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Thursday, 31 July 2008

Miss July: Lucy Lawless

Lucy Lawless (from Xena: Warrior Princess)

Kitchen Watch: Day Ten

What a difference a day (and a window) makes! You can really see how much bigger and lighter the kitchen is going to be once it's totally finished.

Tomorrow the appliances (cooker, hob, washing machine, dish washer) should be fitted and, where appropriate, plumbed in - along with the sink.

Rachel purchased the black/white tiles for the walls today, but we've changed on our mind on the flooring and will need to go shopping tomorrow evening to find some darker material that will match the work tops.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Doctor Who: Logopolis (1981)

Opening with a wonderful double-bluff of a TARDIS materialising around a real police box on 1980's Earth, Logopolis never really regains this sense of brilliance.

If the technobabble in The Keeper of Traken was intrusive, in Logopolis it becomes overwhelming thanks to writer Christopher H Bidmead.

The Doctor is inspired, from seeing The Master's TARDIS, to fix the chameleon circuit on his own TARDIS, so he can change its outward appearance in the future.

However, this requires him first to land on Earth and measure a police box "in all dimensions", then travel to the mathematics-driven planet of Logopolis where the alterations to the circuit can be computed.

Arriving on Earth, The Doctor quickly gets caught up in the machinations of The Master, by materialising the TARDIS around the police box which the Master's TARDIS is already around!

To confuse matters further, aspiring air stewardess Tegan Jovanka (Janet Fielding) is trying to use the police box to call for help - as her aunt's car has got a flat tyre on the way to the airport.

She wanders into the TARDIS, and while we are treated to some wonderful interiors (far better than the old abandoned hospital that was used in The Invasion Of Time) you can't help but feel she accepts that she has blundered into a spaceship rather too easily.

Tegan doesn't come across as a sympathetic character at all in this story and combined with Adric that makes two-thirds of The Doctor's travelling companions unlikeable - rather undermining their raison d'etre of being the audience's avatar in the Time Lord's adventures.

The action shifts to Logopolis - after The Doctor fails in his ludicrous plan to "flush" The Master out of his TARDIS by materialising under the Thames and opening the doors(!) - where the locals use mathematics to "model space-time events".

For no readily apparent reason, the Logopolians have recreated a duplicate of The Pharos Project, from 1980s Earth; a giant satellite dish which beams messages into space. They plan to use it to "take over" their arduous task of "holding the Universe together" through mathematics... but why they couldn't have copied a more advanced, alien, design is beyond me!

Nyssa turns up - having been brought to Logopolis by a mysterious figure in white (called The Watcher), who has been shadowing The Doctor since his arrival on Earth - looking for her father...

Of course, The Master is now 'wearing' her father's body and so naturally things go from bad to worse.

The Master's tampering with the workings of Logopolis causes the death of all the natives and an entropy wave to be released that will spread across the universe destroying everything.

Realising his only hope is to ally with The Master, The Doctor and his nemesis put their big brains together to find a way to save the universe.

Logopolis is the central pillar of producer John Nathan-Turner's Master-themed trilogy to ease viewers through from the comfort of seven years of Tom Baker as The Doctor into the unknown, brave new world of the Peter Davison regeneration.

But, you can't help feeling that all the diverse story elements - including randomness like the return of Nyssa and the arrival of Tegan - were all just ways to position the series for its next lease of life, with The Watcher revealing itself to be The Doctor's future regeneration come back in time to nudge things along.

With a script drowning in its own jargon, then a dreadful run of effects in the scenes before The Doctor's "death", Logopolis is an uncomfortable, confusing, disjointed, messy and disappointing end to what is, for many people, the definitive Doctor Who era of Tom Baker.

Kitchen Watch: Day Nine

Things are starting to take shape in our kitchen. The wall units are due to go up tomorrow, along with the work tops.

The window is also scheduled to arrive tomorrow, so we'll finally find out how much light benefit we'll get from these all changes.

We are currently on target for the kitchen to be finished next Monday, when the new door (to the lounge) will be hung and painted, and the kitchen walls will be tiled.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

The Week In Geek...


A round-up of some recent geeky news, you might have missed...

(1) Spoilsports: The Royal Shakespeare Company has banned Doctor Who and Star Trek fans from getting sci-fi merchandise signed by David Tennant and Patrick Stewart while they star in Hamlet at Stratford-Upon-Avon.

(2) Until The Fat Buddha Sings: An opera based on the ancient Chinese legend of Monkey played at the Royal Opera House in London last week written by Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz fame. The characters, as reimagined by artist Jamie Hewlett, will also be fronting the BBC's coverage of the Olympic Games.

(3) Fanboys Coming Soon: Fanboys, the long awaited comedy about a group of Star Wars geeks travelling across the States in 1998 to break into Skywalker Ranch and steal a print of The Phantom Menace - so they can be the first people to see the new Star Wars movie - looks set to be released in September.

(4) Another Day, Another Diary: George Romero is to start filming the sequel to Diary Of The Dead in September.

(5) Any Offers? West End Games, producers of the d6 System (the mechanic behind the original - and best - Star Wars RPG) is up for sale.

(6) Bionic Boost For Arthurian Legend: Fresh from the awful car crash that was the Bionic Woman, Michelle Ryan (the ex-EastEnders star) has joined the cast of the BBC's new 13-part drama about the early life of Merlin the Arthurian wizard. The cast already boasts John Hurt, Anthony Head from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Richard Wilson and Santiago Cabrera from Heroes.

Kitchen Watch: Day Eight

The lounge has been transformed into a warehouse of kitcheny goodness due to the arrival of the units today.

Work begins on fitting them tomorrow.

Of course, this means we won't be able to use the lounge this evening - but that's no great hardship for a single day.

The garden has been pretty much cleared of debris and our old shed removed (to ultimately make way for my new shed - which will be home to scratch model and terrain-making enterprises).

However, this means, for the first time since we moved in we can see the debris left in the narrow gap between our house and neighbours when they had their extension built.

It's on their land, though, and once we get the new shed in place it'll be out of sight and out of mind!

On a more positive note, if you look carefully, behind the boxes and in the hallway, you can make out two of Cathryn's original works of art, which I proudly display for all new arrivals to our house to coo over.

Monday, 28 July 2008

Doctor Who: The Keeper of Traken (1981)

The Keeper of Traken was Tom Baker's penultimate spin in the TARDIS as he was due to hand over the role of The Doctor to Peter Davison in the next story, Logopolis.

It also saw the first appearance of the delightful Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) and, more crucially to the Whovian mythos, the first appearance of Anthony Ainley as The Master.

Unfortunately, watching this now, that is why we feel a certain sadness - or suspicion (?) - when we see Ainley, for the majority of this story, as Tremas, Nyssa's kind and decent father, because we know his days are numbered.

The Doctor, and Adric (Matthew Waterhouse), are drawn to Traken by the near-omnipotent Keeper of Traken, a wise old being who draws on "the Source" to keep the planet in a state of perpetual harmony. His time is coming to an end and he wants The Doctor on hand to see that his succession goes smoothly.

Naturally, things don't go according to plan, because there is a snake in this Garden of Eden, in the form of an animated extraterrestrial statue known as The Melkur.

