Monday, 20 April 2015

DANDY SPACE LOG 1-1

This is the first installment of what will be my guide to all twenty-two episodes of the magnificent, idiotic, ingenious anime Space Dandy! The entire series is available on Netflix in the UK and US, both in the original Japanese with subtitles and in the English dub. This is a guide to the dubbed version, although there are episodes where sticking the subs on reveals some more information that's been lost in the translation to the brilliant English script.

Space Dandy's English-speaking cast include Ian Sinclair as Dandy, Alison Victorin as QT, Joel McDonald as Meow, J. Michael Tatum as Dr. Gel and R. Bruce Elliott as the Narrator.


Space Dandy is a dandy guy... in space!



Series One, Episode One - “Live With the Flow, Baby”


It is Space Century 0014. We Meet Dandy and QT, and they meet Meow, while they search for new aliens at their favourite hideout, BooBies. Meow promises them he knows a planet that's full of mysterious alien species, so they set out in the Aloha Oe, but when accidentally engaging the malfunctioning warp drive, they burst through the outer dimensions, a continuum criss-crossed with cosmic strings. Dandy, of course, pulls on one, becoming dragged across space/time via the fabled element of pyonium. They are pursued by Dr. Gel of the Gogol Empire, but, stuck on a deadly planet inhabited by terrifying aliens, Dandy elects to engage the supernova device. Everybody dies. The End.

He's Dandy, Baby: His name's Dandy but you can call him Space Dandy. He's an ass man, as all right-thinking men are. An “elite” alien hunter, Dandy hunts for undiscovered species and returns them to the Alien Registration Centre for payment. He visits BooBies regularly, ostensibly because it's an alien hangout, but also because the drinks are cheap, the ladies are lovely and because he has one overriding mission: to visit every branch of BooBies in the Galaxy. Dandy goes with the flow; that's his pure philosophy. When confronted by the interdimensional majesty of a cosmic string, Dandy's first reaction is to yank on it. He doesn't really think his plans through, and gets himself and his crew killed.


He's Just a Little Obsolete, Baby: QT is a service robot Dandy picked up cheap on some backwater planet. His drives are out of date, he can't update his programmes because his operating system is too old, and he needs to consult the Alien Hunter's Guide to supplement his database. His battery life is terrible, and he gets pretty thick when he's in power save mode. He's not impressed by Dandy's attempts to educate to the finer things in life.


He's Not a Space Cat, Baby: Meow – short for Mrrrmmrrrmmrrmmwww – is a Betelgeusian, an alien species that looks like a cat. But he's not a space cat, OK? He's hanging out in BooBies, perving on the girls and taking snaps of their assets. Why a feline alien wants to perv on humanoid girls is anyone's guess, but he's come to the right place. Initially, QT thinks Meow might be an unidentified alien due to an unusual mark on his cheek. It turns out this is a sticker he won for ordering the Gilgamesh tequila. He knows some obscure planets but really doesn't know how to navigate.


Let's Get Our Asses to BooBies, Baby: Where zero-g meets double-D, BooBies is a breastaurant, like Hooters or Twin Peaks, but in space! A space station shaped like a magnificent pair of bosoms, it is indeed an alien hangout, and has many beautiful waitresses, from every species with boobs. Truly, the appeal of the breasticles crosses the divide of culture and species. We meet our favourite recurring waitress, Honey, a blonde bombshell who is pretty easily distracted.


Tell My Story, Baby: The story is narrated by an mysterious voice, who is, strangely enough, audible to Dandy and QT. He pretty much phones it in though. I think he's only in it for the fourth-wall-breaking.


It's Tech in Space, Baby: Dandy has all manner of nifty gizmos for catching aliens, including a bola balls, a laser fishing rod, and of course, his trusty spaceship, the Aloha Oe. The warp drive is on the fritz, and in any case, Dandy doesn't like using it – he's heard too much warping makes your hair fall out. The ship's matter transporter is also out of date; it takes an age to warm up and a good five minutes to beam someone off a planet. Dandy's ultimate weapon is a surfer doll that sends the ship's drive into overload and turns everything in the vicinity supernova. Only an idiot would use it.


We're Alien Hunters, Baby: There are many varieties of alien life in the Galaxy, from humanoids to cat-like Betelgeusians to huge pink blobs. The planet the Aloha Oe is drawn to is inhabited by gigantic wyrms, in various flavours: fire-breathing, lightning-throwing and composed of water. There's also a huge green robot guy who comes out of the ground, and those are just the less weird ones.


