Sunday 23 August 2015

WHO REVIEW: The Sixth Doctor - The Last Adventure





Colin Baker's made himself something of a controversial figure in the last month or so, predominantly with comments made in an interview intended to publicise this very release. Frankly, this isn't terribly important, and will be forgotten about soon enough. Mr C. Baker has never been shy when voicing his opinion, and more power to him. It's something he has in common with the incarnation of the Doctor he portrayed. The Last Adventure is a celebration of Baker and Doctor, a combination of actor and character that have stood against disproportionate criticism since their debut, over thirty years ago. It's time to celebrate all that's loved about Doctor no. 6, from his not-so-humble beginnings to his domination of Big Finish's audio series today.

A box set comprising four hour-long stories, The Last Adventure is rather like BF's earlier celebratory anthology releases, writ large. The stories span the Doctor's post-Trial period of adventures, which is entirely appropriate – it's this part of his history that is wholly missing from the TV series. The only problem with this is that Peri has no part to play, which is a pity, seeing that she was the sixth Doctor's main companion on TV. Still, we have a broad array of adventures here with many of the Doctor's friends from his sixth life taking part, in a series of adventures that are linked by the presence of the Valeyard. Caution – by necessity, this review contains significant SPOILERS.

Thursday 20 August 2015

Regeneration Rundown - updated!

With the release of Big Finish's sixth Doctor boxset The Last Adventure, now would seem to be the time to update the list of regenerations, first and last lines.

This has been somewhat complicated of late, with the numbering of the most recent few Doctors being called into question. To begin with, it's easy: same number for the Doctor, life and incarnation. Now it's fiddlier, but hopefully this rundown makes it clear. The Doctors are numbered one to twelve, with the War Doctor, unnumbered, between the eighth and ninth. Incarnations refer to distinct faces, while lives refer to how many times the Doctor has regenerated. So, Peter Capaldi is the twelfth Doctor, but the thirteenth distinct incarnation. Smith to Capaldi was “regeneration number thirteen,” so he is on his fourteenth life. (I choose to use incarnation to refer to a form, not a lifespan; others disagree. It's really a matter of semantics, there's no right or wrong.)

Wednesday 19 August 2015

REVIEW: Lucifer - pilot episode

Lucifer is one of the greatest comic series of the modern period. It was perhaps inevitable, in the current comics-obsessed climate, that a screen adaptation would be optioned. As with its parent series The Sandman, it's often been argues that it would be impossible to adapt for the screen without losing what made it so remarkable in the first place. Warner Bros' new TV version is a powerful evidence for that argument. Judging by the "leaked" pilot episode, the series will be, if you will excuse the pun, diabolical.

A short introduction: while Lucifer is, of course, one of the most widely known beings in all mythology, the comicbook version is not as famous as his quality would suggest. In short, one of the first two entities created by God (the other being the Archangel Michael), Lucifer rebelled against his Father and when defeated was consigned to rule over Hell, a ten billion year sentence which he found insufferably boring. Shortly after his introduction in Neil Gaiman's seminal Sandman, he decided to abandon Hell and go make his own way in the world. This led to Mike Carey's spin-off series, in which Lucifer fought to take control of his own destiny, away from the omniscient controlling will of God. Lucifer, as a comic series, was beautifully, angrily written, utterly disrespectful, and quite brilliant. The news that DC intend to renew the series after almost ten years is worrisome in itself; apart from the fact that the series had perhaps the most perfect and final ending of any story I have read, the New 52 iteration of the title character lacks the intelligence and nuance of Gaiman and Carey's original.

And then we have this embarrassment. Even from the initial description, this sounded awful. Reimagining the series as a supernaturally-themed cop show is both the most depressingly unoriginal and painfully inevitable way it could have gone. I've nothing against the format - I enjoy a cliched set-up as much as the next telly watcher, and paraprocedurals are a popular and growing subgenre. But honestly, it really is the laziest possible way to adapt this material, and frankly displays a complete misunderstanding of everything that made the original so compelling. The wrongness of the approach is almost boundless. Rather than the aloof and complex character of the comics, the TV Lucifer is a sex-obsessed prick who is entirely bound up with humanity. His superpower is seemingly that everyone wants to have sex with him, which automatically makes him the sort of character I will dislike on principle. It also smacks of a desperate need to make this PG-rated fluff "edgy" and controversial. There's sex everywhere in this episode, never shown because of course they're not allowed to actually let anyone see a nipple or anything, but continually referred to because that's what passes for adult drama in the minds of the series' creators.

Beyond this, though, the character is completely misinterpreted. Maze, a feebly watered-down version of the comics' complex demoness Mazikeen, asks why Lucifer would care about a human life, and she's entirely right to ask. The comicbook Lucifer never displayed compassion. Humanity, for most part, were at best an amusement and mostly beneath his notice. He would never display compassion, although he may step in to save a life if it belonged to one of the very, very few beings he respected. He most certainly would not go to great lengths to investigate a murder of someone he was briefly involved with in his earthly holiday. It would be beneath him.

I can try to watch the show without the original in my mind, but even then, it's terrible. It's not without some charms, in fairness. Tom Ellis is charming in the lead and is genuinely fun to watch at times, while Lauren German is watchable as his unwitting partner, Chloe. The problem is , they've got such poor material to work with. The problems with Lucifer's character I've outlined, but then there's Chloe, whose sole point of interest is that she doesn't want to have sex with Lucifer. Other than that, she's a walking cliche. She's a female cop in a male-dominated force, she's a single mother with a difficult relationship with her ex, and I'm nodding off just writing this. In what is presumably an attempt to make her a little more interesting and "edgy" (there's that word again), she once took her top off in a movie. Well fuck-a-doodle-doo. I know primary school teachers who are edgier than these characters.

I'm struggling to find anything else to praise in this episode. The effects were pretty good, I guess. The angel Amenadial (D.B. Woodside) looked really quite impressive with his wings unfurled. That's about it. The dialogue is appalling, the performances largely forgettable, and there's not a shred of originality to be found. As an entirely new property, I would have forgotten about it almost immediately. As an adaptation of a truly great comic series, it's an insult. At least it's already pissing off some hardline Christian types, so I guess that's something.

Sunday 16 August 2015

Iris Wildthyme, throughout time

Iris Wildthyme will shortly be with us once more, in the latest anthology from Obverse Books, The Perennial Miss Wildthyme (available for pre-order now). But who is this mysterious woman, who travels the multiverse in an interdimensional double-decker bus, seemingly a TARDIS that happens to be smaller on the inside than the outside? This self-described "Trans-Temporal Adventuress," a batty old mare who's centuries old even when she's young, unstoppably youthful when she's already old and who's best friend is a talking stuffed panda? A woman who has had many faces, who claims to be a Time Lord and yet says she's nothing of the sort. She knows she's a parody of the Doctor and this just makes her love him more. An old, mad fag hag who can't be trusted, who steals others' adventures and rewrites history to make them her own. A character with as many origin stories as she can think of on the spot, who loves a bit of splishy-splashy and is never without a cigarette?

Trying to make sense of Iris's many lives is a fool's errand, as she'd be the first to tell you. And she might warn you about the spoilers, but I doubt it. Here we go anyway...

The First Iris: Iris was (probably) born on the outskirts of Saga City in the Clockworks of the Obverse, and was christened Lilith. She lived with her aunts until she found the wreckage of her magical bus, which she piloted out of the Obverse and into universes new. (Iris's origins were seen in the novel Wildthyme Beyond!) Other origin stories suggest she actually grew up in similar circumstances in the wilds of Gallifrey, but this may be a retelling of her origins fitted to suit the history of the primary Doctor Who universe. Or perhaps the Clockworks and Gallifrey are nothing other than reflections of the same realm.

Much, much later in her first life she resembled the poet Edith Sitwell (whose look was not entirely unlike a female version of the first Doctor). She has been described as “a very old, imperious Iris... a grand dame glittering in a carapace of ebon pearls,” (from the DWM article “Bafflement and Devotion”). This version of Iris appeared, briefly, at the end of the story “Came to Believe” in the anthology Wildthyme on Top, and in the later collection Iris: Fifteen.

