About George Willcox

George Willcox is in his early twenties and has recently been awarded a Master’s Degree in Film Studies. Film and filmmaking has always been his passion since he was a very small child. George has previously worked as a cameraman and as a film editor for a number of independent film productions, television news and lifestyle programmes. Currently, he is trying to expand my resumé as a film and television screenwriter as well as a film and television critic. Whilst he is extremely passionate about making films, George's academic studies on the subject has imbued him with a strong desire to work within the media industry in a writing capacity. George considers himself skilled at writing in an entertaining yet clear and concise manner. During his university studies, he was commended for the quality of his academic papers and short film screenplays (one of which was an award winner at his university). Outside of his film and television interests, George enjoys hiking, reading and video gaming.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: “Nothing Personal”


The show’s villains: Ward and Deathlok.

Nothing Personal should be the episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in which the pace and tension is fired up; preparing the audience and the characters for the season finale. After several strong, suspense-filled episodes, Nothing Personal should be the episode in which everything is brought to crisis. Instead, it manages to be one of the blandest and least relevant episodes of the series so far. There has been a bizarre pattern emerging from the most recent episodes of the show. The excellent Turn, Turn, Turn, had the distinct characteristics of a season finale: massive revelations, the emergence of the show’s shadowy villain and a cliff-hanger ending that changed the whole dynamic of Agent Coulson’s (Clark Gregg) S.H.I.E.L.D. team. As a result, the following episodes have had the quality of an extended epilogue. This is certainly true of Nothing Personal, which adds almost nothing significant to the progression of the series until the very last scene.

Following on from the events of the previous episode, Coulson, Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) return to their hidden base with Agent Triplett (B.J. Britt). Upon discovering that their plane is missing and Agent Ward (Brett Dalton) has absconded with Skye (Chloe Bennett), the truth slowly dawns upon them; Ward is a double agent for the sinister HYDRA terrorist organisation. Before they can plan Skye’s rescue, their base is invaded by US Military personnel, led by the obnoxious Colonel Talbot (Adrian Pasdar). S.H.I.E.L.D. top brass Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) also arrives on the scene in an attempt to convince Coulson to stand down and adhere to the military’s demands, or so it seems. The secondary plot of this episode concerns Skye’s attempts to misdirect Ward and prevent him from obtaining useful S.H.I.E.L.D. information. At first, she plays along with his insistence that he can be trusted. However, when Skye’s attempted police rescue backfires, Ward discovers that Skye is perfectly aware of his HYDRA loyalty. Soon Skye is caught between the machinations of the deceitful Ward and the dangerously violent Deathlok (J. August Richards), the tragic cyborg villain that Skye and the other agents failed to save.

This episode could have been used to examine Agent Ward and his relationship to his former teammates. Upon discovering that Ward is traitorous, Fitz’s responds with an infantile tantrum and a refusal to believe that his “friend” would betray them. This moment falls utterly flat, due both to De Caestecker’s lacklustre acting, and the fact that never in the series does Ward act like a “friend” to Fitz. Right from the first episode, the agents have been written as a dysfunctional family (a staple of Joss Whedon-produced television). This dynamic has never really materialised because it was never given the opportunity to evolve. The characters were a family from episode 01, end of story. At no point did the audience see them transform from a “unit” into something more meaningful. Ward’s betrayal hurts Fitz, but it really has no reason to. Even when the two characters were paired up as a duo in previous episodes, no sense of camaraderie was indicated.

Similarly uneventful are the scenes in which Ward tries to justify his actions to Skye. What should be a punch-in-the-gut evisceration of the Skye/Ward romance that has been indicated since the pilot feels more like another example of “continuity housekeeping”. Rather than focussing on the emotional trauma that Skye should be experiencing upon discovering Ward’s betrayal, the writers choose to focus on explaining Ward’s actions and his relationship to HYDRA. For example, in 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger (which takes place in the same fictional universe as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), HYDRA is an organisation formed by the Nazis during World War Two. One question that has yet to be answered until this episode is whether or not the modern HYDRA retains the national socialist ethos of its founders (Ward confirms that it does not; modern HYDRA agents are not neo-Nazis). Whilst this is a question that continuity-savvy viewers may have wanted answered, it feels like unnecessary exposition that consumes time that could have been better utilised exploring the character of Ward.

By the end of the episode, every character has returned to the same place (emotionally if not geographically) that they were at the end of the previous instalment. Never has there been an episode of this show in which so very little is accomplished. There are few positive aspects of note: the special effects are very strong (Deathlok’s superhuman strength is used well), Brett Dalton delivers one of his more competent performances as the now-treacherous Ward, and the cliff-hanger in the last scene is very intriguing (as well as being quite funny thanks to Clark Gregg’s comedic timing). However, other than these occasional good points, Nothing Personal is one of the weakest and most unnecessary Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episodes thus far.

Image from comicbook.com

TV- Penny Dreadful: “Demimonde”- Perhaps this show has some bite after all


Reeve Carney as the immortal hedonist, Dorian Gray

Demimonde, the fourth episode of Penny Dreadful is an improvement over the somewhat monotonous third instalment. More information is revealed about the show’s main characters and the overall story arc, and there are some fantastically eerie moments that should spook and amuse any horror fan. The episode still suffers from some of the problems that have cropped up in every episode so far (such as overly flowery, pretentious dialogue) but Demimonde indicates that the show is far from running out of steam.

At the end of the last episode, Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) investigated London Zoo in search of Sir Malcolm’s vampire daughter, Mina. Instead, they found Fenton (Olly Alexander) an insane teenager with a vampire-like craving for blood. Unlike the other vampires on the show, who are either super-agile thugs or monstrous skeletal creatures, Fenton is a somewhat pathetic wretch. Sir Malcolm and his allies lock him in a basement with the intention to let Dr Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) experiment on him (in order to find a cure for Mina). Fenton’s character and appearance will be very familiar to any viewer who knows their Dracula; Fenton is extremely similar to the character of Renfield from Bram Stoker’s original novel. Like Renfield, Fenton screams feeble threats and demands animals to feed upon. So pitiful is Fenton that Chandler feels extremely conflicted about Frankenstein’s experiments; this is the first of several clues dotted throughout the episode that Chandler may be more than the gun-wielding everyman he appears to be. By the end of the episode, so many hints have been dropped that Chandler is a werewolf that it now seems fairly unlikely to be true. The writing of Penny Dreadful is too strong for Chandler’s secret to be anything so bland as a simple case of lycanthropy (werewolf-ism).

Chandler takes his dying lover, Brona (Billie Piper), to a horror show theatre, unaware that most of the show’s core characters are also attending the performance. Vanessa Ives is attending, as is the mysterious Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney). Ives and Gray’s relationship becomes increasingly complex in this episode, a merging of flirtatious banter and acerbic insults. This episode is the first in which the eponymous Picture of Dorian Gray is glimpsed, implying that Gray has already become the amoral immortal of Oscar Wilde’s novel. When Brona becomes intimidated by Vanessa’s obvious upper middle class status and Gray’s sudden appearance (Brona providing sexual services to the hedonistic Gray in a previous episode), she leaves the theatre and abandons Chandler. This leads to Chandler travelling the city with Gray, leading to a shocking plot twist that is sure to transform the relationships of the shows’ characters.

Also present at the theatre is Caliban (Rory Kinnear), better known as Frankenstein’s Monster. Caliban remains an intriguing villain, if not a little unclear in his motivations. At one point in the episode, Caliban foolishly boasts to Frankenstein that he plans to overthrow mankind with a new race of artificial beings like himself and that humans are weak and feeble. Yet Caliban seems to enjoy his work as a theatre stagehand, smiling and laughing as the theatre actors shock and amuse the patrons. It remains to be seen if this is complex characterisation or sloppy writing. The only other member of the cast who attends the show is Sembene (Danny Sapani), Sir Malcolm’s African manservant. So far the character has remained something of a cipher, mostly-mute figure whose motivations and history remain to be revealed.

This episode masterfully sets up avenues for future storylines. A huge treat for fans of horror and science fiction television is the cameo by David Warner as Dracula’s Professor Van Helsing. Van Helsing shares a brief scene with Frankenstein in which the professor reveals that he is aware of the existence of vampires. Later in the episode, a vampire monster invades Sir Malcolm’s home in search of Vanessa. Considering that Fenton refers to this creature as “Master” (the name Renfield called Count Dracula in Stoker’s novel), and the fact that Professor Van Helsing is established in this same episode, it is possible that the vampire is none other than fiction’s most famous bloodsucker himself. If so, fans of Gothic Horror fiction have a lot to be excited about for the future of Penny Dreadful. The problems with the show continue to mostly manifest as poor choices in the dialogue. Whilst the show is meant to be melodramatic and over-the-top, some of the dialogue in this episode crosses the tenuous line into outright silliness. In one of the first scenes, Vanessa is asked by Gray to describe a flower. Her resulting speech is supposed to be provocative and erotic, but it just comes across as farcical: she is, after all, “talking dirty” to a plant. Whilst most of the cast are assembled at the theatre, Frankenstein and Sir Malcolm discuss the latter’s planned expedition to find the source of the Nile (a nice touch for fans of 19th Century history). Frankenstein expresses displeasure at not being selected by Sir Malcolm as a travelling companion and Sir Malcolm retorts by saying that he could not bear Frankenstein’s death on his conscience. This exchange is utterly bizarre, since it suggests a strong kinship between these two men that has never been implied before. Why the cold and erasable Sir Malcolm would care so much for the slippery, cowardly Frankenstein is not properly explain beyond a vague reference to Sir Malcolm’s dead son being somewhat like the doctor. Perhaps this exchange will gather greater meaning in later episodes.

Whilst doubtlessly flawed, Demimonde achieves at being atmospheric, creepy and very intriguing. It seems as if all of the key pieces of the season’s narrative are now in place. Now the story can really begin.

Image from wegotthiscovered.com

TV- Penny Dreadful: “What Death Can Join Together”- A monstrous indulgence


The Master… ?

As the finale draws ever closer, the events of Penny Dreadful become increasingly hectic and unpredictable. What Death Can Join Together brings back the shows’ main characters after the “prequel” episode Closer Than Sisters. Sir Malcolm’s (Timothy Dalton) pursuit of his vampire daughter finally culminates as a full-blown self-destructive obsession. Meanwhile, Vanessa (Eva Green) begins to explore the darkest recesses of her own soul whilst spending the night with Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney). Interestingly, the episode seems mostly dedicated to character progression. The main narrative of the show (the search for Mina) has not really advanced. Considering that there remain only two more episodes in the season, the writing feels almost arrogantly confident. It is impossible to say how close the characters are to finding Mina and her “master” (Count Dracula?). The episode features a very well-shot action sequence and some excellent performances, but feels a little superfluous. Instead of setting the groundwork for a strong season finale, the creators of the show seem to be indulging their love of gothic horror and of the macabre.

In the last episode that was not a flashback, Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) succumbed to the sexual advances of Dorian Gray. It is odd but intriguing that nothing about his shocking tryst with another man is even referenced. Chandler’s sexual encounter with Gray could have formed the basis of a love triangle with Vanessa or Brona (Billie Piper). Instead, it is not mentioned and instead becomes a small glimpse into Gray’s seductive power and Chandler’s complex sexuality. Instead of dwelling on previous events, Chandler and Sir Malcolm embark on yet another expedition to find Mina. Their investigation takes them to a quarantined “plague ship” at the London docks. This is a pretty obvious reference to the Demeter, the ship that carries Dracula to the English coast in Bram Stoker’s novel. Just as it was in Dracula, the crew of the ship have fallen victim to a powerful vampire that is hiding in the ship’s hold. Chandler, Sir Malcolm and Sembene (Dany Sepani) descend into the plague ship, only to find themselves surrounded by vampires. The ship location is a great set for a tense horror sequence; claustrophobic and dark, it is a fantastic locale to set a vampire attack. Unfortunately, the episode is in such a hurry to get to the dramatic human vs. vampire battle that the ship is fairly underutilised. More problematic is the fact that so much more is shown of the “Master” vampire this time. Whereas before, the “Master” was a horrifying entity (one of the best-designed live action vampires in TV history) because he was displayed only in shadow in brief cuts, the audience is now treated to a far better view of the creature. This is absolutely the wrong thing for the show’s creators to do, since showcasing a monster always diminishes its effectiveness and menace. Perhaps this monster is not the “Master” after all, and that the true antagonist of Penny Dreadful has yet to reveal himself. But even so, the episode’s lack of subtlety in dealing with the supernatural is disappointing.

The second subplot of the episode deals with Victor Frankenstein’s (Harry Treadaway) ongoing torment at the hands of his monstrous creation Caliban (Rory Kinnear). Still demanding a female monster as a companion, Caliban intends to destroy Frankenstein’s whole world unless he gives in and creates a new creature. It seems that Caliban has his eyes set on Maud (Hannah Tointon), a beautiful actress at the theatre where he works. The cinematography and editing of previous episodes seemed to hint that Brona would be transformed into a female monster, but this seems to have been dropped (Penny Dreadful is fond of subverting audience expectations) in favour of showcasing Caliban’s attraction to Maude. Only time will tell if this is yet another red herring, though it would be thematically effective for Maude to die and become a monster (since she “dies” every night on stage).

Perhaps the best element of this episode is interestingly also the worst; David Warner reappears in the perfectly-cast role of Professor Van Helsing and masterfully delivers exposition, only to make a very swift exit from the series altogether. This seems like a wasted opportunity, since Van Helsing would have made a great recurring character on the show. Instead, his character leaves without ever communicating with the show’s cast (other than Frankenstein). During his brief appearance, he reveals his tragic life history and informs Frankenstein about exactly what vampires are. A fact that many audience members may not have realised is that none of the vampire-hunting characters of Penny Dreadful actually know what vampires are or how to adequately fight them. It makes sense that people living in a setting in which vampires are real would not be familiar with the popular culture tropes associated with vampires, such as how to kill them. Van Helsing passes this knowledge onto Frankenstein before leaving. Perhaps this will allow Frankenstein to come into his own as a man and prove himself to his allies (something that he has been anxious about for several episodes). The most important scene in this episode seems to be when Van Helsing shows Frankenstein a cheap horror magazine, finally showcasing an actual penny-dreadful in a show named Penny Dreadful. Whilst this episode certainly has its fun and exciting moments, it does little to advance the series onwards. Hopefully, this episode represents the calm before the storm and that the penultimate episode will be more exciting and gleefully horrifying.

