Saturday, February 26, 2011

Grab Bag Reviews: "The Haunting of Thomas Brewster"

It's my first review of a true Big Finish original audio drama! That's right, no joint effort with the BBC, no flash animation on the computer, just a CD. "The Haunting of Thomas Brewster" was produced in 2008.

As I've mentioned before, Big Finish had and still has the license from the BBC to create Doctor Who audio stories. They began doing so in 1999 with their first story "The Sirens of Time" which featured the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Doctors teaming up for the story. Nothing like starting with a bang with a multi-Doctor story.

This was also something of a way of letting listeners know what they would be doing -- which was mostly past Doctor stories featuring these three. Shortly after "Sirens of Time" Big Finish also added the Eighth Doctor to their roster. While most of their stories have been Fifth, Sixth, Seventh or Eighth Doctor tales the company has expanded and did a range of adventures featuring former companion Sarah Jane Smith (before the BBC ended up doing something similar by spinning off a TV series for the character), a series set on Gallifrey where former companion and Time Lady Romana (actress Lalla Ward) became Time Lord President and former companion Leela (actress Louise Jameson) became Romana's personal bodyguard and the two had to weather Gallifreyan political intrigues, and even a series that featured rotating companions telling stories of unchronicled adventures with the Doctor.

Also, as was mentioned before in my review of "Real Time" the idea behind the audios is that they take place in between the adventures fans saw on TV. In the case of "The Haunting of Thomas Brewster" the Fifth Doctor is traveling only with Nyssa which places this story as taking place somewhere between the TV episodes "Time Flight" (in which the Doctor accidentally left Tegan behind back on Earth) and "The Arc of Infinity" (in which the Doctor picked Tegan back up).

Now then, shall we go a'haunting?

The Plot: In Victorian London Thomas Brewster is orphaned at a young age when his mother commits suicide by jumping off a bridge into the river Thames. Abandoned by relatives Thomas grows up and is caught up in the horrible and broken system for dealing with the poor as well as those who live on the edges of poverty, society and legality. But Thomas is not like countless others -- his life seems to be haunted by a strange, blond haired man, a pretty young woman, and a tall, blue box. Oh, and Thomas is haunted by something else -- the spectral image of his mother begging him to save her. Only Thomas's mother is more than she seems and if Thomas obeys her wishes he may be condemning the entirety of planet Earth to a horrible future.

My Take: There are things that this story does exceedingly well, and there are things that it does not so well.

Obviously, with this being an audio story visuals are not a problem and the writer takes advantage of this by having the villains of this piece be creatures seemingly made of smoke or mist. Also, there is no need to try to find locations or build sets that resemble Victorian London and it's environs -- all of that is left up to our imaginations with just a few lines of dialogue to set the stage for us.

When one does not have visuals, though, the sound effects have to be stronger in order to make up for it... and here is where things sometimes work and sometimes don't. There are things which come through very clearly -- for example, during an attack by the mist creatures church bells sound strangely and ominously. At another point foghorns sound along the Thames as Brewster and his friend try to row to safety -- and we hear the sound of water and oars. Other things, however, such as a scene set in the early Victorian subway system don't ring quite so true. The voices never sound as if they were underground and the sounds of the trains don't seem right either.

I also had a problem with the music here. The composer opted for the most part to try to ape the music of the TV series during Peter Davison's (the Fifth Doctor) time on the series. During this time period the series relied heavily on synthesizer and electronic music -- which just doesn't fit as well with the Victorian setting of this tale. For another thing, the composer relies on just a few musical cues and one gets really, really tired of hearing the same little fiddly tune being repeated again and again.

As for the plot... eh, I had some issues. The writer here did an excellent, really, truly excellent job of capturing Victorian London in all of it's squalor. The slang terms ring true as does the life Brewster leads going from poor house orphanage to "apprentice" to a river scavenger. The Doctor also revels in the science of the time. The characters are also, while drawn with broad strokes, very entertaining and seem fairly true to their time period -- from Brewster himself to his friend Pickens to the river scavenger, to the Doctor's Scottish assistant Robert Mackintosh, which he acquires while being forced to live in Victorian London for a year.

The way the writer plays with time and time travel is also nicely done. We have the Doctor getting stranded in Victorian London for a year and we get multiple trips to the past and present and elements of the Doctor setting up time loops. For example, at one point Brewster and his scavenger cohorts find the TARDIS washed up from the Thames where it has been trapped in the mud for over 30 years. But where is the Doctor and Nyssa? And why is the TARDIS there 30 years ago? Later the Doctor must use this version of the TARDIS when his present version is stolen and then must send this version of the TARDIS back 30 years so it will be where it needs to be when he needs to use it... it's all very twisty and turn-y and time travel-y and if you think about it too much your head will explode and that's always fun in Doctor Who.

There are also lots of little in-jokes -- tips of the hat to both the history of Doctor Who as well as tributes to the works of Charles Dickens. There is also some really nice banter among all the characters and the writer particularly seemed to have a good handle on the Fifth Doctor -- showing him as ever the scientist -- ever fascinated by all things scientific even if they be primitive by his standards. Showing the Doctor's occasional forays into getting off the subject and being distracted and also the Doctor's gentle side -- the part of him that remains haunted by the cruel vagaries of the universe and the propensity of people around him to end up dead.

The biggest problems come with Brewster, the villains, and the ending. Brewster is a very interesting character and he actually narrates most of the story so we become well acquainted with him. And it is a little different twist to get a Doctor Who story from the viewpoint of a more "ordinary" person who has (at least at first) very little contact with the Doctor and his life but the problem is that it goes on a little too much. Brewster starts to slide a little bit towards being a "pet character" or a "Marty Stu" (which is the male variation on a Mary Sue character). Brewster actually kind of overshadows the Doctor and the plot and in the end really doesn't leave the Doctor with much to do at all!

The other issue is with the villains. We never get a real explanation for Brewster's mother -- is she a real figure who puts on an image of Brewster's mother pulled out of Brewster's memories? Or is she wholly nothing more than a psychic projection? And the other antagonists -- the story plays them as beings who *might* take over the Earth in an alternate 2008 and who are trying to manipulate the past to make *sure* that their version of 2008 actually comes to pass. But to do that they have to *know* that they are only a potential future and then they have to have the technology to reach back through time to manipulate things and we're never properly informed how they can do all that. In point of fact, we don't really know who they are or where they come from other than an alternate 2008. Are they alien beings which conquered the Earth in this potential reality? What are their aims? Their goals? Why Earth? We never get any of this information -- the group never has a leader and they never even speak. We know nothing about them other than... they're made out of mist, they suffocate people, and they're scary 'boogy-boogy-boogy!' It's seriously hard to give a care or even be that scared by monsters that you know nothing about. Although, I will give props to the writer for integrating the monsters into the setting -- London pollution in the Victorian era was horrible and fog often combined with smog to create a noxious pea soup that actually killed the elderly and those with respiratory problems. So having alien creatures which are, in effect, a killer London fog is actually pretty darn clever.

Finally, there is the ending. I try, even though I say my reviews are spoilery, not to give away too much about the ending most of the time but this time I'm afraid I do have to give away a bit because the ending is incomprehensible. Above I mentioned a stable time loop -- the Doctor losing one version of his TARDIS and going and getting another version seemingly left behind at an earlier era and then arranging for his current version to be send back in time so it will be there when he needs it. The show has done similar things more recently. There was the mini episode "Time Crash" in which the Tenth Doctor accidentally met his Fifth incarnation and it caused a space-time crisis which the Tenth Doctor fixed then announced that he knew how to fix it because he remembered being his fifth self and seeing his tenth self fix the problem. The loop has no opening but it is closed and it actually works -- a self-perpetuating time loop. The problem with the ending of "The Haunting of Thomas Brewster" is that Brewster seemingly *changes* his past. Nyssa and the Doctor tell him that everything which happened to him still happened -- it was part of his past -- but now the aliens would never conquer Earth -- at any time. But that makes no sense! If he made it so the aliens didn't contact him and feed him information then events *couldn't* play out the way they originally had and all the people who died wouldn't have died and.... AAARRRRGGGHHHH!!!! Makes. No. Sense! A stable time loop only works if you're not actually altering history! This. Alters. History!

