Heartbroken and distraught, Picard laments his wasted years sitting in solitude and vows to get to the root of Dahj’s origins; to that end, he visits Doctor Agnes Jurati (Pill) at the Daystrom Institute, who explains that Dahj was the result of an experiment by her colleague, Doctor Bruce Maddox (John Ales), to create synthetic lifeforms in organic bodies from the remains of Data’s neural pathways using “fractal neuronic cloning”, which was summarily shut down after androids produced by the Daystrom Institute caused massive devastation on Mars that saw the creation of synthetics forbidden.

Soji works as part of a groundbreaking project to bring relief and help to former Borg drones.

This information leads Picard to discovering that Bahj was one of a pair and he begins to formulate a plan to track down her “sister”, Soji Asha (Briones), Dahj’s exact duplicate, who works in a Borg Cube (referred to as the “Artifact”) that has been reclaimed by Romulan refugees. Unlike Dahj, who was a frightened and confused girl, Soji is a lot more mischievous and confident, though she has a real empathy towards the deceased drones (derogatorily referred to by others as “The Nameless”) within the Cube. An inherently trusting individual, Soji forms a relationship with Narek (Harry Treadaway) and the two of them assist with the Romulan’s efforts to harvest and remove the Borg’s cybernetic technology from the Artifact and the drones. When her dedication and empathy attracts the attention of the Borg Reclamation Project’s director, Hugh (Jonathan Del Arco), she is given the opportunity to interview Ramdha (Rebecca Wisocky), a Romulan girl who has also been freed from the Borg, in an attempt to construct a shared mythical framework as a therapeutic tool for the reclaimed Borg. However, Ramdha becomes distressed during this session and tries to kill herself while claiming that Soji is “The Destroyer”, which greatly disturbs Soji and leads her to discovering her true nature. Meanwhile, Picard is told by his old friend, Doctor Moritz Benayoun (David Paymer), that he is suffering from a terminal illness; though clearly moved by the news of his impending death, Picard remains resolute to track down Soji to protect her from the clandestine “Zhat Vahs” organisation (a group of Romulan fanatics who hate all forms of synthetic life) and get to the bottom of the recent events in his life. However, his newfound mission is obstructed by Admiral Kirsten Clancy (Ann Magnuson), who vehemently refuses to give him a starship after being angered at his comments in his interview and his comments about the state of Starfleet.

After recruiting the warrior Elnor, Picard’s crew of misfits is assembled and ready to go.

Undeterred, Picard pays a visit to his former first officer, Rafaella “Raffi” Musiker (Hurd). Jaded, bitter, and resentful of Picard, she initially adamantly refuses to get involved after he walked away from her and refused to support her in the intervening years but, does, reluctantly, research his story and gives him the name of a freelance pilot: Cristobal “Chris” Rios (Santiago Cabrera). Rios, a rogue who holds a resentment towards Starfleet due to the horrific losses he suffered while serving in the Federation, is eventually persuaded to assist Picard by both the promise of profit and by the many holograms (also Cabrera) that make up his crew. After saving Picard from an attack by the Zhat Vahs, Jurati joins Picard’s crusade on Rios’s ship, La Sirena, though she initially has some trouble acclimatising to the monotony of space travel. Picard is also overjoyed when Raffi decides to come along on the mission, which first takes the ship to the planet Vashti to recruit a young Romulan warrior, Elnor (Evan Evagora), to join their misfit team. Despite having relocated millions of Romulan refugees to Vashti in the past, Picard is disturbed at the civil and societal unrest on the planet, to say the least, and Elnor, resentful at being abandoned by Picard as a child, initially refuses to “bind his sword” to Picard’s cause. However, when Picard’s presence inspires anger and bitterness in a group of Romulans who resent the Federation for deserting them to their fate, Elnor doesn’t hesitate to defend him with brutal efficiency and joins his crew since the mission promises to be a lost cause worthy of his blade. Picard, however, is incensed at Elnor’s use of lethal action and demands that he promises only to act when Picard gives the order. A strange combination of Lieutenant Commander Worf (Michael Dorn) and Mister Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Elnor’s social awkwardness and naivety are used for some comedic relief and offset by the cold, brutal efficiency of his combat skills.

The Zhat Vahs are determined to eradicate synthetic lifeforms by any means necessary.

Their journey also causes them to cross paths with Seven of Nine (Ryan), a former Borg drone who was once part of the crew of Voyager and now operates as a “Fenris Ranger”, something of a bounty hunter, who leads them to the neon-and-hologram-drenched world of Freecloud, where Maddox is being held by a black market dealer, Bjayzl (Necar Zadegan). Seven uses herself as bait to get close enough to Bjayzl to kill her to avenge Icheb (Manu Intiraymi), another former drone who was basically Seven’s surrogate son and whom Bjayzl ripped apart for his Borg implants after betraying her. At the same time, Raffi attempts to reconnect with her estranged son, Gabriel “Gabe” Hwang (Mason Gooding), who is also on Freecloud; however, Gabe is unable to forgive Raffi for her abandonment and obsession with the conspiracy against the synthetics and refuses to forgive her or to entertain her desire to make amends, so she returns to La Sirena heartbroken, turning to drink and substances to numb her pain. Seven parts ways with the crew amicably and gives Picard the means to contact her but, when they finally get Maddox to safety, he is murdered by his lover, Jurati, in an action that leaves her devastated by complex feelings of grief and regret. Struggling after killing her lover, Jurati begins a physical relationship with Rios and it is eventually revealed that she was manipulated by the half-Romulan Commodore Oh (Tamlyn Tomita), Starfleet’s security chief, who is a member of the Zhat Vahs and in league with Narissa (Peyton List) to hunt down the androids as part of a prophecy the Romulans discovered that foretold of a future where synthetics are the dominant lifeform and have destroying all organic life. In a bid to stop this future from coming to pass, Oh terrified Jurati with visions of this future and her Zhat Vahs allies, Narissa and Narek, work to locate the synthetic’s homeworld of Coppelius through manipulation and brute force. Narek seduces and deceives Soji into uncovering the planet’s location while Narissa brutally slaughters Hugh’s deassimilated drones aboard the Artifact.

Picard reunites with Riker and Troi and Soji bonds with their daughter, Kestra.

Relentlessly hunted by these forces, Picard and Soji escape to Nepenthe for sanctuary at the home of his old friends and crew mates, former Captain William Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Commander Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis); Troi immediately senses Picard’s illness using her empathetic abilities and, upon embracing Picard, Riker activates the defence measures of their quaint little home and offers him sanctuary without question. Unquestionably loyal to Picard, Riker and Troi have lived with the grief of the death of their son, Thad, who was denied a lifesaving procedure because of the Federation’s ban on synthetics. Confused and hurt by the recent revelations in her life, Narek’s betrayal has left Soji broken and traumatised; feeling that everyone is lying to or using her, even through acts of kindness, she struggles with an existential crisis because her trusting nature has led to her being deceived and manipulated despite her forming forming a fast bond with Kestra Troi-Riker (Lulu Wilson), a quirky and likeable young girl playing the role of a wild maiden of the woods while with Soji. Though fearing for the safety of Kestra, Riker and Troi shelter him and Soji until La Sirena arrives to pick them up; Riker is intuitive enough to figure out that Picard is on the run from Romulans and desperate to protect Soji, who he instantly recognises as being Data’s progeny, and Deanna admonishes Picard for not recognising Soji’s pain and encourages him to be his true, compassionate self in order to earn her trust. Still, Soji’s presence causes Rios to suffer a sudden panic attack because she resembles a girl he travelled with during a traumatic mission that saw his beloved captain kill two people being committing suicide, an act that scarred Rios. However, Raffi puts together that these were actually synthetics and the crew head to Coppelius to protect her home and her family (her fellow androids) from the Zhat Vahs.

Picard is finally able to say goodbye to Data and then awakens in a renewed synthetic body.

Upon arriving, however, they find a colony of synthetics living in peace with Altan Inigo Soong (Spiner), the son of Data’s creator and Maddox’s partner, who guilt-trips Jurati for killing Maddox and offers her the chance at redemption to help him complete his work on transferring an organic mind to a synthetic body. Another of Soji’s duplicates, Sutra, manipulates her (and the other synthetics) into constructing a beacon to summon mysterious, Lovecraftian synthetic beings to eliminate all organic life before they can destroy them and Picard is forced to battle against his failing health and overwhelming odds before Riker arrives with the Federation armada and he (as in Picard) is able to finally convince Soji to shut down the beacon. Sadly, Picard’s ailment overcomes him and he dies peacefully while surrounded by his newfound friends. Thanks to Jurati and Soong’s work, however, Picard’s consciousness is salvaged and maintained in a “massively complex quantum simulation”, where he’s finally given the chance to properly say goodbye to Data (whose consciousness still lingers thanks to the efforts of Maddox and Soong and who requests that Picard shut him down for good) before awakening in his own synthetic body. Given a second chance at life in an artificial body that functions exactly like a human one rather than making him augmented or immortal, Picard fulfils Data’s last request (terminating the last strings of his consciousness to finally allow him to “die”); the Federation finally lifts the ban on synthetics and Picard returns to La Sirena with his new crew to continue his journey throughout the galaxy.

The Summary:
Star Trek: Picard is very different from other iterations of Star Trek that I have ever seen; returning to the original timeline is a breath of fresh air after all this time spent lingering on exploring and reinterpreting the events of the Original Series (1966 to 1969) and it’s pretty fantastic to see what happened post-Star Trek. This is, however, a vastly different world than we remember; normally, the Federation is all about peace and tolerance but, here, they’ve kind of lost their way a bit. Picard resigns as a last-ditch effort to try to convince them to aid the Romulan evacuation and they refuse, which seems incredibly out of character for them, and then they foster widespread xenophobia towards synthetics after the events on Mars rather than properly investigating it. You can tell that the world has taken a sudden shift away from the usual utopian depiction because Star Trek: Picard features an alarming amount of casual swearing; words like “shit”, “asshole”, “bullshit”, “fuck”, and “fucking” are dropped all over the place and even Picard says the phrase “pissing me off” at one point. I’m not sure I really appreciate that; I think maybe it would’ve been better to just have characters like Rios use curse words but, instead, everyone, even Starfleet admirals, toss out the “fucks” like nobody’s business.

Picard’s story is one of atonement and he finds a cause worth living, and dying, for.

Still, this is very much Picard’s story and his return to action; having walked away from the galaxy for some twenty years, Picard is haunted by his mistakes but jumps at the chance to do some good once again in an effort to atone for his past. Picard’s mental state is often called into question; characters comment on his seemingly irrational actions and suggest, more than once, that he is suffering from dementia or insanity. While he is suffering from a terminal illness of the brain throughout the season, he remains steadfast in his vow to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding the Asha androids. Stubborn and fully believing that his actions are both just and noble, he uses his vaulted charisma and diplomatic abilities to sway even the most hardened rogues to his cause; even those like Raffi and Elnor, who have every reason to refuse to assist Picard, are convinced to aid him due to his reputation and conviction. Interactions with Soji help give Picard a measure of closure when she reveals that Data loved him and his relationship with her (and Dahj and many of the other new characters) is very similar to that of a father to a daughter; his desire to protect her and to make amends for walking away from his responsibilities is the driving force of his character and informs all of his actions and, in the process, he finds not only a reason to live once more but also to die.

Some familiar faces from the past show up radically changed in Picard.

Star Trek: Picard also sees the return of many other familiar faces in supporting roles to aid Picard on his quest; while it’s disappointing that B-4 was just scrapped and tossed aside rather than exploring the potential for Data to live on through his younger “brother”, it was great to see Data return as a figment of Picard’s imagination, a spiritual guide of sorts to hint at the events of the season, but his presence and legacy are very much at the heart of the story thanks to Dahj and Soji and the controversy surrounding synthetic life. Similarly, I enjoyed seeing the return of Riker, Troi, and Seven after all these years; older and very different from the last time we saw them, many of the characters have become hardened, jaded personalities. Only Riker and Troi are content to step away from the drama of space action and exploration to focus on their family life and truly seem content and happy for it; to be fair, Picard attempted this but, by his own admission, was simply hiding from the wider galaxy. Seven is a much different character than we last saw in Voyager; a rogue vigilante of sorts, she has carved a reputation for herself as notorious Ranger and seems to have settled into the life of a wanderer while still trying to avoid killing in cold blood. Riker and Troi, though, are perfectly happy living their idyllic family life; despite the grief at the loss of their son, they’re dedicated to keeping Kestra safe and take precautions to safeguard their home but, when Picard arrives, aid him without question out of their loyalty and friendship to him and Riker doesn’t hesitate to assist him in the finale.

Picard’s new crew is made up of some interesting characters, though some had unexplored potential.

Picard is also supported by a whole crew of entirely new characters. Obviously his fatherly relationship with Soji is a primary focus of the season but he has an interesting relationship with the rest of La Sirena’s crew: Raffi’s faith in Picard is shaken and she is carrying a lot of emotional baggage from the fallout of her previous relationship with him; Rios’ loyalty is often in doubt because of him having a resentment towards Starfleet; Jurati seems trustworthy and turns out to have been manipulated by Oh; and while Elnor seems to almost be a surrogate son to Picard, this isn’t really developed or focused on all that much and I feel his potential as a character was a bit wasted. A lot of this comes to a head in the final two episodes where many of these supporting characters take a backseat to the larger focus on Picard’s end and his relationship with Soji, which makes sense given that those are two pivotal aspects of the season, but it is a bit of a shame that there wasn’t a bit more for them to do in the end (though it was great to see them end the season as a full functioning unit rather than strangers forced to work together).

Enemies both deceptive, radical, and domestic dog Picard and his crew throughout the season.

Finally, there’s the season’s antagonists; Narissa and Narek are an interesting brother/sister who have complex relationships with many of the main characters. Narek’s choice to use seduction and deception to trick Soji and betray her trust makes him quite the reprehensible, slimy asshole but he actually ends up joining forces with the protagonists for the finale to stop the common threat posed by Sutra. Narissa, however, is a bad piece of work through and through; directly responsible for the death of a beloved Star Trek character, Narissa has no redeemable qualities at all and, like Bjayzl, fully deserved to be executed for her reprehensible actions. The main antagonistic race for the season is, of course, a contingent of Romulans but the officious and out of character nature of Starfleet also causes headaches for the main characters, to say nothing of the synths, who are easily swayed into conjuring God-knows-what to pre-emptively strike back at organics. There’s a lot happening and a lot of subterfuge at work in Star Trek: Picard but I was, for the most part, intrigued by the complexities of the villains and the Zhat Vash organisation and I’m interested to see where future seasons take the prophecy concept.

My Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Pretty Good

What did you think to the first season of Star Trek: Picard? Were you happy to see Patrick Stewart return to his iconic role and to finally return to the original Star Trek timeline or did the plot, swearing, and dark turn of the world put you off? Which of the returning and original characters was your favourite? What did you think to the prophecy regarding a nightmarish future for the characters? What other Star Trek characters would you like to see get their own spin-off? How are you celebrating Captain Picard Day this year? Whatever your thoughts on Star Trek: Picard, let me know in the comments down below.

Screen Time [Multiverse Madness]: What If…? (Season One)


In September 1961, DC Comics published “Flash of Two Worlds” (Fox, et al), a landmark story that brought together two generations of the Flash: the Golden Age Jay Garrick and the Silver Age Barry Allen thanks to the concept of the multiverse, an infinite number of parallel universes that allowed any and all stories and characters to co-exist and interact. Marvel Comics would also adopt this concept and, to celebrate the release of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (Raimi, 2022) this month, I’ve been both celebrating the Master of the Mystic Arts and exploring the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) equivalent of the multiverse every Sunday of May.


Air Date: 11 August 2021 to 6 October 2021
Network: Disney+
Stars: Hayley Atwell, Chadwick Boseman, Samuel L. Jackson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Ruffalo, Michael B. Jordan, Chris Hemsworth, Ross Marquand, and Jeffrey Wright

The Background:
As a big comic book fan, it’s been absolutely amazing seeing the MCU become a multimedia juggernaut and some of Marvel Comics’ most beloved characters and concepts come to life on screen. Although Marvel Studios dabbled in television ventures with the likes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013 to 2020) and their Netflix shows, they really doubled down on TV productions for the MCU’s fourth phase to produce content for their parent company’s streaming service, Disney+. With MCU head honcho Kevin Feige behind them, the Disney+ shows aimed to maintain and expand the ongoing continuity of the MCU, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted that Marvel Studios would delve so deeply into the multiverse that we’d seen an adaptation of What If…? What If…? began life as a semi-consistent series of hypothetical, often light-hearted (or downright dark), stories that presented Marvel heroes and storylines with subtle (or major) changes. The Disney+ show followed this format and recontextualised the premise as an animated anthology series that would explore what the MCU would be like if characters or events had unfolded differently. The show’s animation was headed by Stephan Franck and sported a cel-shaded design that emphasised hyper-realism; as the MCU was officially exploring the concept of the multiverse, episodes could be part of the franchise’s overall canon and many recognisable faces, names, and voices returned to put a new spin on their iconic roles; however, although voice recording was able to continue remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, this production sadly marked the final performance of the late Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa/Black Panther. What If…? was received extremely well and the series was praised as a love-letter to the fans; despite some reservations about the format and presentation, reviews were primarily positive and spin-offs were quickly announced as either being in production or on the cards. Crucially, the multiversal scope of the series would be revisited in the live-action MCU films and characters and concepts from the show even seem set to cross over into the main MCU canon going forward.

The Plot:
From beyond the multiverse, the cosmic being known as Uatu the Watcher (Wright) observes as the events of the MCU unfold differently, resulting in Peggy Carter (Atwell) becoming Captain Carter, Doctor Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) becoming a force for evil, a zombie infection running rampant, and T’Challa (Boseman) becoming Star-Lord. However, when a version of Ultron (Marquand) acquires the Infinity Stones and threatens the entire multiverse, the Watcher must break his oath of non-interference to assemble a heroic force capable of fending off this threat.

