Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Waiting for Ambush Bug... in Style

The Countdown to July 23rd continues, but just because we're waiting, Godot-like, doesn't mean we can't enjoy ourselves in the meantime.

Right Starfire?Ambush Bug: He was into cheesecake while you still thought girls had cooties.

Made Me Quit... JLA

JUSTICE LEAGUE AMERICA #80, DC Comics, September 1993
"MADE ME QUIT" Week can't just be about the Great Marvel Purge of 1990, but my brand loyalty to DC Comics through the 90s means that I quit most of their series when I quit comics altogether for money reasons at the end of that decade. Not so the Justice League titles circa 1993! I was a big Justice League fan, but when they got as bloated as Marvel's X-titles, there were too many books, and too low a quality. I dropped them en masse.

Justice League America started out as an original action/comedy mix and it really worked. It later became a little more action-oriented, and there's nothing wrong with that, but by #80, it was a pale shadow of what it had once been.

The story would have an alien spaceship crash-land in Alaska, piloted by escaped convicts who not only look humanoid (albeit with skin and eye color differences), but have names like Blake and Corbett as well. You'd think their parents had watched some old science-fiction shows or something, but it's doubtful, because they're surprised by what they find on Earth. Actually, that is the one redeeming feature about this comic: The aliens are rather alarmed that the natives fly and fire rays from their hands etc. Wow, THAT's the redeeming feature?

Well, despite the cover's promise that the JLA "breaks loose" here, there's a lot of yammering on about what each character should do next. It smells like the writer is rebuilding the League in his image, but he's taking the long way round. Fire has lost her powers and angsts about it, Booster Gold's costume was destroyed along with HIS powers and he angsts about it, and so on (it's like the X-Men, I tell ya). It's a lot of talking and looking up at the sky in pain.

Meanwhile, Ice is back in her home fairyland, which seems to be a futuristic city under the ice somewhere, at her father's deathbed. Her brother wants to rule, but he's a jerk about it, so the dad wants to leave his kingdom to her instead. A lot of clichéd grandstanding and Ice's reaction to this? "Uh..." And that's all she says. Gotta admit, it's close to my reaction. Although with me, the "uh..." is followed by "who cares?".

Back at the base, Blue Beetle can't help Fire, but he's built Booster Gold some cool new armor. NOT!!! How awful is this? The damn thing even has exposed wires in the back for your typical villain's convenience.
Of course, when the writer introduces crap, he admits it, as the other heroes all comment on how stupid the new outfit is. Guy Gardner's in this too, actually a parody of the jerk he used to be, with "naked pretzel" comments directed at Wonder Woman (I appreciate the thought, but still...). Here again, other characters comment that he's suddenly gotten too obnoxious. I think we could almost play a game of "spot the editor's comments".

But I'm not sure the editor was really paying that much attention, because there are actually typos in the lettering! Fire congratulates Booster on his chancing the subject, for example, and later, Wonder Woman exclaims: "Aptain Atom!" when Captain Atom shows up. Even the art is a touch messy. Like here, how does that force screen work and where is that second missile going?
Anyway, boring story short, the JLA gives temporary asylum to the fugitives on the basis that their pursuers look like the aliens from the black lagoon, and then Aptain Atom shows up for the US government to extradite them. Oooh, and he brought back-up!
Yeah, you know what? The JLA just beat up some ordinary guys with guns in under 4 pages, so what will make these any different? Solid cliffhanger, right there. I have a feeling the ugly aliens will turn out to be in the right after all, and the Justice League will learn a valuable lesson about not judging books by their covers (readers of this Bustin' Loose issue will have already learned the same), but I couldn't be bothered to find out.

Not exactly crap, but...

Star Trek 509: Sacred Ground

509. Sacred Ground

FORMULA: Emissary + Darmok + Emanations

WHY WE LIKE IT: Janeway shaken if not stirred.

WHY WE DON'T: Another script for Voyager to ignore later.

REVIEW: Maybe I only like Voyager when it's trying to be Deep Space 9, but Sacred Ground just done surprised me with its zen Buddhist exploration of faith. Logically following from Basics' themes, Janeway is forced to confront the limits of her world view and reliance on technology and technobabble solutions (and by extension, the show's). A trained scientist, it's hard for her to accept the unknowable and unexplainable, and some viewers may well be uncomfortable at her brazen (and at times tactless atheism, humanistic though it may be). If I were unkind, I'd call it a product of her arrogance.

The Nechani have a pretty fun religion going. The episode could have been ponderous and dour, but everyone we meet is personable and tends to get a smile out of me. Without malice, they still delight in giving Janeway exactly what she expects: tests and challenges. That's what she's all about. Collecting data. Believing technobabble will get her (and a comatose Kes) out of this particular jam. And so it goes until she must return to the Triad with an open mind and no preconceived expectations.

In the end, the Doctor does explain her success with a dose of technobabble, but she's already made the leap of faith. Can she ever go back? That look on Janeway's face is priceless. She's exhausted, but she's also seen her very way of thinking brought down. In this Buddhist fable, she has shed the weight of her former self and has been reborn, but you know it won't matter one bit. Despite these "lessons", the show will return to bafflegab in due course and Janeway will return to her stubborn, reasoned self.

Kudos to Robert Duncan McNeill for his directorial debut too. He gets some nice vocals into the usual score and paces the test montage rather well.

LESSON: "If you can explain everything, what's left to believe in?"

REWATCHABILITY - Medium-High (wahh?): Because it's irrelevant to everything surrounding it, I incorrectly remembered this episode as a possible Low. It's actually one of the more thought-provoking episodes of Voyager and I love the psychologically ambiguous ending.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Made Me Quit... She-Hulk

SHE-HULK #21, Marvel Comics, November 1990
"MADE ME QUIT" Week barrels on with a series that has a couple things in common with yesterday's Alpha Flight. A) It was a very fun book written and drawn by John Byrne, and B) the direction it took after Byrne left made the Baby Jesus cry.

See, She-Hulk (or more properly, though they changed it, The Sensational She-Hulk) was really a comedy. And it was funny for two main reasons. 1) She-Hulk sorta knew she was in a comic, à la Ambush Bug, and 2) Byrne brought back all the silliest villains of the Marvel Universe for her to fight. After he left, (1) was pretty much dropped (except on the odd cover) and (2) was replaced with "original" parody villains. It all got quite lame indeed.