The Second Iris: This incarnation usually goes by the name Brenda Soobie, and is described as a Scots-Caribbean songstress. She appears physically to resemble Shirley Bassey, only with a different regional accent, of course. This version of Iris appeared in the novel Mad Dogs and Englishmen (with the eighth Doctor, after one of the destructions of Gallifrey), and the multi-Iris story “The Golden Hendecahedron” in Iris: Fifteen.

The Third Iris: The most frequently encountered version of Iris in the BBC books range, this incarnation is said to look like Beryl Reid. A long-lived, perpetually middle-aged incarnation, this Iris smokes like a chimney and carries a laser pistol. It was during this lifespan that Iris first met her travelling companions Tom, Jenny and Captain Turner, all of whom she'll travel with again in later life (or lives). This Iris first appeared in print opposite the fourth Doctor in “Old Flames” (in the collection Short Trips), and later the third Doctor in the novel Verdigris and the eighth Doctor in The Scarlet Empress. It was after this adventure that she regenerated, with the help of some Hysperon honey, into her fourth self, having previously been poisoned by toxic Dalek meat.

The Fourth Iris: One of Iris's younger incarnations, something she at first enjoyed but later came to dislike, missing the clout and authority of an older body. She looks uncannily like Jane Fonda in Barbarella, often wearing catsuits and twirling laser pistols about. This Iris made her first full appearance in the short story “Femme Fatale” (in More Short Trips), where she described herself as “Iris Mark Six,” but it's now clear that she is the fourth Iris. She was the heroine of the collection Iris Wildthyme of Mars, also appearing in the novel The Blue Angel, the charity short story “Iris Explains” and a few others. She has worked both for UNIT (briefly) and its Darlington-based rival, MIAOW. “The Golden Hendecahedron” makes it apparent that this Iris is the same as the occasionally mentioned “Iris with a long white braid,” who is simply a much older version of this body. She later had her appearance changed by the Clockwork canons for selling fake exercise videos.

The Fifth Iris: A very little seen incarnation who has so far only appeared in “The Golden Hendecahedron.” Initially red-haired, into 70s fashions and with brown eyes, she later started to go grey, and one eye turned blue after she peaked at a space explosion. She didn't mind, since it made her look like David Bowie.

The Sixth Iris: Nowadays the best known Iris, this is the version who appears in Big Finish's productions and the bulk of those from Obverse Books. This version of Iris was first described as looking like Gracie Fields, but since she is voiced in all her audio appearances by Katie Manning, she has been illustrated like that as well. Flamboyant and a heavy drinker, this is Iris's most famous and incorrigible self. She has appeared with the fifth Doctor in Excelis Dawns, the sixth in The Wormery and bumped into the third and eighth in the Companion Chronicles, where she also teamed up with Jo Jones (nee Grant). Yes, they're both played by Katy Manning, and no, Iris's previous encounter with Jo in Verdigris was not mentioned once. You can't expect that kind of consistency from Iris.

This Iris has starred in five series of audios for Big Finish (so far), travelling with Tom, Captain Turner and Panda at different stages. She's also the main character of the bulk of the short story collections. She's most commonly associated with Panda, and supposedly met him in this lifespan, via Tom. However, he's also been seen to travel with her fourth self, and was present at her very first encounter with the bus. It's possible Iris's adventures with Panda form one big temporal loop. She's been married, had children and grandchildren, but this was merely the flicker of an eyelash in her long life.

Possible Future Irises:

We've had several brushes with Iris's future selves, and while it must be stressed that these are only potential futures, these are the Irises we've met so far, including several from “The Golden Hendecahedron”:

The possible seventh Iris looks like Phyllis Diller, never stops talking and has the loudest, most abrasive laugh of any woman in the cosmos. She's physically elderly but doesn't dress like it.

The following Iris is nothing more than a ventriloquist's puppet, cursed to spend this entire lifespan in this reduced form by the Gamesmaster.

The next Iris after this had the physical form of a statuesque black man in drag, and wore a long, honey-coloured wig. As she said, she may sometimes be a man, but she's “always a lady.”

The final future Iris we met in this story was a tall, lisping incarnation who looked like Carol Channing. She smoked a pipe, wore a floral suit and was quite commanding.

The collection Iris: Fifteen included many stories featuring other versions of Iris. One such Iris, in the story “Gimme Shelter,” had recently regenerated into a teenaged form with frizzy blonde hair. She wasn't happy about this as she couldn't get served.

The story “God Engine Rhapsody” featured an Iris with an American accent and crimson-and-platinum hair.

A very sexy version of Iris became involved with MIAOW in “Our Tune.” She had jet black hair, and ruby red lips that matched her figure-hugging outfit. This Iris might be the same as one who featured in a later story, “Ouroboros,” with so-black-it's-purple hair, a trim figure and green eyes.

“The Wildthyme Effect” featured an Iris who was based in the sixties, owned a shop and was “proud to be a woman of means.” I have a suspicion that this is the same version of Iris who later became a star making televised recreations of her adventures, and dropped Panda in favour of the more marketable kangaroo, Hoppy.

The story “Samsāra” sees a new Iris, of Indian looks and accent, born from fire in front of her startled companion.

It's possible further incarnations feature in this collection, although some are given scant description and might be ones we know already. The piece “Iris at the V&A” describes images of Iris from various points in her timestream, including some of those above and more, such as an Iris with bright red hair with the look of, according to Panda, “a lesbian space pirate," (possibly the fifth Iris, possibly not).

Beyond this book, we know that seven of Iris's incarnations were present in the Death Zone due to a plot by the mad Time Lord Morbius. We have also met two future Irises on audio, although neither is quite the Iris we know and love.

Dan Hogarth played a male Iris in the audio adventure The Two Irises. He looked rather dashing in a velvet jacket, and shunned alcohol. This should've been the first clue: this wasn't really Iris at all, but a projection by her TARDIS-bus to stand in her place while she was away. This faux Iris took the name Hillary and settled down to life as a barkeep in Spain.

Finally, there's Bianca, voiced by Maria McErlane. Encountered as the villain of The Wormery, this is Iris's final form, her equivalent of the Valeyard. Bianca guts her bus and turns it into a transdimensional cabaret club, intending to forcibly bring peace to the universe. She tried to steal Iris's remaining lives but was defeated, and seemingly faded from existence.

The Original Iris:

Iris made her first ever appearance in the novel Marked for Life, part of a run of works set in and around the fictional Phoenix Court. These novels aren't sci-fi or fantasy per se, but working class, queer fiction with a dollop of magical realism. The original Iris Wildthyme was an elderly lesbian in a relationship with the main character's mother. She had a double-decker bus, of course, but this one was resolutely fixed to one spot. However, this Iris claimed to have lived for hundreds of years, and at the climax of the story, seemingly met her death, only to transform into a baby in what was very clearly a Doctor Who-inspired regeneration. Baby Iris continued to appear in the Phoenix Court novels, and after many years, the adult Iris appeared in her original universe in the short story "Hospitality" in the collection Iris: Abroad.

The original Iris was described by other characters as overweight, but was in fact quite tiny, merely swaddled in many, many layers of clothing. The image conjured is of the grandmother in the Giles cartoons, but with more glamour. Not a Time Lord or a Clockworker, she's earthly but seemingly immortal, compared to Orlando. Is this Iris the version who appears in the Obverse segments of the Doctor Who novel The Blue Angel, on a version of Earth that seems at once closer to our own and further away than the one regularly saved by the Doctor? In a strand of the novel that may be less or more real than the Doctor's adventures? And how does she relate to the temporal adventuress who put the Doctor there, living a life in a single old house from which various lodgers come and go?

Who knows who Iris really is. All we know is that there's no point asking her; you can't trust her answers anyway...

With thanks to Paul Magrs, the creator of Iris Wildthyme all those years ago. What wonderful lunacy you started!

Casting Call: DC television villains

Following my round up of the various heroes set to appear on DC series this coming season, here's the current info on the many villains being introduced. This may be updated soon - I've been hoping to see casting news regarding Mr. Freeze, Flamingo, Non and Red Tornado.

