Thursday, April 24, 2014

Justice League Canad--Uhm, United

More because I've written my fair share of articles about Canada as it is presented in comics, presumably, than because of my birthplace, I think I'm expected to weigh in about the new Justice League book by Jeff Lemire and Mike McKone. Well okay then.

While I dread the crossover events that will inevitably interfere with this book, I'm stoked by what the first issue had to offer. It may be a continuation to Justice League of America as far what characters are in it (Martian Manhunter, Stargirl, Green Arrow and Hawkman), but the tone is completely different. There's levity here! Jokes! Banter! Mixed in with superheroic investigation and fighting. And fighting external forces at that. None of that "team infighting" the JL books have done so much since the advent of the New52.
In fact, I have every hope that Lemire will redeem the Martian, Hawkman and Supergirl for me. I'm already a fan of GA and Animal Man, two heroes who've been going through rather dark storylines in their own books, but are a fun pair in JLU. Animal Man and Stargirl have a great common hook, since both are in show business, and so a good reason to go on signing tours in Toronto. The two Canadian heroes have a lot of potential. The new Adam Strange has a cool updated look and a different premise (Alanna is human, for example - or is she? - and I kinda hope Rann doesn't figure into it at all - couldn't the Zeta beam take you anywhere instead?). Equinox is a young First Nations girl with mystical-seeming powers and a connection to some kind of Manitou being. Both are already driving initial story arcs, as is Hawkman, not on the cover (so not actually in the team?), but squaring off against Lobo (whatever, it's not the Lobo we're all sick of, it's the Lobo we just don't care about) while an old enemy (yes!) hides in the shadows. There's also a very cool tribute to the original JLofA's origin story. Did you catch it?
If I have a complaint, it's that it's a little slow-moving, structurally. I mean, there's enough incident and character stuff, but we start with an action scene, back track to "three days ago", and never loop back in the space of the issue. It's a testament to Lemire's craft (and McKone's art too, I quite like it) that I don't lose patience, especially since I'm a well-known critic of team books that take 4-5 issues for the team to even get together.

But I know what you're asking: Is it Canadian enough?
Well, despite the name change, there's still a maple leaf in the logo, and we appreciate it. There are some Canadian jokes here, but Lemire is easing his non-Canadian readers in. It's very much on the level of what you might hear on How I Met Your Mother. He's not trying to lose you with references. His Canada is, in fact, a lot like every other place in the Western world, because we're really not that different. Toronto is a big modern city - the inspiration for Metropolis, in fact - and James Bay is cold wilderness. I hope the series won't stay stuck in Ontario, even if it is what Lemire personally knows best, but for now, I'm quite happy to look at superheroes fighting ankle-deep in slow. It reflects a certain Canadian experience.

Doctor Who #884: End of the Road

"I am sick of her already. Can we deport her? Let's deport her."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Aug.26 2011.

IN THIS ONE... The CIA's back, Friedkin blows himself up, Gwen is deported by John de Lancie, Danes asks for a hooker, Jilly is recruited by the Families, Esther smuggles Jack out of Angelo's house, and oh yeah, someone dies for real.

REVIEW: Sounds like there's a lot happening from the above sentence, but there's a whole lot of waiting around too. We're stuck in Angelo's house for the duration, cutting to Jilly and Oswald for a change of pace (and these characters have been sitting out for a couple episodes). That's fine, so long as characters and plot move forward. There IS some padding here, and a waste of resources. Having Nana Visitor show up to explain what the Families, then blowing her up, is disappointing on several levels, for example. Friedkin's confession repeats a lot of information, as does cluing in his replacement Shapiro. A different character name-dropping "The Blessing" doesn't make it new information.

One of the bigger plot points in the episode is Rex and Esther returning to the CIA. Friedkin inadvertently confesses to framing them because Rex conveniently forgets Gwen told him the contact cameras only worked for her, so that bit's a little rough. John de Lancie as Shapiro is a hoot though, slinging cracks and insults at everyone in his path. Unlike Friedkin, he could actually be a match for Torchwood. In fact, Gwen gets deported for giving too much lip... and for Jack not giving enough. Though we're staying in the house, it does allow for some investigation. Esther is still a pain, incapable of shutting up when asked to, a traitor to the team not because she's particularly loyal to the CIA, but because she's weak and a little dense. Even after she agrees to help Jack escape with the null field technology that allowed Angelo to disregard the Miracle, she shows zero stealth capability and gets her spotted because she shouts Jack's name. The cliffhanger as she tries to manage a panic attack while driving off with Jack bleeding out in the back seat is, I think, a perfect encapsulation of her character to date. Note that Rex, while very resourceful in getting Friedkin's confession, then goes on to act like a complete cabbage head, needing Jack to explain everything as if he were a child. Gah.

Though Gwen's mom has a fun moment on the phone (the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree), Oswald Danes is the main subplot here. There's something at least interesting in the pedophile wanting the companionship of a grown woman, even if he has to pay for it, and something creepy about asking for her to be redhead. Jilly's losing control of him and he could become dangerous (and does by the end of the episode). I'm not convinced by the call girl's dialog, mind you. She doesn't mind getting freaky with this murderous monster, but draws the line at simply playing escort? And then puts her life in danger by antagonizing him? Please. I guess it's a good time for Jilly to bail, though where that leaves Oswald in the grand scheme of things is murky. Plus, CIA vs. evil CIA stuff, the usual thriller business.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium
- de Lancie has a fun turn, but Esther is the wet blanket that snuffs the fun out of the episode.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Dating Princess Diana: Ch-ch-ch-changes

When Wonder Woman tries to change you, she REALLY tries to change you. You think Steve Trevor refused to wear Diana's mod wigs? I'm telling you HE SURELY DIDN'T.

So if you think Superman's a little unrecognizable in the New52, THAT'S EXPECTED.

