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

Saturday, 31 May 2008

Doctor Who: Silence In The Library

Finally, after a two-week wait, during which this episode's writer (Steven Moffat) was named as the new head honcho for Doctor Who, we finally got to see his latest masterpiece: Silence In The Library.

With so much anticipation - and now that added extra baggage of The Moff's new status in the Whoniverse - could Silence In The Library deliver the goods?

I quickly discovered that, unlike other two-parters in New Who, it was probably going to be difficult to judge this episode on its own. Being a mystery, rather than an action-led story, this episode was about setting up questions to be answered next week (we hope!)

The Doctor and Donna arrive at The Library, an entire planet dedicated to storing printed copies of every book published in the universe.

However, they also quickly discover that it was suddenly abandoned a century earlier...

Then a party of archaeologists (led by Alex Kingston's Professor River Song and Steve Pemberton' Strackman Lux) turn up to try and solve the mystery of the missing readers.

Although there were some nice quips about "spoilers" (reading books from the future to see how things end), standing on its own Silence In The Library was rather disappointing.

Steve Pemberton's character was very reminiscent of Tim McInnerny's in Planet Of The Ood; both were the latest generation of a family connected with a troubled facility keen to put their family name and honour ahead of any other considerations.

There were simply too many archaeologists in the group for us to really bond with any of them, and this resulted in Donna (Catherine Tate) being sidelined for almost the entire episode. For the most part she stood around, looking a bit lost, until she ended up being "saved" by the library computer.

Much of Silence In The Library seemed like padding; especially Miss Evangelista's (Talulah Riley) "data ghosting" sequence, which started to actually get boring as it dragged on.

This scene was rendered even more silly when, after having been told for so long how important it was to stay "out of the shadows", an aerial shot revealed the whole group to be standing in shadow to some degree.

Then, for the requisite spooky beastie, having a bloke in a spacesuit lumbering around going "who turned out the lights?" bordered on farcical and is never going to catch on as this year's "are you my mummy?"

Away from the main action, I could have done with less focus on the little girl (Eve Newton), her dad (Mark Dexter) and Dr Moon (Colin Salmon). I'm guessing this is some 'virtual' representation of the library computer's data core and will have more relevance in the next episode (Forest Of The Dead).

I'm also theorizing that the the library inhabitants who were "saved" have been saved as "digital downloads", and The Doctor is going to be able to flick some switch and restore them all to life.

Professor Song is clearly an intriguing character, claiming to know the Doctor from "the future": is she a future companion? Bernice Summerfield? Or a con-artist who happens to have stumbled across a copy of The Doctor's 500-year diary on an earlier visit to The Library?

As an alien threat, the shadow creatures (Vashta Nerada) are also quite interesting, but if they exist on so many planets (including Earth) how come they haven't stripped the universe clean already? Surely their "instant flesh dissolving" ability makes them pretty much the most dangerous creatures in the Whoinverse, short of The Beast from The Satan Pit?

Silence In The Library poses as many questions and conundrums as an episode of Lost, but we only have an episode to answer them; let's hope we like what we discover.

Taken out of context, this has been the weakest episode this year (ignoring the appallingly dreadful and derivative Christmas Special), but perhaps, after Forest Of The Dead, I will revise my opinion once I see how everything plays out.

Miss May: Karen Allen

Karen Allen (from Raiders of The Lost Ark)

Friday, 30 May 2008

Top Of The Pile: Secret Invasion - Fantastic Four #1

Call me a sucker, but I'm really getting quite hooked on this whole "Secret Invasion" megaplot that is running through the Marvel Universe at present.

Throw in my favourite superhero team (The Fantastic Four) to the mix, along with the requisite inter-dimensional shenanigans and a healthy dollop of shapeshifting aliens, and Secret Invasion: Fantastic Four is an instant winner with me.

This is a three issue mini-series that spins off from the main Secret Invasion title and looks at the impact the Skrull infiltration has on the Marvel Universe's First Family, served up with a cover reminscent of John Byrne's glory days on the FF and a writer (Roberto Aguire-Sacasa) who really gets what makes the FF so good.

A Skrull posing as Sue Richards (aka The Invisible Woman) sends the top of the Baxter Building (along with The Human Torch, The Thing and the two Richards' kids) into the Negative Zone, where she plays mind-games with Johnny Storm before revealing her true identity on the final page.

Aguire-Sacasa's handle on the Fantastic Four stands in stark contrast to the abomination that is Mark Millar's current stint on the main title.

Millar is showing a contempt for the superhero genre that borders on the insulting - if you dislike traditional superhero titles so much, then don't accept jobs to write them!

The power escalation of Reed Richards' inventions is just getting ridiculous - I'm sorry, but if he can produce an "anti-Galactus" suit out of nowhere, as he does in Fantastic Four 557, then all the other heroes in the Marvel Universe might as well go into retirement!

Increasingly, this title has the verisimilitude of a 1960's Superman story...

Couple this with some of the worst, seemingly rushed, art I've seen from Bryan Hitch (he manages to make Sue look like a transvestite), and the campaign starts here: Get Millar and Hitch off the Fantastic Four as soon as possible.

The final page teaser for the return of Doctor Doom should send tingles down my spine, but it just leaves me with a sense of impending dread - how will Millar muck up the FF's nemesis?

Thursday, 29 May 2008

Why Doctor Who Is Better Than Star Wars...

Of course, that's a deliberately provocative and controversial headline... and utter garbage as comparing the two major science-fiction franchises is like comparing chalk and cheese.

However, filling the glass display cabinets in my new gamesroom the other week, I quickly came to the conclusion that Doctor Who action figures (from Character) were far superior to Hasbro's Star Wars line.

Not only were the sculpts better - although admittedly you can obviously get more detail on a 5" inch figure over a 3.75" one - but when it comes to display, rather than just leaving them 'mint on card', the Doctor Who figures were far more user friendly.

I found that even with "tacky wax" on their feet, the Star Wars figures just wouldn't remain standing, especially when opening and closing the display cabinet, whereas the Doctor Who figures were much better balanced and seem to have actually been designed with display (and play) in mind.

After several days of trying to sort out action figure carnage, as my Star Wars figures kept toppling like dominos, I eventually gave up and let the Doctor Who figures take over.

It's no reflection on my passion for Star Wars, but I couldn't resist a shelf full of daleks!

For more information on Doctor Who action figures check out Marcus' regularly updated news site here, which includes details of the exciting new range of Torchwood figures due out later this year, as well as future waves of the new figures and the soon-to-be-launched Classics.

I'm still hoping that one day someone, with a good radio voice and access to the latest news (come on, Marcus, you know I mean you!), will produce a regular podcast on a par with the superb Star Wars Action News to keep us Doctor Who collectors 'in the loop'.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

The Danger of Believing Your Own Hype...

One thing we were told repeatedly on my university course (Scriptwriting For Film & TV) is that no one sets out to make a bad film.

It was always my understanding of the "grindhouse" ouevre - the object of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's love letter double-feature (Death Proof and Planet Terror) - that the majority were films that were so bad they were good... or, at least, mildly entertaining, like Ilsa, She-Wolf Of The SS.

Unfortunately, these once bullet-proof directors seem to have started to take seriously what many of their die-hard fans have been saying: that they can do no wrong.

But, like Tarantino's vanity piece, Planet Terror tries too hard to be bad... and ends up being just that.

Even when it starts to look like things might be picking up, about an hour into the messy nonsense, Tarantino himself turns up on screen for one of his painful cameos and sucks away the final shred of hope I had for this over-the-top film.

Just prior to this I was getting so bored that I turned the DVD off for a refreshment break and for a while considered not bothering to go back to it - something that goes against everything I believe in when it comes to giving films and TV programmes the critical benefit of the doubt. As it turned out, I wonder if I might have been better off going with my earlier gut reaction - that was a long 101 minutes of my life I'll never get back.