Mixing Renaissance-style fashion with super-advanced technology, Traken is one of the most complete and convincing alien cultures to have graced Doctor Who; interesting because it is a society based on "people being terribly nice to each other".

Adric identifies traces of energy similar to those of The TARDIS and the audience is let into the secret before The Doctor - the Melkur is actually The Master's TARDIS. The Master, still in his deformed body from The Deadly Assassin, is at the end of his regeneration cycle and is seeking to use the power of "the Source" to obtain a new form.

Beautifully scripted by Johnny Byrne, The Keeper of Traken suffers slightly from a surfeit of technobabble - especially from Adric, Tremas and The Doctor - and the ending seems uncomfortably hurried, compared to the genteel pace of earlier episodes. The Master's adoption of Tremas' form is particularly sudden and, seemingly, easy... even if it does make for a dramatic cliff-hanger.

It's also worth noting that Nyssa doesn't join the TARDIS crew at the end of this episode as might have been expected...

Sunday, 27 July 2008

DVD Of The Week: In The Name Of The King - A Dungeon Siege Tale (2007)

Forget whatever prejudices you may have against Uwe Boll for his previous crimes against cinema, forget whatever you've read about his eccentricities and conviction that he is the world's greatest film maker.

If you approach In The Name Of The King: A Dungeon Siege Tale with an open mind, you might actually realise that it's a cracking swords and sorcery romp.

Sure, it lifts a lot from Peter Jackson's Lord Of The Rings, but films and books have been ripping off Tolkien for years, even before Jackson's sublime films (just look at Dragonlance, for instance).

However, despite running about a half-hour too long and having a dialogue quota of two cheesey lines for every decent one, In The Name Of The King certainly ranks as one of my favourite "Dungeons & Dragons" films.

Based on a video game I was totally unaware of, the film has Jason Statham as a lowly farmer (with the required "secret destiny") - called Farmer, for reasons too dull to go into - whose village is attacked by the beastial Krugs, a race of cut-price orc wannabes controlled by the wonderfully evil sorceror Gallian (Ray Liotta).

Gallian has also seduced Muriella (Leelee Sobieski), the young fighter/magic-user daughter of the King's advisor, the magus Merick (John Rhys-Davies), and has convinced the king's foppish nephew Duke Fallow (Matthew Lillard) that his Krugs will aid him in a coup. The King, by the way, is Burt Reynolds.

The Krugs carry off Farmer's wife, Solana (Claire Forlani) and so aided by his old friend Norick (Ron Perlman) and Solana's brother he sets off in pursuit.

Meanwhile King Burt gets poisoned and a civil war breaks out. On his travels Farmer meets some rather naff, bungee-vine-swinging "wood elves" led by the gorgeous Kristanna Loken, who seem one of the more unnecessary elements in the film, gets captured by the Krug and meets up with Merick - who reveals that Farmer is, in fact, King Burt's son.

With Reynolds, Liotta, Lillard and Rhys-Davies all vying for a piece of scenery to chew, the film reeks of ham, but this adds to its harmless charm.

However, whenever Doug Taylor's script trys to tug at the heartstrings (such as the King's death scene) it is at its weakest, but luckily there's plenty of action and fighting to paper over these cracks. For instance, the climatic wizardly duel between Merick and Gallian, I would say, is less risible than the break-dancing challenge between Saruman and Gandalf in Fellowship Of The Ring.

The big battle scenes between Burt's boys and the Krug probably could have been trimmed and odd gimmicks, such as the burrowing Krug and the King's unit of Chinese wuxia skirmishers, are never really developed or even explained, but, for the most part, at least this film is never dull.

Great CGI scenery and pretty classy special effects help to elevate this above the normal straight-to-video swords and sorcery fare of yesteryear. It may not be 100 per cent original, and despite the title there are no "dungeons" and no "sieges", but I really enjoyed it and could happily see myself watching it again.

Although there were no large monsters in it, it certainly felt more Dungeons & Dragons-y than either of the two 'official' Dungeons & Dragons films.

As a gamer I always look at this genre of film to see what I can take away from it and as Taylor and Boll have lifted from Tolkien and Jackson (and probably countless other sources), so I reckon I can lift ideas from In The Name Of The King. And I don't think I could ask for much more.

Sunday Funny: Keep Your Eyes On The Guns!

It's one of those clever pictures where EVERYTHING is still pointing right at you wherever you are in the room!

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Unearthing Hidden Gems: Dragonslayer (1981)

Who'd ever have thought I'd come across a fantasy film that would appeal to readers of Richard Dawkins and that it would be made by Disney?

But Dragonslayer is such a beast. Beyond its man versus monster plot, it isn't subtle in taking a jab at organised religion (Dark Age Christianity, in this case).

Otherwise what else are we supposed to make of scenes that show the cowering villagers praying for salvation (and then, later, claiming victory) while the godless heroes and sorcerer are off actually fighting the dragon?

Or the scene where Brother Jacopus (Ian McDiarmid, Star Wars' Emporer Palpatine himself) is engulfed in a ball of flame while denying the existence of the dragon that is right in front of him?

The film also does a nice line in examining the consequences of false bravado, as well as claiming credit for other people's successes, but balances this with deeds of great self-sacrifice for the greater good.

That said, it's a strange film with some outstanding peculiarities of plot. Elderly wizard Ulrich's (Ralph Richardson) long-term plan to defeat the ancient dragon Vermithrax seems unnecessarily complicated and appears to rely rather too heavily on his apprentice Galen (Peter MacNicol... yes, the little guy - John Cage - from Ally McBeal) correctly guessing what his many cryptic deeds and comments really mean.

Why can't these people ever just tell their protegees what they want them to do?

However, the most groan worthy clunker in Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins' generally excellent script is when, an hour into the story, Galen asks the village blacksmith - and father of cross-dressing love interest Valerian (Caitlin Clarke) - if he's ever forged a weapon before. And the blacksmith reveals that he'd actually made a big-ass spear ages ago and called it "Dragonslayer", but never thought to use it!

What about all the other brave knights and soldiers in the land - didn't he think to offer it to them earlier?

Nevertheless, this gaping plot flaw aside (and Ulrich's convoluted scheming), Dragonslayer is a great looking, pre-CGI swords and sorcery film that should have a place in any Dungeons & Dragons fan's collection of DVDs: Ulrich demonstrates several quite meaty D&D magic-user spells (e.g. lightning bolt, teleport, telekinesis etc) while Galen has access to a trio of rather tasty magical items (e.g. "Dragonslayer" - once it is 'charged up', his dragonhide shield and the multi-functional amulet).

I've had Dragonslayer up on my shelves for ages and kept putting off watching it because I'd never heard any glowing comments about it, but it really caught me by surprise - not only with its gorgeous appearance and attention to detail, but its subtle - and not so subtle - script.

Dragonslayer is far from perfect, and also surprisingly violent, but who couldn't love a film where the heroine (Valerian) confesses to the hero (Galen) that she is afraid she might be sacrificed to the dragon because she is still a virgin? You can just see "well, let's do something about that" flash through Galen's eyes as we fade to black.

The Lonely Penguin Tours...

