Tuesday, November 23, 2010
47 years ago today Doctor Who debuted on television. 47 years and eleven Doctors -- the longest running sci-fi TV show ever. And it all started in 1963.
So, to commemorate, I thought I'd break the "Doctor Who Grab Bag" tradition and just review the very first episode -- "An Unearthly Child".
I'm not going to go into too much background on how the show got up an running -- it's actually a pretty long and complicated tale. Needless to say, Doctor Who didn't just spring from some writer's head, fully formed like Athena. It's also a very interesting story which gives a peek behind the curtain at how shows are brought to TV.
Second of all, there are now two different versions of "An Unearthly Child". For decades the version which was broadcast on TV was the only one people knew. In more recent years the original 'pilot' episode has been found and is available on DVD with the first serial as an extra. The pilot is slightly different -- some of the dialogue is different and some of the pacing is different but the story itself is largely the same. The pilot was produced to show to the bigwigs at the BBC to get the series finalized. The BBC asked for some changes before broadcast and so there were some script tweaks, the whole episode was actually re-shot (because editing at that time was practically non-existent so they couldn't just cut scenes or reshoot one scene and then drop it in to replace a previous scene.
For the purposes of this review I'm looking at the broadcast version rather than the pilot version.
Also, there is some argument among Who fans about this story. Some insist that "An Unearthly Child" is a story unto itself even though it leads directly into the first serial. Some say that it is merely the first installment of the larger first serial. Again, for the purposes of this review I'm treating it as a separate episode.
And now, let us meet the Doctor for the very first time!
The Plot: School teachers Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton find something strange about one of their students -- Susan Foreman. 15 year-old Susan is a curious mix of genius intellect and ignorance and she seems very much a stranger in a strange land despite the fact that she claims to be a native. Trying to solve the puzzle, Ian and Barbara follow Susan home one night to confront her about the dichotomies in her life. There they find Susan's mysterious grandfather and an even bigger mystery in who and what Susan and her grandfather are. The two teachers are about to embark on a journey of a lifetime....
My Take: It has to be said that the story suffers a bit from being studio bound. Of course most things were in those days but here there are times when you can hear the "roominess" of the sound quality and where things just look too much like a sound stage. On the other hand, though, in order to hide that sound staginess the set dressers added a lot of shadows, darkness and fog which add to the atmosphere and really give the story a creepy edge and a sense that anything can happen. The setting puts one in mind of Gothic horror rather than sci-fi and that helps make the sudden reveal of the interior of the TARDIS so surprising. We go from darkness and shadows to bright white light and gleaming chrome. It's very effective.
Modern viewers will likely find the pacing very slow. It's kind of a talky story in which everyone stands around discussing things rather than doing. It is only in the last few minutes in which everything really takes off. Some of the dialogue is a bit repetitious but there at the end everything really starts to take off. Ian and Barbara have gone from the ordinariness of their classrooms and students into another world -- one which they cannot comprehend and so they try to make up stories to convince themselves they are not seeing what they really are.
The performances, though, are pretty top notch. Again, modern viewers will like find Carol Ann Ford as Susan overplaying her part. In truth, she's a little better in the pilot version of the story. Jacqueline Hill and William Russell, however, are fine and natural as Ian and Barbara. There is also an instant chemistry -- an easy rapport between the actors -- which really sells the idea that Ian and Barbara are long-time colleagues and friends.
The biggest difference people are likely to see in in William Hartnell. Most people are used to seeing his First Doctor in his more 'grandfatherly' mode. Charming, slightly befuddled at times, and warm. Here they are introduced to a cagey old man who is arrogant and dismissive. He's actually not a very nice person and that is especially borne out by the fact that he outright kidnaps Ian and Barbara to keep them from revealing what they have seen. No, it would be several more episodes before Hartnell softened the performance.
It's also interesting to see how much is set here. The TARDIS interior would change slightly over the years but the bulk of it would retain the white color scheme and the large roundels on the walls up until the series relaunched in 2005. There is also the first appearance of the familiar dematerialization sound which is still a part of the series.
