October 31, 2015

Assassination Classroom (2015)

A bright yellow tentacled alien with an eerie smiling, spherical head blows a hole through the moon. He then happily announces it's going to do the same to the Earth in one year, unless a classroom of 15 year-old Japanese high schoolers can assassinate him first.

That's the premise of Assassination Classroom, a serialised manga by Yusei Matsui. It's been popular enough to spawn an anime television series and now a live-action feature film from director Eiichiro Hasumi. It's a pretty weird film, given the absurd appearance of its primary antagonist, and it manages to showcase the best and worst parts of adapting such a surreal manga serial to the big screen. On the one hand it's delightfully odd and playful. On the other it's painfully episodic and does have a tendency to stretch its welcome.

Overall it's a sufficiently enjoyable diversion, albeit with a number of frustrating elements - not the least of which is a "to be continued" tag at the film's conclusion.

October 25, 2015

Ant-Man (2015)

Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is a thief recently released from prison. All he wants is to secure a stable, legal job and spend time reconnecting with his young daughter Cassie. Instead he finds himself drawn into a scheme by retired scientist and entrepreneur Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) to steal dangerous shrinking technology from his former company before it can be sold to the highest bidder.

In the last two years or so Marvel Studios have been deliberately pushing the envelope on its superhero movies, almost as if the company's heads are trying to find out how far they can push their successful mega-franchise before audiences get too weirded-out to follow any more. Last year's enormously successful Guardians of the Galaxy demanded audiences follow a science fiction comedy team that featured a talking raccoon and a dance-off climax. This year's Ant-Man takes what has to be one of the most easily mocked superheroes and turns it into a crowd-pleasing action comedy.

October 24, 2015

Babylon 5: "Learning Curve"

It's 18 February 1998, and time for more Babylon 5.

Two Minbari rangers-in-training make their first journey to Babylon 5, and wind up in more trouble than they had expected. A new player appears on the scene in Down Below, with aspirations to take over all the criminal enterprise on the station. Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle) grows suspicious of Captain Lochley (Tracey Scoggins) and her allegiance during Earth's civil war.

As far as fifth season episodes go, "Learning Curve" seems be a much more consistent affair. It doesn't really embarrass itself anywhere, none of the performances are particularly annoying, and the script is reasonably paced. That said it's still a slightly off-kilter episode, since in the main it doesn't focus on the regular cast but rather the two Minbari apprentices Rastenn (Nathan Anderson) and Tannier (Brendan Ford). That makes two weeks in a row of seeing Babylon 5 for a different perspective, which is a bit unexpected. To be honest I could actually enjoy this approach for a whole season: new characters each week with the regulars pushed into the background for a while.

October 23, 2015

The Omega Factor: "St Anthony's Fire"

It's 25 July 1979, and time for more of The Omega Factor.

Tom (James Hazeldine) discovers two old friends have died in mysterious circumstances, and travels to an island off the coast of Scotland to investigate. He discovers their ecological research facility bought out by a foreign corporation, and a growing number of unexplained occurrences and violent incidents. What could drive a sane person to murder?

"St Anthony's Fire" is one of the two episodes of The Omega Factor (alongside "Powers of Darkness") whose content saw the programme cancelled at the end of its first and only season. The opening scene, in which a woman laughs hysterically, soaks herself in water and then stabs her husband to death with a kitchen knife, contravened the BBC's content guidelines for a prime-time drama. It's actually a very effective horror scene, and one that sets the episode up to be an unsettling and edgy psychological thriller. Sadly it's all downhill from there, thanks to some weak plotting, a lack of urgency and rather two-dimensional characters.

October 22, 2015

The Quiet Duel (1949)

Dr Kyoji Fujisaki (Toshiro Mifune) is an army doctor during the Pacific War. When operating on an injured soldier, he accidentally cuts his finger and is infected with syphilis. Six years later Kyoji continues to practice medicine under his father (Takashi Shimura) while keeping his unsuspecting fiancée (Miki Sanjo) at bay and ensuring his ongoing infection remains a secret.

Akira Kurosawa's eighth film is a full-bore melodrama, replete with overwrought emotion, sobbing fits and lingering pained glances. It marks Kurosawa's first break from Toho Studios; this film was produced by rival production house Daiei instead, while a production workers' strike ground the former studio to a halt. The director brings along with him several regular collaborators, including actors Shimura and Mifune. This was his second film with Mifune after Drunken Angel, and this time the actor takes the lead role with Shimura relegated to a supporting position.

Sadly this is Kurosawa's least effective film to date, with a story too simple to last the full 95 minutes and characters whose over-the-top emotional turmoil destroys most of the opportunities for realism or nuance.

October 21, 2015

The Pull List: 21 October 2015

Lem is the new kid in school. He's weird and creepy. He eats raw onions. And, one by one, everyone is becoming his friend. Unless the rapidly depleting ranks of the 'mystery kids' can work out his secret, everyone as Griswald Grammar will be under his control.

That's the basic premise of "The Case of the Lonely One", the fourth volume of John Allison's webcomic Bad Machinery. I've never read the comiconline, but Oni Press have been collected each story arc together and publishing them in handsomely packaged paperback editions. This fourth book is out in stores this week. It's great.

Allison's cartoonish artwork is incredibly slick, and thanks to Adam Cadwell's colouring work it pops off the page. The book's tone is a weird combination of Hardy Boys novel, American teen comedy, and BBC series Grange Hill. It's set in northern England, which gives it a pleasant charm that really makes it stand out against similar humorous books.

This has a potential animated adaptation written all over it. I really hope some TV production house somewhere is paying attention to it. (5/5)

Oni Press. Story and art by John Allison. Colour assists by Adam Cadwell.

Under the cut: reviews of Back to the Future, Fistful of Blood and Star Trek.

