Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Happy Holiday Season!

The Compound Geekery blog will be taking some time away to relax and enjoy the Holiday Season. Here's wishing you happy days ahead as well!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Talking Without Speaking

So I was re-watching bits from the Disney movie Wall*E the other day and again being amazed at how the characters expressed themselves so wonderfully without actually speaking many words.

This got me thinking about how, in many ways, human beings are pretty good at getting our point across without saying a single word... and yet we do spend so much time speaking.

In dance we can express an entire story with only music and physical movement..



In the days before movies with music actors got their point across with facial expressions and motion...



And then there's what was done with Wall*E -- creating a character with a whole sympathetic personality using only expressions grafted onto a non-human face and a few noises.



And all this ties in to how often we see people talking one thing but acting something else. "Do as I say, not as I do." "Actions speak louder than words." Maybe it's time we spent a little less time listening to people's words and more time looking at their actions, at the language their body speaks, at the 'words' in their expressions and the sentences in their eyes.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

So.... "Tron Legacy"

So, I just came back from seeing this one and....

Eh.

I wanted better.

As someone who IS old enough to have seen the original Tron in theatres (and DID see it in a theatre) I was really disappointed and underwhelmed.

It wasn't bad enough to make me walk out of the theatre but it never got my blood pumping and I came to realize that I only laughed ONCE in the entire movie and I was the ONLY person in the theatre who got the joke.... and yes, it was a joke. The other scenes which you could tell were SUPPOSED to be jokes fell flatter than a pancake.

I splurged for the 3-D but because I suspected the movie was going to probably not live up to my expectations I went to a matinee so I didn't pay full price.

I'm glad I didn't.

Although I have to say that, on one level, it was worth it to see it on the big screen with all the special effects.

But overall.... The original Tron was a lot closer to sci-fi. Yeah, it was fantastic but it was grounded in early computer programming and the way computers functioned. For Legacy they seemed to throw all of that out the window in favor os Sci-Fantasy. I'm no computer expert but I didn't hardly hear ANY discussion about the way all this stuff was supposed to be functioning in an essentially computer world. And then there was the stuff that just plain wasn't explained. Like Kevin Flynn existing in the computer world with food and water. Where did it come from? In the original movie Flynn drank what looked like liquid but was actually a form of electrical energy. Here they're chowing down on what looks like green beans... were these constructs? How were they created? Why "make" food like that? And that's just ONE problem I had with unexplained stuff. There were tons more and each one kept tearing me out of the movie. Like rain. It RAINS in a computer program world. How? WHY?!

And, getting back to the programming stuff -- well, all the rules in the first movie again were tossed away in favor of some kind of Hollywood Cinema Zen Buddhism Rip-Off. The Kevin Flynn of the first movie who was a rebel but still a logical, computer scientist is replaced by a guy who spouts hippie dialogue that was corny even back in the 1960's! Even figuring the idea of the years changing someone this just wasn't the same character.... at all.

Oh, and the plot twists? If you don't see every single one of them coming from a mile away then you're REALLY not paying attention. There was nothing surprising here -- not even the ending (and no, I won't spoil the ending all I'll say is that if you go into the movie figuring you know how it's going to end... you're right).

Perhaps worst of all, the movie feels like it's stolen bits and pieces from other (frankly better) movies and just sewen them together and put a new skin over them. The film hopes to distract you from noticing this but it just can't hold interest enough for you to NOT sit there and go: "Stole that from Batman Begins, stole that from Star Wars (they steal a LOT from Star Wars), stole that from A Clockwork Orange, stole that from Blade Runner, stole that from The Matrix, etc., etc., etc.

But the special effects and the action set pieces? Yeah... pretty good. The 3-D DOES add something to the proceedings and most of the action IS good, although again, it never quite grabs you and I think the reason why is that you never quite care enough about the characters. Sam Flynn is easy on the eyes (and they WAY could have used more shirtless scenes with him -- one was NOT enough) but you just don't CARE about him or his life. And Sam and Quorra, despite supposedly being the romantic center of the movie, have as much chemistry as the iceberg that sunk the Titanic. Virtual Jeff Bridges as the villain Clu? Again, you just don't care. He never seems.... villainous enough. So in order to care about the action you have to care about what happens to these characters and you just... don't.

And then there's the computer tricked out Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner -- made to look young again. This actually works most of the time. It looks pretty damn realistic and it's frankly a little scary. I mean, we're probably now only about one or two years away from actors, no matter how old, being able to play as young as they like thanks to special effects. All those rumors about George Lucas going to make a movie with dead actors now seems scarily plausible.

I also have to say that the movie is, in a way, mis-named. Although, in the original film, Jeff Bridges character of Kevin Flynn was certainly the focal point of the movie he shared the hero role with Boxleitner's character of Tron and, in the end, Tron was the one to destroy the bad guy. Here Tron is an afterthought. It's a name tossed around for most of the movie but he's not really a PRESENCE here.

It should be noted that the filmmakers also DO leave the door open -- and obviously so -- for a sequel and all things considered the film will probably do well enough for that sequel. But I, for one, don't hold out hope that they will bother to fix what went wrong here.

Long story short (too late!), if you liked the original, don't bother with this one. If you're looking for smart, original sci-fi, again, don't bother with this one. Save up your money for when something good comes along.

Personally, I'm hoping that The Green Hornet exceeds expectations.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Did I Ever Mention I Have a Minor Obsession With "Carol of the Bells"?









Doctor Who Useless Trivia: "Rose"

Here's a couple of interesting trivia nuggets.

When Rose meets Clive who runs the Doctor conspiracy website Clive produces a drawing which indicates the Ninth Doctor was on hand for the erruption of Krakatoa. The Third Doctor, however, also states in the story "Inferno" that he, too was present for the erruption of Krakatoa in 1883.

And I don't know if this was deliberate or not but...

Clive also reveals that the Doctor was in the crowd on November 22, 1963 when Kennedy was assassinated. November 22, 1963 was also the day that the first episode of Doctor Who aired. Of course, due to the news out of America not many people bothered to watch the show and the BBC re-aired the first episode the next week.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Grab Bag Reviews: "Rose"


Brace yourselves people, this is going to be a long one....

This was the first episode of the new series when it launched in 2005. I've already covered the fall of Doctor Who in 1989 HERE and I've covered the roots of the 2005 new series HERE so there isn't much more to say by way of background. Therefore... on to the review!

The Plot: Young Rose Tyler has a working class life -- living with her mother and working the sales floor at a department store. Then, one night, all that changes. She has a run-in with living store mannequins, meets a strange man in a leather jacket, and watches as the department store is blown up.

The universe isn't done with Rose Tyler yet though and strange events spiral around her... events which keep coming back to the mysterious man in the leather jacket. A man known only as... the Doctor. Rose doesn't know it yet but she's in for the time of her life.

My Take: One can see producer Russell T. Davies' vision for the new Doctor Who right from the start; right form the very name of the episode: "Rose". No other companion ever got a story named after them. And it is Rose's story. In fact, that is one of the complaints to be had here -- this story isn't really about the Doctor, it's about Rose.

This was all part of the change that RTD had for the show; he wanted to emphasize ordinary people who find it in themselves to be extraordinary or to find the extraordinary in the mundane. He tried to combine that philosophy here with the traditional companion role of being the audience stand-in -- the bridge between the audience and the Doctor -- but it comes out skewed. In the past we have met the Doctor (or a new incarnation of him) alongside the companions. With "Rose", however, we see him only through her eyes. This actually ends up kind of limiting the Doctor.

Christopher Eccleston chose to do only one year of the series and I've seen a number of fans sadly say that just as they were really getting to know Eccleston's Doctor he was gone. The thing is, this isn't a fault of Eccleston's performance, to me this is the fault of the scripts. We, as the audience, take so long to really get to know the Doctor because we're only allowed to know him through Rose. It's a weakness of the format which starts here. Later seasons and series would not have as much trouble because they had the benefit of building on what had gone before.