The Review:
Because of the nature of the series, I think it’d be much better to look at each individual episode, what they do and how they work by themselves, and then talk about some overall themes and give my opinion on the entire concept down in the summary. The first season of What If…? is a nine-episode series of animated adventures that examine familiar characters and events in the MCU but change things about in subtle, or major, ways to create entirely new stories as part of the MCU multiverse. These alternate realities are observed by the enigmatic Watcher, a cosmic being bound only to observe and never directly interfere, and who acts as the narrator of the show. The Watcher’s opening narration explains the basics of the multiverse; as we were told in Avengers: Endgame (Russo and Russo, 2019), time and reality in the MCU is not a single, linear, fixed path. Instead, multiple timelines and alternate universes exist, with the deviations occurring from different decisions being made at key moments in time, however big or small. In this regard, time is less like a line and more like a river, with an infinite number of paths trailing off all over the place, and the Watcher acts as our impassive guide to this vast multiverse. The Watcher also serves as our narrator, quickly catching us up on the events preceding the episode and explaining when, where, and how each divergent timeline was created; however, he has taken a solemn vow to never interfere in the events he witnesses, no matter how gruesome or extreme they are.

Peggy takes Steve’s place and is forced to make the ultimate sacrifice to stop Hydra’s interdimensional beast.

The series kicks off with “What If…Captain Carter Were the First Avenger?” (Andrews, 2021), essentially a retelling of Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston, 2011). Unlike in the original timeline, Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR) Agent Peggy Carter chooses to stay and watch on the ground as skinny, ill-bodied Private Steve Rogers (Josh Keaton) prepares to become a super soldier. However, when the Nazi sleeper agent attacks the experiment this time around, Peggy manages to keep him from escaping with a sample of the serum but Steve is wounded, so Peggy ignores the orders of her commanding officer, John Flynn (Bradley Whitford), and voluntarily becomes enhanced to the peak of human physical conditioning before the experiment is lost forever. Promoted to head of the SSR, Flynn is outraged at the result; disgusted that the super soldier serum was wasted on a woman, he refuses to allow Peggy to actively participate in the war, much less on the front line, out of sheer prejudice, much to her chagrin and fury. As before, Hydra figurehead Johann Schmidt/The Red Skull (Marquand) seeks to usurp Adolf Hitler and claim victory for himself with the mysterious and all-powerful Tesseract. Flynn, however, is unimpressed by the threat and unwilling to risk even one man, let alone an entire platoon, on recovering the cube; luckily, inventor Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) believes so strongly in the Tesseract’s threat that he furnishes Peggy with a striking Union Jack-style costume and a familiar Vibranium shield so that she can single-handedly recover the Tesseract from Schmidt’s Hydra colleague, Doctor Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), decimating an entire convoy of Hydra’s soldiers with efficiency and glee and earning herself an official promotion to “Captain Carter”. Although he lost his best shot at fighting alongside his friend, Sergeant James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Steve is fully supportive of Peggy’s newfound strength and abilities and only too glad to pilot Stark’s Tesseract-powered “Hydra Stomper” armour. However, following an action-packed montage, Steve is apparently lost during a familiar assault on an armoured train; though grief-stricken, Peggy forces information out of Zola and leads an all-out assault against the Red Skull’s fortress, where they find Steve alive but are too late to stop the Red Skull from opening a dimensional rift with the Tesseract. The tentacles of a gigantic, interdimensional, Lovecraftian creature breach the portal, killing Schmidt and threatening all life on Earth; Peggy and Steve fend off the beast as Stark tries to shut down the portal, but Captain Carter is forced to sacrifice herself to the unknown by physically forcing the creature through the rift. The story then skips ahead to find the Tesseract being reactivated, spitting Peggy and the remains of the beast’s tentacles out into a Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.) facility where she meets Director Nick Fury (Jackson) and Agent Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and learns the bittersweet news that the Allied Forces won the war but she is now seventy years in the future, and thus forever cut off from her friends and loved ones.

T’Challa is a galaxy-renowned force for good who has a positive influence on even the Mad Titan himself!

While the first episode arguably played things a little safe, we really see the potential of a What If…? series with the second episode, “What If…T’Challa Became a Star-Lord?” (Andrews, 2021), which wildly deviates from the story of Guardians of the Galaxy (Gunn, 2014). Young T’Challa (Maddix Robinson) longed to explore beyond Wakanda but was shielded from the chaotic outside world by his beloved and overprotective father, T’Chaka (John Kani), only to be abducted due to a mistake by Yondu Udonta’s (Michael Rooker) subordinates. Surprisingly, he was excited at embarking on adventures throughout the cosmos with the Ravagers and, while T’Challa doesn’t possess the Black Panther’s near-superhuman abilities, he sports all of Peter Quill’s (Brian T. Delaney) gadgets in addition to his Wakandan fighting prowess. His greatest assets, however, are his charisma, diplomacy, and reputation as a Robin Hood-type figure. Indeed, T’Challa is far more competent, notorious, and respected than his mainstream MCU counterpart; not only does Korath the Pursuer (Djimon Hounsou) know who he is, he views sparring with Star-Lord as the greatest honour and willingly joins his crew. T’Challa’s positive influence means the Ravagers put their skills towards helping others rather than for personal reward, thus sparing Drax the Destroyer’s (Fred Tatasciore) family and even convincing Thanos (Josh Brolin) that his destructive aspirations weren’t the answer to the galaxy’s problems! Touched by T’Challa’s mission to save others after the presumed destruction of Wakanda, Nebula (Karen Gillan), now a far less violent and far more beautiful woman, proposes a heist to steal the Embers of Genesis, a cosmic dust capable of ending galactic hunger, from Taneleer Tivan/The Collector (Benicio del Toro). While sneaking around the Collector’s museum, T’Challa finds a Wakandan spacecraft and is angered to find that Yondu lied to him about Wakanda in order to help him realise his true calling as an adventurer. The two reconcile in the best way possible: by teaming up to fight with this much more formidable version of the Collector, who is enhanced by weapons, technology, and items retrieved from some of the MCU’s most powerful and prominent individuals and races. Thanks to their teamwork, the Collector is disarmed and left at the mercy of his captives, and T’Challa forgives Yondu’s deception before reuniting with T’Chaka and his people in Wakanda, bringing his two families together in celebration over their mutual friend. Across the world, however, a greater threat awaits when Ego (Kurt Russell) comes looking for his son, here a mere Dairy Queen employee.

Pym is revealed as the culprit but, after taking him into custody, Loki usurps his threat and conquers the world!

“What If…the World Lost Its Mightiest Heroes?” (Andrews, 2021) takes us back to the middle of Iron Man 2 (Favreau, 2010) and Nick Fury and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow’s (Lake Bell) latest effort to recruit Tony Stark/Iron Man (Mick Wingert) to the Avengers Initiative. Fury is horrified when his attempt to stave off Stark’s palladium poisoning apparently has the unexpected side effect of killing the would-be Avenger; this tragedy is quickly followed by Thor Odinson (Hemsworth) being accidentally killed by Hawkeye’s errant arrow and the archer later being found dead while locked in an impenetrable S.H.I.E.L.D. cell. Fury suspects that his recruits are being targeted by an unknown party, and charges Natasha to escape Brock Rumlow’s (Frank Grillo) custody and make contact with Doctor Betty Ross (Stephanie Panisello). Though initially distrustful of Natasha due to her association with those who’ve hounded her friend, colleague, and former lover, Doctor Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Ruffalo), Betty is convinced to take a closer look at the injector used on Stark and theorises that a microscopic projectile fired from the needle killed the superhero. Hungry for blood after learning of Hawkeye’s death, Natasha agrees with Fury’s theory that their killer is targeting Avengers recruits; unfortunately, General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (Mike McGill) arrives looking to arrest Banner and sparks his transformation into the rampaging Hulk as in his solo film. However, the seemingly immortal Green Goliath also falls victim to the mysterious killer when he violently explodes from the inside out, and things escalate even further when Loki Laufeyson (Tom Hiddleston) arrives looking to avenge Thor’s death. Fury manages to buy himself one day to solve Thor’s murder on the promise of delivering the culprit to the God of Mischief and, when Natasha finds that a dead agent’s credentials were used to access S.H.I.E.L.D.’s database, she’s brutally beaten to death by an unseen assailant, and only able to tell Fury that all the deaths are relating to “hope”. This, however, is enough to piece together the perpetrator’s true identity: Doctor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), who targeted Fury’s recruits in the guise of the size-altering Yellowjacket after his daughter, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), died while working for S.H.I.E.L.D. A broken, bitter, twisted old man, Pym blames Fury and has become a deranged killer due to his grief and anger. However, Pym and his tech are outmatched when Fury is revealed to be Loki in disguise but, after Pym is defeated and taken into Asgardian custody, Loki double-crosses Fury and declares himself ruler of humanity. To combat this threat, Fury gets back to work assembling his super team, starting with calling Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Alexandra Daniels) back to Earth and uncovering Captain America’s frozen body.

A grief-stricken Dr. Strange finds he cannot save his love no matter how many times he tries to alter the past.

The show shifts over to the world of magic and mysticism for “What If…Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?” (Andrews, 2021), which presents a world where Dr. Strange and Doctor Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) are still a couple in a loving relationship. Fully supportive and enamoured by Dr. Strange, Christine encourages his ego and his skills as a surgeon, but sadly her influence doesn’t extend to his driving skills. However, in this world, Dr. Strange is relatively unharmed from the car crash that took his MCU counterpart’s hands but is left grief-stricken when Christine dies as a result of his negligence. In a bid to fill the void in his life, and his heart, Strange travels the world and, once again, ends up studying the mystic arts at Kamar-Taj under the tutelage of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Like his mainstream counterpart, Strange becomes the Master of the Mystic Arts after the Ancient One’s death and successfully bargains with the Dread Dormammu (Cumberbatch), but remains preoccupied with the mistakes of his past and the promises offered by the Eye of Agamotto’s time-bending abilities. Haunted by memories of happier times with Christine, Strange ignores the warnings of the Ancient One and his manservant, Wong (Benedict Wong), and uses the Eye to place his current consciousness into the body of his past self. Unfortunately, the tragedy still occurs no matter how safely he drives, which route he takes, or even his refusal to go to the award speech as Christine dies again and again whether he’s there or what he does. Dr. Strange’s anguish at being unable to save Christine isn’t helped by the Ancient One’s explanation that her death cannot be averted as it would create a potentially universe-destroying time paradox (if Strange prevents her death, he won’t become a sorcerer and be able to go back and save her).

Strange Supreme saves Christine, but only briefly and at the cost everything that ever is or was in his reality.

Refusing to believe that Christine is fated to die, and angered at the Ancient One’s refusal to help him break this “absolute point” in time, Dr. Strange uses the Eye to flee from the confrontation and consult the ancient tomes of the Lost Library of Cagliostro. There, he meets O’Bengh (Ike Amadi) and learns that one can potentially gain the power he requires by absorbing magical beings; thus, Dr. Strange conjures a variety of demonic, Lovecraftian, and magical creatures (including gnomes, familiars, dragons, and even the octopus-like creature Captain Carter fought). When they won’t willingly share their power, he resolves to forcibly take it, and quickly becomes obsessed with gaining more and more magical power from these entities over the course of centauries to become “Strange Supreme”. As he does so, he grows increasingly monstrous and takes on more of their attributes, but is shocked to learn from O’Bengh that he’ll never be powerful enough to achieve his dreams due to the Ancient One using magic from the Dark Dimension to split him in two and create two concurrent timelines. His other half, who took Wong’s advice and moved on from Christine’s death, is charged by an echo of the Ancient One to oppose his dark doppelgänger before his ambition erases all of reality. When Strange Supreme’s attempts to coerce his other half into joining his cause are rejected, a magical battle ensues that spans multiple dimensions. Despite Wong’s protective spells and Strange’s efforts to talk down his dark half, Strange Supreme’s centauries of basking in the powers of countless magical beings makes him the superior and he’s ultimately able to absorb his missing half. Finally whole again, Strange Supreme succeeds in undoing Christine’s death but is transformed into a demonic being by the effort this requires; understandably, she is horrified by his nightmarish appearance, and he’s left helpless to stop the time paradox from devouring all of his reality. Desperate to preserve the world, he begs the Watcher for help but he refuses to get involved, despite wishing to punish Strange Supreme’s reckless arrogance, and the once Sorcerer Supreme is left alone, despondent, and remorseful in the tiniest pocket of reality with nothing but his grief and regret for company.

Banner is horrified to find the world, and many of its heroes, infected by a zombie virus.

One popular, recurring storyline in Marvel Comics in recent years has been the Marvel Zombies spin-off (Various, 2005 to present) that tells of a devastating zombie plague overwhelming the Marvel universe (and beyond). A version of this reality is explored in “What If…Zombies?!” (Andrews, 2021), which finds the Hulk crash-landing into the Sanctum Sanctorum as in Avengers: Infinity War (Russo and Russo, 2018) only to find it, and the streets of New York City, deserted. When Iron Man, Dr. Strange, and Wong arrive to take care of Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) and Cull Obsidian (Terry Notary), Banner’s elation soon turns to horror when the three are revealed to be vicious, flesh-eating zombies who tear Thanos’s children to shreds, instantly infecting them in the process, and Banner is only saved from the same fate thanks to the timely intervention of Dr. Strange’s Cloak of Levitation, a swarm of ants commanded by Hope van Dyne/The Wasp, and Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Hudson Thames). Spider-Man’s amusing orientation video shows that the MCU’s zombies largely confirm to the “rules” commonly associated with their kind; they’re decomposing corpses with a voracious hunger who turn others with a single bite and can only be killed by removing the head or destroying the brain. However, they’re not as mindless or shambling as traditional zombies; they’re intelligent enough to co-ordinate their attacks and utilise tech like the Iron Man armour and magic like the Sling Rings. In a change of pace, the Watcher reveals a definite origin for the zombie outbreak by relating how Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) became infected with the virus while stuck in the Quantum Realm; when she bit Hank Pym, he brought the virus back with him and the entire world was quickly overrun once the Avengers were turned.

The survivors narrowly escape Zombie Wanda, completely unaware of a greater threat waiting in Wakanda.

Banner joins up with the few uninfected survivors and learns from Okoye (Danai Gurira) of a possible cure at Camp Lehigh, New Jersey; the group travel to the Grand Central Station, where they’re attacked by zombified versions of Sam Wilson/The Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Hawkeye, and Captain America. Although they lose Harold “Happy” Hogan (Jon Favreau), the group is able to get the train working and fend off the zombies thanks to Okoye and the Wasp. However, the train is attacked by Zombie Cap, who infects Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) and forces Bucky to end his undead existence, retrieving his shield in the process, but Hope is also infected from a small cut she receives after disposing of Sharon. Although Peter tries to remain optimistic that she’ll be cured before she can turn, Hope sacrifices herself to atone for her part in causing the outbreak by carrying the group through a horde of zombies and dropping them off at Camp Lehigh. There, they find the zombies refuse to breach the camp thanks to the presence of the Mind Stone in the Vision’s (Paul Bettany) head; he and the severed head of Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) reveal that the Mind Stone’s properties can reverse the zombie virus, and the group is excited to spread the cure throughout the world from Wakanda. However, Banner learns that they’re not the first to respond to the Vision’s beacon, and Bucky is horrified to find that the Vision has been feeding parts of other survivors (including T’Challa) to a zombified version of Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) since she’s proven resistant to the Mind Stone and he’s been unable to kill her due to his love for her. When Wanda breaks free and proves uncontrollable due to her powers and hunger, the Vision rips the Mind Stone out of his head to atone for his actions and the group’s escape is covered by Bucky and the Hulk, who finally emerges from Banner’s psyche and is able to resist the zombie’s bite and hold back Wanda so the others can take off. The one-legged T’Challa, beheaded Lang, and shellshocked Peter console themselves with the knowledge that they’ll be able to save the world once they reach Wakanda, completely unaware that the nation has already succumbed to the infection and is under the rule of a zombified Thanos and his partially-completed Infinity Gauntlet!

Killmonger rescues Stark and becomes his most trusted confidante to kill his way to his birthright.

We then go back to where the MCU all started in “What If…Killmonger Rescued Tony Stark?” (Andrews, 2021), which recreates the opening moments of Iron Man (Favreau, 2008) with one key difference: right as Tony Stark is about to be injured by one of his own missiles, he’s saved by N’Jadaka/Erik Stevens/Killmonger (Jordan), who fends off the Ten Rings soldiers looking to kidnap Stark and thus means that the genius, billionaire philanthropist never learns the humility or courage that led to him becoming Iron Man. Instead, he remains a conceited, arrogant, self-serving glory hound who believes that he needs to build bigger, better weapons to protect America’s interests. To that end, he drafts in Killmonger, who wastes no time in publicly outing Obadiah Stane (Kiff VandenHeuvel) as the man who bankrolled the Ten Rings’ attack on Stark, and Stark is so grateful to his saviour that he quickly promotes Killmonger to his new Chief Operations Officer, alienating Virginia “Pepper” Potts (Beth Hoyt) in the process. Killmonger swiftly becomes Stark’s closest friend and confidante and, together, they create robot drones, the “Liberators”, based on Killmonger’s fandom for anime. Killmonger pushes Stark to use Vibranium as a power source for the Liberators, and Stark sends in Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle) to steal some from Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). However, the Black Panther attacks the meeting to recover stolen Vibranium, only for Killmonger to reveal his true intentions and kill T’Challa with one of Stark’s weapons. He chastises Rhodey for wearing the uniform of his oppressors and kills him with the Black Panther’s claw to make it seem like they killed each other; thanks to Just A Rather Very Intelligent System (J.A.R.V.I.S.; Bettany), however, Killmonger’s actions are revealed to Stark. Stark tries to avenge his friend’s murder using a Liberator, but Killmonger easily bests the drone and kills Stark with a Dora Milaje spear, which escalates the tensions between the United States and Wakanda into all-out war. General Ross assumes control of Stark’s assets and the Liberators are pushed into mass production; Killmonger then kills Klaue in order to deceive the Wakandans, then seizes control of the Liberators to lead his people in “defeating” the invading army. His victory and battle prowess wins over his uncle, T’Chaka, and earns him the mantle of the Black Panther; however, T’Challa’s astral warnings of Killmonger’s impending defeat are left a distinct possibility not only due to Ross’s obsession with continuing the war but also when Pepper and Shuri (Ozioma Akagha) agree to work together to expose Killmonger’s deception.