Overall, though... Unless you are a Doctor Who fan who is interested in seeing how it all started this may not be the story for you. It's a great story, it's brilliant in it's own way, but it lacks a lot of punch. In all actuality, the pilot version of the story is a bit better with some better dialogue, better explanations and a bit more moodiness. But if you have the tolerance for a slower pace and more dialogue heavy scenes "An Unearthly Child" is worth half and hour of your time. The dialogue works and none of it is clunky or stupid and, of course, the last few minutes of the story are really hard-hitting and dramatic.
It's where everything began and all of the stuff we've come to expect -- all of the roots of the show are right here for everyone to see and get re-acquainted with.
Friday, November 19, 2010
Thursday, November 18, 2010
Writer Mike W. Barr and artist Adam Hughes are fairly big names in the comic book business and in 1988, when Barr first launched The Maze Agency from one of the smaller comic book companies of the era it generated quite a bit of attention and acclaim.
Unfortunately, the comic book market of the late 1980's and early 1990's was a bit... odd. Personally, I would even dare to call it unstable. As a result, The Maze Agency published several issues under it's first publisher, then moved to another publisher and then moved to still another publisher with gaps of years in between.
I really wasn't much of a comic book reader in those days -- my childhood comic book reading phase had passed and my adult comic book reading phase wouldn't get started until the late 1990's so I had never heard of The Maze Agency.
Then along came IDW Publishing; one of the smaller but growing comic book publishers. In 2005 IDW lured Barr back to The Maze Agency to write a three-issue miniseries (which I still need to track down). IDW also announced that they would be re-publishing the whole series in trade paperback volumes. The first volume came out in 2006 but there have been no subsequent volumes. Since I haven't heard anything about there being any legal troubles or general fall-out I presume that low sales have prevented IDW from reprinting the rest of the series.
Having read interviews with Barr at the time of the 2005 mini-series I became intrigued by The Maze Agency -- this sounded like something that would be right up my alley so I put the first TPB volume on my list and have always looked for it on the discount racks at Chicago. This year I finally found it -- a pristine copy in a 50% off bin. SCORE!!!
What It's All About: Jennifer Mays is a smart, savvy, successful and tough private investigator. Gabriel "Gabe" Webb is a true crime reporter working for a sensationalistic true crime magazine. Mays and Webb put their heads together to solve the unsolvable crimes. Partners in crime and lovers in their off hours, Mays and Webb are an unstoppable duo.
Why I Like It: As can be witnessed by my series of Nero Wolfe reviews, one of my favorite literary genres is the mystery story. So of course I love The Maze Agency for that reason. It isn't the only reason, though.
For one thing, Barr always "played fair" with his readers. Granted, some of the plots might take a genius to put them together but at the very least Barr always gave the readers all the same clues he gave his main characters -- never holding anything back as some mystery writers have done in the past.
For another thing, with the comic book world populated with superheroes and sci-fi even comic books which fit in the mystery genre usually have some sci-fi or fantasy elements. There's nothing wrong with that at all but it makes it different and refreshing when one runs into a comic book that is so firmly rooted in the "real world". There are no holograms here or laser weapons or people who can fly. Gabe and Jennifer utilize their minds, the weapons of the time period, and the technology of the time as well. All of this really helps the comic feel more like a regular mystery novel... only with sequential art.
The third thing I love about The Maze Agency is that, at least in these first stories, Barr wrote them all as "done-in-one" -- each issue was a complete story. Again, with modern comic books usually focused on the story arc -- with stories that play out over four, six, eight, and even twelve issues, it seems like a lost art for writers to write complete stories in one issue that don't feel rushed or short. Barr managed that beautifully here and in some ways you end up feeling like you get more instead of less because you get six different mysteries instead of just six chapters of one mystery.