Image from tv.com


TV- Penny Dreadful: “Closer Than Sisters”- A Powerful Prequel


Eva Green in one of her best performances.

The creators of Penny Dreadful seem to relish the conventions of the supernatural procedural drama. The show is something of a love letter, not just to the Gothic literature that inspired it, but to older supernatural-themed shows like Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Supernatural. Penny Dreadful is not simply fun in its own right, but fun as a celebration of its genre. The show can be hard to criticise, because many aspects of the plot and production that seem “generic” or “overdone” feel entirely purposeful. Penny Dreadful is a pastiche; a work of innovation instead of invention. Closer Than Sisters, the fifth episode in the series, follows in the tradition of other genre shows by revisiting the often-utilised concept of the flashback episode. Genre TV shows from Fringe to Heroes have relied on this style of episode to flesh out one or more of the characters in a manner that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. By setting the episode months or years before the events of the main series, the writers are able to examine the background of a protagonist or of the show’s setting. Closer Than Sisters finally reveals the much-alluded to history between Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) as well as linking the events of Penny Dreadful to the events of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Despite being more than a little predictable at times, the episode is atmospheric, extremely eerie and surprisingly funny in places. Almost all of the praise for the episode must go to Eva Green who absolutely excels at portraying Vanessa’s transition from rebellious teenage girl to a (literally) haunted world-weary woman. The more Penny Dreadful progresses, the more likely it seems that Vanessa Ives was the character that Green was born to play.

Beginning years before the events of the main show, Closer Than Sisters follows the idyllic childhood of Vanessa and her best friend Mina (a character from Dracula, played here by Olivia Llewellyn). The two girls enjoy an extremely close friendship, due to their families living beside one another in luxurious mansions on the Yorkshire Coast. Vanessa’s perfect childhood is interrupted by the discovery that her mother is having an affair with Mina’s father, Sir Malcolm. The revelation of her mothers’ sinful actions has a slow but powerful effect upon the young Vanessa, which comes to a head in her teenage years when she betrays Mina and shatters their sister-like bond. Vanessa falls into a deep depression and is confined to an insane asylum (which is every bit as horrifying as Victorian psychiatric hospitals are known to have been). During her barbaric treatment, there is an indication of a second personality within Vanessa, a dark supernatural being that has been pushing her to evil actions all her life (this is almost certainly one of the two evil Egyptian supernatural beings referenced in previous episodes). Vanessa is ultimately trepanned (19th Century brain surgery) and becomes comatose. When she finally awakens, the events of Dracula have already taken place. Vanessa’s demonic possession claims the life of her mother in a shocking scene that is both terrifying and an example of (extremely) dark comedy.

Whilst it’s a shame that a flashback episode means that there is no time to showcase the shows’ other characters, this remains one of the best episode of the series so far. The Gothic atmosphere is palpable; whole sections of this episode could be mistaken for a Charlotte Bronte adaptation. The performances are suitably overstated and grandiose, bordering on the comical in places. The supernatural element is subtle and eerie; a disembodied whispering voice is far creepier than any prosthetic monster could hope to be. The star of this episode, by far, is Eva Green. The theme of the precarious position of women in 19th Century society has been touched upon in the show previously (with Billie Piper’s Brona), but this episode dedicates itself to examining the plight of being young and female in a society where the worth of such a person is dictated by her marriage eligibility. Even as children, Vanessa and Mina are encouraged to imagine their future husbands. Vanessa’s later transgression against Mina is born out of her frustration at being inexperienced sexually. When she attempts to express her repressed sexuality to Mina’s brother Peter (Graham Butler), he acts like the proper Victorian gentleman and flees. Like so many women of her age, Vanessa is subjected to torturous experiences in an asylum because she is an inconvenience to those around her (although, credit to the show’s writers, Vanessa’s mother and father are written as entirely sympathetic to their daughter and not as stereotypical Victorian aristocratic parents). The show is not expressing a political message so much as creating a suitable back-story for the Vanessa of the main show. Vanessa is a product of her time, through and through. Victorian masculinity is similarly examined in the episode alongside Victorian femininity. Peter’s desperate desire to prove himself to his father is well-written and fairly well acted by Butler. As the audience already knows that Peter is going to die horribly, his need to accompany his father is particularly tragic and dark. Sir Malcolm is presented as being as responsible for Mina’s ultimate fate (as a vampire) as Vanessa is. It is still not clear exactly how true Penny Dreadful is being to its spiritual precursor, Dracula. One could argue that almost everything from Stoker’s novel could plausibly have taken place during Vanessa’s coma. More characters from the novel would have been a welcomed way to tie the events of the show and the book together (assuming that the shows’ creators want them to be so connected). Closer Than Sisters is a fun transgression and an important episode for those seeking to understand the shows’ main character. It is a strong tribute to the very concept of the “flashback episode”.

Image from searchingforsuperwoman.com

TV- Penny Dreadful: “Resurrection”- A Stitched-Together mess of an episode


Rory Kinnear as the Frankenstein Monster, Caliban.

The third episode of Penny Dreadful, Resurrection, lacks the frantic pace of the first episode and the melodramatic fun of the second episode. The show continues to be one of the most interesting things currently airing, but the third episode undeniably dips in quality somewhat. This episode suffers from unnatural, stilted dialogue and a certain lack of clear direction. By the close of the episode, every character is (physically and psychologically) almost exactly where they were at the end of the first episode. Little feels like it has been accomplished other than introducing a potential antagonist in the form of Rory Kinnear’s Caliban (better known as Frankenstein’s Monster). Performances remain strong and the show continues to impress with its Gothic atmosphere, but it can’t be denied that Resurrection is simply not as strong as its predecessors.

The episode opens by recounting the back-story of Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), revealing that his obsession with re-animating the dead is the result of his mother’s tragic and painful death from consumption. The scenes with young Victor are not very well executed. The young actor playing 10-year-old Victor delivers his lines in an unnatural and wooden manner. When he comes upon a dog corpse in the first scene, the prop looks so ludicrously artificial as to suck any pathos from the scene entirely. There is a very effective and disturbing moment in which Victor’s mother vomits blood as she attempts to comfort her son, but it is the only such moment in the entire flashback segment. The plot then returns to the present, with Victor Frankenstein being menaced by Caliban, only for Caliban to begin recounting his own origin story. It seems likely that writer John Logan was attempting to draw a parallel between Frankenstein and his creation by presenting their “childhoods” side by side like this, but it falls flat since there is little to link the two mini-narratives together. The first episode of Penny Dreadful featured the birth of Proteus (Alex Price), Frankenstein’s second attempt at building an artificial human. The scene was directed in such a casual fashion that it felt ludicrous (and was one of the only bad aspects of the pilot episode). Proteus’s “birth” scene was shot and edited to feel irrelevant and inconsequential. The exact opposite is true of Caliban’s “birth”, revealed through flashback in this episode.

The “birth” of the Frankenstein Monster is one of the most famous scenes in the history of fiction. Almost every human in the western world has likely heard some variation of the phrase “It’s Alive! Alive!” (from the 1932 film version of Frankenstein). The creators of Penny Dreadful are doubtlessly aware of the significance of this scene, because it is presented in the most bombastic and histrionic manner possible. Kinnear’s Caliban, covered in blood, comes to life and begins to scream as thunder and lightning overwhelms the scene’s audio. After last episode’s hilariously over-the-top séance scene, it is actually impressive that the crew behind Penny Dreadful have managed to construct a scene that is even more absurdly hammy. After this, Caliban recounts to Frankenstein how he learnt to read and speak by thumbing his way through Romantic poetry. It is a very nice touch that the Frankenstein Monster finds his voice by reading the poetry of Shelley (this husband of the woman who created the original Frankenstein novel: Mary Shelley). After this, Caliban’s flashback relocates to London, where the monster finds work as a stagehand for a lowbrow horror-show theatre. It is at this point that Caliban is given his name (taken from the villainous monster in Shakespeare’s The Tempest) by a kindly but eccentric actor at the theatre. With the flashback complete, Caliban reveals his reason for tracking his former creation down- he desires a female monster as a companion; a concept taken straight from the original Frankenstein novel. When Frankenstein refuses, Caliban threatens to kill everyone that his creator loves. Honestly, this threat seems rather empty, since nothing of Victor Frankenstein’s family or friends has been mentioned of even indicated. This threat is especially confusing since Caliban claims that Frankenstein cannot love and is more a demon than a man. Perhaps the script for this episode would have been improved by a minor redraft of these scenes.

The second plotline of the episode follows Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) returning to the employ of Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) and Vanessa Ives (Eva Green). The American gunfighter has fallen for Brona (Billie Piper), the Irish prostitute that he met in the last episode, and seeks money in order to buy her treatment for her consumption. Considering Chandler and Brona’s proximity to the home of Frankenstein, and that Brona is dying from the same ailment that killed Frankenstein’s mother, it seems plausible to assume that Brona may end up dying and being resurrected by Frankenstein as a female monster for Caliban (though this is perhaps too obvious for a show like Penny Dreadful). Chandler accompanies Sir Malcolm and Vanessa to London Zoo. Vanessa has experienced a psychic vision of Mina, Sir Malcolm’s missing vampire daughter, and this same vision featured the distinctive sound of exotic animals. Whilst no trace of Mina can be found, the monster-hunters discover disturbing creatures and an unsolved mystery on the zoo’s grounds.

This episode’s main purpose is to set up plot elements for future episodes. Resurrection is the first episode to allude to the existence of Count Dracula, who will likely appear later in the series as the show’s primary antagonist. The episode introduces Caliban as the show’s first recurring villain, and establishes a “ticking clock” plot-thread with Brona’s consumption (if she is not treated, she will eventually die). Chandler is revealed to have an unusual ability to communicate with wolves; an unusual ability that none of the other characters ask about or even mention for some reason. Unfortunately, the episode offers little more than hints at how interesting the show is going to become in the future. One of the most disappointing parts of the episode is the character dialogue. Whilst it makes sense for Caliban to speak in an archaic, almost medieval manner (due to his learning to read through pastoral poetry), much of his dialogue is shockingly clunky and unrefined. At one point, he describes himself as a thoroughly modern creation of the Victorian era: a mechanical man created in an industrial age. It is the sort of metaphor that should be conveyed to an audience silently, through more subtle implementing of dialogue and performance. It is almost as if the character turned to the audience and said “I am a metaphor”. Whilst this is a show that revels in high drama and over-the-top performances, this monster/machine comparison is horrendously blunt. Caliban may be a reanimated stagehand, but his dialogue should still sound natural!

With such simplistic dialogue, and little to offer in terms of horror or excitement, this is by far the least effective and interesting episode of Penny Dreadful so far. Whilst it does set the groundwork for what promises to be a very strong first season, Resurrection is ultimately a disappointment.

Image from io9.com

Penny Dreadful:- “Night Work”


The show has already succeeded in making vampires scary again.

If one was to judge Penny Dreadful on its premise alone, it would appear to be generic in the extreme. Since the days of The Twilight Zone, the genre of supernatural horror has served as the basis for many popular television dramas. Supernatural and True Blood continue to be successful programmes, despite the cultural craze for vampire-related fiction having somewhat died down in recent years. The premise of Penny Dreadful seems almost blasé, a latecomer to genre TV. After the lukewarm reception of NBC’s Dracula TV series starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, it could even be seen as something of a risk on the part of Showtime Television. Set in the last decade of the Nineteenth Century, Penny Dreadful focuses on a small cadre of societal outsiders brought together by the mysterious explorer known only as Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton). Sir Malcolm’s goal is to find and cure his daughter; a young woman who has been transformed into a monstrous creature of the night. Night Work, the pilot episode, introduces Josh Hartnett as Ethan Chandler; a Buffalo Bill-style American entertainer touring Victorian London. Being a man of considerable gun-slinging ability, he is quickly offered bodyguard work by an enigmatic spiritualist named Vanessa Ives (a perfectly-cast Eva Green). Curious about the unusual Ms Ives, Chandler agrees to escort her into the dark underbelly of London. Inside a blood-drenched charnel house, Chandler, Ives and Sir Malcolm are brought face to face with a terrifying being. The episodes’ subplot concerns Sir Malcolm attempting to recruit a young doctor (Harry Treadaway) to his crusade. Though the doctor’s name is kept a secret until the final scene of the episode, any viewer even slightly familiar with horror fiction will guess immediately which famous mad scientist Treadaway is playing.

Perhaps what is most appealing about Penny Dreadful’s pilot episode is its sincerity. There is no hint of irony or satire about the proceedings. Unlike NBC’s Dracula, which seemed uncomfortable with its Victorian setting and almost embarrassed of its source material, Penny Dreadful embraces its namesake. The show’s creators have unashamedly striven to capture the gothic melodrama of Victorian horror fiction, blending it with the hammy kitsch of 70s British horror movies. What results is a programme that revels in its own silliness. A programme that embraces the gothic horror narrative, tone and aesthetic with little concern for whether or not it is “relevant” to modern audiences. In NBC’s Dracula, the Nineteenth Century setting was part of the trappings, barely relevant beyond the costumes and sets. A no point did the setting of Dracula feel like the Victorian London described by Bram Stoker. Thanks in no small part to high production values and an impressive attention to detail, the London of Penny Dreadful feels both historically accurate and remarkably atmospheric.

