Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Dial H for Halloween

No, Adventure 490 doesn't have anything to do with Halloween, except... Chris and Vicki dress up as different heroes? Good 'nuff. This is part 2 of 3 on this issue, Adventure's last before Dial H moves on. I'd be remiss if I didn't point out yet another Stephen DeStefano design (Blackjack), whom DC would go on to hire. If Dial H had gone on for another few years, 'Mazing Man and Hero Hotline would have been write-ins.

Case 38: Adventure Comics #490
Dial Holders: Chris and Vicki
Dial Type: Watch and Pendant Dials
Dialing: As mentioned in the previous Case, since Chris is in a timeless dimension, his Dial's one-hour limitation is not in effect. Given the low power level of many of the heroes conjured up, it's possible the Dial is compensating for its being used before it can "charge up". It's not clear how fast time passes where Vicki is, but her hour seems to go by very quickly.
Name: Centaurus (I'm not sure what he's got to do with centaurs, maybe he's an alien from Centauri?)
Created by: David T. Satterlee, Age 15, of Meadville, PA
Costume: In browns and oranges, Centaurus has a passing resemblance to Wolverine, including a mask with horn-like pieces. There's yellow trim on all the spiky parts of the costume, including the full-faced mask, shoulder pads, gloves and boots.
Powers: He is the "Master of Vibration" (keep your jokes for yourself). He can absorb the vibrations made by such sounds as card shuffling and voices and turn it into "viblasts" that can... uhm... open a curtain! Or... ahh... blow a shallow hole in a wall. (Ok, let loose with the jokes.)
Sighted: In a timeless dimension, playing cards with Blackjack.
Possibilities: Seeing as there's nothing horse-like about him, we'll just have to say he's an alien. Someone like that might show up on the Omega Men's doorstep, or get rejected by the Legion (for an ineffective power).
Integration Quotient: 12% (I bet his creator didn't expect him to be such a lame duck)
Name: Deflecto (bit cheesy, but the kind of deterrent name if you don't want people to throw things at you)
Created by: Darin Hackenbrook, Age 16, of Mattawa, Ontario
Costume: In pleasant blues and whites that match his silver hair, Deflecto's caped uniform is pretty standard except for some asymmetrical white piping, and a mask in the shape of those crescent moons worn like glasses.
Powers: He can deflect incoming attacks with blasts from his hands. Presumably, these cannot be used an offensive manner.
Sighted: In a timeless dimension, playing cards with Blackjack.
Possibilities: The costume links him to the Moon, some kind of nocturnal defender of the innocent, possibly a pacifist (those are Dove's colors, after all). There could be an interesting story there for a protester or conscientious objector.
Integration Quotient: 20% (just doesn't have the range of powers to make it on his own)
Name: Worm Man (exactly what it says on the tin, ridiculous but accurate)
Created by: Robbie Halvorson, Age 15, of Grand Forks, ND
Costume: A handsome man with a yellow cape, red and yellow shirt, a black "W" and Captain Marvel's bracers, his most memorable bit is all under the belt, where you'll find some 40 feet of worm tail!
Powers: Worm Man's coiled body can probably be used to entangle opponents and he can definitely lash out with his powerful tail, but his main power is burrowing. Some kind of energy comes out of his face to dig tunnels in front of him (it's possible this effect is just meant to represent his eating rock and dirt though).
Sighted: In a timeless dimension, escaping Blackjack's realm.
Possibilities: I'm sure there's a place in some of the more comical corners of the DC Universe for a grotesque hero like Worm Man. His look is perfect for a hero who takes himself very seriously, yet is ridiculous to everyone else. He might even grow to be a phenomenon like Squirrel Girl.
Integration Quotient: 40% (uniqueness counts for a lot, but it's not the complete equation)
Name: Spinning Jenny (just rustic enough kids will have forgotten the original meaning)
Created by: Paul Speidel, Age 19, of Winnipeg, Manitoba
Costume: In orange and black, this redhead's costume features some pleasant curves (I like the arm bandage on her right side, for example), and a black X that covers part of her face like an incomplete mask. Very "fashion".
Powers: Jenny is a human top, constantly spinning (though it looks more like a field around her is actually spinning) and thus able to create a vortex of air that allows her to fly and blow off enemies. If she spins at the speed of light, she can "travel into the past" and wind up where she used to be.
Sighted: On the Serpent's planet, fighting him off and escaping back to Fairfax.
Possibilities: Showing she has the ability to "spin" for different effects, she might be tapping into the Flash's Speed Force. How about making her the Top's daughter, doing good to make up for his life of crime? And in real life, she's in the P.R. business, of course. A real "spin doctor"! I'd read that series.
Integration Quotient: 88% (an evocative concept that links pretty easily to the DCU)
Name: Spectro (there's a Dr. Spectro, any relation?)
Created by: Eric Mohn, Age 14, of Lakeville, MN
Costume: The color scheme is dingy, all blues and purples, and the cut isn't too memorable - high boots and gloves, flared shoulders, and a simple starburst on the chest. What makes it interesting at all is the mask, a spooky white cross over a faceless mask. Like a creepy Azrael.
Powers: Unknown. This is the first of four throwaways (the rest in our next Case File) that appear in a single panel. So we're left to imagine Spectro's powers, and from name and costume, they're probably light-based, possibly ghost-based. An artificial ghost who can phase through matter, appear out of nowhere, etc.?
Sighted: In a timeless dimension, an identity taken on and immediately shrugged off by Chris.
Possibilities: A vigilante who uses holograms/illusions to scare the bejeezus out of criminals, he may or may not have ties to a Christian cult like Azrael does. He's probably not all there, physically AND psychologically.
Integration Quotient: 75% (it's all about that creepy face, man)

Bonus Supervillains
Name: Blackjack (such a good name, it's been used on an Archie hero and, minus a C, in Atari Force)
Created by: Stephen DeStefano, Age 15, of South Ozone Park, NY
Costume: Blackjack is an impish very short bald man dressed like a riverboat gambler. He has a cane with a large diamond pommel.
Powers: Blackjack the "Death Dealer" runs a death trap casino in another dimension. The casino seems to have automated traps like robot tentacle arms, but mostly, he activates the various gadgets himself. These are gambling-based and include a throwable roulette wheel and slot machines that fire green coins at a deadly rate. He can shuffle cards so quickly that they can be used as a shield. The purpose of his asking victims to draw a card is unknown - Chris keeps losing (drawing the Ace of Spaces over and over again), but there doesn't appear to be any effect to this. Perhaps, Two-Face-like, it merely serves as motivation to keep torturing his victim or releasing them.
Sighted: In a timeless dimension, playing games with Chris King's various superhero identities. He is desperately sad to see him leave for good.
Possibilities: An impish, obsessed dude who lives in a dimension where the laws of physics don't apply? He's gotta be from the 5th Dimension or something, a cousin to Mxyzptlk, Bat-Mite and the rest. As such, he has a definite role to play, either finding our world or against dimension-tossed heroes.
Integration Quotient: 90% (there's nothing like a pan-dimensional casino in the DCU yet, so he's ready-made to provide a change of pace)
Name: The Serpent (more of a lizard, really, but serpentine names are always striking)
Created by: Joseph Harding, Age 20, of Portland, OR
Costume: A black one-piece (with a yellow strip running down the front) that must be really hard to put on unless he can somehow retract those yellow back fins, but when you look like a humanoid Komodo dragon, you don't really need to focus on your apparel.
Powers: The literally cold-blooded Serpent can animate strong entangling vines in his native habitat. He seems to have a symbiotic relationship with this specific plant species (he calls it a "servile vine-creature"), as he is not seen animating any other plants or animals.
Sighted: On a swamp planet that may or may not be in our dimension, fighting Vicki Grant's various superhero identities. He seems to see her as an intruder, though he would like to know the secret of her powers.
Possibilities: Stuck on a planet like that, it's unlikely he would show up on Earth or become more than a one-shot threat to some superheroic visitor. That said, plenty of space-faring heroes could benefit from that one-shot.
Integration Quotient: 20% (he fits, he just doesn't have any staying power)

One Case File to go before Adventure Comics wraps! Can you stand the excitement?!

Doctor Who #344: Frontier in Space Part 5

"An Emperor who does not rule deposes himself!"
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Mar.24 1973.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor, the Master and Jo are taken to Draconia.