I Know This Planet, Baby: The planet promised by Meow is an absolute dive. It even begins collapsing under Dandy and Meow's feet. Damned space cat.


There's Bad Guys Too, Baby: The Gogol Empire and the Jaicro Empire are at war for the fate of the universe. The Gogol 7th Fleet of the Galactic Force is headed by Admiral Perry, a mighty villain with a flaming skull (not unlike the dread Dormammu, although his outfit is like Nightmare's from the Kirby games). Admiral Perry is after Dandy, for he, apparently, holds the key to the universe. He sends his agent, Dr. Gel after him. Dr. Gel is a hulking green primate, who flies a ship shaped like the Statue of Liberty, biting down on a ball gag. He is supported by his diminutive assistant, Bea. Neither survives the pursuit of Dandy.


Don't Quote Me, Baby: “Nothing trumps the rump, my friend; anyone who thinks otherwise is either blind or a fool.”



Bottom Line, Baby: It's just the introductory episode, of course, but this displays all the trashy, over-the-top absurdity of Space Dandy at its finest. There are hints of the greater mysteries to come, but from the off, it shows a joyous disregard for continuity and consistency, killing off every major character before drawing attention to the fact that this makes no sense whatsoever. Even the first episode is chock-full of references to other productions, from the warped Planet of the Apes inference of Dr. Gel and his Liberty ship to the monsters cribbed from Galaga. Not to mention that Space Dandy almost certainly takes place in the same universe (multiverse?) as Cowboy Beebop, starting with the use of Woolongs as currency. Some people hate the, well, boobiness of the whole thing, but it's a parody of the shameless fan service that many more popular anime series display (and a lot less graphic than some). It's puerile, ridiculous and over-excitable, but it's the foundation of what will be some truly intelligent science fiction in episodes to come.

Friday, 17 April 2015

REVIEW: Marvel's Daredevil

Now, that's how you do it.


It's understandable that some people are starting to become a little fed up with superhero films and series now. As the new big thing, they have become ubiquitous, and for every geek who looks forward to the next snippet of comicbook movie news, there's ten people who got bored with it all around when The Avengers was in the cinemas. Which is a pity, since there are some genuinely very good productions out there. Still, it's not too much of a surprise that many people were unenthused by the news that Marvel/Disney had five series planned for streaming on Netflix. Superhero overkill, it might sound like. However, going by the first of these series, Marvel have finally found their niche for television. If anyone asks which of the many comic-based shows are worth watching, then Daredevil is what I shall tell them.


There's a qualifier, though. Daredevil is dark as hell. “Dark” is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days, and it's usually pretty meaningless, but in the case of Daredevil, it's very apt. Daredevil is cynical and unflinchingly brutal. I'm genuinely impressed by Disney for allowing something so bloody to go out under their name. I'm usually the first to condemn an adaptation for being needlessly grim; you only need to look at the recently leaked trailer for Batman vs. Superman to see something that's had all the joy mercilessly sucked from it. With Daredevil, however, the darkness has a point. Life is vicious and unjust, but we can try to fight against that injustice. Sometimes, violence must be met by violence, but in doing so, we risk becoming what we are fighting against. It also helps that the darkness is not relentless; there's plenty of humour and quieter, more philosophical moments to offset it. While Arrow just dragged on and got boring, Gotham can't seem to balance its tone between grimdark and absurd, and Marvel's own Agents of SHIELD has taken a season and a half to become must-see TV, Daredevil set itself as a self-contained story, told over thirteen chapters, perfectly balancing the tone so that it was an intense, powerful, and entertaining experience.


That said, I absolutely wouldn't want all of Marvel's productions to be like this. The Netflix set is set out to be the street-level section of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, harder, dirtier and distinctly unsuitable for kids. Marvel's great strength on screen is their variety, with different films hitting different marks. Someone who loved Guardians of the Galaxy may hate Daredevil, however, they are to my eyes both excellent adaptations of very different comicbook properties that each do their own thing very well. Daredevil in comics has long been a very dark affair; the series so far hasn't come close to some of the depths to which the comics have plunged. There's still the future, of course; after the team-up series The Defenders, presumably late next year, I would be surprised if we don't see a second run of Daredevil. That said, the showrunners have killed off a surprising number of major characters, including one I would have sworn would make appearances in other series. It makes for an unpredictable viewing experience, and unlike the comics (or The Avengers movie), I don't think we're going to see dead characters returning to life.


