Reality is the playground of the unimaginative
Home Of Superheroes, the Supernatural, Swords, Sorcery, and Star Stuff

Monday, 31 December 2007

Ilsa, She Wolf Of The SS (1974)

Only my globetrotting best man and fellow cult film fan, Paul, could have picked up on a throwaway comment I made on the birthday present he bought me and hunted down a copy of Ilsa, She Wolf Of The SS on a recent trip to Riga, Latvia.

For those who don't know, this film is a grandmother of "torture porn", a revolting sub-genre of horror that the recent Saw and Hostel franchises have tried to bring back to popularity.

What makes Ilsa, She Wolf Of The SS particularly notorious is that it is set in a Nazi medical camp in 1945.

Admittedly it is a low-budget prison camp with only about a dozen prisoners and the same number of German staff!

The movie opens with a message from the producer on how this film is based on "factual research" and is dedicated to the memories of the prisoners who died in the Nazi concentration camps, so "this may never happen again"... then cuts straight to a middle-aged blonde woman and a younger man having sex in what could be an up-market hotel room.

It turns out that woman is camp commandant Ilsa and the man is a prisoner, who is promptly taken away and castrated so he can never be with a woman again.

Much of the film's success can be attributed to the iconic performance of Dyanne Thorne (who, according to Wikipedia is now a registered minister conducting scenic wedding services with her husband) in the title role. She never gives less than her all to the part and has inspired countless imitations over the years (even by people who probably haven't - or shouldn't have - watched this movie).

Like many so-called 'video nasties', the notoriety of Ilsa has snowballed thanks to hysterical tabloid-style journalism and overblown word-of-mouth; many of the genuine shocks in the movie are undermined by the dodgy '70s special effects and the fact that the camera pulls away before we (thankfully) see what is being suggested.

There's a fair amount of naked flesh on display, but none more than you would expect in a typical "women in prison" film, and given the pornographic feel of the piece it remains quite coy in what it can and can't show.

What passes for a story is Ilsa's experiments to proves that women can endure more pain than men - thus making them suitable for front line duties in the war - set against the increasing unrest of the prisoners, stirred up by the new arrival Wolfe (a German/American student played by Gregory Knoph), who Ilsa takes a shine to.

Ultimately the reputation and pop culture influence of Ilsa, She Wolf Of The SS is, unsurprisingly, greater than the film itself. It was never going to be as "over the top" as something we, the audience, could have imagined in our heads which is what makes it such a challenge to watch.

Sunday, 30 December 2007

Six Of The Best With HEROPRESS

As an end-of-year alternative to our usual Six Of The Best interviews, this month's column is my six geeky New Year Resolution for HeroPress.

Most of these are dependent on our impending move to a new home (currently scheduled for February) going ahead as planned... and then getting the top floor gamesroom - or Fortress of Solitude - 'fixed up' as soon as possible after that.

1. Although Nick has assured us that he has enough Hollow Earth Expedition adventure ideas to keep us going through all of 2008, he is equally keen that I get my planned Castles & Crusades campaign up and running.

I already have a notebook teeming with ideas, many developed from Dungeons & Dragons/The Fantasy Trip campaigns I ran at the tale end of school and into the late 80s with our friends Mark and Benny in Tonbridge.

It's just a question of transferring all this to the computer, sketching some rough maps, giving Nick time to read the rulebook I got him for Christmas and explain it all to Clare, then we should be up and running once the Fortress of Solitude opens its doors to gamers.

2. Rein in my geek-related spending, in line with my limited resources (i.e. no job, living off benefits), which means less new books (and more reading the ones I already have), curbing my comic pull-list which seems to have grown considerably this year etc

3. Focus my wargame figure buying - and attendant historical research - on the Crusades. This, of course, also ties in with Resolution One above and a childhood fascination with knights in armour.

4. Spend less time thinking about, and writing about, things and more time doing things.

5. Expand the HeroPress website beyond its simple 'blog' format, hopefully migrating it to its own dedicated domain name (as Clare has done with Three Beautiful Things). More content = better value!

6. Get to grips with the technology involved in producing a podcast, then start "broadcasting" a HeroPress podcast (almost certainly taking advantage of all the help offered through the last year by people with successful podcasts).

Saturday, 29 December 2007

Reign of Fire (2002)

Given that Christian Bale is pencilled in to play me when Hollywood comes round to filming the story of my life (should George Clooney not be available) and that Rachel and I visited the backlot sets at Disneyland Paris (see above) three times on our recent holiday to see the post-apocalyptic ruins of London, it came as no great surprise that I asked for a copy of Reign of Fire to add to my DVD library this Christmas.

This may not be one of Bale's most memorable performances, but you can't fault the high concept idea of the movie: workmen digging under London disturb a hibernating dragon; it wakes up (and wakes up hundreds of its kin) and 20 years later the human race is struggling to survive in the ash pits that are the remnants of civilization.

Sadly, we don't get to see the dragon's attacking modern day London - as depicted on the DVD cover - but there's still plenty of man versus dragon action in the futuristic quarry pits where the film actually takes place.

Bale is leading a group of survivors, hiding out in a Northumberland castle, when a group of American militia - with helicopter support and tanks - rolls up at the gates, led by a slightly insane Matthew McConaughey.

McConaughey's Van Zan has a plan to take out the dragons, while Bale's Quinn just wants his people to survive. A butting of heads ensues, dragons attack, people die and our heroes end up back in London confronting the daddy of all dragons at the spot where a young Quinn saw his mother die when the first dragon was unearthed.

It's simple fare, but highly entertaining and not too mentally challenging. If Reign of Fire suffers from anything, it is the bleakness of its appearance. Shot mainly at twilight or at night, everyone is covered in soot and ash and dressed in black or shades of grey, and except for the dragons' breath it might have well have been filmed in black and white.

A Bird In The Hand Is Worth Two In The Game...

Part One: - Chapter Three of the Continuing Adventures of Prof. Rufus Crain and Sister Justinia (May, 1909), as recorded by Prof. Crain - Before settling down for the night I retrieved a copy of the book De Whymper had written, from Lord Worthings library, and was quite pleased - and angry - to discover that he had woven several of my own ideas, from various monographs I have published over the years, into his theories on futurism and the nature of time.

A barking dog disturbed my bedtime reading and upon reaching the window to give it a taste of my slipper, I espied a shadowy form sneaking around the mechanics' tents. I raced as fast as my old frame would carry me down to the pilots' staging area, waking Mr Wangleton, the American, and Sister Justinia - whose eagle eyes I knew would be of use if there was "detective" work to be done.

We discovered a muddy boot print near Mr Wangleton's tent, but not much else, but insisted on all the mechanics - including the Germans - checking over their aircraft to make sure they had not been tampered with.

Once more we all returned to our beds, only to be awoken a few hours later by a fire raging through the poor Italians' tent. Their plane was undamaged and they were unharmed, but I did discover some sort of fuel-soaked fuse that had been the cause of the blaze and further proof of saboteurs at work.

I tried to persuade Lord Worthing to cancel the race - to avoid a scandal if anyone is killed during the event - but he would have none of it.

The next morning, he finally unveiled to Sister Justinia and myself, the "thing" he had used to lure us back here in the first place. It turned out to be a beautiful, clockwork bird; some sort of clever automata that responds to sounds and has an unnatural ability to fly.

Sister Justinia seems to credit it with some form of supernatural life and while I realise these closeted religious types can be rather gullible, I have the common sense that God and a lifetime of reading The Daily Mail has given me and can see that it is simply a toy of some kind. A blasted brilliant one, but a toy nonetheless.

My studies revealed that it was at least 200 years old and made from calamine brass. But what made it most fascinating was its resemblance to creations described by the 12th Century Arab scribe Al-Jazari (as mentioned by De Whymper in his twice-damned work of plagiarism) and their connections to the ancient workings of the abbey that we were investigating just the other day.