Sure, there are some smart lines and lots of striking images for the necessarily lurid posters (no one will ever forget Rose McGowan's one-legged go-go dancer with her automatic rifle attachment), but the glue that holds it all together is virtually non-existent.

While the actors are clearly having fun goofing around with a variety of weaponry and gunge, the audience is left to scratch its head and suffer.

What passes for a story is a deal gone sour at an old army base that allows the escape of an experimental biological weapon (Project: Terror) that turns people in a nearby town into puss-dripping, flesh-eating zombie mutants.

Some people are affected but a minority are not. Those that aren't get hold of firearms and shoot those that are.

That's about it.

McGowan is the only thing to recommend this awful mess; although there are plenty of other potentially interesting characters most are teasingly undeveloped.

Freddy Rodriguez is the nominal hero of the film, El Wray, the former boyfriend of McGowan's Cherry Darling; a troublemaker with a mysterious past. His 'secret' is revealed during the film's 'missing reel'... which is actually quite funny and was about the point the movie started to look up.

Bruce Willis is in here as well, picking up his pay cheque as a renegade military man and terrorist leader (although his ultimate goal seems quite vague), while Naveen Andrews (Sayid from Lost) turns up as an Iraqi biochemist to supposedly make some sense of everything.

As with Death Proof, the footage has been doctored to make it look like aged, '70s film stock, with scratches, shakes, colour changes and so on; thankfully this gimmick is used sparingly.

I really wanted to like Planet Terror: every so often all you really is a sick, gruesome horror film with a bevvy of hot babes to turn a frown upside down, but I should have noticed that the only quote the film company could find to put on the front of the DVD box was from The Sunday Sport. Sometimes the clues are staring you in the face!

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Torchwood: End of Days

And this is what it has all been building up to... End Of Days, the apocalyptic finale of Season One of Torchwood; a massive show of bluster, special effects and carnage that spends so much time putting a human face to the end of the world that it misses the bigger picture.

After Owen tampered with The Rift in Captain Jack Harkness, more and more displaced souls start to arrive across the globe, from flying saucers above the Taj Mahal (looking suspiciously like ones normally assocaited with Daleks) to bubonic plague carriers in Cardiff.

Although UNIT is mentioned, it seems to be down to the five members of Team Torchwood to save the day... well, they caused the problem, so I suppose it's only right that everyone else sits back and lets them sort it out!

Each team member, in turn, (except Jack) sees vision of a loved one they have lost; Tosh sees her mum (a plot hook not returned to until Fragments), Ianto sees his old cyber-girlfriend, Owen sees Diane, and Gwen is shown a glimpse of the future where Billis has murdered Rhys... which, then, a few scenes later he does.

All are convinced that the only way to regain what they have lost - but also (as they have been told by Billis) send back all the people who have arrived through The Rift is to open it fully (I guess there must be a logic here, but I don't really see it).

Captain Jack disagrees with the plan quite strongly and gets a bullet in the head from Owen for his troubles... and so the rest of the team discover about Jack's inability to die.

While I can accept that recruits to Torchwood aren't that easy to find and so they must be allowed a certain degree of slack, Jack's attitude to Owen, in particular, is very selective.

While he is 'allowed' to get away with tampering with The Rift (possibly leading to the end of the world) to rescue Jack and Tosh at the end of the last episode, when he stands up to Jack here (before the whole 'bullet in the head' incident) he gets relieved of his position; effectively fired from Torchwood... although several minutes later he just wanders back in!

Opening the Rift, however, while it returns the "new arrivals" to their places of origin and presumably corrects time in the process (as well as restoring Rhys to life, rather randomly, as his death had nowt to do with falling through the Rift) also allows in Billis' true master: Abaddon, The Son Of The Great Beast (from The Satan Pit), a giant CGI beastie with a shadow that kills all it touches and monstrous cloven hoofs that stomp across Cardiff leaving death and destruction in their wake.

That Captain Jack defeats Abaddon is no surprise, and his method is quite inventive, but are we to believe that all the death and destruction that the creature wrought on Cardiff somehow undoes itself with Jack's victory? Is it the cheesy 'reset button' Deux Ex Machina that spoiled The Last Of The Time Lords? This is never explained or even alluded to again.

Sadly, on close inspection, we see The Rift is little more than a plot device, rather than a well-thought out, logical, scientific anomaly; almost putting it on a par with first season Primeval.

Instead of trying to explain what's just happened, End of Days moves on towards its enigmatic conclusion that supposedly ties in (but doesn't exactly really) to Jack's arrival on the outside of the TARDIS in the Doctor Who episode Utopia.

Rewatching Season One of Torchwood, I've come to realise that while a lot of the writing is subtly better than I originally thought, the show suffers a severe problem of gaping plot holes papered over with flash-bangs, coincidence and pseudo-controversy.

Like amateur stage magicians, the creators behind Torchwood sometimes resort to heavy-handed misdirection to distract the audience from an episode's shortcomings rather than working to correct them.

When Torchwood works (Out Of Time is, of course, the episode that springs to mind), it is stunning television, but it tries too hard to be "the adult Doctor Who" rather than working to establish its own identity.

Torchwood: Captain Jack Harkness

Like a good episode of Lost, Captain Jack Harkness answers some questions but creates more in the intriguing first-part of the Season One finale of Torchwood.

Lured by rumours of a haunted dance hall, Tosh and Captain Jack accidently step through The Rift to Cardiff 1941 and meet the real Captain Jack Harkness (Matt Rippy), the doomed Battle of Britain veteran, on the eve of his final, fatal flight.

Eventually, the viewer discovers this is all part of a grand plan by the sinister Billis Manger (Murray Melvin), who exists in both time periods, which won't come fully to fruition until End Of Days. His manipulations of Team Torchwood are worthy of The Master, and there was some speculation when this episode was first aired, that he really was The Doctor's old nemesis.

Murray Melvin, already gifted with a quite alien visage, gives Billis an effeminate creepiness that makes him one of the most memorable villains to appear in Torchwood.

In a bid to rescue his stranded colleagues, Owen - heart-broken, reckless and driven by wild abandon - wants to try and open The Rift, but Ianto (being the only one clear headed enough to have figured out Billis' scheme) tries to stop him... by any means necessary.

Meanwhile, back in the 1940s, our Jack realises there is nothing he can do to save his namesake, but is still determined to give him a great send-off, while Tosh runs around planting clues for Owen and Gwen to find 60 years later which, even with a bit of unwanted assistance from Billis, seems rather far-fetched and a large dose of 'wishful thinking'.

The fact that Billis also, somehow, has a key element of the Rift Manipulator and then Owen just happens to stumble upon it is also rather conveniently contrived and I would have hoped for something slightly more subtle from Catherine Tregenna, the writer of the classic Out Of Time.

Torchwood: Combat

After experimenting with a variety of genres in recent episodes, this is Torchwood's attempt at a movie homage with Combat being its version of Fight Club.

Although the core story isn't that original (bored yuppies kidnapping Weevils to provide the ultimate extreme sport thrill at their underground 'fight club'), the script from the multi-talented Noel Clarke, is surprisingly insightful, if somewhat flawed.

What let's Combat down is its reliance on coincidence - while it's never made clear how many Weevils have been kidnapped by the 'fight club', Team Torchwood just happens to stumble across one such abduction; and then, Owen happens to get into a bar fight before going undercover - on a job he knew nothing about - before returning to the same bar, now with the head of the 'fight club' in tow (although again, Owen didn't know this at the time) and the bar fight resumes, thus forming a useful (almost homo-erotic) bond between Owen and his mark.