And it had such potential too! Steve Gerber came on, the very man who gave us the much lauded Howard the Duck in the 70s. Forget the George Lucas movie for a minute (this is both easy and difficult to do), and you might recall hearing some geek say that series was funny, sexy and seditious. But after the obligatory storyline where She-Hulk meets Howard, this series really peters out.

Exhibit A, your Honor: Issue #21, The Return of the Blonde Phantom Part 1 of 3 (uh-oh, I'm about to drop a series in the middle of an arc again).

Once again, the boob war fails us with a guest artist that's totally wrong for the comic. But if Howard the Duck was somehow sexy, this book tries too damn hard, with She-Hulk falling out of her clothes so often, it's embarrassing. I once said She-Hulk in a teddy could almost save a comic, but she's got to look good and classy doing it. Here, I'm afraid the art fails at the high wire act that is drawing her muscled enough you can she's a Hulkstress, and not so muscled that she looks like a man. And when you see her knickers, it's all very dirty and unnecessary. A plot point conversation turns into porn just as much as a fight does:
See what I mean? Even the setting tries to be smarmy. Just look at this statue in front of the casino where the action takes place:
Later, She-Hulk's opponent (we'll get to her in a minute) is sent flying over a billboard publicizing The Spurs and Garters Motor Lodge where they have a Gambler's Breakfast at 1.89 and Loose Slots. Before you ask, yes, this is all Comics Code Approved. I mean, even the former Blonde Phantom, now in her 60s, gets upskirted.
And how about those villains? There are two of them (aside from the non-costumed crooks): The gayer-than-gay Captain Rectitude who has been genetically engineered to resist temptation and destroy porn, and a female version of the Abomination called... the Abominatrix! It's basically a scaly Hulk with a blond wig, a huge bra and a skirt (for those inappropriate upskirt moments), complaining about missing her soap operas. This is funny? No. It's stupid. And unrealistic: She watches both "All my Children" AND "Guiding Light", which aren't on the same channel. Soap opera fans tend to have channel loyalty when watching their "stories". I only ever watched "Santa Barbara" because it was between "As the World Turns" and "Guiding Light", but... I've said too much.

Back to the comedy, or lack thereof. There was one moment I kinda liked, where the casino security guards always say "Check" after another one tells them something, even something like "Aww, sweet old gal". "Check. I'm gonna go patrolling." "Check." And then they run it into the ground like a Saturday Night Live sketch. You feel like there's a strident laugh track all the way through as She-Hulk dishes out wisecracks like "Your skin is like lumpy pea soup", waving her arms around rather than actually punching.
"She-Hulk: Sorceress Supreme." There is no worst crime than making She-Hulk look this bad, so I dropped the comic in the great Marvel Purge of 1990. (More to come!)

Star Trek 508: Remember

508. Remember

FORMULA: Violations + The Inner Light + The Cloudminders

WHY WE LIKE IT: Roxann Dawson creates a fairly engaging new character.

WHY WE DON'T: Hardly stars any of the main characters.

REVIEW: Didn't we just have an implanted memory episode? Well, in this one, an Enaran, part of a group of telepathic aliens hitching a ride on Voyager, reveals her story to B'Elanna in vivid dreams that eventually overwhelm her. Dawson does a good job playing Korenna, an impressionable girl who betrays her lover to her father, but while her story is a fairly well-told cautionary tale about genocide and cultural guilt, it's not really about Voyager's crew, is it?

The experienced memory can easily be linked to the Nazis' Final Solution, though the Regressives sound more like the Amish. Given that it happens long ago to people we don't know, it's a testament to Dawson's strong acting that Remember works at all. The scene where she is made to flip on her lover by her father is a rather powerful close-up, played in one continuous shot, for example. One does wonder how a telepathic people could ever keep a conspiracy under wraps though. Why was B'Elanna the outsider the only possible recipient of the memory, when you consider Jessen's attitude at the end? The device that makes the story possible is also what makes the story improbable.

And it's a little sad that the memory scenes are better than the shipboard stuff. B'Elanna rushing into the mess hall (nicely redecorated though it is) and making her accusations while Janeway stands idly by and simply no one stops her... Well, that's not a particularly well written scene. It's nearly unplayable, in fact. If it didn't have enough problems ("Murderers!"), wooden Anthena Massey's Jessen is in it too.

LESSON: Just because B'Elanna plays a character doesn't mean that character is B'Elanna.

REWATCHABILITY - Medium: The Enarans are actually well-drawn aliens, and their story isn't without merit, but this isn't Star Trek: Enara Prime.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Made Me Quit Week: Canadiana

ALPHA FLIGHT #89, Marvel Comics, October 1990
I've been way too positive lately with my reviews, so it's time to do a little venting. Introducing "Made Me Quit Week" in which I showcase the last issue I ever bought of a series that I really liked until it started its downward spiral. These issues are the proverbial last drop that made me throw the rag across the room and cancel my subscription with all haste. And very often, I find that I waited too long.

Case in point, Alpha Flight. I had a lot of loyalty in regards to the only Canadian superhero team. All us Canadian kids probably did. And at first, that loyalty wasn't misplaced. It was being written and drawn by fellow Canuck John Byrne at the height of his powers and it featured all sorts of uniquely Canadian places and ideas. But Byrne only stayed on the book two years.

But I stuck with it. I stuck with Alpha Flight when the artwork became all grimy. I stuck with Alpha Flight when they started crapping in the characters' basic premises (Puck not a fun-loving dwarf acrobat after all, but a really tall guy that got cut down by a mystical sword, for example). I stuck with Alpha Flight when they started injecting more and more lame mutants into the team. I stuck with Alpha Flight when despite all this new blood, they never came up with a single character from the Maritime Provinces (jeers!!!). But sometimes, you can tell that even the editorial staff isn't "sticking with it", and the only reason it's being published is to either keep the rights to the title, or for some kind of obscure market share thing (which was Marvel's angle in the early 90s).

