Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Let's Make a Very Bad Deal!

Oh Monty Hall, what has Door #3 gotten us into THIS time?

Babylon 5 #57: Sic Transit Vir

"If kisses could kill, that one would have flattened several small towns."
IN THIS ONE... Vir is running an underground railroad for the Narn, but has just gotten engaged to a Narn butcher.

REVIEW: The focus on Vir makes this episode principally a comedy, and where Vir himself is concerned, it certainly works. Stephen Furst is excellent at reacting in a humorous way and is a great blurter of awkward statements, giving or receiving all the best lines. Making the conversation between Vir and Ivanova about Centauri sexuality actually work is a difficult proposition, but it does. Furst makes sex noises funny, while still selling how terrified his character is of going all the way to 6, and Ivanova's numerical value metaphor made me laugh out loud. If only the rest of the comedy worked as well. Ivanova's struggle with having dreamed she went to work naked, requiring everyone to say the word "naked" in her presence falls mostly flat (and seems gratuitous when you know JMS tried to court Claudia Christian), and the character's comical asides when no one is present feel staged. The romcom elements of Sheridan and Delenn's slow courtship seem to be on repeat at this point, mostly focused on interspecies cooking problems and badly timed interruptions. As for Londo trying to kill bugs in his apartments, it at least has the virtue of a psychological inference - that Londo is trying to kill his demons/Shadows.

In Vir's new wife Lyndisty, we find another of JMS' broadly evil caricatures I find so at odds with what he's doing with the regular cast. It may be a question of Carmen Thomas' acting, but only in part. She only ever has one tone, and it's that of the aggressively supportive wife. She might be a seductress à la Londo's 3rd wife, really only in it for the political advancement, or culturally brainwashed to dutifully love her husband-to-be regardless, or even a needy child-wife who only needs attention. She's all three, depending. We have to take whatever she says, when she says it, at face value, because the acting doesn't allow for any ambiguity or subtext. So it's very annoying when she turns out to be a psychotic racist killer of Narn going on and on about their lack of sentience with the same smile on her lips. Again, how can JMS write protagonists (Londo included) with so much texture, but have guest-stars like Lyndisty or the Nightwatch who are so obvious and one-dimensional as this? This image of the "good Centauri" created here is of a young girl skipping along, culling people like cattle, la la la. It's a gross simplification of a state's genocidal agenda and those who carry it out, and rings false.

This is all at odds with Vir's own national guilt which has led him to abuse his current station by providing transit papers for Narn refugees and faking their deaths so they would be left alone. Vir's good follows our definition of the term as opposed to Londo's "official" one (though his own guilt is perhaps more about the means than the ends), but if he can exist, psychologically and culturally, as a Centauri, then Lyndisty can't have that simple a portrayal. And no matter how much Centauri males are slaves to their lust, there is no way the final lovers' farewell is acceptable. Lyndisty is an abhorrent individual and Vir shouldn't be falling for her (especially if she's never going to appear again, as happens to so many guest-stars). In a way, that's the complex and ambiguous reaction I would expect from Vir, but Lyndisty just never earns it.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - Some of the comedy works, but the flat villain threatens to sink the entire enterprise.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Long Launch the Legion of Super-Bloggers

So I know some of you must be disappointed that my daily focus ISN'T the Legion of Super-Heroes, which was one of the options I was considering. Well cry no more, friends! I may not be writing daily Legion content, but I AM part of a consortium of bloggers that is!

Here's what happened. While I was thinking about my own Legion project, the Who's Who podcast (part of the Fire & Water family of podcasts which my own Hero Points co-production is a member of) independently and rather innocently called on someone - ANYONE - to create a Legion blog because to Shagg and Rob's recollection, there hadn't been an active one in a while. Diehard listeners, bloggers in their own right, jumped on the idea, met up on Facebook and other platforms, and founded the Legion of Super-Bloggers. Over the past couple months, we've been adding introductory content, explaining the various topics and series the blog will cover. Officially, our launch is today, and from this day forward, you can expect daily content by a host of writers.

People like Little Russell Burbage, Kyle Benning the Metropolis Kid, Tim "Kord Industries" Wallace, David Weter, Firestorm Fan's Irredeemable Shag, David Sopko, Supergirl expert Anj, and me. Content will include reviews of every issue of every Legion-related story, cool art, the phenomenon known as Legionnaire hotness, toys, and why we each love the Legion. Some series will be explored on a weekly basis, others more infrequently. For my part, because of my normal blog-load, I'll be an irregular contributor, working mostly on post-Baxter series content for the weekly Who's Who articles featuring each Legionnaire, orchestrating some kind of round robin Silver Age reviews (monthly?), and contributing essays on Legion-specific tropes like the Constitution, elections, Interlac and others.

If you're a Legion fan, I hope you'll add the LSB to your regular reading. If you're a HUGE Legion fan, you might even think of joining (after the obligatory try-out, of course). If you don't get it, then the LSB is the perfect entry point to get acclimated with the 30th/31st centuries' greatest heroes. Check us out!

Babylon 5 #56: Ceremonies of Light and Dark

"Always said I had a lot of repressed anger... I'm not repressed anymore."
IN THIS ONE... Delenn is taken hostage by Nightwatch psychopaths, and a Minbari rebirth ceremony ends with the introduction of new B5 uniforms.

