Wednesday, 22 June 2016

The Original Doctor Who: The Dark Planet (2013)

The Dark Planet, another lost story from the run of the original Doctor, shoots forwards... and backwards... in time from the previous stories. Farewell, Great Macedon, The Fragile Yellow Ark of Fragrance, and The Masters of Luxor all happened in quick succession after the televised story of The Reign of Terror. This one, on the contrary, takes place somewhere during or after the second season, after the Doctor's granddaughter Susan has left the TARDIS and Vicki taken her place. Yet it takes place near the beginning of the universe, on an unknown planet orbiting a dying star.

Drawn to this mysterious, desolate world, the Doctor, Barbara, Vicki, and Ian (the latter two lend their voices to this dramatization) discover beautiful crystalline statues and are attacked by a savage black fog. To their horror and curiousity, the discover that both of these things are very much alive. One is a race of light-based energy beings who can resonate their bodies into crystalline forms, the other is a race of darkness-based energy beings sharing a single consciousness. Each wants the other dead, and each is developing their own strategies for how to accomplish that goal while sustaining their own existence after the dying star finally burns itself out.

Dialectic conflicts were an understandable topic of dissection in the Sixties, considering that this was the height of the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement. Televised Science Fiction enjoyed a brisk trade in crude allegories for such things. Consider the Federation and the Klingons in the original Star Trek, or the particular episode Let That Be Your Last Battlefield in which the two final survivors of a war-torn world are keen to see each other to the grave, for no other crime that being half-black and half-white but on opposite sides of the body.

The Dark Planet takes this dialectic theme to its most precise analogy: one side is literally Light and the other side is literally Dark. Their existence is tied to each other and they have the knowledge to help each other survive if they would only put down arms (so to speak). And in Doctor Who nothing is as simple as the Light side being morally good and pure, nor the Dark side being irredeemably evil. Can the Doctor reconcile these two sides and restore their sun?    

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

The Original Doctor Who: The Masters of Luxor (2012)

Big Finish's foray into the unproduced scripts of Doctor Who history continued, for the First Doctor, with The Masters of Luxor. One of the greatest of the series' "lost stories", The Masters of Luxor was originally intended to be the second serial after An Unearthly Child. That was, however, bumped from the schedule in favour of The Daleks, which history has shown to be the better choice. Not that The Masters of Luxor is a poor story. It's just a reflection on how the Daleks almost single-handedly saved the show.

After their adventures in Macedon and the planet Fragrance, the TARDIS is pulled towards a desolate world on which the only sign of life is a great pyramid-like structure on a mountainside. Inside, they discover a society of increasingly more human-like machines in servitude to an absentee race called "The Masters of Luxor." Despite the evocative name, these people having nothing to do with ancient Egypt. Instead, they are a scientifically-minded race who carried their experiments into eugenics and robotics much too far. The product of their research is The Perfect One... An almost exact facsimile of a human blessed with free will, but no soul. His free will is trapped within the protocols and limitations of a machine, and he is prepared to do anything to rip the soul from any living person he encounters.

Though their plots radically diverge, it is easy enough to see where the ideas in The Masters of Luxor and The Daleks overlap. You have worlds devoid of true humanity, victims of a society's own ill-conceived experimentation into the fabric of life itself, creating terrifying monsters in the name of trying to improve humankind. The Masters of Luxor provide a more intimate, personal take on the material. The Perfect One is not a nameless, faceless drone. He, instead, agonizes over his condition. His frustration and motivation are palpable. His is a sympathetic monstrosity, with an equally monstrous creator, echoing Frankenstein.

Therein lies the strength of the story, but also its weakness relative to Doctor Who history. The Daleks lack any humanity or personality, and that is what makes them so powerful as villains. Its the same reason why the Borg took off so well in Star Trek. The Frankenstein story is, of course, a primal one in human culture... It was itself a modernized form of ancient Promethean myths. But the Daleks (and the Borg) tap better into the truly modern anxieties about anonymity in materialist, technocratic society. Their facelessness and lack of individuality is what makes them so appealing and so frightening.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

The Lost Zeppelin (1929)

Based loosely on the loss of the Airship Italia over the North Pole the year before, 1929's The Lost Airship is a rather stiff early talkie, as many early talkies tended to be. The loss of the Italia and the subsequent rescue efforts, including the death of polar explorer Roald Amundsen in the attempt, created an international sensation that was easily exploitable for film. The Lost Zeppelin even replicates several of the voyage's incidents, though transposing the misadventure to the South Pole.

Though the film has many nice set pieces and matte paintings, the actual Antarctic portions in its latter half are underwhelming and victim of some bizarre plot holes ("Okay men, let's split up so we can get rid of all this supporting cast!"). Unfortunately this is not very well offset by the dramatic plot, which is a love triangle between the expedition's captain, his wife, and the first mate. Just sheer enjoyment of the genre, time period and setting go a long way in my book, and even I found this one a bit of a slog. You can decide for yourself...