From Superman's Girlfriend, Lois Lane #93 (July 1969)

Doctor Who #883: Immortal Sins

"You're Catholic, right? Do you want to kneel down like that?" "He doesn't hear me." "He doesn't hear you why?" "You know why."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Aug.19 2011.

IN THIS ONE... Jack meets and romances Angelo back in 1927. In the present, Gwen takes him to Angelo to save her family.

REVIEW: Things are starting to look up, and not just because Nana Visitor shows up at the end. Not even because the CIA guys are useful and competent for once (especially Esther!). No, it's because the show is exploring relationships, both old and new, in a mature way. The stuff between Gwen and Jack is particularly hard-hitting, going beyond the usual mama bear scenes we've come to expect from her in Miracle Day. She seems to have a lot of anger for Jack, partly bred from a certain self-loathing. Having become a mother, and tapping into her innate (but lost?) selflessness, she admits her own hubris. Being a part of Torchwood is cool and made her feel important; it has the same insidious charm Jack does. But just as she would sacrifice him to save her family, he would see her dead rather than relinquish his own life. He's finally let go of his death wish. There's a lot of intensity between the two of them, and trust comes and goes in surges. It's very well done, and you've gotta love the quick reconciliation hug they give each other when they know everyone's safe. Hey, it's Torchwood, just another hateful day at the office.

Most of the episode takes place in Prohibition-era New York, however, where Jack makes the acquaintance of a different "companion", an Italian illegal called Angelo. They will become lovers in that context, but though the action takes place almost 90 years ago, it doesn't feel that different from today. Angelo's story must be like a lot of young gay people living in small towns, where there are few opportunities to meet others and little open-mindedness. Jack is the older, more experienced guy in this relationship, and just a little too flippant for Angelo. The younger man still feels guilty because of his upbringing, etc., but is elated too. From Jack's seduction, to his more tender moments in bed, to the challenges of maintaining this relationship when they're clearly not at the place in their lives and self-acceptance, we're shown a realistic romance between two men, which is infrequent enough on television. Is it what I watch Torchwood for? Not really, but it's a strong character interlude that makes you care about Angelo and the 1927 setting.

Because what happens in that setting has a direct bearing on 2011's Miracle Day. Jack taken to be a devil or miracle is something that still seems possible in the 20s, and vials of his blood being taken as holy relics could in fact lead to some form of immortality experiment like the Miracle. We meet three men who shake hands in a special triangle shape, obviously "the Families", though they are denied Jack's body before the end of the flashback sequence. Did they collect enough relics to do something with Jack's power anyway? We'll have to wait and find out. And while it's a complete red herring, the alien parasite meant for FDR Jack is in America to destroy was sent by the Trickster's Brigade. A nice wink to the other Whoniverse shows (now the Trickster's done something in all three), but just a pretext to get him to New York. Or did the Trickster have the last laugh by leading Jack to cause the Miracle?

THEORIES: There's a big continuity mistake in this episode. Jack calls himself a "fixed point", which are the Doctor's words in Utopia. Fine, except Jack won't experience those events for another 80 years, right? After The Parting of the Ways, he presumably went back to the Victorian Age and moved to present-day Torchwood on the slow path. Although here, he does joke about 700 years between his confessions, so I don't know. Still before Utopia, surely. Regardless, Jack's fixed nature may tell us why the Doctor isn't interfering with Miracle Day. If Jack's blood is being used to create the effect, effectively turning everyone into fixed points, then there's nothing a time traveler can really do, and the TARDIS would be avoiding planet Earth like the plague during this time. I surmise none of the Doctor's actions on 2011 Earth occur during the Miracle because of this. They're either before or after. Miracle Day is March 18th, and the Miracle lasts several months, while The Impossible Astronaut is on April 22nd, so it's a hard sell. Probably impossible to reconcile. No one mentions it, not even Rory the nurse? And they keep on not mentioning it even after Rory dies in The Curse of the Black Spot? If there weren't so many Doctor Who references (at least one each episode), we could be talking about two separate continuities. Does Miracle Day happen in the universe that existed before Big Bang 2 only? That would seem a weird but acceptable answer... at least until Captain Jack shows up again in the parent program and mentions Miracle Day!

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - Both time frames feature powerful character moments, we're getting closer to the truth of the Miracle, and look, there's even an old-fashioned Torchwood mission in there!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Who Was Peter Porkchops Before He Was Pig-Iron?

Who's This? Turn to page 8 of Who's Who vol. XVIII and you'll find Zoo Crew member Pig-Iron there. But did you know he had this whole life before becoming a superhero, dating back to the Golden Age?
The facts: Pig-Iron started life as funny animal character Peter Porkchops, whose debut on the cover of Leading Comics #23 (1947) would eventually lead to his own series, which would last 62 issues between 1949 and 1960. Falling into disuse like the rest of DC's funny animals, Roy Thomas brought him back in the 80s, gave him powers and made him join the Zoo Crew as Pig-Iron.
How you could have heard of him: If you read any Zoo Crew stories, then you would know Peter Porkchops as his civilian identity, no more.
Example story: Peter Porkchops #2 (1950) by his creator, Otto Feuer
There's nothing particularly remarkable about DC's funny animal comics. They follow tried and true formulas set up by cartoon shorts of the 30s and 40s (Peter Porkchops is obviously meant to appeal to Porky Pig fans), but they're perfectly fine for younger children. Peter's stories are all pretty much the same: His neighbor Wolfie tries to cheat him in some way, and Peter gets the better of him. You'd think Wolfie would try to eat him, seeing as he's a wolf and the pig has a succulent surname, but no, these guys are rather friendly and vegetarian. Take one of the stories from issue 2, as an example:
Feuer offers a cute twist on the three little pigs fairy tale, with Wolfie's shack being easy to blow away, and him needing a place to crash for a while (he has a real house in other stories). So of course, he's going to try and squat at Peter's, over the pig's objections:
That's pretty amusing. So Wolfie scams Peter into leaving the house in a hurry (free money!!!) and makes himself at home. When Peter comes back (no free money), Wolfie gets a taste of the pig's usual medicine.
Well-placed signs with explanations written on them is a common trick in these stories, so I guess they're Peter's special cartoon power. He uses it again when Wolfie vows revenge and tries to haunt our porcine protagonist out of his home and gets haunted right back. Who knew ghosts had "territories"?
A couple gags, a softballed comic ending where Wolfie admits defeat... that's pretty much how it goes. A collection might well go into my niece and nephew's personal library, though this kind of material has been done better with better-known characters. A Zoo Crew cartoon show would be much cooler, all things considered. I mean, if I'm playing Peter Porkchops' agent. We know Peter returned as Pig-Iron, but Wolfie ALSO made an appearance in that context. In Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew #10-11, he got his hands on a magical amulet that turned him into a Wuz-Wolf (a reverse werewolf, he became a wolfish human who wanted to eat other animals).
See? Veggies, the lot of them.

