What’s Your Pleasure? Experiencing the HELLRAISER franchise

You might be surprised at the amount of legendary horror franchises I have not yet seen. Hellraiser, until the past week, was one of them.

Halloween, for example, I have only watched digested in its entirety over the past year. Franchises such as Friday the 13th or A Nightmare on Elm St still elude me. As much as I do enjoy horror, being married to someone who abjectly refuses to watch the majority of the genre means, frequently, I end up in another cinematic space. This isn’t to blame my wife entirely – horror has never been my number one genre. Yet, I remain committed to working my way through the entire canon of these long-running, fear-providing staples, as they are key texts in understanding horror as an overarching genre. Hellraiser, if not perhaps the most critically lauded of these examples, has been a pivotal part of the horror experience since the late 1980s.

Pinhead always scared me, even despite not watching the films. The looming visage of Doug Bradley’s sadomasochistic demon appears on the cover of every Hellraiser movie, bar the final two he didn’t take part in, and I remember as a teenager browsing in the ‘90s Blockbuster near home wondering what sights Pinhead might show me. The VHS cover was unsettling enough. As a child with an overactive imagination, I chose rarely to indulge in horror; besides I would no doubt have had to watch in secret from my parents. This was pre-internet and the days anything could be watched at a click of a button. Hellraiser, and Pinhead’s terrifying, come hither dark glare, has fascinated me since. Action movies were mainly my pleasure then but I always suspected Pinhead would catch up with me one day.

Last week, it happened. I opened the box (or in this case the PLEX server) and he came. And what I found was, I’ll admit, at times unexpected…

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ALIAS – ‘Endgame’ (2×19 – Review)

In 2018, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. This year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

You might not think it, but ‘Endgame’ is a surprisingly common episode title in genre fiction, and not just for the final episodes of seasons or even series.

Star Trek: Voyager memorably uses ‘Endgame’ as the title of its series finale, of course, and Highlander manages to squeeze a film subtitle out of it (although we know that story never really ends…), as recently has the Marvel Cinematic Universe with its epic Avengers finale. Numerous films, however, share the title, and Alias is by no means is the first series to deploy it. The seventeenth episode of The X-Files Season Two has the title End Game, and it crops up in shows as varied as Kyle XY, the BBC’s Holby City, The Equaliser, Babylon-5, Law and Order: SVU, Stargate SG-1 and on and on and on. It suggests finality and is described, frequently, as analogous to chess or games along similar lines. The endgame is the final stage of a game in which few of the cards remain.

That feels fairly appropriate to Alias at this stage because as we enter the last few episodes of Season Two, particularly after the shattering events of Truth Takes Time, a sense of tragic finality is falling across the series. Emily is dead and Sloane, consequently, has suffered a powerful loss at the very point he was on a high – he had facilitated Irina’s escape, he was assembling Rambaldi’s work, and Emily was even prepared to forgive him his trespasses out of her love for him. Her death sends him down a path of no return. Sydney, at the same time, has lost another mother in her life. Dixon has killed an innocent woman and is struggling to come to terms with his role in that. An ending feels in sight for these characters, even if Alias uses this point to pivot many of them again in a direction we didn’t, earlier in the season, see coming. Endgame also, along the way, manages to make a literal use of the title and weave it into the plot.

Endgame, while doing so, also manages to pick up and return to more of a stand-alone story thread that Alias didn’t necessarily need to focus on again, but serves as a key thematic point to explore that is resonating right now across the entire series: the security and fallibility of the American nuclear family.

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We need to talk about STAR TREK: VOYAGER

So I have a confession to make about Star Trek: Voyager. I have never sat down and watched, in its entirety, the last two seasons of the show. I didn’t watch them back when they aired around 20 years ago. I haven’t watched them since. I’ve watched some, here and there, but not all.

Technically, as a result, despite being a self-professed Trekkie and fan since I was a child, I’m not a Star Trek completist. This isn’t the case with any other show, either. I’ve seen all of Enterprise, for example. I’m up to date with Discovery. So why Voyager? Those episodes have been around for decades yet I have never felt the urge to revisit them. I think it goes back to my problematic relationship with the third spin-off series to Gene Roddenberry’s initial vision, one I’ve had ever since 1995.

