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

Wednesday, 30 April 2008

The World Of Broadsword - More Old School Goodness!

In the last few years I've noticed an increasing enthusiasm for a return to 'old school' roleplaying; a wonderful, back-to-basics attitude personified by my good friend Jeff Mejia of The Lair of The Evil DM and, more recently, Evil DM Productions.

With his goal of recreating the magic - and innocence - of the golden age of gaming, Jeff also draws his inspiration from the media of that age - films such as Hawk The Slayer and Deathstalker, the Conan books etc.

The popularity of Jeff's previous work, Broadsword, for Deep 7, has led to the creation of the game's first supplement - the equally dynamic World Of Broadsword (WoB)

Setting his stall out from the off, Jeff opens with a tribute and dedication to the late Lana Clarkson, who played the warrior-woman Kaira in Deathstalker.

With the original game using the innovative 1PG system (where 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 get a page each), brevity is again the key word with WoB (something the 'big guns' should take a look at!).

Six new 'advantages' for player-characters take half a page, then it's into a seven-page, profusely-illustrated bestiary of more than 40 creatures - split into 'common animals' and 'monsters'.

Each of the beasties gets four lines of statistics (how tough it is to kill and how much damage it can do to you) and a paragraph to describe it... and that's all you need; although some basic familiarity with the fantasy oeuvre is assumed. There is no padding in Broadsword.

While the original Broadsword and the 1PG games in general were designed for quick and easy play, with no need for a highly complex, multi-volume background, in WoB Jeff has provided a gazetteer of a 'typical' swords and sorcery setting (complete with a full-page hex map of the continent, the likes of which I haven't seen since the glorious days of TSR Dungeons & Dragons).

Each country is given a one-page description that includes an inspirational taste of what it would be like to visit there as well as plot hooks, political issues, known allies and enemies etc then we get a page of general 'locations' with such genre staples as the Deathlands Swamp, Desert of Skulls, Moors of The Witch-Queen etc.

If you've read this far through the booklet already and your head isn't bursting with ideas for adventures and characters then swords and sorcery possibly isn't the right style for you... someone must produce a My Little Pony roleplaying game...

One final page is given over to listing the gods of this world, but these are vague and mysterious - their actual impact on any particular game really up to the individual gamesmaster and his chosen style of play.

The book ends with a five-page scenario, dripping with the testosterone smell of a Robert E Howard Conan yarn. River Pirates Of The Belsa has the heroes trying to infiltrate a notorious pirate gang to bring its leader to justice.

Jeff has a jaunty, two-fisted style that makes this supplement a breeze to read and, more importantly, keeps you in the right frame of mind for gaming in this very specific, tough-and-dirty, low-magic style of world.

I don't believe it was ever Jeff's intention to try and create the 'ultimate roleplaying game' but rather provide a simple pick-up-and-play game, that required little prep work by the gamesmaster, and allowed players to jump straight into the adventure, without hours of character creation and heavy math.

With the publication of supplements like this, I can only see Broadsword going from strength-to-strength.

World of Broadsword, a 31-page PDF download, is available from RPGnow.com and Precis Intermedia Games for only $3.95 (that's around £2 in real money).

Miss April: Zhang Ziyi

Zhang Ziyi (from House Of The Flying Daggers)

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Doctor Who: The Sontaran Experiment (1975)

It is approximately 16,000 AD and the planet Earth has been abandoned for 10,000 years (although actually habitable for the last 2,000) when The Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker), Sarah Jane (Elisabeth Sladen) and Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter) Transmat down from spacestation Nerva (the venue for the previous story, The Ark In Space) at the start of The Sontaran Experiment.

They have come to check the Transmat system for the arriving colonists, but soon stumble into a bizarre Sontaran trap.

Sontaran Intelligence officer Field Major Styre has lured some passing humans, from Earth colony Galsec, down to the planet and is single-handedly conducting a series of sadistic and very unscientific tests on them - aidied only by a slightly wonky robot who possibly came from the same factory as the old Smash Mash eating robots from the TV adverts!

I am sure that it is no coincidence that tis experiments bore more than a passing resemblance to the hideous and cruel tortures Nazi's inflicted on prisoners in their concentration camps during the Second World War.

This 49-minute, two-parter is unique in the history of Doctor Who to date for being shot entirely on location, but the wilderness of Dartmoor adds a certain verisimilitude to the idea of an abandoned Earth.

Unfortunately the suspension of disbelief is hampered by the obvious use of a double for the Doctor, after Tom Baker injured himself early in filming.

The Sontaran Experiment is an odd story, because Styre is supposedly conducting these experiments to gain intelligence ahead of a Sontaran invasion; but presumably they wouldn't go to this bother before invading a depopulated world? If their target is elsewhere in the galaxy, this is never really made clear.

Sarah Jane turns up on Earth in one of her usual fashion faux pas - a bright yellow rain mac and a grey wooly hat - and Harry is wonderfully posh as ever, and while both companions contribute to the movement of the story it is, of course, ultimately the Doctor's intellect that defeats Styre and manages to bluff the leader of the invasion fleet into turning away from Earth (or wherever they were heading).

It all seems just a bit too easy in the end and the story doesn't really stand up to close scrutiny, despite some great ideas and the usual solid performances from all concerned - even the cloned Sontaran (who Sarah initially mistakes for Linx from The Time Warrior) bears only a passing resemblance to Linx, the only other clone of this race we had yet met in the series, having a different complexion and two more fingers on each hand!

Monday, 28 April 2008

My Life And Roleplaying: A Fresh Perspective...

Through all my years in the non-roleplaying desert I never imagined that once I got back into the game, something as 'mundane' as health would be an obstacle to enjoying the hobby that was once the core of my being.

Last year, as regular readers know, I finally got back into roleplaying in two incredible campaigns - Nick's Edwardian Hollow Earth Expedition and Simon's Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

Nick, Clare and I - our little HEX gang - usually have game sessions lasting two to three hours, which suited me just fine, and so I didn't realise until sat down with Mik, Andy and Simon - for some serious five or six hour sessions of Buffy - that I just wasn't cut out for this kind of intense gaming anymore.