Who else? I'm a little backed-up and I can't do everyone anyway, so one last character from volume XVIII, ok? I just have to decide which VERSION of him I want to cover.

Doctor Who #882: The Middle Men

"I'm not a bad man, Captain. I'm not a good one either. I'm a middle man in every sense of the word."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Aug.12 2011.

IN THIS ONE... Rex tries to escape the overflow camp. Gwen tries to get her dad out of its Welsh equivalent.

REVIEW: The team finally manages to do what they set out to in the previous episode and it takes forrrrevvvvvverrrrrrrrrr. Gwen has ethical conversations with overflow camp staff - the same conversations Vera was having in the States - before finally getting her father off the base. And after all that effort, her whole family gets nabbed by the Families. So we could excise these elements entirely and not change the story then? Groan. Back in America, Rex recaps the story so far on video tape (hey, Gwen's making a tape too, why not, and sure, there's an audio link so she's been talking into mirrors for no reason all this time, yeah) while Esther sits at a desk in what feels like real time. Only Jack actually makes headway, finding a PhiCorp boss who makes for an unlikely ally also searching for the truth. The headway in question: keyword "the Blessing". It's like swimming in molasses.

I'm still struggling with what Esther brings to this team. It's not computer skills, really, because Jack and Gwen are also shown to be more than proficient in that department. Esther actually causes more problems than she solves. She goes into the overflow camp under her own name, walks around wet-eyed like she's hiding a big secret, and despite all the evidence pointing to that jerk Maloney having disposed of Vera in some way, still uses her name to cover her walking into the generator room to help Rex escape. Dumbass! It's surprising that she's got enough self-defense training to choke the dude out, but not surprising at all that he would wake up again (Esther forgets dead isn't dead), would grab her again, and would get shot by Ralph the overwhelmed young soldier. Thrill-by-number. Are they just using Esther as cover for the fact Rex isn't particularly smart either? Here he lets himself be captured and tortured, trusts the wrong person, and oh yeah, makes sure to mention Torchwood on his tell-all tape, the word that apparently activates a computer virus that would, if the writing were airtight, erase the footage as soon as it hit the internet. Maybe that's a good thing because he also makes a death threat on there. Stupid!

As usual, the original Torchwood characters get the better deal, but that's not saying much. Jack has fun flirting and threatening, sometimes in the same breath. He finally turns someone, even if it's not Oswald Danes (he doesn't appear at all), and Ernie Hudson as Stuart Owens is a great, smooth presence. Gwen's terrorist attack on the overflow camp is predicated on the place having a stash of C-4. I know these are converted military installations, but if security is this lax, why was it such a pain to get her dad out? The hijack of her contact lenses is a good cliffhanger, even if it renders the past two episodes' worth of her story moot. Anyway, once all their footage has gotten out to the media, the U.S. government commits P.R. suicide by saying they're not ashamed of their oven solution... I don't know what to say, this is just ridiculous to me, and another sign that things are happening because the script needs them to happen, not because they make sense. And if you remember my Star Trek: Voyager reviews, you know how that drives me crazy.

REWATCHABILITY: Low - Miracle Day's lowest point, this is padding by way of characters being stupid and successes being reversed by the plot.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Dr. Vera Juarez: The Character Sheet

In the spirit of each successive series seen as a Doctor Who RPG campaign, Arlene handed in her character sheet before leaving.
Stuff that didn't fit on the sheet, kept on the back...

SKILLS
*Vera has a +2 Knowledge Expertise in Health Care Administration and a +2 Technology Expertise in Medical Equipment.

GOOD TRAITS
Attractive (Minor)
Brave (Minor)
Friends (Minor) - Health Care System
Stubborn (Minor)
Voice of Authority (Minor)

BAD TRAITS
Argumentative (Minor)
Code of Conduct (Minor) - Hippocratic Oath
Dependency (Minor) - Vera is a smoker
Insatiable Curiosity (Minor)
Obligation (Minor) - As Head of Surgery and member of a medical panel, Vera has important duties to perform over the course of Miracle Day

SPECIAL TRAITS
Undying - For the duration of Miracle Day, Vera, like all humans, cannot die. She may still suffer lethal damage, but cannot be killed by that damage and must live with the effect of those injuries.

FAVORITE METHOD FOR ACCUMULATING STORY POINTS
Vera's argumentative nature is both a quality and a flaw, and she lets arguments get out of control in order to cause problems, but also get Story Points in the bargain, sometimes spent right then and there to make a crucial clue come out of the argument.

Now available: The Torchwood character sheet bundle in high quality printable pdf (+ blank sheet).