You gotta understand that the first issue of Alpha Flight I ever bought was #12 (I later collected the rest at no small cost) in which Guardian dies. He was the leader and founder of Alpha Flight and the guy wrapped in the Canadian flag. Well, I didn't really know him, but I thought his death was still pretty intense, and it had lasting effects on Alpha Flight and all its characters. This was one of those deaths, like that of the Barry Allen Flash or Uncle Ben that meant enough to stay permanent. But see that guy on the cover? "For real -- the return of the original Guardian". That's what I call crapping on my childhood.

This was all part of a story arc called "Building Blocks" in which the new writer (I'm gonna save him from himself and not name him) basically tried to resurrect the team he liked from back in the day. Guardian's back, Puck's back, they're all back. But in the worst frickin' way. I'm not even sure where to begin? Maybe just chronologically.

Our first set piece features the discovery of Puck, who's not dead, just horribly mutated. We're treated to a number of horrifying ass shots (Puck is naked throughout, and aww, Northstar's not even there to enjoy it -- he's not even gay yet, I think) and speaking of characters that have seen better days, Aurora - one of the sexiest characters ever to grace the Marvel Universe - is wearing the ugliest costume ever. Here's a sequence to show it off, but I warn you: The artwork is AWFUL. That's what I mean about Marvel giving up on the book (and yet publishing it for another 4-5 years). Everyone's ugly, and even the coloring is terminally defective. I just hope the scanner survives this.
It's not just Puck that's distorted here! The same page also features one of my pet peeves. See, Aurora's French Canadian (as am I), which basically means that she has this stupid French accent throughout and sometimes spouts whole phrases in French. "C'est incroiable!" she says. Goddammit, it's spelled "incroyable"! I hate it when the writer can't be bothered to check his 7th-grade French in a dictionary. For God's sake! I'm sure the X-Men mangle German and Russian all the time, but those countries'll have to fight their own battles (and we'll beat them again when the next war comes). Oh, and they mistakenly call her Jean-Marie throughout, while her actual name is Jeanne-Marie. Sorry, but Jean-Marie is a GUY'S NAME!!! (But judging by the art, I wasn't sure if she'd had a sex change...)

Anyway, Aurora's mindfuck is an excuse to get some flashback-type exposition into the book, and for a story arc that's supposed to launch a new era of Alpha, we get an awful lot of "who cares?" continuity, like "remember that vial of Puck's blood taken in AF #5?" This is supposed to explain how they'll fix Puck, but he'll genetically be a dwarf again. Like he would mind after looking this grotesque for half an issue. As long as he stops spelling everything he says, I'll be happy.
Eventually, a two-bit villain called the Master of the World shows up and reveals that he's been behind everything, ever, for the last 85 issues. Yeah ok. Thanks for living up to your name, dude. If you're so tough, how come you've never faced anyone but Alpha Flight?

Meanwhile, Vindicator (Guardian's wife and replacement) is hanging with Wolverine (who's always had the hots for her because, well, she's a redhead and he's into that) and they're questing for Gamma Flight, the Canadian heroes you HAVEN'T heard of (ok, well, even less than Alpha Flight). Despite Wolverine doing his best Kenny Easterday impersonation, this is a most boring thread.
"Now that I've caught a whiff of her..." He's sunk pretty low, sniffing at toilets this way. Then, they blow up that service station bathroom and well... that's it. Barely worth being on the cover, Wolvie. More interesting on a personal level is that they visit Sault St. Marie where my brother lives. Looks quite the vacation spot. Sorry I won't be visiting often, Dan.
Finally, a third segment of Alpha Flight have gone down a hole to find Guardian. This includes yet another hottie, Diamond Lil, in her best Black Queen apparel looking HORRIBLE. Yes, once again, we've been cheated of some masturbatory "boob war" material by the sub par art.
Alpha is here accompanied by Forge, the X-Men's super-inventor. Wolverine's ok, he's always been an honorary Alphan, but Forge? This smacks of editorial mandate. We NEED some X-Men or the book won't sell!!! But Forge? 1) Alpha already has a resident super-inventor (Box) and 2) he sucks as a guest-star! What's next? Cypher helps Sasquatch read Le Journal de Montréal?

So how can Guardian be alive after 6 years (our time) or even 2 years (the time they say in the comic) or 2 months (Spider-Man time)? Well, see, there was this issue back in the Byrne era where a fake Guardian "came back from the dead" with some outlandish story of having fallen in a wormhole at the time of death and rebuilt by aliens. It was all a hoax, of course. Nope, turns out it was all true. The real Guardian had the very same experience as a fake Guardian's bald-faced lie. WHAT?!? You want to bring back Guardian, I don't agree, but ok, it's your comic. But you can't even think up your OWN REASON why he'd still be alive? That's just cheap, Fabian Nicieza! (Ohh, there I went and named him anyway.)

This was Building Blocks Part 3 of 4, and I never even finished the arc. Can you blame me?

Star Trek 507: False Profits

507. False Profits

FORMULA: The Price + Who Watches the Watchers

WHY WE LIKE IT: A loose end from TNG.

WHY WE DON'T: It's a Ferengi comedy.

REVIEW: Hey, whatever happened to those two Ferengi who went through the Barzan Wormhole and disappeared in the Delta Quadrant back in TNG's The Price? You don't want to know. Oh you do? Well, be careful what you ask for.

False Profits reveals they crashed on a Bronze Age planet and used a replicator to pose as gods, until Voyage takes it upon itself to expose or depose them. Janeway's justifications to get around the Prime Directive prove she's a very dangerous woman indeed. I'm just surprised this isn't standard "first contact" procedure for the Ferengi. I guess Starfleet polices the Alpha Quadrant well. The plan to send a crewman to pose as the Nagus' Grand Proxy to con the Ferengi out of their new digs could be called inspired if their choice wasn't Neelix. The one guy aboard who has never ever met a Ferengi in his life, sent to pose as one of them? Looks like he was chosen because Ethan Phillips is used to the long make-up hours anyway. And is it even like Neelix to get scared and reveal the whole plan? At which point the Ferengi decide NOT to kill him... Well, why not?

The plot is clearly dumb, but if they think they can get away with it by playing it as a comedy, they're mistaken. Aridor and Kol are meant to be a "classic" double act in the Quark-Rom mold, but Kol is incredibly stupid and unconvincing. The Ferengi are all about annoying laughs and slapstick double takes. Ugh. The whole planet is inhabited by morons anyway. The crowds are so easily swayed, you'll think they're Bajorans, and everyone we meet has his own comedy shtick. None of it funny.