REVIEW: The weird meme about escape and capture is still catered to - as the Draconians are convinced not to hold the Doctor and Jo, she's captured by the Ogrons, and later the Doctor and his Draconian allies are placed under arrest by Earth forces - but it finally feels like the plot is advancing when the Doctor finally delivers his message to the Draconian Emperor. Granted, it's a bit of a deus ex machina to "turn" the Draconians thanks to an unseen adventure 500 years previous that ended with the Doctor becoming an honorary nobleman of Draconia, but the Dragon Emperor himself is a nice character, full of wisdom and Shakespearean presence. The language is stately and declamatory, but his dialog is well written and memorable. Will the Doctor FINALLY avert a war between humanity and a reptilian species? Hulke has given him a couple shots at it before, and third time might be the charm.

Though neither Empire's security is something to boast about - both heads of state are easily attacked by dumb-as-posts Ogrons who can't even be mind probed given their stupidity, though maybe they could be bribed with bananas (all hail the 9th Doctor) - I am intrigued by their politics. The Draconians have a monarchy, ruled with obvious wisdom and honor. They allow themselves to be convinced by the Doctor and even let a female speak in deference to human customs. The fact that females aren't "liberated" (as Jo would put it) might well be one of the reasons there's little trust between them and Earth, whose president is a woman. That may just muddy the waters, because Earth government appears to be a "weak" democracy faced with rioting and dissent, and of course, never trust the Doctor to their detriment. The UK vs. the USA? Is that how Hulke sees it? I might be reading too much into it. These people have their own agendas, easily divorced from our time's concerns, and the revelation that the first war between them was caused by General Williams misunderstanding a situation is well-played and has immediate consequences. To our surprise, Williams feels badly for the suffering he has caused and makes amends by suddenly siding with his Draconian opponents and the Doctor. They might have discussed these events before (did Draconian honor prevent them from broaching the subject in polite conversation?), but it's great that the nominal "black hat" from the early episodes is actually quite capable of admitting his own errors and doing the right thing. THIS is Hulke's trademark, giving every character their own point of view, none of them "evil" from their perspective.

The regulars have some good moments to get their teeth into as well. The Doctor knows the Master so well, he can tell when his nemesis is feigning sleep and why. The Master is too cocky to show any fear at all, nonchalant even in the face of Draconian guns. Of course, he knows his Ogron mercenaries aren't far behind. Still, when the Master isn't being betrayed by his alien allies, he's being disappointed by them. The Ogrons are so stupid, they leave one of their own to blow the hypno-sound scheme right to hell. He really does have bad luck in his choice of friends. Jo is very strong in this episode, not only standing up to the Draconian Court's misogyny, but proving she can't be hypnotized by the Master anymore. Her nursery rhyme trick might have been a little hokey, but the production plays along brilliantly, the Master's theme winding down comically when his power is disrupted by her nonsense. Our little Jo has come pretty far since Terror of the Autons. It would be a shame to lose her now (FORESHADOWING!).

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - Finally, the story's moving forward, which doesn't mean the episode skimps on the character moments, world-building, and neat model shots that were its strength.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

My Tawdry Love Affair with Who's Who

I can hold my tongue no longer! With the advent of the Who's Who Podcast, in every episode of which fellow bloggers Shag (Firestorm Fan) and Rob! (Aquaman Shrine) take an hour and a half to discuss a single issue of DC Comics' seminal encyclopedia series, I am forced to revisit one of my favorite comics series of all time (almost) monthly. Who's Who has had a huge presence in my life - be warned, this post is labeled "Geeks Anonymous", it's about to get hairy - which makes DC's wholesale dumping of its continuity before a promised new edition could come out all the more distressing to me. Here then are some of the ways I've indulged my Who's Who fixation:

Mnemonic exercises. Some people marvel at my bear trap memory, but I really owe it to my frequent use of mnemonics. When I walk to and fro (I refuse to drive), I'll often try to complete some list from memory. It might be all of Shakespeare's plays, or 100 GURPS sourcebooks, or indeed, every entry in any given issue of Who's Who. Abel - Abnegazar, Rath & Ghast - Abra Kadabra - Adam Strange - and so on. For 26 issues plus updates. (You can see why I don't like the loose leaf version as much.) A lot of the following mental experiments are linked to my returning again and again, in mind if not in body, to the series.

The Super Seven. In a sort of mental Dial H for Hero, and starting with volume VII when I was in 9th grade, I would select 6 of my closest friends and assign them a superhero identity for the month coinciding with an issue's release. For convenience's sake, the group would always be 5 boys (myself included) and 2 girls (fewer of those characters in the DCU). Believe it or not, they were in on it, and I'd sometimes trace up a picture out of Who's Who and give them the drawing so they'd know who they got to be. The first character I ever became through this process was Dr. Fate. Writing this down, I seem to remember there was a Sinister Seven, made up of school rivals (NOT in on it) from the same issue, but I doubt that lasted. The group of Seven changed over time, obviously, but as Who's Who wasn't consistently published, it might not have mattered who they were, except...

Super Seven - The Band. As corollary to the above insanity, I soon began to imagine the Seven as a band that would play any song I listened to. So when daydreaming while listening to music, I would (and still do) imagine the song played live by this imaginary band. The thought experiment probably started with everyone in costume, but now it's in civilian clothes.
DC Heroes edition. DCH is assuredly one of the role-playing games I've MOST run, and I own almost every product made for it, in all editions. One of Mayfair's coolest ideas was to issue companion pages to the loose lead Who's Who, with game stats, how to play the character's personality, plot hooks, and not really related to gaming, a list of all the comics the character has appeared in. I immediately doubled my number of binders and put the DCH sheets right next to their Who's Who counterparts and it's made it easier for players who want to guest as an established hero in my games that much easier. Sadly, Mayfair never published the fourth and last volume which would have contained the Vertigo issue and lots of Doom Patrol villains. (Speaking of DCH, I'm gearing up a series of one-shot games in which players randomly pick characters out of Who's Who to create their own Brave and the Bold team-ups.)

Fashion Nightmares. I've tried to integrate Who's Who on the blog, but not altogether successfully. The closest I came to is under the Fashion Nightmares label, which also contains Marvel Universe material and, well, anything with terrible costumes, really. After clicking the link, you'll have to scroll down a little bit before you find Who's Who.

That last page. At the end of every issue of the original Who's Who was a black and white page that featured 6 current or upcoming covers, and a list of where you might find each character in the issue. As a kid living in a smallish town and no access to back issues, I would fantasize about getting a hold of the books I didn't have from the 6 featured. But I played fair. The game was that for each comic I already had on that page, I could choose another and it would magically appear in my collection. Had it been real, I guess I would have scored a lot of Omega Men.
Fantasy action figures. Here's a fun one. I used to flip through my Who's Whos and imagine each entry as a toy. This was way before DC Direct, so the chances of seeing 95% of these characters as action figures was unthinkable. And yet I thought about it. It would be important to me (in those Super-Powers-fueled days) to give each one a gimmick, like light-up hands for the energy blasters, or some accessories culled from the "surprint" images. It wasn't just figures. Great playsets like the All-Star Squadron's Perisphere and Blackhawk Island were available too!

Fights and team -ups. One of the easiest things to do was imagining team-ups and match-ups based on page numbers. So for example, I might daydream about every character in issue 1 fighting those in issue 2, perhaps page-for-page. Or all the heroes fighting all the villains in the same issue, Secret Wars-style. Or even going cross-company to have a whole issue of Who's Who fighting a whole issue of Marvel Universe. Speaking of which...

Whos' Universe Amalgams.
While comparing Who's Who to Marvel Universe, I would also try Amalgam experiments, combining characters that really had no business being amalgamated. Abel and Abomination? Crazy. (House of Abomination, if you're wondering.)

Fantasy Who's Who update. And of course, there's my regular activity of looking through old Who's Whos and imagining that same book rebooted to a later era. Each character is still there, but in today's clothes, side by side with his or her legacy characters, etc. The New52's made that a little more difficult (most characters have yet to be seen, though All Star Western is doing a great job filling the books up with western stars; and some new costumes I just don't want to imagine), but I might still do it, lazily turning pages on a rainy afternoon.

My name is Siskoid, and I'm a Geek. That's Who's What.

Doctor Who #343: Frontier in Space Part 4

"I mean, they think I run around all day with terrific looking James Bond style going to suave dinner parties."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Mar.17 1973.

IN THIS ONE... The Master springs the Doctor from jail and puts him in another jail. He almost escapes via spacewalk.

REVIEW: Are you kidding me?! The Doctor and Jo have been escaping from one jail cell and ending up in another (or the same one) for three episodes straight now! What is going on?! The Doctor's about to escape Lunar prison, but it's a trap. He escapes it, but gets thrown into solitary for having tried to escape. The Master's on the Moon to reclaim him, and the villain has to convince the prison governor that he should give him up. So he springs the Doctor out of that cell and throws him into one on his spaceship, this time, with Jo. He escapes THAT cell, but the Master takes control of the situation by putting Jo in the airlock (the last time a companion was trapped in one, it didn't end too well, if you remember...), but she's saved by the Draconians boarding the Master's ship and taking EVERYONE prisoner. The episode ends on the Master calling his Ogrons to spring them out. So here we go again.

