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

Thursday, 24 May 2007

Trumping The Best Present Ever!

Before leaving to spend the evening with her parents, Rachel presented me with this: a Gentle Giant Limited Edition set of Star Wars bookends, depicting Han Solo (shooting first) and Greedo in the Mos Eisley cantina! Can't wait to have this set-up in my games room in our new home ... with all my Star Wars DVDs sandwiched in between!

Sneak Peak At Cake Toppers!

That's Rachel and I as Princess Leia and Han Solo - how cool is that?

X Minus One And Counting ...



In 1977, my Dad took me to see some film called Star Wars and after that experience a fanboy was born. I started a scrap book (still have it somewhere in storage) of Star Wars newspaper and magazine articles, as well as the "Who's Who"s from the black and white British Star Wars comics and a strange diagram of the Death Star trench, and horded bubblegum cards and a small selection of action figures; my collecting mania had begun.

More importantly, I wrote voraciously. Since primary school I'd filled spare exercise books with rambling Earth-centric science-fiction and action stories, but now they took on epic, space opera qualities, filled with alien planets and strange creatures, inspired by George Lucas and his masterpiece. Somehow I knew, albeit subconsciously, that this was a film unlike any other. A phenomenon. And the world would never be the same again.

Now, 30 years later, as our planet gears up to mark the anniversary of the opening of Star Wars on May 25, my world is going to change again - I'm getting married tomorrow! But my dad won't be there this time. He died on October 28, 2005, barely three months after I had come out of hospital, after my aneurism. He had been feeling run down because of his leukaemia medication, but had expected to be back out in a week and told me not to come in and see him in case I was vulnerable to infection. I didn't see him again until I took the call from the hospital to say we needed to come in. Dad had passed away peacefully in his sleep.

I miss him every day. He was the soft spoken, calm centre in my life; my hero and role model. Without him I wouldn't be the man I am today and I wish, more than anything, he could be here to see Rachel and I tie the knot. He loved Rachel and I hope he would be proud of how his young Padawan turned out.

May The Force Be With You, Dad.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Early Summer TV Round-Up!

I can understand (to a degree) people who never got into Lost in the first place. A commitment to an unknown, on-going, single-story for, at the time, an indefinite duration requires a large investment of brainpower and time. But I feel sorry for those viewers who 'lost' faith and abandoned ship ... particularly in this third season.

There may have been a few sub-par episodes mid-season, and the massive break after episode six didn't help retain its audeince, but the last few weeks have seen some of the best episodes - and most jaw-dropping revelations - of the three years to date.

This season is now gearing up to an explosive (literally) climax this weekend (which I shall be taping, as I'm off on my honeymoon ... Rachel refused to postpone our departure until after Lost screens, even though she's as big a fan of the show as me), which then lays the ground work, and no doubt establishes some more mysteries, for the final three years.

Meanwhile, Heroes is finally getting into its stride. After a slow start, this thriller (calling it a mystery puts it in the same genre as Lost and I don't think the two are really compatible) is taking off as more and more sub-plots interweave and the tangled threads get drawn tighter and tighter as the disparate group of characters become closer and closer.

Unfortunately, at the same time as these two American shows have really got their groove on, Doctor Who has chosen to tread water for a couple of weeks with acceptable - but average - episodes (The Lazarus Experiment and 42) that served only to feed the through-story about the impending (and pant-wettingly exciting) confrontation between the Doctor and Harold Saxon (who may, or not, be The Master ... the Doctor's arch nemesis).

I will post up reviews of the next Doctor Who two-parter (Human Nature/Family of Blood) and the series finale of Lost once I've returned from Hampshire.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Broadsword Now Available!

Jeff Mejia's new roleplaying game - Broadsword - is now available for download. This item is being sold in aid of father-of-two Todd Downing of Deep 7, who lost his wife to cancer in 2005 and then his home in 2006 when fire swept through the property. For more on this, and details on how to obtain the game and support Todd, please visit Jeff's blog: The Lair of The Evil DM.

DVD Of The Week: Contact (1997)

It must have been listening to NASA podcasts about the size and age of the universe that prompted me to take Contact down from the "unwatched DVDs" shelf where it has languished for almost a decade!

I've always been a big Jodie Foster fan, since I first saw her in Bugsy Malone and Taxi Driver, when I was far too young to be thinking innocent 'naughty thoughts' about Tallulah in the former and far too young to even be watching the latter. Taxi Driver was the first video I ever personally rented when my parents bought our first top-loading video cassette player back at the dawn of time ... and then I had a rule that every film had to be watched FIVE times before I would return it!

While sharing the screen in Contact with an incredible cast - Matthew McConaughey, John Hurt, James Woods, Tom Skerrit, Angela Bassett, Rob Lowe, William Fichtner, Jake Busey, David Morse, to name but a few - it's Foster who owns this film as single-minded, driven astronomer Ellie Arroway.

Written by science visionary Carl Sagan - based on his own novel - this is a hard science film that tackles head-on the dichotomy of science and religion in the face of mankind's first extraterrestrial contact, which probably explains why it wasn't a blockbuster hit - despite its stellar cast. This is no E.T., but also it's not a dry science documentary. With its cerebral take on alien contact, it has more in common with 2001, but is less "trippy".

Almost two-and-a-half hours in length the film may seem a bit of a bum-number for some - especially given that there are no death rays or brain-sucking monsters - and the action takes about 35 minutes to really get going, but the wait is worth it (if you can handle the slightly unconvincing romance between scientist Foster and religious scholar McConaughey).

Monday, 21 May 2007

Book Of The Month: Doctor Who And The Dalek Invasion of Earth

I like to think it was the budding wargamer in me, rather than anything more misanthropic, but the sight of Daleks roaming the streets of a devastated London sent thrills through me as a child watching the otherwise rather weak, "alternative universe" Doctor Who film with Peter Cushing: Daleks - Invasion Earth 2150AD.

It wasn't until years later that I discovered this film, and its prequel Dr. Who And The Daleks, were simply American remakes of classic episodes of the Doctor Who television series. Even as a child I couldn't equate a "human" Doctor, calling himself "Dr. Who", with a self-built TARDIS, slapstick sidekicks and gas firing Daleks to the super-intelligent Timelord I was watching every week on television.

But that still didn't detract from the frisson of excitement that the idea of battling Daleks (the ultimate intelligent alien villains) in a war-torn city can still stir in me. This, eventually, led to my discovery of Harlequin's (now Black Tree Design's) Invasion Earth wargame and then recently the superior Doctor Who Miniatures Game.

The 1977 Target novelisation of this story, by Terrance Dicks, is a no frills adaptation of the original William Hartnell era Doctor Who story that crackles along with the pace of a good television drama, replacing the Bernard Cribbins-led lunacy of the Cushing film with proper menacing Daleks, a sensible plot and a creepy Lovecraftian 'slyther' monster.

It also got my fanboy geek juices flowing when I tried to integrate the plot with events in more recent Doctor Who: were the Dalek's trying to take control of the Racnoss spaceship (and its ancient technology) at the centre of the Earth by replacing its flooded engines with their own? And is Carl Tyler, the resistance man who helps the Doctor, a descendant of Rose Tyler? Enquiring minds want to know...

Last Weekend as 'Singletons'

Best. Present. Ever! Cribbing the idea from Rachel, on Saturday I presented her with a personalised photobook documenting our "courtship" from first dates to most recent exploits.

On Sunday, we took a break from wedding planning to visit Penshurst Place (just outside Tunbridge Wells), which I haven't been to since I was a nipper and Rachel has never been to. It was really lovely; lots of history (much royalty has stayed in these halls from Elizabeth I to Queen Victoria) and plenty of suits of armour and swords!

