Thursday, July 31, 2008

Sexy Sexy Sexy She-Hulk

Here’s a companion piece about She-Hulk’s sexualisation to Michael May’s post about She-Hulk and Sex. She wasn’t quite so promiscuous yet, but writer John Byrne still used her as a sex object. I’m talking about…

FANTASTIC FOUR #275, Marvel Comics, February 1985
In the cold winter of 1985, this one kept me warm. It's the one where a paparazzo takes a picture of a topless She-Hulk sunbathing on the roof of the Baxter Building. You don't actually see anything, but that's why you have an imagination, isn't it? And look at that, probably the first ever "breaking the fourth wall" She-Hulk cover.

So Shulkie's getting a tan (which for her must mean a slightly darker shade of green) atop the Fantastic Four's HQ, eating pretzels (She-Hulk, pretzels, there's a hidden meaning in that), and enjoying a good book, when all of a sudden, a helicopter comes around, blows her top clean off as some smarmy type takes pictures. Here's one thing you wouldn't expect Cameron Diaz or Janet Jackson to do:

And then she starts ripping stuff off the aircraft until they slam her through an office building!
Personally, that's what I would call a good day at the office, and the water cooler conversations would spin towards "where does she get those purple short shorts?" for at least a month. For She-Hulk, though, this is prelude to her having to flex some mental muscle for the rest of the issue. No biggie, she's not "slow" like her cousin. She's lawyer Jennifer Walters in real life, so she makes a few calls and tracks down the helicopter pilot.

[She-Hulk Contextual Aside: You know I'm a big fan of She-Hulk. In fact, I dare say I preferred her to the Thing in the Fantastic Four. Yes, I know, heresy. I like Ben Grimm, but faced with the choice of an orange rock monster and a green bombshell, well, orange is such a tacky color. One of the endearing things about She-Hulk is that once she went green, she didn't want to go back. She's not one to play secret identity. Screw it. Being She-Hulk is way more fun (and HOT!) than playing Ally McBeal. Which makes this issue an oddity because her McBeal persona does show up later.]

My little aside gave She-Hulk time to get to the airfield to intimidate the pilot into giving her the name of the magazine that has her pictures. Here's how you do that (in case you're ever in the situation):
The rag is The Naked Truth, a porn mag that "makes Hustler look like the Congressional Report" (oooh, Hustler got some free publicity in a Marvel comic - but then John Byrne's got a thing about porn, I'll tell you about the disturbing Superman/Big Barda video tape one day). Jennifer Walters gets an appointment with its lecherous publisher, a guy that could be played by Stan Lee if he shaved his moustache.

He tells She-Hulk's lawyer (wink wink) that the issue is already at the printers, and the money he's getting is safe and sound in his office safe (like the slime he is, he doesn't keep it in the bank). But he doesn't want to waste Jen's visit so he makes her an offer she can't refuse:
He wants her to get out of her clothes? Fine, she HULKS OUT, ripping her suit to shreds (whoooo) revealing her FF uniform underneath (boooo). Then she squishes his safe into a perfect ball ("I'm not going to break open your safe. I'm going to improve it for you."), hands it to him and leaves. At least she's got her dignity, right?

As the magazine sees print, guess what, they couldn't believe the girl was supposed to be green, so they color-corrected it! (Byrne even references the print of Star Trek's make-up tests which kept coming back flesh tones, which makes him one of us geeks.)
"You can't even tell it's me!" cries a happy She-Hulk. Of course, the Human Torch has some green-tinted glasses somewhere... Tried it, you still can't see nuthin'. Even so, it's another reason Byrne's years on Fantastic Four rocked.

Star Trek 601: Muse

601. Muse

FORMULA: Blink of an Eye + Who Watches the Watchers + lots of fanfic

WHY WE LIKE IT: The postmodern twists.

WHY WE DON'T: The community theater.

REVIEW: People have complained for years that Voyager just wasn't about anything. An episode like Muse makes me disagree with that. No, Voyager was the point at which Star Trek came to be about itself. The previous episode seemed to deal with the convention scene, and Muse is clearly about fanfic. Both are episodes that deal heavily with the "Voyagers legend", something the writers have been fascinated with for years. Voyager has to leave a culture-altering trail behind it, just as Star Trek did. Hate to break it to them, but the "Trek that changed the world" sure ain't Voyager. Harping on this idea only makes them look insecure about the show. "See? We're as good as TOS or TNG or DS9! Better in fact!"

In Muse, a playwright from a relatively primitive culture turns a shipwrecked B'Elanna's stories about Voyager into plays. The two of them have good interaction as he helps her repair the Delta Flyer so long as she tells him more about the "Eternals" from "Shining Voyager". She treads carefully, painting things with a myth and magic, only at the end indulgently inserting herself into the play to prevent her character's death. It's a little silly, and is there a good reason why no one notices her Klingon ridges?

