Monday, 18 September 2017

Twenty years of Cassini

On October 15th, 1997, a Titan IV rocket launched from Cape Canaveral, carrying a Flagship-class spacecraft named Cassini. For just under twenty years, Cassini, and its companion probe Huygens, travelled through space and set up home in the Saturnian system, until it was deliberately crashed into Saturn's atmospheric sea on September 15th, 2017.

A collaborative mission between NASA (who created and launched the orbiter, Cassini), the European Space Agency (who developed the probe Huygens and the bulk of its technology) and the Italian Space Agency (who provided Cassini's telemetry and radiocommunication equipment), the Cassini project took fifteen years to move from initial concept to launch. Originally scheduled to end in 2008, the Cassini mission was extended with the Cassini Equinox mission, and again in 2010, with the Cassini Solstice mission, before it was carefully and deliberately destroyed in its final plunge.

In its early years, the spacecraft made a flyby of Venus, looped back round and took some test photos of Earth's Moon, using the gravity of this flyby to boost towards the outer solar system. After three years in space, Cassini made a flyby of the asteroid Masursky, followed by a flyby of Jupiter, collecting the most detailed images ever of the great planet. While between Jupiter and Saturn, tests were made using radio signals to and from the spacecraft, which further proved the effects predicted by Einstein's theory of gravity. In 2004, Cassini reached its destination, entering Saturnian orbit and passing through the planets outermost rings, taking shots of several moons in the journey. Two new moons - named Methone and Pallene - were discovered, while the spacecraft made flybys of the largest moon, Titan.

At the very beginning of 2005, the Huygens probe landed on Titan, sending back telemetry as it did so. It revealed a world of icy "rocks" and marshes of liquid hydrocarbons, a strange, frozen inversion of Earth, the first time we could look beneath the dense, clouded atmosphere. Over the following years, Cassini continued to travel throughout the Saturnian system, making flybys of moons, and sending back new and surprising data, such as the revelation of water systems on Enceladus. It also sent back some of the most detailed, surprising and beautiful images of the great ringed planet itself. Over the two decades of its service, multiple fixes and adjustments were made by the mission control team remotely from Earth.

To that team, the mission's designers, and the spacecraft itself: I salute you.

The Earth, from Saturn.

See some of the most breathtaking images from the mission here at

A monstrous new blog!

Just because I haven't overloaded my plate enough lately, I've gone and started a new blog. Monster Mountain is my new home for all Monster in My Pocket related nonsense, including a planned rundown of all the classic monsters, looking into their background in myth, folklore and popular culture. Click here to go see (my preferred viewing mode is flipcard).

Sunday, 10 September 2017

REVIEW: Ghostbusters 101

Of course, this had to happen eventually. It's a bit of a surprise it happened so soon. We haven't even had a pure 2016 Ghostbusters comic series yet (although one is upcoming from IDW), and here are the ladies, crossing over with the classic team for an interdimensional adventure. Then again, they've already done crossovers with The Real Ghostbusters, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and even one-shots with The Lone Gunmen and Mars Attacks! Maybe some day I'll get round to writing my crossovers with Men in Black and Poltergeist. But I digress.

This was a six-part comics series, a little longer then than the previous major crossover events, but still a reasonably concise story. It takes a little while to get going; the first issue is pretty much all set-up, and it's a good while before the two sets of Ghostbusters actually come to meet. This is fine, and the momentum picks up once they do encounter each other, but it suffers from the same problem as a lot of comic series these days, in that it feels as though it's been written for the omnibus release rather than on a monthly schedule. Re-reading it all back in one go, it moves quickly enough and has a good rhythm, but over six months, the first and last installments feel a little damp. I'm sure the trade will work beautifully, especially if they include the extra classroom material that makes the end-piece of each issue.

Aside from the crossover element, Ghostbusters 101 has a great central concept. The original trio of Venkman, Spengler and Stantz were university professors, and alongside their dubious experiments, they would have had to hold lectures and teach students. When a bust goes awry, creating a city-wide clean-up bill the size of Stay Puft's tabard, the 'busters need to generate more cash and Venkman hits on the idea of a ghostbusting experience where students will pay to learn the basic of busting. We don't actually get to see a great deal of the classes, although it sets up a thread that will surely run through any upcoming series, and it does give the gang a whole bunch of extra bodies when things are out of hand in the finale. There are several new characters already included in the set-up, mostly holdovers from the 2017 annual. Cait Banner is Janine's spunky niece, Zoe Zawadzki is her even spunkier, more techie friend, and Evan Torres is their academically-inclined third wheel. Kevin Tanaka is a great new character, the reserved but quietly funny second receptionist, and it's funny that both teams have a receptionist called Kevin, albeit of wildly different abilities. The final new recruit is Garrett Parker, a very bright young man who happens to be on the autistic spectrum, who is dealing with his father's terminal illness (which inevitably comes back to haunt him, literally). A lot of fans though he'd turn out to be the comics version of the Extreme Ghostbusters character Roland, and although he's drawn to look very like him, he's his own character and a welcome addition to the team.

For all that though, it's the crossover we're here for. It's the new kids who create this crisis on infinite Earths, after messing around with the 'buster's interdimensional portal (which was co-constructed by Donatello the Turtle, of course). They cause a ghost to be caught partly between the regular GB dimension and the reality of the 2016 movie, causing an interdimensional bleed which, among other things, leads to two Statues of Liberty standing side-by-side (sadly, neither one walks). The two realities begin to cross over, an anomaly that, in time, will cause both universes to shake themselves apart at a subatomic level. In the words of Egon Spengler, this "would be bad."

It's great fun seeing the classic team and the new team butt heads and eventually work together. Erik Burnham nails the characters' voices just as well as he did with the originals, and Dan Schoening's caricatures of the four are absolutely dead-on perfect. (Delgado's colour work is, as always, gorgeous.) Abby has some fine interplay with Egon and Ray, Abby is the perfect straight-woman as before, and there's a very natural buddy relationship between Patty and Winston - the two normal people. Kevin is a used as a way to throw in as many absurdities as possible, not always with great success, although I did enjoy his aggressive post-it usage, and we even get to meet Mike Hat.

Really, though, there's one thing we're here to see, and probably the main reason the thing got made in the first place. We want to see Holtzmann as a cartoon. Dapper Dan must have been dying to draw her. Cartoon Holtz is perfect, stealing every scene even without Kate McKinnon portraying her. We even get a little info on her prime universe counterpart, who is apparently an FBI agent, and who is undoubtedly going to turn up in future series.

As always, the creative team can't resist chucking in a few nods and winks. Not only does the 2016 movie seem to be set in the same universe as Caddyshack, they sneak a Scrooged reference in there too. The RGB team get a brief appearance through the interdimensional viewer, although here's hoping that one day we get to see the "Answer the Call" team's own "animated" counterparts. There are some fan-pleasing discussions of ghostly physics, questioning why the new 'busters blow up the spooks rather than containing them, why this is a bad idea, and how they got away with it in the 2016 movie. There's a great giant monster moment (something that was missing from the 2016 movie, excepting monstrous balloons), which reuses a monster design from a classic RGB episode. There are few questions unanswered - just whose disembodied voice do we hear speaking to the snarling ghoul that gets lodged between dimensions? - and perhaps these will get followed up in a future series.

Not the greatest series that IDW have done with the Ghostbusters licence, but a fun adventure. I'm looking forward to the 2016 team's own series next year.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

The Doctor Who Project Season 41 arrives 23rd September

The latest season of the Doctor Who fanfic series The Doctor Who Project begins with The Throne of Peladon, the first part of a story of adventure and intrigue in the fifth millennium. The story is a sequel to the third Doctor adventures The Curse of Peladon and The Monster of Peladon, and the fifth Doctor audio adventure The Bride of Peladon, and is written by my good friend and occasional collaborator James P. Quick. (The "P" stands for Peladon.)

The upcoming run of adventures in time and space will be downloadable, free of charge, here.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

REVIEW: The Unbelievable Gwenpool/Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur

Lack of funds and a sincere disinterest at the Secret Wars event have meant I haven't been keeping up with Marvel of late, but I'm now trying to catch up on some of the titles that actually look like fun. With that in mind, I picked up two trades from the bibiliotheque: Believe It, volume one of The Unbelievable Gwenpool, and The Smartest There Is, third volume of Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur.

