Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Chicago Comics: "Scratch 9" #1

Another comic book I picked up on this year's Chicago Comic Con trip was Scratch 9 #1 from publisher Ape Entertainment.

The term "All Ages" comics is supposed to be used for comics which are just that -- appealing to all ages of readers from kids to adults. Far too often, however, it gets used for comics which splat tired old jokes, treadworn plots, and one-ply tissue thin characters on the page because the writers and publishers figure these comics are just going to be read by kids and how smart can kids be really?

I'm here to say that Scratch 9 is a perfect example of what a true all-ages comic should be. And the first issue gets things off with a bang....

Scratch is a beloved pet but he runs away when his owner wants him to wear a collar; finding trouble in the big, bad world. He ends up the subject of a mad scientist's experiment and when things go wrong Scratch is suddenly granted the mysterious ability to manifest any of his nine lives! It looks like Scratch has led some interesting lives, though, since the first one he summons is a sabretooth tiger. He's going to need all of these wild and crazy lives, though, because he still has to make his way back home and if that were not enough he has one mad, mad scientist on his tail as well.

With only one issue it's hard to judge how the whole series will go but so far writer Rob M. Worley is on the right track. Scratch comes across as young, a little naive, a little impulsive but sweet and definitely in over his head. It makes the character endearing as well as understandable to all ages. Kids can see some of themselves in both Scratch and the little girl who owns him and adults will see the children they know as well as the kids they used to be in the characters.

The premise of a cat who can summon a variety of nine lives -- a lives which definitely go outside of just being a house cat -- is unique and interesting and the reader is instantly drawn in by the potentials. Here is a story that, for once, hasn't exactly been told before -- here are some fresh, new ideas to explore.

The art, provided by Jason T. Kruse, is equally up to the task of the story. It is rounded and cartoony but expressive and just plain charming. Scratch and his owner are as cute as can be here but Kruse can also bring the menace in the form of Dr. Schrodinger and his robot grizzly bears. Yeah, you read that right... Robot. Grizzly. Bears. How awesome is that? But Kruse handles it all masterfully, filling pages and panels with lots of action and warmth without ever letting that delicate balance slip.

Can Scratch make it home? Will he learn why he has gained these strange powers? Can he evade Dr. Schrodinger? Buy the title and find out!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Doctor Who Grab Bag Reviews: "The Two Doctors"

It's an open secret that my favorite Doctor is the Second one and my favorite companion is Jamie McCrimmon (what?! Dude went into action wearing a kilt AND he had the legs for it too -- you don't get better than that) so, of course, a story that reunites by favorite Doctor-Companion duo should be at the top of my list right?


"The Two Doctors" is one of my least favorites... a train wreck of a story in which nearly everything that could go wrong did go wrong...

It all began two years earlier with 1983's "The Five Doctors". Jonathan Nathan-Turner, seeing the boon that a multi-Doctor story could be to the ratings was almost immediately interested in producing another one. In addition to that he had been impressed with both how well the Patrick Troughton had slipped back into his character of the Second Doctor and the easy working relationship and genuine camaraderie between Troughton and Fraser Hines who played Jamie McCrimmon. At the time of "The Five Doctors" Hines had only had time for a small cameo but J N-T hoped to lure him back to do a full episode alongside Troughton.

By the mid-1980's the Doctor Who veterans had discovered the American fan base and vice-versa. The show had become a minor cult-hit in the U.S. thanks to a combination of syndication and showings on American PBS stations (which is where I discovered the show way back when). Doctor Who conventions were starting to spring up in the States and many of the people who had been or were currently involved with the show had begun traveling "across the pond" for the conventions. J N-T began to see this as the perfect time to propose a joint effort between the BBC and the American company which was syndicating the show.

In 1985 J N-T managed to secure an assurance from the American company that they would be able to cover expenses for Doctor Who to fly to the United States and film an episode set in New Orleans, Louisiana. As such, J N-T hired long-time Doctor Who writer Robert Holmes to write a script to match. In point of fact, J N-T gave Holmes a laundry list of things to squeeze into the script -- the current Sixth Doctor and his companion, Peri, the Second Doctor and his companion, Jamie, a new alien race that had some connection to New Orleans, and Holmes was also to throw long-time villains the Sontarans in for good measure... just because. Needless to say, Holmes was not really pleased at being hampered by all of the elements he had to add.

Meanwhile, J N-T got both Patrick Troughton and Fraser Hines on board. Troughton had reportedly had a wonderful time filming "The Five Doctors" and was eager to do it again and he and Hines were old friends and co-workers and both were also looking forward to working together again.

Holmes, being a vegetarian, decided to focus the story around food and carnivorism and apparently planned to die this into the cuisine of New Orleans. As such his new alien race, the Androgums, was an anagram for gourmand.

At the last minute, however, it turned out that the American money would not be there after all and the BBC could not foot the bill for a New Orleans filming. Having filmed in Amsterdam for the Fifth Doctor story "Arc of Infinity" and in Lanzarote for "Planet of Fire" also for the Fifth Doctor, J N-T was reluctant to let go of the idea of filming somewhere other than Great Britain. After several ideas fell through Seville, Spain was settled on.

The change in setting required some adjustments to the script and caused several things to not come off as well as they might have otherwise. Also, the shoot ended up with limited locations to choose from and many of the crew ended up on-camera acting as extras in several of the scenes.

And in the end... it really wasn't worth it and now we get to delve in and see why...

The Plot: The Second Doctor and his companion, Jamie, are sent by the Time Lords to the science research space station Camera in order to discuss the worrying experiments of two scientists who are studying time travel. The Doctor argues with his old friend, Camera's head of research, Dastari over the potential dangers of the time travel experiments. While there the Doctor encounters the station chef -- a member of a race known as Androgums, who tend to be nasty, brutish, violent, omnivores -- and another Androgum named Chessene, whom Dastari has genetically altered and augmented to become a genius -- something else that worries the Doctor. He has a right to be worried because Chessene has made a deal with the warring Sontarans to turn over the space station to them....