Caspar Crump
Vandal Savage (Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow)

One of DC Comics' most persistant and deadly villains, Vandal Savage was born Vandar Adg around 50,000 BC, becoming immortal when he later encountered an irradiated meteorite. Over the millennia, he has been known as Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Jack the Ripper, Vlad the Impaler, Blackbeard and various other violent individuals from well known history. He might even be Cain, and thus the first murderer in historical record. The similarly powered Immortal Man and Resurrection Man are his longest serving foes, but over the years he's faced pretty much every major DC hero (and Captain Kirk). His parallel world alter egos have been even more pernicious, and he has been encountered in various points in the timeline by time travelling heroes. With enhanced strength, speed and endurance, he's a formidable foe, but the real threat is from his tactical genius and his lust for power. Oh, and he's Grendel's dad.

Savage has made several animated appearances over the years, and some very similar characters have been featured in live action series (one time Superman Dean Cain played Curtis Knox in Smallville, a character who was intended to be Savage until this was changed due to rights issues). His upcoming appearance is thus his official live action debut. He's set to be the Big Bad of Legends of Tomorrow, the superteam brought together purely to fight him. Described as having "the greatest army ever assembled," his reign of terror throughout history means they'll be using time travel to battle him. Caspar Crump is a Danish actor, little known in the English-speaking world, will appear in all three live action Arrowverse series. I've never seen him act, but god he looks perfect.

JR Bourne
Jeremy Tell/Double Down (Arrow)

A fairly recent addition to the Flash's rogue's gallery, Double Down is a con artist, a compulsive gambler and a murderer, who uses a powered-up deck of cards that is bonded to his very skin. JR Bourne can be recognised from various genre appearances including Stargate SG-1, Josie and the Pussycats and Teen Wolf. This is the character's first live action appearance, and while he's set to debut in the third episode of Arrow's next season, I would not be surprised to see him return to face his traditional foe, the Flash.

Alexander Calvert
Lonnie Machin/Anarky (Arrow)

Created by the prolific Alan Grant, Anarky is one of Batman's most popular foes, so much that he got his own spin-off series in the nineties. Lonnie Machin was a child prodigy who grew up to use his considerable gifts to further his anarchist, anti-statist activism. Little more than a kid when he first appeared, Anarky is a mirror to the Dark Knight, a vigilante fighting not criminals, but the whole structure of modern society. More an antihero than an all out villain, Anarky is the latest of many Batman-linked villains to be adapted for Arrow (a character he has rarely met in the comics). Although he's been used as the main antagonist for the animated series Beware the Batman and the game Arkham Origins (voiced by Wallace Langham and Matthew Mercer respectively), this will be his first live action apperance. Alexander Calvert has had loads of junior roles on TV.

Adam Copeland
Albert Rothstein/Atom Smasher (The Flash)

From a family of superheroes and villains, Albert Rothstein has been both in the course of his comics career. An experimental procedure by his grandfather, the villain Cyclotron, gave him the ability to control his molecular structure. As a hero, he's also gone by the name Nuklon, and has served in the JLA and JSA for a time. He has, however, gone rogue on occasion, and can be a dangerous foe. In the first season of The Flash, Alber Rothstein is seen on a list of the people who were killed in the particle accelerator accident that gave that series' metahumans their powers. Clearly, he survived, and is set to return as a villain, with the intent of killing the Flash. Given that even such scoundrels as Captain Cold and Heatwave have been brought into the Legends of Tomorrow superteam, I think it's safe to say Rothstein will eventually turn to the side of the angels.

Chris Browning
Ben Krull/Reactron (Supergirl)

A persistant enemy of Supergirl (and her alt-world equivalent, Power Girl), Ben Krull is a Viet Nam vet, who went nuts and massacred a village of people. Serving with him was Joshua Clay, later known as the hero Tempest, who used his energy powers to blast Krull down. This had the side effect of granting Krull radiaoctive powers, which he later used in his villainous career. He's been part of the Suicide Squad and the radiation-themed team the Nuclear Legion, but more often works alone. Lately, he has been given a Kryptonite heart, which naturally makes him a particularly dangerous foe for Kryptonian heroes like Supergirl. He's set to appear in the third episode of the Supergirl series, played by Chris Browning, one of those actors who's been in everything over the years, usually in tough guy roles.

Brit Morgan
Leslie/Livewire (Supergirl)

Livewire is a villainess introduced in the 1990s animated Superman series, before being incorporated into comics continuity, not unlike the more famous Harley Quinn in the Batman series. Voiced then by Lori Petty, the live action version of the character is to be played by Brit Morgan, who has comicbook adaptation experience from The Middleman, but is better known for her role as Debbie in True Blood. Working for the same media company as Kara, Leslie is sure to cause problems both in everyday life and in her supervillain guise. Leslie is converted into pure electrical energy, with corresponding electromagnetic powers. She most recently showed up to menace Batgirl.

Justice Leak
Hellgrammite (Supergirl)

Another Superman villain to be repurposed for the Supergirl series, Hellgrammite was, initially, Roderick Rose (also known as Robert Dobson), an entomologist who experimented with insect DNA, transforming himself into a powerful insectoid creature. As well as the expected insect-y superpowers, such as super-strength, the ability to leap great distances and an inpenetrable exoskeleton, he also had the unpleasant tendency to infect others, transforming them into his larvae. (A hellgrammite is, in the real world, the larva of the dobsonfly.) The Supergirl version is going to be reimagined as more straightforward alien villain, played by Justice Leak, whose name is perfect for a supervillain in itself. He's appeared in several indie films, and is best known for the movie The Great Debaters.

James Frain
Theo Galavan (Gotham)

James Frain has experience in a comicbook universe: he was rather brilliant as Leet Brannis in Marvel's Agent Carter. The English actor has also appeared in True Blood, The White Queen, True Detective, Oprhan Black and Grimm, but is perhaps most recognised for his role in The Tudors. He's playing a new character to the mythos. Theo Galavan is a powerful business, whose altruism hides "a centuries old vendetta." He and his sister (see below) are set to cause chaos in Gotham, leading to various villains taking on their characters.

Jessica Lucas
Tabitha Galavan/Tigress (Gotham)

As with so many DC heroes and villains, the Tigress persona has been shared by several characters, going right back to Action Comics #1 in 1938. However, the Gotham character sounds like she's based on the most recent Tigress, Artemis Crock, who has made it to the New 52 continuity and appeared in several animated outings. Some versions of the character have Wolverine-like animal abilities, including superhuman strength, an enhanced sense of smell and enhanced stamina, but the modern version is simply a highly trained combatant and marksman. Her skill with a bow and arrow is phenomenal (an earlier Tigress became the villain known as Huntress, another identity taken by various individuals, one of whom appeared in Arrow).

Tabitha Galavan is said to be the sister of the aforementioned Theo, and acts as his lead enforcer. Jessica Lucas has appeared previously in Cloverfield, Evil Dead, She's the Man and Melrose Place.

Leo Fitzpatrick
Joe Pike (Gotham)

Joe Pike is set to be a fairly major pest to Gordon and Bullock in the coming season, over the course of several episodes. He's described as the leader of a gang of arsonists, and doesn't have any explicit links to any comicbook villains (yet). Several fans have suggested he's going to become Firefly, a pyrotechnic villain from the Batman comics (in which his identity was one Ted Carson). There's also a reasonably obscure Wildstorm villain named Pike, who DC have the rights to, but it's unlikely he has anything to do with this. Leo Fitzpatrick found fame as Johnny Weeks in The Wire.

Saturday 15 August 2015

Comics Round-Up: August (2)

The Wicked & The Divine #13 (Image)

We finally get to meet Tara, and the results are devastating. A straightforward but powerful
examination of the disgusting culture of male entitlement we live in and the continual verbal abuse online that female celebrities and commentators have to face every daily. The central double-page spread is just a Twitter feed, and it's harrowing. I wouldn't be surprised if half of that shit actually
 came from real people's accounts.

Nonetheless, it still moves the overall plot forward. Things are getting very tense amongst the Pantheon. And Tula Lotay's art really does fit the series. Just stunning.

The Shadow, Vol 2 #1 
The Spirit #2 (Dynamite)

Dynamite kick off their newest run of The Shadow (well, sort of, there was an issue zero as well), while The Spirit continues. Nothing complex here, just some classic-styled pulp era crime fighting. Ebony's search for the Spirit takes leads him to the eloquent but cruel Mr. Carrion, illustrated in a fun, cartoonish style by Dan Schkade. The opening page is classic Spirit. Overall, though, I think I preferred the Shadow's return, heading into dark territory concerning a corrupt circle of magicians. Giovanni Timpano's artwork is spot-on. And issue one is only a dollar, which is nice.

