Saturday, November 22, 2014

Reign of the Supermen #555: Rainbow Superboy

Source: Superboy vol.1 #16 (1951)
Type: The real deal (since retconned)
"The Strange Costumes of Superboy" offers a whole month's worth of Reign articles when Superboy allows his oddest costume variations into a fashion show! And of course, each costume has a story to go with it! This fetching rainbow ensemble, for example, was born of necessity when a pretty young girl's explorer father was poisoned by a witch doctor for breaking a tribal tattoo. Just a regular day in Smallville/the Abrangi Territory. The witch-doc won't give up the cure until a rainbow appears in the evening sky on a day when there's been no rain (is this the Abrangi equivalent of hell freezing over?). Can Superboy do the impossible? Yes, and then some. He could paint his costume in rainbow colors, but I surmise its Kryptonian fabric would make the paint run off. He'll need a WOODEN uniform for this one!
And he could fly at superspeed to Pa Kent's general store and get some paint, but no, that would be too easy!
The best part is using a leopard's tail as a brush. PETA TAKE NOTE! And so...
Was it the SIMPLEST way to achieve this effect? Probably not. But this is about haute couture, not logic! Next week: A less colorful yarn (guys, this is a pun straight out of the comic, I don't feel guilty at all).

Doctor Who #953: The Caretaker

"The walls need sponging and there's a sinister puddle."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Sep.27 2014.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor goes undercover in Clara's school to find and defeat an alien killing machine.

REVIEW: Writer Gareth Roberts was responsible for The Lodger et al. and one of the principal writers on the Sarah Jane Adventures. The Caretaker is a bit of a cross between those two. It's got the bantery comedy of The Lodger with the Doctor seeming increasingly out of place posing as a human (except replace 11's eccentricities with 12's), while give or take a crispy-fried copper (the Heaven arc must be catered to, with Missy now expanding and farming the work out to Capaldi's Thick of It colleague Chris Addison), the school setting, kid companion, and puppet-ish monster give the episode a distinct SJA feel. Sarah Jane Smith WAS reintroduced in School Reunion, after all - another episode where the Doctor goes undercover inside a school. In a sense, I'm a little disappointed because the opening sequence, which was used in the teaser trailer, seemed to promise something we didn't get. Clara juggling her life with the Doctor and her affair with Danny, eating twice in a row, arriving to dates disheveled, etc. could have led to her actively doing something about her hectic schedule, forcing a meeting between the two men in her life, or even hit a wall from the exhaustion. Instead, it's merely prelude to a comedy episode with a very thin monster, also only there to serve the relationship stuff (not that there's anything wrong with that), while Danny and the Doctor meet with no help from Clara. The spark and wit of the dialog makes it very fun to watch regardless, but there are excesses that are less forgivable, from disruptive Courtney becoming the first "companion" to upchuck on the TARDIS, to the invisibility watch which will never be seen again (the device is well used, but ultimately, a cheat), to Danny's completely ridiculous somersault (maybe the point is that he becomes a P.E. teacher at that point, just as the Doctor's solution to the Skovox Blitzer is to become its "officer"; each man turning into what the other thinks of him).

Strong thematic underpinnings also make this episode more than another silly romp. Identity continues to be a big thing. The Doctor changes his - barely! - first to that of a cantankerous school caretaker (never get angry in the middle of writing a KEEP OUT sign, it'll turn into GO AWAY HUMANS), then as the Blitzer's general. It's not possible for him to see Danny as who he is, calling him a P.E. teacher or a soldier even though he teaches maths and is NO LONGER a soldier (because Danny is black, he wouldn't be wrong to take this as a racist comment from an old man, but obviously, the Doctor is oblivious to this kind of thing). And he thinks Clara's boyfriend is another teacher altogether, Adrian, who looks and dresses like the 11th Doctor. Doc12 gives her a great look when she claims that's not her type, and while he has no romantic claim on Clara, it flatters him. But the most important "identity crisis" in the episode is Danny rightly identifying the Doctor as an "officer". Soldiers carry guns and go to their deaths, while officers shout orders and survive to fight another day. Anarchic troublemaker or not, the Doctor still identifies as a Time Lord, and thus a member of an aristocracy slumming it - in this episode, LITERALLY - with us puny mortals, compassionate but dismissive of our short lives and petty concerns. [We've discussed this idea several times on this here blog, mostly thanks to frequent commenter and the coolest Welshman I know, Madeley. This was his thesis and it was really great seeing it addressed on screen after 50 years of silence.] So what if the Doctor is an officer type? What he's really telling the Doctor is that he's a hypocrite. Danny also thinks, for a minute, that Clara is a space girl and the Doctor her space dad, an amusing reference to the Doc1/Susan relationship (which also featured Coal Hill), but something ELSE the Doctor becomes over the course of the episode, protective of Clara in a fatherly way. And Danny asks Clara who she is when she's with the Doctor, and who she thinks HE is. Who we are, really, is very much at the heart of this post-regenerative series of Who.

So let's talk relationships for a minute, since that's what this episode is interested in. The arc we've been following is less about Clara falling in love with Danny Pink - though she lets that out of the bag here - and more about the Doctor feeling her slipping away. The amusing opening sequence has him popping 'round with an invitation to something cool and exotic every time she's about to go on a date. He's trying to sabotage the relationship so he doesn't lose his... I'm going to use the word "tutor". On the one hand, Clara must keep comparing her exciting life to the normalcy of a human relationship; on the other, it forces her to lie to Danny, a man who hates lies and further, "doesn't do weird". To his credit, he doesn't ask her to quit - though he's definitely a "nester", which can be a problem when one's significant other loves to travel - but simply to tell him if the Doctor pushes her too far, as HE'S been pushed (whatever happened in his military career, it would seem to feature an order he hated following; killing wasn't for him). The Doctor is right to be afraid. Danny's hold over Clara is likely to be what makes him lose her.

THEORIES: Not so much a theory as a connection... The Brigadier was also a soldier who retired to become a maths teacher (in Mawdryn Undead). Is this foreshadowing for ANOTHER connection Danny will have to the Brig by season's end?

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - In discussing themes rather than specific moments, I've downplayed just how fun the episode is - I love Capaldi's angry comedy, love to see those Malcolm Tucker moments creepy through - but I have to admit the story itself is pretty slim and includes elements I could have done without.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Dating Princess Diana: She Will Judge Your Pick-Up Line

No folks, it's not always about these women's relationships with Superman, because they have other prospects (LIKE CAREERS AND AMBITIONS, DC!)...
But not all prospects were created equal. Wonder Woman WILL let you know if you're barking up the wrong tree. You better get the hint.

From Wonder Woman #33 (2014) by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang

Doctor Who #952: Time Heist

"How can you trust someone if they look back at you out of your own eyes?"
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Sep.20 2014.

IN THIS ONE...
The Doctor and friends stage a timey-wimey bank heist, but beware the brain-melting monster.