Finally, I love Barr's characters. Jennifer and Gabe are the typical "opposites" and the series has been compared to the old TV series Moonlighting with Jennifer being beautiful and polished and Gabe being a bit slapdash and a sloppy dresser. But that is where the comparisons end. Jennifer is a highly trained private investigator and a shrewd investor, making her independently wealthy. Gabe dreams of hitting the big time by one day writing his own true crime novel and having it hit the best seller list but in the meantime he turns his keen insight into helping Jennifer solve crimes.. The two are lovers but without possessiveness and Jennifer, admiring Gabe's intelligence and genuine detective skills, is always trying to get him to join her agency formally. It is Gabe who holds back, insisting that love and work are a bad combination and he'd rather have Jennifer as a lover than work with her and have to give up their relationship. This doesn't mean that the path of their love runs smooth but it does mean that they handle the bumps as adults. Again, a refreshing change from the oft-times juvenile depiction of relationships in most comic books.
and, of course, any discussion of this book should not fail to mention the art of Adam Hughes. Hughes has, particularly in recent years, been noted for his somewhat "cheesecake" style of art when it comes to the female form. To be sure, he can and does vary his style but his women are usually known for being lush. For The Maze Agency though, while Jennifer is, no question, beautiful, Hughes keeps her proportions within the bounds of most normal women and he never draws her in inappropriate clothes. Hughes understood that Barr was going for more realism here and presented just that -- men and women who look like real men and women and who dress like the professionals (or not) that they are.
Cracking open a copy of The Maze Agency, vol. 1 is like sitting down to watch a great mystery TV show. The characters are mature, the dialogue contains the spark and fizz of wittiness, the artwork sets the stages perfectly and the mysteries themselves are quirky, tough, and sometimes filled with danger. And so I say... Go! Seek out The Maze Agency, vol. 1. Maybe if IDW sells more of these we'll finally get the other volumes... I want to see what happens next!
Sunday, November 14, 2010
Anyway... "The Crusade"!
We're back in the First Doctor's tenure for this one -- well into the second series. Already by this time the production team had abandoned the habit of doing a historical story every other serial but the show had not abandoned the pure historical yet either; that would not happen until 1966 (with a blip in 1983 for the story "Black Orchid").
Although there were some changes occurring to the production team at this time the biggest one -- the departure of the show's first producer, Verity Lambert, would not occur until the end of the series. By this time most of the cast had been on the job close to two years and even the newest member, Maureen O'Brien, had been on for several months and had settled into her role. As such the filming went along without a hitch and with no real controversy.
It should be noted that "The Crusade" was one of the stories which suffered from the BBC's tape wiping program in the 1960's and 1970's. Out of the four episodes two still remain but audio exists for the two missing stories. "The Crusade" can be found on the Doctor Who: Lost in Time, the William Hartnell Years DVD. The two extant stories and the audio for the two missing stories are provided. If one ventures over to the BBC's Classic Doctor Who website one can find that the whole story has been reconstructed using still images HERE. Using the audio and the still images it is possible to put together an at least rough reconstruction of the missing parts.
The Plot: The TARDIS lands in a wood... and lands right in the middle of trouble. The time travelers have managed to put themselves down right in the middle of an ambush toward the end of the Third Crusade. Barbara is kidnapped, Ian sets off on a perilous journey to find and rescue her and the Doctor and Vicki become embroiled in court intrigue at the stronghold of King Richard I. Will the court politics force the Doctor and Vicki to leave without Ian and Barbara? And can Ian find Barbara before she suffers a fate worse than death?
My Take: Many have often noted the Shakespearean tone of many of the old historical stories for Doctor Who and "The Crusade" is perhaps the most Shakespearean of all of them. Seriously, at many points while watching this you would swear that you were watching some long forgotten play by the Bard of Avon. Oddly enough it is the time travelers here who seem the most out of place and it is their dialogue which is the least Shakespearean... of course that is probably to be expected.
Let's get the good out of the way first, shall we? Julian Glover and Jean Marsh as Richard I and Richard's sister Joanna respectively turn in first class performances. Both actors were Shakespearean trained and it really shows. Glover showcases all of Richard's sides in this story. He is arrogant, temperamental, and almost childish at times but then turns around and shows nobility and a canny knowledge of politics and political expediency. Marsh counterpoints with her portrayal of Joanna as an intelligent woman who also knows well how court politics are played. She shows a strong will and self-assurance.
The other excellent performance here comes from Jacqueline Hill as Barbara. While, in some ways, Barbara is the typical female companion of the time period -- being captured and put in jeopardy -- in other ways she is a forerunner of the modern female companion. Here, while she is captured, she engineers her own escape at least once and is plotting her second escape when it becomes a moot point. She also is tough, clever, quick witted, noble, and not some little mouse easily frightened.