This Thor just wants to party, but his good time is spoiled by Captain Marvel and Jane blabbing to Frigga.

“What If…Thor Were an Only Child?” (Andrews, 2021) lightens things up a bit by retelling the events of Thor (Branagh, 2011); in this version of the story, in the absence of a brother to grow up alongside, Thor is little more than a lackadaisical, party-loving frat-boy who, despite still being worthy of Mjölnir, is far more interested in wasting time revelling with his friends than following his mother, Frigga’s (Josette Eales), instructions to behave or becoming a bore like his father, Odin Allfather (Anthony Hopkins). To avoid the all-seeing gaze of Heimdall (Idris Elba), Thor and his drinking buddies head the Midgard, the most backwater, insignificant world in all the Nine Realms, and invite guests from all over to join them in a massive, nonstop party. Tracking the cosmic disturbance and fearful of an alien invasion, Doctor Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) investigates and is both disturbed to find that Thor’s parties are so out of control that they can kill planets and won over by the Thunder God’s otherworldly charm. Jane and her intern, Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), join the party, quickly being swept up in all the intergalactic chaos and merriment on display; Darcy even marries Howard the Duck (Seth Green), and Jane and Thor get matching tattoos, but soon wake up to massive hangovers and the arrival of S.H.I.E.L.D. Acting Director Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) is deeply concerned that Thor is leaving a trail of destruction as he takes his party on the road, and calls in Captain Marvel to assist with the perceived threat. Thor’s reunion with fellow party animal Prince Loki of Jotunheim is interrupted by Captain Marvel’s arrival; Thor brushes off her demands that he leaves, and a fight ensues that sees the two battle all across the globe. Despite Thor’s petulant, childish nature, the two are seemingly equally matched in terms of power and durability, but Carol’s forced to hold back her full power to avoid damaging the world or endangering lives. Since Jane disagrees with attacking or eliminating Thor since she’s so enamoured by him, she uses her tech to contact Heimdall and literally tells on Thor to Frigga. As Hill prepares an all-out nuclear strike against Thor, he’s terrified by Frigga’s impending arrival and begs his guests to help him clean up all evidence of their shenanigans. Despite Thor’s best, most frantic efforts to put right all the anarchy he and his friends had caused, she sees through his deception; however, rather than being mad at Jane for selling him out, he thanks her for teaching him a lesson in humility and asks her out…only for he, and the Watcher, to be stunned by the sudden appearance of an alternate version of Ultron!

This alternate version of Ultron is such a threat to the multiverse that the Watcher is forced to intervene.

This cliff-hanger is explained in the following episode, “What If…Ultron Won?” (Andrews, 2021), which presents a post-apocalyptic world where Black Widow and Hawkeye are the only Avengers left to oppose the all-powerful Ultron. In this world, Hawkeye not only sports his ridiculous mohawk and a mechanical right arm, but Ultron successfully fulfilled its goal to cause an extinction-level event by claiming the Vision’s body as its own, killing Iron Man, Cap, and Thor, and launching a worldwide nuclear attack that decimated humanity. When Thanos arrived looking to retrieve the Mind Stone, Ultron split him in two with one shot and claimed the Infinity Stones for itself, becoming a God-like being capable of laying waste to entire worlds and Realms with its endless supply of drones. Asgard, Ego, Xandar, and countless others all fall before Ultron’s power and even Captain Marvel is unable to oppose it; having eradicated the vast majority of life across the universe and ascended to a higher pane of existence, Ultron not only sees but also hears the Watcher. Although the Watcher previously considered intervening in Dr. Strange’s story, he held true to his vow of non-interference since he deals in a cosmic balance beyond the lives of mere mortals, even ones as powerful as the Master of the Mystic Arts. However, Ultron’s threat is so terrifying even to this cosmic observer that the Watcher is sorely tempted to assist Natasha and Clint in their efforts to coerce Zola’s artificial intelligence into helping them. The Watcher is pleased when their perseverance pays off but, although Zola is able to possess one of Ultron’s drones, he cannot shut down Ultron’s hive mind as Ultron is outside of the known universe, meaning Clint is forced to sacrifice himself so that Natasha and Zola can escape. The Watcher is aghast when Ultron not only does the impossible and breaches his cosmic observatory but is also able to match even the Watcher’s cosmic power. Their battle sees them literally smashing the dimensional barriers into numerous alternate realities and sees Ultron devour a whole universe and force the Watcher to flee. While Ultron prepares to lay waste to the entire multiverse, the Watcher is forced to turn to Strange Supreme for help in opposing Ultron’s threat.

The Guardians of the Multiverse join forces to end Ultron’s threat.

This story, and the entire show, comes to a head in the final episode, “What If…the Watcher Broke His Oath?” (Andrews, 2021), which sees the Watcher recruiting Captain Carter, T’Challa Star-Lord, Killmonger, Party Thor, and a previously unseen version of Gamora (Cynthia McWilliams) to join Strange Supreme as the Guardians of the Multiverse. He enlists each of them right as they’re in the middle of tying up loose ends from their respective episodes and emphasises that every one of them is needed to protect something even bigger than their individual lives or concerns. Captain Carter immediately recognises the gravity of the situation, while Strange Supreme sees this as his chance at true redemption, and, despite the odds, they all tentatively agree to work together to combat Ultron, steal his Soul Stone, and destroy it using Gamora’s “Infinity Crusher” device. While Strange Supreme struggles to contain the dark magics within his body, Gamora is troubled by Killmonger’s obsession with Ultron’s technology, and Thor accidentally attracts Ultron’s attention, but the group is thankfully shielded by Strange Supreme’s protection spell. Following Captain Carter’s lead, the Guardians are able to launch a co-ordinated attack that allows T’Challa to swipe the Soul Stone; when Ultron makes short work of Zombie Wanda and follows the Guardians to its home reality, it gets summarily pummelled by the Guardians’ repeated attacks and Strange Supreme’s ability to counteract both Ultron’s Time Stone and match its enlarged form with his monstrous magic. Although they’re stunned to find the Infinity Crusher ineffectual because it and the Infinity Stones are from different realities, Ultron’s threat is ended when Captain Carter helps Natasha avenge Clint and fire an arrow containing Zola’s consciousness into Ultron’s armour, erasing its sentience once and for all. In the aftermath, Killmonger claims Ultron’s armour and proposes using the Infinity Stones to “fix” their universes; when they refuse, he attempts to destroy them and they’re saved by a Zola-controlled Vision, who tries to take the Infinity Stones for himself. Before they can properly get into a potentially devastating battle over the gems, Strange Supreme freezes them in time and seals them within a pocket dimension, ending their threat once and for all. The Watcher trusts Strange Supreme with watching over the two, and returns everyone to their proper place and time; since Natasha’s world was left lifeless by Ultron, the Watcher sends her to help Nick Fury overthrow Loki, and then alters his vow of impassive observation to a pledge to protect the multiverse when needed.

The Summary:
At first, I wasn’t too sold on What If…?’s animation style; the slick, computerised cel-shaded look has never been a favourite of mine, but I was quickly won over by it due to how closely each character and episode mirrors their live-action counterparts. Everything from the recreation of certain shots, to the musical cues, to the costumes and likenesses perfectly emulates the source material each episode is based on, meaning we get the brown-hued colour scheme of World War Two for Captain Carter, the barrage of bizarre cosmic colours for Star-Lord, and the industrial, high-tech grey of Stark and S.H.I.E.L.D. facilities. Although some notable names from the MCU didn’t return to lend their voices to their iconic characters, What If…? employs the services of some incredibly gifted soundalikes and even goes the extra mile in presenting a version of Bruce Banner that resembles both Edward Norton and Mark Ruffalo, which is fitting considering we encounter this character between his solo film and his first big MCU crossover. Animation also means that What If…? is theoretically able to do absolutely anything it desires, regardless of budget, and is limited only be the imagination of the animators; thus, while things are a little on the safe side with slightly different retelling of Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor, and other MCU films, it’s not long before we’re seeing massive Lovecraftian creatures, a whole host of Marvel heroes interacting in ways we’ve not really seen before, an additional taste of the cosmic madness of the universe (and multiverse), and a wide variety of both horrifying and oddball concepts to really test the waters of what the MCU is capable of going forward.

Captain Carter and T’Challa Star-Lord are just as competent, if not more so, as their MCU counterparts.

I really liked that, despite their reversed roles, Peggy and Steve still have a mutual attraction based on mutual respect and their respective struggles; Peggy faces an uphill battle due to being a woman in a male-orientated world (and war) that constantly weighs her down even after she’s enhanced by the super soldier serum, and of course Steve has been overlooked and undervalued his entire life due to his gaunt frame and sickly nature. While everyone else is either incredulous due to her being a woman or impressed by her fighting prowess because she is a woman, and she must prove her worth through her deeds to win them over, Steve admires the person that she is and her fighting spirit; he’s the only one that doesn’t judge her for her gender and who doesn’t need convincing that she’s the right person for the job and is only too grateful to be an active combatant alongside her in the Hydra Stomper. Peggy is also quite different in the role; like Steve, she attacks it with a sense of duty and honour, but she also takes far more joy in her newfound abilities. There’s a sense that she’s finally able to let loose, that she’s been given the physical gifts to realise her full potential, and she literally dives head-first into making the most of that opportunity. T’Challa’s characterisation as a galaxy-wide force for good is a fitting tribute to the late Chadwick Boseman; unlike Peter Quill, T’Challa is a well-respected and competent space mercenary, and I loved the running gag that he’s somehow able to convince even the most maladjusted individuals to give up their villainous or tyrannical ways simply through presenting a convincing argument. Korath is only too willing to change sides simply out of his worship of Star-Lord, and his crew follow his lead into doing good deeds simply because he was such a positive influence on them. Unfortunately, he’s not able to have the same influence on the Collector, who’s not only blinded by his position in this universe, but also driven by his inherent greed and given a major power boost thanks to his artefacts. However, while threats still remain in this timeline, on the surface it seems to be a far more peaceful and united universe simply thanks to T’Challa’s positive influence on others.

What If…? isn’t afraid to get very dark and show twisted or corrupted versions of these popular characters.

Things take a turn to the dark side once the Avengers (especially Stark) start getting killed off; What If…? is a self-contained show within the larger MCU multiverse, meaning literally anything can happen to anyone, and seeing the franchise’s core six heroes be so brutally murdered really hammers that home. It also gives Hank Pym, someone introduced later into the MCU, a chance to be a more prominent player in this sandbox; seeing him active in the MCU’s first phase is a great way of fleshing out the world in a unique way, especially as he’s become a murdering psychopath. This is a Pym whose neuroses and paranoia have been pushed to breaking point, which deftly showcases just how much of a threat a guy with Pym’s intellect and technology can be to even the most superhuman individuals. Of course, the epitome of dark character turns is the tragic tale of Strange Supreme; it’s absolutely heart-breaking to see Dr. Strange left so desperate and despondent by Christine’s loss that he fell deeper and deeper to the darkness. His frustration and anguish at being unable to change the past see him become obsessed with gaining more and more power, to the point where he is fixated only on being reunited with his love. This makes him blind to all pleas, even those of his uncorrupted counterpart, and it isn’t until all of reality is about to be erased forever that he realises the error of his ways. Sadly, by then, it’s much too late for him to undo anything; Christine once again dies in his arms and everything that ever was is unravelled due to his time paradox; even the Watcher judges his heinous actions, and the once mighty Strange Supreme is left alone and repentant in the tiniest slither of reality. It’s a poignant and gut-wrenching take on the snarky, stubborn, and arrogant Sorcerer Supreme, one that shows just how dangerous a threat he could be if he lost his strong moral compass, and it’s a testament to the show that the character remained a tragic and relatable figure right up until the end rather than simply being a malevolent antagonist.

What If…? showed characters are their grimmest and worst and also at their most carefree.

Easily the darkest tale is the inclusion of zombies; never before has the MCU veered so closely towards traditional horror and I really appreciated the bleak, gory change of pace. It was fantastic seeing the MCU’s most powerful characters reduced to animalistic ghouls, forcing the few survivors to battle their lifelong friends and making painful sacrifices to ensure the safety of others against overwhelming odds. This was also a prime opportunity to show a new side to the Vision; him luring in survivors just to feed his love is a haunting glimpse at the darker side of his cold, calculating logic. We’ve seen such behaviour, this overpowering sense of denial, in zombie films before and, here, it served as a gruesome reminder of just how close to the brink this alternate reality is to total collapse. This continued in Killmonger’s welcome reappearance, with his alternate tale basically showing what could have happened if he had succeeded in his goals of reclaiming his Wakandan birthright; Killmonger was always one of the MCU’s more driven and dangerous antagonists and his episode showed just how truly vindictive and sadistic he really was. He had no qualms about deceiving or using anyone and any resource at his disposal, and even incited an all-out war just so that he could get himself into a position of trust and power, which serves as a stark reminder to just how ruthless a villain he really was. The party-loving version of Thor is the polar opposite; Party Thor cares little for battle or being a king and just wants to enjoy himself. He revels in being the centre of attention and throwing the biggest, most outrageous parties in all the Nine Realms and is lauded amongst his guests as being the wildest party animal around. Thor is a consummate free spirit and a friend to all; alien races, Gods, and recognisable beings from all across the cosmos cheer his name and share in his revelry, making for some of the most light-hearted and amusing moments in the entire series as Surtur (Clancy Brown) tries it on with Lady Liberty and Frost Giants deface Mount Rushmore. This episode also leads to one of the best fist fights in the series as Thor and Captain Marvel trade blows, but he delights in the fight as much as he does in enjoying himself with mead, and only the disapproval of his mother finally shakes Thor from his apathy and pushes him to make amends for his reckless merriment.

The Watcher is forced to take action for the first time in his long life in order to defend the multiverse.

Of course, things come to a suitably dramatic and action-packed conclusion with the final two episodes, which finally force the Watcher into action. Up until then, the watcher existed outside of the normal universe, powerful and cosmic enough to remain completely undetected, but Ultron’s sentience and force grows to such an extent that it’s able to sense the Watcher, breach his observatory, and begin a maniacal campaign to conquer and destroy the entire multiverse. Untold aeons of quietly observing the multiverse haven’t exactly dampened the Watcher’s power cosmic, but in the face to Ultron’s might, enhanced by the six Infinity Stones, the enigmatic onlooker is forced to do the one thing he has never done and ask for help, calling upon the characters he has been observing and asking them to intervene where he cannot. Seeing these wildly different versions of these characters interacting was a blast; they arguably got on the same page much faster than the regular Avengers (which is no doubt due to the short length of the episodes) and were able to launch a united attack on Ultron as a result. Indeed, Ultron kind of got a bit shafted in the last episode; it went from going toe-to-toe with a cosmic being to getting battered about by a handful of mortals and Godlings simply because the Guardians were able to keep the pressure on and keep Ultron from activating the Infinity Stones. Realistically, Ultron could’ve just “snapped” them all away, but then that wouldn’t be anywhere near as exhilarating for a final battle now, would it? Seeing Killmonger claim the gems and just the idea of what his twisted imagination would use them for was a cool moment, as was the idea that he might someday escape his trap to threaten the multiverse again, and just about the only issue I had with that last episode was the random inclusion of a Gamora when they could’ve maybe employed Zombie Wanda instead. Overall, though, I thoroughly enjoyed this series; the presentation, the humour, the fun twists on established characters, and the bizarre stories were all really fun and engaging and I can’t wait to see more from this as the MCU continues to expand into more and ore obscure concepts.

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fantastic

Did you enjoy What If…?? Which episode was your favourite, and which of the alternate characters did you like the most? Did you enjoy the Watcher’s inclusion and characterisation? What did you think to all the cameos and the animation style? Did you enjoy seeing Ultron as an all-powerful force and what did you think to its battle with the Watcher? Were you also disappointed that Gamora didn’t get her own episode? Are you a fan of the What If…? comics and, if so, which was your favourite? What other hypothetical scenarios would you like to see explored in a future season? Whatever your thoughts on What If…?, sign up to drop a comment down below and check back next Sunday for the final instalment of Multiverse Madness.

Screen Time [Multiverse Madness]: WandaVision


In September 1961, DC Comics published “Flash of Two Worlds” (Fox, et al), a landmark story that brought together two generations of the Flash: the Golden Age Jay Garrick and the Silver Age Barry Allen thanks to the concept of the multiverse, an infinite number of parallel universes that allowed any and all stories and characters to co-exist and interact. Marvel Comics would also adopt this concept and, to celebrate the release of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (Raimi, 2022) this month, I’ve been both celebrating the Master of the Mystic Arts and exploring the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) equivalent of the multiverse every Sunday of May.


Air Date: 15 January 2021 to 5 March 2021
Network: Disney+
Stars: Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Kathryn Hahn, Teyonah Parris, Kat Dennings, and Evan Peters

The Background:
Without a doubt, the MCU has become a nigh-unstoppable multimedia juggernaut that has brought some of Marvel Comics’ most beloved, and obscure, characters to life on the silver screen. Although Marvel Studios had dabbled in television ventures as well with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013 to 2020) and their Netflix shows, they really upped their focus on TV productions for the MCU’s fourth phase and to coincide with the release of their parent company’s streaming service, Disney+. Spearheaded by MCU head honcho Kevin Feige, the Disney+ shows focused heavily on maintaining and expanding the continuity of the MCU going forward, and the first of these announced was a spin-off that would focus on the previously underutilised characters of Wanda Maximoff (Olsen) and the Vision (Bettany). WandaVision was a curious venture that aimed to explore new areas of the MCU, and the multiverse, by placing the characters in different decades and parodying popular sitcoms throughout the years. Feige aimed for the show to shed new light on Wanda’s potentially dangerous powers and to lay the foundation for the MCU’s fourth phase by dabbling in the multiverse. Inspired by both classic sitcoms and notable comic book storylines involving both characters, the show was framed as a surreal and bizarre mystery that would weave in aspects from outside the MCU and build to a dramatic finale that fundamentally altered Wanda’s character. Released in weekly episodes that sent fan speculation into a frenzy, WandaVision received widespread critical acclaim; critics praised the show from breaking away from the usual MCU formula and its emotional and dramatic themes, though some criticised the finale and the show’s overall pacing. Still, WandaVision was highly successful and, while there are currently no plans for a second season, its story arcs were continued in further MCU films and spin-offs.

