Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Kung Fu Fridays in December '11

New month, new poster, and something a little different over the holiday season. Yes, it's a KFF special event - the Van Dammathon! Some of the gang aren't going very far for Christmas, so we're going to do a noon-to-midnight showing of seven Van Damme films, certainly enough to have Jean-Claude show up on one of our posters. The date hasn't been decided yet, nor the exact order of the films, but we're planning on: Bloodsport, Streetfighter, Universal Soldier, Double Team, Sudden Death, JCVD and Hard Target. I might even tweet through the whole thing. Hey, maybe we should make Belgian waffles! Anyone? Anyone?

But of course, there are three regularly scheduled Fridays in December, in which I'll present a trio of Shaolin movies:

Shaolin Soccer - I've never seen the Stephen Chow comedy classic, but I hear it's good fun. Soccer + Kung Fu + comedy... What could go wrong? I'm surprised it didn't spawn a ton of Shaolin sports movies, à la Air Bud.

Shaolin - Another recent epic set in the Warlords era (it's the historical territory that seems all the rage), it stars the always impeccable Andy Lau plus KFF favorites Wu Jing and Nicholas Tse, with a special appearance by Jackie Chan. And don't worry about the latter's trademark hair, he wears a skull cap throughout the movie. (Because I know you care.)

The Shaolin Prince - AKA Death Mask of the Ninja AKA Iron Fingers of Death... titles I'm sure have very little to do with the picture. The back of the DVD promises twin brothers marked for death, a fire-fisted assassin and a magic sword that exorcises demons. I'm in!

If you're in the area, just show up! If you're not, the capsule reviews will turn up on the following Sunday!

Doctor Who #8: The Ambush

"Pacifism only works when everybody feels the same."TECHNICAL SPECS: The episode is on disc 2 of The Beginning DVD boxed set as part 4 of The Daleks. First aired Jan.11 1964.

IN THIS ONE... The cast escape the Daleks and a couple of Thals get massacred. But the survivors just won't fight back!

REVIEW: What is perhaps most impressive about this episode is director Christopher Barry's ability to create special effects with what we would today call rudimentary techniques. Our DVD-extra-guzzling, behind-the-scenes-savvy minds may well divine how they were done, but they are still tremendously effective. Like the use of split screen to create a rising or falling lift (combined with neat model effects) or a bubbling wall shot by a Dalek narrowly missing Ian. The Daleks cut through a metal door, then make a Dalek shell crumble and fall apart with their extermination blasts, all done practically. And the Daleks are particularly balletic as they back into dark alcoves, lying in wait for the Thals. The massacre, though slight (only two Thals are reportedly killed), is excitingly staged, with tense music, shots of eager gun turrets and a breathless Ian running through the city. You wouldn't think the black and white era would give you such eye candy, but there it is. (I'm less enthusiastic about the props, like the styrofoam sculpture, tins of food, or decidedly retro Thal archives, but we can't have everything).

There is some fun to be had with the whole escape attempt too. Susan gets to do some quick, improvisational thinking and shades of her Unearthly self, smiles and giggles through the dangerous parts of the adventure. When Ian gets trapped inside the Dalek shell, it's supposed to make you think of the the old trope (was it already old then?) of splitting up the party, but he confounds expectation by escaping off-screen. It's a well-executed piece of false jeopardy. And then he DOES split off from the group to warn the Thals of danger, but still rejoins his team before the end of the episode. The moral divide between the Doctor and his companions, as seen in the previous story, is still a source of conflict. The Doctor just wants to leave, but the others feel the need to help those who helped them. And yet, because the Daleks take the fluid link from Ian, the TARDIS crew's fates become linked to the Thals. A simple reversal of the story's set-up.

What mystifies me about this episode (and story) is Terry Nation's message. On the one hand, it's an obvious cautionary tale about war - atomic war in particular - and how it might lead to mutual annihilation (or at least, mutual mutation). But at the same time, he makes the protagonists and audience identification figures Ian and Barbara try to convince the Thals that pacifism is stupid. So which is it? In the hands of another writer, this would be irony. In Nation's, I'm just not sure. It does make sense for the two teachers to advocate standing up for oneself, even if it comes to violence. If they're in their 30s in 1963, then surely they lived through the London blitz. They have a post-war attitude and grew up on Chruchill's speeches and their parents' stiff English upper lip. Barbara will prove to be correct about Thal instincts vs. culture, and with the peaceable-to-a-fault Temmosus dead and the more balanced character of Alydon in charge, the teachers may have a shot at convincing the tribe.

THEORIES: The Thal history is suspect. Those reels have half a million years of history on them, and pictures of Thals with swords and armor. And they call the Daleks' ancestors Dals, rather than Kaleds. None of this really concords with Genesis of the Daleks. But my take is that the Doctor's looked at the first couple chapters when the Kaleds WERE called Dals (after all, I'm from French descent, but I could just as easily say Gaul). Apparently, their war started in their Antiquity. Nation's notion that mutation comes in cycles from humanoid to horrible mutant back to humanoid (and in only a few hundred years) is risible, of course, though Skarosian life may be particularly mutable, perhaps thanks to weaponized mutagens spread through the atmosphere by people like Davros.

REWATCHABILITY: High - Though the writer's message is on shaky ground, The Daleks continues to be an exciting serial. Worth it just to see how effects could be achieved with little equipment and no (or few) cuts.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Coast(less) City - A DC Cities Conundrum

If you're a regular reader, you know this blog has more than once explored the question of where DC's fictional cities could be. With the New52, everything is up in the air again, and the Internet has been abuzz for almost a week regarding this page from Josh Fialkov's I, Vampire #3:It looks from this "meanwhile in the various time zones" that goes from East to West, that both Star City and Coast City, both formerly on the West Coast, have been pushed eastward. Now that Green Arrow is back in Seattle, Star City can redefine itself, no problem. In fact, I'd love to see it resituated in Texas (Central Time), as the lone star of the Lone Star State. It's a state with a distinct flavor or four, and a unique environment for a would-be superhero. Perhaps somewhere El Paso's Blue Beetle could move to when he grows up.

The real problem, though, is Coast City now situated in Mountain Time. See, there's no coast in that time zone. Not unless the city's in Mexico, which it clearly isn't. We're left with four possibilities:
-It's a mistake. Ignore it.
-Part of Mexico has been annexed by the U.S. in the New DCU.
-"Coast" is ironic, much like "Greenland" is icy and "Iceland" is green.
-The definition of Coast has been extended to lakeside topography. Maybe Coast City is somehow facing Salt Lake City now.

For me, the missed opportunity was to do away with Coast City altogether. I mean, do we really need it? Hal Jordan's job always took him to some desert base anyway, so why not have him based in Nevada. He's not the defender of a particular city, after all, but of an entire Sector. Eliminating his contextualizing city would have promoted his actual role (and not been too far off the way Green Lantern's world has been portrayed of late). Sometimes I think the trouble with the New DC isn't that too much has changed, but rather that NOT ENOUGH has.

Doctor Who #7: The Escape

"I believe the Daleks hold the key to our future."TECHNICAL SPECS: The episode is on disc 2 of The Beginning DVD boxed set as part 3 of The Daleks. First aired Jan.4 1964.

IN THIS ONE... Susan meet the Thals, and the gang makes its escape attempt with Ian behind the wheel of a Dalek.

REVIEW: The Thals, advertised as disgusting mutants in the previous episode, turn out to be tall, blond and beautiful, if a little effete. Susan trusts them immediately because they're pretty. Conventional wisdom would have use believe that you can't judge a book by its cover, but this is a morally/thematically much more simple story, where beautiful is good, and ugly is evil. In fact, the Daleks are genocidal from the word go. And where a Trekish moral fable would have the two peoples come together in symbiosis to solve their problems (and it is in the power of the Thals to cure the Daleks of their radiation sickness, and for the Daleks to feed the Thals), we'll find that they really CAN'T work together. Evil is shown to be a real force in the Whoniverse, where things are not necessarily a shade of gray. The Thals are the "light" in this equation, a warrior people that has bred out its violent tendencies.