Moon Girl is a gorgeous little title, and I picked up the first few issues when it started. This book collects issues #13-18. Gwenpool wasn't something I was particularly interested in originally, thinking it too gimmicky, but I'd heard some good things so picked that up as well. Believe It is a chunkier volume than the other, collecting issues #0-4 of the title series (issue zero itself being a combination reprint of a Howard the Duck back-up strip and a Christmas one-shot). Both collections go down a similar route, pairing their respective heroines with a succession of established Marvel characters. It's a tried-and-tested approach to new characters, making them part of the ongoing story and more appealing to existing fans. And, you know, it works, so fair enough.

Moon Girl - not to be confused with EC's Moon Girl - is the hero name of Lunella Lafayette, a young girl who, it is here confirmed, is the smartest person on Marvel's Earth. She is accompanied through much of the story here by Amadeus Cho, aka the Totally Awesome Hulk, who is not a character I'm particularly keen on, but it's good of him to help her out, even though he's only the eighth smartest person in the world. It's a nice little storyline, exploring the old conflict that arises when intelligence it confused with wisdom. Lunella may be a super-genius, but she's still only a little girl, and has a lot to learn. It also bears repeating that it is still hugely important that Marvel are running a title that stars a black child whose main power is her intellect. Although she does also have Inhuman DNA and a psychic connection with a time-displaced Tyrannosaurus, so it's not the only string to her bow. While you know that Lunella needs direction from her elders, it's hard not to feel for her when she feels frustrated or constrained, or, as at school, bored out of her mind by having to go at the slow pace of others. There's some fine character writing there by Amy Reeder and Brandon Montclare. As well as the new Hulk, Lunella meets with the Thing, Ironheart, Ms. Marvel, Dr. Strange and a bunch of X-Men, and learns some lessons on trust and teamwork. It's a simple but strong story, and I enjoyed it.

Gwenpool, who's real name is, in fact, Gwen Poole, started off as a covers gimmick when everyone went mad for Spider-Gwen. Marvel put Gwen Stacy versions of various characters on covers across several titles, and Deadpool cover was popular. It's easy to see why - Gwenpool is cute and dangerous-looking and you can see her legs. Making a character out of this might have proven difficult, but writer Chris Hastings made a good job of it. Rather than making her yet another parallel version of Gwen Stacy, he made Gwen Poole a refugee from our own universe, somehow lost in the reality of the Marvel comics she reads. She's essentially a variation on the idea of Deadpool's fourth-wall-breaking, but in her case it's because she's fully aware of the comics themselves.

This might be good for nothing more than a bunch of in-jokes, but it actually makes Gwen a potentially dangerous character since she knows more about various characters than anyone else. Even though she has no actual powers, she knows everyone's backstory and weaknesses. Convinced she has to be the hero of her own title, she kits up in pink leather and becomes a vigilante. It all goes wrong, of course, and she finds herself well out of her depth and coerced into working for MODOK (who, amusingly, thinks he's the smartest there is). As well as her own, rather more effective, session with Dr. Strange, Gwen hangs out with Howard the Duck, works with Batroc the Leaper and gets her ass handed to her by the lady Thor. It's a narrow thing, but it stays the right side of too knowing anf=d tongue-in-cheek. Good stuff.


Boys' toys in the 90s featured many fantastic ranges. It was a golden era for grotty gross-out toys and monsters. Action figures of The Real Ghostbusters, Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles and even questionable tie-ins to films like Aliens and Spawn could be found in Woolworths and Right Price. Then there were Mighty Max, Boglins and a host of other oddities. It was a great time to have pocket money. By far my favourite toy series, though, was Monster in My Pocket, a series that I have solidly loved since I was a tiny boy and have utterly failed to grow out of.

Monster in My Pocket, or MIMP for short, kicked off, along with MUSCLE, the collector-mania in kids' toys. Small, mass-produced figurines that came in a range of colours, with continuous releases of new sets to encourage further collecting, swapping and an almost religious devotion. The figures are often mixed up with MUSCLE, which was more commonly found in the States, plus subsequent lines like Mini Boglins, Dino Brites and Bad Eggz Bunch, all of which had great collectability but none of which matched my love for MIMPs (although Boglins came close for a while). Although pushed in Canada and the US, the original MIMP line was created by the UK-based Matchbox, part of Morrisson's Entertainment Group, and was most popular here and in Europe. There were, however, releases of figures and tie-ins all over the world, with significant waves released throughout Latin America, and while I'm a bit of a Matchbox purist, the variations, of varying quality, from other countries are an interesting sideline.

The idea behind MIMP was straightforward but ingenious: small figures in malleable plastic that represented monsters picked from mythology, legend and literature. Anything that was in the public domain was fair game, from well-known horrors such as a werewolf, a vampire and Frankenstein's monster to Greek mythological figures such as the Hydra and Medusa, through to obscure things that no six-year-old was ever likely to have heard of, such as the Aztec goddess Coatlicue.

The first series was released in 1989 on both sides of the pond. The adverts came first; joyfully naff TV ads with smirking little boys scaring their sisters. The monsters were "squishy!" apparently, although in reality that meant slightly bendy plastic, and initially came in four colours: red, yellow, purple and a pale green. A rerelease a year or so after reproduced these in brighter, "neon" shades, and premium figures exist in other colours, such as pine green, magenta and that lovely, off-white glow-in-the-dark colour. These are the ones that go for the bigger bucks among collectors, and came in special playsets, the board game (what happened to my copy of the board game?) and cereal boxes in the States. The straightforward, bold block colours of the figures is simple and appealling, more so than the flashier, more complicated stuff later on.

There were 48 monsters in Series I, although the precious checklist, in its tiny script, claimed there were 96, so immediately we young collectors knew there more to look forward to. Each monster was given a "points value," which was stamped on the back of the figure and supposedly indicated both the monster's power and its rarity. The monsters were granted five, ten, fifteen, twenty or twenty-five points, with the fivers being the endlessly common ones that came in blind bags and four-packs on blister cards, while "rare" 25-point monsters were the big draw of the "secret twelve-packs." Or you could shell-out for a 24-pack and get fully half the series in one swoop. Endless debates were had in playgrounds and classrooms over which of the monsters was the greatest, and whether the points system had any real merit. Seriously, a ghost gets ten points but the Winged Panther only five? It's a fricking panther with wings, you can't tell me that's not worth at least fifteen.

There were also Battle Cards, which allowed you to play a Top Trumps-style game. The cards broke down the monsters' PV's into four elements: intelligence, strength and weaponry, speed, and weaknesses/limitations (a negative score). For instance, the Kraken has intelligence 4, strength 10, speed 10 and weakness -4, giving an overall PV of twenty, while Vampire has intelligence 10, strength 6, speed 4 and weakness -10, giving a PV of ten (presumably due to his weaknesses to garlic, sunlight and running water). If this didn't increase the collectability enough, there were art cards exploring the monsters' background in excruciating 90s style, and a bloody excellent Panini stickerbook. And socks - really excellent socks.

The checklist pamphlet stated that Series I would be "history" once Series II arrived, but this was rubbish - these little guys hung around forever. Still, the introduction of the Monster in My Pocket comic series from Harvey in 1991 stoked the excitement for the second set of toys. The comic (which I will read through in more detail for a future post) pit the "good monsters" led by Vampire againt the "evil monsters" led by Warlock, who notably was not part of the existing run. Immediately the comic put unavailable monsters at the forefront, and promised more to come, even some that never actually made it to being figures. Series II arrived, in "hot neon" colours of blue, green, orange and magenta, to great excitement. They showcased weirder designs and more horrific creatures than Series I, and whacked up the Points Value, with the most powerful monsters achieving thirty points. There were also some classic monsters included, such as a dragon and the Minotaur, that were sorely missing from that first series.

There were twenty-four monsters in Series II, leaving a further two dozen still unaccounted for. Hot on the heels of Series II came Super Scary Series III, at least in the UK, and this is where it gets fiddly. The sheer excitement of Series III was tempered in my young mind by the fact that the monsters were numbered from 96 to 120, missing out a full twenty-four monsters, which bothered me for years until, finally, I discovered that the "real" third series had only been released in North America. Monsters 73 to 80 were available in cereal boxes and in Big Boy restaurants kids' meals, while #81, Blemmya, was only available packaged with the Nintendo Monster in My Pocket game. That still left a full fifteen monsters that were designed but never made it to being figures, and we only know about them because a full set of 96 were released as stickers and cards in Argentina. There are plans afoot by a private collector to create these, with the original sculptor producing the prototypes, and so far, gold premium figures of four of these are available on eBay at a whopping $60 each. Something for the serious collector there, well out of the price range of someone like me. (Actually, there are sixteen sculpts planned for this collection, because another monster popped up in the comics and wasn't listed anywhere else, but is just begging to be sculpted.)