There were also complaints over the decision to put Eccleston's Doctor in more modern dress. It's true that the later seasons of the Classic series got carried away with the quirkiness of the Doctor's outfits (*cough*ColinBaker*cough*). In fact, there is a great bit in the recent series 5 story "Amy's Choice" in which the villainous Dream Lord says: "If you had any more tawdry quirks you could open up a tawdry quirk shop. The madcap vehicle, the cockamamie hair, the clothes designed by a first year fashion student; I'm surprised you haven't got a little, purple space dog just to ram home what an intergalactic wag you are." which seems to sum up the history of the show's costumes. Putting Eccleston in modern clothes was supposed to emphasize the modernity of the series. It also pushed Eccleston harder to get the Doctor across. By that I mean that the Doctor's quirky and/or anachronistic clothes were always a shorthand way of showing audiences how 'odd', 'crazy', and/or 'alien' the Doctor was. It helped sell the Doctor as 'not from around here'. Eccleston didn't have that to fall back on and so he had to sell the Doctor's alienness with words, inflection and mannerisms. It was a bold move and a part of me applauds it but it shows up another place where "Rose" falls down on the job.

There are some great lines of dialogue and they are delivered excellently by Eccleston. Many of them have become modern classics -- quoted and re-quoted time and again by fans -- but aside from this there isn't much there to show us the Doctor as a being who is truly alien in his thoughts and perceptions. We, as the audience, don't really get to see the Doctor figuring things out or being so very, very clever. For example, the Doctor waves around the bomb which will destroy the department store -- he's already built it. He waves around the vial of Anti-Plastic which can destroy the Nestene Consciousness -- he's already whipped up a batch. Heck, from the very start of the story he already knows that it's the Nestene Consciousness behind it! We don't get the tension or the insight of seeing him puzzle things out and cobble together solutions.

The one area where the script really does do Eccleston justice is with the new, harder edge to the Doctor. Past incarnations have been arrogant and dismissive of humanity but Eccleston delivers a kind of cold, faintly sneering edge to his arrogance. This, combined with his actions at the climax, gives viewers their first hints that this version of the Doctor is 'walking wounded' -- scarred by war and loss. This is a Doctor we've never seen before. This is a Doctor with new vulnerabilities.

There is a bit of a creepy side to the Doctor, however, that I actually didn't notice the first few times I watched the episode. The Doctor essentially forces Rose into the TARDIS. When being chased by the Nestene duplicate of her boyfriend the Doctor could have easily helped Rose to escape and told her to lie low for a few days until things were all clear. But no, instead he leaves her with two choices -- enter the TARDIS with him or face a raging Auton. And don't try to tell me that he was trying to keep Rose safe. He, himself, admitted that the Autons were after him and he was going to confront them. Was she really any safer with him? It really comes off as... well.... as I said -- creepy. The Doctor has already made up his mind that he wants Rose to travel with him and he manipulates her into it.

"Rose" would also set a pattern in which companions were "wrong", "broken" or "needed" the Doctor to fix them or make them something more. In the classic series there was generally nothing wrong with the companions and in many cases they had quite nice lives with budding careers which they put on hold to travel with the Doctor. But here the audience is pointed out at every turn that Rose doesn't have much of a future. No college education, no chance for career advancement where she was working, facing an uphill battle to find a new job and a mother and boyfriend not likely to push her to become more out of fear that she might end up thinking herself "too good" for their way of life. Enter the Doctor to take her away from all of that. Similar themes would be explored in nearly every companion after this. Which really gets annoying after a while.

As for the performances -- well, everyone involved turns in a good performance given what they have to work with in the script. Some characters are little more than broad stereotypes and you know exactly what they will say and how they will say it before they do. If there is a misstep among the cast it is Noel Clark's who just seems uncomfortable in the role of Mickey, Rose's boyfriend. He never seems to settle and there is always a sense that you really are just watching someone act rather than disappear into the role.

Overall, "Rose" is important in relaunching the series. It was yet another evolutionary leap forward for a show that has been making such leaps for decades, A new series for a new generation and I have to admit that the special effects and lighting are wonderful here. The music sadly drowns out the dialogue in some places though. There is also a lovely refurbishing of an old Doctor Who villain in the Nestene Consciousness and it's Autons and one still gets a shiver when hearing the old, familiar sound of the TARDIS dematerializing with the new effects.

"Rose" isn't ideal -- it has flaws as a story in general and it has some deep flaws as a Doctor Who story specifically. It should not be missed, though, because everything the new series is builds from here (or in some cases builds in opposition to what comes here). There are some good ideas and concepts which balance the bad and as long as you don't think about the plot too much it passes muster and is entertaining.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Grab Bag Reviews: "The Romans"



Ah, it really seems as though I keep doing a lot of First Doctor stories -- which is odd because the Grab Bag is totally random and I don't have all *that* many First Doctor stories.

At any rate... here we go again, into the William Hartnell era with "The Romans".

There isn't a lot of background to this story. The show was well into it's second series by this point, Maureen O'Brien's new character of Vicki had just been introduced in the previous story, "The Rescue" and so O'Brien was still new to the show. The rest of the cast and crew were somewhat stable. Verity Lambert was still producing and the only other change was that Dennis Spooner, the writer of this story, had been named as the new Script Editor but he would not take over the duties there for another few months.

Lambert had long been wanting to expand the range of the show and so she collaborated with Spooner to have "The Romans" written as an action/adventure-comedy or, some would argue, a dramedy. Either way, "The Romans" would be Doctor Who's first foray into a more comedic style. It wouldn't be the last.

Just for some context as well -- this story follows directly on from "The Rescue" and the story that would follow this one was "The Web Planet" (previously reviewed HERE).

The Plot: The Doctor along with companions Ian, Barbara and Vicki make a rather bumpy landing in ancient Rome. 64 A.D. to be exact. We are immediately whisked away to nearly one month later where we find that the TARDIS team has found an empty villa in a little town not far from Rome and moved in. The rest and relaxation, however, comes to an abrupt end as the Doctor gets a case of wanderlust and decides to go visit Rome with Vicki tagging along. Shortly after the Doctor leaves Ian and Barbara take a more frightening and unexpected trip as the duo are kidnapped by slavers and taken away. Ian is sold on the road to Rome but Barbara travels on to the capital city where she is bought as an attendant for Empress Poppaea, wife of Cesar Nero!

Meanwhile, on the road to Rome the Doctor finds the body of a famous musician, Maximus Pettulian, murdered! The Doctor is mistaken for Maximus and decides to play along out of curiosity as to who might have killed Maximus. Their path takes them not only to Rome but to Nero's palace where the Doctor learns that Maximus himself was supposed to assassinate Nero and Nero, jealous of Maximus's fame with the lyre, had ordered Maximus's death! Now the Doctor must dodge more murderous attempts on his life and extricate himself from the plot to kill Nero as well.

In another part of the palace, Barbara has caught Nero's eye and tries to escape his amorous advances. All of this has not escaped Poppaea's notice and she tries to have Barbara killed to eliminate her as a rival. All this time, Ian has been having adventures of his own, escaping the life of a galley slave he makes his way to Rome to try to rescue Barbara.

With plots and counterplots, with jealous rivalries, with murder and executions hanging over all their heads can the various time travelers escape from their situations and make it back to the TARDIS?

My Take: "The Romans" is a bit of an odd-duck story but somehow it all manages to work. There is no denying the comedy and yet there is a dark streak running through the story and even a dark streak to the comedy. For example, we meet the "official poisoner" of the court and her matter-of-fact description of her job and the way she goes about it is deadpan funny but, at the same time, the fact that, in that time and that place, political killings were rather common is sobering. There is another moment when Nero gives one of his slaves a cup he believes is poisoned and orders the slave to drink from it. The slave does so and drops down dead. The scene is exaggerated and played for laughs but on the heels of that laughter you realize that Nero quite casually killed another human being and showed no remorse at the act.