Elsewhere, the Sixth Doctor and Peri are trying to enjoy a little peace and quiet for a change when suddenly the Doctor has some kind of seizure. Feeling strange, the Doctor decides to visit Dastari to see if the scientist can detect anything wrong.

The Doctor and Peri arrive on Camera only to find it a charnel house -- all of the personnel have been slaughtered. The computer indicates the Time Lords were responsible but the Doctor cannot believe this and is determined to discover the truth. As he and Peri search the station for clues they find the sole survivor of the carnage... Jamie.

The Doctor soon realizes that his previous self has been kidnapped and he knows that it can be for no good purpose. Fearing that someone is planning on using his earlier incarnation to unlock the secret of time travel, the Sixth Doctor, Peri, and Jamie follow the trail to Seville, Spain and set out to rescue the Doctor. Little do they realize they are up against the brilliant mind of Chessene which has been wedded to an insane ambition. Chessene wants to rule the universe and she will use and discard anyone along the way -- Sontarans, Dastari and even Time Lords...

My Take: And that right above is just one reason why this episode doesn't stand up. Four paragraphs just to explain the plot and that's with me actually leaving out a lot of the subplots! At this time Doctor Who had shed the tradition of four half-hour episodes in favor of two 45 minute episodes per story but "The Two Doctors", being a 'special' episode, runs to three 45 minute episodes. Even with the extra time there's more plot here than is strictly necessary.

Then there are the Androgums. I have friends who are vegetarians and I myself often cook and eat vegetarian fare (although don't you dare try to take cheese from me -- I will stab you with a fork) but Holmes' script, with it's depictions and descriptions of meat eating and cooking are really just bad. If he intended it to be an advertisement for vegetarian eating he failed grandly because it is so blatant and over-the-top in it's indictment of meat eating it has the opposite effect. I almost want to sit and eat a raw steak just to spite the memory of Robert Holmes when I watch this story. Doctor Who has taken on vegetarianism in the past -- "The Green Death" for example is about not only environmentalism but healthier eating as well -- but without being this... derogatory about it.

On top of all of that Holmes seems to have caught the 'bickering bug'. Not only do the Sixth Doctor and Peri do their usual round of whining and picking on one another but there's quite a bit of it between the Second Doctor and Jamie -- something that really did not happen very often in the original run. There is probably more bickering between the Doctor and Jamie in the first 20 minutes of this story than there was in the whole three year run of the duo in the 1960's.
The tone of the story is also so far off the mark it could cause an earache. The Sixth Doctor's tenure often was criticized for excessive violence. To be fair, many of the criticisms laid were unfounded or uncalled for but here the story veers wildly from comedy to violence without warning and it just isn't handled well. There is also at least one death which serves no earthly purpose except to just be a death and there is also quite a bit of blood which is really uncalled for. Also, many criticize the Doctor's callous killing of the Androgum Shockeye but that is actually reasonably within character... the problem is the Doctor's casual, James Bond-like witticism about the killing. That's just not the Doctor -- he'll take a life if he has to but he shouldn't seem to enjoy it or crack jokes about it.

Perhaps the worst sin of all is the fact that, after J N-T went though all the trouble to get Hines and Troughton back together for this story, the duo spend the bulk of it separated. Hines's Jamie spends most of the story running around with Colin Baker's Sixth Doctor and there just isn't that much chemistry between the two actors. Not necessarily their fault -- after all chemistry is often something that is either there or it isn't and nothing can make it appear if it isn't there but to bypass Hines and Troughton's proven chemistry for this is bad plotting.

The plot aside, the story is also hit and miss on the special effects. The work for the space station Camera is actually pretty good overall. A lot of times the more futuristic sets don't age well but the work done for the sets here still looks fairly futuristic twenty-five years on. Many of the locations in Seville also look pretty good and do allow the show to get out of it's British focus for a while. The costumes for the Sontarans, though are just awful. For one thing the Sontarans are too tall and slender -- they were established a long time ago and rather short and squat -- powerfully built warriors -- here they just look like lanky, potato heads. As if that were not bad enough, the masks were ill-fitting and therefore muffle the actors' voices so they sound like they're talking through dish towels and on close-ups it is clearly visible that the mouths do not move on the masks and you can see the actors' lips moving behind the masks. Even by Doctor Who standards this is poor. Also, pity Nicola Bryant who is stuffed into more revealing clothes than usual, not to mention the fact that they are VERY 1980's and not in a good way, and has to run around on uneven ground in high heels... again. In the commentary Bryant also explains that the shimmery top she was wearing initially had no lining in it and under the hot Spanish sun it conducted heat like aluminum foil and burned her skin. And the less said about Dastari's Elton john-influenced glasses the better.

On the acting front... well, despite the poor script, Troughton and Hines do a bang-up job with what they have. The bickering aside, J N-T was right in that the rapport and real-life friendship between the two actors just comes through the characters beautifully and one might be fooled into thinking that virtually no time at all had passed since they last worked together.

The actor playing Shockeye is a bit too over-the-top to ever really take seriously. He's supposed to be menacing and creepy but instead he seems laughable and silly. Chessene, played by Jacqueline Pierce, is far better. She projects a perfectly haughty character and she pitches Chessene's ambitions well also. Pierce's casting, however, was something of a "stunt", however, as Pierce was well known to British sci-fi fans for playing the villainous Servalan in the series Blake's 7. Many cannot help but compare the two roles and so her Chessene often comes across as lacking to those who have seen both. Dastari is little more than a cypher and the actor emotes about as much as cricket and does little to try to add anything to the character.