The toy appears to be Persian or Turkish in origin and while we could not identify the species it was replicating, the good Sister has a theory that it is a representation of a mythical phoenix bird.

A key mechanism on the birds' back is similar in design to that of the clock mechanism, back at the abbey and naturally I was keen to dismantle this trinket as soon as possible to see how it worked. However, the infuriating Sister thwarted me at every turn because of her silly belief that their piece of metal is "alive".

As I conducted what experiments I could on the toy; outside the workshop the estate was gearing up for the great air race. Sister Justinia wandered off and befriended a photographer's young assistant, his six-year-old daughter Alice, and then insisted on bringing her back inside to see the "birdy". There was something about this child that set the hairs on the back of my neck tingling, but she seemed harmless enough.

Lord Worthing's two eldest sons asked me to give their aircraft engine the once over and I suggested a few minor tweaks that should have guaranteed victory for them... which is why it came as no surprise that, come the race, they pipped Mr Wangleton to the post and claimed the trophy for England. The Italians came in third and Von Kluge's "mighty design" limped in in last place.

The Germans were not best pleased and got to crating up their craft as soon as possible. I must admit it took us all by surprise when the estate was plunged into darkness by the arrival of a giant dirigible to take them and their aircraft away. Von Kluge could be heard - by the others - shouting vague threats in my direction, but my attention was focused on the fascinating metal bird.

I think I have finally convinced Lord Worthing to allow Sister Justinia and I to return to the abbey to continue our important work.

Part Two: Game Analyis - another great session, totally devoid of fisticuffs and gunplay. The only dice rolling we're doing is plentiful perception checks, the odd intelligence test and some science stuff by the professor. To be honest - if we opted to 'take the average' on many of our rolls - we could probably eliminate dice rolling completely from the game, but where would the fun be in that?

I'm loving the fact that I get to play this pig-headed, intellectual type, while Clare's character is more driven by her heart, and I really enjoyed our verbal sparring over the professor's determination to dismantle the clockwork phoenix (even Nick looked horrified at my insistence on taking a screwdriver to this, presumably, important plot device) - but it just seemed in character!

Friday, 28 December 2007

DVD Of The Week: Seraphim Falls (2006)

Mighty Mouse versus Superman, a polar bear versus a tiger, King Kong versus Godzilla... these are the fantasy match-ups that spark pub debates the length and breadth of the country. But who'd have thought of pitting James Bond against Qui-Gon Jinn?

Seraphim Falls is a revenge thriller and an epic chase set against the backdrop of the Old West in the years following the American Civil War.

Starring two of Ireland's finest actors, it follows Confederate Colonel Carver's (Liam Neeson) ceaseless hunt for Union Captain Gideon (Pierce Brosnan) for reasons that aren't made clear until about two-thirds of the way into the story.

The stunning scenery shifts from the snow-bound mountains, down through the flatlands and into the baking desert for a climax, assisted by the sudden appearance of Anjelica Huston's snakeoil salesman Madame Louise Fair, that switches from the hyper-real to the slighty mystical and allegorical.

Brilliantly scripted by David Von Ancken (who also directed) and Abby Everett Jaques, Seraphim Falls isn't your run-of-the-mill gunfights and white hats/black hats Western but an examination of corrupting power of obsession (on one side) and a man trying to escape a past mistake (on the other). There is no definitive good guy or bad guy when it comes to the main characters.

The story also makes great use of its changing environment as man is first and foremost being pitted against the environment, rather than other men; particularly the extremes of cold or heat that you can feel from the screen safe and sound on your sofa. Star Wars fans should also look out for the interesting variation on the classic 'use of a dead tauntaun' sequence from The Empire Strikes Back.

Some have criticised the ending as a 'cop out' although, personally, I thought it was the only satisfying ending the tale could have.

The Doctor Is In... A Spin!

Arriving just a little too late for most Christmas stockings, the new Doctor Who collectible miniatures game has materialised on shelves sooner than I was expecting. Browsing Toys R Us last night for any "sale" bargains I picked up two of the 7-figure packs and one 3-figure pack.

MINIATURES: As I doubt anyone reading this review will be interested in the collectible game as it is written, the most important aspect of this game is the quality of the figures. As you can see from the picture above - where a Dalek and The Master are show next to a pair of Artizan Design's Thrilling Tales figures - they generally scale okay with normal 'heroic 28mm' wargames figures.

The height is probably a bit better with 'monster' figures as discrepancies aren't so noticeable; the large bases make the human(oid) figures slightly taller, but I would imagine a base swap operation wouldn't be too much of an arduous task for the hardcore gamer.

The sculpts are about on a par with early Mage Knight figures, quite solid and detailed enough that you can tell what they are meant to be.

On the paint job front, again the monsters and aliens win out. Human figures - such as the Sarah Jane, Mickey Smith and Master that I acquired - are totally devoid of facial features and so could pass as Auton shop dummies. I guess this is better than the wild, starring black blobs for eyes that Wizards of The Coast have recently been inflicting on their Star Wars Miniatures.

RULES: The insultingly primitive rules system is what could sink this line before it's even had a chance to take off. It must have taken the big brains at Character all of about two minutes to come up with in their lunch break.

Every figure, on the underside of its base, is rated in four characteristics - Fear Factor, Physical Ability, Logic Rating and Temporal (based on exposure to the time vortex) - from one to six.

Without looking the "attacker" chooses a statistic. He and the "defender" then spin the TARDIS console spinner (free one in every pack), which generates a number from one to six. Both players add their scores (spinner plus statistic) and the highest number wins.

There is no ruling on what happens if the scores tie... I suspect a tear in the space-time continuum!

To the victor goes the spoils (ie. the losing figure). And that's it! Repeat until you are out of figures. It's basically Top Trumps with the addition of a dice element. The actual figures serve no actual purpose in the game - there is no map, no movement etc

PACKAGING: This is a clever element of the game. Like some toy collector variant of Texas Hold 'Em poker, the clam-shell packs are designed so you can see some of the figures (one in a three-figure pack and three in a seven-figure pack), so have some idea of what you are getting, but the rest of the figures are hidden from view.

The packs are also vacuum-sealed plastic, rather than the normal cardboard we are used to with HeroClix and Star Wars Miniatures - so aren't as quick and easy to get into.

COLLECTABILITY: This is a game I want to succeed, despite itself, because I'd like to see what figures Character produce in the future.

There are only 26 figures in the main range (plus six exclusives available with space-ships, although the ships are not for use in the game) and in the three packs I picked up I managed to get half the rare figures (three out of six) and five of the eight uncommons but only three different commons (of the 12 available).

Clearly it's going to get frustrating quite quickly to try and collect all the figures as you're going to acquire a lot of duplicate rares and uncommons trying to complete your set of commons!

Thursday, 27 December 2007

The 13th Warrior (1999)

Imagine, if you can, a film based on a Dungeons & Dragons campaign run by a gamesmaster whose favourite book is Beowulf and has just watched Zulu and the Seven Samurai.

That will give you some idea of the brilliant, OTT, wackiness of The 13th Warrior; the tale of an Arabian ambassador who teams up with some Viking warriors to fight "an ancient evil" which is plaguing an isolated village.

Based on Michael Crichton's "The Eaters of The Dead", which itself is based on Beowulf, this tries to set the ancient mythical tale in a historical context by "explaining" the various creatures in "real" terms.

The village is being assaulted by the Wendol, flesh-eating creatures that attack in the night, out of the mist, and carry off the heads of their victims.

Ahmad (Antonio Banderas) and the dozen, mumbling, heavily-accented Northmen try to fend them off - then take the attack back to the Wendol's underground lair before provoking one, final attack by the beastmen on the village.