My old friend and former HeroPress player Matt Green is having his first collection of travel stories published in August.

The Lonely Penguin Tours (RRP £12.99, Vanguard Press) recalls his humorous journeys through South East Asia, China, Mongolia, Russia and Argentina, through the medium of emails he sent home.

Written under the pseudonym of Matty Brown, the paperback is due to hit shelves on August 4, but is already available for pre-order on Amazon.co.uk

Matt says: "The nom de plume is a childhood nickname, the plan being that they'll put my books next to Dan Brown on the shelf and people might buy it by mistake."

Kitchen Watch: Day Five

Phase one of the kitchen is pretty much complete. The walls have a basecoat of paint and all the old cupboards have been pulled out, so - come Monday - the new units can be fitted and the white goods installed, plumbed in etc

The garden is clearer than it has been for a few days, but still doesn't look "well"; I guess Rachel and I will be redoing the garden earlier than we'd originally planned!

Friday, 25 July 2008

Seeing Red...

First Conan, now Red Sonja... looks like next year is going to be the year swords and sorcery makes a big comeback at the movies.

Really looking forward to seeing what Robert Rodriguez does with Sonja, especially as he has cast his super-hot, ex-girlfriend Rose McGowan in the title role of the chainmail bikini-wearing, sword-swinging siren.

I'm 'En-er-y The Eighth I Am, I Am...

The pseudo-historical soap/drama which sparked the initial idea for my Castles & Crusades role-playing game campaign Tekralh, returns to BBC2 a week from today.

The Tudors is a glossy - and rather historically liberal - retelling of the life of young King Henry VIII (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), his courtship of Anne Boleyn (the amazingly dreamy Natalie Dormer) and his battles with the Catholic Church over his divorce from his first wife.

It's courtly politics played out like an old episode of Dallas; just the kind of popcorn viewing that teases you with enough "facts" that you can justify watching it because it's "historical" and enough nastiness and nudity to explain why you really watch it.

While the political and religious intrigue may have stirred gaming ideas in me that grew into Tekralh, those elements will probably be totally over the players' heads for many, many sessions as their interests are more in material gain and hacking monsters.

However, should the game last - and the characters grow - I would hope to eventually draw them into this Machiavellian arena.

Other plans for the long-term future of the game, depending on how my health holds up after running the first session next month, will then eventually include inviting Mik, Simon and Andy (my former Buffy posse) to become a second party of adventurers in this world, if they are so inclined.

But one thing at a time... first I've got to design a dungeon for Clare, Nick, Pete and Steve to ransack... and watch Friday's episode of The Tudors, to see if I can find any more inspiration!

Kitchen Watch: Day Four

The walls have been plastered and the coving put up in our kitchen, ready for painting to begin tomorrow.

I believe the units will be ready on Monday and window should arrive Wednesday, but I've been bombarded with so many facts and figures (we were selecting hobs, tabs and cupboard fittings etc today) that you can't hold me to that!

The garden is starting to look a bit clearer, but still looks like a World War II bomb site; although I am assured it will all be cleared by the weekend.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Doctor Who: The Brain Of Morbius (1976)

The Brain Of Morbius is rightly regarded as a classic from the 'gothic era' of mid-70s Doctor Who, being written by producer Philip Hinchcliffe from an original script by series stalwart Terrance Dicks.

Usurping standard horror film cliches, it retells the story of Frankenstein on the alien planet of Larn, home to the psychic Sisterhood and mad scientist Mehendri Solon (Philip Madoc).

Solon is a follower of the disgraced - and executed - Time Lord Morbius and has been building his master a new body from a scavenged assortment of alien parts. He just needs a suitable head - to hold Morbius' mighty brain - and the arrival of The Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) provides him the potential receptacle.

The Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) have been diverted to Karn by the Time Lords and arrive just as The Sisterhood, who brew a regenerating elixir which prolongs their own lives and is used by Time Lords in 'regeneration emergencies', discover their sacred flame is dying and their source of elixir is drying up.

This is a very simple and straight forward studio-based story, which means the interiors are superb but the exteriors are very obviously stage sets full of Styrofoam rocks, given the story the feeling of an elaborate play.

The Brain Of Morbius has it all - from Solon's Igor-like assistant, Condo (Colin Fay) who, luckily, takes a shine to Sarah; through stormy nights and lightning strikes, rolling dry ice, and mountain top castles; to locals with flaming torches coming to sort out the evil scientist.

It's not the most original of stories, but it's handled with gusto and ladles on atmosphere and mythology so it carries us along. When the brain of Morbius realises the Time Lords are on to him, he urges Solon to transfer him to an artificial brain container, and thus is created another iconic Doctor Who villain - the lumbering, fish bowl-headed abomination.

The final showdown between The Doctor and Morbius is a bit silly though. The Time Lord 'mind bending' game that Solon just happens to have set up in his laboratory. It just feels like a writer's cop out because no other resolution - beyond physical violence - presented itself for the clash of the two Time Lords. While it has some strange 'flashback' images during the head-to-head challenge - fodder for the continuity geeks - it doesn't really amount to much.

Tom Baker is wonderfully over-the-top in this story, totally in his stride as The Doctor, but unfortunately Lis Sladen's role is sadly reduced to little more than some screaming and bumbling around while blinded.

The Sisterhood, with their powerful psionic abilities and 'magic potion', are another intriguing addition to the Doctor Who mythos and can currently be 'heard' in the latest two-part audio drama from Big Finish, rounding out their second season of Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) stories (Sisters of The Flame and Vengeance of Morbius).

Morbius would be an interesting character to see return in the new Who. Assuming he survived his final fall (and when did a fall from a cliff ever really kill a good baddie?), I can't imagine he was involved in the Time War... Perhaps he could form a pact with The Master and The Rani (if she survived as well)?

Kitchen Watch: Day Three

Things are rattling along at a great rate in the kitchen renovation.

There was a moment of mild panic this morning, just after I got up, when the electrics in the house all went out - but that was fixed after 15 minutes.

The water was off while pipes were moved, so I couldn't wash for about an hour, but again... no biggie!

The ceiling has been replastered and tomorrow the walls will be done.


Wednesday, 23 July 2008

The Lair Of The Gazebo...


A Knights Of The Dinner Table classic - from the animated selection at Hoodyhoo.

Return to Tekralh... Address Unknown!

The subject of gaming, naturally, came up at Pete's barbeque last Saturday, all be it briefly.

Because our Formula De season has failed to take off this year, I suggested monthly role-playing sessions instead and that was met with approval.

I volunteered to run a campaign using 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, which I have been reading recently and rather enjoying.

But afterward, it struck me that Nick and Clare already have characters rolled up and ready to go for a Castles & Crusades game - and that system is much simpler for a gaggle of old skool 1st Edition gamers to get their heads round than a totally new and innovative set of rules mechanics.

And anyway, we've got my Tekralh campaign all ready to be road tested, so it seems a shame to let that go to waste.

I toyed - briefly - with the idea of just adapting it to 4th Edition, but it was designed to fit the C&C model (with a dash of Knights of The Dinner Table-inspired Hackmaster), so it seemed daft to try and switch horses mid-stream.