As for Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant as the Doctor and Peri... eh... They're very 'meh' here. Baker and Bryant have turned in worse performances but the script doesn't do them any favors and the bickering has, by this point, gotten rather old.

"The Two Doctors" is interesting in that it is one of only a handful of stories where the Doctor met up with other incarnations of himself, it would also be the last multi-Doctor story to air on TV and it was also, sadly, the last Doctor Who Patrick Troughton did. Troughton had wanted to come back and do another story -- only this time he wanted to do the story secretly -- appearing under mask or heavy make-up as an alien but he passed away of a fatal heart attack in 1987 before he had the chance to return.

There is little here to recommend the story but it stands up to at least one viewing out of either curiosity's sake or nostalgia for the Troughton - Hines era. There are a few scenes which work well and showcase all of the talents involved and once you figure those out you can pretty much just view "The Two Doctors" for the "greatest hits" portion of the story. If, however, you choose to skip it you won't be missing much.

Trivia: WARNING: Curse word used in the following trivia note. Turn away if it bothers you...

In the second episode a little over 18 minutes into the episode after the Doctor insults Peri you can clearly see Nicola Bryant mouth the word "asshole" at the Doctor.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Chicago Comic Book Collection

I thought I might do some overviews of the comics I purchased at the Chicago Comic Con this year. To start with: Invincible: The Ultimate Collection, vol. 2

For those of you unfamiliar with the series, Invincible is about a teenager, Mark Grayson, whose father is an alien come to Earth and also the superhero Omniman. In volume 1 of the series we see Mark finally develop his father's powers of flight, near-invulnerability, and super-strength. Mark adopts the identity of Invincible and sets out to fight crime and defend the Earth against monsters, supervillains, alien invasions, mad scientists and destroying robots.

With this new world Mark suddenly must struggle to balance his home life, school work, friendships and the crush he is harboring on his classmate Amber. He also must consider his future as the end of high school approaches and college life looms.

Just when it seems he might be getting things together, though, Mark discovers that his father is not the man he thought he was. A battle ensues and Mark is badly beaten while his father flees.

With volume two we see Mark continue to struggle with balancing his superhero life with his ordinary one -- now made more difficult since he has taken up his father's place as a quasi-government agent. He also must deal with a new relationship with his mother as she, too, deals with the fallout from learning that her husband and the father of her child was not what she thought. Mark's relationship with Amber also progresses, he makes new enemies and new allies, those around him also change and grow and he leaves high school and heads for college.

Why You Should Be Reading This: First, writer Robert Kirkman has a real ear for dialogue. His teenagers actually sound pretty spot-on for teenagers and he also has a knack for balancing the superhero slug-fests with the personal character growth within the story. All of his characters grow, change and progress -- even the minor ones -- and he has an uncanny ability to drop in quick character moments which advance the story and the characters with only a few panels and without feeling like it's been put in place with a crowbar.

And that's another reason to like the series -- things change. People change, things change, events have an impact on the characters and the changes stick. If you're sick of seeing the usual superhero circular logic (for example, Batman is a loner... until he gets a bunch of sidekicks. Then someone comes along and decides Batman needs to be a loner again so he kicks out all of the sidekicks... and then someone comes along and brings the sidekicks back... lather, rise, repeat) then this is the title for you.

Also, serious stuff happens. Sure, there are jokes and there are funny moments to lighten the mood but there is also some serious blood, guts and violence but all of it is never treated lightly. The violence has consequences and people are changed by it.

Finally, there is Ryan Ottley's art. He manages to produce a really clean look for all the characters that is grounded but not 'realistic' or gritty. It's like looking at some of the best Disney animated stuff and it's absolutely perfect for a comic book.

So, Invincible -- it's for people who actually don't mind if their superheroes age and change and grow.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Doctor Who: After "Survival"

So Doctor Who was cancelled and you might think that would be the end of it... but it wasn't. After all, what do Time Lords do when they die? Regenerate into another form of course! In this case the good Doctor went to print.

Virgin Publishing -- that's the publication arm of Richard Branson's insanely sprawling multi-media empire -- got the licensing rights to Doctor Who from the BBC and in 1991 they began publishing all-new adventures of the Seventh Doctor and his companion, Ace. Over the years they would add new, original companions as well -- one of the most popular being Bernice "Benny" Summerfield, an archaeologist and adventurer. In point of fact, Benny became so popular she spun off into her own series of books and audio adventures from Big Finish (more on them later).

Rather smartly, Virgin accepted stories from a number of former Doctor Who writers such as Ben Aaronovitch and Marc Platt. Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to what fans refer to as "The Cartmel Master Plan".

When Andrew Cartmel was brought on board as Doctor Who's script editor he was determined to shake things up. He believed that one of the problems with the series was that the Doctor had become too well-known to fans. In the beginning he was a mysterious figure -- we didn't know where he came from or why he ran away, we didn't know anything about his people or his home. Over the years that changed until it got to the point that the Doctor could pop back to Gallifrey any old time (a rather grave change from the Time Lords who cruelly exiled the Second Doctor for his "meddling") and the Time Lords were as familiar, and as interesting, as a group of 70 year-old career politicians. Cartmel wanted to re-inject some mystery back into the Doctor.

Cartmel himself never referred to his ideas as a "Master Plan" and, in fact, did not know that fans did so until many years later. As it was his ideas were just that... ideas and suggestions that he tossed around with some of the writers for the show. What emerged was this idea that the Doctor was more than just another Time Lord -- that he was actually this reincarnation of a very powerful figure in Time Lord history -- an early Gallifreyan who had helped to found and start the Time Lord society and that this being, known as "the Other", was actually something of a demi-god to the Time Lords. Tied to this was a further idea that, being the Other, the Doctor had more powers than an ordinary Time Lord -- powers that he did not use. One idea was that the Doctor would end up encountering the cosmic personification of Time herself and he would be pushed into becoming "Time's Champion" and in this role would end up having to use more of his powers and abilities.

