January 31, 2013

The Pull List: 30 January 2013

Tie-in comics are a funny thing to me. If there's a successful film or television series, it has a reasonable chance of being adapted in comic book form. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Wars, Star Trek and a whole plethora of old toy franchises have all made the transition. Some have been great. Some... not so much. It does create a lot of problems with how the property is translated though.

Comics are not films, and they're not TV shows, and often an attempt to adapt a text from one medium to another will result in a book that pleases nobody. Exploit the potential of the comic book and you might drag the story too far away from the property it's based on. Leave it too slavishly imitative of the original and you start to question why it's been turned into a comic. Trying to please two audiences at the same time must drive the creative teams made, and it's no wonder so many tie-in books are so utterly disappointing.

If you want to read an exceptional tie-in comic, Brian Wood's Star Wars #1 came out a few weeks back and was absolutely fantastic. It skirts the line wonderfully, feeling very faithful to the 1977 film yet adding its own elements at the same time. Princess Leia as an X-Wing fighter pilot? I'm sold.

This week, pretty much on a whim, I purchased two other tie-in comics: IDW's Doctor Who: Prisoners of Time and DC Comics' Masters of the Universe: The Origin of He-Man. Also under the cut: reviews of All-New X-Men, All-Star Western, Aquaman, Batman and Robin, Batman Incorporated, The Flash, Hawkeye, Journey into Mystery and X-Men Legacy.

Free Enterprise #32: "Marauders"

Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai must be one of the most remade motion pictures of all time. MGM remade it as a western in The Magnificent Seven. Roger Corman remade it as a space opera in Battle Beyond the Stars. Pixar remade it as a cartoon in A Bug's Life. Dreamworks remade it as a sci-fi comedy in Galaxy Quest. It's also been remade as a videogame and an anime TV series. I suppose with that kind of lineage it's only reasonable that Star Trek remakes The Seven Samurai as well.

The Enterprise is in dire need of deuterium fuel, following its collision with a Romulan mine some weeks back (see "Minefield"). Archer, T'Pol and Trip take a shuttlepod down to a mining colony in the hopes of making a trade. What they find is a colony living in fear of a roaming group of Klingon warriors, who are exploiting the villagers for their deuterium. Unwilling to let a bully stand, Archer decides to wait for the Klingons to return and help the colonists to fight back.

January 29, 2013

Babble On #34: "Gropos"

Babylon 5 is unexpectedly visited by the EAS Schwarzkopf. 25,000 Earthforce soldiers are to temporarily billet on the station, en route to a secret mission. They are commanded by General Richard Franklin (Paul Winfield), Dr Franklin's estranged father. Their arrival leads many to question the station's future purpose: can a station dedicated to diplomacy afford to host Earth's military, even for two days?

What an odd title. When I first saw it I figured Gropos was a planet or a person. Instead it is the plural of 'gropo' ('Ground and pound'), the nickname given to the Earth Alliance's ground troops . Basically the space marines have come to stay at the station for a few days, to indulge in their penchant for tedious cliches.

Who50: "Vengeance on Varos"

Who50 counts down to the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who by reviewing my favourite episodes and serials over the history of the programme, counting down from #50 to #1. Today, #40: "Vengeance on Varos", a 1985 four-part serial written by Philip Martin and directed by Ron Jones.

Colin Baker really did have an unfair run at portraying the Doctor. First of all he was cast during a rocky period in the series' history where rising violence led BBC1 controller Michael Grade to axe the series entirely - and then rapidly backtrack to delay its return by 18 months instead. When the series did return it was with an episode order than was nearly halved: Fourteen 25-minute episodes instead of thirteen 50-minute episodes. There was also a severe issue with poor script quality: count up some of the worst stories ever produced in Doctor Who's history, and you'll find several of them in Colin Baker's two seasons.

Then there was the Doctor-companion relationship, bizarrely written to regularly have the Doctor and Peri sniping at one another from story to story. The Doctor in general was characterisation as fairly unlikeable: the idea was to make him more alien, and progressively soften him over a period of years. Since Baker only lasted two seasons in three years before being unfairly fired from the role, this progressive softening never got the chance to happen. And that costume: so bright and colourful that to achieve a viewable colour balance, the entire series around Baker had to be garish and colourful to compensate.