And anyway, Nick's playing a gnome - a key race in Tekralh, yet non-existant as a player-race in 4th Edition.

A date has been set - August 19 - and hopefully Steve will be able to make it as well (sadly, he couldn't come to the barbeque). Clare has been quite insistent that the adventure be a straight dungeon crawl - so she can do some serious hacking... and who am I to argue?

Can't wait to see what characters Pete and Steve come up with, to complement our gnome monk and simpleton fighter. Now I just need to break out the graph paper and design a killer dungeon.

The latest background document on Tekralh is avilable for download here, it's a 4MB PDF though.

Kitchen Watch: Day Two

Despite the sweltering heat, the work continues apace. We have our 'window' now in the kitchen - even if it is boarded up for the moment.

The new door for the kitchen arrived today as well, so that's sitting in the hallway.

The delivery driver was as old as Methuselah and his knock on our front door must have been so soft that I didn't hear him. It was only the gate clattering shut and an engine starting up that caused me to run down stairs and discover a "sorry we missed you" note on the doormat.

I called the delivery company and it took them no time at all to contact the driver on his cab phone and get him to turn around and bring the new door back!

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

The Week In Geek...

A round-up of some recent geeky news, you might have missed...

(1) Dr Who - Number One! For the first time in its 45 year history, Doctor Who was the most watched show in the UK - thanks to the Journey's End drawing an audience of 10.57 million on its first airing last week. It also achieved unprecedented Appreciation Indexes.

(2) D&D In Your Lap(top): The core rulebooks of Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition are now avilable to purchase as PDF downloads.

(3) Just Say 'No!': Major roleplaying game company Green Ronin, which publishes Mutants & Masterminds and True20, has said it will not be producing material for Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition because of the nature of Wizards of the Coast's Game System License.

(4) Are You Experienced? Gen Con UK, in August at Reading University, will play host to the first UK D&D Experience to celebrate the recent launch of 4th Edition.

(5) The End Begins: The teaser trailer for Terminator 4 is here with the excellent Christian Bale (of Batman Begins/Dark Knight fame, among others) as John Connor on a future Earth overrun by killer-robots.

(6) Every Rat Has Its Day: Stainless Steel Rat creator Harry Harrison is to be honoured with the title of Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America at the 2009 Nebula Awards next April.

Kitchen Watch: Day One

Well, there goes the outside toilet and larder! While I have no frame of reference to measure it against, I reckon the two-man team working in our kitchen did a mighty fine job in one day.

The interior wall has gone and the old toilet door has been filled in (you can see the breeze blocks on the left).

The next job, I believe, will be cutting out a large hole, in the end wall, for the main window.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Prehistoric Pants...

With the current Doctor Who season over, it's time for my quest to find "Dungeons and Dragonsiness" in movies to resume.

And where better to start, I thought, than the latest big budget blockbuster from Roland Emmerich, director and director of Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and the creator of Stargate?

Well, all I can say is that it must require a really special talent to take something as visually epic as 10,000BC and produce such a boring, uninvolving movie.

The token hero of the piece is D'Leh, a mammoth hunter from the snowy mountains, played by Steven Strait, a poor man's Colin Farrell, but totally devoid of the Irishman's charm.

The story grinds slowly into action with some spurious prophecy talk and "the last mammoth hunt", before some "four-legged demons" (men on horseback) turn up and kidnap members of D'Leh's tribe (including his love, the blue-eyed Evolet (Camilla Belle) as slaves.

D'Leh sets out across the mountains to track the slave train. The trail leads through jungle, then desert - where he meets a load of other tribes who are also annoyed by the slavers but too wussy to do anything about them on their own, until D'Leh says: "Follow me" - and eventually to the City Of The Gods.

Up to now, the plot had been railroaded along with the linear predictability of an old skool Dungeons & Dragons adventure, but with the introduction of the City of The Gods (previously unmentioned) I was hoping for a Stargate twist on the story - and the revelation that the "gods" were really aliens... or something... anything really would have done.

The last remaining God - known as The Almighty - is having a giant pyramid erected in his honour by legions of slaves. Surprise, surprise, D'Leh and his mob incite a riot. The God and his followers are overthrown and everyone lives happily every after.

There is never any sense of jeopardy or excitement, no genuine edge-of-the-seat thrills that this sort of film deserves.

Basically D'Leh marches across the globe to the strange city, rescues his bird and his friends, then comes home again.

If you were expecting a clever twist or a mind-flipping revelation about the true nature of The Almighty - don't waste your time, there isn't one. It's a just an old bloke with some netting over his head... honestly.

There's some nonsense, after-thoughts thrown in to suggest that this "adventure" was the moment D'Leh's tribe turned from purely hunters to hunter-gatherers, but so what? Why should we care?

Adding insult to injury, the whole thing is peppered with a pointless voice-over by Omar Sharif, which adds absolutely nothing to the on-screen antics.

10,000BC is beautifully made, with great scenery (although nothing we haven't seen before in countless fantasy and sci-fi flicks) and some classy CGI beasties - mammoths, sabretoothed tigers and evil emu creatures - but the whole thing is so soulless and insubstantial that it doesn't take long to realise the one thing D'Leh should have been hunting for was a decent plot.

Kitchen Watch: Day Zero

The kitchen is all cleared (thanks to Rachel), and awaiting the arrival of our contractor later today (Monday).

We have a temporary kitchen (that is a microwave and George Foreman grill) set up in the back bedroom, but are aiming to exist - as much as possible - on takeaways and dining out for the next couple of weeks.

Off The List: The Stainless Steel Rat's Revenge

One down! I've finished the first title on my Summer Reading List: The Stainless Steel Rat's Revenge, by Harry Harrison (first published in 1971).

This 195-page novel pitted intergalactic con-man, thief and all-round rogue Slippery Jim DiGriz against a planet of war-mongers who were doing the impossible - staging successful interplanetary invasions.

Newly married DiGriz is dispatched by the Special Corps to find out how they are managing this and to throw a spanner in their works.

He does this with all the finesse of a roleplayer - liberally scattering grenades left, right and centre, pulling off outrageous cons and generally making things up as he goes along.

It's no wonder the character was a major inspiration to me during my early years of playing Traveller.

Generally an easy read, The Stainless Steel Rat's Revenge was a good choice to head off my list as it's given me the confidence to plough on.

Next up is Harry Ferguson's Operation Kronstadt.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

DVD Of The Week: Beat Girl (1960)

In order to scratch my recently reignited childhood crush on Gillian Hills I dug out a DVD of her second movie, the little-known teen exploitation flick Beat Girl from 1960.

Touted in the movie blurb as the UK's answer to Brigitte Bardot, Gillian Hills brings more than a little of Keira Knightley's haughty beauty, combined with slightly Angelina Joliesque lips, to the central role of the pouting posh totty going off the rails.

A clever, little tale, if rather dated, Beat Girl is set in a watered-down version of London's seedy underbelly during the time of the Kray Twins in the late 50s/early 60s.

Famous architect Paul Linden (David Farrar), the middle-aged designer of the "city of the future", returns from Paris, after three months away, with a new wife in tow - 24-year-old Nichole (Noëlle Adam) - much to the annoyance of his bratty, 16-year-old daughter, Jenny (Gillian Hills).