Sunday, 20 May 2007

Six of The Best With KEN NEWQUIST

As Ken Newquist prepares for the 50th episode of Nuketown Radio Active, his occasional podcast dedicated to life, liberty and the pursuit of geekdom … HeroPress caught up with him for a chat.

A 'rolemodel' for all readers of this blog: the host of Nuketown Radio Active is a writer, web designer, gamer and geek dad of two. His semi-regular show is a half-hour slice of all things geek - from role-playing, computer and board games to techie 'toys', interesting websites, book reviews and music.

(1) What's the secret to juggling a full-time job, kids, marriage and time-consuming hobbies like role-playing games, podcasting, comic collecting and video games?

Creating complementary standing waves of geekiness. By which I mean, having jobs and hobbies that tend to reinforce one another. So when I'm working on Nuketown, converting my D&D campaign web site to a wiki or experimenting with the podcast, I'm working with technologies that will help me in my day job as a web application developer.

My freelance gigs for Knights of the Dinner Table and SCIFI.com pay me for web and game reviews, which is great work if you can find it.

Some of the stuff I review ends up becoming a fixture in my gaming room, like HeroClix and Risk 2210, and then the cycle begins all over again.

And of course, having a wife who gets me is critically important. All the rest would implode without her understanding how important gaming, writing and coding are to me. We've never had the fights about Friday night gaming that some of my friends have had with their spouses - Sue understands that throwing dice and slaying dragons every Friday is part of what keeps me going every week.

That isn't to say I haven't had to make a lot of changes since we had kids. I've given up game mastering for the foreseeable future because I simply don't have the time any more to do all the game prep I feel I need to.

I don't play nearly as many video games as I used to, and when I do play them it's usually for an hour here or there after the kids have gone to bed.

Being a member of GeezerGamers.com helps on that front; my clan mates are almost all 30-somethings with wives, kids and jobs of their own - the site's motto of headshots between diaper changes rings true more often than not.

Nuketown itself has shifted from webzine to blog, and a lot of its previous content now shows up in a podcast instead.

(2) How did you get into roleplaying games in the first place; and can you describe the single moment in a game, either as a player or gamesmaster, where you thought: "yes, this is the hobby for me!"?

It was my mom's doing. She brought home the old red Basic D&D boxed set - the one with Keep of the Borderlands in it - when I was in grade school, read it cover to cover, and then gave it to me. I was hooked then, and started playing haphazardly with friends until high school, when most of my friends gave up the game.

When I was in college I started playing D&D again, joined a gaming group, and experienced a host of new games like DC Heroes, Call of Cthulhu, Star Wars, and Shadowrun. That's when I realized just how much fun the games could be, particularly when you combined good storytelling with solid game mechanics.

(3) Are there any roleplaying game systems that you would suggest for introducing children to the hobby, and any that you wouldn't let children play?

My kids aren't quite old enough for RPGs, so I haven't had to deal with that issue yet. Risus: The Anything RPG strikes me as a being a good starting game since it's so rules light, but the lack of structure could be problematic for fledgling rules lawyers.

A stripped down version of d20 D&D might do - either True20 or some homegrown version with skills and feats condensed down to their essentials.

The challenge with any game - RPG, video or otherwise - is that it will give rise to questions that you may not be ready to answer.

For example, a staple of Dungeons & Dragons is killing monsters and taking their stuff. But why is it ok to do that? And why don't we do the same in the real world?

As far as what I wouldn't let children play, it depends on the maturity of the child in question.

I think the first rule of thumb for playing RPGs with kids is that they need to be able to differentiate between reality and make believe.

At four, my daughter has a rich and vivid imaginary world populated with all manner of princesses and animals that she interacts with … but she's still fuzzy on whether or not Sleeping Beauty is real.

Once they understand that difference though, it becomes a question of maturity and parental awareness. I don't think Vampire and Werewolf are appropriate for 12 year olds, but they may be ok for 17-year-olds … assuming they can handle it. Some 17-year-olds are smart, insightful, empathic and ready to start exploring more "grey" titles. Others aren't.

My mom provides a great example here: she didn't just go out, buy D&D and give it to me - she took the time to read it and to see if it was appropriate. Now that I'm a parent, I plan to do the same.

(4) A key strand of your blog and your podcast is the drive for "geek fitness" – could you let us in on your fitness regime and why this is particularly important for geeks?

I try to get to the gym three to four days a week and spend 30 minutes cycling, jogging or using the elliptical machine. Depending on the weather, I also try to either walk or bike my way to work - it's only about ¼ mile, but every little bit helps. In the summer, I'll throw in a day or two of swimming laps during my lunch break.

The whole idea of "geek fitness" appears to be oxymoron at first glance. The geek stereotype has us working on computers all day, and playing games (video, RPG or otherwise) all night. There's a lot of truth to that, and when you throw in the natural nerd aversion to the gym as well as a diet of junk food and Mountain Dew would kill lesser humans, it's amazing we didn't all have heart attacks by age 25.

Of course, a few years (or decades) of geek living has its consequences, including weight gain, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, and repetitive stress injuries. I'm not saying any of this is unique to geekdom - most of America has these sorts of problems - but a trip to your local gaming convention or comic book store may suggest we're doing worse than the average.

It sucks, but sometimes the stereotypes are true. I'm not looking to become one of those fitness freaks who wants everyone to have a perfect Body Mass Index for their height and weight, but I do want to point out that most of us could stand to lose a few pounds … and that doing so will probably improve (and hopefully extend) your geek life.

Rather than just rant about it, I've been focusing on changing my own habits, and then blogging about what works with the hope that a few others might be inspired to do the same. So far, it's worked: I've lost 24 lbs., and I've had a few readers e-mail or comment that my own exercise program had gotten them taking their own trips to the gym or after-dinner walks.

I'll also say that as a geek dad, I want to set a good example for my kids. I don't want them to think that exercise is something that only the popular people do, or that they don't have just as much right to go to the gym as the football team does. And I also want to be able to keep up with them … those 10th-month-olds can crawl surprisingly fast!

(5) Why did you decide to branch out into podcasting and what do you feel this medium offers that others, say blogging, can't?

The buzzword is "time shifting", but I think it's a good word. Podcasts let you download audio and then listen to it on your own time. While a blog is only readable when you're at a computer (or maybe on the go if you have a handheld), podcasts can be consumed while you're commuting, exercising, walking the dog, whatever.

Plus, podcasts are the perfect alternative to the vast wasteland that is American broadcast radio these days; rather than listen to yet another Clear Channel clone, you can listen to a show that's about topics that are important to you. I started podcasting mostly as an experiment: I wanted to see how easy it was.

Once I got started, I found it complemented the site by allowing me to talk about things I'd never get to write about. In particular, I've found it much easier to do a quick audio review on the podcast than to knock out a written review for the web site, probably because the written ones end up being so detailed.

It's also attracted a whole new audience for the web site, folks who might never have stopped by to read the blog, but do check out the podcasts.

(6) As a keen comic book reader, are there any titles around at the moment that you would recommend people to pick up?

Whatever Neil Gorman at the Comicology podcast tells me to read. Seriously, the two strongest titles in my current pull are both ones that Neil recommended: Ex Machina written by Brian K. Vaughan (Wildstorm/DC) and X-Factor written by Peter David.

Ex Machina is the ongoing story of Mitchell Hundred, a man who unexpectedly gains the ability to talk with machines, takes on the superhero persona of The Great Machine and manages - in one of the most gut-wrenching stories I've read in comics in a long time - to save one of the Twin Towers on 9/11. He then retires from crime-fighting and runs for mayor of New York - the title flashes between his ongoing political battles as mayor and his past superhero conflicts as The Great Machine.