Colin Baker's Doctor has been impressively redeemed through a long-running series of audio dramas produced by Big Finish Productions, but in terms of his TV appearances there are precious little highlights to enjoy. One of them is Philip Martin's "Vengeance on Varos".

January 25, 2013

Free Enterprise #31: " A Night in Sickbay"

On an away mission, the captain's dog succumbs to an alien infection and is confined to sickbay overnight. Archer decides to keep him company, all the while fending off demands from the planet below that he apologise for his dog urinating on a sacred tree. While trying to sleep in sickbay, Archer must cope with Dr Phlox's strange personal habits as well as sexual feeling towards Subcommander T'Pol.

Be honest: did you manage to read through that synopsis without once going "really? really?". "A Night in Sickbay" is a ridiculous episode that tries desperately to be funny but constantly overshoots and lands in the deeply weird instead. Archer's climactic apology to the Kreetassans involves chanting apologies while half-naked and using a chainsaw to cut up an old tree. One scene involves Phlox scraping slime off his ridiculously long and prehensile tongue. A few minutes are devoted to catching an escaped alien bat with an origami replica taped to a mop.

January 24, 2013

The Pull List: 23 January 2013

Sometimes I wonder if Kieron Gillen is the most underrated writer in superhero comics today. I've been criminally negligent in recommending his stuff in this column, mainly because I've been buying his stuff late every month - or simply skipping the monthly issues and going for the trade paperbacks.

With Generation Hope he crafted a story about young mutants travelling the world trying to locate and assist teenagers whose own mutant powers were just manifesting. It was a sharp break from the rest of the X-Me titles, focusing on a team flying around helping and rescuing people rather than fighting megalomaniacs and super-villains. Much of its legacy now lies in Wolverine and the X-Men, another excellent book (albeit not by Gillen) that I've been primarily reading in collected editions.

In Journey to Mystery Gillen tracked a complex, multi-layered adventure for the reincarnated child version of Loki, and manage to create the closest thing to Neil Gaiman's Sandman I've seen outside of Vertigo. It was that ultra-rare superhero comic - one that was too good for the context it was written in. The whole run has recently been completed in collected editions with the Mighty Thor/Journey into Mystery crossover "Everything Burns". It ends perfectly. I got a bit weepy. Many of the readers got a bit weepy.

Now Gillen is continuing the adventures of Kid Loki in Young Avengers, which launches this week. It reunites him with regular collaborator Jamie McKelvie. My review is below. Spoiler: it's rather good.

Under the cut: reviews of Batwoman, Bedlam, Green Lantern, It Girl and the Atomics, Justice League, Legion of Super-Heroes, The Massive, Prophet, Revival, Sword of Sorcery, Uncanny X-Force, Wonder Woman and Young Avengers.

January 23, 2013

Captain America: The New Deal (2002)

When the planes hit the World Trade Center in September 2001, it had an understandably profound effect on the USA, as well as for the USA's various artists and writers. There was an overwhelming desire to somehow process the trauma of that horrific attack, whether directly as in Oliver Stone's film World Trade Center or obliquely as in Matt Reeves' effective analogue Cloverfield. Some writers were attracted to the idea of exploring the USA's relationship to the attacks, what the nation had done to make madmen wish to undertake them, and what responsibility the USA ultimately had for what had occured.

Aaron Sorkin famously devoted an episode of The West Wing to trying to untie the gordian knot of patriotism, guilt and trauma. By most accounts, he famously failed. Here, in the first story arc of the 2002 Captain America, John Rey Nieber attempts to do something similar: process the horrors of 9/11 and America's liability in letting it happen, through the eyes of Marvel's first superhero.

Babble On #33: "The Coming of Shadows"

The ageing Centauri emperor makes his final journey, visiting Babylon 5 on a very special mission. At the same time, Lord Refa and Londo Mollari conspire to redirect the future of the Centauri people. Ambassador G'Kar has assassination on his mind. Garibaldi receives an important message from an old friend.