There is also the situations of Ian and Barbara. Barbara, the former history teacher, flat-out states that the role of a slave in ancient Rome is a frightening prospect. We see Ian treated like dirt as a galley slave and, for all the humor in Nero chasing Barbara around like a farce one is uncomfortably reminded that female slaves could also be subject to rape. And for Barbara, Nero's advances place her between a rock and a hard place.

The more lighthearted part of the story is with the Doctor and Vicki. They face no hardships and we get to see the Doctor as a sly and crafty old bird as he avoids revealing that he is not Maximus and confounds Nero's schemes at every turn.

It is Spooner's script that manages to make everything gel so surprisingly well. Nearly every line of dialogue is a treat and he wrote genuine warmth and admiration into all the character relationships. In point of fact, his scenes between Ian and Barbara are downright flirtatious! It is also a really different story in that Spooner takes his time with the plot -- although not in a boring way -- it is one of the only Classic series stories where viewers get to see the characters truly relaxed and taking time to enjoy themselves. The usual Doctor Who method was to throw the characters into danger right away and the difference works well here.

Spooner also manages that deft balance that is required in black humor. If you push the darkness a little too hard you end up with a story that is disturbing instead of funny but if you don't push the darkness hard enough the story stays a little too light. Here the lines are perfectly drawn. As a four part story things really do not drag either. The action and interactions keep things moving and happening and at no point does the viewer get bored.

All of the actors involved also turn in lovely performances. Both William Russell and Jacqueline Hill prove to have a talent for comedy and William Hartnell, with a background in comedy, is obviously getting a huge kick out of going back to his roots and his enjoyment adds an extra spark to his performance. Character actor Derek Francis is also quite obviously going for the comedy jugular with his turn as Nero. He manages to balance a bit of menace with a kind of bumbling ineffectualness that is absolutely hilarious.

The story is also studio-bound but the BBC manage an excellent job with costumes and set dressing so that the viewer neither notices that much nor cares. Although it must be said that the minuscule budget means that some things have to be left out to the detriment of the story. For example, the audience is told about Ian's escape from the galley rather than being able to see it for ourselves.

Even if you're not a fan of the First Doctor take "The Romans" out for a spin. Hartnell's Doctor is light, happy, cunning, and having a grand old time instead of being slightly cantankerous. There is action, adventure, intrigue, lots of humor (even if the history is really lacking, but what the heck, if you can't laugh at history what can you laugh at?) and quite a bit of fun.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Doctor Who Grab Bag Reviews: "Genesis of the Daleks"

Indeed, it is the return of the Grab Bag Reviews. And this time around the grab bag has gifted us with a story which many fans consider to be one of the best of Tom Baker's tenure as the Fourth Doctor and also one of the best stories of the Classic Series.



Back in 1975 Tom Baker was only in his first year in the role. Baker was following the popular Jon Pertwee and was also facing the fact that Pertwee had lasted longer in the role than any other actor to date -- 5 years. This meant that for a certain generation of fans the only Doctor they had ever known was Pertwee.

Along with a new Doctor there was also a new production team. Script editor Terrance Dicks had formally handed over the baton to new script editor Robert Holmes and producer Berry Letts had yielded the field to Philip Hinchcliffe (who would go on to put his own unique stamp on the series).

Before leaving Dicks and Letts had asked writer Terry Nation to submit a new Dalek story. Nation, who had created the Daleks and had written nearly every one of their stories up to that point, submitted something which both Letts and Dicks rejected as being too much like all the other Dalek stories of the last few years. In counterpoint, they urged Nation to instead tell a real origin story for the Daleks for a change. Nation liked this suggestion and soon crafted the script for what would become known as "Genesis of the Daleks".

Both Hinchcliffe and Holmes, as the new leads on the production team, were eager to move the show in a new direction and start using all new monsters. Letts and Dicks though convinced then that the Dalek origin would be too interesting to pass up. And in the end, despite Hinchcliffe and Holmes' stated desire for all new monsters, Tom Baker's first season was filled with old, familiar faces -- the Sontarans, the Cybermen and the Daleks.

Hinchcliffe and Holmes also returned to the old tradition of linked stories -- each serial followed on the heels of the previous one. Hence, "Genesis of the Daleks" follows immediately from the preceding story -- "The Sontaran Experiment" -- and "Revenge of the Cybermen" follows immediately after "Genesis of the Daleks".

Now, on to the review!

The Plot: The Doctor and his companions Sarah Jane Smith and Harry Sullivan are interrupted as they are trying to get back to the TARDIS after their last adventure. The interruption caused by a representative of the Time Lords who tells the Doctor that the High Council on Gallifrey has seen a potential future wherein the Daleks conquer all life in the known universe. This cannot be allowed to happen so the Doctor is ordered to see to it that the Daleks are never born or else that they made in a less vicious image.

Thus the Doctor and his friends find themselves dumped on Skaro without the TARDIS in the middle of a horrifying war that has been raging for over a thousand years between the Kaleds and the Thals. Can even the Doctor actually accomplish the task set out for him though? He knows what may happen if he fails but what cost might he have to pay if he succeeds? And throughout all of this he and his human companions must face terrible dangers, monsters, and even the shadow of death.

My Take: There is no getting around the fact that this story has been one of the most influential in Doctor Who history. To give you some idea just how influential... This story introduced the villain Davros and each incarnation of the Doctor with the exception of the Eighth and Ninth would have stories featuring Davros. Russell T. Davies, who relaunched the new series in 2005 has stated publicly that the roots for his idea behind the Time War came from the fact that the Time Lords tried to destroy the Daleks here. Davies would also return Davros to the new series with the epic-in-scope (if not in actual execution... but we'll deal with that much later) story "Journey's End". All of this brings baggage which can make it a little difficult to look at the story clearly -- but I'm going to try to strip all of that away and just look at the story itself.

Going straight to the writing, from the beginning, Terry Nation crafted the Daleks as a kind of way of hashing out World War II for a generation of children who were growing up with no memories of the war. With "Genesis" Nation increased those parallels even more strongly. This is actually kind of a bad thing because it was obvious enough in the original story; here it becomes something akin to being hit on the head with a brick. The Kaleds run around dressed in black with jackboots and jodhpurs; the character of Nyder even wears what appears to be an Iron Cross around his neck. There is also nothing subtle in their insistence that the Kaled race remain "genetically pure"; although here, instead of referring to people or Jewish or African descent it is used against Kaleds who have become mutated due to the biological, chemical and radiological weapons of the war.

One big difference is that, in the original Dalek story the Thals come across as pacifistic and rather nice people. In "Genesis" Nation throws that out the window and shows the Thals to be generally just as ruthless, uncaring and bloodthirsty as the Kaleds. The Thals use captured Kaled soldiers as slave labor as well as the genetically mutated victims of the war -- referred to derogatorily as "Mutos" and dehumanized even more by calling them "it" instead of "he" or "she".

This does lead to one of several interesting moral themes running through the story. Both the Kaleds and the Thals have ruined their planet and decimated their populations. They both talk about wanting peace and an end to the war but in every case they believe that peace can only be achieved through the total destruction of their enemies and they stubbornly refuse to see any other path to peace. The war has nearly destroyed them all and yet they war on.

The other moral theme is one explicitly stated by the Doctor -- does he have the right to destroy the Daleks? He is committing a form of genocide and no matter how evil the Daleks may be who is he to make such a decision? Is it evil to destroy utterly in order to prevent evil? How far is too far? There is some really meaty stuff here.