I won't bore you all moaning on about the current state of my health, but I hadn't even given it a second thought when I joined Simon's game - having enjoyed my games with Nick and Clare without any physical discomfort.

It just never crossed my mind that you needed a certain level of physical fitness to take part in what is basically a very sedentary hobby. I've shied away from running games in the last few years because I wasn't convinced that my post-stroke mental faculties (especially the concentration... or lack thereof) were up to it, but I fooled myself into thinking I was okay to partake as a player.

Unfortunately the simple truth is that beyond the physical discomfort of sitting for extended periods of time, I find myself unable to contentrate - and take things in - when more than two people are talking at once (a bit of a problem in a roleplaying game... and at parties!)

Mik, Simon and Andy were very understanding about my self-enforced 'retirement', after four sessions, from the game.

I felt it best to get out now before my character, Eddie, became more integral to the complex plot development.

The gang offered to make changes to their gaming routine to accommodate me, but I didn't think it fair to make them change what has suited them for several years; especially as I could never guarantee my attendance every week anyway.

While Nick and Clare live in Tunbridge Wells, so are very local to me, the other gang come from all round the county for the Buffy game; even when I was up for gaming a session still took a fair bit of calendar co-ordination to pull together.

Both campaigns, HEX and Buffy, have suffered 'missed sessions' because of my health in the last six months.

All this has made me reconsider my overall attitude to roleplaying games. I am still a strong advocate of them as a fantastic, creative hobby, but I just can't see myself realistically committing the amount of time and attention that I always imagined I would (when I was without games and dreaming of that 'perfect campaign').

Clare is still keen to try out my Tekralh setting for Castles & Crusades, so once I'm comfortable enough I shall run a one-off game for her and Nick and see how that works out; I shall still play our occasional bitesize games of HEX (which I genuinely think is probably the best system I've yet discovered); and should a game come out later this year for, say, a gamesmaster and one or two players that involves time travel and fighting alien monsters I may well invest...

Sunday, 27 April 2008

I Couldn't Resist...

Over the weekend (well, frankly, it was about 2am on Saturday morning... I was like a little kid on Christmas Eve), I threw down some random pieces of scenery on my newly erected wargames table and set up a mock AT-43 battle.

We have my lovely Karman space monkeys attacking out of the swamps, besieging a UNA encampment in the ruins of an abandoned town.

I hope you enjoy the pictures, a few more can be found here.

DVD Of The Week - Doctor Who: Black Orchid (1982)

With the Tenth Doctor due to meet Agatha Christie in the next few weeks of the current television series, it seems appropriate to revisit the Fifth Doctor story Black Orchid - a 1920s country house murder mystery sans aliens or monsters.

Black Orchid is unique in the history of Dr Who as the only science fiction element in the story is The TARDIS herself and her time-travelling crew.

This brave 49-minute experiment doesn't outstay its welcome, rattling through its story with a pace akin to the current Buffy-inspired iteration of Who.

Starting like an episode of Jeeves And Wooster, with cricket, coincidences and costumes, Black Orchid quickly moves into more familiar territory when it adopts traits from The Phantom Of The Opera, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and gothic horror as the murder mystery unfolds at Cranleigh Hall.

Not that there is really much mystery as the identity of the killer is clearly signposted very early on, but the fun is seeing how The Doctor - framed for the deaths - and his companions get entangled in the proceedings and then manage to wiggle their way out.

After single-handedly winning a village cricket match, then spending an inordinate amount of time lost in secret corridors in Cranleigh Hall, The Doctor becomes quite cavalier with his open door policy to the TARDIS in his attempts to clear his name.

Irritating Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) is rapidly sidelined by the buffet and Tegan (Janet Fielding) doesn't really have much to do either; this story really belongs to The Doctor (Peter Davison) and the lovely Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) who is the spitting image of Ann, fiancee of Lord Cranleigh.

As well as a double dose of Sarah Sutton - reason enough to watch Black Orchid - we are treated to a charming Doctor, a perfect snapshot of 1920s upper class life, wonderful period scenery and set dressing and a "top hole" mystery to boot.

Saturday, 26 April 2008

Doctor Who: The Sontaran Stratagem

This fourth season of the new Doctor Who continues to go from strength to strength, with The Sontaran Stratagem being one of the rare near-perfect episodes of the last four years.

Not only does this storyline (which continues next week in The Poison Sky) see the return of the Sontarans to challenge the Doctor, but the reappearance of the beautiful Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman), tougher and hotter than ever - fresh from her time at Torchwood.

Martha, now working full-time with UNIT and engaged to Tom Milligan, who she met in Last Of The Timelords, calls in the Doctor to assist in an investigation into a series of simultaneous deaths around the world, which have all been linked to a sat-nav firm called Atmos.

Helen Raynor's fantastic script manages to satirise our over-reliance on sat-navs, while highlighting issues of car pollution and having a pop at that old sci-fi staple: cloning.

Christopher Ryan, best known as Mike from The Young Ones, was outstanding as the Brian Blessed-channeling Sontaran leader General Staal and even his human cats paw, Luke Rattigan (Ryan Sampson), was wonderfully slimy. Although Rattigan and his 'hothouse' academy might at first have seemed more suited to The Sarah Jane Adventures, it all worked in context.

We were also treated to the series' best outer space/spaceship shots as the Sontaran battle fleet gathered for its assault on Earth and this was all mixed in with some nice family scenes as Donna took the opportunity for a home visit (after learning from Martha of the impact hanging around with The Doctor can have on your family).

Having TV legend Bernard Cribbins as Donna's grandpa Wilf guarantees this will never sink to the soapy extremes that Russell T Davies tried to inflict on us in the first series with Rose and her extended family.

It would still be comforting if the Doctor started teaming up with orphans so they could just keep their mind on the adventure at hand, but if you are going to have a family involved it might as well be one with Bernard Cribbins in it (himself, of course, a former companion from one of the non-canon Peter Cushing Doctor Who films)!

The new Who's take on UNIT brings them more in line with Marvel Comic's SHIELD, making them far more regimented and militaristic than they ever really appeared in the 70s and 80s, when the Doctor - Earth-bound for several years - was working for them "as an advisor".

