Thursday, August 26, 2010

Chicago! Day 2

So Saturday was when the rubber hit the road. The exhibit hall was packed with people, there were even more comic book bargains galore and, of course, more costumes...



Like this girl going as the Marvel heroine Domino



And here's Marvel's "Merc with the mouth", the certifiably insane anti-hero Deadpool!



Yet another two from Marvel... a kind-of Black Cat -- jewel thief and sometime Spider-Man girlfriend and Dark Phoenix -- the power maddened version of the heroic mutant Jean Grey.



Again with the Marvel characters -- this time the heroic duo Cloak and Dagger.



And now for something different -- Dr. Horrible from Joss Whedon's Doctor Horrible's Sing-Along Blog as well as Horrible's archenemy Captain Hammer.



Here's a father and son team with the dad as Indiana Jones and the kid as Luke Skywalker circa Empire Strikes Back Dagoba training montage.



Another father and son team -- this one with a theme with the dad as the Green Hornet and the son as faithful valet Kato.



Moving into DC Comics territory (sort-of) we have a Green Lantern vs..... Skeletor?! Eh, just go with it.



Batman's longtime nemesis the Penguin showed up... and yes, that is indeed a REAL rapier hidden in the umbrella shaft.



The one is spot-on but a little more obscure... In an issue of Grant Morrison's All Star Superman Superman gave Lois a very special birthday present -- a serum that allowed her to have all of his powers for one day. He also provided Super Lois with her own costume -- seen here.



Now I'll admit I'm not a big fan of the recent redesign of the Wonder Woman costume BUT the girl who put this together shows that it actually kind of looks better in real life than it does on the page and I have to give her major kudos for putting this costume together in only a short time since the redesign was only released a few months back.

Whew! After all of that we might need a doctor to help us recover. Is there a doctor in the house? Oh yeah, there's one....



Or should I say there's 10 since this is the 10th Doctor and his companion Rose.

And look, there's another one!



The newly minted 11th Doctor. Fish fingers and custard anyone?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Chicago! Day 1

Here we have the entrance to the exhibit hall on Friday.



Greyhound Leader and I spent the day walking the floor, buying comic booky stuff and talking to the artists and writers hanging out in Artist's Alley. But the big part of the day was costume watch. There was also the keeping of eyes peeled for people with awesome (and not so awesome) costumes as we then ran around trying to get pictures of them.


Here are some of Friday's highlights...





A couple of teenagers dressed as the Joker and Harley Quinn -- really awesome costumes.



A different version of Harley Quinn -- this one from the videogame Batman: Arkham Asylum. She's joined by DC's mistress of magic Zatanna.



A classic, Silver Age version of that perennial thorn in Superman's side, the imp from the Fifth Dimention Mister Mxyzptlk.



This fellow was obviously inspired by the character of Rorschach from Alan Moore's seminal comic book maxi-series Watchmen



The Marvel comic book hero Moon Knight... and a really good costume as well.



The Golden Age version of DC's pulp-inspired superhero Sandman.



And here's an odd combination -- Shredder, the villain from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Ash (complete with "boom stick") from the Evil Dead movies



And finally, the sometimes villain, sometimes quasi-good guy Knockout

Stay tuned for Saturday's pic fest!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Chicago!

You may have noticed several days of silence on the blog front here. That was due to the fact that I was gone attending the Chicago Comic Con (formerly Wizard World Chicago Comic Convention).

I'm a con veteran of the Chicago show, having been going for the past eight or nine years as is the friend a go with... Codename: Greyhound Leader.

This year I thought I might sort of blog about the trip... with pictures.

As is usual, the trip begins from the southern part of Illinois, where I meet up with Greyhound Leader and he drives. From there it's a straight track north.... for five hours.

Five hours of mostly flat farmland....



Broken up by Springfield Lake... which is quite pretty but you don't get to see much of it as you speed by at 65 MPH...



This year there was an unexpected sight... I looked up to see this:



Once I figured out what I was looking at I gestured to Greyhound Leader and could only say: "Elephant butt!"

Not very eloquent but certainly descriptive. I still have NO idea what was going on here but it was, indeed, a large, fiberglass (I assume) replica of an elephant, on a trailer, being pulled behind a pick-up truck. There was no sign on the elephant, on the trailer or on the truck to give ANY idea what was going on...



It was just an elephant.

After that little curiosity it was more flat road and farmland until we look a break and ate some lunch at a nice little rest area... and Greyhound Leader joked about some kids playing in the brush along the playground area going home with a case of poison ivy...



Our trip having been hassle-free up to that point, of course once we got close to Chicago we got caught up in construction traffic and then an accident and then rush hour traffic in the suburbs. We finally arrived.... about two hours later than anticipated with the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center where we would be attending the con the next morning...

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Grab Bag Reviews: "The Edge of Destruction"

Yes, it's another First Doctor story. No, I honestly don't plan these things -- it really is random.

In the early days of the series story titles were a lot more fluid. For example, the story "10,000 BC" was also known as "The Tribe of Gum" and this story, officially put on the DVD as "The Edge of Destruction" is also sometimes known as "Inside the Spaceship".

That clarified, here are a few other things to know about the story before we dive in... Doctor Who was very nearly ended before it began. Officials at the BBC worried about the expense of the show and nearly pulled the plug early. Luckily several people went to bat for the show and managed to convince the powers that be to give it a season run of 13 episodes.

What this meant, however, was that the series didn't have enough scripts at the ready quite to fill the 13 episode quota. It was decided to pen a quick, two-part script and stick it in between "The Daleks" and the lush, costume historical "Marco Polo". At the same time there were fears that the Doctor's rather abrasive and antagonistic personality might be frightening or off-putting to children and the two-parter was seen as the perfect place to start softening the Doctor's personality.

With this story needing to be completed fast and cheaply it was also decided to set the entire thing on the existing TARDIS set -- putting further constraints on the writer. The result of all of these requirements thrown into the story yields something that is... well... more than a little odd to be honest....

The Plot: Leaving Skaro the TARDIS suddenly lurches and there is a bright flash of explosion! Some time later the time travelers slowly regain consciousness but seem to be suffering from partial amnesia. The Doctor is injured but soon begins to recover with the help of Susan and Barbara but there is more going on -- the TARDIS is acting up, strange things keep happening, and the Doctor and Susan seem to be suffering from a great mistrust of Ian and Barbara.

As more and more things start going wrong Ian and Barbara wonder if there isn't something on the ship with them but the Doctor has found a more Earthly source to blame... Ian and Barbara! The Doctor announces he intends to put them off the ship but the crew may not even live that long as they race towards doom. Their only hope for salvation may lie unexpectedly with Barbara!

My Take: Remember when I said that "The Web Planet" was like 1960's experimental theatre? Well this is too. The story is just... it's weird. Plain and simple, it's weird. There are parts of it that come off well and hang together nicely and there are parts that just make no sense no matter how much you think about them. Sadly, the parts that make no sense make up the bulk of things.