Cartmel quickly realized, however, that if he explained everything then it would put him right back where he was before with the Doctor no longer being a source of mystery and enigma. Therefore Cartmel and the other writers decided to content themselves with merely hinting at things and stringing the story out. Of course, the series was cancelled before all but the smallest little hints had been dropped.

Another story aspect which the writers had intended to work towards was the eventual departure of Ace as a companion. Had there been a season 27 then they would have continued laying the groundwork they had begun at the end of season 26 of showing Ace maturing and growing up and becoming a more stable person. Even though Sophie Aldred had not indicated a desire to depart the show yet Cartmel and the others felt that, after three seasons, they should make some changes to the cast and halfway through season 27 was felt to be a good departure point for Ace so that they could then introduce Ace's replacement and get her settled in the part before the season closed.

The plan was for it to be revealed that the Doctor had been grooming Ace all this time to go to Gallifrey, enter the Academy and become a Time Lord -- the first human to become a Time Lord. The tone of it was going to indicate that the Doctor felt that Time Lord society had become too hidebound and it was time for some new blood to shake things up.

When the series was cancelled obviously all these plans went for naught... until Virgin Publishing showed up. Seizing their chance, the writers used the books to introduce a number of their unused ideas from their scripts. Marc Platt, for instance, got to reveal much of the Doctor's past and his family in the book Lungbarrow. The writers found that at least one benefit of writing for books instead of TV was that the sky was the limit since they were not hampered by the limitations of budget or special effects.

The Seventh Doctor published adventures became known by fans as "The Virgin New Adventures" series but in 1994 Virgin Publishing branched out and began publishing books featuring the previous six Doctors in all-new adventures which were taking place in-between the TV stories. This range became known as the "Virgin Missing Adventures" series.

Then there was the blip on the radar in 1993... Every year there is a huge charity drive called "Children in Need" which raises funds to benefit a children's hospital and children's health care. It is a big deal in Great Britain and the telethon attached to it has long been known for special events and stunts. In point of fact, the anniversary episode "The Five Doctors" (which I've already reviewed) first aired as part of Children in Need. As 1993 was the 30th anniversary of the show (even though it was no longer on the air) Jonathan Nathan-Turner managed a herculean feat in that he gathered all of then then surviving Doctors and many of the companions to appear in two short episodes over two days of the telethon. The plot (what there was of it) involved the various Doctors and companions mixing and matching and jumping from time point to time point while the villainous Time Lady known as the Rani tried to destroy them. As William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton had passed away at this time computer generated images of them were shown already captured. Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy all appeared as the Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Doctors respectively and Carole Ann Ford appeared as Susan, Deborah Watling as Victoria, Caroline John as Liz Shaw, Nicholas Courtney as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, Richard Franklin as Captain Mike Yates, Elizabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith, Louise Jameson as Leela, Lalla Ward as Romana, Sarah Sutton as Nyssa, Nicola Bryant as Peri, Bonnie Langford as Mel, Sophie Aldred as Ace and John Leeson provided the voice of K-9. The short, called "Dimensions in Time", can be found floating around the Internet (usually in a rather poor copy which was taped off of someone's TV on a VCR back in the day) but it has not, to the best of my knowledge, ever been released as an extra on any of the Doctor Who DVD's so far.

All of this went on until 1996 when the BBC teamed up with Fox television and Universal to produce an all-new Doctor Who made-for-TV movie which was to air in the American market. The hope was that the TV movie would act as a pilot for a TV series which would be a joint BBC - American collaboration but which would feature primarily American companions and American locations.

It failed.

Up until recently there was a conflict between Fox and Universal over the rights to the TV movie and because of this it was never released on either VHS or DVD in America. One could purchase it in Great Britain but not here in the U.S. (although there were some shall we say less than strictly legal ways of getting access to the movie). That has changed, however, and as I understand it a special edition DVD of the movie is going to be released here in the States. As such I'm not going to discuss much about the movie here and will wait until it shows up in a future Grab Bag Review to go into details about the tangled web of the TV movie.

But the movie ended up having an impact on Virgin Publishing. When the license ran out in 1997 the BBC refused Virgin's offer to renew it and the BBC's own publishing wing now began to put out all new novels featuring the new Eighth Doctor as introduced in the TV movie. Along with that, BBC publishing also began doing a series of "missing adventures" for the past seven incarnations of the Doctor.

Then in stepped Big Finish. Here in America radio dramas died out in the 1950's as television took over but in Great Britain they never really did and in point of fact one of the BBC's radio stations is devoted to little but audio dramas as they are called. As such there is a market over there for original audio dramas done straight to CD or MP3. Big Finish started business in 1998 and quickly made a name for themselves by acquiring the licenses to do audio dramas based on a number of British cult sci-fi series like Judge Dredd (and no, don't think of the Sylvester Stallone movie -- most Brits will kill you if you bring that up) and Sapphire and Steel (one of these days I'm going to do a series of posts about that show). Another license they soon acquired was Doctor Who. In 1999 they began creating all-new audio adventures featuring the surviving past Doctors -- Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor, Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor, and Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor. They also managed to often get many of the companions actors and actresses to reprise their roles for the audios. Sarah Sutton and Mark Strickson reprised their roles as Nyssa and Turlough -- companions of the Fifth Doctor, Nicola Bryant reprised her role as Peri and appeared in audios alongside both the Fifth Doctor and the Sixth Doctor, Bonnie Langford, who played Melanie Bush, reprised her role beside both the Sixth and Seventh Doctors and Sophie Aldred gave voice to Ace again with the Seventh Doctor.

