June 30, 2015

Arachnophobia (1990)

Throughout the 1990s Amblin Entertainment seemed to be an unstoppable factory of populist family films, jumping genres from action to science fiction to horror, and forming the foundation for many children's film-going experience. Even when the bulk of the films weren't directed by Steven Spielberg, his presence was constantly felt throughout whether in the development of their screenplays or their particular visual aesthetic.

This long series of family films appeared to by-and-large conclude in 1990 with the release of Frank Marshall's Arachnophobia. Before that film the company produced the likes of The Goonies, Gremlins, Young Sherlock Holmes, Batteries Not Included as well as Spielberg's own E.T. the Extraterrestrial and Hook. After Arachnophobia the company seemed more likely to produce films like Cape Fear, The Bridges of Madison Country or To Wong Foo. Family films continued to emerge from Amblin, but that core vibe of its original 1980s films seemed to get left behind.

So in many respects Arachnophobia feels like the end of an era, straddling the gap between two kinds of film as well as two decades.

The West Wing: "What Kind of Day Has It Been"

In The West Wing’s first season finale, the President’s preparations for a town hall meeting with Virginian college students is interrupted when a United States fighter jet is shot down in Iraq’s no-fly zone. Toby is concerned when the space shuttle Columbia – whose crew includes his payload specialist brother – fails to return to Earth on time, Josh meets with the Vice-President to persuade him to back the President’s agenda on campaign finance reform, and a shocking cliffhanger brings an end to our first year alongside the Bartlet administration.

The episode’s title is identical to the first season finale of Sorkin’s Sports Night, and he re-used it as a small in-joke. ‘There was just something that felt right about doing that,’ Sorkin told an online forum.(1) The title was used a third time for the series finale of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and a fourth time in the series finale of The Newsroom.

It is difficult to think of “What Kind of Day Has It Been” without thinking of its divisive cliffhanger ending, which some viewers loved and others actively hated. For now we shall put the closing moments aside, and focus on the bulk of the episode.

June 29, 2015

Star Trek: Enterprise: "In a Mirror, Darkly, Part II"

It's 29 April 2005, and time for more Star Trek: Enterprise.

In a bleak parallel universe, Commander Archer has commandeered the USS Defiant and plans to use it to take over the Terran Empire. Meanwhile T'Pol, inspired by the records of the Federation in the Defiant's data banks, is preparing an armed insurrection against her human overlords.

The first part of this parallel universe storyline worked itself into being a prequel to "Mirror, Mirror" and a sequel to "The Tholian Web". This second half continues in that vein, but adds an additional piece of continuity porn: a runaway Gorn, a species last seen in the original series episode "Arena". Add in appearances by parallel versions of pre-existing Enterprise characters like Admiral Gardner and Ambassador Soval, and you've got one unholy mess of fan-baiting Trek history, all thrown together and vigorously shaken into... well, into something.

The West Wing: "Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics"

In “Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics”, the Bartlet administration get the first taste of how the public will respond to their new “Let Bartlet be Bartlet” policy while the President and Leo continue their efforts to kick-start finance reform. Laurie finally graduates from law school, leading to a crisis for Sam when a British tabloid photographs him with her. Meanwhile C.J. faces up to her own personal crisis in confidence. The episode’s title comes from a Benjamin Disraeli quote: ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.’

This is a strong episode for C.J., who has undergone the most pronounced character development of any of the regular cast so far. We started the series with her a little under-confident and overwhelmed, and we recently saw her finally stand up to the President over the media’s coverage of his daughter. Here she admits that she feels she let her workmates down over Mandy’s leaked strategy memo, and worries that Leo is marginalising her as a result. By the episode’s end she seems to have recovered her confidence – and her expectations for the President’s new opinion poll, already much higher than anyone else’s, are satisfied.

June 28, 2015

The Pull List: 24 June 2015, Part II

Psychokinetic hair. That's the first thing with which the reader is confronted in issue 4 of Ninjak: a top-secret intelligence profile about psychokinetic hair. Ninjak is a knowingly ridiculous series, essentially blending James Bond with, well, ninjas. The first story arc of this recent relaunch has focused on Ninjak infiltrating an international gun-smuggling syndicate, only now his cover has been blown thanks to the mysterious assassin Roku. She has psychokinetic hair.

So if blonde English ninjas armed with Q-branch gadgets fending off red-haired assassins with prehensile locks sounds like your thing, then Valiant has the comic for you, At least, that's where I assumed this issue would go, since that's by and large where we left it last month. Instead this issue presents Roku's origin, and it's a dark fantasy filled with endless caverns, dark cults and monstrous demons.

That's one of the things I like the most about Valiant: their comics are very good at jumping tracks and switching genres. Juan Jose Ryp does outstanding artwork in this issue, with the assistance of Clay and Seth Mann and Marguerite Sauvage. It's possibly the prettiest comic of the week. Matt Kindt writes an intriguing story too, although it's always the tiniest bit suspect having all of this cod Asian mythology wrap around a Caucasian protagonist. Then again, that's pretty much Ninjak as the character was created, so I can hardly claim it's Kindt's fault.

This is another great book from Valiant, although you should note that the interiors aren't quite as sexualised as that cover. (4/5)

IDW. Written by Matt Kindt. Art by Juan Jose Ryp with Clay Mann, Seth Mann and Marguerite Sauvage. Colours by Ulises Arreola.

Under the cut: reviews of Annihilator, Aquaman, Black Widow, Justice League 3001 and Southern Cross.

Wind Blast (2010)

A debt-ridden boxer (Xia Yu) shoots a man dead in Hong Kong before fleeing to mainland China. A year later, a team of police officers have almost succeeded in tracking him down along the borders of the Gobi Desert - only to discover that a pair of assassins (Francis Ng and Yu Nan) are also on his trail.

Wind Blast is a 2010 Chinese action film written and directed by Gao Qunshu. It's not simply an action film: it's essentially a Chinese-language modern-day western, with lawmakers and criminals circling each other's trails on horseback while wearing cowboy hats. It's shot like a western, climaxes with a one-on-one showdown in the middle of an isolated town, and has a deliberate guitar-dominated musical score that brings to mind John Woo's 1996 action film Broken Arrow.

That's not to say it's not also a very Chinese-style film. The characters all seem to spend a remarkable amount of time talking about fate, destiny and honour, in that way that the protagonists of Chinese action films often seem to do. There's more than one slightly surreal moment, the most memorable of which is a climactic horse stampede. It's not simply that some horses are stampeding, it's that they do it through a town, and that they're remarkably tiny horses.

June 27, 2015

The West Wing: "Mandatory Minimums"

In “Mandatory Minimums” Bartlet throws down his gauntlet to the Republican majority leader by nominating his own picks for the Federal Election Commission. The White House staff work on a new drug enforcement policy, Josh feels awkward when Joey Lucas arrives to consult for the President, and Toby is set up for an important meeting – with his ex-wife, Congresswoman Andy Wyatt.