Similarly impressive are the performances from each of the main players, though each actor has a certain unfair advantage. There is no casting against type afoot here: Timothy Dalton portrays Sir Malcolm with the cold intensity that is expected of a Timothy Dalton character. Eva Green is in equally familiar territory as the snarky yet deeply tragic Vanessa (identical to many of her film roles from the last decade). Josh Hartnett is the perfect brave but not-terribly-bright everyman that can serve the role of “audience surrogate”; asking the questions and probing the mysteries that the viewers themselves want resolved. One could be forgiven for suspecting that the show’s creators selected the cast and then conceived of the characters they’d be playing. Even Danny Sapani completely excels in his small but memorable role as Sembene, Sir Malcolm’s African companion and a piercing reminder of Britain’s colonial past (it seems very likely that Penny Dreadful will often compare Victorian British society’s sins with those of the bloodsucking villains). Harry Treadaway is maybe a little too histrionic at times: a speech his character gives about the futility of science is delivered with such melodramatic gusto that is comes close to being a little too absurd. But even this over-the-top proselytising does not detract from the enjoyment of the episode because it is perfectly in keeping with the established tone.

Praise should also be handed to the shows’ special effects dept. for managing to create one of the most terrifying and interesting depictions of a vampire ever shown on television. After a short combat sequence with Buffy-esque humanoid vampires (with distractingly anachronistic haircuts), the viewer is put into a false sense of ease; the vampires of Penny Dreadful seem disappointingly human and non-threatening. At which point, that which can only be described as a proper vampire lurches onto the screen. Created entirely with prosthetic makeup and forced perspective camera techniques, the vampire monster is only on screen for a few seconds and yet is the most memorable visual in the pilot. One can only hope that all of the show’s monsters are as effective.

There is little to discuss about what doesn’t work in this episode. It can’t be criticised for its bombastic dialogue or unnecessary gore because these elements are intentional on the part of the show’s creators. There is a brief sex scene that feels somewhat unneeded and out of place, especially when the show’s intention seems to be to capture the essence of a gothic horror story. Sex in such source material appears only metaphorically (such as vampirism itself). Also, the final scene of the episode is very disappointing. It is supposed to be the culmination of all that the episode has burned into the audiences’ mind; a dark and graphic sequence to set the tone for future episodes. The scene is also an adaptation of one of the most famous sequences in the history of British Literature (indeed, in the history of fiction). Yet it feels rushed and very underwhelming. Not helped is the fact that it is in this scene that Treadaway reveals his character’s name as if it is meant to still be a shocking surprise – this is insulting to the intelligence of the audience. These are, however, small imperfections in what is arguably one of the strongest pilot episodes for any genre show in recent years. Whether or not future episodes will be able to match its promise is yet to be seen.

Image from aceshowbiz.com

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.:- “The Only Light in the Darkness”


Amy Acker’s Audrey: a strong performance in an otherwise empty episode.

Procedural genre television shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. typically follow conventions established by the trailblazers of the genre (such as The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Supernatural/science fiction TV shows utilise many character archetypes, motifs and themes again and again because they have proven successful in the past, or perhaps because their usage represents one less thing for the show’s creators to concern themselves with. This can be observed by examining the characters of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Chloe Bennett’s Skye could just as easily have been a recurring character on Smallville or any other teen-based sci-fi show of the last decade, whilst Agent Ward (Brett Dalton) has, until recent episodes, represented a perfect embodiment of the troubled and emotionally distant “dark stranger” archetype made famous by David Boreanaz’s Angel. This “pattern recognition” is also evident in the structure of many Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episodes. The episode T.R.A.C.K.S. presents the same event from the point of view of each principal character in order to playfully unfold the narrative to the audience. Almost every show of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s ilk has utilised this trope at some point (Buffy’s “The Replacement” was such an episode). The latest episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., “The Only Light in the Darkness”, is the (seemingly required) “romance episode”; the instalment in which of the characters admit and explore their various sexual attractions to one another. The best science fiction television will examine many aspects of the human condition, including romance and sex, by approaching it through an unconventional filter (Fringe’s “A Short Story About Love” would be an excellent example of this). As is expected by now, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s attempt at a romance-themed instalment fails on multiple levels.

Beginning immediately after the close of the previous episode, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and his S.H.I.E.L.D. team remain in hiding from the authorities and from the villainous HYDRA organisation. When Coulson discovers that a super-powered sociopath (Patrick Brennan) has escaped imprisonment, he insists that he and his allies leave their safe seclusion in order to stop him. Coulson’s desire to break cover to apprehend the criminal are motivated by the maniac’s intended victim; a beautiful cellist from Coulson’s past named Audrey (Angel’s Amy Acker). As Audrey believes him to be dead, Coulson must stop the demented criminal without revealing himself to her. Meanwhile, Agent Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) is having trouble reconciling the obvious mutual attraction between his unrequited love, Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), and Agent Triplet (B.J. Britt). Back at their secret headquarters, Skye and Ward are developing a deep romantic attraction, despite Skye’s increasing fear that Ward may not be all that he seems.

Ever since she was mentioned in passing in The Avengers (the Marvel Comics movie of which Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a spinoff), fans of the Agent Coulson character have been speculating about “The Cellist”. It is certainly no surprise that the character should appear, and that she should be played by a Joss Whedon TV show alumni like Amy Acker (Whedon’s brother has produced and written most Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episodes thus far). Acker certainly gives a strong performance during her limited airtime. Despite the fact that she and Clark Gregg barely share a single scene together, the doomed relationship between Coulson and Audrey is by far the most compelling romance in the episode; a testament to the abilities of both actors. One only wishes that the writers could have conceived a less cumbersome reason to bring the pair together again than a cackling supervillain. This isn’t helped by Patrick Brennan’s terrible acting and hammy line delivery. In a show rife with melodramatic supervillains, the antagonist of this episode stands out as being so awful as to become comedic. Far more compelling as a villain is Brett Dalton’s Ward; the character commits a truly grizzly act in this episode’s subplot. The fact that he is able to seem unfazed and even sexually excited about his relationship with Skye only moments after killing someone is far more chilling than the moustache-twirling antics of the villain in the Audrey plot. Kudos should also be given to Chloe Bennett; normally one of the weakest performers on the show. A sort sequence in which she suffers a panic attack upon discovering Ward’s villainous nature is actually uncomfortable to watch because of how well the actress sells her character’s distress and isolation.

There is certainly much to appreciate about “The Only Light in the Darkness”. However, none of these strong elements come together as any kind of cohesive whole. The overall pace and tone of the episode is characteristically uneven, many of the actor’s performances are lacklustre at best and terrible at worst (Iain De Caestecker remains hopelessly out of his depth alongside far better actors) and absolutely nothing about this episode feels important to progressing the larger narrative of the season: a major fault considering that there are only three episodes remaining before the season finale. It is as if the writing staff felt that the show had to take a break to humanize the S.H.I.E.L.D. team by having them all fall in love. This is an utterly unnecessary instalment of a show that is desperately trying to justify its existence.

Image obtained from tvequals.com

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.:- “Providence”


This beautiful poster was created to promote the episode. A bizarre amount of effort for such a trivial instalment.

After the fairly impressive episode Turn, Turn, Turn, Providence, the most recent episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., feels somewhat empty. So many Earth-shaking revelations, intriguing plot-twists and complex character developments were packed into the last episode that the show now feels like it is spinning its wheels; waiting patiently for the season finale. Instead of building on the pace and tension expertly established in the previous episode, Providence spends the majority of its runtime bogged down by exposition and foreshadowing. After the attempted HYDRA takeover of S.H.I.E.L.D. (taking place in both the previous episode and the recent film Captain America: The Winter Soldier), Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and his team are left to pick up the pieces of their devastated organisation. When the US Military announce their intent to take the remaining S.H.I.E.L.D. agents into custody, Coulson and the others flee and go “off the grid” with the help of Skye (Chloe Bennett). Unbeknownst to the S.H.I.E.L.D. team is the fact that one of their own, Agent Ward (Brett Dalton) is a HYDRA operative working for the villainous John Garrett (Bill Paxton). Whilst Coulson’s team journey to a secret S.H.I.E.L.D. outpost, Ward and Garrett rescue Raina (Ruth Negga), the mysterious “Girl in the Flower Dress” from several previous episodes. As Raina is informed of the true nature of her until-now shadowy employer, Coulson and the others arrive at the S.H.I.E.L.D. outpost… finding nothing but snowy wilderness.

One of the good aspects of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is how each episode has, until now, felt like its own entity. Every episode is certainly connected to the last by plotline, but each instalment has been written and presented as an independent adventure. A viewer could begin watching the show at any point and not feel too confused or lost by continuity. This approach has positive and negative attributes; it has not allowed for much character progression for the main cast yet it has enabled the show’s different writers and directors to take a more unique approach to crafting their episodes. Providence, however, is little more than a sequel to last week’s episode, and a set-up for future episodes. Bill Paxton’s Garret confronts the character of Raina and explains his past machinations and intentions, as well as what he intends to do now. An almost identical scene follows between Raina and Ward, in which Ward extensively elaborates on why and how he infiltrated and betrayed the S.H.I.E.L.D. team. These sequences cannot help but feel like a kind of “exposition housekeeping”; clearing up inconsistencies or unanswered questions from the last episode. Much later, Ward and Garrett raid a S.H.I.E.L.D. facility and steal a collection of alien weapons, no doubt setting up action sequences for upcoming episodes. The main narrative of the show barely moves forward at all because the focus is entirely on clearing up the past and setting up the future.

The episode also varies wildly in the quality of its few action sequences. There is a tense and well-shot helicopter attack (a gamble played by Ward to convince some S.H.I.E.L.D. security guards that he can be trusted) that appears to feature a real aircraft, starkly opposing the ludicrous computer-generated S.H.I.E.L.D. plane. A later scene in the episode features Coulson’s team traipsing across the Canadian wilderness; it is laughably unrealistic since the environment looks perfectly clement and the characters don’t even appear to be cold. During this scene, Coulson loses his composure. He begins to angrily assert that there must be a reason that they’ve been sent into this dangerous landscape. Were the sequence to take place in genuinely inhospitable-looking surroundings, it may have been extremely tense and effective. However, thanks in no small part to how pleasant the snow-covered hillside appears, and how healthy and warm the characters appear, Coulson’s rant seems bizarrely over the top and out of place. Basically, the production values do not match the dialogue or the performances in any way. Clark Gregg is a charismatic and skilled actor, but his performance in this scene seems hilariously overdramatic, because his reaction doesn’t fit the aesthetics of the surrounding environment.

The episode is not without its positives, comedian and long-time comicbook aficionado Patton Oswalt makes an amusing if pointless cameo as a S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent who’s been sequestered in a remote facility, and has become somewhat eccentric as a result. Adrian Pasdar, a veteran of the similarly-troubled superhero television show Heroes, appears in a brief but memorable cameo as Colonel Glenn Talbot (a Marvel Comics character created in the 1960s). Bill Paxton continues to be a delight to watch as the insufferable Garrett. Now that he has been revealed to be an antagonist, Garrett has started wearing a black turtle-neck as if to emphasise his role by dressing like a Bond villain. This is an amusing touch and very much in line with the character’s jokey personality. Very little can be critiqued or analysed in this episode because so little happens in it. It is an exposition receptacle and nothing more. With luck, it will allow future episodes to regain the frenetic pace of Turn, Turn, Turn and build into a strong finale.

Image from Marvel.com

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.:- “Turn, Turn, Turn”


Agents of HYDRA

This review contains spoilers for Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

 Turn, Turn, Turn may be the first ever episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to feel like something other than the extraneous baggage of a larger, better story. The entire premise of the show is that it takes place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (which recently became the most financially successful film franchise in history). Previous episodes have made much of the connection between the show and the Thor movies, seemingly desperate to convince its audience that what happens in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is relevant to the larger franchise that it’s connected to. Until this episode, it has never been entirely convincing that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. shares any meaningful connection with the more important Marvel movies. However, Turn, Turn, Turn changes this and in so doing becomes the best episode of the show by a significant margin. The episode is connected intimately to the events of 2014’s Captain American: The Winter Soldier, a superhero film that focuses strongly on the S.H.I.E.L.D. organisation and its place in the world. Audiences who have seen The Winter Soldier are now aware that S.H.I.E.L.D. has long been manipulated by the Nazi science cult, Hydra. Far from being a bastion of peace, the organisation that the protagonists of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. belong to is a hub of dangerous terrorists (one could compare the importance of this revelation to discovering that the CIA has been secretly controlled by a still-existing Gestapo since its inception).

Obviously, an important revelation about the S.H.I.E.L.D. organisation in a popular film has to trickle down into the narrative of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. However, unlike the previous “Marvel-centric” episodes of the show, the connection made between this episode and the events of Captain America feel utterly suitable. Perhaps most surprising and important is the fact that for the first time, watching an episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will actually improve the experience of watching it’s cinematic cousin. The episode expands upon the revelations of Captain America; the writers have built upon the foundation that the film has laid to create an exciting and engaging episode with a real sense of scope and grandiosity.

As the episode begins, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and his team are unsure of who to trust. Both Agent Ward (Brett Dalton) and Agent May (Ming-Na Wen) have demonstrated potentially traitorous behaviour, and now nobody is sure who is friend or foe. Soon, Coulson’s team is joined by Garrett (Bill Paxton), who arrives aboard their plane with the shocking revelation that their long-time antagonist, “The Clairvoyant”, is a one of the show’s recurring characters. The team then returns to the Hub (the S.H.I.E.L.D. base that was introduced in a previous episode) in order to rescue Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) and to finally get answers on who has been behind their troubles since the pilot episode. Turn, Turn, Turn has a real sense of drama and despair that has been sorely lacking in the show thus far. Until now, the agents and the world they inhabited felt very safe. When Skye (Chloe Bennett) was shot in the stomach, few viewers would be fooled into thinking that she was in danger of dying. The tone of the show was always too light and positive for any sense of tension to be successfully built. That changes in this episode, as the team encounters traitors from without and within. A brief scene reveals that the S.H.I.E.L.D. academy from a previous episode is being attacked by Hydra forces. Ward shares a brief moment with Skye before he charges off the face his death. The normally comedic Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) breaks down and cries as his world is essentially collapsing around him (in all honesty, this moment is a little over-the-top but welcomed all the same).

