Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Old 52: Thriller

If you haven't read it, it's new to you. Every month I try to supplement the New 52 with a series from the Old 52. Series I've never read, but have always meant to.When it was new: Running for 12 issues in 1983 and 1984, Thriller is the creation of writer Robert Loren Fleming and artist Trevor Von Eeden, though both ended up leaving the book. Fleming left after 7 issues due to "creative differences" to be replaced by Bill Dubay, and Von Eeden left after 8 to work on another project, and replaced by Alex Nino. The book was cancelled due to poor sales.

Premise: That's a hard one to summarize... Set 50 years from now, this pulp/superheroes mish-mash features Angeline Thriller, a disembodied oracle who assembles a team, the Seven Seconds, to fight terrorism. The team includes a synthetic priest, a man with changeable skin, a pilot with acupuncture fingers, a genius who never leaves his car, a Honduran pickpocket, Angeline's brother, a superhuman marksman who has given up on killing, and a new recruit who has just lost his brother to the terrorist Scabbard. The Shadow meets the Doom Patrol, essentially. It has never been collected.

Thrills and spills: There's something immediately, well, thrilling about how experimental and modern Thriller is, but it's not an easy read. Fleming uses the then-new first person narration captions and no thought bubbles or omniscient narration, and structures the work less than chronologically. Meanwhile, Von Eeden's expressionistic style is given free reign, filling the page with unusual panels and scratchy character work. The letters pages, for their part, are filled with comments about how opaque the story and that it's somehow the series' biggest asset. Presumably, the letter hacks were among the few who embraced the confusion, which made the book flounder sales-wise. The flexographic coloring doesn't help Von Eeden' art either - it really needs a more subtle color palette - and it seems that Dick Giordano came on to ink the work on a couple of issues only to clear up the art. And yet, I agree with the letter hacks. There's something to Thriller, even if it is a case of style over substance. Read all in one go, the story's really not that difficult to make out, you just have to pay attention, and Von Eeden is always interesting even if it may not be your bag.
The characters are almost entirely slick and cool, with very strange powers that seem fueled by Buddhism more than anything else. Just getting to find out about them and about this parallel future, is worth the price of admission (at least, in the first 8 issues). All I ever knew of the series before I read it this week is that it had an entry in Who's Who and that Scabbard had appeared in the Giffen/Fleming Ambush Bug #4. He's the focus of the first arc, presented as a satanic terrorist operating in the Middle East. There's enough strangeness in the characters and story telling that this is a fairly straightforward mission for the team. As the series progresses, it gets stranger. A clone of Elvis-in-all-but-name committing crimes. A sentient Internet who wants to die before the Russians use it against America. A nuclear strike on New York that's undone to provide a miracle that will advance society to the next step. And throughout, subplots that explore mysteries surrounding the various characters.

After Fleming and Von Eeden leave, the book becomes entirely more traditional and those issues seem dated as a consequence. It's not the art by Alex Nino, whose style isn't far off from Walt Simonson's, though his panel structures are certainly less experimental (and he's really not as inventive at portraying the various powers and skills). No, it's Bill Dubay's writing, which info-dumps huge amounts of information in purple prosed third-person narration or dialog. Though he has Thriller's brother forced to kill against his will again and again - a worthy character arc - his pacing is off, such as when he has someone announce they have 7 minutes to live, and then jumps into a long sequence that looks at various characters' origin stories. I don't know if he was working from the series bible at that point or trying to inject his own ideas into the work, but ironically, I found it much more confusing that Fleming's issues. The revelations came quick and dirty, and read like Days of Our Lives on acid, and not in a good way. To his credit, he still keeps things slightly surreal and wholly messianic, but the book is now feels dumb down and yet still opaque. At least in the early issues you could see it as a puzzle, open to interpretation. Under Dubay, the book is still a head scratcher, but it's all interpreted for you.

Sadly, before it was cancelled, Fleming and Giffen were planning to do a Special. The stuff that only exists in Borges' or the Dreaming's libraries, eh?

Trade in for one of the New52? The book was too troubled for me to have a coherent opinion about it. The first 8 issues are promising, and certainly the characters are worthy, but the last 4 destroy some of my good will. The ending would have allowed for future stories that never came. I wouldn't mind a revival, though I quake to imagine the recap at the front of THAT book.

Doctor Who #191: The Enemy of the World Part 4

"You can't threaten me now, Benik. I can only die once. And someone's beaten you to it."TECHNICAL SPECS: As with most of this story, this episode is missing from the archives. Yep, it's reconstruction time again. First aired Jan.13 1968.

IN THIS ONE... Fariah is killed and Salamander goes to an underground bunker where he's tricked people into working the earthquake machines thinking there's an atomic war on.

REVIEW: Watling and Hines were on holiday that week, so neither Jamie nor Victoria appear. But then, there's not much Doctor in it either. Once again, the bulk of the episode is given over to guest characters, but the guest cast keeps changing, leaving the viewer with few people to latch onto. After Denes and Fedorin's deaths in the previous episode (and the loss of Griff the doomsaying chef), here we lose Fariah just as she's ready to betray Salamander. She dies a brave death, but alas, it seems like we'll never know her story, what hold Salamander had over her, etc. Benik, an effete heavy introduced in the last episode takes on a bigger role, but he's strictly two-dimensional when compared to other enforcers like Bruce or even the guards who are given lines.

And then there's the introduction of the people who have lived underground for the past five years, thinking there's a nuclear war raging on the surface. They're the ones being manipulated into working some kind of machinery to cause natural disasters where it'll hurt "the enemy" the most, and though Salamander seems to spend a lot of time on the irradiated surface, only their young people want to risk following him up there. What IS this plotline?! It comes out of nowhere and seems like a science fiction plug-in to make a political story a little more Whovian... or a little more Thunderbirds if we imagine the mysterious buzzing scene in which we must imagine Salamander going down to the bunker in some sort of contraption. We've lost even the most basic of visuals for this, but I can't imagine it not feeling like a slice of forever. BUZZZ. BUZZZ. BUZZZ. Gah! And while I'm on the subject of annoyances, I can't really get the other SF conceit of calling places by their Zone designations. It makes Earth feel incredibly small, where the whole of Central Europe is completely undifferentiated and seems only a short drive away from Australia.

And the Doctor in all this? He's still gathering evidence as if he had always been interested in due process, and finding it wanting. These are sum zero scenes, because Fariah dies with her evidence anyway, and Salamander's men know there's an impostor abroad. Aside from Fariah, he's not even given anyone interesting to talk to. Kent is as boring a cipher as they come, and Astrid continues to be the most reckless agent that ever survived a mission, here talking on open coms and needing to be told to turn the scrambler on like it's optional. She's making it much too easy to get her people caught or killed. There's also the matter of the Doctor being asked to assassinate Salamander, as if being his body double actually allows that (and they had their chance when they let Jamie "rescue" him), and of course we know he won't. I suppose it adds a layer of ambiguity that the goodies are just as bad as the baddies, blackmailing the Doctor as they do. Cue another limp cliffhanger and roll credits.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-Low - Fariah gets a good death scene, but this is otherwise more annoying than pleasant. There are definitely more plot holes than there are scenes with any of the regulars.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Batman Inc.: Morrison's Pre-Reboot Book

I'm not sure what's going on in Grant Morrison's New52 books, but after an alt-Earth issue of Action Comics that avoided using the rebooted Superman cast, he's at it again in his first New52 issue of Batman, Incorporated. Is this thing REALLY in the New52?

You may remember that even as the New52 took flight, and even if Batman continuity wasn't entirely rebooted and continued from its pre-Flushpoint storylines, DC decided to publish a pre-reboot Batman Inc. special that collected two unpublished issues of the original series. Batman Inc. is still in continuity post-Flushpoint, but the special did feature the "wrong" Batgirl. So the new #1 is fully rebooted, right?