The Plot:
Three weeks after the events of Avengers: Endgame (Russo and Russo, 2019), Wanda Maximoff and the Vision are living an idyllic suburban life in the town of Westview, New Jersey, where they conceal their true natures. However, things are not as they seem as their surroundings begin to move through different decades and they discover that they’re being manipulated by a malevolent supernatural force.

The Review:
I’m admittedly pretty late to the Marvel Disney+ shows, primarily because neither my television nor my service provider actually carry the app, and it’s not the same watching on a smaller screen. I’d usually be content to wait for the DVD release, but it’s looking like we won’t actually get one so, with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness right around the corner, now seems like as good a time as any to actually watch WandaVision, which I honestly was the least excited about of all the Disney+ shows. This isn’t because I dislike the characters or the actors that portray them, it just seemed like a weird spin-off to produce, especially given the events of Avengers: Endgame, but I heard a lot of good things about it and followed the every-growing fan speculation so it was great to actually sit down with it and binge-watch it in one sitting.

Wanda and the Vision are trying to life normal lives but there’s something undeniably odd about Westview.

Thanks to the inclusion of super cringe, super appropriate jaunty theme songs and opening titles at the start of each episode, WandaVision quickly catches us up with the two Avengers and the general theme of the show; somehow, Wanda and the Vision have gotten married and settled down in Westview, a quiet little town where they hope for a fresh start amongst normal, everyday people. To achieve this, the two keep their extraordinary abilities hidden; however, when in the privacy of their own home, Wanda freely uses her magic to perform household chores, such as tidying and cleaning, and the Vison walks around in his default synthezoid form without a second thought. Outside of the house, the Vision alters his physical appearance to pass as human and works at Computational Services Inc.; while he is naturally incredibly efficient and hardworking, neither he nor his co-worker, Norm (Asif Ali), has any idea what the company actually does. Although Wanda and the Vision seem perfectly happy in their new life, with all its quirks and eccentricities, WandaVision shows hints towards a darker side of their lives right from the first episode; while entertaining his boss and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Hart (Fred Melamed and Debra Jo Rupp), neither of the main characters can recall where they came from, when they got married, or how they even got there. Wanda is so confused by her inability to answer such simple questions that she simply sits, perplexed, while Mr. Hart chokes to death on a piece of food and Mrs. Hart is locked in an agonising loop where she can only say “Stop it!” with good humour. Eventually, Wanda sees how serious the situation is and asks the Vision to step in and the whole incident is laughed off as a gag, but it’s a disturbing moment made all the more intriguing when the episode ends with its events being watched by another within the show, providing our first hint that WandaVision is a show within a show.

Wanda’s concerns over her lack of children are superseded by strange goings-on and imposters in her quaint life.

Still, despite this incident, the two are determined to fit in with their quaint little suburban community; the Vision joins the neighbourhood watch, Wanda joins the planning committee for the local talent show, and Wanda is keen to take the family trick-or-treating later in the show. Essential to helping her to fit in is Agnes (Hahn), Wanda’s “neighbour to the right”, who constantly drops in on her at the most convenient of times to offer friendly advice about how to deal with the local social committee or to help her out of awkward situations. Agnes takes a special interest in Wanda and the Vision’s sex life (apparently because she is under-sexed and under-valued by her unseen husband, Ralph), and continuously probes Wanda for intimate details about her life and offers Wanda advice about how to spice up her sex life. Right from the off, Agnes is dropping hints about the two starting a family, and this is only exacerbated when Wanda feels detached from the community because she doesn’t have children like Dottie Jones (Emma Caulfield Ford), the head of the committee and a prominent figure in Westview’s social elite. After their magic show is a smash hit (despite the Vision being inebriated due to gum clogging his systems and Wanda frantically using her Chaos Magic to explain away her husband’s superhuman feats, and the fact that there are no children in attendance for show), Wanda is overjoyed when she spontaneously becomes pregnant and so angered by the strange appearance of a beekeeper’s outfit emerging from a manhole that she literally rewinds time to return to her happy moment.

Pregnancy throws Wanda’s powers out of whack but Geraldine incites her wrath by mentioning Ultron.

Wanda’s pregnancy is explored through the third episode, “Now in Color” (Shakman, 2021); while she is delighted to find that she is already four months pregnant and happy to busy herself using her magic to decorate and prepare a nursery, the Vision begins to find himself disturbed by the strange goings on in their lives and around Westview. Every time he stops to consider why his neighbours are acting so strangely or how Wanda’s pregnancy is progressing so fast, Wanda gets closer and closer to popping, replacing his concerns with the dual emotions of happiness and anxiety at the thought of becoming a father. Wanda’s pregnancy sends her powers all out of whack and causes a neighbourhood blackout; when she worries that Westview will suspect she’s the cause of it, this strikes a chord with the Vision but, again, Wanda causes an abrupt jump cut to keep him from following his thoughts through any further and he’s soon rushing off to retrieve Doctor Stan Nielsen (Randy Oglesby) to help deliver the baby. Although she tries her best to hide her condition using bowls of fruit and to wish away a stork she randomly brings to life, Wanda eventually succumbs to her pregnancy but, luckily, her new friend Geraldine (Parris) is on hand to help out. Thanks to Geraldine, Wanda successfully gives birth to Baby Tommy and then she and the Vision are shocked at the arrival of his twin, Baby Billy. While thanking Geraldine and cooing over her babies, Wanda is reminded of her own twin brother, Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson); this seems to snap Geraldine out of her trance and, when she accidentally reminds Wanda of her brother’s death at Ultron’s (James Spader) hands, Wanda becomes enraged and forcible ejects Geraldine from Westview, which is revealed to be encased within a translucent energy field not unlike television static and monitored by government agents.

While Monica, Woo, and Darcy try to help Wanda, Hayward is convinced that she’s a threat.

This is the perfect way to transition to some actual context for the show as, after three episodes of intrigue and mystery, “We Interrupt This Program” (Shakman, 2021) goes a long way to explaining just what the hell is happening by following Geraldine after she is restored to life by the second snap of the Infinity Gauntlet. It turns out that she’s not a native of Westview at all and is, in fact, a grown-up Monica Rambeau, which is relayed in a harrowing sequence where Monica stumbles through a hospital thrown into disarray by people suddenly returning from being disintegrated and culminates in her receiving the heart-breaking news that her mother, Maria (Lashana Lynch), succumbed to cancer while Monica was lost to the snap. Monica is a former fighter pilot captain in the Sentient Weapon Observation and Response Division (S.W.O.R.D.), an intelligence agency founded by Maria and now run by Director Tyler Hayward (Josh Stamberg) that monitors and responds to threats posed by robotics and artificial intelligence. Monica is assigned to assist the Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B. I.) with a missing persons case in Westview and liaises with Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), whose investigation has stalled because no one seems remember Westview or its inhabitants and the entire town is sealed within an odd temporal anomaly referred to as the “Hex”. After Monica’s drone disappears inside the Hex and Monica is sucked within shortly after, Hayward brings in Doctor Darcy Lewis (Dennings) and a number of other scientists to help. Darcy then recognises the patterns of cosmic background radiation and discovers that they are akin to old analogue broadcast signals, successfully tunes into WandaVision, and becomes invested in the show. Woo and Darcy ascertain that WandaVision’s “cast” is comprised of Westview’s missing residents, and that Monica and everything that breaches the Hex is assimilated into the show to become part of the cast a harmless toy, or a beekeeper. Their attempts to contact Wanda using radio signals only unnerve Wanda and injure Dottie, and Wanda is enraged at Monica trespassing in Westview; their confrontation is so traumatic for her that her sitcom demeanour falls away, and she’s briefly horrified by an apparition of the Vision’s mangled corpse.

While the twins adore their uncle, Wanda is confused by Pietro’s altered appearance and personality.

From then on, WandaVision routinely switches between the ongoing drama within the show and the efforts of those outside the Hex to try and figure out what’s happening. Wanda and the Vision’s struggles to calm their crying children are skipped over when the twins spontaneously age-up to five years old; Billy (Baylen Bielitz) and Tommy (Gavin Borders) adopt a stray dog, “Sparky”, and then age-up another five years to be “old enough” to keep him. Sadly though, Sparky goes missing and is found dead by Agnes; Wanda struggles to comfort her boys, hypocritically asking Billy (Julian Hilliard) and Tommy (Jett Klyne) not age-up any further so they can face the natural reality of Sparky’s death. However, having seen what their mother is capable of (she soon decides she’s “tired of hiding” and openly uses her magic in front of Agnes), they implore her to use her powers to “fix the dead”, a feat that she believes is beyond even her and yet she’s stunned when “Pietro” (Peters) shows up on her doorstep, alive and well but sporting a new face and personality. The twins quickly become close to their fun-loving, free-spirited uncle; Pietro still has his superspeed, here depicted very similarly to his MCU counterpart, and is very much the freeloading man child archetype. Pietro causes havoc on Halloween night and is generally a bad influence on the twins, which he claims is what Wanda wants from him. Wanda doesn’t fully trust or understand his appearance, however, and is confused by their differing memories of their childhood; he relates a fuzzy memory of being shot to death and then hearing her calling for him and expresses an awareness of Wanda’s influence on Westview. Rather than judging her, Pietro is impressed at how far her powers have progressed but, just as she begins to feel comfortable enough to open up about how alone she has felt, Wanda has a brief vision of Pietro’s bullet-riddled corpse dead and strikes him with her powers when he makes a glib remark about the Vision’s death, which is enough to cause her to distrust him from then on.

The Vision is angered to discover that Wanda has enslaved Westview, but equally determined to help her.

Despite Wanda’s best efforts, the Vision’s concerns about Wanda and Westview continue to niggle at him; he’s aghast when Wanda brazenly uses her magic in front of Agnes and horrified when he learns the townsfolk are being manipulated by Wanda’s powers. When he confronts her, Wanda tries to walk away from the heated argument, and even rolls the credits, but the Vision persists, desperately trying to talk sense into her and infuriated that he’s being controlled, though Wanda insists that she’s not in control of what’s happening and is simply trying to make the best of it. Still, Wanda is troubled by the Vision’s behaviour towards her and his increasing tendency to go “off-script”; the Vision finds residents locked in (and pained by) endless, repeating loops or frozen in place at the edge of town and is stunned when Agnes reveals that he’s not only an Avenger…but also dead, two things he has no memory of. When he attempts to breach the Hex, he begins to disintegrate before Darcy and Hayward’s eyes, distressing Billy so much that Wanda expands the Hex to cover an even greater area and causes Darcy and several other S.W.O.R.D. agents to become assimilated into WandaVision. This only encourages Hayward’s belief that Wanda is a significant threat to Westview; already antagonistic towards superpowered individuals thanks to the struggles he lived through during the Blip, Hayward believes that Wanda is an aggressive terrorist and routinely clashes with Darcy, Woo, and Monica when they champion Wanda’s heroic actions and frame her as a victim of oppression and experimentation rather than aggressor, despite her recent actions. However, Hayward is unconvinced and even manipulates security footage to suit his agenda when, in reality, he’s reconstructed the Vision’s physical remains into a weapon under his direct control.

It turns out that Agatha Harkness was behind (almost) everything in a bid to steal Wanda’s powers.

When Monica successfully breaches the Hex using a 1980s drone, Hayward attempts to assassinate Wanda, so she leaves her idyllic fantasy land to deliver a warning against him trying to interfere in her life. This, and expanding the Hex’s influence, causes Wanda’s mental state and control over Westview to begin to deteriorate as the show jumps ahead to the late-2000s; the house and town glitch and switch between eras and Wanda jumps at the chance to take a personal day while Agnes watches the twins. However, her confusion over her unpredictable powers soon turns to dread when she discovers an ominous, gothic lair in Agnes’s basement and her magic is rendered useless by a series of runes. This is when Agnes reveals (through a jaunty musical number) that she’s actually a malevolent witch named Agatha Harkness and has been behind everything happening in Westview (including Sparky’s death!) all along. While this is a fun reveal and definitely changes the context of the show, it does fall a little flat as many watching (including myself) would have no real idea of the significance of the name “Agatha Harkness”. Still, WandaVision tries to make up for this with a flashback to 1693 Salem, Massachusetts that shows Agatha being condemned by her fellow witches for practising dark magic from the forbidden tome known as the Darkhold and revealing that she’s capable of draining the magic and lifeforce of other witches to increase her powers. Drawn to, and envious of, Wanda’s power, Agatha desires to learn the secret of Wanda’s natural affinity for magic and forces her to relive some of her most traumatic memories to understand how the Avenger could possibly be the fabled “Scarlet Witch”.

Agatha forces Wanda to relive her worst memories, while the Vision reconciles with his reanimated remains.

Wanda witnesses a childhood memory of how she and her family would regularly watch old US sitcoms to bond and practice their English. It was during young Wanda’s (Michaela Russell) favourite episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961 to 1966) that their home was bombed, killing her parents and trapping her and young Pietro (Gabriel Gurevich) and actually the first instance of her using her Chaos Magic to affect the probability of the missile exploding. A subsequent memory of her volunteering to be a part of Hydra’s experiments with the Mind Stone shows that the Infinity Stone simply amplified Wanda’s natural magical abilities rather than causing them, as the MCU first suggested. Wanda also remembers a time when the Vision offered her comfort after Pietro’s death by suggesting “grief [is] love persevering”, and the truth behind her visit to S.W.O.R.D. headquarters after his death; contrary to Hayward’s earlier footage, Wanda was denied custody of the Vision’s expensive and potentially dangerous remains but was allowed to see for herself that he was truly gone. Grief-stricken, she visited Westview, where the Vision had intended for them to start a life together, and exploded in a burst of Chaos Magic; empowered by her pain and loss, her powers not only swept through Westview, transforming it into its original 1960s sitcom setting and enslaving its citizens, but also reconstituted an exact replica of the Vision for Wanda to settle down with and alleviate her anguish and she willingly lost herself to this fantasy world. Essentially a magic vampire, Agatha takes power from those she deems unworthy, and is far more adept at wielding dark magic than the more emotional and naïve Wanda; Agatha mocks Wanda for wasting the powers of the Scarlet Witch in such a way and goads her into a battle by threatening her children so that she can take that power for herself. Wanda is saved by the intervention of Hayward’s reconstructed Vision; cold and ruthless, White Vision attempts to kill Wanda as per Hayward’s orders, but she’s saved by the Vision. As both Visions prove to be equally matched in terms of powers and abilities, the Vision is able to subdue his counterpart by hypothesising that neither are the “true” Vision by using the philosophy of the Ship of Theseus to show that they are simultaneously both the Vision and not the Vision. The Vision then restores White Vision’s memories and personality, releasing him from Hayward’s control and ending his threat as he darts off the an uncertain future.

Wanda outsmarts Agatha, free Westview, and isolates herself to better understand the powers of the Scarlet Witch.

Hayward’s efforts to bring Wanda down lead Agatha to condemn him and his S.W.O.R.D. troops as being little more than the modern-day equivalent of witch hunters, but Wanda protects them regardless and Monica reveals that repeated exposure to the Hex has granted her superhuman abilities that allow her to shield the twins from Hayward’s attempt to gun them down. Darcy then rams his jeep to keep him from getting away and, thanks to Woo’s subterfuge, Hayward’s plot to emerge a hero from the whole affair is exposed. Agatha reveals that the Darkhold foretold that Wanda’s power is destined to not only rival the Sorcerer Supreme’s, but also to destroy the world, and forces her to face the consequences of her actions by releasing Westview’s citizens from her spell. Wanda is distraught to learn that those she thought she was protecting were in such physical and emotional pain, to the point where they beg her to let them go…or die to be free from their torment. Wanda creates a gap in the Hex so that the citizens can finally leave in order to both atone for her actions and to reject Agatha’s claims, but quickly reseals the Hex to keep Billy, Tommy, and the Vision from being erased. Forced to choose between saving her family or saving the town, Wanda ultimately accepts that she is the legendary Scarlet Witch and manages to outsmart Agatha by first overloading her with her Chaos Magic and then turning Agatha’s trick against her by casting protective runes that render Agatha’s powers inert. Wanda punishes the defeated and despondent Agatha by forcing to reassume her “role” as Agnes as recompense for her actions, and finally dispels the Hex, restoring Westview and the surrounding area to normal. Wanda and the Vision head home with the twins and reassure them that they’ll always be a family, before the two share an emotional last moment together where she admits that he was a product of her love and hope as much as her sadness and promises that they’ll see each other again. While Monica knows how much Wanda sacrificed to restore Westview and understands her pain, Wanda’s faced with the judgemental eyes of those she inadvertently hurt, so she heads out to understand her power in isolation at a remote cabin, where she studies the Darkhold in her astral form.

The Summary:   
At its core, WandaVision is a story about grief, loss, and the extremes one goes to after having suffered through some of the worst traumas both imaginable and unimaginable. Hayward’s concerns over Wanda’s threat, while radical, are well founded as, in a moment of anguish, she effectively manipulated the minds and wills of an entire town and forced them to bend to her desires just to make herself feel better. However, it’s clear that Wanda hasn’t done this out of any animosity or aggression; she’s simply suffering and in a great deal of pain, but has caught many innocent souls in her web as a result. Even the Vision is disturbed to see what Wanda’s influence is doing to Westview’s citizens; by touching his fingers to their temples, the Vision is able to free them from Wanda’s control and is met with only hysteria and pleas for help and to get Wanda to stop. When he confronts Wanda, the Vision is enraged at her actions and yet hoping that she didn’t tear families apart and hijack people’s lives out of any malicious intent…however, even Wanda begins to question her intentions and motivations, and her tendency to lash out and the uncertainty about the true nature of the Scarlet Witch certainly raises questions about her character.