REVIEW:
I'm surprised they never tried to do a proper heist episode before. Not that Time Heist is "proper" exactly. In a normal heist story, you'd see the preparation, then the action repeated with some nasty unforeseen twists. The way this episode is structured, you're not allowed to see the prep because the characters have all wiped it from their minds. So the twist is that they must figure out just what the prep WAS, who sent them to rob the bank, and rob it of what?! The direction never lets you forget its part of the heist genre though, using tons of cool, slick visual tricks which have been part of heist and con movies since at least the 60s - interesting dissolves, overhead camera angles, colorful lighting, screens within screens, smash cuts, smash zooms, and of course, a must, the smooth slow-motion walk-in by our heroes dressed in cool black suits. This more than anything makes Time Heist a fun ride, even once you know the answers.

More than a one-off genre piece, the episode also continues to explore one of the major themes of the season: Identity. The idea creeps in thanks to the character of Saibra, a shapeshifter who can't control her powers, cursed to lose herself in other identities. And what about the cyborg thief called Psi? He's wiped memories of family and friends so the authorities couldn't punish them for associating with him. Alone and without anyone to have a warm thought about, can he still be himself? Turns out both are on a quest to "find themselves". Then we have the bank's owner, Ms. Karabraxos (played by Spooks and Ashes to Ashes star Keeley Hawes, almost didn't recognize her), who serves as dual villain because she has a clone of herself in every facility, and thinks nothing of incinerating them when they fail her. That's some intense self-loathing, a feeling that will eventually (and it gets timey-wimey there) cause her enough regret that she'll contact the Doctor to undo at least one of her sins. The monstrous Teller (bad pun) that - oh my, body horror - turns potential thieves' brain into soup is no more than a slave who just wants to be left alone with its mate. And then Doctor? I guessed it before he did - did you? - he's the very "Architect" that sent them on this mission, a manipulative prick the Doctor is prone to hate. It's the self-loathing that gives it away, notably. Once again, we have the Doctor criticizing himself through someone else. Imagine, he thought up this plan, part of which was predicated on his ability to callously let his partners commit suicide (obviously, if the "shredders" were labeled as teleports, they might all have been inclined to ditch the mish).

The Danny Pink stuff is still weakest - he's far too cutesy at this stage in the game - but it does allow for some fun Doctor cluelessness, and even his competitive comment at the end, comparing the heist to a date, isn't meant as romantic triangle fodder. At this point, the Doctor must know why companions eventually leave him, and the more connections they make in their home time, the less likely they are to board the TARDIS looking for adventure. He doesn't compete with Danny, but with Clara's life. It's a sign of how dependent this newborn incarnation is on her. Loads of fun elements besides, including a montage of known rogues that includes Sensorites and Abslom Daak (DALEK KILLER!), the notion that the Doctor's power is being in charge (and I guess Clara's is making excuses for him), the whole thing with the eyebrows (a dig at Matt Smith?), and the ridiculous hypocrisy of the bank guards (they don't want to hurt you before they kill you, though the way they're put out of action is a redo of River Song's lipstick, isn't it?).

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High
- Now this is how you do a romp! Cool direction and genre business, which respects its own rules and does things with it only Doctor Who can. Like Robot of Sherwood, it's fluff, but it goes for clever rather than silly.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Reaganocomics: Courting the Rogue Vote

Ronald Reagan is a popular figure in 1980s comics, and while he has his detractors (as we saw last week), he also has his appreciators, as an anonymous commenter proved when he sent me this from Uncanny X-Men #201 (1986):
I bet this is one incident he won't be mentioning to Nancy! He just has to make sure the Secret Service wipes Rogue's lipstick off Air Force One's window before he takes his wife anywhere with it. Let's hope he doesn't forget while he's meeting with... Mystique?! Ronnie's problems are just beginning!

Doctor Who #951: Listen

"Question: Why do we talk out loud when we're alone? Conjecture: Because we know we're not."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Sep.13 2014.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor hunts a hidden creature that may or may not exist. Clara may have a future with Danny Pink.

REVIEW: An impressive experiment that, like the Doctor's Not-Where's-Wally book, doesn't actually have a monster in it. It's treated like a monster story, but each and every manifestation of the Doctor's "perfect hider" has a reasonable explanation attached (often times, the Doctor is just keeping the myth alive because he so wants to believe it). We could call it the "secret origin of the Doctor", in a sense, exploring the paranoia-inducing nightmare that (perhaps) inspired his escape from Gallifrey, and taught him how to tame his fear. Too much time alone has made the memory resurface in this incarnation of the Doctor and it's become an obsession. The 12th Doctor's metaphorical education proceeds apace; his mission treated as a research project; the TARDIS acting as an open classroom (books, a blackboard, etc.). And of course, Clara is the teacher, evaluating the work and asking the questions, not because she's the dense companion, but because she's testing the Doctor's theories and conclusions.

It may be the origin of the Doctor, but it's really Clara's show. In addition to being the teacher, she's the substitute Doctor (a theme we've been following since the season opener), able to pilot the TARDIS now using a gooey open brain panel on the console (would you be surprised if I told you it's been there since The Snowmen?). When the show surprisingly takes us to the Doctor's childhood - adding more meaning to the events of The Day of the Doctor, no less - she gets to play the Impossible Girl again, having an impact on the Doctor's life (and proving in her dialog that she does have memories of that experience), becoming the "monster under the bed" AND a sort of muse of courage, imprinting values on the young Gallifreyan ("Fear is a constant companion" is a great line). (And if you want to go completely nuts, think about it, there's an echo of her everywhere in time, helping the Doctor, so if he feels like he's being watched, that's ALSO her.) In that touching moment, she literally becomes the mother figure she's been to him since the start of the season, and treats him no differently when she walks back into the TARDIS. "Do as you're told" has never been so lovingly said. Clara is also mother to Danny Pink, another person she visits in his childhood and on whom she imprints herself, possibly creating his whole identity as a soldier. AND it looks like her relationship with the adult Danny is meant to go somewhere, because she meets someone who can only be her own great-grandson, humanity's first time traveler, Orson Pink (I'll keep any spoilers for episodes down the line in the Theories section).

Between the wonderful Galiffrey sequence, the tension and creep factor of every scene in which the "Hidden" are meant to be present, the dialog that swings in and out of nursery rhymes, and the wacky TARDIS stunts (Doc on top, underwater, etc.), the Danny-Clara stuff never really had a chance. The various attempts at this one date are strictly "Coupling awkward", at least until Pink gets angry at Clara and shows his real self. He's stronger than he's seemed, won't be lied to (uh-oh) and won't stand for shenanigans (double uh-oh). And yet, everything points to their being made for each other. Their scenes together are amusing, especially if you like a good double-entendre, and Clara and her smart mouth are always entertaining. If some of these bits are weaker, it's because the rest is so interesting, touching, creepy, funny... I love the Doctor's "dad skills", the toy soldier braver than the rest for lack of a gun, the sound design, the lighting - have I mentioned how I love the way the lights go round and round while the TARDIS is in transit? Well, I do! - the Doctor sipping a stolen coffee cup, fear as a superpower... everything really.