X-Factor is a noir-styled superhero/private-eye book with Jamie Maddrox (aka the Multiple Man) leading up X-Factor Investigations.

He's joined by a handful of other dysfunctional X-personalities, including Wolfsbane, Strong Guy, M and Syren and together they try and understand what caused the devastating event known as "M Day", when so many mutants lost their powers.

The writing is consistently good, and David is finding unexpected depth (and complications) in Maddrox's powers.

Saturday, 19 May 2007

Doctor Who: 42

The Doctor and Martha found themselves trapped on board a spaceship falling into a star, with only 42 minutes to avert disaster in tonight's frenetic, action-packed, real-time episode of Doctor Who.

The homage to 24 was surprisingly minimal - except for the occasional countdown from the ship's computer - the real time element was lost amidst the running about and frantic scrambling to escape terminal sunburn.

However, the story did crib atmosphere and plot from sources as far ranging as Doctor Who's own Impossible Planet, Sunshine and Alien, with its crew of working class stiffs in a near-derelict spaceship on a collision course with certain death.

Although the Doctor had a key part in saving the day, this was very much the episode where Martha proved her worth - even though she had ably handled the sonic screwdriver in The Lazarus Experiment - and earned her "frequent flyer privileges" (a universal roaming mobile phone modification and her own key to the TARDIS). She even managed a fleeting romance with someone other than the Doctor and got in a number of calls home.

Thankfully her calls to her mother, already very hostile to the Doctor, were not as cheesy as the ones we used to suffer between Rose and Jackie, but Martha's mother is a better developed dramatic character than Jackie ever was. The fact that she appears to be in league with the henchmen of the sinister Member of Parliament Harold Saxon only adds to the building excitement for the final two-parter of this series, when , one presumes, Martha drops back in for a cup of tea on Election Day.

My gaming buddy Nick said of 42: "Definitely Who-by-the-numbers this week. They never get the 'hard sci-fi' episodes right. Redolent of the demon-planet story [The Impossible Planet/Satan Pit] last season."

While over on the Midnight's Lair message boards, PMikey said: "There's some huge plot holes in this episode... and some fast-and-loose interpretation of the laws of physics, but a fun romp nonetheless."

Top Of The Pile: Ultimate Power #5

Not only is Ultimate Power a fine example of what modern comics should be, but it also sets the bar high for superhero films as well with it's incredibly cinematic aerial brawl between Hyperion of the Squadron Supreme (who is, basically, Superman) and Thor, The Invisible Woman and The Human Torch.

We can but hope that the forthcoming Fantastic Four movie is half as good as this.

Greg Land's hyper-detailed pencils conjure obvious comparisons with Bryan Hitch, who helped define the tone of the Ultimate Universe with The Ultimates when Marvel launched this flagship title in 2002. But with Hitch and Millar's erratic publishing schedule for the universe's main title, Ultimate Power could easily steal its crown as the best-looking Marvel title.

Ultimate Power sees The Squadron Supreme (from their own universe) breaking through to the Ultimate Universe after a probe sent out by Reed Richards (head of the Ultimate Universe's Fantastic Four ... are you following this?) brought a devastating plague to their reality. Reed, horrified by what he has done, surrenders to the Squadron who take him back to their universe. Only the heroes of the Ultimate Universe (namely, Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, the X-Men and the Ultimates) won't accept this and led by Nick Fury, go to get Reed back.

The great J. Michael Straczynski (of Babylon 5 fame) flexes his monumental writing muscles on this title with stark, pithy and witty dialogue weaving between Land's large-scale, eye-catching illustrations.

Friday, 18 May 2007

Another Stake Through The Heart For Buffy Fans...

Fans of Buffy have suffered another blow this week, with the publication of the last issue of the official Buffy The Vampire Slayer/Angel bi-monthly magazine. This has been on the cards since the magazine went bi-monthly and combined its content (previously Angel and Buffy were separate magazines).

To be honest, most of the content was fluff about the actors and - in most cases - their floundering careers or quizzes that wouldn't have looked out of place in a pre-teen mag; but every so often there was something new and exciting: this issue, for instance, has a feature interview on the Buffy Season 8 comic book's awesome cover artist Jo Chen.

I'm surprised the title managed to run to 94 issues, although I am sorry for the staff that they couldn't reach the landmark 100, but given the lack of quality "expanded universe" Buffy material being regularly produced, it's no wonder that the mag was reduced to pretty much interviewing the same actors over and over again (I'm surprised they didn't just give James Marsters his own column!).

Perhaps if they had published articles on, or scenarios for, the Buffy roleplaying game from Eden Studios, or been slightly more critical in their reviews of the spin-off novels, they might have kept their readership up (or, at least, helped to keep the excellent, but now defunct, roleplaying game alive).

Of course, these days, if you want to keep abreast of what your favourite ex-Buffy stars are up, there's a million and one websites and podcasts out there with this information for free, but still there's nothing quite like laying in the garden on a hot summer's day flicking through a glossy, dead-tree magazine full of pictures of monsters and hotties.

A sad day, but not a great shock. Perhaps this will free Titan staff up to produce some different genre titles - if they can justify a Grey's Anatomy magazine and a Prison Break magazine, there's no telling what will be appearing next on the shelves!

However, most Titan titles are now quarterly anyway, (plus two 'year books', which are invariably reprints of articles from back issues), making their news content almost meaningless - so perhaps the Internet has killed off this young niche of professional 'fan' magazines.

I suspect Star Wars is their main earner - as they've now picked up the rights to combine their title with the American Stars Wars Insider (the official voice of the Star Wars fan club), so it would be a shame if the other titles collapsed and took Star Wars Insider with it - being the only one of their titles I read regularly that is always full of quality news, fiction, new and rare photographs etc

Hens And Seven Days!

Rachel had her hen night last Saturday!

Thursday, 17 May 2007

Doctor Who Miniatures Game...

There are a number of Doctor Who miniatures games around, but this one - by Graeme Dawson - is by far and away the best for capturing the spirit of both classic Who and the new era. And what's even better: it's a full-colour, beautiful designed and illustrated, FREE download, ably supported by an ever-expanding range of supplementary material.

The rules are simplicity themselves, but with just the right touch of 'roleplaying' to truly capture the essence of the programme. The Doctor himself is not a combat machine and therefore in a straight wargame his presence would be seemingly redundant. But Graeme has devised a simple 'invent' mechanic that allows The Doctor - and any fellow scientists - to work on discovering an enemy's Achilles Heel ... while the battle is raging on around them.

There is also a good Victory Point system that encourages and rewards objectives other than just wiping out the opposition.

As well designed as anything Games Workshop puts out, with just as much support material, the game also boasts a thriving Yahoo group (click the button on the right of this blog to join... and tell 'em where you came from!) where 'exclusive' material is sometimes made available to members.

Let's hope that if Black Tree Designs can't (or won't) breathe new life in to their superb range of 28mm Doctor Who miniatures someone else will acquire the licence and produce a run of similarly scaled figures for both the old and new Doctor Who.

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

The Formula De Season Hots Up!

Three car shunt!

The second race of this year's Formula De season saw some of the wildest driving we have yet witnessed in this great French motor racing boardgame. More cars were dented and engines damaged in the first lap of this race than in half-a-dozen races last year. We blamed the rain for the erratic driving as the race was taking place on Britain's Silverstone track.

A full race report will appear in due course on the Tunbridge Wells Formula De League site. Nick's Team Flamers came out of the race with the top slot in the constructor's championship, ahead of Pete's Team Clover and my Team Zerro bringing up the rear. Antonio Wasp - last year's world champion - took first place for Team Flamer with Whitey Whitehouse of Team Zerro securing second, ahead of the other Team Flamer driver, Jock Saway.

