October 4, 2015

Doctor Who: "Under the Lake"

The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Coleman) arrive at an underwater base in 22nd century Scotland, only to find its crew hiding from a pair of mysterious ghosts. The Doctor is compelled to keep the crew safe while solving the mystery of the ghosts - and of the strange alien spacecraft recovered from the lake's bottom.

'Base under siege' is pretty much one of Doctor Who's stock-in-trade formats. As early as the second episode of "The Sensorites" back in 1964 the Doctor and his companions were trapped in confined spaces with a group of fearful humans, attempting to outwit and outmatch an invading alien force. It was probably 1967's "The Moonbase" that perfected the format, although even then it was largely copying story elements tested out in "The Tenth Planet" a year earlier. It seems as long as there is Doctor Who it will, inevitably, return back to a small group of humans running down corridors. Here we are again in 2015: a base, some humans, some aliens, a bunch of corridors, and a siege.

The Pull List: 30 September 2015

Time for another Batman annual it seems - the fourth since the New 52 rebooted DC's entire superhero line. This issue's an interesting one because it focuses not on Batman - currently performed by former police commissioner Jim Gordon - but on Bruce Wayne. He's an amnesiac these days: he has no memory of ever being Batman, and thus far no one including Alfred has broken the news to him. Here we see him retake custody of Wayne Manor after it was briefly used to house Gotham's criminally insane, only to find that not all of the inmates left as expected.

Writer James Tynion IV really feels like the heir apparent to Batman. He got his break co-writing with Scott Snyder, and moved to writing fill-ins and annuals such as this, and finally his own titles - including the excellent Boom Studios book The Woods. Here he once again demonstrates enormous skill in handling the Batman universe characters, and tells a nice self-contained story with a couple of genuine surprises.

Roge Antonio's artwork is expressive and strong: I don't recall seeing his work before, and would be very happy to see him illustrating a DC book again.

This is precisely what a comic book annual should be for: telling a great self-contained story that's a little bit longer than the usual issue, and giving talent the chance to play around with the big league characters they might not otherwise get the chance to handle. (4/5)

DC Comics. Written by James Tynion IV. Art by Roge Antonio. Colours by Dave McCaig.

Under the cut: reviews of Aquaman, From Under Mountains, Godzilla in Hell, The Infinite Loop and Revival.

October 3, 2015

Babylon 5: "The Very Long Night of Londo Mollari"

It's 28 January 1998, and time for more Babylon 5.

Londo Mollari (Peter Jurasik) suffers a sudden heart attack. While Dr Franklin (Richard Biggs) works around the clock to keep him alive, Londo finds himself in a surreal dream where he is forced to face his greatest fear - and to decide whether to live or die.

One thing to which J. Michael Straczynski has constantly returned throughout Babylon 5 is the dream sequence. He can't get enough of them, with characters regularly experiencing visions, hallucinations, dreams and other strange, deliberately symbolic and weird scenes. I think here he goes for the most ambitious dream of all, putting almost the entirety of the episode inside Londo's head.

NES30 #9: Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse

In 2015, Nintendo's hugely successful Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) turns 30 years old. The NES, an adaptation of Nintendo's already successful Famicom console, re-invigorated console gaming internationally after the collapse of Atari and went on to sell 43 million units worldwide. NES30 celebrates this anniversary by counting down my favourite 30 games for the system.

I've already covered both Castlevania and its sequel in this countdown, so I suppose it's a sign of how good this series was that I'm now covering the third Castlevania game for the NES, Dracula's Curse.

The things that made those games successful are still very much in evidence here: an evocative horror setting, crisp and appealing graphics, strong and precise gameplay, and the non-linear structure that adds complexity and a richness that other platforming action games didn't have. So why is the third game superior to the first and second?

October 2, 2015

The Omega Factor: "After-Image"

It's 4 July 1979, and time for more of The Omega Factor.

Anne (Louise Jameson) gets on a train from Edinburgh to visit a renowned psychological research facility. She doesn't get off at the other end. When he is once again blocked at every turn by his employers at Department 7, Tom (James Hazeldine) takes matters into his own hands to track Anne down and rescue her.

"After-Image", which was written by Sean Hignett, is a nicely-paced and cleverly plotted little thriller. It tells its own gripping story while pushing the overall storyline of the series forward much further than one might expect. It is also very effectively directed by Gerald Blake, and overcomes a visibly low production budget in an effective and experienced fashion.

John Ford: Dreaming the Quiet Man (2010)

John Ford remains one of the most significant and respected film directors in American history. His name seems synonymous with the American western, and the war film. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences bestowed upon him the Best Director Oscar on no less than four separate occasions. Many of his films - including Stagecoach (1939), The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) - are beloved classics.

While he seems the definitive American director, he was actually born John Martin Feeney in 1894 to Irish immigrant parents. He may have been a naturally born American, but he held a strong love for his Irish ancestry for his whole life. In 1952 he satisfied a 20 year-long ambition to direct The Quiet Man, an adaptation of a Maurice Walsh short story in which an Irish-born American (played in the film by John Wayne) returns to his home town and falls in love with a local woman there (Maureen O'Hara). It became Ford's most popular and commercially successful film to date, and led to Ford's fourth Academy Award as director.

The making of the film, and Ford's personal connection to Ireland, are extensively detailed in John Ford: Dreaming the Quiet Man. It is a feature-length 2010 documentary from Irish filmmaker Se Merry Doyle.

October 1, 2015

NES #10: Excitebike

In 2015, Nintendo's hugely successful Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) turns 30 years old. The NES, an adaptation of Nintendo's already successful Famicom console, re-invigorated console gaming internationally after the collapse of Atari and went on to sell 43 million units worldwide. NES30 celebrates this anniversary by counting down my favourite 30 games for the system.

Excitebike is a Famicom racing game produced in 1984, which meant that it was available to be a launch title for the NES the following year. It was designed by legendary Nintendo producer Shigeru Miyamoto, and benefits enormously from his uncanny ability to perfectly shape an enjoyable gameplay experience.

The player controls a motocross rider along a side-scrolling track, attempting to complete a track of ramps and obstacles within a specified time limit. It looks alarmingly simple, but hides a fair amount of subtlety and depth.

Blake's 7: "Games"

It's 16 November 1981, and time for more Blake's 7.

With the future of the galaxy's energy dominated by the use of volatile and immensely valuable feldon crystals, Avon (Paul Darrow) has hatched a plan to steal a batch of the crystals from a mining facility on Mecron II. His only hurdles? The continuing presence of Commissioner Sleer, aka Servalan (Jacqueline Pearce), and the facility controller Belkov (Stratford Johns) - a corrupt official obsessed with laying traps and playing games.

Given the rapidly growing popularity of videogames in popular culture in the early 1980s, it shouldn't come as a big surprise that Blake's 7 would choose to exploit the phenomenon for an episode. The eccentric Belkov has hidden a cache of feldon crystals onboard the "Orbiter", an abandoned space station circling above Mecron II. To access the crystals, visitors must defeat a series of challenges: a shooting game where you duel a replica of yourself, an immersive space flight simulator, and a complex puzzle game. Fail at a game, and it will kill you - and all three seem rigged to ensure nobody gets to the crystals alive. Viewed today, these gaming sequences seem charmingly primitive, and date the episode in a specific manner unlike most other Blake's 7 adventures.