REVIEW: Just when I thought we were rid of the Nightwatch, here they are again. And I freaking HATE THEM. How can they be so two-dimensional when the rest of the show is so rich and complex? One psychotic, I can believe, but that every one else just stands there while he sings little songs about dismembering Minbari kills my suspension of disbelief, DEAD. Maybe it's a directing problem. The scene might have played better if it was just between the leader with the nasty scar (Boggs) and the singer-torturer. But then "the Sniper" (Nightwatch guys don't deserve names, apparently) is always losing his temper and shooting people he shouldn't, an artificial and illogical engine of jeopardy. Sometimes JMS just wants to make his point and won't let character psychology get in the way (which is what I hate about a lot of his comics work). Delenn's attack on the Sniper's alone-ness is well taken (and part of the show's theme that the collective is more than the sum of its parts), but since everyone else in Nightwatch has a hive mentality, the point is weakened.

Thankfully, the episode isn't really about this action plot. Much more watchable is Delenn's rebirth ceremony. It never really happens and a lot of characters refuse her invitation (including Marcus who is just strident with loathsome self-pity, gross), but when she's too wounded to proceed, the Earthforce Four go to her, each with a secret confession and their uniforms, something important to them they willingly give up, following Sheridan in his gesture. These last few minutes of the episode would redeem almost anything that had failed in the previous ones, each confession as poignant as the next. Sheridan's love (well, "care" for Delenn). Garibaldi's wavering voice as he admits his fear of losing control. Ivanova's feelings for Talia confirmed. Doc Franklin's simple "first step", no details required. And then her gift of new - AND MUCH COOLER - uniforms to the group, having anticipated what they would give up. The prospect of of this ceremony puts several other characters in a place of turmoil. Jury's out if Marcus will let go of his burden of guilt for having survived a Shadow attack where everyone he loved did not, but it's Lennier who keeps my interest most. We've never seen him so edgy and he confesses he is in love with Delenn even if he's accepted she is not his to have. He carries on, just as he continues to do her will after she is taken hostage because that is all he can do. Who would have thought this meekest of characters would repress so much rage, but you see it in his burning, resigned eyes.

Of the subplots, the strongest is without a doubt Londo's, who forces Lord Refa into a corner with a fun threat of poison (a sentimental gesture, he says). When Londo broke off ties with Morden and the Shadows, they just went running to Refa whose personal ambitions outstrip Londo's, which doesn't help anything. Refa is terribly foolish to allow the Shadows to dictate the Republic's strategy, and Londo is right across the board about how Centauri forces (and alliances!) are thinning out, leaving the homeworld poorly defended. Refa is where Londo was a season ago, but lacks the conscience that would allow him to ever step back. Poison, conscience... they can serve the same purpose. From the logical necessity to reset the station's passwords in the wake of its declaration of independence is born a much lamer subplot. The reboot awakens a silly - by which I mean to say STUPID - bitchy A.I. with the personality of a disappointed father, right down its talking about "your mother and I". Annoying comedy and nothing more.

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORMHOLE: Remember when TOS had badly programmed computers who flirted with Captain Kirk? Yeah, I didn't like that either.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - It's amazing how that ending and the plot thread that accompanied it elevated the episode to a point where the stupid comedy and the mustache-twirling villains couldn't sink it below Medium-High.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

This Week in Geek (25-31/08/14)


Added Parks & Recs Season 6 to my DVD shelf, and  Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves to my book shelf.


At the Movies: The F Word - or as you sensitive souls in the US and UK rather more lamely call it, What If - is a Canadian romcom starring Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan, who play friends with an unspoken attraction between them. Unspoken and unspeakable, which often hits quite close to home, enough so I can forgive it its formulaic (though not TOO formulaic) ending. The principals have great chemistry, the dialog is quirky and feels true to life (especially since I interact with people exactly the same way, i.e. saying "yes" to any proposition no matter how ludicrous as if it were stated fact, just to see how far we can take the "sketch"), and supporting star Adam Driver is, as freakin' usual, freakin' hilarious. Plus, Toronto as Toronto. I love that. Always have. So yes, a romantic comedy with all that entails, but a quirky, funny, sometimes brutal, entry in the genre.

As Above So Below is the most recent example of the "found footage" genre, a story that owes as much to The Blair Witch Project as it does to treasure hunting films from Raiders of the Lost Ark to The Ninth Gate or National Treasure, with a wink towards Dante's Inferno. Essentially, an archaeologist looking for the fabled Philosopher Stone assembles a team in Paris (which includes a documentarian) to go down into the catacombs looking for an alchemist's hidden chamber. What they find is a gateway to Hell itself. Though it has some dialog that sounds like improvisation, most of it seemed rather too written to make me entirely believe in the found footage conceit, but it works as a strange archaeological puzzle with a great many jump scares and creepy elements, eventually allowing for character and audience catharsis. The immediacy of the found footage format takes you on that journey with them, and may well prove uncomfortable for anyone who has claustrophobia. In fact, I still can't figure out where the real catacombs end and built sets begin. It has a seemless sense of place. The ending is enigmatic, but is definitive, unlike most food footage movies which end in a kind of abrupt ambiguity.

