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Home Of Superheroes, the Supernatural, Swords, Sorcery, and Star Stuff

Saturday, 30 June 2007

Doctor Who: Last of The Time Lords

It was inevitable really - the momentum that had been built up over the past two weeks couldn't be maintained. Not that Last of The Timelords was a weak episode - far, far from it - but the moment that 'one year later' message appears on the screen and the world has been remade in the Master's image you just know that at some point down the line the reset button will have to be pushed or else the whole nature of the show will be changed forever.

The Master is in total control of the Earth, with his Toclafane buddies running the show at his whim, as he uses The Doctor and Martha's family as his slaves - the Doctor being kept in a cage like a dog and eventually zapped into a wizened, 12 inch high Yoda-like homonculus!

But for its lack of The Sound of Drums' manic power, this is still the best written of the three season finales so far as Martha becomes a folk hero and resistance leader walking the world, spreading the Doctor's message. There's even a slight dig at the 'Deux Ex Machina' twists of Doomsday and Parting of The Ways.

The 'Utopia' sub-plot from Utopia is paid off brilliantly, tying up that loose end; the Toclafane's true identity turns out to be one of the most popular fan speculations (thank God, they weren't redesigned Daleks ... I think there would have been a civil uprising if that was the case) and it turns out that Lucy Saxon's secret is simply that the Master has shown her End of The Universe and she's gone totally insane.

And even though the Master's fate seems quite definite, we get that beautiful Flash Gordon homage in the closing moments.

But most shocking of all the revelations, and the confirmation of growing fear nurtured by Britain's 'lovely' tabloid press, is the exit of the gorgeous Martha Jones. Sadly, it's a logical resolution of the whole 'unrequited love' storyline, but it's still a sucker punch for the audience. However, thankfully for all her fans (and I include myself in that number), the TARDIS door has been left open for her and the Doctor to team up again ... and there are already strong rumours that she does return in at least some episodes next year.

Balancing that though was the amazing explanation of the Face of Boe's advanced knowledge of events that he couldn't have lived through in the natural course of things!

The Doctor returns in the Christmas special, Voyage Of The Damned - which starts with the TARDIS seemingly rammed by the Titanic! You never know - having told us that he'd never bring back the Master - Russell T Davies might be planning a two Doctor story as Christopher Eccleston's Doctor stated quite clearly that he was on the Titanic when it sank!

Doctor Who Day Update ...

After The Infinite Quest, I discovered that UKTVGold was showing the finale of Doctor Who Season Two - Doomsday (the Dalek vs Cybermen battle in Canary Wharf), which was actually much, much better than I remembered. I still find the Daleks and Cybermen being "sucked" back through the tear between dimensions a rather convenient - and visually lame - solution to the crisis, but the whole 'loss of Rose' sub-plot is far more moving than I recall it being when I first saw it.

That was followed, boosted by a sandwich, with my tapes of Utopia and The Sound of Drums, which have me psyched up for the Last of The Timelords in about three and three-quarter hours.

While both of these episodes get better and better with each viewing, I have to say the kid who won the Blue Peter competition, John Bell, to appear as Creet the Refugee, stands out like a sore thumb - his role clearly shoehorned in for the sake of the competition but having absolutely no relevance to the plot whatsoever!

Given that previously a Blue Peter competition was responsible for foisting the nonsensical Abzorbaloff on us in Season Two's Love & Monsters makes you wonder if it's time to give the competition's a rest and leave the story telling to the professionals!

Doctor Who Saturday Off To A Good Start...

Despite still spinning out from my second night of total insomnia this week, the day has started well with BBC1 screening the complete Doctor Who: The Infinite Quest this morning.

Sometimes it's easy to forget that Doctor Who is primarily a children's programme - which is, I guess, why the BBC shows - while the series is on - Totally Doctor Who, during afternoon CBBC. This is a very light-weight, kid-orientated, behind-the-scenes magazine show with games and quizzes; and a five-minute episode each week of the simple, but effective, Infinite Quest animation.

This morning's show was a compilation of all the episodes into one 45-minute story ... and it was a good one. Not great, but good. It reminded me, in part, of the Doctor Who novel The Resurrection Casket, with its ships in space and android pirates, but also Star Trek VI with its icy prison planet. The Infinite Quest is the kind of budget-busting, planet-hopping, alien-swarm-attacking, giant-robot-mining, space opera that Doctor Who can't do live action because it doesn't have the cash, but in cartoon form it's sweet.

The icing on the cake is, of course, that David Tennant and Freema Aygeman reprise their roles from the TV show as The Doctor and Martha, and it's written by Alan Barnes, who writes audio plays for Big Finish.

Friday, 29 June 2007

Be Good To Us, RTD!


I've got my Saturday afternoon and evening planned for a total Doctor Who geek-out! Rachel's away at a hen night, I've got the previous two episodes on tape (Utopia and The Sound of Drums) to refresh my memory, and there's the Doctor Who special edition of The Weakest Link on before the season finale: The Last of The Timelords at 7.05pm.

This especially-extended episode (about 10 minutes longer than normal) is then followed by Doctor Who Confidential over on BBC3, which I believe is a review of the season, then we get Jekyll by Doctor Who alumnus Steven 'Blink' Moffat. By which stage I think I'll be close to overdosing on Who-related goodness! If such a thing is possible ...

But I am trying to not get my hopes up too high. For two years, head writer and Who saviour Russell T Davies has written spectacular, cliff-hanger-filled finales that have backed the Doctor into some very difficult and dangerous corners ... then dismissed them out of hand with weak, Deus Ex Machina escape routes for the sake of the emotional sub-plot.

I never thought I'd see a better villain in Doctor Who than the Daleks, but this year's Master story has blown me away and I really couldn't accept seeing the Master suddenly dismantled by a spectral mist from the heart of the TARDIS or sucked through a portal to an alternate dimension.

Please, RTD, keep up the incredible, inventive and original writing that has distinguished Season Three from many, many episodes of the previous two.

Fingers crossed!

Film Night: Dirty Dancing (1987)

Marriage is certainly broadening my horizons - much like travel is supposed to. As a straight, single male, I could never have pictured myself watching Dirty Dancing ... and enjoying it. But that's the point of Film Night - Rachel and I watch each other's favourite films (or films we think the other should see) and this is her all-time favourite.

It's 1963, the end of the family holiday era in the States and 17-year-old Baby (the very cute Jennifer Grey) and her family are spending the summer at holiday camp in the Catskill Mountains. Very soon she's involved in a tangled web of deception and dancing with instructor Johnny (Patrick Swayze), trying to cover while his friend Penny (Cynthia Rhodes) has an abortion, defying her staid and prejudiced family by mingling with the 'lower classes', saving her sister from the camp bounder Robbie ... and all of the time trying to learn the moves of the "dirty dancing".

I have to admit I can see why Rachel rates it: it's a very sweet film. All the main central characters are well drawn, likable people; the dialogue's quirky and memorable (full of oddly quotable lines about "watermelons", "heartbeats" and "corners" that I knew out of context); and the music is great (turns out most of it was played at some point through our wedding!)

There's only one real objectionable character, and he's not really a villain, more a cad. Sure, the final scene where Johnny and his colleagues 'spontaneously' dance up the centre aisle of the hall is a bit cheesy, but come on ... this is an American dance movie ... I can't imagine this sort of excitement kicking off in a rain-soaked Butlins at Bognor.

Because it was a period piece when it was made, and doesn't use special effects or make definitive statements about "the future", Dirty Dancing has aged well and the story - as corny as this sounds - is timeless.

Next week, as it's my choice, we're going for another film without villains, but a lot more violence; my all-time favourite - the controversial and surreal Fight Club.

Thursday, 28 June 2007

Battle Report: Dakka Dakka Dakka ... BOOM!

Last night, the Korean war came to Nick's kitchen table as we indulged in a game of Air War C21. It turned out to be - at two-and-a-half hours - our longest game since I stopped going to the Tunbridge Wells Wargames Society meetings (where Nick and I would entertain the 'serious' wargamers with our large-scale 1920s/30s Pulp games).

I am delighted to report that I succeeded in my objective of taking out Nick's airbase and ammo dump, but at the cost of three aircraft from my six-plane United Nation's squad. The Koreans, with their Chinese, Soviet and homegrown pilots, lost no one and out maneuvered us at every turn, but failed to keep us away from our target!

Nick's squadron was composed of MIG-15s and La-9s, while mine was a mixed bag of South African Mustang P-51s, Australian Meteors and American Sabres. Both Meteors survived the battle (one of them was responsible for the destruction of the Korean airbase), along with one of the P-51s. Sadly, the Sabre that struck the final blow on Nick's ammo dump was subsequently shot of the sky.

