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A. Whitehead "Werthead" (Colchester, Essex United Kingdom)

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Brothers in Arms (Miles Vorkosigan Adventures)
Brothers in Arms (Miles Vorkosigan Adventures)
by Lois McMaster Bujold
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: £5.20

4.0 out of 5 stars Miles arrives on Earth and mayhem results, 30 Jan. 2015
The Dendarii Mercenary Fleet has pulled off its most audacious operation yet, a mass prison break that has liberated hundreds of enemies of the Cetagandan Empire. The furious Cetagandans have pursued the Dendarii across the known worlds, forcing them to take refuge and resupply at one world even the Cetagandans hesitate to cross: Earth. For Miles Vorkosigan it's time to resupply his troops and check in with his day job as an officer in the Barrayaran military...but it also brings him into contact with rebels determined to destroy Barrayar and have a most unexpected way of doing it.

Brothers in Arms is the fifth novel by publication order (or eighth, chronologically) in The Vorkosigan Saga, Lois McMaster Bujold's award-festooned series following the misadventures of the genetically misshapen and crippled Miles Vorkosigan as he tries to rise through the ranks of the Barrayaran military. This latest novel expands on the Vorkosigan universe by taking us to humanity's homeworld.

The novel is divided into two sections. In the first Miles has to confront the problems posed by his actual job as an officer for Barrayar's navy and how this conflicts with his cover role as Admiral Naismith, commander of the Dendarii mercenaries. There not being too many prominent genetically-challenged dwarfs around, the rising fame of Vorkosigan in both these roles has led many to conclude they are the same person. With the value of the cover unravelling, Miles faces the unpleasant possibility of having to give up the Dendarii, a role he has come to thoroughly relish. Miles soon comes up with a bonkers plan to allow his cover to continue...which then becomes insanely complicated when it turns out that his randomly-conceived cover plan isn't too far off from the truth. The wheels-within-wheels plans, deceptions and machinations that Vorkosigan comes up are hilariously over-complicated (to the befuddlement of his friends and crew) and it's great to see them in action.

As well as the comedy and some very effective action set-pieces, including a memorable concluding battle at a supermassive SF version of the Thames Barrier, there's also some major steps forward in character development in this book. Miles realises how much the Dendarii have come to mean to him and several moments where he genuinely trips up on what role he is supposed to be inhabiting are quite powerful. Maybe he's in too deep? There's also the anguish over Miles's lack of immediate family, and when this appears to be rectified Miles latches onto it with horrifying lack of forethought, but moved by a powerful emotional need for peers to relate to. It's fairly straightforward stuff, but Bujold's ability to tell familiar stories through a fresh perspective serves the narrative well.

Brothers in Arms (****) is a very solid novel, with some good action and laughs framing a more serious story that does a lot to advance Miles's character and the overall storyline of the series.

South Park: The Stick of Truth (PC DVD)
South Park: The Stick of Truth (PC DVD)
Offered by Gameline GmbH.
Price: £10.87

4.0 out of 5 stars The best TV show-to-game translation ever, 29 Jan. 2015
A new family moves to South Park, Colorado, a town noted for its odd inhabitants, idyllic scenery and occasional tendency to become involved in the fate of the country/world/universe. The family's son becomes embroiled in a complex live-action roleplaying game being fought for control of the "Stick of Truth", but this soon escalates with alien spaceships crashing into the mall, government agents showing up and gnomes invading homes to steal underpants. Also, Al Gore arrives in search of a mythical creature. Basically, it's just another day in South Park.

South Park is no stranger to video game adaptations. The earliest appeared shortly after the show's debut in 1997 and were soulless cash-ins revolving around racing or first-person action games in a horrible 3D version of the game's distinctive art style. Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, unimpressed, approached Obsidian Entertainment with the idea of making a new game that employed the show's signature 2D art style and was also faithful to its satirical, biting (and occasionally very sick) humour. Obsidian rose to the occasion, putting together an RPG design which would involve Parker and Stone as the main writers and voice artists.

The result is a game that is so faithful to the source material that, unless someone spots you controlling it or you get into a battle, it can easily be mistaken for an episode of the actual TV show. For a studio whose often amazing artistic vision is too often compromised by budget or time, Obsidian finally managed to hit it out of the park on their first attempt, rather than after a lengthy patching cycle. If you are a South Park fan, there is simply no further need for further discussion: get ahold of this pronto. If you find South Park crass or offensive, however, then there's nothing here that will change your mind so steer well clear.