Okay. That's over. Looking at the performances, there is no getting around the fact that Peter Davison's voice has aged. The 30-some-odd years that have passed since he first played the Doctor have left changes -- his voice is a little deeper and a little rougher and it is disconcerting at first for a fan who has the memory of the sound of the Fifth Doctor's voice frozen in amber at that time period in the 1980's. After a little bit, though, you get used to the difference and you realize that Peter Davison is still able to *play* the Doctor as he was then -- capturing the nuances of the characterization if anything actually better than ever. Sarah Sutton as Nyssa has suffered less the changes of time on her voice. As such it is very easy to accept her portrayal of the character. Although it is a shame that Sutton's Nyssa isn't really given a terrible lot to actually do in this story. The voice actors for Brewster and Mackintosh also do a tremendous job -- really getting the accents for the time periods just right without overplaying them into stereotype.

Taken on the whole, "The Haunting of Thomas Brewster" is a great story from a Victoriana standing. It captures the spirit and flavor of it's time period and provides a fun little twist on a ghost story theme, playing with various Gothic elements and marrying them (sometimes awkwardly) to a Sci-Fi sidecar. There are, however, gaping holes in the plot, things which don't make sense, not enough for the Doctor and Nyssa to actually do in the story, and the villains just don't get enough time in the story. If one wants to get a flavor of what a Big Finish audio is like you can do a heck of a lot better than this one. If you're into Victoriana though then "The Haunting of Thomas Brewster" is maybe worth at least one listen through but certainly not worth a repeat.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Why Would You Knit That?!... AGAIN!

I've got some reviews waiting in the wings which I'm working on. In the meantime feast your eyes on the glory of this sweater....

I know it can't top the "Footsie" of my last crazy knitting post but, you have to admit, this is pretty bad.

For one thing, it looks like someone got sick on rainbow sherbet (not that I don't love me some rainbow sherbet but that doesn't mean I want to *wear* it). Second, this is called (and I kid you not) the "Mix It Up Sweater". That's the title of the pattern. Yeah. There's a difference between "mixing" something and putting it in a blender and hitting "liquefy"... and not in a good way. We've got stripes running different ways (never a good idea unless you're a modernist painter), we have random tassels and bobbles that look like someone stuck lint balls from about half a dozen different sweaters of different colors on this and, as the crowing achievement, we have a pocket/pouch that is not centered and looks like someone took a knitted purse and sewed it to the front of the sweater.

WHY? Why would anyone make this monstrosity? Like Frankenstein's monster it looks like it was pieced together of different parts... possibly made of liquefied My Little Ponies based on the colors.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Requiescat in Pace

Two good people from the world of geek culture passed away yesterday.

One was Dwayne McDuffie -- who was one of the creative minds behind the independent comic book company Milestone and was the creator of the character Static for that company. Static would later be picked up by the WB and turned into the animated series Static Shock. McDuffie also wrote many comics for both Marvel and DC and he was a writer for DC's animation department -- contributing many scripts for the Justice League Unlimited series and, most recently, had written the script for the All Star Superman direct-to-DVD animated movie that was just released this week. Condolences to his family, friends and fans. He will be missed on many levels by many people.

The other was actor Nicholas Courtney who is best known for playing the character of Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart on Doctor Who. Courtney acted in both theatre and television and, in fact, was still active up to his passing. Two years ago he reprised his role as the Brigadier for an episode of the Doctor Who spin off series The Sarah Jane Adventures. He also did voice work for various audio dramas in Great Britain -- including voicing the Brigadier in a number of Doctor Who audios created by the company Big Finish. Condolences to his family, friends and fans as well. "Wonderful chap... all of him."

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Flash Reviews: "Be My Baby"

Remember how I said I was going to finish reviewing the box set? Well after this one I don't want to anymore. Seriously, the stupidity hurts. It actually physically hurts! I don't even think watching this one after two glasses on wine could make it any better!

*Sigh* Let's start shredding this with razor sharp kitten claws shall we?

The Plot: Barry (as the Flash) saves a young woman on the streets from an attacker. He soon finds out she has nowhere to stay and is also caring for her baby girl. He takes her in and the next day finds her a place at a shelter for mothers and infants. He is, however, suspicious that there is more to this than meets the eye. Sure enough, baby Lily's father shows up and Philip Moses proves to be a crime boss who wants his daughter back at any price... Any. Price. The only way Lily and her mother can be free is to get Moses behind bars but to do that risks Lily's being taken by her father... forever.

My Take: There's so much wrong here I'm not even sure I know where to start.

First and probably most maddening is the fact that the series fails yet again to give viewers an actual supervillain. It's really bizarre the way the show is willing to put the Flash in a costume but is so afraid of putting any villains in costumes. Not only is our creep du jour here not a supervillain, he's not even in the Flash's weight class! Because of this the writer seems to bend over backwards to pad out the story to make sure that the villain and the Flash pretty much never meet up. Throughout the episode the special speed effects are used mostly for entertaining kids... no, I'm not talking about the audience, I'm talking about literally, in the story. What a wast of the FX budget!

Which brings us to the padding. Early on in the episode it is established that Barry has some experience taking care of babies as he used to babysit his nephew when the boy was a toddler. Despite this, once Barry is left alone with baby Lily the whole thing turns into a rip-off of Three Men and a Baby. And it's so dumb it's painful.

Then there is the villain. Better get comfortable, we're going to be here a while.

First, there are indications Moses is a germaphobe yet this is not handled consistently throughout the story.

Second, Moses's motivations are really not clear. Why does he want Lily so badly? It's obvious that he's not father material. He mentions, just in passing, that he chose Lily's mother to give birth to his child because her mother was an Olympic athlete and her father was a Nobel Prize winner. Well.... so what? That's no guarantee that Lily will be either of those things and anyone with half a brain and a basic college level biology class would know that. Plus, why does he want this supposed "super child"? He doesn't seem the type to be looking to groom his successor to his vast, criminal empire and he doesn't seem in the market for a "trophy child" and if he's a germaphobe why would he want to be around a child because, let's face it people, kids are nasty. You turn around and they're eating something (God knows what) they found under the sofa, they seem to strive to get as dirty as possible, they're nearly always somehow sticky despite your best efforts, and they'll play with stuff you don't even want to think about. Shall I tell you the story I got from one of my friends about turning her back for one minute while outside and then finding the toddler she was babysitting eating garden slugs? Yeah. So why on Earth is this man so fixated on this baby?! We're never given a good reason.

Thirdly, he's an idiot. No, actually, being an idiot is too kind. This villain is dumb as a box of rocks. You see, when he *does* finally have to face the Flash he's "prepared" and produces a sonic weapon. Well, okay, that works. It isn't supervillain level but bless him at least he made a little showing... and then it all goes downhill. Why? Because said villain has the Flash down and does he shoot him or something? No. He *kicks* him. And you know the old saying about never kicking a man when he's down... he might get up. The villain and his thug have the Flash down for the count and they do nothing. Nooootttthhhhhiiiinnnngggg to make sure he stays down. They don't disable him, they don't try to make him even the least little bit dead, oh no, they kick the guy and leave. And then, as if that were not bad enough, said villain doesn't even have the forethought to keep the sonic weapon handy and consider the possibility that the man who can run faster than the speed of sound might recover and catch up to him! Aaaaarrrrgggghhhh!

Fourthly, as a villain, Philip Moses isn't scary. We're told he's a crime boss but we don't actually see him doing much crime -- at least not until the end and by then it's far too late to try to convince the audience to respect this guy. No, we're told he's bad news but, aside from him being a slimy creep, we don't get to see any of it. Here's a newsflash writers: SHOW don't TELL! Geeze.

So of course, with a villain as incompetent as this it's pretty much a foregone conclusion that once the Flash sets off the whole thing will be wrapped up quickly. And it is. With pretty much not a lick of tension. Booooorrrrriiiiinnnngggg.