Doctor Who - Four Doctors #1 (Titan)

The first part of a weekly event, running alongside four monthly series (not to mention the Panini and BBC magazines). There's a lot of Doctor Who in the comics world right now. However, this is really excellent. Not only brilliantly written, but it feels like an event. There's a bit of fanfwank in there, with author Paul Cornell rifling through the early days of the series as well as his own back catalogue. but that's par for the course with this sort of thing, and he handles it with wit and creativity. In any case, it's always good to find someone as fond of The Keys of Marinus as I am.

Clara, Alice and Gabby work beautifully together, but the highlight is, of course, the meeting of Ten, Eleven and Twelve, full of narcissistic bickering, just as it should be. Sometimes it seems like multi-Doctor interactions must be easy to write, but making a story work around it is the hard part. This is before The Day of the Doctor for both Ten and Eleven, making them both a long, long time before Twelve, who in their eyes, shouldn't exist at all, since they know they don't have enough regenerations left for him to come to be. Plus, a prelude featuring the John Hurt Doctor in the midst of the Time War. It's a tough call, but I'm going to wait for the trade to come out rather than spend £2.50 every week for this, and this really is something I'd like to own in book form.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #8 (Marvel)

Best news all week - Squirrel Girl is coming back after Secret Wars is over. So that's one hell of a
relief, because this makes me laugh every single month. Except last month, when I missed it. So I was a little confused to see the Avengers fighting Doreen under the control of a gigantic Asgardian squirrel god. And on top of that, Nancy in Asgard. Plus, Loki totally flirting with Nancy. Nancy should be in the Avengers with Squirrel Girl.

Also: Cat Thor!

Avengers Universe #16 (Marvel/Panini)

I'm getting one more issue after this, to see out the Young Avengers storyline. This is really getting fun now, with Wiccan, Loki et al getting ready to save poor Teddy from the clutches of the Mother entity. Prodigy's ingenious solution to facing a being that can control any parent and is essentially invisible to other adults is to get on Facebook and Twitter and call on pretty much every teenaged hero in the Marvel universe (and blimey, there're a lot of them) from Spider-Girl to White Tiger to Evan Apocalypse. And it looks simply gorgeous, too. Mighty Avengers, on the other hand, is perfectly enjoyable this month but nothing special; plenty of monsters and scrapping but it's very much a wham-bam instalment rather than anything substantial. Uncanny Avengers is back, balancing barely coherent melodrama with completely incoherent temporal mechanics. I really don't go for Sanford Greene's artwork either. And to think, people are writing in to complain about YA taking up valuable core Avengers space. Some people have no taste.

Thursday 13 August 2015

Casting Call: DC television heroes

While Marvel are doing great things on the big screen (we can forgive them for Fantastic Four, that was Fox's doing), it's DC that are making the most of television. While we're getting bits and pieces of news regarding Marvel's network and Netflix series, there's been a flood of info regarding new characters in the DC-based series on CBS, Fox and the CW. Explicitly, Arrow, Flash, Legends of Tomorrow and Vixen are set in the same world, while a crossover with Supergirl has been ruled out. Gotham, being essentially unrelated and on a different network group entirely, is not going to cross over any time soon, so at some point we're probably going to get different versions of the same characters appearing in each universe. There's enough new info that I had to break it up somehow, so here are the good guys beign introduced in Arrow season four, The Flash season two, Gotham season two, and the first series of Legends of Tomorrow, Vixen and Supergirl. Constantine's been cancelled.

Keiynan Lonsdale
Wally West/Kid Flash (The Flash)

The first character known as Kid Flash, and the third to become the Flash, Wally West is a boy who receives the powers of the speedsters in a replication of the accident that granted them to Barry Allen. He first appeared, as Kid Flash, in 1959, became a major member of the Teen Titans, and became the Flash in 1986, following Barry's death in the Crisis on Infinite Earths. Prior to this, Barry acts as his mentor and idol, although with Barry being somewhat younger in the TV series than in most interpretations, this might be a little different. In the comics, Wally is the nephew of Iris West, but considering that there has been no indication of Iris having any brothers or sisters in the series, and again considering the similarities in ages, this will most likely be tweaked (I suspect he'll become a cousin). The original version of Wally was white, just like all the other Flashes; the version recently introduced in the New 52 shake-up is mixed race, white on Iris's side of the family. Considering the ethnicity of Iris actress Candice Patton and Jess Martin, who plays her father Joe, it's no surprise that an actor of colour has been cast as Wally. There's bound to be someone kicking off about this somewhere. Keiynan Lonsdale is a pretty new actor, but has been seen on the big screen in Divergant.

Terry Sears
Jay Garrick (The Flash)

And another Flash! Jay Garrick is the original Flash from the Golden Age of comics, who debuted way back in 1940 in Flash Comics #1. In the last moments of the season one Flash finale, Garrick's trademark hardhat tmbled out of the wormhole that was soon to threaten the world, cliffhanger fashion. The first Flash met the second in the 1961 storyline "Flash of Two Worlds." which established that the Silver Age and Golden Age heroes existed in parallel worlds (Earth-One and Earth-Two, respectively). Barry Allen lived in Central City, while Garrick inhabited its Earth-Two equivalent, Keystone City. Eventually, both versions of Earth were combined, with Central and Keystone becoming sister cities (this seems to be the case on the TV series, since Eddie Thawn transferred from Keystone to Central City).

The showrunners have released promotional artwork based on the cover of the classic comic that featured "Flash of Two Worlds." so it's safe to say that Earth-Two will be introduced in the new season. This story originated the Multiverse in DC comics, a concept which caught on throughout the medium. We could be seeing all sorts of parallel versions of characters cropping up after this. Teddy Sears is best known for roles in the drama series Raising the Bar and Masters of Sex. This is the second time the character of Jay Garrick has appeared in live action; he was played by Billy Mitchell in an episode of Smallville.

Arthur Darvill
Rip Hunter (Legends of Tomorrow)

A member of the temporal agents known as the Time Masters, Rip Hunter is the holder of the most unnecessarily butch name in comics. So far on TV, we've had a brief mention of him by the villainous Eobard Thawne in the Flash finale, and the trailer for Legends of Tomorrow, in which it looks like he is partly responsible for getting the various characters to form their superhero team. An often manipulative character, Hunter acts to protect the timelines. Considering that, due to the aforementioned Multiverse, there are multiple versions of him travelling through time, this cna get complicated. His father is later revealed to be the time travelling hero Booster Gold, although this character is apparently off limits for the TV productions (there are hints he's being reserved for future cinematic treatment). The TV version of Rip Hunter is played by Arthur Darvill, best known worldwide as Rory Williams, companion to Matt Smith's Doctor Who. However, judging by the trailer, he'll be playing him more like David Tennant's incarnation.

Megalyn Echikunwoke
Mari McCabe/Vixen (Vixen)

Mari McCabe is a young African woman who inherits a magical totem from her father, that had been passed down her family over the centuries. Originally given to the legendary hero Tantu by the Spider God Anansi, the totem gives Mari the abilities of various animals. She moves to America and becomes a model, because she's fricking hot. She also, along with Barry Allen, becomes a member of the Justice League.

Starting in a couple of weeks, the CW will begin streaming an animated Vixen series on their website. This is part of the main Arrowverse, with Grant Gustin and Steve Ammell making voice appearances as the Flash and Arrow respectively. Echikunwoke will probably turn up in at least one of the lvie actions series at some point. Vixen has never previously appeared in a live action series, but Gina Torres voiced her in numerous episodes of the animated series Justice League Unlimited.

Falk Hentschel
Carter Hall/Hawkman (Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow)

I'll be honest, I don't know much abotu Hawkman, and what I do know confuses the hell out of me. Some times he's a man named Carter Hall, sometimes he's an alien named Katar Hol. It involves numerous reboots of DC's continuity, plus various deaths and reincarnations. This guy has suffered from retcons severely over the years. In the TV version, at least, he's a gent named Carter Hall, who is a reincarnation on an Egyptian prince, who is searching for the reincarnation of his soulmate (see below). He's expected to first appear in The Flash before crossing over to its sister series. Falk Hentschel is a German dancer and actor, who has, among other things, previously appeared in Marvel's Agents of SHIELD as Marco Scarlotti, aka Blacklash. Michael Shanks previously played a version of Hawkman on Smallville, and various iterations of the character have appeared in animated series over the years.

