September 28, 2012

Babble On #27: "Revelations"

G'Kar returns from the rim with information of a deadly new threat to the galaxy. Londo wrestles with his conscience. Delenn emerges from her cocoon. The arrival of Sheridan's sister forces him to face his own past. Garibaldi wakes from his coma, and struggles to identify his attacker.

Now this feels more like it: while "Points of Departure" seemed like an annoying case of treading water, "Revelations" is - as its title suggests - all plot developments and answers. It feels like a significant change for the series, pulling the threads of Season 1 together and pushing the series into a unified, significantly more dramatic direction.

Babble On #26: "Points of Departure"

Captain John Sheridan is transferred from commanding the space cruiser Agamemnon to commanding Babylon 5. He inherits a fraught situation: staff in mourning after the death of President Santiago, a Chief of Security hovering somewhere between life and death, one ambassador missing and another hidden inside a cocoon, and to top it all of a rogue Minbari battle cruiser has been seen near the station.All in a day's work, plus he still needs to make time for his traditional pep talk to the station crew.

So here we go with Season 2 of Babylon 5. All five seasons have titles: Season 1 was Signs and Portents, while Season 2 is The Coming of Shadows. There have been some changes made since "Chrysalis", so let's start by going through them in turn.

September 27, 2012

Random Comic: Sectaurs #4 (1986)

The 1980s were a big time for toy-based entertainment. The standard model of merchandising in the USA was turned on its head: instead of making toys out of TV and comic book characters, they started designing the toy line first and then adapted it to comic books and TV. It was trend kickstarted by Mattel, who figured that rather than spend the money licensing Conan the Barbarian they could make up their own characters and launch Masters of the Universe instead.

Coleco was a rival toy manufacturer who'd scored a massive hit with the Cabbage Patch Kids range of dolls. Looking for their next big success they eyed up the action figure marked that was cornered by the likes of Mattel's Masters of the Universe and Hasbro's G.I. Joe. Their new line? Sectaurs! They're fantasy warriors with a slight science fiction edge, much like MOTU, but they're all bugs. Humanoid bugs riding giant horse-sized bugs fighting evil humanoid bugs on the planet of the bugs.

Free Enterprise #15: "Shuttlepod One"

There's a phenomenon in American television called the "bottle show". Basically, any given series has to provide between 22 and 26 episodes (sometimes less, occasionally more) to the TV network each year. Some episodes are relatively cheap to make. Some are going to be more expensive. Now and then there might be an episode or two so expensive that savings need to be made further down the line. That's where you get the bottle show: an episode that only uses existing sets, doesn't shoot on location, and restricts its guest stars to just one or two - if any.

Keep that in mind when I explain that "Shuttlepod One" is an episode about Reed and Tucker trapped on a dying shuttlepod light years from the Enteprise with dimishing supplies and leaking oxygen. No guest stars, no extras, few visual effects. This is the most bottled-up bottle show I think I've ever seen.

September 26, 2012

Blog Space Nine #14: "Shadowplay"

While exploring the Gamma Quadrant, Dax and Odo discover a strange emission of particles coming from a nearby planet. They scan for lifeforms and find none, but upon exploring they encounter an entire village of humanoid life forms who have been living there for a generation. Villagers have been disappearing - 22 so far - and Odo uses his detective skills to find out what is going on. What he and Dax discover is that the colony - and its people - are not remotely what they appear to be.

"Shadowplay" is a mixed bag, combining an intriguing A-plot with a deeply tedious B-plot. On the whole it's worth viewing, but I did find myself edging toward the fast-forward button every time the action shifted from Dax and Odo to Major Kira's love life back on the station.

House Calls #4: "The Power of Three"

One day, millions of small black cubes appear on the planet Earth. No one knows where they came from, no one knows what they're for. Even the Doctor can't work out their purpose, leading to a year-long search for answers - and a year of living with the Ponds.

"The Power of Three" is an unexpected surprise; not because the episode is good (and it is), but because it's such an idiosyncratic episode of Doctor Who. For one thing, events take place over nearly a year. For another it has a bizarrely languid pace; even when the proverbial shit hits the fan it never feels as if the stakes are really as high as they seem. Instead the episode focuses quite tightly on emotion and character. I think I prefer it that way.