October 20, 2015

Blake's 7: "Blake"

It's 21 December 1981, and time for the series finale of Blake's 7.

Abandoning his now-compromised base on Xenon, Avon (Paul Darrow) leads his team to the frontier world of Gauda Prime for a long-delayed reunion with Roj Blake (Gareth Thomas).

"Blake", written by series script editor Chris Boucher, is indeed the final-ever episode of Blake's 7. It has gone down as one of the most famous - some would say notorious - series finales in the history of British television. Those who have seen it never forget it. Upon its original Christmas week broadcast it led to the BBC's main switchboard being jammed with angry calls, and furiously written letters telling Boucher that he was 'the man who ruined Christmas'. If you've been reading along with these reviews, but have never actually seen this episode and do not know what happens in it, I honestly recommend you stop reading now and go watch the episode for yourself. It really is worth seeing cold at least once before having its storyline spoiled for you.

October 19, 2015

Doctor Who: "The Girl Who Died"

The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Coleman) must help to defend a village of vikings from the Mire - one of the most dangerous warrior races in the galaxy. While trying to develop a defence plan, the Doctor becomes fixated on Ashildr (Maisie Williams) - a young woman with a powerful imagination.

Last year there was an episode of Doctor Who named "Robots of Sherwood". It took popular medieval myth - the Robin Hood legend - and transformed it into a whimsical mixture of science fiction and silly comedy. I absolutely hated it: it grated to watch and was a chore to sit through, and I still stand pretty firmly in my opinion that while it wasn't the worst episode of Doctor Who ever made it would easily make the bottom five. It was dreadful television.

This year we now get "The Girl Who Died", by series producer Steven Moffat and Jamie Mathieson ("Flatline", "Mummy on the Orient Express"). It's taken popular medieval myth - the vikings - and transformed it into another whimsical mixture. There are lots of attempts at humour, or funny lines, or silly pratfalls. It's thrown in science fiction: an armoured race of violent soldiers known as the Mire. On paper it all seems like it should another disaster in the making, and yet "The Girl Who Died" works where "Robots of Sherwood" did not. It's interesting to work out why.

The Pull List: 14 October 2015, Part II

Some years ago I adored Brian Wood's viking-based series Northlanders, published by DC Vertigo. Rather than followed a specific set of characters it jumped around in terms of period and geography telling both multi-issue story arcs and self-contained one-shots. This appears to be the approach he is taking with his new historical series Rebels: after six issues devoted to Seth and Mercy Abbott, we now get a new story based around camp follower Sarah Hull. It's still based around the American Revolution - just a different part of it.

This is an incredibly effective issue, squeezing in a remarkable amount of depth and character into just a handful of pages. It's warm, dramatic and ultimately very sad - not to mention rage-inducing. There is an unpleasant familiarity to the story's final pages, which contain an unjustifiable bias that sadly rings true today almost as much as it would have back then. It's a fabulous script by Wood, who gives it all exactly the sort of cold, awkward treatment that such an epilogue requires.

Guest artist Matthew Woodson provides realistic, cleanly laid-out artwork. It accentuates the character's emotions, albeit at a small cost to the action - in a few places scenes feel just a little bit stiff.

Historical fiction is a genre with so much potential in comic books, and Rebels is a fantastic example of why. Great stories, beautiful art, and an insight into events in the real world. I really hope a few more series like this develop in the future. (5/5)

Under the cut: reviews of Batman, Ninjak and Star Trek/Green Lantern.

October 18, 2015

The Omega Factor: "Child's Play"

It's 18 July 1979, and time for The Omega Factor.

Tom (James Hazeldine) and Anne (Louise Jameson) travel out to the country to visit Anne's friend Maureen. Once there they find Maureen's son Colin (Max Harris) has been expelled from his boarding school after several unexplained instances of vandalism. Tom recognises the phenomenon as psychokinesis, and soon Colin is the subject of a vicious tug-of-war between Tom - who wants the boy left alone - and Martindale (John Carlyle) - who wants to use him for a series of experiments.

There is an interest premise at the centre of Tom Wright's script, but the execution struggles quite badly. Part of the episode's problem seems to be that Wright is unsure precisely what his episode is about: the risks of child exploitation? A conspiracy to use that child as a weapon? The horror of discovering your son is a monster? It plays with all three concepts, but doesn't actually zero in and properly address any one of them. As a result the episode feels like a missed opportunity.

NES30 #1: Super Mario Bros 3

In 2015, Nintendo's hugely successful Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) turns 30 years old. The NES, an adaptation of Nintendo's already successful Famicom console, re-invigorated console gaming internationally after the collapse of Atari and went on to sell 43 million units worldwide. NES30 celebrates this anniversary by counting down my favourite 30 games for the system.

I wrote a few times during this countdown about the iterative improvements that can come in videogame sequels. A bit of gameplay might get tweaked. The graphics and sound will likely be improved. Programmers will find more innovative ways of drawing the most out of the console's hardware. In all honesty there are very few cases where the first game in a series is the best. It's certainly the case with Super Mario Bros. While it's a legendary game, and rightfully so, in terms of gameplay, graphics and sound it is eclipsed by its first proper successor: Super Mario Bros 3.

I say 'proper': in Japan Super Mario Bros 2 was basically a new set of 32 levels, using the same graphics and sound as the original game but designed to be a more challenging experience. When it was felt that American gamers wouldn't enjoy a more challenging version of the same game, the unrelated Famicom platformer Doki Doki Panic was hurriedly re-skinned and released as another Super Mario Bros 2.

While both games were massive hits in their respective markets, it did leave Super Mario Bros without a properly authentic sequel: one that provided new gameplay, better graphics and sound, and which had benefitted from the oversight and participation of Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto. Super Mario Bros 3 is that game, and it's the absolute best videogame ever released for the Nintendo Entertainment System.