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Captain America: The First Avenger is director Joe Johnston's prequel to Marvel's The Avengers, with all the faults of being an extended prologue. While it has some sexy pieces of World War II-era Sci-Fi hardware, even that much is undone by the meaninglessness of the setting. It's a shame because there's a couple ways in which Captain America could have been a more interesting film.

Johnston was a logical choice for helming this project, for besides directing Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, he is probably best known for The Rocketeer. The latter is a consummate bit of period adventure though itself does not aspire to the best of the genre, like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. There were quite a few nods I appreciated, including a cute dig at Raiders, and I admit that the growth of Captain America from a celebrity into a hero was well-played. The World's Fair scenes were particularly nice, and Hydra's Tessaract-based technology was attractive (though it mainly just wanted to make me play Wolfenstein again).

While I could nit-pick at a few designs I didn't like (Captain America looked more authentic in his leather jacket and blue helmet than in his costume, Red Skull would have looked better in a straightforward SS uniform), there was a greater overall problem with the setting: an inability to commit to it. This film was very obviously designed as the prequel to The Avengers and it's sole purpose was getting us to that point. The device from Thor's Frost Giants ends up in the hands of Captain America's Red Skull so that it could be passed along The Avengers' Loki, with the ancillary benefit of introducing us to one of the characters that apparently has to be in the team of so-called “Earth's Mightiest Heroes” (I'm primarily a DC Comics guy, so my money is on the Justice League in that fight).

Johnston does probably as good a job as he could given this circumstance... A problem faced by every director handed a Marvel project and likely the cause of auteurs like Edgar Wright leaving films like Ant-Man. Say what one will about DC's attempts to craft their own cinematic universe, at least they are willing to take risks on directors with substantive creative visions, like Zack Snyder. Johnston manages to pack the legend of Cap as well as he can into this. Nevertheless, all the sequel bits are in place, from the Tessaract to Bucky's impending return as the Winter Soldier to Cap's absurd sacrifice and preservation. Nevermind that apparently Hydra's flying wing had an auto-pilot, but someone who drowns in the Arctic and is discovered 70 years later should be a very dead ice mummy. It's always some little silly thing like this that breaks the suspension of disbelief. Were it some freeze-drying property of the Tessaract, I could have accepted that. It comes from Frost Giants after all. Alas no.

These flights of fancy are underscored by how utterly unnecessary this setting was. The freezing and thawing of Captain America was originally a device to bring a character from the Forties into a comic from the Sixties without having to reboot everything the way DC Comics was doing with Green Lantern, The Flash and the rest of its cohort. When adapting an entire universe to a new medium almost from scratch, there was no need for Captain America to be set in WWII. Any potential for exploring themes like the difference between America's ideals then and now was totally missed in the low ambitions of this film and probably could have been done better in one set in modern times. Was there really no place for a Captain America in a post-9/11, “War on Terror” world? A propaganda machine invented to give a positive face to one of the most questionable and ambiguous of America's military actions? It is not without precedent, considering Iron Man.

Though I love period Sci-Fi and liked many of the particular designs in Captain America, I nevertheless found myself wishing it had foregone the setting I love to become a better movie.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Jolly Top Hat (2006)

The Plimptons explain Victorian economics and class warfare through a giant robot...

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Grimm's Ghost Stories: The Aliens and the Captain (1972)

Grimm's Ghost Stories was Western Publishing/Gold Key's tamer answer to EC Comics, hosted by a Cryptkeeper-like figure named Hephzibah Grimm. Its stories varied wildly from setting to setting, but each had some spooky twist to them. Stories from the series were comparable enough in tone that Gold Key included the following in a digest of its Twilight Zone comics (Mystery Comics Digest #9). In this weird tale, we have a meeting between cowboys and aliens that only gets weirder after that. Click on each image to embiggen it.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Justice Riders (1997)

DC Comics already has a strong showing when it comes to Western themes. Enjoying a good run through the 70's with Weird Western Tales and characters like Jonah Hex, El Diablo and Bat Lash, the company has been working hard to retcon their line-up to provide something even more unique in the Western genre. Under the pen of writer Joe R. Lansdale and DC's mature "Vertigo" imprint, Jonah Hex fought zombies. More recently, in DC's New 52 phase, Hex spent the better part of his time in Victorian Gotham City, laying out groundwork for plotlines resolved in concurrent Batman comics. Meanwhile, El Diablo transitioned from a straight imitation of Zorro to a cross between him and Ghost Rider.