September 21, 2012

The Pull List: 19 September 2012

A trade paperback of Journey into Mystery: Fear Itself Fallout has been released this week, and if your comic shop is anything like mine that means they took the opportunity to get Journey into Mystery: Fear Itself and Journey into Mystery: The Terrorism Myth back into print. This comic has been one of the sleepers of Marvel Comics in the last 12 months, taking hot character Loki, putting him into a 12 year-old boy's body and sending him out to make the world a better place - which, given that he's Loki, usually means accidentally making the world much worse.

This comic feels like the Marvel Universe edging onto Neil Gaiman's territory. Writer Keiron Gillen has done amazing work here, particularly with his introduction of industrial Manchester Gods, a new pantheon of British mythology seemingly led by an immortal version of Factory Records founder Tony Wilson. Gillen's run is coming to an end, so really there's only going to be four books in total to buy to complete this series: that makes it compact, exceptional and very, very cool.

Under the cut: reviews of Batwoman, Daredevil, Legion of Super-Heroes, Revival, Spider-Men, Sword of Sorcery, Ultimate Comics Spider-Man and Wonder Woman.

September 20, 2012

Judging the New 52 #18: Deathstroke

Deathstroke is always going to be a fairly hard sell for a superhero comic, since he's a villain. A bad guy. While there's always going to be an audience for comics about bad people doing bad things, it's not necessarily going to be a large audience.

The character had a relatively successful monthly comic before: Deathstroke the Terminator, that ran for 60 issues from mid-1991. It wasn't a huge surprise to see him get a second shot at a solo title in September 2011, since DC were casting their net for comic book ideas fairly widely, and it made sense to try a villain-centric comic out again. Kyle D. Higgins wrote the first eight issues and then, when sales weren't going particularly well, he was replaced by Robert Liefeld, who also replaced Joe Bennett and Art Thibert as artist.

In short, the Higgins run was okay: it wasn't the best book of the New 52, but it was solidly plotted and had a lot of consistency to it. I enjoyed it a hell of a lot, and it certainly got better issue-on-issue. The Liefeld run, which has been truncated due to the writer/artist's acrimonious split from DC Comics, was incredibly bad. Dire artwork combined with cliche-ridden plot and painful-to-read dialogue. I could be polite, but this really has become the worst DC Universe book currently in publication.

September 19, 2012

Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste (2007)

33 1/3 is an excellent range of short non-fiction books, each of which takes a classic or groundbreaking musical album and provides an in-depth critical analysis of it. Coming up in 2013 and 2014, for example, will be books on Devo, Sigur Ros, Bjork, Aphex Twin and Serge Gainsbourg.

I've recently read one of these books, albeit one with a big difference. American music critic Carl Wilson chose not to write a book on the Beastie Boys, or Johnny Cash, or Nirvana, or any number of acclaimed, artistically worthy albums. Instead he wrote one about a very different kind of an album: Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love.

You heard me right: it's a non-fiction book about Celine Dion, and I'm giving it my wholehearted recommendation.

Free Enterprise #14: "Sleeping Dogs"

Before the Vulcans try to pull T'Pol from the Enterprise, she had this little adventure - trapped with Reed and Hoshi on a crippled Klingon starship that is gradually sinking into the atmosphere of a gas giant. They're too deep for the Enterprise to rescue them, they've got hours before the external pressures crush them like a tin can, and their shuttle pod has been stolen by the one conscious Klingon warrior left.

Okay, so I got them out of order - but in my defence I was just doing what the DVD menu told me to do. "Sleeping Dogs" is a nice little claustrophobic thriller with much to recommend and not a lot that's disappointing. It's not exceptional, it's not necessarily even memorable, but it's definitely an enjoyable hour of science fiction television.

September 18, 2012

Blog Space Nine #13: "Paradise"

Sisko and O'Brien are scouting unexplored systems near the wormhole in the hopes of finding new planets for the Federation to colonise. One planet turns out to already have a human colony living there, and so they beam down to greet the colonists. They immediately discover that a mysterious energy radiating from the planet nullifies all technological devices, including any means of beaming back to their ship.