For those still on the fence, The Stick of Truth is a heavily narrative-based game set in and around South Park. You control "The New Kid" (later dubbed Sir Douchebag by the reliably foul-mouthed Cartman), a new arrival in town soon recruited by Cartman into joining a roleplaying game. You can navigate around the town and surrounding countryside, all faithfully animated in the same style as the TV show, and undertake missions for other characters whilst getting involved in combat with animals or with the elves, the rival faction in the game. This being South Park, things soon escalate and then you're fighting aliens, giant rats and gnomes armed with magic that can miniaturise you for no particular reason. Combat takes place in a turn-based, Japanese RPG style environment, with you being able to use both magic (based around flatulence) and special attacks associated with your character class (Fighter, Mage or Jew). It's straightforward but the interaction between different weapons, armour, magic, items and the ability to switch between ranged and melee attacks delivers a satisfying number of options to you. In short, the gameplay is superb.

In terms of length, you can polish off the main storyline in 10-12 hours with ease. What is slightly disappointing is that there are relatively few side-quests. The main activity outside of following the story is based around collectibles, going around the town looking for Chinpokomon toys (I got very excited when I finally found Shoe) or little kids playing hide and seek. This is mildly diverting and can extend the playing time out by a few hours, but overall this is not a very long game. It's still a lot of fun, but you may want to pick it up in a sale rather than pay full price.

In story terms, it's basically South Park's Greatest Hits, with Parker and Stone revisiting almost every concept they've come up with in the past two decades. So Mr. Hanky and his martial problems form a subplot, Al Gore shows up to continue his search for ManBearPig and the player can meet Terrance and Phillip in a quest that takes them to Canada (rendered as a primitive NES-style top-down RPG). This could risk being derivative, but Parker and Stone instead seem to relish re-using previous ideas and fleshing them out beyond the confines of a 20-minute TV episode. It's a pretty funny game, but Parker and Stone also don't hold back on using jokes that they wouldn't be able to get into even on the TV show. An anal probing sequence on the alien mothership is particularly gross, as is a later section set inside another character's colon, and a sequence inside an abortion clinic complete with foetal zombies goes through the roof of offensiveness to some other plane of WTFery. Some of the more offensive sequences can be skipped (or are cut out entirely in international versions of the game) but others can't.

The Stick of Truth is, on the one hand, a superb game. It's a pitch-perfect translation of a TV show into a game (maybe the best one ever done), with some excellent gameplay and mechanics. The characters and story are appropriate to the source material and it's genuinely hilarious in places. On the other hand, it's rather short for its genre and the game is mind-bogglingly offensive at some parts. For those who like seeing the boundaries of good humour and taste being stretched to their limits, this won't be a problem. For others, it will be. In that sense, this is a game more for established fans than newcomers.

The Abyss Beyond Dreams (Chronicle of the Fallers)
The Abyss Beyond Dreams (Chronicle of the Fallers)
by Peter F. Hamilton
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.60

4.0 out of 5 stars Not his best, but still a very enjoyable SF novel, 29 Jan. 2015
AD 3326. Nigel Sheldon, the originator of wormhole technology and the person responsible for the creation of the Intersolar Commonwealth, is semi-retired and planning to leave this galaxy for a new one. However, his plans are interrupted by the enigmatic Raiel, the powerful aliens who guard the Milky Way from the expansion of the Void, the mysteriously growing mini-universe hidden in the galactic core. The Raiel need Sheldon to go into the Void and help recover one of their ancient warships. Sheldon agrees...but soon finds himself on the wrong planet in the wrong time and the only way out is to support a full-scale revolution.

The Abyss Beyond Dreams is the first novel in a duology, to be followed by Night Without Stars. This series, The Chronicle of the Fallers, is the latest work in Peter F. Hamilton's Commonwealth universe. Familiarity with the previous works in this universe (the Commonwealth Saga duology and the Void Trilogy) is recommended as this book contains spoilers for the earlier ones, but is not strictly essential.

As with the preceding Void Trilogy, this novel is divided into two sections and almost two distinct genres. In the opening sequence we have far-future SF, set thirteen centuries hence when humanity is immortal, can cross the galaxy in a matter of weeks and live any kind of life imaginable. The bulk of the book is set within the Void itself, where high technology does not work but the inhabitants gain the powers of telepathy and telekinesis. Whilst the Void sequence was set on Querencia, which was more of a fantasy setting, the Fallers books are set on Bienvenido. Unlike Querencia, where a lot of history was lost after the human refugees settled on it, Bienvenido has maintained more of a history and identify, as well as a slightly higher level of technology. This gives the novel more of a steampunk feel, allowing Hamilton to mix up some more genres.