Nation's script also does a pretty good job with all of the characters. Tom Baker's Doctor is a tour de force as he gets to run from goofy lightness, to fear, to questioning, to righteous anger and all points in between. The script also lets the character of Harry Sullivan take a slightly more heroic turn giving him the start of a real character arc. When the season started Harry was largely the butt of jokes and his old-fashioned ways and wide-eyed disbelief didn't necessarily help matters any. "Genesis", however, shows Harry more and more coming to grips with the reality of traveling with the Doctor. The one regular character who doesn't fare as well in Nation's script is Sarah Jane Smith. While it's not quite as bad as some of the other female companions got Sarah comes of kind of uncharacteristically scream-y and wimpy here. She does little on her own initiative and most of what she does is react to situations instead of being more proactive.

The real standouts for this story, though, are with the villains. In Davros Nation created something truly chilling. The complete lack of compassion and empathy make Davros seem far more alien than the Doctor. His casual mania, god complex, and lack of appreciation for the value of life make him one of the stronger villains of the series. There is also the point that often the Doctor is facing off against a group of aliens. He faces Daleks and Cybermen in bunches and so there isn't always a sense of having a one-on-one relationship between hero and villain. There is a tendency among writers to give every good hero a good villain who is their equal and opposite -- For every Sherlock Holmes there is a Moriarty, for every Superman there is a Lex Luthor for every Batman there is a Joker and now for every Doctor there is Davros. One of my favorite scenes is one in which Davros tortures Harry and Sarah Jane to force the Doctor to reveal all of the future defeats the Daleks will suffer so that he can program them to win instead. After this display of callousness Davros turns and nicely invites the Doctor to sit down with him as two men of science. It is the equivalent of beating someone up and then asking them to join you for a cup of tea! It is the height of arrogance and madness and actor Michael Wisher portrays it all beautifully. Wisher manages to take his performance as Davros right up to the top but without going over it. Something that others who would play the character over the years were not always able to do.

And right up there with Davros is the slimy, equally evil Nyder. Davros's right hand man and yet with ideas all his own. He follows Davros not out of the desires of a bootlicker who hopes to ride coattails to the top but as an honest acolyte -- someone who truly believes in Davros's vision. Even when most of the other Kaleds realize what a monster Davros has become Nyder refuses to see it. One sociopath is chilling enough but having another character who is essentially just as sociopathic makes it doubly creepy.

But the script isn't all that perfect. As a six-part serial the story still drags quite a bit. There is far too much capturing and escaping and getting re-captured and re-escaping going on and it actually becomes dull after a while. There is also quite a bit of needless corridor running and the separation of the Doctor and companions in various combinations is a bit too forced and obvious.

There is also the aforementioned brick-to-the-head Nazi parallels (seriously, subtlety was not Terry Nation's strong suit) and a sad case of "Earth-alike" -- you know, that tendency in certain science fiction stories for alien races to develop weapons or societal ideas along lines remarkably similar to Earth's? Here while the idea of weaponry regressing in the face of a long war as resources are depleted is a very interesting idea it is stretching credulity to think that said alien races would develop weapons that look exactly like Earth rifles and land mines. I know the BBC props department was trying to save money but they could have done something to at least make them look a little more alien!

The filming for this episode, on the whole, worked quite well. There are all kinds of jokes about the show always filming in old rock quarries but for once it works. There is a kind of bleakness to it that puts the viewer in mind of a 'no man's land' -- of a land that has been abused by the fires of war to the point where little survives or grows or thrives. Everything is gray and cheerless -- even the sky. The real trouble comes in that, at that time period, the BBC used film for outdoor shooting and videotape for studio shooting. So the picture quality and overall look changes drastically from the location shoots to the studio sets and when they are put next to one another it is really jarring. The studio sets, on the whole, also look suitably militaristic and perfect for the Kaleds -- cold, sterile, scientific and unadorned.

There are some obvious prop problems though, the biggest one of which are the 'vicious, giant clams'. I wish I could say I was making that up. One of the elements of the story is that Davros experimented on other creatures -- mutating them -- before he created the Daleks. We hear the cried of some of these supposedly deadly creatures but we only see one in passing and one featured and the one chosen to provide that little bit of suspense and tension? A giant clam. First of all -- alien world -- what are they even doing having clams in the first place? Second of all -- a giant clam. A. Giant. Clam. They are not, on the whole, known for being very fast or very mobile (and here they're on dry land to boot) nor very vicious. And the fake-looking prop clams used here are no exception. No matter how much the actors try to sell it, it just doesn't work. It's obvious that most of the prop clams aren't moving and even the ones that do move just don't seem that threatening.

Stupid clams and padding aside, does this story live up to it's reputation? Does it deserve the high position it holds among fans as well as in the pantheon of Doctor Who stories? Well...... Yes. It may not be Emmy winning but considering the time period and considering the limitations of technology and budget the story was really reaching and stretching; expanding the boundaries once again of what the show could do and be. While some of the storytelling is simplistic and obvious there are also some weighty and meaty ideas raised and there is stuff here that even modern audiences can chew on and mull over. Tom Baker turns in an excellent performance and one can see that, within a very short time, he has already settled into his role as the Doctor, made the character his own, and would continue with a reassuring consistency of performance for most of the seven years he was on the show.

If you are a fan of the new series and if you're interested in RTD's idea of the Time War then this story is definitely worth a view. It's easy to see where he got the idea that this is where all the trouble really started. If you also want to see how Davros got his start well here it is. And, of course, for anyone interested in the Classic Series in general this is an excellent serial to view. Even with the problems the story still shows that Doctor Who had come a long way from the early days in terms of maturity of storytelling and serials like "Genesis of the Daleks" would only be the start of yet another step forward for the show.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Wear and Share Star Wars Day Tomorrow

So it has only recently been brought to my attention that tomorrow is "Wear and Share Star Wars" day in honor of the little girl, Katie, who was teased because of her love of Star Wars.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jenna-busch/may-the-force-be-with-kat_b_786657.html

As you can tell by the nature and title of my blog and the fact that I proudly call myself a Geek Girl that I am a Geek. But, like Katie, when I was young I was told I was "weird" and "strange" because I, too, liked Star Wars stuff and other "boys'" toys.

I had thought, in this more enlightened age, that we were getting past some of the old gender stereotypes and restrictions but Katie's story has shown that we have not and are not.... yet.

So, in honor of Katie, everyone is encouraged to proudly show off their Geeky sartorial style by wearing any Star Wars or other geek culture apparel and also to buy at least one Star Wars toy or other sci-fi toy and donate it to a toy drive of your choice -- whether that be Toys for Tots or a community toy drive for your city or town or even your church (if you be religious).

I don't happen to own any Star Wars clothing items (having become somewhat jaded and cynical about George Lucas... but hey, that's MY hang up) and all of my lovely, lovely comic book t-shirts are thin and made for summer wear and it's winter where I am now so they're all packed away. BUT I do have a number of pins and buttons featuring superheroes so I will adorn my scarf and jacket with those tomorrow.

The geek culture is always held up to ridicule and yet you would be surprised at how many of us are out there and we embrace all kinds. We are Star Wars, Star Trek, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica (both classic and new), Doctor Who (both classic and new), we are fanstasy, Sci-fantasy, dark fantasy, horror-fantasy, flat out horror, Gothic, Steampunk, Tesla Punk, Sc-Fi, Comic Books, Superheroes, and much, much more.

We are geeks and we are proud of the fact and we will not hide and we will not stand for the world telling us or anybody else what we should or should not like.

So join me tomorrow fellow geeks. Show your true colors and let's help stamp out the practice of teasing others for not bending or bowing to society's conventions.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Imponderables

Okay. So prunes are just dried plums. In drying fruit you remove the water/moisture/juice.

So all that being true.... how do you get prune juice?


And why did I even start wondering about that?

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Chicago Comic Books: "The Complete Bone"



Two Words: Holy crap. In a good way.

Writer and artist Jeff Smith's magnum opus was over a decade in the making and at over 1300 pages quite possibly the longest graphic novel ever written. It has won multiple awards and takes epic fantasy to all new places.