Let's not forget the Wormhole in this. Yes, it's a Gilligan's Island episode as well. The Barzan Wormhole is effectively destabilized and rendered useless by a sequence of events involving the escape of the Ferengi shuttle. How these two idiots bamboozle Tuvok's security measures isn't clear, nor how a "crashed" shuttle seems perfectly fit for space travel. You'll just have to take the episode's word for it.

LESSON: Tuvok must be the worst security chief in Starfleet.

REWATCHABILITY - Low: Just awful.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

This Week in Geek (21-27/04/08)

Buys

Amazon put up the second season of Babylon 5 and 20$ as they had the first, so I snatched it. And I picked up the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism from a graduating university student, proving once again that my interests are fairly wide-ranging.

"Accomplishments"

It's a Doctor Who kind of week... First I flipped Timelash, a 6th Doctor story universally considered among the very worst the series has ever produced, and yeah, it was pretty bad. Though not necessarily BORING-bad. Not quite bad enough to like though. Almost camp. Good make-up effects though. Anyway, I particularly appreciate the included documentary on just what went wrong. Hint: It wasn't just John Nathan-Turner, but he helped!




A much bigger deal is my finishing About Time 6, the last volume of Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles' comprehensive Doctor Who guide, this one going through Doctors 6, 7 and 8 (well, the TV movie). I love About Time despite the frequent snark and it's the main reason I haven't read much of anything in a number of weeks. These things are BIG. And now I see they're going to double the size of Volume 3, since the Pertwee era book was the first published and they hadn't yet gone insane. Good chance I'll buy it given there are new essays in it. Sigh. In the meantime, I get to read some fiction!

My Doctor Who material ends with a handful of new cards for the Unauthorized Doctor Who CCG. Most of the work on my fictitious game this week was bookkeeping (fixing errors, assigning rarities, figuring starter deck issues).

Our role-playing one-off of the week was a Steampunk story set in World War I as TL5+1 was giving way to TL6 (to use GURPS terminology). My players really came into their own this week in this one. The usual bog-standard violence gave way to great ideas, planning and full immersion into the flavor of the setting. Crazy inventions, romance and intelligent apes... this one had it all.



And finally: You will believe a grown man can watch an entire season of Veronica Mars in two days! I'd heard good things on the blogosphere and had the opportunity to try the first season for 20$, but really no idea if I would like it enough to purchase the remaining seasons. By all rights, I shouldn't have liked the show: beautiful twentysomethings with glossy lips playing teenagers and voice-over narration like every "girl's series" since Sex and the City? Veronica Mars registers instead as a knowing spoof of 90210-type shows, making the rich kids out to be corrupted by all the glitz and money. It's closer to Murder One than it is to The O.C. (though like the latter, I have trouble differentiating the pretty boys from one another), and Kristin Bell is quite endearing in the starring role. The scripts are witty and savvy and have a lot of geek cred. Result: Amazon, speed those other seasons to me NOW!

Someone Else's Post of the Week
More than one post on the blogosphere this week centered on the end of Dave's Long Box, the blog without which this patch of Internet real estate would not exist. Dave's was the first comics blog I read and I think it shows. Oh, it's been on the wane for months, as Dave started working on other projects more and more, no evidence of it more damning than his au revoir being posted on the 16th and no reaction of note being posted until the 21st. My favorite of these is from Dave's nemesis himself: Chris Sims. So it's Someone Else's Post of the Week!

Star Trek 506: The Swarm

506. The Swarm

FORMULA: The Tholian Web + Projections + The Deadly Years

WHY WE LIKE IT: The aliens..?

WHY WE DON'T: Rebooting the Doctor.

REVIEW: The title of this episode refers to what is actually the B-plot, so I would have never guessed that the dreaded EMH reboot was in this one. But I'll get to that in a moment. For now, let's discuss the B-plot. The Swarm are very much a one-trick technobabble pony (but so were the Tholians), but sadly, they're probably the most interesting and alien we have yet to see in the Delta Quadrant. I say "sadly" because despite their unusual design (for both make-up and ships) and inhabiting an apparently large section of space, they were never seen again. So they feel kind of wasted.

Much worse, however, are Voyager's actions re: the Swarm. Janeway, with her Starfleet crew, doing things the Starfleet way, suddenly feels justified enough that these aliens are "bullies" to disregard any notion of their national sovereignty. The same woman who stops at every nebula and every port because she an "explorer" now says she's not willing to tell the crew they would have to add 15 months to a 70-year journey by going around Swarm space. No wonder Tuvok expresses surprise. I'm not saying running the gauntlet in four days isn't a good idea, just that there's a disturbing (and as written, unjustified) change in Janeway's character occurring.

As for the main plot, it's a lot more engaging, but no less wrong-headed in its execution. The set-up is interesting. The EMH has been running for way too long and adding non-medical subroutines to its matrix (romance, friendships and for the first time here, an interest in opera), so its memory has started to degrade. Though this starts as an interesting dilemma, and segues into the appearance of Lewis Zimmerman as a diagnostic program, it soon starts to parallel Alzheimer's. Robert Picardo actually delivers a performance that's at once pathetic, amusing and touching.

Even as the ship is under attack by the Swarm (though the two stories feel very much independent of each other), Kes and the diagnostic tool hatch a plan to save the Doctor's matrix. It's not too technobabbly to follow and there's actually some tension associated with the procedure, so the ending is rather unfortunate. It appears the Doctor HAS been rebooted and he's lost the memories he accumulated since Caretaker. If this is actually the case, they've just lobotomized one of the few characters the public actually enjoys. If the little opera he sings at the end is meant to indicate that, no, he's fine and his memories will turn up in time for the next episode (a trick later used with Data/B-4 in Nemesis), it's quite ambiguous. The audience is left walking away from this as if a favorite character has been damaged beyond repair (and that he'll need to be rebooted every couple years as well). But we'll have to see how this plays out (or doesn't, Voyager is good at ignoring character changes) in later episodes.

LESSON: Voyager's stance on character development? RESET!

