April 30, 2013

Judging the New 52: Batwoman

It's been a while since I've done one of these, so I figured I'd talk about one of the really good ones.

One of the New 52 titles I was most desperate to start reading back in September 2011 was Batwoman. A Batwoman book had been a long time coming: she was first introduced in the pages of DC's weekly epic 52 in June 2006, in a showy debut that made the mainstream entertainment press in the USA. DC promised a monthly book pretty much as soon as she arrived, but it took until 2009 for her to finally make her proper entrance in a 10 issue arc on Detective Comics. It was the first time since 1939 that someone other than Batman had been the star of that book.

Despite continued assurances that a regular Batwoman book was coming, it wasn't until November 2010 that the first issue finally shipped. It was a zero issue prologue, co-written by artist J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman. The monthly follow-up was delayed, and delayed, and then the New 52 was announced and DC simply held the book back by a few more months to give it a simultaneous launch with the other 51 monthlies.

April 29, 2013

Enterprise: "Future Tense"

When the Enterprise comes across a derelict human space capsule, Archer is convinced he has found the body of legendary warp drive inventor Zephram Cochrane. Instead he and his crew have stumbled upon a starship from the far future - and it isn't long before the Suliban arrive to claim it.

That time travelling story arc rears its head again. I'm not sure what to make of it at this stage. It goes in fits and starts, usually interesting while it's playing out but too conveniently dropped and forgotten. This particular episode has some great ideas, and a wonderful sense of rising tension, but at the same time it feels annoyingly incomplete. If they were guaranteed to follow up on events in a few weeks I wouldn't mind, but I've a gut feeling it will be the season finale at least before we see more of this plot thread in action.

Who50: "The Tomb of the Cybermen"

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, #27: "The Tomb of the Cybermen", a 1967 four-part serial written by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis and directed by Morris Barry.

The Doctor, Jamie and Victoria arrive on the icy planet of Telos, where a human expedition seeks to unlock and explore the long fabled 'tomb of the Cybermen'. Once inside, however, and due in no small part to the Doctor's machinations, the expedition discovers that the Cybermen may not be as dead as they first appeared.

By 1967 Doctor Who was in firm need of a new monster. By the end of Season 4 the Daleks had been written out of the series for good (or so the production team assumed),  leaving a prominent pepperpot-shaped hole. There had been numerous attempts throughout the first four seasons to produce more popular monsters: Terry Nation had tried twice with the Voord and the Mechanoids, one of which failed to capture public interest and the other proved too large to easily use in the small BBC studios in which Doctor Who was recorded. The Cybermen, a humanoid species of emotionless cyborgs, had been created by scientist Kit Pedler and writer Gerry Davis for the Season 4 serial "The Tenth Planet", and had proved remarkably popular - so popular, in fact, that within a few months they were brought back mid-season for "The Moonbase". This made them the third enemy to warrant a return appearance, after the Daleks and the Meddling Monk.

April 28, 2013

Doctor Who: "Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS"

When the TARDIS gets caught in the grip of a deep space salvage trawler, it suffers tremendous damage - leaving the Doctor outside with a trio of salvage operators and Clara trapped inside within a labyrinth of tunnels, mysterious rooms and monsters. To save her life, the Doctor and his newfound companions must... journey to the centre of the TARDIS!

In a season largely dedicated to "blockbuster" episodes, styled as largely self-contained movies for television with an appropriately high concept, "Journey to the Centre of TARDIS" may just have the highest concept of the lot. The TARDIS has always been one of the most fascinating elements of the series, and there hasn't been a proper TARDIS-based episode since "Castrovalva" back in 1982. Notably, audiences haven't been able to see much of the TARDIS bar one or two corridors since the series returned in 2005, so an episode hunting around the heart of the machine makes for a wonderfully enticing premise.

April 27, 2013

Game of Thrones: "What is Dead May Never Die"

Game of Thrones has the best opening title sequence of the 21st century.