Still, the Super Scary line, series three or four depending on preference, was beyond exciting for the seven-year-old me. The Super Scary monsters were bigger, multicoloured and just better to my childish eyes. Nowadays, the poor paint jobs and less detailed designs aren't as appealling, and the moncoloured variants that were released in boxes of Weetos (presumably being cheaper to produce that way) just look better. Still, Matchbox were selling to kids, not collectors who should be old enough to know better, and these were just fantastic. On the other hand, the Points Value system completely went to pot, with the monsters now being overpowered with fifty to a hundred points apiece, making it impossible to fight them properly against Series I and II monsters. It was also around this time that a terrible cartoon pilot was released, which made Vampire the leader of the baddies and the Invisible Man the leader of the goodies. A group of oversized figurines were released, called Super Scary Howlers, with ligh-up LED eyes and gruesome sound effects, showcasing the four classic monsters of the series: Vampire, Werewolf, Swamp Beast and the Monster (aka Frankenstein's Monster).

During the first three main series, Matchbox had their share of controversy from various religious groups. For starters, the first monster in the series was the Great Beast from the Book of the Revelation, and kicking off a toy line with the avatar of Satan himself, unsurprisingly upset some of the more conservative American quarters. In the UK, however, it was the inclusion of no fewer than four Hindu deities in the line that caused offense. There is a much larger Hindu community in the UK than in the States, and the far-right Hindu group the Vishva Hindu Parishad kicked off at the inclusion of Kali in Series I and Ganesh in Series II. This led to the pulling of Ganesh from Series II packs, making it one of the harder figs to find (later still, Herne the Hunter was also pulled, for obscure reasons). Matchbox failed to the learn their lesson, though, and the Super Scary line included both Hanuman and Yama. Again, Hanuman was pulled from later sets, although Yama merely renamed as Fire Creature, part of a wholesale reworking which gave about half the figures dumbed-down names.

The next series is probably the least fondly remembered by fans, but as a kid, my god these were brilliant. I had hoped Super Scary would be followed by a ghostly Super Spooky line (although most of the monsters in the Super Scary line were ghosts or similar), but instead, Matchbox completely changed track and gave us the Super Creepies. I can still remember going to Woolworths with the family and my mum coming to find me to tell me that she'd seen new Monster in My Pockets and they were insects. The Super Creepies chucked out the "real monsters" idea and instead gave us twenty-four hard plastic creepy crawlies, supposedly created by the insane "Dr. Zacheria Wolfson in his ultra high-tech lab." The figures were all terrible, terrible puns: the wolf spider was a spider with a wolf's head, the bedbug was a bed with legs, the ladybug wore lipstick. Sophisticated humour, I'm sure you'll all agree. I loved them, even though the Points Value was cranked up to a whole 200 points, because apparently a spider with a moustache is more powerful than Hanuman, the divine devotee of Rama who can balance the world on his tail.

More exciting still was the next series, promised to be "the orignal monsters." Yes, the next run were the dinosaurs. After a short trial with simpler figures called Dinoaur in My Pocket in the States, of which only four were released, the full MIMP Dinosaur series was released: solid, hard plastic prehistoric creatures based on, admittedly outdated, scientific reconstructions. They were awesome. By this stage, the US range had almost died out, and these were mostly found in the UK and Europe. The dinosaurs were rereleased later with new paintjobs, as the Secret Skeleton Dinosaurs - dip them in cold water, and a poorly painted set of bones appeared. These were virtually impossible to find, with only the occasional blind bag turning up, and they go for a penny or two now. While the Battle Cards had continued through the other series, the Dinosaurs had fact cards detailing their size, weight and the era in which they lived. Although the figures were identical, the Secret Skeleton Dinosaurs were presented on the cards as a further series, continuing the numbering and upping the Points Values by ten, which is a maddening inconsistency.

The classic Matchbox run essentially came to an end with the Space Aliens. These were original characters, although some were vaguely based on aliens from pop culture, and although they were pretty fun, there was surely a good opportunity here to go back to the series' roots and use "real" aliens from ufology. That would have been extremely cool. Still, the Space Aliens worked, and although there were only sixteen of them, they looked good and had a fun new gimmick. On each alein's back was a heat-sensitive sticker which revealed the Points Value and the alien's affiliation: a sun and sword for the good aliens, and skull-and-crossbones for the evil aliens. The PV (now called Battle Points) was inflated to utterly ludicrous extremes, though, now ranging from 150 all the way up to 500 points for the leaders of each side. The Battle Cards were also revived, albeit simplified. There were apparently plans for further dinosaurs to follow this, although in the end, only four were produced, numbered #223-226, which came boxed up with a wristwatch (which I almost won on eBay, damn it). These buggers go for insane prices.

The original line fizzled out after the Space Aliens, but in 1995, Vivid Imaginations took over manufacture for Matchbox and completely revamped the line with the release of Monster Wrestlers in My Pocket. These were a completely new variant on the series, cashing in on the 90s wrestling craze. Each figure was an original character, about half being based on classic monsters, the other half being grossly muscular humans. There were forty-five Monster Wrestlers, including coaches, referees and a monstrous medical team, although some of these were released exlusively in playsets. The series' long-standing relationship with breakfast cereal reached new heights, as the Monster Wrestlers were introduced with ten exclusive figures with Frosties. Weirdly enough, these included Tony the Tiger himself (I guess he is pretty grrrrrreat).

The Monster Wrestlers were tough, rubbery plastic, fully painted with a few variant paint jobs. They had Points Values, on the feet this time, ranging in 25-point jumps from zero points for the referees to the all-star 100-pointers. (There was one anomalous thirty-pointer, the gleefully racist Kongo King.) There were also "Grapple Cards" and a similar range of milkcaps, because this was also the era of the Pog. There was even a Monster Wrestlers in My Pocket comicbook, whcih lasted an even shorter time than the original comic series, plus jigsaw puzzles and other sundry tat. The series was followed by two more similar lines, Monster Sports Stars in My Pocket and Monster Ninja Warriors in My Pocket. Never a lover of sports, I can't say I'm a fan of the Sports Stars, who were only released in Frosties packets and included Tony the Tiger again, but the Ninja Warriors were pretty awesome, and they had weaponry accessories which had their own Points Values, which was a fun idea. They came with their own Pogs as well.

That was it for the original run of MIMP. There were a couple of attemtps to relaunch in the years to follow, and European rereleases (the Italian lines have some particularly cool colours). I ended up giving away or selling a lot of my little monsters, before a strong pang of nostalgia made me get onto eBay and buy a whole lot of them back. The instigator of this nostalgia was the unexpected relaunch of Monster in My Pocket in 2006. Now owned by Corinthian, this was a complete revamp of the line, going back to the original concept of tiny figures of "real" monsters. Once again, there were forty-eight little monsters, drawn from myth, legend and literature, or to put it another way, from the four series of MIMP. These were fully detailed, hand-painted figurines and were really excellent pieces of work, although they lacked that simplistic appeal of the classic series. Some of the designs were closer to the mythological basis for the monsters, others further removed. Having almost learnt a lesson from Matchbox, Corinthian produced a Monkeyman figure instead of Hanuman, and a version of Kali thinly-veiled as "Six-Armed Sorceress." The Invisible Man figure was particularly excellent - made from clear plastic that showed through any gaps in the paintwork.

The new series was split into eight categories: the Ancients, the Beasts, the Humanoids, the Winged, the Ghosts, the Dead, the Sea Monsters and the Maniacs. In some territories, such as Australia, they were split into two series of twenty-four. Similar to the Points Values, these monsters had a power level that could be revealed with an infrared decoder light, although this feature didn't really work. There were new playsets, and a new Battle Cards set, with points sections that I think represent intelligence, strength/weaponry, speed and scariosity, plus an element for each monster. Interestingly enough, the numbering on the back of the cards was out of 230, suggesting a much larger run was planned; perhaps the number being based on the original list that included some extended run of dinosaurs and so on? In the end, only forty-eight were relased, and although I don't love these as much as the classic line, they are very cool indeed.

You may have gathered that I'm a huge fan of Monster in My Pocket, and they are the one toy line from my youth that I still actively collect (pocket money permitting). I plan to talk more about these little monstrosities a lot over the coming months - what better way to explore my love of mythology and literature than through the classic run of MIMPs? And maybe one day I'll finally create my Big Book of Monsters, inspired, in no small part, by the little plastic thingies that we traded on the playground.