THEORIES: [Spoilers can't be helped in this section] So how can the TARDIS go to Gallifrey 2000 years in its past when it's not even supposed to be in our universe? Unless it is? If Missy is a Time Lord, how did she get out of the timelock? Answer: Gallifrey is already out, just as she will later claim. That means it's accessible to the TARDIS again. But the Doctor can't go back and time to meet himself, and all visits (except in multi-Doctor stories) have been in a "Gallifreyan present". Except the Doctor isn't driving the ship, Clara is, and she isn't bound by his timeline. She can meet Time Lords out of order even if he presumably (still) can't. Since it's established with the visit to Danny's childhood that the TARDIS can follow Clara's timeline and jump tracks into another who's shared her life, it stands to reason it can also jump tracks into the Doctor's. Alternatively, it's Impossible Girl stuff and her timeline actually intersects the Doctor's naturally. She "existed" in the Doctor's childhood and so can bring the TARDIS there. Well, that's as maybe. The other big question this episode poses, in light of later episodes, is whether Orson will ever be born. Or is Clara pregnant by the series finale, and we just don't know it? If she doesn't have kids with Pink, this whole timeline collapses, which would be a real shame. I'm sad to say later events actually damaged my enjoyment of this episode as the Orson elements became "what might have beens".

REWATCHABILITY: High - The season's stand-out episode, offbeat, clever and heartfelt.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Who's Tommy Tomorrow?

Who's This? The space cadet on page 9 of Who's Who vol.XXIV.
The facts: A character called Tommy Tomorrow first appeared in Real Fact Comics #6 (1947) and then in #8, #13 and #16. His creation was credited to Jack Schiff, George Kashdan, Bernie Breslauer, Howard Sherman and Virgil Finlay (a lot of people for a 4-page story). But these first few adventures contradict everything that followed and are usually considered apocryphal. The first true Tommy Tomorrow story thus be identified as "The Interplanetary Aquarium" in Action Comics #127 (1948). He would remain a consistent feature in that book until #251 (1959), with an appearance in a Supergirl story in #255. He would then move to World's Finest Comics and stay there from #102 to #124 (1962). Most of the stories were crafted by Otto Binder and Jim Mooney. With such longevity, it's no surprise DC tried to spin him off into his own book, but a 5-issue try-out in Showcase #41-43, 46-47 the next year courtesy of Arnold Drake and Lee Elias, didn't work out for him. He would appear a couple times in the late 70s (DC Special #27 and Showcase #100), as a TV show on Earth-1 (for example in The New Adventures of Superboy #24)  and in the occasional reprint. The events of the first Crisis (actually, History of the DC Universe) would invent that connection to OMAC and Kamadi as a kind of postscript.
How you could have heard of him: Tommy was a featured player (more or less a villainous one) in Howard Chaykin's Twilight mini-series, and has had cameos whenever DC's space opera future has been evoked. The name turns up Stan Lee's Just Imagine series, Starman One Million says Tommy Tomorrow II was a prominent Starman, there's a Captain Tomorrow in the Trek/Legion crossover, and a Major Tomorrow of the Planeteers is referenced in Magog #7, but that's really the extent of Tommy's post-Crisis career. He's been an Easter Egg more than a character.
Example story: Action Comics #235 (1957) "The Interplanetary Joy Ride" by Otto Binder and Jim Mooney
Most Tommy Tomorrow tales have "Interstellar" or "Space" in their titles. And most, I dare say, take a very Silver Agey approach to the space opera genre. In this one, set in 2057 (which is a little more realistic than Tommy's original time line where he graduated from the Academy in 1988!), three unruly teenagers decide to play hooky, break into a spaceport, and steal a spaceship. You know, as bored kids might.
"Robo" (the others are Jonny and Hank) was "told" about the controls, so what could go wrong? It's the future, flying spacecraft through near (and as we'll soon find out, cluttered) space has become fairly intuitive. Ok, the kids almost hit a large freighter, but give Robo a chance. He'll get the hang of it. A report gets to Planeteer HQ, and it's Colonel Tommy Tomorrow's job to tow them back to port.
So either the Planeteers really are the interstellar equivalent of traffic cops, or rank doesn't carry very much privilege. In the meantime, the kids are having trouble with the ship, not so much the flying of it, but the random button pushing has unforeseen effects.
First, a robot guard meant to handle any crooks who might invade the ship, BUT ONLY IF THE CROOKS PUSH A BUTTON, pops out and starts arresting them, and then another button starts pouring on the chemical fire extinguisher. But no worries, both things are deactivated if you push the same buttons again. By the time Tommy finds them, they've got things under control and are up to some hijinks.
This is what humanity will do once it gets to the stars. Like artists are ever going to afford going off-world. Ha! When Tommy orders them back to Earth, the rabble-rousers instead flip him off. Tommy's solution is reverse-psychology. He tells them he has an important mission to perform, so they better not try to follow him because only expert spacemen can go where he'll go.
First he tricks them into landing on an erratically spinning asteroid and makes them sick.
But they don't give up, so he takes them to space's most dangerous publicity signage:
They survive this hazard, so he takes them to... well... a picture is worth a thousand words.
The future is a place where references to expander rays can be thrown out with careless abandon and towing a giant snowman into space is easier and cheaper than letting it melt. The kids try to bump its hat off for no other reason than "haw haw!", but get stuck when their fuel freezes.
Because this unholy snowman is COLDER THAN SPACE ITSELF! Now they don't have a choice BUT to give up, and Tommy tows them back to Earth. But he goes real easy on them. Check out this futuristic compassion:
Not only does he let them go with a warning, but he also sends them a board game later! That's some pretty evolved thinking for a 1950s character, focusing on reforming criminals rather than punishing them. Or is it more of that "boys will be boys" nonsense the writer was espousing earlier? What does it take for the space police to get those kids off my damn space lawn?!

Who else?
Skipped over Tobias Whale, too well known as Black Lightning's only villain of note; Tokamak because he was part of Firestorm's greatest ever arc when I was a kid, so I can't bring myself to think of him as obscure; and Tomahawk's Rangers, who don't particularly interest me. Besides, our next stop will almost certainly feature the American Frontier.

Doctor Who #950: Robot of Sherwood

"When did you start believing in impossible heroes?" "Don't you know?"
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Sep.6 2014.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor finds it hard to accept Robin Hood as real.

REVIEW: If I know Mark Gatiss, he's inserted all kinds of sly references to Robin Hoods of film and television past (like the pic of Troughton as the Prince of Thieves, cheeky) into his romp, I'm just not very good at spotting them for lack of general Robin knowledge. His references to past Who, however, are more noticeable to me - Venusian Aikido (Hai!), Enlightenment, the arrow in the TARDIS (neat healing ability), the feel of both The Time Warrior and The Androids of Tara, the Mini-scope reference, Marion left the way K9 was in School Reunion (this was a touch confusing; was she in the TARDIS or just standing behind the box all that time?), and it's probably accidental, but holy crap does Ben Miller (as the Sheriff of Nottingham) look like the Anthony Ainsley Master! But in reference both heroes (Doctor/Robin), Gatiss also mocks and inverts their tropes. This is why Clara is identified as the leader of the band (part of a over-arcing theme), and rightly so, since her role and the Doctor's are inverted. Not only did she choose the destination, but she's the one showing him impossible and wondrous things while he acts as the straight man and like the audience goes "this isn't possible". Simply put, he keeps refusing to believe Robin Hood is real while also accomplishing feats just as unreasonable as the legend's - he may cheat the arrow tricks, but the spoon fight is quite real. As it turns out, so is Robin, so are the Merry Men, and so is the Sheriff. Sorry Doctor.