REWATCHABILITY - Medium-Low: A waste of a potential recurring enemy, more of Janeway's unexplainable descent into corruption, and an ending that'll make you worry about the series, but Robert Picardo is very watchable.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Star Trek 505: The Chute

505. The Chute

FORMULA: Hard Time + Attached + Ex Post Facto + Frame of Mind

WHY WE LIKE IT: How very dark it is.

WHY WE DON'T: Neelix's ship set.

REVIEW: A prison drama starting in media res and so dark you'll think you're watching an episode of Deep Space 9. And though I can't quite care as much about Tom and Harry as I do about, say, O'Brien and Bashir, this is a good thing. Watch out for the fairly harsh violence in the teaser though. Slit throats aren't the usual "syndicated at 7" fare.

Even when you know where the eponymous chute leads to, the episode remains extremely watchable. Rather than rely on that single twist, it has something to say about the prison experience, and about how treating people like animals will turn them into animals. The "clamp" is the nasty SF device used to speed up the process (as virtual reality was used in Hard Time), and its effects keep everyone one edge, leading Harry to almost kill a delirious Tom. Of course the kid is going to feel guilty later, but their friendship survives. The episode is satisfying enough that it doesn't feel like a reset button either. Tom has chosen to apply a strategy of denial that allows him to move on, and Harry to be left off the hook, but it comes from the characters and isn't forced on them by the plot.

Holy Christ!The one character developped in prison is Zio, at once a madman and a messiah, scribbling at his manifesto and making speeches about using the clamp for inner strength. And director Les Landau does an admirable job using camera angles and sets to layer in irony. The "crown of thorns" shot is one of several directorial flourishes that add a lot to the episode. A lot more clever and ambitious than the usual Trek effort.

As for the stuff on Voyager, it's your standard fare, especially dull in comparison to the tense prison stuff. The use of Neelix's ship is a good idea, but its set design is pretty awful. It doesn't look like the cramped quarters half-seen in Caretaker, nor does it look like something you'd be able to pilot by yourself. How much more tension could have been gotten by cramming 5 people (including two clamped ones) in a tiny cockpit as they hightailed it out of there? The rescue is actually very pat, but the episode knows that by that time, everything interesting has been left behind. Best to end it quickly.

LESSON: Don't make me perpetually angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm perpetually angry.

REWATCHABILITY - High: Artfully directed and uncompromisingly dark in its vision. As much as I want Voyager to find its own identity, I don't mind a DS9-like episode occasionally.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Theater of Violence

It's 1994. The "bad girl" is on the rise as a "genre", and David Mack unleashed the very artsy Kabuki on the world.If you don't think that hurts, you're crazy.

Bahlactus is not. He has known the pain. He COLLECTS the pain. In BLACK and WHITE!

Star Trek 504: Flashback

504. Flashback

FORMULA: The Undiscovered Country + Violations + Dark Page + Trials and Tribble-a-tions

WHY WE LIKE IT: Star Trek VI.

WHY WE DON'T: Everything aboard Voyager.

REVIEW: It's Star Trek's 25th Anniversary, and while DS9 went off exploring the TOS era, Voyager opted for the Movie era. Given that Sulu (and Janice) weren't featured in Trials, but were conveniently on the Excelsior together in ST VI, it seems a perfect opportunity to include them. Sulu's Excelsior was one of my favorite things about The Undiscovered Country, and seeing a few more details about their adventure while Kirk and McCoy rotted in prison, is a highlight of this episode. And unlike Trials' CGI manipulations, Flashback can use the actors and create whole new scenes. Great!

The conceit here is that we're really in Tuvok's head, witnessing his memories of being an ensign on Excelsior (so any discrepancies can be attributed to faulty memory). Tim Russ wasn't actually in ST VI, but his station is out of the way enough that he might have been, and there are enough recognizable bit parts from the movie to make this feel really part of the movie. Tuvok is not only mentored by Rand (some have been mean and mentioned how much weight she's gained, but I can't be bothered to notice that when her acting is so atrocious), but made the tea Sulu drinks at the start of the film. He's also Valtane's roommate (that's the guy who gives the Praxis info-dump).

The untold adventure of the Excelsior includes the appearance of Kang, always played with gravitas by Michael Ansara. There's a little skirmish in a nebula, some nice effects (including movie-style torpedoes) and that's pretty much it, but it's fun. Other good bits include Sulu's hero shot coming out of the steam, the (I think) new idea that Rand was First Officer, and Sulu's speech about loyalty, duty and family. Very TOS. Very good.

Not so good is the premise and how it plays out. A virus hiding in a memory (or as a memory) is a Brannon Braga idea to be sure. Not too bad, but it requires a lot of set-up, and because we're exploring a memory, the action tends to repeat a couple times. And when it all goes wrong, it seems that it's just to force Janeway to steal Rand's clothes and dress up in a baggy old uniform (what, Tuvok can't remember a single locker?). It's a highly ridiculous sequence to get some interaction between Janeway and the older characters.

And there's a lot of padding besides. Neelix talking about cuisine in his culture is interesting, but has only the slimmest thematic link to the rest of the episode (telling the story of your ingredients). There's an over-long scene where Tuvok builds a puzzle, a lot of starring at screens and nebulae, two mindmelds, and Janeway acting like a cabbage head who doesn't know her own best friend's personal history. And Janeway musing that the TOS gang would have been booted out of Starfleet "today" is borderline insulting and has no place in such a homage. It certainly lacks the humor of "the man was a menace" from Trials.

LESSON: That an Excelsior series would have been very cool indeed. (You think Christian Slader would have accepted TV work?)

REWATCHABILITY - Medium-High: Sulu easily carries the Excelsior scenes and it's great to return to that era, but Flashback could have used a tighter script. As it is, it only made Voyager look bad in comparison to the Movie era.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Random RPG Questions

Sometimes you have little to say, but lots to think about...

Crazy action or realism? I can't seem to make up my mind.

Playing with rookies: Can you teach a new dog old tricks?


Why do Time Travel RPGs have to be so complicated?

Is there any particular reason why Sword & Sorcery is so boring to my group (me included)?

If you play a jackass, how does the rest of the group know you're not one yourself?

Someone in my group tried playing with another gang. 9 hours straight. 11 players at the table. My own games have 5 players tops and last about 3-4 hours. Which game is the aberration?