The Abyss Beyond Dreams starts off by feeling a little bit too much like The Dreaming Void. One of our primary POVs is Svlasta, a soldier wounded in battle with the mysterious Fallers (hostile aliens who can assume human appearance) who soon becomes the architect of social change. The similarities with Edeard's story in the earlier books are uncanny. However, Hamilton is clever enough to subvert the reader's expectations and soon moves off in another direction. It's not long before we're meeting some clever (and very conscious) Russian Revolution parallels and seeing how all revolutions carry within them their own capacity for self-destruction.

As usual, Hamilton's prose is unornamented but highly readable. His characters are well-delineated, although they're all a little too prone to using British swear words and idioms. The book is structurally similar to the Void novels but this is deliberate and soon used to set up and then undercut expectations in an interesting way. There are a few complaints, however. One of these is how quickly the ending unfolds (bordering on the abrupt) and how rapidly one of our main characters descends into outright madness. Whilst foreshadowed earlier on, the actual transition feels a little too rapid.

Another is only an issue for long-standing fans. The Commonwealth universe is undeniably a fascinating place, but we've now spent four (out of a planned five) big novels on the subject of the Void. Given the size and variety of the Commonwealth, it would be nice to see more of it than this same bit of it. I can see the fascination, as it allows the author to experiment with different genres without having to fully abandon his SF roots to do it, but there is the feeling that it would be nice to wrap up the Void and move on. The next book in the series will hopefully do just that.

Otherwise, The Abyss Beyond Dreams (****) is a very solid Hamilton SF novel: big ideas, fun characters and affecting moments of gut-wrenching horror.

Breaking Bad - Season 4 (Blu-ray + UV Copy)
Breaking Bad - Season 4 (Blu-ray + UV Copy)
Dvd ~ Bryan Cranston
Price: £15.00

5.0 out of 5 stars The show just goes on getting better, 29 Jan. 2015
Walter White and Jesse Pinkman are continuing to work as meth-cooks for ruthless criminal Gus Fring, but they are now at loggerheads. As both sides try to find a way to get on top so they no longer need the other and can eliminate them, Walter also continues to draw his ex-wife Skyler deeper into his schemes.

The fourth season of Breaking Bad is arguably the one where it goes from being consistently excellent to staking a claim to the "Best Show on TV" title. Up until now the show has painted Walter White in - at least somewhat - sympathetic terms. White wants what is best for his family and has made occasionally ruthless decisions to back that up in self-defence, or when the alternative is the death of his family or Jesse. White has certainly been on moral slide (especially given his inaction in the Season 2 finale that led to a death) but he hasn't wholly moved past redemption. This changes dramatically in the fourth season, with White now pitted against a man far more ruthless and cunning than himself. This forces White to up his game, to close off his emotions and do whatever it takes to survive and to win.

By this point, it has become redundant to say that the actors are all spectacular, that the writing is tight, the dialogue quotable and the music choices all very strong. The show does have some near-vanishing weaknesses that continue: the tendency to completely drop story elements until they are needed and then bring them back abruptly later on is mildly grating. Remember Walter Jr.'s crowdfunding scheme which Saul co-opts as a money laundering operation? The writers don't, then do, then don't again. The writers also continue to be forever on the verge of giving Marie something to do and then pull back, so for most of the season (and indeed the show) she's just hanging around. Her interaction with Hank in the opening part of the season seems to be setting up a more interesting relationship between them and then goes nowhere.

To find even these criticisms some serious reaching is required. What the show does do brilliantly in its fourth year is finding ways of putting Gus and Walter at loggerheads and showing Walter 'level up' in villainy as he attempts to take on Gus at his own game. The establishing of Gus's own backstory in the episodes Hermanos and Salud (showing that Gus went through a similar process with his own nemesis, Don Eladio) cleverly adds depth to the character as well. The season then culminates in a three-episode run that is wall-to-wall tension, action and drama and ends on a note-perfect moment.