Even the affirmative and comedic quips of the characters are made suddenly appropriate by this episode. Until now, the barrage of witty banter has felt extraneous and useless. In this episode, Simmons is told that it is through such “cutesy” fraternisation that Hydra infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D.: a Hydra agent will do their utmost to befriend those around them in order to gain their trust. It is suddenly apparent why the monolithic and powerful S.H.I.E.L.D. has been constantly presented as a big happy family in which everybody is a really nice person. This episode justifies Skye’s journey from liberal “hacktivist” to an agent of “big brother”- it is because of the twist that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been harbouring neo-Nazi terrorists all along. Had S.H.I.E.L.D. always been presented as a slightly dubious organisation existing in the moral gray (as this reviewer long wished for), this big reveal would have lacked the necessary punch. All of these revelations eventually lead to a shocking climax and a massive twist that will utterly reshape the show, should it get a second season. It is likely that it will never be known how many of the big reveals in this episode were planned out ahead of time, but it seems likely that the creators knew the Captain America plot twist for some time prior to writing this episode, and built their plans around it. In other words, Captain America may have just saved Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D..

Image from Marvel-movies.wikia.com

TV: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.:- “End of the Beginning”


J. August Richards as the tragic villain, Deathlok.

After a long and mostly disappointing season, The End of the Beginning is the first episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. that sets the stage for the finale. With only a few episodes remaining after this, the stakes are being raised significantly- as is the sense of mystery. The End of the Beginning is thankfully one of the show’s stronger episodes so far; it features some well-shot (if brief) action sequences and some genuinely compelling plot revelations. The episode begins with the S.H.I.E.L.D. teammates led by Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) separating and searching multiple locations for the Clairvoyant: the mysterious antagonist who’s been pulling strings behind the scenes for most of the season. The team’s splitting up allows the show to re-introduce Agent Hand (Saffron Burrows) as well as make a passing reference to the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier; the 2014 movie that is supposed to be taking place in the same continuity as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. It is not long before one of the teams is attacked by Mike Petersen (J. August Richards), their former teammate now calling himself “Deathlok” (a reference to a Marvel Comics supervillain of the same name). It is only when the Clairvoyant is seemingly found that the situation begins to unravel. Before long, Coulson and his teammates are left with no one to trust.

Since the S.H.I.E.L.D. organisation was first introduced to the world outside of comicbooks in 2008’s Iron Man, they have been a compelling background presence in many Marvel superhero movies. Appearing in Iron Man 2, Thor and The Avengers, the organisation has always been portrayed as extremely powerful and morally questionable. Like a science fiction-drenched equivalent of the CIA or MI6, S.H.I.E.L.D. has typically been portrayed as doing whatever was necessary to protect ordinary people from extraordinary threats. In The Avengers, S.H.I.E.L.D. attempts to nuke New York City because they believe that it may save the rest of the world. The announcement of a spinoff TV show starring agents of this organisation not long after The Avengers held great promise; a chance to show the darker, morally greyer side of the world of superhuman heroes – a very intriguing premise for a television programme. Instead, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was a show comprised of the bland adventures of “witty”, “quirky”, two-dimensional characters. The audience did not even get the opportunity to watch these misfits slowly become a tight unit of comrades, and then into something of a family (in the manner of similar shows like Fringe or Warehouse 13) because the characters were written as a dysfunctional family from the pilot onwards. Outside of Ward (Brett Dalton) beginning to engage in casual sex with May (Ming-Na Wen), none of the characters developed in significant ways. Even Skye (Chloe Bennett), the “audience surrogate” character is given precious little to do after she served her initial purpose of bringing the team together.

The End of the Beginning is really the first time in the show’s short and sad history that it begins to feel like the show that it should have been from the beginning. The characters hunt down a dangerous superhuman, there are shocking revelations and red herrings and twists, the agents are paranoid and unsure who is friend or foe. Not only is this great television, it is exactly what espionage-centric TV is supposed to be like. Apparently, it took almost the entire run of the TV show for the writers and creators to realize what kind of project Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was always supposed to be. Whilst the show has improved in quality gradually over time, this is the first episode that really feels like what was promised when the show was green-lit. What really saves this episode is the cameos from recognisable talent. Bill Paxton returns as the always-amusing Agent Garrett, as does BJ Britt’s Agent Triplet (whose possible romance with Elizabeth Henstridge’s Simmons appears to be developing into a major plot point). J August Richards remains a compelling tragic antagonist as Deathlok, who now looks like a fully-fledged comicbook supervillain. Special praise should be given to Brad Dourif, who manages a chilling and very effective performance whilst barely saying or doing anything but sit in a chair. It is a testament to Dourif’s expressive face that he manages to be terrifying whilst only using his eyes.

Not that the episode is perfect. Its pace and tone are as uneven as usual, the cinematography remains bland and lifeless and the one exciting action sequence in the episode, the attack by Deathlok, is over before it begins. This is, however, a massive step up in quality for this maligned show. Unfortunately, for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a massive step up in quality simply means that it is now as good as every other genre procedural show on TV. In other words, not good enough.

Image from io9.com

TV Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: “Yes Men”


Jaimie Alexander as Sif: Always nice when a superhero turns up in a TV show that’s supposed to be about superheroes!

Yes Men is unique among the episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. that have aired thus far, in that it includes a major character from the Marvel Cinematic Universe; the film series that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. spinoffs from. From the Thor series comes Jaimie Alexander as Lady Sif: an alien being that, like her comrade Thor, was worshipped as a god by the ancient Norse peoples (hence why characters from Norse mythology are present in the Marvel films). For reasons that are never adequately explained, Sif enlists the help of S.H.I.E.L.D. in tracking down a dangerous superhuman from her world. Lorelei (Elena Satine) is a mind-controlling criminal from Sif’s home of Asgard, liberated during the events of 2013’s Thor: The Dark World. Her particular talent allows her to control the minds of (presumably only heterosexual) men into falling in love with her. She uses her power, first to amass an army from a Middle America biker gang, then to take control of Agent Ward (Brett Dalton). Soon, Lady Sif and the S.H.I.E.L.D. teammates under Coulson (Clark Gregg) are forced to do battle not only with the dangerous Lorelei, but with members of their own group.

There’s a lot to like about this episode. It is humorous, possesses several impressive action sequences (for TV) and makes strong use of locations. When Lorelei demands Ward takes her to a palace worthy of her beauty, he drives her to Las Vegas; a great visual setting to subtly emulate the grandeur seen in the Thor movies. Speaking of which, Jaimie Alexander delivers a great performance as Sif, bringing the same sense of strength and grace that her character demonstrated in Thor and its sequel. Her inclusion in the show was a genius idea, since it allows a very strong connection to the Marvel movies, without having to use one of the Avengers characters (almost certainly too costly for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s budget). It is always great when the show’s writers put a superhuman character on the S.H.I.E.L.D. team, such as when J. August Richards’s Mike Petersen got to become a S.H.I.E.L.D.-backed superhero. Considering that the show’s entire premise is that it is set in a world where superheroes exist, one would think that superheroes would appear more frequently. The unusual and increasingly intriguing relationship between Ward and May (Ming Na-Wen) is made even more complicated in this episode due to Lorelei’s ministrations. Perhaps most welcome is that the ever-infuriating Skye (played by the also rather infuriating Chloe Bennett) is mostly absent from the episode, having been injured in the team’s second-to-last adventure.

There are, however, certainly some very problematic aspects to this episode (as is expected of this show). Whilst Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has improved drastically since its first few dreadful episodes, it is still a long way from being what can be described as regularly good television. Whilst her presence is very welcomed, Jaimie Alexander does serve to really highlight the failings of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. In the Thor movies, she and her co-stars are shot and lit in a way that really serves to emphasise their godlike nature. When one watches Thor and its sequel, one can truly believe that Sif is an ageless superbeing that only resembles a human woman. Her unusual armour and weapons seem stylised, yet convincing and realistic. In Yes Men, the conventional and drab cinematography and lighting rips the grandiosity from the character. Alexander does a good job performing the character as something that is more than human, but she looks like an actress trying to play a goddess – not a goddess herself. This is best emphasised in her depressingly drab fight with Lorelei in the S.H.I.E.L.D. plane’s holding cells. Compared to the fight choreography and lavish sets of the Marvel movies, the fight scene in this episode is frankly depressing. One might wish that Marvel Studios hurry up and begin production of Thor 3, to spare Alexander the embarrassment of being in more episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. On the other side of the scale is Elena Satine as Lorelei; an actress seemingly plucked from a pantomime or a children’s TV show. Her understanding of how to play a villain is so stock that one wonders why she doesn’t have a moustache to twirl. It is likely that she is trying to imitate the performance of Tom Hiddleston, best known as Loki in the Thor and Avengers films. Unfortunately, Satine does not possess Hiddleston’s charm or acting talent and so comes off as a terrible attempt at being a classically evil antagonist.

Equally problematic are the horrendous computer effects (bizarre, since early episodes of the show had strong if not film-quality CGI) and lacklustre production design. This is a particularly flat and boring-looking episode, outside of the Vegas scenes. Perhaps if the train battle from the episode T.R.A.C.K.S. or the ominous setting of the episode T.A.H.I.T.I. had been saved for this episode, there would have been more to enjoy besides one actress and some humorous jokes.

TV Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – “T.A.H.I.T.I”

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. - T.A.H.I.T.I.

The great Bill Paxton as Garrett

T.A.H.I.T.I. is the first episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to follow on directly from the last, becoming something akin to the second episode of a “two-parter”. At the end of the previous episode, Skye (Chloe Bennet) was left mortally injured by the villainous Ian Quinn (David Conrad). As a result, this episode hits the ground running with a metaphorical ticking clock; the members of Agent Coulson’s (Clark Gregg) team must find a way of treating Skye’s terrible injuries before she dies. Since the show is set within the same universe as the Marvel superhero movies, travelling the world to find a cure for death is not a particularly bizarre plot. Indeed, Coulson believes that he knows of a way of keeping Skye alive… because he himself was brought back from the dead. Whilst Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. remains a disappointing show (considering its potential as a classic of sci-fi procedural TV drama), this episode is certainly a massive improvement over the last few. Finally, the creators of the show have been able to instil a degree of drama and tension into the proceedings. The steaks are far larger than just Skye’s life. As he searches into his own recent past, Coulson is portrayed as a haunted and vulnerable figure. If T.A.H.I.T.I. had been the quality of an average episode of this show, its reputation as a disappointing mess would be unfounded.

Perhaps the greatest favour that this episode does to the series is that it essentially “retcons” the disappointing revelation from The Magical Place (a previous episode). Coulson’s mysterious return from the dead had been the subject of much speculation since the show premiered in September 2013. Fans of the Marvel movies debated across the internet, arguing interesting ways in which Coulson may have been resurrected. The Magical Place revealed that Coulson was brought back through what amounted to “really fancy surgery”. It seems likely that the show’s writers incorrectly believed that their viewers would just assume that Coulson had never died, and that the revelation that he was brought back to life by mechanical surgery would be a shocking surprise. Instead, fans readily accepted the notion that the character had been killed and they wanted a satisfying explanation as to how he returned from the grave. Almost every popular fan theory was more interesting than what the creators chose. It seems that the powers behind Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. now agree, since they’ve reworked the events of Coulson’s death and rebirth to be far more mysterious and interesting than they originally appeared. T.A.H.I.T.I. reveals that Coulson’s resurrection was in part due to a very mysterious chemical hidden in a S.H.I.E.L.D. bunker, the source of which serves as the episode’s final reveal (it seems very probable that the chemical’s source is an attempt to tie the show into Marvel’s upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy film).

Aside from fixing previously broken plot-lines, the episode is also good in its own right. The characters’ emotional investment in Skye feels much more genuine now that they have had time to get to know each other. In earlier episodes, the team seemed to become far too close and familial far too quickly; going from strangers to a close-knit team at a ridiculous speed. However, now that these characters have had a dozen or so adventures together, it is easier to buy their emotional investment in Skye’s wellbeing. Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) even mentions that she and Skye have only known each other for a short time, but that she cannot imagine her life without Skye in it. A viewer watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for the first time could be forgiven for thinking that this is the result of a long character progression, rather than an attempt to conceal the lazy writing of previous episodes. Another positive is the inclusion of Bill Paxton as S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent John Garrett; a gruff yet comedic soldier whose “tough guy” attitude contrasts well with the more stoic and debonair Coulson. The Garrett character does not seem to serve much purpose (yet) but Bill Paxton is always entertaining to watch, especially when he’s playing a soldier running around in dark subterranean laboratories (a pity that he gets no excuse to say his iconic “game over, man” line from Aliens).

However, it seems that no episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can be without its major faults. T.A.H.I.T.I. features some truly bizarre moments that only serve to confuse a viewers’ understanding of the tone and of the characters. When he is taken aboard the S.H.I.E.L.D. plane for interrogation, Quinn is brutally treated. Whilst he is a villainous character who has just shot someone, the torture he endures at the hands of the supposedly heroic characters feels unbelievably out of place. When he is finally escorted from the interrogation room at the end of the episode, he appears terrified. Garrett rather bizarrely tells him that his torture-induced confessions will be used against him in court (a court that apparently accepts confessions acquired under torture?). Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has always displayed an unusually Conservative political viewpoint; unusual because the target audience for the show and the film universe in which the film is set tends to steer more towards a politically Liberal mindset. Previous episodes have cast “Hacktivists” as misguided idealists or two-faced criminals. The monolithically powerful S.H.I.E.L.D. organisation, a paramilitary organisation not beholden to any international laws whatsoever, is presented as humanity’s kindly caretaker. It is not unfair to say that a Right Wing-leaning viewer is probably more likely to agree with these concepts. There is certainly nothing wrong with adopting these political viewpoints; one might even condone the show for presenting an uncommon worldview in science fiction television. But many would likely see the celebrating of torture as a form of righteous vengeance as overstepping a boundary. Torture remains a very political subject in the US, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s peculiar endorsement of it seems irresponsible.

Despite this rather mystifying political angle, T.A.H.I.T.I. remains one of the best episodes of the show so far that works hard to undo much of the damage wrought by poorly-made past episodes. It is perhaps too late to save this show’s credibility… but we shall see.

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TV Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – T.R.A.C.K.S.


Stan Lee, creator of the S.H.I.E.L.D. comic books that inspired the TV show, cameos in this episode.