The story is all about the power of myth and being frightened of what you don't understand - the Wendol's main strength coming from their prey's belief that they are supernatural creatures.

The 13th Warrior is muddy, bloody and slightly bewildering as Ahmad's reasons for staying with the Vikings, who he has only just met, are never really made clear and one antagonist, in the form of the king's treacherous son Wigliff (Anders T. Andersen) vanishes from the story completely about half-way through the action!

The story suffers from the flawed internal logic of many Dungeons & Dragons' adventures - such as why is the village/kingdom of Hrothgar (Sven Wollter) located right next door to the Wendol's mountain base? It's obvious, from the excellent expedition into the mountain sequence, that the beastmen have been there for a long time... that's a lot of heads they've collected! So why haven't the villagers just moved?

Much of the early fight sequences, because of the Wendol's night time tactics, are shot in the dark as well, which, while atmospheric, add to the air of confusion and the general fog of war. Not necessarily a bad thing, but certainly something you need to be prepared for when sitting down to watch this.

Wednesday, 26 December 2007

Fire and Ice (1982)

Until a few weeks ago I hadn't even heard of this early '80s animation by Ralph Bakshi; but then a passing comment on a podcast by Tracy Hickman, of Dragonlance fame, about Bakshi's Lord Of The Rings cartoon sent me scuttling to the Internet to see what else Bakshi had done.

Fire And Ice was a collaboration with internationally renowned fantasy artist Frank Frazetta - the definitive Conan book cover illustrator - using a screenplay by comic book legends Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway. Thomas, of course, was responsible for Marvel's lengthy run of Conan comics, which are now being reprinted in trade paperback collections by Dark Horse - the current holders of the Conan comic book licence.

Animation, more than most styles of movie-making, ages very quickly and Fire And Ice is definitely a product of its time, but it only takes a short while to sweep you up in its light story of the evil Ice Lord Nekron and his war against the kingdom of King Jarol of Fire Keep, and forget that it isn't exactly the most modern-looking of films.

Our hero is a blonde Conan by the name of Larn, who like everyone in this Frazetta-designed setting, walks across glaciers and through snowstorms dressed only in a loincloth. His village is destroyed by Nekron and he sets off on a mission of revenge. On the way Larn teams up with Jarol's daughter - Teegra, she of the micro-bikini and J-Lo butt - and a mysterious, masked warrior, whose true identity we never discover.

They battle against Nekron's army of neanderthals, ride pterodactyls, tangle with the most useless witch in fantasy movies, fight a giant octopus creature, explore anicent ruins covered in cryptic symbols and carvings, and shed very little blood during their constant fighting, stabbing and impaling.

Despite such a silly and dated story, Fire And Ice is very easy watching and entertaining and for all the scantiness of the costumes, it's very innocent (although the lack of gore in the very violent conflicts is quite jarring) and stylish.

Tuesday, 25 December 2007

Doctor Who: Voyage Of The Damned

Having a turkey on December 25 is, of course, a well established tradition, but you don't expect it to be served up in the form of that newer of traditions: the Doctor Who Christmas Special.

If you think that introduction was tired and forced then you have some idea of what it was like watching Voyage Of The Damned.

As you will remember the last time we saw the Doctor he was mourning the loss of Martha and the TARDIS had just been rammed by the Titanic. Turns out it wasn't that Titanic - but a themed space cruiser carrying posh alien tourists on a sight-seeing tour of Earh orbit.

The Doctor immediately meets waitress Astrid (an anagram of TARDIS; that Russell T Davies is a clever old stick, isn't he?), played by a tired looking Kylie Minogue, and the unconvincing "romance" between the two only succeeds as painting the Doctor as a sad old man who latches on to the first attractive woman he comes across.

The lack of chemistry between the two is almost painful to watch and the stunt casting of the pop diva seriously backfires beacus, for all Astrid's longing to join the Doctor on his travels, we know it is never going to come to pass.

Even the normally reliable David Tennant seemed to just be going through the motion with this awful, unimaginative script. It was almost as though Russell took the attitude that everyone loves Doctor Who and this one's got Kylie in it, so he could knock something out in half an hour and go down the pub... and no one would notice!

The tiresome killer Santa robots of the previous Christmas specials have been imaginatively replaced this time round with killer angel robots and the linear storyline of Voyage Of The Damned unravels like a boring old computer game; leading to an inevitable conclusion and the unmasking of a villain whose identity would have come as no surprise to anyone who was still awake and paying attention.

The climatic confrontation came across as a deleted scene from Robot Wars and just got sillier from there, from Astrid's transformation into "stardust" and the Doctor's elevation by the angels to the cringeworthy cameo by 'The Queen' wishing our hero a "merry Christmas".

If this is any indication of the shape of things to come, this is one die hard fan of Doctor Who who might find himself jumping ship with a cry of: "Yippie-ki-yay, m-----------!"

Sunday, 23 December 2007

Top Shelf: Knights of The Dinner Table

With all my comments through the year about the print death of gaming magazines - from reminiscences of the golden age of Different Worlds and White Dwarf (when it wasn't a miniatures catalogue) to the culling of Dragon magazine - I can't believe no one screamed at me: "But what about Knights of The Dinner Table?"

I'll confess that while I'd heard about it, and I knew "friend of HeroPress" Ken Newquist was a contributor, I hadn't fully appreciated that this magazine, which has been appearing pretty regularly for more than 10 years, included more than just the Knights of The Dinner Table (KoTDT) comic strip.

I picked up a copy on a whim earlier this month and it was love at first read. I felt like I was coming home.

Not only did the main strip - about a group of hack'n'slash gamers - speak to me on so many levels and have me laughing out loud, but over half of the magazine was gaming articles, reviews, opinion columns etc

Founded by the publisher of Shadis, another of my favourite gaming magazines from 'back in the day', KoTDT has spawned several spin-off titles as well as a whole roleplaying game - Hackmaster - based on the spoof of original Dungeons & Dragons that the characters play in the comic strip portion of the magazine.

The publication isn't without its regular typos, but that just reminds me of happy days reading Judges Guild material back in the early 80s.

The layout and production standards are top notch and many of the articles are works of genius - particularly things like the column of generic story hooks which, of the ones I've read, some are quite inspired.

This is a magazine produced by people who clearly love gaming as much as I always have - but know far more about it and, most importantly, don't take it too seriously.

I expect I shall be returning to KoTDT in future blogs as there is just so much to say about it... and I've got a lot of catching up to do!

Karman, Get It!

Despite whatever financial problems Rackham are going through at the moment, the eagerly awaited army book for the final main faction of their AT-43 game has finally appeared: the Karmans.

The Karmans, as we all know by now, are giant gorillas in power armour and the glossy army book is full of teasingly beautiful photographs of the most amazing miniatures.

The Karmans even have low-flying vehicles, which would add a whole new dimension to the game (I read somewhere that future plans for AT-43 included tanks as well).

However, I can't help but have a nagging feeling that we might never actually see these figures out in the big wide world.

This would be worse than never having seen anything for the Karmans come out at all!

Several Karman ranges are listed on the Rackham website as due out in December/January, but given that they were originally listed for November and then were moved back; and factor in that the website is not as regularly updated as it used to be and you have to start to wonder.

The army book is oddly listed in their store as "out of print" already, which is pretty much what happened to the previous one - Red Blok - which I haven't been able to lay my hands on for love nor money. I was even, for a while, questioning whether these books even existed as they seemed to go "out of print" within hours of being published!

Nick told me the other day that the deadline for Rackham's financial protection is April, so who knows what we will see coming out for AT-43 before then. It would be quite painful to have got "into" a seemingly thriving miniatures game at last year's Cavalier and for it to have died by the time the next one rolls round.