To learn a great deal more about Monster in My Pocket, check out Jud's exhaustive collectors' site

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

REVIEW: Grave Warnings

Ed. Bob Furnell, Robert Mammone and Jez Strickley

Pencil Tip Publishing is one of the newer small presses, and while it is so far known best for TV tie-in works, it is already expanding in a new direction: original horror fiction.

Grave Warnings is a compact, evocative book of horror stories, with five authors penning short, punchy tales of terror. Although the title and cover to the book would suggest that this is a collection of ghost stories, it's more varied than that. Although ghost stories do feature, the five tales cover an impressive array of styles and genres between them. If there is one thing that links the stories, it is that the true horror is often not at the hand of something supernatural, but is very human in origin.

The collection opens with “Deceased Estate” by Sarah Parry, a very effective story that sets the grim tone for the book. Parry cleverly shifts the storytelling from light and conversational to desperate and horrific, creating a chilling tale with a hint of a modern Lovecraftian vibe. In spite of the inhuman monstrosities it hints at, “Deceased Estate” is a warning on the perils of unchecked greed.

The theme of avarice continues with Craig Charlesworth's “The Dumb Show,” the most traditional ghost story in the collection. A fun pastiche of Victorian-era short stories, Charlesworth's story is a penny dreadful that sees money-hungry men try to use a haunting to their own financial advantage, even as one tries, or claims to try, to turn over a new leaf. The biting final scene proves that it is the living that present the most to fear.

The Specimen” by Jodie van de Wetering is a brief interlude between the heavier stories, and introduces a man whose unwholesome pastime leads to his becoming truly lost to nature. It's the shortest but most immediately potent story, simply and effectively told.

Hannah G. Parry presents “The Citizen,” an unassuming title for a disquieting and powerful story. Although it is a ghost story, “The Citizen” inverts the usual conception of a haunting in order to make her protagonist question his choices. It's an unsettling tale of cowardice and brutality, emotions so easily entwined, set against the very real, very human horror of revolutionary France, when Paris was, not for nothing, known as the Land of Fear. This story is my personal highlight of the book.

Finally, “Vacancy” by Hamish Crawford brings us back to seemingly ordinary life, with a story that makes us question the protagonist's sanity as he relates the story of how his life changed when he took in a new lodger. With only a hint at something supernatural, “Vacancy” draws on some of the same concerns as “The Citizen”: that we, as men, can commit acts we never thought we were capable of.

Grave Warnings is a a pleasantly unsettling set of stories, and I look forward to more.

Purchase as copy here.

Monday, 28 August 2017

REVIEW: 'Aliens in the Mind' by Robert Holmes

The classic BBC radio drama Aliens in the Mind is currently available to stream on BBC Radio 4 Extra. A fine science fiction tale from the mind of great scriptwriter Robert Holmes, you can listen to it here (at time of posting, the serial is on episode three of its six-part run). Here is my old review of this story, originally posted on The History of the Doctor.

Aliens in the Mind began life as a submission for the Doctor Who in the late 1960s by the now legendary Robert Holmes. Then titled Aliens in the Blood, it would have featured the second Doctor, Jamie, and presumably Zoe. For various reasons, it wasn’t picked up, but the outline was several years later to form the basis of this radio serial. Holmes was apparently unable to write the script himself, and it was instead handled by one Rene Basilico - although, having been unable to find any further information on this individual, he may be a pseudonym for all I know.

Rewritten in its entirety, the story is centred on two academics, John Cornelius and Professor Curtis Lark, played by two absolute legends of horror and sci-fi. The more stoic and mild-mannered Cornelius is played by Peter Cushing, while the witty American parapsychologist Prof. Lark is voiced by Vincent Price. Cushing is, of course, perfect in his role as a gentlemanly surgeon, while Price is as wonderfully fruity and sardonic as ever. Honestly, I could listen to that man read out telephone book - what a marvellous voice he has, capable of making anything seem witty or haunting. The duo are old acquaintances, reunited when their friend, Dr. Hugh Dexter, is killed under mysterious circumstances.

Travelling to the remote Hebridean island of Lerwigh, the doctorish duo discover that Baxter’s death is just one part of a far greater mystery. For the Lerwigh is plagued by something known as ‘island sickness,’ a strange affliction that affects the locals minds in their teens. Further investigation reveals that this is merely the maturation stage for a race of mutants - human anomalies with telepathic tendencies. Tendencies that even they, for the most part, are unaware of. They’d be harmless were it not for the occasional second-stage mutation, the so-called Controllers or Masters, who have the ability to psychically control the main mutant populace.

Uncovering the signs of a conspiracy, the pair take the young Flora (Sandra Clarke) away for examination. To all appearances, she is nothing more than a mentally-disabled young adult, but is, in fact, a budding Controller, able to call her fellow mutants from anywhere within a mile radius to obey her every command. In London, they discover that the ongoing emigration from Lerwigh has created a greater threat to humanity than they could ever have realised.

It’s a slow-paced drama, concerned with gently racking up the tension rather than providing action and thrills. It’s perhaps too slow at times, dragging a little in the middle episodes, although continual revelations and plot developments maintain interest. Cushing and Price dominate a fair-sized cast, their voices always distinct against the array of Scots accents. Scenes which have them simply sitting down to dinner are used to summarise the plot, with a smattering of banter to keep it diverting. There are flashes of Holmesian wit, but the dialogue does sometimes slip into dry exposition. Nonetheless, the tension gradually mounts to a chilling finale, which manages to tie up the immediate threat, while leaving the ending open to the greater consequences. Who fans will enjoy hearing Richard Hurndall in the cast, bringing two substitute first Doctors together. There’s some subtle but effective sound work, including some very restrained gunshots, but the main strength of the play lies in Price and Cushing’s earnest depiction of the concepts, which take in telepathy, hypnotism, slavery, politics and eugenics.

While not the classic Holmes’s reputation might suggest, Aliens in the Mind is a worthwhile and intriguing example of audio science fiction.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

DANDY SPACE LOG 2-12 & 2-13

The grand finale of Space Dandy!

Season Two, Episode Twelve - Dandy's Day in Court, Baby!

Dandy stands trial for murder, as the Gogol Empire closes in.

He's Dandy, Baby: Dandy is on trial for the murder of the Lumeshian Guy Reginald on the planet Suburbia. Having heard about the presence of a rare Lumeshian on the planet at BooBies, Dandy travelled there to capture him. A DNA scan of Dandy comes up negative, but his Pyonium levels are increasing exponentially. Dandy sleeps through his entire trial.

He's Not a Space Cat, Baby: Dandy doesn't list Meow as a crewmember, and once tried to seel him to a petshop but they wouldn't buy him. Meow waited at the emergency exit during the supposed murder, and pretty quickly turns against Dandy, saying that he always thought he'd snap eventually. He spends most of the trial tweeting.

He's Just a Little Obsolete, Baby:
QT is also called as a witness, along with Scarlet and Honey. QT was minding the ship at the time of the incident. Dandy wanted to buy "one of those R2-D2 type robots" but ended up with QT, and he was too much trouble to take back.

We're Alien Hunters, Baby:

Lumeshians: An extremely rare alien species, the registration of which would fetch a fine one million woolongs at the ARC. Judging by Guy Reginald, they are tall, blue humanoids. Reginald suffers from sleep apnoeia, and had entered a state of hibernation mistaken by the coroner for death due to his unfamiliar physiology. Reginald was formerly a notorious masked wrestler.

Sundry aliens: The prosecutor of the trial is a weird jackal-shark creature. The lead judge is a toothy whale creature with a hint of Vogon about him. They both speak with a Southern drawl. The counsel for the defense is a vaguely insectoid, green quadruped.

Let's get Our Asses to BooBies, Baby: Honey isn't pleased that on his last visit to BooBies, Dandy ordered a coffee and stayed for "like, five hours." Dandy was snuggling up to Rose Reginald, Guy's wife, a tall, beautiful and very chesty humanoid.

I Know This Planet, Baby: The planet Suburbia is five thousand parsecs from planet Turbo, home to two baseball-playing, Twitter-obsessed kids called Hiroshi and Skipjack.

Phenomenology, Baby: Pyonium, or Mega-Pyonium, is a recently discovered particle that bend time and space, allowing travel across dimensions, and theoretically contains incredible levels of energy. Intense emotional states can interact with Pyonium, potentially propelling across incredible distances or across dimensions, for instance, the bloodlust and fury Hiroshi felt at his "friend" Skipjack for blocking him on Twitter propelled his Pyonium covered baseball from Turbo to Suburbia, seemingly because of the magnetic effect of Dandy's own Pyonium levels.