Although aerial warfare connoisseur Nick had the advantage of knowing the strengths and limits of his aircraft, as well as understanding the various maneuvers available to them, my more reckless approach to the scenario won the day ... at the cost of three pilots!

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Fear of Girls




The funniest Dungeons & Dragons/roleplaying short film ever! I'm not saying we were ever this bad ... but it makes me laugh because I can remember people in the '80s who were this hardcore!

My Life And Roleplaying... (part three)

7. James Bond RPG (Victory Games). This came out in late 1983 (in my last years at Skinners') and I can only recall playing it a few times, with Matt and Nick. I don't seem to remember us sticking to the published adventures!

However, this game is one of the most beautifully supported of all the RPGs from that Golden Age, with its boxed sets for the film-inspired adventures, packed with paper props, maps, Gamesmaster's information etc. I only wish it was still going today so we could get roleplaying adaptations of more recent films such as Casino Royale and Die Another Day, as well as up-to-date gadget/weapon/vehicle information. As it is, it remains very much a period piece, stuck in the '80s!

6. Star Wars d6 (West End Games). This came out in 1987, but I didn't really get into it hardcore until almost a decade later by which time I no longer had a regular gaming group and this became the first (but certainly not the last) of the systems that I spent a small fortune on but have never actually played.

At first it took a while to get my head around the d6 concept of having "dice pools" for your attributes - rather than fixed numbers (as I had grown up with in Dungeons & Dragons etc), but it gradually began to dawn on me over those 10 years, that was appeared to be a fast and flexible system that could be used for adventuring in pretty much any sort of setting.

That, for me, was always part of the great appeal of Star Wars RPGs that you could tell any genre of story within that Universe - from hardboiled detective to horror, from romance to slapstick comedy.

My love of the game (and the Universe) was bolstered by the incredible Star Wars gaming fanzines (The Jawa Melting Pot and Star Wars Thrilogy), of Gutt Wrench, published in the late 1990s, which I was always "drafting" articles for, but never got round to submitting them!

5. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (TSR). This A4 blue box has a lot to answer for! I was first introduced to Dungeons & Dragons by the MENSA-brained son of a friend of my mother when I was about 10 or 11, and it blew my mind. The freeform combination of storytelling, imagination and structure made me suddenly see game ideas in everything (morning hymns at prep school were a particularly fertile ground for creatures and treasure ideas - just what are the bonus' of a "bow of burning gold" and how fast does a "chariot of fire" go?)

I had a friend at prep school, Tom, that I played wild campaigns with, mainly based on (of all things) the Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy radio plays (because that was THE geeky thing at that time of our lives) - so we had leaves for currency, giant pigeons for flying mounts, Pan-Galactic Gargleblasters for drinks etc.

But I also had a friend who lived five doors down from me in Pembury - Gublin - with whom I played more traditional campaigns, including massive global explorations on an ever-expanding map of a world without a name - or boundaries. This was simply youthful enthusiasm running free - and it was great!

It's this passion for the games of my childhood that still course through my veins, that - despite the best efforts of society and adult life - I just can't extinquish and hope, one day, to fully reignite.

I could write reams and reams about my early years of Dungeons & Dragons, of the triumphant advetures of Staghind Starlight-Aramioc-Blacksword I, Queen of Elfland; of the band of hardy adventures who tobogganed down a hill with roc egg on their shoulders; of dungeons based on the houses in our street and monsters drawn from Top Trump cards etc etc etc


Next time, I'll be reminiscing over Space 1889, Call of Cthulhu and the game that led to the creation of HeroPress: Villains & Vigilantes.

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

DVD Of The Week: Going To Pieces (2007)

If only this documentary had come out ten years ago, when I was working on my university dissertation about horror films (the infamously titled 'Is That A Chainsaw In Your Pocket ... or Are You Just Pleased To See Me?', which has gained a new lease of life since Paul mentioned it in his classic Best Man speech at our wedding last month). I might have got a first, rather than a two-one!

Going To Pieces is a gore-packed, thrill ride through the history of the slasher flick, looking at the three main waves of films that we have so far been "treated" to: namely the original slashers that came after Psycho and really started with Halloween and Friday The 13th; then the next wave which began with Nightmare of Elm Street; and finally the bigger budget, slicker horrors that followed the success of Silence of The Lambs and then Scream.

This is basically a progression from indestructible men in masks to inescapable supernatural terrors to post-modern movie vehicles for pretty TV stars looking to break into 'real movies'.

It isn't a comprehensive study; the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre is conspicuous by its absence, as is director Tobe Hopper in the line-up of luminaries who appear on screen to pontificate about horror and this particular sub-genre.

However, the documentary makers have still interviewed a wide spectrum of writers, directors and effects specialists - including the ever-interesting Tom Savini (talking about his days as a Vietnam war photographer), Wes Craven, John Carpenter and the surprisingly erudite and humble Rob Zombie (I still don't rate his films too highly, but he seems like a really sound chap).

The 88-minute documantary touches on some of the basic tropes of the slasher film, in particular "the final girl" (a core element of my dissertation) and the counter-point of sexual promiscuity and violent death, as well as the financial bounties generated by the genre, the increasing sophistication of the audience and the ludicrously OTT reactions of some critics and parental groups (to films they shouldn't have been allowing their kids to watch in the first place!)

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Things I Never Thought I'd Write ...

My good friend Clare, of global Three Beautiful Things fame, celebrated her 30th birthday last week and so in her honour I'm posting my own "Three Things I Never Expected To Write on HeroPress".

1. Rachel & Horror Films. I'm so proud of my wife. Given that she can't watch Heroes and Doctor Who on her own (because they are "too scary" - and, in fact, had to give up watching Blink because it was too much, even with me in the room) she actually suggested that we watch 28 Days Later when it was screened on TV the other night. I think she'd seen a pre-watershed trailer for Danny Boyle's post-apocalypse/zombie flick and been "intrigued". I could have explained that it is basically Day of The Triffids with zombies replacing the flesh-eating plants, but I wanted her to see that for herself.

And she sat through the whole thing, even though we had to watch selected highlights of our wedding DVD afterwards before going to bed, so she didn't have nightmares about drooling, red-eyed cannibals. In fact her only criticism of the film - which is probably one shared by many - was that the ending was rather weak and seemed rushed compared to the build-up through the rest of the movie.

2. Food. Never in a million years would anyone who knows me expect me to write something even vaguely erudite about food on this blog; but the other month Nick introduced me to "red chilli jam" during one of our games' evenings round at Pete's. I subsequently persuaded Rachel to invest in a pot from the Tunbridge Wells Farmers' Market.

This jam is the nectar of the Gods, pure ambrosia and as addictive as crack (I'd imagine!) I pretty much devoured the whole pot in a week in a variety of spreads, sandwich fillers, dips etc and was gutted that I was too ill this Saturday to go to the latest farmers' market and buy several more pots.

3. Sucker For Punishment. When 'Knight City' closed for business back in March, I thought that was pretty much the end of my roleplaying days, and that I would concentrate on other hobbies - such as wargames and collecting action figures - but roleplaying games remain an itch that needs to be scratched.

Even though, for example, I've drastically cut down on the number of gaming podcasts I listen to every month, I still find myself daydreaming about that "perfect roleplaying game" that will conjure up an everlasting campaign. Currently the dream formula is "One part Heroes, one part Doctor Who and one part Melrose Place". The allure of the urban fantasy genre pretty much died with Knight City, so at the moment I'm toying with superheroes (always a favourite) and science-fiction (another old classic).

The idea being that once Rachel and I move I will have a games' room to host semi-regular meetings and everything will get back to how it was when I was 20!

Monday, 25 June 2007

Doctor Who: Bad Wolf/The Parting Of The Ways

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, my initial dislike of Russell T Davies' writing can be traced to these episodes, particularly the dreadful, lazy conceit of using sci-fi clones of modern, trashy television programmes as attempted satire of mind-numbing television. The Classic Who episode Vengeance on Varos showed that it's possible to make this point without using this cheap stunt.

For me, seeing the Big Brother logo (and hearing that theme music) or listening to a robot Anne Robinson say: "You are the weakest link, good bye", tore up the truth of the story and stamped it shamelessly into the dirt.

Unfortunately, this wasn't just a minor irritant, like the sonic screwdriver's barbwire healing powers in The Doctor Dances, but a major part of the Bad Wolf episode, which is a shame because otherwise this two-parter has a lot (on the surface) going for it: the return, in force, of the Daleks; some great dialogue (as you'd expect), especially one-liners from Captain Jack; some, vaguely coherant, explanation of the "Bad Wolf" message that has been following the Doctor and Rose throughout this season; and the incredible image of the army of Daleks flying out of their ships and through space that has become as iconic as the Daleks themselves.