Here's hoping for a Christmas miracle... those giant space monkeys would look incredible on the gaming table I have planned for the new house.

Saturday, 22 December 2007

Top Of The Pile: Fantastic Four #552

The migration of emphasis of my pull-list from Marvel to DC (in the wake of Marvel's ill-considered Civil War debacle) is made increasingly difficult each month by the House of Ideas' consistent ability to put out some top notch titles amongst all the dross.

As long as Marvel is producing such titles as Thor, Nova, the Annihilation line, Iron Fist, Ultimate Spider-man and the Fantastic Four, it's always going to have a presence in my fortnightly comic pile.

I have said many times before that the Fantastic Four are my favourite team of superheroes and, once again, the current issue (Fantastic Four #552) proves why: it's got weird and mad science, believable characters who are more than just a sum of their powers, epic fight sequences, time travel (always popular here at HeroPress Towers) and Doctor 'freaking' Doom... what more could you want?

Dwayne McDuffie's pacing is spot on, building nicely to a final 'wow' splash page, and Paul Pelletier's pencils are perfect. The new creative team on The Ultimates could take a few lessons from this title.

It's issues like this that remind me why it's okay to spend too much money each month of comics. Up until this latest storyline (which started last issue) I was wishing for the much heralded hasty arrival of Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch on the Fantastic Four, but now I'd be quite content for things to stay as they are for a spell.

Special mention, also, to Justice League of America #15; the climatic issue of their confrontation with Lex Luthor's new Injustice League of America.

The comic is basically a giant slugfest which lasts for 19 of the issue's 22 pages, but it's Dwayne McDuffie again (this time with Ed Benes on art detail) and so we get The Batman being too cool for school (just how great is his opening line about using a ballpoint pen to pick the locks at Fort Knox?) and every member of the Justice League, either solo or in combos, showing off some signature moves in their smackdown of Luthor's crew.

It's not subtle by any definition, but it's larger-than-life, gods-among-men stuff and mighty fine entertainment.

Friday, 21 December 2007

Battlestar Galactica: Razor (2007)

Finally caught up with the Battlestar Galactica TV movie Razor that should keep us going until the new (and final) season airs next year.

Set during Lee Adama's first command of the Battlestar Pegasus, our POV character is Kendra Shaw (Stephanie Jacobsen), a lieutenant who arrived on the Pegasus a short while before the cylons attacked the 12 Colonies.

The multitextured story tells of Shaw's early days under the infamous Commander Cain (Michelle Forbes) and Cain's increasing dehumanisation as she launches her "one-woman war" against the cylons - spurred on by the unmasking of her lesbian lover Gina (Tricia Helfer) as a cylon 'skin job'; as well as a contemporary story about Shaw's promotion to XO of The Pegasus and the discovery of a legion of old style cylon centurions guarding a mysterious "hybrid" - whose creation is tangled up in Commander Adama's own backstory (Edward James Olmos).

Given that we all knew Gina was a cylon from the moment we saw her (having seen Tricia Helfer - and other copies of Number Six - in the main series), the inevitable betrayal was nonetheless powerful because of the human element (ie. Cain).

Although hot lesbian romances are always fan boy favourites in geeky media, it was an effective, dramatic hook to personalise Cain's hardening of her shell - over and above the cylon's Pearl Harbour-like attack on the colonies.

The return of the old school centurions - "by your command" - was a great touch, adding another layer to the mythos, and it was reassuring to hear the "this has all happened before and will all happen again" mantra being spouted again as it was the mystical side of the cylons crusade that really piqued my interest in this classy reimagining of the 80s schlockfest.

Unfortunately, the resolution of Kendra Shaw's story arc was rather hackneyed and compounded a nagging feeling that this script had turned into some sort of Aliens tribute piece with a character called Hudson (Shaker Paleja) and people being told to "stay frosty". However, her final conversation with the "hybrid" (Campbell Lane) was strong enough for me to excuse this little slip.

I would have liked to have seen more of Commander Cain as I've been a big fan of Michelle Forbes since she first appeared on my radar as Ensign Ro Laren, the rebellious deck officer, on Star Trek: The Next Generation. She has made a career of playing strong, fiesty women, from Carrie Laughlin in Kalifornia to Dawn Lockard in Swimming With Sharks (the greatest movie about the Hollywood film industry) via the key role of Lynne Kresg in Day Two of 24.

Can't wait now for the final season of the never-less-than-brilliant Battlestar Galactica, although I fear the current writers' strike is in danger of shooting it out of the skies before the Galactica actually arrives at Earth and all our questions are answered.

More than any show - except probably Lost - around at the moment I want to know what's going on here. We are so close to finding out it would be mind-frakking for it all to be screwed over something as unromantic as an argument over money. I don't want the answers to come in a later book, a comic or via the Internet - I want my Battlestar Galactica where it should be... on my TV!

Always The Bridesmaid...

The team owners - and their partners - of the Tunbridge Wells Formula De League gathered at the prestigious Thai & Shanghai Cuisine restaurant in Tunbridge Wells for a gala prize giving ceremony last night...

Well, kind of: Pete and Jeni, Nick and Clare, and Rachel and I rolled up for a lovely three-course meal that served as our end-of-season celebration, Christmas get-together and prize-giving ceremony - all rolled into one!

Pete took the trophy for best driver on behalf of Mehatt Mecoate (of Team Blue Clover) and Nick walked away with the trophy for best team (Team Flamers), having beaten Team Clover by a clear 10 points.

As last year, my drivers (Team Zerro) won nothing official, but I was still awarded a 'wooden spoon' for my losing efforts (Jeni had earlier pointed out the irony of the fact that it's my game, I take all the pictures, compile all the stats and get the trophies engraved every year - but never actually win anything!) and a "Pity The Fool" Mr T statuette (bubble bath) for my photography.

We also took this opportunity to discuss rules modifications, as proposed by Nick, to cut down on potential abuse of "pit stops", next year's calendar (which has been drawn up in advance to hopefully accommodate Steve as a regular fourth owner and team) and Pete's mega-Le Mans game, that is provisionally scheduled for an 'all-dayer' sometime in the middle of 2008.

Nick and I estimate the Le Mans game, which uses a unique and as-accurate-as-possible track designed by Pete - and is the size of his enormous dining room table - will take about eight hours to play!

Further pictures of the night can be found here.

Thursday, 20 December 2007

Dangerous Knowledge!

This day in 1803, to fund their war against the British, the French handed over New Orleans to the Americans as part of the Louisiana Purchase (selling a third of America to the Americans for three cents an acre).

This is today's "boy's fact" from the 332-page, hefty hardbacked Dangerous Book For Boys Yearbook, which I got this week from Cathryn as a belated birthday present, when Lou took me and her son Oliver (age 15 months) over to visit.

Part of the ongoing "Dangerous" series, the Yearbook has "a fact for every day, a story for every month and an event for every season". As a man who values trivial knowledge this is the perfect "dip in" book for me, not to be read from cover-to-cover, but randomly opened and digested at odd moments.

If you're looking for a last-minute Christmas present for a boy (aged eight to eighty) geek... then this is the book to pick up!

By the way, did you know, my wedding anniversary (May 25) is the Feast Day of the Venerable Bede - the father of English history?

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

DVD Of The Week: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Christmas is a time for traditions and one we try to observe every year here at HeroPress Towers is the official "watching of The Muppet Christmas Carol".

There are many versions of Charles Dickens' best-known story out there in media-land, but our favourite, by far, is this hilarious re-imagining from the early 90s by Brian Henson.


In a weird world of talking animals, talking vegetables and other strangeness, and with Kermit as Bob Crachit and Robin as Tiny Tim, it's left to the movie's lead human - Michael Caine in an incredible performance as Ebenezer Scrooge - to hold the show together.