The episode takes some time to present the Thal soap opera. In addition to the "hero" Thal, Alydon (who laughably gives Susan a gigantic tin of meds to hide on her person), there's the trusting king Temmosus, the cynical Ganatus (who seems most human of all), his unseen cowardly brother Antodus, and poor Dyoni, the only female representative and definitely a Terry Nation creation. I hate to give even more attention to Nation's sexism, but Dyoni states she has no opinion, criticizes the TARDIS crew for sending a girl to do a man's job, and then falls into petty jealousy because Alydon spoke to Susan. Terribly dated attitude, especially in a show with two female protagonists and a woman in the producer's chair.

The Daleks are much more interesting, but then, they would be, wouldn't they? They don't know what names are, and respond aggressively to Susan's laughter ("Stop that noise!"). The first mention of extermination isn't lost on modern viewers either. The tricks the production team has them perform vary from fun (sticking the letter to the sucker arm) to accidentally comical ("grabbing" Ian by the throat). The TARDISeers work out how to disable one by cutting it off from the floor's static electricity in a sequence that is more "scientific method" than we might expect today (they don't get the jump on the first Dalek that comes to feed them, for example, but observe its behavior to plan for the next), which is in keeping with both the slower pace of television, and the series' educational mandate. You're allowed to question the huge wad of Dalek-blinding mud Barbara creates from Susan's dirty shoes however. What's ultimately exciting is that we get a glimpse of a Dalek under a blanket where Ian deposits it to steal its shell. It's more lizard-like than the octopoid we've gotten used to, but it's a fun, iconic bit nonetheless (is it a strong cliffhanger though? To be fair, the show is too young to have a true cliffhanger tradition). As we leave the cast, their escape attempt is just under way, with Ian inside the travel machine, using the Dalek's voice modulator. It's at least imaginative and we might hope they don't get immediately recaptured again.

THEORIES: With hindsight, we know Daleks won't be confined to static cling engines forever. That, along with their very different appearance (by which I mean the interior mutant) is an indicator that the race's timeline only really works when you accept they've been factioned. We'll see a lot of that later, with both Imperial and Renegade Daleks vying for power as ideas of purity evolve and spark civil war. So whenever this story takes place relative to other events in Dalek history, we may explain biological/technical inconsistencies away by invoking this idea. The City Daleks are one faction of the race, perhaps one abandoned on the planet while another escaped into space. Segregating these "static-dependent" Daleks from others may prove useful when trying to establish the Dalek timeline.

REWATCHABILITY: High - Though the Thals' gender politics might make you wince, the tribe gets at least some development. Meanwhile, the SF action-adventure elements in the Dalek city remain a good bit of fun.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Reign 400 Contest: Back to the Beginning

Now that the daily version of Reign of the Supermen is over, I thought it might be fun to hold a contest (not unlike the one from Reign #100). I'll show you two dozen rockets escaping a doomed planet, and you tell me the title of the comics series, mini-series or one-shot from which that rocket was taken. Some have already appeared in Reign, so going back is fair game. Send your answers via email to siskoid7 (at) hotmail (dot) com, NOT through the comment section (Spoiler is the name of the Devil). You have until Sunday, December 4th at midnight EST. The prize announced at the bottom of the post for the prize.The winner will be the responder with the most correct answers (no surprise there). In case of a tie (such as if more than one person gets every answer correct), I will hold a random draw. The lucky winner will be contacted and asked to name his or her favorite Superman featured in the first 400 days of Reign. I will then create a custom, one-of-a-kind Reign of the Supermen iron-on featuring that Superman and mail it to that winner (in either full-page, I wear my geekiness proudly all over my chest, or in more discreet quarter-page format best suited to girls' t-shirts and breast pockets). Telling us your personal favorite in the comments IS allowed.

The winner will be announced Monday, December 5th! Until then, I'll see you back at the beginning!

Doctor Who #6: The Survivors

"A few questions will reduce the mystery."TECHNICAL SPECS: The episode is on disc 2 of The Beginning DVD boxed set as part 2 of The Daleks. First aired Dec.28 1963.

IN THIS ONE... The cast is captured by the Daleks and Susan is allowed to return to the TARDIS to get the Thal drug kit that could cure their radiation poisoning.

REVIEW: Right off the bat, the episode doesn't start with a full reprise of the last's cliffhanger. Much less effective without the scream. Getting past the sucker arm, the Daleks appear in fully realized form in the course of the episode. The look, the voices, the equipment tailored to their obvious handicaps, and the idea that they might not be robots, but creatures inside metallic shells. It's all there. We're only missing an "Exterminate!" or two. And these early Daleks actually put some later appearances to shame. The shells are brand new, for one thing, but their smooth balletic moves, coordinating floor movement with eyestalk expression is quite an achievement considering that 1) this is the first time they're used and 2) the way tv was filmed in those days, almost live-to-tape. There's even a "hero" eyestalk with a size-changing shutter. It makes the Daleks just a touch more expressive. I can totally believe they captured the imagination of kids throughout the UK during Christmas break.

The plot isn't quite as striking. There's some rummaging around in Doctor Who's first corridors, where the stark lighting makes the characters glisten with sweat, and we know they've been hit with radiation. They basically discover what we've known since the end of 100,000 B.C. Captured by the Daleks, Ian is hit with one of their beams, which only paralyzes his legs. A far cry from extermination, but it still works as a particularly cruel punishment. And then, there's some back and forth between the Doctor and the Daleks, giving the latter opportunities to infodump their history on the audience. At least we find out the Doctor wasn't so reckless as to really destroy the fluid link, but I guess just reckless enough to lie about it and get them all into a spot of trouble. The Thal anti-radiation meds are back in the TARDIS, and they're all trapped in a cell, dying. The Doctor proves his worth as a protagonist by convincing the Daleks he can be of use, and Susan is sent out to get the medication before it's too late.

Poor Susan! There's one moment where she inappropriately giggles that might recall her "unearthly" portrayal in the series opener, but otherwise, she's almost cringe-inducingly wet, turning the petrified forest where she lately picked crystal flowers into a tempest-torn nightmare. Susan is afraid of everything and unsure of herself in a way I find hard to believe for someone's who been traveling through time for a while. And with Barbara exhibiting the same (if not as melodramatic) behavior, there's little for the women to do except whimper and scream. Susan is used for this mission as a last resort, which gives her no credit at all from any of the characters. Terry Nation is no feminist. Thunder and lightning, plus a strange figure hinted to be a horrible mutant, would have believably put Susan on edge without the need for such hysterics even before she goes out of the city. Over-egging the terror pudding, as they say.

Other bits I don't care for include the impractical notion that the TARDIS lock will melt if someone other than a Time Lord puts the key in the lock. Over-complicated mumbo-jumbo that will soon enough turn out to be false. One might imagine that the Doctor grew less paranoid over time and disabled this feature. Then there's the running sequence, which gives 100,000 B.C. a run for its money in terms of silliness. The actress runs in place with spinning background behind her, not one of director Christopher Barry's best effects moments (of which there have already been many). The last disappointment is the cliffhanger, which is the weakest the show has yet to produce. Susan's just gone through the scary jungle unharmed, and... she must do it again! Oooh. So it's a good thing the Daleks are such a success. Turn them into guys with silver make-up (or something) and you've got a much weaker B-movie.

THEORIES: If you're tracking data about whether or not the Doctor already knew about the Daleks, there's nothing here to indicate he didn't. He plays dumb with them, and doesn't lie to his companions. Of the Dalek timeline, we glean that the atomic war happened 500 years ago, which you might think isn't long enough for the Thals to "evolve" a different appearance, but the radiation makes anything possible. The Daleks haven't seen the Thals in generations, but imagine them to be mutants. Aside from the hypocrisy of the statement, might this be some kind of reference to the Mutos from Genesis of the Daleks? Skaro has a history of war and mutation, after all.