On the surface, the plays have an interesting look, with a Greek chorus and half-masks. But the fact is, they're not very good. In fact, they're awful, which takes a lot of steam out of the concept of having the Star Trek stage play stop a war with its philosophy. Kelis is a very bad fanfic writer, hoping to melt his patron's warrior's heart with Janeway kissing Tuvok, and Seven kissing Tom Paris, etc. There are some weird postmodern twists that I appreciate as an outside observer - the chorus writing the patron's reactions into the play, the real B'Elanna showing up to interrupt the play - but it's very messy storytelling for the play's audience. Not that anyone could understand these many alien concepts devoid of context. There's also a damning sequence in which an older actor talks about how Kelis and all these young writers are lazy and use formulaic tricks to achieve their ends, like sudden reversals, etc. Is writer Joe Menosky pointing at someone else in the writer's room, or himself?

There's an odd subplot concerning Tuvok running himself ragged to find the missing away team, which seems a little out of character for him. Even worse is the bit where he falls asleep on the bridge. Ridiculous. And I'm struck by the appearance of Kellie Waymire as the jealous actress. She appeared as Elizabeth Cutler in Enterprise, a lovely character whose life got cut short when Waymire died suddenly at age 36. I'm always saddened by her loss.

LESSON: If you're going to make an episode that's about making the show, you might want to make sure you have something nice to say about it.

REWATCHABILITY - Medium-Low: Some good B'Elanna bits, but ultimately a train wreck of an episode.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

5 Things to Like About Ambush Bug Year None #1

A week late? Yeah, well, you can't always get your comics on the appointed date, even an important issue like this one, which is part and parcel of why I don't do a lot of "current" material. Still, Year None demands commentary.

1. Ambush Bug is back, and so is everyone else!Though it's never expressly mentioned, it looks like Ambush Bug left the doors of Comic Book Limbo open when he left it. There are TONS of cameos from DC's most obscure stars, some of which have appeared in Ambush Bug before (Egg Fu, Green Team, Sugar and Spike, Glop), many of which haven't (the original Batgirl, 'mazing Man, Atlas, Yankee Poodle). In fact, there are a number of them I can't identify at all! I mean, Cap's Hobby Hints? Where was Scribbly, for God's sake? Giffen even makes a point of having some of the Vertigo prisoners appear. Take THAT, Vertigo!

2. Argh!Yle
Of all the returning characters, the most exciting has to be the Soleless Sock of Evil. Last seen being blown up aboard his orbital Bureau by the Interferer, he was apparently saved by a Superboy punch, because he's back and manipulating 60s Titans style villain Go-Go Chex (easy when the Chex thinks you're "Wonder Chick"). Truly, he is Ambush Bug's greatest arch-enemy.

3. It takes no prisoners.
Truth be told, I was struck at how dark the humor was in Year None. It is, after all, a story about DC's female characters getting killed off violently. Women are found in refrigerators (of course), near the Fortress of Solitude, floating in pools, in orbit, even falling from the sky. Maybe they're just the bastard daughters of the Phantom Stranger, but we care about some of them, like Jonni DC (there goes the continuity cop). The old series seemed a lot lighter, but Ambush Bug is perhaps as subversive as it's always been. Maybe it's just subverting a different reality. Back in the early 80s, subverting DC Comics basically meant laughing at kryptonite's Silver Age prevalence. This first new issue tells us that nothing is sacred and that, by golly, there are places other than blogs where we can vent about Spoiler's pointless death and the ugly new DC bullet.

4. My favorite joke:
The perfect ending for Argh!Yle yet again recounting his origin story. At this point, it's the opposite of a Secret Origin.

5. How the little things have changed.
Obviously I remember when characters made broad use of thought bubbles. I also remember the "innovation" of using first person narration in caption boxes. What's more fuzzy is when captions became so prevalent as to totally displace thought bubbles (despite speech bubbles getting all sorts of bells and whistles to denote tone, accent and sound processing).

There's more, but you'll have to buy your own issue. Next month: Ambush Bug takes a bullet for Blue Beetle. Can one bug save another?

Star Trek 600: Live Fast and Prosper

600. Live Fast and Prosper

FORMULA: Learning Curve + Mudd's Women + Hope and Fear

WHY WE LIKE IT: Faux Tuvok. The dangers of psoriasis.

WHY WE DON'T: Deus ex Doctor.

REVIEW: Con men help Voyager's legend spread, but by staining the ship's reputation in the sector with bad deals, theft and bogus Federation memberships in Janeway's name. As the last item on the list would seem to infer, it's mostly played for laughs, including a thin subplot on the ship about "gremlins" in the systems that make the sonic showers break bathroom mirrors. Some of it is amusing (Tuvok badly improvising a prison with three kinds of psoriasis), some of it isn't (Tom and Neelix running a shell game to prove they haven't lost their roguish edge).

Of the three con men, one is undefined (faux Chakotay, ironically), one is amusing (faux Tuvok taking his role too seriously) and one is a proper villain (faux Janeway, in a Vash sort of way). Their makeshift pins make them look like fans at a convention, but theirs is still an ingenious plan. If Voyager's going to leave a trail of broken hearts anyway...

Of course, like an con story, the con can be turned back against the con man. I didn't believe faux Janeway's escape for a second, and fully expected Voyager to track her back to her team. What I didn't count on was the Doctor impersonating her. While I can believe his matrix can be tweaked to look like someone else, the emitter's disappearance is less convincing. If he could hide it inside his holographic skin, he would do so. It keeps being hit and grabbed, after all! But the episode plays fast and loose with the details, like having the newly minted Federation member lose a battle because of substandard torpedoes, but then turning out to be more than a match for Voyager. Or Voyager being pummeled by the "antiquated" faux Delta Flyer. The villains weren't so tough or smart that the crew couldn't trounce them without a deus ex machina, you know.