The capper on this turkey of the story, though, is reserved for the end. Lily and her mother are safe and happy now and Lily is preparing to say her first word. And can you guess what it is? That's right... "Flash". And she says it while looking directly at Barry. And she even says it two more times. *Facepalm* First off, this is a really, really bad bit of overdubbing as it is very clear that the little actress playing baby Lily is not saying the word. Second, the voice they use to say "Flash" doesn't even sound like a real kid! It sounds like what it probably was -- an adult trying to sound like a baby. It doesn't work. Third, we're expected to buy that a toddler has figured out Barry is the Flash. Because, you know, toddlers are renowned for their cognitive thinking. I mean, the name "Flash" is rarely ever spoken around Lily and I don't think it's spoken around her in connection with the Flash at all, let alone spoken around Barry. And yet the writer wants us to believe that somehow Lily managed to pick up on the idea that Barry is the Flash with little to know association of that word with an idea let alone a person. This is just insulting.

Even composer Shirley Walker must have been insulted by the stupidity levels here because for once her score is uninspired. It seriously sounds like she just phoned this thing in and, as an Emmy Winning composer and knowing her tremendous body of work with the various DC Comics' animated series from Batman: the Animated Series to Superman to Batman Beyond she can and usually does do better.

"Be My Baby"? No, this story is more like a dirty diaper.

Monday, February 21, 2011

"Web of Fear" Useless Trivia

So yeah, stuff you probably don't care about but I think it's fun....

1) "The Web of Fear" is pretty much the start of the so-called U.N.I.T. Dating Controversy in Doctor Who. And no, it doesn't have anything to do with the Doctor finding someone to go out with on the weekends. The U.N.I.T. Dating Controversy a debate among fans who like to try to peg down when certain Earth-set stories are happening. Originally, the production team intended for the Third Doctor's era to be occurring in the "near future" -- then about the late 1970's to early 1980's since the show was actually airing in the early to mid-1970's. The problem is that prop designers and costumers kept using items which were clearly current and not even slightly fashion forward. The writers also kept messing things up and forgetting that the stories weren't set in current time. This led to a bit of confusion but it all starts with "The Web of Fear" because all future stories date from this one. In the later story "The Invasion" Lethbridge-Stewart shows up again and tells the Doctor that the events in "The Web of Fear" were four years earlier. Following this "Spearhead from Space" -- the story that began the Third Doctor's era -- indicates that not that much time has passed since "The Invasion" -- not more than 12 months or so.

The "Web of Fear" aired in 1968 but there are some slight indications that he writers intended for it to be taking place in the "near future" of about 1974. Again, the problem is that the costumes and technology are very 1968. The mentions here are so slight that most people automatically think the story is taking place in 1968. There are, however, indications that "The Invasion" was supposed to be taking place in 1978 but, again, clothing and technology are clearly compliant with 1960's and not the late 70's. Those 1978 indications, however, are also so slight they can be easily ignored.

So the point of all of this, if there is one, is that all the problems with figuring out when the UNIT based stories were occuring can be traced back to this particular story. It's also something that still gets touched on in the modern series. As a tribute to the confusion in the Season Four story "The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky" the Tenth Doctor comments that UNIT has come a long way since he worked with them "In the 70's.... or was it the 80's? I can never remember."

2) The Yeti/the Great Intelligence were slated to return for one, final story in Patrick Troughton's final season. Fraser Hines had been heavily urged by his agent to break away from Doctor Who after three years to do other things. As he was having great fun working on the show, however, and enjoyed his co-workers in Troughton and Wendy Padbury (who played Victoria's replacement, Zoe) he was reluctant to do so. Finally, he agreed and told the production team he would be leaving the show but he dragged his feet on deciding when to leave. At one point it looked as though he would leave near the end of the 1968-1969 season and a story outline was created for an episode to give his character of Jamie a send-off. In the proposed story the TARDIS would finally land in Scotland not long after Jamie first left (totally ignoring the fact that the Scots were pretty brutally supressed by the English for several years after the Battle of Culloden, which is when Jamie was picked up). Jamie would meet a bonnie lass and the Doctor would discover that the Great Intelligence and it's Yeti robots were active in the area trying to gain power. Jamie would get mind controlled by the Great Intelligence for a while but eventually the Doctor would free him, destroying the Great Intelligence once and for all in the process. The dying Laird of Jamie's clan would then ask him to become Laird and Jamie would feel his duty was to his clan and would decide to stay, marry the young woman he had fallen in love with, and take up the duties of leader of his clan.

The story would be scrapped when Hines discovered that Troughton was leaving at the end of the season and so decide to stay on until the end and leave at the same time Troughton did.

3) After redesigning the Yeti to be more fierce and fearsome the production team felt it would be a good idea to kind of publicize this fact. Therefore, at the end of the preceding story, "The Enemy of the World", they showed a little blurb that was specially filmed with Patrick Troughton. The scene was actually shot on the Underground sets used for "The Web of Fear". Sadly, that footage, along with most of "The Enemy of the World" and "The Web of Fear" is missing. An enterprising computer animator on YouTube who goes by the handle tardistimegirl, however, has created a reconstruction. And it is awesome. Check it out...

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Sunday, February 20, 2011

Grab Bag Reviews: "The Web of Fear"

Patrick Troughton's era on Doctor Who introduced a number of new monsters and alien being but only a few ever really caught on well with fans. One of those were, surprisingly, the Yeti... or more precisely the Great Intelligence.

Writers Mervyn Haysman and Henry Lincoln penned the first story featuring the Yeti in 1967's "The Abominable Snowmen". The story pulled heavily from real figures in Tibetan Buddhism and for it's villain featured the formless being known as the Great Intelligence which in turn controlled the minds of certain humans in order to build his robotic Yeti servants.

The story proved popular enough that Haysman and Lincoln were asked to write a sequel -- 1968's "The Web of Fear". For this story the original Yeti costumes would be redesigned to look more fierce and the sound effect of a roar was added as well since one of the complaints about the Yeti were that they were too cuddly looking to be truly scary.

This story would also mark the introduction of a new character -- British Army Colonel Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, played by Nicolas Courtney. Courtney had previously appeared on the show in the First Doctor story "The Daleks Master Plan" where he portrayed the ill-fated Brett Vyon. The Lethbridge-Stewart character would eventually prove quite popular and would become a regular supporting cast member during the Third Doctor era.

Reprising a role here was Jack Watling -- actress Deborah Watling's father. Jack Watling had played a reporter named Travers in "The Abominable Snowmen" but here he returns as "Professor" Travers -- a scientist. I guess somewhere in the intervening years he went back to college and got a scientific degree?

What the story is perhaps most memorable for, however, is the fact that director Douglas Camfield wanted to film part of the story in the real London subway system (known as the Underground for those not up on their British terminology). The office in charge of the Underground system wanted too much money though so in retaliation the set designers took pictures and then worked off the pictures to create near-perfect replicas on the studio soundstage. In fact, the replication was so close that the Underground system accused Camfield of sneaking down and actually filming there on the sly without permission!

Like many of the stories from Patrick Troughton's era, "The Web of Fear" is almost entirely lost. Only one episode, the first one, still exists out of the six parts. The entire audio track was preserved by some fans though and was released as an audio drama with descriptive narration provided by Fraser Hines.

And now it's time to get tangled in a web of fear....

The Plot: Something actually stops the TARDIS in space -- a strange, cocooning web. When the web finally lets go the TARDIS lands in (though) roughly contemporary London in the Underground system. The system is strangely deserted though -- no passengers waiting at the station, no trains running, and all the power switched off.

Finding soldiers in the tunnels the time traveling bunch lean the terrifying secret -- the Yeti are back! And this time they are loose in the Underground and have terrifying new weapons -- like a strange fog which, once people enter, they never come out, and gun which fire a web-like substance, and a strange, massive fungus that is growing and sealing off the Underground station by station.