It also should be mentioned that, as usual, the BBC's costume department knocks it out of the park with clothes for the period pieces. The costumes for Richard, Joanna, and the rest of the knights (and later Ian, the Doctor and Vicki) are lovely and lush and emphasize the Shakespearean feel of the story. The set designers also do a pretty good job here. The forest scenes are dressed pretty well -- or at least well enough that viewers are automatically distracted by thinking it looks like a soundstage. The streets of the city of Lydda are also well done -- cramped, narrow, and dirty-looking -- just as you would expect from streets of that place and time.
That, however, is pretty much where the good ends.
One thing that becomes really obvious is just how much of a rut the show had fallen into by this time. In the two stories proceeding this one -- "The Romans" and "The Web Planet" the Doctor and Vicki have one part of the story while Ian and Barbara have the other part of the story. And the Ian/Barbara story in both of those cases as well as here with "The Crusade" consists of Barbara getting captured and taken off somewhere and Ian having to go find her to try to rescue her. It all gets so very tedious and one would think that the writers would have tried changing things up a little bit. With four main characters there are plenty of chances for mixing and matching the characters which would, in turn, showcase different aspects of the characters' personalities but instead we get the usual -- Ian goes off being heroic, the Doctor goes around being grandfatherly, and Barbara... well, I've already discussed what Barbara gets to do.
Adding to the tedium here is the fact that the the story falls into three main areas. You have the comedy element -- that is provided by the Doctor and Vicki and their ongoing wardrobe problems. The drama element is provided by the court intrigue -- of which the Doctor and Vicki are really merely bystanders, observers, and commentators rather than being in on the action. And speaking of action -- the action/adventure element is provided by Barbara's attempts to escape captivity and make her way back to her friends and Ian's attempts to overcome roadblocks to find Barbara and rescue her. And you can literally go through this entire four-part serial and anticipate when each of the different elements will be coming in. There is little to nothing here to surprise the audience or catch them off their guard. The whole thing is like a 'paint-by-numbers' picture.
And, surprisingly, even at only four episodes the story just goes on too long. The constant back-and-fourth between Barbara escaping and being captured and escaping again, etc. is interminable and while the sequences between Richard and Joanna can make for compelling viewing most of the rest of the court intrigue stuff is plain boring.
Also, there is Saladin and his brother and the nature of the crusades. Because, at this time, Doctor Who was considered a children's show, the story of the crusades has largely been condensed and cleaned up here. Added to that is the problem that this story was written in the 1960's, before many historians had fully embraced the complexities involved with the crusades and before Richard I stopped being quite so lionized. Because of that there is still a lot of mythology surrounding both Richard and Saladin and it doesn't do the story any favors. Like with many of Shakespeare's plays, there is a dash of real history to ground the story and then much of the characters and details are strictly fiction... grand, noble fiction as opposed to the dirty, bloody, slog most of the world was in that time period.
There is also the problem of the Saracens. While Saladin is shown as being intelligent, noble and honorable and a few other characters are shown the same it doesn't change the fact that all of the speaking parts are being played by Caucasian British actors in dark make-up. It gives the story a somewhat offensive tone. It also doesn't help that many of the other Saracen characters are vicious, greedy, conniving, or all three. You end up with two extremes -- the noble men (note: NOT noblemen) and the wicked.
And then there is the bit of script stupidity in trying to pass Vicki off as a 13 year-old boy at least until the third episode when she is "found out". The costumer does nothing to try to hide Maureen O'Brien's breasts and it is roundly quite obvious she's a girl and expecting the viewer to suspend disbelief that no one else notices is just ridiculous.
In the end, while there are some really nice aspects to the story which make it worth at least a cursory viewing it doesn't have a lot to recommend it for repeat viewing. The writers probably could have cut this down to a two or three part story and turned in something that would have really stood out among the historical stories but as it stands it bogs down in the middle and plods it's way to the end.
Thursday, November 11, 2010
Thursday, November 4, 2010
Where There's a Will
The Plot: The Hawthorne family is accomplished and somewhat eccentric. It still manages to come as a surprise, though, when businessman Noel Hawthorne is killed in a hunting accident and his will reveals he has left the bulk of his estate to a woman presumed to be his mistress. His three sisters, April (a stage actress), May (a scientist) and June (a novelist) are unhappy but willing to let things lie to avoid a scandal. Hawthorne's scarred wife, Daisy, however, is determined to raise a protest.