“Mandatory Minimums”, while continuing the storyline of Bartlet’s renewed vigour in pushing his own agenda, is focused primarily on the problem of drug enforcement. Through its characters, The West Wing questions the merits of incarcerating drug offenders over providing them with medical treatment. It also directly targets the issue of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences, and the vast disparity of sentences issued between powdered cocaine-related offences and those based around crack cocaine.

The episode’s discussions over drug enforcement gained it praise from former Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent Robert Stutman. Speaking on a “Drug Wars” special for PBS series Frontline, Stutman noted ‘the most intelligent discussion I’ve heard among politicians concerning the drug issue was on The West Wing’.(1)

Star Trek: Enterprise: "In a Mirror, Darkly, Part I"

It's 22 April 2005, and time for more Star Trek: Enterprise.

Season 4 of Enterprise has been such a messy cavalcade of continuity references and indulgent prequels that I'm finding the start of each episode a weirdly exciting moment: precisely what beloved older episode of Star Trek is going to get crassly exploited and shoe-horned into a new back story this week? "In a Mirror, Darkly" doesn't disappoint in that regard. It's first five minutes are among the most attention-grabbing the series has ever done.

We unexpectedly begin during the climactic moments of the 1996 feature film Star Trek: First Contact. A Vulcan starship descends to the ground, and its occupants step out to greet the astonished humans. Zephram Cochrane (James Cromwell) greets the Vulcans, as he does in the film, only to then pull out a gun, blow the Vulcans away, and lead the frantic looting of their ship. We then jump to a revised set of opening titles with ominous music, tracking in images the development of the militaristic, cruel Terran Empire.

June 26, 2015

No Regrets for Our Youth (1946)

Akira Kurosawa's fifth film, No Regrets for Our Youth, was his first to be made following the end of the Pacific War. With Japan's military government completely disbanded, and a new wave of democracy flowing over the embattled country, Kurosawa was freed to follow his own story ideas for the very first time. No longer required to direct propaganda pictures, or express a government-approved nationalistic agenda, Kurosawa immediately rushed in the opposite direction. No Regrets is an actively political and unexpectedly left-wing polemic inspired by the Kyoto University incident of 1933. It is also a remarkable character study into a young woman's difficult life over a turbulent 13 years of Japanese history.

The Kyoto University incident in a nutshell: in the 1930s Japan was governed by an increasingly nationalistic and militarily controlled government. Within this growing environment of right-wing propaganda and military expansionism, law professor Takigawa Yukitoki delivered lectures on the need for the judiciary to better understand the social roots of political agitators before condemning and sentencing them in trials. In May 1933 the national education minister announced that Professor Takigawa was suspended from teaching due to his advocating Marxist philosophy. The remaining faculty at Kyoto University resigned in protest, students boycotted classes, and protests were organised. The government responded by firing Takigawa from his post, and cracking down on the protests. Careers were destroyed. Lives were ruined.

Judging the DCU: May 2015

May 2015 saw DC Comics continue with its two-month Convergence event. I think it was always assumed sales for the month would be down from April. The question really is: by how much?

For now let's ignore the holdovers from March that got published in April: new issues of Justice League, Batman and Superman that got released late and helped boost DC's overall sales. Let's also put aside the weekly Convergence series as well - we'll get to that in a moment. That leaves us with the 40 two-issue miniseries published: how much did the sales drop between issues one and two?

Fourteen per cent. That's actually fairly impressive when you consider that the average second issue drop for DC Comics is about 24 per cent. The average units per issue were just shy of 36,000, compared to almost 42,000 in April. Jump back a year, and May 2014 average units per comic were just under 28,000. All up that suggests that Convergence was pretty successful. The next question for DC is how much momentum was lost by suspending the regular books for two months.

The West Wing: "Let Bartlet Be Bartlet"

In “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet”: a hard-hitting memo is leaked that outlines all of Bartlet and his staff’s weaknesses; Sam meets with representatives of the military to discuss changing the long-standing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy; Josh sees an opportunity when two members of the Federal Election Commission resign; and Leo finally confronts Bartlet over the President’s “middle of the road” tactics.

It is an episode that seems to pull together the entire series into a single, driven narrative: for all of their idealism and small victories, the truth remains that the Bartlet administration is stuck in a rut. After more than a year in office, the President has little to show for it. He shies away from his own agendas, leaving his staff dispirited and increasingly despondent. By the episode’s climax Bartlet and his staff are renewed and invigorated, eager to make a difference with the remaining two-and-a-half years of the Bartlet Presidency. This is what the series is about for the rest of the year: Aaron Sorkin takes the momentum of this week’s events and uses it to power through the remaining three episodes.

Leo confronting Bartlet over how he’s played it safe since becoming President is yet another bit of The West Wing that seems to have its origins in The American President. In the film, President Shepherd’s Chief of Staff A.J. chastises him for shying away from a character debate with his election rival. In The West Wing, Leo chastises Bartlet from shying away from everything. It’s a wonderful scene in both the film and this episode: the Chief of Staff dropping his role, and speaking to the President as a lifelong friend.

June 25, 2015

The Pull List: 24 June 2015, Part I

One of the more intriguing concepts of DC's new wave of titles is We Are Robin. In the aftermath of the Batman storyline "Endgame", Gotham City is in disarray. Hundreds of people remain missing. Thousands are homeless. The sewers and underground rail systems are filling up with people. Batman is reportedly dead. Crime is spiralling out of control. It's all the perfect environment for a group of disillusioned teenagers to take matters into their own hands, put on a mask and become the new Robin. All of them.

The book is written by Lee Bermejo, who is a very talented artist who has only recently broadened his skill-set to write comics as well. He does a very solid job here, introducing our protagonist Duke Thomas and drawing him into the new world of mass vigilantism. Duke is the perfect character to use as well, since he's already got a strong link to Batman himself via both "Zero Year" and "Endgame". He even cropped up in last year's Futures End tie-in as the official Robin of the future.

Jorge Corona's artwork has a nice angular look to it, sitting somewhere in the region of 100 Bullets, which seems a really good fit for the material.

Sadly there's not quite enough in this first issue to get a proper handle on the storyline. We get enough to be intrigued - and I'm very intrigued - but not enough to sell this one straight out of the gate. I'm certainly keen to give issue #2 a try. I just hope enough readers are willing to do likewise. This book has a lot of promise to it. (4/5)

DC Comics. Written by Lee Bermejo. Art by Jorge Corona, Rob Haynes and Khary Randolph.

Under the cut: reviews of Daredevil, Donald Duck, Empire Uprising and Jem and the Holograms.

The West Wing: "Six Meetings Before Lunch"

In “Six Meetings Before Lunch”: Mendoza is finally confirmed as Associate Chief Justice, Zoey is ambushed by a tabloid journalist, Sam and Mallory debate private school vouchers, Josh meets with an assistant attorney general candidate who favours financial reparations for slavery, C.J. must summon up the courage to stand up against the President, and Mandy is on the hunt for two pandas for the National Zoo.