The idea behind T.R.A.C.K.S., the most recent episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. certainly has potential for interesting television. After an initial chaotic event separates the main characters, the episode follows each of them individually (showing the different storylines of the characters one after the other). This leads the viewer to try to guess what has become of the other agents through hints and clues provided in each segment. Not only is this an unconventional and risky method of telling a story in any medium, it is exactly the sort of out-of-the-box thinking that this show desperately needs to finally grab the attention of its audience. Unfortunately and predictably for this extremely troubled show, the creators have somehow managed to fall short yet again. T.R.A.C.K.S. fails to be compelling television, even with the interesting non-linear plot. The problem, as usual, boils down to the characters themselves; both how they are written and how they are performed. At the beginning of the episode, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and his teammates are on a train travelling through the Italian countryside. Posing as tourists, they are hoping to apprehend recurring villain Ian Quinn (David Conrad) and a mysterious object that will soon be in his possession. Almost immediately, the episode becomes grating; the characters are back to communicating in infuriating witty one-liners and snappy jokes. This is especially annoying, since recent episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have featured much better-written character dialogue. Particularly annoying is the interaction between Skye (Chloe Bennet) and Fitz (Iain De Caestecker); a poorly-written sequence that somehow manages to be offensive to British and American viewers alike. Similarly aggravating is a short scene in which Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) is supposed to be under cover as a grieving young woman. There is nothing more embarrassing to watch then a bad actress trying to deliberately play a bad actress.

Perhaps the most depressing aspect of this episode is that it wastes a cameo by Stan Lee, the 90 year old creator of the Marvel comic books that inspired Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. among many other comic book properties. Whilst Lee is certainly not much of an actor, his appearance in this episode is poorly conceived and feels very much like it was hastily written into the episode (interestingly, Lee recently openly criticised Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for being uninteresting). After an unnecessarily lengthy opening scene, all hell breaks loose on the train and the agents are separated from each other. Coulson and Ward (Brett Dalton) leap from the train which seems to vanish before their eyes; the ultimate revelation as to how this is possible is incredibly disappointing and boring. Simmons is rendered unconscious (sort of) and left on the train. Fitz and Skye ride the train to its destination and then follow their enemies on foot through the Italian countryside (somehow managing to keep up with several cars despite not knowing the local environment). May (Ming-Na Wen) falls from the train and quickly becomes involved in one of the few exciting and tense action sequences of the episode. The fact that these adventures are told out of sequence and one at a time, rather than intercutting them with one another, gives the episode a unique feel but it is squandered by the poor dialogue and performances. Admittedly, things do improve towards the end of the episode when the severely injured Skye is trapped inside Quinn’s mansion. Not only does Chloe Bennet deliver a surprisingly strong performance during this mostly dialogue-free sequence, but the scene is filmed and edited in a disorienting and uncomfortable manner. It is as if a production crew with actual skill temporarily took over and crafted a tense sequence. This well-made scene is one of two surprisingly graphic portrayals of violence within the episode. During May’s storyline segment, she is strung up by her opponents and stabbed. Whilst there is very little blood or gore, the fact that a main character is being tortured is rather shocking and completely at odds with the tone of the rest of the episode. The two violent scenes are certainly well directed and tastefully filmed, but they feel entirely out of place in a show like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. which as always leant more towards general audiences.

Possibly intriguing for the future is the return of J. August Richards as Mike Petersen, the superhuman from the pilot episode, who the S.H.I.E.L.D. team believed to be dead. Now boasting a robotic leg that is almost certainly a leftover prop from one of the Iron Man movies, it is heavily implied that Mike will soon take centre stage as the show’s primary antagonist (his new robotic persona is loosely based on a villainous character from Marvel Comics) but this prospect is not enough to save the episode from being boring. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. continues to blunder, to miss opportunities and to fail miserably. After some genuinely good episodes in recent weeks, it’s a real disappointment to see it return to its usual low quality. At this stage, watching it has become a fascinating examination of how not to write, direct and act in a television show.

TV Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – “Seeds”


The good part of the episode: the Mexico City chase scene.

The most recent episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Seeds, is a mixed affair. The episode is divided into two subplots; one of which is fairly interesting and well-written. The second subplot is indicative of everything that is wrong with the show since it began airing: a dull and predictable mystery that is mired with bland characters engaging in cringe-worthy “witty banter”. Overall, this is a dull episode that is so ineptly written and directed that a plot-point that should completely change the direction of the entire series is negated to the background. Most annoyingly of all, Seeds continues in the show’s tradition of reinventing the fictional S.H.I.E.L.D. organisation (made famous by the Iron Man films and The Avengers) from a morally questionable paramilitary group into a “big happy family” free of complexity or subterfuge. Instead of taking the interesting option and creating a show featuring a small team of heroic and dedicated agents butting heads against their dubious superiors, the producers of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. prefer to present a Manichean, morally black-and-white television show in which the line between heroes and villains couldn’t be clearer; a monstrous missed opportunity to tell compelling procedural drama within a fantastic fictional world.

The more interesting of the two subplots concerns Agents Coulson (Clark Gregg) and May (Ming-La Wen) tracking a former S.H.I.E.L.D. operative through the streets of Mexico City. These sequences feature engaging dialogue, important personal development for the characters, a well-choreographed fight scene and even the return of “Lola”; Coulson’s flying car. The dialogue between Coulson and May is sharp and interesting as they debate recent events in the show’s history (such as Coulson’s “return from the dead”). Both actors are clearly having fun with their characters, exhibiting a level of camaraderie that is totally believable. After a short but fun chase sequence, Coulson and May discover important information relating to the childhood of Skye (Chloe Bennet). Skye’s involvement with S.H.I.E.L.D. since her first appearance has been motivated by the desire to find out about her birth parents; it has been one of the two mysteries that has driven the show since the pilot (the second being the recently resolved mystery of Coulson’s resurrection). The fact that her origins are now revealed should be a huge turning point for her character and for the show. Admittedly, the scene during which Coulson explains the truth to Skye is very well shot and edited; instead of watching Coulson retell the story of her origins, the audience is simply shown Skye’s increasingly distraught face set to music. It is an intensely powerful moment in a show that has had so few of these. It is shocking that this incredibly important revelation is predominantly overlooked in favour of the episode’s second plot-line; Fitz and Simmons going back to school.

Everything about the second subplot reeks of the ineptitude that so defines Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. It is poorly written, poorly acted and poorly executed in every way. Fitz (Ian De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) are requested to return to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s training academy in order to solve a series of bizarre attacks on students involving sudden outbreaks of ice. Soon, they become convinced that someone is attempting to kill off the academy’s students for their own sinister ends (the villain of the episode is finally revealed to be a drastically re-imagined version of a Marvel Comics character called “Blizzard”). Everything about the sequences at S.H.I.E.L.D. academy is inept. The academy is supposed to be a top secret facility that trains superhumanly intelligent adolescents; it looks like a high school or university campus. The once sinister and shadowy S.H.I.E.L.D. organisation now has its own high school, complete with a secret nightclub run by the students. There’s a “nerdy” loner student (with a secret lab in his dorm room ceiling) and a “cool” popular student who aces every test. The dissonance between S.H.I.E.L.D. as it has appeared previously (the sinister military force) and S.H.I.E.L.D. as it appears now (super-scientist Hogwarts) is staggering. Even for a spy show set in a world with superheroes, it just all feels so silly. To use 1990’s television as a comparison, it would be like the cast of The X-Files visiting the cast of Dawson’s Creek.

Perhaps it is unfair to criticise the performances of the cast, considering the material that they are working with, but many of the teenage and 20-something student characters are portrayed by terrible actors. Chloe Bennet is never very impressive as Skye, but compared to some of the student characters in this episode, she deserves an Oscar. The only positive thing that can be said of this episode is that it finds a clever way to tie its events to the recent “Polar Vortex” that has gripped North America (it is insinuated that the true cause of December 2013’s bad weather was the ice machine from this episode). After a marked improvement in the overall quality of the last few episodes, it is most disappointing to see Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. return to its usual mediocre state. Perhaps now that the lingering plot mysteries have all been resolved (aside from the identity of the show’s villain, the Clairvoyant), things can finally progress towards a more exciting finale. Right now, however, this doesn’t seem very likely.

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TV Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – “The Magical Place”

MARVEL'S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. - "The Magical Place" -- Coulson uncovers vital information about the mystery of his death, but, with Centipede out for blood, this knowledge may come at the cost of one of the team on MARVEL'S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D., TUESDAY, JANUARY 7 (8:00-9:01 p.m., ET) on the ABC Television Network. (ABC/Ron Tom) CHLOE BENNET

Skye (Chloe Bennet) dresses as May (Ming-Na Wen) in this confused and meandering episode.

The episode The Magical Place marks the return to TV for the troubled Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Since the show’s pilot episode, it has struggled to connect with audiences (as evidenced by its lower-than-expected ratings in the US and UK); transforming it from a sure-fire premise for a great genre TV show into a bad joke. It is unlikely that at this stage, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can recover its squandered potential. Perhaps the most tragic irony of all is that the last few episodes of the show have actually been marked improvements. Many of the problematic aspects of the early episodes (poor dialogue writing, confused politics and sub-par special effects) were rather suddenly rectified. These positive changes may be an example of “too little, too late”. The Magical Place probably represents the final chance the show has to gain new viewers. Marketing for the episode has touted the fact that audiences will finally discover the secret of Agent Coulson’s (Clark Gregg) miraculous resurrection; the event that kick-started the first story arc of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Unfortunately, when the ultimate truth, the mystery that has been alluded to and teased throughout the entire season is finally revealed, the most likely response from viewers is… “That’s it?”

The episode begins with Coulson being held prisoner by the Centipede organisation, the sinister dark counterpart to S.H.I.E.L.D.. Under orders from their off-screen leader, military strategist Edison Po (Cullen Douglas) and Centipede recruiter Raina (Ruth Negga) attempt to break Coulson’s mind in order to discover how it was that he was able to come back from the dead. Meanwhile, the S.H.I.E.L.D. team are scrambling to find Coulson with the assistance of their superior, Victoria Hand (Saffron Burrows, reprising her role from an earlier episode). When Skye (Chloe Bennet) is deemed to be a security risk, she is forbidden from assisting in the hunt for Coulson and so ventures out on her own in the hopes of rescuing him. Both Skye and the S.H.I.E.L.D. team ultimately converge on a 50s-era nuclear testing site (complete with mock buildings and mannequins) where they must survive attacks by Centipede-modified superhumans in order to rescue Coulson.

For every great idea that this episode introduces, it squanders several others. Interesting implications are made about the relationship between Skye and May (Ming-Na Wen); their interactions with each other remain problematic and prickly, yet when separated from each other, both women demonstrate their admiration for each other. This fascinating mother/daughter dynamic could have been the basis for an episode in and of itself. Instead it is mostly utilised as an excuse for Chloe Bennet to dress up as a “sexy badass” agent. In the episode’s first half, it appears that the writers are intending to present a darker side of Fitz (Ian De Caestecker); the usually squeamish Fitz freely talks about harming innocent people if it means getting Coulson back. However, this plot point is not really resolved or even properly addressed. It feels as if the writers of the episode became bored with the concept and dropped it. A smuggler of alien technology (technology left over from the events of The Avengers) is briefly introduced, only to disappear from the plot as soon as he’s provided the team with the info they required. This character (played by Aiden Turner) could have been a great recurring villain; a slimy opportunist who is profiting from the bizarre events of the show’s cinematic counterparts. However, it seems unlikely that this character will reappear. One could easily believe that the show’s creators had several partially-completed script ideas and that they chose to mesh them all together in order to pass the time until the dramatic reveal at the end.

Said dramatic reveal is the greatest missed opportunity of all; Coulson’s resurrection. For months, episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have dropped subtle hints that the official version of Coulson’s return from the dead, that he was successfully resuscitated and that he then recuperated in Tahiti, was a lie. The episode’s title, The Magical Place, refers to the recurring line Coulson has said in each episode when his time in Tahiti is addressed— “It’s a magical place!”

It was clear to any viewer paying attention that “Tahiti” was some kind of implanted false memory, created to prevent Coulson from remembering how he really returned from the dead. Genre television shows thrive on mystery (the extreme popularity of Lost was in no small part due to its emphasis on mystery; the fact that many of the show’s mysteries were not revealed in the series finale was considered a betrayal by many of the show’s fans) and one would expect the “Tahiti” revelation to be suitably shocking and rewarding; something that would alter the character dynamic in the show and would justify continuing to watch Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Instead, the big reveal feels entirely irrelevant. Since Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was announced, the internet has abounded with fascinating theories about Coulson’s return from the grave. Fans have speculated everything from alien magic (something that exists in the S.H.I.E.L.D. universe) to Coulson being some kind of artificial intelligence (a robotic antagonist will be appearing in 2015’s Avengers 2). The explanation that the writers have selected is the most boring and the least sense-making; a revelation that won’t change Coulson as a character or his relationship to the other characters. The Magical Place is certainly not the worst episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. but it may be the most disappointing.

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TV Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – “The Bridge”


Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Mike (J. August Richards)

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has had a very difficult season. Time and again, the show has failed to find a coherent tone or a captive audience (in the US, ratings for the show have steadily declined since the Pilot). Between the poor dialogue writing, lack of interesting characters and an inability to decide what kind of show it wants to be, it is not hard to see why Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is unlikely to be winning any television awards in the near future. This is unfortunate as the show has been getting progressively better recently. The newest episode, The Bridge, is a high watermark for the programme so far. The Bridge is the first episode in which the series realises its potential as a combination of drama, action and comedy television. Perhaps most interesting is the fact that for the first time in this superhero television show, the S.H.I.E.L.D. team actually work with a superhero.

The episode begins as a psychopathic military strategist named Edison Po (Cullen Douglas) is broken out of prison by a group of superhuman soldiers created by Centipede; the mysterious organisation that the S.H.I.E.L.D. team have been pursuing since the Pilot. Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and his fellow teammates begin the hunt for Po, his accomplices and an enigmatic figure called “The Clairvoyant” who seems to be one step ahead of S.H.I.E.L.D. (interestingly, Marvel Studios has a policy against using clairvoyant or psychic characters in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in order to avoid any perceived connection to the X-Men franchise). In order to combat the Centipede-enhanced soldiers, the S.H.I.E.L.D. team recruits Mike Petersen (J. August Richards); the superhuman “villain” of the pilot episode, who is now attempting to turn his life around. With a literal superhero in tow, Coulson leads an assault on Centipede… with shocking results.