Unfortunately, Gatiss may have over-egged the romp. The entire situation, the fact the Doctor keeps trying to debunk it, and his childish competition with Robin (refreshingly non-romantic) should have been enough for the comedy to work. The robots and their castle spaceship introduce "comedy science" that has its own logic, which might as well be magic. The robots are easily defeated by a collection of reflective plates (there sure is a lot of weaponized dinnerware in this one), and the climax hinges on the ship drawing power from gold, its mere contact enough for it to work. Looks like they didn't even need to melt it down, they only needed to carry it in the hold. Throw in a reference to the Promised Land that doesn't jibe with the eventual revelation of what that is (but see Theories), and you have a glib mess of a plot on your hands. When anything can happen - down to the sonic screwdriver exploding hay - none of it feels particular real or gripping.

While I could jettison that plot, when it comes to the characters, the concept of reality ties into the Doctor's exploration of his identity which is at the heart of Series 8. Robin tells the Doctor he's as real as real as the Time Lord is, a bit of ham-fisted meta-commentary, but the point is made. Robin and the Doctor are cut from the same cloth (which is what draws Clara to both, though again, not romantically), both are impossible heroes and up to a point, playing a role. Robin laughs too much, but the Doctor grumbles too much. Both are fronts, masks, to hide their true feelings. When they look at each other, they see their true selves - Robin is in reality sad, and the Doctor can't allow himself to show Clara just how much he enjoys himself - and it irritates them to see exactly what they're trying to hide. This is what their competition is about. Not the girl's attention (see 9, 10 and 11's interactions with Captain Jack, Rory, etc., even each other), but perhaps her approbation. She's the mum, or the big sister, not the love interest, and they act like brothers of a sort. The Doctor tries to humiliate Robin at every turn, and regardless of that fact it often bounces back on him, he puffs out his chest when his "baby brother" uses the same trick on the Sheriff he did at the river, with pride. If The Thick of It proves anything, it's that he's great at angry comedy (freeze-frame the scene where he puts on gloves for an echo of that Malcolm Tucker's rudeness), and Robot of Sherwood certainly gives him the opportunity to show that off.

THEORIES: If the Promised Land is Heaven/the Matrix, why are the Sherwood robots trying to reach it, or even know about it? It looks like a planet on the computer screen, which will turn out to be a red herring. The crucial clue is that their databanks also contain information on Robin Hood as a legend (and television character). In other words, the information is from the future, and maybe they are too. From there, it's not too much of a reach to assume Missy is setting traps for the Doctor all through history, either allying with various threats (the clockwork men and these guys, for example) or manipulating them with the promise of an afterlife that would other be denied mechanical men (non-sentients who surely are soulless). And there's another, much more important question: Where does Clara get such fabulous hair extensions? Mummy on the Orient Express will do the reverse, with a much shorter hairstyle. Can the TARDIS localize time to make your hair grow faster (and would it then gray up faster as well, over time?), or - probably the simpler explanation - does its wardrobe have future-tech wigs that look and act like real hair, won't fall off, etc. to allow travelers to better fit into other time and places?

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - An amusing trifle with make-it-up-as-you-go logic. Capaldi's comedy chops and the general charm of the cast save it from being rather stupid.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Arrowed: Checkmate!

The feature inspired by great cosplay and fan art where I imagine various DC properties taken to the small screen and wonder aloud just what their shows would be like. Today's pitch: Checkmate!
Fan art by: White Lemon (on DeviantArt) with Florencia Sofen as Sasha Bordeaux, photography by Jonathan Duran

DC could get into the superspy genre easily with Checkmate, and they've even got two versions of the organization to choose from (or mix and match). The New52 probably has a dozen covert groups, but none have the visual "hook" Checkmate has. Basically, people know what chess is, and would understand the group's hierarchy because it's based on that. Plus, it's a fine metaphor for the kind of intrigue, both internal and external, the characters would routinely get up to. White and Black even allows for shades of morality (though in the book, these are respectively intel and ops), and the possibility of compartmentalized missions from either "side" coming into conflict. The Knights from the original series have cool armors I'd love to see in live action, but such a show may or may not feature recurring characters are this lower level. (I think it should, personally.)

Now, you might call it DC TV's answer to Agents of SHIELD, but the Rucka series opens up the possibility of super-powered agents, some possibly culled from other DC TV shows. The comics series made use of Amanda Waller, Alan Scott, Mister Terrific, King Faraday, Sarge Steel, Fire, Count Vertigo and many more (Sasha Bordeaux too, obviously). Specialists (Rooks?) could come and go, regardless of the main cast. The original series eventually introduced a Russian Checkmate which could act as counterpoint or even antagonists, but the show's Checkmate could go after all sorts of despots (Baron Bedlam, Sonar), cult groups (Kobra's) and bad covert groups (HIVE, SKULL). There's plenty to do... if you can trust your organization's own agenda.

A little bit SHIELD, a little bit Game of Thrones, a larger bit James Bond, mixed with superheroes... What would you do with such a TV series?

Doctor Who #949: Into the Dalek

"She's my... not my assistant, what's the word?" "Carer?" "Yes, she's my carer: she cares so I don't have to."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Aug.30 2014.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor and Clara find themselves inside of a supposedly good Dalek. First appearance of Danny Pink.

REVIEW:
While getting shrunk and injected into an organism or machine is a fairly silly notion in SF, it's a good old Doctor Who tradition. It started with a TARDIS malfunction back in the Hartnell era (Planet of Giants) and has popped up several times since (Carnival of Monsters, The Armageddon Factor, and very recently, Let's Kill Hitler, et al.). Inside the Dalek's closest cousin, however, is The Invisible Enemy, in which the fourth Doctor and Leela (or really, they're temporary doubles) were miniaturized and injected into the Doctor's own brain so they could face down an alien virus. While walking around a mechanical construct seems more realistic than the surreal imagery The Invisible Enemy sometimes gave us, the "anatomy" is just as absurd - light impulses traveling down the eye stalk, big buttons you can slap to restore repressed memories, that kind of thing. The wrinkle is that this is apparently a "good" Dalek, by which we can only mean it's on our side. It's still filled with hatred, still a killing machine. It just wants to destroy other Daleks, that's all. A malfunction made it experience the beauty of the universe, and now it wants to stop Daleks from destroying that beauty. Is that doing bad to do good? It's an ambiguity mirrored in the Doctor. When he fixes the Dalek, it makes the Dalek evil again and start killing people. He's done a good thing that resulted in a bad thing. When he asks a man to trust him, while knowingly allowing him to be killed, he saves everyone else's lives. He's done a bad thing to do a good thing. Doc10 would have made the same decision telling the victim he was sorry, so sorry. No "human" niceties with 12. And it's his own hatred of the Daleks "Rusty" takes away from their mindmeld, reinforcing the killing machine's evil strain and destroying any chance that other Daleks can be "turned". He made it an ally, but couldn't save its soul.