One group of soldiers in a field base have been tasked with stopping the menace but they are slowly being cut off, their position overrun and their men cut down. The Great Intelligence has set a trap like a spider with a web and the Doctor, his companions and allies have stumbled into it. Now the Doctor must match wits with the Great Intelligence and this time if he fails the cost to himself and the Earth may be incalculable.

My Take: Yes, this is yet another "base-under-siege" story but it is a quintessential 'base-under-siege' story and also a literal one since this time there is a base... and it is under siege. Mervyn Haysman and Henry Lincoln really did a cracking job with this story -- getting at what makes a base-under-siege story really click -- the slow, strangling tension as the characters are cut off from help step-by-step. Added to this is the fact that each one of their plans for victory or escape are cruelly crushed. In point of fact, it is telling that the military personnel go from formulating plans to try to defeat the Yeti and the Great Intelligence to merely trying to survive. The audience are dragged along with them and feels the danger mount as the situation grows more and more dire.

There are also elements of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None as it is revealed there is a traitor in their midst. As characters are killed off one-by-one the pool of potential traitors shrinks and the tension grows as those who survive increasingly eye one another with suspicion. For once the story does a truly excellent job at maintaining the mystery. There are multiple red herrings dragged across the trail but we do not know the truth until the end -- one one obvious ever stands out. Of course one of the costs of this is a pretty high body count all things considered.

The sound design for this story should definitely be mentioned. The sound engineers did a tremendous job in making sure that the actors' voices took on an echo-y quality for the scenes taking place in the train tunnels. Even without the visuals to reinforce it, it is easy to believe that the actors really were wandering around in a bunch of cold, tile tunnels.

Also of interest are the changes to the Great Intelligence here. In the first appearance the villain wants to inhabit the Earth -- to take on a corporeal form which, in turn, will eventually leave the human inhabitants with nowhere to go. This time around he has changed his target somewhat and now wants the knowledge in the Doctor's brain. It is really one of the few times that a villain deliberately targets the Doctor for.... um... villainy rather than wanting power, or control, or to kill an enemy.

The acting across the board should also be praised. Tina Packer as scientist Ann Travers displays an independence and sharp mind which would be lacking in many female characters for some years. She also has a wicked line in sarcasm when called on and the scenes of her working with the Doctor are well done as it comes across as two scientific colleagues working together rather than a scientist and a female assistant. Jack Watling is a delight playing the older, cantankerous Professor Travers. He may not actively be given much to do aside from be crotchety but he does do the crotchety extremely well. Even the character of Evans manages to invoke various emotions. On the one hand, it is easy to dislike him for his craven and cowardly nature. On the other hand, at times his craven and cowardly nature is a source of genuine amusement. And Nicholas Courtney... well, his Lethbridge-Stewart is, like Athena, sprung fourth fully formed. The character is locked in place from the moment we meet him and he will not alter drastically over the next several decades. But this is actually a good thing because it's easy to like the military minded Lethbridge-Stewart -- who also can display a nice talent for snark when needed.

The main cast is also firing on all cylinders... or at least as much as the script allows them too. Patrick Troughton is clearly having a ball as the Doctor as he plays the character like a genius child -- incomprehensibly intelligent but easily amused and easily distracted by the things that catch his interest -- often forgetting the danger and threats that surround him. Fraser Hines as Jamie shows himself to be, as always, the Doctor's stalwart companion... as well as being a fighter. Here Jamie is willing to run risks in the hopes of at least being able to accomplish something to keep his friends safe. It is Deborah Watling's Victoria who suffers the much in this script. She does stupid things, she screams a lot, and worst of all, she becomes 'girl hostage'.

And this brings up the areas where the script falls down on the job. For one thing, it goes on far too long -- it could have and should have been cut down to at least four episodes and possibly less. There is at least one entire episode and parts of others which are nothing but characters wandering around in the tunnels. And I do mean *nothing* but wandering around in tunnels. The plot isn't advanced, we don't learn anything new and nothing really happens. It's all rather boring.

The other area where the script falls down is with some of the characters. As I mentioned, Victoria is basically useless... unless you count getting in trouble, getting captured and having to be rescued as useful. In which case you have a warped idea of being useful. Well, I supposed that's useful in a way as a plot contrivance generator but, really, it's just lazy writing. The reporter, Chorley, is also a very poorly drawn character. He starts flipping out at the least provocation and is reduced to 'annoying, bloody idiot' by episode two. Seriously, episode *two* with another four to go.

Aside from that, though, there is little to complain about here. There really isn't a moral message -- neither an obvious one nor a hidden one -- and this isn't one of those stories where the show was trying to reach for some loftier ideas or philosophical discussions. What it is, however, is a great, nail-biting story that will have you on the edge of your seat with tension to spare, stakes as high as they come, and a great, claustrophobic location. Come into my parlor said the spider to the fly....

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Getting Serious For a Minute

Okay, I'm going to get political.... again.

I tend liberal.

I may start tossing around some swear words here.

You have been warned.

You still have time to avert your eyes and come back when I'm happily discussing knitted crap, Doctor Who, comic books and comic book related subjects.

Are you still here?

Okay then.....

Democratic State Lawmakers in Wisconsin not only staged a walkout they actually fled the state so that they could not be forced to vote on a State Bill which would, among other things, remove collective bargaining rights for state employees.

Story on NPR

Here's what I don't understand... I really don't...

There are so many people out there who blame the UNIONS for businesses leaving the U.S. and heading to other countries. They claim that the Unions demand too much of businesses -- too much in pensions, too much in health care, too much in wages and that's why businesses go to China.

And they say this implying that the solution is to be more like China!

Dear Those People, do you know WHY businesses go to China? Because they don't have to pay their workers a living wage. If the people die on the streets because they can't make enough money to live they don't give a damn they'll just find someone to replace them. In China there is Socialized medicine -- so the companies don't have to pay health care costs. And you know, YOU are the same people who kick and scream against Socialized medicine here in this country. And again, in China, if a worker is injured on the job or gets too sick to work... kick them out the door and don't care what happens to them because there's always someone else to fill the job. Also, in China there is no one looking out for worker safety. So if the factory conditions are deplorable, if people are exposed to chemical agents which can make them sick, if there are conditions which are likely to lead to them getting maimed or killed... again, who gives a damn -- there's always another worker waiting in the wings.

And you want to know something? The United States used to be the same way. Go look up the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. I'll wait while you Google it. Are you back yet? So... yeah. That happened. And other stuff happened too. Children used to be able to work instead of going to school so they could better themselves. We used to have a six day work week with only Sunday off as the "Sabbath". There was no payment for overtime. There really was no such thing as "overtime" as you worked for as long as your boss told you to work. And you were paid less than a living wage unless you were lucky enough to be a white collar worker. And there was little to no chance for upward mobility -- if you were a blue collar worker your children would be blue collar workers because likely they left school early so they could help earn money so your family could survive. There was virtually no chance you could afford to send your kids to higher education so they could become a white collar professional. And if you got sick and couldn't afford a doctor?.... You either got better on your own or you died. And if you were injured at work? You didn't get work men's compensation. You lost your job and your family eked out a meagre living... or you all ended up homeless on the streets... or maybe you just died.

And ALL of the changes to these things. ALL of them didn't come from gracious corporations suddenly seeing the light. Oh HELL NO. All of these changes came from Unions fighting for them.

And yet YOU people. All of you who seem to want to blame the Unions for all of this would seemingly happily return us to those days. Because THAT is, essentially, what you are saying. Do you honestly think corporations give a DAMN about their workers? They don't. That's WHY they go to China. And if all the unions were gone tomorrow how long do you think it would take before the corporations started eating away at these protections? And if they couldn't eat away at the protections they would STILL go to China because, in the end, a worker is something to be used up and thrown away like a dirty dishcloth and in China they don't have to give a damn.

And that's my rant.

Incomprehensible Knitting

Okay, I wasn't going to do this again so soon but I think I stumbled across the ruler of 'WTH... why would you knit that?!' items.

All other incomprehensible knitted items bow before this one because it is utterly, mind-blowingly crazy.