October 17, 2015

Judging the DCU: September 2015

September is usually a massively successful month for DC Comics, as their regular titles make way for some kind of special stunt: zero issues, "Villains Month", "Futures End", or some-such. This is the first year since 2011 that DC hasn't gone for such an event and as a result the sales figures seem much more ordinary. Individual issues a little down, as standard sales attrition takes effect, with just a few odd books doing something different.

On the face of it, the biggest shock among the DCU titles is definitely Secret Six. This relaunch of the pre-New 52 villain-centric series by Gail Simone suffered from protracted delays in its first few issues, managing to bring out only six issues in ten months. Issue #6 has seen an unprecedented decline in sales, from an estimated 30,418 units in August down to just 17,376 in September. That's a 43% drop. The average decline from a 5th to a 6th issue, by the way, is 7.7%. So what happened?

Basically DC's regular alternative cover programs are masking the declines of individual titles. If you ignore the August issue, you get a fairly predictable decline for a book from 44,000 units at launch, down to 28,000 by issue #3 and 23,000 by issue #4. That decline all gets fouled up by August, which featured an alternative "Bombshells" cover featuring popular character Harley Quinn. As a result an additional 8,000 collectors pick up a copy. It's another case where you can see why DC pushes their alternative covers program so regularly: it's basically money in the bank.

NES30 #2: Super Mario Bros

In 2015, Nintendo's hugely successful Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) turns 30 years old. The NES, an adaptation of Nintendo's already successful Famicom console, re-invigorated console gaming internationally after the collapse of Atari and went on to sell 43 million units worldwide. NES30 celebrates this anniversary by counting down my favourite 30 games for the system.

Okay, so not actually my top pick for the NES, but almost inarguably the most iconic title on the list. Super Mario Bros didn't just define the NES, it defined everything Nintendo produced from the moment of its release right up to the present day. I have no doubt than in another 30 years it will still have as much influence over the company, its games and characters, and its outlook. If we're going to avoid unnecessary hyperbole, we should try not to use words like 'masterpiece' and 'legendary', and if we did do that, then those words would be free to use when they really applied - like they should with Super Mario Bros, which is both legendary and a masterpiece.

Mario, of course, started life as the hero of Shigeru Miyamoto's landmark arcade game Donkey Kong. From there he moved on to his own title, Mario Bros, which introduced his brother Luigi as a second player character. Mario Bros was a single screen arcade game, in which players jumped around a set of sewers, stunning and eliminating rogue turtles and insects as they roamed about. When it became clear that Japan's Famicom console was going to be replaced with the new Famicom Disk System, Miyamoto elected to give the retiring console one final game of which it could be proud: Super Mario Bros.

October 16, 2015

Blake's 7: "Warlord"

It's 14 December 1981, and time for the penultimate episode of Blake's 7.

The time has come to strike back: as the Federation's drug pacification program expands, Avon (Paul Darrow) assembles an alliance of independent worlds in the hope of mounting a full-scale offensive. Their success hinges on the participation of Zukan (Roy Boyd), the militaristic leader of the planet Betafarl - only Zukan has already betrayed him.

"Warlord" pulls together the Federation story arc for Season 4 and gives it a fairly definitive climax. Avon has the cure to Pylene-50, Zukan has the ability to mass produce it, and an assembled group of planetary leaders and governors are willing to present a united front and stop the Federation's runaway expansion. It's an odd beginning to a Blake's 7 episode, with this alliance already formed and discussing bringing Zukan into the fold. It's simply unusual to see one of Avon or Blake's plans already be so successful. At its heart Blake's 7 is always an episode about failure; to see Avon already so close to achieving his goal is a slightly odd experience.

The Pull List: 14 October 2015, Part I

So this week Ms Marvel ended. It's not such a big deal: pretty much every Marvel comic book is currently about to end, has already ended, or has relaunched with a new volume and new issue #1. I have no doubt within a few months Kamala Khan will be back for more adventures.

Issue #19 is a pitch-perfect conclusion to this first volume. The world is ending. Don't ask me why or how, I'm not reading Secret Wars and I didn't read much of the lead-up to it. At any rate G. Willow Wilson has written this final story arc on Ms Marvel in such a wonderful fashion that you really don't need to know the details. The world is ending, and as a low-level and highly local superhero Kamala doesn't have any way to stop it. So this is basically a few final minutes in a school gymnasium with her friends and family as they quietly wait for the inevitable. It's sweet, regularly funny, and highly melancholic. The moments of character are perfectly observed. The plot developments are unexpected and yet each makes perfect sense. When the series does come back, and it had damn well come back with Wilson still writing it, it's in a very strong place to begin.

Adrian Alphona's pencilled artwork is wholly unlike any other superhero book on the market. It has a soft, likeable quality to it that emphasises emotion over realism. It's enhanced tremendously by Ian Herring's delicate colours. Altogether it's just a wonderful package. I have loved this whole series. I am desperately keen for it to come back, hopefully sooner rather than later - who knows with the haphazard release schedule that Secret Wars is following. (5/5)

Under the cut: reviews of Batman & Robin Eternal, Chewbacca and The Fuse.

October 15, 2015

NES30 #3: Tetris

In 2015, Nintendo's hugely successful Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) turns 30 years old. The NES, an adaptation of Nintendo's already successful Famicom console, re-invigorated console gaming internationally after the collapse of Atari and went on to sell 43 million units worldwide. NES30 celebrates this anniversary by counting down my favourite 30 games for the system.

In 1984 Alexey Pajitnov was an artificial intelligence researcher working in a Soviet Union laboratory. He had a tendency to program small computer games to test new hardware when it was installed. One day he created a simply puzzle game comprised of falling blocks. He made the shapes tetronimos - objects comprised of four squares arranged together. When it became clear that his screen was rapidly filling up with tetronimos he programmed his game to erase any row on the screen that became completely filled with squares.