Absent the lunacy of the post-regenerative story, Capaldi's Doctor is cool and collected, doles out quick and acerbic wit, and shares an electric alien-ness with Tom Baker's portrayal of the fourth Doctor. We're definitely in "you're a beautiful woman, probably" territory here when it comes to Clara, and he can't even be counted on to recognize any given human being. His callousness is born of pragmatism, but also from an inability to empathize with human emotion. And it scares the hell out of him. What would it be like to lose one's moral compass? Not gradually, through experience, but suddenly, as if from head trauma? That's why the Doctor needs Clara to evaluate him, to keep him on the right track, because he doesn't trust himself to. He wants to be the man he once was, the man who went to Skaro and saw evil and was repelled by it, but finds that evil in himself now. The Dalek reflects it back at him, and we get a shade of Doc9's own hatred of the Daleks (in "Dalek") with a similar line about being a "good Dalek". The Doctor has always been a killing machine; it's just that he's been on our side. I don't think we've seen such grave doubts in him before though. The new dynamic between the Doctor and Clara is that she's his TEACHER, not the other way around, and it's my very favorite thing about Season 8. The big hero moment isn't when the Doctor convinces the Dalek to "turn" - a Pyrrhic victory at best - but when Clara tests him and asks if he's learned the right lesson from these events. No matter how brilliant, the 12th Doctor is still a child, at least emotionally and morally, and every voyage through time and space with Ms. Oswald is a field trip. Love it.

And it all harks back to the inception of the series in 1963. There too the Doctor traveled with a pair of teachers, and though the program didn't stress the point overtly, they too taught him how to be "human". It's notable that Clara works at the same school and that in this very episode, she meets a maths teacher, Danny Pink, with whom she has an immediate attraction. He fills Ian Chesterton's spot to her Barbara Wright (maths for science and English for history), and like Ian, Danny has known military service. Unlike Ian, and this is 50 years of our own time passing, he also has PTSD and woman-induced anxiety. (Not surprisingly, Moffat writes the courtship as if these two were Susan and Steve from Coupling; your mileage may vary.) We're going to see a lot more of the school as their relationship progresses, in line with the theme of Clara acting as the Doctor's tutor. Danny's history as a soldier will also feature prominently, and in this episode, the theme is broached through a different soldier with a colorful name - Journey Blue. At first, she's just the umpteenth target of the Doctor's criticism of the military mind (forcing her to use "please" as an alternative to gunpoint is a nice bit), but by the end, she's become something more. Like the Dalek, she's a reflection of Doctor's own sins. When she asks to come along, the Doctor rejects her, but in the context of the story, he might as well be talking to himself. Clara has no such rule regarding soldiers, but then, how could she when she willingly stays by the Doctor's side. The compassionate soldier is her type.

THEORIES:
"Nobody guards the dead", the Doctor says. Foreshadowing the finale? Tying in with the Missy subplot and how she's having tea and crumpets with all the souls the Doctor's touched? One question: What great thing will the Doctor do to honor Gretchen Carlisle's name? He made a promise to keep her name alive in tribute to her sacrifice, so I'm keeping my ears peeled for something called "Carlisle" in the show's future.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High -
More Heart of Darkness than Fantastic Voyage. The premise may be a little silly, but the story takes us into the Doctor's psyche and redefines his relationship to the companion. Capaldi is proving a force to be reckoned with.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Doctor Who #948: Deep Breath

"He is lost in the ruin of himself, and we must bring him home."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Aug.23 2014.

IN THIS ONE... An introduction to the 12th Doctor, with clockwork robots in Victorian London.

REVIEW: It is perhaps inconsequential what the plot of this is, because Deep Breath's whole reason for being is making Clara, and thus the audience, accept the new Doctor. After long stints from pretty boys, the Doctor is back to being an older man, and a more improbable sex symbol / 'shipping target. For a generation drawn into this universe by the strong 'shipping opportunities offered by Tennant and Smith, Capaldi was a hard sell. So take a deep breath, New Who fans (it's right there in the title), the ride might get a little bumpy. The episode is thus built around making Doctor Who's wide general audience accept this new version of the show, which goes through the audience identification figure, Clara. She is reticent to accept the Doctor's new looks, and is called superficial for it, and it angers her. The audience is dared to defend its own stance on the matter. Madam Vastra, Jenny and Strax are over-used, but here are required to create familiarity that doubtful fans will accept. And though I don't particularly like it as an idea, the call made to Clara by surprise guest-star Matt Smith - Capaldi shouldn't have the previous Doctor crash his first episode like that - it's part of the same scheme. If you loved the 11th Doctor, can't you do him a favor and like the 12th? For him? Please? And I don't think it's the fact Clara hugs this new Doctor at the end that endears you to him; it's really how awkward he looks when being hugged. That's the selling point.

It's hard to gauge this new Doctor after one episode, because he spends most of it as a raving lunatic in the throes of regeneration instability. What will stick, and what is just a manifestation of his regenerative amnesia? The big shift is in his relationship to the companion. The flirting is over and done with; he can't even tell Clara and Strax apart on account of their similar heights. His brains are scrambled, obviously, and for this same reason, he doesn't seem to know what a bedroom is, but as we'll discover, an inability to recognize Clara's attractiveness will be a major component of his character. To its credit, the script actually comments on the last 9 years of flirting Doctors. First, by making the Doctor flirt with a dinosaur, showing how ridiculous it all actually is when you consider the age and species difference between him and any given companion, Second, and less superficially, Vastra makes the point that his youthful appearance in past regenerations were a form of flirting, and a way to be accepted. Even the Doctor fesses up to one of his mistakes being that he liked to imagine himself as the companion's boyfriend. It's plain that the era is over. At the same time, the episode also makes clear that it's NOT because he is played by an older actor, making sure to show Doc12 as an action man, jumping out of windows, onto horses, off bridges and so on. Questioning established beliefs will be part of parcel of his character in the same way, whether it's bedrooms, conclusions or the Doctor/companion relationship.

We were also promised a darker Doctor, one that is already seeking redemption, almost before the fact. On the surface of it, he thinks he has "cross eyebrows", and his Scottish accent migration (something we can only assume he took from Amy, even if it's not the first time he's been a Scot) gives him even more license to be angry at the world. He's rude too. And abandons Clara a number of times without so much as a by your leave, or an explanation. They bicker, but it doesn't seem pointless like his relationship with Tegan or Peri often did. They are both truth-tellers, headstrong and opinionated, but ultimately accepting of each other's flaws. Over the course of the season, I'll have better occasion to discuss their relationship which I thought was a highlight of Series 8. The Doctor's innate darkness creates a bit of a tug of war within the episode. It's asking us to accept him, and yet not trust him. It culminates in the climactic scene aboard the "escape pod", in which the clockwork man either jumped out or was pushed out. We're not allowed to see which, and the Doctor looks right into the camera afterwards, shockingly, daring us to judge him. The makeover is complete in the duo's last scene, with a slightly redesigned TARDIS interior - I love the book cases and homier feel - and a costume harking back to Pertwee's stage magician look. His personality has settled down, and we have before us a man who wants to be accepted as much as his previous selves did, but finds he has no real way to express it. When the TARDIS lands and Clara asks if she's home, she means to leave and go to her house; he answers, if you like, telling her the TARDIS is still her home, if she can accept all the changes. After Doc11's phone call, Capaldi shows a real vulnerability, and still words fail him. There's just enough heartbreak there to make us fall in love with him, I think, and Clara does.