"Paradise" is, for much of its running length, an increasingly tense drama that pits Sisko against Alixus, the charismatic but dictatorial leader of a technology-free colony. She is a classic blend of vinegar and honey, sweet and caring on the outside but ruthlessly defending her authority at the same time. It's a battle of wits that really made an impact on me when the episode was originally broadcast - I remembered this as one of the best episodes of Season 2.

Maoh: Juvenile Remix (2007)

In Maoh: Juvenile Remix, high schooler Ando struggles with the possibility that he may have psychic powers; a telepathic ability to force other people to say whatever he wants them to. Meanwhile, a group of local vigilantes are spreading across town, led by Inukai - a charismatic cult leader who may be planning more for the town than he appears to be.

Maoh: Juvenile Remix is a supernatural-themed manga by Megumi Osuga, based on a novel by Kotaro Isaka. It was originally serialised in Shonen Sunday from 2007 to 2009 before being collected into English language editions by Viz Media.

It's a largely entertaining, yet troublesome, read. As a result I'm not entirely certain what I think of it.

September 17, 2012

Judging the New 52 #17: Superman

By all reason, Superman should be one of DC's highest-selling titles. It's the titular comic book for their most famous and oldest character, whose exploits over the decades have inspired cartoons, feature films and television shows. Despite this, DC have - in recent years at least - genuinely struggled to get Superman to sell. I think there's a problem with the character: he's difficult to write for, since his powers are so excessive and his personality is heavily grounded in the 1940s.

Their latest attempt to stimulate interest in the character has been to update his costume (no weight-lifting shorts any more, Kryptonian armour instead of a spandex super-suit), make him younger and remove his romantic entanglements with Lois Lane. It's been relatively dire, to be honest. Grant Morrison's take on this re-envisaged Superman has been working on and off, albeit more off than on, but the take seen here has been simply dreadful. Why does Superman need to be young and brash? Why does he have to wear armour? He's Superman; he is the armour. They've been cycling through creative teams and the artists involved have complained of excessive editorial interference.

House Calls #3: "A Town Called Mercy"

In the American 'old west', the town of Mercy is under siege from a cyborg cowboy that is holding the town hostage until they give up 'the alien Doctor'. Not our Doctor however, a different one - and one that has some upsetting secrets.

It's the Doctor Who western! We haven't had one since April 1966, so it's probably about time. Of course, budgets are a little more impressive for Doctor Who in the 21st century, so rather than recreating Tombstone on a small London soundstage we're on location in Spain using the same mocked-up western town set that Leone used for his spaghetti westerns with Clint Eastwood. As a result this episode is a treat for the eyes. Saul Metzstein (clearly the best new director on Doctor Who) hits every iconic western visual over the course of the episode, and Toby Whitehouse's script obliges with a lot of western scenes and dialogue as well. We've got the stranger riding into town, the showdown at noon, the saloon bar, the cowardly attempt at lynching a prisoner by the simple townfolk, and so on.

September 16, 2012

Random Comic: Arsenal #1

It's a hard life being Roy Harper. First you get to be called Speedy, which is pretty much the silliest nickname of all the DC sidekicks. Then you suffer the indignity of becoming a heroin junkie. Then when your friend and mentor Green Arrow gets killed the skies above Metropolis, you don't even get the chance to assume the name and take over in his place. Now your three year-old daughter Lian has been targeted by the immortal villain Vandal Savage, and you're going to have to use all your skills to protect her and get to the bottom of his current operation.

Arsenal is a four-issue DC miniseries written by Devin Grayson with art by Rick Mays. It stars, as you can see from above, former sidekick Roy Harper - originally Speedy, later Red Arrow, and in between going by the code-name Arsenal. It originally came out in 1998, and as far as I'm aware it never got collected into a trade paperback.

September 15, 2012

Babble On #25: Season 1 in review

The first time I watched Babylon 5, I remember being constantly ambivalent about it. I remember watching Season 1 with a general air of disappointment, quite liking Season 2, adoring Season 3 and then as good as throwing my remote into my TV over Season 4. To be honest I've seen maybe three episodes of Season 5. It was a lot more popular among science fiction fans than I felt it deserved, and even today among many fans it holds a pretty prominent place in their affection.

I always intended to revisit the series and give it a second chance. I like giving art two chances. Maybe it's the time, or the context, or maybe something is ahead of its time. Maybe my tastes change. It's quite often, however, that something I'll adore the first time around will annoy me intensely the second, and vice versa.