And finally: Why aren't I posting about Doctor Who instead?

Star Trek 503: Basics, Part II

503. Basics, Part II

FORMULA: Arena + (Rascals - kids)

WHY WE LIKE IT: The characters being smart.

WHY WE DON'T: Seska's death.

REVIEW: In what amounts to my new favorite Voyager story (there's not a lot of competition, I admit), the second part of Basics allows the characters to shine without all their usual kit. The grisly matter of survival is well-handled with uniform dew collectors, locks of hair to help start fires and Janeway eating grubs. The location work remains stellar and the lava floes are realistic. If the land wasn't inhospitable enough, they also have to contend with a CGI monster and an indigenous tribe, AND have poor baby Naomi on their hands, sick and frail.

Mr. Hogan, probably doomed since the first time he got a line, gets mauled and eaten by the the CGI monster (which is ok, though of course, you can tell). Too bad, though there's some nice horror-movie camera work in that scene. The primitives are competent creations, and give Chakotay a chance to show off some psychology and anthropology (in addition to his outdoorsman skills). Eventually (inevitably?), a shared danger and selfless rescue affords the crew the chance to bond with the tribe, but it doesn't seem too forced, and the effects support the action.

Back on the ship, Suder and the Doctor make a nice pair of saboteurs. The Doctor gets a nice turn faking out Seska, but it's Suder who remains the most interesting, as a killer unwilling to kill. Though he is sadly killed at the end of the episode, his real sacrifice was that of his soul, and his anguish is palpable. Paris gets his licks in as well, returning with the Talaxian fleet and a good plan. Each character gets to be smart and NEEDS to be smart to get Voyager back. It's the best kind of story where characters are equal to the task, and the task equal to the characters.

As for the villains of the piece, this is the Kazons' last real appearance, and though I won't be sorry to see Culluh go (he never amounted to anything), Seska is another matter. I don't think Voyager ever had a better villain. Her death is strange indeed, since everyone else was zapped just as she was and survived, including her baby. She just... dies. That's cutting off the Kazon arc a little too cleanly, I'd say. Indeed, with the revelation that Chakotay's baby is actually Culluh's (silly Seska, you can't impregnate yourself with spinal fluid!), there's no reason to stick around Kazon space a minute longer.

LESSON: When Michael Piller reminds you about something, you REMEMBER IT, DAMMIT!

REWATCHABILITY - High: Who should have lived or died may be arguable, but the fact remains that this story is filled with tension, excitement, and smart characters doing smart things. The one to beat.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Well, It's About Damn Time!

Thanks xkdc, I really needed this.

If you don't get it, count yourself lucky.

Star Trek 502: Basics, Part I

502. Basics, Part I

FORMULA: Maneuvers + Meld + (Rascals - kids)

WHY WE LIKE IT: Suder's back. Seska's back.

WHY WE DON'T: Culluh's back. (Seriously? The Doctor's trip outside.)

REVIEW: The Kazon finally make some progress, running Voyager through the kind of gauntlet this part of space should always have been. Dangerous and nasty. Of course it helps that Seska is with them and running things from behind the scenes. (Indeed, Culluh is never more than just an impatient bully and far less interesting.) She's got Chakotay running after his baby, and the Kazon ships hitting non-vital systems, mystifying the crew. She's sent a pretty convincing Trojan horse to blow himself up at an opportune time. By the time the auto-destruct has failed because it was a non-vital system, you know Voyager has well and truly lost to a smarter opponent.

Leaving them all on a harsh, volcanically active planet, Culluh makes a good point. Can they survive without their toys? Voyager has been entirely too much about bling and bling words. It's a nice location too, what we see of it here, though not quite as harsh as it seems flying in. They're not all left behind of course. The episode makes sure to save a few "rebels" to resolve the situation in Part II (thankfully, it's not set up as a deus ex machina in the making). Tom Paris is off to get help, the Doctor deactivates himself for the time being, and then there's... Suder.

Yes, Brad Dourif is back, continuing his story on from Meld. Still an interesting character, here he hopes to help the ship somehow (as a gardener), though he must still keep his temper in check. More on him next time. Though heavy on plot, other characters do get sensible scenes, including Chakotay's well-handled vision quest to speak to his father's spirit.

Basics is a perfectly good season finale with a better cliffhanger than most. Really, if there's one scene that grated on my nerves, it's the one where the Doctor is projected into space and "comically" dodges a phaser beam. There's a continuity snafu with his idea to install exterior holographic projectors too. It was something mentioned by other characters about mid-season. And would that even work as a ploy? Just another example of Voyager being a miracle ship that can somehow adapt technology in ways no one back home ever thought of. And then the idea is used for a gag. Meh.

LESSON: Be careful about overrelying on... STUFF.

REWATCHABILITY - High: An ingenious plot hatched by a good recurring villain leads to one of Trek's better cliffhangers. Basics is as good as Voyager gets.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

William Hell 1987 - 2008

SUICIDE SQUAD #4, DC Comics, August 1987
William Hell was just killed as the new White Dragon in the pages of last week's issue of Suicide Squad. Didn't know him? He was in my very first issue of Suicide Squad (don't worry, I completed the set), so I can tell you.

Suicide Squad is one of my favorite comics, ever. The premise is a simple one: If you're a supervillain and you want a get-out-of-jail-free card, you can go on a mission for the government and if you survive, you can go. There are some obscure good guys to keep an eye on you, but even they're not guaranteed to make it back. And indeed, the death toll was high, even for cool characters.

#4 is a stand-alone issue that makes a great introduction to the Squad. And though many SS missions are full-on attacks on terrorist strong bases and such, this one feels a lot more like Mission Impossible (the tv show, not Tom Cruise's solo special effects orgasms). Cheers to John Ostrander, Luke McDonnell and Bob Lewis.

It's a tight thriller about a new "hero for the people" called William Hell, who's cleaning up the city streets. Except have you noticed he never beats on a white guy? That's right, the guy is really James Heller, Aryan race neo-nazi activist. In fact, William Hell always lets the whiteys go, sending them to join the Aryan Empire instead ("that or jail"). So the Squad is mobilized to discredit him and get him jailed before he starts a riot.