LESSON: Never underestimate skin conditions' intimidation factor.

REWATCHABILITY - Medium: Amusing fluff, but that's all it is. Once again.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Introducing the Leader of a New Lantern Corps

Sure, he's from the other side of the fence, but he's got the perfect name for itSometimes, you don't have to make stuff up.

Star Trek 599: Good Shepherd

599. Good Shepherd

FORMULA: Lower Decks + Learning Curve + Nothing Human

WHY WE LIKE IT: The misfits.

WHY WE DON'T: Dark matter aliens, eh?

REVIEW: Voyager pulls a Lower Decks by having Janeway take an interest in three misfit crewmen who have "slipped through the cracks". Not the Learning Curve Maquis (not Maquis at all, actually) and not the Equinox crew (never seen again), but three new characters who probably wouldn't have made it in Starfleet had transfers been possible. Since we spend a good amount of time with them, it's good that they're an interesting and likable lot.

They are. Tal Celes is Seven's error-prone astrometrics assistant who knows she's in over her head. Her best friend is William Telfer, a hypochondriac who always has a note from the Doctor when assigned to an away mission, but who nonetheless knows what he's doing if we go by the two's all-night cramming sessions. Even Mortimer Harren, inveterate jackass and math genius, is likable. He's irrepressibly cocky, which is what gives him his charm. Each one does have redeeming qualities beyond likability: Celes thinks outside the box, Telfer is obviously a team player and Harren is a brilliant theoretician (though Janeway can certainly stand up to him if not necessarily run circles around him).

Predictably, they'll encounter a threat that'll turn their careers around, make them show their true potential, cures what ails them. And that happens (a touch easily in Telfer's case, but reasonably with the others). The episode lacks a proper epilogue that checks in with each character, so see where they'd be going next. And of course, all but Celes are never heard from again, which is really too bad. The less said about the dark matter aliens plot the better, probably. It's not like we ever get any real answers.

As usual, the effects are very good, especially the approach to Voyager with people actually walking around in the windows. A PADD gets handed off from section to section until it ends up on the submarine-like Deck 15. Interesting to see the bowels of the ship, even if they are different from those shown before. Maybe that's why Janeway gets lost down there. I thought she knew the ship like the back of her hand. (Actually, this shows how she's ignored some crew members.) Also note a cameo by Rage Against the Machine guitarist and Trekkie Tom Morello. He's down there.

LESSON: Some people just don't want to be noticed.

REWATCHABILITY - Medium: The plot is nothing great, but it features some interesting characters in Lower Decks fashion and makes the ship seem more real.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Cinematic Points

Movies buffs, turn back now, this is a role-playing game related post.

With my current GURPS Black Ops campaign, I've tried something new in the hopes of making it as cinematic as possible. I'm using Cinematic Points, a house rule culled from an article by Chad Underkoffler in Pyramid Online magazine. Not the first time I've integrated some of Chad's stuff into my games either. In short (because I don't expect you to have a membership to Pyramid), it consists of points you give players which they use to create cinematic effects. Anything from simply boosting your Perception roll to changing a set, generating a prop or extra, and creating a flashback in which your character learned a valuable skill. Characters score these points when they do something fun, interesting or seriously badass during play. Usually, spending points will earn you points.

Granted, this idea is not exactly new. Many games have had "Hero points" spent to modify rolls, and something like Torg even had a Drama Deck with particular enhancements on its varied cards. But what Chad adds is a lot of flavor. Each enhancement is linked to a cinematic line that the character might say to justify his boost. Adding Charisma is Turning Up the Charm, for example, and It's Only a Flesh Wound cures damage.

It worked so well that it started me thinking that I should use such a thing in every game I run. Chad's article focuses on high action cinematic gaming, but find the clichés of any particular genre and attribute them Cinematic, Hero, Drama, etc. Points. Running a Star Trek game? You gotta have Redshirt (makes an extra take the hit for your character) and Convenient Hobby ("It just so happens I'm an expert on the same medieval strategies Charlemagne in Space is using."). In a Horror game, it might be fun to Leave the Starlet Alone (same as Redshirt, really) or if you're the monster, Last Scare (last chance attack that ignores all damage). For the basic stuff that would work in any game, simply fiddling with the "cinematic line" would work. Adding damage to your attack, for example, could be Set Phasers to Kill and Giving In to the Darkness, respectively.

Even a good old-fashioned game of DnD could use this mechanic: That Spell Told Me To Study It (change one of your learned spells to one you really need); This Realm Owes Me (gets you positive character interaction with an authority figure) ; and of course I Liked the Previous Edition Better (use a rule from a previous incarnation of (A)D&D you really liked).

ADDED TOUCH: Though the Points are marked on character sheets at the end of the night, during play, they are represented by ordinary playing cards (or poker chips, which were our first idea). This creates a visual aid that reminds players to use their points, and immediate recompense when they do something cool to earn one. If you can find a "token" that fits your campaign, all the better!

Star Trek 598: Child's Play

598. Child's Play

FORMULA: I, Borg + Suddenly Human

WHY WE LIKE IT: Nothing too black and white.

WHY WE DON'T: Easily beaten Borg.