What is also well done is how Jesse becomes a pawn between Gus and Walter, with Gus discovering how to build up Jesse's confidence as a watch of stealing away his loyalty. Walter is forced into some pretty breathtaking and ruthless actions to get that loyalty back, and it's this relationship (sold by the actors with total conviction) that forms the backbone of the season.

The fourth season of Breaking Bad (*****) is the best to date and is the show at the very top of its game.

Breaking Bad - Season 3 (Blu-ray + UV Copy)
Breaking Bad - Season 3 (Blu-ray + UV Copy)
Dvd ~ Bryan Cranston
Price: £15.00

5.0 out of 5 stars Walt's life crumbles even as his meth business takes off, 12 Jan. 2015
Walter White's drug manufacturing sideline is taking over his life. He has separated from his wife (who now knows his secret) and has a new employer, Gus Fring, who is initially amiable but soon reveals himself to be ruthless and dangerous. However, Walter's colleague and friend Jesse is becoming unreliable, his lack of concern proving a danger to himself and to others around him.

The third season of Breaking Bad continues in just as confident and assured a style as the previous year. The show opens with the aftermath of the air crash over Albuquerque, a plot development that was a little too contrived and is quickly brushed under the rug (although not before Walter gives a startling and darkly humourous speech to his students about how it was "only" the fiftieth-worst air disaster in history). The following episodes set up Walter and a reluctant Jesse in their new "superlab" and show them now having a day job, with Walter even making himself his sandwiches before going to work. It's all funny stuff, contrasted with a more serious subplot in which two terrifyingly blank-faced assassins arrive in town to kill Walter.

The season takes a few episodes to really kick into gear, but then ups the ante with One Minute, when Hank is brutally attacked by the assassins in a parking lot, resulting in a stand-off and shoot-out that must rank among the more intense gunfights ever put on the small screen. Another episode, Fly, is remarkable in its attention to detail and character and moving the emotional stories of the characters along whilst being almost completely confined (for budgetary reasons) to the lab set.

But the season really triumphs with the last two episodes, in which Gus's relationship with Walter and Jesse moves onto a less friendly footing, an innocent man is killed and Walter's desperation drives him to increasingly ruthless and amoral acts. The writing is powerful and the acting is excellent, with Giancarlo Esposito and Jonathan Banks being promoted to regulars as Gus Fring and his highly capable fixer, Mike Ehrmantraut. Both actors deliver stand-out performances to match the already-established regulars.

The season also succeeds in showing the growing moral decline of Walter as he becomes more ruthless and starts the same process with Skylar, as she is initially disgusted by Walter's activities but later is happy to use his money to pay for Hank's medical bills, the start of her own gradual corruption by money. The way the subplots and themes all feed into one another and the characters so everything makes sense has become highly impressive by this point.

The third season of Breaking Bad (*****) improves on and evolves the story from the first two, becoming more epic and confident with every passing episode.

Infidel: Bel Dame Apocrypha
Infidel: Bel Dame Apocrypha
by Kameron Hurley
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars An excellent improvement over the first novel, 12 Jan. 2015
Several years have passed since the devastating events of God's War. Most of Nyx's former team have taken refuge in regions distant from the ongoing war between Nasheen and Chenja, taking up new lives, starting families and trying to move on. Nyx herself is still working on the sly for the Queen of Nasheen. When Nasheen is rocked by a devastating attack on the capital city and it becomes clear that the bel dame assassins are fighting amongst themselves, Nyx is forced to travel across the continent to consult her former allies Khos and Rhys. But her arrival in their new lives has horrifying consequences.

Infidel is the second volume in The Bel Dame Apocrypha, following on from God's War and preceding Rapture. As with the first novel, it's a hard-arsed book fusing fantasy to science fiction by way of a whole lot of attitude and a lot more smarts. It's also the rare middle volume of a trilogy that builds and improves on God's War.

God's War was a great book, but one that ended up being a little too confusing for its own good, especially at the start. Infidel is much more coherently focused on its storytelling, building a parallel narrative contrasting Rhys's new, peaceful life in Tirhan with Nyx's ongoing life of mayhem. This structure worked well in God's War but is even better here, with the different locations and circumstances for the two characters allowing Hurley to even more strongly define them. The two strands are held separate for a large chunk of the book, building up tension so that when they come together the results are appropriately cataclysmic.

Hurley's writing is tighter than in the first book and also more empathetic, building up the new characters and relationships so that when the inevitable gut-wrenching betrayals and deaths come, they hurt. Infidel is a brutal book - more than the first volume - but one that earns its shocks rather than relying on them for a cheap emotional fix.