Jenny gets her kicks hanging out with her 'beatnik' friends in a coffee bar, listening to jazz, talking slang, criticising 'squares' and smoking the occasional cigarette if she's feeling particularly rebellious.

On the whole, as teen gangs go, the beatniks seem a pretty decent bunch - although leader Dave (Adam Faith) is a bit moody and bursts into song every now and again, while 'Plaid Shirt' (Oliver Reed) appears to be going for an award as the worst dancer in the city.

Besides their music, they race cars, play chicken on the railway tracks and hold very quiet parties (Nichole manages to sleep through most of the one the kids hold downstairs in Jenny's house). Nothing too outrageous really... except for the whole playing chicken on the railway tracks thing!

However, Jenny discovers that Nichole used to work as a stripper and prostitute in Paris and, in an attempt to embarrass her father, visits a nearby strip club, where an old friend of her step-mother now performs.

The club, Les Girls, is run by creepy Kenny (Christopher Lee... a long way from Middle Earth), who, understandably, is quite taken with sultry Jenny and tries to lure her into working for him at the club.

This annoys Nichole's former colleague Greta (Delphi Lawrence), now Kenny's main squeeze, who takes out her anger on Kenny - in front of Jenny - before Jenny's father and step-mum can come and rescue her from falling into a life of vice!

Lessons are learned and endings are happy, but there's nothing even remotely shocking about this exploitation flick - except how tame it is compared to the overwrought hyperbole of the film poster that doubles as the DVD cover. There's a brief glimpse of couple of extras' lady bumps in the strip club, but nothing to justify the film's supposed "banning" in the UK for many years .

Jenny isn't a particularly sympathetic character, but once you see the 'morgue-like' 1950s town house her father has designed for them and the hilarious, soulless 'City 2000' he has devoted his life to, you can get an idea of what sort of stand-offish parent he is, and can, at least, understand her motivations.

Perhaps it was banned, if it ever was, because the beatnik 'rebels', with their alcohol- and violence-free lifestyle, are shown to be the most appealing of all the various lifestyle choices presented here... except for the whole playing chicken on the railway tracks thing, of course!

Sunday Funny: Darth Plays The Blues...

Find more entertaining and inventive homeless signs at Oddee.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Bottom Of The Pile: The Man With No Name #2

Comic book publisher Dynamite reminds me of the games company Mongoose - they somehow acquire a string of really attractive, big name licences and produce one or two spectacular products to keep the fanboys happy but for the most part churn out rubbish.

Dynamite's latest licenced comic is The Man With No Man, based on the Clint Eastwood spaghetti Western series from the mid-60s.

Unfortunately, outside of the name, the two issues of the comic so far bear no resemblance to pretty much anything.

It doesn't help that Wellington Dias' illustrations look like some sixth form art project (in fact I knew many, many kids when I was in the sixth form who could draw better than this).

For instance, his characters appear to have been based on plastic action figures rather real people as their animation is all stiff and unnatural.

Then there is an awful two-page scene in this issue, where the bandits are besieging a mission, that has as much vitality as an 80s cartoon where one person has been identically replicated numerous times to represent a crowd. Everyone is standing bolt upright like a field of closely-packed scarecrows.

However, Christos Gage's cliched script does nothing to detract us from the laughable artwork.

Despite his attempts to ape Dynamite's superb Lone Ranger title, with long series' of panels without speech bubbles, and his occasional fine quip or one-liner, he frequently undoes the good work of the silent panels by then laying on heavy amounts of exposition in between - quite often telling us something that could have, instead, been shown in a sequence without dialogue.

A sad waste of a franchise.

Bottom Of The Pile: Astonishing X-Men #25

Joss Whedon's celebrated (and controversial) run on Astonishing X-Men may have been sporadic and rambling, but he nailed the superhero banter and John Cassaday's artwork was faultless; so you were willing to put up with the delays and the almost random release dates.

However, the reins have now been handed over to Warren Ellis and Simone Bianchi and after a single issue I've had enough.

Even excusing some of the dismal art as the result of dark printing, Ellis once again proves a total inability to write superhero books (I suspect Ultimate Human was a blip).

His writing in Astonishing X-Men #25 is dire - the banter and chemistry between the characters has vanished completely, to be replaced by a forest of text-dense speech bubbles (between which we can catch glimpses of the X-characters).

They appear to be totally different characters to the ones we just left in Giant-Sized Astonishing X-Men; Emma Frost, for instance, talks completely differently and then there is this whole weird notion about wearing their costumes around the base, but changing into civvies when meeting with the police.

The issue was a chore to read, as I'd feared it might be, but it won't be bothering my tiny brain again as the moment I put it down I zapped an email to Andy at Paradox Comics asking for Astonishing X-Men to be removed from my monthly pull-list.

To see what superhero-themed work Joss Whedon is currently turning his attention to visit Dr Horrible's Sing-A-Long Blog, a great three-act, online film starring Neil Patrick Harris as Doctor Horrible, Nathan Fillion as Captain Hammer, his archnemesis and Felicia Day as Penny, the love interest.

If you loved either Buffy The Vampire Slayer (particularly Once More With Feeling, the musical episode) or Austin Grossman's Soon I Will Be Invincible, then this is a website you won't regret clicking to.

Kitchen Watch: K-Day Minus Two...

The first major piece of renovation work on our new home is due to begin on Monday - the redesign of our kitchen.

At present, it's rather small, with little natural light and we lose the back end of it to the pantry and the outside toilet.

Our builder is scheduled to arrive in two days (by which time Rachel and I will have cleared this room) to start knocking the back wall down, bricking up the old toilet door etc

Then he will be installing the new kitchen... and a large window at the end of the kitchen to look out onto our garden and let in as much light as possible!

Friday, 18 July 2008

Watchmen - The First Trailer...


Need I say more?

Top Of The Pile: The Dark Tower - The Long Road Home #5

And so another Marvel mini-series set in Stephen King's fabulous Dark Tower milieu draws to close under the watchful eye of comic writer Peter David and amazing art of Jae Lee and Richard Isanove.

Working from a plot by King expert Robin Furth, David has crafted an original tale (where the previous mini-series, The Gunslinger Born, was based on published Stephen King material) that perfectly captures the bizarre, dream-like quality of King's magnum opus and its unique blend of sci-fi, horror, cosmic mythology, gritty western, dimension travelling and post-apocalyptic nightmare.

The Long Road Home is the story of our hero Roland, and his friends Cuthbert and Alain, as they head home after their adventures in the first mini-series - focusing particularly on Roland's ethereal journey inside the mystical 'seeing sphere' Maerlyn's Grapefruit and his run-in with the demonic Crimson King.

As with The Gunslinger Born, this mini-series has been both a work of art for the eye to behold, but also a joy to read (if you can grasp the rhythm and slang of King's Mid-World).

My hope is that eventually, even if it's in an intermittent series of mini-series, Marvel will adapt all seven volumes of The Dark Tower series to comic form - mixed in with original material as well - to this high standard; in much the same way Dark Horse is currently bringing Conan back to graphic life in their own titles.

In the meantime, the third mini-series (Treachery) is due to begin on September 10.