There is no clear explanation of why the group had selective memory loss, no explanation for why Susan had a hissy fit with a pair of scissors, and the one thing we do get an explanation for -- the signals the TARDIS is sending -- makes no real sense. It just leaves the viewers quite frankly bewildered.

On the flip side, the introduction of the idea that something could be loose in the TARDIS and might even be possessing one of the group is nice and creepy -- and plausible as well for as long as it lasts. The Doctor's paranoia and suspicion by being unfounded, actually increase the tension as viewers begin to believe that the old man truly is insane.

And then there is the acting. Without a guest cast it falls all on the main cast and, sadly, there is a LOT of overacting done here. No one escapes from it but Ford may be one of the more overblown examples of it. Once upon a time this might have worked for the young audiences of the 1960's but modern audiences are likely to be too busy giggling.

"The Edge of Destruction" is not without some bright moments though. Jacqueline Hill's turn as Barbara has some great moments -- including one where she reads the Doctor the riot act and proves just how formidable a woman she can be.

Hartnell's performance as the Doctor is a bit overblown, yes, but there are also moments where he exudes menace and madness but later Hartnell makes the Doctor's change of attitude believable -- a humbled, contrite figure. One of my favorite moments comes when the Doctor believes he can do nothing to save them and quietly asks Ian if the young man will face death with him. It is nicely played -- quiet but with a sense of weight instead of over the top.

I also have to give credit to writer and production team for deciding to actually give viewers a story which changes the Doctor rather than just abruptly altering his personality without change. It also shows their thoughtfulness in that they do not make things easy on the Doctor -- while Ian lets him off the hook lightly he has to humble himself and apologize profusely to Barbara.

This story also marks the first point where the TARDIS is portrayed as semi-sentient. It will probably interest fans to see that the Doctor has never considered this possibility before and it is Barbara who surmises that the TARDIS is trying to communicate with them.

In the end, though, the positives about the story just can't overcome the negatives. "The Edge of Destruction" will probably only prove popular with those who are completists, curious, and/or fans of William Hartnell.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Grab Bag Reviews: "The Time Meddler"



"The Time Meddler" was something of a watershed story for Doctor Who and it came at a time when there were many changes and upheavals.

Earlier in the season Carole Ann Ford had departed the show. Now, at the end, William Russell and Jacqueline Hill had opted not to renew their contracts and their last story was "The Chase". The production team decided not to replace Hill so Maureen O'Brien became the sole female character on the show and relative newcomer Peter Purves was hired to replace Russell in the male action lead position. Purves' character of Steven Taylor had been introduced at the end of "The Chase" but "The Time Meddler" marked his first full story. Now only William Hartnell was left of the original cast, it was, more or less, a changing of the guard.

In addition to the cast leaving, Verity Lambert, who had produced the show since it's beginning, had decided to move on as well. "The Time Meddler" would be the last story she produced.

The story was not only about farewells, however, it also marked several firsts. Up to this point Doctor Who had largely been broken into two types of stories -- science fiction and historicals. "The Time Meddler", however, would mark the first of a new genre for the show -- a blending of both the sci-fi and the historical into something which was termed "pseudohistorical". These stories would have most of the trappings of a traditional historical but throw in an element or two of sci-fi. In time this style would prove more popular than the traditional historical and would supplant the historical.

The other first "The Time Meddler" can boast is that it was the first story to introduce another of the Doctor's people. The name "Time Lord" would not be added until much later, but this is the first instance of the audience seeing another time traveler.

And so the second season ended with a new cast member, a new style of story, and new possibilities....

The Plot: After the whirlwind of their last adventure, the Doctor and Vicki take stock of their new situation. Ian and Barbara have returned home safely but they will be missed. Before they can be missed too much, however, the Doctor and Vicki discover a stowaway -- Steven Taylor, the fighter pilot they found stranded on the planet Mechanus! Steven is skeptical of the claims that the TARDIS can travel in time and space but when they land in England in 1066 he slowly becomes convinced.

Of course the TARDIS crew cannot stay out of trouble -- even here in the past -- There is a Viking scouting party in the woods, preparing for Harold Hardrada's invasion,and there is a mysterious monk who has the ability to alter the course of history... an ability he intends to use! 1066 was a turning point in England's history but it may all turn about wrong unless the Doctor and his young friends can stop the meddling monk!

My Take: I love this story, I really do. In addition to being the first pseudohistorical it is also one of those rare things in the early days of the show -- a comedy episode. Although I suppose it's more fair to call it an action-comedy; either way Doctor Who had only recently being playing around with doing stories which were more comedic in nature and this one is one of the best as Hartnell is at the top of his game here. Of course, it helps that he is given a brilliant foil -- comedy actor Peter Butterworth. Not well known here in the United States in the modern era, Butterworth was actually quite well known back in the day and in his native England. Audiences most certainly would have recognized him. Even without the recognition factor, Butterworth has timing, excellent physical comedy touches, and the ability to play off of Hartnell wonderfully in the scenes they have together.

Butterworth's meddling monk also makes for an interesting departure for a villain in the series. The monk isn't really that bad of a bad guy. He may threaten the path of history but he does it in order to make what he sees as 'improvements'... as well as to get money for himself. He's greedy and opportunistic but he isn't out to enslave the world or destroy a planet or an entire population unlike many the Doctor has crossed swords with.

There is a nice little mystery here as well. Viewers see early on that there is something not normal about the monk. He has a gramophone, a toaster, an electric skillet, and knowledge of the future. It is obvious that he is someone who is out of step with this time period but the writers spin out the mystery, keeping the truth a secret until the final episode when Vicki says the five words which would change the show's history: "The monk has a TARDIS!"

The third episode in this story is titled 'A Battle of Wits' and that's another thing you get here that you don't always get in Doctor Who -- a sense that this is a true battle of wits. Unlike with many other villains, the monk is largely alone here. There is no army backing him, no henchmen, lackeys, or toadies -- there is only the monk and the Doctor going mano-a-mano and that makes the story refreshing. The Doctor is pitting his own knowledge and low cunning against the monk's -- each one trying to get the upper hand, even if that means pulling dirty tricks. It really makes the viewer notice just how seldom the Doctor gets a true foil.

The real villainy here is provided by the Viking scouts. Their callous attitude towards taking what they need from the first village they find is chilling enough but the indications that they rape the Saxon villager, Edith, is simply chilling. These are cruel and violent men so their rather violent fate at the hands of the Saxon villagers is fitting. These darker turns, however, feel somewhat strange when compared to the lighter moments with the monk it has to be admitted.

As for the performances, well, I've already talked about Butterworth's fun turn as the monk. Hartnell is very obviously having a ball here and, despite blowing a couple of lines, he delivers some of the First Doctor's most memorably whimsical lines in this story. Such as holding up a Viking helmet to a skeptical Steven and pronouncing: "What do you think this is? A space helmet for a cow?" Or in managing to capture the monk warning him "And no more monkery!" There is also a well scripted sequence in which the Doctor manages to figure out the date by asking Edith a few simple, subtle questions and Hartnell plays the scene perfectly.