There are problems: the ending is extremely abrupt, an epic final confrontation over and done with in a blink of an eye. There's also the age-old trilogy situation of the first instalment being more or less stand-alone (in case it bombs) but the second volume being left wide open for the story to continue into a third book. Whether this is a bug or feature of trilogies is up for the reader to decide.

Infidel (****½) is an improvement over God's War, being tighter, more strongly characterised and with a better structure, whilst the 'bugpunk' weirdness is carried through and becomes even stranger. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Masters of Sex - Season 1 [DVD]
Masters of Sex - Season 1 [DVD]
Dvd ~ Beau Bridges
Price: £14.00

5.0 out of 5 stars A superbly-written and brilliantly acted study of humanity, 7 Jan. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
1956. William Masters is a doctor working at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. Masters is a brilliant researcher in the field of fertility but is also working on a more pioneering project: the first-ever detailed study of the biology of human sexuality. With his superiors scandalised by the project, Masters recruits singer-turned-secretary Virginia Johnson to assist him.

Masters of Sex is a show based around an interesting, but surely limited, premise: what happened when the first American doctor tried to investigate the real biological processes involved during sex? Given this was the mid-1950s when homosexuality was still illegal, censors had a big problem with Elvis Presley's hips and society was dumbfounded when a woman expressed a desire to have a career, the answer is scandal, outrage and secrecy. It took a full decade for Masters and Johnson to finally publish their findings in the more liberal and free-swingin' 1960s, as they waited for society to catch up to the point where it could handle the facts their study revealed.

As the show starts that's a far bit off in the future. Instead, it initially comes across as a sexier version of Mad Men, with the furnishings, fashions and cars of the 1950s recreated with impeccable precision and the mores and limitations of society of the time evoked and then cast down thanks to the freedom of cable television, namely nudity and sex. You may have gathered from the premise that there's a lot flesh on display in this series and this is the case, although probably nowhere near as much as some were expecting. Masters of Sex is a show about sex and desire, but it's even more about the impact it has on people, its use as a motivation or goal and the hypocrisises of a society that is both defined by it but also likes to pretend it doesn't exist.

These complexities are realised fully by the actors. We already knew that Michael Sheen was one of the best actors of his generation, but just in case there was any doubt he completely knocks it out of the park in his portrayal of Masters. Masters is a buttoned-up figure who is a lot more complex and conflicted than it first appears. He proclaims his belief that sex is a purely biological process with scientific processes behind it and that love and emotion does not necessarily play a role, but he then expresses disgust with the notion of homosexuality (something the triggers some later self-analysis) and develops problems separating his own feelings from the work. He has a difficult relationship with his wife Libby (a soulful performance by Caitlin Fitzgerald), being cold and distant despite her warmth and attentiveness, but develops an interest in Virgina when she earns his respect through applying herself to the study in a serious manner. Sheen does sterling work throughout the series, making Masters constantly sympathetic and understandable even when he's acting like an insensitive fool (which is about two-thirds of the time).

Playing against him and more than holding her own is Lizzy Caplan. Caplan has been building up a good body of work in supporting roles in various projects over the last decade or so, but Masters of Sex is finally the big break-out role she was waiting for. Virginia Johnson is a modern woman trapped in the wrong time period: a young woman forced by circumstance (separating from her boorish, unreliable boyfriend and the father of her two children) and will into developing a career of her own at a time when this was extremely rare. Johnson's role is contrasted against that of Dr. DePaul (Julianne Nicholson), a woman who has made it in the male-dominated world of medicine but only at the expense of having any kind of family life and still struggles to get respect or her projects funded. Initially the two women develop an adversarial relationship, but later on find themselves joining forces, united in their exasperation of the world.

A galaxy of fine supporting actors prop up the central cast. Beau Bridges is the sort of actor you call on to appear as an avuncular authority figure, which he does well here as the university provost and Masters's mentor, but the writers then make him a closeted gay man struggling with his identity and with his relationship with his wife and daughter. It's a more angsty role than it first appears and Bridges plays it to the hilt, seemingly enjoying stretching his range. Allison Janney gives a terrific performance as his wife, who is initially horrified at discovering her husband's infidelity but then feels liberated by it to pursue her own life.