Top Of The Pile: Captain America - White #0

How often do artists, media stars, performers and other celebrities only achieve the recognition they rightfully deserve after their deaths?

It seems the same holds true for comic book superheroes as well!

Captain America, while a cornerstone of the Marvel Universe, was never really a mainstream character, always overshadowed by the more flashy heroes - such as Spider-Man and The Hulk.

However, the moment the fan community discovered that Ed Brubaker was going to have Cap assassinated, you'd have thought that Marvel had thrown its support behind Al Qaeda from the accusations being levelled at them.

People seemed to be forget that these are just comic books... and no one stays dead forever in comic books (even Bucky).

Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's Captain America - White is a reimagining of Cap's early days during World War II and issue 0 (a taster before the main title begins this winter) is about his first team-up with his teen sidekick, James Buchanan Barnes aka Bucky, destined to 'die' in the tragedy that left Cap frozen in ice for decades before he was thawed out by the Avengers.

This is the latest in the Loeb/Sale series of 'colours' mini-series, following on from 2004's superb Hulk - Gray, 2003's Spider-Man - Blue and 2002's Daredevil - Yellow.

While only a short prologue to the main event, it is a wonderful showcase for Loeb's writing at its finest (rather than his uncomfortable take on The Ultimates) and Sale's distinctive art (best known now to the general public as the artwork featured throughout the TV show Heroes).
Taking Cap back to his roots, Loeb shows us Steve Rogers (aka Captain America) the earnest, loyal soldier and good friend to Bucky and foreshadows the troubles to come later in the war because of Bucky's starry-eyed belief that war was "like the movies".

Thursday, 17 July 2008

We'll Meet Again, Don't Know Where, Don't Know When...

Rachel and I made our annual pilgrimage to the world's largest (peacetime) gathering of military vehicles at The War And Peace Show at the Hop Farm, Beltring (just outside Tonbridge) yesterday.

The Hop Farm has come under new ownership since we were last there and even before we got to the giant army surplus boot fair that forms a cordon around the arena and the 'living history' displays, we were impressed by the face lift the venue has received.

Once again there seemed less stalls than previous years, less discipline in their lay-out and more of a mixture of general market stalls among those selling parts of jeeps, old military uniforms and decommissioned firearms.

The show is on until Sunday and no doubt more stalls and displays will arrive during this time, to fill in some of the gaps.

We had a shopping list of items I wanted for the gamesroom - but because the law on selling blades has been tightened I couldn't find anyone selling wall mounts for swords and the stall selling wonderful 12" Action Men figures had run out of the support stands that I was after.

However, we found some more metal signs to display in the bathroom and I also managed to snag myself an genuine Hawaiian shirt (much to Rachel's horror) - that might see action at Pete's barbeque this weekend.

The weather was fantastic, so no doubt we've both caught the sun but Rachel, ultimately, came away more exhausted as she walked round while I pottered around on a mobility scooter, rattling my bones over the solid, dry landscape.

We had lunch seated by the arena, where a display of 'military oddities' was taking place - a variety of bomb loaders, fire trucks etc kicking up dust and having a great time.

More pictures from the day can be found here.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

DVD Of The Week: Batman - Gotham Knight (2008)

Serving as a transition between 2005's Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, which opens in cinemas next week, Batman: Gotham Knight is a splendid, 73-minute all-action animated film.

Concentrating more on Batman as the superlative combatant and master of the cool gadgets than Batman the detective, the six chapters - each written and illustrated by a different team of scriptwriter and animator - flit breathlessly through a story that, presumably, leads up to the opening of The Dark Knight.

Beginning with a quartet of skater kids relating urban myths of the Bat, subsequent chapters look at his involvement with Lieutenant Gordon's Major Crimes Unit and elements of his training in India up to his final confrontation with legendary assassin Deadshot on the roof of a speeding train (a scene very reminiscent of the recent movie Wanted).

In this movie we also learn what The Scarecrow (one of the villains from Batman Begins) has been up to, meet a couple of other staples from Batman's rogues gallery (Deadshot and Killer Croc) and are introduced to the Russian versus Italian gang war which is tearing up the streets of Gotham.

Gotham itself looks beautifully dystopian; all retro-Goth spikes and angles, sewers and graffitti - the perfect breeding ground for the sort of disturbed scum that The Batman is so smooth at putting down.

If you're a Bat-fan and are eager for The Dark Knight, then this is the perfect appetiser to keep you going until the main meal.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

A Week In Geek...

A round-up of some recent geeky news, you might have missed...

(1) Sharpe On The March Again: Production is underway on the 16th Sharpe TV movie, Sharpe's Peril, featuring Sean Bean and Daragh O'Malley.

(2) He Shoots - He Scores: Aces & Eights, the Western roleplaying game from Kenzer & Co (publishers of Hackmaster and Knights Of The Dinner Table) has been named 'Roleplaying Game of the Year' in the The 34th annual Origins Awards, by the Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts and Design.

(3) No More Who For RTD: Russell T Davies says that once he hands over the reins of Doctor Who to Steven Moffat in 2010 his involvement with the show he regenerated will cease.

(4) Galactica Continues: A Battlestar Galactica TV movie, directed by Edward James Olmos and written by Jane Espenson, will be filmed after the conclusion of season four. The movie will be set during the action of the show's first season.

(5) Cthulhu Gets Savage: Games publisher Reality Blurs has announced it has permission to produce Call of Cthulhu material for the Savage Worlds system. A potential dream combination!

(6) "What A Piece of Junk!" Luke Skywalker would have been more complementary about Han Solo's spacecraft if he had seen the new Legacy Collection version of the Millennium Falcon, from Hasbro, which fans will be able to admire at San Diego Comic-Con next week before it hits stores on July 26.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Danger, Will Robinson...My Summer Reading List!

Of late, my reading has got very slack and while I have been devouring legions of four-colour comics and multiple back issues of Knights Of The Dinner Table, it took the latest episode of Ken Newquist's inspirational podcast Nuketown Radio Active to nudge me into drawing up my own 'summer reading list'.

The hope being that my setting down by goals in print it will focus my mind on reading and stop my thoughts wandering off in chaotic directions - it might also help to curb the excessive amount of time I spend sat at the computer randomly surfing for "things that may one day be useful".

The danger of making these firm statements on HeroPress (e.g. my interests in the Crusades, my role-playing schemes etc) is that I feel very guilty when my initial enthusiasm fizzles out, for whatever reason (health obstacles usually play a part along with a short-term attention span) and the next shiny object catches my mental eye.

However, in the meantime, my reading list (at present) consists of:

The Stainless Steel Rat's Revenge - by Harry Harrison. I read the Stainless Steel Rat books when I was at school and Traveller was the order of the day. I remember them being fast-paced and fun and, as I am already part way through this, I can confirm this one, at least, still holds up several decades later.

Boxing Stories - Robert E Howard. I started to read this at the beginning of the year, but it turned my original copy was lacking about 30 pages of text, starting in the middle of one of the short stories. The publishers very kindly sent me a replacement copy, but the book had slipped down my reading pile of the time. I never thought boxing, or any sport, could make for consistently entertaining plot ideas - but Howard (better known, of course, for creating Conan) does wonders with this addictive collection of pulpy tales.