One incongruity we should address is how hard the Doctor is hit by the radiation, while later Doctors are often shown to be more impervious to radiation than the norm. The obvious answer is that they hadn't decided on that yet, and needed the Doctor in jeopardy and unable to reach the TARDIS. The in-story answer might be that the first Doctor's age (by which I mean his current body's age) is too advanced for this Time Lord ability to work properly. If each Time Lord incarnation can live for centuries (and the first Doctor may already be some 450 years old, going by the times other Doctors say their age and working backwards), and we know this Doctor is to die of fatigue and old age in only 3 (give or take the number of years taken off his life in The Daleks' Master Plan), we'd be safe to assume he's at the tail end of this body's shelf life. Age is actually a good justification for a number of inconsistencies having to do with Time Lord physiology.

REWATCHABILITY: High - First full appearance of the Daleks, and it's enough to forgive any of the episode's weaknesses.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

This Week in Geek (21-27/11/11)

Buys

DVD buys this week include Community Season 2, Doctor Who Series 6, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, The Girlfriend Experience, Norwegian Ninja, and the long-awaited Dragon Dynasty release of Flying Guillotine.

"Accomplishments"

DVDs: Friends of mine turned me on to the pop culture-savvy (and now in trouble) Community, and I really liked Season 1. In many ways, it reminded me of Spaced (always a good thing), in particular how the characters are always on the cusp of knowing they're in a tv show, because that's basically how many of us see our lives. If you've never seen it, it's about a group of misfits of all ages, sizes, backgrounds and denominations at a terrible community college. Heck, it's not too far of the university experience either. And since I work at a university, well, the show intersects many of my interests, including a penchant for dark/awkward comedy. Chevy Chase even indulges in the occasional slapstick. The DVD package is a lot of fun, dressed up as a class yearbook inside of which all the characters wrote comments and jokes. There's a commentary track on each episode, featuring a variable and entertaining group of cast and crew, two extended episodes, an extremely large number of funny outtakes, 3 mini-episodes dubbed "Study Breaks", and featurettes that generally take the piss, like the end of season/term cast evaluation process. Plus, an small Kickpuncher comic drawn by Jim Mahfood.

Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation owes a huge (but acknowledged - it even starts with a mime) debt to Antonioni's Blow-Up, which I reviewed recently. Like Blow-Up, it's about context and perception, but instead of exploring it through a photographer and a mysterious sequence of pictures, he does so with a professional wiretapper, and an innocuous conversation. The conversation repeats throughout the film, revealing itself or its meaning a little more each time, but also taking on new meaning based on context. Gene Hackman gives an excellent and understated performance as the obsessively private protagonist, and Coppola doesn't go Blow-Up's philosophical route, steering the film towards the thriller genre, albeit a quiet kind of thriller. He certainly shows us a lot of the nitty-gritty of the surveillance business circa 1974, but a remake wouldn't feel incredibly different (though perhaps the character of Harry Caul would have even more anxiety regarding hypersurveillance). And there's a poetry to the images here that I really enjoy, Coppola importing the idea of things hidden and revealed into the cinematography and script elements. The two commentary tracks (director's and editor's) mostly cover different territory and are uniformly interesting, and a vintage featurette shows us behind the scenes footage of the production.

I'm coming in late to Donnie Darko, I know, and my experience is only going to be the director's cut. So is Donnie Darko a teen angst movie about an alienated, schizophrenic young man, or the most intricate time travel movie since Primer (albeit more metaphysical). Well, can't it be both? I can see why this became a cult favorite. It's extremely well made, speaks to two particular generations (those in high school in the 80s, like me, and those of that age when they saw it), and is just imperfect enough in its logic to generate conversation. Huge amounts of conversation. It's one of those films that bears rewatching again and again, each time perhaps with a different filter. It's so layered. Blog fodder? Maybe. The DVD extras are as unusual as the film. The commentary track is a conversation between director Richard Kelly and a slightly intimidated Kevin Smith. The production diary provides random clips from behind the scenes, and comes with an optional tongue-in-cheek commentary track from the cinematographer. There's a documentary on the British reaction (from fans and critics) to the film that's bizarrely shot, though interesting for its look at the UK marketing campaign. And there's the winner of the #1 Fan Documentary contest, which the guys richly deserves for his crazy shenanigans. Some storyboard comparisons (meh) close out the package.

In Poland, a choir girl (Irène Jacob) makes her dream of becoming an opera singer come true, but there's a price to be paid. In France, a music teacher (also Irène Jacob) is intuitively influenced by her double's life and undertakes a just-as-unexplainable relationship with a handsome puppeteer. Krzysztof Kieslowski's The Double Life of Véronique is yet another film I've watched this week that makes more poetic sense than actual sense. I love my DVD shelf. This could easily be part of Kieslowski's later Three Colors trilogy, casting the film in gold, and acts as a particular mirror to Red, also starring Irène Jacob (perhaps Valentine is a third Véronique?). As with Red, the film is full of visual rhyming, reflections, doubles, recurring and intertwining images, all of which gives credence to the thoery that it is in some ways about filmmaking itself. Different but similar characters played by the same actress, perhaps versions of the same character who diverged on the scriptwriter's page, one of which becomes aware of a force manipulating or using her story. Is she a puppet, or a muse? How can she tell after she's lost her connection to her other self? A gorgeous-looking film, and one that may give up different interpretations on each subsequent viewing. Lovely if not flawless (the interrupted divorce court subplot may frustrate). The DVD is part of the Criterion Collection, but aside from a handsome 60-page booklet filled with essays (including text by Kieslowski himself), it's not hugely different from what was included in the much cheaper Three Colors DVD, including an expert commentary by Annette Insdorf. You'll also find 3 early documentary shorts by Kieslowski that paint the picture of failing Polish infrastructures, and another by his mentor, Karabasz. And on the second disc, a making of documentary with a terrific Kieslowski interview, a French featurette on his work before Double Life, and candid interviews with the cinematographer, the composer and leading lady.

Opium & the Kung-Fu Master features Ti Lung as the title character, a man who loses his edge when he becomes addicted to opium, which leads to tragedy before he can get himself cleaned up. Your usual 19th century clan war stuff acts as background. Interestingly, Tang Chia's film starts out as a comedy, with silly, cross-eyed clowns and funky street fights, but when opium is revealed as the true evil it is, the film gets markedly harsher. One can feel China's national shame dripping from this story. Despite this unusual theme for a Shaw Brothers movie, there's plenty of action to go around (with credits for 6 action choreographers). It was made in 1984, which may explain the more-than-typical reliance on stunt-based action (the influence of Jackie Chan), and it's all quite good. Too bad it's completely studio-bound, because I'd have liked to see this production on a larger canvas. Still, a colorful, action-packed story with a strong tragedy at its core.

Hyperion to a Satyr posts this week:
III.i. The Nunnery Scene - Olivier '48

Doctor Who #5: The Dead Planet

"Don't you ever think he deserves something to happen to him?"TECHNICAL SPECS: The episode is on disc 2 of The Beginning DVD boxed set as part 1 of a story we now call The Daleks. First aired Dec.21 1963.

IN THIS ONE... The TARDIS materializes on an alien planet, the gang splits up to explore a deserted alien city, and Barbara gets attacked by a terrifying sink plunger.

REVIEW: Our first Terry Nation script, and already, there's a noticeable drop in quality. This is all about putting science fiction concepts forward rather than artful dialogue, and quotable lines are precious few. Worse still, Nation's science seems to come more from Flash Gordon than Albert Einstein. But if the dialog isn't particularly exciting, the world created by the production team, is. There are wonderful special effects, from the strange embossed effect that turns the petrified forest into a truly alien world, to the shot of the model city and the cast in the same frame - the episode remains interesting even to the modern eye. The jungle looks good, but the city is even more intriguing, with its strangely shaped, diaphanous doors and eyestalk CCTV. So when we finally see the sucker advancing on Barbara, we're ready for something completely alien, and we most certainly get it. It's all in Jacqueline Hill's performance, of course. Plumbing implements aren't meant to be so terrifying. I consider Terry Nation an overrated writer exactly because his scripts only work thanks to the design, direction and acting. He's an ideas man, sure, but not a particularly good craftsman (but we're a ways yet before he becomes a parody of himself, so I'll let that go for now).