When Pajitnov's little game proved hugely popular among the laboratory workers, a few of them ported it to the PC. It suddenly became an enormously popular game across Moscow, under the now legendary title Tetris. Today Tetris is almost certainly one of the most famous and well-played videogames in the entire world. and for many gamers it is a brand synonymous with Nintendo.

Babylon 5: "A View from the Gallery"

It's 11 February 1998, and time for more Babylon 5.

Mack (Raymond O'Connor) and Bo (Lawrence LeJohn) are two technicians working on Babylon 5. Over the course of one day they repair various computers, machines and equipment while the station comes under attack from a mysterious alien race.

"A View from the Gallery" is reportedly a divisive episode among Babylon 5 enthusiasts. It features many of the elements that made the series popular with its fans - space battles, noble sacrifices, emotional and thoughtful monologues - but it presents all of them through the eyes of two ordinary workers. The episode doesn't so much happen as run past. We see glimpses of what would be the main story, but never really get context or detail. Instead we get a glimpse of life for the 'little people'. Mack and Bo aren't space pilots, or rangers, or diplomats. They're the guys who get called with a toilet becomes clogged, or a light fixture breaks. For some, watching two new characters meet and talk about the regular cast is going to be frustrating and even annoying. For others it's going to be a refreshing change. I'm most in the latter camp.

October 14, 2015

The Pull List: 7 October, Part III

I'm an enormously keen fan of Batman, and one of the main reasons I like reading Batman comics is not just the lead but also his supporting cast. There is literally no other American superhero with as rich and entertaining a chorus of villains, sidekicks and associates. X-Men fans regularly try to claim their weird super-powered soap opera is as expansive, but it definitely isn't as good. Spider-Man gets quite close - certainly he seems to have the second-largest array of super-villains to overcome - but he still falls a bit short of the mark.

Batman and Robin Eternal seems purpose-built for my interests. It's a new 26-issue weekly comic book that launched last Wednesday. At present in the DC Universe Bruce Wayne is an amnesiac. Former police commissioner Jim Gordon is defending Gotham from inside a robot suit. All of Batman's sidekicks and companions are kind of at a loss for what to do. Into this void comes a new conspiracy, as a mysterious villain named "Mother" targets several of Batman's former partners: Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, Tim Drake, Harper Row and Cassandra Cain (yes, she's finally back). This is basically Batman without Batman in it - although Jim Gordon does get a brief look-in.

This does everything a first issue should do: introduce the main characters, set up an ongoing mystery, and throw in a bit of entertaining action. Now DC has a patchy track record with weekly series. Only one - 52 - has ever been a bona-fide masterpiece, and more than a few have become tedious in the extreme. Fingers crossed that this one maintains its focus and momentum right through the next six months. (5/5)

DC Comics. Story by James Tynion IV and Scott Snyder. Script by James Tynion IV. Art by Tony Daniel and Sandu Florea. Colours by Tomeu Morey.

Under the cut: reviews of Copperhead, Doctor Who and The Omega Men.

NES30 #4: Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

In 2015, Nintendo's hugely successful Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) turns 30 years old. The NES, an adaptation of Nintendo's already successful Famicom console, re-invigorated console gaming internationally after the collapse of Atari and went on to sell 43 million units worldwide. NES30 celebrates this anniversary by counting down my favourite 30 games for the system.

For many years The Adventure of Link has been marginalised by fans of The Legend of Zelda. It's often perceived as the 'odd one out', thanks to its strikingly different gameplay and style to the original. Rather than present itself as a top-down adventure, it divides its time between a Final Fantasy-style world map and a series of side-scrolling platform levels. It also brings in RPG-style character progressions, as defeating monsters earns experience that can then be spent to power up Link's abilities.

It is true that The Adventure of Link, which is the second of the Legend of Zelda games, offers a fairly different gaming experience to the bulk of the franchise. That said, I personally find it an immensely satisfying and enjoyable game - even more so that the original that it follows.

October 13, 2015

Sexy Beast (2000)

Gal (Ray Winstone) is a retired safecracker living in a villa in Spain with his wife Dee Dee (Amanda Redman). He has firmly left his criminal past behind him, that is until he is visited by a sociopathic former associate Don Logan (Ben Kingsley) who has come with one final job offer from gangland mastermind Teddy Bass (Ian McShane).

Sexy Beast is a British crime film directed by Jonathan Glazer. It was the feature film debut for Glazer, who had established his career making stylish music videos for pop groups including Massive Attack and Radiohead. It's a short, sharp, quite nasty little comedy-drama that uses its ostensible British criminal setting to actually tell the story of the worst house guest imaginable.

There is one particular stroke of genius in the making of this film, and that's its casting. Glazer deliberately casts against type with not one but both of the film's lead roles. Ray Winstone, widely cast as hard-edged, violent types since 1977's Scum, plays Gal as a weak-willed and relatively broken man. We never learn what events drove him out of the criminal fraternity, but he seems remarkably frightened of going back. Winstone gives his character a slightly panicky quality that I haven't seen him give before.

The Pull List: 7 October 2015, Part II

I basically have two favourite Marvel superheroes: the Incredible Hulk and Doctor Strange. Now obviously the Hulk is remarkably well served, with an ongoing (albeit regularly renumbered) monthly comic, plenty of guest appearance in other characters' books, a 1970s live-action TV series, cartoons, two feature films and a pair of high profile appearances in the Avengers movies. Doctor Strange, however, is not quite so well provided for. For one thing I don't think he's headlined anything longer than a four-issue miniseries since the mid-1990s. He does have a feature film coming in 2016, which is probably why he's finally got a book of his own again. I'm very grateful he's back.