The prospect of a full-on clash between UNIT and the militaristic Sontaran clone army next week has me itching for next Saturday to roll around as quickly as possible.

Add in an evil clone of Martha and I think we have the makings of yet another near-perfect episode of Doctor Who.

Friday, 25 April 2008

The Table Has Landed!

After much grunting, groaning, swearing, sweating, hammering and more swearing, my wargames table finally got built this evening.

There's slight warpage issues with the actual surface - from years of storage in a damp garage, but nothing, Rachel assures me, that can't be sorted out.

I still haven't decided on an exact, final positioning either - so gamers can get round as much of the table as possible without crashing into my glass display cabinets.

Underneath I need to sort out some drawer/box system for my figures, terrain and general bits and bobs - to replace the mess of cardboard boxes currently there.

Again, Rachel has come to the rescue with a large number of file drawer units identical to ones I have already for figures... the ones you can see in the background of the picture under the Star Wars Monopoly box.

So, it's not quite ready to 'go live' yet, but that day is tantalisingly close!

Doctor Who: The Runaway Bride (2006)

At times you have to wonder if Russell T Davies is running out of ideas - it's a big leap from bringing back old favourites like the Daleks or cybermen to having robot santas and those silly killer Christmas trees appear on Earth two years in succession.

Especially as they weren't that inspiring in The Christmas Invasion.

However they are really just a sideshow - padding if you will - for a rollicking good alien invasion yarn that sees The Bride aka Donna aka comedy actress Catherine Tate suddenly materialise in The TARDIS in her wedding dress.

The Doctor then has to try and get to her wedding on time as well as solve the mystery of how she got into The TARDIS.

I love Donna as a companion, not in that lusty, middle-aged geek, can't-take-my-eyes-off-of-you, Martha Jones kinda way, but as a perfect friend and foil for the lonely time traveller.

She's brassy and outspoken in a most convincing manner and as long as she stays away from her better known comedy catch phrases ("Daleks? Am I bovvered? Face. Eye stalk. Bovvered?"), long may she travel through time and space with the Last of The Timelords.

If there's one area of writing where you can't fault RTD it's his ability to pen a good line in banter and The Doctor and Donna were born to banter.

Of course, The Runaway Bride ends with Donna turning her back on The Doctor's offer of a life among the stars... which, in Partners In Crime, we discover she immediately regretted, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

At the time though it was the right thing to do... she didn't want to be a rebound from Rose; that was poor Martha's fate.

The Runaway Bride has some great sequences - the TARDIS chasing the taxi down the motorway just puts the 'new' in new Doctor Who for me and still stands as one of the iconic moments of this 21st Century re-invention of the popular show.

But it also has some duff moments, mainly involving killer Christmas trees and robot santas, and while the drained Thames was a memorable image the fact that nothing is made of it seems like a wasted opportunity.

The Empress of The Racnoss herself, while a visual stunning villainess, could talk the talk, yet she clearly couldn't walk the walk as all she seemed to do was bob up and down and wave her front claws, leaving the real wickedness to her human "consort".

Possibly she would have had a more lasting impact had she somehow escaped to bother the Doctor again.

Being the geek I am I couldn't help but be reminded - given that the Racnoss' original ship turns out to be the core of the Earth - of The Dalek Invasion Of Earth storyline and their desire to burrow to the centre of the Earth to convert the planet into a giant spaceship.

Pterosaurs And Sabretooths And Apes... Oh My!

Part One: Chapter Four of the Continuing Adventures of Prof. Rufus Crain and Sister Justinia (29 May, 1909), as recorded by Prof. Crain - My companion and I were about to head back to the abbey when our paths again crossed those of the businessman, whose name we discovered was Sidney Reilly.

Mr Reilly drew our attention to a newspaper article promoting a talk this very day by the bounder De Whymper at The Royal Institute.

Fuming, knowing he had stolen my ideas, I realised that it was now our priority to attend this so-called "lecture" instead; so we took the next train to London forthwith.

Arriving at the lecture hall, I made my way to the front, while the good sister took a place in the back row - I think she was rather intimidated by all this "science" in one confined space.

I glared at the charlatan De Whymper through the early stages of his talk - basically a regurgitation of his half-baked book - but then he produced some strange contraption, which I believe he claimed was a kind of primitive time machine, and a chicken... which he proceeded to vaporise!

I challenged him to bring the chicken back and instead he 'summoned' some strange, mutated creature that he tried to pass off as a genuine pterosaur!

In the ensuing chaos, the machine exploded and, for an instant, I had one of "my visions" and found myself momentarily in some exotic jungle before returning to the Royal Institute and discovering De Whymper had been replaced by a scorch mark on the floor!

Naturally the police turned up and Pottage of The Yard questioned me about De Whymper; I explained what a scoundrel he had been and a danger to society.

"The only things that suffered were the chicken and De Whymper's reputation and neither were worth that much," I told Pottage.

The Royal Institute rightly allowed me use of one of their laboratories to try and piece together the workings of De Whymper's strange machine, while Sister Justinia was off doing whatever it is that nuns do.

Going through De Whymper's paperwork I had to grudgingly admit that in theory his machine might have been capable of doing what he claimed it could, so I tried to reassemble it.

Working alone in the lab, I couldn't shake the unwelcome image of the jungle from my head and the feeling that something was in the shadows.

Around three o'clock in the morning, I realised there was something in the shadows... a creature resembling a sabretooth tiger was prowling the corridors of The Royal Institute and it seemed to have my scent. I am not a brave man, but I managed to keep it away by cobbling together a mini-flamethrower from a Bunsen burner, allowing me passage towards freedom.

Just when I thought the beast had me trapped again, it was suddenly pounced upon by a giant ape or a gorilla... at that point I realised I really should be tucked up at home in my bed and getting a good night's sleep.

I finally succeeded in fleeing the building - unfortunately now on fire, although I can't figure out how - and alert the police; not that they really believed me!

Meeting up with Sister Justinia she found me a bed for the night, although my sleep was bothered by constant suggestions that the "jungle was calling me".