The fact that it has taken this long for a superhero character to join the S.H.I.E.L.D. team is a clear demonstration of how directionless and misguided the show has been until now. What separates Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. from other science fiction procedural dramas is the fact that it is set within a pre-established universe filled with superhuman heroes and villains. Until the re-introduction of Mike, the creators of the show have ignored the perfect opportunity to create unique characters and stories out of this premise. Now that the S.H.I.E.L.D. team have a superhero of their own, the creators seemingly intend to finally embrace the comicbook source material. Mike is even given a “costume” that resembles the kind of black rubber outfits worn in superhero movies of the 90s and early 2000s. Clearly, the show’s creators are having fun with the premise of a hero on the team. Mike’s superhuman strength provides for more visually interesting action sequences then what is usually offered by the show. J. August Richards delivers a strong and poignant performance in this role. It is abundantly clear that Mike should have been a recurring character from the very beginning. Interestingly, Skye (Chloe Bennet), the character who began as the “audience surrogate” figure that viewers were supposed to relate to, has been very much pushed to the sidelines. Her ongoing search to find her birth mother is mentioned and then very quickly dismissed; May (Ming-Na Wen) literally walks on screen, faces the audience and informs Skye (and by extension, us) that her quest to find her mom is simply no longer important.

The episode attempts to provide a shocking ending that will rejuvenate interest in the show. Between this ending, the introduction of new heroes and villains and the temporary dismissing of Skye as main character, one could argue that the show’s creators are trying to reassemble Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. from the ground up. The episode’s second scene reintroduces all of the team members as if it’s the start of a new season (rather than the end of a short mid-season break). The episode’s tone also feels very different from what has come before. Many of the Joss Whedon-esque one-liners and snappy dialogue is surprisingly absent from The Bridge. Whereas there was a period in the show’s history when 90% of the dialogue was made up of sassy jokes, the characters now communicate to one another in a more serious and more realistically human manner. Perhaps by the time that this episode was filmed, the initial episodes had aired and the production team realised that a change was needed if the show was to survive. Even the introduction of a new villain in the personage of The Clairvoyant feels like a sort of “narrative housecleaning”. Ruth Negga returns of Raina, the femme fatale in the flower dress from a previous episode. However, whereas before, Raina was written as a leader in the ranks of Centipede, she is now presented more as a henchwoman to Po and The Clairvoyant. In one sense, this is an embarrassing reminder of the state of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.; that is has to essentially re-invent itself in order to become compelling television. However, in another sense this transformation should be very much welcomed. For the first time since the Pilot, the mystery villains seem genuinely compelling and the stakes for the characters are truly gripping. Here’s hoping that the show lasts long enough to become the programme it was always supposed to be.

TV Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – “Repairs”


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 The shadowy figure haunting the S.H.I.E.L.D. team

Almost all science fiction television shows attempt a “horror episode”; a stand-alone story in which the main characters are thrust into a plot that echoes the conventions of a horror movie. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. attempts its first horror episode with Repairs. Whilst not quite as engaging as last week’s The Well, the episode is certainly strong in comparison to the majority of entries in the series so far. There are still some major faults that puncture any sense of consistency, but Repairs is certainly evidence of gradual improvement (the episode’s title is somewhat ironic).

Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and his S.H.I.E.L.D. team investigate a young woman, Hannah (Laura Seay), who has been demonstrating dangerous telekinetic abilities (moving objects with her mind) since a terrible accident occurred at the particle accelerator where she worked. Hannah has been facing ostracising abuse from her neighbours as they blame her for the deaths of several of her co-workers. This bullying is seemingly causing Hannah’s powers to become progressively more dangerous and S.H.I.E.L.D. is required to move her to a save location. However, once Hannah is relocated to the plane, she is tormented by a shadowy figure that can appear and disappear at will. Soon Coulson and the others begin to suspect that things are not as they seem. The episode has multiple plot-lines unfolding simultaneously; the main narrative involves Hannah and her haunting tormentor, yet the episode also touches on Skye’s (Chloe Bennet) frustration about S.H.I.E.L.D.’s policies as well as Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons’ (Elizabeth Henstridge) childish attempts to pull pranks on their team-mates. The underlying sub-plot that links these three separate plots together concerns the previously unknown back-story of May (Ming-Na Wen). May’s troubled history provides a contrast to the other three plot-lines. The episode’s theme is about mistakes and regret; the mistakes of May’s past are contrasted to the mistakes that Hannah believes that she has made. These themes are complex and to the episode’s credit, they are explored in a delicate and mature manner. Hannah is a very religious person and so frames her mysterious powers and her shadowy attacker as evidence that God is punishing her for her mistakes. May is so traumatised by her mistakes that her entire personality has changed as a result. Repairs could be seen as a rather cerebral episode, taking interesting stances on challenging concepts. Themes of blame, forgiveness and the impact that mistakes can have on a person’s life are all examined in the narrative.

The performances are relatively strong. Guest star Laura Seay does a great job at making the audience sympathise with Hannah and the tragedy of her life. Ming-Na Wen imbues May with a great deal of sadness despite never exactly addressing her dark past. Also impressive is the combination of atmosphere and clever special effects techniques that help to create a sense of tension. The “horror” aspect of the episode begins when the mysterious figure cuts the plane’s power, forcing the characters to stumble around in the dark whilst trying to protect themselves and Hannah from attack. Not only is the villain concealed in the background and in shadows, he is frequently shown disappearing and reappearing through the use of computer effects. There is a real feeling a dread as the characters blindly amble around the dark corridors, being attacked on all sides by their antagonist. Unfortunately, it is extremely obvious from a very early point who the villain is but the show’s writers should be commended for inventing an interesting motivation for the villain; something more complex than the antagonists of previous episodes. Indeed, the writing of this episode is particularly good. For the most part, the characters interact and communicate like real people as opposed to a few episodes ago when everyone spoke in a series of one-liners and witticisms. There is a particularly effective sequence in which Skye and Hannah share a moment together and discuss the nature of God (the atheist Skye has a more positive view of God than the religious Hannah). The science fiction aspect of the show, the explanation for Hannah’s powers and the powers of her attacker, are very clever and subtly tie in to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (of which Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a spin-off).

Not that the writing is faultless. Once again the show has difficulty defining exactly what kind of organisation S.H.I.E.L.D. is. Skye’s protesting about S.H.I.E.L.D.’s apprehension policies and the revelations about May’s back-story paint the organisation as very morally grey, something more akin to the way they are presented in the Marvel films. However, this is inter-cut with Fitz and Simmons playing silly pranks on each other and the characters meeting up at the end of the day for a game of Scrabble. The show’s creators seem to want S.H.I.E.L.D. to be both a sinister paramilitary force as well as a big happy family of nice friendly people. The dissonance is astounding and very off-putting. If it was clearly established that Coulson’s team where the exception, that they are a team instead of a unit and that is what makes them special, then there would be no discord. Such a notion is never brought up; S.H.I.E.L.D. is whatever the writers and production crew need it to be for the episode to work.

Repairs is another strong episode but many more will be needed to balance the plethora of extremely underwhelming episodes that have aired so far.

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TV Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.- “The Well”


The mysterious artefact that sets the episode in motion…

 The Well is the most competently written and well made episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. so far. Until this episode, the show has grappled with an inconsistent tone and lazy writing. Whilst The Well is far from perfect television, it does demonstrate a strong sense of identity and boasts an intriguing plot. Like recent episodes of the show, the episode is tied directly to the events of the film Thor: The Dark World that (as of this writing) is still playing in theatres. This connection to the larger Marvel franchise adds a certain level of gravity to the events unfolding, yet is vague enough to not confuse viewers who are not as familiar with the Marvel movie franchises. This link to the larger fictional universe, coupled with the greatly improved writing, permits this episode to really feel like a legitimate companion piece to Marvel’s recent cinematic efforts.

Set right after the events of the second Thor film, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and his S.H.I.E.L.D. team are in Britain; investigating the alien attack that recently took place there. Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) explains to her teammates (and to the audience by extension) that the gods of ancient mythology were in fact alien beings from other universes and that “magic” is in fact extremely sophisticated science that humans do not understand. This crucial concept is at the heart of the Marvel film universe (of which Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a spin-off). Immediately as the episode begins, the viewer is reminded of the connection between this show and its cinematic cousins, lending a sense of grandiosity and importance to the episode’s events. The narrative properly commences in the second scene. Two Norwegian extremists discover an alien artefact in a forest and use the artefact’s bizarre powers to muster an army. Soon Agent Ward (Brett Dalton) is affected by the artefact and must track the extremists across Europe before he’s driven mad by visions of his past. The team’s only hope of stopping the extremists and curing Ward lies in a professor of Norse mythology (Peter MacNicol) who has more than a few secrets of his own.

The episode is certainly not without fault. The ending is extremely abrupt and easy; everything endangering the team is quickly defeated and forgotten about within a few short scenes. The episode’s writers seem to have little to no understanding of how large Europe is (the characters travel from England to Spain to Norway to Ireland in barely any time at all). Members of contemporary Pagan religious may be somewhat offended by how this episode defines their belief system and confuses it with Odinism. Most disappointing but not unexpected is the fact that the ideology of the episode’s villains is never explained. The antagonists this week are a Norwegian “hate group”: nothing more is said of who they are and what their intentions are likely to be. One can make a logical assumption that the intent of the writers was to call to mind the 2011 Norwegian terrorist attacks committed by far-right extremist Anders Behring Breivik. This is some extremely dark and mature subject matter for a superhero TV show to touch on and such courage should be commended. The best science fiction television is frequently a means by which writers are able to deliver commentary about heavy world issues in an entertaining manner. However, the fact that this dark connection is only hinted at and not directly confronted makes one wonder why the writers chose to even address this topic in the first place.

However, aside from these issues, The Well is a surprisingly strong entry. Guest star Peter MacNicol delivers an amusing performance as the slimy Professor Randolph. The character is a fun distraction from the episode’s bleak subject matter and the ultimate twist reveal about him is unexpected and fascinating. Much more personality is given to the character of Ward, who has mostly been relegated to the position of “macho tough guy” until this point. The episode’s title is a reference to a tragic occasion in Ward’s past that comes back to haunt him. The events of the episode serve to examine and humanise the character. The writing is so much more competent than it was two episodes ago (when this same character introspection was attempted with Simmons and failed miserably). The episode is also much more successful in its character dialogue. Whereas most episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. exhibit the characters speaking to each other in a series of one-liners and witty retorts, most of the writing in this most recent episode feels very natural. Despite the ending being somewhat hurried, the final few scenes of the episode are very intriguing as they set up some very interesting character conflict to come. The “post-credits” stinger that closes out the episode is also very intriguing to long time fans of the show (yet another indication that Coulson may not be who he thinks he is). This was a really strong and really fun episode of a show that has had little of either so far. If every episode was as strong as this one, the reputation of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. would be very different.

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TV Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: “The Hub”


Saffron Burrows appears as Agent Victoria Hand

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. continues to try to build an identity for itself in the most recent episode; The Hub. After the sentimental and corny tone of the last episode, this is certainly an improvement (if only a slight one). Unlike the previous instalment, the emotional stakes of this episode feel legitimate and the moments of tension are far better conceived. Were it not for some extremely poor writing decisions, this could have been the first episode since the pilot to rise above being “passable”. Unfortunately, as with almost every episode so far, the faults have a severe impact. The Hub begins with a very tense and well directed sequence in which Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) is rescued from a foreign military facility. Coulson and his agents then report to “the Hub”; a mysterious S.H.I.E.L.D. base of operations. Soon Agent Ward (Brett Dalton) and Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) are dispatched to Georgia to track down a powerful new weapon. Only after the two have departed for their mission does Skye (Chloe Bennet) discover that her fellow agents are being sent to their deaths.

There are a lot of things to like about this episode. The two interconnected plots (Ward and Fitz’s mission and Skye trying to mount a rescue) are tense and fast-paced. There is a strong emphasis on character interaction over action and spectacle. The fact that the superhero science fiction aspect of the show is used very minimally in this episode allows for more focus to be given to the characters themselves instead of the Marvel Comics references (although the episode does feature a cameo from Saffron Burrows as a character from the comic book source material). Perhaps most interesting is the fact that S.H.I.E.L.D. is finally being written and presented as a massive organisation with complex political allegiances. A new viewer who is unfamiliar with the Marvel Studios films could easily make the mistake of believing that Coulson and his team are S.H.I.E.L.D.. This is the first episode that really promotes the idea of them being a small part of a larger whole. Coulson’s team are written as if they are members of a family; their association with one another is very informal and familial. This has given the impression that S.H.I.E.L.D. is a rather homely, friendly entity. This episode re-emphasises the more sinister and secretive side of the organisation.