There are so many reasons I adore the character. For one thing: that's not a superhero alias, that's actually his name. Dr Stephen Strange, a gifted surgeon who ultimately learned to master magical powers and become New York's best line of defence against the occult. The enemies he fights are weird inter-dimensional things, and his adventures are regularly as bizarre and odd as his name might suggest. His costume is brilliant, and he rocks a cape-and-moustache combo like nobody's business.

This new volume comes via outstanding writer Jason Aaron, who managed to revamp and redevelop Thor in recent years with tremendous success, and fan-favourite artist Chris Bachalo. I'm really hoping this issue is a hit with readers, because I'm rather keen on having a monthly Strange hit again.

Oh yeah, the issue itself: it's essentially a prologue, promising a big dramatic story arc in the future, but simply taking its time for now and re-introducing Strange. That's actually a very good approach, and Aaron writes a good version of the character: a little less divorced from reality, and a little more approachable. Chris Bachalo does some great stuff with the artwork, particularly Strange's transforming clothes that allow him to walk down the street without looking like a weirdo in a costume. I'm hooked, but then in all likelihood I was going to be. I mean, it's Doctor Strange! (4/5)

Marvel. Written by Jason Aaron. Art by Chris Bachalo, Tim Townsend, Al Vey and Mark Irwin. Colours by Chris Bachalo.

Under the cut: reviews of Action Comics, Darth Vader and Detective Comics.

October 12, 2015

Blake's 7: "Orbit"

It's 7 December 1981, and time for more Blake's 7.

Scorpio arrives at the isolated world of Malodar, where the long-missing physicist Egrorian (John Savident) has suddenly re-appeared. Egrorian has an unexpected offer for Avon (Paul Darrow): give him Orac in return for the tachyon funnel - a weapon so powerful it could destroy the Federation without days.

Robert Holmes returns to Blake's 7 for one final script, with a much smaller focus than his earlier works. For the large part it's essentially a four-hander: Avon and Vila (Michael Keating) take a shuttle down to Egrorian's Malodar base and negotiate the exchange of Orac for the funnel from Egrorian and his frail assistant Pinder (Larry Noble). The tight focus helps the episode enormously, both fleshing out the guest characters while providing some excellent enrichment of both Avon and Vila. If you're a fan of these two - and let's be honest, which Blake's 7 viewer isn't? - then this may run close to being your favourite episode.

NES30 #5: Metroid

In 2015, Nintendo's hugely successful Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) turns 30 years old. The NES, an adaptation of Nintendo's already successful Famicom console, re-invigorated console gaming internationally after the collapse of Atari and went on to sell 43 million units worldwide. NES30 celebrates this anniversary by counting down my favourite 30 games for the system.

By the time Metroid was released for the NES in 1987, platform action games were pretty well known and fairly popular. A game about an armoured bounty hunter tracking down a dangerous alien organism on the planet Zebes initially didn't seem too groundbreaking or attention-grabbing. That was before players discovered Metroid's stunning open world. The whole game environment is there from the beginning, but some parts of it are maddeningly inaccessible. Go in a different direction, however, grab a new special ability or attack, and suddenly those inaccessible areas became entirely available. It was a massive, very welcome development for the genre: a non-linear platformer.

October 11, 2015

Doctor Who: "Before the Flood"

If an episode of Doctor Who begins with an explanation of a nonsensical paradox (the 'bootstrap paradox' if you want to look it up), and then uses that exact paradox to resolve its plot - should we consider that clever writing or lazy? It's pretty much the core of Toby Whithouse's script, the second part of a two-part adventure that began with last week's "Under the Lake". He's like a stage magician who explains how he hides the rabbit before suddenly pulling it out of a hat. What seems ridiculous in retrospect is that the gambit works: "Before the Flood" is yet another great episode of Doctor Who that seems dramatic, exciting and surprising, right up to that point when you suddenly realise the Doctor explained the ending to you before it started. It's the trickiest kind of writing: the kind that tells its audience what's going to happen, and then does it, and still makes it entertaining to watch.

With Clara still trapped by ghosts in a 22nd century underwater base, the Doctor has travelled back in time to the late 20th century - where the alien spacecraft has just landed. There he encounters the terrifying Fisher King, and learns its plans to invade and dominate the Earth.

October 10, 2015

The Pull List: 7 October 2015

Brian K. Vaughn has written so many great comic books - Ex Machina, Y the Last Man, Saga - that pretty much anything he writes now seems to be a guaranteed must-read. Add in artist Cliff Chiang, whose striking and effective work on Wonder Woman from 2011 to 2014 helped to make it one of DC's strongest books, and you've got a killer combination - but what have they combined to make?

Paper Girls follows a group of teenage girls who deliver newspapers in 1988 Cleveland, which does sound like fairly odd stuff for a writer better known for foul-mouthed space opera, super-powered city mayors and post-apocalyptic science fiction. Then the weirdness slowly begins to kick in - I have no idea where this book is going but I'm pretty sure I'm going to enjoy it.

To be honest there's not a great deal in this extended first issue to clue the reader into what sort of book this is actually going to be. Instead there's a lot of fine work done into introducing and fleshing out the book's four protagonists: Erin, MacKenzie, Tiffany and KJ. It's really appealing to read, and has a nostalgic 1980s Amblin Entertainment glow akin to J.J. Abrams' film Super 8.

Cliff Chiang's artwork is perfectly suited to the script, giving the book a simple sort of all-ages feel. Thanks to Matt Wilson's subtle, almost monochromatic colouring, it actually feels quite a lot like Waid and Samnee's run on Daredevil - which Wilson coloured.

This is a great first issue, and at only US$2.99 it's exceptionally good value. (5/5)

Image. Written by Brian K. Vaughn. Art by Cliff Chiang. Colours by Matt Wilson.

Under the cut: reviews of Lando, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Tet, and the worst comic book of the year.