The Weird West - a genre given a name by DC - was also an irresistable lure for DC's Elseworlds titles. In Justice Riders, the famous Justice League gets a makeover as Sheriff Diana Prince gathers a gang of oddball gunslingers to take down the murderous railway baron Maxwell Lord. Joining her are the preturnatually fast Kid Flash, flying Native shaman named Hawkman, screwy inventor Blue Beetle, riverboat slickster Booster Gold, and the shadowy Martian Manhunter. Complicating matters is a Pinkerton named Guy Gardner who is on Kid Flash's trail.

As a Western, it is a serviceable tale. Like most Elseworlds, it is more abreviated than it really ought to be. When putting together a super-powered Magnificent Seven, it needs an epic print run to do it full justice. Official DC continuity has the world of Justice Riders as being Earth-18 of the 52 parallel realities. The door is open for a revisit.

As a superhero comic, Justice Riders is a lot of fun. To anyone who read Justice League International during the 1980's, under the helm of Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire, the line-up reads like a yearbook full of old chums. Not only are Booster Gold and Blue Beetle back, suffering Guy Gardner and Maxwell Lord, but even Oberon makes a cameo. Behind Lord's unearthly technology is an alien menace from one of DC's earliest company-wide crossovers. While lacking the same sense of humour as JLI, it is enjoyably nostalgic to see these characters again.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Batman: The Brave and the Bold

Batman has had a long and storied history. Bob Kane originally conceived of him as a bright and airy masked acrobat with a domino mask and a red suit. It was Bill Finger who invented the more familiar costume, the tragic history, the Zorro-like alter-ego, the Batmobile, Bat Cave, and everything else quintessentially Batman. During the Fifties and Sixties, the adventures of Batman took a more absurd turn culminating in the infamous Sixties television series starring Adam West. Under Frank Miller in the Eighties, Batman returned to his darker roots. First Tim Burton followed suit, then the crew of Batman: The Animated Series (creating what is arguably the best version of Batman ever made, including the comics). Christopher Nolan took a shot at what may be the most realistic portrayal of Batman possible. The current TV show show Gotham is another more realistic take at a Batman prequel. A character as mythic as Batman is able to endure and enjoy many different interpretations.
One of his most recent is Batman: The Brave and the Bold, which took more cues from the Sixties series than the Dark Knight of  Eighties and Nineties (sometimes to the chagrin of fans). Back in a uniform more familiar to fans of the Super Friends, this Batman teamed up with a smorgasbord of heroes in a series of often very absurd plots. Some of those adventures took him into the 19th century, where he teamed up with such luminaries as Jonah Hex and Abraham Lincoln.

Batman and Abe Lincoln vs. John Wilkes Booth
Batman rides with Jonah Hex

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

JLA: Age of Wonder (2003)

Despite the caterwauling of posturing Steampunks trying to mark off territory by dismissing "mere neo-Victorianism" as something trivial, Victorian and Retro-Victorian Scientific Romances has a robust capacity to address social, economic, and environmental issues that isn't reducible to a petty, egocentric critique of mass society. The "rebellions" of the enfranchised bourgeoisie, from Beatniks to Social Justice Warriors, ultimately orients itself towards the one-note conclusion that "I am a special snowflake and the world doesn't treat me right." That is itself trivial when placed next to fiction with the capacity to engage a wider range of  experiences, emotions, and drama. It's why H.G. Wells is a much less interesting author than Jules Verne, and why the literati is so compelled to dismiss Vernian adventures as trivial children's lit while celebrating Wells' pessimistic view of life and fascistic prescriptions for mass society. Certainly there are fantastical adventures to be found in Scientific Romances - which is totally okay - but it is also (and because of that) strong enough to bear the weight of respectable social critique. Even in stories of Superman.

It is quite easy to do, since the Victorian Era either substantially echos many of the problems of our own, or is directly antecedent to these problems. Colonialism and Victorian sweatshops mirror, and may even ultimately be responsible for, the globalism and sweatshops of today. The problems they faced with an increasingly mechanistic age are ones we face with an increasingly cybernetic one. These make Scientific Romances a useful and vital way of looking at ourselves and our society.

One example of this sort of thing is DC Comics' JLA: Age of Wonder. Age of Wonder is a two-issue miniseries under DC's "Elseworlds" imprint, which transposes familiar superheroes from their modern setting to countless others, from the future to the Victorian era to the ancient world to pure fantasy. This time around, the rocket bearing the infant Superman crashes to earth in around the 1850's, setting in motion a string of events culminating in an atomic WWI in the 1910's.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

The Superman's Metropolis Trilogy

For most people in the West, the word metropolis conjures three images. The first is the dictionary definition of a metropolis as a large, busy city. The second is the classic 1927 German Science Fiction film of that title by Fritz Lang. The third is the home of the greatest of all superheroes, Superman. Superman's Metropolis, a 1996 DC Comics Elseworlds one-shot written by Randy and Jean-Marc Lofficer and Roy Thomas and drawn by Ted McKeever, finally unites the latter into a single industrial age fairy tale.