Wrong. Look at this pieces of dialog:According to the big fella there, not only did the Outsiders exist (Black Lightning's fro-mask is in the clubhouse, but I guess he never worked with the Birds of Prey's Katana?), but Metamorpho was once a member of the Justice League! Didn't anyone get the memo that said the League NEVER accepted another member after their founding? Or is Morrison doing it on purpose, ignoring reboot decisions he doesn't agree with? You'll note this is the only Batman title not doing a Talon story this month. (Is Batwing's appearance, thought dead at the hands of an army of Man-Bats, in line with his own book? I don't even know.)

Sure, Batman's got the New52 costume and there's a reference to goings-on on Batman & Robin, but whose to say those elements aren't ALSO occurring on Earth-1?

Doctor Who #190: The Enemy of the World Part 3

"First course interrupted by bomb explosion. Second course affected by earthquakes. Third course ruined by interference in the kitchen. I'm going out for a walk. It'll probably rain."TECHNICAL SPECS: The one episode from this story that still exists, it can be found in the Lost in Time DVD collection. First aired Jan.6 1968.

IN THIS ONE... Jaime and Victoria are undercover in Salamander's household, where the latter plots to poison various and sundry. This is the one with Griffin the Chef in it.

REVIEW: No reprise to start the only existing episode, so I wouldn't blame anyone for feeling lost, especially since this hardly feels like a Doctor Who story. The Doctor is hardly in it, acting as an analyst waiting for his "agents" to report back in. Jamie, in his fascist uniform, seems quite adult and serious, easily handling both infiltration and gunplay, and even Victoria has an action moment, pushing her trolley into a group of armed guards. Atypical to the point of being off-model. Troughton IS in a good part of it, but as Salamander. It's nice to see part of his performance intact here because the transformation is quite amazing. He does something with his features that creates an entirely different character, one that doesn't quite look identical to the Doctor. His mouth and eyebrows are stiff and pinched as opposed to loose and relaxed when he plays the latter. The fact they look different makes the "doubles" conceit a lot more credible.

Aiding and abetting the idea that this isn't a Doctor Who story is the large cast of guest characters who have a lot more to do than our heroes. Astrid continues to be a reckless action heroine, soon recognized leading to Jamie and Victoria being rumbled by Salamander. Kent is the Doctor's guide, but mostly gets a visit from bullies who break his fine china. Fariah becomes a more interesting character when she admits she helps protect Salamander's life every day quite against her will. She may be one of the angels after all. Bruce as well. He doesn't know what Salamander is up to. There's some nice tension when Denes (aside: DON'T draw attention to the fact he's being held prisoner in a corridor!) eats what we think is a poisoned meal, until Fedorin confesses he wasn't able to spike the lunch, which Salamander sees as an invitation to make him commit "suicide". Well played twists there.

The very special guest-star, however, is Reg Lie as Griffin the Cook, a fun little showcase for a character that won't appear again despite getting several comic scenes. Griff is a culinary genius who genuinely believes his food to be terrible. His negativism is played for laughs, and though he's meant to bounce off Victoria and Fariah, he mostly talks to himself. All part of the wit of the script (which again delivers), and I suppose it's a good thing that a 6-parter's length allows for these kinds of detours. In a story watched as a whole, Griff reads like padding. In singles, watched week to week (or day to day, in my case), he makes the episode. In the same way that's he's not happy with his situation, neither is anyone else. Even Janos the guard takes time off to flirt with Astrid. No one is where they want to be, and Griff is their spokesperson.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - I don't know that it's Doctor Who exactly, but the script is witty and Griffin the Chef deserved a comeback.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

D&D 5th: Staying Classy

Yes. That's a pun.Over the last week, I've been pulled into a number of discussions regarding the concept of classes in Dungeons & Dragons' next iteration. It started at Points of Light, where I questioned the value of dual-classing when secondary classes like Paladin already seemed to be a combination of two core classes (Fighter and Cleric). Then put out an article on multi-classing and how the various classes fit together, and I weighed in quite a lot. Basically...

In the first conversation, I attacked dual-class characters for being a mechanical construct without any story flavor. Conan, for example, could be considered a dual-class Fighter/Thief, but I'd much rather play him as a Barbarian that would not only have abilities akin to those two core classes, but also some that are original to the combined subclass. In the end, I conceded that dual-classing should exist as a measure of things picked up by a character that aren't in its class usually. A Thief who picks up a little magic from a Mage in his party, a Cleric who suffers a crisis of faith and becomes a simple Fighter, etc. 5e could do with a way to trade some class abilities for others, representing a change in focus during training, or even the loss of divine abilities.

And while I think it's fine for mid-course changes - I do want characters to grow beyond the limits of their chargen selves, take advantage of story opportunities, and so on - I think character generation should allow players to create the characters they want from the start and have them be filled with story potential. "Fighter/Cleric" is no an evocative term, whereas Paladin is. The second discussion I got into dealt with just how to handle classes, subclasses and themes.
I would totally go for a streamlined system that featured combo classes with their own role and flavor in the game world, and use the concept of Themes (formerly Kits) to allow for specialization, based on culture or professional focus. Of course, I freely admit I haven’t read a D&D book since 2nd ed. (and I have yet to hear anything about 3-4 ed. that makes me want to “upgrade”. In the last 20 years, I’ve played a lot more games that were essentially of wholly classless. Players create a core concept with whatever abilities they can afford through the point-buy system (usually) and set goals for where they want to take the character, though such plans may change based on stories and opportunities. It can be argued that Classes are a limiting factor on story telling, but they ARE a component of D&D that won’t go away, and can be useful in teaching players how to build characters, balance them, even just know what to pick! However, more experienced players can certainly do more with a more complete and flexible tool kit.

One thing you do get with classless is a complete and satisfying core concept for your character, rather than a framework that requires a lot of play to flesh out. Classes and leveling are great for very regular campaigns, classless for occasional or infrequent play. If you can’t play often, you’ll like a character that can already do the stuff you want it to do. I think 5e may be moving towards more useful/powerful 1st level characters as a way to compensate for this, which is a reality facing more and more gamers (getting older, etc.).

When it comes to story telling, various things have been tried to make Classes more reality-compliant throughout the various editions.
-Multiply the number of classes so that more roles in society are covered (but you’re still stuck in a job all your life)
-Dual-classing (jack of two trades, master of less)
-Thematic overlays that differentiate one member of a class from another more effectively than class multiplication (Kits and specializations)
-The ability to switch gears mid-career (some wonky effects on reality there)
-Leveling up to a super-class with experience, with thematic branching off (Prestige classes)

I might be forgetting some, but which do you prefer?
Part of the problem of classes is their tradition. At some point, the game gave us Clerics and Monks and those character types have been called that ever since, except they are too culture-specific to fit seamlessly in any given campaign world. The Cleric word is fine, but should indicate a priest more than a crusader. Similarly, the Monk should be a martial artist of some kind, or really, a Fighter specialized in hand to hand combat, not a Shaolin Monk. (When I was a kid, I just didn’t get that Friar Tuck was supposed to have all those crazy abilities.) I mean, they didn’t call the Paladin a Samurai, right? Thief is equally problematical - why would the rest of the party hang out with a dishonest man? I think it's passed time the Subterfuge class got itself a more neutral name (Rogue will do) and a new role model. We can all look up to Aragorn for the Ranger, and Gandalf for the Mage, but to compete with those epic heroes, Thieves need abilities that put them in the same league with superspies (like Bond and Bourne) or silver-screen con men and heist masters (like Ocean's Eleven or the cast of Hustle).