Part Two - The player speaks: Better late than never! These notes have been delayed a few weeks because I 'misplaced' my notebook while unpacking everything in the new house.

Nick and Clare came round soon after we moved in for a short (two-hours-ish), but sweet, session; which proved a wonderful antidote to the insanity of such a stressful move.

The fact that the game had such a Primeval vibe and featured a cameo from Reilly, Ace of Spies made it all the more enjoyable.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Bottom Of The Pile: Fantastic Four #556

My unquestioning faith in the writing prowess of Mark Millar was already severely tested by the whole Civil War travesty, but I was still genuinely excited when - along with Bryan Hitch, his Ultimates comrade - he was announced as the new scribe for Marvel's First Family, my all-time favourite superhero team: the Fantastic Four.

To say I have been less than impressed so far, three issues into his run, would be an understatement.

While waiting for something startlingly new and exciting to happen, this mighty title - which has had its fair share of ups and downs over the years - has just gone completely off the rails.

Let's not forget that it was Millar who forged this whole "registration" crapola that has split the superhero community, so how come the "all-power robot CAP" faces off (and trashes) a mix of both registered and unregistered heroes, who surely wouldn't be seen in the same room as each other under the current climate?

And what has happened to Hitch's art? This issue was just a confusing mess, both storywise and visually. The characters look ugly and washed out and the story is old hat (just how many creatures with seemingly limitless powers can be unearthed, discovered or created before someone realises they're a very tired plot device... and yes, Sentry, I'm looking you square in the eyes!).

If this wasn't The Fantastic Four, an issue like this would make me seriously consider junking the title, but I still yearn for a return to the glory days of John Byrne; interdimensional exploration, proper villains and all the little touches that make this such a special title, above the run-of-the-mill costumed crimefighters.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

A Month To Go...

Form an orderly queue... only 28 days to go until Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull opens!

DVD Of The Week: I Am Legend (2007)

An over reliance on computer effects has turned a potentially excellent tale of post-Apocalyptic survival in a decidedly average one.

In the wake of a bio-engineered virus outbreak (designed by Emma Thompson to cure cancer), I Am Legend sees New York as an abandoned wilderness with a human population of one - military scientist Robert Neville (Will Smith) and trusty canine sidekick Samantha.

During the day the streets are teeming with CGI wild animals, for Neville to hunt, but at night - with Neville safely locked away in his high-security home - they become the playground for the "infected" (or "dark seekers"); unconvincing CGI zombie-vampires sniffing out sources of blood and food.

It's ironic that a monster film such as this has its best moments when the monsters aren't on screen.

Neville, alone in the city except for his dog for three years, is battling insanity brought on by the isolation and constant fear, while working to find a cure for the virus and eke out some form of existence.

Smith puts in a disturbingly good performance as the unbalanced virologist and the film has some wonderful subtle touches, such as the array of valuable artworks around Neville's home and when he later comes into contact with some other uninfected humans he initially - briefly - sees them as his late wife and daughter.

For the first hour, while the nutty professor is alone, the tension is palpable and his brief encounters with the infected are very one-sided (ie. he doesn't stand a chance and runs away) and quite terrifying; but once his path crosses that of a couple of other survivors everything gets very mundane and almost predictable.

When the only justification for moving the story in a certain direction is "God told me", then you know the plot is heading down a cul-de-sac.

While not in the same league as the recent Tom Cruise remake of War Of The Worlds for crassness, it's still a disappointing turn of events that a story of one man's struggle has to devolve into an ensemble piece.

Ultimately, I didn't really watch I Am Legend for the story (I'm a big fan of the 1971 Charlton Heston version: The Omega Man), but for the stylish depiction of a desolate New York City, all crumbling buildings, destroyed bridges and grass growing through the tarmac. And there - together with Smith's portrayal of a man on the edge - it works wonders.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Doctor Who: Horror Of Fang Rock (1977)

Memory is a funny old thing. Thinking back to vague childhood memories of the Tom Baker era of Doctor Who I remember him as a wild, eccentric, larger than life character - but I completely blank on his cruel, curt and, frankly, nasty side.

Watching the excellent Horror Of Fang Rock again, I marvelled at the fact that people treat this particular Doctor with such fondness given his rude, impatient, almost brutish, attitude to the estranged savage Leela (Louise Jameson).

In the end, Leela gets to do little in this story expect be bossed around by The Doctor and provide a welcome bit of eye candy (even if she does quickly don a frumpy fisherman's jumper).

This is a classic 'bottle' story - Doctor, companion and a limited number of extras trapped in an isolated location (in this case an Edwardian lighthouse) slowly being picked off by a mysterious entity.

In Doctor Who - both new and old - ropey effects can be overlooked for the sake of a good story, which is lucky in this case because the tense atmosphere that Terrance Dicks' script creates would otherwise have been shattered beyond repair once the alien rutan was 'unmasked' as an unconvincing ball of glowing green jelly.

The rutan - this particular one having been given special shapechanging abilities - are the sworn enemies of the Sontaran clone-warriors (who, of course, return to the Whoniverse this Saturday in The Sontaran Stratagem), and have been locked in a galaxy-spanning war with them for centuries.

Sadly, while alluded to every now and again, this particular backstory was never really developed in the Classic Who and Horror Of Fang Rock was the only on-screen appearance of a member of the rutan race.

The Doctor, and Leela, having misjudged their journey to Brighton beach, team up with the isolated lighthouse crew to try and figure out the secret of the "beast" and discover who is killing them off one-by-one.

Then the crew of a ship that runs aground on Fang Rock joins them... adding to the amount of spam in the cabin, for the rutan to snack on.

This is Assault on Precinct 13 or a classic backwoods slasher flick, given a period make-over and rewritten for a teatime audience.

In an almost Torchwood-like manner the ending isn't exactly happy and, for such a small cast, the Doctor and Leela leave a surprisingly large body count in their wake.

Monday, 21 April 2008

Top Of The Pile: Ms Marvel #25

First off - you've just gotta love that cover; it caught my eye the moment I unwrapped my latest bundle of comics. That's one I'd love a poster of!