Next month's race will be in the Netherlands on the Zandvoort circuit, on a date as yet to be agreed, with Team Zerro looking to regain some self-respect, despite their best efforts at Silverstone, by snagging as many championship points as possible.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

A Fine Time To Start A New Collection...

With the new Doctor Who series seemingly going from strength-to-strength, I thought, last month, it was time to start investigating the growing "action figure" range.

And what delights I uncovered! Inspired by Arnie and Marjorie's passion for Star Wars figure collecting over on The Star Wars Action News Podcast, I grasped the nettle and plunged into Doctor Who figure collecting without barely a second thought for the fact that I'm still unable to work, am getting married in less than two weeks, am hoping to buy a new house with Rachel sooner rather than later, and probably have enough toys as it is for a 40-year-old man!

I've ruled out Star Wars figure collecting because there are simply too many out there now for a completist like me (with a very limited budget) to ever have a hope of catching up on. I have quite a number of the nice Buffy action figures, but the problem - for me - with that range is that most are just variants of the main characters. Just how many Spike or Angels do you really need?

Sure, with the Doctor Who figures you get a Doctor variant each year - and in a number of the larger, multi-figure packs - but they also do a fine line in aliens and supporting characters, more akin to the Star Wars line ethos. And at least with the Who figures, although I might not have been in from the start, at least - thanks to the very helpful guides at www.doctorwhotoys.net - I was quickly able to get a handle on what was out there, what was about to come out and which figures were already rare enough to be out of my price range.

The 5" sculpts from Chapter Options are superb, the range is already varied enough to be interesting and some of the figures (such as the cybermen) are still cheap enough that it's feasible to invest in several for "unit building" either for dioramas or large-scale wargames!

Monday, 14 May 2007

DVD Of The Week: Doctor Who - The Green Death (1973)

My first memories of Doctor Who - round at my gran's, eating blocks of raspberry ripple ice cream - are of "the one with the maggots" (The Green Death, 1973) and the "one with the spiders and the blue crystals" (Planet of The Spiders, 1974).

Given that I was only seven or eight at the time, it's no wonder that - beyond certain memorable images - the plots are lost to me now, but the sight of over-sized insects and arachnids have been indelibly burned into my brain.

The Green Death sees John Pertwee in full-on James Bond action man mode as The Doctor, armed with a variety of disguises, a neat line in martial arts, some vehicle stunts and a bit of sonic screwdriver action.

At the behest of UNIT, he and Jo (surely the dimmest and most accident-prone of all assistants?) investigate mysterious deaths at a Welsh mine and come across not only the giant maggots, but also a global conspiracy involving brain washing and a super-computer.

This is all seeded with a larger "evil, multi-national, petrochemical corporations versus good, eco-friendly hippies" conflict, that allows Jo to find love with young Professor Jones, seemingly the inventor of maggot-repelling Quorn.

Perhaps, the couple are still in Wales now, working with Torchwood? Although a light-hearted mockumentary extra on the DVD (hosted by Mark Gatiss of all people) interviews the professor 30 years on and he says they drifted apart!

A six-episode story, The Green Death does go on a bit, and dreadful (and often seemingly unnecessary) Colour Separation Overlay jars with a modern audience, used to the fine CGI work of modern Who.

However, the maggots themselves have aged well, still projecting a genuine repulsion, although I could have done without the feeble giant fly that one turns into (although I'm surprised that my seven-year-old brain didn't also latch onto it's method of attack - urinating green acid on the windscreen of the Doctor's car).

A fine, old, Earth-bound '70s Doctor Who story - I can see why elements have stuck with me all these years. I wonder if, in 30 years time, the children of today will be fondly recalling monsters such as the Ood or Judoon from the new Who?

Sunday, 13 May 2007

Stat's All There Is To Say ...

In the last 30 days, things have really started to take off at HeroPress Towers - my pieces on both The Lazarus Experiment, the last episode of Doctor Who before the Eurovision break, and the season finale of the, yet-to-be-renewed, Dresden Files, drew in reader numbers previously unheard of on this site ... and a lot of you seem to have kindly stuck around!

So, 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 Sunday, 13 May): 2,303 (1,469)

Average Number of Visitors Per Day: 30 (24)

Top 5 Countries of Origin:
  1. United States 49.5% (31%)
  2. United Kingdom 19.8% (45%)
  3. Canada 6.9% (5%)
  4. France 5.9% (5%)
  5. Australia 3% (-)
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. Dresden Files: Second City (series finale)
5. Six Of The Best With Clare Grant

I was very pleased to see a "miniature wargames" bent to the popular pages, with Nick's eye-catching Middle Eastern town obviously holding people's interest and the great array of well-painted and exciting toys at Salute justifiably drawing the crowds.

Fred and Clare's interviews are still riding high, although all the interviews are always very well received. I aim to continue them after this month's "wedding hiatus" and hope that my new readers will stick around for the return of HeroPress in June.

Was This Worth Postponing Doctor Who For?



No, of course not. I imagine most of the UK, if not most of the world, would rather have been watching Doctor Who, but the Eurovision Song Contest does have its own campy charms.

For those who don't know every country in Europe (and the former Soviet Union, and some other stragglers from around this side of the planet) puts forward a song (supposedly chosen by public vote) to represent them in the annual inter-continental sing-off that is Eurovision. Then all participants get to vote on everybody elses' songs, leading to three hours of hilariously bad TV and some very suspect voting.

The days of proper, enduring pop acts - such as Abba, Bucks Fizz, Lulu, Cliff Richard and the Brotherhood of Man - participating are long gone and the voting has become very political, with countries voting for their neighbours or "friends", rather than the songs, which is why we were on the verge of getting the dread 'nul points' last night, until the Irish gave us a few token points and Malta gave our song (which, in all honesty, was utter rubbish) the top "12 points".

Basically, we are the whipping boys of Europe - no one likes us and we don't care! Part of our problem is that we're too cynical a nation on the whole for this kitsch competition and don't take it seriously enough to stand a chance. The Irish, the only people to finish below the UK, haven't really tried for a couple of years as they know, from experience, the glory of winning is quickly tarnished by the hefty cost of hosting the next year's competition!

For Matt, Nick and I (the official HeroPress judging panel), the competition is as much about who has the best looking singer or skimpiest outfit as who has the craziest or best song; which explains my disappointment that Russia's entry (pictured above) only managed third. The Catholic Schoolgirl look was obviously inspired by those other Russian pop princesses, and former Eurovision hopefuls, Tatu.

Last night's competition, having pushed out the bulk of Western Europe in the qualifying round, saw an Eastern European dominance in the tactical block voting , that resulted in a Serbian dirge taking the top prize, closely followed by a Ukrainian transvestite and the troupe of Russian schoolgirls in third. This was Serbia's first entry as an independent country, but still makes a mockery of Eurovision as a "song contest", as the best song of the evening - from Georgia - came nowhere memorable (somewhere mid-table).

The last time the UK won (with Katrina & The Waves) was ten years ago, two days into Tony Blair's reign as Prime Minister. With the increasing politicisation of this silly contest, now that Blair is standing down, perhaps our chances of winning will improve!

Friday, 11 May 2007

Order of The Day (in a newspaper style)

Two weeks today, my ushers will be handing out this little A5 booklet as the 'order of the day'. Designed and written by me, printed by a friend of Rachel and I from my work days who runs his own design company.

Two Weeks To Go!