That aside, Owen's final face-down with the imprisoned Weevils back at The Hub is a slightly disturbing foreshadowing of his eventual status as 'King Of The Weevils' in Season Two.

This is Burn Gorman's episode. Owen is on self-destruct; having nothing to lose after the heart-breaking end to his love affair with Diane in Out Of Time and then his fiery confrontation with Gwen about finishing their sordid dalliance.

On the other hand, Gwen (Eve Myles) doesn't come out of this episode particularly well; only confessing her affair with Owen to boyfriend Rhys (Kai Owen) when she discovers Owen's own affair with Diane. Then using the retcon drug on him to make him forget anyway. Rhys may be a pretty drab character, but that's no excuse for Gwen to use him like an emotional punch bag.

As Mark Lynch, the organiser of the Weevil-fighting club, Alex Hassell is wonderfully slimy and while his ultimate fate is a kind of poetic justice, the fact that Captain Jack - and Gwen - stand by and let it happen seems totally out of character for them.

The arrogance of Alex, in that he quickly sees through Owen's "cover" for infiltrating the group, but doesn't care - he just wants to show off, is a sight to behold and some of the best villain development in Torchwood.

However, as recurring aliens, the Weevils are disappointingly underdeveloped - seemingly just men in boiler suits wearing prosthetic masks. There is no sense of them being anything more than dumb animals and no one in Torchwood seems really interested in trying to find out anything interesting about them.

Alex's suggestion that they might be the future of humanity is an intriguing theory and one I hope, eventually, gets picked up again in this series.

It's also odd, for such an apparently prevalent race (in Cardiff at least), that no-one else (such as The Doctor or UNIT) is aware of the Weevils.

Torchwood: Out Of Time

As a spin-off from Doctor Who, Torchwood shares that show's ability to embrace a variety of genres - although usually with a darker twist.

But even among the varied contents of this first season, Out Of Time stands as not only the show's finest hour, but also an amazing piece of television in its own right.

A private plane from the 1950s appears out of The Rift and it's up to Team Torchwood to acclimatise the three time-lost passengers to the 21st Century. As Captain Jack says: "There are no puzzles to solve, no aliens to fight, just three lost souls..."

Catherine Tregenna's script is stunning, never missing a beat as it shifts focus from each of the disparate refugees to tell their stories and the stories of the impact on the lives of the Team Torchwood members.

Emma (Olivia Hallinan) is an 18-year-old orphan whose eyes are opened by the casual, liberal attitudes of the modern day. Gwen takes her under her wing to try and shield the young girl from the harshness of reality, but gradually Emma is determined to find her own feet and make her own life.

The pilot, tough, no nonsense aviatrix Diane (Louise Delamere) is determined to get flying again as soon as possible, but discovers a 50-year gap in her records means that's not as straight forward as she hoped. She and Owen hit it off and the doctor's thick skin peels away as he finally shows true emotion and falls for the headstrong woman.

This being Torchwood, we know, of course, it isn't going to end well...

The saddest story though is borne by proud, middle-aged businessman John Ellis (Mark Lewis Jones) who, despite Captain Jack's help and support, just can't come to terms with the fact that everyone he's loved is dead and his son is now in a care home suffering from senile dementia.

The script glides gracefully from laugh-out-loud humour as the new arrivals encounter such modern marvels as supermarkets, tea bags and automatic doors to lump-in-the-throat, gut-wrenching sadness as John Ellis sits in his old garage with a car engine running, waiting to die.

There is no horror, no violence, no real science-fiction (outside of the means of the trio's arrival in Cardiff), just an incredibly strong story about how people cope with the sudden loss of 50 years of their life.

Without gore and excessive swearing (although Owen does drop a few f-bombs), Out Of Time dealt with genuinely adult themes in a way that Doctor Who - which is a family show - couldn't. I wouldn't want to be the parent explaining to Little Johnny about the concept of "assisted suicide".

By exposing 'real people' to time travel - especially in this "one-way" form - it emphasises that it's not all fun and games; without having to get into the pseudoscience and technobabble of time paradoxes (which, in its place, I love).

Although my monster-loving side had really taken to Countrycide (for it's inventive spin on Torchwood's sci-fi conventions), Out Of Time was the episode that really made me believe this show was a worthy addition to the Doctor Who canon.

Monday, 26 May 2008

DVD Of The Week: Doctor Who - The Robots of Death (1977)

It's not much of a shock that the first wave of Classic Doctor Who action figures will include characters from both The Talons of Weng-Chiang and The Robots of Death.

Both of these are strong contenders for the title of the "definitive" Doctor Who story; coming from that golden age of the late 70s when the show was being produced by Philip Hinchcliffe and script edited by Robert Holmes.

Not only does The Robots of Death have a distinctive, beautiful look to it, but the "world building" aspect of the story is one of the most intriguing in the show's history - outside of the tangled mythologies of the Daleks and Cybermen.

The robot-reliant humans running Storm Mine 4 come from Kaldor City, a decadent city run by "founding families" and their robot slaves; a city riven by politics, in-fighting, terrorism etc and the taste we get of Kaldor City life from this outpost makes us hungry to know more.

The Robots of Death is an Agatha Christie murder mystery relocated to an alien mining colony; an ensemble cast - all with their own secrets - trapped in an isolated location as they are killed off one-by-one.

It is, of course, up to the Doctor - and Leela - to solve the crimes and bring the murderer to justice.

As a four-episode, 95-minute story, the adventure unfolds at a slightly less manic pace than the recent Christiesque The Unicorn And The Wasp, but nevertheless Chris Boucher's script has you hanging on every word. It simply doesn't get much better than this.

The Robots of Death led to Chris Boucher's Doctor Who novel Corpse Marker, which further developed the culture and workings of Kaldor City.

This, in turn, led to Magic Bullet's Kaldor City series of audio dramas - starting with Occam's Razor, which introduced us to smooth-tongued anti-hero Kaston Iago.

Iago is played by Paul Darrow, fondly remembered as Avon in Blake's 7; Iago may, in fact, be Kerr Avon, for all we know!

The Blake's 7 connection is strengthened by references to The Federation and the appearance of a Blake's 7 universe character Boucher created for an episode of that series he wrote.

This creates the kind of continuity conundrum that Doctor Who fans thrive on!

As a young viewer, both the Voc robots of Robots Of Death and Blake's 7 had a major impact on me and featured prominently in my juvenile writings of the time - for a long while I thought "voc" was just another generally accepted term for "metal men", like android, robot or cyborg.

I also thought Kerr Avon was the "coolest" character on TV and a lot of my early Traveller role-playing game scribbles (before Nick began his epic campaign for us) had strong Blake's 7 influences, usually mashed-up with Star Wars and Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy!

Come on, what kid from the '70s didn't want to pilot The Liberator?

Saturday, 24 May 2008

Daleks, Daleks and More Daleks!!!!!


The end of Doctor Who Season Four looks like it's going to be an epic... and was that Davros lurking in the shadows?

Eastern Bloc Voting!

The Eurovision Song Contest just gets more political every year as the Russians swept the board, despite fielding a pretty dire song.

See my write-up last year for our feeling on the block voting scandal that pretty much dominates the contest these days.

Of course, that didn't stop us having our own little Eurovision 'party' - Nick and Janice and Matt and Ali joined Rachel and I for an evening of beer, tea, nibbles, laughter, tears and general derision.

By our scores the Russian song came second to last, just beating the 'screaming angels' of Azerbaijan. Our top votes went to the camp disco stylings of Iceland, with the strong entry from Norway coming second and Britain's effort - surprisingly good - coming third.

In reality (if Eurovision voting has any bearing on reality) the UK came last... I guess because no one really likes us, or is intimidated by us, in Europe.