In a delightful contrast to “The White House Pro-Am”, “Six Meetings Before Lunch” is an outstanding success, delivering an interwoven series of storylines that combine comedy and drama and successfully utilise the entire cast of the series – something that, until now, has been a relatively rare occurrence.

While writing this episode, Aaron Sorkin was trailed by journalist Sharon Waxman, who wrote an article – “Art Meets Politics” – about the production process of The West Wing. When discussing how his storylines came together, Sorkin used research made by the writing team on slavery reparations as an example. ‘I’ll look at the research,’ Sorkin said, ‘and start talking out loud: “That looks like a steal to me?”, “Where would we get the cash?” Once you get two people to disagree about something, you have a scene.’(1)

June 24, 2015

Star Trek: Enterprise: "Bound"

It's 15 April 2005, and time for more Star Trek: Enterprise.

And what an episode it is. The Enterprise is intercepted by an Orion trader, who offers Captain Archer the chance of forging a long-term peace between Earth and the Orion syndicate. As a token of his good faith, the Orion captain gives Archer a gift: three Orion slave girls. Once onboard the Enterprise, the three green-skinned, half-naked women begin driving the male members of the crew into an aggressive sexual frenzy.

It's hard to say if "Bound" is the worst Star Trek episode of all time. I'm pretty sure it's the worst Enterprise episode I've ever seen, but if I broaden it out to the franchise as a whole it's competing with Dr Crusher fighting Scottish ghosts, or 19th century Irish space colonists, or Janeway and Paris hyper-evolving into space newts that then have sex. So let's not exaggerate by calling it the 'worst-ever', and just rest assured that it's one of the 'worst-ever' episodes. Ever. As in, really, really awful. Back in 2005 when UPN axed Enterprise I remember being sad that Star Trek was off the air again. Had I actually seen this episode back then I'd have sent the network a hand-written note of thanks. This is terrible television.

The West Wing: "The White House Pro Am"

In “The White House Pro-Am”, the Chair of the Federal Reserve dies of a heart attack – putting the President at odds with his own wife when she pre-emptively suggests his choice of successor. Meanwhile the First Lady’s social agenda forces a congresswoman’s hand in amending an important trade bill.

This is an unexpectedly lacklustre episode, which makes the mistake of drawing its drama out of a conflict between Jed and Abbey Bartlet. Jed is snippy because his administration’s best choice to replace the Federal Reserve Chair is Abbey’s ex-boyfriend of three decades ago. This kind of behaviour doesn't sit well with what we’ve previously seen the character say and do. It feels cheap and unusually domestic. With Jed’s 30 year-old jealousy as a very shaky foundation for the episode, it’s no surprise that the rest of the action it inspires is so weak.

The tragedy is that there’s a lot of dramatic potential in exploring the relationship between the offices of the President and of the First Lady. Sadly it’s not Sorkin who fully exploits this idea, but rather it’s Eli Attie in Season 5’s “Constituency of One”.

June 23, 2015

RIP James Horner

Film composer James Horner has died, aged 61, after crashing his light plane near Santa Barbara in California. He was the winner of the 1997 Academy Awards for Best Original Score and Best Original Song, both for his work on James Cameron's massively popular epic Titanic. His Titanic score is, at 27 million copies, the highest-selling orchestra soundtrack album of all time.

He received another seven Oscar nominations for his scores: Aliens, Field of Dreams, Apollo 13, Braveheart, A Beautiful Mind, The House of Sand and Fog and Avatar. He leaves behind two scores yet to be heard: Patricia Riggen's The 33 and Antoine Fuqua's Southpaw. All up he composed more than 100 feature film scores, and was one of the most influential screen composers of the past 30 years.

Like many of his contemporaries, Horner quoted from and referenced works by classical composers in his own scores, and he also developed a fairly dominant sound to his works: extensive choral and Celtic components, swelling string and horn sections, and a heavy emphasis on crashing cymbals. This style arguably reached its apex with Titanic in 1997. In many ways the success of that film damaged Horner's own creativity, as subsequent producers, directors and studios demanded similarly full, epic sounds from him.

The West Wing: "20 Hours in L.A."

In “20 Hours in L.A.”, the President flies to Los Angeles for a Hollywood fundraiser and to discuss amendments to the Constitution banning burning the American flag. Back in Washington, Leo presses the Vice President to vote in favour of an ethanol tax credit – a credit that Hoynes has always opposed.

For the first time The West Wing stretches its legs, moving out of Washington D.C. for a week and allowing the series to explore some new angles on the American political system. The episode is based around a Democratic Party fundraiser hosted by Hollywood film producer Ted Marcus (Bob Balaban), and it goes a long way to demonstrate how valuable these money-gathering exercises are. Politics is an expensive business, and requires all politicians – even the President of the United States – to do a little negotiation and hand-holding with America’s super-rich.

June 22, 2015

The Pull List: 17 June 2015, Part III

With its third issue Ales Kot's weird, multi-layered science fiction miniseries drops all pretence and proudly goes the full Morrison. Grant Morrison, that is: the influence of Morrison's works on this book is vivid and palpable, and your opinion on his works will largely dictate how much you enjoy what Kot is writing here. I'm not even going to pretend to fully understand what's going on here, but it's intriguing me immensely and feels as if it's all going to slot into place at the end.

That's the trouble with reviewing this kinds of weird, complex storylines. It's very difficult to fully comprehend whether or not you've really enjoyed it until it's done. There's a lot of The Matrix in this, but Kot pushes the idea still further. It's one thing to say that there's another reality beyond your own, but what's reality anyway? What is consciousness? To an extent I'm not certain fully understand the nuance of the story is required at this stage. The characters are well written, the satire and humour is sharp, and Langdon Foss' artwork is great. I also really liked the unexpected prose sections in the book, as well as it's odd and unreliable narrator.

I believe there's one issue to go, but for now The Surface is wonderfully weird and fascinating, and well worth checking out. (4/5)

Image. Written by Ales Kot. Art by Langdon Foss. Colours by Jordie Bellaire.

Under the cut: reviews of Bloodshot Reborn, Ivar Timewalker, Kaijumax and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Casey & April.

The 'Burbs (1989)

In a quiet suburban cul-de-sac, Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks) decides to spend his vacation time relaxing at home, He's immediately suspicious of his new neighbours, the mysterious Klopeks. The more he looks into them, the more suspicious he gets until he and his friends are suspecting them of murder.

The 'Burbs is a satirical comedy written by Dana Olsen and directed by Joe Dante. It was released in 1989, pretty close to the point where Tom Hanks stopped making comedies and started making award-winning dramas instead. Broadly speaking it's a clever little film, scraping away at the veneer of suburban American life and showing off its residents as petty, hostile, untrustworthy and bigoted.