As I understand the nature of the universe (from watching Stargate SG-1, rather than reading Stephen Hawking), the closer you get to a black hole's event horizon, the more messed up the passage of time becomes.

And so it is with my wedding. Not that I'm comparing my wedding to the event horizon of a black hole - this is just a geeky metaphor to explain why HeroPress updates will not be as frequent as usual for the next few weeks as other demands (understandably) take priority.

This weekend, for instance, I won't have access to a computer; but, as there is no Doctor Who anyway due to the Eurovision Song Contest, it gives us more time to sit around, speculating over the identity of Harold Saxon!

I'll be back on Sunday with the regular round-up of the month's traffic statistics - which have just gone mental in the last four weeks. Thank you to everyone who has stopped by, especially the Doctor Who and Dresden Files fans, who currently seem to account for the majority of my new readership.

Late next week, HeroPress will also be "off the air" for a few days, and then, of course, the end of the following week (exactly two weeks today) is the BIG DAY: my geeky, Star Wars-themed wedding to lovely Rachel (a geek-in-training).

There will be time for one more Six Of The Best before the wedding: a fascinating interview with Ken Newquist, the host of another of my favourite podcast's Nuketown Radio Active, about his life and work.

But fear not loyal fans, I shall return in early June (hopefully to my regular daily blogging schedule) with more interviews, belated reviews of the Doctor Who Human Nature two-parter and the season finale of Lost, and the usual, general geeky chit-chat.

In the meantime, feel free to hang around, visit all the "rabbit holes" (as Troy calls them), post some comments and get your geek on!

Thursday, 10 May 2007

DVD Of The Week: Werewolf of London (1935)

For the first 'talkie' about the werewolf legend, Werewolf of London is surprisingly modern ... in places.

This is pure Pulp fodder that should be devoured by Call of Cthulhu and Back of Beyond gamers, with a large side order of cheese and corn.

The adventure starts in Tibet with a botanical expedition for a rare plant in a mysterious valley, then quickly moves to London where the picture's anti-hero, the grumpy Dr. Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull), struggles to cultivate the Tibetan plant in his laboratory ... using a gadget that generates artificial moonlight! Not only that but - and remember that this is 1935 - he has a CCTV monitor to see who is approaching the lab. How Doc Savage is that?

Things go wrong (naturally) and, thanks to a bite he sustained on his travels, Glendon transforms into a wolf-man and starts eating ladies of the night. Warner Oland turns up as the sinister werewolf expert Dr Yogami, who tells the bumbling police that the killer they are seeking is suffering from "werewolfery" or "lycanthrophobia", but he has his own secret and an eye on the Tibetan plant (the only known cure for "werewolfery").

There are no truly sympathetic characters in this wonderful little film; ultimately only the wolf-man comes out as redeemable because, while a killer, he is driven by forces beyond his control and is constantly wracked with guilt and remorse. In some ways it is more Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde that the werewolf films we are more used to these days.

The 1930's script and acting veers from the sublime to the arch, the subtle to the ham-fisted, but Werewolf of London is only 72 minutes long and I've seen far, far worse acting, dialogue and effects in films made many years later.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Battle Report: Demoltion - The Modern Way!


As I said earlier, Nick and I gave Battlefield Evolution a run out this evening - and what fast and furious (and bloody) fun it was! In our opinion, Mongoose has got a winner on its hands. The figures are nice, the vehicles are excellent (although the Warrior tank's main gun did droop a bit, but Nick's going to work on that), and the rules, while initially I feared they might be quite complicated, were quick to pick up and echoed AT-43 in their "you're hit, you die" mentally and speed.

Our scenario was simple: my Middle Eastern Alliance fighters ambushed a British patrol coming out of its base and, at first, I naively thought I might just win. We hit the patrol with a rocket launcher attack and forced them to hide in an adjacent building; then drove up to it with a technical, raking the house with machine gun fire.

Elsewhere, a black technical tore wildly around the streets, striking a blow directly at the British base and catching a command unit out in the open with equally lethal results. It was looking like the freedom fighters would be scoring a victory for their cause tonight...

Then out of the main entrance to the British camp rolled their Warrior tank and the tables turned! One technical foolishly tried to attack the tank head on and got the heck blown out of it for its efforts, then a second (the one that had slain the troopers in the first building) was taken out with a well-aimed shell!

The Warrior lumbered down the street as my soldiers scrambled to get their rocket launcher into position (being the only weapon with a hope in hell of denting the armoured beast). Instead the tank brought the house down around our ears with a barrage of shells and chain gun fire, before we could get a shot off!

Cunningly, we had drawn the tank into a position where our second rocket launcher could get a shot off ... only the launcher jammed! The Warrior proceeded to blow the front off this other building, taking out the only effective weapon we had left in our arsenal.

Our remaining two soldiers, and the black technical, fled into the night ... to come back and fight another day.

A brilliant game that has us really fired up for the next Battlefield Evolution encounter (which will be sometime after my wedding) and Nick figuring out when he can buy some more figures (and just how many) - which has to be the sign of a good evening's wargaming fun.

Here We Go Again...

Circular Time is generally regarded as "a bit of classic" among Big Finish's varied stable of Doctor Who full-cast audio plays - and with good reason.

Starring Peter Davison's Doctor and assistant Nyssa (Sarah Sutton), the CD is four short stories linked only by the theme of the passage of time.

The cycle opens with its weakest link, Spring, which is a very typical Dr Who tale of a rogue Timelord setting himself up as a "false god" for an interesting race of avian aliens. On its own merits, this is a good yarn, but in such august company it appears slightly tame.

The next chapter is Summer, where the time travelling duo fall foul of Sir Isaac Newton, in his role as warden of the royal mint, after accidentally using coins the Doctor has accumulated in his galactic travels in a pub where a disguised Sir Isaac is drinking. David Warner steals the show as Sir Isaac, at one point extrapolating the future history of Earth from the markings on the coins. Genius!

In Autumn, Nyssa and the Doctor are holidaying in modern, rural England, so the Doctor can indulge his passion for cricket and Nyssa, while trying to write a novel about her homeworld, embarks on her first romance. The Doctor's love of this idyllic lifestyle is slightly soiled by encounters with contemporary prejudices, but sadly that story falls foul of a cliched twist ending, while Nyssa's romance blossoms delightfully.

The collection wraps up with an experimentally weird story called Winter, where, years after leaving the Doctor, Nyssa and her husband become trapped in the Timelord's dreaming mind.

All these stories are wonderful, although Summer is the most memorable, with Warner's Sir Isaac deserving an appearance on the new television incarnation of the long-running show.

Off To The Frontline ...

Tonight Nick and I will be test driving the Battlefield Evolution game from Mongoose Publishing, using their prepainted miniatures in the Middle Eastern town Nick has built (above) on his kitchen table!

I shall be playing the native Middle Eastern Alliance, rattling round the streets in improvised 'technicals', while Nick will be representing the European Federation Task Force with his British units.

Makes me wish I'd picked up a keffiyeh during my press trip to the United Arab Emirates in the '90s, to add to the 'authenticity' of the near-future game.

Battlefield Evolution has taken a bit of a kicking in The Miniatures Page forums, and on the Meeples and Miniatures podcast, for a variety of reasons - particularly the standard of the figure painting, the quality of the vehicles and an ongoing dispute over the scale - but I've liked what I've seen so far (especially as Nick's buying it all, not me) and no one has said anything about the game's actual rules.

Tonight - all being well - we shall find out if the system works!

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

When Geek Passions Collide!

Even Cybermen need to nip down the corner shop sometimes...

As if getting married in just over two weeks wasn't stressful enough, Rachel and I have also taken the first steps towards 'house hunting' and, over the Bank Holiday weekend, even went to look at a three bedroom house in Rusthall (a 'suburb' of Tunbridge Wells).