The sisters hire Wolfe to try to convince the "other woman" to give up some of the inheritance to Daisy to avoid a media storm but the job soon changes when it is discovered that Noel's accident was an "accident" of the deliberately murderous kind. Wolfe now has an abundance of motives as well as suspects and Wolfe must find the one path that leads to the truth. It may be a daunting task but where the great detective is concerned where there's a will....
My Take: This is another one of Stout's "odd" books. Like with Some Buried Caesar we are introduced to a host of eccentric characters who, at first, present something of a comical proposal to Wolfe. The Proceedings have an element of farce throughout but Stout often brings it up short, shifting the tone quickly to a more serious vein. The murder and, even more, the strange character of Daisy, give the story not only weight but a kind of creepy, Gothic tone.
Where There's a Will is also kind of unusual in that the cast of characters are so unusual that they actually come close to overshadowing Wolfe and Archie for a change. This is particularly true of Daisy who comes across as a weird, somewhat damaged, and even slightly cruel figure but who is balanced with a kind of implacable strength which is admirable. At the other end of the spectrum is the other stand-out character -- Sarah, June's daughter. Sarah has a live wire energy mixed with a disregard for conventions and proprieties that makes her pop off the page.
With all of these wild characters Stout picks up the reader and carries them briskly through the story. This is a good thing because if you stop for even a moment to really think about the plot you realize just how silly and convoluted the killer's machinations and reasons are.
If you let yourself be swept away by the characters and Stout's usual breathtaking dialogue, however, you'll find Where There's a Will to be an excellent read that will make the time just fly by.
Favorite Quote of the Book:
Wolfe inquired dryly, "Is your daughter a professional photographer, Mrs. Dunn?"
"No, she's a professional fiend."
Wednesday, November 3, 2010
The Black Coat:... Or Give Me Death trade paperback.
A few words first... Indie and small press publishers are a special breed and in many ways they have it ALL over the "Big Two" of Marvel and DC. With the small press you have more (and even mostly) creator owned projects instead of characters owned by a corporation. Because of that there is more opportunity for stories that actually go somewhere.
In modern comics the "revolving door of death" has become a common joke among fans. It isn't a question anymore of if a character will come back to life but when. Marriages are made and then erased, characters are given kids and then the kids are erased... or rapidly aged to adulthood to "get them out of the way" and so that they don't have that nasty habit of making characters who are supposed to be perpetually 20 or 30 something years old don't end up seeming "aged". Needless to say, in the world of Marvel and DC bad things tend to happen and then two months later no one seems to notice or care.
Not so much with Indie comics. The creators having a relative measure of more control characters who die tend to stay dead, events have long-lasting repercussions, and no one cares if the characters seem to age.
Among the small press publishers out there Ape Entertainment is one of my favorites. These guys are responsible for publishing the delightful Scratch 9, which I reviewed earlier, the 'pulp with a twist' mini-series Femme Noir (seriously, check this one out people, it's AWESOME! One of the stories features a robot gangster. How can you not love that?!), the wild and humorous The Misadventures of Clark and Jefferson (more on that in a later post) and much more.
Back in 2006 Ape Entertainment published the first Black Coat mini-series; subtitled: A Call To Arms. I do have to admit that, in order to fully understand what is happening in ...Or Give Me Death here you pretty much have to read that one first. I will, however, see if I can summarize without giving too much away.
A little information about the series... You've heard of Steampunk, right? If not, go to Wikipedia and look it up. Or Google it. I'm frankly too lazy to try to explain it here; well, The Black Coat series is a little like that, only it's set in the time just prior to the Revolutionary War which is, technically, before steam power so it isn't exactly Steampunk. I don't really know what to call it which is kind of fun because it means that writers Ben Lichius and Adam Cogan are breaking new ground here. Either way, the series is full of anachronistic technology.