I’m discussing this now as Voyager is, this week, a princely quarter of a century old which a) is fantastic and b) is terrifying for someone who grew up with it. Voyager first debuted when I was 12, almost 13 years old. I had discovered Star Trek on TV probably around a year earlier, having wore out VHS copies of The Search for Spock and The Wrath of Khan while in single digits. I liked The Next Generation. I already *loved* Deep Space NineVoyager, therefore, I greeted with enormous excitement. This was back in the days when in the UK they would release two episodes of a season in VHS tapes for DS9 & VOY every few weeks (these would cost more than a monthly Netflix subscription does now) and I bought them religiously up until, I would say, probably about the end of Season 4. Then something happened.

Well, two things happened. Firstly, this was around 1998 and as a sixteen year old leaving school, I was beginning to discover that being a Star Trek fan openly wasn’t doing me any good if I ever wanted to cop off with a girl. Secondly, I realised that I didn’t actually *like* Voyager all that much, and maybe I never had. Not in comparison to DS9, which aside from The X-Files and Babylon-5 around this point was the show I had lived and breathed during the 90’s. I started to realise that, a few episodes aside, I never found Voyager at all compelling.

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ALIAS – ‘The Box – Pt 1’ (1×12 – Review)

If The Confession was the point of no return, The Box is the tale which catapults Alias into what is, barring one or two exceptions, a season and a half of dynamic, top drawer storytelling.

Alias was a high concept TV series from the outset. The ‘high concept’ in Hollywood vernacular defines an idea which can be distilled into a pure, accessible, often blockbuster form. ‘What if we could clone dinosaurs?’ for example with Jurassic Park, or to use another Michael Crichton example, ‘What if theme park robots became sentient and took control?’. Alias itself flaunts the high concept in its DNA, pitched essentially as ‘What if a spy found out she was working for the enemy?’. Even from Truth Be Told, Alias perhaps throws a few extras caveats into that pitch but in basic terms, that’s the point JJ Abrams’ show starts from. The Box, however, is the first episode to truly deliver on a high concept idea.

If you look at Alias across the first half of its first season, we haven’t seen an episode anything like The Box. Right from the get go, Alias engaged in a level of serialised storytelling through which it broke the 90’s mould of stand-alone, easy to syndicate episodes of television to depict a compelling, ongoing narrative journey for Sydney Bristow as she becomes more embroiled in her double-agent life with SD-6 and the CIA. Each episode, even those which carried heavily over to each other such as Reckoning and Color-Blind, tells an espionage tale on a scale which never overwhelms the broader character and narrative arcs in play: Syd & Jack’s relationship, Syd & Vaughn’s relationship, the Rambaldi mythology etc… Thus far, the spy stories have been fairly incidental and the weekly bad guys relatively disposable.

All of that changes, immediately, with The Box. The first genuine two-part story in Alias’ lifespan, labelled indeed as such, it delivers on the high concept idea with the pitch: ‘What if terrorists seize control of SD-6?’. Alias does Die Hard, basically, and without a shred of embarrassment. Writers John Eisendrath and Jesse Alexander immediately understand their reference point and the fact they are riffing, broadly, off one of the greatest examples of a high concept in Hollywood history. It only adds to the joy of The Box which exemplifies the remarkable level of confidence Alias had in its storytelling from the very beginning. Many other series wouldn’t have the balls to make The Box until maybe its third, even fourth, seasons. Alias gets it out the way as a midpoint to its debut year.

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ALIAS – ‘A Broken Heart’ (1×04 – Review)

As we emerge from the initial phase of establishing the central concept of Alias, A Broken Heart continues developing the relationships between Sydney Bristow and our central collection of characters. While the least important and arguably most throwaway episode of the first season so far, Vanessa Taylor’s script nonetheless has several key interactions and narrative points which give the episode a purpose, and further suggest that Alias’ approach to ongoing, serialised storytelling means this won’t be a traditional 22-episodes marked by too many points of ‘filler’.