REVIEW: An important episode for the Borg kids as Seven's maternal bond grows and Icheb's parents are found. And here he was looking forward to a permanent posting in Astrometrics. It starts out as an adoption story where Seven must relinquish her claim to her surrogate son. Seven is always best when she brooks no bullshit, and here she freely admits her bias, lending credibility to her claims. At the heart of her anger is not simply the loss of Icheb, but that her own parents recklessly allowed her to be assimilated, just as Icheb's parents did him.

Icheb starts out not wanting to leave Voyager, but as he slowly remembers things from his pre-Borg life, he seems the value in staying. Of course, his parents are on the up and up, just as Seven surmised. Were they only playing along with Janeway's social worker games until they could get their hands on Icheb? No. They really do love their son and it is a great sacrifice they make by sending him back to the Borg. Icheb was genetically modified to infect the Borg with the same pathogen the Doctor claimed destroyed the drones on the kids' Cube in Collective. He is a living weapon, and his people's greatest defense against the Borg. They're not bad people, they're simply desperate. (Indeed, their plan isn't particularly sound. If you can only use your weapon once, why would you precipitate the attack and risk drawing attention to yourself? Or did they expect Icheb to be picked up again and again and pick off Cubes one at a time?)

Icheb shows a lot of maturity here, not only forgiving his parents, but agreeing with their actions. He has none of Seven's anger. She rewards him with more autonomy and the power to choose his fate (and bedtime), a lot quicker than Janeway did her. The script I think very much respects Seven's character here.

Oh yeah, the Borg do appear, but the Sphere gets heavily damaged by a single torpedo. It's getting harder and harder to respect the Borg threat, isn't it? I wonder if it assimilated Icheb's parents as soon as it finished repairs.

LESSON: Maturation chambers are no substitute for real life.

REWATCHABILITY - Medium: Though I wouldn't exactly call the plot airtight, it at least does justice to Seven's character and doesn't paint anyone as a true villain.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

This Week in Geek (21-27/07/08)


Contrary to appearances, I am not made of money.


As you already know, I saw The Dark Knight this week AND flipped Batman: Gotham Knight. Didn't say much about the DVD extras, so I'll spill it now. Nice commentary track with the likes of Kevin Conroy and Denny O'Neil which makes some interesting points about what Batman at his best should be. Of the two documentary featurettes, the better one is a loving but unflinching look at Bob Kane, Portrait of an Egomaniac (not the real title). The other is standard fare about Batman's rogues gallery. A preview of the upcoming Wonder Woman direct-to-DVD movie rounds out the package, though it's all at the storyboard stage right now. There are also four bonus episodes of the Batman Animated Series, but since I own all the seasons, that's just wasted place. Do I really have to pay more for your marketing strategy, WB?

The other DVD I flipped is Sam Peckinpah's Cross of Iron, a WWII film starring James Coburn featuring the German side of things. Mostly devoid of politics, it's really about the soldier's reality in any war, and indeed, feels a lot more informed by Vietnam than it does the Russian front (and yet, the details are authentic). I enjoyed it, though it was very bleak. The DVD includes an expert's commentary, very interesting, with a strong focus on how the novel was adapted and period detail.

Comics: Read through all three available volumes of Jack of Fables, and I of course loved them. They totally feel like extra issues of Fables, and yet have their own spin with knowing references from Narrator Jack and other characters. It's a comic that doesn't take itself too seriously, and in which characters definitely have the Reality Check power. It only got better as I went along and it's a real shame that a fourth volume isn't immediately available.

RPGs: Monday was Episode 1 of our Warehouse 23/Black Ops campaign (of a proposed 6), entitled "Ley of the Land". Grey aliens using ley lines to power their spacecraft and a druidic con game at Stonehenge. A slo-mo snowmobile accident turns into an attack. And the rookie gets an odd vision, perhaps pertaining to a secret destiny. Good stuff to start with! I also just finished compiling a soundtrack for the series, which I'll happily trot out tomorrow night.

New Unauthorized Doctor Who CCG cards: 5. Not a lot, but I've given myself the task of adapting Timelash, which is just so painful to watch that I haven't been able to find the motivation. I'll strive to do better soon.

GTA4 completion: 80%. Addiction Level: One Foot in the Hole.

Someone Else's Post of the Week
Sea of Green made me laugh this week with her post on the Crisis Event to Beat All Crisis Events. Seeing as I'm not to far from that Crisis myself, I've chosen it as my Post of the Week!

Star Trek 597: Ashes to Ashes

597. Ashes to Ashes

FORMULA: Latent Image + Suddenly Human + Mortal Coil

WHY WE LIKE IT: Lyndsay Ballard.

WHY WE DON'T: Playing fast and loose with continuity.

REVIEW: I really like Ensign Lyndsay Ballard, I really do. And I wish we'd actually seen something of her on the series before she was supposedly killed. She's spunky and irreverent, not the perfect officer but genuinely likable, and cute too. If Harry was so close to her, why did she never rate so much of a mention before? See, that's the problem with creating retroactive relationships like this. In many ways, this seems like it was written for Ensign Jetal from Latent Image. Wasn't her story very much the same? Or does Harry lose sassy best friends we never met before in shuttle accidents on a regular basis?