Big Finish also soon expanded and began doing all-new adventures of the Eighth Doctor, played by Paul McGann. As the stories grew more and more popular Big Finish even began adding new original companions to the past Doctors -- actress Maggie Stables gave voice to the new companion, middle-aged history professor Evelyn Smythe, who traveled with the Sixth Doctor. The Seventh Doctor picked up a young, male nurse named Hector "Hex" Schofield voiced by Paul Oliver, and many more. As of this writing Big Finish continues the line of audios.

Another one-off came in 1999... although not strictly Doctor Who... Another charity which is big in Great Britain is "Red Nose Day" -- a telethon that is part of Comic Relief -- in which comedians raise money to help end world hunger. The public is encourage to help raise money by doing something funny -- particularly involving comedy red clown noses. As part of the telethon there are stand-up comedians and comedy sketches and sometimes skits. In 1999 Stephen Moffat (current show runner for Doctor Who) was commissioned to write a comedy skit to air on Red Nose Day. What he produced was "Doctor Who and the Curse of the Fatal Death". The plot of the story revolves around the Doctor in his Ninth incarnation (played by comedy actor Rowan Atkinson -- best known for Mr. Bean and Blackadder) deciding that he wants to retire and settle down with his current companion, Emma, with whom he has fallen in love. He is forced, however, to confront his old enemy, the Master, as well as the Daleks in a series of traps, crosses, and double crosses. In the course of trying to save the universe (yet again) the Doctor keeps getting killed and regenerating -- going from Atkinson to actor Richard E. Grant to stand-up comedian Jim Broadbent to actor Hugh Grant and finally to actress Joanna Lumley. Like "Dimensions in Time" "Doctor Who and the Curse of the Fatal Death" was never made available to U.S. audiences although it had been made available in various formats to British audiences. It is floating out there on the Internet and if you want to you can probably find a copy of it. It has not been offered as an extra on any of the Doctor Who DVD's however and there is no word of it being so in the near future.

Time proceeded apace, though, and in the early 2000's the BBC began playing with webcasting -- producing audio stories with limited web animation accompanying them. The BBC chose to use Doctor Who for many of these experiments.

One of the earliest ones was a 2002 webcast featuring the Seventh Doctor and Ace called "Death Comes to Time". The story has not been extremely well-regarded by fans since it ignores a lot of established continuity for both the Doctor and the Time Lords within the story and also because the end seems to indicate that the Seventh Doctor dies permanently -- which would end the series and also contradicts the Seventh Doctor regenerating into the Eighth Doctor in the TV movie.

"Death Comes to Time" was followed up also in 2002 by "Real Time" -- a Sixth Doctor story and featuring the companion Evelyn Smythe from the Big Finish stories -- so far the only time a Big Finish companion has been used in a BBC Doctor Who production. "Real Time" can still be found to listen to (free and legal) on the BBC's Classic Doctor Who website so sooner or later you'll probably see a Grab Bag Review of it. The same holds true of the next two webcasts the BBC created -- "Shada" in 2003 and "Scream of the Shalka" also in 2003.

And then, of course, the new series launched in 2005 and Doctor Who was reborn.

While it is fair to say that the good Doctor disappeared from TV screens in 1989 he never disappeared forever. The episodes were often seen in repeats and the books, audios, and little specials all show that the characters had gained a kind of death-grip on the British psyche and it was one that was not likely to go away soon. While those in charge at the BBC may have taken some convincing to bring the show back the people who had grown up on Doctor Who knew all along that there was something special here and they weren't going to ever let it completely disappear.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Grab Bag Reviews: "Survival"

Now here's a rather interesting one because "Survival" is one of the handful of Doctor Who episodes of which I had only seen a few clips from and never watch the full episode... before now. As such I had the rare experience of getting to sit down and go into the story with no preconceived notions.

"Survival" also had the dubious honor of being the last episode of what became known as the "Classic Series". What led to this happening is rather a long and strange trip...

The show had been bleeding viewers for a number of years by 1989. The cause was a number of things from uninspired writing to uninteresting characters to a perception that the show was catering more and more to an ever shrinking core of devoted fans.

Producer Jonathan Nathan-Turner had been in the top position for about ten years as well -- far longer than any other producer on the series -- and he was understandably burned out but what amounted to blackmail from the BBC kept him from moving on. The powers that be at the BBC informed J N-T that no one else really wanted the producership for Doctor Who and so if he left they were simply going to cancel the series. As a fan of the program as well as it's producer J N-T could not stand to see this happen and so he opted to stay. By 1989, however, he simply could not endure any longer and was determined to leave but had hoped to increase the show's ratings and standings so that the BBC would be more motivated to find a producer to replace him.

As it so happened, however, a number of other things also came about at the same time period. Despite the show's weakness, the BBC opted to change it's time slot -- putting it up against the a new but immensely popular nighttime soap opera called Coronation Street. This was like sending a fly to destroy a fly swatter... and it got exactly the results you might expect.

Also during this time period the crew on Doctor Who got a definite impression of snobbishness from the rest of the BBC's drama department -- of which Doctor Who was a part. To this day some of the writers allege that other writers and producers looked down on the show simply because it was sci-fi and they therefore considered it not real or proper drama.

While J N-T and script editor Andrew Cartmel both believed that the show was headed for a hiatus at the very least and more likely would be cancelled, they chose not to share their fears much. They did let their script writers, crew and actors know that the show was likely to be put on hiatus for a year or so but they said nothing about the worst case scenario. Even with the almost certainty of a hiatus looming they continued to make plans for another season -- what would have been season 27 for the venerable show.