Masters of Sex (*****) is a clever show, exploring gender issues, social mores and how people are defined by their desires through the central premise. It's deftly-characterised and filmed with real attention to period detail. It's also extremely funny at times, gut-wrenchingly tragic at others and always fascinating to watch. It also ties with Game of Thrones for the best title sequence currently on television.

Breaking Bad: Season Two (Blu-ray + UV Copy) [Region Free]
Breaking Bad: Season Two (Blu-ray + UV Copy) [Region Free]
Dvd ~ Bryan Cranston
Price: £15.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Better than the already-excellent first season, 26 Dec. 2014
Walter White and Jesse Pinkman have made a deal with a local crimelord to distribute their distinctive blue-tinged crystal meth, but their associate turns out to be highly unstable and dangerously unpredictable. As they try to extricate themselves from their situation, Walter's medical treatment continues and his secret comes dangerously close to being exposed.

The second season of Breaking Bad picks up immediately where the prematurely-ended (due to the 2008-09 Writer's Strike) first season ended and continues the themes established there. Walter White is having the worst mid-life crisis ever, the bitterness and resentment built up by a lifetime spent achieving only mediocrity finally boiling over, catalysed by his cancer diagnosis, and fuelling his evolution into a surprisingly competent criminal. The show isn't interested in standing still and pushes White's development episode-by-episode whilst contrasting that with Jesse's descent back into drug addiction hell and showing the impact of these events on White's family and Jesse's strained relationship with his parents.

As before the show is darkly humourous and relentless in how it shows White trying to justify everything logically (if only to himself) and becoming at times speechless in disbelief when other people don't buy his selfish reasoning. The core of the show remains Bryan Cranston's committed performance and that's even stronger this season than before. Aaron Paul also deserves superlatives for the tricky balancing act of continuing to make Jesse sympathetic even when he is self-destructing so wastefully.

The greater episode count this time around allows for the deepening of the secondary cast. In particular, Dean Norris gets more to do as Walter's DEA agent brother-in-law, who moves from simplistic jock meathead to a more layered character suffering panic attacks after witnessing the real horrors of the drug war along the border. New and highly memorable characters also show up, such as Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), a brilliantly slimy lawyer who becomes Walter's confidante by dint of no-one else being available. Krysten Ritter puts in a terrific performance as Jesse's arty new girlfriend Jane, with the excellent John de Lancie playing her father. There's also some fertile ground-laying for future seasons, with both Mike (Jonathan Banks) and Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) appearing in the last few episodes as Walter and Jesse's new - and hopefully more reliable - business associates.

Negatives are hard to find. There's an underlying air of implausibility about the show, such as Jesse's drug dealing associates doing their business in broad daylights on street corners with bling prominently on the display, and the final episode strains credulity with unlikely coincidence building on unlikely coincidence before the final moments of the season which feel very random. But the subsequent season does a good job of selling these moments to make them work better in retrospect.

The second season of Breaking Bad (*****) is, by a nose, better than the first, written and acted with growing confidence and a more accomplished juggling of the different characters and storylines.

The Walking Dead - Season 4 [Blu-ray] [2014]
The Walking Dead - Season 4 [Blu-ray] [2014]
Dvd ~ Andrew Lincoln
Price: £22.00

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Bleakly entertaining, 26 Dec. 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Rick Grimes and his fellow survivors of the walker apocalypse are still living in a prison, which they have fortified into a refuge and where they are growing food to augment their supply-raiding of surrounding, abandoned towns. However, they are unaware of growing threats outside the prison, including the return of an old enemy.

The Walking Dead continues to be one of the oddest shows on television. On the one hand, its a big-budget, crowd-pleasing depiction of the mass killing of zombies. On the other, it's a bleakly nihilistic portrait of people who seem to only ever be a few more catastrophes away from committing group suicide. More than once whilst watching a particular season, the idea comes to mind that the show is completely pointless, lacking as it is in any kind of long-term direction or plan for survival beyond holing up for a bit and seeing what happens.

If the show's lack of a long-term focus is a problem, it's one the writers manage to (mostly successfully) push to the back-burner by emphasising individual moments and the crisis of the day. A debilitating disease sweeps the prison in the opening episodes and no sooner is that burning itself out then a full-scale war is underway, after which the survivors are scattered across the countryside and have to fight their own battles to survive. This structure seems to have emerged after dissatisfaction with the previous season's main storyline, which in order to get to sixteen episodes had to resort to lots of cheap filler.