It goes to Ashes to Ashes' central problem as an episode. While the premise is interesting and the theme (second chances) a strong one, and the guest character perfectly charming, the writing is lazy. Too often on Voyager, a premise is set up without regard to continuity, character history or good sense. Here, we're not only expected to believe such an important person in Harry's life was never mentioned before, but that he's been in love with her since his Academy days. Did they forget about his fiancé Libby? (Not that you can't be in love with two women, mind you, but it's still a shift from established history.)

And let's talk about the Kobali. While it may be interesting to imagine a species that procreates by genetically altering the dead bodies of other species, it's much harder to imagine how such a species might evolve or even function as a society. Or why Lyndsay's new father spits on humans for abandoning their dead in space when his people require this from other species to survive. (When I first saw them, the look similar to the Borg Queen and morbid "assimilation" techniques made me think of them potentially as Species 1, or at least an offshoot of the race that originally spawned the Borg. Alas, the Queen is stated to be some other species.) Another continuity problem is that if she was taken during the Hirogen stories two seasons back, she should have had major trouble finding Voyager again (all those long jumps). I can believe she found a way, but that her father followed her, and then can go get back-up like we're near the Kobali homeworld... Does everyone have the keys to a wormhole we don't know about?

It's all very distracting to the thinking viewer, though Lyndsay makes up for it a lot with both her playful and tragic sides. She discovers there's really no going back. Despite her origins, she finds that she has Kobali thoughts, values and tastes. She can't run from her destiny and will have to "own the day". Before she leaves - and it's too bad, because she's a lot more interesting than Harry Kim - she at least gets a second chance to say goodbye, whether that means giving Harry some sugar or asking the captain why she was (essentially) chosen to die.

And the Borg kids are back! I'm not sure why they're answering the phone (lazy writing), but it was nice to catch up with Seven's all-too-strict (and pretty funny) attempts at raising them. "Fun will now commence." Punishment protocols. "Resume your disorder." It's fun stuff. Icheb is a bit old to be this bratty (of course, "unruly" for a Borg child is still pretty restrained), so it's definitely Mezoti's show. She's a real charmer with her deadpan deliveries, klutzy demeanor and easy way of falling back into being a little girl. She also scores Lyndsay's brush at the end of the episode, a nice moment between her and Harry. (Missed opportunity: He really should have taken her skating instead of futilely pranking Tuvok.)

LESSON: Some species were made for Big Brother slop.

REWATCHABILITY - Medium-High: Some witty dialogue and a great guest-star, even if the episode was written with little regard to established facts. I can't help but be charmed more than annoyed by it.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Spaceknight Saturdays: What's Better Than Awesome?

Now that Rom has met the Jack of Hearts and the Plunderer, he's ready to meet a REAL Marvel character. I mean, they weren't really A-list, were they? Or even D-list.

For Rom Spaceknight #14, Marvel finally let Mantlo at the big toys. Maybe a Fantastic Four villain? A smart FF villain? A smart FF villain that's been known to build androids?

"Sorry Bill, you can't use Doctor Doom right now."

And so: The Mad Thinker. Seems like he's been observing the events of Rom's first battles with the Wraiths in Clareton from afar. He's been buying the toys, but as you know, it looks nothing like the real Rom.
Actually, his homemade action figure there is a pretty good likeness. Oh maybe the eyes don't light up or anything, but it's amazing what you can do with a Heavy Metal Heroes Silver Surfer and some putty. The Mad Thinker has his finger on the pulse of fashion, as you know. He buys or makes all the great toys, dresses in trendy overalls, has a beautiful ladies hairdo, and his android? Totally awesome.
He has, however, miscalculated. He wants an android upgrade, to trade in his Awesome Android for a Gnarly Android. But Rom isn't an android.

And now, Rom and the Android fight.
Hey, ever wonder what a shape-shifting robot looks like on the inside? Wonder no more!
It's the cutaway the Thinker didn't want you to see. Now we can all build one in our garages. It can make hammer fists, turn into fire, even into Rom's armor:
When the Android is defeated, the Thinker miscalculates again. I don't know what else to call it. He comes out of his ship to attack Rom by himself! Alone with just an android-controlling wristwatch. But like I've been saying, Rom ain't no android!
Of course, Thinker should have his watch checked, because even the Awesome Android disobeys him after that, tucks him under a massive gray arm and leaves. Even a robotic slave tries to avoid fighting Rom a second time. Way to grow some sentience, A.A.!

Meanwhile, in Clareton, VA...
Brandy is trying on her wedding dress and Wraith-Steve comes calling. Wraiths just don't respect our primitive human traditions.
Ewwwwwwwwwww, Brandy just kissed a Wraith. Gross. Can she really tell something's wrong, or is it just natural jitters?

Meanwhile, in Washington, DC...
I haven't talk about her, but for the last few issues, "Ace" O'Connor has been on Rom's trail, taking notes and pictures. She's a spunky journalist, sort of like a blond Lois Lane who's about to get punked by Dire Wraiths.
Cuz yep, Perry White is a Wraith.
You can tell he's evil because he smokes a cigar.