All this padding has me questioning if there's actually a story here. Not that there's nothing to see. The central escape attempt is well executed, with the Doctor sawing himself out and communicating with Jo with double meanings. She then starts a campaign of wearing on the Master's nerves by going on and on about her role at UNIT until he lowers the volume. It's a proper distraction, and maybe a little insight into Jo's character (but very little). The Doctor goes on a spacewalk and almost loses the ship when it makes a sharp course correction, and that's all rather well done, tense and exciting. Really, as far as action goes, there are plenty of fun bits. It's just that it's obvious padding, is all. During the escape attempt, the Master reads Wells' War of the Worlds, which has some cheek, but while fun, it doesn't add a whole lot to the plot. Where is this going, and why should we care? Those are the only questions I need to see answered.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - Fun set pieces in terms of action and character, but the plot has been standing still for three episodes now. Bizarrely so.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Star Trek #1445: Assimilation2 Part 6

1445. Assimilation2 Part 6

PUBLICATION: Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who: Assimilation2 #6, IDW Comics, October 2012

CREATORS: Scott and David Tipton (writers), Gordon Purcell and J.K. Woodward (artists)

STARDATE: Unknown (follows previous issue).

PLOT: The captain of the Potemkin is turned into Conduit, a Borg voice-box who helps the Enterprise figure out how to stop the Cybermen who have shut down, and will soon absorb, the Collective. They first go get gold (poisonous to Cybermen) from Naia VII (issue 1), then the Doctor and his companions go back in time to the Battle of Wolf 359 to get a copy of the Borg executive library wiped by the Cybermen.

See previous issues (Borg, Cybermen, Delta IV, USS Potemkin, Wolf 359). Wolf 359 reminds the Doctor of "Bad Wolf" (Doctor Who Series 1). Rory believes you can cross your own timeline based on the events of The Christmas Carol. The Doctor comes face to face with Locutus right in the middle of The Best of Both Worlds.

DIVERGENCES: None, except the anomalies from the Whoniverse that have appeared in the Star Trek universe.

PANEL OF THE DAY - Paying tribute to the studio.
REVIEW: Oh (Time) Lord, more talking. The protagonists meet up with a Borg enclave and they talk. They bring Conduit to their ship, and they talk some more. They go to Naia VII to get gold, and the Doctor talks the natives into giving up the very thing their currency is based on... Wait a minute, can't they just REPLICATE some gold? Gold is, after all, completely worthless in the Federation for just that reason. They're jumping through hoops just to extend the talking, looks like. Worse, the Doctor doesn't talk like the Doctor. His arguments to the Naians are good ones, but they have none of his eccentricity. They sound like Picard's words. It's only when the Doctor walks back into the TARDIS that he starts talking anything like how he does on his own program. It's also where things get a little more exciting. We're using time travel to go to one of TNG's most memorable events, and the Doctor comes face to face with Locutus' laser pointer. And there aren't a ton of speech bubbles obscuring the lackluster painted art. So it looks a little like TNG is the problem here, and its tone is dragging Doctor Who down. Are we DONE with exposition now? I mean, I'm accepting this never previously mentioned executive library MacGuffin just so we can move ON.

Doctor Who #342: Frontier in Space Part 3

"Now that's stealing, you know?" "That's what I'm in for. Got a trouble maker, have we?" "That's what I'm in for!"
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Mar.10 1973.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor goes to jail... ON THE MOON! And the Master shows up.

REVIEW: This serial's cosmic joke continues. The Ogrons (who can't pronounce any words through their masks) break the Doctor and Jo out of jail, and they're ONCE AGAIN immediately recaptured. I've lost count, folks! In this episode, The Doctor is sent off to the Moon's version of Guantanamo Bay, and while I wouldn't say his stay there is without incident, it's STILL another near-pointless diversion since the Master shows up on Earth (the high collar fashion suits him) to capture our two heroes for his own ends, so any Lunar escape attempt will surely be followed by another example of this particular dance. At this point, I'm looking for how this is part of some kind of theme, but I'm coming up empty.

In spite of these shenanigans, the episode does have something to offer. As with Part 1, there's some engaging world-building going on. English seems to have deteriorated over the next 500 years, but rioting seems to still be a popular activity. With political prisoners sent to a remote prison without trial, and a populist Peace Party hoping to overthrow a fascist government, this Earth is probably closer to ours than we'd care to admit. The President of Earth seemed so nice, too. But she can afford to be with cohorts like General Williams running the nastier part of the show. Note the opening scene where she gets massages and messages from underdressed ladies, and how she offers Williams a glass of wine when he comes a-calling. This is how the 1% lives, hedonists on top. I also like how there's a suggestion these two were once involved, as something "happened" that put an end to their friendship, but not to their trust in one another. Is Williams' seeming threat that she can be replaced rather a warning? Certainly, neither of them want an election with this Peace Party thing in the wings. (Is it getting harder and harder to fix an election?)

Jo gets a nice black judo outfit and gets to stare down the Master, but it's the Master who's the real star this time. He blows up a mind probe with his will, as promised in Part 2, in a well-executed sequence that ramps up the tension with sound and visual overlays, while contrasting it with the Doctor's calm voice. It takes the edge off yet another instance of people not believing the truth. At the Lunar prison (neat set), he entertains with his irreverence and charm. I'd have bought into a Doctor-in-prison serial, but sadly, though I'm sure the information gained during his stay will become relevant later, it's really just a pitstop on the way to story's end, and quick access to a cliffhanger when the "trusty" Cross betrays the Peace Party leader and the Doctor (who gets a shot at escape instead of a party member rather too easily).

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - The Doctor's great in his guest-starring role on Prison Break, and the world of the 26th century continues to be detailed, but I'm wondering when we'll pick up the plot again.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

This Week in Geek (22-28/10/12)


I got a bunch of DVDs this week, many for my Kung Fu Friday habit - Dynamite Warrior, Flying Swords of Dragon Inn, Legendary Amazons, and I guess, The Lady - some not, Annie Hall (see below), Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, and Miranda July's The Future.


DVDs: When I first saw the trailer, I was hoping for a Mars Attacks for a new generation - a campy SF invasion comedy, this one with Moon Nazis. It's not quite that, but I like it better anyway. It really doesn't show that Finnish director Timo Vuerensola made this on a small budget (less than 8M euros), but as a result of being so well made, it becomes a strange tonal mix. On the one hand, there's a crazy, campy premise that offers some rather blunt satire (a Sarah Palin type is in the White House) and black comedy. On the other, it's a competent SF war film, with a point to make about patriotic propaganda, a strong Nazi heroine in Julia Dietze, and a relatively dramatic ending that doesn't cheapen the life of civilians the way, say, Marvel's Avengers does. And at the same time, you get a lot of eye candy, outer space battles, retro-tech spectacle, and Wagnerian music (which is better used as the film moves along, sounding much too much like Danny Elfman phoning something in in the first half). It just gets you into a strange place where you're not quite laughing, but may be kept at arm's length from feeling for the characters by the satirical layer. Americans in particular may think they're being lampooned a bit harshly (in the president, but also the sociopathic P.R. fashionista). Still, I think Europe owed the U.S. one since Independence Day. The DVD includes a fun director's commentary, a making of that's just the right length at 17 minutes, behind the scenes footage that is varied and doesn't wear on one's patience, and the internet teasers that include footage not in the film. Overall, a pleasant afternoon's entertainment that shouldn't be taken too seriously. And yes, I hope the final few seconds ARE the promise of a sequel.

I'm trying to get into Woody Allen's films later in life where, I guess, they'll do the most good. Annie Hall, heralded by many as his masterpiece, and attacked by others for being intellectual and over-rated (ha! so am I!), interested me more for its structure and narrative tricks than it did for its story and dialog, but I did generally like the whole package. It's really quite clever how it tells the story of a failed relationship (between Woody's character and Diane Keaton's, only in part based on their own love affair) as you would actually tell a story to people, some of whom might have been present. In effect, it means there's hyperbole, there's talking to the camera, there's imagination run amok, there are interventions by some of the other characters chiming in, and the chronological sequence is based on what need to know to understand the relationship and not actual passage of time. It's just like How I Met Your Mother, folks, and now that I think of it, I got it into my head to watch this film after HIMYM's Ted Mosby said it was his favorite movie. Nice tribute. No extras?! It'll just have to stand on its own.