"The Coming of Shadows" just might be the best Babylon 5 episode so far on this rewatch, and I'm not surprised it was awarded the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation. It's a nuanced, heartfelt, political and ultimately very tragic hour of television. The best tragedies work by putting victory within arm's reach, only for one person's hubris to snatch it out of their grasp. This episode is absolutely heartbreaking, and in one critical moment Londo Mollari looks at G'Kar and realises he's given it all away: his future, his life, his honour and his happiness.

January 21, 2013

Who50: "The Doctor's Wife"

Who50 counts down to the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who by reviewing my favourite episodes and serials over the history of the programme, counting down from #50 to #1. Today, #41: "The Doctor's Wife", a 2011 episode written by Neil Gaiman and directed by Richard Clark.

The TARDIS is out of time, trapped in some pocket dimension outside the known universe. The planetoid that the Doctor, Amy and Rory are on appears to be alive. Their only company are three strange individuals seemingly stitched together out of patchwork - and Idris, a mysterious woman who doesn't seem right in the head and thinks the Doctor is a thief.

"The Doctor's Wife" is fan fiction writ large: it takes several core elements of the series, takes a series of assumptions Doctor Who fans have always made about them, and turns them into part of the series text. It's hopelessly self-indulgent, slightly rushed, and utterly charming.

Free Enterprise #30: "Dead Stop"

After it's damaging encounter with a Romulan minefield (see the previous episode), the Enterprise is in dire need of repair. A passing Tellarite freighter directs them to an automated repair facility, which initially seems too good to be true. Then Ensign Mayweather is killed in a freak accident, and the miraculous facility no longer seems as benevolent as it first appeared.

"Dead Stop" may be one of the best third season episodes of Blake's 7 that I have ever seen, and of course this is slightly bizarre as it's actually a second season episode of Enterprise. I'm sure there's no real reason for the similarity; the two series are divided by the Atlantic Ocean and 25 years. Still, it feels like it would slot in perfectly: swap Archer for Avon and Mayweather for Cally or Dayna and you'd barely need to change a single line.

January 19, 2013

Seriously: why 52 in the New 52?

I've been watching the progress of DC's New 52 over the past 18 months, and one of the elements that is striking me as particularly stupid is their insistence on always publishing 52 monthly comics. I get it: it's in the name, there's brand awareness, and it harks back to the classic weekly series 52 (that, ironically, DC publisher Dan Didio loathed). What it means though is that every time DC cancel a poor-selling series, they immediately replace it with something else. Most of those replacements have failure written all over them.

Seriously, what was the logic of replacing the low-selling Men of War with the near-identical G.I. Combat? Is Team 7 and Phantom Stranger seriously going to shift more units that Static Shock or Mr Terrific? More often than not when a new DC book is announced, it's as good as visible from space how few months that book is going to last before poor sales take it off the market.

I really think a smaller DCU, with less editorial interference, would only help the company in the long run. New titles shouldn't be launched because there's a desire to have 52 monthly books, but rather they should be introduced when there's a demand for a particular character or set-up. Talon is a good example, spinning a new hero out of the popular "Court of Owls" storyline in Batman. DC should be doing more of this - allowing the range to develop organically. Randomly launching Sword of Sorcery or Threshold helps no one. It's a wild stab in the dark, and nine times out of ten it's not going to result in a viable title.

January 18, 2013

Free Enterprise #29: "Minefield"

The Enterprise accidentally flies into an orbital field of invisible mines. When one of the mines attaches itself to the ship but doesn't explode, Reed and Archer venture onto the hull of the Enterprise to disarm it - but the clock is ticking, as the minefield's owners have arrived and want the Enterprise out of their system immediately.

While "Carbon Creek" was a strange, frivolous throwaway hour of television, "Minefield" is a tense, dramatic race-against-the-clock thriller. It has a very tight focus on Reed and Archer, and spends a lot of time enriching their characters while they work to defuse and release the mine before it explodes - taking out the Enterprise's engines in the process. It also marks the Enterprise debut, and therefore chronologically speaking the Star Trek debut, of the Romulan Star Empire.