I am a big fan of opening titles: they're a crucial part of any television series in my opinion, because they give the viewer a little pause (30 seconds, or 60) to forget their day-to-day thoughts and concerns and settle into the fictional world of the TV drama. The opening titles also set expectations for the episode to come. A properly designed set of credits will let the viewer know the genre, the pace, the aesthetic and the emotional tone of what's to follow.

The credits to Game of Thrones achieve all of that, but they also do one other crucial thing: they establish geography. While the clockwork visuals nicely echo the 'game' motif of the series, they also show the viewer where each storyline of the episode is set, and where those storylines are geographically located in relation to one another. In a series where some storylines are set on different continents, and in which they regularly fail to link up in any narrative way, this kind of information is crucial.

So, in week three of the second season, what are the various storylines up to?

April 26, 2013

The Pull List: 24 April 2013

This was a really strong week for comic books in my opinion. I bought 10 books this week, and in reviewing them I've wound up awarding five stars to six of them. Maybe I'm being too generous with my scoring system, or maybe there's some really good stuff getting published at the moment.

I was originally going to pick up a digital copy of Mark Millar and Frank Quitely's new miniseries Jupiter's Legacy, but it turns out Millar has delayed the release of that title onto digital platforms in a bid to make more readers buy a physical copy. I have a major issue with this: a comic book is a comic book, and while I appreciate his intent to drive more people into brick-and-mortar comic book shops, it does seem quite like cutting off your nose to spite your face. He could have had a sale from me this week, but as my local comic shop didn't have any copies of his comic left on the shelf I guess I'll just give it a miss. If anyone did pick up a copy, let me know what you thought of it in the comments below.

Under the cut: reviews of All-Star Western, Batman Incorporated, The Flash, Journey into Mystery, Katana, Manhattan Projects, The Massive, Star Wars Legacy, Ultimate Comics Spider-Man and Young Avengers.

April 24, 2013

Bodacious Space Pirates: "My Power, the Power of Pirates"

After her rescue from the cafe, Marika learns from Chiaki that the men watching her came from a number of organisations - police, military, organised crime - all trying to find out whether or not she would accept the captaincy of the Bentenmaru. She later trains in the use of guns with her mother, and then sets off on a voyage with the school's space yacht club. While preparing the ship for takeoff, Marika and Chiaki discover that someone is attempting to hack into the yacht's computer systems.

For a series that's supposed to be all about teenage space pirates, this episode features very little space and absolutely no piracy whatsoever. Instead we get a bit of bonding between Marika and Chiaki, and between Marika and her mother, and some fairly sedate scenes setting up to fly a space yacht. It's not bad bad, per se, but to be honest for a series titled Bodacious Space Pirates I was expecting something a little more exciting.

April 23, 2013

Doctor Who: "Hide"

The Doctor and Clara arrive at an old haunted mansion, where two investigators - an ex-army professor and an empathic psychic - are attempting to communicate with a long-rumoured ghost that haunts the building. Things are, naturally, not what they seem. Cue running, jumping in terror, and hiding.

"Hide" is not a classic episode of Doctor Who, but it does an excellent job of adopting the elements that make classic Who. The result is an episode that feels just a little bit short-changed in terms of scope and character, but is for the most part enormously entertaining.

A science fiction series like Doctor Who is always going to be on unstable ground when it tackles supernatural themes. Either it leaves them as supernatural - or at the very least unexplained - and the result is something that feels unsatisfying and possibly even annoying (such as Season 2's The Satan Pit), or it explains it away in science fictional terms. This latter approach has risks of its own, since the core element of horror is a fear of the unknown and explaining the horrors away does remove the 'unknown' part rather comprehensively.

April 22, 2013

The Pull List: 17 April 2013

This week (okay, last week - I promise I am catching up) DC released the first issue of an ongoing Masters of the Universe comic book. There's a big market for this kind of book, capitalising on the popularity of a thirtysomething's childhood TV shows or toy lines. IDW have had a lot of success with their Transformers and G.I. Joe lines, so assuming they produce a decent product I see DC having similar success with He-Man, Skeletor and chums. Sure these are commercial, corporate products through and through, but surely there's a place to capitalise on nostalgia alongside more original, worthy works?