Meanwhile, "Survival" would not be last episode filmed for the season -- that honor went to "Ghost Light" -- but it would be the last episode to air. With that in mind, Cartmel hastily wrote a little final speech for McCoy to say which could be dropped in at the end just in case the show went on hiatus and the fans might need something to tide them over until it returned.

Meanwhile, at the BBC the decision had been made. The new head of drama decided that the show needed a "rest". His intention at the time was to merely see Doctor Who be put on the shelf for three or four years and then be brought back by someone with some fresh ideas. In an interview for the "Survival" DVD he expressed a genuine regret that his decision led to the show going off the air for 16 years.

It was only long after filming for "Ghost Light" had wrapped that the entire cast and crew found out about the show's fate. Many were sad and bitter and while Sylvester McCoy, who played the Seventh Doctor, and Sophie Aldred, who played the Doctor's companion, Ace, knew that they could and would move on to other things they were upset that they would not be allowed to give their characters any closure.

Even for the fans, "Survival" aired as the last episode of the season and it was some time before a quiet announcement came out of the BBC that Doctor Who would be put on "hiatus" indefinitely. There was never a formal announcement of cancellation but as more than a year passed with no news of any new episodes fans eventually came to realize that the show was gone.

Over time there is some sense that "Survival" became somewhat revered simply because it turned out to be the last glass of wine from the bottle but does it deserve that status, no matter the conditions surrounding it?

The Plot: The Doctor has returned Ace "home" -- the Perivale Council Estate (read low-cost housing for the working classes) -- at her request as she wants to see what has happened to her friends while she's been traveling with the Doctor. Upon arrival, however, the Doctor quickly senses something amiss. Ace discovers that several of her friends have simply gone missing... as have others in and around Perivale and the Doctor sees a black cat the seems to have a slightly otherworldly quality to it...

Ace finds herself transported to a strange, alien world populated by Cheetah People and the Doctor soon follows. Once there, however, he finds that there seems to be no way back. He also finds that an old enemy is there waiting. To make matters worse, the planet has a symbiotic relationship to it's inhabitants -- the more they fight the more the planet begins to break up and destroy itself. Also, anyone who survives being the Cheetah People's prey slowly succumbs to the plant's influence and starts to become an animalistic Cheetah Person.

When the Doctor discovers a way back to Earth the Master takes advantage of it and in order to follow him and rescue the other trapped Earthlings the Doctor just might have to sacrifice Ace's humanity... But the Master is on Earth and he has been infected by the planet as well -- enough so that he now sees all around him as prey for the taking....

My Take: Okay, let's get the bad stuff out of the way first... the episode used a mixture of real cats and one animatronic cat as the Kitlings -- the otherwise seemingly ordinary black cats which are actually alien creatures who find the Prey for the Cheetah people on Earth and then facilitate bringing those people to the Cheetah planet to be hunted. The animatronic cat that the special effects department produced was quite bad. Really, really bad. Even by Doctor Who standards. The thing ends up looking rather moth-eaten and less convincing than the animatronic figures at your local carnival. Supposedly the animatronic cat was not supposed to be used very much but the live, trained cats which were hired proved to be less than well trained. Either way, there is no way a person can look at the shots with that blasted fake cat and not laugh.

Then there are the Cheetah People costumes. Reportedly, the costume designer's original idea was that the Cheetah people should look more humanoid. They would have some wigs and hair pieces to give the impression of manes and ruffs of fur but otherwise the Cheetah effect would be achieved through body paint. J N-T, however, wanted the costumes to be more overt and so the actors playing the Cheetah people ended up covered in spotted fun-fur with these large masks which ended up being, well, honestly, more cute and cuddly than ferocious. To make matters worse, in several sequences one can see the gaps at the neck of the mask and see them wobble and shift on the actors' heads as well completely destroying what little illusion there was.

There was also a kind of motorcycle duel between the Doctor and one of Ace's friends, Midge, now Cheetah-infected, that ends rather badly. Apparently the parts which make no sense were a result of the fact that the budget could not be stretched far enough and so some sequences had to be rewritten at the last minute. There were also a few things which J N-T feared would be too violent or intense and would get the show in trouble.

These things aside, the script is actually quite ambitious and effective.

First of all there is the story's initial setting. Perivale is representative of it's time -- the British Council Estates were, by all accounts (and some still are apparently) rather dreary places. This really comes through in the story mostly because the crew chose to actually film in the real Perivale Council Estate.

But the story shows the kind of dead-endness of the life in these types of places. When Ace runs into one of her old friends the girl says in a rather blase tone that everyone thought Ace had died... or gone to Birmingham. The same is true of the other missing persons. No one really cares and no one is surprised that someone might run away and leave no word behind simply to escape the drudgery of life there.

There is also hints of a criminal element and violence. The character of Sgt. Patterson teaches a self-defense class to the people who live there and indicates that he believes these youths must become hard in order to survive... that they must show no mercy to their attackers because their attackers will show no mercy to them. In short, Munro does all she can to blur the lines between the primitive, animalistic Cheetah planet and Perivale.

It has to be said, though, that the themes of "Survival of the fittest" and "Law of the jungle" do get pushed around awfully hard. The audience is rather beaten over the head with the phrases and the ideas and it does not take long before you're tempted to yell at the screen "We know! We get it already!"

There is also another theme running through which is a bit more subtle -- the idea of the violence of the people impacting the planet on the Cheetah world. We see and are told that the more they fight and hunt and kill the more the planet breaks up but at the same time, 1989 was still the era of Margaret Thatcher and George Bush and the Cold War and there were still those threats in our own world -- that the more we fought or came close to fighting the more danger we put our own planet in with the threat of nuclear war.