Packed with the expected cornucopia of catchy songs, the film is simultaneously funny and bizarre, clever and moving, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come still scares the bejeepers out of Rachel!

The passing of Tiny Tim in the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come's depressing vision of the future never fails to bring a lump to my throat - perhaps as a fellow sickly 'Tiny Tim' who walks with a stick I relate to the character a bit too much. However the joyous ending of The Muppet Christmas Carol also never fails to leave me with a song in my heart and a smile on my lips.

For us, this has to rank up there with It's A Wonderful Life as one of the great Christmas films and will remain a seasonal standard in this family for many years to come.

The Ultimate Insult? Not Really...

With early reviews from sources I trust - namely Nuketown and Paradox Comics Group - making the new creative team on The Ultimates (Jeph Loeb and Joe Madureira) seem as welcome as half a maggot in a beefburger, I was expecting the worse.

Surprisingly, the issue wasn't that bad.

Don't get me wrong it's not a great start to a new story arc. Jeph Loeb tries too hard to be "adult" and controversial and crams way too much story into 22-pages (the Iron Man/Black Widow sex tape, Captain America being all grumpy, the Quicksilver/Scarlet Witch incest sub-plot, Hawkeye going psychotic, Hank Pym's apparent overdose, an attack by Venom etc).

Madureira's art is also not the clearest to follow. In fact it's pretty poor by this title's standards.

But these superheroic characters have a history in this universe, so I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt... for a while. Nothing was going to get resolved in this single issue, although a more delicate touch might have been appreciated. It's all a rather sudden change of style. Perhaps there's a great masterplan?

Ultimates 3, issue 1, is very messy and in-your-face, but I think people might have been expecting a bit too much. It was never going to be William Shakespeare as drawn by Leonardo Da Vinci... or even Mark Millar as drawn by Bryan Hitch, unfortunately.

The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles: Passion For Life, 1909

Passion For Life is the second of the Young Indiana Jones films in the box set, combining the next two episodes of 10-year-old Henry Jones Junior's adventures - British East Africa and Paris.

The first part of this tale sees our plucky hero - and his parents - on safari with Theodore Roosevelt (James Gammon) for some reason, which is never explained as it doesn't really tie in with Henry Senior's world book tour! Then, rather confusingly, Paul Freeman (ie. Belloq from Raiders of The Lost Ark) turns up as big game hunter Frederick Selous (the inspiration for the character of Allan Quartermain, who in turn inspired the creation of Indiana Jones), but doesn't really do much else.

This episode is probably most noteworthy because it appears to be the first time - chronologically - that Henry Junior refers to himself as 'Indy' (which is, of course, the name of his dog... it seems to be a self-appointed nickname).

Indy is taught to fire a gun by Roosevelt, but then starts to question the President's idea of "preserving" wildlife by shooting it, stuffing it and displaying it in a museum. Most of the adventure centres around Indy's attempts to track down a rare oryx, which, in turn, leads to some interesting exposition on the interdependence and fragility of ecosystems... before Roosevelt turns up and puts a bullet in its brain!

This is simply a dull and heavy-handed story about man's arrogance towards the natural world and features an outstandingly ridiculous about-face by Roosevelt towards the end and an ineffectual resolution.

Sure, there's some peril - there's even (briefly) snakes - but it's all very half-hearted and uninspired.

Thankfully, after a shoe-horned 'linking sequence, Indy is then off to Paris to learn about art. Rather surprisingly this is a much better, more interesting and certainly more exciting story, as Indy quickly meets up with young Norman Rockwell (Lukas Haas) who takes him to a bar where they encounter Degas and Picasso! What a strange world Indiana Jones lives in!

The boys end up in a seedy dance hall where a brawl breaks out between Picasso and some angry pimps and before you know it you're learning about cubism and modern art without having it rammed down your throat.

In these early Indy tales, the success of the story invariably lies in the strength of the main supporting/historical character and Danny Webb's portrayal of fiery, passionate, conniving Pablo Picasso steals the show. The scene where he draws Indy's tutor and guardian, Miss Seymour (Margaret Tyzack), at gunpoint is priceless; the banter masterful.

On the surface the idea of a story about artists being more exciting than one about big game hunting may seem peculiar, but I guess that's all part of the charm of the strange world of young Indiana Jones.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Funniest Christmas Card Of The Year...

Rachel - head of IT at work - got this card from the contractors who maintain Maxim's computer systems. Given my evangelism for Facebook, I thought the card captured the zeitgeist of the season... and I loved the fact that Santa's elves have a smurf, Legolas (from Lord of The Rings) and Tinkerbell as their "friends".

Monday, 17 December 2007

My Life And Roleplaying: The Shape of Themes To Come!

Michael Moorcock writes the kind of adventures I'd like to take part in - or run.

This latest Elric novel I read, The Bane of The Black Sword, sees the albino sorcerer finally ending his feud with Theleb K'aarna of Pan Tang; then having an amazing dust-up with a zombie king; before getting married, retiring and then having to come out of his brief retirement to fight off an invading barbarian army.

The final story in the book isn't even about Elric, but one of his sword-companions, Rackhir The Red Archer, and a journey across multiple planes to seek help to save his beloved home - the mystical city of Tanelorn - from an an army of beggars led by a demon!

I would love to experience all these themes as a player, from the in-game retirement of a successful character to voyages across the multiverse, and will certainly be lifting some (if not all) of these ideas for my planned swords and sorcery campaign.

I love the idea of characters growing, developing and aging - to the point where they think it's the right time to "retire" from active duty... only to then have to come back for "one last job". It's a classic cinematic cliche, but it would be wonderful to see it develop naturally in a role-playing game.

The idea of Tanelorn also tickles my fancy: an idyllic, magical city where old warriors can find peace and hang up their swords, that exists on all planes and at all times simultaneously.

And the Kings in Darkness story - Elric and Moonglum against a trio of zombie-kings and their hideous spawn - is pure Dungeons & Dragons! I could hear the dice clattering as I read it...

Sunday, 16 December 2007

At The Fleapit: Enchanted

Global cinema audiences - especially in America - appear to have voted with the feet and wallets, choosing en masse to see Disney's Enchanted instead of The Golden Compass, thus seemingly scuppering any chance of an immediate adaptation of the next two parts of Philip Pullman's trilogy.

But now Rachel and I have seen Enchanted, it's not difficult to understand why.

Starting out as a "stereotypical" Disney cartoon - along the lines of Sleeping Beauty or Snow White - Enchanted takes a wonderful twist down the rabbit hole when the wicked witch (Susan Sarandon as Queen Narissa) pushes naive cutey Giselle (Amy Adams) down a magic well to stop her marrying her step-son Prince Edward (a wonderfully dumb James Marsden).

The well leads from idyllic, animated Andalasia to the real, warts-and-all world of New York. Fish-out-of-water Giselle is soon befriended by cynical, single-father and divorce lawyer Robert Philip (Patrick Dempsey), who mistakes her for a harmless mental case and takes her under his wing.

Wackiness, of course, ensues including a couple of hysterically funny musical numbers. The first being where Giselle uses her 'magical gift' for summoning the creatures of the forest to do her bidding to tidy up Robert's flat... this being New York, though, the "creatures of the forest" are mangy pigeons, cockroaches, sewer rats etc

The second stand-out moment is a large-scale, pure-Disney number in Central Park where Giselle's spontaneous song about love draws more and more people under its spell, while Robert becomes increasingly confused as he can't figure out how all these people know the the song!

As the film goes on, more characters come through from the animated world to the real world to either aid or thwart Prince Edward's quest to find his one true love (including Pip the talking chipmunk... who can't "talk" in our world and therefore has to resort to mime), culminating in the evil Queen Narissa herself.