So, anyway, in the first series we meet Nathaniel "Nathan" Finch -- New York City businessman, newspaper publisher, and genius inventor. Nathan operates a ring of agents and spies who are helping to feed information to the leaders of the upcoming Revolutionary War (which leads to some cameo appearances of Benjamin Franklin and the like). This ring is known as the Knights of Liberty.
Even more than keeping an eye on the British, Nathan is aware of the fact that there are things out there in the world which people do not believe in. This lack of belief does not make them any less real. Dragons, shape-shifters, magicians, etc. Nathan opposes them all if they pose a threat to the people of the Colonies.
In that vein, some new players arrive in New York in the first series. A mysterious man leading an equally mysterious organization who allies himself with the British and brings agents of magic and monsters to aid the British forces. He also seeks the secret to eternal life which a scientist claims to have created. What the formula produces, however, is something not dead and yet not alive and the side effect is a madness that leads to murder.
In the first series Nathan sets out to stop this undead killer and ruin the plans of the British and their evil allies but in the process Nathan pays a terrible price...
And now, ...Or Give Me Death!
The Plot: Ursula, Nathan's right hand, follows his instructions and gives him what is supposed to be the perfected formula. They are soon informed, however, that it was not perfected after all and Nathan can expect to eventually lose his mind and become a danger to himself and those around him. In the meantime, he discovers that he has become, like his previous enemy, something not dead and yet not fully alive either.
As he struggles to control his condition his friends search for an ultimate cure. And in the midst of all of this the forces of evil continue their plans unabated. Between Nathan's inability to lead and Ursula's preoccupation with his cure they fail to notice there is a traitor in their midst. Can the Knights of Liberty pull it all together? Is Nathan doomed to become the kind of monster he has always fought against? And what are the evil plans afoot and how will they impact the coming war for independence?
My Take: I love the idea behind all of this. Lichius and Cogan dive into a serious genre mash with an almost unparalleled glee. We've got a hero who is very much in the pulp vein complete with mask... although instead of a cape we get an 18th century greatcoat and instead of a cowl we get a tricorn hat, we've got anachronistic technology, we've got alternative history with a sprinkling of real history thrown in for fun and then we've got classic, Gothic monsters. Looking at that list you would think there is no way that would work but Lichius and Cogan pull it off and do so beautifully. Here is definitely something that has never quite been seen before. Here is something new under the sun and it's a great romp.
And it's more than just the plot. The reader quickly gets invested in these characters. We like them, we understand them and we rise and fall with their successes and failures. And, as was mentioned above, because this is a creator owned series, all bets are off. There is not necessarily any character who is "safe". Anyone could die at any time. It gives the series an edge and a real sense of tension to the action.
It must be said that this mini-series had a serious hiatus. Unfortunately in the Indie world that happens. In this case, in between when the series started and when it finished the creators had to get a new artist and made the switch to publishing the series in color as opposed to black and white as they had been doing. The series began with the awesome Francesco Francavilla who has since gone on to doing work for Dynamite Entertainment among others. Francavilla was therefore replaced by Dean Kotz. The good news is that, in the collected trade edition, while the difference between Francavilla and Kotz is noticeable it is not extremely jarring. Kotz's style goes along well with Francavilla's in that both have a style that tends to favor realism rather than being abstract or cartoony. And I've heard artists say that one of the hardest things to draw and get right are horses and if this is true then both Francavilla and Kotz are quite skilled because they do horses well.
If I have one reservation here it is that, during the hiatus, the creators made the decision to switch from black and white to color. In the issue-to-issue format this wasn't as noticeable but in putting the issues together for the collected trade edition the decision was made to not go back and color the black and white issues. I imagine this decision was based on things like time and cost and technical details but it leads to the jarring change that the switch in artist did not produce. You're reading along and suddenly it's like that scene in The Wizard of Oz where everything is in black and white and Dorothy opens the door and steps into a world of color. It just seems.... strange. The good news is that you get over it quickly.
So, if you're looking for some comic books which are outside the mainstream, if you're tired of the same old superhero fare, and if you're looking for something where the creators took the rule book, threw it into the food processor and hit 'puree' then look no further. Pick up the first mini-series first (obviously), then read the second and if you're still looking for more there have been a couple of specials and one-shots produced as well. All are (or should be) available on the Ape Entertainment website.