DVDs: Dan Harmon returns to Community for Season 5, which manages to do better than Season 4, but perhaps not as well as Season 1 through 3. Part of the problem is the loss of certain characters, which is very well addressed, but at only 13 episodes, we seem to be dealing with those changes for its own sake a lot. Still, some lovely additions to the cast with the now-ubiquitous John Oliver expanding on his role and Jonathan "can do no wrong in my book" Banks as a curmudgeony criminology professor. The "repilot" is actually ingenious and doesn't feel like cheating, and though there are some lulls, it's mostly LOLs. Stand-out episodes include the lava floor postapocalypse (think of it as this season's paintball), the meow meow beans social experiment, and a new D&D episode. Some will get more mileage out of the G.I. Joe parody than I will, but that's because I get my animation spoofs from other sources already (the live action bits are brilliant though). The DVD includes fun cast and crew commentary on every episode, uncensored outtakes, a featurette on the making of G.I. Jeff, and a making of from the point of view of the behind-schedule writer's room trying to finish the last three episodes, a harrowing journey into Dan Harmon's famously dark soul.

Blue Hawaii? Yeah, we watched Blue Hawaii while eating pineapple and drinking LITERALLY two buckets of mai tai-like drinks (blue monkeys, I think it was?). Anyway, somebody overshot on the necessary ingredients. But how was the film? Not good, objectively speaking, but a fun piece of nonsense nonetheless. Elvis plays the "worst boyfriend ever" and I guess you only find him sympathetic because he's Elvis (or maybe you don't), the sexism is risible (guys, Elvis gives a "teenager" a good spanking) in the same way Mad Men's is (definitely made in 1961), and the racism isn't quite as strong as I expected it to be when the comedy Asian called Ping Pong came on the scene. Mostly an excuse to sing his own hits, or riffs on his songs with Hawaiian lyrics thrown in, the movie nonetheless does a good job of showing off Hawaii, its culture, and its music. For me, the highlights were the comedy stylings of Angela Lansbury (who is deeply ashamed of her performance in this film, haha) and Howard McNear (who might as well be one of Michael Palin's Monty Python characters).

Books: After watching Enemy based on José Saramago's The Double, I got interested in the Nobel Prize-winning Portuguese author. Someone recommended The Gospel According the Jesus Christ, and I went for it. So I'll start by thanking @abrissverlierer for that. Thanks Megan! As the space hippies say: We reach! I was immediately taken by Saramago's high wire act, which critics have called a kind of skeptical humanism. Telling the story of Jesus without contradicting the four accepted Gospels, he nevertheless reminds us of how far from the Bible's original context we now stand. His Jesus (and his Joseph and Mary, as the book is far more interested in his origins and early life than the Gospels are) lives in a real place and time, made real by sensual detail and cultural norms now alien to us. The novel is irreverently ironic, consistently shocking us with questions of how true any given account can be given human interpretation, but Saramago so loves his characters, it never turns into a take-down. He gives the story a literary bent with leitmotifs, for example, which are ironic in and of themselves (revealing Scripture as literature rather than History, which itself is an interpretative genre), and provides logic and psychological truth to the characters and events. Not to me it debunks the Bible - God and the Devil are manifest - but it does test your faith in the best way possible, by showing literal truth as improbable, and requiring a more thoughtful kind of faith that isn't about believing in "facts" but in ideas and ethical philosophies.

Saramago's last novel before his death, Cain, is like a prequel to his Gospel. Though 18 years separate them, we find here the same skepticism and humanity. I loved the Gospel, but I think I love Cain more. Taking a similar tack, it starts with Adam and Even and their fall from Grace, but soon gets us to Cain and the first murder. From there, Cain is condemned to wander for eternity and the book that's a strange turn, becoming a kind of time travel adventure through the books of Genesis and Exodus. Cain goes back and forth through time, interacting with Abraham, Job, Noah, Moses, Lot and so on. Every incident makes him wonder why he was punished for a single murder, while the Old Testament God commits or encourages genocide. Skeptical Saramago attacks the Old Testament's hypocritical double standards, again asking literalists to question their beliefs, while Saramago the humanist paints the portrait of Cain as a psychologically believable character so he can act as reader identification figure. And no spoilers, but the twist ending is remarkable. Especially considering it was the writer's last book. I won't say any more. It's just 159 pages, you should check it out for yourselves.

Hyperion to a Satyr posts this week:
V.i. Ophelia's Funeral - Tennant (2009)

Babylon 5 #55: Severed Dreams

"Only one human captain has ever survived battle with a Minbari fleet. He is behind me. You are in front of me. If you value your lives, be somewhere else."
IN THIS ONE... Babylon 5 secedes from the Earth Alliance. Battle ensues.

REVIEW: The Earth Alliance goes full fascist and things quickly spiral out of control. Mars is the first to proclaim its independence - not a big leap - which leads to its bombing, a straw that breaks the Alliance camel's back and sees ISN coverage to go dark when a journalist tries to tell the truth on TV, and two more colonies secede from the union. Babylon 5, a giant space station with gardens and buildings inside it, goes the same way. It's an independent "colony". With the help of a couple ships and their Starfuries, Sheridan will have to defend that independence against overwhelming Earth-loyal forces, and only the intervention of Delenn and the Minbari does he prevail. It's an action extravaganza, with ships firing on similar ships so you hardly know who's winning (which is the point), brother against brother, friend against friend. The death toll is high, both in space and where EA troops have breached the station. The Narn security force certainly isn't spared.