Another theme which comes through is the idea of the loss of humanity. When Midge kills a defenseless Cheetah person he begins the transformation into a Cheetah person himself. Once he starts down a path of violence without conscience he begins to lose his humanity. Later on the Doctor stops Ace from feeding on a dead animal carcass as even this kind of animal-like feeding would indicate a loss of humanity. As Ace falls under the spell of the planet and the Cheetah woman, Karra, she does break free for a moment when she realizes that Karra and her people hunt humans -- sentient beings -- without compunction or compassion, and Ace realizes how inhuman this is.

And there is the idea of the struggle that humans go through -- even in our pretty little world -- to hide the savagery underneath. The Master, who considers himself a great intellect and a man with supreme control over his emotions must now battle the beast within himself. Even the Doctor's greatest enemy feels something creeping up on him that perhaps even he will not be able to control and that something is his own animalistic nature. And it needs to be mentioned that Anthony Ainley as the Master turns in one of the best performances of his career. For once the Master himself has vulnerabilities and Ainley allows those to show through cracks in the Master's usually smooth veneer.

Then there is the theme of "home". The Kitlings bring the prey home with them to the Cheetah planet to hunt. Only the Cheetah people have the power to cross between the worlds but they cannot go back to Earth because Earth is not their home. So in order to return the Doctor must find... or create... an Earth-born Cheetah person and send them home. For Midge and Ace Earth is home, Perivale is home but also, as Ace comes to realize and finally give voice to -- the TARDIS is her home, her place with the Doctor is her home and the TARDIS is back on Earth. Likewise, when the Doctor again must throw himself from the Cheetah planet back to Earth he ends up right outside his TARDIS -- his home.

And finally, there is the theme of growing up for Ace. In the last several stories of season 26 the writers made it a point to put Ace on a character arc with an eye toward writing her out of the series during season 27 but doing so in such a way as to place her on a totally new track in life. As such the stories "The Curse of Fenric", "Ghost Light" and "Survival" were written to have Ace deal with a lot of the pain of her past and coming to grips with her growing up in the present.

Here she comes home again only to find what once was home has changed drastically. Old friends are gone and the ones who remain have changed -- just as she herself has changed through her travels with the Doctor. This is what happens as one grows up -- you find that time marches on with or without you and that people and places change and sometimes those changes cause you to lose them. Ace quickly realizes that she no longer fits in Perivale.

In that same vein, we see Ace disobeying the Doctor at several points -- breaking free of her father figure -- but turning back at several crucial points and crying for the Doctor to tell her what to do. Of course, the Doctor cannot. She is growing up now; maturing and she must make decisions for herself here.

Another interesting thing about this story is seeing how much it seemed to influence the new series of the show when it returned in 2005. Ace is a tough, streetwise kid who grew up in a council estate and Rose likewise grew up in a council flat. Ace, however, come across as a lot tougher than Rose, there is also a much greater sense that if Ace hadn't met the Doctor she might have ended up at a dead end or even in trouble with the law. Ace also seems to carry inside her more trouble, heartache and pain which are manifest in a fascination with fire and explosions.

But there is a difference here as well. When the new series would visit modern day London it usually felt as if that was the "normal" world and it was the Doctor and the alien bits which didn't fit in. With "Survival" it is the exact opposite. From the start Perivale feels like the alien world and it is actually the Doctor and Ace who seem like the "normal" components here.

By this point in the series McCoy and Andrew Cartmel had also gotten permission to start making the Doctor a darker character and this comes through here as well. The Doctor takes some of the lighter jokes and statements made by the ordinary people living in Perivale and he shows them the darkness lurking just underneath.

For example, a shopkeeper tells his co-worker that old joke about two guys out on safari when they hear a lion outside the tent. One of the adventurers start putting on a pair of running shoes and the other says "You can't outrun a lion." To which his compatriot replies "I don't have to outrun the lion." -- the punchline obviously being that the man only has to outrun his compatriot. The joke loses it's humor, though, when the Doctor steps in and points out that it means one must be willing to sacrifice a friend in order to save one's own skin.

There is also a sense that, once again, the Doctor is manipulating Ace -- even if it is for her own good. He also manipulates others -- like the Sgt. Patterson of the self defense classes.

And McCoy really sinks his teeth into this. He had been pushing for a darker interpretation of the Doctor for some time and having finally gotten his wish he plays it with great relish. One sees how he feels at different points -- those he uses whom he feels bad about using and those whom he does not feel bad about using. Also, his decision to, unlike the Master, be able to control his darker impulses and not give in to violence -- even when facing his worst enemy -- then who has caused him and those he cared about such pain and hardship over the years.

Kudos likewise go to Aldred who manages to convey very well the struggles of a young woman who is moving from childhood into becoming a full fledged adult. And who also manages to convey the emotional baggage of a girl who was brought up in less than ideal circumstances.

As fascinating as the script is, however, it is not without it's flaws -- just like the animatronic cat.

I mentioned before the rewritten scenes which remove some impact. The Doctor's conflict with the Master -- particularly the final fight -- is entirely too short. There is little of the back and forth fans have become used to between the Doctor and the Master and few scenes between them period.

Also, despite all the themes Munro plays with throughout the story it still feels like it has been padded. Ace repeats a line of dialogue almost verbatim twice and a lot of the Master's machinations after returning to Earth seem unfocused, petty, pointless and tacked on to fill out running time.

Overall, though... "Survival" was a good, solid story. As a number of fans and professionals have written over the years, there were signs that the show had finally "turned the corner". They had found their footing, they had started tapping really good writers who had a handle on the characters and they were starting to craft new, interesting stories. The pity was that it came too late.