I'm not even sure why Britain even bothers entering these days - and it's certainly not worth 'resting' Doctor Who for a week for. Perhaps next year Eurovision will get relegated to BBC3 and Doctor Who can run its natural course.

Time-Flight Isn't As Amusing As This...

Doctor Who: Time-Flight (1982)

The shoddy Photoshopping on the DVD cover, and the typographical errors on the back blurb of the sleeve, illustrate the contempt in which Time-Flight is held.

Doctor Who has always aimed high, but the higher it aims the further it has to fall... and this story has sequences that would have taxed a Hollywood blockbuster of its day, let alone something produced on a BBC budget.

The Master (Anthony Ainley) has been stranded 140 million years in Earth's past, after escaping Castrovalva, and in attempting to escape creates a time corridor to the 1980s down which flies a Concorde.

The Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison), along with Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) and Tegan (Janet Fielding), mourning the death of Adric at the end of Earthshock, are heading to Victorian England but get knocked off course by the time tunnel and land at Heathrow, where the Doctor's UNIT contacts get him drawn into solving the mystery of the missing Concorde.

The TARDIS is loaded onto a second Concorde and in following the flightpath of the missing plane, they all end up back on prehistoric Earth.

And this is where things start to go seriously wrong. Even ignoring the awful "men in rubber suits" monsters, it is impossible to overlook the painful plot contrivance of having The Master in disguise as an Arabian magician (Kalid) for two of the story's four episodes. He's stuck at the butt-end of time, millions of years away from anyone who would know him, and yet has taken the time to put on some ridiculous fat suit and a rubber mask - so he can chant stupid chants over a crystal ball (even when no one is around).

The reason for this 'deception' is never explained... because there is no explanation outside of the fact that it is a cheap trick to fool the viewers. It has no validity in the context of the plot and adds nothing. This is script-cheating of the worse kind.

The rest of Peter Grimwade's plot is a bit of tangle as well, buried under a morass of dire-logue, but after we've been led so far up that first garden path our sympathies aren't really with the scriptwriter and we have to clutch onto what straws we can find floating before our eyes.

The location shooting around Heathrow is really nice - although where did the sudden blanket of snow come from when the second Concorde is preparing to leave? - but it only really serves to heighten the awfulness of the embarrassing stage set that is supposed to pass for prehistoric Earth.

On the positive side, there are some strong character moments from a few of the supporting cast - such as Nigel Stock as the cynical, if slightly unpleasant, Professor Hayter, Richard Easton as Stapley (the captain of the second Concorde... who gets to pilot the TARDIS) and particularly Janet Fielding as Tegan Jovanka.

As a hormonal youth, I never really 'got' Tegan - I was always more interested in cute Nyssa - but it's stories like this where she came into her own. The sequence at the end when, back at Heathrow, she wanders off for a nostalgic look round the place where she used to work, and then gets accidentally left behind by The Doctor, is actually quite moving. You can't help but feel sorry for her.

But not as sorry as you feel for anyone else who has had to sit through this story.

Friday, 23 May 2008

At The Fleapit: Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull (2008)

I'll confess (secretly) my expectations weren't too high for Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. Besides the klunky title, the trailers just looked like edited high-lights from the earlier films mixed with outtakes from Tomb Raider.

And, of course, I have been burned before by Mr Lucas - getting my hopes up for the revival of a much-loved franchise.

But the nightmare of my first exposure to The Phantom Menace was soon forgotten under the steady hand of director Steven Spielberg.

To put it frankly: Indiana Jones And The Kingdom of The Crystal Skull is frakkin' awesome!

Sure it wobbles on occasion - the crystal skull itself, while probably a very expensive prop, just looks like a cheap bit of plastic with some tin foil inside it; I could have done without the sequence of Mutt (Shia LaBeouf) swinging through the jungle like Tarzan (I sensed the hand of Executive Producer George Lucas there); and once or twice the effects look a bit off.

But these are minor quibbles in such a brilliant, breath-taking action flick. From start to finish it is pure Indiana Jones (several sequences actually strongly resemble slight variations on similar sequences in Raiders of The Lost Ark).

It's a great story, blending genuine Fortean theories of the time with real world history (e.g. McCarthy era paranoia, A-bomb tests, Roswell, Commies etc), and takes the Indiana Jones franchise to surprising new places.

I was delighted to see Indy reunited with his one true love, Marion Ravenwood (the scrumptious Karen Allen), still as feisty as ever, with her son, Mutt (LaBeouf), bringing a brilliant new dynamic to the gang.

Ray Winstone, as Mac, filled the Belloq role from Raiders Of The Lost Ark - a slightly shady archeologist whose loyalties flip-flopped as the mood took him; while John Hurt as the deranged Professor Oxley substituted for the absent Abner Ravenwood from Raiders - a father figure for Marion and a mentor for Mutt.

Of course I miss Sean Connery and Denholm Elliott from the mix, but except for a few trivial niggles, I have to say I'd rank Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull almost on a level with Raiders... and can't wait to see it again, to see what I missed or maybe just to moon over Karen Allen again as I did back in 1981.

Top Shelf: National Geographic

These days I'm very much the armchair explorerer. While I was never as adventurous as many of my friends, particularly Matt and Paul, I have still managed to see parts of the world that some people might consider 'exotic' - such as the United Arab Emirates and China.

Complementing my love of foreign lands, I have been an on/off subscriber to National Geographic since the late 1980s.

While my current subscription has lapsed, the cover of the latest issue caught my eye in WH Smiths yesterday because the whole issue is dedicated to my favourite country: China.

I may have only spent three weeks in China in 2002, back when Paul was on a years' contract working for the China Daily newspaper, but it was the best travel experience I have ever had.

The country, and its people, are so alien to a stay-at-home Westerner like myself, but at the same time it was a very friendly and welcoming place. I encountered none of bureaucracy or xenophobia we hear about on the news, just lovely people, interesting food, amazing landscapes and architecture and history to die for.

I've talked about my passion for all things Chinese before, and will no doubt again, but it all came back to me as I admired the stunning photography for which National Geographic magazine is rightfully famous.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Doctor Who: Carnival Of Monsters (1973)

The Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) and Jo Grant (Katy Manning) take the TARDIS for a spin after his prolonged exile on Earth, but appear to arrive on a 1926 cargo ship sailing across the Indian Ocean rather than an alien planet.

But all is not as it first seems. The TARDIS has materialised inside the compression field of an outlawed Miniscope - a futuristic 'carnival' machine which miniaturises creatures, then keeps them on display (kind of like a formicarium).

The Miniscope is in the possession of travelling showman Vorg (Leslie Dwyer) and his glamorous assistant Shirna (Cheryl Hall) who are being interrogated by customs officials on the xenophobic planet Inter Minor.

Inter Minor is a world of political intrigue and Kafkaesque bureaucracy, and the Miniscope quickly becomes a pawn in bigger games - while the Doctor and Jo try to escape their confinement and the attention of the huge, swamp-dwelling carnivores known as Drashigs.

Carnival of Monsters, by Robert Holmes, is a clever, multi-layered script rather let down by the overpowering garishness of the story's colour scheme (something that tended to mar much of the Pertwee era's studio-based filming) and some very poor - and cheap-looking - costume designs, especially for Vorg and Shirna.

If you can look past the weak colour-separation overlay (CSO) effects, Holmes' script stands the test of time far better than the costumes and the special effects... and although Pertwee manages to slip in a silly voice once and to get the Doctor into a boxing match with Lt Andrews on the cargo ship (Ian Marter, before he became the Fourth Doctor's companion Harry Sullivan), at least he doesn't have to don any ridiculous disguises for this story.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Torchwood: Random Shoes

You could argue that a show as unrelentingly dark and moody as Torchwood needs "lighter" episodes like Random Shoes to lift the audience every now and again.