As far as Tom Hanks movies go, it's unexpectedly dark and twisted. By Joe Dante's own standards it seems pretty messed-up. He may have directed relatively dark films before, including Gremlins and The Howling, but the satire never seemed as sharp as it is here.

The West Wing: "Celestial Navigation"

While Sam and Toby head cross-country to rescue a Supreme Court Justice nominee, Josh speaks to a group of political studies students and recounts a day that features root canals, a Cabinet Secretary flying off the handle and a non-existent secret plan to fight inflation.

Far and away the most interesting part of “Celestial Navigation” is its structure. The episode employs a slightly complex non-linear narrative. Josh is appearing at a university political science lecture, where to give the students an idea of life in the West Wing he recounts the last 36 hours of his job.

The episode could have very simply flashed back and forwards between Josh describing his day, and then those scenes playing out. Instead Sorkin, Myers and O’Donnell add another plot line, contemporaneous to Josh’s lecture, in which Sam and Toby head out to Connecticut in the middle of the night to free Judge Roberto Mendoza from a police station lock-up. If you imagine a typical story structure as a short, wide rectangle, with a number of plots occurring alongside each other, and a flashback-heavy non-linear story structure as a narrow, long rectangle, with a number of plots occurring one after the other, then “Celestial Navigation” is in the odd position of having an “L”-shaped plot. Things flash back and forth, but they’re happening at the same time as well. It’s clever stuff, and Sorkin will return to this kind of non-linear storytelling several times as the series progresses (notably in “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen”, “Noël”, “Two Cathedrals”, “Manchester” and “Bartlet for America”).

June 21, 2015

Jurassic World (2015)

22 years after the original Jurassic Park disaster, InGen has successfully forged ahead with a new theme park on Isla Nublar. Unlike its predecessor, Jurassic World has been a phenomenal success. It has been so successful, in fact, that park visitors now take dinosaurs for granted. They're more likely to read social media on their smartphones than marvel at a Tyrannosaurus Rex right in front of them.

That's the first of several genuinely clever ideas in Jurassic World, the much-delayed fourth film in Universal Picture's action-thriller franchise. It's clever because it's believable, but it's also clever because it mirrors the film-going audience. Jurassic Park was a jaw-dropping visual marvel. Jurassic World is just another action flick with dinosaurs. Like the park visitors in the film, as movie-goers we now pretty much take visual effects for granted. Showing us some dinosaurs rampaging through a Central American jungle probably doesn't cut it any more.

Spinning the plot out from park visitors being unengaged is a cool concept, but it's also a double-edged sword since showing us some dinosaurs rampaging through a Central American jungle is by-and-large all that Jurassic World does. Anticipation for this much-delayed sequel may have been high, but the film itself is just a standard sort of sequel. There are some great scenes, and some good actors, but all in all it's just a weaker copy of an earlier and superior film.

June 20, 2015

The West Wing: "Take This Sabbath Day"

“Take This Sabbath Day” is unlike most West Wing episodes in that it concerns itself with only two storylines. In the smaller of the two, Josh meets with political campaign manager Joey Lucas after her Democratic candidate has been deliberately under-funded by the party. In the larger of the two, President Bartlet has two days to determine whether or not to commute the death sentence of a man convicted of drug-related murders.

This is, like “Mr Willis of Ohio”, very much an issues-based episode. In that episode the focus was in part on explaining the importance of the United States census to the viewers. In this episode the focus is far more direct and dynamic: it is almost entirely concerned with the issue of capital punishment. A Federal prisoner, Simon Cruz, fails on a Friday night to have his death penalty overturned by the US Supreme Court. As the state does not execute its prisoners on the Sabbath, his execution is scheduled for midnight on Monday morning. That gives his legal team two days to convince the President to commute the sentence by executive privilege.

The Pull List: 17 June 2015, Part II

For the characters in Revival it's not a good time to be in rural Wisconsin. First there was the little problem of all the town's dead suddenly being alive again. Then there was the government quarantine, and rising dissent. Now a terrorist attack has taken out the town's mayor, the military have moved in take over, the revived have been imprisoned in camps and a militia is planning further attacks on the fringes of town.

The cover of Revival labels it as a 'rural noir', which turns out to be a fairly accurate description. From the premise it feels like it should be a horror comic, but while there's plenty of horrific moments it is, all things considered, more of a crime drama than anything else. For almost three years now the book has tracked an unexpected course. We still don't know what caused the dead to return to life - although there have been some hints and clues recently - but impressively it doesn't really matter. The mystery is a framework to tell interesting stories with well-rounded characters.

Emilio Laiso does a great job with the artwork, which matches Mike Norton's usual work so well that I almost didn't notice that the artist had changed. I have no idea if Laiso is a temporary or permanent artist for the book, but either way events don't skip a beat.

Tim Seeley is writing the hell out of this book, slowly developing the plot threads and winding them together in an excellent fashion. This isn't the sort of comic where you read one issue and get a single self-contained story. This is a deliberate slow-boiling serial, that gets more and more enjoyable the longer you read it. It's absolutely one of my favourite books on the market. (5/5)

Image. Written by Tim Seeley. Art by Emilio Laiso. 

Under the cut: reviews of Doctor Who: The 11th Doctor, Ghostbusters Get Real, The Infinite Loop, Star Trek and Usagi Yojimbo.

June 19, 2015

The Pull List: 17 June 2015, Part I

All the way back in 1973 Joe Simon and Jerry Grandenetti created Prez, a short-lived comic book in which the USA changed its electoral laws to give teenagers the vote. As a result of that change teenager Prez Rickard became the youngest President of all time, backed by a shadowy businessman named Boss Smiley who had a spherical yellow smiley face for a head. It was one of the most bogglingly weird things DC ever published, and readers really didn't catch onto it. The fourth issue, in which the White House was invaded by vampires and Prez relied on a Native American bodyguard in a feather headdress to save him, was the last.

Prez had a weird footprint on the comics-reading audience, though. The book may have crashed and burned, but it remained fondly remembered. Neil Gaiman even incorporated characters from the book into a story arc on The Sandman. Now with DC Comics vigorously shaking its back catalogue upside-down for loose change, we're getting an all-new Prez. It's suitable weird, and reasonably good.

It's the year 2036 and not only can teenagers vote, voting can be done via social media. A prostitution scandal takes out the lead candidate (the scandal is that he's prostituting himself, not that he's having sex with prostitutes), and 16 year-old Beth Ross - using the username Corndog Girl - becomes the new front-runner for President. It's a scattershot near-future satire, with big business running government from behind the scenes, reality TV running out of control, and political talk shows featuring up-to-the-second opinion polls during interviews.

Ben Caldwell and Mark Morales provide some great artwork, emphasising the comedic nature of the book. It's not perfect, but it's surprisingly close to the mark. I don't see Prez finding an audience with any more ease than it had in 1973, but while it lasts it's looking pretty entertaining. And hey DC, what's with the lack of creator credits for Simon and Grandenetti? (4/5)

DC Comics. Written by Mark Russell. Art by Ben Caldwell and Mark Morales. Colours by Jeremy Lawson.