The show’s visual style and presentation change as the characters jump through different sitcom eras.

WandaVision wonderfully separated itself from other MCU productions with its production style, format , and overall presentation, which becomes very metatextual and is full of homages to both the source material (the family dress up in comic-accurate costumes for Halloween) and a wide variety of American sitcoms. The first few episodes are presented in black and white, using an older aspect ratio, and clearly drawing inspiration from the sitcoms of the 1950s and 1960s, particularly the likes of Bewitched (1964 to 1972) in not only its premise and setting but also the filming techniques used (the special effects are achieved using practical, in-camera effects and of-the-time methods to give it that authentic fifties feel). The Bewitched influences are even more explicit in opening titles of the second episode, “Don’t Touch That Dial” (Shakman, 2021), which are directly influenced from that show, and we see this again as the series progresses, particularly in “Breaking the Fourth Wall” (ibid), which emulates the opening titles of Modern Family (2009 to 2020). The series is injected with a wash of colour at the conclusion of “Don’t Touch That Dial” and jumps into the vibrant brightness of the 1970s from “Now in Color” (ibid) to evoke groovy, jaunty, sitcoms like The Brady Bunch (1969 to 1974). With each new era, the character’s wardrobes, hair styles, and the show’s furnishings are all updated accordingly, and the focus quickly becomes about depicting the growth of Wanda’s family unit. Initially, episodes feature a canned laughter track to accompany the many sight gags and double entendres; this laughter track remains even when odd or disturbing events are happening onscreen, such as when characters are in danger of going “off-script”, and is ultimately replaced in favour of characters directly breaking the fourth wall or being filmed in a mockumentary, as was the style of late-2000s sitcoms.

A bunch of weird events, moments, and character quirks sent internet speculation running wild!

WandaVision certainly got people talking when it first came out, and it’s easy to see why; every episode is peppered with gags, double meanings, and vague hints about what’s really happening in Westview (Agnes refers to Wanda as “The star of the show!”, which is another double meaning as she’s the star of the talent show and her own actual show). Many of the episodes end with false commercials for products and services that act as metaphors for Wanda’s suffering and anguish: The Stark Industries ToastMate 2000 is a metaphor for her sex life (and emits the same ominous beeping as the Stark missile that threatened Wanda’s life as a child, alongside the slogan “Forget the past, this is your future!”), Strücker watches directly reference the man who experimented on Wanda, Hydra Soak bath powder promises an experience so relaxing that it’ll make bathers forget their troubles and unlock the “Goddess within”, Lagos paper towels are tough and absorbent enough to clean up any accidental mess, the claymation Yo-Magic yoghurt is delivered to a boy stranded on a desert island who struggles to open the lid and wastes away to a skeleton over the course of several days and nights, and Nexus antidepressant pills offer a reprieve for those struggling with the weight of loneliness, guilt, and the feeling of life moving on without them and desperate for some relief. As if these odd commercials weren’t enough, the early black and white episodes are often punctuated by bursts of colour that disturb Wanda and allude to things being not quite right; Wanda is confused to find a toy helicopter that matches Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey, Jr) colour scheme and a tense discussion between Wanda and Dottie quickly turns bizarre when Woo speaks directly to Wanda through the radio, briefly causing Dottie to snap out of character and cutting herself to reveal red blood against the monochrome surroundings. Furthermore, there are numerous allusions to a greater threat looming in the background, one many assumed to be Mephisto; Dottie states that “The Devil’s in the details” and Agnes lends Wanda her rabbit, Señor Scratchy, but ultimately the threat proved to be much closer to home and hiding in plain sight.

A poignant tale of grief that gives some of the MCU’s supporting characters a chance to shine.

Overall, I can see why so many people were impressed by WandaVision; the show is practically the definition of variety, featuring a lot of humour, heart, and drama to keep you invested throughout its run time. No two episodes are the same, even those set within the same time period, and the show evolves as we learn more about what’s going on, splicing in more of those familiar MCU elements while giving returning side characters like Darcy and Woo more time in the spotlight to shine as interesting personalities in their own right. WandaVision also introduces a new superhero to the MCU in the form of the grown-up Monica Rambeau, who ends the series altered at a cellular level and with the prospect of her own space adventure ahead of her with the Skrulls. Of course, there are some things that don’t work; it’s a bit of a tease to bring in Evan Peters only to have him revealed to be an actor with a ridiculously suggestive name who was manipulated by Agatha rather than actually being the Quicksilver from the X-Men movies (Various, 2014 to 2016). Agatha’s reveal didn’t really work for me either, as mentioned, but I did enjoy her as a villain and puppet master; however, it can’t be denied that reducing WandaVision to a big light show battle did kind of go against the deeper themes explored throughout the previous episodes. I think it might have been more effective to leave the Visions to handle the heavy combat in the finale and have Agatha and Wanda engage in a battle of wills rather than tossing fireballs at each other, but it was a colourful and intense end to the series. I enjoyed the chance to explore these characters in more detail, the new introductions to the MCU, exploring the effects of the snap from a different perspective, and the introduction of Wanda’s children and the expansion of her powers. WandaVision definitely tries something new and, for the most part, manages to stand out through its unique presentation; when it’s exploring Wanda’s complex trauma or paying homage to classic sitcoms, it’s really at its strongest, but there are a few missed opportunities spliced in there that may put some viewers off.

My Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Pretty Good

Did you enjoy WandaVision? What did you think to the themes of grief and loss explored in the series? Did you enjoy the exploration of Wanda and the Vision and the additional spotlight given to some of the MCU’s side characters? What did you think to the use of different colours and filming techniques? Were you also caught up in the speculation, and were you suspicious of Agnes at the time? Did you find Evan Peters’ inclusion disappointing or were you excited to see him included? What do you see happening next for these characters and are you excited to see more from Monica and White Vision? Whatever you think about WandaVision sign up to let me know below or leave a comment on my social media, and check back in next Sunday for more Multiverse Madness!

Screen Time [Sci-Fi Sunday]: The Outer Limits (1995): “The New Breed” (S1: E16)


January sees the celebration of two notable dates in science-fiction history, with January 2 christened “National Science Fiction Day” to coincide with the birth date of the world renowned sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov, and HAL 9000, the sophisticated artificial intelligence of Arthur C. Clarke’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), being created on 12 January. Accordingly, I’m dedicated every Sunday of January to celebrating sci-fi in all its forms.


Season One, Episode 16: “The New Breed”

Air Date: 9 July 1995
Director: Mario Azzopardi
US Network: Showtime
UK Network: BBC 2
Stars: Richard Thomas, Peter Outerbridge, and Tammy Isbell

The Background:
I never watched The Twilight Zone (1959 to 1964; 1985 to 1989) as a kid; growing up, I was limited to the then-four channels of terrestrial television so my sci-fi/horror anthology series of choice was The Outer Limits (1995 to 2002). Itself a revival of the original 1960s show, The Outer Limits was an award-winning anthology series that was originally broadcast here in the United Kingdom on BBC 2; every week, a new tale would unfold, usually revolving around aliens, rogue artificial intelligence, or other sci-fi, horror, or fantastical stories, though there were also a number of recurring themes, characters, and even semi-sequential stories to be found in the show’s long history. Considering my nostalgia and affection for the series, it is gratifying to see others also have a fondness for the show and I’ll be extremely interested to see if the planned revivals ever come to pass.

The Plot:
Doctor Stephen Ledbetter (Thomas) makes a technological and medical breakthrough when he creates a type of tiny machine, known as nanobots, capable of curing any disease or imperfections in the human body. However, when his dying friend, Doctor Andy Groenig (Outerbridge), injects himself with the experimental nanobots, his body starts to hideously mutate!

The Review:
“The New Breed” focuses on Dr. Stephen Ledbetter, a genius in nanotechnology whose research spell the potential end for life-threatening cancerous disease by rewriting the cellular structure of the bodies they are introduced to and removing malignant or destructive elements. A somewhat condescending and self-aggrandising scientist, Stephen fully believes in his work and is extremely proud of the level of intricacy and brilliance that has gone into their creation. However, like many phenomenally intelligent individuals, he is somewhat blinded by how miraculous his nanobots are, which are smart enough to replicate individually and operate independently to, in his words, improve the “flawed man”.

Stephen’s breakthrough nanobots spell the end for cancer but he is frustrated by regulations.

His grandiose claims to have surpassed God aggravate his colleague, Doctor Norman Meritt (L. Harvey Gold), who is not in the least bit amused at Stephen’s attitude and flamboyant disrespect for professional conduct. Meritt stresses that Stephen needs to play by the rules since the last time he bent them in his favour, he almost lost his job and caused the entire department to be shut down. As it’s the only way for his nanobots to see the light of day, Stephen begrudgingly agrees to play the game for the sake of his grant and the Board of Trustees despite being frustrated at having to wait for approval to begin live animal testing.

Andy’s whole world comes crashing down when he receives news of a malicious cancer.

His research and the potential of the nanobots excites Stephen’s friend and colleague, Dr. Andy Groenig, a far less egotistical and driven scientist who is not only dating Stephen’s younger sister, Judy Hudson (Isbell), but is engaged to marry her in a month’s time. Things are looking good for Andy, who also just got tenure, and Stephen is overjoyed at his good fortunes (showing hat, beneath his arrogance, there is a loyal and trustworthy human being). However, when he pays a visit to Doctor Katzman (Veena Sood) regarding an lingering pain in his back, Andy’s world comes crashing down at the news that he’s suffering from a malignant form of pelvic cancer that will either kill him in about a year or leave him without his lower limbs through surgery. Desperate for a solution to this horrifying news, he presses Stephen for more information about his nanobots and is dismayed to find that the Board would never allow human testing without stringent tests, not even on a willing volunteer, for fear of a potential lawsuit.

Desperate for a solution, Andy injects himself with the nanobots and is miraculously healed.

With Judy already enthusiastically planning out the rest of their married lives, and with literally nothing left to lose, Andy breaks into Stephen’s lab during the night and exposes injects the nanobots into his body. The results are almost instantaneous; within three days, his tumour has significantly reduced, giving him a whole new lease on life and virality. The benefits don’t end there, either, as Andy awakens one morning to find that he no longer requires glasses to improve his vision. Stephen, however, is aghast at Andy’s recklessness; despite his bold claims from earlier, Stephen is enraged that Andy would put himself and both of their lives and careers at risk. Afraid of what the nanobots could potentially do to Andy, Stephen immediately demands that they be shut off but, when Andy vehemently refuses, they reach a compromise and, together, run further tests to record the benefits and behaviours of the nanobots on the proviso that they deactivate the second anything starts to go wrong. Thanks to the nanobots, Andy is able to hold his breath underwater for at least seven minutes, read even near microscopic test from a greater distance, physically push himself faster and harder than ever before, and heal from horrific injuries in seconds.

Andy’s stamina overwhelms Judy but the nanobots soon take their programming a bit too far…

A sentimental goof, Andy is extremely grateful to the nanobots, and Stephen, for saving  and improving his life; however, his increased stamina and virility begin to cause concern for Judy, whom he inadvertently hurts during sex. Concerned that he’s on drugs, Judy is nevertheless exhausted and somewhat fearful of his newfound virility and, as if that wasn’t bad enough, Andy awakens to find that the nanobots have “gifted” him with a set of gills to allow him to freely breath underwater. Both enthralled and horrified at this development, Stephen immediately attempts to expel the nanobots from Andy’s body; however, his attempts are met with unexpected failure as the nanobots believe that the “program run [is] not complete”. Consequently, Andy is absolutely horrified to find that the nanobots have grown him a new pair of eyes on the back of his head!

Andy chooses death to end his suffering but leaves a terrifying legacy behind…

Unable to shut the nanobots down in a conventional way, Stephen attempts to short them out using high-intensity electric shocks; unfortunately, though, he is again frustrated by failure and reluctant to subject Andy to further electric shocks out of fear of killing him. Andy, however, begins to think that dying wouldn’t be so bad at this point and his fears and desperation only grow as his hearing becomes superhumanly acute and the nanobots shield his body from both external and internal threats with an array of jellyfish-like nematocysts and additional ribs, respectively, in a conscious effort to stop Stephen’s efforts to drive them from Andy’s body. Angered at his current physical condition, Andy is equally dismayed at his inability to die as, no matter what either of them do, the nanobots continue to revive Andy. With no other option, the two sorrowfully agree to bombard Andy to a lethal dose of electrical current to destroy both him and the nanobots; heartbroken and dejected, Stephen destroys all evidence of the event, and his research, in a fire but the episode ends suggesting that Andy has passed at least a few of the nanobots on the Judy during their earlier coitus.

The Summary:
As the narrator (or “Control Voice”; Kevin Conway) sombrely tells us: “Man has long worked to stave off the diseases that can ravage us, but what can happen when the cure grows more fearsome than the disease? Over millions of years man has become the very paragon of animals, but we must take care not to alter what nature has taken so long to forge…or risk being burned by the very fires of creation”. The lesson here, as with many episodes of The Outer Limits and similar tales of man trying to either play God or expand the limits of scientific research, is to exercise caution, restraint, and humility when dabbling in the fantastical and the unknown.

A miraculous technology soon turns terrifying in this cautionary tale.

I’ve watched a lot of movies and television over the years, and many episodes of The Outer Limits, but “The New Breed” always stuck with me as a moving, terrifying, and poignant tale of the potential, and dangers, of science. Andy is facing his very real, and painful, death at the beginning of the episode and, as he puts it, “sells [his] soul” for another chance at life; this turns out to be more than apt as the nanobots very quickly begin to take their programming way too far. Although Andy assures Stephen on numerous occasions that he doesn’t blame him (as in Stephen) for the events of the episode, it can’t really be argued that the tests Stephen subjected Andy to were directly responsible for his gills, eyes, and other freakish enhancements. Had Andy not been so overjoyed at getting his second chance and so afraid for his cancer returning, Stephen may have been able to deactivate the nanobots before they set about further “improving” Andy’s physical condition but, instead, we’re left with a cautionary tale of the limits of science.

“The New Breed” is full of disturbing imagery and warnings of the potential danger of science.

These lessons, while commonplace in many similar science-fiction stories and which can be traced all the way back to the likes of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (Shelley, 1818), are presented in a fascinating and terrifying way in “The New Breed”, one which left an indelible impression on me as a child. The shot of Andy’s new pair of eyes slowly, ominously blinking open through weeping pus alone is a nightmarish visual, as are the unnerving, gaping gills on his neck and the disgusting, twisted stingers that eventually cover his entire body and seem to be cocooning him for a further transformation by the end of the episode. Another comparison I could easily make would be to The Fly (Cronenberg, 1986), which is a similar tale of science at first improving a man and then quickly mutating him into some more gruesome and monstrous and my unapologetic fondness for that film may very explain my affection for “The New Breed”. Still, the episode remains as captivating and enthralling as ever (thanks also, it has to be said, to nostalgia and some intense sex scenes) and it’s just one of many strong episodes of the Outer Limits revival that I would point any self-respecting sci-fi fan to without hesitation.

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

Have you ever seen “The New Breed” or the 1995 revival of The Outer Limits? If so, what did you think to it and what were some of your favourite episodes? Did you enjoy the steady, gruesome escalation of the nanobots’ effect on Andy’s body? What are some other cautionary tales regarding science that you enjoy? Whatever your thoughts, feel free to leave a comment below and be sure to check back in next week for the conclusion of Sci-Fi Sunday.

Screen Time [Gazpacho Soup Day]: Red Dwarf: The Promised Land


In the episode “Me2” (Bye, 1988) of the classic British science-fiction comedy show Red Dwarf (1988 to 2020), it is revealed the Arnold Rimmer’s (Chris Barrie) last words were “Gazpacho soup!” and that he made a point to celebrate November 25th as “Gazpacho Soup Day” after a particularly traumatising visit to the Captain’s Table. Accordingly, this seems like the perfect date to celebrate the long-running cult phenomenon.


The Promised Land

Air Date: 9 April 2020
Director: Doug Naylor
Network: Dave
Stars: Chris Barrie, Craig Charles, Danny John-Jules, Robert Llewellyn, Norman Lovett, Lucy Pearman, Mandeep Dhillon, Tom Bennett, and Ray Fearon

The Background:
Red Dwarf was the brainchild of creators Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, who originally produced a similar show, Dave Hollins: Space Cadet for BBC Radio 4 in 1984. Influenced by sci-fi classics such as Dark Star (John Carpenter, 1974) and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Adams, 1978; Bell, 1981), the duo’s concept of a comedy set in space featuring relatively ordinary characters in an extraordinary setting was initially a hard sell but quickly became a cult hit among audiences. The show remained consistently popular and the duo became experimenting with more outlandish sci-fi concepts up until the seventh season, when the two parted ways, before disappearing from broadcast altogether following the eighth season. In 2008, the show was revived in a three-episode special that aired on Dave, which led to the commission of three more seasons that returned the four principal cast members, now understandably much older and far more jaded. After years of rumours, a feature-length instalment of the series finally saw the light of day in 2020 ahead of a comprehensive retrospective on the popular series. As a life-time fan of the show who had noticed an unmistakable dip in quality since the eighth season, I wasn’t too surprised to find that Red Dwarf: The Promised Land was met with mixed reviews as I remember being mostly unimpressed with it at the time of airing but let’s take another look back and see if it holds up on a repeat viewing.

The Plot:
While exploring Red Dwarf’s cargo bay, Dave Lister (Charles) is able to finally reboot Holly (Lovett), the ship’s computer, who promptly forces the crew to flee for their lives. In the process, Arnold Rimmer (Barrie) discovers technology to upgrade his hologramatic form and the crew stumble upon remnants of the Cat’s (Jules) race of felis sapiens, who worship Lister as  God and are being relentlessly hounded by the ruthless Rodon (Fearon).