Men, Women & Children (2014)

Jason Reitman has spent the last decade building a filmography of genuinely impressive, impeccably performed dramas and comedies, including Thank You for Smoking (2005), Juno (2007), Up in the Air (2009, and still his best work in my opinion) and Young Adult (2011). As a result I watched his most recent film, the 2014 drama Men, Women & Children, with fairly high hopes. Maybe it was the raised expectations, or maybe it simply isn't a good film, but it wound up being a fairly massive disappointment.

Men, Women & Children is an ensemble drama based around various forms of Internet addiction. There is Don (Adam Sandler) and Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt), whose sexless marriage drives one to online escorts and the other to a website hooking people up for affairs. Their son Chris (Travis Tope) is so addicted to online pornography that he can't find actual sex arousing. Meanwhile school football star Tim (Ansel Elgort) has quit the team and spends his nights playing Guild Wars. Tim's father Kent (Dean Norris) has started dating Joan (Judy Greer), whose enthused support of her daughter's aspirations to fame has somehow rabbit-holed her towards producing teen pornography. Tim has started secretly dating Brandy (Kaitlen Dever), whose possessive mother Patricia (Jennifer Garner) tracks everything she writes and receives online and follows her around town using GPS. If that wasn't enough there's also troubled teen Allison (Elena Kampouris) who visits pro-anorexia websites behind her father's (J.K. Simmons) back, and who fixates on the worst kind of boy in her class.

October 9, 2015

Babylon 5: "The Paragon of Animals"

It’s 4 February 1998, and time for more Babylon 5.

Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) and Delenn (Mira Furlan) struggle to unite the Interstellar Alliance, with many of the worlds refusing to sign its declaration of principles. In his new role as Head of Covert Operations Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle) develops a plan to use the station’s colony of telepaths to spy for him. A remote civilization begs for help when they are targeted by raiders.

Three episodes into Season 5 and the two main faults of this widely maligned final year have become fairly clear. The first problem is money: in transferring from PTEN to TNT, the series has visibly undergone a budget cut. The casts in each episode seem a bit smaller, while the sets and visual effects seem less ambitious. Most critically the cast aren’t getting the shooting schedule they used to have. Scenes feel rushed and clumsily blocked (where the actors move to and from during the scene). Performances feel poorly considered and weak. It all has the vibe of opening night at a community theatre production: there’s talent in there, but it’s all nervous and confused and just a bit tiresome to watch.

October 8, 2015

NES30 #6: The Legend of Zelda

In 2015, Nintendo's hugely successful Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) turns 30 years old. The NES, an adaptation of Nintendo's already successful Famicom console, re-invigorated console gaming internationally after the collapse of Atari and went on to sell 43 million units worldwide. NES30 celebrates this anniversary by counting down my favourite 30 games for the system.

Pretty much the most widely acclaimed and feted videogame designer of all time is Shigeru Miyamoto. Back in the mid-1980s, when Nintendo were developing new titles for their fledgling Famicom system, Miyamoto concurrently designed two key games that would go on to shape the company's fortunes for decades into the future. The first of these games was Super Mario Bros. The second was The Legend of Zelda.

The games were deliberately styled to contrast one another. Super Mario Bros was a linear experience, with the player controlling Mario as he ran and jumped from left to right through a series of 32 levels. The Legend of Zelda offered an expansive series of screens - viewed top-down - and allowed the player to control the forest boy Link as he explored the fantasy world of Hyrule. In a time when videogames still focused on the high score as a measure of player achievement, Zelda abandoned scores entirely: completing the adventure was the only measure of success.

Blake's 7: "Gold"

It’s 30 November 1981, and time for more Blake’s 7.

Keillor (Roy Kinnear), an old associate of Avon’s, contacts the Scorpio with a proposition: millions of credits in stolen gold, available for the taking. Before Avon (Paul Darrow) and his crew can attempt the heist, however, it becomes clear that Keillor has not been entirely forthcoming and someone else may be pulling the strings.

When Gareth Thomas quit Blake’s 7 at the end of the second season, it left the series in a bit of a crisis: the title character gone, and with him the narrative drive for a rebellion against the Federation. In its third year the series cantered through a series of science fiction adventures based around a half-destroyed Federation slowly rebuilding after an intergalactic war. In the fourth, a renewed focus was placed on fighting the Federation: Avon leading an attempt to disrupt the Federation’s drug pacification program and to assemble an army of scientists and political leaders to form a proper resistance. It was clear that an constantly unsuccessful rebellion was going to deliver diminishing returns for the series, and so with an eye towards a potential fifth year script editor Chris Boucher commissioned this script: a heist drama by Colin Davis, re-positioning Avon, Vila (Michael Keating) and the rest of their crew as self-interested criminals hunting for the ‘big score’.

October 7, 2015

The Omega Factor: "Powers of Darkness"

It's 11 July 1979 and time for more of The Omega Factor.

Four university students have been toying with the occult with disastrous effects. One of them is already confined in a hospital, and now another - Jenny (Maggie James) is having flashbacks to a past life. By the time Tom Crane (James Hazeldine) gets involved, in may be too late to save Jenny from the demonic power that looms over her.

"Powers of Darkness" is a surprisingly dark and horrific episode, even within the context of a paranormal series like The Omega Factor. It's script, by Anthony Read, is a clever mixture of elements - past-life regression, psychic powers and demon worship - and it is all directed very effectively by Eric Davidson. In fact it may have been too effectively written and directed, since "Powers of Darkness" is the episode that got The Omega Factor cancelled.

NES30 #7: Dragon Warrior IV

In 2015, Nintendo's hugely successful Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) turns 30 years old. The NES, an adaptation of Nintendo's already successful Famicom console, re-invigorated console gaming internationally after the collapse of Atari and went on to sell 43 million units worldwide. NES30 celebrates this anniversary by counting down my favourite 30 games for the system.