Not every episode of Alias has too deep a clear emotional or thematic through line, but A Broken Heart quite clearly is all about broken relationships, or relationships which are in danger of shattering. The title itself is a rather pointed pun with a double-meaning; ostensibly it suggests the climactic beat of the episode, in which Syd witnesses a bunch of Euro-terrorists place a small but hugely powerful bomb in the pacemaker of a UN diplomat, but it also rather directly refers to Sydney’s emotional state, and to some degree that of her father Jack Bristow. Both of them have suffered the trauma of losing the people they loved to sudden and rather violent deaths, and both of them have had their hearts ‘broken’ in the process. It becomes clearer that while Syd is trying to repair her damage, Jack’s may well be irreparable.

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Game of Thrones – ‘Baelor’ (1×09)

NED STARK: You think my life is some precious thing to me? That I would trade my honor for a few more years… of what? I grew up with soldiers. I learned how to die a long time ago.

Numerous precedents are set by Game of Thrones with ‘Baelor’. It is the first episode to be directed by Alan Taylor, who would make his name as one of the key, signature directors of the first two seasons. It is the first penultimate episode of the series to establish the show’s unique narrative style of delivering a blockbuster climactic tale just before the season finale. And it is the episode which killed off not only the biggest name actor in the series, but the character everyone began watching Game of Thrones convinced was the protagonist. By now we knew Game of Thrones had its own set of rules. ‘Baelor’ confirms it.

As I’ve discussed in my breakdowns of the previous episodes this season, Ned Stark has been heading for the chopping block since the moment he arrived in Kings Landing, and there has always been a sense in Sean Bean’s weight-of-the-world performance that Ned knew it. This was a noble character in a world without nobility, a feudal system which may ostensibly be ridden with stories of dashing, daring, brave heroes, but is shot through with a realistic, cynical modern day sensibility in George R.R. Martin’s world-building which often heaps scorn on the kind of characters who would try and live by rules of courtly, honourable behaviour.

Cersei Lannister told Ned just a few episodes that you either win at “the game” or you die, but Ned never really knew how to play that game at all. He was a character straight out of a different world, which was precisely the point; the moment he concedes he may have to start playing, not to win but rather to survive, his life is quite ceremoniously cut short. It’s just one of the stark (pun intended) ironies of Game of Thrones.

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Alias (Series Overview + Reviews)

Alias arrived at a fascinating point when it came to television.

The year was 2001 and a lot was changing in the ether around it. JJ Abrams, at this point best known as the writer of Harrison Ford weepie Regarding Henry, Michael Bay blockbuster Armageddon and show-runner of late 90’s teen hit drama Felicity, was nowhere near the producing and directing Hollywood totem he would become. His production house, Bad Robot, had not yet become the nascent Amblin of its generation. And, just nineteen days before the pilot, ‘Truth Be Told’, aired… 9/11 happened.

Abrams’ spy series already had some interesting cache behind it. Alias was a show that emerged on ABC with the intention of riding into the 21st century with a fresh storytelling model. The most successful and important TV shows of the 1990’s had almost all built their success on an episodic, network model of storytelling; 22-26 episode seasons with plenty of stand-alone stories which would serve the show well in syndication. In everything from Quantum Leap through to The X-Files, show-runners moving from the 1980’s into more of a Golden Age of television, in which some of the most key writers in both TV and cinema of the next few decades would emerge, had cleaved to the way it had been done for years.

Not Alias.

It would immediately strive for an aesthetic which would tap into a deep reservoir of retro-futurism, both aesthetically and in terms of production. Abrams and his staff came out of the gate leaning heavily into the kind of serialisation most shows in the 1990’s just didn’t do, bar a few trend-setting exception we’ll return to. The concept was both high and complex – female super-spy Sydney Bristow would find herself learning the covert CIA branch she had been working for, SD-6, was in truth the arm of a worldwide crime syndicate, and would work as a double-agent to bring down the enemy from within. Episodes would end on a cliffhanger every week and fold into each other. A surfeit of character and narrative mysteries would propel Syd’s journey along, not to mention a curious central, underlying occult and arcane mythology which tipped the show away from action-thriller and more toward science-fiction.