The episode is all exploration. There's a walk through the forest before we return to the TARDIS, where we are introduced to that silly food machine. Still, it's a fair point this early in the series. What do the characters eat? Is the TARDIS equipped with all the amenities? We've seen them wash up, and apparently return their clothes to a presentable appearance. And now we see the space age food they'll get to eat. No doubt, this recalls the then-exciting world of astronauts, but it does feel like the episode just stops for tea (or brandy, in the case of Barbara). Still, the TARDIS looks big here, with some time spent in the computer banks room where the Doctor hilariously answers Ian's "I don't know how you make sense of any of this" with "You're quite right." Less endearing is the Doctor's apparently reckless sabotage of his own ship just so he gets to explore the city. First of all, it's very poorly staged. He does it right in front of the others. For another, it makes the audience ask how he knows they'll find mercury inside the city. Then again, he just took the fluid link out and put it in his pocket. So long as he doesn't lose it...

The dynamic between the characters continues to evolve. Though Ian conceded leadership to the Doctor in the previous episode, the Doctor's done nothing but undermine than nascent trust since. He's refused to bring them back to their time, or answer any question directly, and now he's so obsessed with visiting the alien city, he's stranded them there. The notion is that Ian and Barbara are going along with the adventure because they can't afford to let the Doctor get captured or killed. They need him to pilot the ship. It's a tense, symbiotic relationship. But other forces are at work too, as the Doctor asks Barbara to bridge the generation gap between him and his granddaughter. She's required to act as mother figure to Susan, and so a familial bond also grows between the characters. Susan is still being written and played as a hypersensitive, seeing things other cannot, sensing the Thals in the bushes (she's proven right by the mystery drug kit), and generally freaking out. Neither of he female characters are well served by this episode, actually. Lots of screaming, while the boys show bravery (foolhardy and not). A staple of Terry Nation's space opera mentality?

THEORIES: I know the Dalek timeline is on everyone's minds, but it's too early to discuss it. I will talk about a couple things that fall under the header of "The Doctor lies" however. First is the concept of the "Billy fluff", what fans affectionately call William Hartnell's tendency to screw up lines. Everyone does in this era of the series because there were rarely any retakes or editing. It's just how tv worked back then. It's too early for the production team to find a way to justify them in-story, but here we have the Doctor calling Chesterton "Chesterfield", and I can't believe that would be a mistake. Or if it is, Hartnell repeats the gag a few times over the course of the series. It's a slur thrown at his rival, just another way to put him in his place. But it also does provide motivation for the Doctor's distractedness - fluffs and all - to be at least in part an act to disarm opponents. We know the 2nd Doctor will certainly use that trick.

The other, bigger lie has to do with the Daleks. Eventually, the series will act as if everyone knows what a Dalek is. They're the scourge of the universe, have waged war for centuries in multiple galaxies, and became the Time Lords' greatest foe. How then would a time traveler like the Doctor NEVER have heard of them. One theory is that his meetings with them causes them to become time-active, which in turn allows them to change their destiny. In the original timeline, they never amounted to much. The irony would be that it's the Doctor who created his own worst enemy by interfering with their affairs on this occasion. Another theory is that the Doctor is lying by "discovering" the Daleks as if for the first time, but that he knows who they are and indeed, might even have gone to Skaro on purpose. Think about it: According to Remembrance, he's just hidden the Hand of Omega on Earth (which he later uses against the Daleks). And now, he's obsessed with going into the Skarosian city. Why? Is he trying to nip them in the bud? (If so, he fails.) Or turning the Thals into warriors? (Ian actually does the deed.) Future episodes may tell. A third theory is that the Time Lords have removed key information from his brain, perhaps as some kind of failsafe against the theft of a TARDIS. The Doctor's forgotten how to properly pilot his ship, and now it seems he doesn't know who these historically important aliens are? Compare to Hartnell's last season by which time he just knows who the Toymaker and the Cybermen are, when he becomes the all-knowing Doctor we're used to today (for good or ill). Will things come back to him the more he travels?

VERSIONS: There are two important and very different versions of this story which we'll get to later. The Peter Cushing film, Doctor Who and the Daleks, will get its own article at its proper chronological slot, and Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure with the Daleks, the Target novelization, I will talk about when we get to the final chapter.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - Face it, you're just waiting around until Barbara is in position for that last iconic shot. A bit dull, especially on repeat viewings, but it gets better.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Reign of the Supermen #401: Marvel Man

Source: Action Comics #272-273 (1961)
Type: Parallel developmentYears before Captain Kirk laid eyes on a reverse-Earth, or an Earth where the Roman Empire was still thriving, Supergirl discovered Terra, Earth's double. The same, but different. And it's all because of THIS high school general science class:
What's next? Intelligent design?! So Supergirl goes to the Fortress of Solitude to use the computer facilities to find not only HER double, but a double of the planet, as shown in this very strange panel where Supergirl and Superman seem to telepathically jabber at each other:
A mistake? Or just the Silver Age getting out of control? Anyway, the Earth DOES have a double (Terra) and Supergirl flies there in the hopes of proving to Superman she's ready to go public. What happens on Terra, as they say, stays on Terra. Don't call it the guinea pig planet, it doesn't like that. So it's Earth, but it's not. Bigger Florida (which contains Mount Everest, by the by), Eiffel Tower in America, Statue of Liberty holding a flag...
...the pyramids are in Japan, the system's Jupiter is all spotty, its Mars has a ring, bicycles have four wheels, pet elephants are tiny, rabbits and tigers are one and the same dangerous (and probably not-at-all endangered) animal. And "Macropolis" is defended by one Marvel Maid, Terra' first hero, who lives in the Fortress of Marvels up in orbit.
The key's on a radioactive asteroid, so would-be, rocket-powered thieves could only get in by contracting cancer. Despite having the same powers, Marvel Maid isn't a Kryptonian. Instead, she was bore-rocketed to the surface world from the doomed civilization at the center of Terra!
Found and adopted by simple country folks, she was raised as Lea Lindy, now cub reporter at a major Macropolitan newspaper edited by Perry Waite. Just then, Marvel Maid is called away to a prehistoric world to extinguishing a forest fire that is DEVOURING THE ENTIRE PLANET, so she leaves Supergirl in charge to pose as her. Every time she screws up though, it's always because of some insanely stupid "difference". For example, when trying to melt an iceberg, it bursts into flames because it's made of flammable sea salts. There's also a bit with a "sinking bridge" that is their version of our drawbridges. Fortunately, her bacon is saved each time by Marvel Man, Marvel Maid's cousin, who has to operate in secret until she allows him to go public. He, too, was saved from the collapsing underground, but his rocket stalled and he grew to adulthood in suspended animation. So when he turned up on the surface, he was really bad at doing stuff.
And because Terra requires its citizens to all have identification papers, Kent Clark was immediately sentenced to years in prison. It's the perfect cover, so long as the guards never catch you sneaking into or out of your secret tunnel. When a meteor strikes the Fortress, it starts to fall to Terra. Marvel Man will try to catch it, but mustn't be seen doing so. Supergirl turns a piece of coal into a diamond to distract a farm wife from the action. Except diamonds are like Kryptonite to the underworlders! In fact, the farm wife wasn't motivated by greed when she grabbed it, but by civic duty.
In the second chapter, they rebuild the crashed Fortress before Marvel Maid returns. She's impressed with Supergirl nonetheless and doesn't blame her for the mistakes. Again she leaves Supergirl in charge while she flies to Earth to see it for herself and perhaps intercede on her double's behalf. After accomplishing a super-feat admirably, Superman, thinking it's his cousin, is so impressed he unveils his plans to let Supergirl go public. Her own army of Supergirl robots, full access to the Fortress and a worldwide release of footage of her saving the day from the shadows for years. From secret to superstar in no time. The real Supergirl is touched, watching from the alt-Fortress' space monitor, that Superman indeed DID plan for her to one day succeed. Marvel Maid sets the record straight, tells him of Supergirl's feats, but also of her understandable mistake. Together, they watch from HIS space monitor as she saves the day on Terra, though not without bungling it a little (the sinking bridge). Ultimately, the episode shows Marvel Maid that Marvel Man is ready to go public, and she arranges a big circus appearance (it's what they did in those days). And does Superman do the same for Supergirl?
Her mistake was not reading every book in the Terran library before setting foot there. In other words, STAY IN SCHOOL, kids!