I really do think that when it comes to classes, Wizards of the Coast should take a good honest look at what has gone before and ask themselves if they’re really just another class with the numbers filed off. I think Fighting/Magic/Faith/Subterfuge may be very well all you need, and then offer different builds, themes, kits, what have you, for each. And I think I’m being kind to spellcasters by separating Magic and Faith there. I guess I’m an old AD&D2nd GM, but I kind of liked what the game was doing back then. Your basic classes, with a number of secondary classes which you could overlay with Kits and Roles, and/or specialize by School, Sphere, and Deity. At that point, it seemed fairly easy to introduce a new school (like Wild or Elemental Magic), Kit (like Planewalker) or even secondary class (Dark Sun’s Gladiator) based on how the others were built. Easy to build for GMs and Players, and yet the possibility of publishing splatbooks which the gaming companies clearly love to do.

I'm not particularly fond of what they're doing with "Themes" at this point, being mechanical combat roles like Striker, Controller, Healer, etc. Your role in the STORY (as opposed to combat/adventuring) should be chosen first, followed by your role(s) and power source (divine, arcane, etc.). A player shouldn’t want to be a “striker”, he should want to be a Fighter (or really, let's call it the more evocative Warrior) or a Wizard. Then when the GM asks what KIND of fighter he wants to be, he can decide that he wants to be a Tank powered by Inner Strength (or Chi) of whatever. Even games like WoW which essentially popularized the idea of tank-DPS-Buff-Healing etc. schemes made you choose from an evocative class that had different builds.

So my 5th ed. ideal? A layered chargen process that starts with one of the four basic classes (say a Warrior, which sets up most of your stats, leveling goals, etc.), then adds elements such as subclasses (are you a Paladin, a Dire Wolf Rider or a Swashbuckler? these would add color, unique abilities and/or a dual-classing element), and roles (a place in society and personality type). These would in turn lead you to choose appropriate themes (a Priest of a God of War might be more of a Striker than a Healer) and power sources (a Rogue who can shadow-walk through arcane means is much different from one who uses Inner Strength). Note that I make no difference between a subclass like the Paladin or Illusionist and what used to be called Kits like the Myrmidon or Shaman. By starting with core classes that can be infinitely built upon, WotC would leave itself open to creating subclasses for every culture in its supported settings and I'm sure, a variety of spat books. Players would get some of the more popular examples in the Player's Handbook, and a way to create their own. I would love to play a version of D&D where players would be talking about their 1st-level Prophets, Spellsingers and Witch Hunters, rather than their Clerics, Magic-Users and Fighters. No one would be poured in the same mold, which is as near to classless (for experienced gamers at least) as possible, while still retaining the integrity of the class system.

Doctor Who #189: The Enemy of the World Part 2

"What on earth made you take a job as a food taster?" "She was hungry."TECHNICAL SPECS: Missing from the archives, so as usual, a reconstruction was used. First aired Dec.30 1967.

IN THIS ONE... Jamie and Victoria infiltrate Salamander's household, and the Doctor's double prove able to "predict" a volcano eruption.

REVIEW: It's amazing how just a different haircut changes Troughton even when he's playing the Doctor in turn playing Salamander. And though he impersonates the man well enough not to alarm his chief of security, Bruce is still suspicious due to the circumstances. As Salamander himself, Troughton creates a fuller characterization. Salamander is quick to anger and arrogant, and likes to toy with his prey. He makes predictions that come true because he makes them happen, and is quite sinister when he makes his casual pronouncements. I'm kind of disappointed that he appears to be so evil, actually, because until we meet him, it's hard to know if the Doctor and his friends should even get involved, or if they're being played for fools. Salamander plotting a man's death means there's less ambiguity. Still some though. For example, though Bruce seems like a typical heavy, he still expresses shock at the number of people killed in the volcano eruption.

I also remain unconvinced at how the regulars are inserted into this story of political intrigue. Fine, the Doctor is a dead ringer for the target, but they also have Jamie and Victoria infiltrate the household as if they were master spies. In actuality, they're centuries out of date, so it seems doubtful they could carry off an undercover job. Jamie gains Salamander's trust far too easily (with a plan that's reckless like all of Kent's plans, it seems) and then gets his "girlfriend" a job in the kitchens as well. "Girlfriend"? Oh Jamie...

The script continues to impress with its wit and several quotes might have made it to my header. I couldn't bring myself to use the "disused Yeti" joke though. The episode's MVP is Carmen Munroe as Fariah, a rare role for a black woman. She's a servant, but at least she's not mute, quite the opposite. There's something delightfully cruel about how she has Fedorin taste food in her place. Could she as dangerous as Salamander is? Certainly, we should be wary of her taking Victoria under her wing.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - Sometimes feels like another show entirely, just one starring Patrick Troughton in another role, though there are some very good scenes in it.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Suicide Squad: Deathzone

Hey, sometimes you get cool stuff from people who share your interests. This is one of those times.

Michel Fiffe is the writer/artist of Zegas and just the biggest fan of the Suicide Squad. He was kind enough not only to link to my old Retirement Files for the original Ostrander/Yale series (which remain some of the best superhero comics of all time), but to send me a limited edition of Deathzone, a Suicide Squad comic that features an alternate take on Task Force X's repeat engagement with the Jihad (issues 17 through 19). Fiffe only printed 300 of these and is given them away for free if you buy the cover print (check it out). It's a crazy, crazy labor of love, and you know what? It's charming, cool, funny and quite the awesome.

I like Fiffe's drawing style, a lot more fluid and arty than the original comics, which I mean that in a good way with no slight at all to McDonnell and Kesel. Here's a small taste as a slightly spoofed Count Vertigo fights with the Irish child terrorist Badb:
As the characters get pulled into the Deathzone, things get more insane. Strange surreal creatures abound, and while in that other dimension, the characters are depicted as pencil drawings. I love the idea.
While shorter than a normal issue, Fiffe still treats it as part of a series, with pages actually devoted to subplots (the last page really made me smile). The story is never resolved, which is only a shame because it's so much fun to revisit this iteration of the Squad. The comic is printed on high-quality, thick paper, in full color (even some bleed), with a cardboard cover and an essay by Tucker Stone in the back that makes the convincing point that SS was probably the last original superhero comic.

It's all about the love. Fiffe acknowledges he doesn't own these characters, and gives credit where credit is due, in a way that really wouldn't be untoward in today's market. Lookit:
Everybody's credited for every single character and character redesign. There's been a lot of talk lately about the disrespect the Big Two have shown towards past and present creators, so it's quite nice that a fan project takes the exactly opposite course. DC could take a lesson from this particular creator.

For my part, big big thanks to Mr. Fiffe for sending me an issue. I love it to bits.

Doctor Who #188: The Enemy of the World Part 1

"Perhaps we've landed in a world of mad men." "They're human beings, if that's what you mean, indulging their favourite past time. Trying to destroy each other."TECHNICAL SPECS: Of this episodes from this story, only one still exists in the archives. This is not that episode. Reconstruction, here I come. First aired Dec.23 1967.

IN THIS ONE... The TARDIS lands on a beach and soon flee hovercraft gunmen by helicopter. The Doctor is a dead ringer for a world leader called Salamander and one faction wants him to impersonate the man.

REVIEW: After two stories in very cold places, can we blame the Doctor for his playful antics at the beach? Sadly, the episode's comic bits of business, like its action scenes, have been lost to the ages. The former is always a big loss, but the latter, well, you never know. Seems like a LOT of helicopter flying around, really. I suppose if they really had a chopper AND a hovercraft on loan, they had to get some bang for their buck. And bang it goes too, though the 'copter explosion is stock footage. Appropriately, it's from From Russia with Love and there's a definite Bondian vibe here thanks to the specialty vehicles and world stage plotting, though perhaps more importantly, a UNIT era vibe that may or may not have inspired director Barry Letts' direction for the show when he becomes producer only two seasons from now.

Regardless, it's the only story of the season that's not about a base under siege, and a rare monsterless story for Troughton, so it comes as a breath of fresh air. We've had a Doctor double before (the Abbot of Amboise in The Massacre), but this time, the Doctor's similarity with Salamander is actually part of the plot, what drives it, in fact. Troughton is a wonderful character actor, so he gets a chance to show off here, and in the footage of Salamander, adopts a more confident attitude and a Mexican accent. It amuses me that the Doctor is asked to impersonate someone for Astrid and Kent's faction against his will when so many of his stories have featured him as a deft impersonator. He was born to it, considering he can tell which town a man's accent comes from.