Even if it hadn't been slightly out of our price range anyway, the stairs up to the attic room were no narrow and steep that even an able bodied person would have thought twice about going up there ... let alone a bloke with a gammy leg who walks with a stick!

Shame really, but it was only our first prospective property and estate agents bombard us daily with other houses, so I'm confident we'll eventually find one that's "just right".

A third bedroom (attic room/basement) is key: to house my hobbies. I've long dreamed of a "fortress of solitude" where geeks can gather and marvel at my battalions of (currently mint on card) Buffy and Dr Who action figures; fight some futuristic wargame in the ruins of a deserted city on my very own, 6' by 4' gaming table; leaf through my comic back catalogue; or browse my sci-fi/fantasy/horror DVDs.

We're also going to need room for Rachel's dolls house collection and N-Gauge railway layout (see, I'm not the only geek in this family unit!) - but I'm hoping they can decorate the second (or 'guest') bedroom and not invade the macho sanctity of the "boy's clubhouse".

The trick will be making the best use of the space available - and I've already got some ideas from these guys, over on Flickr, who've created a 'group' to share images of their own game room layouts. I think I'm going to need lots of plastic drawers!

Just got work out now where I'm to fit the full size (10' tall) replica TARDIS I have my eye on.

Monday, 7 May 2007

For You, The War Is Over ...

One of my lasting memories from growing up in the '70s was playing the Escape from Colditz boardgame - recreating the heroism of WWII prisoners-of-war trying to escape from the Nazi's "most secure" facility.

One of the many things I loved about this game - above and beyond the sheer nail-biting excitement of a good game - was the treasure trove of replica documents included in the game. I guess this was planting the first seeds of "role-playing" in my head that would take root several years later when I discovered Dungeons & Dragons!

So, I suspect it was this childhood memory, coupled with my inner Indiana Jones, that was quite excited by the idea of a Big Finish Doctor Who audio play pitting the Doctor and Ace against Nazis in an adventure around Colditz Castle (Oflag IV C).

I picked up the disc for a snip on eBay and then had the added fanboy thrill of discovering the main Nazi antagonist - a sleazy and sadistic sergeant called Kurtz - was played by none other than David Tennant! This was recorded back in 2001 ... a lifetime before he would have even thought it possible that he could ultimately be on the other end of the gun as the adventurous time traveller.

The story itself is classic Who, with the involvement of another time traveller, messed-up history, conflicted characters and Ace finally growing up. I was never a fan of Ace when this era of Dr Who was first being screened, and even now when I watch episodes on DVD, the "80s London street kid" still really jars despite Sophie Aldred's strong portrayal. But here, in this audio drama, when she spends a lot of time away from the Doctor, the character really comes into her own.

Saturday, 5 May 2007

Six Of The Best With 'DOC' HOLADAY

'Doc' Holaday is the host of the brilliant Gaming Ether slot on the Midnight's Lair gaming podcast. In his segment, Doc gives ideas and suggestions for using storytelling elements from American 'old time radio' (from the '20s to '50s) in roleplaying games.

(1) Which came first for you – old time radio (OTR) or role-playing games? And how were you introduced to both?


Technically, gaming came first for me. I started playing D&D with the Basic Set in 1978, the one with the blue, monochromatic rulebook cover. I quickly progressed to the 1st Edition AD&D books and Traveller. (I remember others, but those were my favorites.)

Long before that, however, I used to fall asleep listening to story records. Those old story records had a lot in common with the radio dramas of the 1950's and a few were even straight repackaging of radio shows.

The farm house I grew up in had only four other houses within a mile of it in any direction. Without any nearby cities, the light pollution was nonexistent, and the nights were so inky black you literally couldn't see your own hand waving in front of your face. I can remember lying on my back, eyes open but staring at nothing at all, while I listened to the records. It was great training for the imagination. As I grew up, though, I felt kind of silly listening to those old records, so I put them away.

Later, in high school, I also packed up my role playing games. There was a LOT of pressure in the early 1980's to hide one's gaming interests. It was definitely not cool, socially. Also, I grew up in small-town, Fundamentalist, Bible Belt America, where admitting I was into role playing games would have been an open invitation for our pastor to drop by for an exorcism. I'm still a little bitter about that side of my upbringing.

My escapist sweet tooth through this period was largely satisfied with a gross amount of reading. Thank goodness for Tolkien, Silverberg, McCaffery, Zelazney, Lieber, and all my other paperback friends!

I was about 25 when I picked up gaming again. I think it started with the Beta version of Magic the Gathering and Warhammer miniatures. Shortly thereafter I dived back into Call of Cthulhu and D&D.

At the time, I was commuting to work about 40 minutes each way and became addicted to audiobooks, borrowed from the local library.

Buying my first MP3 player in 1999 threw gas on this fire. A year or so after acquiring the audibook habit, though, I moved. My long commute became a 5 minute hop and my son started walking and talking.

This left me with only fragments of free time and listening to audiobooks became a very disjointed experience. I discovered The Cobalt Club on the Internet and downloaded Nero Wolfe and Dimension X, two wonderful old time radio series. The half hour format of these shows fit my available time a lot better, and it didn't take me long to get hooked from that point.

Shortly thereafter I started running a blog called Gwangi's Radio Review, in which I talked about what I was listening to and shared my OTR MP3 files with other fans. The site became very popular. I have since taken it down, but it used to consistently be in the first three Google hits for any search for OTR material and about 700 unique IP addresses hit it daily.

(2) At what point did you realise that old time radio was such a rich source of gaming material?

I was teaching a course on the history of radio and on radio drama to some Honors students at my college when I had an epiphany about the relationship between the two hobbies. I believe I was talking about the "Theater of the Mind" when I realized what was wrong with the gaming sessions I had been running lately.

I am a very visual person; in fact, my first college degree is in Drawing. At the time, I had been relying heavily on miniatures, maps, and visual aids as a GM to shape the stories that were being gamed out in my group. In class, I was pointing out to my students that most OTR fans liked to listen to shows in the dark, because they discovered their imagination worked better without too much visual distraction, when I thought, "Aha!"

I immediately began applying this theory to my gaming and went with a much more minimalistic approach from a tactile standpoint. By reducing the amount of visual stimulation, I was hoping to increase their active imagination. (This seems counterintuitive at first, but it works.) I remember what a relief it was to stop lugging whole tackleboxes of figures and gigantic battlemats around!

It's not that visuals are bad, but they can become a real crutch. I use them much more judiciously now and find that play at the table is faster, more dynamic, and more creative than it was before. Prior to this revolution in my GMing style, my decisions about what story elements to offer the players were being driven by what miniatures and maps I had on hand. A great deal of prep time was spent sorting out these materials and I wasted a lot of precious game time setting them up too.

After this general epiphany, I found a lot of other bits of ideas from OTR creeping into my games.

(3) In all the roleplaying games you have run, can you describe a single incident that best illustrates the benefits of using old time radio tropes?

No, I can't actually. I have racked my brain for a funny story or one really good example of how OTR has affected my games. What I keep coming back to, though, is the fact that it has radically affected my overall style more than any single encounter. I am better at dialogue and voices now. My retinue of characters (PC and NPC alike) are more varied and interesting. I use sound fx and description a lot more effectively than I used to.

My pacing is better, and I am more adept at searching for and finding moments of drama during play. Combat is a prime example. I don't let battles get bogged down in an I-swing-you-swing cycle where the most dramatic thing is watching hit point totals drop. Instead, I try to make sure battles happen in dramatic physical spaces, like lava pits, bridges, slippery tiles next to open sewers, etc.