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Game of Thrones – ‘The Kingsroad’ (1×02)

Game of Thrones, in many respects, has more than one pilot episode. There is an argument the entirety of its first season, or at least a sizeable proportion of it, constitutes the introductory beginning. The Kingsroad very much continues layering in themes, concepts, symbols, ideas and character arcs which will pay off across the next half a dozen seasons.

This is where, of course, serialised television differs significantly from traditional storytelling, particularly when adapting literary source material. Game of Thrones isn’t the first serialised show to be described as a ‘novel for television’ (you can go back, at least, to J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5 in the 90’s which considered itself such), but never before had a TV show attempted to adapt such a grand, complex series of novels as George R.R. Martin’s. Unlike plenty of serialised series before it, and indeed which launched afterwards, Game of Thrones from the beginning knew in broad strokes the beginning, middle and at least part of the end, given the majority of A Song of Ice & Fire has long been written. This gives the beginning of the series a confidence many other shows struggle to find or maintain.

Game of Thrones in later series has been accused, not unfairly, of racing through plot beats. Seasons 6 and particularly 7-8 are almost certainly guilty of this, for better or worse. Season 1, however, is already taking its time. The Kingsroad merely builds on what was established in Winter Is Coming, which essentially was not much, in the grand scope of Westeros. It gave us our primary characters around which the entire show would orbit (given if you look at the pilot, the majority of key players are still with us in the final episode). It set up the principal antagonists of the series, and the main narrative through-line of Season 1, being the conspiracy at the heart of King’s Landing.

Foundations. Good foundations but with a huge amount of scope to add more scaffolding to.

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Cinematic Universes: the divisive wave of cinema’s future

With the advent of Justice League, many fans and commentators are once again discussing the concept of the ‘Cinematic Universe’, given the formative attempts by DC Comics over the last several years to emulate the rampant success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the first truly successful and revolutionary cinematic model of an overarching mythological world of characters and narratives informing one another. Inevitably with the internet, it’s leading to a war of trolls – Marvelita haters and DC sceptics waging a pointless conflict over territorial ownership and trying the answer the utterly subjective question – ‘which is better?’. For every critic who tells you the MCU is technically stronger as a tapestry, you’ll easily find more than enough ‘DCEU’ defenders to race in with their Amazonian swords and claim everything Marvel has done is powerfully overrated. There can be no victor in such a battle.

In truth, discussion of the Cinematic Universe has never gone away. Hollywood and the blockbuster movie system has been utterly consumed and dominated by the power of a connected storytelling model, following the template Marvel Studios laid down. It has arguably changed the very fabric of the cinematic franchise. Following the essential advent of the ‘blockbuster’ in the mid-1970’s with Jaws and of course Star Wars, it took Hollywood a while to truly embrace the idea of creating what we accept as a ‘franchise’. Sequels had always existed – we can go back as far as 1916 indeed for the first recognised follow up, Thomas Dixon Jr’s The Fall of a Nation, which carried on the story from DW Griffith’s historically polarising The Birth of a Nation – but it was truly the 1980’s that gave birth to the notion of a franchise, once Star Wars developed sequels to George Lucas’ game-changing original movie and developed an entire cinematic eco-system around the property.

Sequels, nonetheless, remained *sequels*. Film number two. Taking the characters and situations from the first successful picture and moving them in new directions, though not always. Many sequels in the 80’s and 1990’s simply re-trod all of the same beats people loved about the first movies, mostly with diminishing returns. That’s what made The Empire Strikes Back so powerful; it took Star Wars and those characters truly in new, challenging directions and forever altered their destinations. Not every sequel took such a bold leap forward for its characters and narrative. Many played it safe, an accusation oddly levelled at some of the recent cinematic universes which were born out of the ashes of continuing storylines.

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