Under the cut: reviews of Black Canary, Doctor Fate, Ms Marvel and Robin: Son of Batman.

The West Wing: "Take Out the Trash Day"

In “Take Out the Trash Day”: the West Wing staff debate how to best respond to a controversial sex education study, the long-gestating hate crimes legislation is about to be signed, Josh and Sam meet with an appropriations subcommittee intended to expose Leo’s drug abuse history, and Toby battles a group of congressman over the Public Broadcasting Service.

This is an odd episode, which feels partly recycled and at the same time partly redundant. The sex education study only really serves two purposes: firstly, it adds some easy comedy moments, and secondly it puts something on the table with which the characters can bargain with to avoid a lengthy and messy hearing about Leo’s alcoholism and drug addiction.

James Handy played Congressman Joseph Bruno, who meets with Sam and Josh to discuss the possible hearing into Leo’s scandal. He returns in Season 3’s “Bartlet for America”. Handy had previously played Estevez in Bird (1988), Milton Briggs in Arachnophobia (1990), and guest starred in multi-episode arcs on NYPD Blue, Alias, Melrose Place and Profiler (1997-98). Bruno’s conversation with Sam and Josh is a highlight of the episode. Sharp, intelligent, and sensible, he not only gives both of them a well-earned piece of his mind, but also reminds the audience that not every Republican in the series is going to be a moustache-twirling villain.

June 18, 2015

Star Trek: Enterprise: "Divergence"

It's 25 February 2005, and time for more Star Trek: Enterprise.

Dr Phlox has been kidnapped by the Klingon Empire to assist them in overcoming a deadly virus that threatens to eradicate their species. The Enterprise has been sabotaged, and is just minutes away from destruction. Lt Reed is caught between two masters, as the demands of Section 31 conflict with the orders of his captain.

I really did not enjoy the first episode of this two-parter, because it struck me as the absolute worst in continuity-heavy fan-centric rubbish that the Star Trek franchise had to offer. All of those continuity elements continue through "Divergence", whether it's the explanation of why the Klingons had bumpy heads in The Next Generation but smooth heads in the original Star Trek, or the manner in which DNA from Khan Noonien Singh's genetically modified humans played a part, or the reintroduction of Deep Space Nine's Section 31. Some aspects of this episode are much more entertaining than the first part of the story. Other aspects simply remain as bad. All things considered, this is pretty terrible television.

The West Wing: "He Shall, From Time to Time..."

In “He Shall, From Time to Time...” the preparations for Bartlet’s second State of the Union address are thrown into disarray when the President collapses in the Oval Office. Meanwhile, Leo faces the press over his past abuse of prescription drugs and alcohol. On top of everything else, the India-Pakistan conflict continues to develop.

‘I worried over the episode,’ said Aaron Sorkin, ‘when Bartlet collapsed and was diagnosed with MS. That wasn’t a particularly strong show.’(1) Sorkin shouldn’t have worried. Without warning, “He Shall, From Time to Time...” rushes up to its audience and rips the rug right out from under its feet. This is a game-changing episode that comes to redefine The West Wing’s central character, and forge a new direction for seasons to come.

The episode’s title, “He Shall, From Time to Time...”, comprises the opening words of the passage in the executive powers section of the Constitution which deals with the State of the Union address. The State of the Union is an annual address given by the President to a joint session of the United States Congress. It exists for the President to report on the state of the American nation, but is generally used by the President to outline his or her administration’s legislative agenda for the coming year. The address is derived from the United Kingdom’s annual Speech from the Throne (as Leo notes, it dates back to Parliament), and is required by the United States Constitution. As a part of the traditional process, the President must be officially invited by Congress to enter the House of Representatives Chamber.

June 17, 2015

Bodacious Space Pirates: "Marika Goes Recruiting"

It's been nine months since I last reviewed an episode of Bodacious Space Pirates, a science fiction anime that I liked quite a lot - albeit with a few reservations. It seemed as good a time as any to jump back onboard and sample the series' second half.

A shipment of diseased alien cat-monkeys puts the entire crew of the Bentenmaru out of action and in isolation for weeks. To maintain her license to engage in piracy, Captain Marika is forced to go looking for temporary replacements - and that leads her and Princess Gruyere to an orbiting relay station.

A conversation two weeks ago with friend and fellow blogger John Samuel (whose own anime reviews you should definitely be reading) finally cemented my central problem with Bodacious Space Pirates, and that's the pacing. For the first half of the series I felt as if the storylines were too slow and drawn out, whereas John mentioned he often found them a bit rushed. I think the problem is actually both at the same time.

The West Wing: "Lord John Marbury"

Comedy and drama mix in their usual fashion in this 11th episode of The West Wing, as India invades Kashmir, Josh learns the real target of Claypool's investigation into White House drug abuse, and the United Kingdom gets a new ambassador to the USA.

According to Patrick Caddell, who is co-credited for both the story and teleplay of “Lord John Marbury”, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said this episode was one of the best expositions on foreign policy on television that she had ever seen.(1)

The episode is based on a very real tension that exists in the Kashmir region between India and Pakistan. Once again The West Wing draws a real-life issue from the headlines and presents it in a digestible manner for a mass audience. If you didn’t know about military tensions between India and Pakistan before, after “Lord John Marbury” you’re working from a very solid foundation. In fact, in a rare case of a television drama being a little too much on the money, India actually invaded Kashmir two weeks after this episode went to air in the USA.

June 16, 2015

Blake's 7: "Weapon"

It's 23 January 1979 and time for more Blake's 7.

Supreme Commander Servalan has negotiated with the legendary Clone Masters to have two clones made of Roj Blake. At the same time an emotionally unbalanced genius has escaped from a Federation weapons development facility, taking the mysterious IMIPAK with him. What links these two unrelated events to Blake and his team on the Liberator?

Seeing these disparate plot threads meet one another takes almost the whole running time of "Weapon", an episode that feels like two different stories wrestling each other for a full 50 minutes. There are several intriguing ideas at work here, but writer Chris Boucher fails to tie them together sufficiently. It's a frustrating experience as a result, full of wasted opportunities, disappointing plot developments and ridiculous costumes.

The West Wing: "In Excelsis Deo"

In the lead-up to Christmas: Sam and Josh try dragging Laurie into an attack plan to save Leo’s career, the President sneaks out of the White House to buy antique books, the violent murder of a young gay man pushes hate crime legislation back onto the agenda, and the random discovery of a business card leads Toby to a dead homeless Korean veteran – and a mission to give him a proper burial.