But then we come to the climax - Rose using the "heart of the TARDIS" to wipe out the entire Dalek fleet. It's just too quick and simple, too much Deus Ex Machina (quite literally if you think about it); almost as though Russell had written himself into a corner with this overwhelming Dalek invasion of Earth in 200,100 and couldn't come up with a convincing way of getting our heroes out!

Tragically this makes a pair of weak bookends for what is, otherwise, a great story; and we even get the beautiful coda of the Ninth Doctor's regeneration into the Tenth (David Tennant).

One can't help but wonder how much of this was already written and how much was dictated by Christopher Eccleston's decision to abandon the role after a single season ... unless, of course, he was only ever contracted to play the role for one year.

In the BBC Radio 2 documentary Project: WHO?, from March 2005, he is asked: "Are you in this for the long haul?" and Eccleston replies, tellingly, "I've done the long haul."

Just how far in advance has Russell T Davies planned this new regeneration of Doctor Who?

Doctor Who: Boom Town

I remember Boom Town being quite a disappointing, chatty episode of the first season of Doctor Who and while it has improved, slightly, with age, it still feels more like filler than a full story.

Modern day Cardiff and the TARDIS is "refuelling" from the rift that we first learned of in The Unquiet Dead. So the crew have some time to relax and Rose meets up with her old boyfriend, Mickey. It isn't long, though, until the Doctor, Jack, Rose and Mickey discover that a former enemy, one of the Slitheen, long thought dead, has set herself up as Mayor of Cardiff and has engineered some wild scheme to build a nuclear power plant over the rift and use the resulting explosion to "surf" her way home!

The dialogue between "Margaret" (the Slitheen) and The Doctor about the consequences of his actions is very telling, and shows Russell T Davies character-centred strengths as a writer, but - even with some world-threatening fireworks at the finale - this episode still seems to be lacking in genuine dramatic tension.

Of course, given what has happened to The Doctor this week in The Sound of Drums, the power at the heart of the TARDIS to regress "Margaret" to an egg, may come in handy (if it can be better controlled).

Sunday, 24 June 2007

Six Of The Best With LUC "White Wolf" MILLETTE

Canadians Luc Millette and Erik Menard host the best general gaming podcast Midnight's Lair, giving genuine, proven advice from the broad spectrum of games they - and their friends - have enjoyed over the years. The show is also home to the excellent Gaming Ether segment, hosted by Troy Holaday, subject of a previous Six of The Best interview.

How did you get into role-playing games in the first place?


I got into RPGs back in 1979. I joined the Games Club at my high school. Our idea of games then was “Airfix” miniature tank battles and board games. My friend Doug Blair (Bishop on our message board) came in one day after a trip to the U.S. with his parents with the three book,“White Cover” D&D rules he had picked up on his trip.

My first character was rolled up as is and happened to be a cleric. We went into the “Caves of Chaos”, a printed adventure. The entire party died in the first room with my cleric running out of the cave as the sole survivor.

Then I thought clerics were boring so that character committed suicide and I rolled up a new one with my other friends. Ended up rolling a cleric yet again! The rest is history as we say.

How different is the Canadian gaming scene to that of the United States?

Well, in the old days we would get everything later than in the U.S. See my previous answer. However, with the coming of the Internet, and with gaming having becoming a viable hobby, and with many gaming stores in each city we are now on par with what goes on in the U.S.

In the past, gaming was mostly done in the major cities only; Montreal, Ottawa or Toronto. Erik and I are from Sherbrooke (160 kms from Montreal) and we only had one store carrying gaming materials. Our trips to Montreal always had a visit to a gaming store in the agenda. Players had to plan trips to the big city to get their gaming goodies.

Now with PDFs, online gaming and eBay or Amazon, gamers all over the country can get what they want, when they want.

The difference with American gaming is probably more felt here in Montreal where most people speak French as a first language. Here gaming was a little slower in developing (at least for the French speaking population). But it got started with translations of AD&D, Warhammer, GURPS and Traveller.

Now most general market RPGs are available in English and French. And for that reason the Indie scene may not be as developed here as it might be elsewhere. However since many read English anyway it still as a strong following.

Thinking about all the campaigns and one-shot adventures you have played over the years, could you describe a single moment, either as a player or games master, that encapsulates for you just what is so amazing about role-playing games?

The time your question brought to mind was the best role-playing experience I had as a GM. A friend of mine had a very exuberant personality. In fact he got on most peoples nerves very quickly. In the early days gamers were so few that the question of not inviting him to a game was unthinkable.

So after reading an article in Dragon’s magazine about Half-Ogres I came up with this idea. I asked my friend if he would play this type of character, knowing full well that the power and fighting ability of that race would win my friend over easily. It fit with his personality, being up front and doing damage, being involved in the game.

However I told him that this half-ogre would be at best, dim witted. He had to rely on the party for advice, for guidance.

He played this up fantastically. Percy (PMikey on our boards) was then playing a Halfling and he quickly saw an opportunity. The Halfling became the brains and Mauler (the half-ogre) became the brawn.

Both players began a cooperation that was fun to play and fun to watch for everyone and my friend quickly integrated into the group after that.

To me that is what role-playing is all about, social interaction between groups of people who share a common interest. The game doesn’t matter, the system doesn’t matter, and the story doesn’t matter. What does matter to me is that my friends and I all gather together for a few hours and enjoy ourselves and each other’s company. Gaming is good to us that way.

What made you decide to start podcasting and how did you come up with the format of Midnight’s Lair?

Well, Midnight’s (Erik) answer will be more significant than mine here. He called me up one day and said: “Luc, I want to start something and, of all my friends, I think you’re the one who’s crazy enough to want to do this.” That was a good start.

He told me what podcasting was all about and I told him he was nuts! I then remember telling him: “It does sound interesting but weird.”

He encouraged me to give it a try and I did. After our first show I was hooked.

As to the format, well my initial contribution was “Cruel Humour”. I wanted a humourous segment in the show. I am not normally spontaneously funny, but I do know a lot of jokes. The cruel part came because my friends, Erik included, think that I can’t tell a joke.

As the saying goes no one is a prophet in his own country. Actually timing is what matters. And my sense of timing is a little off. So in the end I think the Cruel Humour segment allows people to laugh, at me if they wish, but laugh anyway and it serves to show that we don't take ourselves too seriously.

The rest of the format has been developing since the beginning. Hit or miss. We try to build on our strengths and drop out what doesn’t work. It’s a work constantly in progress.

Could you explain what equipment you use to record and distribute the show and give me an idea of how long it takes to record and edit an episode?

Equipment, that’s Erik’s department. I know which end of the microphone to speak into and I do some of the editing afterwards.

So a one hour show can be summed up as: one week of research and reading (especially if we review a game), one hour of pre-show discussions on who does what, when and how. Then for a one hour show we can record for one hour 30 minutes if we are good. Usually it will take two. Obviously double that for a two hour show.

Then the editing, which can be two to three hours per show. Actually editing has recently become one of my contributions to the show. We use a program called Mixcraft to do the editing and mixing down to a .wav file. Don’t ask… that’s all I know.

If we are good during the recording (which doesn’t happen often) then editing can be one hour long. However most times it will take the two to three hours per show.

From the Midnight’s Lair message boards I see you both read comics as well. Are there any titles around at the moment that you would recommend people to pick up?

I wish you would have asked that question a year ago. I was a HUGE Marvel fan. I didn’t relate to a lot of the heroes over at DC. However with the recent Civil War at Marvel, I think that they have lost their way. When my favorite character Iron Man (Tony Stark) turns into this century’s version of Hitler, I think the writers have gone too far and lost their way. Social commentary is one thing, but if your readers won’t read what you have written then your commentary is lost.

I have canceled a lot of my subscriptions because of that fiasco. I still collect Conan from Image, I collect Astonishing X-Men because of the writer Joss Whedon and I collect Excalibur because it is a Marvel title that has not been touched yet by the Civil War.

But the best recommendation I could make would be don’t read, PLAY! Be it comics, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, westerns or modern there is an RPG out there covering it. Get some friends together and PLAY!

Have fun, tell others about it and make our hobby grow. In the ’80s people talked about gaming because it was seen as eccentric, weird and fringe culture. Today that no longer holds true as much, so let’s get people talking about us again, but this time as guys and gals who get together and have fun in an age of self-centered electronic and introverted entertainment.

So stop reading and go play!