Maureen O'Brien takes on the new female lead position with aplomb. She convincingly portrays Vicki as smart, practical, logical, and quite the leader. There are also some nice scenes which help advance Vicki's character as she begins to assert that she has found a home in the TARDIS. O'Brien gives a pitch perfect reading of a line in which Vicki, believing the TARDIS is lost, tells Steven that he doesn't know what the TARDIS meant to her. O'Brien allows the simple line of dialogue to speak volumes about how Vicki feels.

On the opposite side of the scale is Peter Purves' Steven. I have to admit that, when I saw my first stories with Steven I chalked the character up as "Nearly Useless Pretty Boy". You know, one of those good-looking-but-usually-stupid male characters who sometimes show up in TV shows -- usually to make the main male lead look good. The only thing which saves the character from being completely useless is the fact that sometimes they actually do something right and/or are helpful. So yeah, that was my initial impression of Steven. Time, however, has caused me to change my mind and to recognize that Purves did something very interesting with the character of Steven. As many of the early episodes he was in had been written with Ian and Barbara as characters Purves found that his lines of dialogue were often a hastily re-written mish-mash of both characters. What this resulted in was Steven sometimes displaying what was, for the time period, female characteristics -- a heavy dose of compassion and intuition. While these could have emasculated the character, instead they actually lead to a more surprising and nuanced one. When the show began and for several years afterwards there was always one character who represented what I came to think of as "The Heart of the TARDIS" -- the character who embodied the empathy, sympathy, and more tender emotions of the show. Formerly this character had been Barbara; with Hill's departure though, the "Heart of the TARDIS designation did not fall to Vicki as may have been expected but instead fell to Steven. Peter Purves, although he has gone on record as being irritated at the time for getting stuck with Barbara's dialogue, actually decided to play it straight and with honesty instead of irony or sarcasm and it makes the character work and work well!

I will say this, though, Steven's long run of skepticism gets really annoying after the first episode. I understand the writers wanting to play things out but instead it makes the character seem a bit of a dim bulb. It also just feels a bit weird having a new character introduced at the end of a season. This is something that American TV just tends not to do -- if a new character is going to be introduced then it is usually done at the start of the season, not the end as was done here.

The guest cast aside from Butterworth are all solid although their characters are a bit more two-dimensional. They fill plot points in the story rather than being fully realized characters but at the very least they are likable plot points.

In the end viewers were treated to comedy, action, adventure, mystery, drama, and surprises all wrapped up with some cracking good dialogue. There are new characters to know and love, a new villain (who would show up again in "The Daleks Master Plan"), and a new style of story to add to Doctor Who's palette. In short, there's a little something here for everyone all done on some pretty darn good looking sets and with some pretty darn good costumes as well. Overall, this was a top notch story and a fitting close out to the season.

I don't always make mention of the DVD extras but in an odd bit of coincidence "The Time Meddler" was the last story Verity Lambert produced before moving on with her long and celebrated career and the cast and crew commentary track she recorded along with Peter Purves, story editor Donald Tosh and designer Barry Newberry for this DVD would be the last bit of work she did for Doctor Who before she passed away unexpectedly. There are some short but sweet tributes to this trailblazing woman on the DVD as well.

"The Time Meddler" is well worth 'meddling' with -- even for those who may not be fond of William Hartnell's version of the Doctor. There is a healthy dose of humor and a sense of childlike glee which pervades the entire story.

Friday, August 13, 2010

I'm Busy and Feeling Kinda 'Meh'.....

So have some Tiny Toon Adventures mixed with They Might Be Giants until I feel like doing something else...

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Magic

As a kid I had a real liking for stage magic and illusion. And back in those days it was all over the place. Magicians like Doug Henning and David Copperfield had annual TV specials and in between times there were always magicians showing up on various variety TV programs like That's Incredible or Real People (yes, I AM that old).

And going even farther back, magic and magicians played roles as heroes. In the Golden Age of comic books there was John Zatara -- a stage magician who could do actual magic by speaking words and phrases backwards.



Like other nascent superheroes Zatara used his abilities to fight crime as a back-up feature in DC Comics' Action Comics title.

Actually pre-dating Zatara was his look-alike Mandrake the Magician. Mandrake, however, existed primarily as a newspaper comic strip rather than a comic book. Also, unlike the later Zatara, Mandrake didn't really have any superpowers... exactly. He had the ability to "gesture hypnotically" and basically instantly hypnotize someone and then get them to see or feel whatever Mandrake wanted them to.



Zatara would fade from the comic book world as Mandrake would slowly disappear from newspaper funny pages but in the 1950's through the 1960's DC Comics got a second wind by re-imagining a number of their old, Golden Age characters. One of those, sort-of re-imagined was Zatara. In this case, a heretofore unknown daughter emerged -- Zatanna Zatara. Zatanna, like her father before her, performed magic by speaking backwards and has managed to last, off and on in publication history, for the past 40 years or so.



And while Zatara and Mandrake and Zatanna all had day jobs as stage magicians there were all granted greater-than-normal abilities and it was obviously their adventures as crime fighters which took center stage.

All of those comic book and comic strip writers, however, in their rush to basically create superheroes missed something fundamental about stage magic and illusion... and that is it's ties to mysteries.

For an audience there are two ways of approaching stage magic. One is to try to figure out how the trick was done... the other way is to surrender oneself to the illusion. To realize that this is a trick but to wonder at the inventiveness of it, to be amazed and to contemplate the ability to craft something which appears, on the surface, impossible.

For the magician the goal is to fool the audience, to trick them, to misdirect them, to make them look somewhere else while the real secret of the trick is being performed and to make them amazed that the seeming impossible has been made possible.

But for a good mystery writer the goals are rather similar. For those who write "fair play" mysteries (i.e. the readers have all the same clues the detective hero has so they have all the tools they need to solve the mystery ahead of the end) the goal is to keep the reader fooled, to misdirect them, to make them look at a character other than the one who committed the real crime and then to reveal the truth at the end much to their amazement.

I never put these things together, though, until I was in my 20's and became exposed to the works of a writer named Clayton Rawson. Rawson was one of the founding members of the Mystery Writers of America (who hand out the prestigious Edgar Awards every year), an amateur magician, and editor of the MWA's newletter and later of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Most of Rawson's books and short stories were published in the 1930's through the 1940's and, to be honest, most of the stories are very slight, light and breezy tales but they are enjoyable as all get-out and very unique in their detective protagonist. You see, Rawson took the phrase "write what you know" to heart and so the main crime solvers of most of his books and stories were stage magicians. He is known in particular for the creation of the Great Merlini, who featured in four books and one collection of short stories.