Daredevil has always been a great concept: the blind lawyer who fights crime by night, empowered by enhanced secondary senses and martial training. A character who has to juggle twin identities, who fights to protect his city without the aid of superhuman strength, just skill and determination. So far, so Batman, but unlike Bruce Wayne (or his current TV stand-in, Oliver Queen), Matt Murdock doesn't have a vast fortune behind him to make things easier. That's the strength of this adaptation, compared to the previous cinematic version (which was enjoyable enough, for all its flaws). It's a ground-up approach, with Murdock arriving on the scene in little more than simple black clothes and a black bandana. It's not an origin story – god knows we've had enough of those of late – but it's an early draft of a character, learning how to be the superhero he's destined to become. He doesn't even get called Daredevil until almost the final scene of the series; something that many modern superhero adaptations go for, leaving the often corny names out until in-universe media coin them. Instead of an origin story, we get a work-in-progress whose beginnings are sketched in with detailed flashbacks. It helps Murdock become the most three-dimensional character in a cast that is full of them. Indeed, none of the major characters feel anything other than entirely real, and even lesser characters have depth. No one comes across as rushed or sketched-in. This is a vital part of the series' success; not only in the fundamentals of making a compelling drama, but also in bringing a lesser known property to the screen.






The cast are, to a one, absolutely compelling. Charlie Cox is not the man I'd have cast as Murdock, which just goes to show how little I should be listened to, because he is note-perfect. Handsome and confident, but tempered with a certain awkwardness that it's never quite certain is real or put on, Cox's Murdock is a deeply flawed individual who struggles to balance his inherent anger and violence with his need to do the right thing. Daredevil is unusual in that he is a religious superhero, his Catholicism both a source of strength and conflict. Cox is himself from a Catholic background, and has said that he found this element of the character easy to recreate. His accent is also note perfect, at least to my admittedly untrained ears. What must have been far more challenging is playing a blind man, something that is incredibly difficult for a sighted person to convincingly portray. Both Cox and Scott Glen, as Daredevil's mentor Stick, are entirely convincing as blind men with preturnatural precision in their bearing and skills. It's quite remarkable.


It's difficult to single anyone out for particular praise, because the cast is so very good throughout. Eldon Henson makes an excellent Foggy Nelson, a character who has previously been ignored or poorly presented in adaptations. While he has his moments of comic relief, Henson's Foggy is no useless comedy sidekick, rather representing the ordinary but skilled, hardworking and noble other half of the Nelson and Murdock firm and friendship. Henson is physically right as well; odd-looking but certainly not unattractive, but nonetheless not up to the same grade as Cox's good looks, There's a real charm to his performance, and genuine poignancy to his, as he sees it, betrayal. The central trio is completed by Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page. What could have been nothing more than a mutual love interest for Matt and Foggy, has instead been a headstrong and entirely compelling character. Karen's presence is the catalyst for the entire plot, but she is no mere plot device; the trouble she gets into are a direct result of her own investigations, no less than Matt's injuries are a result of his actions as Daredevil. Woll is really quite something, dominating scenes even when she is not the focus. Indeed, she often takes attention away from Matt and Foggy's interactions, and that's not simply because of her stunning looks. I hope if there is a second series we get to learn more about her past; there's a great deal more to be done with the character that I am certain Woll can illustrate brilliantly. An interesting fact is that Woll's real life partner is suffering from a degenerative disease that will eventually rob him of his sight. Without wanting to trivialise their experiences, I wonder if this allowed her a certain insight into playing someone close to a blind character.


The remaining cast are equally as impressive. Again, it's impossible to call out to everyone, but there are certain actors who are especially deserving of praise. Vondie Curtis-Hall is an excellent choice for Ben Urich, the stalwart reporter for, in this version, the New York Bulletin. A wonderfully characterful actor, Curtis-Hall is a perfect choice for the old city boy who's seen and weathered it all. Bob Gunton is as watchable as ever as Leland “The Owl” Owlsley, wisely portrayed as a straightforward criminal type rather than the more outlandish supervillain of the later comics. He's a slippery one, if a little obtuse. Both Rosario Dawson and Ayelet Zurer are excellent in their roles, Claire Temple and Vanessa Marianna respectively. Although neither of character exists for anything other than their relationships with the show's hero and villain respectively, both are equally as well-rounded and three-dimensional as any of the characters. Claire Temple, integrated with the character of Night Nurse (a wise streamlining of concepts), in particular could do with more exploration, but given her character's links in the comics to other upcoming characters such as Luke Cage, I think it's a certainty we will see her again in the remaining Netflix. As for Vanessa, I doubt we shall see her until any second Daredevil series, which is a pity. Zurer's scenes with D'Onofrio as Wilson Fisk are a highlight of the series, a complex, dangerous but believable relationship between two formidable individuals tied together by real love and affection.