However, the problems with The Hub outweigh these positive attributes. The character dialogue continues to be surprisingly irritating; an attempt to mimic the witty banter wordplay of Joss Whedon but failing to achieve that writer’s perfect balance of humour and drama. The scenes of Skye convincing Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) to help her hack into S.H.I.E.L.D.’s restricted files is written like a child is convincing her little sister to do something naughty; one could easily forget that these two are supposed to be adults. Obviously the intent of the writer is to make the characters seem human and endearing, but more often than not, they merely come across as incompetent, stupid and possibly a bit insane. These scenes between Skye and Simmons are meant to mirror those between Ward and Fitz (Skye and Ward are slowly being set up as a couple as are Fitz and Simmons). In both cases, a novice is being pushed out of their depth by someone who is more experienced. Also in both cases, the novice proves themselves to be more cunning and devious than the more experienced team member realised. This attempted narrative symmetry just comes across as lazy and perhaps even a little bit sexist: Fitz proves himself to Ward by being surprisingly tactical and brave, whilst Simmons proves herself to Skye by being surprisingly flirtatious and manipulative. Another troubling element of this episode is the continuing identity crisis that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has in relation to its politics. Instead of outright avoiding the question of what it means to work for a government organisation that polices the world, the show keeps trying to address social commentary about freedom and security. Throughout the episode, Skye is told to “trust the system”. When she objects to this philosophy, Fitz makes a bizarre comment about radical socialism; as if Skye’s concern over what the organisation that she works for is secretly doing  is “socialist”. Victory is only gained when Skye and the others defy the system that they keep being told to trust. This apparent stance against government cover-ups is then torpedoed by the saffron burrows character claiming that their insurrection was always part of the plan and that they are still working within “the system”; as if the character’s display of antiestablishment rebellion was something that the show’s writers felt that they needed to apologise for. At the very end of the episode, there is a not-at-all subtle implication that S.H.I.E.L.D. is continuing to lie to Coulson and that Coulson in turn is continuing to lie to his team, reversing the “trust the system” theme of the episode. These issues with The Hub prevent it from being considered a strong episode. The things that work about this episode work really well. Unfortunately, they are not enough to save this latest instalment from its own monumental errors.

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TV Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: “Fzzt”


Elizabeth Henstridge as Simmons

The only thing that’s tragic about this “sad” episode is how badly it fails.

Fzzt is the first episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to be aired during the release of a Marvel Studios film. Since S.H.I.E.L.D. is set in the same fictional universe as the Marvel films, it is perhaps no surprise that this episode attempts to tie directly into Thor: The Dark World (which as of this writing is playing in theatres worldwide). Not only is this tied continuity a clever and subtle piece of film advertising, it could also help to strengthen the feeling that S.H.I.E.L.D. is one part of a larger ongoing story. However, other than a few effects concepts borrowed straight from the second Thor movie, the episode actually shares little to no connection to its cinematic cousin. Rather than being an exercise in continuity building, Fzzt is an attempt to explore the emotional makeup of the primary characters; forcing them to deal with their own mortality. The creators of this episode are trying so hard to make the audience care about the fates of the S.H.I.E.L.D. team that it becomes more than a little obnoxious. What is clearly supposed to be an “emotional” episode comes across as a futile exercise in sentimentality.

The setup for the episode is perhaps the most interesting so far in the series. Members of a small town fire dept are randomly dying; their bodies release an electromagnetic pulse that leaves them ominously floating a few feet above the ground (this effect is what ties the episode to Thor 2). After Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and the S.H.I.E.L.D. team investigate the fire-fighters’ colleagues, they discover that the deaths are the result of an alien virus that was brought to Earth during the events of The Avengers. When Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) becomes infected with the virus, the race is on the find a cure before she too becomes a floating corpse. The first half of the episode is actually one of the strongest portions of the entire show. Agent Grant Ward’s (Brett Dalton) frustration at not being able to counter a virus the way he can tackle an opponent offers a new insight into his personality. Coulson’s continued sense that something is wrong with him since his “death” in The Avengers culminates in an impressively written monologue in which he comforts a dying man about mortality: this scene also helps to remind audience members of the ongoing mystery of Coulson’s existence and whether or not he is even human. These scenes are appropriately underplayed and very poignant, which makes the overblown and rather melodramatic second half of the episode so hard to understand.

Clearly writer Paul Zbyszewski has a grasp of subtle character interactions during emotional moments— the first half of this episode is filled with such sequences. Yet once Simmons becomes infected, the quality of the dialogue and character interactions plummets drastically. What should have been a series of tender emotional exchanges in which the characters realise that one of their team is dying becomes a hammy, over-the-top mess. Clearly the moment when Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons are separated from each other by protective glass is supposed to be a heartbreaking, tear-jerking event. Instead it becomes impossible to invest any emotion into these scenes because of how overblown and artificial they feel. The weeping Simmons telling Coulson to inform her father of her imminent death is another example of a scene that should have packed an incredible emotion punch. Instead, it falls flat due to over-the-top performances and an overuse of stereotypically sad music. Far more emotional relevance would have been created by dropping the orchestral soundtrack altogether. This episodes’ producer, Joss Whedon, used a lack of music to excellent emotional effect in his own Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series. There is something very juvenile about how the sequences of Simmons dying are handled. Underplayed performances would have been so much more powerful. Instead we’re treated to Fitz and Simmons crying at each other behind glass and Coulson angrily refusing to give up on Simmons despite her risk to the team. It all feels a bit histrionic and overblown, even for a superhero TV show.

The biggest problem with the episode’s attempt at emotional power is how insincere it feels. At no point do we truly believe that the characters are being torn apart by watching one of their own teammates slowly die. None of the cast exhibits the acting ability to make the audience believe the emotional trauma that they’re supposed to be undergoing. The result of this lack of quality is an episode that comes across as hollow and more than a little boring. This all culminates in an insultingly bad ending which features an action sequence that is so silly and poorly realised that any possible emotional investment is drained completely. As mentioned previously, Fzzt has a strong opening and some very intriguing ideas about the fact that some threats can’t be defeated. The problem is that everything falls apart as soon as the creators attempt to pull at the audiences’ heartstrings; they’re simply not skilled enough as storytellers to succeed.

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TV Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – “Girl in the Flower Dress”



Ruth Negga as the Episode’s title character

Girl in the Flower Dress is the first episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to progress the show’s overall plotline since the pilot. Various plot points that haven’t been addressed for weeks are quickly resolved or developed further. More significant events happen in this single episode than in the past four episodes. In some ways, such progress is a good sign. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has had tremendous problems finding a distinct identity and tone; though none of the episodes have been terrible, many have bordered on being mediocre because of this lack of direction. The unfortunate side of an episode like this is that it has automatically made the previous four episodes utterly irrelevant. A future viewer could easily forego them without losing anything of importance. This is episodic storytelling of the laziest nature.

The episode itself, however, is certainly entertaining. A Hong Kong street magician (Louis Ozawa Changchien) with the power to project fire from his hands is abducted by the sinister Centipede organisation that was last seen in the pilot. Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and his S.H.I.E.L.D. agents travel to Texas to track a computer hacker with a connection to the abduction. The computer hacker, Miles (Austin Nichols), turns out to be Skye’s (Chloe Bennet) boyfriend. More shocking to the team is the revelation that Skye has been compiling information on S.H.I.E.L.D. in secret, breaking the bonds of trust between her and the rest of the team. Secrets and information are at the forefront of the episode’s thematic concerns. Much of the episode is spent with Miles and Skye debating the merits of freedom of information. Edward Snowden’s name is dropped (likely in an attempt to be culturally relevant) as the two characters discuss the politics of leaking potentially dangerous information to the world in the name of freedom. Unlike the similar debate that took place in the second episode, in which no conclusion was found in regards to the freedom verses security dispute, this episode almost outright condemns the “hacktivist” movement by portraying Miles as untrustworthy and arrogant; hiding behind his speeches of freedom and democracy whilst committing crimes for his own self-interest. This is a surprisingly conservative viewpoint for the show to take, considering its usually more liberal sensibilities. Depending upon one’s politics, the episode will either be more or less palatable than any other episode so far.

Alongside the Skye and Miles plot is the ongoing story of the Chinese magician, who comes to call himself “Scorch” in reference to his superhuman fire powers. The notion that all people with superpowers have to select bizarre names for themselves is an interesting way of linking the series back to its cinematic precursors; the Marvel Comics films (in which superheroes with catchy codenames are commonplace). “Scorch” is taken to a secret lab by the titular girl in the flower dress (Ruth Negga) where he and his strange powers are experimented upon. Shannon Lucio returns from the Pilot as a scientist hoping to advance Scorch’s powers. Having a character with fire powers allows for a very exciting and visually stunning finale in which Coulson and May (Ming-Na Wen) have to enter the lab facility and battle the now-insane Scorch. The special effects of Scorch’s fire powers look great, as does a surprisingly dark sequence in which one of the villains is burnt to death and melted into ash. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has so far managed to tell several varied and interesting stories centred around ordinary people gaining powers and at least at this point in the show’s lifespan, the trope has not become worn or overused. More episodes of the S.H.I.E.L.D. team taking on superhumans would be very welcome.

Like every episode of this show, there are some pretty glaring problems. All of the scenes that take place in China are accompanied with stereotypical Chinese music. Not only is this more than a little racist, it insults the intelligence of the viewer by suggesting that we’d forget where the characters are unless the music reminds us. Much of the character’s dialogue continues to be trite and witty for the sake of being witty. One imagines that Brett Fletcher, the writer of this episode according to IMDB.com, was concerned more with the characters speaking in cool quotable one-liners than he was with giving the characters compelling or realistic lines. The Scorch character’s turn from slightly unpleasant to homicidally insane was far too quick to take seriously. Perhaps the biggest problem with this episode, and with all of the episodes of this show, is the creator’s emphasis on the characters as a family rather than as a team. Five episodes in and the characters are being written as if they’ve been together for years; as if this is the second or third season rather than the first. Obviously, watching the characters bond over time is the appeal of a programme like this. The problem is that it seems like the show’s creators wanted to sidestep character development in order to make the team like a dysfunctional family from day one. Watching these characters evolve from a formal team into something more personal and familial should have been the main joy of watching this show. Instead, when Skye seemingly betrays her teammates in this episode, the other agents act like a beloved family member has been lying to them. It is too early in the show’s existence for the characters to be treating each other in this way. In other words, this episode is one of the stronger thus far but it still has not broken away from the same issues that have surrounded the show from day one.

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TV Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – “Eye Spy”


 The dramatic opening sequence.

Eye Spy is the most consistently good episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. so far. The episode boats an interesting premise, genuine emotional stakes, strong acting and much of the tension and suspense that was missing from the last episode. However, it retains many of the faults that have plagued the show thus far. The episode begins with a visually interesting sequence in which a small group of masked men in red masks board a subway train in Stockholm. A mysterious woman (Pascale Armand) stealthily follows and attacks these men in an attempt to steal diamonds that they are carrying. Aboard the S.H.I.E.L.D. plane (nicknamed “the Bus”), Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) reveals to his S.H.I.E.L.D. team that the mystery woman is a former agent who has been missing for years. After some investigation, the team discover that she has been fitted with a cybernetic implant in her eye and that she is being forced to carry out criminal acts by an unidentified antagonist. With the wayward agent in S.H.I.E.L.D. hands, Skye (Chloe Bennet) hacks the ocular implant and finds a way to transfer its feedback into a pair of glasses. Ward (Brett Dalton) wears these glasses and endeavours to carry out their unknown opponents’ mission commands in an attempt to find out who they’re dealing with.

Surveillance is the central theme of this episode. Early in the proceedings, Coulson remarks that in this world of Facebook, Twitter and Flickr, there is little need to covertly watch people because so many people provide all of their personal details willingly. This is contrasted to the constant surveillance forced upon Amador, the agent with the implant. This is an interesting and heavy subject matter for such a light-hearted show; not unlike the political debate from episode two or the commentary on superheroes as gods in episode one. Despite being portrayed as a benevolent organisation, Joss Whedon and the other creators wisely choose to present the problematic aspects of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s activities such as its disregard for people’s privacy (in the last episode, they were referred to as “Big Brother” by one character). Perhaps this notion of the characters inhabiting a morally grey world could be developed in future episodes. Eye Spy is far more successful in its attempts to create mystery and tension then last week’s episode was. As it was last time, one of the agents (Ward this time) has to infiltrate dangerous hostile territory whilst communicating with other team members. The sense of dread and fear that Ward will be discovered is presented in a far more credible manner here than in the previous episode. Whereas Skye was portrayed as being blasé and overconfident when she was sneaking around enemy territory, Ward’s constant efforts to avoid exposure and his panic when he is inevitably discovered are truly exciting; more than enough to keep the audience on the edge of their seats.

The episode is also more successful in its attempts at comedy than last week. There is a very amusing moment when Ward is instructed (by the mysterious villain) to seduce a heavyset Belarusian male security guard; the unknown villain believes Ward to be Amador and Ward needs to maintain this illusion. Ward’s attempt to befriend the suspicious guard is one of the funnier moments of the whole series so far. Even the usually annoying duo of Fitzsimmons (Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge) is put to good comedic use in the episode; a scene in which they have to perform ocular surgery on Amador is both tense and humorous at the same time. In addition to the episode’s quality, Eye Spy is significant in that it may be the first episode to indicate that there will eventually be a recurring antagonist or central villain in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Amador’s mystery controller wants her to gain access to a bizarre physics equation; the nature of which has not yet been explained. Coulson refers to this equation as being of alien origin, possibly indicating a link to the Chitauri alien race that appeared in The Avengers (of which this show is a spin-off). This is hopefully the first evidence of a long-term villain for the programme, since a regular antagonist would add both a greater sense of consistency and a greater sense of tension to the show.

Whilst certainly a step up for the overall quality of the show, the episode still suffers from insufferable “witty” dialogue that sound like unnatural sound-bites and not human conversation. The sequence in which Ward murders several security guards also feels a little off; these men are hardly threats or even bad guys, yet Ward guns them down without a second thought. Worst of all is the post-credits stinger, which is both juvenile and potentially even insultingly sexist. However, these are small faults in an otherwise strong episode. Perhaps Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is starting to find itself.

TV Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – “The Asset”


Dr Hall’s gravity device.

The Asset, the third episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., is the first to feel utterly unnecessary. Nothing truly significant takes place and nothing important is revealed. That’s not to say that the episode isn’t fun or exciting; merely that for the first time, the show feels like it is dragging its heels (problematic, considering the fact that we’re three episodes in).

The episode begins with a short and enticing sequence in which a truck is ripped off a lonely freeway and up into the sky by an unseen force. It transpires that the truck is secretly a S.H.I.E.L.D. transport vehicle carrying a brilliant scientist (Ian Hart) named Dr Hall. Because of Hall’s research into gravity manipulation, the S.H.I.E.L.D. team is dispatched to rescue him from the Malta-based home of a sinister magnate called Ian Quinn (David Conrad). Because of Quinn’s bureaucratic protection from international agencies, the team is forced to send the untrained Skye (Chloe Bennet) into Quinn’s home to find and to help rescue Dr Hall.