Dr. Duran is the galaxy's foremost expert on Mega-Pyonium. He refers to it as the God Particle. (Professor Higgs will be pleased, he never liked people using that name for his eponymous boson.)

The Bottom Line, Baby:  A pretty average episode that mostly exists to clarify what Pyonium does and set up the grand finale. The furious level of in-jkes has long settled down by ow, but the episode still finds room for references to Star Wars, Samurai Champloo, The Shining and Twelve Angry Men. The mad Dandy-esque space science is good fun. The ending is worth it, though: a thousand insectoid Gogol warriors appear outside the courthouse to capture Dandy, leading into...

WHO REVIEW: Titan Eleventh Doctor comics - Year Two

A belated review of the most recent complete run of Doctor Who comics to feature the eleventh Doctor (I may cover Ten and Twelve later, we'll see). Titan Publishing's "Eleventh Doctor, Year Two" ran from late 2015 to the end of 2016, but I've been catching up via the UK reprints in Tales from the Tardis, which appear on stands about six or seven months later. The storyline has also been published in a series of trade paperbacks: The Then and the Now, The One, and The Malignant Truth, so there's no shortage of ways to read the story.

And a truly excellent story it is. The full "year" comprises a fifteen issue storyline, from "The Then and the Now, Part One" through to "Physician, Heal Thyself," charting an epic adventure that crosses the Doctor's timeline from the depths of the Time War to the high times of the eleventh Doctor. Written by Rob Williams and Si Spurrier, the series features a number of artists, although for me, Simon Fraser's idiosyncratic style suits the story best. Regardless, there's a consistency to the story's art in spite of the mix of artists, a rare feat for an ongoing strip with different artistic contributors. It's a story that deserves a strong visual style, as it demands that the story sticks in the mind.

If you're not a fan of the Time War mythos that has become so important in modern Doctor Who, you won't enjoy this series. Although the Time War was an essential part of the backstory of the ninth and tenth Doctors, the series moved on from it during the time of the eleventh, only for it to become the driving force of the fiftieth anniversary special. The comic series revives this focus, bringing the eleventh Doctor and his comic strip companion Alice Obiefune into contact with the his war crimes. The Doctor doesn't even remember the apparent genocide at his own hands, and it is most certainly impossible for elements to be spilling out from time-locked events into his relative present. Nonetheless, the Doctor and Alice are pursued through time and space by the eponymous Then and the Now, a warping ripple in humanoid shape that is both a bounty hunter and a walking temporal paradox.

It isn't only Alice that joins the Doctor. On the course of his travels he is joined by various other adventurers, not least of whom is Abslom Daak, Dalek Killer! Anyone who's read my reviews of the seventh Doctor comics will know that I'm not a fan of Daak. He's a one-note joke on the sort of macho 90s antihero that is unbearable unless written with considerable finesse. Thankfully, then, here he is written with finesse, becoming a far better foil for the eleventh Doctor than he ever was for the seventh. It actually works very well, since the eleventh Doctor can be just as manipulative as the seventh, and has no qualms in using Daak as a blunt instrument.

Another blunt instrument the Doctor is fond of is River Song, whom he breaks out of prison to ehlp him on his mission to track down the truth of his own past. Then there's the Squire, a frankly wonderful new creation. The Squire is an elderly space knight who supposedly acted as companion to the Doctor during the War. The Doctor, however, has no memory of her, and the truth behind his faithful companion's past is just one of the mysteries he has to explore.

Events conspire to drag the Doctor and his team throughout the continuum, from a Sontaran battlefield to the prison asteroid Shada. The current crisis is entwined with the Doctor's past, and two whole issues go by without the eleventh Doctor's appaearing at all. Alice is drawn back, in an apparently impossible manoeuvre, to the depths of the Time War, to come face-to-face with the War Doctor, who then leads the storyline until future and past catch up. The War incarnation is not alone, however. Needs must as the devil drives, and he has allied himself with the Master, here presented in a previously unseen incarnation that appears as dark-haired young boy, which is even more sinister than it sounds.

Where we find the Time War, we find Daleks, and this story presents the worst, most monstrous Daleks ever. The Volatix Cabal are an elite group of Dalek mutants created to fight the Time Lords, not unlike the Cult of Skaro, except that these Daleks have taken creativity and individuality to its extremes. Twisting their bodies and minds into horrific shapes, they have driven themselves insane, and seek to spread pain and fear throughout time, screaming "ExterminHATE!" wherever they go. They are an absolutely absolutely terrifying creation, and their distorted forms are the enduring image of this story. However, Abslom Daak was born to kill Daleks.

In a story that twists and turns into paradox after anomaly, the Doctor faces consequences of his hardest choices. I often felt during the early 21st century series that there was scope for more exploration of the fallout of the Time War and the Doctor's actions within in, and these comics are a perfect example of the stories this approach can generate. Showing the Doctor in his worst but most interesting light, Titan's "Eleventh Doctor, Year Two " is a superior Doctor Who comic.

Monday, 14 August 2017

REVIEW: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

I expected something a little weirder from Valerian. The trailers and publicity materials pushed the sheer number of bizarre aliens and incredible vistas that Luc Besson has gone to lengths to recreate in the most expensive independent film in history. However, underneath the admittedly spectacular visuals and quirky asides, Valerian's story is very straightforward and pretty ordinary.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is based on a long-running French comic, Valerian et Laureline, which ran all the way from 1967 to 2010. Like many in the English-speaking world, I've never read it, although I am aware that it has had a big influence on many science fantasy writers, artists and creators over the years. This makes it hard to say whether Besson drew on other space adventure properties when he wrote and directed the movie. I'd expect it to look and feel a lot like his previous fantasy epic, The Fifth Element, but Valerian also has a distinct feel of Star Wars in many sequences. Is Besson drawing on the biggest space fantasy series ever, or is it simply that George Lucas was influenced by Valerian et Laureline as much as people say?

The opening of the film is just perfect, taking us on a tour through the history of space travel and particularly, the development of a huge space station in Earth orbit. It drifts from 2001 evocative realistic hardware to Star Trek-like interstellar diplomacy. It's exactly how I'd open a grand space opera. It introduces the primary setting of the movie, a gigantic conglomeration of alien environments clustered around the onetime space station named Alpha, the so-called City of a Thousand Planets.

Visually, the film is absolutely incredible. I've said before that modern sci-fi blockbusters have become essentially animated films, and Valerian takes this trend further even than Star Wars or Guardians of the Galaxy. Save for a handfull of scenes, almost every moment in the movie is filled with CG aliens of all shapes and sizes, or against a background of mind-boggling cityscapes, impossibly deep caverns and alien palaces. The most inventive environment appears early in the film, at the Big Market, a huge bazaar that exists in two different dimensional plains (and there was me thinking it was in Newcastle).

There's no faulting the look of the film, it's array of extraterrestrials or its fabulous locations. However, they make for a background for quite uninteresting human characters. Valerian and Laureline, spatio-temporal agents for the Human Federation, are played by Dane DeHaan and Cara Delavingne, who are very pretty but don't add a lot else. Neither actor has a great deal of charisma to me, and the two baby-faced space agents don't inspire much interest as protagonists. The actors also lack chemistry with each other, which is a problem when a laboured romance is at the heart of the story. You know the sort of thing - he sees himself as a bad boy, she thinks she's too good for him, they love each other really, surely he'll break through her shell, etc. Seen it a thousand times before.

The central plot concerns the fate of the planet Muul, a lost paradise world once inhabited by peculiar, beautiful and quite dull alien beings. There's a rot at the heart of the Federation, and the disenfranchised aliens hold the truth. Perfectly solid, if unoriginal material, and the plot chugs along quite nicely. It's energetic and fun, and there are some very entertaining action set pieces. The problem is that I can't find myself caring much about either the two leads or the pacifistic aliens. I'm more interested in the various ne'er-do-wells we glimpse in the Big Market and in the underworld of Alpha. The best character is a shapeshifting coelenterate who doesn't even make it till the end of the second act, but at least she's a sexy invertebrate and is played by Rihanna.

Good fun and very pretty, but two-dimensional and with some truly terrible dialogue. Don't get me wrong; I enjoyed it, but given the choice, I'm never going to put Valerian on instead of Guardians of the Galaxy or Star Wars, or, for that matter, The Fifth Element.