Despite the eye-popping visuals and violence, it's the personal moments that stay with you. The Earthforce foursome voting to fight. Major Ryan showing how close one can be to an enemy in a civil war by telling us the name of a defeated and dead captain's cat. Sheridan's heartfelt call to his by now famous father, delivering old advice in a new context. Ivanova adamant that she must lead by example and command a squadron (the spinning lights, actually her spinning Starfury, when she gets damaged is a great touch). Corwin in shock that B5 is splitting from the EA, but choosing his loyalty to the station. I especially love Ivanova asking if he's okay; she cares about this young officer they've taken under their wing if not into their confidence. Delenn's address to the Gray Council, and of course, her badass threat to the fresh EA ships that immediately turn tail. Sheridan thanking her with a kiss on the hand, the most physically intimate they've been; it's grand and romantic.

And now things really won't ever be the same again. Sheridan's refusal to put on his uniform is a sign post. He'll be a civilian governor of an independent outpost/colony until Clark is deposed (at least), and this is likely to change the entire dynamic. Perhaps it's why he can open himself up to Delenn in front of others. What doors will this secession open for other Earthforce personnel? Time will tell. At least our heroes are going into this with eyes open, expecting EA loyalists to cause internal trouble. Garibaldi better heal up fast.

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORMHOLE: Why has Hague killed off? Because Robert Foxworth had filming commitments with Deep Space Nine. Poached! That show would also toy with holographic communications in the next year.

REWATCHABILITY: High - An exciting change of status quo, with lots of action tempered with memorable character moments.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Reign of the Supermen #543: Superman, Football Star

Source: Action Comics #4 (1938)
Type: Disguise
The Golden Age Superman was well-suited to American football, but you won't find his career stats in any sports history books because he was impersonating someone else the whole time. The story began as most stories do, with a hit and run landing the distraught driver to the railroad tracks to commit suicide, Superman intervening too late so the train hits the car and stops, and the driver dies of a heart attack in his arms. From that irrelevant teaser, Superman sneaks into the train to check on the passengers and overhears a conversation between a crooked college football coach and some thugs. To save his bacon, he plans to fill his team's ranks with mobsters and win by whatever means necessary. That's just the kind of thing the Golden Age Superman likes to tear down! So he finds a player from the opposing team, Tommy Burke, and with a little grease paint...
Superman - Master of Disguise! How good is this make-up?
Very, very good. The real Tommy has just come back from getting dumped for a tennis star by his girlfriend Mary, on account of his being a substitute for six seasons and only going on the field for a single game. She's done with this loser. His night goes from bad to worse when his double shows up and... pricks him with a hypodermic needle?! Tommy wakes up a prisoner in his own apartment, never knowing this double is the heroic Superman. He's just had his life stolen from him with no explanation! Superman-as-Tommy's first day at the stadium makes him realize he isn't exactly the most respected member of the team, and when he dares stand up for himself...
Everyone is surprised he can take this much punishment, and dole it out too. The coach walks in and sees the aftermath, and benches rabble-rouser Tommy from practice on the spot. Superman goes out on the field anyway and uses powers to dominate and earn a spot in the season's last game.
He's so good, the coach brags about him to the papers and soon, the thugs from the opposing team show up at his apartment and kidnap him so he can't play in the Big Game(TM).
Superman hiding in the ceiling is the creepiest thing, isn't it? He does make sure they don't harm Burke, but is happy to find they've taken him off his hands. At the game, the crooked coach is pissed that Burke has apparently escaped because he's on the field.
Sadly, the goons never make good on their threat. A signal is never given and no one ever tries to shiv Superman. I mean, we know the result, but the thugs don't really try anything. It's just Superman dominating in every aspect of the game. The cheating team gets smoked. Meanwhile, Tommy Burke really DOES escape and is about to call a cop after his impersonator, when he overhears his ex Mary swoon over his performance on the field, ignoring her tennis jerk completely. Then he cheers. At the end of the half, Superman's racked up so many points, he switches places with Tommy for the second. You'd think now would be a good time to get Tommy shivved, but no. He just starts sucking real bad and gets taken out.
At least his gets Mary back AND never has to play football again. All this time, this was a story about Mary outgrowing being a sports groupie. Who knew.

Now, I have no proof of this, but maybe this episode was the inspiration for Clark Kent ACTUALLY being a football star in John Byrne's post-Crisis re-imagining of Superman.
Well, maybe!

Babylon 5 #54: Point of No Return

"Intelligence has nothing to do with politics!"
IN THIS ONE... The Earth Alliance has declared martial law. Nightwatch makes a move on the station. Londo receives a seer (Majel Barrett) for fateful visit.

REVIEW: Truth adjustment. Londo does it to Vir's reports, but he also wants his prophetic dreams "adjusted". And there's the Nightwatch, of course, which is promoting a pro-president agenda, but truth can be adjusted both ways, and Sheridan uses a Sinclairian loophole to turn the tables on them. Thematically, the episode is pretty impeccable. Now, I'm not a fan of Nightwatch. The idea is presented in a most obvious way, and its members, except for Zack, have been caricatures. The lead Nightwatchmen in the last couple episodes, the never even named Security Guard #1 played by Vaughn Armstrong, relishes his role a little too much and comes just short of growing a mustache so he can twirl it. The other guys either look pitifully afraid to speak up or quit, but have no lines to express that, or DO have lines and appear to be vindictive loyalists who just want to take the captain down for its own sake. It's like the crack team Garibaldi assembled is made up of cowards and traitors - good job, bro - only Zack excepted. In other words, it's really satisfying to see them defeated on the eve of their great triumph.