Ciara Renee
Kendra Saunders (Legends of Tomorrow)

Kendra is the latest reincarnation of an ancient warrior, and Hawkman's aforementioned solumate. Described in press releases as "a young woman who is just beginning to elarn she ahs been repeatedly reincarnated over the centuries. When provoked, her ancient warrior persona manifests itself, with wings that grow out of her back." While the trailer pegs her as "a girl with wings and a past lives complex." She can totes fly. There's clearly going to be a much heavier focus on mystical characters than in previous seasons in the Arrowverse. Ciara Renee has previously been a theatre actor, and made an appearance, very briefly, as Kendra in the finale of The Flash. The character was played by Sahar Biniaz on Smallville and voiced by Maria Canals Barrera in both Justice League and Justice League Unlimited.

Echo Kellum
Curtis Holt/Mister Terrific (Arrow)

Named for the comicbook character Michael Holt, Curtis Holt is the Arrowverse iteration of Mister Terrific. In fact the second man to take that name in the DC universe, Michael Holt modelled himself after the original, Terry Sloane, who appeared in Sensation Comics. A childhood prodigy and an adult genius, Holt is described as the most intelligent memeber of the Justice Society of America. As well as being physically formidable, Holt is invisible to technology and has created devices called T-spheres, which perform a variety of functions. His strict scientific outlook and atheism has often left him at odds with Hawkman and other supernatural characters, so it's interesting how Curtis Holt will interact with the various characters in Arrow. Echo Kellum has previously been seen in various American sitcoms that I have never heard of.

Shantel VanSanten
Patty Spivot (The Flash)

A long-time supporting character in the Flash comics, Patty was Barry's lab partner and sometime love interest. The New 52 continuity actually has them in a relationship, so expect there to be some love triangle stuff going on between Barry, Iris and Patty. Some versions of continuity and Elseworlds-type stories have given her speedster powers too, calling her Ms. Flash or Hot Pursuit. In the series she is set to be Joe West's new partner, replacing the lost Eddie Thawne, so this could set up quite an interesting dynamic. Shantel VanSanten has mostly been in teen dramas and horrors including One Tree Hill, The Final Destination and the lead role in Something Wicked, but now she's thirty she probably has to start playing grown-ups.

Jenna Dewan-Tatum
Lucy Lane (Supergirl)

The younger sister of Lois Lane, introducing Lucy into Supergirl makes the links to Superman even stronger. Like several of the characters on this list, she goes right back to the beginnings of the Silver Age, and has been in and out of comics ever since. She's often been romantically paired with Jimmy Olsen, and is his ex-girlfriend in the new series, so we can expect more love triangle stuff between the two of them and Kara. As with many of the characters in this series (including Hank Henshaw=Cyborg Superman, Winn Schott=Toyman, etc) Lucy has the potential to become a superpowered character in the future. In the comics she was one of several characters over the years to become known as Superwoman, in her case due to a containment suit that granted her Kryptonian attributes. A dancer by training, Jenna Dewan-Tatum has lately been in dramas such as American Horror Story. Her husband is Channing Tatum, who will soon be Gambit for Fox. Luc Lane was previously played by Peyton List in Smallville, and by cutie Maureen Teefy in the classic 1984 Supergirl movie.

Natalie Alyn Lind
Silver St. Cloud (Gotham)

A long-time love interest for Bruce Wayne in the comics, Silver St. Cloud even worked out that he was Batman. Of course, in Gotham we're catching both characters at a much younger age, but I think we'll be seeing a pre-teen romance going on here. Natalie Alyn Lind already has a fair bit of acting experience, having appeared in various series including One Tree Hill, Criminal Minds and The Wizards of Waverley Place. To the bes tof my knowledge this will be the character's first live action appearance.

Matt Ryan
John Constantine/Hellblazer (Arrow)

Bit of a cheat - this isn't new casting at all. However, the Arrow showrunners have confirmed that Matt Ryan will be returning to the role of Constantine following the cancellation of his own series after one season (which is a blow, because that became rather excellent by the end). He is set to appear in a season four episode entitled "Haunted." Presumably, this means the broadcast series of Constantine is part of the Arrowverse, although it could just be a case of cribbing the best actors like new Flash did with nineties Flash. Given the new focus on magical and mystical elements in the various series, we might see further appearances by Constantine down the line.

Updates will be appended as they're announced. Supergirl is also set to include the hero Red Tornado, as yet uncast.

Tuesday 11 August 2015

Marvel properties I'd like to see on the screen

Gertrude and Old Lace

Undoubtedly the series I'd most like to see adapted for the screen, Runaways ran from 2003-09 and concerned a group of young superhumans who, as the title suggests, run away from their parents and live a precarious life without adult supervision. Oh, and they run away because it turns out their parents make up a cabal of supervillains called the Pride, bent on total domination. Written first by Brian K. Vaughan and then continued by Joss Whedon, Runaways is fun and irreverant, but plays with high personal stakes for the characters. As well as dealing with the usual superhero cliches - but looked at through the eyes of contemporary kids, which would suit the MCU down to a tee - the Runaways have to deal with the very real consequences of their actions, from heartbreak to tragic death. The six initial characters in the team are Nico Minoru, a powerful witch; Karolina Dean, a solar-powered alien; Molly Hayes, a twelve-year-old mutant with super-strength; Chase Stein, who steals his fathers fire-commanding "fistigons;" Alex Wilder, a strategic prodigy; and Gertrude Yorkes, whose parents are from the future, and who has a flippin' pet Deinonychus. Tell me you wouldn't love to see that onscreen.

Later characters to join the team include Victor, a creation of Ultron (clear links to the franchise there); Xavin, a shape-shifting alien Skrull; and Klara Plast, who can control plants. As well as having a team with a far higher than usual proportion of female members, Runaways embraces sexual and gender diversity, dealing with issues such as homosexuality, gender fluidity and learning to deal with sexual abuse. It's one of the best things Marvel has ever produced, and what's frustrating is that there plans to produce a film version as early as 2008, with Vaughan scripting. These have apparently been shelved indefinitely, although there is some hope they'll be picked up in the future. The concept would probably work better as a TV series or mini-series than a feature, and, although there'd have to be a couple of story tweaks for rights reasons, it has all the makings of a perfect property to bring in the vital teen audience who don't necessarily appreciate all the older heroes being used as the basis for movies and mini-series. Frankly, it's baffling that Marvel haven't found a place for this.

Young Avengers

Perhaps Runaways won't happen, but a few years from now, Marvel may want to create a series or film featuring teenaged characters with stronger links to the established heroes. Young Avengers is, exactly as it sounds, about a semi-official team of youngsters who support the Avengers, several haing links to the main team. The series was originally developed by Allan Hinberg, springing out of the "Avengers Dissassembled" event in 2004, with the kids acting as a potential replacement team for the disbanded Avengers. Marvel doesn't go in for sidekicks in the same way as DC - which has a number of adolescent teams such as the Teen Titans and Young Justice - and this could fill that gap, either as a live action production, or as an animated series tying into the MCU, something that's been suggested before. This initial team was recruited by the Vision, and included characters such as Iron Lad, Hulkling and Patriot , characters who, although they have caried backgrounds, act as the young team's equivalents of Iron Man, the Hulk and Captain America. There's also Wicca and Speed, the twin sons of Scarlet Witch and Vision, and Kate Bishop, who takes the mantle of Hawkeye after Barton dies (he got better). Even Cassie Lang, daughter of Scott "Ant-Man" Lang and already part of the MCU, takes her place as Stature.

Kid Loki
Better, for me, is the relaunch series by Kieron Gillen that started in 2013. This includes some of the original characters, and new additions too. This series is more like Runaways in tone, dealing with the difficulties of young adulthood, responsibility and sexuality. (Wiccan and Hulkling are a couple, among several non-hetero characters, something which Marvel have consistently failed to bring to the screen. I'm fairly certain there hasn't been a single homosexual character in the MCU, while DC's Gotham, Flash and Arrow have featured several characters who happen to be gay.)  Loki is involved as a semi-good guy, killed, reincarnated and now in a younger form (Loki's totes bi and genderfluid too, as it goes). Other new characters include the modern holders of the names Marvel Boy and Miss America. Some years down the line, this could be a great way to reinvigorate the MCU with new, younger characters that retain links to the heroes of The Avengers and Age of Ultron.