The Plot: Three strange little creatures -- the Bone cousins Fone Bone, Phoney Bone and Smiley Bone -- are run out of their home of Boneville. After getting lost and separated in a desert they seperately find their way to a forested valley and the small town of Barrellhaven. There they find shelter with humble farmer Rose Ben (called Gran'ma Ben by most) and her granddaughter Thorn.

Rose hides a secret, though, a secret that cannot remain hidden once an evil force begins to rise again. Rose and Thorn have a destiny to fulfill but it seems that the Bones are also getting caught up in events. If they all fail then humanity as they know it will fall under the sway of the darkest evil.

My Take: Holy crap. Again! Alright, so it has to be said, that Jeff Smith ticks pretty much every box on the standard 'Fantasy novel quest story'. The plot points will be familiar to anyone who has ever read anything from Sleeping Beauty to Star Wars. The inventiveness of the plot is not what makes this story so compelling. Instead, what keeps your interest is how well Smith uses all of these plot elements. He weaves them masterfully in and around with all of the characters until they become something more than what they were. Along the way Smith manages to balance mystery, action, drama and genuine humor. It is easy to find yourself laughing out loud, chuckling or at least smiling as you go along and then suddenly going from that laughter to a sense of dread and foreboding.

And it is the characters who win it. Each one of the carefully crafted characters are fully formed, well rounded and even complex. Each character grows and changes and faces experiences which make them more than what they were. And we CARE about them. Smith makes us fall in love with each and every one of them and by the end it is impossible to close the cover without at least a feeling of melancholia not least because the story is over and our time with all of these great characters has come to an end.

What makes matters even better is that Bone is one of those great kind of All Ages comic books I'm always talking about -- the kind that adults can enjoy and that kids will get a kick out of too. There is sophistication here and while there is violence it is treated with respect, maturity and an eye toward the plot rather than shock value or a juvenile attempt to seem more "adult".

Such a large tome, even in a comic book form, might seem a daunting read but Smith originally serialized the story so it actually breaks up into readable chunks nicely while still flowing well with the overall story. And for those of you with kids Scholastic has been re-publishing the series in nice, relatively inexpensive, digest-sized books as well and I cannot recommend it enough. If you've got kids who hate reading try them on Bone and see what happens. And if you're an adult, go ahead and buy the big, massive, collected edition tome like I did it really won't take you long to get through it once you get hooked into the story.

The Complete Bone -- there's something here for everyone so what are you waiting for?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Yet More "Doctor Who" Anniversary Stuff

Because I feel like it. And because these things make me smile...

More "Doctor Who" Anniversary Stuff

In honor of the anniversary I'm also embedding this lovely music video of every single episode of Doctor Who from 1963 to 2008. Created by the wonderful YouTube poster known as Babel Colour.... "a Citizen of the Universe and a Gentleman to Boot."

Happy Anniversary "Doctor Who"!



47 years ago today Doctor Who debuted on television. 47 years and eleven Doctors -- the longest running sci-fi TV show ever. And it all started in 1963.

So, to commemorate, I thought I'd break the "Doctor Who Grab Bag" tradition and just review the very first episode -- "An Unearthly Child".

I'm not going to go into too much background on how the show got up an running -- it's actually a pretty long and complicated tale. Needless to say, Doctor Who didn't just spring from some writer's head, fully formed like Athena. It's also a very interesting story which gives a peek behind the curtain at how shows are brought to TV.

Second of all, there are now two different versions of "An Unearthly Child". For decades the version which was broadcast on TV was the only one people knew. In more recent years the original 'pilot' episode has been found and is available on DVD with the first serial as an extra. The pilot is slightly different -- some of the dialogue is different and some of the pacing is different but the story itself is largely the same. The pilot was produced to show to the bigwigs at the BBC to get the series finalized. The BBC asked for some changes before broadcast and so there were some script tweaks, the whole episode was actually re-shot (because editing at that time was practically non-existent so they couldn't just cut scenes or reshoot one scene and then drop it in to replace a previous scene.

For the purposes of this review I'm looking at the broadcast version rather than the pilot version.

Also, there is some argument among Who fans about this story. Some insist that "An Unearthly Child" is a story unto itself even though it leads directly into the first serial. Some say that it is merely the first installment of the larger first serial. Again, for the purposes of this review I'm treating it as a separate episode.

And now, let us meet the Doctor for the very first time!

The Plot: School teachers Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton find something strange about one of their students -- Susan Foreman. 15 year-old Susan is a curious mix of genius intellect and ignorance and she seems very much a stranger in a strange land despite the fact that she claims to be a native. Trying to solve the puzzle, Ian and Barbara follow Susan home one night to confront her about the dichotomies in her life. There they find Susan's mysterious grandfather and an even bigger mystery in who and what Susan and her grandfather are. The two teachers are about to embark on a journey of a lifetime....

My Take: It has to be said that the story suffers a bit from being studio bound. Of course most things were in those days but here there are times when you can hear the "roominess" of the sound quality and where things just look too much like a sound stage. On the other hand, though, in order to hide that sound staginess the set dressers added a lot of shadows, darkness and fog which add to the atmosphere and really give the story a creepy edge and a sense that anything can happen. The setting puts one in mind of Gothic horror rather than sci-fi and that helps make the sudden reveal of the interior of the TARDIS so surprising. We go from darkness and shadows to bright white light and gleaming chrome. It's very effective.

Modern viewers will likely find the pacing very slow. It's kind of a talky story in which everyone stands around discussing things rather than doing. It is only in the last few minutes in which everything really takes off. Some of the dialogue is a bit repetitious but there at the end everything really starts to take off. Ian and Barbara have gone from the ordinariness of their classrooms and students into another world -- one which they cannot comprehend and so they try to make up stories to convince themselves they are not seeing what they really are.

The performances, though, are pretty top notch. Again, modern viewers will like find Carol Ann Ford as Susan overplaying her part. In truth, she's a little better in the pilot version of the story. Jacqueline Hill and William Russell, however, are fine and natural as Ian and Barbara. There is also an instant chemistry -- an easy rapport between the actors -- which really sells the idea that Ian and Barbara are long-time colleagues and friends.

The biggest difference people are likely to see in in William Hartnell. Most people are used to seeing his First Doctor in his more 'grandfatherly' mode. Charming, slightly befuddled at times, and warm. Here they are introduced to a cagey old man who is arrogant and dismissive. He's actually not a very nice person and that is especially borne out by the fact that he outright kidnaps Ian and Barbara to keep them from revealing what they have seen. No, it would be several more episodes before Hartnell softened the performance.

It's also interesting to see how much is set here. The TARDIS interior would change slightly over the years but the bulk of it would retain the white color scheme and the large roundels on the walls up until the series relaunched in 2005. There is also the first appearance of the familiar dematerialization sound which is still a part of the series.

Overall, though... Unless you are a Doctor Who fan who is interested in seeing how it all started this may not be the story for you. It's a great story, it's brilliant in it's own way, but it lacks a lot of punch. In all actuality, the pilot version of the story is a bit better with some better dialogue, better explanations and a bit more moodiness. But if you have the tolerance for a slower pace and more dialogue heavy scenes "An Unearthly Child" is worth half and hour of your time. The dialogue works and none of it is clunky or stupid and, of course, the last few minutes of the story are really hard-hitting and dramatic.

It's where everything began and all of the stuff we've come to expect -- all of the roots of the show are right here for everyone to see and get re-acquainted with.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Trailer for the Doctor Who Chritmas Special is Live!

Yay! And even better, this year the episode will also be airing on BBC America on Christmas day. Double Yay!!!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Chicago Comic Books: "The Maze Agency, vol. 1"




Writer Mike W. Barr and artist Adam Hughes are fairly big names in the comic book business and in 1988, when Barr first launched The Maze Agency from one of the smaller comic book companies of the era it generated quite a bit of attention and acclaim.