As a capstone to the entire series up to this point? Well, it is a little lacking. Munro produced a story that was essentially one, long, extended metaphor and there were many points where the dialogue was actually quite poetic as well. It was stuffed to the gills with interesting themes and subtle social commentary and character development but there were still missteps. In places the themes were hammered home with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Dropped from the top of the Empire State Building. In other places the pacing lagged while somewhere else in the story things happened far too quickly.

"Survival" was a story with a message for it's time and place but there are elements which still ring true today and are just as relevant and fascinating and that makes it well worth the time for viewing even if it wasn't the sort of grand finale fans might have wished for the series.

And really, Cartmel's hastily scribbled speech for the Doctor was and remains lovely and there is good reason why fans still return to it over and over again. If anything it does somehow manage to encapsulate what was at the time 26 years of the Doctor...

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Honor Brigade!

One of the (many) things I picked up on this year's Chicago trip was the trade paperback of Honor Brigade.

Never heard of it you say? Well, let me introduce you....

Plus Co. is one of the largest companies in the country... but things are not as they seem under the surface of Plus Co. and it's CEO, Adrian Conroy, has secrets. Thrust into the midst of all of this is mercenary and sabotuer Toy Boy with an axe to grind against Conroy, the upstanding public hero Lightning Rod, a slain former cop and Plus Co. security guard given a new lease on life as the undead avenger Dead Eye, a young, single father whose prodigious strength and lack of sensation make him the nigh indestructable Slam but also make him afraid to touch his son, Conroy's half-brother tranformed by alien intelligences and bonded to a high tech space exploration suit as The Suit and Mystery Girl a young woman with total amnesia apparently a victim of Plus Co.'s machinations but left with the uncanny ability to copy the superpowers of others.

This disparate group is brought together -- some enemies, some allies -- as the plans of Plus Co. are revealed. Once upon a time Honor Brigade was one of the premiere superteams but now it's time for a new Honor Brigade... if Plus Co. doesn't destroy them before they can get started... and also assuming these heroes don't kill each other first.

Honor Brigade is notable for a number of things. First of all, it wasn't published by DC or Marvel. It wasn't even published by some of the bigger independent publishing firms -- not Dark Horse, or Image or IDW or Ape Entertainment or any of the others you could name.

No, Honor Brigade was published by this guy:

Tom Stillwell.

In this day and age Tom managed to write a complete, six-issue miniseries, get an artist, produce the six issues within a quite reasonable length of time, get them published, and do all of the publicity for them himself.

And if that were not enough, he made enough money on the original run to have the whole thing collected in a trade paperback edition, have it colored where the original was in black and white, AND hire a few writers and artists to add some short stories featuring several of his Honor Brigade characters as well as pin-ups. And these are no slouches with stories written by the likes of Gail Simone and pin-ups by the likes of Coleen Doran among others. It's amazing how well others get Stillwell's characters. Perhaps because they are, in many ways, so relatable.

On top of all of that.... The story is just GOOD! Tom understands something about comics -- you don't have to have nothing but conflict in order to have conflicted heroes. You don't have to make your heroes nothing but walking piles of angst in order to make them "interesting".

He takes a healthy slice from the Silver Age -- when heroes were more outwardly heroic and less inclined to constantly straddle the line between good and evil -- but then tempers it with modern attitudes. These are heroes who have problems and hang-ups but instead of navel-gazing about them they are determined to go out there are DO something about it.... even if what they do might not exactly be the right thing... or the legal thing.... or the sane thing in Toy Boy's case.

Tom has an ear for dialogue and, a few gramatical missteps aside, the whole thing is rollicking fun as it goes from witty banter to touching moments to heroic speeches to villanous proclamations. It all works and it all feels remarkably real... and in many places laugh-out-loud hillarious.

And if that were not enough, Tom has followed up Honor Brigade with a one-shot story featuring his character of Toy Boy called Toy Boy: What Happens in Vegas. Check out the fun little YouTube video advertising the story:

And coming this October, Stillwell is following things up with yet another Toy Boy one-shot: Toy Boy: Strangers With Candy. You can check out a preview of it HERE

While it may seem like Toy Boy is hogging the spotlight right now... well, that's just what he does. Tom has created one of the break-out hit comic book characters that I've read in a long time... and I read a lot of comic books so that tells you something. But seriously, Toy Boy is snarky, anti-authority, insane and utterly charming under Tom's pen and you could almost believe that he's taken on a kind of life of his own. But rest assured, Toy Boy can't keep the spotlight forever... Lightning Rod controls electricity and sooner or later he'll just short it out. : >

But the fun doesn't stop there. If you ever get a chance to talk to Tom (and I highly recommend it as he's one sharp cookie) you'll see that he's got more ideas for stories and characters running around in his head then there probably is room for in the world. He already has plans for more Honor Brigade one-shots featuring some of the other HB characters aside from Toy Boy and he also had ideas for at least two other superhero comic book titles. And populating all of these titles are a wealth of characters. He has a poster showing all of his characters in his Spinner Rack Comics universe and for each one of them if he doesn't have a backstory already in mind he at least has the germ of an idea. Each one of the characters has a superhero name and a power set already fleshed out in his head and some of them are insanely clever and you wonder why no one has tried it before. Take, for example, his team of superheroic cheerleaders -- Team Spirit, or his resident psychic Mind Mime or the currently defunct criminal team of thieves Grand Larceny. Any one of these could probably helm at least a complete comic book mini-series and he's got probably close to a dozen like that lurking around in his imagination.

So if you like your comics a perfectly balanced mix of action, adventure, drama, conflict, and humor all wrapped up in bright colors and eye catching art then check out the Honor Brigade world.

You can buy copies of the color Honor Brigade TPB HERE

And you can buy a copy of Toy Boy: What Happens in Vegas HERE

And if you ever run into Tom Stillwell at a convention, tell him Stressfactor sent you.