Ms. Marvel

Ms. Marvel really, really needs to make it onto the screen somehow. To clarify, I'm not talking about the original Ms. Marvel - Carol Danvers - but the current holder of the title, Kamala Khan. Long story short, Danvers has promoted herself to Captain Marvel and is set to headline her own movie in 2019, and presumably will enter the Avengers movies after that. Ms. Marvel currently has her own title, which is set to continue (with a new issue one) after the big Marvel relaunch this September. A Pakistani-American teen, Kamala is Captain Marvel's number one fan (and Wolverine's, and Spider-Man's, etc) and when her Inhuman birthright was activated, she took on her hero's former name as her own crime-fighting persona. She's teamed-up with all three of the aforementioned supers over the last few months, in a series that is doing what The Amazing Spider-Man used to do: show an ordinary teenager trying to do good while juggling the struggles of school, love and life, and learning that with great power comes great responsibility, dontchano.

Ms. Marvel/Kamala Khan
Kamala is adorable, brave and resourceful, and come September, is going to be part of the All New, All Different Avengers. Her adventures have been almost universally well-received, except by angry right wing racist types, and there have been numerous instances of young girls dressing as her for conventions and play. She's fantastic. Unfortunately, the very things that make her work so well in the comics might make her a hard sell for the movie and TV execs. Her close conceptual links to Captain Marvel will make it difficult to incorporate her into the MCU until after the Captain Marvel movie premieres, and would depend on that character's reception. Her powers, not unlike Mr. Fantastic's, involve much stretching and "embiggening," which is still tricky to pull off in live action without it looking horrendusly cartoonish or utterly unpleasant (at least the recent Fantastic Four movie was deliberately going for the latter). And there's the whole Muslim angle. It would be wonderful for the many, many Islamic kids living in both East and West to have a high profile superhero to identify with, but it's very hard to imagine the bigwigs at Disney signing off on that one.

I really hope they take that chance though. To see Kamala fighting bad guys on the streets of New Jersey while stopping to get Spidey's autograph would be wonderful. If she's not well known or popular enough to headline her own movie or series, then she could easily be incorporated into either the main Avengers franchise or the aforementioned Young Avengers. She could cross over with Runaways or Agents of SHIELD (the latter has already occurred in comics). If the powers are tricky to pull off, or the character is too much of a risk for a live action production's budget, then maybe an animated series/movie? I would truly love to see Kamala kicking ass onscreen.

Spider-Man - but on TV 

We've another Spider-Man reboot heading to the big screen soon, plus plans for one or more animated features. This could very well be more Spidey than anyone actually wants for a while, but I feel the best avenue for the character is as an ongoing television series. Spidey works best given time to explore his character and his relationships, and a serialised format would actually allow time for his many trials and tribulations to play out. He's a character who needs breathing space. It would also allow time to feature his huge rogue's gallery, without having to shoehorn them all into a couple of films.

There's a supporting cast already available - Charlie Cox and Vincent D'Onofrio could easily make appearances as Daredevil and the Kingpin, respectively, and with characters like Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and the Punisher joining the franchise, Spidey could be the front of a broad ensemble of characters. It's unlikely to happen; Spider-Man is the most lucrative comicbook characterin the world, and that means studios are going to want to pile money into movies in the expectation they'll make shedloads back. The best we can hope for on TV is yet another animated series. In any case, I hope this is the last reboot for a long while. Recast if necessary, but just keep the story going. Ten years down the line, we could have Peter Parker acting as sensei to Miles Morales. Twenty-five years down the line, his daughter could be headlining her own films as Spider-Girl. Let it run.

Spectrum and The Blue Marvel

As mentioned above, there is a huge skew towards white male characters leading all Western cinema, particularly comicbook and superhero films. The genre was a little better at this a few years ago, but not great. Considering the Blade trilogy starring Wesley Snipes helped bring superhero movies back on the map, black heroes have been relegated to supporting roles (Anthony Mackie as Falcon in The Winter Soldier and Ant-Man, Terrence Howard as War Machine in the Iron Man trilogy and Age of Ultron, Halle Berry as Storm in the X-Men franchise) or headlined pretty terrible films (Will Smith as Hancock, Halle Berry again in Catwoman). Only the Black Panther, to be played by Chadwick Boseman in Civil War and then his own movie, looks set to buck the trend. There's also a deficit of female heroes; Scarlett Johansson has played the Black Widow as a supporting character in four films, going on five, but has yet to headline one, in spite of fan demand and a script already existing. She's had a lot more focus than Scarlet Witch, the Wasp, the aforementioned Storm or any version of the Invisible Woman. The poor quality and reception of the Elektra and Catwoman films seems to have put studios off female-led comicbook movies for some time (because having a major actress in the lead was so clearly what was wrong with those flicks), but finally, things are slowly picking up with both Wonder Woman and the Carol Danvers version of Captain Marvel planned for the next few years.

Out of the many, many characters that could be focussed on to help redress this balance, two appeal to me particularly. Spectrum is the current alias of Monica Rambeau, who has also been known as Photon, Pulsar, Daystar and more, and was the first woman to take the title of Captain Marvel, years before Danvers. She was created by Roger Stern and John Romita Jr. in 1982, first appearing in The Amazing Spider-Man, and was totally based on Pam Grier. She's an incredibly powerful character with the ability to manipulate and transform into any wavelength of electromagnetic radiation. A confident, sassy black woman with the ability to literally turn into light and throw lasers at her enemies - who wouldn't want to see that on the big screen? (Apart from racists with weak masculinity issues, I mean.) Rambeau has been ignored by the MCU for way too long - she once led the Avengers, for pity's sake.

The Blue Marvel assists Spectrum with her powers.

The other character I would love to see is Dr. Adam Brashear, the Blue Marvel. Even more powerful than Spectrum, the Blue Marvel is essentially Superman without any of the girl weaknesses. In fact, he'd have to be pretty seriously depowered just to make a film featuring him feasible at all. As well as being a scientific genius, his exposure to extradimensional radiation has gifted him superhuman strength and speed, virtual invulnerability, the power of flight, and the ability to generate and manipulate energy and antimatter. He's Dr. Manhattan, but without the personality problems. Created by Kevin Grevioux as recently as 2008, the Blue Marvel was a continuity implant, operating in the 1960s in-universe. He was a powerful and popular superhero with links to the Kennedy administration, but wore an all-encompassing headmask to hide his face. When his colour was revealed in a major battle, he was forced to retire from crime-fighting, since the American public wouldn't accept a black superhero. This would make for an incredible period piece along the lines of The First Avenger or X-Men: First Class. A modern day sequel for the ageless could follow, perhaps involving both Spectrum and Luke Cage, who work with him in the comic series Mighty Avengers (as a street level team, both Spectrum and Blue Marvel are far overpowered for the Mighty Avengers, but still).

Oh, and the Blue Marvel has his own Fortress of Solitude. On the bottom of the frickin' sea. That only Namor the Sub-Mariner is allowed to visit. That is cinema.

The Twelve

The Twelve was a limited series released a few years ago and written by J. Michael Straczynski, who has tons of TV and movie experience, including scripting work on the Thor movie. It's the story of twelve obscure-as-hell superheroes from Marvel's predecessor company, Timely, who get frozen at the end of WWII and revived in the present day. Folllowing their attempts to adjust to modern life, while solving a series of unexplained murders, the series dealth with contemporary politics and values. It's rather like a less cynical Watchmen.

The team includes costumed crime fighters (the Phantom Reporter, the Blue Blade, Mister E, and the Laughing Mask); superhuman heroes (Captain Wonder, the Dynamic Man, Rockman, the Fiery Mask); and individuals with supernatural powers (the Witness, Master Mind Excello, and the original Black Widow, one of the earliest female superheroes in comics). The twelfth member is a colossal mind-controlled robot called Electro. That's a lot of characters to cover, although given the line-up for Captain America: Civil War, Marvel isn't afraid of helming a busy movie. A couple of the character names might need to be changed for clarity - Black Widow's real name is Clair Voyant (!) so that works. The comic could adapt extremely well to cinema or, perhaps even better, given that most of the characters aren't superpowered, the lower budget option of a Netflix series. Chris Evans or Samuel L. Jackson could even cameo.