The title of the episode, shared by the entire season, makes it clear that this Sheridan, like the fugitive General Hague, has officially set himself and his governorship (Babylon 5) against Earthgov. If there's to be a coup, B5 may have to be a part of it, or the station may just have to pull a Mars and declare independence. Already, replacing most of the station security with Narns takes B5 away from full Earth ownership and control and towards the kind of heterogeneous community that was the station's dream goal. It's also a strong symbol of the station's independence from Earth Alliance, which has thrown in with the Centauri. G'Kar, now more spiritual leader and wise man than anything else, waxes cryptically about sacrifice on a massive scale, and Minbari-like, is starting to see "us" as more than the Narn, but as all life. He describes a Christ myth on a collective scale. So when he asks Sheridan for a place at the army of light's table, I dare say he's proven he deserves it. Kosh in fact recruited him by unlocking ideas in his mind.

Another fount of wisdom can be found in the Centauri seer played by the Grand Dame of Star Trek herself, Majel Barrett. No Lwaxana Troi, this. The Lady Morella is a serious and earnest woman who really doesn't need the power of prophecy to earn our attention. She has several good moments, including an awkward elevator ride with Ta'lon which shows she's above the Centauri's imperial biases, no dialog needed, and her contention that we always have a choice, but usually choose to fob responsibility off to fate. I find the view that the future isn't written rather ironic from a writer who prided himself on a a five-year plan, but I do share it. The fun will now be to watch Londo refuse to make the choices that can save his soul according to Morella's visions. Why mention three if he's going to take the first out, right? This is a test he's already failed twice (the two Shadow attacks, presumably). Here's the prophecy, in case we need to refer to it again: To save the eye that does not see, to not kill the one who is already dead, or at the last, to submit to his fear, knowing it will destroy him. It's a redemption puzzle for us and Londo. She does confirm that whatever happens, Londo will become Emperor, but bombshell!, Vir will succeed him (though it could technically go in the other direction). With that she leaves them in a symmetrical shot, Londo wondering if he'll have to play Julius Caesar to Vir's Brute. Exciting stuff.

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORMHOLE: Majel Barrett has appeared (or her voice heard) on every iteration of the Star Trek franchise, only sometimes as a visiting VIP with mental abilities.

REWATCHABILITY: High - The one weakness is the Nightwatch's two-dimensional portrayal, but that seems to be at an end. The rest is top notch, with very exciting changes made and heralded.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Babylon 5 #53: Messages from Earth

"The decision is mine and mine alone. And it's made."
IN THIS ONE... Sheridan goes up against Earth to destroy a Shadow ship found on Ganymede.

REVIEW: I'm not saying I'll remember more details about my original viewing after this, not at all, but I remember Messages from Earth as the episode I watched that hooked me into the series. It doesn't take long, watching it today, to figure out Michael Vejar is at the helm. G'Kar withdrawing into darkness, the various voice-overs superimposing dialog with action in a way that's both efficient and artistic, the furious hand-held action... Vejar is way ahead of the game compared to the show's other directors. And of course, it's a cool, action-oriented episode that sees Sheridan destroy a Shadow ship in some memorable visuals. It all starts when Marcus' "package" arrives right on schedule, a literal week since he mentioned it in the previous episode - an archaeologist who dug up a dormant Shadow vessel on Mars, which later escaped (confirming something Garibaldi experienced, but never talks about), all of which was covered up by Earth's fascist government. A second ship has been found on Ganymede, and of course, Earthforce is hoping to use it as a weapon, but the human pilot loses control and a battle ensues. It's not just eye candy. It's also one revelation behind another. The PsiCorps' involvement, the biological nature of the Shadow ship, its touch of death, and so on.

JMS raises the stakes by not making this about the war with the Shadows, but rather about the split between our heroes and Earth. Sheridan's decision to take the White Star into Earth-controlled space puts him in direct confrontation with the one ship he can't abstract as a faceless object, his former command, the Agamemnon. And he refuses to fire on it. The escape is the episode's one weak element, creating a jump gate in Jupiter's atmosphere much too easily for a maneuver never attempted before, ever. But even before then, Sheridan's technical treason weighs on him. The Sheridan-Delenn relationship has been on the back burner this season, but the scene in which he shares a story from his childhood with her, and she just naturally comforts him, is incredibly sweet. These guys have something pure going, a relationship that's pretty unique in television.

The secret war between Babylon 5 and Earthgov ignited here isn't just fought in space, but on the station itself. We feel it in Ivanova's annoyance with Marcus, who doesn't fit anywhere in the chain of command. By the end of the episode, she's warmed up to him (their sense of humor is so similar, how could they not?), but may also realize SHE doesn't really fit in the traditional chain of command anymore. Zack is, as usual, being squeezed by Nightwatch, pushed to betray Garibaldi, which he refuses to do. That's the real cost of Gestapo-style fascism, where the State becomes more important than individual friendships and family relationships. Zack personifies humanity's battle against itself. The episode also includes a worthy scene with G'Kar, still in a cell after his assault on Vir and Londo, completely at peace, and an amusing-ish teaser about how hard it is to get bacon and eggs on B5. Adds texture to the universe, but I got distracted wondering why this would be so. I mean, can't the future keep an egg fresh and intact during a hyperspace trip? Or how about importing some chickens? See?! Still distracted!