REVIEW: THE SLIDE by Victor Pemberton

Sadly, it has been reported today that Victor Pemberton, one of the truly great scriptwriters, has died. I thought this made a good occasion to re-upload my review of his highly regarded science fiction radio serial, The Slide, first broadcast in seven weekly parts in 1966.This review was written for The History of the Doctor, hence the very Doctor Who-focused elements in parts.

Victor Pemberton is best remembered by Doctor Who fans as the author of the Troughton serial Fury from the Deep, as well as the later audio release The Pescatons, starring Tom Baker. This is of course just one facet of a prolific career in television and radio (including work on the UK version of Fraggle Rock!), including this well-remembered radio serial from 1966. Contrary to popular fan myth, The Slide was never submitted as a Doctor Who story, although its success did likely have a bearing on Permberton’s later working for the series, and there are some similarities to Fury from the Deep. However, these are mostly restricted to the environmental themes of the plays, and the relentless, inhuman nature of the threat involved. If anything, The Slide has a more Quatermass­-y vibe, full as it is with realistic people and concerned scientists being caught up in unfathomable events.

Set in the small English town of ­­­­Redlow, The Slide pits it and its inhabitants against a constant onslaught from nature. At first a sudden, unexpected tremor creates a vast crack in the main road; then, at night, a thick, greenish slurry begins to seep from the crack, sliding impossibly up the road against the gradient. A deceptively gentle pace continually piles events upon the characters, so that each episode drives inexorably towards a terrifying conclusion. The Mud forms a continuous slide in the night, encroaching further and further into the town, while at day it solidifies into an immovable, impenetrable mass.

Themes of environmentalism and the conflict between human progress and natural order are at the forefront here. The play begins with the small scale crisis of townsfolk against a progressive developer who has made sweeping changes to the town’s environs. This is then reflected in macrocosm, as the Mud sweeps away the town to create its own environment, one of stillness and darkness. It even touches on an almost Gaia-like hypothesis, as the Mud is revealed to not only be alive, but intelligent, and some come to believe that the Earth herself is reacting against humanity, endeavouring to scour them from the surface. It does take the scientific elite an astonishingly long time to realise that it is sunlight that is causing the Mud to solidify in daytime, thus presenting a solution, but otherwise the bouts of theorising provide some of the most intriguing and enjoyable segments.

What makes the serial so effective, however, is its focus on real human characters, brought to life by some of the era’s most talented actors. The onslaught of the Mud leads to the rural townsfolk to lose their faith, to turn against one another, or to sink into depression. It’s a grim portrait of human frailty under pressure - although the revelation that the Mud is exerting a hypnotic influence is perhaps a bit much. Maurice Denham portrays ­­­­Hugh Deverall’s gradual collapse from influential developer to incoherent madman with alarming realism, while Dr Richards, the local GP, struggles to maintain his stiff upper-lipped composure in face of the onslaught. Meanwhile, the great Roger Delgado raises above a phony South American accent (“The surface of thee Earth is like thee theen crust of a pie…”) to create a powerful performance as the geologist Joseph Gomez.

The writing and performances are ably supported by some sterling work by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Perfectly created everyday sounds are thrown into sharp relief by the screeching whine emitted by the encroaching Mud, amongst which is some brave, highly effective use of silence. The Slide is a classic piece of science fiction, a masterful look back at the days of truly great radio.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Comics Round-Up: First in Ages!

I cut waaay down on my comics purchasing this year due to the fact that the things cost an absolute fortune to keep up with. Currently, I have only one item on my pull list: Ghostbusters 101, which I plan to review in full once it's finished. However, I decided to pick up a few one-offs over the last few weeks just to see what new things were on the shelf, and thought it was high time for a little round-up. Plus, I'm going to be catching up on some recommended titles in the trades and graphic novels, for review as well.

America #4 (Marvel) I was so up for an America Chavez series, but this wasn't all that. It's interesting exploring her backstory, and I guess that was always how a series centring on her had to go, but America is one of those characters whose mystery is a big part of her appeal. That, and punching things. Maybe this was an off-issue, but among all the glitzy visuals, the story didn't do much for me.

Astonishing X-Men #1 (Marvel)

The X-Men, who have about twelve series on the go at any one time, get their latest issue one. And, well, it's not bad. There's a strong hook - the Shadow King is making his comeback via the minds of the world's psychics, and almost overcomes Psylocke. She calls out to various mutants to help fight him: Angel, Bishop, Gambit (who comes in two with Fantomex), Rogue and Old Man Logan. There's some very clunky dialogue as different characters (some from different universes) get each other up to speed, but the interplay is pretty fun otherwise. The last page reveal, while a bit predictable, is effective enough.

Bill & Ted Save the Universe #2 (Boom!)

Blast, I missed the first issue. I'll have to keep my eyes open for it. This is a treat. They've been to the past, they've been to the future, they've been all around the afterlife, but one place they haven't been is outer space. Apart from the obvious fun to be had with Wyld Stallyns meeting aliens, this series introduces their long lost mothers into the mix, plugging a big gap in the narrative of the films by revealing that they've actually been travelling the universe to prepare other civilisations for the coming of the Stallyns. Rufus is satisfyingly shifty and the dialogue for the guys is spot on. The art by Bachan and Guimaraes fits the mood perfectly as well. Definitely plan to pick up issue three.

Centipede #1-#2 (Dynamite)

Just out in digital, and this is really pretty good. Adapting an extremely simplistic Atari game into a comic is always going to be a challenge, no matter how much fun it is, but this works, because it allows itself to be a simple tale and focuses on straightforward beats. Elements like the last man alive and an unstoppable threat never get old. There are some great emotional beats in here as well, which come at you in between the highly effective monster attack panels. It's a shame we ca't escape Joseph Campbell even on an alien planet, but this is nonetheless a fun way to spend a few minutes.

Shade, the Changing Girl #8 (DC's Young Animal)

DC's latest imprint includes this new update/sequel to Shade, the Changing Man, and I've only now come round to reading an issue. Young Loma, an avian alien from the planet Meta, follows in the footsteps of her hero Rac Shayde and comes to Earth. I finally picked this up because the cover features rainbow-feathered dromaeosaurs and that is guaranteed to appeal to me. Actual dinosaur content of the issue is minimal. It took me a while to get up to speed with what was happening here, but the disjointed uncertainty of the story is the point. Interesting, probably needs to be picked up as a trade so I can really get to grips with it. 

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Top of the tree in what's ostensibly still the most powerful country in the world, and somehow they still don't think it's good enough.

They march in, angry that the chief figure of slavery and oppression is no longer permitted as a figure of reverence.

And when violence breaks out, as it so easily does, the weight of the law will crash down hardest on those who are fighting to recognise that their people are the oppressed, not these conservative cretins. How many neo-Nazi, modern KKK bastards will face actual consequences for their actions today? How many black counter-protesters will see the inside of a cell?

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

TREK REVIEW: Star Trek Continues 9 - "What Ships Are For"

Before they begin their two-part finale, the Star Trek Continues team present a stand-alone episode that embodies exactly what classic Star Trek was all about. "What Ships Are For" is a story with a strong, simple but effective moral message that would fit in perfectly in Trek's classic run, although it has a particular resonance with today's concerns.

The episode is set on and around Hyalinus, a misshapen asteroid that is inhabited by a sophisticated race of people who are slowly making their way out into the wider universe. When Kirk and co. beam to the surface in order to make official contact with the Hyalini, they find a monochrome world, completely leached of colour. It's a great visual hook, and particularly striking in contrast to the rainbow colours of the series as a whole. It becomes clear that Hyalinus is bathed in solar radiation that prevents the eyes' cone cells from functioning, so that no one on the surface can see colour. It's a bit of a question then why the Hyalini evolved cones in the first place, although it's said that the radiation has been increasing over the last few centuries so presumably once they functioned normally. The increasing radiation is also causing a sickness to appear among the population.

Kirk takes an inhabitant of the planet back to the Enterprise - the youngest and prettiest, obviously - and introduces her to the world of colour. It becomes clear that there is another species in the system, the Abicians, who are considered backward, savage immigrants and refugees, violently kept away from Hyalinus. However, it becomes clear that there are thousands of Abicians living on the planet, fully integrated. Should the Federation help counteract the radiation and allow the people of the planet to see in colour again, they will be able to see the aliens living among them, with potentially violent consequences.

It's a pretty obvious metaphor for racism and xenophobia, but I enjoy episodes with a strong, in-your-face moral sometimes. Just like "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield," this episode knocks you on the head with how ridiculous it is to judge people based on the colour of their skin, but being obvious about it doesn't make it any less true or important. A little more subtle is the pro-refugee message, pushing the message that a nation cannot thrive by shielding it from outsiders, something that both the US and the UK could learn to accept. There's a fine line that points out that compassion can exist alongside fear and pride, another thing we could stand to learn.