Doctor Who #881: The Categories of Life

"You're thin as a twig! Bet you'd snap easily." "I'm getting there, yeah."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Aug.5 2011.

IN THIS ONE... The Miracle Rally. Gwen tries to get her father out of an overflow camp and fails. Back in California, Vera dies horribly inspecting one such camp.

REVIEW: Episodes 5 and 6 are where the narrative breaks down for me, and that's because they could easily have been collapsed into a single broadcast. A lot of episode 5 is a step forward followed by a step back. We have incident, but we don't have progress. Gwen's thread is the best example. She gets back to Wales, mounts a rescue of her father, and just as they're about to get him on a truck (Rhys' very specific skill set), he has a heart attack and Gwen unwisely chooses to call for help instead of running off with his undying body. They think they're raising the stakes, but they're just pushing the action's climax to the next chapter. Don't get me wrong, I certainly like seeing Gwen and Rhys together again - they have a fun relationship - and her mom giving her the mission is perfect Torchwood - the "amateurish" superspy stuff we were talking about in the previous review.

Back in the States, Jack has a similar experience. He tries to turn Oswald Danes against PhiCorp, but though there's suspense as to which prepared speech's point he'll go along with, he ends up on the evil corporation's side. The sequence isn't as useless as Gwen's because Jack doesn't get a second try, but because it's one of two narrative failures, it feels like our time is being wasted on two fronts. Part of the problem is that I just don't buy the sequence. We've got this Rally where politicians, including the President, are speaking, and POTUS is fine with Oswald addressing the same crowd so long as he's put enough miles between himself and the stadium? And does it really make sense that PhiCorp would use THIS opportunity for a marketing punch, their logo coming up behind Danes in any given context when it's clear there are still a lot of haters out there? It's very weird and not at all believable.

The saving grace is the American cast's investigation of an overflow camp, and Vera's resulting death (is it really anything else?), but even that doesn't quite stand scrutiny. The mission is well done, each player having a crucial role in our discovery of the shocking truth that the camps have ovens to dispose of "Category 1" patients (those who should be dead). Vera's horrible "death" is shocking, but the wrong blow to deal the series. She was the best new character, and after her, it's a big drop. Obviously, we'll be getting away from the medical side of things and still need the secret agents, and killing the better character makes it more effective. I won't dispute that. But is it earned? I'm not sure. To make this happen, the camp administrator needs to be this awful, unstable guy, and Vera needs to foolishly antagonize him and push him to "murder" her. Everything's fine when she's wittily responding to his sexism and threatening manner, but her outrage, while warranted, takes away the intelligence she's shown across the whole of the series. The script is manipulating things and just doesn't ring true.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - Vera's death is a real shocker, but aside from that, the episode is padded with pointless incident so Miracle Day can make it to ten episodes.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

This Week in Geek (14-20/04/14)

Buys

After I saw The Grand Budapest Hotel, I realized that not only did I have only one Wes Anderson film in my DVD collection (Bottle Rocket), I'd seen very few. So I bought the six I was missing (5 of which I've never seen) at discount prices, even the first two which are Criterion Collection: Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Darjeeling Unlimited and Moonrise Kingdom. Oh, and The Wolf of Wall Street on top of that.

"Accomplishments"

DVDs: Extended (unrated) version or not, Forgetting Sarah Marshall takes it time (the theatrical is 111 minutes, the unrated cut 118, which is rather long for a comedy), but because I laughed several times, and comedy is usually a hard sell for me, I'd say it was worth my time. Jason Segel's script is about a loser (himself) dumped by a famous TV star (Kristen Bell) and who finds himself at a Hawaiian hotel where she and her new rock star boyfriend (Russell Brand, whose character was my favorite), with Mila Kunis in an inevitable romantic comedy role. Plus, loads of recognizable comedy stars in smaller roles. Some of it is formula with an extra dollop of raunchy-ish humor, but a lot of it is quirky and original, with a fun take-down of Hollywood and the music industry, with funny songs and fake television material. And ultimately, there's a lot of truth in the doomed Siegel/Bell relationship. But since Brand stole the show, the long pathetic comedy bits before we get to Hawaii are weakest for me. The DVD includes a fun large-cast commentary track, some worthy deleted scenes, lots of alternate lines, a gag reel, a small bit of read-through, the full rock video, and a making of featurette for the rock opera climax.

Audio: The Jago & Litefoot audio series from Big Finish really is superlative. I'm devoured five one-hour chapters already this week. The Bellova Devil by Alan Barnes (the second story from the first set) presents a supernatural thriller, like the previous one, but a more convoluted one that may or may not have supernatural/sf underpinnings after all. We're in something more akin to Sherlock Holmes territory, with secret societies, vicious serial killers and a bit of grave-robbing thrown in for good measure. It's not a simple tale, so perhaps best bears repeat listens. As usual - and this is pretty constant through the whole series - Trevor Baxter (Litefoot) and Christopher Benjamin (Jago) are just a charm, and the sound design, dialog, etc. get top marks too. I'm especially impressed at how each story finds a good hook for both characters, never leaving it up to their friendship alone. They're always motivated from their own point of view. In fact, this story splits them up for long periods, though a structure similar to their Companion Chronicle is used to tell each segment in their own sparkling vernacular.

The Spirit Trap by Jonathan Morris uses the character of Ellie the barmaid to good effect, and deals with the death of an ancillary character (in the The Bloodless Soldier), as a medium may or may not have hornswoggled the young girl. Jago knows all about the world of seances and doesn't trust it, while Litefoot has a more experiential approach, but still gets drawn in by a side-mystery involving spontaneous combustion. It's the most overtly sci-fi of the first series' stories, though the characters still see it as a branch of the supernatural, and most solidly grounds the series in the Whoniverse where things always have a "rational" explanation (but only because the Doctor says so). Probably my favorite of the first lot.