This got me thinking about what other franchises from my youth are sitting around, waiting to be adapted in comic book form. One that I think would have great creative opportunities is Ulysses 31, a Star Wars-inspired retelling of The Odyssey co-produced between France and Japan.

Then there's Astroboy. An American comic book based on Astroboy was produced some decades ago, but would fans accept an American adaptation now? Would Osamu Tezuka's estate be willing to approve such an adaptation?

Under the cut: reviews of Age of Ultron, Batwoman, Daredevil, Daredevil: End of Days, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, It Girl and the Atomics, Legion of Super-Heroes, Revival, Sword of Sorcery, Wonder Woman and X-Men Legacy.

Who50: "The Time of Angels"/"Flesh and Stone"

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, #28: "The Time of Angels" and "Flesh and Stone", a 2010 two-part serial written by Steven Moffat and directed by Adam Smith.

The Doctor and Amy are summoned by the Doctor's mysterious future friend River Song. Together they join a team of militarised clerics in exploring the remains of the crashed star cruiser Byzantium - and in hunting down the ship's deadly cargo. Things, however, are not what they seem, and by the time the Doctor works this out it may already be too late.

Steven Moffat's "Blink" was an outstanding episode of Doctor Who, introducing what is possibly the most effective and frightening monster in the series' long history: the Weeping Angel. They move when you don't look at them, even while you're blinking. (Hence the title.) So perfectly written was this episode, and so neatly constructed, that a follow-up seemed like a really bad idea. In typical (and admirable) form, Moffat wrote a sequel anyway.

April 20, 2013

Superman: Grounded, Volume 1 (2010)

After the destruction of New Krypton, and a general sense of public mistrust towards him, Superman decides to reconnect with the people of the USA by abandoning his powers of flight and walking from town to town across America. On the way he gets to help people in small ways, and learn that life doesn't have to be about massive superheroic battles all the time.

"Grounded" was a storyline created by J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5) and launched in 2010's Superman #700. It's terrible. I was originally going to ease into slamming the book but I figured why cushion the blow? This is a terrible Superman comic: terrible in concept and terrible in execution. The art's great, but a nice drawing of a turd is still a picture of some poop.

Straczynski was so disinterested in his own story that he never actually finished it. He left that up to replacement writer Chris Roberson (now doing great stuff with Monkeybrain Comics) while he went off to write his Superman: Earth One graphic novels (also terrible). If JMS can't be bothered finishing a comic book storyline, why should we?

April 19, 2013

The Pull List: 10 April 2013

For the past few months DC executives Bob Harras and Bobbie Chase have been answering fans' questions via a guest interview column on Comic Book Resources. This week was the final instalment of that column, as DC Comics has made it clear to CBR that they aren't willing to continue with the format if they're going to keep getting questions they're not comfortable answering (specifically, in this case, a question about DC's decision to hire openly anti-gay writer Orson Scott Card to write a short Superman story).

Harras has already launched a new regular blog on DC's own website to spruik new storylines and artwork, but the damage has already been done. Before they cancelled the column DC was a company encouraging an open dialogue with its fans. Now it's a company hiding from difficult answers.

Now my personal experience in professional marketing is not overly extensive, but even I know that openness and dialogue will always win you more fans than closing up shop and putting a wall between yourself and your consumers. CBR, and comic book readers, deserved better than this.

Under the cut: reviews of Age of Ultron, Batgirl, Batman, Batman and Red Robin, Constantine, Hawkeye, Saga, Star Wars and Thor: God of Thunder. Not reviewed is Demon Knights, as I've failed to track down a copy of that yet. This all leaves me just one week behind, and hopefully I can get this week's books reviewed by the end of the weekend.