L to R: Master Mind Excello, Mister E, Electro, Blue Blade, Phantom Reporter, Rockman, Dynamic Man, Captain Wonder, Black Widow, Fiery Mask, Witness, Laughing Mask

Monday 10 August 2015

REVIEW: The Albino's Treasure by Stuart Douglas

There are a lot of Sherlock Holmes pastiches out there, with more published every year. In any such popular and busy crowd, it's hard to stand out. Titan's Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes range itself is already coming up to twenty titles. A new book has to be pretty special to stand out amongst all the Sherlockery.

The Albino's Treasure, though, does stand out, as both an spot-on pastiche and a rollicking good read. The first full-length novel by Stuart Douglas, it's his second published Holmes story after he contributed to the publisher's 2013 collection Encounters of Sherlock Holmes. (Once more, full disclosure: Stuart Douglas is the head honcho at Obverse Books, which means he was my publisher for Iris Wildthyme of Mars.) It's a tough balance to hit when writing a Holmes book in the Doyle style, as narrated by John Watson. There's a distinct recipe to this type of story, which when made correctly, achieves the flavour of a Doyle original while still offering something new and contemporary. It's not easy, but Douglas gets it right. His Holmes is acerbic, witty and impatient, but with compassion there for those willing to see it, while his Watson is intelligent but all to quick to react, and easily charmed by the fairer sex. Lestrade walks the fine line between the dunce that Holmes sees him as and the competent officer he ought to be.

The Further Adventures series is a favourite of genre buffs and fans of the period for its habit of taking characters of various origins and implanting them into Holmes's world. The Albino's Treasure wears its influences on its cover. If you can't guess who the mysterious Albino is, well, maybe take a quick look at some of Obverse Books' earlier publications. However, the pale-skinned villain is not the only famous opponent Holmes and Watson must face. The Lord of Strange Deaths is also pulling strings, and his true name is as famous as they come. The novel's climax is a thrilling meeting of some of fin de siècle pulp's most notorious characters.

The story begins as an investigation into anarchic organisations on the fringes of London society, before developing into a mystery involving art history, political machinations and secrets that have lain buried for centuries. There's a good balance between the more intellectual challenges and the brilliantly portrayed action scenes, and it maintains an easily readable pace throughout. It also has some very funny moments; my favourite line coming early on in Watson's narrative: “I am as fond of art as the next man, but only as I have found that the next man, generally, is not terribly fond of it either.” Altogether, a very enjoyable tale for the Great Detective.

Bestiary Alphabetum

A reblog here of a gorgeous piece of work by artist Nathan Sanderson. Bestiary Alphabetum is an A to Z of mythical monsters, illustrated beautifully (and horrifyingly). I've long had a mind to get some talented types to join me in creating something similar. There are even some creatures here that I was unfamiliar with, which doesn't happen too often. Wonderful stuff.

Sunday 9 August 2015

REVIEW: Fantastic Four

I wanted to like this film, I really did. I was highly suspicious of the idea of a dark, gritty, realistic take on the Fantastic Four, the most colourful and inoffensive of the Silver Age comic book heroes. Yes, they faced monstrous threats, and yes, there were tragic elements – Ben Grimm's self-loathing due to his transformation, most notably – but it was essentially cosmic fun in primary colours. So getting Josh Trank to make a dark sci-fi film based on the property did not appeal to me. But then... I read about the production, Trank's vision for the project, saw the trailer which promised a genuinely different look at the franchise. I was ready to enjoy a completely different Fantastic Four. Then the reviews started coming in, and I wanted to enjoy it all the more, because everyone else said that I shouldn't. Unfortunately...

Fantastic Four is a failure. A qualified failure, to be sure, but a failure nonetheless. It's a real pity, because there seems to be a decent film buried in there somewhere. Trank has taken to social media to defend himself, suggesting that the studio hacked the film to pieces, and I can readily believe that. There's clearly a massive chunk of the film missing; as other critics have pointed out, it seems to entirely lack a second act. Or perhaps the second act is there, but the third act was that incoherent last fifteen minutes. I don't know; the whole film is so lopsided it's hard to tell. Nonetheless, Trank cannot be without fault here. The film is grey, slow and uninteresting for far too much of its truncated runtime. The cast, all of whom are perfectly excellent actors, lack the material to show this, and are severely lacking in chemistry. At no point did Sue and Johnny come across as brother and sister, there was no spark between Sue and Reed, supposedly set to one day fall hopelessly in love, and nothing made me believe that Ben would risk his life at a moment's notice for his childhood friend.

The relationships of the Four are the foundation of the comics' appeal. They are a family, joined by blood, marriage, friendship and trust. It's a great idea to see the early days of these relationships, the foundation of this family, but there's really very little sense that this is what we're seeing here. Even the childhood meeting of Ben and Reed, both troubled in different ways and unappreciated by their families, sets this up well but is carried forward poorly. There's no substance to these relationships. The only character who really does anything to hold the dynamic together is Reg E. Cathey as Dr. Franklin Storm, who convinces as a father, or father figure, for Sue, Johnny and Reed, and to a lesser extent, Victor (of whom more later). If it wasn't for his classy performance, it'd be hard to buy into anything we saw these kids accomplish.

Some fans have taken exception to the choice to have much younger versions of the Four than in the original comics, based more closely on the Ultimate Fantastic Four series that retold the characters' origins in a more modern setting. Personally, I feel this works, or at least could work, particularly the updating of their roles as interdimensional explorers, rather than astronauts, which feels very much of its time. However, it's no surprise that the film came out so depressing and dreary. The Ultimate comics line started off as an updated take on a classic romp, and ended up as pretentiously grimdark as Watchmen fan fiction. Aside from a handful of genuinely funny asides, this film is an utterly joyless.

There are elements there that are clear steps in the right direction. Reed is an astonishingly advanced child, far more intelligent than anyone else in his school (admittedly not saying much, considering how breathtakingly stupid the staff there are). As an adult, he's enthusiastic but emotionally illiterate, yet compassionate. Johnny is intelligent and capable but at risk of letting his more anarchic, fun-loving tendencies take over his life. Those are the right traits for these characters. On the other hand, Ben displays very little character once he's grown up, until he is transformed into a CGI behemoth. What a waste of Jamie Bell. Sue is at least characterised as a scientist, contributing to the mission, which is a step up on previous portrayals, but she is also lacking in character, and for Pete's sake, they don't even take her on the mission. I'll say that again: Sue Storm is not included on the mission of discovery that creates the Fantastic Four. Apparently it's a boys only club, since Victor von Doom goes in her place. She gets zapped with powers anyway, but for crying out loud.

There are some very odd decisions in the script, as well. Making Sue a Kosovan orphan, giving Ben an abusive older brother (and forever sullying his catchphrase in the process), making Doom an aggressive emo IT guy. Just really bizarre story choices. At least the purported hacktivist backstory got dropped in production, but how can they get Doom so wrong again? He's really a very simple character. He wants three things: to rule the world and remake it as he sees fit, to prove he's better than Reed, and to win Sue's affections. Simple, easily explainable character traits. How can they get someone as good as Toby Kebbell and lumber him with such a waste of a character, eventually reducing to nothing more than an angry superbeing who wants the destroy the Earth for some ill-defined reason. Possibly revenge, possibly general lunacy, possibly something to do with his political beliefs that really doesn't make any sense. I'm not sure, the last battle was so rushed I lost the plot completely.

Trank intended to make this film a tribute of sorts to the work of David Cronenberg. As a big Cronenberg fan, I was entirely up for this; the Four's transformations are potentially horrifying and it would logically be a nightmarish experience before they got used to them. There's so much material for Ben, in particular, that would benefit from that approach. Apart from some visual nods to such Cronenberg classics as Scanners and The Fly, this approach is clearest in the mutations of the Four after their first catastrophic mission. Even this is woefully underexplored, though. There's clearly so much more material with the Four learning to accept and use their abilities that was excised to get this down to TV movie length. It's a shame, because a lot of what we do see is visually fantastic. Johnny truly is a Human Torch, the fire burning from within his body, while at last the Thing truly looks like a man of rock. Although, god, give him some pants. I have no desire to see the Thing's thing, but being confronted by its absence is almost worse. No wonder he's so angry at Reed. The mission to the other dimension is also visually interesting. Doom goes and pokes a river of what is seemingly some kind of living energy – having seemingly been trained by the Prometheus school of science – causing all the chaos in the first place, but this too is barely explored beyond the cool visuals. This strange otherplace is named Planet Zero, not the Negative Zone as in the comics. Perhaps it is so called because it is, in fact, the zero point between the positive universe as the Negative Zone? Or possibly it's called Zero because there's virtually nothing there. Where the hell's Annihilus when you need him?