We should discuss the new opening sequence, directly inspired by (and credited to) a fan-made video which also used clockwork and clock motifs to create the usual time vortex imagery. Personally, I love it. It's a different take, but recognizable. It's retro and steampunk (and in this episode actually relates to the monsters), and features the Doctor's eyes, as seen in the 50th Anniversary special, his trademark. I'm just not sure about the music, which seems to have returned to its 50-year-old roots, more spare and strange than the orchestral versions the last decade has made us used to, but being old-fashioned, it lacks punch. Visually, the program seems more bleached out than previous Doctors' adventures have been, though this may have to do with the setting. We're certainly a far cry from RTD's acid greens and purples, and glowing golds. Tonally, it's like the Doctor. It hasn't yet settled down. There's darkness and tension, and as before, winks to the past (my favorite bit is Capaldi's face in a silver tray, a literal mirror of a sequence from the very first post-regeneration story, though I'm also partial to the joke about the usefulness of Amy's long legs), but also dumb jokes that spoil the mood, like the automatic lock chirping on Vastra's carriage and Vastra's ridiculous attempts at getting all the female characters to disrobe for her.

Likewise, the plot is complete hogwash of what I call the kitchen sink variety. The TARDIS gets lodged in a giant T-Rex's throat and it time travels to Victorian London with it (shades here of Invasion of the Dinosaurs, perhaps to put us in 3rd Doctor kind of mood). The clockwork men from The Girl in the Fireplace are back and have taken their ship's modus operandi as their own, replacing their own parts with human and animal ones for millions of years. They run a restaurant that's actually their ship, are seeking the "Promised Land" or Paradise (what?), and only recognize living beings when they sense their breaths (it makes for a harrowing sequence when Clara tries to run from them without breathing, but seeing as there's a "control node", it should know who's in the hive and who isn't). And then there's the idea that they harvest organs through a process that causes spontaneous combustion, which isn't really explored or used very well. Oh, and Vastra and Strax are now walking around London without anyone saying anything, and the police are complete morons at her beck and call... Truly, the plot is definitely the weakest aspect of Deep Breath.

At least Moffat has a way of interweaving the episode and season's themes into the action. The most important of these is identity. The Doctor is in search of his new one, of course, but it's also about what part outside appearances play in that quest. Faces become a leitmotif, as does the inability to recognize people. The Doctor looks different, but at one point, even wears one of the clockwork men's faces. He also wonders where he "gets" the faces, because this one seems familiar, a wink at Capaldi previously playing a Roman in The Fires of Pompeii, but also broaches the idea that the subconscious "choice" is a message with deep meaning. If, as I've always contended, the new Doctor is always a reaction to the previous one's weaknesses and death, then Doc12 rejects the role of beloved community leader Doc11 had become on Trenzalore. The broom metaphor he uses on the clockwork men applies equally to himself; how much can you change of anything until it is no longer itself? How much can the production team change the show and still be allowed to call it "Doctor Who"? Conversely, the Doctor cannot recognize Clara at first, a shtick shared, redundantly but he did it first, with Strax, who could never tell if Clara was a girl or a boy (and ridiculously - see dumb jokes again - if she's wearing clothes or not, etc.). Vastra and Jenny putting on the appearance of an employer/maid relationship is likewise couched in that theme, as the pretense has a way of becoming the truth. There's transference between Clara and the Doctor that's part of this idea, and which will be sustained through to episode 12. She's the old veteran and he's the newbie, which isn't just a matter of casting, but of personality. When they find an ad in the paper, each thinks it's from the other, and their less-than-glowing evaluation of their partner creates an amusing misunderstanding. Each thinks of the other as an egomaniacal control freak. Over the course of the series, we'll see Clara acting as the Doctor's proxy, taking HIS traditional role, and the seeds are sown here. And of course, there's Missy from the final scene, teasing the Series' arc (see Theories), a character whose identity is shrouded in mystery, and who most certainly has had another identity. Another theme is abandonment. The Doctor abandons Clara no less than three times in Deep Breath and Clara tries to do the same at the end. As we'll discover, it's a game they BOTH play several times over the course of the series. There's more foreshadowing of future episodes too (especially the finale), from the use of cannibal cyborgs (the idea will return) to Vastra getting one of the Brigadier's most famous lines, to the Doctor's mistrust of beds and Clara's job as a school teacher getting play (note the first appearance of her difficult pupil Courtney).

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - The plot is unfortunately nonsense, but the two principals put in excellent performances - I feel like Clara's character is better revealed than she ever was, for example. The exercise in making us accept an entirely new Doctor, whether you think it was necessary or not (and Classic Who fans will likely think it wasn't), creates coherent and sometimes illuminating themes, which is where Deep Breath's logic rests, as opposed to the nuts and bolts of its plot. Obviously, introducing a new Doctor will always jack up the score. Put this same story in the middle of a season, and it would fall on the weaker side of Medium.

A NOTE ON SPOILERS:
These reviews will spoil the featured episode, and make mostly veiled allusions to what's coming. Because it's all very fresh still, with some fans still trying to catch up and others waiting for the DVD set to be released, let these fans be wary. If you read each review just after you've watched the episode, you may get spoiled on some details. If not by me (and I'll be careful, especially with the chosen pictures), then quite possibly by the comments section. If you're up to date and chomping at the bit to discuss a particular aspect of Season 8, do try to address it when the proper episode rolls around to avoid this kind of thing happening to less current readers. Thanks!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

This Week in Geek (10-16/11/14)

Buys

December's daily indie SF film project is becoming more concrete with the purchase of Christmas on Mars. Because I need a film for that particular day. Other than that, Mighty Aphrodite and a Jim Henson three-fer, Labyrinth, Mirrormask and The Dark Crystal.

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: Disney's new animated superhero film, Big Hero 6, has only a passing resemblance to the Marvel Comics property of the same name, but that's a good thing (and my warning to parents and friends who would go seeking the originals for fans of the movie). BH6 shares some characters with the book, but its selling point, Baymax as an adorable inflatable robot, is unique to the film, and its strongest selling point. From the marketing, you'd think it was all about him, but there's a whole cast of characters here, one that would be worthy of an actual serial. Between this and The Incredibles, one might wonder why animated superhero films in this style aren't more of a cottage industry. They look beautiful, they're exciting, and manage to perfect balance of laugh-out-loud funny and heart-achingly touching. BH6 has perhaps less to say than The Incredibles did, but it's just as much fun. And Baymax is, for lack of a better term, the new Groot. If you know what I mean. I also want to put my support behind the animated short shown before the main event, a story called "Feast" which looks at the most important time in a man's life entirely through his ravenous dog's point of view. Clever, funny and touching, just like the movie it precedes.

DVDs: Moving right along on my rediscovery of the Jack Ryan films, Patriot Games marks Harrison Ford's replacement of Alec Baldwin in the main role, which turned me off at the time and still does today. Baldwin's Jack Ryan was a slick CIA analyst, the smartest man in the room, and though able to handle himself, uncomfortable with the role of action man. Ford has a reputation for playing action men, and his attempt to play Ryan as clumsy and awkward doesn't quite sit right, especially when the film decides to turn the climax of the book into a facile action sequence. But perhaps it's less a matter of performance than it is of casting. An older man, Ford veers the franchise into family film territory, spending a lot of time with his wife and child, and actively placing them in danger. The trope is "this time, it's personal", which just feels contrived and manipulative. Even the film's cliffhanger is a family matter. As with The Hunt for Red October, we spend a lot of time with the villain, but like Jack Ryan, Sean Bean's Irish terrorist is a bit of bumbler. It's hard to be too afraid of him. The DVD is clearly part of the same series of releases Red October is, with a half-hour retrospective "making of" produced at the same time.