I also use sound fx, morale, witty banter, expository dialogue, dirty tricks, and other elements to spice up nearly every slugfest. My goal is for each encounter to be something more than just a means to drain party resources. This is true of non-physical conflict as well.

(4) What inspired you to transform your passion for old time radio and roleplaying games into The Gaming Ether segment of The Midnight’s Lair podcast?

I caught onto podcasting pretty early. I used to listen to Geek Speak (later Boardgame Speak) in the fall of 2004, and I got to thinking about how easy it would be to do my own show.

I recorded an anniversary show for Gwangi's Radio Review in may of 2005, in which I talked over the Green Lama radio dramas with a friend of mind who was into comics. It was several years, though, before I caught onto the idea of making a mini podcast about old time radio and gaming.

Not only was I interested in podcasting, in general, I was also looking for another way to spread the OTR listening hobby. The MP3 revolution has really expanded the fan base for OTR drama, because most of the shows are in the public domain and can be easily and freely traded through the Internet.

My blog, Gwangi's Radio Review, had hundreds of regular followers, but they were mostly people who were already fans of Old Time Radio. This was true of the other OTR sites I frequented as well. I kept noticing the same usernames. We were becoming kind of a closed group, and it occured to me that I could cross-pollinate the two hobby populations by recording my ideas for a gaming audience.

I approached a couple of podcasts that were just starting up, and Midnight's Lair was the first to act interested. This was great, because of the two or three that I tried to feel out, ML was my first choice.

(5) What plans do you have to develop The Gaming Ether, for instance would you ever consider making it a standalone podcast?

I have considered making a standalone podcast, but not by lengthening the Gaming Ether. That segment will continue to be a short piece that regularly appears on The Midnight's Lair. (Unless they kick me out.)

I really love what those guys do and feel a lot of loyalty to them for including me. If I do something on my own, it will be similar, but not the same.

Lately I have been thinking about recording dramatized summaries of my games with players from the gaming group delivering their own best lines.

Spirit of the Century would be ideal for this, but other games might work equally well. My big concern is that it might devolve into a self-absorbed exercise, like some nerd droning on and on about his 18th level, dragon-riding paladin.

I'd probably add some sort of breakdown after the summary that discussed mechanical solutions and good GM techiques. I have another idea for a simple 10 minute podcast featuring cool ideas for GM's.

I have actually typed up notes for four of five of these segments. One, for instance, describes an NPC gang of roof-running halfling thieves I created, called the 'Sweeps (short for Chimney Sweeps).

Another is on setting up a campaign world around the old wizard-sorcerer rivalry. Time is a problem for me right now, though. I am changing jobs and moving to San Diego this summer, so I'll have to wait until I get grounded out there before embarking on a project of any serious scope.

(6) If someone was interested in finding out more about old time radio, where would recommend they start – any particular websites or shows they look out for?

I like OTR-TNT. I have found that group to be extremely generous with their files. I believe they trade through file://www.mediamax.com/, which used to be Streamload and is a pay-by-month file sharing service. The Internet Archive of Old Time Radio Drama is also a good place to dive for files, and it's completely free. The only problem is that you will be fishing without guidance.

If people decide to go this route, I would recommend some of the following series, by genre:

Western = Gunsmoke, The Six Shooter, or Fort Laramie
Crime = Nero Wolfe, Pete Kelly's Blues, and Box 13
Science Fiction = Dimension X and X Minus One
Comedy = My Favorite Husband, You Bet Your Life, Jack Benny, and the Bickersons on the Drene Time show
Children = Cinammon Bear, Let's Pretend, and the Minnesota School of the Air
Horror/Suspense = Escape, Suspense, and Frankenstein
Drama = Lux Radio Theater, CBS Radio Workshop, and Mercury Theater.

OTR Cat is a good place to get started if you don't have a great Internet connection. You can download free samples of various shows from there, and the collection at the site is nicely organized. Discs cost $5 each and the owner sends a sampler with each order. Also, a great place to research shows is at the radio GOLDINdex.

If anyone gets hooked, I would encourage them to stop by the Gaming Ether blog and tell me about it.

Doctor Who: The Lazarus Experiment

As with Gridlock, this week's Doctor Who - The Lazarus Experiment - is a "coronation chicken episode", that is a "tasty filler", whose main purpose is to provide a context for moving forward major sub-plot elements, namely building up the Doctor/Martha friendship and establishing the animosity between Martha's mother and the Doctor - egged on by the machinations of this season's, as yet, unseen Big Bad, Harold Saxon (John Simm).

Using the thinnest of thin old plots (man experiments with science, turns himself into monster, battles the Doctor), Stephen Greenhorn's script still delivers some strong dialogue and enough soap opera-style character interaction to keep show runner Russell T Davies happy.

The cliches continued - with unfortunate timing - with a final confrontation between Doctor and monster in a cathedral that, with its use of noise, echoed a major scene in Spider-Man 3 (and Daredevil come to think of it).

Yet while there was little original or surprising in The Lazarus Experiment (except the giant scorpion-like monster), it was written and acted with enormous class that continues to make the current series of Dr Who the best since its return to our screens.

Of course, the best part of the episode was "Coming Soon" trailer at the end which, to make up for next week's postponed episode (because of the Eurovision Song Contest) was a sneak peak at the rest of the series ... including our first glimpse of Saxon (Simm) himself!

Friday, 4 May 2007

At The Fleapit: Spider-Man 3

Spider-Man 3 is a classic example of the law of diminishing returns. While Spider-Man 2 was as good, if not better, than the genre-defining original, Spider-Man 3 is a lot of spectacle and powerful human drama peppered with some truly dire and heavy-handed amateur storytelling.

At 140 minute duration it's not only long, but it feels long - which is a far worse crime. A sadly mediocre conclusion to the trilogy, it is so packed with twist after twist, new characters and sub-plots that it smells like it was written by committee (each with a different idea of what the film's ultimate goal was). Perhaps this is how several of the most trite scenes in modern cinema managed to slip through the net: namely Eddie Brock going into the church for no good reason ... except it helped the plot; and Harry's butler suddenly deciding after two years to tell him that Spider-Man didn't kill his dad... again a 'nice' plot convenience.

And you would have thought with all the money being thrown at the screen for the wild CGI effects, a bit could have been siphoned off to make sure they got some half-decent supporting actors to back up the superb leads: just try and listen to the news reporter at the scene of Mary Jane's kidnapping without laughing at the awfulness of her delivery and try to watch the little kid with the camera fleecing JJ Jameson without wondering why her parents didn't stop her humilating herself in front of a global audience.

But for all this there are some great superpowered fights, Venom and Sandman make good villains (although both their origin stories lack the verisimilitude of those of Green Goblin and Doc Ock from the previous films), and the Peter-MJ-Gwen Stacy 'love' triangle is nicely handled. The symbiont suit turning Peter into a bit of a jerk is also very funny, and ultimately tragic, even if that segment was quite drawn out (we got the message, Sam!)

It seems like trailers for Spider-Man 3 were playing in cinemas ages ago, so you would have thought that given all that time, a director as consistently good as Sam Raimi could have hammered out the faults in his self-penned script.

As a big comic book geek with the "curse of knowledge", as Fred Hicks would call it, I know there are enough dangling plot threads (Captain Stacy, Dr Connors etc) for another film, but hopefully, if this gets made, as much care will taken this time over the script as the special effects.

Oops, They've Done It Again...

Appropriately enough on International Star Wars Day (May The Fourth Be With You ...), I discovered yet another science-fiction magazine has just been launched - Death Ray.