Saturday, 23 June 2007

Doctor Who: The Sound of Drums

Suddenly Russell T Davies can do no wrong! In The Sound Of Drums, the second part of this year's epic Doctor Who finale, no line is wasted, no scene too long or too short. This is spot-on, all-action Doctor Who and is taking this third season to new heights of excellence.

The Doctor, Martha and Jack 'bounce' back from the End of The Universe (using Jack's wrist device, as I foresaw) to find that the regenerated Master returned 18 months before them and has set himself up as politician Harold Saxon ... and just got himself elected Prime Minister. The moment Saxon steps into the Cabinet Room of 10 Downing Street, his true insanity is revealed as he wipes out the entire Cabinet and then welcomes his alien colleagues, the Toclafane, in to kill off a nosey journalist.

While the worst kept secret in the Whoniverse, John Simm's arrival on the scene as The Master is still welcome. Simm, already a favourite actor of mine from Life on Mars, is simply incredible as the totally barking mad antithesis of The Doctor, memorably stealing every scene he is in.

A cross between a conspiracy thriller and a Nick Fury comic, this episode has so much more going on than just The Master and his mysterious wife (I suspect she may be Kamelion, the robot, but if not, I'm sure she has her own secrets); there's the Valiant, the UNIT flying ship (a cross between Marvel Comic's SHIELD hovership and Captain Scarlet's Cloudbase); the inclusion (and explanation) of Torchwood; the use of news broadcasts to move the story along; a direct tie-in to The Lazarus Experiment episode, and mentions of other action from previous episodes; and best of all: flashbacks to life on Gallifrey.

The stunning Gallifrey sequences were breathtaking - and genuinely surprising; beautifully acknowledging the show's past, but reintroducing it to a new audience with sheer poetry.

Another incredible episode that left me wanting next Saturday to roll round as soon as possible.

Friday, 22 June 2007

Doctor Who: The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances

"Are you my mummy?"

Like so many episodes of this first season, this Doctor Who two-parter was a trendsetter and, almost certainly, the most memorable story of Christopher Eccleston's short reign as the Doctor.

This was real, hide-behind-sofa creepiness with the gasmask-faced "empty child" wandering wartorn London asking: "Are you my mummy?" But Stephen Moffat's script had a darker edge as well, with undertones of child abuse, illicit sex and other nastiness that wars make a convenient cover for.

Of course, besides the "empty child", the main thing this story is known for is giving the world Captain Jack Harkness, the suave, polysexual, rogue Time Agent, who swept Rose off her feet (not that that seems to take much!) and even won The Doctor round with his charming ways.

Rose and The Doctor arrive in London during the Blitz, having chased an alien projectile there through time and space. Roaming the streets, looking for the crashed device, they meet up with Captain Jack and cross paths with the highly infectious "empty child".

An incredibly tight script, that manages to swing from light humour and sexual frisson to outright horror at a moment's notice, it's only weak point is its use of the infamous sonic screwdriver to repair cut barbed wire.

A small point, of course, but this marked the beginning of the screwdriver's ability to save the Doctor from any situation, to do almost anything, to be his "ace in the hole" for any emergency. It's a silly thing - but just for that moment the "truth" of the story is stretched a bit too far and you find yourself laughing incredulously at the show, rather than laughing joyously with it.

Broadsword - A Cut Above The Rest ...

Looking for a fast, pick-up game with a high turnover of characters that emulates the low-budget sword-and-sorcery masterpieces of the 1970s and '80s? Then look no further than Broadsword, the new roleplaying game from Deep 7, written by our own Jeff Mejia and James Stubbs.

Using the innovative 1PG system, all the core rules are condensed to a single page, the rules summary and character sheet take another page, the referee gets a page and supplementary rules (in this case "advantages" and "magic") get a page each. All this is topped off with nine single-page adventures (the last six forming The Crimson Chronicles campaign).

While this is a great system to use when introducing someone to roleplaying - it uses a simple d6 against statistic/skill mechanic - the brevity of the rules means some concepts are open to interpretation and some aren't explained at all; which is okay for someone with a history of roleplaying games, but rather daunting to a newbie. But this is spelt out on the "rules of play" page, so shouldn't come as a complete shock to the reader.

These core rules of play are pretty constant between all the 1PG games (which cover genres from the Wild West to Outer Space, via Two-Fisted Pulp Action and Samurai, to name but a few), but tinkered with for period flavour, which is why it is rather surprising that this is the page with the most typos!

Another carry-over from the core rules is the unexplained inclusion of "hit locations" on the character sheet (presumably this is an "advanced rule" from the 1PG Companion).

Where the game triumphs is its authors' obvious self-deprecating love and knowledge of the genre, with such character talents as "chainmail bikini" and referee advice that includes "cut to the chase" and "bring the popcorn" (figuratively). Broadsword is all about having fun (think Hawk The Slayer and Conan rather than D&D) and not taking things too seriously - characters can die at an alarming rate. The page of referee's advice is some of the best - and most condensed - I have read for anyone running a swords and sorcery game (be it this or some d20 variant)

Although extended campaign play is possible under these rules, they are really geared to cinematic one-shots where you're not trying to preserve a treasured character but can let your hair down and rampage through the enemy hordes with a maiden in one arm and a flagon of mead in the other!

In total, Broadsword is a 16-page PDF download for the princely sum of $3.95 (about two quid English money), and a worthwhile adventure for anyone looking to unleash their inner barbarian without having to worry about hurting the feelings of whiny elves or stubborn dwarves.

Doctor Who: Father's Day

In other hands, Father's Day could have been an awful, sickly, soap opera with the trappings of Doctor Who, but with premier league writer Paul Cornell at the controls, we get one of the strongest episodes of the show.

Rose talks the Doctor in taking her back to the day her father died - because he died alone waiting for an ambulance after a hit-and-run - so she can be with him. Things, of course, go wrong and Rose ends up saving him instead and creating a "wound in time" through which monstrous bat-winged Reapers come and start cleansing the planet of human life!

This was the first of the new Doctor Who stories that managed to combine thrilling action with heart-hugging emotion, without going over the edge into soapy schmaltz. The dialogue between Rose and Pete, her father, is spot on as she gradually realises he wasn't this "great businessman" that her mother had made him out to be, but a bit of a wideboy, while he gradually begins to realise who Rose is and, ultimately, what has caused this Earth-threatening time paradox.

There are no exotic alien landscapes, or even interesting historical backgrounds, this is a grubby London suburb in the 1980s, but Father's Day still manages to enthrall the audience with a combination of great acting and a clever script exploring the hazards of time travel.

Doctor Who: The Long Game

You just have to watch Spaced or Shaun of The Dead to see that Simon Pegg is a great actor who knows his science-fiction, so how come his appearance in the first season of Doctor Who was so disappointing?

Pegg stars as "The Editor" in The Long Game, by Russell T Davies. The story is an attempt to satirise our blind faith in the news media in a Blade Runner/cyberpunk style, but even for Russell this is a very verbose script that lectures more than anything else. On top of that, the story's Big Bad, the Jagrafess, is a very static, impotent antagonist, whose ability to control the Editor, let alone the entire human race, is never explained in the slightest.

Sadly, this is one of the most forgettable episodes of the season, being neither all bad or all good. It's just rather bland and mediocre. The addition of Adam (from Dalek) to the TARDIS crew, and then his betrayal of the Doctor's trust, adds little to the drama because we haven't had chance to get to know him.

Even an appearance by Tamsin Greig (of Green Wing fame) fails to raise the level of interest in this disposable story.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Film Night: Forbidden Planet (1956)

When Rachel and I decided that we couldn't afford to go to the Odeon Cinema in Tunbridge Wells anymore (after their most recent ticket price rise), I decided to institute a Film Night of our own ... a chance to catch up on all those DVDs that we've been promising each other that we should sit down and watch together.

And what better film to start this new (hopefully) regular Thursday night ritual, than the grandpappy of modern science-fiction films: Forbidden Planet.

For a film half a century old, especially one full of special effects, Forbidden Planet doesn't show its age; it's still as slick and beautiful a thing as it was when it first played in movie theatres back in the 1950s.

The technological props - from Robbie The Robot and the spacemen's tractor to the alien gadgets and giant machines - are works of art that wouldn't look out of place in many science-fiction shows nowadays.

Leslie Nielsen, then a romantic lead and action hero rather than a comedy stooge, leads his hardy crew to a colony a year's travel from Earth, where they find the only survivors are an eccentric professor, his beautiful daughter and their faithful robot servant, Robbie. Nielsen takes it on himself to investigate the fates of the other colonists and the secrets of this alien world.

Admittedly, Forbidden Planet starts comparatively slowly, but the interplay of the characters is always engaging and the sets and scenery, both inside Nielsen's ship and outside on Altair IV, are stunning. The final reveal, at the heart of the third act, of what's really been going on makes everything fall into place and you can't help but appreciate the mastery of Cyril Hume's script.