David Whitaker provides a witty script that might have worked in a historical context. I don't know what the kids will make of the political intrigue and near future world building, but it agrees with this adult at least (my heart leaps at any mention of Canada, for example). I love how the Doctor plays coy with Astrid about what his doctorate is for, painting himself in a neutral, and therefore nonthreatening, corner. She's a hard woman and the action hero of the piece, and she's got some moves (Mrs. Peel-inspired, presumably). I hope they keep developing her as the Doctor's "handler", as opposed to the more run-of-the-mill Kent.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - We lost a lot when the video was wiped, but we're still left with an intriguing set-up quite unlike what has gone before. Bit heavy on the helicopter shots though.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

This Week in Geek (21-27/05/12)


Oh Amazon sales! Why you make me buy so much stuff? In this case, cheap versions of the first four seasons of Mad Men (people have been on my ass to watch it), the second and third Narnia films, Hellboy II, Last Samurai and Archer Season 1. Oh, and Sherlock Series 2 came out, snapped that up as well.


Books: After getting into A Game of Thrones, I went and decided to read the books (mostly so my co-workers who had were throwing spoilers at me). It's uncanny how much of the first book actually made it on screen (I can already confirm the second is much different from the second season). The chapters read like extended scenes from the show, speaking to an incredible achievement on the part of the adapters. I don't think they're doing as well with Season 2, but that's a discussion for another day. A Game of Thrones is a smooth enough read, but the show's viewers won't get an inordinate amount more from reading it after the fact, except for an enhanced sense of the world's history and a couple of battles never shown for budget reasons.

DVDs: As you may remember, I won our annual Oscar Pool this year and won some 17 movies not of my choosing, and pledged to watch them all before the next Oscars. Unless I want to do that all in one hellish week next February, I've got to pace myself. So this week, I decided to watch as many as I could psychically withstand. Managed four before I hit a wall. So here they are...

Step Brothers was not the worst film I watched this week. It's really not my kind of comedy - gross-out humor, gratuitous filthy language and sketch comedy characterization - and the script is definitely lazy (the two leads play the exact same character, for example, and most scenes were arrived at through improv). Will Farrell and John C. Reilly play 40-year-old slackers still living with their single parent when those parents fall in love and get married, forcing them to share a room. They're almost impossibly childish though they do grow through the movie. It's pretty dumb, but I did wind up enjoying some of the secondary characters and the "fix everything" magical ending, and through it all, there are enough likable actors in it that it's never unwatchable. The DVD includes an improvised musical commentary with at least one hit song in it, and it isn't too bad (might even be better than the film), as well as gag reels, extended and alternate scenes/lines, a music video and a fair making of.

Hancock was not the worst film I watched this week, but it did have tonal problems, never quite understanding if it was a gritty realistic look at superheroes, a black comedy or a dramatic tragedy. Again, it's the likeability if the actors that wins you over, though there is some fine superhero action and effects in there. Will Smith is the world's only(?) superhero, but he's been on a bender for decades, and is more destructive than helpful until he comes in contact with the family of a public relations man played by Jason Bateman and his wife played by Charleze Theron. Superman meets Bad Santa meets Arrested Development. I'm even interested in the sequel that's in pre-production. The DVD provides making of featurettes on the story, pre-viz, stunts and special effects, as well as gag reel-type montage on director Peter Berg's antics around the set.

Spice World was not the worst film I watched this week either, even in its full screen version. A Beatles-style, essentially plotless excuse for a super-group to sing its songs, Spice World doesn't try to be anything more than what it is, and manages a number of fun set pieces and loads of cameos from British personalities. It's silly, not stupid, and the girls have a sense of humor about themselves (Posh and Baby have the best comedy potential). It even gets cleverly meta towards the end. Cute and harmless and kind of makes me want to see what other bands would have done with the concept. My choice of bands would probably have created some insane box office failures though. The DVD includes an encore from the Spice Girls' show.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull WAS the worst film I watched this week. And one of the worst things I've been subjected to in recent years. Of course I knew its reputation, and I'd long since decided NEVER to see it. But there it was in my Oscar pile. Indy 4 is what no Indiana Jones movie ever should be - it's BORING. As my friend Furn says (and he should know since he's the one who got RID of the movie and put it in the Oscar pile to begin with), it is aggressively trying not to be an Indiana Jones picture. George Lucas' intent is spelled out in the "Return of a Legend" featurette - seeing as Indy in the 30s was in a genre of that era - the pulp serial - then an older Indy in the 50s should be in a genre of THAT era, i.e. the science fiction B-movie. As with the Star Wars prequels, Lucas shows a complete misunderstanding of what made the first films interesting and popular. Just wrong-headed and awful on every front, with a tired-looking Harrison Ford playing second fiddle to rebel without a cause Shia LeBoeuf in a variety of dull action pieces not the least bit grounded in reality. Look, if Indy can survive an atomic blast and Shia can be Tarzan and swing with the monkeys, then literally anything can happen and I'm not gonna feel any kind of tension. Even the DVD is badly put together, with this one-disc version having origin and pre-production featurettes, obviously just orphaned from a fuller package, though I'll cherish "Return of a Legend" as I do the making ofs on the SW prequels as further evidence of George Lucas not knowing what he's doing. It's actually hilarious how Steven Spielberg tries to distance himself from the turkey he just directed. So after this one, I was too frustrated and depressed to watch another movie from the pile, I think you'll understand.

Return of the Bastard Swordsman was not from the pile, but rather our Kung Fu Friday collection, the sequel to, you guessed it, The Bastard Swordsman, in which the Bastard's Silkworm style finally goes up against the evil dude with the Fatal Skill. It's a bit unfortunate that the sequel isn't anywhere near as insane as the first film, but there's still a good deal of magic chi going on, and as in Bastard 1, you can't get to the main villain until you've beaten a secondary baddie, this time a crew of Japanese samurai and ninja. The craziest thing in the movie, however, is the super-fortune teller who sees portents in everything (and is always right). It's hilarious at first, and eventually wears thin, but I can't argue it isn't original and fun.

RPGs: More chargen for my upcoming Hong Kong Action Theater role-playing. Furn has crafted a former wrestler based heavily (yes, that's a kind of pun) on Bolo Yeung called Louie Zhuang, a good contender for Toad-type roles, and if I know Furn, he'll make him a lovable lummox. The fictional career he's already given him is already tons of fun. That bio's on the site already.

Hyperion to a Satyr posts this week:
III.ii. Critical Reception - Branagh '96

Doctor Who #187: The Ice Warriors Part 6

"What are your qualifications for existence?"TECHNICAL SPECS: As it's not yet on DVD, back to the Internet for viewing. First aired Dec.16 1967.

IN THIS ONE... The Ice Warriors are defeated when someone finally makes a decision and uses the ionizer on them.

REVIEW: The base personnel simply can't take the computer's waiting game, and there's dissension in the ranks as the conflict between true, intuitive humans and circuit board-clad logicians flares up. Clent is a man on the cusp of throwing off the computer's shackles, but ultimately unable to break protocol. I'm sensing a generation game here. Miss Garrett puts all her faith in the computer, but the older Clent might remember a time when computers weren't so infallible. As we find out in the last scene, he's always written his reports himself without help from the machine. As crazy as it sounds, Clent is a traditionalist within his computerized society. There's a sort of desperate bravery to him when he confronts the Ice Warriors and smiles when they let slip the ionizer could destroy their ship. But once all the data has been accumulated, he hits a wall and can't commit to taking a big risk. Even after the decision is made by others, he freaks out much as the computer did. It seems neither were programmed for this extraordinary set of circumstances.