Now I can accept that the trendy new Doctor Who has (almost) made geekdom fandom (almost) mainstream in the UK, but can our relatively small market place support THREE magazines devoted to, what is in all honestly, a niche genre?

Death Ray claims, I believe, to be a "serious" take on SFX - but personally I've never found anything wrong with the balance of serious articles and humour in over a decade of SFX. To be fair to the new, new kid on the block (arriving hot on the heels of the less than impressive SciFiNow), I couldn't afford yet another £4 magazine this month and so only skimmed through it in WH Smiths.

The daft name also didn't encourage me to part with hard-earned cash ... for what may well be an excellent read.

Just because the general public are starting to watch the things we like (Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Heroes, Doctor Who etc) doesn't mean they'd all be interested in reading about the minutiae of making these awesome programmes, the backstories and story arcs, what the actors' had for lunch and so on.

Of course, these magazines also cover sci-fi literature - but let's be honest: if sci-fi on television is a niche, then sci-fi literature is a niche of a niche. How many non-geeks could name a hard sci-fi writer or even a 'proper' comic book writer?

It will be interesting to see, in six months, which, if any, of these new pretenders to SFX's throne of dominance have survived.

Fantastic Four: Rise of The Silver Surfer (new trailer)



'Nuff said!

Thursday, 3 May 2007

Amok Time ...

Recently I was talking about geeky things I don't write about much on this blog, and I brought up those modern day titans Battlestar Galactica and Lost, but, of course, the elephant in the room is Star Trek.

Dr Who had gone off the boil and eventually off the air in the late 80s, Star Wars had vanished into outer space after Return of The Jedi (1983). Both looked as though they weren't ever coming back. What was a young geek to do with his time (besides profiteering off buying and selling old Star Wars toys)?

Who else could I turn to in this sci-fi void but my trusted old friend: Star Trek. Sure, Aliens came out in '86, but it looked like a one-off sequel and I don't remember much merchandise for it at the time; but Star Trek fans had already gone through the "Dark Times" before I was even watching TV and it was in a time of resurgence with Star Trek: The Next Generation (I had a massive 'crush' on Dr Beverly Crusher ... but that's another story).

There were clubs to join, conventions to attend (yes, Nick and I did attend at least one Star Trek convention and, yes, I did buy a Picard uniform and, yes, I did later sell it at a boot fair because it was too uncomfortable to wear ... not that I ever did ... mind you ...) and novels to read (Star Trek embraced the idea of an "Expanded Universe" years before Star Wars).

But I was always a very fickle Star Trek fan, my heart really belonged in a "galaxy far far away". I was really into Trek when it was the only regular thing around, but as soon as Star Wars resurfaced in the late 90s, while I was at university, it kind of slipped off my radar, except for the odd cinema trip to see the increasingly poor films.

However, one friend of mine has kept the Trek flame alive better than anyone I can think of: John Carrigan, actor, stuntman, martial artist, writer etc etc

In the current issue of the official Star Trek magazine, he has authored a four-page article on his involvement in Of Gods And Men, a 40th anniversary Star Trek mini-series featuring a host of stars from all the original series.

I first met John when I was a young journalist on the Kent & Sussex Courier and I was interviewing him about his acting and stunt work, and he was working on a low-budget sci-fi film of his own, called The Need, which I eventually appeared in as an extra in a pub scene.

John has gone on to bigger and grander things, including guest roles in that other mainstay of Trek's online presence: New Voyages, as well as plenty of non-Trek work, from the Chronicles of Narnia to The Brittas Empire, but he always comes back to Trek.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

The Dresden Files: Second City (series finale)

As a series finale to The Dresden Files, Second City seems initially an odd choice and it's only when you see the final scene between Murphy and Harry that you can nod sagely and say: "Ahhhh, I see what they're doing."

The episode has a distinctly darker style than previous episodes (more akin to modern cop shows), and some clever camera work and subtle effects, but the writing still seems inconsistent in parts. While reference is made (again) to Murphy's memory loss and nightmares after being 'possessed' in The Boone Identity, everyone seems to have forgotten the hullabaloo over the death of Harry's uncle that was the key mystery in What About Bob?

There's also some criminally bad policing by Chicago PD when reviewing the security tape of a murder scene (a deserted Chicago street) that takes Murphy to point out the man walking across the picture holding a branding iron (the murder weapon).

If the new style is a sign of things to come, let's hope the series does get renewed because it certainly worked here. Yes, the plot was wrapped up quickly (because of the time constraint of single episodic storytelling), but we were introduced to several interesting supporting characters (such as Murphy's boss and her pig-headed dad), who would make solid recurring characters - as well as the sleazy journalist who crosses Harry's path.

Second City is also very reminiscent of the early episodes of the series, so can only really muster a B+ Grade (which is pretty much the average for the entire 12-episode run), as I was hoping for something more for an end of series show. Ultimately it was rather downbeat.

The series has potential, but if it is to return to our screens it really needs to up its general writing calibre, strive for consistency and continuity, and maybe experiment more with its format (two-part stories, arcs etc) in ways that might allow for more character development. And the fans of the books (both viewers and on staff) have to accept that it is a separate entity from Jim Butcher's books and allow it to develop in its own direction.

Meanwhile, hardcore Dresden Files' fans are campaigning for a second series (as no announcements have yet been made); today issuing the following press release:


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
For more information, contact: Bonnie Johnston Email: bonnielala@gmail.com

Fans Rally to Support The Dresden Files
Campaign launched for renewal of SciFi Channel's original series

(May 1, 2007) – Since the first season of SciFi Channel’s original television series The Dresden Files ended its run in mid-April, an avid fan base has been actively campaigning for a second season of the show through online petitions, discussions in various online forums, and letters and postcards to SciFi Channel executives.

The Dresden Files, starring Paul Blackthorne as Chicago private investigator and wizard Harry Dresden, is based on the popular books by author Jim Butcher and features fast-paced, unique stories that blend the best of traditional detective work with the supernatural… as well as just enough humor and wit to make things more
interesting.

The show, which also stars Broadway veteran Terrence Mann as Harry’s ethereal assistant Bob and Valerie Cruz as Chicago police detective Lt. Connie Murphy, has won numerous fans due to its clever mixture of drama, comedy and edge-of-your seat suspense.

The Save Harry Dresden website contains contact information for SciFi Channel executives, as well as letter-writing tips to help fans get their letters started. For those who want to do more, the site also offers contact information for the show’s producers and advertisers; a link to dresdenfiles.org's online petition; and downloadable flyers that can be printed and posted in bookstores
and other places where Dresden Fans are likely to gather.

Overseas fans who want to participate in the campaign, but aren’t sure that their letters will reach the SciFi channel in time, may submit their pleas for renewal to the
website: all overseas letters are being printed out and forwarded to the appropriate SciFi executives and to the show’s producers. In the first 14 days of the campaign, letters have poured in from around the world -- Portugal, the Netherlands, Argentina, Taiwan, Australia, Norway, New Zealand, Japan, Brazil, Canada, and the United Kingdom - proving that Harry Dresden’s fan base isn’t limited to the United States.

Enthusiastic reviews of the show posted in the website’s guestbook by visitors are also being sent along to the powers that be. What are fans saying about the show?

"…the series has a perfect blend of mystery, fantasy, comedy, and a touch of romance." - Carlos Jackson

"Every episode is better than the previous one." - Angel Arthur

"I adore the series...it's as witty and entertaining to watch as the books are to read." - Kiya Wolfe

SciFi Channel’s own site dedicated to the program includes a very active discussion forum, which currently boasts more than 20,000 individual messages on over 600 topics.

While the first run of The Dresden Files may be over, fans can go to iTunes and download the entire season as another way to show their support for the show.
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