Behold! I give you.............

The "Footsie"

No, I'm not kidding, that's actually the name of this item. And there is a pattern on how to make it.

Now don't get me wrong. I understand the desire to prop one's feet up on a nice pillow... particularly while seated on a comfy chair, wrapped up in a good book. Also, as someone who is easily chilled I understand wanting one's feet to be warm. But attempting to combine the two with one item?

Urm..... no. Just..... no.

I mean, look at that! It's a safety hazard!! Someone knocks at your door or the phone rings and you're likely to break your neck trying to get your feet out of this thing in time to get to the door or the phone. And God forbid it be an actual emergency... like something being on fire. I can just see someone trying to 'hop' to the rescue because they can't get their feet out of their pillow in time.

And if that bit of stupidly was not enough there's more! Because think about this -- why would you go through the trouble and expense of knitting this when you could buy a cheap throw pillow at K-Mart for a couple of bucks and knit yourself a nice, soft pair of warm slipper socks (or buy them if you don't feel like knitting anything) which would essentially do the same thing but at a fraction of the cost and a fraction of the time and trouble.

To add insult to injury? Again, the yarn recommended to make this monstrosity is... alpaca wool. SERIOUSLY?! The creator not only expected someone to want to MAKE this and to want to USE it, but also to be willing to spend a metric crap ton of money on the yarn to do it.

There are things in this life which are wrong... THIS is pretty much all of them.

Belated Anniversary!

Yesterday was the first anniversary of the Compound Geekery blog! One year ago I decided to open this place as a dumping ground....uh... I mean repository... yeah, that's it... for my odd and geek-based interests. Looking back on my early posts I have come to realize a couple of things....

That I really didn't know what I was doing (still don't, I'm just getting better at faking it... I think).

And that I never finished reviewing all the episodes of the old Flash TV series.

Honestly, The Flash flashed by me for a number of reasons -- my limited free time being taken up by classes I was taking then, being distracted by a new season of Doctor Who (it ROCKED!), and... well... I'll be honest... a lot of the episodes haven't aged well and I was bored to tears watching them.

Anyway, in honor of the anniversary I'm going to take another crack at The Flash and try to finish out the series. I'm not going to do one a day though -- I think that's part of the reason I got burned out before. Instead I'll leave it open and watch an episode and do a review when I feel like it. I will try to do at least one a month, though, and maybe more if the spirit moves me.

In the meantime, here's to another year of fun and geeky stuff!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Why Would You Knit That?!?!

A few years back I stumbled across the (now sadly defunct) blogspot You Knit What?? (warning for those who click on the link and peruse the blogspot -- the original creators were quite funny but also occasionally profane) which was a source of immense hilarity to me -- even though at the time I didn't knit and knew very little about knitting.

The point of You Knit What?? was to poke fun at ugly knitting patterns.

And indeed, the patterns they featured on the website were usually mind-bogglingly bad on a fashion level alone.

Now, however, that I have started to become a knitter myself I understand the hours of work and the expense of some of the yarns involved and I have to ask myself.... Why would you knit THAT?!

So, in tribute to the ladies of You Knit What?? I will occasionally feature an image of an item which is actually knittable. In other words, these are things for which there are patterns available (okay, usually FREE patterns but still...) and someone out there created the pattern and thought that human beings would actually want to MAKE this item either for themselves or as a gift for someone else.

Our first entry is.....

This is described as a "shrug". What is actually is, however, is more like "Two big sleeves held together with a tie". And the pattern looks like an afghan my parents had in the 1970's. Not only is this rather useless, rather pointless, and all around rather unattractive the yarn the makers recommend using to make this glorious creation is alpaca wool yarn. Do you have any idea how expensive alpaca wool yarn is? Trust me it's pricey for the nice, 100% stuff. So, yeah, you would be spending quite a bit of money all to create.... this.

And, by the way, what the heck is up with the model?! Is she auditioning for an old fashioned melodrama? "I can't pay the rent", "You must pay the rent!" "I can't pay the rent".... etc.

the Death in Comics Rant Posts....

Are taking a little break.

Mostly because I got a little hot under the collar elsewhere and needed to cool off and look at this more objectively in order to post.

Also, because I have taken up knitting as a new hobby. Which leads to my next post.....

Friday, February 11, 2011

Death in Comics, pt. 2: Shock to the System

Now we're going to dig in a little bit and look at one of the first ways death has increasingly been used in comic book stories....

Shock Value.

The shock value death is one designed to startle the audience out of their complacency. It is meant to make the audience feel fear (usually for the hero(es) ) or anger (usually at the villains) or sadness (usually at a tragic turn).

As with all things, a shock value death isn't a bad thing when it's done right. Countless action-adventure and horror movies have used the sudden death of a character to startle the audience. You're sitting there, you think you know where the story is going next, you're actually quite comfortable with the story then...... BAM! Death. Cue more drama or action, or characters running around like chickens with their heads cut off.

There are a few things, though, to using the shock death...

For one thing, it does have to be a surprise -- you can't telegraph this one. Action hero sidekicks and red shirted crewmen from the original Star Trek series are really not likely candidates for a shock death. These types of characters might as well have targets painted on their chests. It isn't a matter of *if* they will die it's a matter of *when* they will die. If you want to go with a true shock death you have to go with a character or a situation where death is not expected. For example, in original Star Trek if you had one of the red mini-dress chicks beam down and get killed that would be a shocking death because, by and large (not entirely, mind you) women in Trek were fairly off-limits when it came to death... unless they were actually the villains. But I digress. The point is that there used to be certain rules and certain characters were kind of "off limits" for death... the girlfriend of the hero, kids, cute family pets... those sorts of characters.

Over time, though, because those characters were "off limits" they eventually began being targeted for shock death because the audience was used to them surviving. The problem with that is that, eventually, readers and audiences caught on to that scheme as well to the point where now no one really goes in thinking anyone is truly "off limits".

The other way of providing a death with shock value is not with the character but rather with the timing. There are certain situations and certain points in any story where the audience really isn't expecting a death. Picture a scene in a restaurant. It is expensive, romantic; there are candles on the tables, and seated at a table for two is a young couple. They are earnestly discussing their relationship. The music on the soundtrack swells to a romantic crescendo... and suddenly the man has a seizure and keels over dead. Shocking because it's unexpected and it comes at a point where everything is telling you this is a romantic moment. You are in an emotional mode to be receptive to that romantic moment. The last thing you are expecting is sudden death. Or, another example -- a character seemingly takes a sniper's bullet. OMG she's been shot! But she stands up and opens her jacket to reveal she was wearing a bulletproof vest. She's fine! You breath a sigh of relief.... suddenly a sniper's bullet strikes her head -- she's dead. You were not ready for this moment. The rules of writing state that you have rising action followed by falling action. You just passed a rising action moment and you know it so you are ready for the falling action and, indeed, the scene seems to go into that mode when.... sudden death!

Now, as I said, these tools of the trade are just that -- they're tools, neither good nor bad. Shock value deaths can provide a lot to a story. They can push a plot along, they can make sure the audience is fully invested in the story, they can invoke an emotion in the audience that the creator wants to invoke. But they also have to be used cautiously.

The audience, you see, are not idiots. We're savvy. We're onto the ways and means writers of various stripes use to jerk our emotional chains. And if a writer is going to use a shock death they have to invest in it. It has to truly come out of the blue, or it has to involve a character the audience wouldn't ever, ever *ever* expect to be killed.

And here's where far too many comic book writers have gone wrong with using the shock death. Too many of them think that just killing a hero at all is enough to be shocking. Well, years ago it probably would have. However, nowadays there are probably more dead superheroes than there are currently living ones. It isn't a big thing to kill a hero anymore but too many writers think that this is all they have to do. The result of this is that the audience isn't shocked and more to the point they think less of the writer for trying to use a cheap and easy shock value death.