The Review:
The Promised Land finally delivers on a concept the Red Dwarf creators had been kicking about years ago by returning to a long-forgotten plot point of the series revolving around the felis sapiens race; in all the length of the series history and the many bizarre plots and characters Red Dwarf has employed, the show never delved into this aspect beyond the first series despite the fact that it would have been pretty easy to have the cat race be recurring antagonists or characters. Instead, all we really know about felis sapiens comes from the Cat (who has little to no interest in the religious teachings of his race and is more obsessed with himself and fashion), an elderly priest (Noel Coleman), and the rough translation of the Cat Bible in the episode “Waiting For God” (Bye, 1988). It goes without saying that the focus of Red Dwarf has shifted quite drastically from the identity crisis Lister suffered in that episode, and which was peppered throughout the first series, and his status as the Cat’s God and saviour of his race was downplayed to the point of nonexistence in favour of him being a slobby, reluctant hero and developing a far more equal friendship with the Cat. The Promised Land, though, finally comes full circle back to these long-forgotten threads and shows that the felis sapiens race (or, at least, part of it) roams the universe on a fleet of warships under the command of Rodon. Rodon is unimpressed that three of his crew, Brother Sol (Bennett), Sister Luna (Dhillon), and Sister Peanut (Pearman), refuse to submit to his rule and, instead, prefer to embrace the antiquated teachings of “Cloister”.

The crew are forced to abandon Red Dwarf allowing Rimmer to upgrade to a temporary diamond-light form.

These three outcasts dress like Lister (at least, they dress like he did in the first two seasons) and believe wholeheartedly in the teachings of the Cat Bible; when they meet Lister, they bombard him with the big questions of life (male genitals, the agony of child birth, why people smell. You know, the usual) and are resolute in their belief that Lister is capable of working miracles since Peanut wondrously regains the ability to speak upon meeting her idol. Lister, meanwhile, has taken to hording junk, eating and drinking more than usual, and seems more distracted and slobby than normal, to the concern of Kryten (Llewellyn), who believes that Lister is having something of a mid-life crisis due to the pressure of being the last man alive. Eager for Lister to procreate and thereby ensure the survival of his species and give him something to focus on, Kryten suggests that the Cat undergoes a sex-change operation, much to their horror. This discussion is interrupted when Rimmer orders Kryten to investigated an unidentified object that appears to be on a collision course with the ship; when the object turns out to be the cats’ ship in need of aid, Rimmer decides that they’re all too old and too past it to go gallivanting off on some rescue mission and so has Kryten erase his memory of the entire event. This exchange goes on for some time before Lister and the Cat reveal that they found Holly’s back-up disk. However, upon rebooting Holly, they find that he’s returned to his factory settings and no longer recognises or remembers the crew or their many misadventures; believing them to be a group of stowaways and criminals, Holly decides to decommission Red Dwarf and drives the crew from the ship. Fleeing in Starbug, the crew plan to catch-up to the ship Rimmer picked up earlier, the Iron Star, and stumble upon advanced hologram technology; Rimmer, excited at the prospect of his form being vastly upgraded, decides to overrule Kryten’s concerns and (after cycling through his various costumes from previous series’) is granted a new “diamond-light” form and transformed into a veritable superhero. Sporting a glistening new uniform, Rimmer is now able to manipulate the density of objects around him, phasing through matter while still retaining his hard-light invulnerability, and even transforming into pure light energy at will…for about two minutes as his Light Bee is drained by the resulting energy surge.

There’s some surprisingly heartfelt moments amidst the cat drama and sci-fi action that sees the crew marooned.

While exploring the Iron Star, the crew stumble upon the cat escapees, who are immediately in awe at meeting their idol; as in “Waiting For God”, Lister is reluctant and uncomfortable at being worshipped as a God and insists that he’s simple a normal, unremarkable man. While he wants to tell them the truth, as he did with the Cat, Kryten and Rimmer discourage him from destroying their faith and he begrudgingly decides to play along while also vowing to protect them from Rodon’s pursuit. Rodon is unimpressed to find that their God is actually real as is concerned only with the rebels and the Anubis Stone they possess; he’s easily able to acquire the stone thanks, largely, to Lister not actually being the all-powerful deity the clerics believe him to be and orders his lackeys to throw them all out of an airlock as a message to those that would defy his authority. Thanks to Rodon’s impatience to destroy the Iron Star, the crew are able to elude their captors and make a harrowing escape in Starbug, though Lister impulsively jettisons the ship’s engines when they catch fire, sending them into an uncontrollable death dive to a desert moon. Thankfully, the hitherto-unknown Starbug owner’s manual reveals that the ship possesses emergency parachutes (as well as being a hybrid and having a hovercraft mode) and, while the Cat fashioned himself a jacket and mittens out of one, the back-up parachute is deployed, and the crew makes a successful crash-landing. Marooned on the moon with no food, water, fuel, or hope of escape, the crew are driven into a sandstorm when Rodon attacks and Lister begins to question the decision to keep the truth from the cats in their midst. Similar to when he worked to help Kryten break his programming, he is uncomfortable with the cats being so dependant upon him rather than thinking and acting for themselves and ultimately decides to break the truth of to them. When Kryten is unable to speak a bad word against Lister, Cat volunteers to do the deed but is quickly (and amusingly) reminded of everything Lister has done for him and briefly joins them in their worship of Lister, so Rimmer steps up to the task. Unfortunately, while he relishes the opportunity to tell them the awful truth about Lister, he is interrupted by a crashed piece of debris that may hold the key to their escape; in order to catch up to the piece of debris, Kryten is forced to conserves all available power, reducing Rimmer to low power mode. Thanks to being in mono and greyscale, and Cat’s goading, Rimmer begins to question his relevance and existence as he faces both his impending end and questions his identity. This does, however, give Lister an opportunity to show just how much he’s grown over the years; at one time, it would have been him criticising Rimmer and tearing him down but, instead Lister snaps at Cat for harassing Rimmer and is ultimately able to convince his long-time frenemy that he is a relevant and appreciated member of the crew with a heartfelt analogy comparing Rimmer to moonlight.

Rimmer ultimately saves the day and then reluctantly gives up his superpowers to save Kryten.

After being buried by the sandstorm, and with little options available to them, Rimmer comes up with the crazy idea to have Kryten establish contact with Red Dwarf and convinces Holly to load up his last save file, thus restoring his memories to the full. However, now suffering from three million years’ worth of computer senility, Holly’s only suggestion is to use one of Red Dwarf’s thermonuclear torpedoes to dislodge Starbug, a tactic which succeeds…but also destroys the entire moon in the process! However, Rodon and his fellow ferals managed to beat them back to Red Dwarf and, when he takes Luna hostage, Lister is forced to admit the truth about who he is, much to the disappointment and heartbreak of his devoted followers. Disgusted by these revelations, Rodon is satisfied to order Red Dwarf’s destruction with a time bomb; it’s also randomly revealed that Rodon is the Cat’s older brother and that the cats purposely left him behind for being “uncool”, thus spurring him to devote his life to being fashionably cool. Facing certain death, Lister performs one last miracle by revealing that the seemingly useless Anubis Stone in fact houses an incredible power source. He then uses this to power Rimmer back up to his diamond-light form, which allows Rimmer to save the ship from destruction by flying the bomb out into space. After a brief fake out where Rimmer appears to die (it’s already been established that his hard-light form is invulnerable to harm so it’s pretty obvious his diamond-light would be equally impenetrable), the crew fly head-first towards Rodon’s ship and Rimmer projects a beam of light into the bridge, turning Rodon’s crew against him and forcing them to crash into a nearby asteroid. Rimmer then reluctantly sacrifices his superpowered form to repower Kryten with the Anubis Stone (though he isn’t shy about rubbing this act in Kryten’s face) and the cats are returned to their people, their faith reaffirmed but now placed in Rimmer after witnessing his heroic actions.

The Summary:
Being a lifelong fan of Red Dwarf, I’m always excited to see the guys back on screen and getting up to all kinds of wacky hijinks and, ever since series eight, I’ve been continuously disappointed. You can really feel the absence of Rob Grant; ever since he left, the show hasn’t been the same and slowly, but surely, fell back on recycling the same old jokes and situations whilst sweeping all of the character progression under the rug. Thus, by the time the series came back on Dave, the Cat was right back to being a shallow, self-obsessed egomaniac rather than an independent and strong-willed character; Lister went right back to being a slobby layabout; Kryten regressed into a neurotic wreck; and Rimmer acted more like his season one incarnation than the developed and fleshed out character he was by season seven. To make matters worse, what little interest in continuity the show had was completely thrown out of the window, with sets, models, and outfits continuously changing with each of Dave’s productions and the show constantly dodging the unresolved cliffhanger of season eight in favour of random wacky shenanigans in space.

It’s great to see the characters back in action but a lot of the old magic is noticeably lacking.

Sadly, Red Dwarf: The Promised Land is no different in this regard; the only character who appears to have grown a little bit is Lister, who is now much more sympathetic and understanding to Rimmer and far more pragmatic and capable in tight situations thanks to his years of experience in dire scenarios. Yet this is never fully capitalised on and is massively downplayed in favour of random gags like Kryten’s sex change suggestion and laborious exposition and call-backs to previous episodes. Even the chemistry between the returning cast members is notably awkward; there’s a number of obvious pauses after they deliver lines where they wait for the laugh track or for the next line, which really interrupts the flow of their conversations and the few moments of genuine humour in the feature. The Promised Land puts a lot of its eggs in one basket, that being the depicting of the cat race. Accordingly, Rodon’s fleet resembles a cat’s face, the door to his private chambers is a cat flap, he and his minions all have exaggerate cat mannerisms similar to the Cat in the first series, and they’re all easily distracted by moving lights. Unfortunately, this all quickly outlives its charm; it’s one thing for one character, the Cat, to act this way but even he dropped the more annoying aspects of his personality by the second series and seeing a whole bunch of new characters take on the worst aspects of his character gets old very quickly. Equally, I found the call-backs to previous episodes and events more aggravating than anything else; Lister sings the Om Song, the crew run through a very truncated version of their past misadventures when bringing Holly up to speed, and Cat even drops a mention of the backwards world at one point and all this does is make me wish I were watching one of the earlier, far superior episodes of the show.

Some of the gags land and the feature has a lot of untapped potential in its premise.

It’s not all bad, to be fair. There are a couple of funny gags, such as Holly’s back-up disc being a gigantic floppy disc, Rimmer’s deep and overly dramatic voice when in his diamond-light form, Rimmer racing around with extension cords to prolong his lifespan, and Cat joining in with the cats’ “Listey-Listey” song. There’s also a definite sense that the crew are older and more world-weary (maybe “space-weary” is a better word) now: Kryten’s suit (which looks the worst and fakest it’s ever been) is all cracked and patched up; Lister’s rant about not finding the Cat attractive alludes to the possibility of him being impotent; and Rimmer asserts that they’re all too long in the tooth for any elaborate hijinks. Yet, once they are in the heat of their latest misadventure, the crew are still able to get by on the last few remnants of that old spark they had in season six, surviving through a combination of dumb luck, the stupidity of their enemies, and a modicum of competency on their part. Unfortunately, though, it’s just not enough to really capture the old magic of when Red Dwarf was at its peak. I was really excited when Red Dwarf first came back on Dave and was hoping for one last event to tie up all the loose ends and bring the story to a close. Instead, it feels as though Dave put the show on life support and has been dragging it out ever since. I would have much preferred to see maybe three one-hour specials that brought the story full circle, maybe even bringing the crew back to Earth or using time travel shenanigans to bring their story to a close. Instead, we keep milking the same gags and treading the same ground in a series of self-contained, meaningless episodes that, rather than celebrating the long-running cult show, merely serve as a bleak reminder of how great it used to be.

My Rating:

Rating: 1 out of 5.

Terrible

What did you think to Red Dwarf: The Promised Land? Did the jokes and gags work for you? What did you think to the inclusion of the cat race and Rimmer’s new diamond-light form? Are you a fan of the Dave era of Red Dwarf? Do you agree that it lost a lot of its magic after Rob Grant left or have you enjoyed the show regardless of the obvious dip in writing quality? Which character, season, and ship is your favourite and why? Would you like to see another feature-length special, maybe one that finally closes the book on the Red Dwarf story, or do you think it’s best to leave it be for now? How are you celebrating Gazpacho Soup Day today? No matter what you think, feel free to leave a comment about Red Dwarf: The Promised Land, or Red Dwarf in general, down in the comments.

Screen Time [Doctor Who Day]: Doctor Who: The Movie


On this day, the 23rd of November, in 1963, the longest-running and most successful science-fiction television series ever, Doctor Who, first aired on BBC One in the United Kingdom. Since then, the rogue Time Lord has gone through numerous incarnations, travelled throughout the entirety of the past, present, and the future, and is widely celebrated as one of the most iconic and recognisable mainstream cultural icons in the world.


Air Date: 12 May 1996
UK Distributor: BBC One
Original Network: CITV
Stars: Paul McGann, Eric Roberts, Daphne Ashbrook, Yee Jee Tso, and Sylvester McCoy

The Background:
In 1963, Sydney Newman, the Head of Drama at the BBC, commissioned the creation of an educational science-fiction show to fill a gap in the BBC’s schedule, something that would appeal to be children and adults alike. Staff writer Cecil Webber created a brief outline for the show, then known as Dr. Who, but it took a collaborative effort for this concept to be shaped into the debut episode, ‘An Unearthly Child’ (Hussein, 1963). Though the assassination of President John F. Kennedy overshadowed this debut, it fared somewhat better when rerun and the series shot to success with the second episode, which introduced the Doctor’s (Various, but played by William Hartnell at the time) long-running enemies, the Daleks. While Doctor Who reached mainstream popularity during Tom Baker’s time in the role, the show was cancelled in 1989 due to waning interest and a series of unpopular regenerations for the title character (who was then played by McCoy) but continued on in print, such as books and magazines.

Doctor Who’s immense popularity had waned by the end of the eighties.

In the mid-nineties, however, producer Philip Segal negotiated a revival of the series, which was originally going to be a complete, American-made and set reboot until writer Matthew Jacobs persuaded the filmmakers to tie it into the existing continuity. Many actors audition for the title role, some of whom would go on to play the Doctor years later, before Paul McGann was cast but, while McGann’s performance was received rather well, the feature-length episode failed to find an audience or impress in the United Kingdom and, especially, in the United States. While the film was largely glossed over when the show was eventually revived in 2005, McGann’s Doctor was actually one of the longest-running incarnations of the character, the first official Doctor I actually saw onscreen, and made a welcome return in the ‘Night of the Doctor’ (Hayes, 2013) special as part of the show’s fiftieth anniversary.

The Plot:
Whilst returning to Gallifrey with the remains of his old nemesis, the Master (Gordon Tipple), the Doctor’s (McCoy) TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space) is damaged and is fatally wounded upon making an emergency landing in San Francisco on the eve of the million. After regenerating into his eighth incarnation (McGann), the Doctor suffers from amnesia while the Master assumes possesses a new body (Robert) and plots to steal the Doctor’s remaining regenerations and destroy the Earth in the process.

The Review:
If you’ve never seen Doctor Who before, Doctor Who: The Movie is quite a daunting first experience in many ways; obviously, these days, with Doctor Who still running on the regular and access to the show being far easier, it’s highly unlikely that anyone would begin their Doctor Who experience with this feature-length pilot but, back in the day, that’s basically what happened for me. As I mentioned above, Doctor Who wasn’t on television when I was a kid so my exposure to the show came from the many novelisations my Dad owned, a number of videogames and audio books, and the two, largely unrelated films starring Peter Cushing. Thankfully, this was enough for me to understand the basic concept of the TARDIS and the relationship between the Doctor and the Master but, considering how long the show had been off television and the fact that the pilot was made for an all-new audience (and generation), Doctor Who: The Movie chooses to spread exposition regarding its concept throughout its runtime, which can be a bit daunting. The film picks up with the Seventh Doctor, “nearing the end of [his] life”, transporting the remains of his old nemesis, the Master, from Skaro and to Gallifrey; however, these opening scenes are narrated by McGann’s Eighth Doctor which is a bit of an odd choice and it almost feels like the film should have opened with the Doctor’s emergency landing on Earth and then incorporated more in-depth flashbacks, narrated by McGann as he relates his story to Doctor Grace Holloway (Ashbrook).

The Doctor meets a sudden end and regenerates into his amnesia-stricken eighth incarnation.

Regardless, the Master’s essence (little more than a slimy, snake-like glob) causes the TARDIS’s central console to malfunction and forces the Doctor to make an emergency landing on Earth, where he is immediately gunned down by a gang of gun-toting thugs who are chasing rebellious youth Chang Lee (Tso). Though a wannabe thug himself (and seeking to steal the Doctor’s belongings), Lee gets the Doctor to an ambulance, and a hospital, but Grace inadvertently kills him when his two hearts throw off their equipment and his alien physiology causes her trouble during her attempts to calm his erratic heartbeat. Thus ends the inauspicious seventh incarnation of the Doctor; there’s not a massive amount for McCoy to do except look horrified, get shot, and lie motionless in the hospital morgue but it’s nice to see him back in the role and to connect the pilot to the continuity of the series. The anaesthesia and being locked in the freezing morgue delays the Doctor’s regeneration into his eight incarnation and, as a result, when he dramatically rises from the dead (a scene cleverly juxtaposed with the creation of the Monster (Karloff) in Frankenstein (Whale, 1931)), he suffers from amnesia and wanders around San Francisco with fragmented memories. These led him to Grace and, having been confused by the Doctor’s physiology, she puts aside his wild demeanour and ravings in order to solve the mystery of her unusual patient.

Charming and enthusiastic, the Eighth Doctor is ruled by passion and empathy.