At The End of The Trail - Robert E Howard. Towards the end of his short life, Howard turned his writing skills to the old West and I understand this is a collection of some of his grittiest short stories.

Operation Kronstadt - Harry Ferguson. A true life, Boys Own/pulp adventure from the early 20th Century about the first British spies, the Russian Revolution, the incompetence of M16 and the heroics of the 'men on the ground'. It's written by retired spy Harry Ferguson, who has also penned a pair of thrilling true crime exposes about his undercover time with HM Customs & Excise.

Sharpe's Escape - Bernard Cornwell. Over the years I have bursts of reading Cornwell's Sharpe stories about the adventures of a rough and ready rifleman making his way up through the ranks during the Napoleonic wars. This is my latest acquisition in the line and I can't wait to tuck in.

Sharpe's Story - Bernard Cornwell. This is a short novella, produced by The Sharpe Appreciation Society, telling the story of the origins of the series and how it has evolved over 30 years in Cornwell's own words.

Don Pendleton's Mack Bolan: Hong Kong Hit List. I discovered the other night that there some 600 Mack Bolan novels (most not actually written by Don Pendleton anymore)! Even the completionist in me baulks at trying to read all that many. However, like the Rat books above, these were regular, easy, exciting reads during my school years (and definitely influenced the characters I played in Traveller). I remember my surprise, years later, when I read some issues of Marvel's Punisher titles and realised how clearly 'inspired' they were by Mack Bolan - The Executioner.

Martha In The Mirror - Justin Richards. Of the many new Doctor Who novels coming out at the moment, this is the one that has gotten the most regular positive reviews, so I thought I'd give it a go. I'm not a big fan of licenced 'spin-offs', but the few Doctor Who ones I have read have generally been more literate than many of the cheap, hack-jobs you tend to come across in other 'expanded universes'.

Devil's Cape - Rob Rogers. I interviewed the dude on HeroPress way back, it's about time I got round to reading his critically-acclaimed first superhero novel.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

It's A Numbers Game...


You may have noticed, in the right hand column of this blog, where I have all the various links and such like, that each episode of Doctor Who, and its spin-offs, I review gets a score out of five.

This is a purely subjective "enjoyment rating" and then at the end of each complete season I average out these marks to get an Enjoyment Ratings Average (or ERA... little nod to baseball statistics there), which serves a guide to the overall quality of the season.

My baseline series for comparison was the single season of The Dresden Files which has an ERA of 3.67.

TORCHWOOD

Season One: ERA 3.31

Season Two: ERA 3.81

SARAH JANE ADVENTURES

Season One: ERA 3.58

DOCTOR WHO

Season One: ERA 3.65

Season Two: ERA 4.08

Season Three: ERA 4.18

Season Four: ERA 4 (however, excluding Voyage Of The Damned, raises its ERA to 4.23).

As you will see, every show has improved season on season. I feel it's only right and proper to exclude Voyage Of The Damned from the Season Four scores because while it is technically part of that season, it doesn't directly feature Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) - who made that season for me - just her grandfather, Wilf (Bernard Cribbins).

Season Four suffered from a couple of episodes that I didn't enjoy as much as some other fans (namely The Fires of Pompeii and The Doctor's Daughter), however I loved the finale so much that I could have easily given it a score of six out of five... and made a mockery of my whole ratings system (as well as setting a dangerous precedent for future seasons!)

The Sarah Jane Adventures scored less than any season of Doctor Who because of (a) the presence of the annoying supercomputer Mr Smith and (b) the repetition of Earth-threatening plots that, strangely, never seemed to attract the attention of Torchwood, UNIT or The Doctor.

I'd prefer it if Mr Smith was scrapped and the writers allowed K-9 out of his cupboard to serve as Sarah Jane's computer. While K-9 can sometimes seem as convenient as The Doctor's sonic screwdriver for getting people out of sticky situations, he has more charm and personality than Mr Smith - which just appears to be one big deus ex machina.

(UK only video clip)

Sunday Funny: Geek baby!


From Funny.Com

Saturday, 12 July 2008

The Daleks Are Coming...

Pictured here is an unpainted Captain Gamma figure (from my favourite pulp sci-fi range of miniatures: Galactic Adventures in the Fourth Dimension of the Forbidden Zone from Killer B Games) with a fine assortment of daleks (and Davros, of course) from the manufacturers of Flintloque, Alternative Armies, old, old, out-of-production Behind The Sofa range.

These are 'large scale/heroic 28mm' figures and therefore blend perfectly with the GAFDOZ miniatures. Strangely, the Character Options Micro Universe daleks, because of their oversized bases, also line up quite nicely with the Alternative Armies daleks!

I finally got round to sending off my first batch of GAFDOZ figures to Neil the other week for painting. Depending on finances, I might wait for them to return before I send this new collection off to him.

In the meantime, Nick and I have talked about the idea of homebrewing a set of rules from the new Warhammer 40,000 rules which come out today (surely it can't be that hard); but I've been mentally toying with the idea of a Savage Worlds adaptation as well, because, basically, Savage Worlds is a miniatures game masquerading as a roleplaying game anyway and has the whole pulp feel built into it.

Naturally I'll keep you posted if anything comes of all this scheming...

More pictures of my GAFDOZ/Doctor Who mash-up can be found here.

Stat'll Do The Trick...

To quote Donna Noble from Journey's End: "Thank you, Davros!"

HeroPress saw a massive surge in readership this month, thanks to the global interest in the Doctor Who finale and in particular because of an article, last Wednesday, on Io9 entitled "Davros Should Have Stayed Dead in 1975" which linked to my review of The Invisible Enemy.

But with no new Who now until the Christmas Special, the first of four specials that will serve as a bridge through 2009 until the era of Steven Moffat dawns in 2010, hopefully HeroPress will be able to keep you entertained with its usual mix of comics, games, films, TV and general chit-chat.

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

Visitor Numbers (as of Saturday, 12 July): 21, 917 (18,815)

Average Number of Visitors Per Day: 155 (111)

Top 5 Countries of Origin:
United States 46% (50.5%)
United Kingdom 26% (21.2%)
Canada 8% (3%)
Germany 3% (-)
Australia (2%)

Friday, 11 July 2008

DVD Of The Week: The Owl Service (1969)

Watching as a child, The Owl Service freaked me out and gave me all kinds of nightmares.

I still remember it to this day, which is what made me slightly hesitant about getting the DVD, but I also distinctly remember it being in black and white (it's not - it's full colour) despite the fact that I very much doubt I watched the original run in 1969.

However, an overriding memory from The Owl Service is that the main girl, Alison (Gillian Hills) gave me inappropriate (for my age) tingles.

Discovering now that the 25-year-old had already been in teen exploitation flick Beat Girl and was the star of Britain's first full front nude scene in Blow Up suggests I might have been an early developer on the hottie spotting front!

Adapted by Alan Garner from his own best-selling novel, The Owl Service is a complex tale of sexual awakenings, jealousy, family secrets, class divisions (with a side order of Welsh/English racism thrown in for good measure), magic and myth centred around a British family - divorcee Clive (Edwin Richfield), and his son Roger (a sulky toff and Eric Idle-clone, Francis Wallis), and new wife Margaret (an unseen figure, a force of malice), with her daughter Alison - on holiday in the Welsh valleys.