The Similarity Engine by Andy Lane features the return of the villain from The Mahogany Murders, Jago & Litefoot's "pilot". He's sort of being built-up as their Moriarty, with hidden connections to other stories, but that somehow weakens him. The plot is this one, an attempt to take over the world using a deadly ore, and whatever else he's got cooking, means his particular shtick from his first outing (and still in use) is at odds with it. It's like he's got too much going on, so really should have been a new character without the Mahogany baggage. There's also a plot point that prevents Christopher Benjamin from playing Jago the usual way. But still, even if this might be the weakest of the first four stories, it still has a lot to offer, and gives Sgt. Quick (yes, P.C. Quick from Talons got promoted at some point), as a member of the extended cast, a bigger role.

Litefoot and Sanders, the first chapter of J&L's second series (by Justin Richards), tests its central friendship by having Litefoot partner up with someone else in an effort to keep Jago safe from whatever vampirical shenanigans are going on. So it's Litefoot and Sanders tracking the monster, even as Jago tracks them. He may have protested his cowardice a little too much, but the hero will be out! All this does it highlight how strong the two friends' bond really is, and the climax, in which they are reunited, is exciting and true to both characters. There's also a shocker here, and the cast may never be the same again. I'm not sure what I think about that yet. The series are bundled together for a reason though, and it's definitely not the end of that story. There are consequences in Jago & Litefoot's world, and that's what keeps the listener hooked.

Hyperion to a Satyr posts this week:
V.i. The Gravedigger Scene - Branagh '96

Doctor Who #880: Escape to L.A.

"We've reached the edge of America."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Jul.29 2011.

IN THIS ONE... The Dead is Dead movement. Osward recaptures media attention. Esther lets someone follow her from her sister's. Rex's dad is as big of a jerk as he is. And the big mish to steal a server.

REVIEW: The theme of this episode is family. Esther calls the cops on her mentally ill sister. Rex visits the father he never cared about to steal his pain killers. Gwen's father is taken to an "overflow camp". People are leaving their ill parents and children at the "plague ship" hospital. And the voice at the other end of the triangle phone is giving us cryptic talk about "the families" rising. It's so obvious, I don't know why the title doesn't refer to it. It doesn't have something nice to say about family though. The plot, perhaps necessarily, makes each involved family member a burden or problem. Either you abandon/betray them, or you don't and wind up doing something stupid to save them. Gwen will have her turn, of course, but here it's Esther. She gets shouted at so much, I hardly need to add to the blame pile, but... This is a classic case of a character doing the wrong thing - the thing they repeatedly told her not to do - so there can be jeopardy in the episode. Take Esther's visit to her sister's out, and the assassin can't follow Torchwood to the West Coast. I'm all for the personal dilemma story given Esther, but a CIA analyst should have been a little more savvy, and been able to get that angle going without going by the house. She compounds her mistake lots of weeping, taking personal calls during the mission, and asking stupid questions.

And the Americans think Torchwood are the amateurs... Of course, they are, but not in the way Rex thinks. Torchwood is part of that British tradition by self-reliance. Just look at the UNIT stories of the 70s for a similar feel. Just a bunch of chaps (gender neutral) improvising, doing the best they can in totally new situations, and a whole lot more relaxed than the proper military. Torchwood is the same. You don't train all your life to become an agent, you learn on the job. The equipment has been salvaged from other worlds/times and part of the job is learning how to use it. And yeah, if you've got Captain Jack as a boss, it's going to be pretty lethal, but you'll have fun doing it. Perhaps that's why Gwen getting a call from Rhys and Anwen in the middle of a mission is endearing, but Esther's similar situation is unprofessional and irritating (obviously, we don't care about Esther's family we do about Gwen's, but there's still an important distinction). I think it's that tension between what we accept and like about Torchwood and the "24" elements of the CIA stuff that annoys me about Miracle Day.

I've spent all our time talking about "big" ideas, so rather quickly now, what else is in the episode. The action is a fun enough riff on Mission: Impossible, with Rex showing determination and Gwen doing an American accent that mortifies her as much as it does Eve Myles, I'm sure. The assassin is a bit of an odd duck, prone to philosophizing about his sadism; at least he's not a cookie-cutter goon. The "Dead is Dead" movement is an interesting wrinkle, and where this whole overflow camp thing is going, though its leader not-dies a terrible undeath. The mid-point between hospital and camp is the "plague ship" which Vera supervises. Emergency or not, they put this idea into effect too quickly and it serves as an indictment of bureaucracy, etc., just not a terribly useful one. Oswald Danes shows up and performs a media stunt so he can stay in the limelight. The stunt is "disgusting" according to Vera, and Jilly "loves it", amusingly, but it does little for me. It's not outrageous enough to get that reaction. If they really wanted to be disturbing, that baby should have been replaced with a young girl like the one he killed. And what's with Jilly's sudden disgust for Danes? I'm not saying she should like him, but now she's overtly telling him she can't stand the sight of him, when before, she would have smiled through it all and not shown any qualms about exploiting him as a cash cow. Felt like there was a scene missing somewhere. Oh yeah, and who else smirked at the gay agenda joke?