Yes, Vincent D'Onofrio. His performance as the Kingpin is quite incredible, possibly the most remarkable performance in the series. While physically impressive, D'Onofrio does not have the gigantic stature that the comicbook character has, nor his previous screen incarnation as portrayed by Michael Clarke Duncan. This doesn't matter in the slightest, however. D'Onofrio portrays the crimelord as man barely suppressing a furious rage, one that threatens to erupt with terrifying brutality at any moment. He is absolutely terrifying, but nonetheless, a hugely sympathetic and complex character. His refined exterior contrasts with his thuggish true face, yet there is real love there, for his mother, for Vanessa, for his right-hand man Wesley (albeit, in that case, an undeniable and distracting Burns/Smithers vibe). An astonishing meeting of fine writing and acting, Wilson Fisk is the standout character of Daredevil, more compelling even than the hero. He is, of course, the dark reflection of Matt Murdock, a man who puts on his own sort of disguise to remake the city in the image he sees fit. Both are trying to change Hell's Kitchen to something greater, but their methods and goals are at odds. Nonetheless, the two men become dangerously similar when pushed to extremes. Both are moulded by the hard lessons they learnt in childhood. There are fascinating parallels. The Kingpin has long been a favourite villain of mine, since his major role in the nineties Spider-Man cartoon series, but it's opposite Daredevil that he comes into his own. D'Onofrio's portrayal is the most powerful version ever, and I would be astonished if we have seen the last of him. Certainly, the actor himself is keen to return (he has shown particular enthusiasm for appearing opposite the new Spider-Man.

Daredevil is also visually accomplished, in a very different way to the glitz of Marvel's big screen outings. Elastic's beautiful, haunting title sequence sets the scene, introducing us a dingy, dirty city that nonetheless has a certain visceral beauty. Excellent cinematography by Matt Lloyd elevates the surroundings to a theatrical arena, the bold use of colour enhancing environments. Most impressive are the fight scenes, of which there are many. Although they are of course choreographed, they never feel like they are. The fights in Daredevil are tired, dirty and bloody. There's been a trend for screen fights in recent years to be more physical and believable than the dances of previous years, but Daredevil takes it to another level. There's one fight, at the end of the second episode, that simply blows all competition out of the water. Filmed in a single long take, imperceptibly switching between Cox and his stuntman, it's utterly, brutally, astonishing. No Hulk vs. Iron Man smash is going to top that for sheer impact.

The tying in of Daredevil into the MCU is handled especially well. While there's the occasional jokey reference which feels a little out of place, for the most part it is done with restraint and skill. The ruinous setting of Hell's Kitchen is an intrinsic part of the Daredevil story, but in reality, Hell's Kitchen no longer truly exists, having been greatly cleaned up and gentrified to become a fairly desirable neighbourhood they'd rather be known as Clinton. The writers of this series have used the so-called Battle of New York, the invasion and destruction that occurred in The Avengers, to reduce the area back to its decrepit roots. Beyond that, links are few and far between, with most comicbook characters included unique, thus far, to this series, and realistically portrayed. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the long run. There are still unanswered questions, most notably regarding Stick and the Japanese criminal organisation he turned up to fight (which I presume to be the Hand). Murdock will, at some point, fight as part of The Defenders against an unknown foe, and it would not be a surprise if he had some role in the great battle that will come at the end of the next phase of Marvel movies. Until then, there's the hope of another season of Daredevil itself. Matt, Foggy and Karen may have triumphed against injustice for now, but they've painted a very big Bullseye on their heads.



Thursday, 16 April 2015

The Perennial Miss Wildthyme

A new Iris Wildthyme anthology is now up for pre-order from Obverse books! Edited by the very talented Paul Dale Smith and featuring both new and trusted authors, The Perennial Miss Wildthyme is set to be released in hardback this autumn. Of course, earlier Iris Wildthyme volumes, including the previous volume Iris Wildthyme of Mars, are still available in paper and electronic formats.