I've been a fan of Ms Marvel for decades, but this current series has really held my interest - combining a lightness of attitude, similar to old She-Hulk, mixed with some real meaty superheroics and a bit of soap opera.

What makes this particular issue stand out for me is that it was the one that finally convinced me to give Marvel's current "event series" (Secret Invasion) a go.

Okay, so I got burned on Civil War and I still reckon this "skrull infiltration" storyline is just a cheap way of retconning some major eff-ups in the last ten years or so of the Marvel Universe, but this issue of Ms Marvel genuinely piqued my interest.

There have been skrull incusions on Earth before - sometimes entire towns of skrull imposters - so I have yet to be convinced as to why Iron Man et al believe this to be "something more"; so far nothing has happened that is any different from decades of previous skrull encounters, yet everyone seems adamant that this is a major invasion (which we, as readers, know it is - but the heroes have no 'in chracter' proof of).

I had a similar feeling at the start of Civil War when suddenly the entire world was outraged by the death of innocent civilians and the destruction of property; something that has always been part and parcel of a universe with violent super-powered beings in. So what's so different this time...?

Having told my "supplier", Andy of Paradox Comics in Poole, that I wasn't going to touch Secret Invasion, Ms Marvel #25 has made a liar out of me.

The issue started with a badly drawn (ie. 60s/70s style) flashback, that was made easier to swallow by Brian Reed's splendid pastiche of that era's OTT writing style. The flashback sequences continued a little way in, but the bulk of the comic was the normal, beautiful looking Ms Marvel art style and Reed's sharp writing.

The sequence that sold the issue, and the Secret Invasion, while nothing new, was Carol Danvers (aka Ms Marvel) on the phone to her rather confused ex-boyfriend... who just happened to be sharing a drink in his apartment with 'Carol Danvers'.

I shall be contacting Andy this week and asking for Secret Invasion to be added to my pull list; just because I want to see where it goes. I also fear it will have major repercussions through the whole Marvel Universe and it could make future story lines across the board even more confusing than usual if I'm not in the loop.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Salute 2008: A Picture Special

For personal reasons too dull to go into, I was unable to attend Salute at ExCel this weekend - the UK's largest annual wargames convention (usually a regular highlight of my gaming year), but HeroPress roving reporter Nick still went and took these tantalising pictures... which made me more determined than ever to make sure I can get to next year's show.

I was particularly impressed by the look of the Wacky Races game (top picture)...

Nick did pick me up a couple of Black Hat's new releases, some cloud flying wuxia wizards, which I'm looking forward to getting painted up by Neil so they can soar over my games table!

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Doctor Who: Planet Of The Ood

After two entertaining, but average, episodes the fourth season of the new Doctor Who really took off this evening with Planet Of The Ood.

If anyone still had doubts about Donna Noble's suitability as a companion for the Doctor (or Catherine Tate's acting) then this story surely won them round.

Sure, every so often she sounds like one of her sketch show routines - but only ever for a line and, I guess, that is inevitable with someone so associated with a cadre of strong comedy characters.

But in Planet of Ood, as she started to do last week, Donna really established herself and continued to develop her individual personality, separating her from Rose and Martha.

She doesn't just ask - for the audience's benefit - "what's going on?", but also "why?" and "what are you going to do about it?"; she challenges the Doctor in ways his last two main companions haven't, and certainly doesn't idolise him in quite the same way as Martha and Rose might have done.

And thankfully - at last - we have a companion who isn't totally besotted with the man from Gallifrey.

For Donna's first trip to an alien world, the pair end up on the Ood-Sphere, home of the servant race from The Impossible Planet/Satan Pit, where they discover the peaceful, telephathic, squid-face aliens are being bred like battery chickens by heartless humans to be sold as slaves across the 42nd Century Human Empire.

However, as is always the way for The Doctor, the time travellers' appearance coincides with the arrival of a cruel new head of Ood Operations (Tim McInnerny) and a growing Ood rebellion.

The episode was so old school, it was like a trip back to my childhood with a brilliantly realised alien planet, the return of a really cool alien species, an amazingly gruesome end to the main villain, and lots of running about and chases.

There was also reference to another of the "through stories", with a reminder of the "bees disappearing from Earth", as Donna mentioned back in Partners In Crime.

Admittedly, not every little plot thread was tied up, but the overall thrill factor of the tale meant that this didn't matter... and it was just great to get The Doctor away from the Earth-centric stories that Russell T Davies seems to think are so important to the series.

My definition of a great Doctor Who episode is simply one that blows me away and leaves me gagging for more, and this one fulfilled those criteria in spades...

We want more off-world stories like Planet Of The Ood!

Stat's A Common Misconception...

First of all, gentle reader, I want to say "thank you" for sticking around; during my enforced absence from the great and powerful net, the average daily visitor numbers on HeroPress remained in the 30s and 40s - despite the lack of new content.

Five weeks doesn't sound like a long time, but in the fast-moving world wide web it can be a lifetime and I half-expected to come back to an abandoned site coated in cobwebs and graffiti.

As the weeks dragged on (and the excuses from AOL piled up) I had moments where I wondered about just moving on to new projects... but nothing I thought up came close to replacing the friendly community that has developed around HeroPress in the last year or so.

There may well be some changes in content and emphasis in the next few weeks as part of my ongoing drive to increase readership and focus my overly broad range of interests and hobbies; but I'll fill you all in once these have crystalized in my head.

In the meantime, I just want to reiterate my thanks to you all for reading this, for posting comments and for keep coming back.

Here are the visitor numbers for the last month. Where applicable I've included a note of February's figures for comparison.