I was fortunate enough at one time to be able to get my hands on all of the Merlini books through my local library. Unfortunately, the Merlini books were reprinted in the 1970's, not long after Rawson's death and I doubt that they will ever be reprinted again so laying hands on copies of them is a difficult and expensive proposition.

Some criticize Rawson for taking "detours" in the stories to explain how certain tricks are done or to impart a bit of magic history or circus lore but at least these detours are informative and interesting and Rawson even sometimes gives away the secret for how the magic tricks are done.

The books are also intriguing and inventive due to Rawson twisting and playing with ideas. Take for example, his very first Merlini story, Death From a Top Hat



In many ways it starts as a traditional "Locked Room" mystery -- someone is murdered in a room which was locked from the inside; the challenge to the reader is doubled -- first they have to determine HOW the crime was committed and second they have to determine who did it. In most traditional Locked Room stories it is always a conundrum to figure out how a killer could get into and out of a locked room. Well, in Rawson's story the twist is that all of the suspects in the murder are either stage magicians or come from allied areas of entertainment and have worked around magicians as well. All of the suspects are people who make their living in performing seemingly impossible feats!

Also, surprising considering their popularity, mixing magic and mystery has not been popular on TV either. In 1973 there was The Magician starring Bill Bixby but this show only lasted one short season and even at that it was more a proto-Equalizer than it was a mystery series with Bixby's title character taking on the cases of those who needed help and using his stage magic and escapology skills to get them out of trouble.

A bit closer to the mark was 1986's Blacke's Magic with Hal Linden and Harry Morgan. Alexander "Alex" Blacke (Linden) had been born and raised on the carnival circuit with his conman/three card monte dealing father, Leonard Blacke (Morgan), and chorus dancer mother but had opted to play it straight and went into stage magic where he eventually became famous. When the world of stage magic starts to lose it's sparkle, Blacke decides to retire but soon finds a second career, using his knowledge of stage tricks and misdirection to help the police solve nearly impossible crimes.

I remember watching and really enjoying this series when I was a kid but sadly it only lasted 13 episodes. It's also not available on DVD but I did find eleven of the 13 episodes up on YouTube. Yes, it's illegal. I don't care. Much to my surprise I found in watching the stories as an adult now they are still charming and a heck of a lot of fun!

In this modern era, though, where the proliferation of specialized mystery stories continues unabated I find that there is nothing in my niche. There are cat-based mysteries for cat lovers, dog-based mysteries for dog lovers, horse-based mysteries for horse lovers, food-based mysteries for cooks, tea-based mysteries for tea lovers, coffee mysteries for coffee lovers, mysteries where one or more of the detectives is a ghost, mysteries where the detective is a vampire, knitting mysteries for knitters and even scrapbook mysteries for scrapbookers. There's even a mystery series which revolves around mystery books! I stand in the middle of all of this and ask one, simple, question -- where are the magicians? It would seem they have stepped into their cabinets of mystery and vanished from sight. Perhaps one day someone will find the magic word to make them appear on a printed page again.

As extra credit, here's the opening to Blacke's Magic

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Ah, Nostalgia

If you think about it nostalgia is generally seen as kind of a benign thing. You reflect on your past, you look back at things and you feel wistful for what went before. If nostalgia is ever considered something bad it is only in those cases of people who let their rose-colored view of the past blind them to the fact that it wasn't perfect then and there's a lot to enjoy in the here and now.

But nostalgia is also a market. I was discussing this with someone just the other day; that earlier in the DVD market the production companies were concerned mainly with churning out DVD's of current movies and TV shows or "classic" movies which were proven sellers. The companies were ignoring TV shows of the 1970's and 1980's. Some of this was due to poor production values back then which would force extensive clean-up work to make the originals quality enough to go on the DVD but part of it was also the fact that there was not seen as a market for these shows.

They totally underestimated the nostalgia market -- 30 some-things who had grown up and gotten jobs. 30 some-things who had grown up and gotten jobs that paid them enough that they had a disposable income that they were willing to spend on DVD's.

For some it was wanting to see again the shows and cartoons they had grown up on. For others it was wanting to share their childhood cartoons with their own children. For whichever reason, the DVD production companies finally wised up and started giving people the nostalgia they asked for... and that's when nostalgia came and bit us in the behind.

Here's the thing about nostalgia -- as long as it can remain in our memories it stays this 'rose-colored perfection'. Memory often smooths over the rough patches, it ignores the annoyances and it hides the fact that in a lot of ways things were easier or better because we were kids and our parents shielded us from some of the harsher aspects of life.

People who are now in their 30's to 50's, though, are the first generation to leave a pop culture record behind them. More TV shows and movies and such survived the destructive power of time and now, thanks to technology, can be trotted out, cleaned up and put on display for us. And this is where the rubber meets the road. That kid's TV show that you remember being so magical when you were a kid? You watch it as an adult and find it laughably simple. Those cartoons from the 1970's that you used to get up and sit glued to every Saturday morning? Watching them as an adult is more an exercise in comedy than it is in excitement.

Here's my own, personal one... The Challenge of the Superfriends. LOVED that cartoon when I was a kid. Not the very first one -- even as a kid I knew that stuff with Wendy, Marvin and Wonderdog was terrible -- but this one with the "Legion of Doom" made up of some of DC's top villains. Yeah, that was the ticket! You couldn't drag me away from that when I was a kid.

A few years ago Warner Brothers finally started putting out all of the Superfriends cartoons on DVD so of course, with my rose-colored nostalgia glasses firmly in place, I couldn't resist buying the box set. I quickly found out that my memories of thrilling adventures of good vs. evil didn't measure up to inane plots, more strange and illogical stuff crammed into 20 minutes than you could shake a stick at, and mistake-riddled animation. This went beyond the usually stuff like the animators reversing the colors of Superman's 'S' shield on his costume (it going from the true red 's' on a yellow background to a yellow 's' on a red background) or reversing the colors of Batman's insignia on on his costume (the usual black bat in a yellow oval becoming a yellow bat on a black oval) no this was stuff like Hawkman's mouth moving but Green Lantern's voice speaking the dialogue. Or Green Lantern being among a group of captured heroes and Superman organizing another group to go rescue the captured heroes only to see Green Lantern among those who were coming to the rescue! And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Thankfully, what I once purchased out of a sense of nostalgia -- expecting to rediscover treasured moments of my childhood -- is still actually a source of entertainment; it's just the entertainment has become one of humor and ridicule instead of cereal-chomping excitement while wearing footie pajamas.

But here's my point -- we don't always get off so easily. The things we loved as kids -- books, movies, TV shows -- we can go back to them now and far more often than not the reality does not measure up to our memories. Nostalgia betrays us, it bites us in the backside. And yet, time and time again we go back to it. Time and time again we seek out the things of our childhood even though we know that far more often we find something that doesn't hold up to the passage of time. Once in a while though we do succeed. We do find those gems of the past which stand fast against the passage of time and remain as clever, inventive and charming today as they were years ago. And somehow that makes all the disappointments worth it.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Grab Bag Reviews: "Castrovalva"





The show had changed lead actor in the Doctor role four times by 1980 but the next change was going to be particularly tricky....