If you were reading my Doctor Who reviews last week, you already know what I think of The Three Doctors (it's sadly stupid), but what about the Special Edition's extras? Well, I gotta say I'm a little disappointed by them too. First off, you get most of what you got on the original DVD release: A fine commentary by Barry Letts (producer), Katy Manning (Jo) and Nick Courtney (the Brig); awkward, but interesting Pebble Mill interviews with special effects artist Bernard Wilkie and 2nd Doctor Patrick Troughton (he's a nightmare to interview, obviously, and this is the one where he talks about "blacking up" to play the Doctor); a Blue Peter bit where Pertwee shows off the Whomobile before they show clips from the first two Doctors' adventures; 1990's Doctor Who weekend interviews of the writers, Pertwee and Courtney; assorted trailers; and of course, the subtitled production notes and the photo gallery. What's missing  - which means my original DVD gets to stay on the shelf - is the utterly charming 1993 PanoptiCon panel with Pertwee, Manning and Courtney. So what's new? We get a rather ordinary Making of for this story; "Was Doctor Who Rubbish?", a defense of the show and examination of its reputed flaws by fans, for fans (fairly fun as far as fluff pieces go); and the second Girls, Girls, Girls featurette, which gets Caroline John (Liz), Manning, and Louise Jameson (Leela) in the same room to talk about being a Doctor Who girl in the 70s. It's by far the best thing on the DVD, but seems strange given that Leela was with Tom Baker, not Pertwee, and that nothing is really said (say, by the presenter) of Sarah Jane Smith. For a story that's full of firsts, including being the first multi-Doctor story, I find it rather poor on content.

But what about Carnival of Monsters' Special Edition? The story, as you may have read, is one I found fun but thin on substance. The DVD release does much better than 3Docs', however. Here, we've got everything that was on the original release: The solid commentary shared by Letts and Manning, the model sequences, the illuminating behind the scenes footage, the TARDIS-Cam CGI animation (of the TARDIS flying through the vortex), the re-edited ending to episode 4 Letts made for a 1981 repeat, Barry Letts' CSO demo for his BBC overlords, the surprisingly bare photo gallery, the production notes, and the Easter Egg of the title sequence without credits. They've actually taken the deleted scenes and the immediately abandoned - yet broadcast in Australia by mistake - new theme arrangement and included it in an early edit of episode 2, to make it a more coherent viewing experience; a completely new commentary, moderated by Toby Hadoke who always does a terrific job, with some of the guest actors and the special sounds creator; a cleverly-made and rather fun Making of; an emotional retrospective look at Ian Marter (Harry Sullivan, and Andrews in this story), and his time both on the show and writing some of the Target novelizations; and a featurette on lost ships (like the fictional S.S. Bernice) and the myths around them. The only bad extra is the mind-numbing fluff piece that is "The A-Z of Gadgets and Gizmos", which "humorously" presents one Doctor Who piece of tech per letter of the alphabet. It loses almost all credibility when it puts K-9 in A for Android, then the rest of it when B isn't for Bessie. But overall, nice package.

This Friday, we were supposed to watch the Korean monster movie Sector 7, but found the disc cracked and impossible to play. It was supposed to be pretty bad, so I'm not shedding any tears over it, but what to watch instead? Well, if "bad" was on the schedule, we'd go for "very bad indeed". Fantasy Mission Force is one of the discs in a cheap Jackie Chan collection, obviously copied off a bad VHS cassette (some tape skips and even a blue programming screen at one point, and of course, all in the most atrocious English dub), but this thing is awful even if the copy had been pristine. So bad, it's good. It features major talent, including Jacky (sic) Chan, Brigitte Lin (the Bride with White Hair!) and Jimmy Yu (the One-Armed Swordsman!) in a broad, spoofy type of comedy that's an ancestor to things like Kung Fu Hustle. The genre, initially a Dirty Dozen or A-Team WWII sort of thing, keeps changing to accommodate whatever parodies the script would like to tackle, including Raiders of the Lost Ark, Mr. Vampire (so our Halloween month is preserved!) and Apocalypse Now (if Kurtz was in the jungle with Amazon ninja sex slaves). Jackie has a secondary role, but does his stuff when he can, and it's Brigitte Lin who really kicks ass. Unfortunately, the production values are TERRIBLE. The Amazons turn into men whenever a stunt is called for (explaining the bag over their heads in all action scenes), it looks like they raided a costume shop and grabbed anything they could (kilts, plastic armor, Elvis suits, Nazi uniforms, Mexican banditos, nothing matches), most of the production is shot from a wide, artless angle, and the editing either indulges too slow a pace or is marred by confusing cuts. Hilariously, the camp the soldiers have to raid appears to be in Nunavut (or at the time, the Canada's Northwest Territories), which I hadn't realized looked kind of like the jungles of Thailand. It's so full of mistakes, you just can't tell what's meant to be a joke. And it may just end up a little too violently for the comedy to really work, in retrospect. (Aside: Why is it so much easier to go on at length about a thoroughly bad film? Annie Hall was my shortest review here.)

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

Your Daily Splash Page this week features a splash from every DC title, alphabetically, from Brave and the Bold to Captain Action.

Doctor Who #341: Frontier in Space Part 2

"Well they had to turn me loose eventually... They ran out of mind probes!"
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Mar.3 1973.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor and Jo are in and out of jail cells and can't convince either Earth or Draconia they're innocent.

REVIEW: The first episode was short, but meaty. This one has the correct length, but is padded almost beyond redemption. The Doctor and Jo are taken to and out of various jail cells so many times, it's like a joke. But there's no punch line. What's worse is that they'll frequently show us the in-between bits, like guards and prisoners walking to and from locations. The Doctor, perhaps uncharacteristically (I'll give him the benefit of the doubt seeing as he's in diplomatic mode), sits patiently in each one, barely making an effort to escape, or telling rather ridiculous stories about other times he's been captured and interrogated (and not stories we know about either). Jo, whose only expertise is escapology, is forced to take charge, and rather amusingly, she's the one thinking out loud, shushing her companion to listen for footsteps, and asking to be taken to her guards' leader. That it never amounts to anything is a shame, and even when she and the Doctor are inevitably separated, they're back together within a few minutes as part of another escape and recapture sequence.

If this runaround is a little trying for both the characters and their audience, it also shows a terrible performance on the part of Earth and Draconian Security. Both are victim of production values, perhaps, but dodgy writing too. Considering the Doctor and Jo are presumed spies, saboteurs and/or terrorists, why is there interrogation being handled by the President of Earth herself? (It makes it seem like the planetary government is made up of exactly two people.) Why wasn't the Doctor searched and his sonic screwdriver removed (even if it is useless)? How did Ogrons get in the capital city and in a position where they can mount a full frontal assault on the prison? If it even is a prison, and not the same compound where the President works. And while I appreciate the Draconians' deviousness, and the Prince giving non-orders to his secretary with special attention to plausible deniability, why would their rescue of the Doctor take the form of a rather public and obvious attack that would immediately point the finger at them? And then why compound that by bringing the Doctor to their embassy where Earth forces are sure to go (and do)? Never mind that Draconians, who have a Klingon-like, honor-bound, martial culture seem particularly vulnerable to being pushed. (Jury's still out on the Doctor's flip back in his chair, which is either cool or awkwardly silly, depending on your mood.)

Now, the episode does do a couple things right. Its use of locations, for example, is excellent. The prison compound is a gray concrete facility with many levels to make chases there exciting, just fascist enough to be foreboding, and just modern enough to fit the future. The Draconian embassy has windowed walls and a lush garden, and just the right Japanese influence to paint Draconian culture with that sort of brush. These places exist in the present (or indeed, in the early 70s), but are unusual enough that we accept them as futuristic or alien, and so much more interesting than Yet Another Quarry(TM). And there's the Jo-Doctor relationship, of course, though it does get awfully cutesy here, Jo by turns seeming to have grown since her initial appearance, and yet speaking like she's a little girl in a children's program. These two are at their best when they tease each other, but the whole "explain obvious things to me, Doctor" bits do wear thin very quickly.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-Low - It's not unusual for 6-parters to have an episode's worth of padding. That we're already there in Part 2 is rather discouraging.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Reign of the Supermen #447: Aviator Superman

Source: Project: Rooftop (2008)
Type: Fan-made
Kyle Latino's entry in Project: Rooftop's Superman - Man of Style redesign contest, it takes Superman right back to his 1930s roots and marries Superman's original aesthetic to aviation heroes' like Hop Harrigan and the Blackhawks. I especially like how the cape has become a scarf. But wait, there's more! Kyle then went on to do his own Reign of the Supermen, including two Superboys, Cyborg-Superman, Eradicator, Steel, Electric Superman Red/Blue, post-death Superman and Kingdom Come Superman!
All while keeping the basic pulp look. Sure, this Superman, had he premiered in 1938, probably wouldn't have take the world by storm, nor spawned a whole genre of fiction - he's too close to inspirations like Doc Savage for that, but it would make a sweet Elseworld.