Through the 1980s and 1990s there was basically two key role-playing game franchises fighting it out for supremacy on Nintendo's consoles. Square's Final Fantasy stood in one corner, and in the other stood Enix's widely acclaimed Dragon Quest. There were four Dragon Quest games produced for the Famicom, and all four were ported over and translated for the NES in North America under the name Dragon Warrior. The first game debuted in 1989, and was followed by a second in 1990, a third in 1991 and a fourth and final NES title in 1992.

The gameplay was familiar to anybody who had played a Japanese role-playing game (RPG). Players controlled a group of heroes fighting their way across a fantasy kingdom. They travelled via a top-down map screen, entering towns and villages to rest and buy equipment, and journeying into dungeons to kill monsters, gain experience and progress to further areas of the world map. Where Dragon Warrior IV differs from its competitors is in its story, which is unexpected, original and groundbreaking: you control not one protagonist, but five.

October 6, 2015

Blake's 7: "Sand"

It's 23 November 1981, and time for more Blake's 7.

Five years ago a Federation science mission went silent on the planet Vern. Now an investigation is underway, commanded by the arrogant Reeve (Stephen Yardley) and including an incognito Servalan (Jacqueline Pearce). When Avon hears of the mission he dispatches Tarrant (Steven Pacey) to steal the mysterious scientific discovery from under the Federation's noses - only an unexpected presence on the planet leaves Tarrant and Servalan trapped in the base together.

"Sand" is an exceptional episode of Blake's 7. It manages to pull off multiple achievements at once. It tells an intriguing science fiction story. It enriches its lead characters, and develops them in fresh directions. It even presents an unlikely romance that, while truncated, is pretty much the most effective storyline of its kind since the series began. It's written by the noted fantasy author Tanith Lee, who also wrote the unusual Season 3 episode "Sarcophagus". For me "Sand" is the much stronger script.

Into the Woods (2014)

It's been such a pleasure in recent years to see Hollywood re-embrace the musical as a genre worth exploring. While there were occasional attempts to produce a screen musical through the 1980s and 1990s, it's only really been in the last decade and a half that we've finally seen the studios actively pursue new films with the likes of Moulin Rouge, The Phantom of the Opera, Le Miserables, Rent, Sweeney Tood and a host of others. Into the Woods is the latest attempt: a Walt Disney production directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago) and based on the popular Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine stage production.

The simplest description of the plot goes something like this: in a fairy tale kingdom, the Baker and his wife rush to break a curse that's preventing them from having a child. On the way their quest becomes tangled with the stories of Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel and Jack and the Beanstalk. Into the Woods is an ensemble film with multiple protagonists, overlapping storylines, a highly cynical edge, and an unusual two-act format that is almost its undoing.

October 5, 2015

NES30 #8: Kid Icarus

In 2015, Nintendo's hugely successful Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) turns 30 years old. The NES, an adaptation of Nintendo's already successful Famicom console, re-invigorated console gaming internationally after the collapse of Atari and went on to sell 43 million units worldwide. NES30 celebrates this anniversary by counting down my favourite 30 games for the system.

I received an NES console relatively late in the day. While the console was released in 1985 it was actually in about 1991 that I received a second-hand console and games as a birthday present. There were two games with the console: Tennis, which was relatively rubbish, and Kid Icarus, which remains one of my favourite videogames of all time.

Kid Icarus was released in Japan in 1985, and in the rest of the world in 1987. It's a platform game in which the player controls Pit, a winged fighter with a bow and arrow who fights his way through three different worlds to save the goddess Palutena from the evil Medusa. This Greek mythology-inspired game offered wonderfully cute characters, varied and challenging gameplay, and a bunch of ear-worm musical themes.

AKB0048: "Return to Lancastar"

It's 8 July 2012, and time for more AKB0048.

Following the latest AKB concert, an unexpected announcement is made: both the trainees and the successors will perform concerts on the planet Lancastar. It is Nagisa, Yuka and Orine's home planet, and the first time they have returned there since their adventure began. Nagisa is assigned a solo song - usually only assigned to someone receiving a promotion. Yuka gets a message from a friend begging her not to return.

I haven't reviewed an episode of this series in almost 10 months after the last one, "Miracle of the Waves", indulged in exactly the sort of leering creepy exploitation of teenage girls that previous episodes had largely avoided. Thankfully this episode seems as if the ship has righted itself: it's colourful, weird, and extremely emotional.

October 4, 2015

Doctor Who: "Under the Lake"

The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Coleman) arrive at an underwater base in 22nd century Scotland, only to find its crew hiding from a pair of mysterious ghosts. The Doctor is compelled to keep the crew safe while solving the mystery of the ghosts - and of the strange alien spacecraft recovered from the lake's bottom.

'Base under siege' is pretty much one of Doctor Who's stock-in-trade formats. As early as the second episode of "The Sensorites" back in 1964 the Doctor and his companions were trapped in confined spaces with a group of fearful humans, attempting to outwit and outmatch an invading alien force. It was probably 1967's "The Moonbase" that perfected the format, although even then it was largely copying story elements tested out in "The Tenth Planet" a year earlier. It seems as long as there is Doctor Who it will, inevitably, return back to a small group of humans running down corridors. Here we are again in 2015: a base, some humans, some aliens, a bunch of corridors, and a siege.

The Pull List: 30 September 2015

Time for another Batman annual it seems - the fourth since the New 52 rebooted DC's entire superhero line. This issue's an interesting one because it focuses not on Batman - currently performed by former police commissioner Jim Gordon - but on Bruce Wayne. He's an amnesiac these days: he has no memory of ever being Batman, and thus far no one including Alfred has broken the news to him. Here we see him retake custody of Wayne Manor after it was briefly used to house Gotham's criminally insane, only to find that not all of the inmates left as expected.