Based loosely on Shakespeare's The Tempest (and the inspiration for the award-winning musical Return To The Forbidden Planet), I believe this movie can - now - also be read as a template for Lost - with Professor Morbius and his daughter as The Others, the Monster from The Id as the 'black smoke' and the alien Krell (with the power to create matter by thought... 'the magic box') as the three-toed, original inhabitants of the island. Well, that's my theory anyway, Rachel doesn't buy it!

Next week: Dirty Dancing.

Doctor Who: Dalek

When I first saw the Season One episode Dalek I really didn't like the show's seeming "humanisation" of this ultimate killing machine. For me, the Daleks have always been one of the greatest creations of this show because they were these terrifying, iconic, unstoppable, emotionless beasts.

The Doctor and Rose turn up in an underground bunker in Utah, USA, 2012; the "alien museum" of Internet-owning billionnaire and tyrant Henry van Statten, where the Doctor discovers another survivor of The Time War ... the last Dalek.

It has taken this second viewing to better appreciate what writer Robert Shearman was doing with this script; the incredible implication to a creature that lives to follow orders of suddenly finding out that he is the last of his species, and how this echoes The Doctor's own situation as the Last of The Timelords.

As the Dalek begins to question its place in the Universe, so shades of a darker, angrier Doctor show themselves - the best line in the whole episode being when the Dalek tells The Doctor that he would make a good Dalek!

Something about giving a Dalek a softer edge still doesn't sit quite right with me, but this is a smarter script than I first gave it credit for.

That being said, even though she gets some powerful dialogue, I'm still not warming to the character of Rose; she's such a tart. Although it was clearly established that Mickey (in Rose) is her boyfriend, she still hits on Adam the artifact expert without a moment's hesitation and insists on dragging him along on their space and time adventures without really knowing anything about him!

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Top Of The Pile: World War Hulk #1

Every so often it's nice to have a reminder of what makes superhero comics so great. You can forget your clever post-modern re-imaginings, your controversial plot lines and your ret-cons ... sometimes just two simple words brings it all back: Hulk smash!

World War Hulk is the direct result of a long-running storyline in the Marvel Universe that saw a coterie of self-appointed superheroes (the Illuminati aka Mr Fantastic, Black Bolt, Dr Strange and Iron Man) trick Bruce Banner aka The Incredible Hulk into a rocket ship and then blast him into outer space ... "for his own protection". Now he's back and he's pissed off; and he's brought some of his alien buddies with him.

It's payback time and Hulk has some major league butt kicking to do...

First stop: the moon, where he quickly dispatches Black Bolt. Then it's down to New York City where he tussles with Tony Stark, Iron Man, in a mighty, multi-page scrap that demolishes the Stark Building.

It's rather gratifying to see Stark getting his just desserts, after he engineered the whole Civil War debacle that has turned the Marvel Universe into a slightly creepy, right wing place to live. Given the rather unsatisfying ending to that 'event' storyline, I'm hoping that writer Greg Pak pulls out all the stops for this one and takes events to a more acceptable and believable conclusion (although I'm slightly concerned because his Battlestar Galactica comic book storyline is starting to lose me).

However, in the meantime, we have the joyous art of fan favourite John Romita Jr to enjoy with all the Kirbyesque energy and grandeur that made last year's Eternals (written by Neil Gaiman) such eye candy.

Doctor Who: The Unquiet Dead

The Unquiet Dead, by Mark Gatiss, was the first demonstration for newcomers to the Whoniverse that anything is possible, that Doctor Who, as a format, can tell any sort of story; in any genre, in any setting.

Cardiff, 1869. The Doctor and Rose meet up with Charles Dickens and become involved in a terrifying tale of the walking dead ... as alien creatures from the "rift in time and space" possess the human corpses they need to live again!

Gatiss' sly, intelligent and poetic script is full of dry humour, chills, period detail and the requisite science-fiction, and you can really feel the Doctor's guilt and understand his immediately desire to help the gaseous Gelth when they reveal themselves to be refugees from the Time War.

In a sense this is the first of the Torchwood stories, not only because the psychic maid Gwyneth is played by Eve 'Gwen' Myles - but it's the first time we learn of the 'rift' that runs through Cardiff and is the main raison d'etre for Captain Jack's Torchwood.

Doctor Who: The End Of The World

Now this is more like it! The End Of The World was an old school Tom Baker era outer-space adventure, heaving with exotic aliens, given a Russel T Davies makeover.

Sure, Rose had the Nestene, a wibbly-wobbly jelly creature, and the humanoid Autons, but this tale, of attempted murder on aspace station packed with rich tourists observing the death of planet Earth in the year five billion, has way more.

Already immortalised as highly desirable action figures, this episode gave us Cassandra ("The Last Human"), The Face of Boe and The Moxx of Balhoon, but also introduced us to (hopefully future action figures in the form of): The living trees of the Forest of Cheem, the ambassadors from the city state of Binding Light, Mr & Mrs Pakoo (possibly Skeksis from The Dark Crystal), cybernetic hyperstar Cal MacNannovich, the Adherants of the Repeated Meme, the Steward and his diminuitive blue staff etc.

Sadly, this potentially great story is riddled with supposedly humourous anarchronisms that just jar (particularly the 'classical music' playing on Cassandra's jukebox ... as though in five billion years Britney's Toxic will be the zenith of musical achievement or even still exist!) and also sees the first appearance of Rose's supermobile phone - so she can keep in contact with her mum back in 2005. None of the Doctor's previous companions were that needy!

It just makes you realise how true that Charlotte Church skit was for the first series of Doctor Who - despite having all of time and space to travel in, their adventures, more often than not, seemed to revolve around some grotty London council estate in the early 21st Century (that happened to look like Cardiff).

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Doctor Who: Rose

When Doctor Who returned to our television screens in March 2005, after a lengthy hiatus since Survival in December 1989, my tastes had moved on and I was now a hardcore comic book and Star Wars fan - even the American Paul McGann Doctor Who movie had failed to reignite my childhood enjoyment of Who.

So, when I sat down to watch Rose I really had no great expectations for the series and was, immediately, baffled by writer Russel T Davies' emphasis on The Doctor's companion, the titular Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), rather than the man himself (Christopher Eccleston). My personal anti-chav prejudices also meant that while I could tolerate her, I had big problems with her twittering mother Jackie (Camille Coduri) and even bumbling boyfriend, Mickey (Noel Clarke); although, by the end of the second season I came to appreciate them both a bit more (especially Mickey's transformation into a genuine action hero).

The story of Rose is fast-paced, taking about three minutes to pitch her headfirst into alien invasion by plastic shop dummies animated by the Nestene Consciousness, then not really slacking up for the rest of the show. There's a lot of information to dump onto a new audience, so, by necessity, the plot jumps and cuts rapidly, but still takes the time for a full-on street battle while The Doctor, Rose and Mickey confront the Big Bad.

Several of the CGI special effects (particularly the animated wheelie bin) are, like the Slitheen body suits in Aliens of London, a bit weak, but the physical effects are top notch and its only really the early script rumblings of the soap opera aspects of Rose's council estate lifestyle that stop this episode from really soaring.

There are still some elements of the plot that niggle: when the Doctor checks himself out in the mirror in Jackie's apartment it suggests that he has only recently regenerated, but then Clive the conspiracy theorist (a great character and a great loss when the Auton's blow his head off) has a stack of historic pictures of The Doctor ... all with Ecclestone's face (unless all those incidents occured in the seconds between The Doctor leaving Rose and Mickey at the end and him returning to say: "Did I mention that it can travel in time as well?").

In hindsight, Rose certainly blooms as an introductory episode, but you can't help but catch a whiff of some of the manure that the series is going to throw up along the way - before it eventually ditches soap opera (in season three) for true adventure.

Doctor Who: Aliens of London/World War Three

To be fair to the first season of the new Doctor Who, I was rushed into hospital before I'd got a chance to really get to grips with it on television in 2005.

Therefore I didn't get to see the majority of the season until I was discharged three months later; and ultimately missed several 'key' episodes (seemingly every 'part one' of the two-parters!) from my videos.

Finally catching up with them on DVD, especially in the light of the magnificent third season, I can really see how the series has grown, but also, now being aware of Russel T Davies' uncanny ability to foreshadow, one can't help but 'read' into things (for instance, were the Family Slitheen somehow working with Harold Saxon?)