Unfortunately, Random Shoes comes from the Love & Monsters school of so-called comedy in that - with its slightly grating voice-over by dead geek Eugene (Paul Chequer) - it's never as amusing as it thinks it is. We get our wit from Ianto's witty one-liners, the upbeat optimism of Random Shoes doesn't wash in the Torchwood universe.

Throw in an unconvincing set-up (young Eugene was supposedly given an "alien eye" by a benevolent teacher after freezing up in an inter-school maths quiz - a scene that the more cynical amonst us might even say borders on 'grooming'), a cliched family dynamic (Eugene's father left home and his mum lies to her children saying he has had to go to work in the States) and a suggested view of the afterlife that just doesn't tally with Torchwood's grim mythology and you just end up with a bit of a mess.

Killed in a hit-and-run, invisible, ghostly Eugene attaches himself to Gwen and subtly guides her through the investigation... which may, or may not, have alien overtones as everyone, but Eugene, believes his "alien eye" is a plastic toy.

All this brings up another question: just how top secret is Torchwood? They drive around in a black SUV with Torchwood engraved on it, yet beat copper Gwen (back in Everything Changes) didn't know who they were; Tosh is horrified when Mary reveals how much she knows about Torchwood in Greeks Bearing Gifts, yet call-center employee Eugene not only seems to know what they do but the names of all the team members...

Random Shoes feels like comic book filler, one of those short four or six-page stories stuck at the end of a comic to pad out the page count. Even the half-hearted attempt at a "twist" pans out to be a weak spin on the twist of Countrycide. There was probably a semi-decent story here once, but the decision to turn into the season's "comedy" episode totally missed the target.

Torchwood: They Keep Killing Suzie

Having killed off slightly unbalanced team member Suzie Costello (Indira Varma) in Everything Changes - to make way for Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) to join - the members of Torchwood discover the full depths of their former colleague's evil scheming in They Keep Killing Suzie.

A series of murders, where the word 'Torchwood' is left written on a wall in the victim's blood, leads the team to a religious support group that Suzie Costello was a member of.

Suzie's Machiavellian manipulations from beyond the grave - a scheme she put into place long before she was actually killed - means the team have to resort to using the resurrection gauntlet (again from Everything Changes) on her, with unexpected results which foreshadow Owen's death and return to life in Season Two's Dead Man Walking.

It's a smart idea, but ultimately quite linear in its execution, that might have benefitted from a longer running time - or a double-episode - to allow for some extra sub-plots to add a degree of contrast to the plot.

This episode introduces a brilliant foil for Captain Jack Harkness in the form of Detective Swanson (Yasmin Bannerman, Jabe from Doctor Who's The End Of The World) and it's a real pity that she has yet to reappear in Torchwood.

Torchwood: Greeks Bearing Gifts

Gorgeous Tosh (Naoko Mori) in lesbian action with hot female alien. Need I say more? In all honesty, Torchwood is never really raunchier than an episode of Hollyoaks... but it does try hard.

In Greeks Bearing Gifts, the team are investigating the unearthing of an 18th Century corpse buried with a piece of alien technology.

Tosh then gets picked up in a bar by a woman called Mary (the very pretty Daniela Denby-Ashe, known to British audiences for her long-running role in sitcom My Family and her five-year stint on EastEnders as the religiously-conflicted Sarah).

Mary seems to know more than she should about Torchwood and, at first, claims to be a 'scavenger' who trawls the Internet for hidden information. She then gives Tosh an alien pendant which grants the power of telepathy and slowly begins to manipulate Tosh into spying on her fellow teammates and finding out how much they have discovered about the corpse and the buried technology.

Unfortunately for Tosh, while wearing the mind-reading pendant, she 'overhears' the mucky thoughts of the secret lovers, Gwen and Owen. Given her own mighty crush on Owen, this only pushes Tosh further towards helping Mary.

Mary, eventually, reveals herself to Tosh as an ethereal alien creature - from the same species as the star poet we see Sarah Jane Smith conversing with in Invasion Of The Bane. She claims to be a forgotten, political prisoner, abandoned on Earth for 200 years, but good old Captain Jack susses out the truth of the matter and saves the day (and Tosh).

Greeks Bearing Gifts is a solid, literate, if ultimately uninspiring, Tosh-centric story that manages to help each character develop slightly (although Ianto barely gets a look-in), while making the best of an old sci-fi standard (the dangers of reading other people's minds).

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

RTD Steps Down - Steven Moffat Steps Up!

After much speculation, rumblings and rumour-mongering, the BBC has announced today that Doctor Who show runner Russell T Davies is stepping down from his post after next years' run of four specials.

He is then handing the reins over to Steven Moffat, the fan-favourite writer of such classic episodes as Blink, The Empty Child etc, for the launch of the Fifth Season in early 2010.

I haven't always been a fan of RTD, but without him we wouldn't have Doctor Who back on our screens to bitch and moan about how "they're not doing it right".

The truth is, for me, although the stuff of his I didn't like is the material I'm most vocal about (such as the introduction of the soap opera aspect of companions' families and setting so many stories on Earth), the good he has done on and with Doctor Who far outweighs the bad.

That said, I couldn't be happier with the news that Steven Moffat, one of the show's best and most consistent writers, is taking over.

It looks like Doctor Who has a long and rosy future ahead of it... and we owe that to RTD for laying the foundations of this incredible revival.

Torchwood: Countrycide

I must confess a personal love of Countrycide - it ticks all the right boxes for me being a cocktail of urban legends and Grand Guignol darkest-of-dark comedy on a traditional horror theme: "the greatest monster of them all".

This is The Hills Have Eyes and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre relocated to the Brecon Beacons, although I suspect the lack of alien or supernatural elements annoyed some viewers.

However, I believe Torchwood is a flexible enough show concept that it can handle the occasional more "mundane" episode - as long as it doesn't turn into just another CSI rip-off.

Being a Chris Chibnall script, Countrycide does suffer its fair share of uncomfortable moments early on - such as Team Torchwood's bizarre reaction to Ianto's mention of Cyber-Lisa and then Owen's vile sexual advances on Gwen - but once the team become isolated in the wilderness and the skinless bodies start to show up, the real fun begins.

The fact that no explanation is given for the motivation behind the cannibal's ten-year harvest of passers-by and tourists makes the story all the more shocking and disturbing.

A familiar face on British TV, Owen Teale's performance as the head flesh-eater leaves a lasting impression on the audience... as well as the members of Team Torchwood.

Gwen, as the show's point-of-view character, is deeply disturbed by these inhuman acts that she can't understand and her reaction, and her need to confide in someone who can understand her situation, is all too human - even though we might be surprised and slightly disappointed by it.

Torchwood: Small Worlds

The first thing to note about Small Worlds is that Ianto's "little indiscretion" from the last episode (Cyberwoman) seems to have been totally forgotten and he is back on duty as a fully fledged member of Team Torchwood.

Small Worlds is a great, standalone episode, planting Torchwood firmly in the X-Files camp by pitting the team against a mystery that it can solve but an enemy it has no chance of defeating.

An old girlfriend of Jack's - from before the Second World War - has developed an interest in fairies; unfortunately the creatures she observes aren't the cute little critter from children's stories but powerful element-controlling entities from the dawn of time.

These wicked sprites guard their "chosen ones" - children they have selected to join their ranks - and do this by threatening and killing anyone makes a move against the child they are protecting; from school bullies to a convicted paedophile.

As the attacks escalate, presaged by freak weather patterns, Team Torchwood are slowly drawn towards a creepy little child called Jasmine (Lara Phillipart), just in time to see the sprites materialise at her home and kill her obnoxious, beer-swilling stepfather who was trying to stop her visiting her "imaginary friends" in the woods at the end of the garden.