After the overblown, chaotic ending, the Four appear to have bonded into a super-team, although there is no sense that they've earned this camaraderie or even really learned to work that well together. No one addresses that Ben has been killing people on behalf of the US military, that Johnny was keen to join him, or that several quite important characters have been killed off. Everyone seems to have forgotten the various betrayals of trust that led them to the situation they are now in. We cut to credits, after which there was a surprising lack of any extra scene or teaser. But then, they probably realised they weren't getting a sequel. Although not unwatchable, and featuring some interesting ideas, this is a grey, dreary take on what was once an exciting property. This should have felt like a rival to Guardians of the Galaxy, not The Dark Knight's embarrassing younger brother. The 2005 film wasn't great, but at least it was fun.

More grim than Grimm, this was a missed opportunity. 

Friday 7 August 2015

Penguin-style Doctor Who Covers

Just a gorgeous idea for a Tumblr blog.

Not to be confused with penguin-style Doctor Who companions, because that would be Frobisher.

Tuesday 4 August 2015

REVIEW: Supergirl - pilot episode

So, it's been long enough now since the pilot episode of this series was shown at ComicCon and subsequently leaked onto the internet for me to download it, watch it and give my opinion. I won't post details of how to illegally download it, but it's not exactly difficult to find. Following the previous leak of the extended promo for the series, there's not much left to spoil. That was the shorter cut of this episode, designed to sell the show to the top brass, and frankly it's hard to believe that these leaks are anything other than deliberate PR moves. Anyway, we know when WB haven't planned a leak, because they get pissy about it.

Before watching this, I finally got round to watching The Flash, the CW's second superhero show after Arrow. While Arrow left me a little cold, The Flash was a joy from start to finish, and it's gratifying that two series with such different approaches to their genre can co-exist and crossover. Supergirl, while not a CW series, is, like Arrow and The Flash, the creation of Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg, so hopes are high. Judging by the first episode, Supergirl is going to follow the formula and feel of The Flash more than anything, embracing the silliness and straightforward heroics of its source material and the sheer fun of the comicbook world. Some turned their noses up at the promo version, due to its focus on the day-to-day working girl life of Kara Danvers, our heroine. Yes, it's all very Devil Wears Prada and that sort of thing, but really, what's the problem with that? The objections to the approach were basically as follows:

This is a girls' series!” So what? There are plenty of “boys' series” around featuring superheroes, and frankly, while plenty of women enjoy those, there's certainly room for a show that is directed more at female viewers. And anyway, just because a programme is designed for girls, doesn't mean boys can't enjoy it.

It's sexist.” Nonsense. I can understand this opinion, of course; the idea that a female superhero should be worrying about her bitchy boss and swooning at boys could come across as very sexist. However, it's really not very different to how Clark Kent or Barry Allen spend their personal and office hours. As for Kara spending a great deal of time picking out her outfit: the look's important, and have you seen how much the Flash or Iron Man worry about their look in the field? More than Supergirl, I can tell you. Also, while we're on the subject, the costume is spot-on, and extra marks for explicitly dismissing an extra-revealing sexed-up version during the episode.

There's not enough superhero stuff.” A fair point, concerning the promo, but the episode as cut for broadcast gets the balance exactly right. After a prologue designed to set up the show's mythology, with a young Kara sent to Earth from the dying Krypton (told with great economy and clarity), some time is spent dealing with the now adult Kara's personal and working life. There's some to-ing and fro-ing between her and her sister, Alex, concerning whether she should use her powers or hide them for her own safety. At about the halfway mark, it's decided: of course she should use her flippin' powers! Get the best friend on board, design an outfit, and go out saving people.

This approach is just right, balancing the necessary origins and development with the need to get this show underway and having fun. It's fast-paced, and while this does necessitate some clunky exposition – a genre-wide failing – it means we're straight on the way to having fun. The promo is basically just the pilot's first half, and while Kara's ordinary girl life is clearly going to continue to be the backbone of the series, her heroic efforts are at the forefront of storytelling. It also looks fantastic, with effects on a par with The Flash, currently the series to beat when it comes to televisuals. Kara's first “mission,” the rescue of a crashing plane, looks as good as anything seen in superhero cinema, and the montage of mini-missions sets up her character and role in the series with ease and style.

The leading lady, Melissa Benoist, is charmingly awkward as Kara, imposingly heroic as Supergirl, and utterly captivating as both. She's also, pleasantly, not absolutely tiny; very slim, by any measure, but tall enough and broad-shouldered enough to convince as a powerful woman who can land a punch on an alien. Standing out among her co-stars is Mehcad Brooks, as James Olson. After years of somewhat nebbishy Jimmy Olsons, this older, sexier, more assured version of the character is a breath of fresh air. He's the one who is confident in the world of superheroics and what it entails, and is someone for Kara to look up to. It took me a little longer to warm to Chyler Leigh and Jeremy Jordan, but by the end of the episode they'd been cemented as fine members of the core cast. Leigh is Alex Danvers, and while it seemed they were setting up an unnecessarily antagonistic relationship between the sisters, resolving this and having her as Kara's contact in the series version of the MiB makes sense, if being a rather convenient bit of plotting. Jordan is Winn Schott, who gets the obligatory friendzone role, and also has the potential to become a villain somewhere along the line for those who know the mythology (more shades of The Flash series there).

David Harewood is perfectly fine and imposing as Hank Henshaw, leader of the alien hunting organisation, but his character is lazily written. He's a simple cypher, a continually abrupt and aggressive boss, who “doesn't trust aliens” and has no other character traits. Hopefully he'll be developed somewhat before his own inevitable turn to villainy. Calista Flockhart isn't particularly good as Kara's boss, the uber-bitchy Cat Grant, but again, she doesn't have much to work with. She just has to stalk her office putting people down. Again, with some actual character development, she might be something. Of the other cast, this episode's minor villain, Vardox, was broadly but entertainingly portrayed by The Mentalist's Owain Yeoman. Even though he does appear to be half-Klingon as portrayed here. Casting Dean Cain and Helen Slater as Kara's adoptive parents is a nice touch, too, continuing a long tradition of recasting stars from Superman and Supergirl productions in small roles alongside their successors.

One problem with the set-up is the big, Superman-shaped shadow cast over it. Throughout the episode we are reminded that Kara is Clark's cousin, and that the Big S is watching over her, this world's number one – maybe only - hero. Unable to properly show the character, he's a vague presence that is unable to fully be resolved in the story. If the series continues to take this approach, viewers are going to wonder where he is and why he isn't actually stepping in to help his cousin deal with increasingly powerful threats. That's another issue: supposedly, a prison ship from the Phantom Zone crashed on Earth ten years ago, and its various escapees have been lying low ever since. While this will keep the series in baddies for the foreseeable, it's very hard to swallow that all these aliens have been keeping quiet and successfully hidden on Earth all this time, especially if most of them are as absurdly aggressive as Vartox.

There's also the question of how this series will tie into other productions. Understandably, its creators are interested in crossing it over with their other shows, and while they're on different networks, ownership issues aren't relevant (CBS co-owns the CW). Something could be worked out, but Supergirl doesn't seem to be part of the Arrowverse, where there are now many, many superheroes, nor do the Arrow and the Flash appear to live in a world protected by Superman. It's also certainly not tied into the current movie version of Superman, with the DC movies seemingly kept very much separate to anything on TV. While I'd love to see a crossover as much as the next geek, it shouldn't be at the cost of maintaining some level of story plausibility.

While there's some definite room for improvement on Supergirl, it's hard to think of a pilot episode that couldn't be said of. With some development of certain characters, and so long as they don't rely on alien-of-the-week for too long, this show could really be something. Great fun, with some real potential. Series proper starts in October.