The entirety of the episode feels like a missed opportunity. Skye attempting to blend in at a garden party of wealthy socialites could have been comedic and provocative; given Skye’s previously-established egalitarian political views, her character is written with an odd level of comfortableness among the sort of characters she should disdain. Given the even-handed and subtle political debate in the last episode, it seems peculiar that Skye’s hot-headed personality is not brought to the forefront when surrounded by the wealthy and the powerful. Similarly wasted is any sense of tension in these garden party sequences. Skye is working as a spy yet there is no real sense of tension of threat in these scenes. She and the team are entirely in control of the situation until she decides to pursue her own strategy. A viewer cannot develop a sense of concern for her safety because she always appears to have the upper hand. In addition, the biggest waste by far is in the science fiction element of the story. Dr Hall’s kidnapping is due to his understanding of a rare element that can control gravity. A device that has been built beneath Quinn’s mansion is capable of dramatically altering gravity across a large area. This could have made for some amazing visuals- seeing the contents of a beautiful Malta mansion floating around as if in space would have made for unforgettable television. Yet the best we get is two actors standing in a small room that has been set-dressed to look like they’re standing on the ceiling.

Obviously, the television effects budget of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. prevents its creators from indulging in the kind of spectacle seen in its cinematic cousins (the Marvel superhero films), but considering that the program has featured flying cars and exploding superhumans, something a bit more visually interesting than an upside down room was surely possible. Dr Hall is apparently a character plucked from Marvel’s superhero comics so it seems likely that the character will reappear on the show in the future; perhaps at that point the real possibilities of a zero-gravity weapon will become better utilised. There are certainly positive aspects to this episode but they do not help to overcome the sense that this was the first totally redundant episode of the show. David Conrad equips himself well as the villainous Quinn (much more so than the dreadful performance by Leonor Valera in episode two) as does Ian Hart as the desperate and fanatical Dr Hall. For some reason, it is revealed that Dr Hall is a former teacher of Fitzsimmons (Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge); something that never becomes relevant in the episode as the three characters do not share a scene together.

Brett Dalton’s Grant Ward is given a more developed back-story, revealing the reasons for his abrasive personality. The mystery of Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) continues to evolve in interesting ways. It now seems very likely that the Coulson who appeared in The Avengers is not the same man currently leading the team. The best aspect of the episode is that the dialogue sounded a great deal more natural. For the most part the implausibly witty banter that made all of the characters sound so artificial has been cut back; the characters now talk to one another in a manner closer to that of real people rather than talking to each other in sound bites. The Asset is a disappointing episode because it really has no impact or importance other than to set up a possible villain for a future episode (Dr Hall). None of the interesting ideas put forward are developed and nothing of real substance happens. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. continues to have no strong identity.

Image reproduced from comicbook.com

TV Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – “0-8-4”


Sam Jackson makes a cameo appearance as Nick Fury.

The second episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. shares many of the good and bad points that were evident in the Pilot. However, this second episode in the season, 0-8-4, is an overall improvement that suggests that the show will become a great deal better once it finds more of an identity. As the character Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) says in this episode, “We’re still working out the kinks”. Now that the team has been fully assembled, creator Joss Whedon has begun to focus on the interactions between the main characters. Teamwork is an important theme in this episode; each character is called upon to bring their particular skills to the episode’s conflict. Unsurprising considering Whedon’s track record, the appeal of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is clearly going to be the team itself and how the various agents play off one another.

Picking up almost immediately from where the Pilot left off, Skye (Chloe Bennet) moves onto the S.H.I.E.L.D. plane in order to serve as a consultant for the newly-formed team. Their first mission takes them to the jungles of Peru to hunt down a mysterious artefact that previously appeared in 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger (reminding the audience yet again that the show takes place in the same continuity as the Marvel Comics films). Soon they are attacked by local militants and have to make a hasty retreat with the help of a military official who happens to be an old friend of Coulson’s. Once the team is back on their plane, they soon realise that the artefact is far more dangerous than they realised and that the aircraft is in considerable danger. The good news about 0-8-4 is that its positive aspects certainly outnumber its faults. The narrative of the episode is even better than the previous one. The jungle setting sets the episode apart from its cinematic source material. The connection to the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” is subtle and clever (much more so than it was in the Pilot). The action sequences are well shot and very engaging. Most important is the fact that the tone continues to be light-hearted and optimistic. So many television shows that utilise sci-fi concepts like superheroes and alien technology (Heroes and Fringe being the most obvious examples) are written and shot with a strong emphasis on gritty realism; as if the creators are self-conscious and embarrassed about handling such out-there concepts and feel the need to disguise it with the trappings of serious drama. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has no such reservations—the creators are clearly not conflicted about making a live-action comic book on the small screen; making the show a refreshingly cheery watch.

Also impressive is the show’s subtle but mature examination of important modern political issues. Skye professes her support for the lower class revolution taking place in the show’s version of Peru, citing the use of Twitter as an organisational tool for protest as being an amazing symbol of unification against oppression. Meanwhile, Ward (Brett Dalton) argues from a more conservative point of view; that Skye is ignoring the violent militant behaviour of those she supports because she is not directly involved in the combat. The show doesn’t exactly take a side in this debate. Instead, both characters learn something from one another’s differing perspectives. This is extremely intelligent stuff for escapist action-adventure television.

Nevertheless, the episode is not without its problems. One wonders why Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) gives Skye such a hard time for not knowing about the events of Captain America; events that were supposedly classified (most likely, this scene is a shout-out to the more diehard Marvel fans in the audience). Guest star Leonor Varela delivers a pretty weak performance which tends to harm the more serious scenes. Elizabeth Henstridge’s Simmons continues to be a very irritating British stereotype. Most problematic for this particular episode is the frequently poor computer effects. This is likely due to the creators attempting comic book movie action on a television budget. The jungle action scenes are far more compelling than those in the plane because they feel more real and perilous. Most egregious is how the characters solve the problem of a large hole that has exploded in the side of the plane: their solution is so ludicrous that it goes beyond far-fetched (even in a world where Iron Man and Captain America exist). But none of these problems serve to damage the episode. These faults feel more like the natural growing pains of a very young show than they do serious flaws. Considering that the show is even better than it was last week, there’s no reason not to be optimistic about the future of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Plus, a special appearance by Samuel L. Jackson is always something to get excited about!

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TV Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – Pilot

Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill.

Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill.

(Note: Due to this being a Pilot episode, this review will be somewhat longer than those of future episodes)

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is not the first television series to spin-off from a popular film. However, there is something rather unique and ambitious about Joss Whedon’s newest creation. The show’s intention is to flesh out the shadowy elements of the “Marvel Cinematic Universe”; the single fictional continuity that all of the Avengers, Iron Man, Captain America and Thor films are set within (with more characters set to debut in the next few years). As a series of films, the Marvel movies are risky projects in and of themselves. Audience members who did not watch The Avengers were likely baffled and frustrated by Iron Man 3 because of how much of the former’s plot informs the latter. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is potentially even more problematic; assuming that the audience cares enough about the Marvel Cinematic Universe to watch a show in which none of the famous superhero characters appear. A newcomer who has not seen The Avengers may find Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. confusing, but a veteran of the Marvel films may not become invested in the programme’s new characters and settings. For these reasons, one cannot help but admire the ambition of Joss Whedon and Marvel Studios. Regardless of how financially successful and pop-culturally significant their films have been, a television show spin-off featuring an almost entirely new cast is brave.

The results are a mixed bag to say the least. All in all, the pilot episode is very good television. The show is exciting, engaging, well made and possesses a light and optimistic tone that few procedural dramas can capture. However, there are some glaring problems that can hopefully be addressed whilst the show is still fresh. Picking up sometime after the events of The Avengers, the Pilot of S.H.I.E.L.D. begins with a dramatic narration explaining that the world is full of bizarre mysteries and superhuman heroes. An exciting scene follows in which an unknown man (J August Richards) uses superpowers to rescue a young woman from an exploding building. This opening scene is a statement of intent for the show; demonstrating instantly that the popular Marvel characters are not the only superheroes in this universe. From there, we are introduced to each of our principle characters. Most of these characters are familiar tropes that have appeared in similar shows for years. Brett Dalton’s Agent Grant Ward is a sarcastic loner with a chip on his shoulder. Ming-Na Wen plays the irascible Melinda May: the veteran with a troubled past. Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge share the team’s “geek” role as Fitzsimmons (an amalgamation of each character’s surname, “Fitz” and “Simmons”). Cobie Smulders reprises her role as Agent Maria Hill from The Avengers as does Clark Gregg as the fan-favourite character, Agent Phil Coulson. A later addition to the S.H.I.E.L.D team is Skye (Chloe Bennet), a computer hacker dedicated to exposing the bizarre events that are occurring globally in the post-Avengers world.

As the narrative of the Pilot unfolds, Coulson assembles his team of S.H.I.E.L.D (a secret organisation dedicated to concealing the existence of superhumans) agents in order to track down the mysterious superhuman from the opening scene. Few details are given about each team member’s past; adding a sense of mystery to each character and keeping the narratives’ pace extremely brisk. Perhaps most intriguing is how Coulson himself is alive considering that he apparently died in The Avengers (a few lines of dialogue spoken by a bit-character suggest that the revived Coulson may not be all that he seems). Fortunately, the writing of each character is so strong that the fact that little is known about them is never a problem. Similarly impressive is the gradual revelation of the episode’s main mystery. Enough is ultimately revealed to feel like a satisfying conclusion but there is lingering ambiguity to make audiences curious about what will happen next.

Besides the mostly strong writing, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D has an interesting setting with a clever question at the heart of its premise: What would it be like to be a normal person in a world where superheroes exist? So many superhero films and television shows focus on the superpowered person and their supporting cast. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. presents ordinary people living in an extraordinary world. J. August Richards’ character spends the episodes insisting that he is a “hero” just because he has amazing powers. At the episodes’ climax, he gives a speech in which he compares the Marvel superheroes to the so-called “1%”; privileged beings lording over defenceless normal people. The Marvel superheroes are treated by members of the public in a matter not unlike the characters are treated in the real world: action figures, conventions and comicbooks all exist around the Avengers (who are referred to as “The Heroes of New York” by the general public). This is a fascinating idea and one that will hopefully be explained thoroughly in future episodes.

There are still major problems with the episode. Whedon’s dialogue writing, whilst clever and witty, isn’t particularly realistic. It’s very hard to believe that real people would talk to one another entirely in quips, puns and jokes. One gets the sense that Whedon cares more about snappy dialogue than giving each character a distinct voice. The “Fitzsimmons” characters are horrendous British stereotypes (Simmons’ first line of dialogue is a Harry Potter joke). Also, despite the unique nature of the show, it feels rather pedestrian. Nothing about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D feels particularly new or revolutionary- just a collection of characters who fit into clearly recognisable archetypes that we’ve seen before (the Skye character is almost a clone of Warehouse 13’s Claudia). The Pilot is a promising start for this programme but it feels as if the creators are still finding their feet. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t have an identity of its own yet. With more careful use of dialogue and some sure-to-come character development, this show could quickly become a modern classic. Right now, it’s a work in progress.

TV Review: Da Vinci’s Demons – The Lovers

DaVinci's Demons, 2013

Titled The Lovers (in keeping with the Tarot-themed titles of each episode), the most recent Da Vinci’s Demons episode is significantly stronger the previous one. Unlike the last episode, the two main plot-lines of the programme (Da Vinci searching for the mysterious Book of Leaves and the political dealings of the Medici family) feel more cohesive and complementary to each other. The show seems to have sorted its crisis of identity; it was previously swinging between magical adventure and family-fuelled intrigue. The Lovers still contains these elements, but they feel far more interlinked. Without spoiling any details, the episode’s climactic ending involves Da Vinci essentially having to choose between following his own swashbuckling adventures and becoming involved in the politics and intrigue that he nothing to do with in the last episode. For the first time, Da Vinci’s Demons has found its balance between the two different things that it wishes to be. The Lovers is filled with interesting character interactions (mostly exposition, but interesting exposition). Da Vinci (Tom Riley) begins the episode by criticising the mysticism of Al-Rahim (Alexander Siddig); firmly establishing himself as a man of reason and not of magic. One could possibly read this as the smallest of references to the historical Da Vinci’s impact on the age of reason. Da Vinci is displayed demonstrating his remarkable intellect in this episode; very different from the previous episode in which he seemingly conjured a diving suit from absolutely nowhere. It is much easier for viewers to believe Da Vinci to be the genius the rest of the characters claim him to be when we get to see his remarkable mind working through problems. A sequence in which he deduces the location of a missing compass is not too dissimilar to BBC’s Sherlock (complete with little white captions floating around Da Vinci’s head).

The secondary plot of the episode continues to develop the double dealings of the Medici and Pazzi Florentine families. Hoping to secure a lasting peace between them, Lorenzo Medici (Elliot Cowan) intends to marry his brother to a Pazzi daughter. His plans are scuppered by the actions of Laura Haddock’s Lucrezia, who continues to pursue her own objectives regardless of what stands in her way. At times, the constantly shifting political allegiances and strategies can become confusing unless one is paying attention. At one point, a character seemingly shifts his loyalty despite having little reason to do so. Later in the episode, a character that was teased to be dead miraculously appears alive and well… and is then promptly murdered. It is hard to deduce whether the writers lack direction or if they’re attempting the mimic the “political intrigue means that any character can be killed off at any time” formula that Game of Thrones has managed so well. The episode is certainly not without its problems. Blake Ritson continues to act like a pantomime villain in the role of Riario; he has even donned a pair of ludicrously anachronistic sunglasses just to emphasise how evil he is (as if the costuming dept of the show agree with Ritson that Riario should be ridiculous). Many of the episode’s other performers are underwhelming and seem to appear just to remind the audience that they exist. The mythology back-story of the show is also sidelined somewhat which is a pity as it is very interesting. However, despite its faults, this episode is certainly a step in the right direction for Da Vinci’s Demons. The previously binary nature of the programme seems to have been replaced with a more cohesive tone. If it continues in this direction, the show might finally start to live up to its full potential.