Doctor Who #4: The Firemaker

"In our tribe, the firemaker is the least important man."TECHNICAL SPECS: The episode is on disc 1 of The Beginning DVD boxed set. It is the last chapter of 100,000 B.C. First aired Dec.14 1963.

IN THIS ONE... The gang is recaptured, Ian gives the cave people fire, and then they all escape to the TARDIS for realz.

REVIEW: Anthony Coburn's script is really quite remarkable. In his final episode (ever), he has Ian admit that the Doctor is the leader of the group. More than a simple settling into the show's premise, it's entirely motivated. By what, is up to interpretation. He may have been convinced by the clever way the Doctor proves Kal was framing Za for the murder of the Old Mother. Though the cave people have simple minds, their poetic language and symbolist logic makes this look like a rhetorical feat. (The grunting extras are more underwhelming, especially in the shouty riot bits.) Or Ian may be motivated by seeing how the tribal rivals act and deciding to be the bigger and more civilized man. On a thematic level, the Doctor is the "firemaker" of the group, though the secret of making fire here is the secret of time travel. (Look back two episodes hence, when the Doctor can't make fire because he's lost his matches, and compare to his inability to pilot the TARDIS because of missing elements.) By Za's logic, the Doctor IS the leader. Ian's anti-class speech about the firemaker being the least important man (because everyone can make fire) is subverted once we get back to the TARDIS where the Doctor has a secret he does not share with his "tribe". As if to prove Ian's previous point, mistrust ensues as the Doctor avoids ever giving a direct answer about whether or not he can bring Barbara and Ian back to 1963.

The episode also gives us our first fight choreography on film, and though it goes on a bit, it exceeds the program's later standard. And it's quite brutal. They don't put the sound effect of Kal's skull being cracked open, but the shocked reaction shots of the cast in flickering firelight tells the tale. Then, Za drags the dead Kal around like a piece of meat, an image strengthened by the furs over the dead man's head, like some indeterminate animal. The characters are then left in the Cave of Skulls with a rotting corpse. It's Susan's intuition that finds the key to their escape, and it's just as macabre. A line of fiery skulls provides the required distraction. A cool and crazy visual that makes fear and horror one of the program's initial ingredients. You need not wait for the Daleks for that.

Also of interest is how Ian puts words into Za's mouth and eventually, Prometheus-like, gives him fire. He's a teacher, after all. That's what he does. Star Trek is three years away, so Doctor Who never suffered from Prime Directive anxiety. Sometimes it's wrong to change the course of events (when it would change written history for the companions), sometimes it isn't. It would be fun to think that the TARDIS crew were responsible for humanity gaining fire and friendship, but the truth is, Za's father could make fire, and Kal was a mutant in that he was his culture's first liar. Humanity was on its way whether the TARDIS landed near one particular enclave or not. As we leave prehistory behind to lay our gaze on an alien world, we may imagine the Tribe of Gum surviving the winter or not.

THEORIES: In the closing moments of the episode, the Doctor says he can't control the destination of the TARDIS because he didn't have time to properly input the starting coordinates, as if time travel was more a matter of setting direction and speed than typing in a specific place and date. The TARDIS has made two quick, unprepared trips already, and as long as the character narrowly escape from each destination (or not have any data about when and where they are), the craft could well be lost in time. It's ambiguous whether the Doctor has never been able to pilot the ship adequately or if he can, but has lost his bearings in the time vortex due to these events. Of course, he also mutters about TARDIS systems being in disrepair and missing elements and formulas, so he could just be saying anything to cover up his inability to pilot the TARDIS. See Rule #1.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - On the surface, perhaps after a single viewing, The Firemaker may look like a bunch of dirty, grunting cavemen bothering characters that escape from the Cave of Skulls for the second time in as many episodes. But there's a depth here thanks to the characters' ethical dilemmas, strong thematic content, and a real sense of danger evoked by a harsh and hostile world.

STORY REWATCHABILITY: High - Everyone needs to see An Unearthly Child at least once in their lives. It's where it all began! And though the 100,000 B.C. story doesn't have the same impact, it's still relevant. It's the cast's first voyage through time and whether you enjoy the caveman stuff or not, the way the TARDISeers group dynamic evolves, and the themes explored by Coburn's script, are well worth the viewing session.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Kung Fu Friday Moments: Born to Fight!

Maybe it's because I'm thinking of putting Shaolin Soccer on December's movie list, but I really wanted to share one of our VERY FAVORITE KFF moments with you today and it is sports-related. You see, my first Tony Jaa Action Team movie wasn't Ong-Bak or The Protector. It didn't even feature Tony Jaa. No, it was BORN TO FIGHT, a great big can of whup-ass in which ACTUAL Thai sports stars and Olympic athletes touring impoverished villages get thrown into a warzone when Burmese terrorists move in. The terrorists' mistake? Letting the entire Thai national anthem play on the radio, rousing these kids to action, and to using their mad skills to kill the living hell out of the bad guys to a relentless electro-beat. Our favorite part, of course, comes at the end of the following video when the little girl gets revenge for her father's murder:

That's not the end of it either. As the action continues, another much-loved bit turns up. No subtitles here, but the move the little girl calls for is translated as "AXE OF THOR!!!" on Dragon Dynasty's DVD. Indeed!

And if that kinda looks like the climax to something, it isn't. Not only does this particular fight go on for a couple more minutes, but it's in the MIDDLE of the film. Interested parties can find the rest on You-Tube, or better yet, get the movie on DVD so you can get the translation and nuances of a script that calls for the Burmese to nuke Bangkok from an outlying Buddhist village!

Born to Fight - one of the big reasons why Kung Fu Fridays has been a tradition for over two years.

Doctor Who #3: The Forest of Fear

"Fear, it makes companions of us all."
TECHNICAL SPECS: The episode is on disc 1 of The Beginning DVD boxed set. It is either Part 2 or Part 3 of 100,000 B.C., depending on your point of view. First aired Dec.7 1963.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor, Susan, Ian and Baraba escape, are chased by Za and Hur, but are saved by an animal attack. But will saving Za's life prevent them from reaching the TARDIS before the other cavemen head them off?

REVIEW: It's Doctor Who's first escape only to be re-captured, something of a stape of third episodes for the length of its classic run. The trick will become obvious padding, but it's too early to call it that here - there's a purpose to the futile run to the TARDIS. For one thing, it makes each cast member finds his or her niche within the group. Ian and the Doctor are at odds over who will be the leader (mirrored in the struggle between Za and Kal), so it's not the quickly set "premise accepted" we're used to seeing on tv. Ian is the group's defender, brave and physical, but the Doctor is the pragmatic decision maker. We see it during the escape when he tells the group to concentrate on freeing Ian first and gallantry be damned. It's better to get our fighter free first than the suffering ladies. And later, there's a harrowing moment when it looks like the Doctor will brain the wounded Za so his TARDIS companions will stop wasting time trying to save him. The Doctor, murderer? And that's where Barbara comes in. She's the conscience of the group. Though at first she has a major meltdown in the eponymous forest, the effects of this strange and dangerous experience finally catching up with her (and the existential shock of throwing a historian in a prehistoric world), the animal attack on Za engages her ethically and brings her out of the hysterics. She won't let him die and keeps her team focused on doing the right thing (where even Ian might have run). What the Doctor will learn from his human companions is the value of kindness and friendship, and that may be why he becomes so attached to Earth over time.