However, fanboy speculation aside, Aliens of London and World War Three are still pretty poor episodes, despite some good ideas (faking an 'alien invasion' to maneuver people in a better position to get them to do what you want is very Watchmen-like) and the first appearance of Torchwood's gorgeous Dr Sato, this two-parter suffers from some purile humour (farting aliens, please...) and lots of running about in corridors being chased by monsterous men-in-rubber-suits (something I'd thought we'd been promised was a thing of the past in the new Who).

I get that the windy politicians were supposed to be satirical, but it's not very clever satire, is it?

When you compare the writing of this to The Girl In The Fireplace, Human Nature or Blink, you can see what a lot of people would groan when they saw Russell's name on the writing credits of an episode - and immediately lower their expectations (take Love & Monsters as an example)

Pick Of The Pods: Geeklabel Radio

I first encountered Geeklabel through their incredible range of screenprinted T-shirts.

It's very difficult to venture too far into geekdom without hearing at least a passing mention to someone's latest "Geeklabel T", but it took me a while to realise the Geeklabel crew also hosted their own podcast.

However, at first, I (rather naturally, I would argue) thought it was a weekly show about T-shirts (hey, give me a break, I've had a stroke) and so it was several months before I actually tuned in ...

The Geeklabel podcast (recently renamed Geeklabel Radio on the show's first anniversary) is an hilarious weekly round-up of general geekiness, hosted by professional broadcasters The Vicar, Kingfish and Billy Flynn; more often than not, recorded in the studios of WRAR "above historic Tappahannock", Virginia, USA.

Some time ago, they dropped their excellent "global geek news" segment from the running order (probably due to time constraints), but shows still include "My Week In Geek" (what geeky things the hosts have been up to); "Geeklabel News" (developments with the T-shirt branch of the operation); "Feedback"; "Trivia" (the chance to win gift certificates for Geeklabel merchandise); and a "main feature" (which can be anything from a film review, discussion of a hot TV show or nostalgic reminiscing over toys or Saturday morning cartoons, to specific geek news topics, such as the demise of the legendary Dragon magazine, or celebrity interviews).

Like Nuketown, they also occasionally feature "geek fitness" items, and the team marked their first anniversary not only with the name change but also a hugely popular vidcast (the latter, in a sense, informing the former).

The best, and certainly the funniest, non-gaming geek show I listen to, this is always my first port of call when it pops up on iTunes every week (give or take a few days). The show is also supported by a very active, and welcoming, forum; don't be put off by the manic banter there, just dive in head first and it'll soon be like you've been trading quips with these folks all your life.

Kudos also to the Geeklabel crew for their personal treatment of customers. Since my operation I have a large scar on my neck which normal T-shirts annoyingly rub, meaning that I can't wear any of my huge wardrobe of 'comedy' T-shirts anymore! So, rather cheekily, I emailed the Geeklabel people to see if they were ever going to have V-neck designs on their site. Instead of just dismissing me out of hand they sourced some Fruit of The Loom V-necks and said: "Pick your design". How cool is that?

Monday, 18 June 2007

Utopia Revisited ...

Watched Utopia (Saturday's Doctor Who) again today, as I was feeling too ill to do much else (hence the paucity of lengthy blog posts recently) and the moment of the big 'reveal' towards the end was like an epiphany. Suddenly, this was no longer just a great episode in a great series, but the moment the whole series came together as a truly incredible piece of television.

On its own - the 'big secret' aside - Utopia is a good, exciting episode of the best British science fiction show on television, but taken as part of the greater whole, I appreciated, more than I did in the last two seasons, what Russell T Davies and his team of writers had been building to. Nothing is wasted, everything means something. And I genuinely get a knot in my stomach thinking about what could go down in the next episode:
  • how will The Doctor, Martha and Captain Jack escape from the End of The Universe, now that the TARDIS has been hijacked (my money's on The Doctor rewiring a bit of Jack's old Time Agent kit and 'bouncing' them back to 2007);
  • what's going on with Martha's family in the 'coming next week' trailer (they seem to be under arrest in the back of a police van);
  • will we ever find out what Utopia really is (I noticed that Professor Yana pocketed a disc from the computer that was monitoring the Utopia beacon and have my own theories on that)?

And there's probably a million other plot threads, even from earlier episodes, that I haven't even considered (for instance, Russell said in Doctor Who Confidential that we haven't heard the last from The Face of Boe).

Sunday, 17 June 2007

The Ultimate Father's Day Present!

Here's a rare chance to own a piece of Formula One history ... then use it to turn your own offspring into a motor racing legend. Golden boy Lewis Hamilton's kart is up for sale (in aid of charity) on eBay (bids current at £6,300). What better way to mark Father's Day than set your child on a path to ultimate riches and glory? Get bidding, the auction closes on Tuesday ...

Vote Harold Saxon!



Vote Saxon!

Saturday, 16 June 2007

Doctor Who: Utopia

Hats off to Russell T Davies! With Utopia, tonight's Doctor Who, he managed to turn round what at first glance was a rather tired 'end of the world' yarn with cliched monsters in the form of Mad Max cannibal human degenerates, and pull out the greatest, most bladder-bursting, shocking surprise twists the entire series (let alone this season) has yet seen.

With Captain Jack Harkness hanging on the outside - after a brief stopover in Cardiff - the TARDIS spirals out of control to a devastated planet at The End of The Universe in the year 100 trillion; where galaxies have collapsed, stars have died and a lone space beacon sends out a message to all remaining humans summoning them to 'Utopia', mankind's last hope for survival in the stars.

Utopia sees a welcome return of Captain Jack to the TARDIS - the 'proper' swashbuckling, carefree Jack from season one of new Who, rather than the more sombre and serious Jack as seen in Torchwood - and immediately, much to the Doctor's horror, he's flirting with every lifeform (female, male and alien) with a pulse. Russell also treats us to one of his brilliant 'character' scenes - when the Doctor explains to Jack, while he is sealed in a room full of dangerous radiation, why he left him in the Year 200,100.

Other highlights, without giving away the ending (which, no doubt, will be heavily spoiled across the Internet within seconds), include Sir Derek Jacobi's star turn as gentle, bumbling Professor Yana, struggling to finish his rocket to the stars - the only escape for the remaining humans on this isolated planet. Yana, however, is also unknowingly in possession of a certain rather important artifact that will change the Doctor's life forever.

With the cannibals being a red herring, the last 15 minutes of Utopia will leave you breathless and counting the minutes until next week's episode - The Sound of Drums; you see this season doesn't have a two-part finale as is traditional these days, but a three-parter and this is where it all starts!

When Stat-urday Comes!

The last 30 days have been exceptional ones here at HeroPress Towers, not least because I got married - which has generated its own interest both here and at My Big Fat Geek Wedding (as well as generating some really kind and generous chatter on the Midnight's Lair and Geeklabel Radio message boards) - but we've also seen our 3,000th visitor and this very post is our 200th!

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 Saturday, 16 June): 3,099 (2,303)
Average Number of Visitors Per Day: 31 (30)

Top 5 Countries of Origin:
United Kingdom 46% (19.8%)
United States 20% (49.5%)
Canada 15% (6.9%)
France 5% (5.9%)
Ireland 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. Doctor Who: Blink
2. Six Of The Best With Clare Grant
3. Doctor Who: Daleks in Manhattan
4. Doctor Who: Vengeance on Varos
5. Six Of The Best With Graeme Dawson

Doctor Who
dominated HeroPress this month, not just my reviews of the new series (which, of course, continues this evening), but also my comments on the old series and my interview with Graeme Dawson, author of the Doctor Who Miniatures Game.

Visitor numbers remained pretty stable for the month, even during the 'honeymoon hiatus' and the only days we recorded no visitors at all were my wedding day, and the day before. Oddly, while we were away we also saw the largest spike in visitors on Monday, May 28.

Friday, 15 June 2007

At The Fleapit: Fantastic Four - Rise Of The Silver Surfer

Judged on its own merits, separate from its comic book origins, Fantastic Four - Rise Of The Silver Surfer stands as a solid, family-friendly, action adventure.

Picking up some time after the original film, with the Fantastic Four (FF) now established superheroes with a swanky high-tech base at the Baxter Building, fame, fortune and licencing deals, they are alerted to the arrival on Earth of the enigmatic Silver Surfer, an alien being seemingly intent on the destruction of the world. However, it eventually turns out that he is but the reluctant herald of a far greater danger - the planet-devouring entity known as Galactus.

The only real weakness in the general story is that, ultimately, the FF are relegated to passive bystanders during the final conflict with Galactus, which is slightly deflating.

But that aside, the acting is very good, the script is leagues above the original, and there is plenty of great eye candy, besides Jessica Alba in her figure-hugging costume, from the Fantasticar and the global backdrops to the Surfer himself, to entertain children of all mental ages. This is more like the Fantastic Four I've loved for years in the printed form.