Doctor Who: "Cold War"

The TARDIS arrives on a Russian submarine in the early 1980s, where a drilling expedition has uncovered a mysterious figure frozen in the ice. When the figure defrosts, it turns out to be a long-dormant survivor of the planet Mars - a fearsome Ice Warrior that may just bring about the end of the human race.

I was tremendously excited about "Cold War", as it sees the return to the screens of the Ice Warriors after a near-40 year absence from the screen. The Ice Warriors were created by Brian Hayles, who wrote them into four of his Doctor Who serials: "The Ice Warriors", "The Seeds of Death", "The Curse of Peladon" and "The Monster of Peladon". They're one of the greatest inventions in Doctor Who history. They developed and grew as the series progressed: sometimes villains, sometimes allies, and with a remarkable degree of complexity for what were essentially rubber-suit monsters.

Writer Mark Gatiss is an enormous fan of Doctor Who, and will have absolutely seen Hayles' Ice Warrior serials many times. What a pity, then, that he wrote such a lacklustre and derivative script.

April 18, 2013

Bodacious Space Pirates: "Pirates, Coming Through"

It seems like there's an art to naming anime. Obviously it is in part an artifact of translating a logographic and syllabic written language into an alphabetic one, but there's a strong element of cultural difference. Here in the English-speaking world we have science fiction shows like Doctor Who and Star Trek. In Japan typical titles include Neon Genesis Evangelion, Genesis Climber Mospeada and All-Purpose Cultural Catgirl Nuku Nuku. That in mind, while I feel I should be somewhat self-conscious watching an animated science fiction TV series titled Bodacious Space Pirates, as it's a Japanese series it's probably just par for the course.

Teenage girl Mariko Kato goes to high school and works part-time as a waitress in a local cafe. One day she discovers not only that her father - that she didn't know - has died, but that as his heir she has inherited his pirate spaceship, crew and letter of marque.

April 17, 2013

Enterprise: "Cease Fire"

A small, inhospitable planet lies along the Vulcan/Andorian border. To the Andorians it is Weytahn, a colony that they settled on and started to terraform. To the Vulcans it is Paan Mokar, a valuable planet in a strategic location. After a tense period of truce, in which Vulcans have taken the planet and forcibly removed the Andorian colonists, a team of Andorian soldiers have stormed the old colony and taken several Vulcan officers hostage. The Andorian leader, Commander Shran, agrees to discuss a cease fire - but only if Captain Archer acts as negotiator.

Two of my favourite episodes in Season 1 of Enterprise were "The Andorian Incident" and "Shadows of P'Jem". Both episodes featured Andorian commander Shran (Jeffrey Coombs), and detailed continuing hostilities between the Vulcans and the neighbouring Andorians. It's great to see that this arc continues in Season 2 with "Cease Fire". It's not quite as good as those two episodes, but its still very entertaining and pushes both the Vulcan/Andorian and broader series arcs along quite well.

Who50: "The Pirate Planet"

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, #29: "The Pirate Planet", a 1978 four-part serial written by Douglas Adams and directed by Pennant Roberts.

The Doctor (Tom Baker) and Romana (Mary Tamm) continue their quest for the mysterious Key to Time. Seeking the second segment, they set course for the planet Calufrax - only to discover that Calufrax appears to be missing, and the mysterious planet Zanak now sits in its place.

Finding a balance between science fiction and drama can often be a tricky prospect, and in the case of Douglas Adams it seemed trickier than most: he was script editor of the series for Season 17 and drove the series headlong into comedy without really leaving much room for any proper drama. Serials such as "City of Death" (which he co-wrote), "The Creature from the Pit" and "The Horns of Nimon" are all entertaining Doctor Who adventures - at least for me they are - but they don't do a very good job of telling a great science fiction story at the same time.

A year earlier, however, Adams wrote "The Pirate Planet". This was his first Doctor Who commission, and as far as I'm aware his first solo gig as a television script writer. It has the enthusiasm of a writer out to prove himself, and by his unexpected promotion the following season it seems that he certainly managed that.