January 17, 2013

The Pull List: 16 January 2013

More ridiculous shenanigans from DC Comics this week: they'd only just recently let Karen Berger go, then there was the embarrassing firing, spontaneous re-hiring and then denial they'd ever fired Gail Simone. Now they've allowed one creative team to learn their book has been cancelled by waiting for them to read Previews, and they've let several writers go before their first issues have even hit the shelves. They've also cancelled DC Universe Presents, I Vampire and Paul Cornell's Saucer Country - which rather worryingly leaves DC Vertigo with just three ongoing titles: Fables, Fairest (a Fables spin-off) and The Unwritten.

It seems like every week there's another worrying development within DC, suggesting a company in crisis, desperately running downhill in a mad attempt to sell as many comics as possible but constantly changing its mind on how to do that. It's steamrolling over creative teams, reeking of editorial interference and micro-management, and following mad business decisions like constantly ensuring they have 52 ongoing comics on sale each month simply because they like the number.

I'm all for comic publishers trying new ideas, and launching new concepts, but what is the point of publishing a new title that's visibly going to fail from the outset? This week DC release Threshold in such a fashion as it seems they're deliberately setting it up to fail. My review is under the cut, along with reviews of Batgirl, Batman, Batman and Robin, Captain America, Daredevil, Demon Knights, Frankenstein: Agent of SHADE and Saga. (Note: there was yet another issue of All-New X-Men out this week, but due to a shipping error I failed to get mine. I'll review it when I get it.)

Free Enterprise #28: "Carbon Creek"

Over dinner T'Pol tells Archer and Trip the story of her great grandmother T'Mir, who crash-landed with her Vulcan crew at Carbon Creek, Pennsylvania, in 1957. At first it seems the crew is trapped on Earth for good, but when a rescue team makes contact T'Mir is surprised to learn her crewmate doesn't wish to leave.

"Carbon Creek" is one of the most bizarre episodes of Star Trek I've ever seen. Pretty much the entire story is a flashback to 1957, with Jolene Blalock playing both T'Pol and her great grandmother T'Mir. It's a strange, self-contained story that rewrites a bit of Star Trek history while providing an unusual cross-species love story at the same time.

And I hated it.

January 16, 2013

Golden Statue Playbook: Best Director

Best Director has always struck me as a weird award, because there's also an Oscar for Best Picture. Regularly different films will win each award. In 2006, Ang Lee won Best Director for Brokeback Mountain, while Crash was Best Picture. Three years earlier Roman Polanski won Best Director for The Pianist, while Chicago was Best Picture. There's also that weird phenomenon where a film will be nominated for Best Picture but not Best Director: as if the Academy likes the movie, but thinks it directs itself. Since the Best Picture category was expanded to allow for up to 10 nominees this has become a bigger problem that ever: this year Argo, Django Unchained, Zero Dark Thirty and Les Miserables all directed themselves, apparently.

John Ford is the most awarded director in Academy history, with four Oscars. Frank Capra and William Wyler each won three times. William Wyler is also the most nominated director, with 12 nominations in total. On the other hand, pity poor Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Altman, King Vidor and Clarence Brown: all four of them received five nominations over the course of their career, and didn't win once.
  • Amour - Michael Haneke
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild - Benh Zeitlin
  • Life of Pi - Ang Lee
  • Lincoln - Steven Spielberg
  • Silver Linings Playbook - David O. Russell

January 15, 2013

Who50: "Terror of the Zygons"

Who50 counts down to the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who by reviewing my favourite episodes and serials over the history of the programme, counting down from #50 to #1. Today, #42: "Terror of the Zygons", a 1975 four-part serial written by Robert Banks Stewart and directed by Douglas Camfield.

Back in the 1990s, Doctor Who Magazine conducted a fascinating experiment in determining whether or not Doctor Who would still appeal to British children. They screened a four-part Doctor Who serial to a classroom of school children, and were happy to discover that - despite the episodes screened being two decades old - the kids enjoyed Doctor Who just fine. The serial they screened was "Terror of the Zygons", which remains one of the best examples of 'typical' Doctor Who that you can possibly find.

The Doctor returns to modern-day Britain at the request of the Brigadier: there's a string of attacks on North Sea oil rigs going on, which lead the Doctor to the Loch Ness Monster and an alien invasion by the shape-changing Zygons. We've got Tom Baker cementing himself in the role of the Doctor (this serial was filmed as part of his first season, but was held back to launch his second), Sarah-Jane Smith (Elizabeth Sladen) and Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter), UNIT and the Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney), an alien invasion of the Earth, rubber-suit monsters and doppelgangers. This is, in essence, the Who-iest Doctor Who serial of all time. You can very easily argue that these four episodes are the epicentre of Doctor Who's original series.