Doctor Who #340: Frontier in Space Part 1

"I can see the TARDIS!" "Well, that's one consolation, isn't it?"
TECHNICAL SPECS: This story is available on DVD. First aired Feb.24 1973.

IN THIS ONE... The TARDIS lands on a spaceship whose crew soon experiences hallucinations meant to undermine relations between Earth and Draconia.

REVIEW: From one ship's storage area to another's, the TARDIS is 2 and 0 since the Doctor got control (or should I say "control"?) of his TARDIS back. This time it's flour instead of chickens, and the 26th century instead of 1926, but there seems to be a constant. In reality, we first see the TARDIS flying in space and almost crashing into a spaceship before going intangible and re-appearing on a deck inside. Shades of the black and white era's visuals, it's not all about the vortex. The way Malcolme Hulke makes space travel exotic here is to make it so common place, it's an experience taken for granted. The ship's crew are dreaming of better jobs, their cargo is as mundane as can be, and then even the Doctor is matter-of-fact about being on a spacecraft. Only Jo is shocked and awed. It's the new normal.

One of the things that makes this episode so interesting is the exploration of that "normal".  In a very short time (the episode under-runs at 22 minutes), and without every feeling like an info-dump, we learn a lot about this early part of the Earth Empire. (The very idea that the show is building a coherent history for our future is, in and of itself, revolutionary.) At this point, Earth is run by a President and has reclaimed the Arctic with new, artificial cities popping up there, like New Glasgow and New Montreal - the first and maybe only mention of French Canada on the program!* - so the over-population mentioned in Colony in Space is well under way. Next to our Empire is another, the Draconians, a wonderful new alien species we were once at war with and may be again. The Draconian make-up is dramatically different from what Doctor Who has done before, much closer to the Star Trek TNG aesthetic that allows actors to express emotion (not that the example we meet is especially emotional). What little we see of the "Dragons" nevertheless suggests a complete culture we've yet to discover, a lot of which is evoked by the design. Earth, too, has a strong design, using futurist furniture, shiny surfaces and solid model shots, the only disappointment being the marines' silly padded uniforms.

Making the President of Earth a woman does more for the show's tepid "feminist agenda" than any number of Dr. Ruths harping on about Women's Lib ever could, though there are some gender politics at work here thanks to General Williams, her adviser who seems entirely too ambitious and could be said to be motivated by an innate lack of respect for female leadership. He's an obvious black hat, though it's technically ambiguous whether or not he's being manipulated or is the manipulator. Nor is it in fact clear if the true villains of the piece (whoever hired the Ogrons) are committing acts of piracy that are incidentally bringing the two powers back on the brink of war, or if that war is the actual goal. Hulke quickly makes us interested in his world's stakes, and leaves the answers for later episodes. The Doctor and Jo are merely here to open that world up and consequently, I don't have much to say about them. It's the usual get captured, escape, get captured again business. You know the drill.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - An immediately engaging vision of the future, it can be forgiven its relatively ordinary use of the regular characters as the dominoes get set up.

*This is clearly a Thing Only I Care About, brought to you by Things Only I Care About, making me care about things since 1971.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Kung Fu Fridays in November 2012

The monster-centric October schedule ends tonight, but that doesn't mean we can't inject a good dollop of fantasy into November's Kung Fu Fridays. I also want to mark a couple of important dates with appropriate viewing experiences. So without further ado, here's what the Kung Fu crowd (and you, through capsule reviews) can expect on Friday nights next month.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame - A special request from "Mulan" (we all have code names like that, because we're nerds), she didn't have to twist my arm too hard seeing as it stars KFF favorite Andy Lau in the title role of the famous Tang Dynasty folk hero. It co-stars this month's poster star, Bingbing Li (who played Forbidden Kingdom's Bride with White Hair analog), and if it's good, I hope they turn this into a franchise adapting some of Detective Dee's other mysteries.

The Front Line - In honor of Remembrance Day, I've selected this Korean film about the Korean War, South Korea's submission to the 2011 Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Films category. It didn't make the short list, but I've heard good things regardless.

Super Inframan - Literally "Chinese Superman", this is another request, this time by "Furn Sai Yuk", and in line with Furn's aesthetic, it looks completely ridiculous. A Shaw Brothers superhero movie?! Danny Lee plays the eponymous hero, but Bruceploitation fans will note Bruce Le in a smaller role. Anyone else getting a Power Rangers' vibe from this? There's no denying the Japanese influence, but Inframan predates the Super Sentai by 17 years.

Doctor Who and the Talons of Weng-Chiang
- Wha?! When Kung Fu Friday falls on November 23rd, Doctor Who's Anniversary (the show's 49th), I have to do SOMEthing. Talons of Weng-Chiang not only deals with Chinese concepts (the Yellow Menace through a science fiction/horror lens), it's also one of the best classic Doctor Who stories, if not THE best.

Running Out of Time - More Andy Lau? I told you he was a favorite, as is maverick director Johnnie To. The two of them worked together for the first time on this crime caper which was popular enough to spawn a sequel (so you know what's going to happen in December). Andy's character has only four weeks to live... Wait, how does that sequel work?

And that's November, ladies and gents. Five Fridays, five unique viewing experiences. It's gonna be awesome.

Doctor Who #339: Carnival of Monsters Part 4

"Disappointing ending, you know?"
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Feb.17 1973.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor escapes the miniscope and gets everyone out, but not before the drashigs also escape and eat a few aliens.

REVIEW: I think it's interesting that once the Doctor has come out of the miniscope, he lays down the law in a manner very much in keeping with all the stuffy bureaucrats who have crashed his own adventures since the UNIT era began. It's either the height of hypocrisy, or a very quick assessment of the politics in play and a bluff that would appeal to the Inter Minorans' sensibilities. It's equally interesting that Vorg immediately sees through this and brands the Doctor a carny. The point being made is that Vorg is not unlike the Doctor, traveling the universe with an "assistant" (and in a way, the Doctor is seeing his 6th self and doesn't know it), but it's a callous, corrupted version of the Doctor. The black comedy when Vorg makes Shirna "find" the live circuit is funny, but the ending doesn't sit as well with me, as the con man gets a smile rather than a punishment after treating people as animals in his peep show.

While I remain unconvinced of the story's potential as a satire of television, there are a couple of meta-textual whoppers in the Jo/shipboard thread. Unfortunately, they draw attention to what's wrong with those sequences. Jo's boredom at getting arrested yet again works relatively well. We might laugh at her jadedness without necessarily thinking of the character as one designed to be captured and held hostage each week. It does, however, draw attention to the fact these sequences ARE repetitive and boring. Less redeemable is the Major's opinion of a book he finally finishes after what could be centuries of reading the same page: "Disappointing ending." It's hard not to repurpose the statement at the episode's expense, and as you can see from the pulled quote, I just couldn't resist. The ending is abominable, but it's not particularly interesting either.

The Doctor sends everyone home, Kalik the ambitious Minoran gets eaten (maybe) by a drashig, and the miniscope is destroyed, pretty much as expected. But then there's the lucky power pack found by Vorg from his time in the service that just happens to fit the sabotaged artillery gun built on a long-isolated planet. What were the chances? It's all a little too pat. The S.S. Bernice is sent back to 1926, but the Doctor still remembers it as a "lost ship", so many it meets an untimely end. Who knows. Again, this is a story not terribly interested in consequences. We've had our fun with boats and dinosaurs and drashigs and gray aliens, now let's all go home in time for dinner. Robert Holmes hasn't yet fully come into his powers.

: There are a couple differences in the Target novelization, including the Doctor using a flare gun to light the marsh gas instead of the sonic, and the miniscope's innate ability to draw the view in hypnotically. The Special Edition DVD includes the re-edit of the ending for the 1981 retransmission, in which director Barry Letts was allowed to trim Pletarc's close-ups to remove the noticeable slip of his skull cap. It's a better version by virtue of not lingering so much on the whole shell game bit.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - Perfectly serviceable, with a fun line here and there, but the plot is on automatic and ends with an anti-climax or two.

STORY REWATCHABILITY: Medium - An over-rated collection of bubblegum set pieces. Some fun lines and very nice designs, but ultimately as empty as the television it half-heartedly sends up.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Dial H for Harley Davidson

Took me a while to get to this issue, and part of it is that it's so BIG. This is, in fact, the last issue of Adventure Comics before the strip moves to a back-up in New Adventures of Superboy, so they're really trying to fit as many fan creations as possible, so many that I'm gonna take this in three separate posts. The other interesting thing is that the two main villains of the piece have returned quite recently in the Dial H series! The Squid and the Abyss have in fact been a big part of writer China Mieville's initial story arc. That must be pretty cool for Lester English and Robert A. Bluethe (unless they think DC's making money off their backs, of course). They're in this entry, along with five other characters designed by YOU.