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORMHOLE: Half a year earlier, the Defiant flew into a gas giant's atmosphere to even the odds against a Jem'Hadar ship.

REWATCHABILITY: High - A lot of action, interesting revelations, morally gray territory... That would get it to Medium-High, but the fancy direction takes it up an extra notch.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Word Hunt

Kind of strapped for time today, so maybe you can help me with this crossword. I mean, the cover didn't come with any clues, which either makes it very hard or very easy. See what you make of it.

Babylon 5 #52: Exogenesis

"Where I come from, one man from three leaves two." "Where I come from is a far more interesting place."
IN THIS ONE... Spine parasites are taking over Marcus' lurker contacts. Ivanova gives Corwin a loyalty test.

REVIEW: After Confessions and Lamentations, I was open to B5's next "medical mystery", but the title "Exogensis" conjured up memories of Voyager's technobabble titles. The end product is neither. It isn't an important or particularly emotional episode like C&L, but it's isn't absurd pablum like a Voyager ep. And though it's a Doc Franklin story, it teams him up with Marcus to give the new character on the block his first meaty episode. Marcus almost had to team up with Franklin because everyone else gives him the cold shoulder. I suppose it's hard to trust when paranoia levels reach this kind of high. Garibaldi isn't particularly warm on the best day, but his rejection of Marcus' concerns seems a dangerous oversight. The Ranger is building a network of contacts, so their disappearances might be an attack on the conspiracy of light, no? Ivanova's cold shoulder can at least be attributed to her sensing (she did say she was mildly empathic) his attraction to her. Not sure how much Franklin really does know about her "type", but it might be a veiled allusion to her same-sex relationship with Talia. I suppose Marcus could by an irritant, a snob who quotes Shakespeare to people he knows don't get the reference, and an outsider to Earthforce who nevertheless won't shut up (which is a sign that he doesn't know he has to earn his place in a social group). He comes on too strong. If he worms his way into the hearts of the cast and the fans, it'll be because he's a super-competent badass. He gets some good moments, trampling over Franklin's directives and breaking out of the Vindrizi cell (really liked how the links work and don't work too, logical).

The Vindrizi plot is standard SF fare, which makes it disappointing, even if it doesn't take the most obvious route. Gross spine parasites taking people over is the cliché, but as it turns out, they're not necessarily bad guys. They're the living memory of the universe, surviving through the dregs of humanoid races, experiencing the whole of Creation so nothing will ever be truly lost. They even get their hosts' authorization, and heal their ailments. Obviously, Franklin decides to help them, he's that kind of guy, but not stupidly. His conditions make sense. But while this gives the story a definite twist, it's still disposable, marginal to the greater story.

If the conspirators had to accept Marcus on Delenn's word, they're a little more skittish about doing the same to Corwin, a long-standing member of the C&C crew. He looks like a good kid, and has just been promoted (which I guess comes with higher clearance or at least, responsibilities that might make him notice the command staff's strange behavior), but could he be trusted with the big secret? Ivanova is assigned to gauge his loyalty, which is an excuse for JMS to riff on his own "oh crap, s/he thinks it's a date" moment with Claudia Christian (often mentioned in these reviews' comments) for all the LOLs (I guess). So Corwin thinks it's a date and blows a week's pay on flowers, gets to drink half a cup of contraband coffee before getting thrown out, and is judged too loyal to Earthforce to be trusted. No belly laughs, but it's nice to see one of the "little people" featured a bit more heavily. Knowing he's a good-hearted antagonist will keep him on our radar, and that's a good thing.

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORMHOLE: The Vindrizi are symbiotes, not parasites? And they use humanoid bodies to make themselves immortal? Is one of them called Dax?

- It's not a bad one-off, but it IS a fairly traditional one-off.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