January 14, 2013

Golden Statue Playbook: Best Supporting Actor

It's interesting this year: all five nominees for Best Supporting Actor have already won at least one Oscar each. As a result, the standard "it's due" argument that leads a lot of veteran performers to win this category doesn't seem to apply.

Past precedents in this category: Walter Brennan is the most awarded supporting actor, with three wins. The most nominated supporting actor is a four-way tie between Brennan, Claude Rains, Jack Nicholson and Arthur Kennedy, with four nominations each.

This year's nominees are:
  • Alan Arkin - Argo
  • Robert De Niro - Silver Linings Playbook
  • Philip Seymour Hoffman - The Master
  • Tommy Lee Jones - Lincoln
  • Christoph Waltz - Django Unchained

January 12, 2013

Golden Statue Playbook: Best Supporting Actress

The Best Supporting Actress Academy Award is one that comes with a reputation for ruining the careers of actresses who won it. It would be easy to pretend this was true: did Brenda Fricker, Mercedes Ruehl or Marisa Tomei go anywhere after their wins? (Well, actually yes.)

Instead it's an award that is relatively easier to win for obscure or up-and-coming actresses, since for whatever reason Academy voters are more likely to extend acclaim for a category that seems less prestigious than Best Actress. The five nominees this year are:
  • Amy Adams - The Master
  • Sally Field - Lincoln
  • Anne Hathaway - Les Miserables
  • Helen Hunt - The Sessions
  • Jackie Weaver - Silver Linings Playbook
Two actresses have won Best Supporting Actress twice: Shelley Winters and Dianne Weist.

January 11, 2013

Golden Statue Playbook: Best Actress

The second Oscar category I've decided to have a look at is, sensibly enough, Best Actress. A few notable things immediately leap out here. Emmanuelle Riva, at 85 years old, is the oldest nominee in this category ever. Quvenzhané Wallis, at nine years old, is the youngest ever. The remaining three nominees - Jessica Chastain, Jennifer Lawrence and Naomi Watts - have all been nominated for an Oscar before. Perhaps this year is their year? Well, one of their years. Obviously unless it's an unprecedented three-way draw only one them is going to win it.

Some background for this category: the most awarded actress in Oscar history remains Katherine Hepburn with four wins. The most nominated actress is, unsurprisingly, Meryl Streep, whose received 14 nominations over the course of her career.
  • Jessica Chastain - Zero Dark Thirty
  • Jennifer Lawrence - Silver Linings Playbook
  • Emmanuelle Riva - Amour
  • Quvenzhan√© Wallis - Beasts of Southern Wild
  • Naomi Watts - The Impossible

Golden Statue Playbook: Best Actor

I have a long-running love affair with the Oscars. I love the ceremony, with its ridiculous dresses and  unbelievably inflated sense of pomp and importance. I particularly like that they are essentially an annual barometer for Hollywood. They're not and have never really been an accurate measure of what's good. What they do accurately represent, however, is how the industry - particularly its actors, who form the majority of the Academy's voting members - is thinking.
This year's awards are particularly interesting because for most of the races it's actually quite difficult to decide which nominee is most likely to win. Many years the awards are pretty much a foregone conclusion. This is not one of those years. (Full nominations available here.)

In a self-indulgent move - because let's face it, all my posts are pretty self-indulgent - I've decided to have a look at some of the categories this year and try and guess who's going to win. First up is Best Actor.
  • Bradley Cooper - Silver Linings Playbook
  • Daniel Day-Lewis - Lincoln
  • Hugh Jackman - Les Miserables
  • Joaquin Phoenix - The Master
  • Denzel Washington - Flight

January 10, 2013

The Pull List: 9 January 2013

DC Comics is relying on an awful lot of backup pencillers to get their books over the line. It's an issue that affects several of their books this week alone. Action Comics, Animal Man, Stormwatch, Worlds' Finest... all rely on more than one penciller to get the book completed. In the case of Worlds' Finest it's taken three. It's not a good thing, as it creates a visual inconsistency that jars the eye. I can't immerse myself as fully as I want to into a story because from page to page the characters and setting are subtly different.