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - At least they're working with episodic themes, and the action bits are reasonably exciting, but Esther is particularly irritating in this one.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Reign of the Supermen #526: Superman, Son of Luthor

Source: Superman vol.1 #170 (1964)
Type: Imaginary story, thankfully
"If Lex Luthor Were Superman's Father" DOES happen in continuity, but because Luthor only DREAMS of succeeding, the Superman he's trying to create by changing history remains imaginary. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. This Silver Age classic starts with Luthor escaping from prison by faking a heart attack and tricking a doctor into making a formula that temporarily turns him into a giant. I did say Silver Age. In his lair, Lex uses a timescope to watch baby Kal-El getting shot to Earth from Krypton and he gets a brilliant idea. He goes back in time with his timeship, to the days before Jor-El and Lara were engaged, and posing as "Luthor the Noble", a cosmic cop from another world (and wearing an anti-grav belt to sustain Krypton's high Gs), tells everyone Kandor is about to be taken by Brainiac. No one believes him except Lara, who kind of swoons when he's proven right.
So Luthor pours on the charm and he and Lara become inseparable, touring the crazy SF sights of Krypton while jealously looks on. When he's out of town on an exploratory mission, Luthor uses his alone time with Lara to pop the question:
She says yes! And that's when the imaginary bits of the story kick in. Luthor sees it all unfold in his mind:
Ok, if I can punch holes into his plan here... First, why would the baby he has with Lara be called Kal-El? Would you let your wife give your son her ex's last name? No, that's ridiculous. And would that baby become Superman? His half-human DNA would certain depower him, for one thing, and instead of keeping history on track by sending him off on a rocket, why not bring him back to 1964 Earth with you and raise him as your own super-powered minion? Why even HAVE a baby with Lara? Wouldn't keeping her and Jor-El apart be enough to erase Superman from history entirely? Couldn't Luthor return to Earth before Krypton explodes to find a world with no Superman, and where a good Luthor with hair is puttering away somewhere? Couldn't evil Luthor then do whatever the heck he wanted? He wouldn't even have a criminal record! But that's all moot because just as he's about to put a wedding ring on Lara's finger, his anti-grav belt's batteries give out!
That's an especially lame deus ex machina, given that Jor-El was racing to get to the chapel on time to stop the wedding. He doesn't make it. There just happens to be a miracle. So Luthor is rumbled and his web of lies comes apart. He runs, flies back to the present while watching through his shipboard timescope how his relationship with Lara only made her realize it's Jor-El she really loved. Ah. Well, good thing she didn't go through with it, then. He materializes right in Superman's path and is sent back to jail. And the Man of Steel never found out how close his greatest enemy came to banging his mom.

Doctor Who #879: Dead of Night

"Stay where you are, or stand up tall and stride across the skin of the world."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Jul.22 2011.

IN THIS ONE... The Oswald cult springs up. Rex and Jack have sex (with other people). Vera gets Gwen into the PhiCorp building because they've been stockpiling drugs.

REVIEW: There are a couple of annoying tics in the writing, this time around, and I don't know if they're part of a bigger mandate, or if it's the episode's writer specifically (but I expected better of Jane Espensen, an alumni of BSG/Caprica, DS9 and the Joss Whedon catalog). For one thing, it goes way overboard with the UK/US comparisons. Something like Gwen annoyed at the lack of fizz in her lemonade is amusing, but Esther turning into a universal translator in case duller viewers can't understand a British turn of phrase through context... ugh. One comment, fine. But it goes on and on. And it seems part of an overall writing strategy that treats the audience as idiots. Information gets repeated A LOT, quite beyond the fact these things have "Previously on..." and the longer "Next week" trailers I've ever fast-forwarded through. The DVD even starts each episode with a mini-featurette in which RTD and Barrowman tell you what you're about to see (which feel like they aired on Starz in just that way?). And yet, if you're pitching your story at people who've never watched Torchwood before, there's a moment that, without some kind of explanation, might lead that audience member to believe Jack was a child murderer like Oswald, which isn't exactly the truth, is it?

Where I recognize Espensen's strengths and interests is in the personal, emotional arcs of the characters. While there is "incident" in Dead of Night, it's much more about advancing relationships. Esther discusses her sister, which will become a problem later, but makes a poor Toshiko to Rex's Owen, in my opinion. Rex hooks up with Vera at the exact same time Jack hooks up with a bartender, both men wanting desperately to feel alive (steamy same sex relations intercut with its hetero equivalent? that feels kind of naughty on U.S. TV, for some reason). Jack drunk-calls Gwen, but she stops listening as soon as Rhys and her daughter Skype in. It's all quite pathetic and sad on his end. He's clearly trying to lose himself in something, and we're reminded of why when he encounters Oswald Danes. Jack's whole thing is his guilt about losing/sacrificing children (his little brother, the fairy, the 456 kids, his grandson) and he calls Danes on his bull about feeling forgiven. He doesn't and never will, so how can this child murderer? And he's right. Danes is spinning a web, manipulating public opinion, probably just to see how far he can take it. The way he describes his crime makes for potentially unbearable television, and perhaps that's why I don't completely buy the cult springing up around him. As audience members, we know too much.

And then there's the plot. Rex continues to be a one-man machine designed to piss people off, which is very annoying. The Triangle conspiracy doesn't have a lot of teeth at this point, so we're just going through the usual motions - interrogating people who can't say anything because they're too scared, tracking phone calls, etc. I like how Gwen makes sure she gets to play superspy inside PhiCorp, but the action itself is pretty timid. Again, this is stuff we've seen countless times, watching flash drives load material on computers while the clock runs out. The bigger picture is more interesting, with Jilly seducing both Vera (with a push from Rex) and Danes, and the latter changing his message to match PhiCorp's, just in time for legislation about getting a lot of the necessary drugs without a prescription because prescribers are already over-extended. It makes sense that the new world order would have you buying pain meds and antibiotics on your way home from work, along with milk and eggs. This is where the fiction brushes up against the real world, and where Miracle Day might have something to say about health care, pharmaceuticals and the extension of human life through medicine.

VERSIONS: The parallel sex scenes were changed for the UK broadcast. They removed Rex and Vera entirely(!).

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - Some good character moments, but the plot is less exciting, and the UK/US humor isn't as funny as the production thinks it is.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Questionable Friday: We're Not Evil, We're Just Well Organized

This week, St-Pierre asks "What's your favorite evil organization?". On account of my being Lawful Good, I can't go for any real world evil org, like the pharmacological industry or my provincial government, because that would be like implicit approval. And I do not approve.