Now the Squad is half made up of criminals, so you always get these moments where, despite the mission objectives, they've got other ideas. Captain Boomerang is a right racist too, for example. "It's a well-known fact they do most of the crime, innit?" But Bronze Tiger (he's black in spite of the name) rightly tells him: "The only known criminals I see here, m'man, are white." Oh but supervillainy, you see, is a white man's game. As for the coolest criminal in the Squad, super-marksman Deadshot, his solution is to just shoot Heller. But the government is afraid of creating a martyr, so we have a much more convoluted operation, made all the more interesting because we're not clued into it.

It involves a lot of disguises, even bringing back the Black Orchid from the deepest obscurity (she's a mysterious disguise artist). During a James Heller hate-speech, Deadshot swings in dressed as William Hell with a pro-integration discourse. Heller goes behind the bushes, has a quick change of costume, and now it's the ol' "I'm William Hell," "No, I'm William Hell" comedy bit. Boomerang's infiltrated the Aryan Empire by being white (it's that easy, folks) and offers this solution:
"This ain't in the script!" I can believe it. Boomer's the guy you love to hate, and the only reason a character like this can work is if he always gets his comeuppance in the end. It's a sure bet Deadshot is having his fun with him. Deadshot could make this shot with his eyes closed... and hilariously DOES! Then William Hell misses thanks to a little super-powered interference. Deadshot unmasks him: He's that racist James Heller! And then...
That's Deadshot, the faux-Hell, getting it through the back. All it took was a well-placed squib and the "real" William Hell is dead forever. No one actually dies this issue, but I'm not sorry. It's a small-scale, relatively quiet story, but it has the same intensity you find in the issues where they take down the Jihad.

Star Trek 501: Resolutions

501. Resolutions

FORMULA: Attached + The Galileo Seven ± Lifesigns

WHY WE LIKE IT: What might've been.

WHY WE DON'T: RESET BUTTON!

REVIEW: After a number of episodes where he is sidelined, Chakotay gets to do a little something. I do wish they'd think of something more than have him spout Native axioms and legends, but he's here represented as an outdoorsman and a builder of things. The predicament is an unusual one, a Gilligan's Island inside a Gilligan's Island, you might say: Janeway and Chakotay have gotten a disease that prevents them from leaving a planet, so they stay behind and rough it.

Janeway's determination prevents her from stopping her efforts to find a cure, while Chakotay is more acceptant of the situation and like the wise man he is, lives for the present. And is he looking to pull off a little Adam and Eve while he's at it? This remains ambiguous, but the situation does bring the two characters closer together and Chakotay will allow whatever happens to happen. If Janeway's goal is to find a cure, his is to devote himself completely to the only other person on the planet. If that leads to something (and given the circumstances, it's probably inevitable), so be it. Unfortunately, the relationship that develops is abandonned by episode's end. When they are eventually rescued (we were of course expecting it), they get right back to business and "commander" and "captain" as if nothing happened. This leads us to think that maybe something DID happen, but while it's fine not to show your hand to the crew, why was it necessary to avoid the issue even behind closed doors for the rest of the series? (The producers, when interviewed for DVD extras, are big on saying they took risks with this series. Well, I say they didn't take ENOUGH risks. Or at least never followed through on the risks they did take.)

Meanwhile, back on Voyager, it's like we're back on TOS as nobody trusts a Vulcan in command. At least this time the crew doesn't act criminally. There's no racism, and there's no talk of mutiny. That's refreshing, to be frank. They convince Tuvok to change his mind through good old-fashioned talking. The Vidiians make their last appearance on the series, and for once, they think of contacting Denara Pel, the one friendly Vidiian, for help. Not that it prevents the rest of her people from jumping the ship. Not a bad little battle either.

Other notes: This episode takes about four months to resolve itself, which is good justification why we're still in Kazon space. Why Tuvok never changes into a red uniform is never explained however. One thing that bugged me is the plasma storm on the planet. Why not just a hurricane? This seems like SF terminology gone out of control. Plasma is super-heated gas and would probably destroy a planet's ecology a lot more. Nice monkey though.

LESSON: What happens on the away mission, stays on the away mission.

REWATCHABILITY - Medium-High: Sadly, Voyager is getting good at ignoring its own character continuity (even though it mentions event continuity when possible), so while this episode shows four months' worth of growth on the part of two key characters, it won't make a lick of difference. Still, a well-crafted piece if you know nothing of the show's future.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Many Faces of Ambush Bug

Only 14 weeks to the launch of the new Ambush Bug mini... so am I jumping the gun with this countdown? I don't know about you, but we've waited so long for the Bug to return already, 14 weeks isn't that long. The Nothing Special was in what, 1992? And it's not as if the Bug hasn't tried to ride the wave of various fads to get here...

The EC RevivalRemember when Vertigo was actually an imprint with more than one or two successful series? Remember when we were so starved for mature readers content, we gladly shelled out money for mature content from the 50s? We didn't want no code no more. Oh we were bad alright.

Turtle Rip-Offs
AB got in a little too late to cash in on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles / Radioactive Hamster / Nunchuck Wielding Chipmunk comics mania. Or too early to be the next Mouse Guard.

The Conan Craze
Dark Horse got the rights and even reprinted Roy Thomas' old Marvel books, but though Ambush Bug put himself through rigorous training, he never hit Conan's level. Or even Kull's. Not even Claw the Unconquered's. Or Groo's.

Going Image
No, that's right out. Don't be ridiculous.

So What's Hot Now?
Ah yes, Sinestro War. Maybe, just maybe, AB can be successful with a tight epic mini-event? Is there an EVIL Ambush Bug out there? Cuz he really needs one. What's the opposite of Ambush Bug? Full Frontal Primate? Exposed Elephant? All I can come up with is pretty rude.

But on July 23rd, we'll know, my friends. We'll know.

500 Days of Geekery

Here's what real bloggers had to say about the SBG:

"I tell you, between the Kids in the Hall, Homercat, and Siskoid, Canada more than redeems itself for inflicting Bryan Adams upon us." - Gordon, Blog This, Pal!