The other thing about comic book shock value deaths is that the writers aren't really willing to lay anything on the line. As I said before, it isn't shocking to kill off a red shirt in Star Trek and likewise it isn't shocking to kill off a hero who has been on a shelf somewhere for ten years. For a shock death to be really effective in many ways the audience has to be invested in the character who dies. You can't introduce a character on page one of a comic, kill them off on page ten and expect the audience to be shocked. Most comic book readers know anymore that if a writer brings in a character that no one has seen or heard from in five years or more then very likely they will be cannon fodder before the end of the story arc -- sometimes before the end of the issue. Not. A. Shock.

And here's the thing. Failed shock value deaths are bad. They're really bad. Because if the audience isn't made to feel the emotion the writer wanted them to feel then the writer has failed and more to the point the *reader* knows exactly what the writer was trying to do and that he or she failed at it. It also means that the death is worthless. And that is also something that is increasingly ticking off comic book fans. A failed shock value death cheapens death, usually then seems unnecessary, and adds to the growing cynicism over death in comics. It's "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" in a way -- if the writer doesn't get an emotional response he/she keep trying and trying and trying but it will become harder and harder and harder to get the response he/she wants and in the meantime people stop caring about the deaths at all because they have become increasingly useless and meaningless.

Shock value death do still have their place in comics and they always will. When done right it can make you gasp out loud and wait with baited breath to see what happens next. But when done too often and done poorly it simply makes it harder to enjoy it when it's done right.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Death in Comics

Okay, this is an editorial. I'm not claiming that my views are the correct ones or the only ones or even necessarily the best ones; all I'm saying is: This is how I feel...

Comic books have been "not kids' stuff" for a very long time now. If you think that they are something for kids I can show you panels in regular comics (as in not graphic novels and not "Mature Readers" comics) where characters get their heads smashed in, where a character is raped off-panel, where a character is seen shooting up heroin, etc. And really, even back in the day when they were considered a child's reading material people might be surprised at the level of violence. I know of several comics in which rival gangsters filled a room with lead courtesy of Thompson Sub-Machine guns. Granted, there is no blood but there is a visible hail of bullets and the people in the room are shown falling backwards in death -- usually with cries of "Oh!" or "Urk!" on their lips. No, what most people think of as comics come from the goofy, neutered, 1950's.

But all that is aside. My point is that death has long been a part of comic books. Bad guys killed people, bad guys in turn often died through their own greed or Machiavellian machinations. Sometimes they were killed by the good guys but usually in a "fair fight" shoot-out. In short -- characters died.

But somewhere along the line there was a subtle shift to death in comic books. Long-term supporting characters died and left an impact on both readers and the characters in the comic books. Batman's faithful butler Alfred was killed in 1964 while heroically saving Batman from a falling rock (just.... go with it. He later got better and I believe the whole sequence has now been erased from continuity). Nearly a decade later comic fandom would be shocked by the death of Gwen Stacy, Peter Parker's girlfriend in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man. In point of fact, this one, pivotal death is considered as the end of the Silver Age of comics. Gwen had been a supporting character and Peter's "true love" for a number of years before being tossed off a bridge by villain the Green Goblin after the Goblin discovered Spider-Man's true identity of Peter Parker.

There would be other deaths... many other deaths. "Event" comic mini-series such as Crisis on Infinite Earths would be known for their body counts. There, not only were heroes killed but entire worlds were wiped out of existence. And it set a standard that no event comic was complete without a significant body count.

All of these things were meant to show the audience that the stakes in the game were high. Characters could die. Important characters could die. Even favorite characters could die. Just like in the real world bad things could happen to good people and actions could have consequences.

But this had an unfortunate side-effect -- many comic book deaths became about someone else rather than being about the character. Many characters died not because of things which they did but rather who they were. The stories of their deaths were not really about them but rather about another character -- usually the hero but sometimes the villain.

This has become more prominent in recent years -- death for shock effect, death to try to boost sales, and death as a cheap, writing shortcut. And I, for one, am sick of it.

Part of the problem comes from the issue of the person who is being killed is not the focus of the story. For a time this was particularly noticed among female characters leading to (then) comic book columnist and commentator Gail Simone (now bestselling comic book writer) to pen an essay which became a website -- Women in Refrigerators. The name came from a now infamous sequence in the title Green Lantern in which the titular hero comes home only to find out one of his enemies has killed his girlfriend Alex and stuffed her in the refrigerator.

Most people get the focus wrong and they think the outrage is that any character has been killed. Or else they think that the argument is that female characters should be untouchable and nothing bad should ever happen to them because they're women. But that's missing the point entirely. The point is that a character has been killed or depowered or raped or tortured or something else entirely to shore up another character.

In the case of Alex above there, she wasn't killed because she was a superhero. The person who killed her wasn't her enemy. Nope, she was killed off only to deliver angst to the titular hero and send him off on a revenge spree. In short, she became a plot device, not a character.

This can be contrasted spectacularly with the 1976-1977 X-Men story arc known as "The Dark Phoenix Saga". In the time leading up to the story a near-death experience led long-time character Jean Grey to unlock new and near god-like power levels -- leading to her shedding her old code name of Marvel Girl and adopting a new one -- Phoenix. Unfortunately, as the old saying goes, "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely". With a little push from some villains, Jean tipped over into the dark side -- including wiping out an entire inhabited alien star system. Her friends and teammates managed to bring her back to her senses but she was soon put on trial by an alien empire for her destruction of the star system. Her friends fought to keep her from being sentenced to death for her crimes but in the end Jean could feel her control slipping away and the darkness growing. Knowing that she could never live like that she opted to kill herself. Now that is a story in which the character who dies is the focal point of the story. Jean didn't die to create angst for her teammates, nor did she die to show how much of a badass some villain is.

But that is what gets missing today. Comic book deaths aren't about the characters who are being killed -- they're about other characters. And we'll take a deeper look at this next post as we study comic book death as a writing shortcut.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Deep in Consideration

The Compound Geekery Blog is deeply considering the addition of a mascot. A somewhat large, four footed mascot distantly related to wolves.... and one who needs to go on a diet.

What do you think?

Watch this space for more information!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Nero Wolfe Reviews: "Not Quite Dead Enough" 1942

And with this book the series finally enters the War years. World War II obviously. As with Black Orchids this book consists of two short stories -- "Not Quite Dead Enough" and "Booby Trap".

Not Quite Dead Enough
The Plot: Archie Goodwin has entered the Army and been made a Major in Army Intelligence. Archie is called back to New York after an assignment and told his new assignment is to get Nero Wolfe! The military brass wants Wolfe working for them but Wolfe keeps refusing to talk to anyone.

So Archie returns to the brownstone but gets the shock of his life -- Wolfe has not only stopped taking cases he's put himself on a diet and is exercising to get in shape to join the military and fight in the war! Needing dynamite to blast Wolfe out of this notion, Archie decides to do a favor for his sometime inamorata Lily Rowan. An acquaintance of Lily's -- one Ann Amory -- knows something about someone (a secret that seems to be tied to the death of an old woman named Mrs. Leeds) but needs advice. Archie is unsuccessful in getting the girl to confide in him and when Ann suddenly turns up murdered Archie sees a way of killing two birds with one stone. He gets himself sort-of framed for Ann's murder, knowing it will get Wolfe involved... and once Wolfe is involved he should be able to bring Ann's killer to justice.

Archie's plot works... perhaps a little too well, because now suspicion is thrown on Lily for the crime. What will Archie do if Wolfe uncovers Lily as the killer? Could it be possible?

My Take: This is another of Stout's stories that is filled with hilariously quirky characters -- from two old bickering ladies to a man with an obsession with racing pigeons. Unfortunately, the story is also tied to a murder in which the reader has to swallow something of the abject stupidity of the victim. There are no really good reasons for Ann not to confide in Archie and it is a bit of a failing on Stout's part not to give any. Then again, many mystery series require the reader to accept at least one stupid action (and sometimes more than one) on the part of the characters.

We also have the return of Lily Rowan whom we first met in Some Buried Caesar. She is sadly changed, though. Gone is the unconventional, free spirit who was inclined to thumb her nose at social conventions and who could take someone or leave them. Here she has been turned into a borderline stalker who pursues Archie relentlessly. It is, in a word, unattractive.