Case 37: Adventure Comics #490
Dial Holders: Chris and Vicki
Dial Type: Watch and Pendant Dials
Dialing: While in a timeless dimension, Chris' Dial doesn't need an hour to recharge between transformations. Without understanding the true nature of that dimension, does that mean the Dials aren't actually recharging during that hour? If not, what's the real reason for the one-hour limitation? Controlling the Dial wearer and preventing him or her from becoming too powerful?
Name: Tempest (later adopted by an Atari Force member and then the former Aqualad; it suits this character better)
Created by: David Hoffman, Age 14, of Tuscon, AZ
Costume: A pretty pleasant pink and purple number, with a triple-belt of beads set at an angle, a peek-a-boo window in the chest (actually a couple of tiny ones too), and fletched high boots, but what's really cool is her hair, which takes the form of various types of weather phenomena (see Powers).
Powers: Tempest's hair is imbued with the power of various weather phenomena. It can be a dark cloud that fires lightning bolts, a plum of water acting as a pressure attack, a tornado "beehive" that propels her through the air, and even an icey snowstorm that can freeze an enemy.
Sighted: In Fairfax, fighting and capturing the Squid.
Possibilities: Her powers take such an unusual turn, I really want to find a place for her. Garth doesn't need that Tempest name , but the name does create a link to the Titans franchise. Could her powers come from a similar (i.e. Atlantean) place?
Integration Quotient: 77% (too neat not to make it, but where?)
Name: Radarman (simple, classic, but like something Archie might have published)
Created by: Dave Elyea, Age 22, of Cheboygan, MI
Costume: Kind of a strongman aesthetic there, in green and yellow, with a big fat belt (with a radar scope on it), short sleeves and bracers, plus a shortish cape and 50s SF finned helmet and thick goggles.
Powers: Radarman's goggles can hone in on the "vibes of anyone who's been on the scene for the last hour", discover where they are, then teleport right to that location.
Sighted: In Fairfax, fighting and capturing the Squid.
Possibilities: Radarman should be some kind of 40s or 50s hero, complete with a goofy origin involving some kind of radar accident. He's not active today, but you hear stories.
Integration Quotient: 40% (definitely old school, if at all)
Name: Stuntmaster (if there can be a Sportsmaster...)
Created by: Martin Walsh, Age 11, of Santa Clara, CA
Costume: A sort of Evel Knievel in dark red and gold, with speedy stylized "S"s on his short cape and leather chest-piece. His face is hidden behind an opaque motorcycle helmet. He drives a high-tech bike with flames drawn on the sides, and holds a rattle-like scepter (hmm).
Powers: Stuntmaster is an expert motorcyclist who rides a pretty invulnerable motorbike, and wields a scepter that shoots beams of energy. Really? That last one?
Sighted: In Fairfax, fighting the Abyss, then in a timeless dimension, getting captured by Blackjack.
Possibilities: Aside from the silly scepter, a perfectly credible 70s hero riding in the wake of the Ghost Rider. I'd have him team up with the Jones/Parobeck El Diablo or something.
Integration Quotient: 30% (lost some points with that scepter, I have to say)
Name: Starburst (sounds like candy, but a fine, generic superhero name)
Created by: Heloise Doucet, Age 13, of Sudbury, Ontario
Costume: A yellow costume that almost merges with her pale yellow skin, it features bell-bottoms with red stars at the top and bottom, high-heeled boots with a star at the tip, a white belt again with a red starburst, and a similar starburst dividing long glove from upper arm. Not unpleasant in a Dazzler sort of way.
Powers: Starburst fires energy bursts. STAR-powered bursts. So, starbursts. From hands and eyes. And she can fly.
Sighted: In Fairfax, fighting the Abyss, then on a marsh world, fighting the Serpent.
Possibilities: She's got a pretty nice look, too bad about the generic powers. Well, if Stuntmaster can be derivative of the Ghost Rider, she can be a Dazzler clone. DC could use the pair as 70s heroes (possibly now required) to fill in the gaps in their history as the time scale slides, even as parodies of heroes popular at the time.
Integration Quotient: 35% (no scepter scores her 5 more percentage points)
Name: Shadow Master (one of my first role-players back in high school had a ninja called Shadow Master; man, that Shadow Master PC was a BASTARD)
Created by: Stephen Berezowecki, Age 15, of Winnipeg, Manitoba
Costume: On the whole, your basic superhero duds, with gloves and boots clearly stolen from Captain America, but with a black, eyeless hood, black cape and black belt (with a honking big buckle). He also uses a metal wand with a sort of blunt arrow point at both ends.
Powers: Shadow Master can summon and control a smokey cloud of darkness with his wand.
Sighted: In a timeless dimension, briefly attempting to fight Blackjack.
Possibilities: A sort of low-rent Doctor Mid-Nite, he looks and feels like an obscure (pun intended) Golden Age character. Let him show up in a crowd scene in All-Star Squadron or something.
Integration Quotient: 20% (the name deserved a better design)

Bonus Supervillains
Name: The Squid (loved it as a Charlton Blue Beetle adversary, love it here; the name was also used for a Gotham crime boss)
Created by: Lester English, Age 31, of Claplin, KS
Costume: In blue and pink, the full body suit features some piping from shoulders to gloves, gloves covering hands that end in prehensile, sucker-tipped fingers. The mask and chest both have a stylized squid on them (overkill?). Under that mask, the Squid is a plump reptilian with strange ears and short fangs.
Powers: The Squid can shoot special inks from his finger tips, to create slicks, of course, but that can also act as a powerful acid.
Sighted: In Fairfax, stealing jewels, presumably because as an alien, our money had no value to him. He was apprehended by Tempest and Radarman, but managed to escaped with the help of his "companion", Abyss. He was later lost in the Abyss' inner dimensions.
Possibilities: I don't know if you consider reappearing in a Dial H comic cheating, but the Squid IS a part of the New52. And apparently, so are Chris and Vicki, since these events are referenced in the new series. He was eventually rescued from the ether by Ex Nihilo.
Integration Quotient: 100% (what can I say?)
Name: The Abyss (my favorite Cameron film, but a bit depressing for a super-character)
Created by: Robert A. Buethe, Age 21, of Elmont, NY
Costume: None. The Abyss appears as a giant humanoid silhouette through which one can see stars and planets in space.
Powers: The Abyss is a living gateway to other worlds, at least some of them (if not all) appearing to exist in another dimension. If the Abyss is under attack, it may lose control of the destination it proffers.
Sighted: In Fairfax, helping the Squid in his crime spree. It seemed to implode while under attack from Fairfax hero Topsy-Turvy.
Possibilities: Like the Squid, the Abyss is currently appearing in the Dial H comic, where Ex Nihilo has tried to merge with it. I wouldn't be surprised if its inner dimensions were somehow related to the identities Dialed up by our heroes.
Integration Quotient: 100% (thank you Mr. Mieville)

Two more entries to go before Adventure 490 is done. Don't touch that Dial!

Doctor Who #338: Carnival of Monsters Part 3

"Merciful and compassionate?" "One has... twinges."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Feb.10 1973.

IN THIS ONE... The drashigs get loose inside the miniscope.

REVIEW: Ok, I give up. Where's that television metaphor I heard so much about? In reviewers' heads, apparently. Carnival of Monsters has some fun adventure strip gags, but it's really not the meta-textual masterpiece its reputation suggests it is. At least, not yet. The sequences with the Lurmans and Inter Minorians, where that thread is meant to be explored, just turns into a coup d'etat in the making. A well-scripted one, with Kalik allowing things to go pear-shaped so he can blame the president later, but it doesn't really have another level, and often looks like it's just about people standing around the telly. This shift means the Doctor and Jo can once again inhabit the more interesting parts of the episode, and that would be the drashig attack. These creatures are pretty well realized, a certain wetness preventing them from looking plasticky (Jo could do with a little wetness on her legs after she gets stuck in the muddy stream... maybe the Doctor treated her pants with quick-drying chemicals back at UNIT HQ). The Doctor uses the sonic screwdriver to explode marsh gas and keep the monsters at bay, and that looks pretty cool.