‘It was such a powerful and moving story,’ Richard Schiff noted. ‘After every take, I broke down and cried.’(1)

“In Excelsis Deo” is the best episode of The West Wing’s first season. It does everything that the series has been doing so far, only it does it better and with such surgical precision that it rises head and shoulders above what’s been aired before. From hereon in, this is the new standard for excellence in the series. It juggles numerous storylines, but it also juggles comedy and drama. It provokes genuine laughs, and follows them up with poignant and serious moments. It fools around with the audience in a light-hearted manner – this is the Christmas episode after all – and then spontaneously punctures that light-heartedness with something heartbreaking.

June 15, 2015

The Pull List: 10 June 2015, Part III

Brian Wood is such an exceptional talent when it comes to historical comics. I still fondly remember his lengthy DC Vertigo series Northlanders, which tracked an unpredictable path through the history of the vikings. Rebels looks set to track a much more focused story, as it follows the lives of newlyweds Seth and Mercy Abbott during the early years of the American Revolution.

This issue splits its focus between Seth in 1775, briefly coming home to Mercy after the costly mission to stop a British advance, and Seth in his childhood, revealing a personal tragedy that helped to form his character. If that wasn't enough, it also sneaks in a real kicker in the form of Mercy's own experience: married, and then effectively abandoned by her husband, and forced to make a life for herself in an isolated cottage in the forest.

Andrea Mutti's artwork and Jordie Bellaire's typically excellent colours help to bring this book to life. It's very easy to make historical fiction drag and seem boring, but they work very well together to bring the story to life.

I think historical fiction is a terribly under-utilised genre for comic books, so I'm pretty happy when a book like this comes along. I'm doubly happy when it's as well written and illustrated as Rebels. We're only three issues into the story: I heartily recommend getting onboard and trying it out. (5/5)

Dark Horse. Written by Brian Wood. Art by Andrea Mutti. Colours by Jordie Bellaire.

Under the cut: reviews of Copperhead, Descender, FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics and Nameless.

The West Wing: "The Short List"

In “The Short List”, President Bartlet has the chance to make a mark in history by nominating a Supreme Court Justice, and an ambitious Republican congressman on the House Government Oversight Committee makes a shocking allegation against the White House staff – with severe repercussions for Leo.

First, a note of explanation. The United States Supreme Court is the highest judicial body in the USA, and consists of a Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices. All nine positions are nominated by the President and confirmed with a majority vote of the Senate. Once appointed, Justices hold their positions for life: which means opportunities to nominate a new Justice come few and far between, and partisan politics being what it is it is a monumental struggle for an Administration to get the Justice appointed that they want. So the opportunity for the Bartlet Administration to nominate a new Associate Justice is a big deal. It is, in fact, the single most significant act Bartlet will perform in his first year in office.

June 14, 2015

Blake's 7: "Shadow"

It's 16 January 1979, and time for more Blake's 7.

To aid in his attack on the Federation, Blake seeks the assistance of the Terra Nostra - a secretive criminal syndicate that has a strangehold over the outer worlds. When attempts to buy the syndicate's help end in violent failure, Blake chooses to take a different approach: destroying their stocks of the addictive and deadly drug "shadow" in an attempt to get their assistance by force.

"Shadow" is the first episode of Blake's 7 not written by creator Terry Nation. Instead, script editor Chris Boucher takes control. It's not surprising, given Boucher's extensive influence over the scripts so far, that his own effort is ultimately quite similar in structure and tone to Nation's. (In fact it makes one wonder just how much of the Season 1 scripts were actually written by Boucher.) Structurally it even forms two halves, much as Nation's episodes have done. The first half focuses on Blake, Avon and Jenna's attempts to negotiate on Space City. The second focuses on their attempt to destroy the stocks of shadow on Zondar. Where Boucher improves on Nation's formula, however, is with the inclusion of a third storyline that overlaps them both: Orac has been taken over by an alien intelligence and is threatening to destroy the Liberator. It makes it all feel like a whole episode, rather than simply two halves jammed together.

The West Wing: "Enemies"

In “Enemies”: Danny Concannon chases a story that the President gave the Vice President a dressing down in a cabinet meeting, a last minute rider threatens to kill an important banking bill, and Leo’s daughter Mallory asks Sam out to the opera.

Aaron Sorkin’s lateness with scripts was apparent pretty much as soon as production on The West Wing began. He was, at the time, writing or co-writing every episode of both The West Wing and Sports Night, and with his late scripts came late call-outs for actors, late shoots and large cost over-runs. As Sorkin noted to Charlie Rose in 2003: ‘'Out of the 88 episodes I did, we were on time at at budget... never. Not once.’(1)

Eventually something was going to give way, and it gave way here: eight episodes in The West Wing has its first episode written without Sorkin’s involvement. In the first four seasons of the series, only two other episodes would be written without the show’s creator: “Swiss Diplomacy” and “The Long Goodbye”.

June 13, 2015

Capricorn One (1977)

Ever since Armstrong and Aldrin stepped onto the moon's surface there have been mad conspiracy theories - all thoroughly debunked - that the moon landings were faked. It was all a costly sham, claim the tinfoil hat-wearing nutjobs, designed to impress the public and fool the Russians.

Writer/director Peter Hyams was clearly intrigued by these conspiracy theories because in 1977 he made Capricorn One, a conspiracy thriller that uses pretty much that exact premise: NASA has been tasked with sending humans to the planet Mars, they're not able to do it, so to preserve their funding they simple fake it. Three astronauts (played by James Brolin, Sam Waterston and O.J. Simpson) are pulled out of their capsule mere minutes before lift-off, their rocket launches without them, and they're forced to undertake the rest of the mission on a soundstage 200 miles away from where they started. When the capsule finally returns to Earth, it burns up in the Earth's atmosphere. The public believe all three astronauts to be dead, and it's easiest for the conspirators to kill all three rather than admit to their deception.

The West Wing: "The State Dinner"

In “The State Dinner”: the FBI has a survivalist compound under siege, a Class-4 hurricane is bearing down on a naval carrier group, a national trucker’s union is threatening to go on strike, and the President and First Lady must host the titular state dinner with the President of Indonesia.

“The State Dinner” is an episode about failure. We watch over 42 minutes as the President fails, Toby fails, Mandy fails and Sam fails. For this viewer it is ultimately a story about powerlessness. The President begins the episode as the most powerful man in the developed world. He ends it helpless, sitting by a telephone talking to a young man with minutes to live.

The episode is the first to feature the First Lady, Dr Abigail “Abbey” Bartlet M.D. The character was mentioned in the pilot, but did not appear until now. The role is performed by Stockard Channing.

June 12, 2015

The Pull List: 10 June 2015, Part II

When DC Comics launched their New 52 initiative, they clawed a lot of characters back from self-contained DC Vertigo versions and properly into the DC Universe. In the case of Animal Man and Swamp Thing this wasn't necessarily a bad thing: both characters had been well-exploited as mature-reader titles and were effectively lying fallow. In the case of Hellblazer, and its dodgy magician protagonist John Constantine, the shift was more contentious. The change meant not only cancelling Vertigo's longest-running monthly title, it also meant peeling off the less savoury parts of John's character, making him more palatable for a mainstream readership, and shoe-horning him into adventures with the Justice League.