The story builds to a shocking conclusion as Captain Jack finally comes to accept - but Gwen and other's can't - that certain sacrifices have to be made for the future safety of the Earth's population.

As well as adding some depth to the hidden corners of the universe that Torchwood exists in, this episode also includes an interesting flashback to Jack's pre-war life, both in England when he met young Estelle and a spell in the army in 1909 Lahore when he witnessed the murder of 15 troops under his command by these sprites.

Torchwood: Cyberwoman

If ever a new series went through public birthing problems it was Torchwood, for every Ghost Machine there was a Cyberwoman or a Day One (and what makes this even more worrying is that both of these awful episodes came from the mind of co-producer Chris Chibnall, who would go on to become the show's main writer in its second season).

Bringing in an established, and popular, Doctor Who enemy to the Torchwood mix could have - and should have - been a surefire winner, but Cyberwoman sucks on so many levels that it's not even funny.

Normally sensible Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd) rescued his half-cyber-converted girlfriend Lisa (Caroline Chikezie) from the Battle of Canary Wharf (the clash between the Cybermen and the Daleks at the end of Doctor Who season two) and hid her away in the bowels of Torchwood Cardiff.

It comes as no surprise that, despite Ianto's best efforts to restore her humanity, cyber-Lisa goes on a kill-crazy rampage!

If we can look past Lisa's cyber-heels and brassiere (not exactly standard issue on Mondas), there are glaring plot holes that range from "how did Ianto smuggle in the massive cyber-conversion unit ?" and "Torchwood base isn't that big, so how come no-one stumbled on Ianto's little project before now?" to, worst of all "having endangered all of his colleagues and, by extension, the whole population of Earth, what's Ianto's punishment? A pitying stare from Gwen and Captain Jack... then back to work as normal!"

It appears that Ianto is being let off his part in the deaths of the Japanese cybernetics scientist Dr. Tanizaki and the pizza delivery girl because he's "feeling a bit guilty about it" and that's probably punishment enough, right? Huh???

Cyberwoman wants to be a clever story about how keeping secrets can hurt friendships, but it is so heavy-handed and literal, without thought for the on-going story consequences, as to be ridiculous.

It's probably best to write the whole thing off as a bad dream brought on by too much cheese on your Jubilee Pizza.

Monday, 19 May 2008

Doctor Who: The Invasion (1968)

A TARDIS malfunction, and a missile attack from the dark side of the moon, forces the Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton), Jamie (Frazer Hines) and cute Zoe (Wendy Padbury) to land on Earth in the late '70s/early '80s to look for the bits of kit to repair the old spacecraft.

Naturally, nothing is ever straight forward for The Doctor and he is soon embroiled in a plan to takeover the world by the Cybermen, using a massive London-based computer firm, International Electronics, as their front.

However, International Electronics' head Tobias Vaughn (Kevin Stoney) has his own sinister agenda. Vaughn is a megalomaniac from the James Bond School of Villainy, hamstrung by his incompetant, flustered, psychopathic Number Two, Packer (Peter Halliday), who leads a security force even more inaccurate than Imperial Stormtroopers.

More important than the return of the Cybermen, though, The Invasion sees the first appearance of UNIT (the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce) headed by Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney). They even appear to operate from an airborne base - a prototype for the Valiant? - and from the off, have a very British approach to problems: a cup of tea, then blow it up.

This being a pre-Time War incarnation of The Doctor, he has no problem with UNIT blowing up Cybermen left, right and centre or firing nuclear warheads at orbiting space armadas.

While Jamie doesn't really do much, except sleep and drink tea (and disappears from the screen for quite some time after getting shot in the leg), it's Zoe's brain that helps save the day in the final confrontation when she computes the necessary angles of attack for a missile barrage to take out all the invading fleet.

The Doctor's "crazy kids" (as The Brigadier calls them) are joined in this story by the daughter of a missing scientist, ex-model and wannabe photographer Isobel Watkins (Sally Faulkner, better known for her more revealing role in the sexploitation flick Vampyres), who might not be a great photographer but makes a damn fine cup of tea. A slightly redundant character in the greater scheme of things, Isobel just happens to be totally stunning eye candy, so I didn't really mind.

Vaughn and the Cybermen's plan for invasion involves infiltrating global technology (from computers to transistor radios) with International Electronics' microchips as Trojan Horses - a scheme so popular it's still being used today by the alternate universe Cybermen in Rise of The Cybermen and The Master in The Sound Of Drums.

Prints of two episodes (the first and fourth) have been lost from the BBC Archives and so top cartoon studio Cosgrove Hall were appointed to produce animated replacements (using the original sound tracks).

These are superb, with a slightly Japanese anime vibe to them, and I just wish it were financially viable to have all the "missing" Doctor Who episodes eventually resurrected in this way. Perhaps one day a philanthropist fan, with pockets as deep as The Doctor's, will come along and help make that dream a reality!

This is an epic, eight-part, three-hour story that never sags, but certainly wouldn't suffer from some pruning of repetition and unnecessary diversions. The Cybermen themselves don't even appear until the cliffhanger of the fourth episode - a revelation that would have had more impact when first broadcast in 1968 than in a DVD with a Cyberman on the front cover, and the actual invasion doesn't really get going until the end of the sixth episode!

My only real niggles with this story are Vaughn's unconvincing anti-Cyberman gun (which projects "fear beams" at the emotionless androids) and the fact that after all the build-up the big climatic action happens pretty much off-screen, either in the cuts between scenes or reported second-hand by military types looking at radar screens.

Sunday, 18 May 2008

DVD Of The Week: Doctor Who - The Mind Robber (1968)

Current Doctor Who overlord Russell T Davies (RTD) may occasionally take liberties with the mythology of our beloved show, but he has yet to try anything as experimental as either the First Doctor's adventure on The Web Planet or the Second Doctor's encounter with The Mind Robber.

The Mind Robber begins with Patrick Troughton's Doctor, accompanied by Jamie (Frazer Hines) and Zoe (Wendy Padbury) using the TARDIS' "emergency unit" to escape a lava flow on the planet Dulkis (from The Dominators) only to end up "nowhere".

Jamie and Zoe are lured outside by visions of their homelands, only to find themselves in a featureless white expanse inhabited by odd robots, and when they all try to escape again things get decidedly surreal!

The TARDIS blows up - leaving Jamie and Zoe clinging to the console (and we are treated to that famous shot of Zoe's pert behind!) - before everyone arrives on a strange world where many of Earth's fictional characters exist.

Things get curiouser and curiouser as our heroes discover giant letters that form forests, Jamie's face changes (Frazer Hines was unwell and Hamish Wilson filled in for an episode!), everyone is chased by clockwork soldiers, they befriend Lemuel Gulliver (Bernard Horsfall), get lost in the Minotaur's labyrinth, a camp comic book superhero from Zoe's time turns up, Jamie climbs a cliff face using Rapunzel's hair and so on.

All this weirdness is just the warm-up for The Doctor's confrontation with The Master (Emrys Jones) ... no... not THAT Master... this is The Master of The Land Of Fiction; a kidnapped 19th Century writer of boy's serial adventures (The Adventures of Captain Jack Harkaway) whose creativity is being used to fuel the strange goings-on in this realm beyond time and space.

The Master is getting old and is testing The Doctor to see if he is suitable to be his replacement!

This story consists of five 20-minute episodes and probably suffers from slight padding, as a lot of the Classic Who stories do, but it's a brave, experimental story that really works on its limited budget.

Although we've already seen the Tenth Doctor fighting clockwork men in The Girl In The Fireplace, I'd love to see some variant of this 'Land Of Fiction' idea revisited in the New Who, with today's technology, camera trickery and fast-paced storytelling.