Meanwhile, a couple hundred years ago...
We meet a couple of other Spaceknights, including the original Starshine (she'll become verrrrry important to our story) and a totally hardcore knight called, what else, Terminator. When he flies to the farm planet of Agricon (coming soon to a hotel near you), he doesn't think twice before frying the kids.
Dude's called the Terminator. He'll shoot anything. Kids, old people, even ghosts.
But wait! These Wraiths have taken Rom's beloved Ray-Na hostage! In the ensuing fight, she gets shot (not by Terminator, honest) and dies.
So THAT'S why Rom allows himself to love another. When he talked about returning to his love, it was always going to be some kind of ritual suicide. Wow that's grim.

You know what else is grim? Next issue:

(From the letters page, of course.)

Star Trek 596: Spirit Folk

596. Spirit Folk

FORMULA: Fair Haven + The Big Goodbye

WHY WE LIKE IT: The music. The lack of existentialism.

WHY WE DON'T: And then they were never seen again.

REVIEW: The end of Fair Haven promised the holodeck program would be up and running again in 6 or 7 weeks. As originally aired, Spirit Folk is actually 6 weeks later for the audience too! The plot is that old chestnut, "the holograms notice they're in a holodeck", but done with enough charm to still entertain. I think part of it is because there's no existentialist discourse. It's been done before, and very well too. Instead, the citizens of Fair Haven think something's amiss not with themselves, but with Voyager's crew.

This allows for a lot of comedy relating to the townsfolk's superstitions, including not being able to find the Doctor's true name and his being hypnotized by Seamus and giving up everything. And yet, they never find out they're "not real". Janeway trusts her malfunctioning boyfriend (keep on not thinking about that too much) to walk the halls of the ship and lies to him one final time. Her cover story is that they've traveled back in time to Fair Haven. Hey, why not? Everyone knowing they're "moon-men" might take the charm out of the place a wee bit, but it's an elegant solution to the problem.

I guess it's a good thing Janeway had reprogrammed Michael Sullivan to be Fair Haven's smartest man, because he's pretty much the only one without a lynch mob mentality. Now, I wonder if Janeway'll borrow the Doctor's emitter to bring on dates. (DON'T think about it.) Of course, after all this effort to save Fair Haven for the second time, the program is never seen again. I suppose it's too guest-star/location intensive for regular use. Lovely music in those scenes though.

Hey, where are the Borg kids at? At the time, I probably thought the reset button had been pushed in between episodes (à la Survival Instinct or Equinox).

LESSON: If the parish priest vanishes into thin air, he's working for the other side.

REWATCHABILITY - Medium: A pleasant little escapade that doesn't rely on B-plot jeopardy.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Dark Knight: Morality Play

If there's one thing I like about my superhero movies it's when they have a theme. When they have a theme AND their own style. A theme, their own style and are true to the essence if not the facts of the comic. Well, a theme, their own style, the essence of the comic and an almost fanatical devotion to the pope. Wait. Let me start again.

A theme. Right. I love superhero movies to have a theme, an added layer that makes it more than a by-the-numbers revenge story (which they often are). It's what 1989's Batman didn't really have. It's what screwed up Spider-Man 3 (Venom not being part of the theme). But The Dark Knight? Its central theme is captivating.

There be spoilers ahead. Turn back, ye damned souls who haven't seen the movie yet.

Essentially, the theme is people making moral decisions between the lesser (they hope!) or two evils. How do you choose between the rock and the hard place? What does a moral person do when confronted by two immoral choices? It's Sophie's Choice with masks. And the lynchpin is the Joker's modus operandi.

By making "the difficult choice" (no, strike that, "the IMPOSSIBLE choice") his crime du jour, it highlights every non-Joker-related choice in the film.

The Joker's Gambits
Look at the clown prince's acts of terrorism. He kidnaps Rachel and Harvey, warns the good guys, but only one can be saved. Batman chooses Rachel, but doesn't count on the Joker flipping the addresses. For the Joker, it's about chaos, about showing how choices are essentially random acts and how the details of your life are out of your control. Sophie's choice subverted.

The hospital dilemma: The Joker turns Gotham's population into potential murderers when he puts a price on Reese's head. That price: If you don't, he'll blow up a random hospital, maybe one where you have a loved one. It's also a sequence that gives us Nurse Joker, a wonderful scene that may well make you laugh at an act of terrorism. Talk about making the audience walk the moral gray zone.

The ferry dilemma: Another great set piece. Two boats, one filled with convicts, one with ordinary citizens. Each is given a detonator with which to blow up the other boat before midnight when both boats blow. Who pushes the button first? Would you rather die or murder? It's an amazing part of the film that generates a lot of tension despite the fact that we don't know anyone aboard either ferry! To me, the best reaction is the inmate who throws the detonator out the window. How do you resolve an impossible choice? Throw that choice away. It wasn't yours to make in the first place.

The Joker gives impossible ultimatum after impossible ultimatum in TDK. You can capture him, but it means the police station will blow up. You can shoot his clowns, but they'll turn out to be hostages. You can unmask publicly or the mayor can be killed. Your choice. His greatest achievement (and triumph) however is...

Here is a character that embodies the random moral choice, forged in the Joker's wave of terror. Harvey does what he thinks is right, going after the mobs with gusto and no regard for the danger he places himself in. The same goes for his taking the fall for Batman, attracting the Joker's interest. Result: Despite his good intentions, he loses everything, including his sanity. From there, he is a conceptual instrument of the Joker, also giving people impossible choices, culminating in Gordon's own Sophie's Choice - which of his family does he love the most?