It's up to Penley, the true man, to do something. There are some random heroics (raising the temperature, revealing a second Ice Warrior weakness, and an odd one for reptilians), but he's also the hero in the real climax, which is all about choosing to take a risk. He pretty much paraphrases Captain Kirk's "Risk is our business" speech, and the theme blossoms - in his ability to gamble, Man can both fail disastrously or succeed beyond anyone's hopes, something the sum zero mind of a machine cannot do.

While that's a lesson for the humans of the 51st century, it's par for the course with the Doctor who is always taking risks. In this episode, he fires a sonic blast at the base, intuiting that the Ice Warriors will be more gravely affected than the humans, though admits it could kill them all. It takes Victoria to remind him that Jamie's in there, but it doesn't change the plan. It works, but the Ice Warriors wake up before the humans do, which means his intuition was actually wrong. And poor Victoria! For some reason, Deborah Watling couldn't be there to film the final scenes, so she becomes an off-screen voice told to get back to the TARDIS just before the climax. Not that she would have had much to do going by what Jamie was given. In the end, it's really more about Clent and Penley, and they get the final scene, a rather sweet one where they come to terms with each other. It's probably the best scene of the entire serial, and the regulars have nothing to do with it. Ah well.

THEORIES: Another step closer to the sonic screwdriver as the Doctor modifies the Ice Warriors' sonic cannon and explains its principles to Victoria. We're very close to a pocket version now.

VERSIONS: In the Target novelization, the computer is called ECCO and is treated as a character readers can empathize with.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - Making the climax about the humans vs. the machine as much as it is about the Ice Warriors carries the theme to term, and there are some great scenes featuring the guest cast. I just wish our heroes had a less peripheral role to play.

STORY REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - The Ice Warriors are introduced, the production values are high, and the theme of man vs. machine is reasonably well explored. High marks to Mr. Barkworth who makes Clent more than Just Another Base Commander(TM). I hope New Who brings back the Ice Warriors soon so BBC World has a reason to animate the two missing episodes and put the story out on DVD.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Reign of the Supermen #423: Novel's Superman

Source: The Adventures of Superman by George Lowther (Applewood Books, 1942; reprint 1995)
Type: BookI've never read it, so here are some second-hand sources:

From Library Journal (via Amazon): This novel was first published in 1942 to cash in on the man of steel's popularity in comics as well as on radio for which Lowther was a scriptwriter. Superman has proved a hero for all ages and is almost as popular today as he was 40 years ago. The character is still featured in comics and is fodder for feature films, TV cartoons, and a weekly TV series. Though originally written for a young adult audience, this is probably a little too sophisticated for today's youth and will probably find a wider readership among adults who enjoyed Superman as kids. This also contains color and black-and-white illustrations. A great piece of Americana.

From Amazon reviewer Chris Cho: This novel is full of exciting action, yet it is also meaningful because it lets the reader know what is going on in Clark's head during all this. I think it is important in all books to let the reader know what is happening in the minds of the characters in addition to their environment. My favorite part of the book was when Clark discovered his first super power, x-ray vision, when he was 13 years old. At first it was of course awkward and maybe a little scary for him. But when he learned to control it, it became very useful. This part of the book was exciting because this was when Clark found out he was from a different planet. This is when the book picks up speed and starts to get even more exciting!

And an interesting historical note from Wikipedia: In his 1942 novel, George Lowther changes the names Jor-L, Kal-L and Lora (Superman's birth mother) to the more modern Jor-El and Lara.

If you've read it, tell us about it!

Doctor Who #186: The Ice Warriors Part 5

"There's no hope." "You mean hope happens to be inconvenient."TECHNICAL SPECS: Still not out on DVD, the Internet provides. First aired Dec.9 1967.

IN THIS ONE... The base agonizes over using the ionizer or not in case it makes the Ice Warriors' nuclear reactor blow. Jamie is dragged back to the base as bears attack. And the Doctor stinkbombs the Martians.

REVIEW: The two MVPs of the episode are the Doctor and Clent once again. I love how the Doctor walks into the Martian ship and tries to slip right out when he sees how big the Ice Warriors are, only to then start to dictate terms. Ultimatums fly and we're left not really knowing who has the biggest hand in this poker game. The Doctor has the ionizer on his side, which could either free the Martian ship or destroy it. The Ice Warriors have Victorian hostage and the potential for assured mutual destruction on theirs. Of course, the Doctor has another card up his sleeve, a stinkbomb that acts as Ice Warrior kryptonite. (Some may chuckle at Who monsters because they all seem to have a sort of every day weakness, but it's a device that's ultimately important in a series where the characters are essentially non-violent.) He's also got Victoria who for the second time in this serial subverts the way SF/horror heroines are used. She's still screaming and whimpering, but here it's to cover the Doctor's planning. Doctor Who girls are expected to act like this, but Victoria turns it into an advantage.

Leader Clent's girl Friday is Miss Garrett, who seems to almost worship the computer and gives herself over to it completely. That makes her far less interesting than Clent himself who does much the same, but is clearly fighting an impulse not to. He realizes the computer is playing for time by not acting, putting its own survival before the success of the mission (and the fate of Earth). It's going all HAL 9000 two years before A Space Odyssey comes out. Clent is smart enough to know this, and yet remains paralyzed (and is it any coincidence that Barkworth's portrayal gives Clent a stiff, limping gait?). He's a man who's never learned to make big decisions without having all the facts and doesn't take naturally to it. In the same way that he gets opposition from his staff when he even tries to, part of his paralysis is because he's afraid of what his superiors and the world will think of him. He's a man isolated, awkward with the social niceties, and I can't help but see a parallel between Miss Garrett putting her hand fondly on the computer, and Clent's total freak-out when Penley and Jamie touch him.

Director Derek Martinus adds an extra layer of technical achievement with things like the Ice Warrior crosshairs effect (how'd they do that at the time?). And the film sequence in which Jamie is dragged through the snow looks they went out and shot it on location. It adds a lot to convince us Britain is buried under ice and snow, especially now that we're used to the base, ship and ice tunnel sets. Remarkably, the sequence with their bear was shot especially for this and isn't stock footage (nor does it look dropped in like stock). Sure, you can tell it's just a baby and there's no direct interaction with the actors, but it's still a great little bit, well integrated into the episode.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - Another great chapter, well acted and produced. Like the computer, it's playing for time, but finds set pieces that hardly make us notice.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Kung Fu Fridays in June 2012: Kung Fu World Tour

Tonight, we sit down with Return of the Bastard Swordsman, and it will be EPIC. Next month though? I've decided to do a Kung Fu World Tour spanning 5 Fridays and 2 special Saturday events, and as many as 6 countries and 12 films. See for yourself:

Mongol (Russia) - You know him as Hogun from Thor. If your cinema culture goes a bit wider, you might now him as Ichi the Killer. In June, Tadanobu Asano is Genghis Khan! And he rises! In Mongolian! I think that's enough to feature him on this month's poster.

Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior (Thailand) - The movie that made an international star out of Tony Jaa! We've played Ong Baks 2 and 3, but I was having the hardest time getting my hands on a copy of the first movie with a Thai soundtrack (no dubs if we can avoid it, that's the rule). The wait is over.

El Mariach-a-thon (Mexico) - Don't try to tell me Hong Kong cinema wasn't a major influence on Robert Rodriguez' action aesthetic! I've been wanting to watch the Mariachi trilogy again, and this theme is the perfect excuse. It's a special KFF special event on a Saturday: Back to back presentations of El Mariachi, Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico.

Black Dynamite (U.S.A.) - The plan was always this: Show a couple of Black Belt Jones pictures to set the table, then serve up Black Dynamite, Scott Sanders' tribute/pastiche of every Blaxploitation hit. Never seen it either.

Three Outlaw Samurai (Japan) - I've represented Japan with a black and white Hideo Gosha samurai picture, courtesy of the Criterion Collection. Been a good while since we've had a chambara film too.