Tom Baker, after seven years, finally decided to give up playing the Doctor. Tried and struggling with burgeoning alcohol and love-life problems the strain on Baker had begun to show on set more and more often.

The big problem was who did one find to replace one of the most popular Doctors in the history of the program? Jonathan Nathan-Turner's response to that was to offer the role to 29 year-old Peter Davison.

J N-T liked Davison as an actor but his motives were not entirely based on an appreciation of Davison's skill. Davison was immensely popular at the time, thanks mostly to his role as Tristan Farnsworth on the hit series All Creatures Great and Small. J N-T knew that anyone following Tom Baker would suffer inevitable comparisons and there would be many viewers who might be tempted to jump ship with his leaving. The hope was that, by signing an already popular actor to the role, fewer people might be tempted to leave and additionally more people who had followed Davison on All Creatures Great and Small but perhaps never or seldom watched Doctor Who might be willing to follow him over. On the other hand, J N-T was taking a risk that long-time fans of the program might consider Davison too young and handsome for the role.

For his part, Davison honestly did wonder if he was too young for the role. He did not immediately jump when offered the part and spent some time considering all of the pros and cons. In the end, though, he knew that Doctor Who was a kind of cultural institution and he might be offered this role only once in his lifetime. In the end, the opportunity to play the Doctor was just too good to pass up. Davison later admitted, though, that once he accepted he drew a blank on just how he wanted to play this new version of the Doctor. In the end he took inspiration from a fan at a Q & A session on a BBC entertainment program. The fans suggested that Davison play the Doctor like Tristan Farnsworth only with bravery and courage.

In addition to Davison, J N-T had steadily been building up the TARDIS team in the waning days of Baker's tenure; thinking that having more familiar companions around might help Davison fitting into the role. Matthew Waterhouse's character of Adric was already well established, having been introduced in "Full Circle". Added to this was Janet Fielding whose character of Australian airline flight attendant Tegan Jovanka had been introduced in Tom Baker's last story "Logopolis". Rounding out the cast was Sarah Sutton. Her character of Nyssa was supposed to be a one-off in the story "The Keeper of Traken" but the production team ended up liking her and thinking she would add something to the mix so she came back for "Logopolis" and stayed to become a permanent companion.

The show also, for once, had the benefit of time. Because Davison had already contracted to do another series the Doctor Who team had to wait to start filming. Because of this they pushed the launch back for a year -- giving them plenty of time to write scripts and start filming episodes. Knowing that Davison would face stiff comparisons with Tom Baker, J N-T wanted Davison to be confident in the role for the first episode since this would be where viewers would get their first good look at him. As such, with the extra time allotted, the decision was made to film Castrovalva fourth.

The King is dead. Long live the King.

The Plot: The Doctor has regenerated after falling from the gantry of the radio telescope at the Pharos Project but something is going wrong! Tegan, Nyssa and Adric struggle to get the Doctor back into the TARDIS. There is no safety even there, though as the Master has set a trap and managed to kidnap Adric and now uses the boy's mind to create illusions and influence the TARDIS. With the Doctor weak and confused, the group of new friends take him to Castrovalva -- where the TARDIS says he will be able to heal. The city of Castrovalva, though, is both more and less than what it seems and the Master is still out there attempting to destroy the Doctor. If this regeneration goes wrong who knows what might happen?

My Take: Bit of an uphill climb here, in more ways than one. I understand writer Christopher Bidmead wanting to inject some dramatic tension and uncertainty here but Davison squanders most of four episodes as the Doctor being befuddled or unconscious. It's tiresome and it doesn't give viewers enough of an idea as to who and what his Doctor is going to be; instead we learn more about the companions.

On the other hand, we can see even more of the Production team's insistence on "hard science" creeping into the stories. There are discussions of recursion in mathematics, "hydrogen inrush" causing the 'Big Bang', and the effects of mass on thrust in space flight. There's also a healthy dose of the works of M.C. Escher who mixed math, art and visual illusion.

The performances are roundly about what you would expect. There are some really lovely turns by the guest cast as the inhabitants of Castrovalva but Anthony Ainley as the Master is.... well, let's just say Ainley had a reputation of loving to ham things up whenever he appeared as the Master. There are some who love this aspect of the performance from him and some who are less than thrilled. Matthew Waterhouse has some good moments -- for example, when Adric tries to distract the Pharos Project guards by claiming to be an alien (which, of course, he is) -- but he also does his fair share of going over-the-top while imprisoned by the Master. Sarah Sutton turns in a pretty good performance as Nyssa -- in particular she really sells the idea of Nyssa slowly growing to become friends with Tegan instead of just traveling companions. Janet Fielding's Tegan would later get a reputation for being loud and argumentative but in these early days that isn't so much in evidence. Instead she comes off as forceful and determined and actually very caring. And then there is Davison. Reportedly Davison did enjoy those moments where he goes about imitating the Doctor's previous incarnations. While Davison is something of a poor mimic (sorry, but it's true) it does lend a little something to the idea that the regeneration is unstable and instead of elements only of his previous self bleeding through ALL of his previous incarnations are bleeding into his current one. It does take a bit for Davison to get going, thanks mostly to the script, but once he does viewers can see the Doctorly elements creeping in. With Davison, though, unlike with Matt Smith who also had youth working against him, there is little about his performance that seems necessarily 'alien'. There is intelligence and a certain amount of sympathy and sensitivity but there is little here that sets his Doctor apart from humanity and I think that makes it a bit harder to accept him as authentically a 'Doctor' right out of the gate.

Of benefit here is the fact that there are few special effects really -- most everything is accomplished with sets and camera trickery and that helps the series immensely. There are also some really nice sets which, for a change, aren't woefully overlit and there is some absolutely gorgeous location footage which really does convince the viewers that the setting for Castrovalva is a place of peace, tranquility and simplicity.

Overall, "Castrovalva" perhaps isn't the best 'Changing of the Guard' story but it is better than some with some well written and well performed scenes and lines of dialogue which really stick with you. Plus, "Logopolis" and "Castrovalva" together actually flow one into the other in such a smooth way that they feel like one, continuous story which is a nice effect and something that few other regeneration sequences can boast of.

Trivial Pursuit:

When the Doctor is wandering through the TARDIS looking for the Zero Room he imitates his First incarnation, his Third incarnation (complete with mention of the Brigadier), and his Second incarnation (including calling Adric 'Jamie').

Later, when looking at himself in a mirror, he spots a recorder lying around and picks it up and tries to play it with little success. This is a reference to his Second incarnation -- who occasionally liked to play a recorder. Obviously his musical ability has been lost somewhere down the line in subsequent regenerations.

Curiously, the First Doctor didn't know what cricket was but by this time the Fifth Doctor finds an entire room filled with cricketing clothes and equipment.