In the end Batman takes the fall for HIM, so that Gotham doesn't lose its "white knight". It's a big sacrifice for both him and Gordon to make, one that can serve to drive the next movie. One might say, however, that Harvey Dent has been a polarizing figure since the beginning. He is Rachel's AND Gotham's alternative to Bruce/Batman. Will she choose security or the man she really loves? Will the city embrace its White Knight or its Dark Knight? Before his accident, Harvey is a proponent of the non-choice, the coin a two-headed deception. An absolute decision with no alternatives. That certainty is what he loses. The Joker wins that argument.

Choice Choices
The mobs: To keep getting hit by the Joker or to come together as a cartel whose funds are all handled by the same man? It's a choice that leads to their mass indictments.
The population: To endorse (and even become) vigilantes to rid the streets of crime, or to place your faith in the system, which fails to protect its public servants?
Alfred: Deliver Rachel's final message or allow Bruce to believe a lie?
Lucius: Can he compromise his values pertaining to Batman's version of the Patriot Act if the threat level is high enough?
Mr. Reese: To reveal or not Batman's identity. Is it worth the risk? What if a crazed lunatic has promised to continue murdering people unless that identity is revealed? (Another moral choice the Joker flips.)
Ramirez: Oath as a police officer or mom's hospital bills paid by the mob?
Gordon: Allows his family to think him dead for the sake of a sting operation that captures the Joker. Again, the Joker flips that "right" action and turns it into the absolute wrong one.
Bruce Wayne: As the hero, he's confronted by many choices, but central to his arc is his decision to quit being Batman. Would that really be the best thing to do? And yet, without a Batman, it's unlikely we would have a Joker. Also note how that decision is usurped by Harvey Dent. Why doesn't he come forward then? Hard questions.

In The Dark Knight, you're perpetually damned if you do, and damned if you don't.

Star Trek 595: Collective

595. Collective

FORMULA: Unity + The Gift + Rascals + One + One Little Ship

WHY WE LIKE IT: An attempt at an arc!?

WHY WE DON'T: Borg growing pains.

REVIEW: Very rarely, Voyager stumbles upon something it really should be about. The previous Trek shows each had a sort of theme that tied them together. TOS was about friendship, TNG about family, DS9 about community. In that scheme, what is Voyager about? They never really embraced the Lost Far From Home idea fully (the ship is as pristine and "Starfleet" as it's always been), but one of the elements that come with that idea is time the trip was going to take. Every so often, Janeway mentions how Voyager might have to become a generational ship, but we know that can't happen so long as they refuse to stray from the usual "weekly" format and jump across the years. With the addition of the Borg kids in this episode, however, there is at at least an attempt at splitting Voyager's world into generations. Janeway is Seven's surrogate mother, who in turn, must act as surrogate mother to the children. So color me originally surprised that the reset button wasn't pushed at the end and the kids actually joined the cast (for a while at least). Hey, they have the alcoves for it.

The search for their homes will create a mini-arc, the kind of continuity too often missing from the show, though they've already forgotten the Borg baby by episode's end. It's an arc that actually starts in the previous episode, Tsunkatse, in which the Norcadians and Pindari are seen and Seven is deemed a good punching bag because people in the region hate the Borg. Voyager seems to fly by so fast sometimes that you can't get a sense of any region as organized as the Alpha Quadrant. This helps.

But how's the actual story? Well, the effects are very well done, for the first time showing us what happens to a ship that gets pulled into a Cube for assimilation. Keeping things credible, Voyager only goes up against an undermanned Cube. A pathogen has killed all the drones except 6 "neo-natals" (including an infant) who come out of their maturation chambers early. The star of the lot is 8 year old Mezoti, but then, creepy little girls always steal the show. The aggressive First is as annoying as any rebellious adolescent on tv, contrasting with the more level-headed Second (Icheb). The twins are just background. Not fully Borg - they certainly don't think as one - Voyager actually has a chance against them. That it all comes down to Seven gaining their trust shows just how powerful the Borg are meant to be. Five kids essentially own them.

The plot is pretty straightforward, with the First getting his fool head blown off and the others not asked to pay for his crimes. There's a good bit in sickbay when the Doctor does his damnedest to manipulate Janeway into not using the pathogen on the Borg kids by putting a baby in her arms. To no avail at the time, but she ultimately doesn't go that route.

LESSON: Teenagers and order don't mix.

REWATCHABILITY - Medium-High: A fair Borg story, if you don't mind the Borg being emasculated, but it's an important key to understanding many episodes this season. One of the Borg kids does become a regular to the end of the series.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Gotham Knight: The Connective Tissue

Before going out to see The Dark Knight, I first sat down with Batman: Gotham Knight, a direct-to-DVD release that is meant to bridge the year between Batman Begins and TDK. How do these 6 anime shorts relate to the events of the new movie?

Warning: Includes spoilers.