April 16, 2013

The Pull List: 3 April 2013

Okay, here's the comic reviews for two weeks ago. I'm slowly catching up.

There's a great bookshop in Singapore, a Japanese chain named Kinokinuya. On Orchard Road there's a branch of this bookshop that just stretches on and on. It's apparently the largest bookshop in the Southern Hemisphere, which I believe. I popped inside to check it out, and got lost trying to find my way back to my wife. When I popped in for a second time I actually got lost again. No joke: this is a bookshop that is actually so damned large that you can get honest-to-god lost inside it.

The graphic novels section alone is about the size of an Australian bookstore, and seeing so many books on the shelves at the same time really brought home just how much stuff is getting published these days out of the USA alone. Just between DC and Marvel there must be something like 130 monthly comics published, and that doesn't include graphic novels and the like. Add in Image, Dark Horse and the other independents, and American comics are simply too large for one person to really tackle any more.

I worry sometimes that this column just reviews the same titles month in, month out, but to be honest it would be too time consuming and expensive to read much more than I already do.

Under the cut: reviews of Action Comics, Age of Ultron, Batwing, Bedlam, Detective Comics, Green Lantern, Red She-Hulk, and Stormwatch. I plan to get Worlds' Finest but my local comic shop had sold out, and I'd rather not buy a digital version if I'm still looking for a print copy.

Doctor Who: "The Rings of Akhaten"

For her first trip inside the TARDIS the Doctor takes Clara to the Rings of Akhaten, where a once-in-a-thousand-years religious ceremony is about to go terribly, terribly wrong. Now it's up to the Doctor and Clara to save the day before an angry god wakes up and devours the entire system.

Just like "The Bells of St John" replicated "Rose" as a sort of light relaunch of the series, so "The Rings of Akhaten" replicates "The End of the World". For those who are straining to remember, "The End of the World" was a very clever second episode of Doctor Who's first season, in which Rose got to meet a whole pile of rubber-suited aliens at once. It was a deliberately 'out there' kind of an episode, which was the clever bit, since by slotting it in so early it made sure the audience knew that they could expect pretty much anything from the series to come.

So here we are with "The Rings of Akhaten", filled with even more strange rubber-suited monsters, a temple on an asteroid orbiting an angry sun, masked alien robot things, a weird semi-undead sort of mummy and rip-roaring chases on anti-gravity mopeds. In short, this episode is bonkers.

April 15, 2013

Doctor Who: "The Bells of St John"

There's something living in the wireless networks of planet Earth. It's kidnapping people's minds and capturing them in the data cloud. Now it has London nanny Clara Oswald in its sights - and the one person who can save her has already seen her die twice...

"The Bells of St John" is, despite coming halfway through Season 7, a season premiere for all intents and purposes. Before budget cuts and scheduling decisions started playing merry hell with Doctor Who's timetable, we always used to get a new season for Easter. As a result, this episode - the first for 2013 - feels like more of a starting point than "Asylum of the Daleks" did. It properly introduces a new companion - just like "Rose", "Smith and Jones", "Partners in Crime" and "The Eleventh Hour" did. Like those stories it is set in present-day England. And like those stories it successfully introduces a new companion, kickstarts the series anew but fails to fully develop as a story in its own right.

The Pull List: 27 March 2013

This blog has been very light on posts in recent weeks, primarily because I've spent about a week each in Perth and Singapore. Now is the time for the gradual catch-up, including all of the comic books I haven't been reading. First up is books published in the last week of March.

In Perth I attended the science fiction convention Swancon, which featured DC writer Gail Simone as one of the guests of honour. It was great to meet Gail and to see her speak: she's one of the most engaging comic book writers I've ever seen, and any conventions looking for an awesome guest should absolutely send her an invite.

I felt very lucky to moderate a panel discussion on DC and Marvel relaunches with Gail, artist Emily Smith and anime journalist Jon Hayward. It was the first time I'd heard the absence of characters like Stephanie Brown explained in a fashion that makes sense. (If they relaunch Steph and she fails, that's it for the character for the next decade - better to take time and use her for the best story possible than simply bring her back because we want to see her again.)