This film owes a lot - including probably it's very existence - to the success of the Shrek franchise, but while it may lack the immediately identifiable (and marketable) figure of a snotty green ogre, this has the knowing bonus of being Disney sending up Disney itself.

Bill Kelly's script for Enchanted is tight, clever (definitely working for both adults and children), pitch-perfect on the jokes and genuinely moving on the emotional beats; enhanced by a solid cast and direction from Kevin Lima.

If you wanted to get picky you could say the special effects in the climatic, rooftop fight with the dragon are a bit weak or that the story is slightly vague on why Narissa still wants to kill Giselle once it becomes obvious that the young girl is more interested in Robert than the square-jawed Prince Edward, but by that stage Enchanted has you under its spell.

And unlike so many fantasy films these days, Enchanted is just right as it is... we don't need any sequels to dilute the magic, milk the franchise or continue the plot. The characters got their well-deserved "happy ever after" and so did we, the audience.

Saturday, 15 December 2007

Stat-ue of Liberty!

Although readership dropped while Rachel and I were away in Disneyland Paris and I was unable to update daily (although I had supplied a week's worth of entries to keep visitors happy), these past 30 days have been some of the best for HeroPress in recent months.

This is mainly because of my interview with the incredibly talented artist Alex CF - which continues to draw readers to the site - and Clare's cross-promotion of our new, on-going pulp rolegaming of Hollow Earth Expedition.

Here are the numbers for the last 30 days.

Where applicable I've included a note of last month's figures for comparison.

Visitor Numbers (as of Saturday, 15 December): 8,853 (7,777)

Average Number of Visitors Per Day: 33 (32)

Top 5 Countries of Origin:
United Kingdom 44% (37%)
United States 40% (50%)
India 2%(-)
Brazil 1% (-)
Canada 1% (2%)

Most Popular Entry Pages: (i.e. what brought people to the site)
For this, we can take it as read that the most popular "entry page" is always going to be either the current top story or just general browsing, but after that the pages that have brought the most readers to this site have been:

1. One Thing To Rule Them All...
2. Six Of The Best With ALEX CF
3. A Match Made In The Marvel Universe...
4. Dresden Files: Second City - Season Finale
5. Doctor Who: Blink

An old assortment of items have been bringing people over to HeroPress then - I was as surprised as the next person to still see people looking for information on the finale of the The Dresden Files... as a TV series that is dead and buried with no hope of a resurrection spell. And as the Fifth Law of Magic states: "Never reach beyond the borders of life".

Friday, 14 December 2007

The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles: My First Adventure, 1908

For my birthday, with a bit of guidance from Rachel, my mum got me my Force FX Lightsaber and the DVD box set of the first part of the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.

This is the first of three massive box sets and, alone, has 12-discs covering the adventurers earliest travels with his father and mother on their world tour, complemented by over 20 hours of historical documentaries!

My First Adventure opens the story with a clumsy mash-up of the very first Young Indy story aired, his adventures at age nine in the Egyptian desert with TE Lawrence, and one set a little later in Morocco, where he is introduced to the brutal truth of slavery and then is kidnapped by slavers.

The first part of the story ends abruptly with no real resolution and then jumps to a connecting scene - clearly filmed years later as young Indy (Corey Carrier) is noticeably older - with barely a mention of the unresolved issue of the stolen Egyptian artifact that had been the motivating force for the initial plot!

The latter half of the story is much stronger anyway and the mixture of education and entertainment never feels preachy or forced. It's great to be able to travel with Young Indiana again and I can't wait to explore the rest of the world with him... from the safety of my sofa, with a glass of Pepsi Max in my hand.

What would be good would, one day, to be able to follow all of Indiana Jones' adventures chronologically - with his "junior" adventures - as portrayed by the late River Phoenix at the start of The Last Crusade, integrated back in sequence. Now there's a way to pass a long weekend... or two!

Thursday, 13 December 2007

No More Needs To Be Said...

Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull...

One Thing To Rule Them All...

This time last year I was proclaiming that 2007 would be the Year Of The Gate (i.e Stargate). That, of course, never happened as, when the main show ran its course, the franchise pretty much fizzled onto the backburner (sure, Stargate: Atlantis is still going strong... but hey!)

So now it's time for my wild prophecy for 2008: Year of Swords & Sorcery!

That probably won't come as much as a surprise to anyone who has been following HeroPress in recent weeks, from my pounding through Elric books to my recent Deathstalker review and on-going lovefest with the two Fear of Girls short films.

In part it harkens back to my much quited principal of "back to basics" - e.g. it was swords and sorcery, knights in armour and stuff that got me into gaming and held my interest for the longest so it's probably sensible to revisit them now and again.

Clearly much hinges on us moving into our new home as soon as possible, and me finally being able to unpack the boxes and boxes of "stuff" I have in storage here and at Rachel's parents'.

There's a dragon's hoarde of treasure waiting to be unearthed and rediscovered from my earliest gaming days, as well as long forgotten DVDs, action figures, wargames miniatures and books.

However, I already have the playtest of Jeff's Legends of Steel lined up in my mind for our little gaming group and several pages of notes written for an ongoing RPG campaign in the style of Greyhawk, Arduin or Blackmoor.

I like to aim high! All three of these, and particularly the latter two, have had a major impact on my perception of the "perfect" swords and sorcery game and so it seems fitting that should I actually, finally, get to run one after so long they would be my "role" models.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Dragonlance: Dragons of Autumn Twilight


Dragonlance: Dragons of Autumn Twilight is released direct to DVD on January 15 in the US. I don't know about you, but despite the presence of some CGI stuff, it still looks very dated - especially coming in the wake of Beowulf and everything Pixar does.

Of course I'll watch it - it's a Dungeons & Dragons story starring the voices of Kiefer 'Jack Bauer' Sutherland, Lucy 'Xena' Lawless and Michael 'Lex Luthor' Rosenbaum. But it just seems so retro...

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Divergent Destinies... A Buffy Campaign!

Next year sees my debut in an ongoing Buffy The Vampire Slayer roleplaying campaign, being run in Tonbridge by Simon. He's supplied me with a detailed background to the campaign - just heading into its third 'season' - and some guidance as to character creation.

My initial idea was to revive my 'unused' character from the Knight City campaign (an ex-Watcher), but Simon's "Divergent Destinies" campaign already has its Watcher quota taken care of and I'd actually rather play a character who's going to be more centrally involved in the action anyway.

It is both exciting and slightly intimidating to be joining an ongoing campaign with experienced roleplayers that I've never gamed with before. But add this to Nick's hugely successful Hollow Earth Expedition campaign that Clare and I are enjoying and I'm really getting my game on these days.

More news on "Divergent Destinies" as it develops.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Book Of The Month: Elric - The Making Of A Sorcerer

Walt Simonson confirmed his place as a titan among comic book creators in the mid-80s for me with his run on Thor. He had near total creative control as both writer and artist and took the comic book (which had previously been about a big guy with a hammer bashing supervillains) into incredibly mind-bending, mythic territory.

Then, early in the 21st Century, he teamed up with my current 'hot' swords and sorcery writer, Michael Moorcock, to produce a four-issue miniseries - collected together as a trade paperback this year - Elric: The Making Of A Sorcerer.

Reading the back blurb on the book that this was a story about Elric's "dreams" I had momentary visions of some hideous comic book version of the Bobby Ewing shower scene from Dallas, where you invest your emotions in a character's journey only to discover finally that none of it really happened... it was only a dream!

But I shouldn't have been such a doubting Thomas where two such storytelling giants are concerned!

Set just prior to the events of the first Elric novel, Elric of Melnibone, this beautiful graphic novel tells of Elric's four "trials" in the dream couches of Imrryr. He is not only proving his worthiness to succeed his father as Emperor, but also learning great magics - each dream-quest sees him forming a compact with one of the elemental rulers who comes to aid him later in his literary adventures.