Grace, a well respected and highly skilled cardiologist, is baffled at having lost her mysterious patient literally right in the middle of a break-up with her long-term boyfriend due to her commitment to her job. Initially, she believes the Eighth Doctor is insane but is captivated by his charisma and mystery; however, he quickly proves his claims of the impending destruction of the Earth and his status as an alien Time Lord when he offers irrefutable proof. A charismatic, impulsive, and energetic incarnation of the Doctor, the Eighth Doctor is excitable, insightful, and very action-orientated, leaping on a police motorcycle and relying far more on his uncanny knowledge of the future to sway others to his whim rather than relying on his gadgets. Passionate, emotional, and effortlessly charming, his joy at the restoration of his memories leads him to unexpectedly kiss Grace, an action she finds very agreeable and encourages more of, leading to an explicit romantic attracting between the two. I remember, at the time, people hated this and it seemed like all anyone could talk about was how the Doctor would never do this so it really rubbed me up the wrong way when subsequent Doctors ran around snogging and falling in love with their companions and all anyone did was praise it.

The Master is obsessed with stealing the Doctor’s remaining regeneration no matter the cost.

Rather than the Daleks or the Cybermen, the Doctor’s antagonist is, of course, the Master; after being executed by the Daleks (sadly never seen onscreen), the Master is reduced to a snake-like creature and possess the body of Bruce, the paramedic who brought the Seventh Doctor to the hospital. Possessing superhuman strength and able to hypnotise others with his snake-like eyes, the Master is also able to spit venom at his victims and carries himself with an ostentatious, flamboyant arrogance. He’s easily able to persuade Lee to assist him in locating the Doctor with promises of gold dust and appealing to his greed, giving him access to the TARDIS and the Eye of Harmony located deep within it. Given that the Master has used up all thirteen of his regenerations and is only able to possess others, he plots to steal the Doctor’s remaining regenerations using the Eye of Harmony, a miniature black hole that powers the TARDIS and enables it to travel through space and time. However, the Eye being open weakens the fabric of reality and threatens to turn the Earth inside out on New Year’s Eve, 1999; the impending destruction of the planet leads to Lee opposing the Master and he, and Grace, pay the price for this insubordination. A remorseless killer, the Master wishes only to take what he wants, manipulate others, and have dominion over the living and it is his obsession with immortality that causes his downfall as the Doctor is able to force him into the Eye of Harmony and even perform a trick generally unheard of in Doctor Who by restoring Grace and Lee through the power of the TARDIS. Indeed, time in Doctor Who: The Movie is far more fluid and malleable than it’s usually presented in the show (“fixed point in time” my ass!), meaning that the Doctor can rewind time to prevent the destruction of the Earth and undo the Master’s actions even while they’re inside the TARDIS and even bring back the dead, which I don’t believe is something ever done in quite the same way in the show normally or else the Doctor would have surely brought back numerous companions in the same way.

The Summary:
I remember being really disappointed that more people didn’t enjoy Doctor Who: The Movie; it wasn’t like Doctor Who was on television at the time and, for me, something is generally better than nothing and, as a reintroduction of the character and concept, I think it works really well. The approach is, however, interesting; while I commend them for tying it into the show’s ongoing continuity and not starting fresh, I can see how new viewers would be a bit put off by the concept as it’s a little overwhelming and it walks a fine line between delivering exposition and keeping things vague (we learn a little about the TARDIS and the Time Lords but only the briefest of explanations about what these concepts mean and the history between the Doctor and the Master).

Thanks to the bigger budget, the TARDIS has never looked better and more elaborate than here.

One thing I really liked about the film was the depiction of the TARDIS; bigger and more elaborate than ever thanks to the bigger budget afforded to the pilot, the TARDIS is an extravagant and heavily decorated environment full of Victorian and Gothic architecture that, even now, the show has failed to fully replicate as Doctor Who generally only focuses on the main control room. The TARDIS is also depicted as having a degree of sentience; the Master comments that the ship “likes” Lee, responding to his touch and allowing him to open doors and even the Eye of Harmony despite the presence of the Master. At the time, like most people, I was mainly aware of the Third (Jon Pertwee) and Fourth (Baker) incarnations of the Doctor so, in many ways, the Eighth Doctor was my Doctor and the Doctor of my generation. I really enjoy McGann in the role; he’s passionate and dynamic, impulsive and full of vigour and sports a fitting Victorian-era outfit. Best of all, his solution to every problem isn’t to use the damn Sonic Screwdriver and is, instead, more geared towards his unique and (as far as I can recall) sadly forgotten ability to see and relate the past, present, and future of others through his distinct insight into their lives. Something else that I believe is only an aspect of this film (or incarnation of the Doctor) is that he is, apparently, half-human; I don’t believe that this has come up before or since and, honestly, it has little bearing on the plot beyond being a shorthand to explain his affinity for the human race and, apparently, his ability pilot the TARDIS.

I’ll always have a soft spot for the Eighth Doctor, who effectively introduced me to Doctor Who.

Honestly, it still bugs me that the Eighth Doctor isn’t a more prominent part of Doctor Who’s continuity; he had numerous adventures in books, comics, and audio dramas and it really feels like Steven Moffatt (a man whose contributions to the show I routinely call into question) missed a trick by not giving him a bigger role in ‘The Day of the Doctor’ (Hurran, 2013). I love John Hurt but the introduction of the “War Doctor” just caused too many problems and seemed like a cop out to me; I would have much preferred to see a series of specials chronicling the Eighth Doctor’s role in the Time War and decision to end the conflict between the Daleks and the Time Lords. I remember, at the time it was released, people seemed to be annoyed at how “American” the pilot was, that it had kind of perverted the quaint and cult nature of the show in some ways, but I think the additional budget did wonders for bringing the concept to life; the TARDIS has never looked better, the classic theme is the best it’s ever been, the effects and action were beyond anything seen in the show up to that point, and everything has a far bigger, grandiose feel to it. The cinematic quality of the production was also evoked when the show returned in 2005 which, again, was met was almost unanimous praise, which really annoyed me at the time as it seemed like everything people complained about in Doctor Who: The Movie was suddenly being praised and the only difference, really, was that one was produced in America and the other was produced in the UK. For me, the film, and the Eighth Doctor, will always have a special place in my heart and I’m glad that his surprise reappearance saw further interest in his portrayal of the character.

My Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Pretty Good

Have you ever seen Doctor Who: The Movie? If so, what did you think to it? If you saw it at the time, whether as a new or long-term fan of the show, what did you think of it? Were you put off by the “American” production of the show and the Doctor’s more passionate exploits? What did you think to McGann as the Doctor and the death of the Seventh Doctor? Would you have preferred to see the Daleks or another of the Doctor’s adversaries as the antagonists and what did you think to this incarnation of the Master? Which incarnation of the Doctor is your favourite? How are you celebrating Doctor Who Day today? Let me know your thoughts on Doctor Who and its feature-length production down in the comments.

Screen Time: Swamp Thing

Air Date: 31 May 2019 to 2 August 2019
UK Distributor: Netflix
Original Network: DC Universe
Stars: Derek Mears, Crystal Reed, Andy Bean, Will Patton, Virginia Madsen, Kevin Durand, Maria Sten, and Jeryl Prescott

The Background:
Although the monstrous swamp creature known as Swamp Thing first appeared in July 1971, the character is best known for his Alec Holland incarnation, though both characters were created by writer Len Wein and artist Bernie Wrightson. Not to be confused with a similar swamp monster published by Marvel Comics, the Man-Thing, Swamp Thing has long been personified as the protector of the “Green” and all environmental life. Considering how obscure the character is, Swamp Thing has quite a lucrative history in adaptation; he received two live-action horror/comedies in the 1980s, a spin-off live action series, a cartoon, and often crops up in animated ventures and videogames. Development of a new horror series based on the character began in 2018; ostensibly produced to provide more content for DC Universe, DC’s now-defunct video-on-demand streaming service. Existing in a separate continuity to other DC live-action shows, Swamp Thing was cancelled almost as soon as it began airing because of creative differences and financial concerns, which killed any plans for follow-up seasons and spin-offs. Despite this, Swamp Thing was generally very well received and the popularity of the show, in addition to the character’s very brief cameo in the Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover (Various, 2019 to 2020), has left the vague lingering hope that Swamp Thing might be integrated into the “Arrowverse” in the same was as Matt Ryan’s John Constantine.

The Plot:
When a deadly illness hits a small town in Louisiana, Doctor Abby Arcane (Reed) is sent to investigate and begins to suspect that disgraced scientist Alec Holland’s (Bean) research may be related to the outbreak. However, in the midst of her investigation into shady businessman Avery Sunderland (Patton) and the mysteries of the nearby swamp, Alec is suddenly killed but appears to live on as a monstrous swamp creature.

The Review:
All throughout Swamp Thing, the swamp is treated as a dark, ominous force that stalks intruders and actively hunts those who venture within it, no matter their intentions. Thanks to the dumping of mutagen accelerator, the swamp is alive, malevolent, and brutally kill those who invade its depths, and its influence has begun to spread into the nearby town of Marais, causing a debilitating virus known as the “Green Flu”. The town is understandably disturbed by the virus but also believes that the swamp, their primary source of income, is responsible and is striking back at those who would seek to destroy or damage it. Local businessman Avery Sunderland, who has brought prosperity to the town, is fascinated by the swamp after witnessing its power as a boy when his father, Burritt (Steve Wilcox), was murdered by the swamp for attacking one of its trees was when Avery was a boy.

Abby is puzzled by the Green Flu, which appears to be connected to Alec’s research.

The mysterious plague brings Abby back to Marais, her hometown; she’s a pretty, smart CDC doctor who immediately and affably takes charge of the hospital staff and the organisation of a response team but is haunted by memories of her childhood in Marais. Though stumped by the potency of the disease, which mutilates its victims with swamp life and roots and is capable of reanimating corpses into violent planet creatures, Abby’s investigation is aided Alec Holland, a quirky and mysterious but brilliant biologist who clearly knows more about the infection than he’s letting on. His research focuses on dangerous mutagens, which he has identified growing and mutating out in the swamp, and he explicitly demonstrates to Abby that the swamp is growing aggressively and malevolently and causing the disease. Although unsure of Alec’s odd demeanour, he and Abby quickly pool their talents; a quick Google reveals to Abby Alec’s sketchy past, which saw him disgraced after manipulating data to prove his theories, but instead of arguing, they bond over their past mistakes and remain focused on figuring out the Green Flu. During their efforts, they are horrified to witness the swamp’s malevolent effects but, right when they are on the cusp of figuring out how the Green Flu came about, Alec is suddenly shot and killed.

Swamp Thing isn’t the only thing brought to monstrous life by the swamp’s malevolent forces.

In his place is a large, monstrous bog monster (the titular Swamp Thing) that emerges from the swamp in a confused and agonised daze and, for a brief period, has a strange connection to Susie Coyle (Elle Graham), a young girl infected by the swamp. Susie is able to sense Swamp Thing’s emotions and even see through his eyes, to an extent, which causes her a great deal of distress, nightmares, and to leave the hospital in search of Swamp Thing. There, she witnesses two of men dumping the mutagen, a particularly brutal murder, and Swamp Thing violently attack and kill one of the men, Munson (Micah Fitzgerald), using the roots and branches of the swamp. Now able to communicate with the swamp and other plant life (known as the “Green”), Swamp Thing is functionally immortal as he’s able to almost immediately heal from any injury and has no need for his plant-like organs. Thanks to Swamp Thing’s unique connection to the swamp, Abby is able to suppress the Green Flu but this also alerts him to a foreboding, oncoming Darkness that has spread death and devastation throughout the swamp. When the Darkness manifests as the Rot, it reanimates Munson’s body into a zombie-like creature who spews and controls insects and goes on a killing spree until Swamp Thing defeats it. He’s also instrumental in curing and counteracting an infection that spreads from the Darkness and causes this exposed to see disturbing, nightmarish visions of their worst fears that lead them to violently injure and kill themselves and others in a frenzied panic.

Matt and Lucilia’s lives are turned upside down by Abby’s return and drive them down a dark path.

Abby’s return to Marais causes quite a stir for many characters; for her childhood friend, Matt Cable (Henderson Wade), who is now a police officer, she reawakens his childhood feelings for her. These drive him to accompany her into the swamp and to aid with her search for Alec, much to the chagrin of his mother, Lucilia (Jennifer Beals), who is also the town sheriff. Resentful and distrustful of Abby, Lucilia dissuades Matt from helping Abby, believing her to be nothing but trouble who will just break his heart, but, when Matt learns that Lucilia is little more than a corrupt official who has lied about his true parentage and been covering up evidence of Avery’s wrongdoings, he begins to consider transferring to a different department. Lucilia, who murders without a thought to protect her son, is driven to conspiring against Avery when she discovers that he manipulated his son into killing Alec, an action that ultimately dooms her to further betrayal and murder.

Maria regresses when Abby returns to town and soon descends into mania and insanity.

Like Lucilia, Avery’s wife, Maria (Madsen), is extremely perturbed by Abby’s return; blaming Abby for the death of her daughter, Shawna (Given Sharp), Maria is cold and hostile towards Abby and demands that she leave the moment her work in Marais is done. Having struggled with alcoholism after Shawna’s death, Abby’s return causes Maria to regress; she takes to sleeping in Shawna’s death and turns to local blind fortune teller, Nimue Inwudu/Madame Xanadu (Prescott) for comfort, only to be driven to both violence and near madness by Shawna’s vengeful spirit, which possesses Susie and attempts to kill both Maria and Abby. Fully aware of Avery’s transgressions, and having grown weary of him using her wealth to her own ends, she cuts him off and, after conspiring to kill him, appropriates Avery’s research for her own to enter into an alliance with Nathan Ellery (Michael Beach) and the shadowy Conclave Group. Abby also reconnects with another of her friends, Liz Tremayne (Sten), a local reporter who believes that uncovering the truth behind Avery’s shady operation will be her big break. At every turn, even after encountering Swamp Thing, Abby confides in Liz and is met with nothing but unconditional support as Liz takes every opportunity to aid Abby in her efforts to help Alec, solve the mysteries of the swamp, and expose Avery’s true nature.

The supernatural and the macabre are pivotal aspects of Swamp Thing‘s appeal.

Liz’s investigative abilities not only help to lead Abby to Swamp Thing after he is captured by the mysterious Conclave Group but also leads her to Daniel Cassidy (Ian Ziering), an former stuntman and actor who found fame as a live-action version of the superhero Blue Devil and runs a video rental store where Alec lived and worked. Unable to leave Marais due to a supernatural force, Daniel is compelled to assist Abby by the mysterious Phantom Stranger (Macon Blair), who bound him to Marais some time ago, even when this leaves him comatose and trapped in the town. Supernatural elements such as these are a pivotal aspect of Swamp Thing: Xanadu finds her visions and psychic abilities augmented by the dark forces growing in the swamp, Shawna’s ghost spirit torments Maria and Abby, and Alec’s presence haunt Abby, the show, and Swamp Thing himself. The ghosts of his former life echo in Swamp Thing’s dreams alongside disturbing visions of numerous dead bodies, which the Phantom Stranger explains are actually the memories of all the events the trees and the swamp and the Green have witnessed over the centuries. The Phantom Stranger encourages Swamp Thing to hold on to the humanity still in his heart and soul and to embrace his newfound connection to the Green, which allows Abby the see the truth about Shawna’s death, but it is through his continued relationship with Abby that Swamp Thing finds his most potent connection to his humanity. Desperate to find out what happened to him and return him to normal, Abby reconnects with Alec in the episode “Brilliant Disguise” (Ostrander, 2019), which sees him temporarily reassume his human guise thanks to a mysterious flower. Here, Alec reveals the true extent of the Darkness and the Rot and believes that he has been transformed into a warrior to combat these malevolent forces and, accepting his new destiny, reluctantly asks her to leave and move on with her life.

With Maria committed, Avery ends up little more than a murderer infected by the swamp’s darkness.

Of course, the dark forces in the swamp aren’t the only things Swamp Thing has to content with in the show; Avery’s dumping of the mutagen accelerator was meant to bring him more opportunities for profit and expansion but, after witnessing the power of the swamp and seeing what Alec has transformed into, he begins to manipulate the situation back into his favour. A disreputable and manipulative individual, he Avery regularly engages in extramarital relations with Lucilia (which ultimately turn Maria against him) delivers thinly veiled threats to Abby and Liz when they continue to poke their nose into his business, and purposely exploited Matt to eliminate Alec when he got close to discovering Avery’s plot. A slick and deceptive individual, he’s even able to trick Swamp Thing into trusting him and doesn’t hesitate to twist the narrative in his favour wherever possible, including having his wife committed to a mental hospital and threatening friend and foe alike. I found Avery to be quite an intriguing character and he had a lot of complex layers to him; though both he and Maria were heartbroken at Shawna’s death, Maria’s reaction is far rawer and more aggressive, and Avery is much more accepting of Abby. Rather than blaming her for Shawna’s death, he sees her as a surrogate daughter and regrets not defending her in the past and there’s a genuine sense that he cares for her even when he’s clearly primarily concerned with his own self interests. A master manipulator, he’s able to prey upon Maria’s fragile state of mind and lingering fears about Susie’s health into continuing his funding in order to improve the image of their family in the eyes of the public and the investors. Despite being betrayed by all those around him and having lost everything, Avery remains adamant in his ability to bounce back from his losses out of a pig-headed belief that the town is reliant upon his generosity and influence. With Maria reduced to a mindless shell of her former self, and having learnt that he is Matt’s true father, he attempts to rekindle his relationship with Lucilia only to be adamantly rebuked by her after everything he’s done to her and Matt.

Thanks to Woodrue’s invasive experiments, Swamp Thing is dismayed by the truth about his origins.

