June 27, 2016

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The Game"

It is 28 October 1991, and time for another episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton) returns to the USS Enterprise. While he romances Ensign Robin Lefler (Ashley Judd), a mysterious virtual reality game brought back from Risa by Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) becomes an obsession for the ship's crew.

Wil Wheaton returns to The Next Generation for a guest appearance, almost exactly a year after he exited the series as a regular member of the cast. It is actually a welcome return. Since this has been his only episode in the past 12 months he is actually given agency, intelligence and a stronger sense of purpose. The writing of Wesley in this episode demonstrates very clearly that it was never the character nor Wil Wheaton's performance that made the character so disliked by many Star Trek fans: it was the sloppy, disinterested writing. I am an unashamed Wesley Crusher fan, and as a character he is working brilliantly here.

June 26, 2016

Screamers (1995)

On the planet Sirius 6B, the last remaining garrison of Alliance soldiers wait for further attacks from the New Economic Block, or NEB. It has been months since any sighting of the enemy. Any NEB soldiers who might risk approaching the compound will be immediately killed by the underground robots known as "Screamers". When a sole NEB soldier does arrive and is killed, it turns out he was carrying a request for a truce and a peace negotiation. Commanding officer Joe Hendricksson (Peter Weller) sets out to meet as requested, and in doing so discovers there is more to the Screamers than he had been led to believe.

Screamers is a 1995 science fiction thriller based loosely on the short story "Second Variety" by Philip K. Dick. Its screenplay was written by Dan O'Bannon, who also adapted Dick's "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale" as Total Recall and who had co-written both Dark Star and Alien. It is a low-budget affair, shot in Canada by director Christian Duguay. I remember when it was originally released it received fairly poor reviews but quickly gained a small cult following. I had not seen the film in 20 years, so it seemed about time to revisit it and see how Screamers has held up.

The Pull List: 22 June 2016, Part 2

It has been more than two months since the last issue of The Autumnlands dropped: the sporadic release schedule of this comic has been hampering its momentum a tad. That's a great pity, because writer Kurt Busiek and artist Benjamin Dewey have been consistently presenting one of the best fantasy comics of recent years. I suppose an irregular schedule may simply be the price of quality in this case. It's a trade-off I'm happy to make.

In issue #11, Learoyd, Dusty and Aelbert approach the top of the mountain, and the source of the infection that has poisoned the village below. What they find at the peak is certainly a bit of a surprise, and an intriguing set-up for whatever happens next.

Part of the appeal of The Autumnlands is its comparatively unique setting. It started off appearing to be a pulp fantasy populated with anthropomorphic animals: Dusty is a pitbull terrier wizard-in-training, for example. Aelbert is a barbarian goat. Before long, however, the very human Learoyd arrived - with technology and a lot of mystery. Now that mystery has increased issue by issue. Clearly something happened to turn Learoyd's world into Dusty's, but for now there's no real information as to what it was. Action, great characters, and an intriguing mystery: how could any reader resist? (4/5)

The Autumnlands #11. Image. Written by Kurt Busiek. Art by Benjamin Dewey. Colours by Jordie Bellaire.

Under the cut: reviews of Doctor Strange, Usagi Yojimbo and a delayed review of Darth Vader.

June 25, 2016

Colditz: "Lord, Didn't It Rain"

It is 30 November 1972, and time for another episode of Colditz.

A new inmate arrives, whose cheerful manner and over-the-top Britishness immediately raise the suspicions of his fellow prisoners. Lt Player (Christopher Neame) takes the sudden opportunity of a break for freedom, and soon finds himself on the road to Vienna - and experiencing the most remarkable string of unexpected encounters.

I had assumed after the initial trilogy of introductory episodes that Colditz would now restrain itself to the confines of its castle prison. Instead "Lord, Didn't It Rain" turns out to be a surprise: after a weird misdirection in its opening minutes most of the episode takes place in Germany and Austria as Dick Player makes his dangerous attempt at escape.

June 24, 2016

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Disaster"

It is 21 October 1991, and time for another episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

When the Enterprise collides with a quantum filament, it leaves the ship's crew trapped in a variety of life-and-death situations. Troi (Marina Sirtis) finds herself in command for the first time, aided by Chief O'Brien (Colm Meaney) and Ensign Ro (Michelle Forbes). La Forge (LeVar Burton) and Dr Crusher (Gates McFadden) are trapped in a cargo bay with a radioactive fire. Worf (Michael Dorn) must assist Keiko O'Brien (Rosalind Chao) in giving birth in Ten Forward. Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Data (Brent Spiner) have to find a route to the Engineering deck to stop the ship from exploding. Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) is trapped in a turbolift with three crying children and a broken ankle.