Shaolin Hand Lock (Hong Kong) - "A Kung Fu technique so lethal they named the movie after it!" Flying Guillotine's director Ho Meng-Hua promises some crazy martial arts and motorcycle stunts (it says here).

Fighting Game-a-thon (U.S.A.) - A couple weeks ago, the boys suggested we spend an entire month on movies based on fighting games, I thought HELLS NO! First, I'm not spending that long a time away from Asia, which is the main focus of these little movie nights. Second, they're almost universally bad! BUT! Let it ever be said I am not a merciful and attentive host. We end the month with a day of fighting game movies AND the games that inspired them! That's right. Not only will we watch 4 such films - Mortal Kombat, Tekken, D.O.A. and Streetfighter: The Legend of Chun-Li - but we'll also be playing a tournament consisting of each of those games. We already know who wins. I'll be in the kitchen baking cookies with the girls after the first round.

It's a big month, and if you're not in the club, you can look forward to capsule reviews on each following This Week in Geek column.

Doctor Who #185: The Ice Warriors Part 4

"Doctor, if you go to the warriors you'll be their prisoner." "Their guest I hope, Jamie."
TECHNICAL SPECS: Because the DVD still isn't out, I've used the Internet for my watching needs. First aired Dec.2 1967.

IN THIS ONE... Victoria escapes from the Ice Warriors and screams up an avalanche that kills her pursuer.

REVIEW: The big set piece in this episode, shot on film and everything, is Victoria's escape through natural tunnels between the advancing glaciers, and it's a great little sequence. The camera looks like it was cramped into various nooks and crannies, and there's real depth to the set. That bobble-headed Ice Warrior chasing Victoria can be seen coming from way in the back, while we stay on Victoria's beautiful - and terrified - face. The geography keeps changing and the ceiling collapsing in on the characters, as Martinus creates the effect in several ways, including one interesting shot where you can actually see the ceiling. And it's fun to think Victoria's screams are responsible for the cave-in that buries her pursuer. She really does have the most useful scream in Doctor Who! Too bad stupid, stupid Storr has to ruin all her hard work by bringing her right back to the Ice Warriors.

Speaking of which, this is the first episode where we can see the Ice Warriors in motion. Disappointing mouth movement, their lips fixed in a single expression and not successfully moving in every shot. However, the actors in the suits try and keep some animation going, and manages a couple of reptilian tics, like a turtling gesture that sinks their heads into their torso, and hard swallowing that evokes mice going down a snake's gullet. The speaking Ice Warriors look cool, but the minions, with their giant helmets, are rather silly. I should mention the ship as well, which is an odd mix of technical and organic, not unlike the Warriors themselves. Organic rounded shapes on the walls and door give way to square screens and humanish gauges.

Though Victoria is most definitely the featured character, it doesn't mean the others don't get to do anything. Poor Jamie comes close, effectively paralyzed from the waist down by the sonic weapon (that boy isn't out of the woods yet!). The Doctor aims to extend the Warriors an olive branch and has a small comic bit when he uses the dial-a-chemical to get a simple glass of water (well that's a silly machine!). Clent experiences a deep anxiety at the mere thought of having to make an intuitive decision. And one of his opposite numbers, Storr, dies at the end of a pointy sonic stick. I'm not sad about it. In an ensemble of mostly interesting characters, he was the broad, even silly, exception. The problem is that he's too extreme. He's against science, I get it, but he's BLINDLY against it. Everything he hates is "scientifically designed" as if his shelter (an old plant museum) wasn't, and he's ready to throw in with the Ice Warriors just because they're against the base's ionizer, no questions asked. He wasn't a character, he was an opinion made flesh and given an annoying voice. Thanks, Varga.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - The key sequence looks really good (with only one choreography flub), but does get us away from the story's main theme, which is by and large what's most interesting about it. And of course, it's all undone as the dreaded "middle episode" syndrome rears its ugly head.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

What Is Ramona the Chimp's Best Movie?

There can only be one.

Doctor Who #184: The Ice Warriors Part 3

"Science! Och, it wasn't science, it was just good plain doctoring."TECHNICAL SPECS: The other episode missing from the archives. I've thus used a reconstruction (Part 1, Part 2). First aired Nov.25 1967.

IN THIS ONE... The Ice Warriors seem to kill Jamie before Victoria's eyes, while the Doctor works out math problems for Clent back at base.

REVIEW: I really like those title card sequences, all ice and snow, and under it, remember, that's Britain! The incidental music in the episode is dirge-like, mournful, a reference as much to the frozen Earth as it is for dead Mars. But it's the performances that maintain a tense, desperate atmosphere best of all. Deborah Watling makes us believe Jamie has really been zapped dead by the Ice Warriors (along with Arden), just by her reaction. Even after he is rescued by Penley, and Victoria has reason to believe he might have survived, she's still sobbingly finds a way to speak through pure fear. She's so effective, she had me feeling quite bad for her. Clent is also quite effective, understanding of Arden's disobeying of his orders, and embarrassed to tell him so. He's a man playing an important role, but a man nonetheless. The bureaucrat is just a job, if one he takes very seriously. Everyone's on edge in this though, even the Doctor, petulantly insulted that Clent feels the need to double-check his math with the computer.

If the Doctor is more of a pencils and paper man than a computer geek, Penley and Storr are downright technophobes who gave all that up. I don't know if it's my 21st-century brain reading too much into it, but am I the only one who sees Penley and Storr as Doctor Who's first gay couple? There seems to be a hint of that in that Penley has chosen an alternative lifestyle that his colleagues don't accept or understand. I'm ok with a completely platonic reading of the two men's living arrangements, of course, but it did make me wonder if the writer or director (or actors) saw it. In any case, Penley is the spokesman for the story's theme, and an eloquent one, condemning Bureaucrat Clent in particular, even though Barkworth's performance asks us to take a critical look at Penley's statements. And I kind of love that his surname is Elric. It speaks to the kind of counter-culture, hippie thing they're going for with this character. Plus, being called Elric is just badass.

A final note: The Doctor almost blurts out that he's not human, the clearest on this he's ever been. But we're still at the hint phase, and I can't believe it'll still a season and a half before the term "Time Lord" comes up. The Doctor Who team have obviously decided this is the case, but they're playing things close to the vest.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - Dripping with tension, even without the video. Had I seen it back in November of '67, it would have made me think Jamie had really bought it for a few minutes there. Scary!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Dial H for Hydrology

Only three new characters to finish up Adventure Comics #481, which isn't much, so I thought I'd give you some bonus content. Namely, what are the rules surrounding the submission of a character for inclusion? Well, it's not too far from the deals comics pros seem to make with DC all the time (click to embiggen):DC covers all its bases in this typical contract. The characters are theirs. You get payment (a cool t-shirt). Writers and artists may change the characters in any way they see fit. If a character looks a lot like yours but is credited to someone else, well, that's just too bad, don't call us and we won't call you. They can use the character again without giving compensation. They don't return your original art. You have no rights, they have every right. It's Before Before Watchmen.

But if they WERE going to re-use your characters, could they? That's what this little series is all about.