Visitor Numbers (as of Saturday, 19 April): 14,523 (11,663)

Average Number of Visitors Per Day: 52 (48)

Top 5 Countries of Origin:
United States 45% (49%)
United Kingdom 37% (28%)
Canada 3% (4%)
Poland 2% (-)
France 2% (-)

Most Popular Entry Pages: (i.e. what brought people to the site). For this, we can take it as read that the most popular "entry page" is always going to be either the current top story or just general browsing, but after that the pages that have brought the most readers to this site have been:
1) Torchwood: Exit Wounds
2) Torchwood: Fragments
3) Dresden Files: Unaired Pilot (Storm Front)
4) Plastic's Fantastic But Metal Is Better
5) DVD Of The Week: The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford

Friday, 18 April 2008

DVD Of The Week: The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (2007)

It has taken just over a century to transform outlaw Jesse James into a mythical 'Robin Hood'-style character, but Andrew Domink's 2007 epic The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford goes a long way towards balancing the scales and showing that Jesse James was just a flawed human being.

In fact, Brad Pitt's portrayal of the younger James brother shows him to be seriously unbalanced and generally quite unlikeable.

Following the events that unfold after the James' gangs final train robbery, as the gang fractures and Jesse becomes increasingly paranoid about the law closing in on him, The Assassination Of Jesse James... takes its time to lay the groundwork for the inevitable conclusion and its rather sordid and pathetic aftermath.

The two-and-a-half hour film, which is a more a slice of Western life than a traditional "Wild West" movie, shows up nearly all of Jesse's gang as social rejects, perverts and lowlifes... only his older brother, Frank (Sam Shephard) and Robert's brother, Charlie Ford (Sam Rockwell), come out with their dignity intact.

The slowly unfolding tale, a damning indictment of the seemingly 21st Century "cult of celebrity", centres around young Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), his hero worship of Jesse James fuelled by press cuttings and dime novel accounts of the outlaw's exploits, and the crashing realisation that the man doesn't measure up to the myth.

While most people with a passing knowledge of the Old West will know the story of Bob Ford shooting Jesse James in the back, it was what happened next that came as an eye opener to me; Bob Ford's misguided belief that he, in turn, would become as big a celebrity or even be declared a hero rapidly unravelling into a cheap life of 'kill-and-tell' revelations (with his touring play substituting for the tabloid magazines of today) and eventual ignoble death in a mining camp years later.

The Assassination of Jesse James... is a fine film for fans of revisionist westerns, from Open Range and Unforgiven to Deadwood.

Although maybe not as pacy as its predecessors it still carries the viewer along with its sweeping landscapes and the poetic rhythm of dialogue that gives these pieces that certain verisimilitude that earlier Westerns, where everyone spoke Hollywood/Californian, might fall short on.

Torchwood: Exit Wounds [SPOILER WARNING!]

Faults aside, Exit Wounds was the spectacular, large-scale finale that this series of Torchwood deserved.

It tied up plot threads (even explaining why Toshiko was in the Doctor Who episode Aliens Of London), resolved Captain Jack's issues with his long-lost brother Gray (Lachlan Nieboer), showed us the Hoix again from Love & Monsters again and was generally a treat, if not a lovefest, for long time Torchwood and Doctor Who fans.

Exit Wounds saw Cardiff being ravaged first by a wave of bombings, then a Weevil invasion as Team Torchwood were led a merry dance by Captain John (James Marsters), who, in turn, we soon discover, is being manipulated and blackmailed himself into these acts of terrorism.

It's a far from perfect episode, another 'flawed masterpiece', with Owen's new-found status as "king of Weevils" (from Dead Man Walking) serving only as a plot device to get him into the nuclear plant without having to battle through hordes of the boiler-suited monsters.

My biggest gripe, however, with the episode is that Jack is buried alive for almost 2,000 years (before being dug up by the Victorian Torchwood team) and no further reference is made to this, no psychological scars are evident... it's not like he was in suspended animation, he was repeatedly choking to death and being reborn (a clearly painful and disorientating procedure in itself as we have seen) for two millennia... even someone as comfortable with himself as Captain Jack would surely not come out of that ordeal unscathed?

But even such a major plot headache is forgotten - at least for a while - in the wake of the award-worthy, moving death scenes of, not one, but two of the Torchwood team.

Owen's exit was inevitable - how long could Torchwood entertain a supporting character whose 'powers' were that close to those of Captain Jack?

However, the death of the lovely Toshiko caught me completely unawares.

Both Burn Gorman and Naoko Mori gave career best performances as the two should-be lovers communicating their final words remotely to each other; Tosh bleeding to death in the Hub from a gut shot and Owen trapped in the nuclear power plant, mid-meltdown.

I am not afraid to say that, rather unexpectedly, the combination of Chris Chibnall's writing and the actors' amazing performances moved me to tears as these two much-admired characters left the series in such dramatic style.

Ultimately that is what this episode will be remembered for... and I really hope the two actors involved get the gongs they clearly deserve for their performances.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Permission To Drool, Sir? Granted...

Brace wallet for ramming speed, it's going to take a severe hit come August this year when a Classic Doctor Who range of action figures is released by the talented guys at Character Options.

The first eight figure collection, includes three incarnations (4th, 5th and 6th) of The Doctor, Magnus Greel (and Mr Sin) from The Talons of Weng Chiang (one of the best Doctor Who stories ever), and army builder figures such as a zygon, a sea devil and two voc robots (from the equally brilliant Robots of Death).

Each figure includes a part of the giant K-1 robot (from Robot), which can be assembled to form the iconic character.

For lovely close-up views, click here or here. For more information on these figures, and a set of Classic Daleks, click here.

Torchwood: Fragments

What a difference a week makes - just when it looks like Torchwood was starting to tread water, Chris Chibnall sucker punches us with a two-part series finale that pulls out all the stops.

Fragments sees four of the team - Jack, Ianto, Toshiko and Owen - lured to an abandoned warehouse where they are ambushed by explosive devices. As each is trapped in the rubble, awaiting rescue by Gwen and hubby Rhys, they go on a personal mental journey back to their first encounters with the Torchwood organisation.

For overall mythos value, Jack's was the most interesting as it introduced us to various iterations of Torchwood from 1899 onwards (and I think I speak for all fans when I say we'd love to see some spin-off stories showcasing these 'other' Torchwood teams... please...) while Tosh's story gave us a very post-9/11 re-invention of UNIT (with its Guantanamo Bay-style holding facility) and the surprising revelation that she was being held in custody for trading alien tech to terrorists (who happened to be holding her mother hostage).