The real saving grace of this story is seeing what happens to Wolfe when he loses his right-hand man to the war. There is an insanity that seems uniquely Wolfian in that he retaliates in the most unthinkable (for him) manner possible. With Wolfe's extreme actions Archie is forced to take some extreme measures of his own to get Wolfe's head back on straight.

Favorite Quote: Archie: "There is one thing you are better qualified to do than anyone else, in connection with undercover enemy activities in this country. It is a situation requiring brains, which you used to have and sometimes used. The Commander in Chief, the Secretary of War, and the General Staff, also Sergeant York, respectfully request you cut the comedy and begin using them. You are wrong if you think your sudden appearance in the front lines will make the Germans laugh themselves to death."

Booby Trap
The Plot: Someone is selling manufacturing secrets to rival companies to give them a leg up after the war. When the Army Intelligence officer assigned to the investigation turns up dead Wolfe and Archie are assigned to find out what he knew... and find out why he died if they can. Things heat up quickly, though, when the dead man's commanding officer also dies -- his office blown up with a hand grenade. He had just lost his only son to the war -- could it have been suicide? Or is there someone who has a secret to keep? Wolfe is determined to get to the bottom of it but can even he flush out a killer who has covered his tracks so well?

My Take: As was true of Black Orchids one of the two stories is stronger than the other and this is the stronger one. There is less silliness to be swallowed and there is also a kind of cinematic drama to many of the scenes. This story could have easily been adapted to the A & E TV series.

There is also a decided lack of humor and quirky characters here but that is to be expected as Stout takes a more serious tone to the story. Also, considering that Stout wrote this story during the war years it makes sense that he would be willing to portray many of the military figures involved as somewhat less than inspired but by no means ineffectual idiots.

While the mystery itself isn't poor it also isn't really anything spectacular until the end. The ending to this story is shocking and one is again reminded that Wolfe is not always a very good person... or even necessarily a moral one.

Favorite Quote: Inspector Cramer: "I've known Wolfe for something like twenty years, and I'll tell you this. Show me a corpse, any corpse, under the most ideal and innocent circumstances, with a certificate signed by every doctor in New York, including the Medical Examiner. Then show me Nero Wolfe anywhere within reach, exhibiting the faintest sign of interest, and I order the squad to go to work immediately."

Taken as a whole, Not Quite Dead Enough is interesting and entertaining -- particularly as a kind of peek into history at what the homefront was like in WW II. It is the second story, though -- "Booby Trap" -- that will stick in your mind long after the cover is closed.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Remake of "Hawaii Five-0"

Okay, so admittedly I have a soft spot for the original. I watched it in syndication for a while when I was a kid so it joins that block of stuff which "was really probably not that good but I was a kid and didn't know any better and even though I know it's not that good now I still kind of like it out of nostalgia's sake."

Okay, that was a mouthful. But you know it's true. I'm sure you out there have stuff you feel the same way about.

And as you recall from my 'snowed in' post a few days back I got to watching original episodes online... and yeah, it's pretty laughable looking at it now. If people think modern police procedural stories are laughable by how fast the investigators seem to get results and what the 'magic' computers can do they should see what the original was doing in 1969! It's even funnier since they didn't have computers and almost everything had to be done by hand.

But all that is beside the point. We're here to talk about a remake.

When I first heard of this I admit my thought was: "Why?" Hawaii Five-O was not a show that seemed to me to be crying out to be remade. If they were going to remake something why not remake The Man From U.N.C.L.E.... on second thought... don't.

Anyway, they remade it. I admit I rather forgot about it until I got bored being snowed in and was looking for something to watch online. I stumbled onto this and watched several episodes... enough to come to a conclusion.... this show was *almost* there. And that's a tragedy.

Why do I say it's a tragedy? Because *almost* in TV and movies (and possibly theatre too) means there just isn't enough entertainment value and it also means that one can see the goal but it doesn't quite reach it. If something is absolute dreck you can still get entertainment value out of laughing at how ridiculous it it. Also, you don't feel so sorry for it because it's stumbling in dead last in the race; instead you applaud it because it managed to finish the race at all. And of course, if something is really good you enjoy it because it's good. But when something is just not quite there it's good enough that you can't poke fun at it but you also can't praise it because it really isn't that good.

And that's the thing about this remake. It has the potential to actually be F-U-N. Mindless action-adventure entertainment with a good-looking cast. I'm not a snob -- I enjoy brainless-blow-stuff-up action-adventure as much as the next person. But I at least expect the show to be slightly clever about it and to give viewers something more than explosions.

One of the biggest problems is that the writers felt it would be fun to make Steve McGarrett and his right-hand man Danny "Danno" Williams play the 'good cop-bad cop' roles with McGarrett being the wild card and Danny being the more straight-edged voice of reason. In itself that could have worked but the writers decided that the best way of expressing this was to have Danny be a nag and he and McGarrett spend most of their time bickering with one another. This. Is. Not. Funny. No matter how much humor the writers try to inject into the snark the problem is that snark is great but it has to be used in measured doses. When it becomes nothing but what the characters do all the time it becomes annoying and it makes it impossible to believe that these two characters are actually the friends they claim to be. Not only that, but it makes both the characters unlikable... they come off as children who should not be entrusted with permanent markers let alone automatic weapons.

The other problem with the show is that it is so straightforward, the episodes so stereotypical it's like the writers have a trope list and they check off each box as they go along. If you don't know what's going to happen and when it's going to happen for the entire episode after the opening teaser then you aren't paying attention. And with that kind of stereotyping it's easy to quickly stop paying attention. Because it's boring and being boring is one of the cardinal sins of an action-adventure show.

Then there is character development. There is some but it comes in fits and starts -- which is not necessarily a bad thing -- a show I do like, ABC's Castle does this -- but Hawaii Five-0 gives you the development in half-size chunks. At least when Castle gives a burst of character development you get a whole development in one episode. Hawaii Five-0 gives you half a development and leaves you wondering "What the heck just happened here?"

Finally, there is the smugness and superiority complexes. About half the cast is smug and superior all the time and, again, it makes them unlikable. Attached to this is the fact that, like spoiled children, they get away with everything short of murder and there are no consequences. This is alright... for Batman... but not for those whom are supposed to be a group of cops. When these guys decide to throw the rule book out the window there should be consequences, they should learn something from the experience, it should humble them somewhat. This would have the double impact of reducing the smug level and providing character development. Two birds with one stone -- what a concept!

As I said, though, the show is so close to actually being there but the writers are really going to have to step up their game. The first thing is to cut both the bickering and the nagging in at least half. The second thing is to give the viewers more character development opportunities. Let us get to know them better; because right now we have no reason to care what happens to them because they are just walking, talking cardboard cut-outs. The third thing is to let them fail... a little bit. Let them run into something they can't tackle by throwing away the rule book, let them see some consequences from their Cowboy actions. This will help humanize them and make their viewers feel a little sympathy for them as well.

So that, in a nutshell, is that. I started the show and finished with it in one day. Someone wake me if they hear that the writers have actually picked up the clue phone and fixed the problems.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Grab Bag Reviews: "The Tenth Planet"

Okay, first off, yes, now that Pluto has been demoted from planetary status the title doesn't work anymore.

As for the rest. Well, this episode marked one of those other 'great leaps forwards' for the show. Just as the introduction of the Meddling Monk (in "The Time Meddler") introduced the idea that the Doctor had a 'people' and that others of them could time travel too "The Tenth Planet" introduced the idea of regeneration... the thing that has allowed the show to survive and reinvent itself periodically in order to stay fresh.

This episode would also introduce the series' second most famous repeating villains... the Cybermen.

The first 'regeneration' (although it wasn't termed that at first -- that and the limitations to it would come later) was not without it's controversies.