But when the drashigs are interacting with anything outside their native environment, things start to go wrong. The CSO just isn't up to par in most cases. The giant hand that keeps them away from the Doctor and Jo can't quite interact with the monsters (you kinda wish Vorg would at least act like he got bitten). There's heavy halo-ing when the drashig gets on the ship (and should Ian Marter's character be throwing dynamite around on a boat?!). And frequently questions of scale (it's possible the Doctor comes across a smaller dead juvenile, but when he walks out of the miniscope, he's much too big - had he been growing for a while and that was a fully-grown adult after all?). The drashig busting out of the deck does look good - thanks to the white sky - but it seems like a missed opportunity for it not to fight the plesiosaur while it's at it.

The Doctor and Jo do manage to escape the spectacle to have a couple of character-driven scenes. The best of these is the "lateral thinking" scene, in which Jo (sincerely) credits the Doctor's brilliance for her own. It's sweet and funny and a measure of how much she idolizes the Doctor. She hits upon something that's escaped him, but she naturally believes he was already knew the answer, but teacher-like, was trying to get it out of her before he revealed it. Cute. We also find out that the Doctor had something to do with banning miniscope technology, an intriguing tidbit about the Doctor's pre-travel days. See Theories for more on that.

THEORIES: The revelation that the Doctor was instrumental in banning the miniscope and in the Time Lords "recalling" them seems to suggest that miniscopes are Time Lord technology. Yes, Vorg says its generator was built by the Eternity Perpetual Company, but that sounds like a Time Lord front, or could be a parts manufacturer used by the Time Lords. The Doctor doesn't recognize the tech initially, but that's probably a matter of scale. The machine is TARDIS-like in that it is bigger on the inside. It's only relatively bigger because it shrinks its occupants, but look at Planet of Giants again, where a TARDIS fault shrinks down the crew. Obviously, this dimension-changing is part of the Time Lords' bag of tricks (also see the Master's tissue compression eliminator). And then there's the time loop the 1926 characters are caught in. We might also ask just how the creatures inside are collected. How about a time scoop (mentioned in multi-Doctor stories)? From there, we don't have far to go to remember the Death Zone where ancient Time Lords liked to pit people and monsters against one another (The Five Doctor). Isn't the miniscope just a furniture version of the same idea? And if there IS a ban on these things, this example slipped between the cracks. Why does the Doctor land inside when he was aiming for Metebelis 3? Could it be just one more Time Lord mission before they really end his exile? Seems like it's a lot more relevant than those on Peladon and Solos, and the story was actually made as part of the previous season's production, i.e. before The Three Doctors and the official end of the exile. Convinced yet?

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - Big comic book set pieces that kind of get away from the effects budget. While there's some wit to the script, the plot isn't exactly firing on all cylinders.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

10 of My Favorite RPG Mechanics

You know me. I have a pretty big collection of role-playing games (mostly accumulated during the 80s and 90s) and I've run and played my fair share of them. I've seen all sorts of approaches to character generation, combat, powers, advancement, story manipulation and genre emulation. But it's only once in a while that some rule or game mechanic so completely entrances me that it actually changes how I perceive the hobby, often causing me to integrate said mechanic is other games. Here are 10 of my favorites in no particular order. Don't be shy about sharing yours.

Cinematic Points

Even after playing years of DC Heroes which had a Hero Point mechanic, I still didn't clue into the usefulness of what I now call Cinematic Points until much later, using Chad Underkoffler's plug-in for GURPS published in Pyramid. Whether you call these Karma, or Bennies, or Story Points, or Star Power, CPs are a pool of points you can use to affect the story being collectively told. At their most basic (and boring), they provide to hit bonuses or health surges, but they get exciting when players use them to change details in their environment to make scenes more fun and memorable (anything from creating a beaker of acid on the lab bench to revealing a key henchman was actually working on their side). Cinematic Points effectively put some of the story telling power usually reserved for the GameMaster into the players' hands, and I've always found it a rewarding process. In fact, I've actively chosen games with the mechanic since, or considered adding them to help in genre emulation where they were absent.

AD&D's Kits and Factions
This could have been a token D&D entry (the only game many gamers care about), but I was genuinely excited when 2nd Edition came out with the Fighter's Handbook and all those great ways of differentiating one Fighter from another. Other books in the series varied in quality, but the core concept was sound. Without actually splatting tons of new classes, you could add a layer of flavor (be it role, culture or trope) on top of very basic classes and create an entirely new playing experience. With Planescape, my favorite D&D setting of them all, Faction (the character's philosophy) added yet another layer. And with each layer, you gained cool abilities and interesting-to-play flaws.

FATE's Aspects
On the opposite end of the spectrum from D&D, and coming to me via Over the Edge, is the way the FATE family of systems handles attributes. Instead of every character having the same quantifiable stats (you know the ones, STR, DEX, END, INT, etc.), the player would basically be in charge of creating a catch-all attribute that would come into play any time an element of that "Aspect" became relevant. For example, you might have a wide archetype like Civilized Barbarian or Gentleman Thief, or a more focused personality trait like Tough Customer or Wiseacre. Depending on the game, it can also be a key gadget like Sentient Sword or a super-power like Insects Follow My Every Whim. The lesson is that you don't need a whole bunch of nitty-gritty rules for every possible character concept or effect, and it's an ultimately freeing one.

DC Heroes' elegant MEGS
The Mayfair Exponential Game System (or MEGS) is the engine that used to power DC Heroes RPG (and still powers Blood of Heroes, its DC-free variant), and I love its elegance. Not only does it solve the problem of exponential attribute systems required of super-hero gaming (you have to model Superman and Lois Lane without the math getting out of control), but it effectively hides its mechanics from view during play. Players roll their Acting Value against an Opposing Value, and the better they roll, the better they might do when confronting Effect Values to Resistance Values. It sounds a little complicated when I try to explain, but magically, it's incredibly simple during play. The GM simply cross-references numbers on just two tables (AV/OV and EV/RV) and the trick is done. No muss, no fuss. A brilliant piece of game engineering.

DC Adventures' Combat Advantages
Running on the most recent edition of Mutants & Masterminds, DC Adventures solves a couple problems I've had with many superhero games. One, how to make non-powered heroes as interesting as their powered counterparts and not all seem like the same exact character on a stats level. And two, how to allow superheroes to improve over time without screwing up their entire core concepts. The solution is Combat Advantages (and to some extent, other types of Advantages, like Skill Adv.) that are basically maneuvers a character has gotten especially good at. A hero being particularly good at aiming, or having a bag of martial arts tricks that include sweep-the-leg and feints, are things that can be added over time without corrupting what the hero was all about to begin with. It's a simple idea that I've been trying to retrofit into DCH for upcoming games.

Savage Worlds' Common Knowledge roll
A role-playing problem it took me a long time to crack is how to get certain elements of any given campaign world across to the players without an info-dump character, or worse, asking them to read pages and pages of a sourcebook. SW makes the point that characters living on a world will know things about that world the players don't. The Common Knowledge roll is an easier-than-normal Smarts roll that allows a character to tap into that information, while still allow them to sometimes be ignorant. It also gives players a reason to invest in their characters' backgrounds, because the brash nobleman and the lowly farmhand won't be allowed to roll Common Knowledge in the same situations. Irrevocably changed how I treat Intelligence/IQ in my games.

Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space's initiative system

In recent years, DWAITAS has given us a wonderful bit of genre emulation through an initiative system that makes Talkers go first, followed by Runners, then Doers, and finally Fighters. The idea is to encourage Doctor Who games to resolve like a lot of Doctor Who episodes do, with the Doctor winning on words or jiggery-pokery while the Daleks somehow always shoot too late. It's a great feature to get players away from the combat-centric way most games deal with adversarial encounters, and could be used as a model for how parlay works in other games, or how to handle non-combat games in general. (Don't worry, the UNIT Sourcebook adds a Trait that allows impulsive or well-trained fighters to move up the cue. Brilliantly, it's called Five Rounds Rapid.)

Toon's 50/50 Rule
Another great lesson in how not to over-complicate things. Toon's cartoon aesthetic says that whenever a player asks a question about his or her environment, you can simply roll the dice (or a coin, frankly) with yes or no having an equal chance of being the result. That's as true of "Is there a cliff nearby?" as it is of "Is it raining anvils?" I've learned to keep things flexible instead of sticking rigidly to a hand-drawn map or room description. A 50% rule like this one allows you to give players what they want to make a scene interesting about half the time, without catering to their every whim (the other half of the time).

Paranoia's Dramatic Tactical Combat System
Be interesting, live. Be boring, die. I couldn't have said it any better. I've heard the words "I slash at it" and "I shoot it" enough for multiple lifetimes.

So what are YOUR favorite RPG mechanics?

Doctor Who #337: Carnival of Monsters Part 2

"Suppose we're due for the monster bit any minute now?"
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Feb.3 1973.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor and Jo gum up the mini-scope's works.