Although Lucilia reconciles with Matt, she doesn’t live to see that through as Avery stabs her from the backseat of her car and dumps her body, and the car, in the swamp. By the end, he’s been reduced from an affluent and influential industrialist to a cold-blooded, remorseless killer; he mysteriously spits up a piece of the swamp, hinting that he may have been infected by the Rot. Avery also forges an alliance with Doctor Jason Woodrue (Durand), an unorthodox biogeneticist with an unhealthy obsession with plants who was responsible for creating Avery’s mutagen accelerant and causing the plague. While Woodrue is incredulous since the swamp’s very nature invites disease, Avery is unimpressed with Woodrue’s efforts, which were supposed to allow him to profit and have, instead, brought an unwelcome amount of attention and death to his doorstep. Woodrue is both in admiration of the aggressiveness and potency of the Green Flu and the swamp but also determined to stay support his wife, Caroline (Selena Anduze), as she suffers from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Like Abby, Woodrue is astounded by Swamp Thing’s genetic make-up and the regenerative capabilities and, upon discovering evidence of Swamp Thing’s existence, convinces Avery to provide him the resources to hunt down and capture the creature, alive, for further research. Ever the opportunist, Woodrue willingly betrays and allies with each of the Sunderland’s in his desperate bid to find a cure for his wife’s condition; to that end, Ellery provides Woodrue with the proper facilities to continue his research and is instrumental in luring Swamp Thing into a trap to freeze him with nitrogen blasts. Subjected to an invasive examination more akin to an autopsy and subdued by special lights, Swamp Thing is horrified when Woodrue discovers that he has no nerve or pain receptors (despite the fact that he clearly reacts to injury), can survive without any internal organs, and his theory that Alec’s consciousness was merely absorbed by the swamp and given a humanoid form by its mutagenic properties. Disturbed by Woodrue’s claims, Swamp Thing returns to the swamp after being rescued and is devested when he retrieves Alec’s mangled corpse from its depths, confirming that he is merely an autonomous plant creature possessing the shadow of Alec’s consciousness. Thought despondent at this discovery, Abby insists that Swamp Thing is imbued with Alec’s heart and soul regardless and, after mercilessly slaughtering Ellery’s men in retaliation for the suffering they caused him, he is bolstered by Alec’s sprit and Abby’s devotion to stay in the swamp and find a new path for himself against the coming Darkness.

The Summary:
I really enjoyed Swamp Thing; at only ten episodes long, the show is paced incredibly well and the structure is just about perfect; it never feels like there’s any filler and everything flows naturally and nicely and with a real purpose. The show’s emphasis on dark, gritty horror really makes it stand out against other superhero shows and it does a really good job of explaining its unique lore and introducing just enough intrigue to keep you hooked; the supernatural elements are seen as equal parts mysterious and dangerous and beautiful and alluring, and the ominous presence of the oncoming Darkness was a fascinating inclusion that I’m sad to see has not been resolved in the Arrowverse as of late. In many ways, it feels like the showrunners should have tried to slightly rewrite the concept to refer to the destructive anti-mater wave that was the subject of the Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover but I remain hopeful that Swamp Thing’s loose ends will be addressed in some way, shape or form at some point.

Swamp Thing excels in its fantastic and creative use of practical and special effects.

One of the most appealing aspects of Swamp Thing is how well it utilises its special effects; the swamp, a living, largely malevolent being in and of itself, writhes and squirms through a mixture of practical and special effects that reanimates dead bodies with a sickening burst of ever-growing and malicious tentacles but nowhere is its influence more impressively realised that in Swamp Thing himself. Brought to life through the power of an impressive practical suit and augmented by animatronics and just the right amount of CGI, Swamp Thing is both impressive and horrific in his appearance thanks to an abundance of dark lighting, shadows, and well-framed shots but he also impresses when seen in full lighting. It seems like the showrunners wisely put a great deal of Swamp Thing’s budget into the titular creature, which results in them creatively cutting corners when it comes to Blue Devil. Sadly, we never get to see a clear shot of Blue Devil, who slaughters the Conclave’s goons through the power of frenetic and blood-soaked editing; to be fair, though, this does work to emphasise the brutality, horror, and mystery of Blue Devil. Performances are strong throughout Swamp Thing; Crystal Reed is a fantastically alluring lead actress, carrying just the right mixture of gumption, intelligence, and empathy. She feels a tremendous amount of guilt over her part on Shawna’s death and is both heartbroken and desperate to try and help Alec after he’s transformed into Swamp Thing. Similarly, while she’s little more than a supporting character, there’s a surprising amount of depth to Liz; I was very pleased to see that the two never fell out or had any interpersonal drama and were simply two close friends who supported each other no matter what, even in the face of their own deaths.

Sadly, as good as Swamp Thing was, its loose ends probably won’t be tied up any time soon.

I was impressed with Durand’s range for his portrayal of Woodrue, who is continually torn between his work and his wife just as Swamp Thing is torn between his humanity and the creature he has become, and his descent into insanity and villainy was all the more affecting because he wasn’t just some over the top comic book villain. I was similarly intrigued by Patton’s performance as Avery; a deceitful, manipulative character who always has the upper hand, he fought and clawed against his descent from his lofty position and always had another scheme, another option, at hand to try and turn things to his advantage. The only real issue I had, in fact (apart from the show being cancelled) was that Susie seems like she’s going to be important but basically disappears from the show after a few prominent episodes and her connection to Swamp Thing is not as pivotal as it seems at first. Honestly, it’s a real shame that Swamp Thing was cancelled almost as immediately as it started as it was very entertaining as a horror/mystery show and was a very different type of comic book adaptation. The show was also packed with some clever additions and references to the wider DC universe; Adrienne Barbeau, who starred in the first live-action movie, makes a cameo appearance as the CDC’s new assistant director, the Phantom Stranger was a surprising and welcome inclusion, and the show even does a good job of bringing Blue Devil to life when Daniel eventual transforms into an actual, fire-breathing demon. The show even ends on a massive cliff-hanger when Woodrue, driven to madness by his wife’s accidental overdose and his obsession with curing her, ingests Swamp Thing’s organs and transforms himself into the Floronic Man.

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fantastic

Were you a fan of Swamp Thing? Did you enjoy the show’s emphasis on horror and practical effects or was a bit too obscure and dark for you? What did you think to the Swamp Thing suit and effects and Derek Mears’ performance as the character? Which of the show’s characters and sub-plots was your favourite and did you enjoy the inclusions of names like the Phantom Stranger and the Blue Devil? How well do you think the show did at adapting the source material and were there any characters and plots you would have liked to see included in the show? Were you disappointed that Swamp Thing was cancelled and would you like the see the character and the show’s loose ends tied up in the Arrowverse? Whatever your opinions on Swamp Thing, leave your  thoughts down below.

Screen Time [Spidey Month]: Spider-Man (1977 Pilot)


Easily Marvel Comics’ most recognisable and popular superhero, unsuspecting teenage nerd Peter Parker was first bitten by a radioactive spider and learned the true meaning of power and responsibility in Amazing Fantasy #15, which was first published in August 1962. Since then, the Amazing Spider-Man has featured in numerous cartoons, live-action movies, videogames, action figures, and countless comic book titles and, in celebration of his debut and his very own day of celebration, I’ve been dedicating every Wednesday to talk about everyone’s favourite web-head!


Air Date: 14 September 1977
Network: CBS
Stars: Nicholas Hammond, Lisa Eilbacher, Thayer David, David White, and Michael Pataki

The Background:
Following his debut in the pages of Amazing Fantasy #5, Spider-Man soon graduated to his own solo comic series and, by the mid-1970s, had become an icon of mainstream pop culture thanks to numerous merchandise and adaptations in other media such as the 1960s cartoon. It was during this time that CBS bought the rights to produce a live-action show for prime-time television; however, rather than debuting as an episodic series, The Amazing Spider-Man first aired as a feature-length episode that served as a back-door pilot. The pilot actually received a theatrical release outside of the United States, though I only remember seeing it on TV here in the United Kingdom once as a kid; regardless, the pilot was a success and led to the commission of a thirteen episode series that aired between 1977 and 1979.

Spider-Man’s feature-length pilot led to a thirteen episode TV series.

Despite drawing favourable ratings during its airing, CBS were reluctant to continue the show as it was expensive to produce and underperformed with older audiences. As a result, the show was eventually cancelled and has never seen a re-release outside of a few VHS tapes back in the day. Although the series was lacking in any of Spider-Man’s recognisable rogues gallery, it’s rumoured that there were tentative plans to produce a crossover with the long-running Incredible Hulk series (1977 to 1982) but these, obviously, never came through. Today, the series is largely forgotten, having been long overshadowed by Spider-Man’s big budget live-action ventures but Peter’s likeness in the 1994 cartoon always reminded me of Hammond’s.

The Plot:
When freelance photographer Peter Parker (Hammond) is bitten by a radioactive spider and gains the proportionate strength, speed, and agility of a spider, he adopts a crime-fighting persona dubbed Spider-Man to oppose the aspirations of the malicious Edward Byron (David), who plans to hold the city to ransom with his mind control technology.

The Review:
After the introductory titles (which features both a glimpse of the spectacular stunt work that the pilot and series was known for and the show’s super funky seventies theme music), Spider-Man immediately introduces the central antagonistic force of the plot as a doctor and a lawyer are inexplicably compelled to walk out in the middle of their jobs and perform a bank robbery, with the only thing relating the two being mysterious pins attached to their suits.

Peter struggles to sell photos to, or get assignments from, the grouchy Jameson.

Next, we’re introduced to Peter Parker, a freelance photographer who suffers from allergies and is attempting to work his way through college by selling photographs to J. Jonah Jameson (White), to little avail. While Jameson is far less as explosive and grouchy than his usual iterations, he’s still volatile and a natural cynic at heart, especially when faced with the seeming randomness of the opening crime and the subsequent threat for further crimes to follow.

A lone spider is bathed in radiation during one of Peter’s experiments…

While Peter can’t catch a break with Jameson and is thus constantly low on cash, he’s intrigued by the threat of mass mind control that has been levied against the city and has far more luck in the field of science. Peter works in a laboratory alongside his friend and fellow student Dave (Larry Anderson) and the two of them are conducting experiments on radiation. However, while dealing with some radioactive waste, a lone spider is bathed in over 400 rads’ worth of radiation and, in its last desperate act, bites Peter’s hand.

Peter is exhilarated to find he can cling to walls and surfaces just like a spider!

I’m not entirely certain but I think this is the first time the spider bite was indirectly caused through Peter’s own actions and it’s an interesting change. Rather than going through any kind of adjustment period or troublesome transformation, Peter experiences the effects of the spider bite almost instantaneously, being aware of incoming danger thanks to his spider-sense and racing up a wall with ease and on pure instinct. It’s not until later, after a particularly gruelling night’s sleep, that Peter pieces together the fantastic event and realises that he has been genetically altered; this leads to a montage in which he explores the lengths of his new abilities on the outside of his Aunt May’s (Jeff Donnell) through the use of camera trickery.

After being dubbed “Spider-Man”, Peter throws together a costume to sell pictures to Jameson.

It’s not a great effect, and certainly nothing on the practical wire work seen later in the pilot, but it’s certainly ambitious for the time. Peter first puts his powers to good use while clambering up a wall in the city, which is startling enough to stop a purse snatcher (Barry Cutler) in his tracks. This leads to eyewitnesses dubbing him “Spider-Man”, which piques Jameson’s interest and, in that moment, gives Peter the inspiration to construct a colourful outfit and persona befitting of such a name and to explain Spider-Man’s logistics and capabilities to the pessimistic Jameson (and, in the process, the audience). While Peter acts on instinct to stop a criminal, his primary motivation for becoming Spider-Man is to sell Jameson pictures; there’s no Uncle Ben or lessons about power and responsibility here (which, I’m sure, today’s Spider-Man “fans” would throw a fit over!), just a regular kid trying to do the right thing and make some money out of little more than an ingrained sense of right or wrong.

Captain Barbara’s cantankerous, gruff demeanour was a real highlight for me.

In the course of the pilot, Peter runs afoul of the temperamental Captain Barbara (Pataki), a grouchy, cantankerous, and suspicious police captain who is kind of like the Jack McGee (Jack Colvin) of the show; perhaps because of his jaded nature, he is almost immediately suspicious of Peter and becomes even more so when Peter continues to show up at the scenes of the inexplicable crimes. Barbara is equally unimpressed with Spider-Man’s debut, believing (with little reason) that the wall-crawler is somehow involved in the mysterious events and voicing many of the more aggressive objections to the vigilante that are usually attributed to Jameson, who is skeptical of Spider-Man but never exhibits the hatred normally associated with the character.

Peter and Judy attend one of Byron’s aggressive seminars on the futility of life.

When covering the aftermath of another of the incidents in which Professor Noah Tyler (Ivor Francis) randomly committed a robbery and then crashed head-first into a wall, Peter meets his daughter, Judy (Lisa Eilbacher). Judy confides in Peter that her father has been attending a special group to teach people the “true meaning of themselves” through unusually aggressive lectures. This group, which is more like a cult or twisted church, is led by the pilot’s big bad, Edward Byron; Byron uses specialised radio signals to compel his victims to commit their crimes and is basically able to force anyone wearing one of his pins and subjected to his mind control device to follow his explicit instructions. Specifically, Byron has them commit robberies and then kill themselves and his end goal is extortion, as he threatens to kill several citizens unless he’s paid a ransom of $50 million. Byron exhibits a disdain for those in his group, and humanity in general, and believes himself to be above them both in terms of intelligence and stature; for all his grandiose speeches, though, he’s little more than a madman who wishes to exert and abuse his power and technology purely to satiate his greed.

Peter’s far from the hapless nerd from the comics and his ingenuity is heavily emphasised.

While Peter has some bad luck in the pilot, it’s generally more around trying to make money off the pugnacious Jameson and he’s far from the hapless, down on his luck nerd he is often pigeon-holed as. Instead, he’s a relatively well-adjusted young man who bonds with Judy extremely quickly and a central theme of the pilot is Peter’s intelligence and scientific acumen. Not only does he put together an impressive costume for himself but he quickly cobbles together his patented web-shooters and not only stumbles upon Byron’s hypnotic signal with his microwave emitter but also puts together a gadget to led him to the source of the signal.

Stuntman Fred Waugh took over once Peter donned the suit to perform the pilot’s dangerous stunts.

When in the costume, Spider-Man duties mostly fall to stuntman Fred Waugh, who adopts an agile grace and insectile posture that, possibly, was a conscious decision on Waugh’s part to emphasise the physicality of the character. The pilot features a number of complex and incredibly dangerous stunts achieved through the use of wire work, cables, rigging, and rotating sets; though you can make out some of the wires here and there, that doesn’t take away from the ambition of those involved and it’s because of this practical approach that, for the first time, we get to see a live-action Spider-Man literally climbing up the sides of buildings, leaping to ceilings and walls, and swinging across rooftops (something, even now, which is more likely to be achieved through CGI than traditional filmmaking techniques).

Spidey’s intelligence wins the day as much as his incredible strength and agility.

While these instances showcase Spider-Man’s agility, a protracted fight scene between the web-head and Byron’s three mind-controlled goons does a decent job of showing how formidable Spider-Man is (and, in a follow-up confrontation, his amazing recuperative powers); it’s not an especially thrilling fight scene as it’s a very slow and co-ordinated affair but, nevertheless, he’s easily able to outmanoeuvre and overpower the three. This also gets paid off at the conclusion of the pilot in one of my favourite scenes where Spidey, in the quest to bring Bryon to justice, makes friends with the three. Indeed, in the end, it’s not strength or agility that wins the day but a combination of luck (Peter’s control pin gets dislodged from his jacket) and intelligence as he not only discovers but also decodes Byron’s hypnotic microwave technology. This allows Spider-Man to tear down Byron’s control antenna and turn his technology against him, rendering him little more than a mindless puppet to face Barbara’s not-inconsiderable-wrath.

The Summary:
I’m well aware that I’ve used the word “ambitious” a lot in this write-up but it’s the best word I can think of to describe Spider-Man; it’s impressive how much the filmmakers were able to pull off given the limitations of the seventies and I would argue that, despite a lack of recognisable characters and villains, Spider-Man is actually a far more accurate adaptation of the source material, in many ways, than The Incredible Hulk. They’re both relatively grounded and far more realistic takes on Marvel’s colourful heroes but Spider-Man features far more innovative special effects to bring the character to life.

Despite the lack of Uncle Ben and May’s reduced role, Peter still uses his abilities responsibly.

I have to say, even now, that the Spider-Man costume is pretty impressive; it’s kind of like an all-in-one body suit but the colours are suitably bright and vibrant and I love the simplicity of the design, which includes reflective lenses and, in time, mechanical web-shooters of Peter’s own design that allows him to swing between buildings and stop crooks with a variety of webbing. It’s rarely, if ever, Hammond in the suit but the plus side to that is that Spider-Man is pretty much always wearing his mask and fully capable of performing the pilot’s complex and ambitious stunts and fight scenes. Thanks to the alterations to the character’s origin, Uncle Ben is no longer a factor (he’s not even mentioned or even hinted at) and Aunt May has a much smaller, inconsequential role where she’s a doting matriarch rather than a decrepit, fragile figure (something subsequent live-action movies would emulate). Regardless, Peter is still compelled to use his powers for good (…and to make a little money at the same time) simply because he’s a good kid; he may lack the tragedy and pure motivation often associated with the character but he’s nonetheless as determined to help others.

I’ve got a lot of nostalgia for the pilot and I’ve love to see the show made more accessible.

Neither the Amazing Spider-Man or Incredible Hulk TV shows were on when I was a kid so the only exposure I had to either was in their feature-length spin-offs and, for the longest time, Spider-Man was about as good as you could get for a live-action adaptation of the character. I remember preferring the subsequent features that were produced some time after this and were comprised of combined episodes of the show but, revisiting this pilot episode after a good twenty years was an entertaining experience, to say the least. Sure, many of the effects haven’t aged too well and it’s disappointing that it doesn’t adhere more closely to the source material but I am very forgiving of this pilot and have a real fondness for it, and Hammond’s portrayal of the character, so I can only hope that, one day, the entire series gets a much-needed release on DVD so more people can experience this early and ambitious take on the character.

My Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Pretty Good

Have you ever seen Spider-Man or the Amazing Spider-Man TV show? What did you think of them at the time and how do you think they hold up today? What did you think to the show’s costume, stunt effects, and Hammond’s performance as Parker? Were you a fan of original characters like Captain Barbara and Edward Byron or would you have preferred to see more comic-accurate characters and villains in the show? Would you like to see a release of the series on home media or Disney+ or do you think it’s best to leave the show to obscurity? Whatever your thoughts on the seventies Spider-Man adaptation, go ahead and leave a comment below and be sure to check in again next Wednesday for more Spider-Man content!