With Clear and Present Danger, the franchise puts the family in the background again, and Ryan in the center seat. A more central seat even, that of acting CIA director, so that he can act as the last honest man in Washington and go toe-to-toe with the President of the United States himself. I wonder what seems more dated today? The use of fax machines, beepers and dial-up; the so-called "computer duel"; or the Colombian cartel plot? The large cast is rather variable for me, with some villains sneering like it's a silent film while Willem Dafoe provides a sympathetic performance as a man who lives in the gray world of covert ops. He doesn't get nearly enough space to develop the role. Ryan is, by comparison, a clumsy schmoe, though I do embrace a return to more grounded action beats. According to the "making of", the sequence where the diplomatic cards are boxed in by the cartel's men is used in Secret Service training, and I agree it's as strong a set piece as any. Still, it's no Hunt for Red October. (I've published capsule reviews of four Jack Ryan films to date; let it be known I don't expect to see The Sum of All Fears anytime soon - I hear it's a real turkey.)

Always up for a con man movie, The Brothers Bloom is a lot fun, if tonally all over the place. It's quite clearly a comedy, with background gags and very fanciful characters, but it's also trying for psychological truth and a wistful, melancholy atmosphere. I don't mind the mix; it's quirky and manages to be both funny and sad. The story concerns the world's two greatest con men, played by Mark Rafallo and Adrian Brody. Of the Blooms, the latter wants out from this life, and the former wants him to leave it in style, and perhaps a little more. He chooses one last mark, an eccentric hermit of a girl played by Rachel Weitz. As this crazy story develops, the audience starts to wonder if she's really being conned, or if Brody's character is the real mark, since Rafallo's idea of a con is to give the mark exactly what he wanted after all. You should never trust what you're seeing in a con movie, because there's usually a con being played on the audience as well. I may have been more suspicious than I needed to be with this one, or you could say the movie could have done with a couple more twists. Or perhaps that's the twist. Or perhaps I shouldn't trust the ending. Hm. I should stop worrying and just give it my recommendation as a fun flick with enough surprises to fulfill its genre requirements.

While I was a bigger fan of Michael Palin's round-the-world journeys (in 80 Days, Pole to Pole, Full Circle), there is still much value to his excursions in relatively smaller regions. One country that apparently never showed up on his itinerary is Brazil (unless we're talking about Gilliam's dystopian future, of course) and as the World Cup and Olympic Games loom (his time; for us, the first of these is past), a portrait of the country and its national identity is certainly worth attempting. Over the course of four episodes, we see a country both modern and ancient, wealthy and poor, wild nature and urban sprawl, a patchwork of cultures both native and imported. And this is true inside any given episode, i.e. region. And it's  probably Palin's sexiest episode, with lots of nudity, love hotels, etc. That's Brazil, I guess. Rio de Janeiro, the Amazon River... That's all we ever see. So it's very interesting to visit anything else and see how vibrant the entire country is.

From Brazil to Italy with The Italian Job - the original - a heist picture starring Michael Caine and a lot of comic talent, because despite a lot of action centered on car stunts, it's basically a comedy. My appreciation of Benny Hill's intrusions aside (turning small scenes into the kind of skits he was known for goes a bit overboard), it works rather well. Caine himself shows a real talent for creating fun, light moments, and his delivery is pitch perfect. Plus, who doesn't love the British mob kingpin holding court from prison? So an amusing affair well worth its reputation, which uses the Turin location well (in terms of car chase choreography - one of the great car chase movies in cinema history, surely), though perhaps the city's citizens might have a different opinion.

Finished up my Babylon 5-related viewing this week, so you know where to go to see what I thought of the story content (and it looks like my views tend towards the controversial among B5 fans!). So let's just talk about the DVD extras on these. Let's first say that these are not part of the B5 original release, which means they don't have all sorts of frustrating technical issues. That's a mercy. Crusade might have had more to offer if JMS hadn't trashed the network in one commentary track (apparently, it's on the original release, but not on subsequent printings). As it stands, only one episode has commentary on it, from the cast. It's pleasant enough. The package is complemented by making of featurettes, including one on the design of the Excalibur, both inside and out. The Legend of the Rangers has no extras. No respect for the runt of the litter. The Lost Tales have the best extras package, however, with more minutes on the disc devoted to them than to the actual episode content. There are interviews with JMS and his three main actors; tear-jerking tributes to fallen actors Richard Biggs and Andreas Katsulas; JMS' video diary, a collection of behind the scenes making of elements and a regrettable puppet show; and a featurette where JMS answers questions from fans.

Hyperion to a Satyr posts this week:
V.ii. The Readiness Is All - Fodor (2007)

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Reign of the Supermen #554: Superman 1000 C.E.

Source: Ulises Farinas Draws (2011)
Type: Fan-made Elseworlds
Move over Justice League 3000, meet Justice League 1000! This is Ulises Farinas' Medieval Justice League, featuring a Roman-styled Superman up there in the sky. It made the rounds on the Internet back in '11, and I've been holding on to it ever since. Well, holding it no more!

Though this is a Superman-centric feature, I've got to say how much I like Green Lantern as a Buddhist monk there, a traveler from the Far Orient. It's not all Medieval Europe. Is that J'Onn J'Onzz as a carpet-riding, green-skinned Djinn? Cool stuff.

Babylon 5 #131: Voices in the Dark: Over There

"There is hope, but it is at best a slim hope." "Yeah, well, I've never known hope when it wasn't on a diet."
IN THIS ONE... Galen tells Sheridan he must kill a Centauri Prince before he comes of age and attacks Earth.

REVIEW: While Over There feels a lot more like Babylon 5 than Over Here did, and it's always great to meet up with Sheridan again, the episode feels a little less worthwhile. There's rather more padding, for example, in the form of an unnecessary sequence with an ISN reporter sporting a cleavage cam. Is this just there to reference other characters or events? And though Sheridan is, like Lochley and her priest, tested by a moral dilemma and two impossible (and FALSE) choices, the solution is a lot more obvious, at least to this viewer. And if there's ambiguity in Galen's cryptic ways, much of it is dispelled by Sheridan making speeches about it. JMS and Christopher Nolan have something in common there. But being part of the same Lost Tales as Over Here means we get the same quality CG (future New York is just beautiful, Sheridan dreams of space battles, and the new Valen-class manta ship is pretty cool), similar shots tying things together (the spinning "epiphany" shot that wakes both Sheridan and Lochley up in their respective chapters), and of course, cutting costs by setting most of the action in dark rooms and in front of green screen.