August's Number Ones Part 2

Here we go again. The summer is still churning out new series you might want to read, or would like to be warned against before you make a fatal 3-5$ mistake. Let's see how we can help.
The Multiversity by Grant Morrison and various artists (1st issue's by Ivan Reis and Joe Prado) for DC. If you're breathing, you've heard of this. Not so much a mini-series as it is a series of linked one-shots, each one a #1 issue. I can only imagine the first of these, with brilliant art by "the boys" (as the Aquaman Shrine and the Fire & Water podcast call them), features a threat to reality that may or may not be featured in every one. Now, you can either grumble that Morrison is doing his same old tropes - fourth-wall-breaking metatext, crazy villains out of Lovecraft and stream of consciousness literature, and superhero pastiche à la Zenith - or you can embrace it because you damn well knew what this thing would be. The issue's protagonist is Morrison's President Superman, as seen in some of his Action Comics issues, and refreshingly, no character from Earth-Prime (if that's them at all) has more than a bit part. Much of the meta-text comes from the narrator of the comic begging you to stop reading it, a conceit that's fun and suspenseful. And Captain Carrot gets all the best lines. Plus, you'll raise an eyebrow at who Dino-Cop is supposed to be. If you're afraid of Morrison's more cryptic, referential work (or just don't like it), no worries. This is very straightforward stuff, where the references to past continuity can be enjoyed as just cool visuals and not have you racing for some annotation site or other. I'm sure some of the more self-contained, tonally-distinct issues will turn out to be everyone's favorites, but as an introduction that might actually have a resolution/book-end, it's fun stuff.
Keep reading? Duh.
Justice, Inc. by Michael Uslan and Giovanni Timpano for Dynamite. Though nominally based on the original pulp series about the Avenger, this iteration not only aims to team him up with Doc Savage and the Shadow, but they completely steal the show in the first issue! Richard Henry Benson is named, but doesn't actually appear! That bit of false advertisement aside, I rather enjoyed Justice, Inc. It has a cool time travel story that surprises by having an elder Savage from our time go back to 1939, to his pulp roots. Usually, it goes the other way. And it's full of cameos by historical figures of the time, which tickled the history nerd in me. Timpano is overly fond of sourpuss expressions, but the story moves at a brisk clip without ever seeming underwritten. I do wonder how it'll ever be anything LIKE Justice Inc. even once the Avenger shows up, but perhaps a status quo is unnecessary.
Keep reading? A tentative yes. I've shed every Dynamite pulp book once they stopped publishing the Spider and Ms. Fury, so this three-fer might be a good way to keep a foot in that world.
Little Nemo: Return to Slumberland by Eric Shanower and Gabriel Rodriguez for IDW. Some things are sacred, so can a modern comic capture the magic of Winsor McCay's ancient (relative to comics as a medium) masterpiece? I have to say yes! Shanower certain has the childlike surreality and charm right, and boy am I glad he's teamed up with Locke&Key's Gabe Rodriguez. He's perfect for this! From his previous, seminal series, we know he can draw convincing children, askew fantasy and the intricate designs required of Slumberland. Because it wouldn't be a Nemo strip if it didn't play around with layouts. Shanower even creates the feel of the original one-pagers by having his boy almost-named-Nemo wake up repeatedly from his dreams, interrupting the action. I found, soon enough, that a smile had crept onto my face, and it stayed. Lots of lovely detail and texture throughout, it's a gorgeous book that holds its own against my collection of McCay class--wait a minute. I DON'T actually have the original Little Nemo strips in my collection in some form? I've got to rectify that.
Keep reading? Yes and not only that, but I want to seek out the originals. Is there a nice collection available?
The Delinquents by James Asmus, Fred Van Lente and Kano for Valiant. I admit I panicked when Valiant cancelled Quantum & Woody. It's probably the funniest superhero(ish) book on the stands right now. Freakin' hilarious. The good news is, James Asmus was writing that, and he's writing The Delinquents, a Q&W/Archer & Armstrong team-up in which both duos converge in a quest to find the Great Hobo Treasure. It's just as good as Q&W usually is, clever, funny and surprising. I also note from the back pages that Q&W will also star in Q2: The Return of Quantum & Woody by their original creators, Christopher Priest and M.D. Bright. The bad news is, both of these are 4-issue mini-series. Ah well. Maybe they're just interludes before Q&W take up a monthly schedule again. All that to say The Delinquents is irreverent superhero comedy just as I like it, and there's nothing there that should scare a reader who has never read either duo's series before. Just don't be surprised when you become a rabid collector of their past appearances after reading it.
Keep reading? Damn straight.

Did it help?

Babylon 5 #51: Dust to Dust

"Are you deliberately trying to drive me insane?" "The universe is already mad. Anything else would be redundant."
IN THIS ONE... Bester returns to the station to investigate the trade of a telepathic drug, which G'Kar uses to assault Londo.

REVIEW: "Dust" is a narcotic that activates one's latent telepathic abilities until you violently mind-rape someone and experience their whole lives in a rush. And being in another person's head is a theme shared by all the threads in the episode. The one character expected to get in your head is PsiCop Bester, but he's denied this ability, first by Minbari "jammers" and then by the drug given to those who don't want to join PsiCorps. That's an excellent solution for the army of light conspirators to use, much more logical than Ivanova "accidentally" blowing up Bester's ship. And despite not having access to his powers, this is Bester's best episode to date! He still gets into people's heads, but does it the old-fashioned way. His skill definitely doesn't begin and end with telepathy. He shines as a badass interrogator and cop, a slick eel that never lets anything get a grip on him, and no one would judge you if you started thinking he was, in his way, a good guy. Indignant at the way he's characterized, isn't what he's doing for the good of Earth? But this is the monster who may or may not have had Talia dissected (I prefer to think he's just goading Garibaldi, but we never see her again, so...) and in the end, talks about how the Corps created "dust" in the first place to activate raw recruits, and he's completely nonchalant about the destruction left in its wake. Slimy.

Whether or not Bester is using the dust situation as a pretext to grab a quick and secret scan of the crew - the Nightwatch might be feeding the Corps suspicions about Sheridan and his lot, especially if he's dressing down security personnel harassing the station's citizens (but where was he when shop owners were being disappeared?) - the truth of it is that a dealer is indeed selling to aliens who might weaponize the drug. Specifically, the Narn. G'Kar not only buys what dust he can, not to get high but to use as a weapon, and is turned into a telepathic berzerker when he doses himself. The beating he gives both Vir and Londo is brutal, regardless of any mental powers, but props to JMS for not hacking out a montage of clips we've seen before in the mind rape portion of the sequence. Yes, we've seen Londo's meeting with Morden, but that's an important discovery, the first time a non-Centauri finds out about Londo's ties to the Shadows. but there's also an all-new memory, showing Londo getting his posting to Babylon 5 and learning it's more punishment than reward. G'Kar will end up getting 60 days in the clink (which is light, considering), but his victory is threefold. He humiliates Londo, uncovers his treachery, AND via his own memory, is given a new reason for living and a certain serenity. Of course, that wasn't actually his father's memory turning him from his destructive path. I felt pretty sure he was being manipulated by Kosh even before his vision turned into an angel, and then we see Kosh sneaking around. I think G'Kar just got recruited, guys. But will he be in the main team, or will Kosh send him on a separate quest? Anything could happen.