The Doctor seems to have acquired a power wheelchair somewhere over the years.

When trying to tell Nyssa and Tegan how to escape from the Master's first trap the Doctor mentioned reversing the polarity of the neutron flow -- this was a phrase particularly associated with the Third Doctor.

He also calls Tegan 'Jo' -- which was the name of one of the Third Doctor's assistants.

He mentions K-9 -- which was the little electronic dog which, in various incarnations, traveled with the Fourth Doctor.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Grab Bag Reviews: "The Rescue"

Back to the First Doctor for this one and also the very first introduction of a new companion.

"The Rescue" in many ways almost didn't come about. When Carole Ann Ford, who played the Doctor's granddaughter, Susan, announced that she would not be renewing her contract producer Verity Lambert put plans in motion to replace her with the character of Jenny -- one of the freedom fighters the TARDIS crew would meet during the adventure "The Dalek Invasion of Earth".

Unfortunately issues arose with Hartnell, Russell, and Hill's contracts as well and new questions arose out of the BBC head office as to whether Doctor Who should be renewed after all. With these questions looming, Lambert held off on signing the actress who played Jenny to a contract. Once all the other cast contracts were settled and the show was assured another season it was time to start script writing for the upcoming season. Two previously filmed stories -- "Planet of the Giants" and "The Dalek Invasion of Earth" had been shot at the end of season one but held back to open season two. Lambert decided to use the third story of the season to introduce a new companion.

To echo Susan, Lambert decided to go with another character who was a teenager -- which was a bit of a switch since Jenny had been a little bit older. The two-part "The Rescue" was scripted to introduce the new character. While two-parters were not unheard of for the series they were fairly rare even in the early days and they would go on to become even more rare. The last two-parter of the 'classic' era was the Fifth Doctor story "Black Orchid."

Maureen O'Brien, a young actress, tried out for the role of Vicki mostly on a whim but landed the part. O'Brien was then about 22 years-old playing the teenage Vicki. She would stay on the show for a year or so but then leave, like many actresses before her she became dissatisfied with the part as well as with the fame it generated.

In the meantime, shall we go and meet Vicki?

The Plot: The TARDIS lands on the planet Dido sometime in the late 23rd century. The Doctor, Ian and Barbara are soon confronted by a horrible being named Koquillion and learn that he is also terrorizing the only two survivors of a space ship crash years ago. Teenage Vicki has been spending most of her time taking care of the infirm Bennett but with a rescue ship on its way Vicki fears that the arrival of these strangers will enrage Koquillion and end her hopes of getting off this planet. The Doctor, however, is suspicious. He's been to Dido before and there is something about Vicki and Bennett's story that is not adding up. The deeper he probes for the truth the closer he comes to death!

My Take: Eeeehhhh. The story is alright. At only two episodes it is a fairly tight thing by necessity. There isn't a lot of the usual padding, which is good, but on the flip side some things seem to take place off camera and the audience has to play catch-up between the breaks. There also just plain and simple doesn't feel like there's quite enough meat here; just as one starts to really warm up to the mystery it's solved!

There are several nice bits here though. There is a moment where the Doctor forgets, just for a split second, that Susan is gone, and it brings the grief back to him fresh. Hartnell does a lovely take on this, letting the Doctor seem adrift just for a moment. Later, there is a nice acknowledgement from Ian that he knows why the Doctor has asked Vicki to come along with them.

In the meantime, though, it must be said that the entire cast seem to be having a ball here. Hartnell's Doctor is chipper, humorous, and even a man of action (something he really rarely did) -- seeming to relish this little adventure. He even seems to take facing 'Koquillion' as a kind of lark until it all goes south. Jacqueline Hill and William Russell likewise appear to be enjoying themselves. Their characters are confident and even a bit cocky in attitude and there is some gentle teasing between themselves and Vicki.

Maureen O'Brien seems to be the one who is stuck with some uneven characterization and one 'grade A' hissy fit. In episode one when Barbara proposes setting a trap for Koquillion Vicki is all for it but later she pitches a right temper tantrum refusing to even listen to any of the ideas of the Doctor, Ian or Barbara -- insisting that they are going to ruin everything. I will say, though, that Vicki's reaction to Barbara inadvertently killing her pet is believable for a girl who has been stuck on a planet with almost no other company. The fact that Barbara has killed an innocent creature is disturbing enough but the strain this places on the new relationship is interesting. Unfortunately, like all inter-companion conflict in the early days of the show it is quickly nipped and all is put right.

The villain of the piece is... well... just a villain. Again, the short script and necessity of putting a lot of emphasis on Vicki to introduce her to audiences leaves 'Koquillion' as little more than just a baddie. By the time we learn all of what it going on it is too late and we get no real depth. I will give the writer credit, though, for keeping the mystery a pretty good secret up to the end. Kids watching the program at the time were likely surprised.

In the end it isn't a terrific story but it isn't a bad story either. There are some really enjoyable parts and it is obvious that the cast was having a good time filming this -- the high spirits leak out in the performances. We also get the story aftermath of the first big change in casting and a model is set for companions coming and going -- something that continues to this very day.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

"Full Circle": Trivial Pursuit

I almost forgot -- here are a few bits of trivia and references to go with the review of "Full Circle"

* The Doctor and Romana recieved the summons to return to Gallifrey at the end of the previous story "Meglos"

* In talking about returning to Gallifrey the Doctor mentions seeing how Leela and Andred are doing. Leela was the Doctor's previous companion before Romana and she left the Doctor to move to Gallifrey and marry the Chancery Guard Andred during "The Invasion of Time".

* Romana is upset about being recalled to Gallifrey and the Doctor responds that she had only come to help him with the Key to Time. This refers to the fact that the powerful White Guardian tasked the Doctor with a quest to find the Key to Time. To aid him in this quest the White Guardian impersonated the President of Gallifrey to convince Romana to take on the task in "The Ribos Operation". At that time Romana was in her first incarnation. At some point during the quest she learned that she had not really been assigned to job by the President but by the White Guardian but she stayed anyway. In fact, once the quest had ended she remained with the Doctor. Presumably it has either taken the High Council of Gallifrey this long to figure out where she was or else they didn't care until now.

* Romana, not wanting to give up traveling with the Doctor, reminds him that he fought the Time Lords once before; "And lost" he replies. This is likely a reference to the fact that the Doctor was originally a renegade but was caught by the Time Lords while in his second incarnation. After being convicted of meddling in time -- a crime by the standards of the Time Lords -- the Doctor was forced to regenerate and was exiled to Earth. The conviction happened at the end of "The War Games" and the Doctor began his exile with "Spearhead from Space".

Grab Bag Reviews: "Full Circle"



I'll admit, I've been putting this one off a bit. It is a bit of a difficult story to get a handle on.