However, his quests are not that straight forward as his wicked cousin, Yyrkoon, also uses the couches to enter the dreamscape and challenge Elric. Both men, in their dreams, are stripped of their previous identities and are instead represented by an avatar from the distant history of Melnibone who best represents their goals. Thus, we are also introduced to insights into the history of this fascinating culture and clues as to the formation of their cultural character.

There is great foreshadowing of the doom that is to come to Elric's life - from the role the Black Sword (Stormbringer) will play in his destiny to the fate of all he loves - that suggests that his life is cyclic, just repeating events that have happened in the past and the tragedy that lies before him is unavoidable because it has already happened.

A magnificent masterpiece, from two of my favourite artists, that is a worthy addition to the Elric canon.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

DVD Of The Week: Transformers (2007)

Normally I would advise caution when approaching a DVD where the best quote they come up with to put on the packaging is: "A huge amount of fun"... but Transformers is so much better than I was expecting.

Sure, it goes to pieces in the final showdown, when the film-makers clearly realised they had too much story left to tell and so threw everything into the mix at once; but ultimately how can you go wrong with giant, CGI/live-action, shape-changing robots invading modern-day Earth?

I guess I was just the wrong generation - or had some bug up my butt about robot/car fusion toys when I was growing up - but, except for a casual acknowledgement of their existence, the Transformers passed me by in my formative years.

So I came to this film a clean slate, with no preconceptions about voices, backstory or whatever and was blown away by the mythology, the special effects, the humour and the action.

It starts off as a strange blend of Tom Clancy counter espionage/terrorism thriller and Herbie (with a dash of Christine for the horror fans) before fully settling into its own beastform as a sci-fi war/giant robot extravaganza.

Shia LaBeouf, soon to be seen as Harrison Ford's sidekick in the new Indiana Jones film, is great as the charming, slightly bumbling, lead and Megan Fox (the best thing about ABC1's Hope & Faith comedy series) provides able support as his hot motor mechanic friend and love interest.

Except for the confusing conclusion (what actually happened to Megatron, the leader of the 'evil' Transformers?) and the messy, overbusy, final battle, this is a superb blockbuster of a movie that probably looks and sound its best on a massive, widescreen, HD TV.

Nevertheless it still sounded sweet on my old home system - at one point I was convinced a Blackhawk helicopter was about to fly in through the window!

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Deathstalker (1983)

I like to think that Raymond Ractburger, of Fear of Girls fame, watches Deathstalker to get in the right mindset before playing a game of Dungeons & Dragons as his barbarian character Krunk.

Deathstalker, a cornerstone of my old VHS collection at university, is one of those classics of the low-budget sword and sorcery genre that is so truly awful that it is awesome.

The plot - what there is of it - sees the titular Deathstalker ("Mr and Mrs Stalker, do you really want to name your newborn son Death?") on some half-baked quest to find a magic sword (which is in the first cave he stumbles across) and then kill an evil wizard, Munkar, who has taken over the kingdom.

Hef's ex Barbi Benton pops up as Princess Codille, daughter of the rightful king (not that that is really important) and demonstrates quite ably why her true vocation lay in the pages of Playboy.

Female nudity is pretty much a given in this type of film and Deathstalker is overflowing with buxom young ladies willing to show off their assets.

Story, however, isn't as evident as the ladybumps - things just seem to happen for no apparent reason, such as the whole "boy who is not a boy" prophecy sequence where Mr Stalker is turned into a kid for about two minutes, and you've got to a love a film that ends with the hero seemingly blowing up!

Deathstalker may be bad but it's never dull. There's enough cheesy dialogue, portentous music, shaky scenery, severed limbs and general madcap rough housing to keep most viewers' attention.

And you've also gotta respect the warrior-woman Kaira (Lana Clarkson, who passed away in 2003 but had quite the track record for playing these proto-Xena roles) who not only disdains armour but anymore clothing than a cape when she's off adventuring.

There are three sequels out there to this work of genius - the only thing I can remember from the second one (Deathstalker II: Duel of the Titans) is the aerial shot of the enemy camp where you can see one of the production crew's car parked nearby. I don't think I've yet seen Deathstalker 3: The Warriors from Hell and Deathstalker IV: The Darkest Hour. Something to look forward to in 2008...

Friday, 7 December 2007

The Doctor Is In... Your Head!

What a banner week for Doctor Who gamers this has been!

Hot on the heels of the announcement of the official miniatures game, using 32mm figures, came the revelation that the game would also include a small line of vehicles/spacecraft (including the TARDIS, Captain Jack’s Chula Ship and a Judoon Patrol Ship), although these won't be in any set scale - just sized to fit in the packaging boxes!

And if that wasn't enough, British roleplaying game company Cubicle 7 Entertainment has announced it will be releasing an officially licenced Doctor Who roleplaying game in 2008.

The RPG will feature a brand new game system "designed to appeal to both traditional gamers and a whole new generation of players", we are told - but more details will be revealed in a forthcoming press release.

Although Crucible 7 isn't yet known for any particularly memorable games (SLA Industries, Victoriana, anyone?), the Doctor Who RPG is being written by Dave Chapman, a former Eden Studio's stalwart who served his time as Line Developer for Conspiracy X and worked on many of their other games, including City of Heroes, Army of Darkness and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Given that these latter games all used some variant of Eden's hugely popular Unisystem, which many have always said would be perfect for capturing the feel of the Whoniverse, gives us great hope for this game.

David has started a design blog at The Heart of the TARDIS, so hopefully soon we'll have some more informed insight into the games goals and mechanics.

It was also pleasing to note that "friend of HeroPress" (and my first interview victim), Fred Hicks is involved in the graphic design and layout of the game and that's pretty much a guarantee of quality right there. That man could design a shopping list the people would pay good money to own a copy of it!

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Top Of The Pile: Nova #8

If there is one thing both major comic book publishers are doing right at the moment it is "cosmic adventures".

A shining exemplar of this from Marvel is Nova, the on-going adventures of Richard Rider, the last of the Nova Corps, an intergalactic police force wiped out in the recent Annihilation War.

Issue 8 find Richard, still infected with the "transmode virus" of the machine-aliens conquerors known as the Phalanx, having fled through a wormhole to the edge of the known universe. He finds himself stranded on a strange space station drifting towards the Rip, the supermassive event horizon where "everything" ends... and he is not alone.

There is something about the synergy between Dan Abnett/Andy Lanning's writing and Wellinton Alves (pencils)/Scott Hanna (inks) artwork that makes this comic come alive.

Like sitting in your own personal IMAX cinema, the stunning visuals come alive and you can almost hear the swirling chaos of the rip or the echoes of seemingly deserted spacestation, as you feel the tension of Rider's exploration into the unknown.

Eventually he teams up with a 'talking dog' (Cosmo) in a Russian spacesuit - which in different hands would be cheesy, but here just seems right. And there are space zombies, so everyone's a winner...

Special mention this month must also go to: What If... Annihilation Had Reached Earth? A one-shot tie-in to the Annihilation War series, as part of Marvel's popular 'alternate possibilities' line, that asks what would have happened to Earth - caught up in the superhero Civil War - if the intergalactic heroes hadn't thwarted Annihilus's invading fleet and it had made it all the way to Earth.

Not only does this allow Marvel's own characters to mock the stupidity of the whole Civil War debacle ("You're squabbling over your secret identities?" Richard Rider growls to Tony Stark, Captain America et al at one point), but offers a genuine heroic death for several major characters that they have been denied in the mainstream titles.

Whilst this version of events would have had lasting effects on the Marvel Universe (the least being the destruction of the moon!), part of me wishes this ending of the Civil War was canon!

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

At The Fleapit: The Golden Compass

As is often the case I have been beaten to the punch by Jeff over at The Lair of The Evil DM, but let me share my views of The Golden Compass with you anyway.