Have I Got a Story for YouWe see different parts of the opening story through the eyes of four skaters' varied and skewed points of view. Batman might be a Lovecraftian shadow, a human bat or Iron Man, depending on their perceptions. It's perfectly fine, though we've seen it all before, most notably in the animated series (in Legends of the Dark Knight, which is even included in the DVD release). It does thematically serve a purpose however: These four different visions of the Batman and his world pave the way for the 5 more to come in the following shorts. It's a permission slip for Batman's lack of a coherent look in Gotham Knight.
Animation: Looks good, nice and edgy, creepy and original. I do find the pacing a bit slow though.
Connective Tissue: None really, though this introduction does conclusively place us in Nolan's version of Gotham City. Same look: Up top, it's deco, down below, it's a garbage dump.

Greg Rucka's story perhaps sets up elements from the film most of all and stands as another POV piece, this time that of the Gotham PD. The detectives get caught in a mob war, which plays out like a horror show, with minimal involvement from Batman.
Animation: Classic anime with big eyes, plenty of still shots, and hard-edged shadows. Again, the pacing seems to be on the slow side, but there are some nice moody moments.
Connective Tissue: Lots. The Waynecom satellite that makes the end of TDK possible is mentioned. Detective Ramirez, the Renée Montoya stand-in, is introduced. Why not Montoya? Well, I don't think DC approved of one of their heroes (she's the new Question) being polluted by charges of corruption. She's doesn't seem to be in anyone's pocket in Gotham Knight, but perhaps she gets bought later. Gordon is still a Lieutenant as per TDK, and heads the Major Crimes Unit. Crispus Allen got a lot of face time in Gotham Knight, so I was surprised not to see him in the movie. Maybe he quit the MCU after all.

As for Gotham's underbelly, the mob war that rages makes use the mobs brought together by Lau in TDK, in particular the Russian's and Maroni's (Eric Roberts' character appears, though in TDK, the Russian is replaced by the Chechen). Arkham is here updated to cover all of the Narrows, turning them into a prison island, which sets up the idea of having to ferry prisoners to and from there.

Field Test
Batman tries a new force field idea to deflect bullets, but he discovers that ricochets are just too dangerous. It's an interesting study of just how far Batman is ready to go to protect himself and/or the city. Not at the risk of harming others. Against this, the mob war continues to heat up and Bruce Wayne investigates a corrupt land developer.
Animation: Bruce Wayne is real pretty. Batman's stylized armor is really cool. But again, the pace is rather slow.
Connective Tissue: Thematically, it prefigures the hard choices Bruce and Lucius make about spying on the city in TDK. Otherwise, it continues the Maroni/Russian story.

In Darkness Dwells
The action finally ramps up as Batman goes down to the sewers to fight Killer Croc and the Scarecrow and save a Cardinal put on a show trial. Though the story is rather straightforward, I'd have been a lot more amped up about Gotham Knight if the earlier shorts featured this level of action, though I do think the hallucinatory bits are rather tame and ordinary. It's funny that watching it the first time, at the end of Field Test when a gun slides into the sewers, I said "Well, they just went an armed Killer Croc", without knowing he was in this story. I always get odd looks from people I watch these things with. They think I'm psychic.
Animation: A lot more kinetic, which is how I like my anime. Croc's character design is disappointingly monstrous, but the Scarecrow looks really cool. Definitely one of the more expressionistic of the lot.
Connective Tissue: Sets up that the Scarecrow is still at large. Though the previous short had a quick gliding scene, this episode shows Batman definitely flying around the city, as well as how sharp his glove fangs can be. Both set up moments in TDK.

Working Through Pain
Probably my favorite of the shorts. Seeing more of Bruce Wayne's pre-Batman days is always interesting, but it's more than that. Though he learns to endure/ignore physical pain, he fails to learn Cassandra's actual lesson: that enduring pain means not reacting to it. He resorts to violence, the violence that spawned him and the resulting psychic pain he cannot ignore. The final metaphor of Batman, not being able to get out of a hole with his weapons full of discarded guns serves a dual purpose. It shows how his struggle is far from over, discarded weapons symbols of unsolved murders, and it's his inability to escape the cycle of violence. Thank you Brian Azzarello.
Animation: Gorgeous. A cleaner, softer style, and good use of computer effects to simulate the wind through the trees and the dripping blood.
Connective Tissue: None.

I love Deadshot. Possibly in all his iterations. The character here is a little more vain and cowardly than my beloved Suicide Squad version, but he's still a lot of fun, making his shots purposely harder than needed. It's also a meditation on the love of the gun. Even Batman respects its power, for after all, he was forged by it. I love Deadshot's defense: "I was just doing my job." Yeah, that'll fly in a court of law. Really cool action, and the culmination of the mob war storyline.
Animation: The hard shadows are back and the action attempts a Matrixy feel. Nice stuff, and pretty uncompromising in its violence (without going ultra-violent).
Connective Tissue: Killing off the mayor creates room for Mayor Mascara to get elected and start asking for changes at the D.A.'s office. Bruce Wayne's doubts are set up here and will play out in the film. I was really hoping TDK would show the bat-signal before it showed Batman, connecting Gotham Knight's last scene with he movie. And it did! If enough time passes in "Deadshot" for an impromptu election, then one wouldn't be wrong to imagine it ran back to back with The Dark Knight.

Overall, great to hear Kevin Conroy, the one true Batman, doing the voice again (I missed him in New Frontier), though I found the transition cards between shorts a bit awkward. Gotham Knight could have used a little more "connective tissue" itself. But in general, the best straight-to-DVD release from Warner's animation division yet.