So fiction it is.

It's fashionable today to say Hydra, but that's a fad. COBRA is the better choice, if also a rather obvious one. But look, what are my criteria here? Well...
1. Doing evil for evil's sake
2. Iconic uniforms and cool named characters
3. Mind-blowingly, stupidly, epic plots against the world
4. Potential for comedy

COBRA could hit the first three easily (while another front-runner, Wolfram & Hart from Angel, would do #1 better, but fail at #2 and the COBRA acronym does stand for Criminal Organization of Bloodiness, Revenge, and Assassination, which might be enough to clinch #4. However, there's one criminal organization that's really good at #4 without compromising criteria 1 through 3. Ladies and gentlemen, I present my very favorite evil org: AIM (Advanced Idea Mechanics)!
Sure, they look silly with those eraser head helmets (see #4), but an organization in which every member down to the last henchman is a mad scientist? Come on! They were created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (or HYDRA, depending on your point of view). They currently have their own country with no regulations about things Man wasn't meant to play with. In the Caribbean. Their greatest accomplishments include the Cosmic Cube, the Super-Adaptoid and the whole MODOK, Ms. MODOK, SODAM, MODAM line of super-genius mutations, an advance in acronym technology at the very least (and you have to be especially evil to name one of your creations SODAM in a Code-approved comic). Yellow jumpsuits or not, they're a very real threat.
But they're also hilarious. I don't know what it is about anonymous geniuses in yellow jumpsuits, but their appearances over the last few years have been universally hilarious. For me, the love affair began in all-ages books like Marvel Adventures' Avengers, which had a natural focus on comedy, but that portrayal continued in the mainstream books, most recently in Secret Avengers.

Images from Marvel Smart Ass' A.I.M. High series.

Doctor Who #878: Rendition

"If the devil himself were to walk this Earth, he'd need representation."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Jul.15 2011.

IN THIS ONE... Jack poisoned on a plane. Vera joins a medical panel. Danes #Forgive. Rex and Esther are framed by the CIA. Wayne Knight and Lauren Ambrose join the cast.

REVIEW: It's the Gwen Cooper Show, and I'd watch that whatever form it took. Miracle Day episode 2 features the most memorable sequence of the entire series, and only partly because the "if you're the best England has to offer" "I'm Welsh [punch!]" bit was so heavily featured in trailers. (And it's awesome.) There's something about jeopardy at high altitudes, and having to work with what you've got, that's great for suspense. I don't really want to have to find out if Vera's fix for arsenic poisoning would work in real life, but it looks like Jack is following in the footsteps of another Jack - Bauer - suffering through injuries you couldn't possibly heal from in the time shown. I'm not really bothered. This is all about Gwen giving urgency to every scene, making chemical MacGyverism exciting. I love her complaining about America as soon as she steps out of the airport, just like Rex did about Wales in the previous episode, and her last line takes the edge off the tired grotesque of Lyn walking out with her head the wrong way around.

The other thread I'm quite liking is Vera's. Of the new characters, she's definitely the thinker, and through her more than anyone, we discover what impact unending life will have on the planet. She flips the way we do triage. She realizes first that non-corpses will become incubators for germs and viruses, which could mutate and cause drug-resistant plagues. She makes the case for pain management as an international emergency. News programs and CIA analysts vaguely discuss social and political ramifications, but Vera's scenes are more exciting and better thought-out. More SF shows should strive to do things like this, working out the real consequences the Big Idea would have (though obviously, the Big Idea is pure fantasy in this case). Vera's thread also connects to Oswald's now, through Jilly Kitzinger, the bubbly but sinister PR expert played by Lauren Ambrose. I've loved Ambrose since Six Feet Under, obviously, and her character adds a lot. She's the one spot of color in this whole thing, a blazing red figure in a monochromatic world, smiling through the Apocalypse. She's selling Vera a drug plan (so does this whole thing come down to money?), but also hopes to represent Danes after his tortured performance (and it is a performance) on live TV. Takes one monster to know another, seems like.

The weakest element is the CIA stuff. It's not bad, mind you, just weaker than the rest, perhaps by virtue of being well-explored ground already. Rogue CIA elements inside the CIA turning on the real CIA? Nothing Alias and Chuck didn't do already, guys. I sure hope the real CIA isn't like that. Still, I'm always happy to see Wayne Knight in something, and Dichen Lachman from Dollhouse makes a good assassin. Esther has a good, but not too flashy, escape from CIA HQ. She's resourceful, but it's not over the top. She mostly gets away because the CIA weren't trying too hard. Maybe Friedkin (Knight) thought she was too wet to do any real damage, and based on that scene in his office, I can forgive him for underestimating her.

THEORIES: Jack mentions Earth's morphic field as a possible cause of the mortality flip, which ties into some of the things that have been said (by me and others) about the Whoniverse in general. Specifically, it's been touted as the reason we "look Time Lord", and as a good reason for fighting a Time War and trying to capture Gallifrey. If Gallifrey is the first world to perfect time travel, and if the planet's morphic field resonates through all of time and space, in effect becoming the template for life everywhere, it explains why humanoid types are so prevalent, and why most planets have recognizable vegetation, atmospheres, etc. It also means that if the Daleks (or Sontarans, or whoever else has tried) invade Gallifrey, they could conceivably create a "Dalek universe", rewriting the whole of universal history. Miracle Day proves such a field exists around our planet, so it's just a small leap to say all planets' fields are linked in some way, especially with time rifts and such creating portals from one to another. Now, there is some controversy as to whether Miracle Day really fits into the Whoniverse, but that's something we can better discuss later, as the Miracle days drag on.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High
- About as good as Miracle Day gets. It's exciting, thought-provoking, and introduces some cool actors/characters to the action.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Who's in the Phantom Zone? Part 2

Who's This? And now for the second half of the Phantom Zone entry in Who's Who vol.XVIII.
As with Part 1, we're ignoring our usual format to briefly look at the first appearances of the 8 characters above, as a kind of primer on Phantom Zone Villains (and not-so-villains). Who were they and why are they important to the Silver/Bronze Age Superman mythos (if at all)? And did they somehow make it to one of the 21st century's continuities?