His New 52 solo title, Constantine, was not very good. This DC You version, titled Constantine: The Hellblazer, is a hell of a lot better. Old school readers of the Vertigo Hellblazer may find this first issue a little too run-of-the-mill: it's got demons hiding in plain sight, John strutting around smoking cigarettes and being a cocky asshole, and - crucially - John being an untrustworthy bastard as a core component of the plot. Put simply, this may not be Constantine anywhere close to his best, but he's closer than he's been since his Vertigo series was cancelled. This is a good thing.

Ming Doyle and James Tynion IV clearly know and love the character, and they give him a firm foundation here. There's some rather striking panel layouts as well, making this a more inventive read that you'd normally get from a DC book. It's also definitely got an edge to it: it's not just the smoking and drinking, it's the foul language, the blood, the horror, and the sex. It's all marvellously illustrated by Riley Rossmo, who's a sensational artist well matched to this kind of material. His Constantine is perhaps a little thinner and younger than one might expect, but it's a new look that works well.

Old readers: this feels like the character's back on track. New readers: this is a good example of what the character is supposed to be like. (4/5)

DC Comics. Written by Ming Doyle and James Tynion IV. Art by Riley Rossmo. Colours by Ivan Plascensia.

Under the cut: reviews of Disciples, Gotham Academy, Silver Surfer and Ultimate End.

The West Wing: "Mr Willis of Ohio"

In “Mr Willis of Ohio”: Toby and Mandy must sell an important commerce bill to a group of congressman – including Mr Joe Willis of Ohio, who has assumed his late wife’s office, C.J. needs Sam to explain the census to her, and President Bartlet learns that Leo’s wife has left him.

Former White House press secretary Joe Lockhart was a big fan of the episode: ‘They did a program where a third of the episode involved a recurring story line, and it was the debate on census and statistical sampling. And they did a better job of framing the issue, the politics on each side, and the passions on each side, than anybody in the broadcast world did throughout this debate.’(1)

‘I thought Aaron was crazy,’ said Allison Janney, ‘I read that, and I was like, “Well this is going to be the most boring thing ever.” And then as we did it, we had such a good time, and I learned, right along with C.J., as did my friends who watched the show. And now I can guarantee you everyone who saw the show is going to fill out their census because they saw how, and they learned how, important it actually was and what it means.’(2)

Richard Schiff said: ‘That Aaron can make things like the census as fascinating as he does on the show is a benefit for anyone who watches.’(3)

June 11, 2015

The Pull List: 10 June 2015, Part I

Batman #40 ended with Batman apparently dead, and half of Gotham City in ruins. Now, after a one-month break, Batman #41 introduces the new Batman. He's a massive robot suit packed with gadgets and piloted by 46 year-old ex-police commissioner and former marine Jim Gordon.

The first thing to say about this new status quo is that it's clearly just a story arc. Any reader who doesn't already know that Bruce Wayne is still alive, and that the original Batman will return in due course, clearly has never read a superhero comic. This book doesn't even pretend to keep that a secret. Even better: it's actively making Bruce's inevitable return part of the storyline.

The second thing to say is that any criticisms or dismissive complaints about this current direction are also already included in the book. There's no one - not characters, not real-life readers - who thinks this plan for a police-backed robot Batman is stupider than Jim Gordon does already.

The third thing to say, and this is probably the most important one, is that this issue is really good. It turns out that, while it's a silly, attention-grabbing stunt, it's a silly, attention-grabbing stunt that works. The issue uses a non-linear structure to bounce back and forth between the new Batman in the field with new police commissioner Maggie Sawyer persuading Gordon to take the job in the first place. Throw in an excellent final page cliffhanger, and you've got a genuinely fun story.

I do think the robot Batsuit looks ridiculous. So does Jim Gordon. That said, Greg Capullo and Danny Miki somehow manage to make it look good anyway. Their art continues to be a highlight on this comic.

Batman has been in publication for 75 years. After all that time, I'm never going to begrudge an attention to shake things up, and tell a fresh kind of story - particularly when it works as well as this does. (5/5)

Under the cut: how Detective Comics and Catwoman are reacting to the new Batman, as well as X-O Manowar's 25th anniversary issue and the latest Saga.

The West Wing: "The Crackpots and These Women"

In “The Crackpots and These Women”, Leo McGarry’s pet project sees C.J. talking about wolves and Sam talking about UFOs. Meanwhile, Josh receives a security card with big implications for his future – and his peace of mind. Finally the President’s youngest daughter Zoey arrives at the White House.

At the episode’s opening we are introduced to “Big Block of Cheese Day”, Leo’s appointed day where groups and organisations usually unable to get an audience with Presidential staff are invited into the White House, and their proposals, issues and grievances are heard. It's named, according to a speech already mocked by Leo's staff, after a day when President Andrew Jackson received an enormous block of cheese and chose to share it with the people of Washington.

Believe it or not, Andrew Jackson really did have a big block of cheese. It weighed two tons and sat in the White House foyer for two years between 1837 and 1839 before Jackson cut it open for a well-attended public cheese tasting. This is one of the reasons I love The West Wing. You're never going to learn a weird moment of history like that watching Stargate Atlantis.

June 10, 2015

Ga-Rei-Zero: "The Cause of the Duty"

Kagura continues to accompany the SDCD team on ghost-hunting missions, and makes her debut as a proper member of the team. She and Yomi continue to bond and grow closer, but a last-minute encounter with her father shows Kagura that she still has much to learn about fighting the supernatural.

An unexpected amount of blunt comedy combined with extensive fan service help to give Ga-Rei-Zero's yet another change in tone. This marks the third major shift in just four episodes, making this a maddeningly difficult series to pin down. The change is, in this case, not an improvement. Whereas the first two episodes were confusing as all hell, this episode is just pretty bad television.

The West Wing: "Five Votes Down"

A critical bill to ban a range of automatic firearms unexpectedly stalls, forcing the White House staff to work around the clock to claw back the five crucial votes needed for the bill to pass the House of Representatives. Toby finds himself in hot water over his share investments, and Leo’s marriage crumbles in the face of his duty to the President.

“Five Votes Down” is a significant episode because it is The West Wing’s first proper attempt at basing a story around the American political process. Five votes are needed to get an anti-gun bill passed through Congress, and the episode actually goes some length to show the means by which an Administration will go about securing those votes – and ensuring the bill is passed.

As with “A Proportional Response”, the episode is derived in part from material developed by Sorkin for The American President. The film included an extremely similar anti-gun bill, and depicted a similar race to secure congressional votes to get it passed.

June 9, 2015

Princess Iron Fan (1941)

Princess Iron Fan is a Chinese animated film, produced and released in 1941. That makes it the oldest animated feature in the history of Chinese cinema. It was the 12th animated feature film produced anywhere in the world, animated by a team of 237 artists in war-time Shanghai under near-impossible working conditions.