The reason for using back-up artists is usually deadlines: the regular artist isn't going to make his or her deadline, so a group of artists are dragged in to make sure the art is done in time for the book to go to print. DC in particular has been very firm on their comic books shipping on time, and in the 18 months since the New 52 commenced I think they've missed maybe one deadline (an issue of Justice League, from memory).

Is it just me, or would it be better in the long run to let comics occasionally run a few weeks late? I'd rather a comic drawn by a single artist than one drawn by two or three. It would improve the consistency and quality of the book, serve the eventual trade paperback collection much better and have a more positive long-term impact on sales. Not receiving the comic I ordered on time is irritating, sure, but not actually getting the comic I was promised? That's even worse.

Under the cut: reviews of Action Comics, Animal Man, Batwing, Change, Detective Comics, Human Bomb, Stormwatch, Thor: God of Thunder, Worlds' Finest and X-Men Legacy.

January 9, 2013

The Best TV of 2012

I rarely find the time to watch free-to-air television any more. There's something inherently "20th century" about scheduling a prearranged time and day to watch an episode of the latest sitcom or drama. Generally I buy whole seasons of a series once available on DVD or blu-ray and watch them at my leisure, or I make use of the ABC's wonderful iView service.

As a result, I very often find myself at least a year behind everybody else when it comes to watching TV shows. Dramas I watched for the first time in 2012 included Trauma and Southland, for example, both of which came out a few years ago. I also finally watched some of David Attenborough's more recent works like Frozen Planet and Madagascar. All great stuff, but not from 2012. Under the cut, then, are 10 TV programs - six dramas and four comedies - from 2012 that I not only managed to see but really enjoyed as well. They're not ranked, other than in alphabetical order.

January 8, 2013

Free Enterprise #27: "Shockwave, part 2"

When we last left the crew of the NX-01 Enterprise, the ship was surrounded by Suliban fighters while Captain Archer was lost somewhere in the 30th century with his time travelling ex-crewmate Daniels. And now, as they always said in Star Trek, the conclusion...

Historically speaking, post-1987 Star Trek had a pretty dreadful track record when it came to wrapping up season cliffhangers. The first parts were generally excellent: high concepts played out to apocalyptic levels with audiences left wondering for months at a time how the crew would manage to get out of whatever awful situation into which they'd been thrown. Second parts generally fell flat on their faces or, at the very least, felt pretty underwhelming compared to the preceding episode. Deep Space Nine generally avoided this problem by closing its season with a self-contained episode that remained somewhat open-ended. Enterprise, however, dives straight in and gives an apocalyptic, time-travelling mega-cliffhanger for its first-ever finale. No pressure on the Season 2 premiere, then.

Rusty Knife (1958)

Three witnesses to a five year-old murder find themselves under pressure from the police force to give evidence. At the same time they're under murderous pressure from the local gang lord intent on keeping them silent. Rusty Knife is a tight Japanese crime thriller that draws much of its inspiration from American film noir and gangster flicks of the 1940s and 1950s. It's quite a contrast to the deliberately formal, static Japanese cinema of Ozu and Mizoguchi.

The film marked the directorial debut of Toshio Masuda, who would become the Nikkatsu Company's leading director of action films and thrillers. It's origins are pretty astounding, given how entertaining the final film is: in late 1957 Nikkatsu scored an unexpected hit with The Guy Who Started a Storm. Cinema owners demanded another movie featuring young star Yujiro Ishihara, and so Nikkatsu handed Toshio Masuda a screenplay and Ishihara and told him to shoot a quick and dirty crime flick in 10 days. Masuda took it upon himself to rewrite the screenplay and then shot Rusty Knife in 13 days.

January 7, 2013

Babble On #32: "A Race Through Dark Places"

A secret "railroad" operation is sneaking rogue telepaths away from Earth and the PsiCorps via Babylon 5. This sends the Psicop Alfred Bester back to the station on the hunt for telepaths, criminals and traitors - and one or more members of Sheridan's crew may be in his sights.