"Going above and beyond the call of duty to catalogue every episode of Star Trek daily, even (whisper it) Voyager." - Madeley, The Fractal Hall Journal

"F.O.A.M. member." - Rob!, The Aquaman Shrine

"Siskoid brings us this panel of some sonuvabitch shooting a rocket launcher at a perfectly good plesiosaur." - Sean T. Collins, Attentiondeficitdisorderly Too Flat

"Utterly nerdalicious..." - Bully, Comics Oughta Be Fun!

"Siskoid sees crack babies becoming enemies (of their own families)." - Bahlactus, Always Bet on Bahlactus

Star Trek 500: Tuvix

500. Tuvix

FORMULA: The Enemy Within x-1 + Facets

WHY WE LIKE IT: Tuvix may just be a better character than Tuvok and Neelix.

WHY WE DON'T: His execution.

REVIEW: First, let's get the premise out of the way. Transporter accidents are all patently absurd propositions. Kirk split into good and evil halves? Sisko reconfigured into a holodeck character? Barclay fighting giant leeches in the transporter beam? It's all crazy (and Tuvix is crazier than most). Let's just accept it and move on. Once we do so, what we have is the introduction of an interesting character and a sometimes thoughtful exploration of identity. Unfortunately, as the giant reset button looms, things start to go downhill.

Like the Odo-Curzon mash-up in Facets, Tuvok and Neelix are naturally opposite characters. Combining the robot and the clown creates a better-rounded character, more useful and personable than either of his former parts. Not necessarily pretty to look at, but engaging enough that you start to care for him within about 20 minutes. Kes' awkwardness is well written, and Tuvix gets some good scenes in both the role of security officer and head chef.

So it's all the more terrible when he's asked to kill himself in order to bring back Tuvok and Neelix, disturbing even. I'm not against being disturbed by the captain's decisions, but if you're trying to make Janeway likeable (and they were), this isn't the way (despite her pained look at the end). Tuvix begs for his life, the Doctor refuses to "do harm" and the audience knows this is wrong. Tuvix sees it as an execution, and faces the barrel of the hypospray bravely, and that's exactly how it is, because that's how it's played. The crew is so used to the reset button by now, they let it happen. The fact hat there is no epilogue is almost criminal here. We don't know what Tuvok or Neelix think of the decision or what memories they retained from Tuvix. It's just never mentioned again. RESET!

This is all very harmful to the character of Janeway, and if she lost fan support, I believe this is the most damning of all evidence against her leadership. It's really too bad, because Kate Mulgrew gets what I would pick as her Emmy Moment in this episode. She gets one stand-out scene where she reflects on her loss of Mark. Effective and touching. So let me be clear: I like Janeway (and Mulgrew in the role), I just can't get behind Janeway's decisions. I'm calling bullshit on the writing.

LESSON: No matter what, respect the contracts you signed with your actors.

REWATCHABILITY - Medium: I don't know how to make this a High because obviously Tuvix has to die at the end. It's good drama, but Janeway's final solution will make you scream at the television.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

This Week in Geek (14-20/04/08)

Buys

Grant Morrison - The Early Years by Timothy Callahan. When I heard about Teenagers from the Future, essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes from the Sequart Research & Literacy Organization, which has a number of articles by bloggers I read all the time, I looked Sequart up. Teenagers wasn't available, but this treatise on Grant Morrison's early work (from Zenith to Doom Patrol) sounded right up my alley.

"Accomplishments"

DVD flippage... I started a small Mamet-o-thon recently and so started with Edmond, starring William H. Macey and based on Mamet's play. A powerful, if difficult to watch, story about a man (Macey) sent on the road to perdition. He is racist and violent, but Macey's humanity still makes you want to like him. As shocking and original as it was 20+ years ago on stage, I dare say. The film's innovations are mostly to open up the locations, but also plays with Tarot symbols to good effect, turning this into a fevered dream. Two commentary tracks and a few interviews complete the package. The first features the director and the producer and is full of good stories about the play and the film. Mamet's commentary however is just terrible: He seems to be watching it for the first time and has very little to say.

I followed this up with House of Games, Mamet's directorial debut, starring the wonderful Joe Mantegna and Mamet's first wife, Lindsay Crouse. It's the story of a psychologist who gets interested in the world of con men and gets taken for a ride herself. An 80s film noir thriller that is actually very fresh and difficult to get ahead of. Crouse is a major distraction, in my opinion. I can see the reasoning behind a female character who is "plain" to the point of being "mannish", but she exudes a kind of anti-charisma and has a robotic delivery I find off-putting. Still, good flick, and this time Mamet's commentary (accompanied by con expert Ricky Jay) is highly entertaining. His rants on psychology and therapy are worth the price of admission alone! Criterion also offers some interesting interviews and a booklet with a couple of essays. I don't like the latter much as a DVD extra, but it's certainly better than reading essays on screen.

Getting away from Mamet for a bit, I went to Korea for Chan-wook Park's Oldboy. Based on a manga I've never heard of, it's the story of a man who gets mysteriously imprisoned for 15 years, then released and given 5 days to find out why. Its comic book roots are visible in the clever editing and camera work I've come to expect from Asian cinema, but it's the story more than the style that really gripped me. Oldboy features some very shocking images and plot twists, and I never quite knew where it was going. I'm as impressed with it visually as anything. Whether showing something pretty or ugly, the screen drips with lusciousness. The commentary track in Korean features both the director and director of photography, and there's a nice, humorous banter between the two. I liked it, but was disappointed that they never discussed the manga.

Role-played on our regular night, and this week it was a space opera to end all space operas, with mysterious aliens, precursor-type technology and hyperspace being destroyed forever, stranding the characters in the outer reaches. Best bits: My computer voices. It got enough traction that we're thinking of doing a GURPS Space mini-series with a similar set-up (small ship, very alien aliens, and yes, computer voice humor).
Cards? The Unauthorized Doctor Who CCG grew by 29 cards this week, finishing work on Love and Monsters, and just doing "pick-ups" after that. There are even cards based on Attack of the Graske.

Someone Else's Post of the Week
The Absorbascon is a frequent winner of this category, but if you want to be ready for Final Crisis, I've got to send you there again. For Final Crisis, Morrison is resurrecting an old nobody from the Silver Age as principal villain, and Scipio has done the research. Check out the Story of the Human Flame. (Part 2)

Runner up was Scip again in any case. I liked him calling bullshit on the Guardians of the Universe.