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Doctor Who: The Unicorn And The Wasp

Putting the "Who" in whodunnit and the "sting in the tail" of this tale of giant alien wasps, this is Doctor Who returning to the country house mystery genre (as seen in Black Orchid), mixed in with a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek humour.

The Unicorn And The Wasp was a marvellous pastiche of an Agatha Christie mystery with the double twist of Agatha herself (Fenella Woolgar) playing a central role and the killer turning out to be a shape-changing alien Vespiform (that is, a giant wasp).

A marvellous ensemble cast, with all the correct archetypes for a Roaring 20s thriller (from the flapper and the vicar to the homosexual heir and the crippled Colonel... all with their secrets), drew on the tropes of the genre (although complicated, to hilarious effect, by the arrival of The Doctor and Donna) for a stunning piece of storytelling from writer Gareth Roberts and director Graeme Harper.

It's 1926, the day before Agatha Christie's famous unexplained 11-day disappearance, and the Donna and Doctor turn up at a garden party being hosted by Lady Eddison (Felicity Kendal) and her wheelchair-bound husband (Christopher Benjamin).

A murder occurs - Professor Peach in the library with the lead pipe - and events unfold curiously in the style of an Agatha Christie novel!

Gareth Roberts script is incredible, seemingly tying up every plot thread, while seeding the dialogue with a lot of in-jokes (e.g. name-dropping Christie's future book titles), some great one-liners and another chance to see the Doctor-Donna double act that we are fast growing to love (particularly in the slapstick scene where the Doctor is trying to recover from being poisoned, which stands out with the mime-sequence from Partners in Crime as one of the comedy highlights of this season).

Donna (Catherine Tate) just gets better and better with each episode and it's rather sad that given the fact that she told Martha last week that she could travel with the Doctor "forever" we know her days at his side are numbered.

Although, as far as I could tell on a single viewing, it had no obvious elements of the season's major "through story" (whatever they may turn out to be), this episode ranks alongside last year's Shakespeare Code, unsurprisingly also written by Gareth Roberts, as one of the best we have yet seen in this new incarnation of Doctor Who.

That is, of course, saying something coming so soon after the brilliant two-parter of The Sontaran Stratagem and The Poison Sky, but does indicate that Season Four is shaping up to be the best to date.

Stats Amore!

A heartfelt "thank you" to readers old and new. It looks like my fears that HeroPress might take some time to recover after my March/April five-week absense (while moving house) were unfounded. We seem to be going from strength-to-strength!

I attribute much of our rising readership numbers to riding the wave of current Iron Man popularity, in the wake of Jon Favreau's great film, and my on-going commitment to reviewing the new Doctor Who as it comes out (and catching up with as much of the Classic material, and earlier new stuff, that I might have missed).

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, 17 May): 16, 415 (14,523)

Average Number of Visitors Per Day: 78 (52)

Top 5 Countries of Origin:
United States 39% (45%)
United Kingdom 33% (37%)
Canada 9% (3%)
France 4% (2%)
Greece 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) Six Of The Best With CLARE GRANT
(2) Iron Man Redux And The Avengers Initiative
(3) Joss Whedon's Dollhouse
(4) The Only Good Nazi Zombie Is A Dead Nazi Zombie
(5) Doctor Who: Human Nature/Family Of Blood

Got to say I'm constantly impressed by the number of people who come here to read my interview with my old housemate, Clare of Three Beautiful Things.

The Doctor Is... Resting!

The BBC has just announced - although it came as no surprise - that, as last year, Doctor Who will be taking a break for a week next weekend (May 24) to make way for the Eurovision Song Contest.

Friday, 16 May 2008

Joss Whedon's Dollhouse...


Thanks to my former Buffy RPG gamesmaster Simon for finding this trailer for Joss Whedon's latest TV offering - Dollhouse, starring Eliza Dushku aka Faith from Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Not quite sure what to make of it, but it's going to be showing on Fox (the network that killed off Firefly) next year , so catch it while you can...

SORRY - this trailer has now been removed from YouTube :-(

Torchwood: Ghost Machine

One of the main purposes of Ghost Machine was to clarify Team Torchwood's role as alien-hunters and extraterrestrial artifact retrievers, not crime fighters.

While chasing down a hoodie, Gwen obtains a device that locks onto strong emotions in an area and transforms them into three-dimensional images - creating "ghosts". During the teams' subsequent efforts to track down the petty criminal Bernie Harris (Ben McKay), Owen sees the "ghosts" of an unsolved 40-year-old rape and murder and takes it upon himself to track down the killer.

Jack (John Barrowman) stresses that Torchwood's remit extends only as far as finding out where the alien device came from and working out what to do with it, pointing out to Owen that he has no actual evidence - that would stand up in court - to get the police to reopen this cold case.

Nevertheless Owen goes "freelance", visits the killer - who turns out to be a paranoid, claustrophobic by the name of Ed Morgan, played by Gareth Thomas (Blake of Blake's 7) - and puts the fear of God of him.

Matters become further complicated when Bernie reveals to the team that the device has two halves; the second half showing a person visions of their future! Naturally, with so many plots in motion, things don't go well and the usual unhappy ending ensues.

A dark, powerful and well-written story from Helen Raynor (who recently penned the two-part Sontaran story for Doctor Who), Ghost Machine not only builds on the established groundwork of the team dynamics (e.g. the growing sexual tension between Jack and Gwen, Owen's bottled rage, Ianto's calming influence, wit and coffee-making skills etc) but really sets the standards for mature storytelling... rather than sex gas aliens!

The Only Good Nazi Zombie Is A Dead Nazi Zombie!


Outpost, a low-budget Scottish horror film about mercenaries in Eastern Europe discovering a lost Nazi bunker and the inhuman experiments contained within, opens in 50 cinemas today around the UK (although not in Tunbridge Wells). One to add to the DVD collection I think, probably as a companion piece for Dog Soldiers.

Torchwood: Day One

Day One was the Torchwood episode that upon first viewing almost put me off the show completely. Not that, in retrospect, it's that badly written for the most part, but there are large chunks that appear to have been hammered out by an adolescent trying desperately hard to be "shocking".

Written by Chris Chibnall, the story follows Gwen on her first day working for Torchwood - investigating a meteor crash that releases an alien sex gas which takes over an innocent girl outside a Cardiff nightclub and turns her into a sex maniac who needs to 'feed' off orgasmic energy.

The Doctor Who franchise has always handled humour well, particularly in its new incarnation, but with this silly storyline I found myself laughing at the show rather than with it - seeing the embarrassing cracks where "taboo of the week" was inserted for maximum contrived controversy.

The idea that human orgasmic energy is the best in the universe still makes me smirk and shake my head...

Away from the main plot, the main characters of Team Torchwood continue to develop - Gwen continues to lie to her dull boyfriend Rhys (Kai Own), the enigma of immortal Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) grows, Ianto's (Gareth David-Lloyd) dry humour is showing through as is Owen's (Burn Gorman) thick skin and Tosh's (Naoko Mori) naivety.

At this point, once you stop grimacing at the misguided story concept (where was 'quality control' when it came to selecting to story ideas?), the potential of the show as a whole is clear, but unleashing such a juvenile plot on an unsuspecting audience this early in the programme's initial run could have sunk it.

Torchwood: Everything Changes

When the first two episodes of Torchwood were aired back-to-back on BBC2 I remember thinking that if this hadn't been a spin-off of Doctor Who I wouldn't have bothered watching any more.

However, now starting to make my way through the DVD box set of season one, I find I have to re-evaluate my opinions.

The first episode, Everything Changes, is actually really tightly written by Russell T Davies.