"A Race Through Dark Places"... that's a wonderfully pretentious title in a series full of ridiculously pretentious titles. Don't get me wrong - I adore pretense and floridity when it comes to naming things. Go look up the BBC's Star Cops and some of the wonderful episode titles it used. This episode of Babylon 5 has a brilliant title. It's one of my favourites in the five-year run of the show.

Walter Koenig is back, gleefully playing the role of Bester by crawling up the walls and chewing holes in every reachable surface. If I am to be completely fair, I've never thought he was a particularly good actor: he throws himself into his roles with great gusto, and there's understandable affection for the two roles he's best known for (this and Star Trek's Pavel Chekov), but he's not exactly a performer with an extensive range. In this case it doesn't really matter, because Straczynksi is clearly in love with the character and gives him most of the good lines, and to his credit Koenig is probably giving the best performance of his career. It's theatrical, but enjoyable. Watch the opening scene, and the glee with which Bester grabs the dying telepath's final memory. This is pantomime villainy, but the series gets away with it because I think we're complicit in how much fun Bester is.

Who50: "The Time Meddler"

Who50 counts down to the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who by reviewing my favourite episodes and serials over the history of the programme, counting down from #50 to #1. Today, #43: "The Time Meddler", a 1965 four-part serial written by Dennis Spooner and directed by Douglas Camfield.

The Doctor, Steven and Vicki have arrived in England in AD 1066. After meeting the villagers of a Saxon village they investigate a strange monastery on the coast. The chanting heard from outside turns out to be playing from an old-fashioned gramaphone record. The one monk Steven and Vicki do see accidentally drops a wristwatch. He's a time traveller: he's planning to change the course of history at the Battle of Hastings and he's already kidnapped and locked up the Doctor.

Investigating the monastery's crypt, Steven and Vicki notice an electrical cable hanging out of an open sarcophagus. They check inside and discover a console room, just like in the Doctor's TARDIS. This "meddling monk" has a TARDIS of his own...

January 4, 2013

AKB0048 #2: "The Chosen Lights"

When we last left Nagisa, Yuka and Orine, the three teenagers had successfully passed the first round of auditions to join the rebel idol group AKB0048. We pick the story up with them boarding an interplanetary cruiser liner to take them from Lancastar to the AKB auditions.

They're not the only girls travelling to the auditions. This episode introduces the stress monkey Makoto, the calm and calculated Suzuko, the constantly hungry stowaway Sonata, and Chieri, who made the original pact to join the band with Nagisa, Yuka and Orine when they were younger, and who has now become a cynical, competitive player indeed.

Episode 1 surprised me with its frantic blend of dystopia, teen melodrama, jet fighter dogfights and J-Pop. Episode 2 adds spaceships, giant robots, lightsabers, cyborgs, Pokemon and religious prophecy. My overwhelming reaction is one of delight. My more measured response is 'what the hell am I watching?'

Odds'n'Sods, 4 January 2013

  • There's a promising new Doctor Who podcast out, titled Verity and named after the series' original producer. The podcast features six brilliantly opinionated Doctor Who fans: Deborah Stanish, Erika Ensign, Katrina Griffiths, L.M. Myles, Lynne M. Thomas and Australia's own overachiever Tansy Rayner Roberts. Episode 1 involves a lengthy discussion of the recent Christmas special "The Snowmen". I was particularly impressed at how orderly and relaxed the podcast was despite five out of the six members being involved. I find a podcast hard to record if there's more than two people involved - and even then I keep accidentally interrupting.
  • Ian Mond (who appears on two lovely podcasts of his own - Shooting the Poo and The Writer and the Critic) says very lovely things about me and this blog over on his blog.
  • Deadline is running a great series of short interviews with potential Oscar nominees at the moment. Recent interviewees have included director Ava DuVernay, Judd Apatow and Leslie Mann, Anthony Hopkins, Hugh Jackman, producer Walter Parkes and a refreshingly blunt and candid Samuel L. Jackson (who openly declares that he should have won the 1994 Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Pulp Fiction over Martin Landau in Ed Wood).