Visually this is a stunning piece of art - from the neogothic towers and magicpunk (as opposed to steampunk) airships and land vehicles of Oxford to the northern kingdom of the ice bears, this is an amazingly detailed and well realised 'alternate' world.

The film follows the adventures of a young orphan girl, Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), as she heads from the comparative safety of her life as a ward of the university in Oxford to the northern wastes to follow her adventurous uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) who is on a quest to prove the existence of 'dust' and alternate realities, and rescue her best friend, who has been abducted by child snatchers known as Gobblers.

There's plenty of fluff and red herrings along the way, but at its heart The Golden Compass is an old style, Victorian "save the kids from the evil orphanage" story, given a beautiful makeover.

Along the way, Lyra meets a host of characters from the armoured bear Iorek (voiced by Gandalf-himself Sir Ian McKellan), a sharpshootin' balloon pilot (Sam Elliot) and a witch (Eva Green), whose sole role seems to be to serve as a deus ex machina and exposition machine.

Don't expect a classic three-act structure either; this story is a linear railroad from point A to point B to point C, that never actually reaches its final destination because we are left with an almighty cliffhanger and the prospect of an, as yet, unguaranteed sequel.

There have been rumblings that Philip Pullman's original anti-organised religion subtext had been forcibly exorcised in the translation from his best-selling novel to the screen, but I felt the symbolism was still pretty 'on the nose' (the wicked Magisterium is the church, 'dust' is free will and so on, as far as I could tell).

And be warned, this may be a children's film but it's very dark and confusing to follow, sometimes you can't help but feel there is just too much going on at once. And while it's not a bloodthirsty film, there are some sudden shocks and one instance where a polar bear gets his jaw ripped off.

As I've said before, I haven't read the original novel (or its two sequels) and I suspect much has been cut out to keep the film down to just under two hours. While writer/director Chris Weitz makes a noble effort to explain as much as possible about Lyra's intricate world, I'm sure there's a lot more that still needs to be revealed for the film to make total sense.

It's beautiful, complex and absorbing, but in hindsight The Golden Compass, as a movie, is probably more about style than substance... but, boy, is it good looking! And we're not just talking about Nicole Kidman...

My Wife And Roleplaying: Confessions of a Part-Time Sorceress

Having heard several positive reviews, I bought Rachel Confessions of a Part-Time Sorceress a couple of weeks ago - as I hoped it would give her a more eloquent insight into why I love role-playing games than I have so far been able to do.

And, as it was written from a woman's perspective, I also hoped it might pique her interest in gaming.

After a week, I asked her how she was getting on with the book and she admitted that she just couldn't get into it. So, I thought I'd give it a go... and it didn't take long to see why!

Written by Shelly Mazzanoble, an employee of Wizards of The Coast, the book is pitched as part autobiography and part basic "how to" guide. Unfortunately in trying to be both, it succeeds at neither.

Although it is published by Wizards and clearly says "Dungeons & Dragons" on the cover, I had hoped this was more about the idea of roleplaying games in general. It is not. This is hardcore D&D, specially the current, Third Edition with all the intricacies that brings.

The book also aims to destroy the stereotypes of roleplayers as sad, loners in their mum's basements, dressed as wizards - and this it does. But in the process it promotes another, equally insulting, stereotype - that all girls are interested in is shopping, clothes, shoes and clutch bags.

Mazzanoble has a light and humorous writing style, but gives the impression that Dungeons & Dragons is a blend of The OC, Melrose Place, Beverly Hills 90210 and Bridget Jones.

For a book supposed to introduce women to the game, it totally fails to mention or attempt to capture the pseudo-medieval feel that is integral to game that hinges on big guys in armour, swinging swords at dragons. She tries so hard to be Carrie from Sex And The City that she comes across as slightly uncomfortable in her role as "guide" in this strange world.

When she speaks as "herself", rather than the "girly-girl" persona, her enthusiasm for the reality of the game doesn't seem to mesh with the character she is writing as.

Her character drifts through a world of shopping malls and designer labels, which is great for the humourous effect but gives the totally wrong impression to gaming neophytes picking up this book and hoping to find out what playing Dungeons & Dragons is really like.

Also a more-than-passing familiarity with the game is already assumed, as, while certain concepts are explained (we're told what "roll for initiative" means about four times), many other pieces of jargon are bandied about without due care and attention.

Mazzanoble takes great pains to simply explain the basics of the game, from creating a character to making the various skill checks and dealing damage in combat, but don't expect to be able to read this book and jump straight into your first game of D&D. At least one major area of the rules is totally ignored - namely "feats", those little extra abilities your characters (and all the monsters) accumulate as they progress.

There is also a strange air of political correctness around the discussions of "alignment" in the game - since when is "evil" an option only open to monsters? Personally I don't like evil characters in a game, but as far as I know, this is still a matter of personal choice?

I'm not sure who this book is aimed at really; it's basically one big infomercial for Third Edition D&D for people - women - who already know about the game. There isn't enough information about Mazzanoble or her fellow gamers to really empathise with any of them and, as I've already said, there isn't really enough about the game's many rules to serve as a particularly useful introduction.

Sorry, Rachel, I should have read the reviews on Amazon.com first (which is where I got the jibe about 'infomercials' from). I'll have to try harder next time! On the plus side, it only took half a day to read (big print and a lot of pictures) and did get me quite fired up about the use of battle mats and miniatures in games...

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

DVD of The Week: Wheel Of Time (2003)

One of the most memorable, and uplifting, moments of my life came during my three-week stay in China - visiting Paul who was spending a year working for the China Daily newspaper.

While he was working I would go out, sometimes solo, sometimes with his colleague Lori, and explore Beijing to the best of my ability.

One day I decided to visit the Yonghe Lamasery, little knowin, until I got there, that that was the day of a special ritual, with dancing, masks, prayers, the full works.

I gathered with the tourists "for the show", but after the public part of the ceremony I followed the crowd towards the back of the Lamasery - little realising all the Westerners had now left - and I found myself participating in a blessing with the local Buddhists.

Nobody tried to keep me away and I got several smiles and nods of greeting; they were very welcoming and I even got my fair share of the sacred yogurt that was being handed out (it was rubbing into your face rather than eating, as I recall).

This wonderful, peaceful ceremony will stay with me forever.

As I have recently started to investigate Buddhist philosophy more seriously (as opposed to the religion) thanks to the Bad Buddhist Radio podcast, but still have an intellectual fascination with their trappings and ceremonies, I asked my good friend Lou for Wheel Of Time DVD for my birthday.

Werner Herzog's documentary looks at a couple of Buddhist religious ceremonies, mainly centring on a 10-day festival in India, in 2002, at the site where Siddhārtha Gautama first attained enlightenment. The heart of the ceremony is the creation of an intricate sand painting
or mandala.

Outside of introductory monologues, sparse commentary and the occasional, insightful interview, the viewer is mainly left to interpret the images unfolding before his eyes as he wishes. You have to wonder, for instance, what Siddhārtha Gautama would have made of the "long life ceremony", which starts out as a distribution of free food to the half-million pilgrims, but soon disintegrates into an unseemly, free-for-all.

Unfortunately the Dalai Lama's ill health ultimately calls a premature end to the festival, but later that year another is held in Austria - of all places - where you can't help but be struck by the contrast of the stark, sports hall-like arena setting, compared to the beautiful, open, rolling wilderness of India.

The Dalai Lama, himself, when interviewed, comes across as, simply, a really good soul (I realise that is a ridiculous understatement, but as a born critic I've always found it harder to find the right words to express my feelings about something 'good') - funny, intelligent, charming and jovial; it's a slight shame there isn't more of him and his wise thoughts in this delightful 80-minute film.
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