Ianto's story was the most light-weight; he was basically a Torchwood London survivor of the Battle of Canary Wharf (from the Doctor Who season two finale) looking to relocate to Cardiff, but he's such a great character that I really didn't mind a change of atmosphere from the heavy nature of the other backstories... and at least there was some explanation of the pterosaur that we occasionally see flying around the Hub!

However, the most powerful story was left to Owen; that of a young, love-struck doctor, engaged to be married, discovering that his wife had been afflicted by some random alien brain bug. It's no wonder he turned out to have an aversion to relationships and such a tough, cynical outer shell.

These short tales gave each of the actors - Gareth David-Lloyd, John Barrowman, Burn Gorman and Naoko Mori - the chance to showcase their talents and none went to waste.

The episode ended with the discovery that not only had the bombs been planted by Captain John Hart (James Marsters, who we met in the series' opening episode Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang all those weeks ago) but he appeared to be holding Captain Jack's long-long brother hostage as well.

What a set-up for the show's climatic conclusion next week...

Torchwood: Adrift

After last week's disappointing triumph of style over content, Adrift seemed like Torchwood lead writer Chris Chibnall's attempt to take the show back to its roots by pitting Gwen against Captain Jack in an investigation of the organisation's "dark side".

Unfortunately this seemed to involve the return of the uncomfortable sex scenes and the unconvincing swearing (the fact that the BBC screens a pre-watershed edit of the show later in the week confirms to me that the swearing, in particular, is totally gratuitous and, worse, unpoetic. This isn't Deadwood... where they had quality cussing down to a fine art!) and attempts to give the good Captain a "sinister" side are ultimately doomed as we know - certainly since he joined Torchwood - he's one of the good guys.

Nevertheless, it was a mildly interesting tale of the Cardiff Rift taking people at random (it was generally believed that it could only deposit alien objects in Cardiff and came as a shock to Gwen to discover it could take things as well), and Captain Jack seemingly trying to cover it up.

We were treated to a downbeat ending (as we've come to expect), interesting insights in to the workings of the Rift and some good character material (this was very much a solo Gwen episode), but Adrift seemed an apt title for a story that felt more like a placeholder than anything else.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Torchwood: From Out Of The Rain

When you use a plot device that has been milked so heavily that even Charmed beat you to it, you've got to have a pretty original take on it if you want your story to be memorable.

An old cinema reopens in Cardiff with a screening of period home movies which are 'hijacked' by the trapped spirits of the mysterious Night Travellers.

The Night Travellers were a creepy circus troupe from the 1920s who only operated under the cover of darkness and were connected with a series of unsolved disappearances.

Two of the Travellers, The Ghostmaker and Pearl, step out of the silver screen and start causing mayhem...

Charmed's second season episode Chick Flick from April 2000 had a warlock bringing characters to life from old B-movies to stalk the witchy sisters and Woody Allen's 1985 flick The Purple Rose of Cairo took a more genteel spin on the idea of characters stepping out of old movies, and I'm sure HeroPress readers will be able to come up with countless other takes on this concept, so From Out Of The Rain wasn't exactly an original idea.

This Jack/Ianto-centric story was heavy on atmosphere and stylish direction (from Jonathan Fox Bassett), but low on originality and scraped the barrel with Jack's "innovative" method of defeating the celluloid serial killers which wouldn't have looked out of place in one of the dodgier 1970s Jon Pertwee era episode of Doctor Who.

From Out Of The Rain scored highly for style - the shot of the 'mermaid girl' Pearl (Camilla Power) crouched in the empty swimming pool was particularly striking as was her eruption from the overflowing bath - and for its refusal to go for a pat happy ending (something Torchwood makes a point of avoiding), but the story offered little new and ultimately appeared to be a missed opportunity for something greater.

Torchwood: Something Borrowed

It's Gwen's wedding and the first law of drama serials is that no good wedding goes unpunished. After her hen night, Gwen (Eve Myles) wakes up pregnant following an encounter with an alien shapeshifter called a Nostrovite... but she is determined that the nuptials will proceed as planned.

This is Torchwood by way of Benny Hill and Evil Dead, getting as near to Grand Guignol slapstick as mainstream television can get, along with all the traditional sitcom wedding tropes (including the monstrous mother-in-law... quite literally), dressed with a liberal splattering of blood and Rhys (Kai Owen) swinging a chainsaw.

Gwen is being pursued by the shapechanging mate of the alien that 'knocked her up',because she wants to liberate Gwen of unwanted spawn in the most brutal way possible. Thankfully for us, the mighty morphing meat muncher has taken on the form of the uber eye candy Colette Brown, which makes it almost a shame when she meets her inevitable demise.

Something Borrowed is certainly one of the straight-up funniest episodes of the show to date, and possibly its closest script to pure Doctor Who content, but it's not perfect.

Torchwood seems to determined to create flawed masterpieces this year, with gaping plot holes left unplugged - from the slightly geeky flaw of Owen's ability to talk without breathing (from A Day In The Death) to the casual, dismissive attitude of the wedding guests to the brutal slaughter of one of their own number in this episode.

Frakkin' Great Spring For Geek TV...

The final season of Battlestar Galactica exploded onto Sky One last night with a wonderful mix of cyclon civil war, religious mumbo-jumbo, madness, sexual tension, conspiracies, intrigue and thrilling action. Looks like it's going to one hell of a ride as the "rag-tag fleet" heads towards Earth!

Then next Thursday, season two of Heroes launches, which I'm quite jazzed about - although reviews of, at least, the early episodes filtering over from the States were less than glowing; so we'll have to wait and see.

But then it's sometimes difficult to judge a series by its early episodes. Just look at Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. After a lacklustre pilot, this show reinvigorated itself into "must watch TV" here at the new HeroPress Towers!

Both Summer Glau, as the harsh, soul-less guardian Terminator known as Cameron, and Lena Headey, as Sarah Connor, have grabbed their roles with gusto and helped make this a truly original piece of sci-fi entertainment.

The short - nine-episode - season comes to a head on Thursday, but I really hope this returns for more of the same.