The film was directed by the Wan brothers, Guchan and Laiming, who had been creating animated shorts in China since 1926. Seeing Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1939 inspired the Wans to create their own animated film with a specifically Chinese flavour. To this end they selected a brief section of Journey to the West and adapted it to the screen. The monk Xuanzang (or Tripitaka) is forced to pause his journey when the path ahead is blocked by magical fires. To remove the flames he requires a magical fan owned by the Princess Iron Fan, and to this end he dispatches the Monkey King to ask to borrow it for a short while. Hijinks, as they say, ensue.

The West Wing: "A Proportional Response"

A journalist has discovered Sam has befriended a call girl. Josh interviews a candidate to be the President’s new personal aide. Meanwhile Bartlet threatens to fly off the rails with the Joint Chiefs when a Syrian attack takes down a United States military aircraft – an attack Bartlet has taken personally.

“A Proportional Response” has its origins in The American President, where Aaron Sorkin had President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) ask the exact same question as President Bartlet – what is the value of a proportional response? With so much of The West Wing derived from that film, and with so many scenes of the American President screenplay cut before production, it's not surprising to see Sorkin pick parts of it up and re-purpose them.

It is an episode in which all three central plot threads – Bartlet and the Joint Chiefs, Sam and CJ, and Josh and Charlie – concern themselves with perception versus reality. For Bartlet, the retaliatory strikes offered to him seem meaningless and insufficient until he is presented with a scenario for what the US military could actually do. For Sam, the difference between the reality of his friendship with Laurie and the perception it will create in the media is intolerable. For Josh, the concern is how Charlie Young – an Africian American – will look holding the President’s bag and opening the door for him. Three separate plot strands, all with a single core problem – whether to care about how things look over what they actually are.

June 8, 2015

Ga-Rei-Zero: "The Times of a Chance Encounter"

So to recap: episode 1 of Ga-Rei-Zero introduced a crack team of demon-hunting government agents, all of whom were unexpectedly and brutally massacred at the end by a sword-wielding young woman in a school uniform named Yomi Isayama. Episode 2 introduced an entirely new team of agents sent to follow up on the first, including their own sword-wielding schoolgirl named Kagura Tsuchimiya, and this team too seemed set to be slaughtered by the mysterious Yomi. Talk about making things difficult for your audience: who am I supposed to be following? What's actually going on? I'd forgive 10 minutes of in media res action, but two whole episodes?

Episode 3 sort of makes things easier and sort of makes them harder. I was expecting a return to Yomi's fight against Kagura, that appeared to end in Kagura being murdered. Instead the series jumps back a few years, to showcase the two women's first meeting. It makes their relationship in episode 2 a little more understandable, but certainly hasn't made the series much easier to follow.

The West Wing: “Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc”

In The West Wing’s second episode: Sam admits to Josh and Toby that he accidentally slept with a prostitute, C.J. struggles to challenge the Vice-President over comments to the press, Mandy loses one client only to get a better one, and President Bartlet appoints a new President’s Physician – only to get some very bad news.

Most television dramas suffer a small drop in quality from their first episode to their second, and that trend is certainly apparent in “Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc” (the title, explained in the episode, is Latin for “after, therefore because of it”). The cause of this is essentially structural: while the pilot introduced the characters and acted as a relatively self-contained story, the second episode is devoted to opening the series up and introducing some continuing plot strands.

The chief storylines introduced here include Mandy’s integration into the White House staff, tensions between the President and the Vice-President, and Sam’s continued concern over Laurie – the call girl he accidentally slept with in the pilot. The episode also ends on a dramatic cliffhanger – essentially this and the subsequent episode, “A Proportional Response”, may be seen as a two-parter.

June 7, 2015

The Pull List: 3 June 2015, Part II

Imagine if a giant asteroid was about to hit the Earth, and the world's combined governments actually had the ability to get people off the planet into giant orbiting spacecraft until the planet settles down. Now imagine they only have time to get a certain number of people off the surface in time, and they have made the collective decision to leave anyone with a criminal record behind. Elena Marlowe is a wife and mother with a past she's worked very hard to keep a secret, and in the final days before the Earth is devastated she's managed to score a fake passport and a seat on the last space elevator with her husband and child. Now all she needs to do is get past security.

This is a outstanding first issue, containing a great initial premise, a strong central character and a fantastic cliffhanger ending. The book is written by Frank J. Barbiere (Five Ghosts) and illustrated by Christopher Peterson, and they both deliver some amazing work. Peterson in particular has his work cut out for him, and he excels at drawing fantastic facial expressions and emotions for a variety of characters in an awful, inescapable situation.

This is a four-issue miniseries, so it's unlikely to break the bank. I strongly recommend giving it a chance. From this first instalment it's shaping up to be a really interesting story. (5/5)

Broken World #1. Boom Studios. Written by Frank J. Barbiere. Art by Christopher Peterson.

Under the cut: reviews of Action Comics, Batman Beyond, Dead Drop and The Woods.

June 6, 2015

The West Wing: "Pilot"

In The West Wing’s celebrated pilot episode, Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn has a one-night stand only to discover that he’s slept with a prostitute, Deputy Chief of Staff Joshua Lyman awaits word on whether his outburst at a right-wing Christian on national television will cost him his job, a potential crisis grows as thousands of Cuban refugees brave a storm to reach Florida… and the President of the United States rides a bicycle into a tree.

It is one of the most finely crafted premiere episodes of a television drama ever made. One of the largest challenges facing any series pilot is how to juggle three needs: introducing the entire regular cast, expressing an accurate mood, style and tone for the forthcoming series, and including a solid story at the same time. Sorkin manages to pull off all three in an episode sparkling with fast-paced dialogue and an unprecedented quality of emotional depth and social commentary in American television.

Nemo: Heart of Ice (2013)

In 1925 Janni Dakkar, daughter of the legendary Captain Nemo, has taken command of the submarine Nautilus. Pursued by a team of American bounty hunters, she follows in the path of her father's notorious failed expedition to Antarctica - uncovering a mysterious inhuman civilization as she goes.

That's the basic premise of Nemo: Heart of Ice, a relatively self-contained graphic novel written by Alan Moore with art by Kevin O'Neill. It's a spin-off from their immensely popular The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, that ran for two series at DC Comics before expanding to include The Black Dossier and the three-volume Century sequel. The idea behind the League books, in case you've never read them nor seen the fairly dire 20th Century Fox film adaptation, is that all of the protagonists of literature live in the same fictional world, and not only interact with one another but form superhero-like teams capable of defending the world against super-villains and monstrous invaders.

Heart of Ice is the first of three spin-off books focused on Nemo's daughter, and to a large extent it brings back much of what made the original volumes so popular. A key part of the enjoyment of a League book is spotting all of the literary cameos and allusions. Heart of Ice is no different, weaving in elements from H.P. Lovecraft, Herman Melville, and even Edward Stratemeyer's Tom Swift novels.