A few words on Vir? Don't mind if I do, because he too taps into the episode's theme. What else would you call his happy naturalization by the Minbari? They obviously got in his head with their strange and peaceful ways. In a way, Vir is a better Minbari than Lennier right now, for Lennier has abandoned hope for Londo's soul. If there is kindness and repentance in Londo, he can't officially make use of it. is hard-edged response to the Drazi's attempt at negotiation is proof of that. He's a servant of evil, and so he must do evil things. Does that make HIM evil? One of the questions the series asks.

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORMHOLE: Mind rape has surfaced in such Star Trek episodes as Dagger of the Mind, Violations and Meld (starring Brad Dourif as a telepathic killer).

REWATCHABILITY: High - Whenever it's about G'Kar and Londo, the show soars. Great appearance by Bester as well.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Marvel's Frankenstein: Out of the Ice FIRST

That's right, Marvel's The Monster of Frankenstein (and from issue 6 on, Frankenstein's Monster) came out a FULL MONTH before the Phantom Stranger's Spawn of Frankenstein back-up feature. And wouldn't you know it? Marvel's latest addition to their horror comics line ALSO started with the Monster found in a block of ice.
Coincidence?! Well, Marvel DID invent this comic book trope with Captain America, I suppose. AND they managed to get the book out first. AND their Frank lasted 18 issues, which while not a Tomb of Dracula level of success, is still better than back-up "Spawn" of Frankenstein.

Point goes to Marvel!

Babylon 5 #50: Voices of Authority

"The Minbari taught me: Claim victory in your heart and the universe will follow."
IN THIS ONE... Ivanova goes out to meet a race of First Ones. A seductive political officer is foisted on Sheridan. The truth of Santiago's assassination is blown on ISN.

REVIEW: For all its impact on the greater arcs, Voices of Authority is a rather unconvincing piece of drama, especially in the way it presents its guest characters. Obviously, I haven't warmed to the gregarious portrayal of Draal, and as this is his last on-screen appearance, there's no real reason to. I just don't think a Minbari wise man at the center of a dehumanizing machine makes for a good comedy delivery engine. The army of light conspirators are thinking of contacting other breeds of First Ones and he chuckles at how dangerous that it, like some demented Santa Claus. No thanks. Plugging a human being into the Machine (Ivanova) to seek these First Ones out instead of just giving them coordinates makes for a fun light show, but again seems improbable. That Ivanova can navigate the Matrix and pull out a secret communiqué that proves Clark was complicit in Santiago's assassination (and is that Morden on the other end of the phone?) can be attributed to her latent mental powers, but is still quite a stretch. And then she's off trading dry wit with Marcus the Ranger aboard the White Star, and I have no idea why she's so cold towards him. The First Ones they find look cool - each of these ancient races might tap into a different mythology here on Earth and these guys are maybe Polynesian? - but Ivanova manipulates them much too easily. Are they bitchy teenagers or ancient powers we can never hope to understand? If they aren't called later, I'll be mighty cross too.

The reason Ivanova gets to do all the cool stuff is that Sheridan has been stuck with a political officer, which is something Babylon 5 should have had from day 1 if you ask me. I can understand the station being run by a military governor, but why would you entrust peace negotiations to the military, while every other species sent a civilian ambassador? Of course, this one isn't very good. Julie Musante is a Nightwatch propaganda artist more concerned with Sheridan's office not looking patriotic enough and rewriting the dictionary so that Earth's problems disappear from the public discourse (and yet ISN can run news items damaging to the president? I thought for sure the tape would never make it on the air). But I don't get this character. On the one hand, she seems to know full well 1984 is her playbook. On the other, she does dumb stuff like get naked for Sheridan to get him to comply. Who IS this person? To make matters worse, as soon as the president has a P.R. problem, she's off to help and the station returns to its status quo. I find none of this convincing.

So what DID I like? Well, Zack's story, for starters. His ill-fitting uniform is a nice touch, showing that he may not have what it takes to be a member of the Nightwatch. It makes him uncomfortable. And though he bristles when Garibaldi questions his loyalty, he doesn't sell out his chief when the time comes. There's hope. Or is it just that Julie was rude to him? It's not clear, and that's what I like about it. G'Kar has a small role in Voices of Authority, but a good one as well. Londo-like, he goes around trying to make friends, and would like to make himself useful to the army of light. They can't trust him yet, but he's arguably been on this crusade since the first season. Bringing the Book of G'Quan to Garibaldi is a fun moment and one that could get him in with the cool kids. I'd certainly welcome it.

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORMHOLE: Sheridan is invited to "go where everyone has gone before". Ancient floating head aliens have been a part of Trek since those beings where young.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium, almost Medium-Low - Ironically, the best bits feature characters who DON'T have the "voice of authority". The rest certainly isn't JMS' strongest writing.