There's a tangible theme of old vs. young in this episode, as the dysfunctional family of the TARDIS is mirrored in the attitudes of the cave people. Though the Doctor doesn't manage to kill Za, Kal successfully kills the Old Mother in the same exact way. The Doctor rebels against Ian's leadership, just as the Old Mother does against Za's. And where he doesn't like this new idea of helping people, she is dead set against inventing fire. There are even reversals that remind us of the theme, like Susan telling the teachers that the Doctor always pouts when he doesn't get his way. The child telling the (grand)parent he's childish. Doctor Who was set up as cross-generational by virtue of how television was watched back then (few channels, whole families watching a scheduled line-up together). So while the content is meant to appeal to different members of the family and there are actually three generations represented in the cast, 100,000 B.C. actually makes it a theme. Is grandpa the missing link? Does dad need to make all of mum's decisions? And can the kids offer something valuable? The show asks those questions by not always giving us the expected answer.

It's a rather adult show too. The moral dilemma is actually discussed, and there's no perfect answer, in part because none of the cave people are especially heroes or villains. The Doctor rightly calls them on the changeability of their primitive minds (using the previous episode's swaying opinions as a plot point). What is the right thing to do? While they follow Barbara's lead, it's again not the accepted way of doing things. These characters aren't heroic by default. They act based on passion and reason, and tell us why they do so. Forget about the educational element of the trip's destination (which amounts to little more than, you know, not putting the cavemen in with dinosaurs), Doctor Who offers an ethical education, and not a simplistic one. The show is also adult in its depiction of violence. The title character almost kills a man, an old woman is killed and posed, and there's a lingering shot on a dead animal. This isn't completely child-proof.

This review wouldn't be complete without some admiration for director Waris Hussein's work. An Unearthly Child had some innovative shots and ideas, but no one talks about the three episodes that followed. And yet there are some remarkable directorial ideas in them. For example, Hussein cuts between the group of cavemen sleeping huddled together and the mass grave of the Cave of Skulls. There's also a POV shot from one of the recesses in the Cave, as if we're seeing through the eye sockets of one of the skulls. The story doesn't have the lavish production values of historicals or the intriguing designs of science fiction stories, but I think it still has something to offer visually.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - A much more complex episode than it's usually given credit for, The Forest of Fear is so much more than an escape-and-capture-padding episode.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Doctor Who #2: The Cave of Skulls

"If you could touch the alien sand and hear the cries of strange birds, and watch them wheel in another sky, would that satisfy you?”TECHNICAL SPECS: The episode is on disc 1 of The Beginning DVD boxed set. It is either Part 1 or Part 2 of 100,000 B.C., depending on your point of view. First aired Nov.30 1963.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara step off into prehistory, and are soon captured (for the first of many times) by a tribe of cavemen questing for fire.

REVIEW: With all of time and space as a canvas, it may seem a little lackluster to drop the TARDIS into the Ice Age, with filthy cavemen for a guest cast. But I rather enjoy it. The cave-people's culture are given proper attention. They use a satisfyingly literate vocabulary that respects their world view (shades of the cod-Shakespearean of later historicals), worship Orb (the sun), and naively rub bones and sticks hoping to draw fire from them. We see their children playing at Hunters & Leopards. They seem real. The power struggle between the unsuccessful son of the previous firemaker, Za, and the newly arrived Kal is at times political (with public opinion swaying from one to the other depending on the circumstance), and at others personal, with Za desperate to win the hand of Hur by becoming leader. Za has Hur's support (will she prove to be a Lady MacBeth?), while the Old Mother backs up Kal (but is really more against this newfangled idea of fire), with Hur's father representing the swing vote. Though the trappings are primitive, the story of professional and romantic ambition, as old as Man itself, is universal. The choice of era and location also creates an important contrast for the TARDIS, highlighting the plot point that the chameleon circuit isn't working.

The characters are still evolving, trying to find their proper niche. Strangely, Barbara and Ian have switched their Scully-Mulder attitudes around since the previous episode. Now she's the one who believes and it's Ian who must be convinced. Either works, but it makes sense that the scientist of the two who have a more experiential approach. Susan has her first fit of hysterics, progressing towards the "scream queen" archetype that will make the show lose more than one actress over its history. But she also shows acute intuition, almost a sixth sense that makes her feel danger before it happens. It's another ability that's bound to be phased out, though it's the first hint that Time Lords may have psychic abilities. As for the Doctor, it's the only time he's portrayed as a smoker, but he loses his matches and never touches tobacco again. Otherwise, he's his recognizable self, trying to confound his prehistoric captors with words. We also get our first "Doctor who?" moment when Ian calls him Doctor Foreman, words reprised by Ian later when he wonders just who this man is and if he can be trusted. The title of the show would eventually become more mysterious - they didn't go around plugging it as often as they do today, and before reruns, would not be seen again - but here it is explained to its original audience. Crucially, the Doctor is more of an explorer than a righter of wrongs at this point. On this first trip, writer Anthony Coburn has the Doctor bring a geiger counter and take soil samples. He checks atmosphere, radiation and temperature for safety.

The TARDIS set is also evolving, its huge double doors opening up right on the barren landscape, without the dark antechamber that will later be used like a money-saving airlock. The exit doesn't match the size or look of the outside view, providing a visual shock as Hussein cuts from one to the other. The prehistoric sets don't quite make the same impression, with landscape obviously painted on drapes and obvious seams separating blocks of stone inside the caves. The Cave of Skulls, finally seen at the end, is much better, however, filled with creepy skeletons and smashed-in skulls promising a nasty end for our four captured time travelers.

THEORIES: While the year is conjectural (it can't really be 100,000 B.C. despite the production title for the story, not from what we know about the development of early Man), some have theorized that it could be the future as easily as the past, albeit a postapocalyptic future where Man has regressed, or even a parallel society on another planet. I don't believe one word of it. Ian asks the Doctor if they've really gone BACK in time, and he confirms it. Yes, the Doctor doesn't have full control of his machine and could theoretically be lying to cover that up, but I prefer to invoke Occam's Razor here.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - We're so early in the series that everything has special meaning. It's all firsts and prototypes, and anyone interested in the series' evolution and development should take a gander. More than that, the caveman drama is actually better than you might expect.

Reign of the Supermen #400: Superman Balloons

Source: Various (see below)
Type: ObjectsTo all our American friends, a most Happy Thanksgiving. It's also the end of Reign of the Supermen's daily run (becomes a weekly Saturday feature starting this weekend)! Both are causes for a little cheer, and what says cheer more than balloons! We turn first to that venerable helium-filled tradition, Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade for some truly massive Superman balloons. 1987's above is nice, but check out these vintage blow-ups from 1940:
And 1966:
Which is not to say Superman balloons weren't used in actual Superman stories, because they were. The following is probably less than exhaustive...
In Adventure Comics #208 (1955), for example, Superboy covers up sightings of a "flying boy" by inflating his own indestructibly stretchable costumes with super-lung power, making LIKE a balloon.
In the very next issue (Adventure 209), the Superboy Week Fair unveils the Superboy blimp!
In Superman #81 (1953), Superman blows into his own suit, fills it with phosphorescent mollusk shells, and lights up the whole city under threat from a power outage.
And Super-Friends # 9 (2009) shows that the tradition is still alive as the Super-Friends break out the super-balloons (with cameo by Super-Turtle!) for Superman's birthday.