Another short run show at the start of this year was Lost, which certainly gave us more (partial) answers in those eight episodes than we were expecting, but also threw up a bigger cloud of questions to baffle, confuse and delight loyal fans.

Of course, not everything the American networks pump out is as good as these programmes: Flash Gordon proved to be a criminal waste of a franchise while the Bionic Woman came across as a bargain-basement remake, with little - even the beautiful Michelle Ryan - to recommend it.

The new spy series Chuck had more excitement and action in its first episode than a whole season of the Bionic Woman, where her major powers seemed to be lame-ass jumping about and battling against poorly written scripts.

Chuck, on the other hand, is shaping up to be an interesting show - helping to prove that geek love can embrace a variety of genres from espionage to comedy (the superb Big Bang Theory) and quirky romance (the sublime, Tim Burtonesque Pushing Daisies, which I just adore... even if ITV have already screwed it up by dropping one episode out of the run because of international football).

Of course, we shouldn't overlook our homegrown UK geek fare - Torchwood (which really took off this year) and Doctor Who (which promises great things, as always). Even the second series of Primeval was pretty good (even if Hannah Spearritt kept her trousers on all the time) and has earned itself another year of life.

It's a shame the weather's getting better because there are so many reasons to stay in, glued to the television!

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Doctor Who: The Fires of Pompeii

Echoing last year, the first journey the Doctor takes his new companion on is a jaunt back in Earth's history. This time The Doctor and Donna end up in ancient Pompeii, the day before the volcano is due to erupt.

Following closely in the footsteps of Partners in Crime, The Fires of Pompeii is more concerned about the character development of Donna - and by association, The Doctor - than the, frankly rather rubbish, alien monsters (the video-game rejects The Pyroviles; creatures of animated stone and magma).

You almost hear the over-busy script groaning under its own weight as it ties itself in knots and twists round itself to accommodate every idea writer James Moran shoehorns in - particularly the convoluted justification for the Pompeiians gift of true prophecy (rips in time going backwards?).

What makes this story interesting is Donna's determination to 'change history' by saving the people of Pompeii (who she very quickly discovers don't even have a word for 'volcano') and The Doctor's justification for letting history run its course.

The human supporting cast were superb, yet while a lot of publicity mileage was gained from the production crew filming two days of exteriors on the sets of HBO's Rome (in Rome, Italy), so much was filmed inside (either in buildings or caves) that, to be honest, it was nowhere near as impressive as last year's depiction of Elizabethan England for The Shakespeare Code.

Clues to the season's through story are appearing thick and fast with a second alien species - in two weeks - making a point about their home planet being "lost" and the seer's comment to The Doctor that "she is returning" is a clear signpost (when allied with the cameo from Partners in Crime) towards things to come.

Doctor Who: Partners in Crime

As with Smith and Jones (from season three) and Rose (from season one), Partners in Crime was more about introducing the Doctor's new companion than the usual clash with bug-eyed monsters.

Here, though, his new partner was Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) from The Runaway Bride, the Christmas special from a couple of years ago, so we already had an insight into her character and didn't need to start right from scratch again.

A lot of fans were dismissive of Donna because they pigeonhole Catherine Tate as purely a comic actress - and sure the comedy is played up right from the start - but she also very quickly proves her dramatic chops.

The actual story of this episode, about baby aliens growing from human body fat as a result of a 'miracle diet pill' is quite clever, but the Adipose aliens are slightly too cutesy and juvenile really - possibly being better suited for an episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures (which is coming back for a second series, by the way!)

But, despite a strong performance by soap legend Sarah Lancashire as Miss Foster, the alien supernanny orchestrating the whole affair, Partners in Crime is about character development, action set pieces and running up and down corridors (just like the good old days!).

The mime act between the Doctor and Donna, when they first see each other from either side of Miss Foster's office is comedy gold, but, of course, eventually, what this episode will probably be remembered for is the surprise (well, it surprised me!) cameo return of a familiar face.

The Publicity Machine Rumbles On...


It's almost a year since the Big Day, but our wedding is still generating interest on the Internet.

Paul's new job as Assistant Editor of New Consumer magazine earned our wedding a mention in their promotional material for 'alternative' weddings...

While our cake topper designer is using our 'Han Solo & Princess Leia' design on the front page of her new website.

My Gamesroom - A Work in Progress...

Well, this is what all the fuss has been about! As you can tell it is very much a work in progress (for example the wargames table has yet to be assembled, the magazine racks at the "office end" of the room have yet to be acquired etc etc... but my Doctor Who action figures are in their Ikea cabinets, my Girls Next Door calendar is on the wall and my Internet connection has been restored).

Unfortunately, at the moment, the Internet connection seems to be painfully slow (which is the only negative thing I can say about our wonderful new home) but I have yet to ascertain whether this is a temporary hic-cup because of the time of day or a lasting issue because of the phonelines or something technical that I won't understand.

Friday, 11 April 2008

State of The Press...

When I wrote last month that it was "time for a break", I couldn't have known how prophetic that statement was... that very same day Rachel fell down the stairs at work, breaking a small bone in her wrist. Just days before we moved!

She has 'heroically' returned to work (although her wrist will be in plaster for another four weeks), but the whole unpacking malarky has been slowed as we now, pretty much, rely 100% on the good graces of her parents (who, of course, have their own lives) to help us move boxes, redecorate, move wires etc!

So, we are in... and my beloved gamesroom is slowly taking shape... but, with so many packing boxes around, the house still resembles the warehouse from the end of Raiders of The Lost Ark!

However, the biggest hic-cup is out of our hands. The Internet connection to our house still isn't up and running (a month since we went 'offline'), thanks to combined tardiness of British Telecom and AOL.

The latest information I got from AOL, yesterday, was that normal service would be resumed on the evening of Monday, April 14... fingers crossed... HeroPress could be back in full effect next week.

In the meantime I am using our local library - where we get an hour's free net useage a day - to check messages etc and, as I found a machine today that ran faster than a ZX81, thought I should update you all on what's happening with the site (such as the backlog of reviews I have to post up... new Doctor Who... woo-hoo!).
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