Alison was left a grand holiday home by her late father and with it comes a staff of scowling housekeeper Nancy (Dorothy Edwards), her needy, whiny teenage son Gwyn (Michael Holden) and the slightly-batty groundskeeper Huw Half-Bacon (Raymond Llewellyn).

Down from the house, by the river, is an ancient standing stone with a hole through it, said to be where an ancient mythical story played out about a a woman made of flowers for the local lord, who was attracted to another fellow - who slew the lord. However, the lord turned into an eagle, flew away and came back and killed the man who had stolen his bride. The flower-woman was cursed to become an owl by the magician who had created her.

In the attic of the house, Alison discovers - and becomes obsessed with - a collection of floral-patterned plates. Compelled to trace the pattern of the flowers, she realises they can be cut out and assembled into the shape of owls.

The pace with which the story unfolds might have modern audiences reaching for the fast forward button, as it slowly layers atmospheric foreshadowing upon atmospheric foreshadowing, seemingly building towards a powerful conclusion.

There are meaningful shots of mirrors, scratching sounds in the attic, the piecing together of clues that indicate that this has all happened before, strange images in photographs, hidden pictures revealing themselves, Huw's prophetic babblings, odd flashes of creepiness that are never mentioned again, the extremely peculiar nature of the nearby village and then...

After sitting through the seven, languid, 25-minute episodes everything seems to surge forward with an unexpected preternatural speed in the final episode, promising a spectacular climax which, in fact, rather annoyingly, fizzles out into an unsatisfactory damp squib.

The resolution feels like a cheat, as though there really should have been a ninth episode - if not to explain what had been going on (we'd had enough clues to pick that up) - at least to offer some reasoning and satisfying conclusion, rather than leaving the viewer shouting: "Yes, and...?" at the screen.

I can see now why it might have freaked me out as a child; The Owl Service is ultimately a series of superfluous horror movie tropes squeezed, without rhyme nor reason, into a straight-forward ghost story. All the trappings serve to distract like red herrings, but they also obfuscate and confuse unnecessarily.

As with many childhood nightmares, the most frightening aspects of The Owl Service are not what are seen on the television, but what is suggested. It's just a shame that what they suggested didn't really have much to do with the plot.

Gillian Hills as Allison in The Owl Service.

Doctor Who: Army Of Ghosts/Doomsday

I've never been a massive fan of the Rose Tyler character; I don't see anything special about her that makes her any better than any of The Doctor's companions and I've always felt this "special love" between them was very forced and artificial.

Therefore, you can probably understand why I wasn't overly upset by the ending of Doomsday, which left her on a parallel Earth.

Army of Ghosts had set the stage for the potential battle royale of the Whoniverse - the last four surviving daleks from the Time War (The Cult of Skaro) had burst out of The Void (the nothingness between parallel dimensions) to our world, but had been followed through, unknowingly, by the cybermen from The Age of Steel.

Rejecting the cybermen's offer of an alliance, the daleks reveal their ace in the hole - The Genesis Ark, a Time Lord prison ship containing millions more of their kind.

So we have millions of cybermen, stepping through from another plane of existance and conquering the world, poised to face off against millions of daleks - erupting from the Genesis Ark in the sky over Canary Wharf, the home of Torchwood - and what happens?

The Doctor throws a switch, the breach between universes opens and all the bad guys get sucked back into the Void.

It's all over in a matter of seconds; a major anti-climax to clear the way for the 'human drama' of Rose now being locked away on a different Earth, with her mum, dad and Mickey.

I'm all for a bit of angst and drama in Doctor Who, but not when it's at the expense of the action and excitement. After building up to a fanboy's wet dream of daleks and cybermen battling for control of planet Earth, Russell T Davies' cop out deus ex machina was a major slap in the face.

This could have been the finale that people would be talking about in awed tones for years to come, but as it is it'll always be remembered as the one that got away; the one that promised so much and then failed to deliver.

Doctor Who: Fear Her

Who could have imagined after the stupidity of Love & Monsters that the next episode, Fear Her, would have been just as bad... if not worse?

Doctor Who has always had a light-hearted, humorous side, but Fear Her has you laughing at the show, not with it.

The Doctor and Rose turn up in a suburban London street (Dame Kelly Holmes Close) in 2012 and discover children have been going missing.

A 12-year-old girl in the close, Chloe Webber (Abisola Agbaje) has bonded with a stranded alien 'child', called an Isolus, which is lost and alone and wants the love of a large family - it came from a family of four million! However, it achieves this end by getting Chloe to draw people and objects and then absorbing their real-world counterparts into the drawings.

The episode's faults are plentiful, ranging from silly monsters (the "scribble creature", which might have been a great idea but in reality just didn't work) and a tedious, linear script from Matthew Graham (better known as the co-creator of Life On Mars) to a most uninspiring, unconvincing and unsympathetic assemblage of supporting characters (I really had no interest in their trauma because I couldn't relate to anyone).

The Doctor seems slightly 'off' in this episode, as if the writer couldn't quite get a handle on his character, but nevertheless David Tennant does his best, with Billie Piper's assistance, to hold the story together.

The script may touch on key themes of Doctor Who, such as "loneliness" and "alienation" (albeit in a very heavy handed way), and drop in mythos buzz words like "The Shadow Proclamation" and The Doctor's status as a father, but it lacks any drive and excitement, actually veering heavily into boring for much of its duration.

Fear Her is a wet, sorry script choking under an avalanche of cheap, easy chiches about love and hope, and nightmare monsters that can be defeated by singing a happy tune.

Famously, Fear Her was a last-minute replacement for a Stephen Fry script that would have been too expensive to produce without major rewrites. Perhaps, in years to come, Fry's schedule will be clear enough to do the necessary revisions and - under Steven Moffat's guidance - we might finally get to see the story that should have been here instead of this disappointment.

Love & Monsters was frustrating because it was simply bad, but Fear Her commits the worse crime of being tedious.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Gamers: Make Your Voices Heard...

With the influx of Doctor Who material on this site of late, and a lot of my free time being taken with 'household duties' and health issues, my roleplaying commitment has slackened recently.

I had to put my participation in Simon's Buffy The Vampire Slayer game on the backburner and it's only just dawned on me that Nick, Clare and I have only gamed Hollow Earth Expeditions once since we moved to the new house.

After almost three months, the gaming table in The Gamesroom remains virgin and untouched by wargamer or role-player alike!

Therefore to try and get my mind back in the right frame of mind I have launched a new HeroPress survey, to gauge the feelings of my faithful readers on their favourite long-term gaming genres.

For me, a campaign is only worth playing if it, at least, has the intention of running for a long time... all the better to build up a catalogue of anecdotes, war stories and comedy sketches for Knights Of The Dinner Table.

Unlike previous poles on this site, you can vote multiple times - for different genres - if you so wish and the closing date is way off in late August.

As well as voting, I'd value feedback and comments on this issue as well. It's more about setting and atmosphere, than system, but system suggestions are always welcome (remembering I always err on the side of simple rules sets).
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