Case 25: Adventure Comics #481
Dial Holders: Chris and Vicki
Dial Type: Watch and Pendant Dials
Dialing: No new information.
Name: Volcano (classic, if a little ordinary)
Created by: Fraser Cole, age 12, of Grand Haven, Michigan
Costume: A dead ringer for the original Kid-Flash, Volcano uses the same mask design and color scheme. The large arrow going upward on his torso is a highly designed volcano and he's got round pieces on his gloves, boots and ears... evocative of a volcano's mouth?
Powers: For a hero dresses in fiery colors, Volcano doesn't seem to have much in the way of heat or lava. He can control the earth, which manifests as the creation of rough stone structures that don't actually look like they're coming out of the ground. He creates them using an energy beam that also seems to be able to throw rocks as missile weapons. He can fly.
Sighted: In Fairfax harbor, allowing himself to be captured by the Aquarians so he can defeat them in their underwater base.
Possibilities: Volcano is the kind of elemental character that usually fits easily enough in a team like the Teen Titans or the Global Guardians (maybe make him a hero in a country known for its volcanoes?).
Integration Quotient: 15% (not the most coherent of designs, he would need a major costume and powers make-over before even getting a single Hawaiian island to protect)
Name: Stellar (while adjectives are good as book titles, they don't quite work at character names)
Created by: Omar Navarro Gutierrez, age 10, address unknown
Costume: Bit embarrassing. Stellar's black bathing suit features a flash of light at the crotch sending a star into her chest. I also dislike the mask, which is rather unflattering, and how it seems to turn her stylized hair into a horned helmet. The stellar flashes on her gloves, boots and bracelets are overkill.
Powers: Stellar controls air, which manifests usually as a blast of energy from her hand. She can fly, make enemies pass out from air deprivation, create localized tornado winds. and even propel a ship into orbit. She was also able to deflect an energy blast from an Aquarian ship using only air. So... what does any of that have to do with her name?
Sighted: In Fairfax harbor, allowing herself to be captured by the Aquarians so he can defeat them in their underwater base.
Possibilities: She might work as a mysterious figure from outer space, though her elemental link to the air would seem to say no. Fine, I'll make her one of the New Gods, defender of planetary atmosphere everywhere.
Integration Quotient: 5% (name and costume don't work, and they're half the game in this business)

Bonus SupervillainName: Largo (a perfect water-monster name)
Created by: Tom Douge, age 18, of Seatle, Washington
Costume: Largo doesn't wear much, just an orange strap with the seal of his people, and a belt to hold his gun. No shorts for Largo! But he has a distinctive reptilian look anyway, with green scales, a huge dorsal and facial fins, and a thick toad-like face and body.
Powers: While he's not a giant as depicted in the splash panel above, Largo looks like a tough customer anyway. He has access to Aquarian technology, including a two-barreled laser gun and a pimped-out submersible flying saucer. Before Largo took command, his people also proved able to create a devastating rain storm and turn a normal woman into a supervillain. Presumably, Largo and his people are naturally amphibious.
Sighted: In Fairfax harbor. After the Aquarians failed twice to make a show of force in the town so they could take Earth as their new planet, Largo the Invincible, their greatest warrior, took command with his own plan to first destroy Fairfax's resident superheroes. He fails miserably.
Possibilities: Largo and the Aquarians could return to pester Aquaman. Why invade all of inhabited Earth when you only really need its oceans? A base in the Florida Keys seems destined.
Integration Quotient: 20% (alien races come and go, but usually go)

Next ish, some of the coolest designs yet! (I know, the bar is set pretty low.)

Doctor Who #183: The Ice Warriors Part 2

"The trouble with Clent is that he's not a proper scientist, he's an organiser. He should've been born a robot."TECHNICAL SPECS: The first of two missing episodes from the 6-parter. I've had to use a reconstruction (Part 1, Part 2). First aired Nov.18 1967.

IN THIS ONE... Varga the Ice Warrior wakes, takes Victoria hostage and starts to free his men from the ice.

REVIEW: It had started out so well, it's really a shame we're already into missing episodes again (4 through 6 still exist, I'm thankful for that). As we get to know the guest characters, the theme of technology vs. nature is solidified. Clent is described as essentially soulless and limited, and the man gives up his decision-making power to a computer. He puts no trust in human beings unless he has to, and even then, has been disappointed every time. The individualistic Penley makes the point that Clent isn't creative because he's an organizer, not a scientist, which is a very Doctor Who thing to say. Science is not the enemy (because the Doctor is all about science); technology is, or at least, automation and the replacing of human beings with machines. Perhaps that's why the Ice Warriors look to be cyborgs - like the Cybermen and Daleks, they've sacrificed their "humanity" on the altar of progress. And there's more extreme than Penley in the form of Storr, a technophobe scavenger Penley is nursing back to health after the events of the previous episode. I'm already sick of his nasal voice and accent, but he's strongly linked to the story's theme, so I'll grin and bear it.

Varga the Ice Warrior is a fearsome specimen, showing the virtue of casting short actors in the regular roles. He's HUGE next to Victoria, and we know Jamie and the Doctor aren't much taller. "Ice Warrior" is our term, coined by the men who found Varga in the ice (and by the title), but they're really Martians - a notion that seems at once retro and bold. Trapped in ice during the first Ice Age, Mars can be a barren wasteland and still allow for an older civilization to have thrived there. Varga does a lot of hissing, possibly because the atmosphere isn't well suited to him more than because he's reptilian. And Deborah Watling once again proves she's quite good at showing terror in her voice.

It's sweet how Jamie keeps thinking of Victoria while the guest cast care only about their project, and the Doctor about a potential alien threat. He and Penley are the voices of true humanity, concerned with their fellow man/woman, but somewhat oblivious to the bigger picture. Clent and the Doctor's concerns are important ones, globally important, but in a human drama, we may well care more for the characters we come to know. The episode offers a debate on its theme, not an editorial.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - While it continues to explore its theme with maturity, the missing video means we're missing the nuanced acting of the opening chapter.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A Probably Unnecessary Guide to Comic Book Guy's FCBD Cover

The recent Free Comic Book Day issue of Bongo Comics Free-for-All has this terrific cover with the Comic Book Guy wearing a number of geek-worthy costumes.But maybe you're not as big a geek as he is and you're wondering who each of those identities are! Here's a handy guide - help me complete it:
1. Flash (Wally West - oooh, subversive!)
2. Spock (not Mirror Universe Spock, the beard is incidental)
3. Darth Maul
4. Doctor Octopus (movie version)
5. A Ghostbuster
6. Mister Incredible
7. Dr. Zaius
8. Doctor Who (Tom Baker)
9. A d20
10. A mummy
11. Tintin
12. Jabba the Hutt
13. No.6 (the Prisoner)
14. Bizarro Superman #1
15. Dr. Evil and his Mini-Me
16. Pinhead
17. Devo
18. Astro Boy
19. Green Lantern (Hal Jordan)
20. Bluto
21. Captain Kirk (from the episode Amok Time)
22. Lion-O of the ThunderCats
23. Batman (what is that variant with the shoulder things?)
24. Comic Book Guy (an icon unto himself!)

As you can see, I got stumped myself on number 23. Help me complete the list? Thanks.

Doctor Who #182: The Ice Warriors Part 1

"Then suddenly, one year, there was no spring."TECHNICAL SPECS: One of 4 episodes that still exist from this 6-part story, it has not yet been released on DVD, but can be found on the Internet. I've listened to the Lost Episodes narrated audio CD release fairly recently, but this will be my first time SEEING it. First aired Nov.11 1967.

IN THIS ONE... The TARDIS lands in the future where glaciers have advanced on Britain and a strange alien warrior has been found in the ice.

REVIEW: After the introduction of the Yeti, the introduction of the Ice Warriors. An important three months at the heart of Season 5, then. And though we superficially have the same "base under siege" set up we've seen many times before now, each one feels very different. With the Ice Warriors, it's in part thanks to the music. The siren song reminds me of Star Trek, of all things, and its melody is mirrored in the base alarm! It's a strange juxtaposition, but not the only one. The high-tech computer (with its strange and not always easy-to-understand voice - the Mechanoids' descendent?) is housed in a contemporary manor, while a futuristic shelter has bearded men in skins coming out of it. It's the theme of man versus nature I've always known this story to be about, but showcased in ways I didn't. Synthetic sound vs. voice; over-designed uniforms vs. pelts; and the Doctor's brain vs. the computer's. And of course, central to the plot, weather control technology (the ionizer MacGuffin) vs. a new Ice Age. Are the Ice Warriors supposed to represent what could happen to humanity? One is found trapped in ice, nature's victim, and as we'll discover, these guys are advanced enough that we can't tell where their bodies begin and their cybernetics start.