In a single 50-minute episode it tells a new viewer everything they need to know - at this stage - about Torchwood, its remit and its operatives, while sowing seeds for future stories and creating its own mythology (particularly the mysterious 'other' branches of Torchwood that remain after the destruction of Torchwood London at the end of new Who's second season).

Beat cop Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles), who becomes the audience's point-of-view character, is intrigued by the arrival of Team Torchwood ("special ops") at the scene of a murder enquiry and begins her own investigation into the clandestine organisation.

It's a straight-forward "introductory" episode, spiced up with a good murder mystery, some nice Easter Eggs for Doctor Who fans and the surprising twist of having one of the lead characters killed off in the first story.

Where this "adult" off-spring of family-friendly Doctor Who lets itself down is in its understanding of what constitutes a mature storyline. It just tries too hard to be controversial, throwing in swearing (which, while well written in this particular incidence, adds nothing to the story) and sex as though that makes the show more appealing to an adult audience.

As we will see in the next episode (Day One), this can actually have the opposite effect!

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Top Of The Pile: Iron Man - Viva Las Vegas #1

Jon Favreau is just showing off now! Having directed one of the greatest superhero movies of all time, he is now cementing his hold on the Iron Man franchise by writing a comic book mini-series. It wouldn't surprise me to discover he coded the Iron Man video game as well...

With near-photorealistic art from Adi Granov (whose work inspired the look of the film), Favreau's Iron Man - Viva Las Vegas appears to be a very simple story of Tony Stark going to Vegas for a holiday.

Having been jeered on one of his own commercial planes after Iron Man rescued the passengers from a terrorist - who then blew himself up outside the plane ("He was prepared to negotiate!"), Tony decides it's time for a vacation.

His arrival in Vegas coincides with the opening of The Strip's largest resort The Golden Dragon Casino; which has a huge, 1,000-year-old statue of a golden dragon outside (which may well actually be Fin Fang Foom) that has just been shipped in from China.

A plague of lizards descends on Vegas, just as the dragon seems to be waking up and Tony's R&R - with a couple of delightful tattooed ladies ("I wanted to let you know that there's a tattoo-counting contest about to begin... up in my suite") - is over before it has even begun.

As a Marvel Knights tale, Viva Las Vegas stands outside normal Marvel continuity, but is also unconnected with the film which means for the next three issues pretty much anything goes. It isn't going to win any awards for complex scriptwriting, but it's a short, easy read with the pacing and thrills of a Hollywood movie, and a limitless budget.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Top TARDIS Totty!

Thought I'd share this with you, found in the HeroPress files dating back to the mid-1980s: a genuine, personalised picture from Nicola 'Peri' Bryant to her number one fan.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Doctor Who: Pyramids Of Mars (1975)

The idea that the mythical Egyptian gods were really extraterrestrials probably wasn't even new when The Pyramids Of Mars was screened in 1975, but this was still a good couple of decades before Stargate made a whole franchise out of it.

Doctor Who has an uncanny ability to create mythos within its own mythos, that the fans then pick up and run with.

I don't think script editor Robert Holmes' concept of the superpowerful Osirians - who inspired the culture of ancient Egypt - was ever revisited in the show, but it has been taken to heart by fans and creators of spin-off material who have developed the idea further.

On many levels, this Doctor Who story has the potential to have been one of best; from its fascinating mythology to the memorable villainous partnership of Sutekh (Gabriel Woolf) and Marcus Scarman (Bernard Archard, who passed away at the start of this month).

However, the four-part story is almost totally derailed in the final episode when the action moves from exquisitely realised Edwardian England to a stage-set that is meant to pass as the interior of an ancient Martian pyramid but actually resembles nothing more than some poorly painted scenery from a school play. Verisimilitude goes totally out the window!

The Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) and Sarah Jane (Lis Sladen), having faced down robot mummies on Earth in an attempt to thwart Sutekh's revival, are confronted - on Mars - by a series of infantile mental games that just don't do the rest of the story justice. Sutekh's final defeat is also rather sudden and technobabble-heavy, and you can't help but think those involved in the show suddenly awoke to the enormous power this alien had and couldn't come up with a better way to write him out.

The all-powerful Sutekh, portrayed with spine-tingling creepiness by Gabriel Woolf, has been imprisoned for thousands of years, having been overpowered by the combined might of the other 740 Osirians.

When his tomb in Egypt is unearthed by Marcus Scarman, the near-omnipotent being takes over the mind of the archaeologist and sends him back to England to build a rocket, with the aid of some robot mummies, that will shatter the forcefield generator that has been holding him in place for so long.

Bernard Archard's turn as Scarman is another of those great, memorable villains that Doctor Who is known for. Complemented by sinister pale make-up and sunken, red eyes, Archard's performance - especially when you can see him struggling pathetically against Sutekh's control - is nothing short of brilliant.

It's such a shame that the story takes such a nosedive in its final act because up until that point, The Pyramids of Mars was the epitome of everything that makes Doctor Who so good.

A Day Of Endings...

Disappointed to discover this morning that not only has the amusing webcomic Chainmail Bikini stuttered to a halt, but Double G Press has lost its Savage Worlds licence... just as it was about to publish, after what seems like years of pre-production work, The Ravaged Earth Society - it's hardcore pulp setting for the popular roleplaying game.

Originally slated for release in March 2006, The Ravaged Earth Society promised an alternate history setting with everything from Nazis and Zeppelins to costumed crime fighters, street-smart gumshoes and grizzled archaeologists, via occultism, femme fatales and gangsters.

Savage Worlds has always had a very "pulp" feel, due to its fast-paced mechanics, and a lot of its support material has been directly - or indirectly - related to pulp action adventures, but TRES would have been (and might still be, one day?) its first dedicated pulp setting book.

What little news there is on the Double G Press situation can be found here.

Hot On The Press!

Ahead of this weekend's regular statistical round-up of the last month's HeroPress activity, I thought it might be interesting to take a quick poll of the 10 most written about topics on the site.

(1) TELEVISION - no real surprise as I seem to spend vast amounts of my time watching it, writing about it and talking about it.

(2) DVD - the bridge between cinema and home television; given I don't get to the cinema as much as I used to, it was inevitable that DVDs would appear high up this list.

(3) RPG - roleplaying games are simply the greatest hobby ever created (thank you, Gary) and have been at the core of my thought-processes since the 1970s, which is why it was so gutting to discover that I may no longer be 'fit enough' to enjoy gaming as I did in my halcyon youth.

(4) COMICS - pretty much speaks for itself as another key ingredient of my life for over 30 years, especially coming hot on the heels of roleplaying games!

(5) FILM - cinema has always been a major part of my life; it even shaped my choice of degree course (Scriptwriting For Film And TV) and is thus responsible for many of the most important friendships in my life.

(6) DOCTOR WHO - again a "no-brainer", especially given my aim to eventually review every single, available, episode of Doctor Who and its spin-offs, listen to every Big Finish audio, build a fine collection of action figures and, maybe, try my hand at the new roleplaying game due out at the end of this year.

(7) RACHEL - my wife, my life saver. I wouldn't be here today without her. 'Nuff said.

(8) STAR WARS - another major influence from my formative childhood in the '70s. Heck, Rachel and I even had Darth Vader as our ringbearer at our wedding last year...

(9) REAL LIFE - must admit I was shocked to discover how much 'real life' impinges on HeroPress. I will endeavour to reduce that over the next 12 months...

(10) NICK - my old school friend and gaming buddy; these days 99 per cent of my roleplaying games and wargames involve Nick; and now his partner Clare is enjoying the Hollow Earth Expedition games with us, which is incredible. Clare is a former housemate of mine who met Nick at my Star Wars-themed wedding last year. See how it all ties together through HeroPress?
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