It's a decent script, written by Kipleigh Brown, who also plays Lt. Smith (who surprisingly barely features in the episode). The are some elements, particularly the interplay between Kirk, Spock and Bones, which don't flow very well and feel forced in. The main cast, though, improve in their roles all the time, with Vic Mignogna now giving an almost perfect reenactment of Shatner's Kirk. There are good turns by Elizabeth Maxwell as young alien Sekara and Anne Lockhart as her foster mother Thaius. Lockhart is another actor who is best known for a major sci fi role, in this case Sheba in the original Battlestar Galactica. The big draw here though is John de Lancie, making a powerful guest appearance as Galisti, ruler of Hyalinus. It's a welcome surprise that he isn't playing Q, but an entirely new character, one who has some excellent confrontation with Kirk. He's undeniably a highlight of the episode.

Although there are elements in the episode that call back to the series as a whole, "What Ships Are For" plays down it's connections to the Trek mythology. There's a mention of yet another two Constitution-class ships being lost from service, which is presumably going to tie into the finale and the Enterprise's part in the revamp of Starfleet. There's another moment which ties into the Motion Picture, which signifies the end point of Star Trek Continues, and also provided a laugh: the crew get their first glimpse of the beige pyjamas that pass as uniforms in that movie, and promptly declare that they'll never be seen dead in them. It's a fun little nod to the movie, and also ties into the overall episode with its tale of drabness and lost colour. The only other element I picked up that tied into the mythology was that the Enterprise's next mission is to Daran 5, which would be a follow-up to the events of the third season episode "For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky."

Beyond these gentle nods, though, this a fun, effective episode that stands proudly on its own two feet.

"What Ships Are For" can be watched here.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Two short films

Two short animations that have been gaining attention and are worth sharing far and wide. The first only went up two days ago, and celebrates love and diversity. Too cute for words.

"In a Heartbeat" is by Beth David and Esteban Bravo.

The second film has been around since February but somehow I've only just stumbled upon it. It's an excellent sf short and cooperation vs. greed.

"Wire Cutters" was made by Jack Anderson and is hosted by

Saturday, 29 July 2017

DANDY SPACE LOG 2-10 & 2-11

I now have my hands on Space Dandy (thanks, Helen!) so I can finally complete my Dandy Space Logs. Here's the penultimate entry, with the two most romantic episodes in the Dandy canon.

Season Two, Episode Ten - Lovers Are Trendy, Baby!

To shake off her meathead ex, Scarlet hires Dandy to be her stand-in boyfriend.

He's Dandy, Baby: Dandy thinks he's worth way more than 750 woolongs per hour. He's a decent skier and a hell of a swimmer. He does have a tendency to get overexcited and steal things of nearby children, such as toboggans and binoculars, but he insists it's just borrowing. While on the beach with Scarlet he flirts with other girls, and later takes her to BooBies, where he flirts with Honey. On the other hand, he can be pretty gallant, offering to give Scarlet a piggyback home when her shoe is broken, fighting off an alien spider (and destroying her apartment in the process), and standing up to her ex. While he's with Scarlet, he's a lot luckier, catching a bunch of new aliens (see below), although it's actually Scarlet who captures the bunch at the ski resort.

The Scarlet Woman, Baby: Scarlet broke up with her hunky boyfriend Dolph months ago but she's been unable to shake him off, although Dandy points out that she hasn't been completely straight with him. Her solution is to take her paid holiday and hire Dandy to pose as her boyfriend. She draws up a contract and a rigid schedule of fun, and specified that there be no unsolicited physical contact (i.e. no kissing) initiated by Dandy. Although they continually aggravate each other, Scarlet and Dandy do start to develop feelings for each other. It's pretty likely she picks his outfits for the trip as well, unless he's secretly into the preppy, knotted sweatshirt look. Scarlet looks pretty amazing in her swimsuit (it manages to stay just the right side of fan service). Both Scarlet and Dandy are huge fans of a star called Chuck, who starred in such movies as Karate Kommandoes.

When Dolph turns up, he's flying a huge mecha, and blows up half of the orbital they're on out of jealousy. He also tries to hypnotise Scarlet, which is pretty damned evil. Fortunately, he's arrested on charges of assault and stalking, and is banned from going within ten thousand parsecs of Scarlet.

They're Sidekicks, Baby: Having spent a week hunting an alien on Dandy's say-so for no reward, Meow and QT basically bully him into taking Scarlet's job.

I Know This Planet, Baby: The planet Trendy is a moon-like rock, but it is covered in pressure domes that house different environments, including a ski resort and a beach. There are orbital stations as well, including Yamashita Colony, where you'll find Cafe Bar Crystal. There's also the Orbital Escay, an escalator that takes visitors into orbit to watch fireworks. Trendy has Trendy police, who are pretty trendy.

They definitely speak English in Dandy's universe (at least in the English dub, of course).

We're Alien Hunters, Baby:

At the ARC, we catch a glimpse of a gigantic metallic alien from nebula M78. As well as being a real nebula in Orion, this pegs the alien as being an Ultraman.

Dandy also catches a giant cuttlefish alien which goes for 5000 woolongs, and a bunch of aliens at the ski resort that look like a snowman, an oni and even Santa Claus.

Scarlet is freaked out by a spider in her bathroom.. which is fair enough, because it's the horrifying head-spider-thing from The Thing.

The Bottom Line, Baby: A very sweet, heartwarming episode, although those closing scenes on Yamashita are a gutpunch. Everything is back to normal at the end, of course, although you can't watch this without desperately wanting Dandy and Scarlet to get together.

Friday, 28 July 2017

REVIEW: Archer: Dreamland

Archer is possibly the best, most definitely the funniest, animated series of the 21st century so far. Over its now eight seasons, it's moved from international espionage, through adventures under the sea and in outer space, to season-long adventures in cocaine smuggling and the PI business. And now, it's become a film noir, albeit a batshit crazy one.

Season seven ended with Archer grievously wounded, face down in a swimming pool. As we enter season eight, subtitled Dreamland, we find he has been lying in a coma for three months. In his head, he has conjured up his own fantasy world, set in 19-something (probably about 1947; amazingly, this is the least anachronistic season yet). Like the previous run, Archer is part of a PI agency, only this time, it's just him and his partner. Or at least, it was.

Following the death of the great George Coe in 2015, Archer's long-suffering valet Woodhouse has been absent from the series (although he was recast for a single season for Archer Vice). In a surprisingly touching sentiment, Dreamland is not only dedicated to Coe, but the death of Woodhouse is the driving plot point, occurring both in “reality,” and in Archer's fantasy, in which Woodhouse was previously he partner. Which is a hell of a step-up, even if he was still a heroin junkie.

The season-long arc revolves around Archer's quest to discover who is responsible for his partner's murder. It's the most coherent storyline we've yet had from a season of Archer, which was pretty all over the place even during the Vice story, but as Archer himself says, he does have a tendency to get sidetracked. Limiting the run to only eight episodes helps, of course; there just isn't room for too much meandering adventure. Archer's fantasy world is populated by fictionalised versions of various characters from the series, including all his former-ISIS chums. Some of the changes are fairly minor and predictable: Cheryl/Carol is now Charlotte Vander-Tunt, even richer than her “real” counterpart and just as unhinged; Lana is a lounge singer who you don't want to mess with, and Mallory is the owner of said lounge, the Dreamland club, and also a mob boss. Known simply as “Mother,” she slips into that role extremely comfortably.

Other characters are changed in unexpected ways. Cyril, always a dick but pretty sympathetic in a pathetic sort of way, becomes an out-and-out villain as a crooked cop. Pam undergoes a sex change, albeit with the same face and voice, as his partner Detective Poovey. Her personality is much the same as usual, albeit less sex-crazed. Then there are characters who slip into the postwar environs just perfectly: Ray is a musician for an otherwise all-black band, and Krieger is Krieger, as always. A very welcome addition to the regular cast is Jeffrey Tambor as Trexler, Mother's opposite number once again as a rival crime lord. Oh, and Barry's back, although now he's called Drake and he's more insane than ever. (Other Barry's back as well.) Seriously, his storyline comes to the fire in the final two episodes and he is absolutely terrifying.