For once there was not much going on in the background on this story. It was written by Andrew Smith who actually holds the place for being the first Doctor Who fan to get to write an episode. He was no fan-ficcer turned lucky though; he had grown up on the show and went into writing for TV, having episodes of several other TV shows under his belt before submitting his script to the Doctor Who office.

It was decided to do a series of linked stories. "Full Circle" would start what became known as "the E-Space Trilogy" with "State of Decay" (which I reviewed previously) as the second installment. Since Tom Baker had announced he would be leaving the program the idea was for the E-Space Trilogy to set the stage for the Doctor's death and regeneration. This meant introducing a new companion to prepare the way for an exiting one since Lalla Ward was not interested in staying on as Romana either.

As such a very novice actor named Matthew Waterhouse, who also happened to be working in the BBC offices, got the nod to become the new companion, Adric, introduced here. And hated for years. But that's for later; in the meantime, on with the plot!

The Plot: The Doctor and Romana have been summoned back to Gallifrey but on the way the TARDIS passes through a rare anomaly called a Charged Vacuum Emboitment (CVE) this places them in the smaller, negative universe of E-Space. They land on the planet Alzarius to get their bearings and discover a colony of humans from a crashed starliner who have been busily repairing their ship so that they might one day return home.

This also happens to be a time known as Mistfall, when dangerous mists rise and creatures known as Marshmen rise from the swamps and attack the colonists. The colonists retreat into their ship but one group of teenagers remain outside. The Doctor finds all of this very curious and the more he digs the more he comes to realize that there is something strange going on on Alzarius and things are not as they seem...

My Take: Doctor Who is at some of it's best when it pushes boundaries and plays with new ideas. The central concepts here of change, fear of change, fear of "the other", and the potentialities of evolution fly pretty high. There are a lot of ideas packed in here and if you don't watch carefully and pay attention you may not catch everything.

For example, there is the fact that the Alzarians see the Marshmen as mindless brutes, little more than cattle, but the Doctor sees something different -- a species capable of learning and adapting quickly. There are overtones here of the way colonial powers often used to perceive native populations. The discovery of the true connection between the colonists and the Marshmen is therefore quite a shock to the colonists.

There is also the irony of the Deciders. The Alzarian society appoints a triumvirate of leaders which they call "Deciders" and these Deciders then seem to decide what the people need to know or not. And yet time and time again we see them as too timid, too frozen by their own uncertainties to actually *make* a decision.

There are also a number of reversals and surprise twists which keep the audiences sympathies volleying back and forth. At the start we see the monstrous Marshmen as the villains of the piece. They are frightening looking, it is indicated that they are responsible for the death of one of the Deciders, the nice, peaceful, Alzarians are terrified of them and most damnable is the fact that they knock K-9's head off (although it does lead to an amusing bit where Romana remarks that they're always fixing K-9. Seriously, the little tin dog was like the Kenny of Doctor Who he was forever having his electronic innards pulled out, getting attacked by aliens, having his batteries drained, etc.). And yet later we see the Marshchild become fascinated with the Doctor and it makes no truly threatening moves. It's capture by the Alzarians suddenly turns the table. The scientist's crude and painful techniques of study and his callous disregard for the Marshchild's life in the name of "science" turn the audience's sympathies to the Marshchild. The Decider's support of what amounts to vivisection of the creature alive finishes the transformation of the Alzarians for victims to victimizers. But yet again the wheel spins when the painful truth of it all is revealed and when the Marshmen rampage through the ship killing indiscriminately we again feel pity for the Alzarians.

There is a pretty big cast here by Doctor Who standards, although not all of them are given a fullness to become anything but cyphers. Most of the teenage "Outlier" band are little more than stock, rebellious teenagers who get to show a bit of mettle when the chips are down. Adric is the only one of them who is allowed to show much of a range and unfortunately Waterhouse's inexperience robs this of a lot of impact. There's always something a little off about his performance. He tends to either underplay or overplay and in at least one scene comes damn near breaking the fourth wall and delivering his line directly to the camera (a no-no with something like this). Inflection on some of the words is also just a shade off. Nothing you can really point to directly but something that just gets on your nerves a bit as the story goes on. There is also a kind of earnestness which seems built into the character in the script which doesn't do the character any favors -- it just increases the annoying factor.

The story also isn't quite Romana's tour-de-force either. Lalla Ward does a lovely job with what she has to do but sadly for a number of episodes she basically plays a zombie in thrall to the Marshmen... sort-of... either way we don't get to see quite enough of the intelligent, problem-solving, witty Romana that fans know and love.

Tom Baker, on the other hand, has some really lovely lines of dialogue and some great sequences. His defense of the Marshchild and the Marshmen in general is filled with clever, back-handed insults but at the same time we see even the Doctor taken aback as he learns more of the truth about the Alzarians.

As for the filming, the location shots are really, really excellent. The forest and water are shot in such a way as to put one in mind of Earth and yet still seem alien. The sequence with the Marshmen rising out of the water is also really well done and creepy as all get-out... if only they had left the Marshmen in the forest. Right around 1979/1980 something started happening in the studios at the BBC. In the past the Doctor Who production teams were careful to light the sets to hide some of the cheapness and stageyness of the sets. As the 1980's dawned that changed and the sets started to be over-lit, leading to them looking more like the backdrop to a high school stage production. We see that starting to creep in here. The starliner interiors don't look bad under this lighting but the Marshmen costumes suddenly go from something freaky and intimidating to looking like nobbly rubber wetsuits. And then there are the spiders. The spiders which are supposed to be rather creepy and jump out of the river fruit... yeah, I've seen cheap rubber novelty spiders which looked better than these things. They are absolutely ridiculous. Thankfully they only appear in a couple of scenes and then vanish.

Getting past some of the crappier special effects the story itself is compelling and keeps you off balance as the situation shifts and changes. There are a lot of good ideas and a lot of things to leave you thinking after the credits roll on the final episode.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

They Seek Him Here, They Seek Him There.....

Time to get your swashbuckle on, we're talking about The Scarlet Pimpernel today!

As I mentioned before, I consider the character of Sir Percy Blakeney to be one of the earliest models for a superhero -- particularly Batman. He has something of a tragic past -- his mother went "mad" and his father spent all his time and attention taking care of his beloved wife and so largely ignored the boy. He "trained abroad", he was an expert fighter, a master of disguise, a brilliant strategist and a keen student of human nature. And he 'disguises' himself as a bored, wealthy playboy. Sink me, if that ain't Batman!

Of course, most people know the basic plot of the story -- 1792, The Reign of Terror is in full swing, the French Revolution has taken a bloody turn and French aristocrats are being rounded up under the thin pretext of being "enemies of the revolution" and beheaded. Of course, Orczy's story does not at all match up with history but, then again, when has history ever stood in the way of telling a good story? On with the plot! Into this comes the mysterious figure of the Scarlet Pimpernel -- a code name used by an unknown British man who has been sneaking aristocrats out of Paris, helping them escape from the guillotine. The Scarlet Pimpernel does not act alone, he has a band of young men who also help him pull off his daring escapades -- the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel.