So as a set-up, it works and has depth, but thankfully, the characters are well served too. For the regulars, this means some comic bits of business, stress relief after the end of the previous adventure. The TARDIS lands upside down, sliding down a slope, and the crew have to climb out of them (again with the 2nd Doctor references in the 11th Doctor stories!). Jamie's knee crushing the Doctor's hand. Jamie finds the future fashion style quite sexy, while Victoria finds it too revealing (not sure why), so Jamie lasciviously asks if she would ever wear something like that. He's a coarse boy and she's a proper lady, but I'm surprised people don't make more of this when they start discussion hanky-panky in the TARDIS. In the guest cast, Peter Barkworth as Clent is a revelation (though other performances are good and nuanced as well). Stiff base commanders are a dime a dozen, but Clent intrigues me more than others have. It's like he's stifling his inner life. He asks questions, but quickly moves on before answers are given. His time is too precious for answers. He's got a computerized schedule to keep to. The Doctor intrigues him, and you can tell he wants to know more, but he always reigns it in in favor of his regimented duties. Clearly, it's not really working for him. His men just want to have fun and he's losing control. The Ice Warrior isn't the only guy that needs to be thawed.

There are missteps, such as the heavy exposition in the middle of the episode (just how long does Clent think the Doctor was in his Tibetan retreat that he feels he must explain all of recent Earth history?), the hogwash science, and the callousness of the guys who laugh off the death of a man. Otherwise, lots of cool little things. The show is still experimenting with its title cards. The wind and snow are rather well realized and cut together more seamlessly than usual with stock footage. The body tumbling in the avalanche. World building that includes, for example, the role of Africa during this glacial era. Victoria thinking all scientists are the same, as she did grow up around them after all. Director Derek Martinus and writer Brian Hayles are on their way to both outdo themselves.

THEORIES: So WHEN is this? The Talons of Weng-Chiang may provide the answer this serial refuses to give. In that later story, the Doctor refers to an Ice Age around the year 5000, and Magnus Greel apparently comes from the 51st-century. As in this story, where Africa has taken on a certain political or functional importance, Talons talks about the Philippines. This is all of particular interest because it is also Captain Jack's home era.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - New monster, strong thematic underpinnings, subtle acting, and actual character moments for the regulars. Shame about the science, but this is a recurring problem in Doctor Who.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Victoria Day by Any Other Name, or Why Are French-Canadian Heroes Such Losers?

For most of the Commonwealth, today is Victoria Day, a paid holiday set aside to celebrate the monarch who gave us Sherlock Holmes, werewolf-killing diamonds and GURPS Steampunk (hey, you celebrate your way, and I'll celebrate mine). Of course, for French-Canadian members of the Commonwealth, it's kind of a sore point to pay tribute to an English icon. Not that I personally care, but as an Acadian, that means bowing down to the crown that ordered the Great Deportation of 1755 (obviously, that's not Vicky's fault, but still). And for Quebeckers, well, they dislike anything English as a matter of course. Result: In Quebec - and by extension the rest of French Canada - have replaced Victoria Day with the Feast of Dollard des Ormeaux, named after a great patriot and French Canadian hero. Who is he?
Revisionist history claims he was actually a pirate, but they're just trying to make him cooler. The story goes that this 17th-century settler/soldier took part in New France's own Alamo, the Battle of Long Sault, where fewer than 20 patriots holed up in a stockade held off some 700 Iroquois warriors for several days before being quite massacred indeed. The Iroquois for "reasons unknown" chose not to advance to the next outpost. I think I know the reason: They were laughing their asses off. Because here's the twist:

Apparently, or so the legend goes, as they held off the "savages", Dollard had a brilliant idea. He crafted a dirty bomb with a powder keg and threw it outside the walls of the stockade, hoping to kill and disperse the Iroquois. However, the damn thing bounced off the branches of a tree and fell back into the camp, killing everyone. Slow clap. Even if it didn't really happen that way, it hardly matters, because that's how it is recounted and that's why he got a holiday (and towns, and streets) named after him. Thus Dullard joins the ranks of absurdly-celebrated French Canadian Failure Figures, along with Manitoba's Louis Riel (hanged for being a half-breed!), Acadian hero Beausoleil Broussard (domestic terrorist!), and all the deported martyrs of the 18th century which the world knows mostly through Longfellow's Evangeline (they didn't fight back!). Stories of loss and failure. At least Davy Crockett didn't die by his own hand.

My theory is that it's because we're from Catholic stock, raised to think of sacrifice (death on the cross) as the ultimate heroic act. Different Christian faiths focus on different aspects of the story, but Catholicism, with its suffering saints and martyrs, which you can somehow pray to in a distorted kind of polytheism, hammer home the lesson about sacrifice. Who was responsible for making Dollard des Ormeaux a star? Who told his story after his death? Catholic nuns, that's who.

Queen Vic or martyred patriots? You be the judge. It's too lazy a day for me to do so.

Doctor Who #181: The Abominable Snowmen Part 6

"Brave hearts will not suffice for this battle."TECHNICAL SPECS: Missing from the archives. Consequently, a reconstruction was used. First aired Nov.4 1967.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor enters a contest of wills with Padmasambhava, allowing his friends to smash up the Great Intelligence's equipment. The Yeti - and the mountain! - blows up.

REVIEW: What's odd about this serial is that there really isn't a tangible villain. The Great Intelligence is this great bit abstraction, even as it is made flesh, and everyone acting badly is either its pawn, misguided, or a fluffy beeping robot. The characters are quick to forgive second and even third-hand murders because no one is actually responsible for their evils. It's a world where everyone is a victim. Perhaps it's fitting that the Intelligence is more or less represented by an oozing mountain, as this is more or less a story about people placed in danger by a natural disaster. Or a supernatural disaster, as it may be. And so, it's pity we should feel towards Padmasambhava when his puppet strings are finally cut, and sympathy for Khrisong who was only trying to do his duty, and even a little sadness when the Yeti's chest cavities explode.

There are some in this story who are also confused about who the heroes are. We still have some shrill monks who call Victoria a devil woman, but also Travers who heads up the mountain, the hard man who believes himself the serial's protagonist. He'll fail miserably, because the real fight is in the sanctum at the heart of the monastery, but what a strange final confrontation it is. Padma uses telekinetic powers to stop the Doctor, which is the kind of thing Doctor Who will soon enough be able to call its stock and trade. But in the meantime, you have Victoria repeating meditation phrases so doesn't fall under the Intelligence's spell again, Padma catching bullets with his bare hands, and a climax that is (disappointingly?) about smashing glass spheres and pyramids. And boom, one of the mountains in the Himalayas explodes with pale goo running down its slopes. Even without proper video, it's truly bizarre (and wonderful?).

In the epilogue, there's a sense that there was a sweet romance between Victoria and Thomni, with the mind of sweet goodbye often done between young people at the end of any given serial. A repressed Victorian teenager and a chaste Tibetan monk? It might have worked. Travers finds closure, for his part, in a true Yeti sighting, as the Whoniverse reveals that it has room for both the robot and the missing link kind. Mysteries unsolved, adventures to be had even for those who stay behind. However, Jamie really shouldn't have asked for a warmer destination next time, as it's about to get even colder...

VERSIONS: The Target novelization changes some of the names slightly, often switching letters around (Songtsen for Songsten, for example), apparently to put them at a distance from the historical figures they were named after.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - A Buddhist fable that ends with great whomping explosions, it almost feels anti-climactic, but that may be the lack of video talking.

STORY REWATCHABILITY: Medium - The Abominable Snowmen introduces a beloved recurring monster, features an unusual "base" for them to besiege, and achieves a certain Lovecraftian insanity. An episode or two too long, but otherwise a solid entry in the canon.