By 1966 Producer Innes Lloyd had repeated clashes with William Hartnell -- so much so that Lloyd considered replacing Hartnell earlier -- halfway through the 1965-1966 season with the episode "The Celestial Toymaker". As it was, after much discussions, Hartnell agreed it was time to leave and the second serial of the 1966-1967 season was chosen for his departure. There are some rumors that Hartnell was forced out by Lloyd because of their personal disagreements. Officially it was Hartnell's declining health led the production team to convince him it was time to retire from the daily grind of episodic television. The truth of the matter will probably never be known but it was probably a matter of it being a combination of the two. There was no question that Hartnell's memory and health problems caused by his arteriosclerosis were worsening and he frequently missed filming for health reasons. In point of fact, even this, his swan song, suffers due to Hartnell being ill at the time of filming... but more on that later.

The big problem was the question of how did one replace the lead actor in a program like Doctor Who? And make no mistake, the show's popularity had the BBC quite interested in seeing it continue on instead of being cancelled outright.

The writers eventually stumbled onto a simple but genius idea -- since the Doctor was an alien it was simply his nature to change his appearance. At the start the writers envisioned this process as being termed a "renewal" and it would actually involve the Doctor shedding years -- not just changing his face. In this case, the idea was that the Doctor would actually de-age several hundred years during the process.

The next hurdle was to find someone to replace Hartnell. Many actors were considered and a couple were approached but indicated they had no interest in the role. One actor who was high on the list, however, was veteran character actor Patrick Troughton. Troughton was interested but he had one condition -- that he not be asked to try to ape Hartnell's style. Troughton felt that this would be an insult to Hartnell and the work he had done. The production team agreed and the new Doctor was set.

After leaving the show Hartnell continued to act -- particularly on stage where the pace of production was not as taxing as television -- and he reportedly also enjoyed meeting fans who had grown up on his portrayal of the Doctor right up to the end of his life.

Meanwhile, the production team was interested in coming up with new ideas -- particularly ones rooted in real science. They became exposed to the work of scientist Kit Pedler and Pedler became an unofficial scientific advisor to the show as well as being an 'idea man' to generate new concepts to turn into stories. The recent advances in artifical limbs as well as speculation about future advances triggered Pedler to create the Cybermen -- one of his most enduring creations.

So, shall we go and say "hello" to the Cybermen and say "good-bye" to our first Doctor?

The Plot: The Doctor, with companions Ben and Polly, land at an international space agency tracking station at the South Pole in 1986. As they observe a routine flight orbiting the Earth a strange planet suddenly appears near Earth! As the planet wreaks havoc with the space flight and begins draining energy from Earth some of the planet's inhabitants arrive to take over the South Pole station. Part flesh, part robot, but wholly without emotion, the Cybermen have a message for the people of Earth.... "You will be like us."

My Take: This is, again, one of those stories partly missing. The good news is that three out of the four episodes are still in existence. The bad news is that the missing episode is the fourth one with the Doctor's regeneration.

Back in the 1990's the episode was released on VHS by the BBC with the mission fourth part filled in by a condensed reconstruction of the episode using still images and the original audio track. The story was also released as an audio drama with descriptive narration provided by Anneke Wills, the actress who played Polly. I have seen the VHS episode but I own the audio so the audio is what I based this review on. The story has yet to be released on DVD by the BBC but there are rumors that the missing episode might be replaced by animation synced up to the surviving audio.

As for the story... I do have a problem with stories which are set in "the future" which includes my lifetime. Certainly to the writers of the time they had no idea that this story would be still being watched long after 1986 but here we are and seeing their vision of 1986 does give me a chortle to two.

All that aside, there are people who have a problem with the Cybermen's voices in their first appearance. They tend to find them laughable. I don't. Oh, sure, in a couple of places they get a bit too sing-song but other than that I really like the concept that there is still a trace of the organic voice but with an electronic overlay. It reminds the viewers that, chillingly, these were humanoid beings which have now become something other... something horrible.

The voices are both human and inhuman at the same time.

Another nice touch is the fact that the mouths on the Cybermen don't actually move when they speak. Their mouths open and the voices emerge -- as if the voices are coming from something other than their throats.

And the costume design here so nearly works. The ski-mask like face coverings are suitably chilling. They make the Cybermen faceless, anonymous; human in form but with individuality erased. The coverings also put one in mind of mummies and we are invited to wonder what might be underneath -- what horror or inhumanity do these masks cover? Or is there anything left there at all?

The headlamps, however, look like a miner's lamp gone wrong perched on top of some sink pipes and the chest units look like space-age accordions. It's all just a bit too silly looking. I will, however, award points for at least trying something that looks a little different.

Sadly, this is all the best parts of the story. The adventure dissolves into a flawed base-under-siege' plot weighted down with cement bricks in the form of the actors doing bad foreign accents. The "Italian" makes you cringe as they pull out pretty much every stereotype in the books and the "American", General Cutler is so "cowboy" it's nearly beyond words.

And the flaws just go from there. While Pedler may have had a brilliant idea with the Cybermen the rest of the psuedo-science on display is ridiculous. Okay, more ridiculous than usual for Doctor Who. A planetary body coming that close to the Earth would almost certainly impact things like weather and tides not to mention gravity. And that's getting past just the idea that a planet... the size of Earth... can just... appear without someone seeing it coming. Even the telescopes and technology available in 1966 would have been able to see something the size of a planet making it's way into the solar system! I'm willing to suspend a lot of disbelief but this story pushes the weight load past the breaking point.

And then there are the characterization holes. Granted, Hartnell was ill during at least part of the filming and perhaps most of it. He was not able to make it into the studio for the filming of the entire third episode and as such they had to write his character out of the scenes and the Doctor does not appear at all there. Still, the Doctor just simply doesn't do anything in this story. There are no grand speeches, very little taking the moral high ground, little showing off in his traditional role of 'smartest guy in the room', etc. And in point of fact he shows a ridiculous trust that the Cybermen will keep their word. At one point rather cheerfully sending his companion, Polly, off to be a hostage.

It is the other companion, Ben, who gets to save the day. Multiple times actually. Ben isn't stupid but the point of the character is that he was supposed to be a Cockney, Merchant Seaman -- someone who was born without a lot of advantages and who had a basic education. Suddenly here he turns into Sherlock Holmes. He pieces together the tiniest of clues into brilliant deductions and comes up with great plans for saving the day.

And Polly? Polly gets to offer to be useful by making coffee and then later becomes 'girl hostage'. *Sigh*. So much for women's lib. At least she doesn't do a lot of screaming.

Then there is also the fact that the very message of the story ends up being undercut by the character of General Cutler. The character starts out as a petty autocrat (whom viewers are apparently not meant to like) and he quickly slides downhill into a maniac. When his own son is put in harm's way Cutler schemes run the risk of irradiating the Earth to destroy the Cybermen's rogue planet. Seriously, he wants to use a bazooka to swat a fly and he doesn't care if he blows up the house in the process as long as the fly dies. Oh, and he intends to do it with the most silly, sci-fi sounding, deus-ex-machina superweapon I think I've ever heard... a "Z-Bomb". I guess since an atom bomb used to be abbreviated "A-Bomb" the other end of the alphabet needed a bomb as well.

But the point is that we, as the viewers, are supposed to be horrified by the idea that the Cybermen have eliminated emotions and consider them troublesome but then Cutler rushes headlong into the act of a madman because of his emotions! Therefore Cutler essentially proves the Cybermen right -- emotions do cause trouble!

Really, if it were not for the Cybermen and the regeneration I would advise skipping this story. It's not well put together and much of it is silly instead of the tension-filled nail biter it was obviously meant to be. The Cybermen are fascinating here though (or at least they are to me) and Hartnell does get a few good scenes in and his regeneration still manages to be filled with mystery and wonder as his Doctor holds onto his life to the bitter end.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Bored Now

Day off work.

Snowed in.

Watching old episodes of the original Hawaii Five-O. Why? Why not.

Anyway, coming to a sudden realization after only three episodes... McGarrett was a [expletive deleted] who played by his own set of rules......

That, and James MacArthur who played Danno had nice blue eyes.