Dwarf Planets


That's the first ever full colour photograph of dwarf planet Pluto and its major moon Charon. OK, it may not look like much, but it's a significant first. No spacecraft has ever been close enough to Pluto before to take a quality image, but now NASA's New Horizons space probe is closing in on the Plutonian system, snapping photos using its special long exposure colour imager (which is, charmingly, called Ralph). The resolution is low at the current distance, but even in this image we can see that Pluto has a brighter appearance than Charon, indicating different surface materials. The New Horizons team on Earth are now refining the image to make it clearer, and better, more detailed images will come as the probe gets closer to Pluto. As I write this, it's 89 days away from closest approach.



Meanwhile, NASA's Dawn spacecraft is in orbit around Ceres, the nearest of the dwarf planets, in the asteroid belt. Dawn is the first spacecraft to achieve orbit around a dwarf planet, and has been stable in orbit for around a month, since March 6th, although frustratingly much of that time it has been on the dark side of the orbit and unable to take photos. We do have some excellent images taken from its approach though. Above are two excellent monochrome shots of Ceres, half in shadow due to the position of the spacecraft relative to both the planetoid and the sun, while below is a composite colour image of the Cererean surface. This is not a true colour image, but is enhanced to show the diversity of surface features more clearly. From both images, we can see that the Cererean surface is heavily cratered and displays considerable variation. The bottom image shows several shots of the surface taken using an infrared mapping spectrometer, clearly showing the two mysterious bright spots on the surface of Ceres which are as yet unexplained and are provoking debate. It's an exciting time for space exploration. Makes up for that tragically disappointing solar eclipse.




Wednesday, 15 April 2015

CAPTAIN'S BLOG: TOS 2-16 - 2-17

2.16) The Gamesters of Triskelion
or
Captain Kirk vs. Gladiators

The Mission: Check up on an automated station/track down the missing away team.

Planets visited:


Gamma 2: A barren, uninhabited planetoid that is the location of an unmanned communications and navigations station. In the remastered version it has a ring.

Triskelion: A planet in the treble star system M24-Alpha, 11.6 light years from Gamma 2. There was once a civilisation there, but now it's fallen into ruin.

Alien life forms:

The Providers: The remaining natives of Triskelion. There's only three of them left and they've been reduced to brains in jars. Very colourful brains in jars, at that. Once they had physical forms, and so on and so forth, heard it all before. Now they entertain themselves by betting their hard-earned quatloos on the thrall fights.

Drill thralls: Various humanoids captured from all over the Galaxy. They include: Shahna, a green-haired lady in a skimpy silver bikini who looks like Lady Gaga; Kloog, a big, hulking brute with tusks (who might be a Kalar from Rigel 7, as seen in “The Cage,); Lars, a statuesque rapist; Tamoon, a yellow-skinned tart with a manly voice; an Andorian and a black guy who gets used as training fodder. They're all controlled by Galt, a scary-ass wizard in an impressive collar. At the end of this, they win their right to self-government; which should be fairly straightforward, as there's only about twelve of them on the entire planet.

Captain James T: Sounds painfully bored at his check-up mission and genuinely cheers up when his transporter beam is zapped across space to Triskelion. His enthusiasm soon gives way to anger at the treatment of his crew (particularly Uhura) and the thralls. Kirk is such a charmer he manages to completley sway Shahna with some smooth-talking and a smooch – before punching her lights out. Shatner's performance reaches new levels of intensity in this episode.

Shirtless Kirk Alert: Practically the whole bloody episode.

Green-Blooded Hobgoblin: Completely dismissive of Scotty when he says there was no malfunction on his end when the transporter beam is zapped across space. He maintains a stolidly logical apraoch to searching for his lost crewmates and almost sounds excited at the discovery of an ion trail.

The Real McCoy: Loses his temper at Spock, but soon calms himself down.

United States of Africa: Having Uhura point out the parallels between the Providers activities and the slavery on Earth is a fine approach. There's also no way around it: Lars attempts to rape Uhura, albeit off screen. It's a really upsetting scene, nonetheless. Uhura remains strong throughout the episode, though, refusing to vicitmise fellow slaves. She's efinitely the best thing about the episode.

Tsar of all the Russias: He's a cocky little sod in this episode, until he comes face to face with his drill thrall – yellow woman Tamoon, who really fancies him.

Great Scott: Scotty gets riled up by Spock's calm approach and is egged on by McCoy, before Spock reminds him of his place.

Trivia facts: This episode was parodied in The Simpsons in the episode “Deep Space Homer,” where Homer fought Barney for quatloos. That was better sci-fi than this, too.

The Verdict: Trek at its campest and silliest, marred by excessive amounts of violence against women. It looks like this is trying to make some point about slavery and human bloodsports, but it's lost in all the daffiness. The final scene is incredibly corny.