However, where the film falls apart is when you compare it to its source material. Julian McMahon is a great actor, he does sleaze particularly well, but he's playing Doctor Doom ... and Doom is a sinister man encased in armour. He is also one of the oldest, established villains in the Marvel Universe and there's no need to reinvent him.

This Doom spend as much time out of his armour as in. The trick here, to stay truthful to the comics, is not to cast a pretty boy actor who needs to show his face on screen; take a hint from spot-on comic book adaptations like V For Vendetta or Hellboy and don't let the actor become more important than the character.

Secondly - and I'm still conflicted over this because the effects were impressive -
Galactus is not a freakin' cloud!

My Life And Roleplaying (part two): The Countdown Begins...

10. Top Secret (TSR) - although this didn't come out until 1980, I seem to remember it being one of the first games (other than Dungeons & Dragons) that I played regularly. It was an early attempt at tackling a 'realistic' genre, but games always ended up a cross between a James Bond movie, a D&D dungeon crawl and an episode of the A-Team. In fact I recall one adventure where my top assassin (the one-eyed Matt Tallon) stumbled through some mystical portal into the world of Dungeons & Dragons!

One of the frequent faults of early role-playing games was their use of multiple mechanics for different aspects of the rules. Top Secret had a really good gun combat system - with the first use of 'hit location' that I had encountered - but it's brawling system was some 'choose an attack/choose a defence/cross reference on a table' nonsense that jarred with the rest of the game and was utterly slow and useless in multiple combats.

I haven't seen a copy of this since the 80s, but still have fond memories of many adventures in the world of espionage. The game had a complete overhaul several years later and was revamped as Top Secret/SI with more logical mechanics and an adaptability to other genres (such as Pulp: their Agent 13 supplement being possibly the first Pulp roleplaying game), but it lacked the raw appeal of the original.

9. Bushido (Phoenix Games) - another classic from 1980. This was our bread and butter at school and we played the heck of it, with one particularly memorable campaign seeing my samurai character engineer a coup - via playing both sides of a civil war against each other and using ninjas to plant stolen sacred artifacts on key opponents - that saw him become shogun ... thus bringing the campaign to a satisfying, if grinding, halt!

Of course 1980 was also the year Shogun was screened on TV, all of us had read the massive book by James Clavell, learnt a few 'useful' Japanese phrases, and feudal Japan was the hot topic for 14-year-old boys.

I look back on my treasured copy of the rules now and they are just a mass of acronyms and numbers, but I guess we had a lot more time on our hands then and were more tolerant and willing to adapt. I think if we were to revive it today as a game, we'd need a very flexible gamesmaster who was willing to invest an awful lot of time into establishing a campaign background.

8. The Fantasy Trip (Metagaming) - 1980 was obviously a golden year for roleplaying games as it also the publication of The Fantasy Trip (TFT), a rules-lite system from Steve Jackson, that would eventually morph into the monstrosity that is GURPS. But back in the day, this little game completely turned round our thinking on fantasy role-playing games ... with the introduction of concepts like 'skills' and 'quirks' to personalise our characters.

Steve, Pete, Nick and I played a lot of TFT at the time, with Steve as our 'totally out there' gamesmaster, winging it to his heart's content. Our party, which included my ranger Farthorne The Wanderer, was aided by a djinn (modelled on Robin William's character in Disney's Aladdin) with a penchant for anachronistic summonings (such as DJ decks and complete disco light systems).

Farthorne was one of my few genuinely 'heroic' characters in this Golden Age of roleplaying. As you will learn from future entries in this list, I might talk a good game, but my roleplaying skills barely rose above: "let's kill it and take the treasure".

We were always being told: "Don't go to the Land Of The Orcs." One day we went to The Land Of The Orcs. We were slaughtered within about five minutes of crossing the border. We should have listened!

Next time, we remember the James Bond RPG, d6 Star Wars from West End Games and the mother of them all: Advanced Dungeons & Dragons!

Thursday, 14 June 2007

DVD of The Week: Fantastic Four - Extended Edition (2005)

By 2005, superhero films had really hit their stride, which is why the original Fantastic Four movie came as such a disappointment. Not that it was particularly bad, but for all its snazzy special effects, it just seemed so dated.

The Fantastic Four are not traditional crimefighters, like Spider-Man, Batman or Daredevil, but adventurers, scientists and explorers; which is why a knock-down, drag-out street brawl in central New York with Doctor Doom just doesn't cut it as a thrilling climax.

This extended edition of the film adds about 20 minutes of, mainly, "character" material to the film - which leads to the odd situation of having Reed (Ioan Gruffudd) and Sue (Jessica Alba) occasionally repeating lines of dialogue to each other from one scene to the next.

The role of blind sculptress Alicia Masters (Kerry Washington), in particular, has been expanded and, for the comic book fanboys, she even makes passing reference to her step-father and his puppets (Alicia's step-father is regular FF villain Philip Masters aka The Puppet Master). Eagle-eyed comic fans are also teased by a glimpse of H.E.R.B.I.E., Reed's flying robot assistant, in another new scene - he's on a shelf in the storeroom!

But all these new scenes, as interesting as they are, don't distract from the fact that, as Rachel put it, there's not much story to the Fantastic Four!

All this character development would have been fascinating had it been woven through an in-depth adventure yarn, but the origin of the FF could be told in about half-an-hour as it stands, and the rest of the film is rather light-weight padding. For instance, because there are no 'major villains' (until the cut-price Dr Doom turns up at the end), the "major incidents" the heroes get tangled up in (such as the multiple car pile-up on the bridge) are also caused by them ... although this is glossed over!

The lead actors - Gruffudd, Alba, Chris Evans and Michael Chiklis - are superb, but Mark Frost and Michael France's script reads like a series of "hit and miss moments" rather than the full story that the stars of "the world's greatest comic magazine" deserve.

Let's hope that lessons have been learned by the time The Fantastic Four: Rise of The Silver Surfer opens in cinemas around the globe tomorrow (Friday).

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Battle Report: Rock The Casbah!

Seconds before they are mowed down by the British machine gun nest, the Fedayeen bundle out of their wrecked technical in a vain attempt to assault the British infantrymen.

Nick and I went back to the near future again last night as we took the Battlefield Evolution rules for their second spin round a not-too-quiet town in the Middle East (well, Nick's kitchen table, anyway!)

Having learnt not to be quite so gung-ho from our previous outing, we took a more cautious approach to this battle. Nick's British were seeking some payback for my audacious attack on their base last month and so had sent a patrol out into the heart of Middle Eastern Alliance (MEA) territory ... little realising that we had laid an ambush for them.

With a better grasp of what we could and couldn't do in the rules, this game certainly rocked the casbah as we blew up vehicles left, right and centre ... I even managed to take out Nick's seemingly invulnerable Warrior tank by "heroically sacrificing" one of my men to plant a bomb on the metal monster's underbelly.

Elsewhere, I loaded a technical with troops and whizzed round the streets, spreading chaos, until the advancing British troops were forced to take shelter in our own abandoned base camp.

Like an Arabian A-Team, we jumped our last remaining technical through the hedge back into the camp - but the British were too efficient and trashed the vehicle in a hail of bullets, as my men bundled out to engage them in hand-to-hand combat. Unfortunately, the MEA troops were cut down in crossfire from a machine gun emplacement the British had set up across the road, before they could take a step closer to the infidels.

Working out the points score from the battle (like proper wargamers!), Nick only managed to secure a minor victory - my total being boosted by the incredible sight of his Warrior going up in smoke and flames. A sight that will be celebrated in song for years to come, round desert campfires throughout the country.

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Pick Of The Pods: Astronomy Cast

No matter how bad your day has been, how noisy your neighbours are, how petty your boss has been at work, how badly your team are doing in your sport of choice, the Astronomy Cast puts everything in perspective.

The Earth is just a speck in an infinite universe and we are just specks on that speck, and there are more amazing and mind-blowing things going on "out there" than our petty squabbles "down here".

In weekly half-hour slices astronomy professor Dr Pamela Gay and publisher Fraser Cain tackle the mysteries of the universe, one enigma at a time. With Fraser as the "everyman" asking the questions and challenging Pamela on any jargon, this educational, entertaining and informative podcast walks the fine line between dull, dry science and frivolous, pop culture, pseudo-science.

Even so, sometimes the math can get a bit overwhelming, but when you are trying to describe the shape of the universe in 30 minutes, it's not suprising! It's probably a doughnut, by the way ... Homer Simpson will be pleased ... mmmmmmm.