Unfortunately, the comic book market of the late 1980's and early 1990's was a bit... odd. Personally, I would even dare to call it unstable. As a result, The Maze Agency published several issues under it's first publisher, then moved to another publisher and then moved to still another publisher with gaps of years in between.

I really wasn't much of a comic book reader in those days -- my childhood comic book reading phase had passed and my adult comic book reading phase wouldn't get started until the late 1990's so I had never heard of The Maze Agency.

Then along came IDW Publishing; one of the smaller but growing comic book publishers. In 2005 IDW lured Barr back to The Maze Agency to write a three-issue miniseries (which I still need to track down). IDW also announced that they would be re-publishing the whole series in trade paperback volumes. The first volume came out in 2006 but there have been no subsequent volumes. Since I haven't heard anything about there being any legal troubles or general fall-out I presume that low sales have prevented IDW from reprinting the rest of the series.

Having read interviews with Barr at the time of the 2005 mini-series I became intrigued by The Maze Agency -- this sounded like something that would be right up my alley so I put the first TPB volume on my list and have always looked for it on the discount racks at Chicago. This year I finally found it -- a pristine copy in a 50% off bin. SCORE!!!

What It's All About: Jennifer Mays is a smart, savvy, successful and tough private investigator. Gabriel "Gabe" Webb is a true crime reporter working for a sensationalistic true crime magazine. Mays and Webb put their heads together to solve the unsolvable crimes. Partners in crime and lovers in their off hours, Mays and Webb are an unstoppable duo.

Why I Like It: As can be witnessed by my series of Nero Wolfe reviews, one of my favorite literary genres is the mystery story. So of course I love The Maze Agency for that reason. It isn't the only reason, though.

For one thing, Barr always "played fair" with his readers. Granted, some of the plots might take a genius to put them together but at the very least Barr always gave the readers all the same clues he gave his main characters -- never holding anything back as some mystery writers have done in the past.

For another thing, with the comic book world populated with superheroes and sci-fi even comic books which fit in the mystery genre usually have some sci-fi or fantasy elements. There's nothing wrong with that at all but it makes it different and refreshing when one runs into a comic book that is so firmly rooted in the "real world". There are no holograms here or laser weapons or people who can fly. Gabe and Jennifer utilize their minds, the weapons of the time period, and the technology of the time as well. All of this really helps the comic feel more like a regular mystery novel... only with sequential art.

The third thing I love about The Maze Agency is that, at least in these first stories, Barr wrote them all as "done-in-one" -- each issue was a complete story. Again, with modern comic books usually focused on the story arc -- with stories that play out over four, six, eight, and even twelve issues, it seems like a lost art for writers to write complete stories in one issue that don't feel rushed or short. Barr managed that beautifully here and in some ways you end up feeling like you get more instead of less because you get six different mysteries instead of just six chapters of one mystery.

Finally, I love Barr's characters. Jennifer and Gabe are the typical "opposites" and the series has been compared to the old TV series Moonlighting with Jennifer being beautiful and polished and Gabe being a bit slapdash and a sloppy dresser. But that is where the comparisons end. Jennifer is a highly trained private investigator and a shrewd investor, making her independently wealthy. Gabe dreams of hitting the big time by one day writing his own true crime novel and having it hit the best seller list but in the meantime he turns his keen insight into helping Jennifer solve crimes.. The two are lovers but without possessiveness and Jennifer, admiring Gabe's intelligence and genuine detective skills, is always trying to get him to join her agency formally. It is Gabe who holds back, insisting that love and work are a bad combination and he'd rather have Jennifer as a lover than work with her and have to give up their relationship. This doesn't mean that the path of their love runs smooth but it does mean that they handle the bumps as adults. Again, a refreshing change from the oft-times juvenile depiction of relationships in most comic books.

and, of course, any discussion of this book should not fail to mention the art of Adam Hughes. Hughes has, particularly in recent years, been noted for his somewhat "cheesecake" style of art when it comes to the female form. To be sure, he can and does vary his style but his women are usually known for being lush. For The Maze Agency though, while Jennifer is, no question, beautiful, Hughes keeps her proportions within the bounds of most normal women and he never draws her in inappropriate clothes. Hughes understood that Barr was going for more realism here and presented just that -- men and women who look like real men and women and who dress like the professionals (or not) that they are.

Cracking open a copy of The Maze Agency, vol. 1 is like sitting down to watch a great mystery TV show. The characters are mature, the dialogue contains the spark and fizz of wittiness, the artwork sets the stages perfectly and the mysteries themselves are quirky, tough, and sometimes filled with danger. And so I say... Go! Seek out The Maze Agency, vol. 1. Maybe if IDW sells more of these we'll finally get the other volumes... I want to see what happens next!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Return of the Doctor Who Grab Bag Reviews! "The Crusade"

I'm playing hooky from homework. Ergo, I decided to kick back with an episode of Doctor Who and get back to my grab bag reviews a bit. Also, makes a little cleanse of the palate from the Nero Wolfe stuff... although there will be more Wolfe to come as I'm behind on my reviews there.

Anyway... "The Crusade"!




We're back in the First Doctor's tenure for this one -- well into the second series. Already by this time the production team had abandoned the habit of doing a historical story every other serial but the show had not abandoned the pure historical yet either; that would not happen until 1966 (with a blip in 1983 for the story "Black Orchid").

Although there were some changes occurring to the production team at this time the biggest one -- the departure of the show's first producer, Verity Lambert, would not occur until the end of the series. By this time most of the cast had been on the job close to two years and even the newest member, Maureen O'Brien, had been on for several months and had settled into her role. As such the filming went along without a hitch and with no real controversy.

It should be noted that "The Crusade" was one of the stories which suffered from the BBC's tape wiping program in the 1960's and 1970's. Out of the four episodes two still remain but audio exists for the two missing stories. "The Crusade" can be found on the Doctor Who: Lost in Time, the William Hartnell Years DVD. The two extant stories and the audio for the two missing stories are provided. If one ventures over to the BBC's Classic Doctor Who website one can find that the whole story has been reconstructed using still images HERE. Using the audio and the still images it is possible to put together an at least rough reconstruction of the missing parts.

The Plot: The TARDIS lands in a wood... and lands right in the middle of trouble. The time travelers have managed to put themselves down right in the middle of an ambush toward the end of the Third Crusade. Barbara is kidnapped, Ian sets off on a perilous journey to find and rescue her and the Doctor and Vicki become embroiled in court intrigue at the stronghold of King Richard I. Will the court politics force the Doctor and Vicki to leave without Ian and Barbara? And can Ian find Barbara before she suffers a fate worse than death?

My Take: Many have often noted the Shakespearean tone of many of the old historical stories for Doctor Who and "The Crusade" is perhaps the most Shakespearean of all of them. Seriously, at many points while watching this you would swear that you were watching some long forgotten play by the Bard of Avon. Oddly enough it is the time travelers here who seem the most out of place and it is their dialogue which is the least Shakespearean... of course that is probably to be expected.

Let's get the good out of the way first, shall we? Julian Glover and Jean Marsh as Richard I and Richard's sister Joanna respectively turn in first class performances. Both actors were Shakespearean trained and it really shows. Glover showcases all of Richard's sides in this story. He is arrogant, temperamental, and almost childish at times but then turns around and shows nobility and a canny knowledge of politics and political expediency. Marsh counterpoints with her portrayal of Joanna as an intelligent woman who also knows well how court politics are played. She shows a strong will and self-assurance.

The other excellent performance here comes from Jacqueline Hill as Barbara. While, in some ways, Barbara is the typical female companion of the time period -- being captured and put in jeopardy -- in other ways she is a forerunner of the modern female companion. Here, while she is captured, she engineers her own escape at least once and is plotting her second escape when it becomes a moot point. She also is tough, clever, quick witted, noble, and not some little mouse easily frightened.