So here we are: I've watched the whole of Babylon 5 Season 1, in order, for the second time. What I'm interested in with this is less whether or not it's good (to be honest, it's about an uneven and mediocre as general wisdom remembers it to be) but where I may or may not have changed my opinion on it.

Babble On #24: "Chrysalis"

A continuing border dispute between the Narns and the Centauri lead to Ambassador Mollari receiving a second visit by the mysterious Mr Morden. One of Garibaldi's best informants is fatally wounded, his last words to the security chief 'They're going to kill him!' Sinclair proposes to Catherine Sakai. Delenn has something important to tell Sinclair, but it may be too late.

So this is it: the final chapter of Babylon 5 season one. By the end of this episode, one of our protagonists will be at death's door, one will be making an unprecedented change, one will have made the greatest mistake of their life and another will be too late to discover the secret of theirs. It's pretty much the most dramatic, edge-of-your-seat hour of television that Babylon 5 has managed so far, because a lot of the disparate threads running through the series get brought together and kickstarted right here.

September 14, 2012

The Pull List: 12 September 2012

We're two weeks into DC Comics' celebratory "zero month", in which each DC Universe title has a special issue #0 that fills in backstory, or introduces a new character, or what have you.

What the first two weeks' worth has demonstrated, perhaps unfortunately for DC, is how much better they could have relaunched the DCU last September. A few too many of these zero issues feel like they should have been the first issues last year: Action Comics last week and particularly Batman this week.

As they've done it, the New 52 is a haphazard hodge-podge of new origin stories and unchanged status quos; it's just complicated enough to confuse new readers but also utterly confusing for old ones too. What's in continuity now? What isn't? How did Batman go through four Robins in five years? How did the entire backstory of Green Lantern even fit into the past five years? It's all been a bit messy, and while sales have been boosted and several key titles re-invigorated, my feeling 12 months in is that the DC Universe is in shoddier shape than it was before and a lot of once-in-a-generation opportunities got missed.

Anyway, under the cut I review this week's reading: Batman, Batman and Robin, Demon Knights, Frankenstein: Agent of SHADE, It Girl and the Atomics, The Manhattan Projects, The Massive and The Shade.

September 13, 2012

Free Enterprise #13: "Shadows of P'Jem"

I'm a tiny bit confused about this one, because the packaging of the Enterprise DVD claims that this is the 14th episode of the series but the DVD menu claims it is the 13th. I followed the menu; looking at Wikipedia it seems the packaging was correct - so we're doing this one out of order, and I'll get to episode 13 next time around.

Following the Andorian destruction of the P'Jem monastery (remember "The Andorian Incident"?), the Vulcans withdraw their participation in assisting Starfleet and the human expansion into the galaxy. A Vulcan ship is assigned to escort Subcommander T'Pol back to Vulcan, but Archer takes the intervening 48 hours as an excuse to persuade T'Pol to fight for her right to stay onboard the Enterprise.

September 12, 2012

Blog Space Nine #12: "Whispers"

Chief O'Brien arrives back on the station after helping the alien Paradas prepare for their peace conference. The rest of the station crew appear to be behaving strangely: treating Miles differently, making unauthorised adjustments to equipment, and talking behind his back. As his paranoia increases, Miles comes to realise that something has taken over his crewmates - and the Paradas peace conference may be at risk.

This is one of those episodes where discussing the plot also spoils the plot, since it's very much a "what's really going on with the station crew" kind of a story. As a result, I'll drop the rest of this review behind a cut. If you've arrived at this post directly, and don't want the ending spoiled, I'd stop reading now.

September 11, 2012

Babble On #23: "The Quality of Mercy"

A convicted murderer is sentenced to "death of personality", in which his entire personality will be medically erased, so that he can spend the rest of his life making a productive contribution to society. Dr Franklin investigates a woman in Down Below (June Lockhart) who seems to have a magical healing machine. Ambassador Mollari and Lennier go night-clubbing.

It's the penultimate episode of Season 1, which means... to be honest, it seems to mean another throwaway episode. It feels like filler - something to keep the episode count up where Warner Bros wants it while Straczynski focuses on the episodes he actually wants to make. Let's go through the three plot threads in turn.