In England the Scarlet Pimpernel is all the rage -- except, perhaps, to the slow-witted, fashionable fop Percy Blakeney. But Sir Percy has money, a title, and most of all a new wife from France who is considered one of the most beautiful and intelligent creatures to ever grace court. Marguerite had actually found much to love in Percy but after he discovered that she unintentionally supplied information which sent an entire aristocratic family to the guillotine he has turned cold to her.

When Marguerite's brother is captured in France as a spy for the Scarlet Pimpernel Marguerite turns to the Pimpernel for help and along the way discovers that her husband is not at all the man she thought he was! But is it too late? For Marguerite has unwittingly betrayed her husband to the man who wants to kill him -- Armand Chauvelin. Marguerite will risk everything to save the man she loves... or die with him.

Many people who just know the story might be surprised to learn that the original story (1903) by Baroness Orczy actually reads more like a romance than an action-adventure novel. The story mostly reflects Marguerite's viewpoint and as such many of the iconic things that people remember do not actually occur in 'real time' but rather are recounted later by members of Percy's band. Orczy does her best to keep the audience guessing at the true identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel for at least the first part of the book. Of course to modern readers it is obvious that Percy is the Pimpernel but Orczy routinely stages scenes where it is not obvious who the Pimpernel is or at least leave readers to wonder "is he or isn't he?" It isn't until much farther along that the truth is revealed.

Of course this element of mystery in the book fits considering Orczy's other semi-famous character creation -- "the old man in the corner" Bill Owen. The character appeared in a series of short stories once sold to magazines and was reasonably popular for a time. His detecting schtick was that he simply sat in his chair in the corner of a tea shop tying complicated knots in a piece of string and would solve mysteries based on getting the facts from either the accounts of other people or newspaper stories. In the 100 years or so since the character first appeared, however, he has largely been forgotten. Agatha Christie played tribute to the character in her 1929 collection of short stories Partners in Crime. In the book young Tuppence and Tommy Beresford agree to take over running a detective agency which has been a front for a spy ring. Not knowing anything about being detective per se Tuppence and Tommy decide to take on different fictional detective personas for their cases. One of the personas Tommy adopts for one case is that of the Old Man in the Corner.

But I am getting off-track. Back to the book. Most people also may not realize that the book does NOT actually end with a big sword fight/showdown between Percy and his foil Chauvelin (see what I did there -- sword fight - foil? Because another name for a rapier is foil? Oh, whatever) but much of the media based on the book usually adds such for dramatic tension. They also usually add a few extra daring escapes cobbled together from the sequel books Orczy penned following the success of The Scarlet Pimpernel.

There have been a number of adaptations of the story over the years. There are three, however, which tend to stand out the most -- the 1934 movie with Leslie Howard as Sir Percy, Merle Oberon as Marguerite and Raymond Massey as Chauvelin, the 1982 BBC production with Jayne Seymour as Marguerite, Anthony Andrews as Percy and Ian McKellen as Chauvelin, and the 1999 BBC series with Richard E. Grant as Percy, Elizabeth McGovern as Marguerite and Martin Shaw as Chauvelin. There was also a 1998 musical with Douglas Sills as Percy, Rachel York as Marguerite and Terrance Mann as Chauvelin in the original Broadway cast.

Of these the 1934 movie is the most faithful to the book. There are scenes and lines of dialogue lifted straight out of the book and the costuming and sets were gorgeous. The whole production is top notch and Leslie Howard turned in a great performance as Percy. Raymond Massey was also wonderful as Chauvelin and the sequence where he believes he has succeeded in seeing Percy killed is a very model for villain gloating.

The 1982 production is.... well, from what I've seen online, seems to be a favorite for a number of people. I found it sorely lacking. It strays from the book in a number of ways -- not all of them for the better. There is a plot with Percy and his men trying to save the Dauphin -- the young son of King Louis and Queen Marie Antoinette -- that really feels tacked on. The movie also spends quite a bit of time seeing Percy courting Marguerite which then gives short shrift to their later estrangement -- and it was the estrangement and the healing of that rift which was the romance at the heart of the original book. There is also the now traditional sword fight between Percy and Chauvelin. I will give this production one thing, it was beautifully filmed and had excellent locations. There is one sequence in which we see the Prince's Ball in England with everyone dressed in pastel finery and right in the midst of all of this is the black clad Chauvelin -- looking like a dark, inky blot. The performances are fine but there is something about Andrews which is off-putting although I will give him an A+ for the make-up and accents he uses when Percy is disguised. These are all top rate. Ian McKellen, fine actor as he is though, just never manages to be a menacing enough villain and I find Jane Seymour's Marguerite to be too slight.

The 1999 BBC/A & E series is the most recent and also the one that takes the most liberties with the books. Characters die who never died in the books, characterizations for many of the supporting characters are completely off, and Percy is no master of disguise here and often relies on brute force rather than cunning. Despite all of that, Richard E. Grant injects an infectious kind of charm into the role and Martin Shaw's Chauvelin is just coated in craftiness and double dealing -- one gets the feeling from him that he is quite intelligent and possibly Percy's match. Elizabeth McGovern's Marguerite is also quite intelligent and in this departure from the books she is given several stirring, dramatic speeches.

Then there is the musical. I got to see this live when it was in it's first nation-wide tour and loved it. It wasn't until I recently saw the 1982 production for the first time, however, that I realized just how much the musical seemed to have taken it's inspiration from it. In point of fact, it seems a bit of a mixture of the original book and the 1982 movie.... only with songs. It may seem an odd subject for a musical but then again, Orczy began by writing The Scarlet Pimpernel as a play and then turned it into a book so turning the book into a musical was not so much of a stretch. The musical enjoyed a modest success and is still produced by regional professional and amateur groups across the world. There have even been some high schools to tackle the production despite the fact that the staging, sets and costumes would not be easy to pull off. In the original Broadway production Douglas Sills not only did a wonderful job acting as Percy he had a tremendous singing voice. Terrance Mann, also a great singer, brought a new level of sensuality to Chauvelin. In his scenes with Marguerite are probably the most seductive of any version of the story. Rachel York, however, Too. Much. Vibrato. One of my friends had the original cast album when it was released and it was actually my first exposure to the musical. Upon listening to it my friend and I quickly dubbed York "goat girl" since her heavy vibrato made it sound more like she was bleating than singing. But if you ever get the chance check the musical out it's a lot of fun and has some great songs in it.

For over 100 years the Scarlet Pimpernel has captured hearts and imaginations. The character has been parodied (see the Warner Brothers, Daffy Duck cartoon "The Scarlet Pumpernickel"), tributed and used as the inspiration for any number of other characters. When she set out to pen a swashbuckling romance novel Baroness Emma Orczy could have no idea of just how far her character would go and, with it having lasted this long, it's only a matter of time before good Sir Percy pops his foppish head up again somewhere. Demme me if it ain't so!