Everything is done in Archer's signature style, with action, violence and inappropriate humour to spare, and the animation is gorgeous. Although the story is more concise, there are still plenty of bizarre non sequiturs. It's a weird set-up, all told, with the story never quite clear about how much is real or not. Everything is supposedly in Archer's head, but not only does he have flashbacks to WWII, there are long scenes that don't involve him, and involve knowledge that is kept from him. There's even a running joke concerning Poovey's fantasy involving a dozen Chinese whores (really, it's easier to watch it than to explain it), which is supposedly a fantasy in the mind of a fantasy character. Possibly, just possibly, this really is a parallel universe, which just might be born out by some of Archer's dialogue in the last episode. If so, it makes the events mean something more. Because, after all the developments and twists, there's no real resolution. I wasn't expecting Archer to wake up, but for there to be some kind of psychological resolution for him. Even after a thrilling adventure, it all feels a bit inconsequential.

Which might not matter if Dreamland focused more on humour than story. Try as it might, this season just isn't as funny as the previous ones were. While the last few seasons haven't quite lived up to the original ISIS years, they've still been pretty hilarious, while Dreamland feels a bit tired joke-wise. The adventure makes up for this, but only until that last episode, where it all feels a little pointless. Season nine has already been revealed to continue Archer's fantasy, in a new setting as Danger Island. Maybe we'll get some kind of closure with the tenth, and final, season. Or maybe there'll be a different fantasy setting with every episode. Personally, I'm still holding out for a Trek-themed “STARcher.”

This review was typed in Georgia.
This is a fine article on depression, dark thoughts, and interdimensional chaos adventures.

Rick, Morty, and finding comfort in cartoons

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Comics to Screen: Spider-Man: Homecoming observations and spoilers


Liz would appear to be the MCU's version of both Liz Allen, one of Peter Parker's many romantic interests in the comics, and Valeria Toomes, daughter of the Vulture. Liz was the primary live interest of Parker in the Spectacular Spider-Man's first TV season., where she was portrayed as mixed race rather than the comics' traditional apple pie American blonde. In the Ultimate Spider-Man comics, Liz becomes Firestar, the superhero who was part of Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. Sony was previously planning a spin-off movie featuring a team of female superheroes, and while it looks like this has been cancelled, if it ever gets the go-ahead again, Firestar would be a likely inclusion. Liz also has links to Flash, Ned and Harry Osborn in the comics, and is the stepbrother of the villain Molten Man, although she doesn't appear to have any siblings in this version. Valeria Toomes tries to distance herself from her father's activities in the comics, and eventually works for SHIELD. Again, it's easy to see this becoming part of the narrative if the character returns to the MCU in the future.

Michelle Jones likes to be known as MJ, confirming that she is the equivalent of Mary Jane Watson, albeit as a new and very different character. While she doesn't have much in common with Peter Parker's girlfriend and sometime wife, she does act as an observer character keeping him on his toes in the same way, and making her MJ hints very strongly that the two of them will get together in the future of the MCU. I'd lay good money that the next Spidey film will see them develop something of a romance, but will also introduce Gwen Stacey (or an equivalent character) to complicate matters.

Donald Glover plays petty criminal Aaron Davies, and mentioned having a nephew in the borough. That nephew is Miles Morales, the second Spider-Man of the Ultimate Comics universe and currently one of two Spider-Man, along with Parker, in the mainline Marvel comics. Glover voices Miles in the Ultimate Spider-Man animated series, and campaigned to play Spider-Man during the run-up to The Amazing Spider-Man. Director Watts was aware of this and cast Glover in his movie, setting up Miles for potential inclusion in the MCU in future.

Jacob Batalon's character Ned is probably named after of Ned Leeds, a recurring character in the comics, although he has no official last name in the films yet. In the comics, he is a friend and rival of Parker at the Daily Bugle, and is eventually brainwashed to become the third villain known as the Hobgoblin. There is virtually no chance that Ned here is going to live the life of Ned Leeds in the comics, and hasn't much in common with that character. Exec. producer Eric Hauserman Carroll states that Ned is a composite of several characters, but the character he has most in common with is Ganke Lee, best friend of Miles Morales. Ganke goes by the name Ned as an alias.


The criminal called Gargan is best known in the comics as the Scorpion, hinted at, not exactly subtly, by the scorpion tattoos on his neck in the film. The version in the film is based on the Ultimate comics version of the character, who was a petty criminal. As well as being a recurrent villain as the Scorpion, he becomes one of several characters to take on the Venom symbiote, and even acts as Spider-Man for a short time, albeit in a not-very-heroic way. Given that Sony have resurrected their plans for a Venom movie, I think it's highly likely we'll see Gargan as either the Scorpion in the next Spider-Man film, the new Venom, or both. The rights issue is complicated around reusing characters from this film, however.

The film features two versions of classic Spider-Man villain the Shocker, who wields gauntlets that produces sonic shockwaves. In a nice touch, the gauntlets leave a yellow residue on his jacket sleeves which approximates the look of the comic version's costume. Initially it is Jackson Brice, better known as Montana, who wields the gauntlets and the name Shocker, taking the lead from the Spectacular Spider-Man animated series, which combines the two characters. He doesn't last long, and is replaced by Herman Schultz, the traditional holder of the title.

Sony's previous Spider-Verse lineup included Sinister Six, which went on the backburner along with much of their plans, in spite of a lot of set-up being included in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. However, with the Venom movie back on the cards, we might see Sinister Six enter production after all. The Vulture was an original member of the Six, with the Shocker joining the Sinister Six and Sinister Seven at different points. The Scorpion never technically joined the Sinister Six, but Mac Gargan was part of the team during his time as Venom, and he was a member of the equivalent group, the Insidious Six, in the classic 90s Spider-Man cartoon, and a couple of versions of the team in the Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon series. As all three villains survive the events of Homecoming, there's a pretty good chance they'll be in the Six should the movie eventually materialise.

Michael Chernus's character, Phineus Mason, is better known as the Tinkerer, an inventor of great skill who has provided numerous comicbook villains with technology and equipment, and has been affiliated with the Sinister Six, the Ultimate Six and the Masters of Evil in various iterations. In Homecoming, he adapts Crossbones's weaponry into Shocker's gauntlets and creates the Vulture's flying armour from Chitauri and Stark technology. His whereabouts are unconfirmed at the end of the film, so it's a cert that we'll see him again. Odds on he creates the Scorpion suit for Gargan.


Among the many names listed in the credits are some notable inclusions among Liz's group of friends. Jorge Lendeborg plays Jason Ionello, J. J. Totah is Seymour O'Reilly and Ethan Dizon is Tiny McKeever, all part of the general gang of popular dickheads in classic Spider-Man comics and animated shows. More surprisingly, traditional Parker-love interest Betty Brant is listed, played by 16-year-old Angourie Rice. Betty Brant is normally based at the Daily Bugle during Parker's journalist career, rather than a kid as she is here. Tiffany Espenson plays Cindy, who is likely a reference to Cindy Moon, who has quite recently been introduced as the superhero Silk in the comics, a character who was bitten by the same spider as Parker.

Most of the teachers are basic background Spider-Man characters, but Coach Wilson, played by Hannibal Buress, dates back further, to Stan Lee's 1955 creation Meet Miss Bliss, in the pre-Marvel days. The headmaster of the school, Principal Morita, is seemingly a descendant of Jim Morita of the Howling Commandos, and is played by Kenneth Choi, who played the earlier Morita in both Captain America: The First Avenger and Agents of SHIELD.

Director and producer Kirk Thatcher appears briefly as an ageing punk on the streets, reprising his cameo from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (he's the arsehole on the bus who Spock nerve-pinches). This conclusively proves that the MCU and Star Trek share the same universe.

Some guys just doing their job

Damage Control, the clean-up company here owned, like everything else, by Stark Industries, first appeared in 1988, gaining their own title in 1989. They've appeared several times since then, leading their own comedic adventures while also being significant players in major Marvel Comics events. This is there first appearance in the MCU, although the film makes it clear that they've been doing the hands-on work behind the scenes since Avengers Assemble, although previously we've only seen SHIELD agents cleaning up battle sites. In the comics, the company was initially jointly owned by Tony Stark and Wilson Fisk, and given the timescale here, there's no reason this can't be true of the MCU. It's founded by Anne-Marie Hoag, played here by Tyne Daly, and the character is the current owner of the company in the comics. Two years ago, ABC ordered a pilot for a Damage Control live-action TV series from Ben Karlin, intended as a comedy series set within the MCU, but so far there has been little news on this. Given the appearance of the company in Homecoming, it's quite likely the series will be developed at some point.