The Pull List: 2 January 2013

The second hardcover volume of DC's New 52 Green Lantern was published this week, collecting issues 7 to 12 of the popular superhero title. A paperback edition of issues 1 to 6 was also published. The reason I bring this up is that this month will also see the release of Green Lantern #16, putting the monthly comic four issues ahead of the collected editions. Those four issues were popular sell-outs as well, as anyone who reads Green Lantern Volume 2 and expects to pop into their local comic shop to find out what happens next is going to be sorely disappointed.

At the same time Image has published the second volume of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' excellent Lovecraftian noir Fatale, incorporating issues 6 to 10 of the monthly series. Simultaneously released is issue 11 of the monthly series, so anybody who likes what they read in the book will have no problem picking up the next instalment of the story. Image will score a bunch of new monthly readers with this, improving the comic's sales and making it more sustainable. They use this strategy a lot, and you can see the benefits in a title like The Walking Dead, which scores a small boost in readers every six months as a result of it.

I can't help but think DC and Marvel are missing a trick here by not publishing their collected editions on a better schedule.

Under the cut: reviews of All-New X-Men, All-Star Western, Batman Incorporated, Daredevil: End of Days, The Flash, 47 Ronin, Great Pacific, The Manhattan Projects, New Avengers, Prophet, Red She-Hulk and Ultimate Comics Spider-Man. I've also included reviews of Aquaman, Justice League and Mara from last week, as well as All-New X-Men from two weeks ago - now that I've finally located my copy.

January 3, 2013

Who50: "Warriors' Gate"

Who50 counts down to the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who by reviewing my favourite episodes and serials over the history of the programme, counting down from #50 to #1. Today, #44: "Warriors' Gate", a 1981 four-part serial written by Stephen Gallagher and directed by Paul Joyce (with Graeme Harper, uncredited).

For me the key appeal of Doctor Who (and, I suspect, the key to its longevity) is the show's versatility. You can tell almost any story you want within the series framework, and occasionally the series has really pushed some boundaries of what you might expect from children's television. "Warriors' Gate", by novelist and script writer Stephen Gallagher, is one of those boundary-pushing stories. It's literate, intertextual, thoughtful, complex and deeply weird.

January 2, 2013

AKB0048 #1: "Eternal Dreams"

Oh boy - this one's probably going to take a lot of explaining and backstory. If you're already a big fan of Japanese animation, pop music and popular culture you can probably jump past the cut and straight to the review. If you're not, then I'll try and make this as succinct as possible.

AKB48 is a Japanese pop group. It's a highly corporate and artificial invention, even more so than usual girl groups. The idea (by producer Yasushi Akimoto) is simple and to my mind it reveals a diabolical kind of genius. AKB48 is huge. According to Wikipedia, the band currently has 91 members, all young women, all aged between 13 and 25. Maybe 15 or so of them will appear on a CD or music video at any one time. The group has a permanent theatre in Akihabara Tokyo, where fans can go and see daily concerts by some of the 90 members. These concerts are so popular that tickets need to be won by lottery. Regular auditions are held across the country for new members to replace the ones who are getting too old (most of whom segue into independently successful music and film careers). In 2011 the band generated US$200 million in revenue in Japan alone. A string of subsidiary groups have been launched to capitalise on their success: SKE48 in Nagoya, SDN48 (with older members), NMB48 in Osaka and even JKT48 in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Of course, given that animation remains one of Japan's most popular cultural industries, and given that AKB48 is essentially a popular cultural industry in its own right, it was inevitable that the two would collide at some stage. What wasn't so inevitable was that, for the first episode at least, AKB0048 is actually pretty damned good.

January 1, 2013

Popular Posts: December 2012

While the Pale Rider review continues to be ridiculously popular, it's my Five Films profile of David Morse that took the #1 position in December. I really should get back to doing more of these Five Films posts - they seem to have an extraordinary number of readers.

The five most popular posts in December were:
  • Five Films: David Morse (link)
  • Pale Rider (1985) (link)
  • House Calls #6: "The Snowmen" (link)
  • Skyfall (2012) (link)
  • Secret of Mana (1993) (link)
The five most popular posts published in December were:
  • House Calls #6: "The Snowmen" (link)
  • Skyfall (2012) (link)
  • Five Questions for Brandon Graham (link)
  • Five Questions for Lee Battersby (link)
  • The Pull List: 5 December 2012 (link)