Under the cut: late reviews of Age of Ultron, Aquaman, Batman Incorporated, The Flash, Journey into Mystery, The Massive, Planetoid, X-Men Legacy and Young Avengers.

April 14, 2013

Who50: "Day of the Daleks"

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, #30: "Day of the Daleks", a 1972 four-part serial written by Louis Marks and directed by Paul Bernard.

I generally dislike Jon Pertwee's tenure as the Doctor. It's not Pertwee himself, although to be honest I could give or take his version of the character. It's more the actual series surrounding him at the time: the idea of television's ultimate freewheeling rebel would settle down and work for the military strikes me as deeply counter to everything the series demonstrated before or since. That aside, the UNIT set-up does work sufficiently for one year (Season 7) before the arrival of Jo Grant, Mike Yates and the vaguely ridiculous and cozy "UNIT family". After that it's just four years of what seem like interminably long, vaguely tedious serials where - more often than not - the Master pops up like a Scooby Doo level antagonist.

This in mind, I'm somewhat surprised that - once I've gone through all the Doctor Who serials ever made and picked out the 50 I like the most - Pertwee stories keep cropping up on this list. "Day of the Daleks" is the 21st story I've written about, and the fifth to star Jon Pertwee. I've only blogged about Tom Baker stories three times. Sylvester McCoy, still my sentimental favourite among the 11 Doctors, has only come up once. If nothing else, assembling this list is making me re-evaluate my opinions on the Jon Pertwee era. I still don't think the majority of his stories are very good, but when they are they really do shine.

April 12, 2013

Life of Pi (2012)

I have not read Life of Pi, the widely acclaimed and bestselling 2001 novel by Yann Martel. I have, however, now seen its feature film adaptation of the same name, released in late 2012 and directed by Taiwan's Ang Lee. It is a superlative achievement in filmmaking. It takes a novel broadly claimed to be unfilmable and not only successfully films it but does so with aplomb.

It is a deliberately ambiguous film too. Basically what you get from Life of Pi largely depends upon what you bring to it yourself, and I think that makes it a very special motion picture indeed. To explain why that is, I shall have to discuss the movie's ending - keep that it mind if you continue reading but have not seen the film or (I assume) read the book.

April 11, 2013

Who50: "The Happiness Patrol"

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, #31: "The Happiness Patrol", a 1988 three-part serial written by Graeme Curry and directed by Chris Clough.

The Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) and Ace (Sophie Aldred) travel to the human colony of Terra Alpha to investigate rumours of wrongdoings by its government. They find a world where being unhappy is punishable by death - a law enforced by the dreaded "Happiness Patrol".

This wasn't deliberate, I assure you. I worked out my fifty favourite Doctor Who stories last year, and worked out what order I liked them in, and here we are just days after the death of Margaret Thatcher and I'm writing about Doctor Who's own savage indictment of Britain's most loathsome 20th century leader.

April 2, 2013

The Omega Factor: "The Undiscovered Country"

Journalist Tom Crane arrives in Edinburgh to continue his series of investigative articles into the occult. Instead of an entertaining lead, he instead discovers murder, secret government experiments, a mysterious psychic named Drexel and the startling possibility that Tom may have powers of his own.

I've long thought of The Omega Factor as the black sheep of BBC telefantasy. It was produced in the 1970s, a decade where dramas like Doctor Who, Blake's 7 and Survivors became cult hits, and yet it only got aired on TV once, was never released onto VHS and - despite a DVD release some years ago - remains a curiously unseen and underappreciated gem. This is a deep shame, as the series basically managed to be the BBC's answer to The X Files, made 15 years earlier and with a focus not on UFOs but rather on telepathy, psychokenesis and other mind powers. It was a controversial series on release, and remains pretty much the sole casualty of Mary Whitehouse and the National Viewers and Listeners Association's campaign against violence on the BBC.