Maybe you have another favorite super-balloon story my cursory research didn't find? Let us know. And then, it's back here for more Reign on Saturday AND make sure you swing by Monday for a celebratory It's-Stopped-Reigning contest!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Doctor Who #1: An Unearthly Child

"I know that free movement in time and space is a scientific dream I don't expect to find solved in a junkyard."TECHNICAL SPECS: The episode is on disc 1 of The Beginning DVD boxed set. It is usually considered the first part of the 100,000 B.C. story, though some consider it a stand-alone episode. First aired on this date, 48 years ago, then repeated the next week (30/11/63) before the second episode because the first airing coincided with reports of JFK's assassination, not leaving people in the best mood for entertainment.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor, Susan, Ian, Barbara and the TARDIS are all introduced. It's the first episode.

REVIEW: It begins. It is impossible for me to imagine what people at the time thought of the opening theme, not because it was the first time Ron Grainer's now ubiquitous music was heard, but because it was more or less the first time ANY electronic music had been used on tv. It's all the stranger for continuing over the opening sequence with the policeman closing the gate of a junkyard. It's like normal tv with sound problems, and then the camera abandons the bobbie to rest on a humming police box, standing in the middle of a yard full of creepy dummies and statues. Our point of view then focuses on the box's sign, "Pull to open", and we zoom in, as if to enter, and find ourselves in Coal Hill School. Everything seems to remind the viewer that there is no premise yet. The show is a complete mystery, from its strange title on.

Barbara Wright - history teacher - and Ian Chesterton - science teacher - are introduced first. They are the show's protagonists, and will remain so for a good while. With Susan and the Doctor aliens from another time, it is through the teachers' eyes that we will experience these adventures. Their curiosity and some measure of already established friendship is what gets them involved, setting the template for many companions to come. Authority figures by virtue of their positions, they represent a status quo that is contrasted right away by the first shot of the title Child, Susan. Her exotic features and state of reverie as she listens to her music set her apart - a teenger where they are adults, an alien where they are human, a wanderer where they are, for now, sedentary. Susan is just a little bit off, with strange gaps in her otherwise great knowledge, and of course, she appears to live in a junkyard. Their interest is piqued to say the least.

Following Susan to the non-address 76 Totter's Lane, they find the humming TARDIS and finally, the Doctor puts in an appearance at around 12 minutes in. William Hartnell is instantly watchable, evading their questions in true Doctorish manner. He's clever with words, putting the burden of proof on them and daring them to prove their assumptions or get the police. They know they're the trespassers here and can't call his bluff. The Doctor confusing his opponents will become a major tool in his arsenal for the remainder of the show's history, and it starts right here. We're not sure if we should trust this old man, but his smiles and chuckles are endearing, and from his relationship with Susan, we get that he's only trying to protect her.

The real game changer is when Barbara walks into the TARDIS for the first time. We're suddenly in another world, bright where the outside was dark, and with few recognizable touchstones. The roundels on the wall and the center console are now iconic, but seen through Barbara's eyes for the first time, they are completely alien. The direction helps with strange sound cues and sending Barbara much too close to the camera, making it seem like we're reeling as much as she is. The TARDIS benefits from a large set which won't last for production reasons. There's a huge piece on ceiling, and hexagons drawn on the floor, and panels that seem to lead to other parts of the ship. The set will become more contained over time, so as to be easier to put up, and takes less space in the studio. Despite the evidence before her eyes, Barbara plays Scully to Ian's Mulder and refuses to see this as anything more than a conjurer's trick and a "game" Susan plays with her grandfather. Though this scene is constantly in danger of becoming a load of exposition, the tension mounts thanks to the Doctor having two simultaneous conversations, one with the teachers and the other with Susan. When he asks them "What will happen to you?", it's an implicit threat. They've discovered the truth and have placed Susan in danger of becoming a lab rat, and of time travel technology falling into the wrong hands. Is he telling them everything because he knows he can't let them go? It gets sinister when he actually electrocutes Ian with the console. Susan is the controlling influence, and he might have let them go after all if she hadn't turned around and said she wanted to leave with them. Cutting his losses and leaving 1963 London immediately is one thing, leaving his beloved granddaughter behind is something else entirely. And so it's out of love for her and a need not to lose her that he takes off before Ian and Barbara have a chance to disembark.

This first dematerialization is like no other in the canon. Superimposed over the characters' faces, we see the opening title sequence, illustrating ingeniously the time vortex. First is that vertical line - a crack in spacetime? - and then the howlround effect, resolving into a whirlpool which later opening sequences will better tap into. The trip through time is preceded by a zoom-out of London on the scanner, indicating flight is one aspect of the ship's movement. It knocks out Ian and Barbara and has some kind of effect on the Doctor and Susan too, something that won't happen again. The Doctor DID just replace some key component, so perhaps there's an impurity in the spare part that caused this. The first cliffhanger shows the TARDIS is a barren wasteland, the shadow of an unknown individual falling across the landscape menacingly. And yet, can we really claim to grasp a true premise yet? The Doctor may be the title character, but he's been an antagonist up to this point.

Director Waris Hussein keeps the camera remarkably mobile throughout, giving this first episode a modern feel even to these eyes. Yes, there's the occasional bump or shake, but it helps make the story edgier. We don't know where it's going, and neither does the camera. Hussein also includes flourishes like subjective flashbacks from the teachers' points of view and dramatic zooms into and out of situations. In no way is he treating this as an ordinary television program. You may be surprised at how well it's aged.

THEORIES: A few things to look for... The Doctor has long been held to be an anti-establishment character, but was he so from the very beginning? Well, the seeds are there. We have an old man with no fixed abode who uproots two teachers (members of the establishment) to prevent his granddaughter from conforming to 20th century English norms. It'll take a while longer for the Doctor to get actively (as opposed to accidentally) involved in overthrowing repressive regimes, but it's bound to happen. Should expect anything else from a show created by a Canadian, produced by a woman, and directed by an Asian? That off-beat pedigree might be normal today, but in 1963? It was bound to be unlike anything else on the BBC (speaking of the establishment).

Other that that, well, Ian calls the TARDIS "alive", but means "live with electricity", though the word would be prophetic. Susan claims having named the TARDIS from the initials for Time And Relative Dimension(s) In Space, which has caused headaches for continuity cops seeing as the Time Lord culture will eventually be shown to use the term exclusively. I don't see the problem, nor any cause to make Susan one of the inventors. The way she says it, she may simply have taken the Gallifreyan word that means "Time And Relative Dimension(s) In Space", translated it into English and then into an acronym. From here on out, the TARDIS will always translate the Gallifreyan term as "TARDIS". Simple.

Finally, Remembrance of the Daleks will reveal that the Doctor was in 1963 London to hide the fabled Hand of Omega, a star-making Time Lord artifact. If he is, it might retroactively explain why he's so paranoid here. He can't let word get out to the authorities that might leak out to Dalek agents already in the time period. Of course, he doesn't know about the Daleks yet, so let's call them indeterminate, time-active enemy agents for now. The Doctor doesn't seem to mind the TARDIS being spotted in other places and eras, and even lets assorted natives see it dematerialize. Why the change in attitude? Because in this first televised adventure, he's not just stranded while repairs are being made, he's hiding as he completes his secret mission.

VERSIONS: An Unearthly Child was actually preceded by an unaired pilot, using the same script (almost). It's thankfully on the DVD, and it's pretty awesome to compare the two versions. Fixed are a number of bumps and soft focus issues, but it also makes some story telling changes, in particular to Susan and the Doctor's characters. Susan is much more alien and ethereal in the pilot, disconnected from any kind of humanity. There's a really interesting bit where she plays with ink stains and draws a top view of the TARDIS console, replaced by a more simple remark about a history book being wrong (a history book that looks real in the pilot, but has a silly fake dust jacket in the broadcast episode). Her attitude fuels her teachers' curiosity all the more, more alien savant than teenage girl. It's easy to see that the BBC wanted her to be an audience identification figure for younger viewers, but she loses a lot in the process, and embarks on a path that will rob her of her brilliant mind as well. The Doctor has also been softened. In the pilot, he's openly angry at the teachers and even at Susan, making his electrocution of Ian seem much more lethal. In this version, Susan doesn't try to leave or even defend her teachers much. He actively whisks the teachers away, perhaps hoping to strand them where they cant' jeopardize Susan's welfare or history. Again, it's a sensible change, and though this sinister Doctor is mesmeric, he's too much of a villain (he even laughs diabolically). The broadcast episode makes him more confident, even cocky, smiling through the situation as he does, something that's been part of every incarnation of the Doctor since.