It also should be mentioned that, as usual, the BBC's costume department knocks it out of the park with clothes for the period pieces. The costumes for Richard, Joanna, and the rest of the knights (and later Ian, the Doctor and Vicki) are lovely and lush and emphasize the Shakespearean feel of the story. The set designers also do a pretty good job here. The forest scenes are dressed pretty well -- or at least well enough that viewers are automatically distracted by thinking it looks like a soundstage. The streets of the city of Lydda are also well done -- cramped, narrow, and dirty-looking -- just as you would expect from streets of that place and time.

That, however, is pretty much where the good ends.

One thing that becomes really obvious is just how much of a rut the show had fallen into by this time. In the two stories proceeding this one -- "The Romans" and "The Web Planet" the Doctor and Vicki have one part of the story while Ian and Barbara have the other part of the story. And the Ian/Barbara story in both of those cases as well as here with "The Crusade" consists of Barbara getting captured and taken off somewhere and Ian having to go find her to try to rescue her. It all gets so very tedious and one would think that the writers would have tried changing things up a little bit. With four main characters there are plenty of chances for mixing and matching the characters which would, in turn, showcase different aspects of the characters' personalities but instead we get the usual -- Ian goes off being heroic, the Doctor goes around being grandfatherly, and Barbara... well, I've already discussed what Barbara gets to do.

Adding to the tedium here is the fact that the the story falls into three main areas. You have the comedy element -- that is provided by the Doctor and Vicki and their ongoing wardrobe problems. The drama element is provided by the court intrigue -- of which the Doctor and Vicki are really merely bystanders, observers, and commentators rather than being in on the action. And speaking of action -- the action/adventure element is provided by Barbara's attempts to escape captivity and make her way back to her friends and Ian's attempts to overcome roadblocks to find Barbara and rescue her. And you can literally go through this entire four-part serial and anticipate when each of the different elements will be coming in. There is little to nothing here to surprise the audience or catch them off their guard. The whole thing is like a 'paint-by-numbers' picture.

And, surprisingly, even at only four episodes the story just goes on too long. The constant back-and-fourth between Barbara escaping and being captured and escaping again, etc. is interminable and while the sequences between Richard and Joanna can make for compelling viewing most of the rest of the court intrigue stuff is plain boring.

Also, there is Saladin and his brother and the nature of the crusades. Because, at this time, Doctor Who was considered a children's show, the story of the crusades has largely been condensed and cleaned up here. Added to that is the problem that this story was written in the 1960's, before many historians had fully embraced the complexities involved with the crusades and before Richard I stopped being quite so lionized. Because of that there is still a lot of mythology surrounding both Richard and Saladin and it doesn't do the story any favors. Like with many of Shakespeare's plays, there is a dash of real history to ground the story and then much of the characters and details are strictly fiction... grand, noble fiction as opposed to the dirty, bloody, slog most of the world was in that time period.

There is also the problem of the Saracens. While Saladin is shown as being intelligent, noble and honorable and a few other characters are shown the same it doesn't change the fact that all of the speaking parts are being played by Caucasian British actors in dark make-up. It gives the story a somewhat offensive tone. It also doesn't help that many of the other Saracen characters are vicious, greedy, conniving, or all three. You end up with two extremes -- the noble men (note: NOT noblemen) and the wicked.

And then there is the bit of script stupidity in trying to pass Vicki off as a 13 year-old boy at least until the third episode when she is "found out". The costumer does nothing to try to hide Maureen O'Brien's breasts and it is roundly quite obvious she's a girl and expecting the viewer to suspend disbelief that no one else notices is just ridiculous.

In the end, while there are some really nice aspects to the story which make it worth at least a cursory viewing it doesn't have a lot to recommend it for repeat viewing. The writers probably could have cut this down to a two or three part story and turned in something that would have really stood out among the historical stories but as it stands it bogs down in the middle and plods it's way to the end.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

End of Semester... ACK!

Buried under homework and papers. While I try to dig to daylight here's some.... well... stuff.





Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Nero Wolfe Reviews: Where There's a Will (1940)

My Wolfe reviews are backing up on me so I need to get caught up. We're up to 1940's
Where There's a Will

The Plot: The Hawthorne family is accomplished and somewhat eccentric. It still manages to come as a surprise, though, when businessman Noel Hawthorne is killed in a hunting accident and his will reveals he has left the bulk of his estate to a woman presumed to be his mistress. His three sisters, April (a stage actress), May (a scientist) and June (a novelist) are unhappy but willing to let things lie to avoid a scandal. Hawthorne's scarred wife, Daisy, however, is determined to raise a protest.

The sisters hire Wolfe to try to convince the "other woman" to give up some of the inheritance to Daisy to avoid a media storm but the job soon changes when it is discovered that Noel's accident was an "accident" of the deliberately murderous kind. Wolfe now has an abundance of motives as well as suspects and Wolfe must find the one path that leads to the truth. It may be a daunting task but where the great detective is concerned where there's a will....

My Take: This is another one of Stout's "odd" books. Like with Some Buried Caesar we are introduced to a host of eccentric characters who, at first, present something of a comical proposal to Wolfe. The Proceedings have an element of farce throughout but Stout often brings it up short, shifting the tone quickly to a more serious vein. The murder and, even more, the strange character of Daisy, give the story not only weight but a kind of creepy, Gothic tone.

Where There's a Will is also kind of unusual in that the cast of characters are so unusual that they actually come close to overshadowing Wolfe and Archie for a change. This is particularly true of Daisy who comes across as a weird, somewhat damaged, and even slightly cruel figure but who is balanced with a kind of implacable strength which is admirable. At the other end of the spectrum is the other stand-out character -- Sarah, June's daughter. Sarah has a live wire energy mixed with a disregard for conventions and proprieties that makes her pop off the page.

With all of these wild characters Stout picks up the reader and carries them briskly through the story. This is a good thing because if you stop for even a moment to really think about the plot you realize just how silly and convoluted the killer's machinations and reasons are.

If you let yourself be swept away by the characters and Stout's usual breathtaking dialogue, however, you'll find Where There's a Will to be an excellent read that will make the time just fly by.

Favorite Quote of the Book:
Wolfe inquired dryly, "Is your daughter a professional photographer, Mrs. Dunn?"
"No, she's a professional fiend."

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Chicago Comics: "The Black Coat: ... Or Give Me Death"

And getting back to comic books I picked up in the Summer Chicago trip we come to:



The Black Coat:... Or Give Me Death trade paperback.

A few words first... Indie and small press publishers are a special breed and in many ways they have it ALL over the "Big Two" of Marvel and DC. With the small press you have more (and even mostly) creator owned projects instead of characters owned by a corporation. Because of that there is more opportunity for stories that actually go somewhere.

In modern comics the "revolving door of death" has become a common joke among fans. It isn't a question anymore of if a character will come back to life but when. Marriages are made and then erased, characters are given kids and then the kids are erased... or rapidly aged to adulthood to "get them out of the way" and so that they don't have that nasty habit of making characters who are supposed to be perpetually 20 or 30 something years old don't end up seeming "aged". Needless to say, in the world of Marvel and DC bad things tend to happen and then two months later no one seems to notice or care.

Not so much with Indie comics. The creators having a relative measure of more control characters who die tend to stay dead, events have long-lasting repercussions, and no one cares if the characters seem to age.

Among the small press publishers out there Ape Entertainment is one of my favorites. These guys are responsible for publishing the delightful Scratch 9, which I reviewed earlier, the 'pulp with a twist' mini-series Femme Noir (seriously, check this one out people, it's AWESOME! One of the stories features a robot gangster. How can you not love that?!), the wild and humorous The Misadventures of Clark and Jefferson (more on that in a later post) and much more.

Back in 2006 Ape Entertainment published the first Black Coat mini-series; subtitled: A Call To Arms. I do have to admit that, in order to fully understand what is happening in ...Or Give Me Death here you pretty much have to read that one first. I will, however, see if I can summarize without giving too much away.