REVIEW: There sure is a lot of eye candy in this episode. The miniaturized Doctor and Jo walk around a pretty effective circuit board set. A giant eye looks down upon them and jump away from a giant tool (one of the better CSO effects ever). The only Cyberman of the Pertwee era on the mini-scope screen. The bubbling stream. The drashig bursting out of the marsh (I want that hand puppet!). It's all very well done and nice to look at, as is the alien planet's set itself. Top notch design effort by Roger Liminton and his team.

But while there's a lot to see, what I'm NOT particularly seeing is that vaunted satire about television. Sure, the mini-scope is a big viewer thing, and there's an occasional meta line like the one above, but really, how much of this is actually taking a shot across TV's bow? We have aliens salivating at the prospect of being shown violence, but it's not like our own remote controls have aggrometers on them. Instead, the real thrust of the "normal-sized" thread is how the gray aliens are so paranoid that they fear these carnival barkers are the spearhead of an invasion. It's funny to see one of them handle a growing TARDIS as if it were a bomb or a pooping baby, but the dialog isn't quite as crisp as it was in Part 1.

The weakest element by far is the stuff on the S.S. Bernice. We're still going through the time loop, and those different angles are particularly flattering. I didn't want to mention it in Part 1's review, but 1926 as depicted in Carnival is off-puttingly racist. Part 1 had comments about lazy Madrassi, and now something about "Johnny Chinaman". It's historically accurate, of that I have no doubt, but since it's not at all relevant to the story, couldn't they have had the characters talking about something else and avoided the racial slurs entirely? The boxing match the Doctor indulges in didn't do it for me either, I'm afraid. Of note is the sonic tool the Doctor uses to open the mystery deck plate, obviously a functionality he'll give the screwdriver in the future; and the fact that humans are called Tellurians for the first time - interesting that aliens have a species name for us. But not THAT interesting.

VERSIONS: The Special Edition DVD includes an earlier edit of this episode, about 29 minutes long. It includes the clap board outtake, an immediately scrapped new version of the theme tune (it's not that bad, but inferior to the original; if you were in Australia at the time, this arrangement actually went out on the air) and extra scenes, such as the Minorians patronizing the Lurmans and interrogating them about the miniscope, and the people on the S.S. Bernice trying to explain the heat they felt in the eradicator attack (gotta be sunspots!). Because Part 1 under-ran, this Part 2 edit features a number of scenes that were, in the broadcast version, shifted to Part 1.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - This story is highly regarded, but I've yet to fall in love with it. Lots of nice sets and effects, but the various ideas haven't come together meaningfully yet.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

I. Am. Canadian. And I Still Watch the U.S. Presidential Debates

Machine Man says:
You warn me well about the dangers of reality TV, noble machine. You warn me well. And yet, I can't seem to look away. Canadian debates have a lot more candidates at the table, which makes them less entertaining television. The key to the U.S. debates is the very simple Good vs. Evil structure (it's your choice of what policies you deem good and evil, my American friends). In two weeks, the season finale!

Doctor Who #336: Carnival of Monsters Part 1

"Our purpose is to amuse, simply to amuse. Nothing serious, nothing political." "Amusement is prohibited. It's purposeless."
TECHNICAL SPECS: This story is available on DVD, both in standard and Special Edition formats. First aired Jan.27 1973.

IN THIS ONE... The TARDIS seems to materialize on a ship in the Indian Ocean. On a gray planet, colorful entertainers try to show off their wares.

REVIEW: The last time Robert Holmes (writer) and Barry Letts (director) collaborated, it gave us Terror of the Autons. Carnival of Monsters has all the makings of the same kind of serial, that is to say, a number of comic book-y set pieces strung together in a makeshift plot. The TARDIS has landed in some kind of collection of objects, people and monsters from around time and space, and without looking ahead (and obviously, I've seen Carnival before), you can guess a lost ship from the 1920s stuck in a time loop and attacked by a plesiosaur, isn't the last such set piece we're likely to get. The cool cliffhanger with a giant hand reaching in as if from the 4th dimension and grabbing the TARDIS is another wonderful comic book image as well. More crazy stuff under that strange metal plate, you can be sure of that. But is it an engaging structure?

On top of that is a completely separate thread on an alien planet that's actually quite well realized. The architecture, the models, the costumes, the backdrops, are all some of the best the series has yet seen made for a "future" setting. Yes, the Lurmans' costumes are outrageously silly, but damn it, they WORK. Vorg and Shirna are clearly circus folk and their colorful duds clash brilliantly with the planet's gray natives, both its functionaries and its "official species". These scenes best show off Holmes' developing talent, both in its creation of comic double acts in both species, and in his send-up of a stifling, unimaginative bureaucracy. The Lurmans' machine hasn't been turned on yet, but the satire on television entertainment is already under way. Here is a society where entertainment is outlawed, pending its re-intruduction if the meeting with the Lurmans goes well, and its inarticulate masses, lacking an opiate, are rising against their masters. If the Doctor and Jo are inside the TV machine, then that time loop on the ship is a direct attack on the medium's repetitiveness. Attacking TV on a TV show is dangerous business. Can Holmes pull it off?

It's rather too bad that the Doctor and Jo aren't part of the satire, but rather inside the meta-textually criticized, "packaged" story. Sure, the Doctor gets to jokingly say he's never wrong and kind of mean it anyway, and Jo produces her skeleton keys to get them out of trouble. And yeah, we get Ian Marter's first appearance on the series, just not yet as Harry Sullivan. But we're all just waiting for the two story threads to tie together, and unfortunately, it's the Doctor-Jo thread that tries one's patience. The redundancy is part of it, because there's nothing really clever done with the repetition, but it's also the mundane setting (dinosaur or not) and flimsy soap elements the guest characters are caught in. The imagination is all in the other thread.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - Creative alien planet and the beginning of some nice satire, but the Doctor and Jo are trapped in a lackluster scenario. That it's part of the point doesn't really help, not after a single episode.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Random Thoughts on Arrow

Two episodes into [Green] Arrow, here are some stray thoughts (it's Monday, don't ask for proper paragraphs)...

1. I generally like it, or at least, I don't find it unpleasant. There's some mystery and soap opera, the acting is ok, and the action is mostly on par with something like Angel or Buffy. I don't mind that Oliver Queen is ready to kill, though the second episode shows it's not his only avenue for justice.

2. The model for this thing is really Hamlet, isn't it? He's a rich "prince" whose father was killed, and his mother soon remarried to a family friend now running the "empire". Not sure if Dr. Moon (sorry, Walter Steele) is a Claudius figure, or if Gertrude is the only real traitor here. Then there's Laurel Lance as Ophelia, and her rash intruding father, hard-nosed cop Detective Lance who forbids Oliver from seeing his daughter. Tommy seems to be both Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, which leaves bodyguard Diggle as a Horatio in becoming. The sister isn't in the play.

3. People have commented on it a lot, but it's true: What is UP with the naming strategy in this series? The names call so much attention to themselves, and fall into on or more of three categories, really. Characters from the comics: Dinah Laurel Lance is Black Canary in the comics; "Speedy", here Oli's sister, is the name of Green Arrow's side-kick; Tommy's last name is Merlyn, the archer from the League of Assassins. Characters named after GA creators: Nocenti, the surname of current GA scribe Ann, is an unusual enough monicker to seem very strange indeed uttered so often this week; Diggle looks to be named after Andy, who wrote the Year One mini; isn't there a Grell too? I forget. And finally, characters whose last names mean something in English: Queen, Steele, Felicity Smoak (Firestorm's stepmom?!), Hunt, Lamb... It's like nobody has a normal name.

4. Speaking of names, why ISN'T the series called Green Arrow? Too silly? The title sits uncomfortably in my mouth. It can't be THE Arrow either, because that's a whole other character from the Golden Age, later resurrected by Malibu Comics. And why doesn't it take place in Star City? Starling City is just as silly, you know.

5. Supervillains. I was sorely disappointed back in the day when the Flash TV series, despite a hero in colorful long-johns, only produced one real supervillain (with echoes of others in certain bad guys). But by now, we've seen Deathstroke's mask, met China White, and this week, it's going to be Deadshot (the bar's set pretty high on this one though).

6. I still have trouble differentiating Laurel and Thea/Speedy in any given scene. Maybe if the actresses didn't have the same exact head of hair!

7. And speaking of Speedy: I understand melodrama, and I'm used to soap situations featuring the very rich, but sheesh, her whole rant about her life being hell while Oli was cast away on a deserted island was rating grating. Cry me a river, rich girl. So when does Oli get to walk in on her shooting up smack?

8. I'm watching it for the foreseeable future, DC, so you can take those damn banners off your comics. They're really heinous.