Writer James Tynion IV really feels like the heir apparent to Batman. He got his break co-writing with Scott Snyder, and moved to writing fill-ins and annuals such as this, and finally his own titles - including the excellent Boom Studios book The Woods. Here he once again demonstrates enormous skill in handling the Batman universe characters, and tells a nice self-contained story with a couple of genuine surprises.

Roge Antonio's artwork is expressive and strong: I don't recall seeing his work before, and would be very happy to see him illustrating a DC book again.

This is precisely what a comic book annual should be for: telling a great self-contained story that's a little bit longer than the usual issue, and giving talent the chance to play around with the big league characters they might not otherwise get the chance to handle. (4/5)

DC Comics. Written by James Tynion IV. Art by Roge Antonio. Colours by Dave McCaig.

Under the cut: reviews of Aquaman, From Under Mountains, Godzilla in Hell, The Infinite Loop and Revival.

October 3, 2015

Babylon 5: "The Very Long Night of Londo Mollari"

It's 28 January 1998, and time for more Babylon 5.

Londo Mollari (Peter Jurasik) suffers a sudden heart attack. While Dr Franklin (Richard Biggs) works around the clock to keep him alive, Londo finds himself in a surreal dream where he is forced to face his greatest fear - and to decide whether to live or die.

One thing to which J. Michael Straczynski has constantly returned throughout Babylon 5 is the dream sequence. He can't get enough of them, with characters regularly experiencing visions, hallucinations, dreams and other strange, deliberately symbolic and weird scenes. I think here he goes for the most ambitious dream of all, putting almost the entirety of the episode inside Londo's head.

NES30 #9: Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse

In 2015, Nintendo's hugely successful Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) turns 30 years old. The NES, an adaptation of Nintendo's already successful Famicom console, re-invigorated console gaming internationally after the collapse of Atari and went on to sell 43 million units worldwide. NES30 celebrates this anniversary by counting down my favourite 30 games for the system.

I've already covered both Castlevania and its sequel in this countdown, so I suppose it's a sign of how good this series was that I'm now covering the third Castlevania game for the NES, Dracula's Curse.

The things that made those games successful are still very much in evidence here: an evocative horror setting, crisp and appealing graphics, strong and precise gameplay, and the non-linear structure that adds complexity and a richness that other platforming action games didn't have. So why is the third game superior to the first and second?

October 2, 2015

The Omega Factor: "After-Image"

It's 4 July 1979, and time for more of The Omega Factor.

Anne (Louise Jameson) gets on a train from Edinburgh to visit a renowned psychological research facility. She doesn't get off at the other end. When he is once again blocked at every turn by his employers at Department 7, Tom (James Hazeldine) takes matters into his own hands to track Anne down and rescue her.

"After-Image", which was written by Sean Hignett, is a nicely-paced and cleverly plotted little thriller. It tells its own gripping story while pushing the overall storyline of the series forward much further than one might expect. It is also very effectively directed by Gerald Blake, and overcomes a visibly low production budget in an effective and experienced fashion.

John Ford: Dreaming the Quiet Man (2010)

John Ford remains one of the most significant and respected film directors in American history. His name seems synonymous with the American western, and the war film. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences bestowed upon him the Best Director Oscar on no less than four separate occasions. Many of his films - including Stagecoach (1939), The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) - are beloved classics.

While he seems the definitive American director, he was actually born John Martin Feeney in 1894 to Irish immigrant parents. He may have been a naturally born American, but he held a strong love for his Irish ancestry for his whole life. In 1952 he satisfied a 20 year-long ambition to direct The Quiet Man, an adaptation of a Maurice Walsh short story in which an Irish-born American (played in the film by John Wayne) returns to his home town and falls in love with a local woman there (Maureen O'Hara). It became Ford's most popular and commercially successful film to date, and led to Ford's fourth Academy Award as director.

The making of the film, and Ford's personal connection to Ireland, are extensively detailed in John Ford: Dreaming the Quiet Man. It is a feature-length 2010 documentary from Irish filmmaker Se Merry Doyle.

October 1, 2015

NES #10: Excitebike

In 2015, Nintendo's hugely successful Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) turns 30 years old. The NES, an adaptation of Nintendo's already successful Famicom console, re-invigorated console gaming internationally after the collapse of Atari and went on to sell 43 million units worldwide. NES30 celebrates this anniversary by counting down my favourite 30 games for the system.

Excitebike is a Famicom racing game produced in 1984, which meant that it was available to be a launch title for the NES the following year. It was designed by legendary Nintendo producer Shigeru Miyamoto, and benefits enormously from his uncanny ability to perfectly shape an enjoyable gameplay experience.

The player controls a motocross rider along a side-scrolling track, attempting to complete a track of ramps and obstacles within a specified time limit. It looks alarmingly simple, but hides a fair amount of subtlety and depth.

Blake's 7: "Games"

It's 16 November 1981, and time for more Blake's 7.

With the future of the galaxy's energy dominated by the use of volatile and immensely valuable feldon crystals, Avon (Paul Darrow) has hatched a plan to steal a batch of the crystals from a mining facility on Mecron II. His only hurdles? The continuing presence of Commissioner Sleer, aka Servalan (Jacqueline Pearce), and the facility controller Belkov (Stratford Johns) - a corrupt official obsessed with laying traps and playing games.

Given the rapidly growing popularity of videogames in popular culture in the early 1980s, it shouldn't come as a big surprise that Blake's 7 would choose to exploit the phenomenon for an episode. The eccentric Belkov has hidden a cache of feldon crystals onboard the "Orbiter", an abandoned space station circling above Mecron II. To access the crystals, visitors must defeat a series of challenges: a shooting game where you duel a replica of yourself, an immersive space flight simulator, and a complex puzzle game. Fail at a game, and it will kill you - and all three seem rigged to ensure nobody gets to the crystals alive. Viewed today, these gaming sequences seem charmingly primitive, and date the episode in a specific manner unlike most other Blake's 7 adventures.