House Calls #2: "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship"

People have asked me in the past why I'm so into Doctor Who. One of the best examples of why I love this series so much is the latest episode: "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship". Name me one other television drama in the history of broadcasting that can not only combine tidal-powered spaceships, dinosaurs, Queen Nefertiti of Egypt, a big game hunter, argumentative robots, a 24th century Indian space agency and a time-travelling alien, but combine them in a way that feels both effortless and par for the course.

Doctor Who is coming close to its 49th anniversary, and one of the greatest reasons (if not the greatest) for its longevity is its sheer versatility. You can throw pretty much anything at Doctor Who and it can be made to work. "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship" is the maddest example of this ability in recent years, and is a marvellously silly, self-aware, overwhelmingly entertaining hour of family TV.

September 9, 2012

Babble On #22: "Babylon Squared"

Babylon 4, which vanished into thin air several years earlier, suddenly reappears in a nearby sector to Babylon 5. When Sinclair leads a team to investigate and lead an evacuation, he finds a station about to get dragged thousands of years into the past - and a mysterious alien who wants it to happen.

"Babylon Squared" is a crucial episode for Babylon 5's developing story arc. I remember it being one of my favourite Season 1 episodes the first time around, and while a rewatch has lessened my appreciation of it a little bit, I think that loss of appreciation comes from having seen future episodes of the series rather than a fault in the episode itself.

September 8, 2012

Blog Space Nine #11: "Armageddon Game"

While helping two warring factions of an alien planet destroy their stockpile of biological weapons, O'Brien and Bashir are seemingly killed in a freak radiation leak. While the crew of Deep Space Nine mourns their workmates, O'Brien and Bashir are actually still alive and on the run from the perpetrators of a deadly massacre.

"Armageddon Game" is an episode combining both good and bad elements. It's good for character, and developing the relationships between the station's crew members, but it's dropped into a fairly weak framework. It's a generic, fairly uninteresting plot, but the conversations within make it more than worth the viewer's while.

September 7, 2012

Babble On #21: "A Voice in the Wilderness, part 2"

The Earth Alliance heavy cruiser Hyperion arrives at Epsilon III to stake Earth's claim on any technologies found there. The planet itself is set to explode, taking Babylon 5 with it. The only way to stop the destruction is for Delenn, Londo and Draal to escort a mysterious alien back to Epsilon III - but at least one of them won't be coming back.

"A Voice in the Wilderness" is unusual among two-part stories in SF television: I think the second half may be better than the first. Certainly the acting and dialogue seems to have taken a positive jump forward, helped in no small part by Ron Canada's performance as Captain Pierce, the arrogant commander of the Hyperion. There's an infectious enthusiasm in this episode, complete with movie-style climax, that's pretty hard for me to resist. It's not Babylon 5 at its finest or most dramatic, but it's certainly a lot of fun.

September 6, 2012

The Pull List: 5 September 2012

The first week of the month is always an expensive one for me, since more of the comics I regularly subscribe to seem to come out then than any other week. Before I dive into this week's eleven (count 'em) mini-reviews, I wanted to encourage you all to buy The Manhattan Projects. The first trade paperback was released yesterday, and in my opinion it's a must-buy.

The Manhattan Projects is written by Jonathan Hickman, for my money one of the best writers in American comics today. It's illustrated by Nick Pittara, who illustrated Hickman's excellent 2011 miniseries The Red Wing. It follows the exploits of a fictionalized Manhattan Project as they experiment with and investigate cybernetics, alternate worlds, alien civilizations and more. It's a strange, disturbing science fiction drama featuring a cyborg Werner Von Braun, an insane Albert Einstein, a computer simulation of Franklin D. Roosevelt and a very out-of-his-depth Richard Feynman. Check it out - I hope to see it on the Hugo shortlist for Best Graphic Story in 2013, although given the current track record of that particular category I'm not holding my breath.

Onto this week's comics. Under the cut: Action Comics, Animal Man, Batwing, Detective Comics, Green Lantern, Hawkeye, Lookouts, The Phantom Stranger, Stormwatch, Ultimate Comics Spider-Man and Worlds' Finest.