The plot itself is very B5. Galen - who sadly, has nothing to reveal about Crusade - does his A Call to Arms thing and brings Sheridan a prophecy that would see Earth savagely attacked 30 years hence. Sheridan will be dead by then, but he can do something about it today by taking out a teenage Centauri prince who, as Emperor, will lead that action. Galen counsels murder, and the viewer may think Sheridan either squeamish or dense not to see this is the right course of action. Vintary is, after all, the son of the mad emperor Cartagia, and initially, it doesn't look like the apple fell too far from the tree. The kid threatens Vir, talks about deadly reckonings, etc. Is his a crazy psychopath, or just a sheltered kid who never learned or even experienced kindness? Sheridan anguishes over a staged Starfury accident and almost goes through with it. But the key is changing history, not killing the prince, and once Sheridan recognizes that, he offers kindness and sanctuary, adopting Vintari into his family, hoping for a different result. Hopefully, it worked. We have no reason to think it wouldn't. Sheridan's role as a historical "nexus" means he can literally change history. What he will do for Vintari is exactly what he's done for the galaxy: Put it on a better, more peaceful path.

Vintari's had fun this day, but he still finds it hard to put his trust in Sheridan. He doesn't trust his own family, so why trust outsiders? But then he witnesses the warmth between Sheridan and Lochley, and there seems to be no question that he's already on a brighter path. Sheridan will change the future through EXAMPLE. It beats murder any day. One final note: It's lovely how G'Kar has returned to explore the Rim, something associated with the after-life, for that's where Sheridan went on his dying day. The sad surprise that Dr. Franklin has joined him on this journey is likewise heartfelt. While these characters both return to the series' chronology - G'Kar on Centauri and Franklin at Sheridan's table - both actors had died by 2007. And are missed.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - Pleasant enough, but a little obvious. It manages a certain amount of sweetness. Could do without the padding.

So end my daily reviews of Babylon 5, at least until JMS actually manages to get that feature film off the ground. Based on his track record trying to keep the franchise alive - Crusade cancelled; The Legend of the Rangers never going to series; and The Lost Tales abandoned despite plans for a Garibaldi/Londo follow-up - I won't be holding my breath. Thanks to everyone who's flooded the comments on these posts with appreciation and insight. Fans of this franchise have a real enduring (and sometimes tough) love for it, and I was happy to have this roving conversation with you over the last 4+ months. I don't want to have to miss you guys, so I hope you'll stick around. Next up: Doctor Who Series 8, because COMPLETIST.

Friday, November 14, 2014

GURPS Multi-Sourcebook Ideas, or Why 4th Edition Failed Me

GURPS 4th Edition just celebrated its 10th Anniversary, marking ten long years since Steve Jackson Games essentially killed the brand for me. It wasn't what tweaks they brought to the mechanics - which I actually integrated into my 3rd edition games - it was that they changed their product release paradigm. 3rd and 4th present two ways of doing a "generic, you can-play-anything-with-this" role-playing game. In 3rd, SJGames released over a hundred sourcebooks, mostly settings, SHOWING how you really could play anything with GURPS, and offering modular pieces to make super-powers or martial arts or whatever work with your Basic Set. By contrast, 4th gave us as complete a tool kit as possible, in as few books as possible, and let us go at it. To me eyes, it turned the whole game into Vehicles 2nd, a book that allowed you to create ANY Vehicle, but you had to calculate torque and a million other things.

I'm exaggerating, but not by much.

So why did I never go beyond GURPS 4th Lite, and yet have a near complete collection of 3rd books? Why yes, I can take 4th's mechanics and work out a campaign, characters, tech, a magic system, for a Vikings campaign, and do all the research myself in history books... OR I can let a game writer do all that research for me and suggest Viking archetypes, rune-based magic, etc. I'm going to go with the latter, thanks. Obviously, I don't think GURPS could have gone to 4th and continued churning out sourcebooks that already existed in 3rd. Or maybe they could have and redundancy be damned. Then again, a lot of GURPS settings were licensed from the last 100 years' greatest sci-fi and fantasy novels - Riverworld, Lensman, Hellboy, Wild Cards, etc. - and there are plenty more cool settings where that came from (GURPS Xanth? Spellsinger? Niven's Known Space?). I'm pretty sure those weren't GURPS' best-selling books, of course. The business model wasn't working anymore. They had to do what they had to do, and it didn't work out. Not for me anyway, but the low number of released over the past decade attests to the fact that perhaps it didn't work out for them either. SJGames is all about Munchkin right now, and good on them.

No problem. I've still got all my 3rd Edition books. And maybe you do to, or are picking them up on the cheap somewhere (I always see a lot of them in bargain or used bins at the gaming store). So to pay tribute to the 3rd and still best edition of GURPS, here are five ideas for maximizing your GURPS collection and using as many as possible over the course of a campaign. And no cheating! GURPS has supported some settings with a collection of books - World War II, Traveler, Transhuman - they don't count.
Time Travel: Almost cheating, since one could argue that every historical setting is in fact supporting GURPS Time Travel. Well sure, but SJGames itself has never been shy about encouraging synergy between its settings. That's not the same as actually calling books, say, "GURPS Time Travel: Aztecs". But yeah, it's the simplest method. Everything is theoretically accessible through this sourcebook, either through time travel or the also included parallel dimension setting.

Warehouse 23: GURPS has a lot of supernatural/conspiracy-flavored sourcebooks. I once set up a Black Ops (not what it sounds like, more Men in Black than The Unit) campaign set at Warehouse 23 (this is before Warehouse 13 was ever on the air, but same thing, except directed by John Woo, if you can imagine it). Whether your power/fantasy level is MiB, Torchwood or X-Files, a team of alien/monster/artifact hunters can make use of a LOT of GURPS material - Places of Mystery, Horror, Monsters, Blood Types, Creatures of the Night, Illuminati, Aliens, Covert Ops, Atomic Horror... even Steampunk. Depends what you want to do. There's enough there to keep a campaign like that alive for years.

GURPS TORG(ish): Just a collection of random noises, right? In West End Games' Torg, different realities have intruded on Earth's. It's an invasion from different dimensions, with immediate "terraforming". Torg had its own dedicated worlds, but with GURPS, you can create the Earth Under Siege you'd like. (Or as I once tried to do, let players choose a sourcebook based on the kind of character they want to play, and just use those.) Has Australia been overtaken by Skynet-type robots? Has most of Europe been lost to a new Roman Empire? Who awakened all of China's dragons?

Shiftworld: My favorite campaign of anything ever, the idea is to switch settings on the players every so often, forcing them to tweak their characters accordingly after the world... SHIFTS! The twist: Only they remember the previous world; everyone around them is oblivious that they used to live in a Western frontier town just seconds before. Why? That's the mystery. My players never did solve it. Maybe that would've ruined it.

Space - Parallel Development: A new idea I just had. Remember how in classic Star Trek there would be these planets that used existing sets and costumes, like the planet of the Nazis, the planet of the Romans, the planet of the 1920s mobsters, etc.? Well, they didn't always use the same reasoning, but at least a couple times talked about the theory of parallel development, that planets not unlike Earth would develop the same way and have similar histories. Personally, I take more stock in the idea that powerful aliens stole people from Earth all through history and seeded them on planets as some huge experiment. So imagine a Space campaign where your starship encounters countless worlds where cultures were evidently transplanted. Some stagnated, others deviated, and a few even evolved faster than Earth central did. Just grab a bunch of books and throw them at the stars!

Well, that should keep us busy until a new generation needs GURPS 5th Edition...