The show's overlong seasons are still a big problem, but the fourth season certainly handles it better by treating each of the two halves as its own eight-episode serial. The first half is tighter, with the characters more closely bound together and even confident enough to spend two full episodes on exploring the backstory of a secondary character in detail. The second half is more sprawling and more of an anthology series, with the characters divvied up into random teams and having to survive without the benefits of the larger group. This allows hitherto chronically-underdeveloped characters like Beth to emerge much more strongly as fully-rounded figures. The arrival of survivors from Texas on a mission which might actually tie into the origins of the walker plague, and the discovery of a new refuge accepting people in from a large area, also gives the show that much-needed sense of direction in its final episodes of the season as well.

There are still weaknesses. The show is prone to repetition, and the zombie-killing is now so routine that the characters seem as bored by it as the viewers are. The structure of the season is a big improvement on the previous one, but events are still too slow-paced and the producers could have done with cutting to the chase a bit more quickly.

Still, the fourth season of The Walking Dead (****½) emerges as the best to date. Entertaining, if at times bleakly so, and always well-acted, the show could still do with a bit more focus and certainly less episodes per season, but it seems to be on the right track.

True Detective - Season 1 [Blu-ray] [2014] [Region Free]
True Detective - Season 1 [Blu-ray] [2014] [Region Free]
Dvd ~ Woody Harrelson
Price: £20.00

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fantastically acted, a clever structure, but a few too many moments where the story runs out of steam, 28 Nov. 2014
Louisiana, 1995. A young girl's body is found tied to a tree, the victim of what appears to be a ritualistic murder. Two officers are assigned to the case: Martin Hart, a dyed-in-the-wool traditional detective who enjoys drinking and is having an affair, and Rust Cohle, a ferociously intelligent man who ponders philosophical and existentialist concepts whilst working. Over the course of seventeen years, the case is apparently solved but then re-opened again as Hart and Cohle, whose relationship suffers seismic shocks, face the possibility that they may have gotten things wrong.

True Detective is HBO's latest big-hitter series, an anthology show in which each season will be a different, self-contained story with its own locations and characters. This first season is set in Louisiana (after True Blood and Treme, HBO probably have a discount on filming there) and is focused on a very clever serial killer who knows how to make it look like he's disappeared whilst carrying on his work.

True Detective has won enormous plaudits for a number of its achievements, and I can only join the choir here. The cinematography is breathtaking, the sense of atmosphere and place vivid and the acting by everyone, but in particular Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, is outstanding. The show's artistic ambition, using the traditional detective story framework to express thoughts and ideas about science, religion, nihilism, existentialism and corruption, is commendable. The structure of setting the story in three distinct timeframes and moving between them is also very successful, with the 1995 segment foreshadowing and the 2012 segment obliquely referencing things that happened in the 2002 segment which we then get to see unfold.

The show does have a number of problems, however. For a story that only lasts for eight hour-long episodes, the pacing often feels off. Some episodes are rammed full of incident, character development and thematic musings and are highly compelling. Others are almost bereft of substantial content until the obligatory end-of-episode cliffhanger. Or to put it another way, a show this short really shouldn't have such long periods which nothing much is going on. There is also the confusion of the show making frequent references to Robert W. Chambers's The King in Yellow (itself an inspiration for Lovecraft's Cthulu mythos) but then not making it clear that the book itself does not exist in the show's universe.

The series also hints that it may represent the end-point of what television as an art form can do, particularly on a short timescale. Rust Cohle returns to the ideas of the point of our existence in an empty universe, the struggling with the idea of an afterlife and the inescapable loneliness of being stuck inside our own skulls several times, but each time doesn't really develop them or have more to say on them. We get some great quotes out of these ruminations, but little more. This is because a TV show focused on a more traditional narrative drive simply hasn't got the time or space to delve into these ideas as well as a novel can. If this is the Golden Age of Television, True Detective hints at what might become its limiting factor.

Other complaints may be made, particularly over the thinness of the female characters and some rather completely out-of-place sex scenes (this is HBO, after all), but these complaints are to some degree born out of the premise, of the dwelling on the relationship between these two very different men (one of them old-school with misogynistic tendencies).

The first season of True Detective (****) is a rich, visually rewarding and structurally inventive story driven by outstanding performances and clever - if not developed fully - thematic ideas. There are also too many longueurs and moments of narrative stasis in a story that should really be unfolding with more verve and drive, but overall this is an impressive story. Whether Nic Pizzolatto can strike gold again with the forthcoming second season remains to be seen.

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