September 5, 2012

Judging the New 52 #16: A look at some trades

One of the aspects of comic book publishing that can often be overlooked from a sales perspective is the sale of trade paperbacks and hardcovers - the monthly comic books all gathered up together and sold as books. The trade paperback (tpb) market is crucial to a lot of comics, particularly more mature non-superheroic works such as Fables, The Unwritten and the like. These titles don't necessarily sell enough copies to be commercially viable in monthly comic form, but rake in the cash over time in bookshops and specialty stores.

So I figured, with three months' worth of data available on the sale of New 52 collections, it might be worth having a quick look to see how things are selling. A few caveats: Diamond only reports on the sales of the Top 300 books, so once a collection falls out of that range we can't tell if it's still selling; also this data only covers sales via Diamond, which means the direct comic shop market and not Amazon, Book Depository, Barnes & Noble or other bookstore chains and independents around the world. There's a WH Smiths not 500 metres from my workplace that's currently selling Batman: The Court of Owls, for example. I'm pretty sales from that shop aren't covered here.

September 4, 2012

Judging the New 52 #15: Men of War/G.I. Combat

I haven't even flicked through a single issue of Men of War or G.I. Combat, so in this instalment I'm going to be talking entirely about sales - and those sales are pretty horrifying.

I do admire how DC experimented with a lot of different genres when they launched the New 52. They were all still essentially superhero adventures, but they got shone through the various lenses of westerns (All-Star Western), high fantasy (Demon Knights) and horror (I, Vampire). Men of War was an admirable attempt to kickstart the war comic, something which was extraordinarily popular "back in the day", but hasn't really been a popular genre of comic book for coming on... what, 30 years? 40, even?

Men of War launched a little shy of 34,000 copies. That's not a great opening bat, when you compare it to (using the above examples) almost 40,000 for All-Star Western or 38,000 for Demon Knights. In the great multi-genre experiment of September 2011, Men of War came out pretty low all things considered. It was, in fact, the lowest debut of every New 52 title bar OMAC, and about neck-and-neck with Static Shock. (Note all three titles have since been cancelled.)

Babble On #20: "A Voice in the Wilderness, part 1"

Seismic activity ripples across Epsilon III, the apparently dead planet around which Babylon 5 orbits. Attempts to investigate result in missile launches from beneath the planet's surface. Delenn receives a visit from Draal, her former mentor. Contact is lost with the Mars colony shortly before the Earth Alliance media announces that discontent on the human colony has broken down to open riots. Sinclair and Londo are both hallucinating a strange alien who begs them for help.

This is the first half of Babylon 5's first two-part story. I remember when I was a child, two-part stories seemed like an enormous occasion. They represented stories so large and momentous that one instalment couldn't contain them. Of course, with a show that's slowly becoming as serialised as Babylon 5 is, the idea of a dedicated two-parter seems a quaint novelty.

September 3, 2012

Sleeping Dogs (2012)

There's always a problem when it comes to reviewing videogames: how much are you supposed to play before you write the review? Do you have to finish the game? That's not necessarily a good idea; it took me until 2009 to finish Sonic the Hedgehog 2, and I still haven't finished Wizball on the Commodore 64. Is it OK to play it for a few hours and make a judgement based on that? Maybe, but I've played plenty of games - mostly Japanese RPGS - that drag like nobody's business for the first few hours before exploding into something wonderfully enjoyable and addictive.

I'm probably about halfway through Sleeping Dogs, the new open world crime game from Square Enix, and I feel that's probably long enough to make some broad judgements. It's been uncharitably described across the Internet as a Grand Theft Auto clone, which does the game a disservice. It's very much its own thing, and if you're into narrative-based open world videogames (GTA, Assassin's Creed, et al) it's definitely something you should consider checking out.

House Calls #1: "Asylum of the Daleks"

I've been reviewing several series episode-by-episode - Enterprise, Babylon 5, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - so why not Doctor Who as well? It's my favourite TV series in the world, so why wouldn't I start reviewing it now that the seventh season has started?

The Doctor, Amy and Rory are plucked out of time and space by the Daleks and press-ganged into a special mission to the fabled Dalek Asylum - the planet where all of the broken, insane and uncontrollable Daleks are left to rot and decay. What the Doctor finds there is hidden underneath the cut so as not to spoil you any further.