The script is pretty much the same until we get into the TARDIS (which suffers technically from very drapey walls). The Doctor and Susan are more specific about their origins, not only coming from another world and time, but the 49th century and from a world that thought of space travel as child's play while humanity was turning the first wheel. Susan's silver vest more overtly says "space people", and there is no mention of their being exiles, cut off from home, nor any of the wistfulness the Doctor exhibits here about one day returning. Also absent is the somewhat silly comparison between the TARDIS and television (both hold bigger worlds inside), though both versions have Susan absurdly talking about space as the fifth dimension (a bizarre claim in a show that's meant to be educational). Speaking of strange dialog, let it be said that Hartnell does not fluff in any version. The first fluff actually goes to Susan in the broadcast version, or to Barbara in the pilot.

REWATCHABILITY: High - Almost 50 years after it aired, An Unearthly Child still works, and New Who fans should really check it out. I bet it'll get you over your concerns about the black and white era being out-dated.

Reign of the Supermen #399: Superman, Created Equal

Source: JLA: Created Equal #1-2 (2000)
Type: ElseworldsCreated Equal postulates a world in which men all died from a passing radiation field. The only male survivors are Superman (Kryptonian DNA seems impervious) and Lex Luthor (protected by sealed armor). The all-female Justice League, led by Wonder Woman, must attempt to rebuild and keep the human race viable. Paradise Island becomes the new capital of the world and the superheroines do as well as the boys ever did (it must help that the male supervillains are all dead though). But I know what you're thinking: How long before Superman is forced to impregnate everyone? Well, first there are obstacles to that. Would male children immediately die? Is a human/Kryptonian pregnancy even viable? Lois proves it is by becoming pregnant, but nothing's ever that easy. Luthor proves that Superman's solar battery cells are acting as a carrier for what they call the "Fall". If he stays, he'll kill newborn boys, and eventually, even women. Kal leaves the planet in search of a cure. After he's gone a year and his baby boy Adam hasn't died from atmospheric radiation, Wonder Woman breaks out the super-sperm:
Not sure how many normal women get to mother one of Superman's children, because it looks like it was all Amazons and superheroines. The nursery, at any rate, is on Paradise Island. Tragedy befalls Lois Lane early on when her 5-year-old hugs her to death. By the time he and the other children are teenagers, they've been turning against their female caretakers, mothers and sisters. Turns out, Luthor has been entering their dreams with a combination of tech and captured female psionics and brainwashing them to turn the world into a patriarchy again. At about the same time, Superman returns with a cure, but one that doesn't work on his too-powerful immune system. Then, the male kids disappear, join Luthor, shave their heads and attack.
After the women have all be captured and disabled, Luthor proceeds to expose his bald army to kryptonite, because guess what, he's got his own baby nursery of full-on humans back at base. Superman, braving two-way exposure, intervenes and finds the kryptonite lowers his immune system enough to cure him from the Fall. He's now harmless to his sons and everyone else. Luthor is defeated and the joke's on him. He has a stroke and can't move or speak, and his kids'll be raised by the matriarchy. Ha-Ha.

Evaluation: A pretty good story from Fabian Nicieza, and gorgeous art from Kevin Maguire and Joe Rubinstein. Worthy of attention.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Your Daily Dose of Doctor Who

Tomorrow is the anniversary of Doctor Who's first episode, aired in 1963, and as planned, it will begin a major journey for Siskoid's Blog of Geekery - daily reviews of each episode, in order, from 1963 to today. Like the Star Trek project that started this blog, it should take about two years. As ever, if you're not a fan, you can still come by for additional, non-Who content. As for Reign of the Supermen, it'll end its daily publishing with #400 this Thursday, and then find itself in its new weekly slot every Saturday. Because plenty more Supermen in the wide world of comics. So before we really get into it, I thought I'd talk about how each Daily Who Review would be structured:

First off, the episode title, a quote I liked from the episode and a picture. A nice, easy opening gambit. Then...

TECHNICAL SPECS: This will tell you what format I'm experiencing it on, which is especially important for the lost episodes. If there are any recreations, either as photonovels or reconstructions available on the Internet, I'll point you in the right direction. I'll also note when the episode originally aired.

IN THIS ONE... A very brief synopsis of the episode, to help you get your bearings.

REVIEW: Where the magic happens. It is my hope that watching the episodes in order, yet with the benefits of almost 50 years of hindsight, will yield some interesting observations and even reevaluations. I must tell you I've already written the first five, and I don't feel like I'm regurgitating reviews I might have read before, which is a load off my mind.

THEORIES: Sometimes, Doctor Who can be ambiguous, especially as the show evolved. Does it all fit into a coherent continuity? And if so, how? This is where we use the benefits of hindsight to explain inconsistencies, ferret out themes that have been evolving over time, and establishing timelines in Doctor Who's messy history.

VERSIONS: Some stories do exist in multiple versions, either edited into full-length movies, or with brand new CGI, or even as influential and different novelizations. This section will examine these, leaving no version of an episode behind.

REWATCHABILITY: The final score, from Low to High, and a brief evaluation. Same thing I used to do for Star Trek. Rewatchability is a value based on both quality and historical importance.

STORY REWATCHABILITY: Episodes are usually part of a single larger story, so this will be an evaluation of the story as a whole, which is how people usually watch Doctor Who anyway.

Note that if any category is irrelevant (Theories, Versions and Story Rewatchability), it will not be included.

So here's hoping you're ready for the next couple years! And more importantly, perhaps, that I'M ready for it!

Reign of the Supermen #398: Age of Wonder Super Man

Source: JLA: Age of Wonder #1-2 (2003)
Type: ElseworldsIn this Elseworld written by Adisakdi Tantimedh, with art by P. Craig Russell and Galen Showman, Superman emerges on the world stage at the 1876 Centennial Exposition, sans secret identity. It changes the whole of human history. You see, our boy Clark is deeply interested in science, probably a genetic trait, and starts using his powers to help inventors like Edison, Tesla and, Mr. production'n'marketing, Lex Luthor.
Drawing some inspiration from holographic reproductions of Krypton, Clark assembles a team of scientists that engineer their own powers, like Ted Grant/Starman, Barry Allen/the Human Flash, and after Clark refuses the gift of a Green Lantern ring from a dying alien, decorated soldier Hal Jordan. Together, they start making discoveries well ahead of our history's, and start to build the Age of Wonder. There is some opposition from mistreated workers led by Green Arrow and the ever-jealous Lex Luthor who comes out of his radium experiments with multiple casualties and sudden hair loss. Eventually, Hal Jordan allies himself with Luthor, believing Super Man's policies are repressive and dangerous, and uses his ring to blast the Man of Wonder far out into space, returning home with a story about Clark's death by comet. By 1911, Luthor is president and World War I has come early. Luthor's sold an atomic bomb to the Germans who have destroyed London, crippling the world's greatest empire. When Hal realizes Luthor's role in this crime, he tries to assassinate Luthor, but is killed by Ms. Luthor (Wonder Woman, oh ick). The ring flies off Hal's finger looking for its replacement GL:
So Super Man, armed with the ring, flies back home to find the world in chaos. With the help of the other heroes, including Batman, the Atom and Wonder Woman herself, Luthor is defeated before he can unleash Tesla's death ray projector. And in the wake of those events, in 1913, the Justice League of Nations is inaugurated.

We can only imagine how the Internet might have been invented in the 1940s. And by 2011? Sky's the limit!