And there's already nearly a year's worth of archive material, so you can cherry pick topics that interest you (be they the more 'fringe' subjects, such as "where are all the aliens" and "is time travel possible", or hard science, like asteroids, neutron stars, black holes etc) while you wait patiently for the next, new episode to drop into your podcatching softwear.

Monday, 11 June 2007

My Life and Roleplaying ... (part one)

As I await the arrival of my new Star Wars Roleplaying Game Saga Edition, which has already received a glowing review from Ken Newquist over at Nuketown but which, in all honesty, I am unlikely to ever actually play, it got me to thinking about all the RPGs I have enjoyed over the past 30 years.

Roleplaying is, without a doubt, one of the greatest, and most original, innovations in the field of gaming in the last century, offering up infinite worlds of entertainment and adventure, encouraging thought and imagination and being far more social than sitting in front of a computer eight hours a day!

But it's also a Pandora's box: once exposed in any meaningful way, it can take over your life, your every waking thought, everything you do and see you start to wonder: how could that be translated into a game situation? And it's not a box that's easy to close again ...

RPGs demand a lot from its players - mainly time, but also dedication and creative input - that in this increasingly busy life we all lead (yes, even 'gentlemen of leisure' like myself) many people aren't willing to invest any longer as jobs, married life, children etc make greater and greater demands on their time.

Thus, in this short and occasional roleplaying review thread I shall be listing, and commenting on, the ten biggest roleplaying game influences in my life - naming and shaming the systems that shaped me as a gamer, maybe throwing in some anecdotes along the way, and hopefully reaching a conclusion as to what I think makes a great game.

To be continued ...

Sunday, 10 June 2007

Six of The Best With GRAEME DAWSON

Even with 90% of my wargames material in storage, I've still been scouring the Internet for game material and recently, while researching Harlequin's Invasion Earth Doctor Who miniatures game, I literally stumbled over the free Doctor Who Miniatures Game, by Graeme Dawson.

The game was not only slick and well-written, but a work of art to look at.

While Invasion Earth is long out of print (although still available from Black Tree Design, who took over Harlequin's range of 28mm Doctor Who figures), the Doctor Who Miniatures Game is still in its infancy, but already with an amazing and ever-expanding back catalogue of support material.

It was time to subject Graeme to Six Of The Best:

(1) Which came first for you: a love of Doctor Who or a passion for tabletop wargames? And what made you think of combining the two?

Tabletop Wargaming. Doctor Who was something that was occasionally on when I was growing up, I can sketchily remember various bits of Tom Baker, then more of the 5th, 6th and 7th Doctors.

By the time the series was wound up I'd pretty much lost interest, with other things (girls, being in various bands, beer etc.) seeming much more interesting. I fell into wargaming through Fighting Fantasy books, via boardgames like Talisman, Battlecars, and RPG's (Star Frontiers was the very first one I played).

Warlock magazine must have led to White Dwarf, which led to 2nd edition Warhammer Fantasy Battle. After years of mucking about gaming with mates, I opened a games store where a colleague (a BIG Who fan) found the Black Tree figures. Still it took years to get back into Doctor Who - I guess I needed a lot of persuasion.

Early in 2006 I had a forced three months off work (the store had long since imploded!), so decided to put both things together and give a game a go. I played Invasion Earth years ago at a wargames club I used to go to, but seriously wasn't impressed. Initially it was just some rules so myself and Richard could have some decent games with the miniatures. Which just does indeed go to show you can take anything too far.

(2) The question ever Doctor Who geek is asked: can you tell me your favourite Doctor, villains and storyline and, maybe, explain why you chose these particular ones?

Patrick Troughton, Cybermen, Spearhead From Space. I obviously was too young to see any Second Doctor stories, and for me it's a great shame so many episodes seem lost. He was such a change from William Hartnell - the hobo, yes, but a blusterer and a bit of a coward in a tight spot as well. Much more of a likable personality after Hartnell's crabby old man.

The Second Doctor also had some great companions, once Ben and Polly were written out. Pat and Frazer seem to have such a brilliant on (and off) screen relationship.

Barring stories like 'The Underwater Menace' and 'The Macra Terror' we had some great stories as well. Iconic stuff with the Daleks, Cybermen and Yeti for me make the late 60's my favourite period of Doctor Who.

The series got the whole monster thing down (mostly) quite successfully. Having said that, I think 'Spearhead From Space' is my all-time favourite story as, unlike a lot of them, there's absolutely no padding. Every line and scene is vital to the story, and is probably the most efficient set of episodes I've seen. I also think it's the best debut story any Doctor has had. Bear in mind I don't think I have seen even 50% of Doctor Who stories all told.

(3) When did you first start experimenting with the rules for The Doctor Who Miniatures Game, how long was it before you decided to publish them on the Internet, and how often do you still find time to play the game and test out new rules ideas?

The rules were started sometime mid-late February 2006. Richard and I playtested it a lot to get the obvious flaws ironed out, while I kept writing it.

When it was approaching 40 pages of PDF (I am a bit of a perfectionist, so banging it out as something like a Word document was never going to happen!) it seemed a shame to have done all that work for just two of us.

Initially I was going to advertise the game on my free web space, as a kind of 'post me a blank CD and I will burn you a copy', which was scarily unprofessional. Within a week of that idea I had axed it, and made the rules downloadable from the site.

Most of the initial changes to the rules were from a select gang of online gamer fans who spotted mistakes in profiles, or suggested better rules. Every week I was revising pages, and uploading new versions of the rules until they have more or less stabilised.

The one thing I'm unhappy with is that a lot of the stuff that goes out is unplaytested. Richard is the only person I game with, and we both work shifts in the same book shop, so getting time to game can be tricky. On the other hand, I am extremely contactable if I do write something that doesn’t play well, and only too happy to take criticism/ideas from anyone willing to give it.

(4) Obviously you are looking to adapt the monsters and storylines of every single TV episode into 'game format', but once you've done that are there plans to turn to turn your attention to the numerous comics and original novels for more inspiration?

The basic rules manage to cover a lot of episodes already with the profiles in the book. Most of the releases so far have been for stories where the miniatures are available, to expand what you can game with.

I might go back and do scenarios for some stories like 'Robot' or 'The Brain of Morbius' where the main antagonists have been covered in the basic rules, but anything like that will probably happen after I've done all the other episodes I want to do.

Every single TV episode is a lot of work... do they all merit it?

I did have plans to take the basic system and adapt it to two new genres: 1930's Pulp Adventures and 'Bubblegum Crisis / Dominion Tank Police' Mecha stuff, as I foolishly thought that when the basic game was done that was it, Doctor Who was more or less covered. How wrong. It would seem I have become a one trick pony.

Once I get the core rules extracted, Richard and anyone in the Yahoo! group can do what they like with them.

As to covering the novels, comics (Big Finish audio?) etc., I have to surprise you all and say I'm not the massive fan you seem to think I am. I only own two Big Finish audio CD's (Storm Warning & Shada) and have only read two original books, and zero comics. Oops. I might do stuff like 'Sting of the Zygons' if I get a chance, and if it's any good. I also have some original ideas of my own - 'Cold Fear' will be online in December - face the Wendigo in Alaska!

(5) The rules seem primarily geared towards small-scale skirmish games, what's the largest and most complex battle, or campaign, you have ever run with the system?

To be honest, Richard and I aren't overrun with Doctor Who miniatures, so the battle report that's on the site is possibly the biggest game we have ever played. I reckon the rules would stretch to about two dozen models per side possibly.

One day we will go large, and report back on our findings, if someone else doesn't beat us to it. The only campaign we have played was the 'Pyramids of Mars' one. The problem with spending a lot of your time working and writing rules is that time for painting and playing is reduced.

(6) As a Doctor Who fan, I expect your home is full of merchandise and memorabilia; which piece, or pieces, are you most proud of, and are there any that you still aspire to get your hands on?

Ha Ha! My home is surprisingly normal and NOT full of Doctor Who merchandise at all. There are clues here and there for those who manage to look in the right places, but I don't have a Dalek in the hall or a TARDIS in the back garden.

My most useful Doctor Who possession is the official BBC guidebook to the series, which I picked up four or five years ago. Before Wikipedia it was a great source of knowledge, and has only been read cover to cover about 1,000 times.

I am most proud of my DWMG 'Christmas Card' I put online in December. It looks quite sexy on 6x4 photo paper, but more importantly it marked the end of the first year the DWMG existed. The game was born, literally, by accident, and lots of people on The Miniatures Page foretold disaster and 'cease' notices from the BBC. The fact I could do that ‘thank you’ at all was a big thing.

If I could get my hands on something, it would have to be a Cyberman helmet. I do prefer old Doctor Who to the new, but the new Cybermen just look amazing! I'm still hoping....
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