Who's Jax-Ur?
His first story was told in Reign of the Supermen, a tale from Adventure Comics #289 (1961) in which he posed as a super-powered Pa Kent. He would return in more modern Superman tales as one of Zod's cronies, appearing on the Superman animated series and in the Man of Steel movie as well.

Who's Jer-Em?
In Action Comics #309 (1964), Supergirl learned all about Argo City's demise. Turns out the flying city was placed around a yellow sun and its people enjoyed new-found super-powers. It was awesome until THIS old crank decided powers were Satan's taint (or the Kryptonian equivalent). Hypocritically using his powers to divert the city back to a red sun, the Argonauts lost their powers and sentenced him to 30 cycles in the Phantom Zone. Harsh? Yes, but not in hindsight. Seems like he stranded Argo in some kind of radiation belt that doomed its citizens. Supergirl's parents survived by shunting themselves to the Survival Zone (another Phantom Zone, out of phase with the prison dimension), but the process didn't take effect before they'd sent their infant daughter off in a rocket. Supergirl encounters old Jax-Ur in the PZ where he feels really guilty about the whole thing. He was about to commit suicide after being freed, in the Steve Gerber mini-series, when he was instead killed by fellow convicts.

Who's Kru-El?
Superman's evil second cousin was first seen in another Supergirl story, this one in Action Comics #297 (1962), when, along with Jax-Ur and Zod, he was freed from the Phantom Zone by an evil Kandorian. Kru-El knew all about the Kryptonian arsenal sent behind Superbaby by Jor-El, and rescued it from its ocean tomb, killed the Kandorian villainess with a disintegrator gun, and was eventually stopped and sent back to the Zone by Supergirl. He would appear fairly frequently through pre-Crisis continuity as one of the main four Phantom Zone Villains usually causing trouble. Presumably because his name is such a cheesy pun, he has appeared much less in post-Crisis continuity (like, twice maybe).

Who's Mon-El?
Another character discussed in Reign of the Supermen, with Zod, arguably the best known inhabitant of the Phantom Zone (at least, in comics fan circles). He's been a high-profile member of the Legion of Super-Heroes since the early 60s, the only character on the list to get his own entry in Who's Who, and even took over Action Comics for a while in the more recent past.

Who's Gra-Mo?
In a story revealing new details about Jor-El's life in Superboy #104 (1963), we find out the Kryptonian council runs a kind of Dragons' Den competition in which they decide just which inventions will become a part of the planet's social fabric. When Jor-El wins for the Phantom Zone projector, rival scientist Gra-Mo (whose invention was a servile android race) goes crazy and along with his "evil assistants" and tries to take over the planet. The damage they caused means the PZ projector can't be used to make them the first criminals in history to be banished to Zone, so the old suspended animation in orbit method is used. When Krypton blows up, they're pushed towards Earth and eventually come to blows with Superboy. He finally got to the Phantom Zone for his trouble, and I don't think he ever appeared again.

Who's Nam-Ek?
I.e. the weird guy with the unicorn horn. What's THAT all about? As revealed in Untold Tales of Krypton, Superman #282 (1974), he was a Kryptonian scientist who tried to give himself immortality by drinking an extract made from the healing horn of the Rondor, one of those crazy Kryptonian animals. His change in appearance was an unforeseen effect and that cost for immortality too high. Shooting the horn off didn't work, as it made him invulnerable to physical damage and illness. Isolated for too long because of his monstrous looks, he went kind of insane. Krypton blew up, and he survived. The story ends with him crying in space for all eternity. Except some pirate eventually picked him up, and he naturally gravitated towards the Last Son of Krypton and he too was rewarded with a trip to the Phantom Zone. His name's been used as a go-to for live action Superman stories when they've needed a Kryptonian with a strange appearance, as one of the Disciples of Zod in Smallville, for example, and as that big armored dude in Man of Steel.

Who's Quex-Ul?
In Superman #157 (1962), the Man of Steel is pressured (by phantom voices) to release this guy whose sentence of 25 cycles (18 of our years) is up. Once he is, he of course attempts to get revenge on the House of El for being falsely accused and condemned. But wait! It wasn't his fault after all! Somebody else poached those poor Rondors and then hypnotized him so he'd confess! Well, feeling bad about the Gold Kryptonite he'd prepared for Superman and Supergirl, he throws himself into it instead, saving the Survivors of Steel and rendering himself both powerless and somehow amnesiac. So Perry White put him to work in the Daily Planet production office. Seemed like the thing to do. He would eventually sacrifice himself to save Superman in The Phantom Zone mini. John Byrne used him (strangely) as one of the Pocket Universe Kryptonian villains Superman had to execute, and he returned on "New Earth" as one of Zod's sleeper agents.

Who's Va-Kox?
Who's Who misattributes this one's first appearance as Superboy #104, but it's actually Action #284 (1962) that Professor Va-Kox first shows. He was arrested and "jailed" for creating awful sea monsters, and if he ever gets out, you can bet your life he's going to ravage the Earth the same way. In every story he appears in, he's basically just hanging out with bigger names. Perhaps he's hoping Dr. Xa-Du or Jax-Ur's fame and success will rub off on him. Yeah, maybe not.

Who else? I was probably going to go western, but then I had any idea for a very different genre character.