A little information about the series... You've heard of Steampunk, right? If not, go to Wikipedia and look it up. Or Google it. I'm frankly too lazy to try to explain it here; well, The Black Coat series is a little like that, only it's set in the time just prior to the Revolutionary War which is, technically, before steam power so it isn't exactly Steampunk. I don't really know what to call it which is kind of fun because it means that writers Ben Lichius and Adam Cogan are breaking new ground here. Either way, the series is full of anachronistic technology.

So, anyway, in the first series we meet Nathaniel "Nathan" Finch -- New York City businessman, newspaper publisher, and genius inventor. Nathan operates a ring of agents and spies who are helping to feed information to the leaders of the upcoming Revolutionary War (which leads to some cameo appearances of Benjamin Franklin and the like). This ring is known as the Knights of Liberty.

Even more than keeping an eye on the British, Nathan is aware of the fact that there are things out there in the world which people do not believe in. This lack of belief does not make them any less real. Dragons, shape-shifters, magicians, etc. Nathan opposes them all if they pose a threat to the people of the Colonies.

In that vein, some new players arrive in New York in the first series. A mysterious man leading an equally mysterious organization who allies himself with the British and brings agents of magic and monsters to aid the British forces. He also seeks the secret to eternal life which a scientist claims to have created. What the formula produces, however, is something not dead and yet not alive and the side effect is a madness that leads to murder.

In the first series Nathan sets out to stop this undead killer and ruin the plans of the British and their evil allies but in the process Nathan pays a terrible price...

And now, ...Or Give Me Death!

The Plot: Ursula, Nathan's right hand, follows his instructions and gives him what is supposed to be the perfected formula. They are soon informed, however, that it was not perfected after all and Nathan can expect to eventually lose his mind and become a danger to himself and those around him. In the meantime, he discovers that he has become, like his previous enemy, something not dead and yet not fully alive either.

As he struggles to control his condition his friends search for an ultimate cure. And in the midst of all of this the forces of evil continue their plans unabated. Between Nathan's inability to lead and Ursula's preoccupation with his cure they fail to notice there is a traitor in their midst. Can the Knights of Liberty pull it all together? Is Nathan doomed to become the kind of monster he has always fought against? And what are the evil plans afoot and how will they impact the coming war for independence?

My Take: I love the idea behind all of this. Lichius and Cogan dive into a serious genre mash with an almost unparalleled glee. We've got a hero who is very much in the pulp vein complete with mask... although instead of a cape we get an 18th century greatcoat and instead of a cowl we get a tricorn hat, we've got anachronistic technology, we've got alternative history with a sprinkling of real history thrown in for fun and then we've got classic, Gothic monsters. Looking at that list you would think there is no way that would work but Lichius and Cogan pull it off and do so beautifully. Here is definitely something that has never quite been seen before. Here is something new under the sun and it's a great romp.

And it's more than just the plot. The reader quickly gets invested in these characters. We like them, we understand them and we rise and fall with their successes and failures. And, as was mentioned above, because this is a creator owned series, all bets are off. There is not necessarily any character who is "safe". Anyone could die at any time. It gives the series an edge and a real sense of tension to the action.

It must be said that this mini-series had a serious hiatus. Unfortunately in the Indie world that happens. In this case, in between when the series started and when it finished the creators had to get a new artist and made the switch to publishing the series in color as opposed to black and white as they had been doing. The series began with the awesome Francesco Francavilla who has since gone on to doing work for Dynamite Entertainment among others. Francavilla was therefore replaced by Dean Kotz. The good news is that, in the collected trade edition, while the difference between Francavilla and Kotz is noticeable it is not extremely jarring. Kotz's style goes along well with Francavilla's in that both have a style that tends to favor realism rather than being abstract or cartoony. And I've heard artists say that one of the hardest things to draw and get right are horses and if this is true then both Francavilla and Kotz are quite skilled because they do horses well.

If I have one reservation here it is that, during the hiatus, the creators made the decision to switch from black and white to color. In the issue-to-issue format this wasn't as noticeable but in putting the issues together for the collected trade edition the decision was made to not go back and color the black and white issues. I imagine this decision was based on things like time and cost and technical details but it leads to the jarring change that the switch in artist did not produce. You're reading along and suddenly it's like that scene in The Wizard of Oz where everything is in black and white and Dorothy opens the door and steps into a world of color. It just seems.... strange. The good news is that you get over it quickly.

So, if you're looking for some comic books which are outside the mainstream, if you're tired of the same old superhero fare, and if you're looking for something where the creators took the rule book, threw it into the food processor and hit 'puree' then look no further. Pick up the first mini-series first (obviously), then read the second and if you're still looking for more there have been a couple of specials and one-shots produced as well. All are (or should be) available on the Ape Entertainment website.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

I'm Back!

The comprehensive exam is over. There was much rejoicing...



No minstrels were eaten but there was ice cream and alcohol comsumed.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Compound Geekery Will Be Going Dark....

Well, dark to dim I'll say.

Either way don't expect a lot of posts in the coming weeks. I've got a comprehensive exam to take in order to complete my (second) Master's Degree and "failure is not an option". So with that looming I doubt I'll have much free time for reading or writing here.

See you when I'm done!

The Chicago Comics: "Madame Mirage"



And getting back to my round of overviews of what I bought in Chicago this year....

Paul Dini's 2007 six-issue mini-series from Top Cow... Madame Mirage.

First off, I've got to say, it's really, really REALLY hard to give a plot overview to this story without giving to much away. Suffice it to say, Madame Mirage takes place in a world rather like our own but where technology, genetics, drugs and advanced surgery have allowed some people to have what amounts to super powers.

At first many of these people use their powers to help people -- as they were originally meant to do -- but some turn to crime and evil. As the evil starts to outweigh the good the decision is made to ban all forms of "mega tech" and all who use them, have them implanted, or been altered through it. The good are thrown into prison alongside the evil and in fact many of the evil escape, move underground, and operate as shady mercenaries.

One of those who escaped has set up a dummy front company and taken a number of supervillains under his wing. Behind the front he hires out these powered individuals for kidnappings, assassinations, and other crimes.

Now, however, he finds himself under assault by a mysterious woman named Madame Mirage. She's definitely more than human -- a ghost, a magician, and utterly impossible -- and she's definitely not playing by the rule of law. Mirage is out for bloody justice -- the justice of an eye for an eye -- but why? And who is she really?

Dini is well known among comic book circles for his love of stage magic. With Madame Mirage he manages to combine that love with the darker, heavy-hitting, crime noir style as opposed to some of the lighter noir of guys like Raymond Chandler. He also, of course, mixes in superheroics, sci-fi, and a dash of the pulps. On top of all of that, in the middle of the series he makes a sudden reveal which does literally change everything you've seen going on and makes you go back and re-read the stories in this new light.

All that being said, the series is not without it's flaws. For one thing, there are several plots points which are mentioned but then never end up going anywhere or being mentioned again. This might be forgivable except for the fact that these are really fascinating, complex ideas and ones that would seem to possibly have lasting consequences but then they are ignored. I had thought that perhaps Dini might address them in a follow-up mini-series but the original six-issue series has a pretty conclusive ending to it leaving little wiggle room for a sequel.

For another thing... I'm, personally, not that crazy about Kenneth Rocafort's art. The line work is somewhat 'scratchy' and all of the female characters are pretty hypersexualized. There is a reason for it in Mirage's case but not so much in the case of many of the other characters. The scratchy line work makes the art seem... well.... I'm just going to say it... it looks sloppy. I really feel that Dini's story would have worked a bit better with a more crisp, clean style buttressed perhaps with a darker color palette and heavy inks. Everything here just looks fuzzy and slightly out of focus in most cases.

Taken as a whole, though, if you like noir, particularly the sub-genre of crime noir then Madame Mirage is an excellent new twist on an old story and Dini adds something new to the comic book universe.