The Next Generation's tribute to the all-star multi-plot disaster films of the 1970s is a gleeful, wonderfully indulgent and wholly entertaining romp. It is good-humoured, features a strong balance between the regular cast members, throws in a couple of semi-regular characters for good measure, and keeps a fast, addictive pace from the cold open to the closing credits. It is not Shakespeare by any strength, but it is a tremendous amount of fun.

Bodacious Space Pirates: "The Bonds Between the Four"

It is 12 May 2012, and time for another episode of Bodacious Space Pirates.

The space yacht club head back up to the relay station to clean the Odette II, finding some half-forgotten space dinghies in the process. Marika takes the opportunity to head over to the Bentenmaru for some spring cleaning of her own, accidentally losing her ID ring to power the ship in the process.

This is a slightly weird episode, but if any form of TV entertainment is going to dedicate an entire episode to cleaning and tidying spaceships it is going to be anime. This is yet another 'downtime' episode of Bodacious Space Pirates, giving the ongoing narrative a pause between story arcs and taking the opportunity to do something a bit lighter and more relaxed.

June 23, 2016

The Pull List: 22 June 2016, Part 1

Now that we are about a month into DC Comics' Rebirth initiative, it is becoming fairly clear what the publisher's game plan entails. There's no doubt the publisher was heading into fairly scary territory, with sales declining across most titles and the long-term fanbase becoming increasingly vocal in criticising the creative direction and choices of the New 52 superhero line. It seems to me that Rebirth is less about re-energising the company's characters and more about saving the furniture. New ideas can wait for another day: Rebirth is about giving long-term readers the exact sorts of characters and situations with which they are most comfortable.

Take Aquaman, for example, which launches this week with an all-new volume. It is no surprise to see the first storyline out of the gate feature Black Manta launching yet another assault on Aquaman and Mera. It is effectively like launching Action Comics with a Superman/Lex Luthor/Doomsday triple-header (see below), or throwing Tim Drake, Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown into action in Detective Comics (also see below). These new books are specifically tailored to give pre-existing readers immediately familiar set-ups and to stimulate their sense of nostalgia. To an extent this approach works perfectly fine: Aquaman #1 is an entertaining read, with some nice character set-ups and a solid pace. To a further extent, however, it really is just more of the same. The last decade or so has seen DC go out of its way to make everything feel like the 1960s again - only with bleak ultra-violence thrown in for good measure. Rebirth is making everything feel like the early 1990s instead. So far the bleak violence is taking a back seat, and I hope it stays there, but I can't help but feel DC needs something a bit more interesting to fully retake the American comic book market.

Other thoughts on Aquaman #1: the art by Walker and Hennessey is a little bit off, as if there's an odd hint of Frank Quitely about some of the pages that jibes with the more traditional super-heroic look. I'm also a little concerned this first issue is leading into another 'on the run and falsely accused' storyline, which was only recently done for half a year in this very title by Cullen Bunn. (3/5)

Aquaman #1. DC Comics. Written by Dan Abnett. Art by Brad Walker and Andrew Hennessey. Colours by Gabe Eltaeb.

Under the cut: reviews of Action Comics, Detective Comics and Robin: Son of Batman.

N64:20 #1: The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time (1998)

In 2016 the Nintendo 64 turns 20 years old. It was Nintendo's third videogame console, produced to succeed the enormously successful SNES. Upon its release in 1996 Time magazine claimed it was "machine of the year". While the N64 failed to best Sony's enormously popular PlayStation - a console in whose early development Nintendo had a key hand - it still sold almost 33 million units worldwide and hosted some of the greatest videogames ever made. To celebrate its anniversary I'm counting down my top 20 N64 videogames; not necessarily the best titles released on the format, but definitely my personal favourites.

Some games are good, some are bad. Occasionally one comes along that is genuinely great, but even rarer still is the game that makes a real and lasting impact on your life. It creates fond memories of playing it, and discovering its world. It sticks in your mind for years after the fact. These are the games I treasure. They are generally either role-playing or adventure games: ones with a fictional world to explore, and characters to discover. They are games that require a significant investment of time, because they tell an actual story. They are not just fun to play, they have a real emotional effect.

There have been a bunch over the years for me. Secret of Mana. Shenmue. Red Dead Redemption. Harvest Moon. Of all of the games that have stuck with me over the years in this fashion, the best of them by a country mile is The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time.