Friday, 19 September 2014

Great Scots!

So, Scotland voted "No" today and will remain a part of the United Kingdom. I don't really want to get too deep into the politics of the argument but I can certainly see the attraction of independence. I only live about 100 miles away from the seat of the British Parliament but I don't feel the government understand the problems and issues of this relatively close area of the country, let alone those of people three times that distance away. But it seems to me that, in these troubled times, you need all the support you can get and breaking away may have caused more problems for the Scots than it solved. However, the point's rather academic now, but I'm sure it will be debated for years to come. Anyway, in the usual superficial style of this 'ere blog let's just celebrate some of the seriously cool people that great country have produced...


Update: I almost forgot this mighty Scot:


Monday, 15 September 2014

Listen... later...

Apologies to anyone expecting this week's Doctor Who review to appear on time. As frequently happens, the "real" world has had to take precedence. We've spent the last three days moving Sophie to her new student digs down in Bristol. Why three days? Well, we did the bulk of the work on Saturday and it all seemed to go very well... at first. She rang to say she had a bug problem in her apartment on Saturday night, which we assumed to be typical teenage overstatement. It actually turned out to be a ( minor ) cockroach infestation. Not nice. We had to move her back out on Sunday, which was a huge pain in the arse, to prepare for the place to be treated by the pest control bods. To be fair to the letting agency's staff, they were mortified by this and paid for her to spend two nights in a nearby hotel while it was being sorted. She should be back in her apartment tomorrow morning. Phew! So, my review of Listen will follow soon, probably after I've watched the episode again...

Shameless self-promotion time

In a shocking turn of events which may stun the faithful readers of this 'ere blog I have to announce that I have today revisited the site of past glories and chiselled arcane words of wisdom into the very rockface of the blog landscape. Or, to put it another way, my old music blog, 15 Albums, is again open for business. Check it out ( should you want to, of course ) for my take on the classic Abbey Road album by The Beatles.

"Once there was a way to get back homeward / Once there was a way to get back home"

Monday, 8 September 2014

Doctor Who: Robot Of Sherwood ( review with spoilers )

"No damsels in distress, no pretty castles, no such thing as Robin Hood..."
This week, the Doctor and Clara drop into Sherwood Forest in 1190 AD ( -ish ) to meet the legendary outlaw Robin Hood and aid him in his struggle against the evil Sheriff of Nottingham. Or, they would if Robin Hood were real. As the Doctor points out "Old-fashioned heroes only exist in old-fashioned storybooks, Clara". But who, then, is this dashing character in Lincoln green who laughs in the face of danger and protects the good people of Nottingham from the Sheriff's mysterious metal knights? Can he really be England's greatest hero? And what of the Doctor? How will he react when he becomes a part of somebody else's legend...?
Unfortunately, this episode is the first misstep of the new series in my opinion. Writer Mark Gatiss has written a few stories for the show since 2005, veering from the sublime ( The Unquiet Dead, Cold War ) to the distinctly average ( The Idiot's Lantern, Night Terrors ). Robot Of Sherwood falls more into the second, er, camp. It's not bad... it's just unexceptional.
The biggest problem is that the almost constant bickering between the Doctor and Robin becomes irritating very quickly and has the unwanted result of making the Doctor look childish and petty. The humour is often forced and weak, although there are a couple of good gags about Errol Flynn and the North of England. It's not really enough, though. Another major concern is that this is ( Spoilers! ) yet another of what have come to be known as " broken switch" stories. The robotic alien knights have crashed to Earth and need gold, looted from the people of Nottingham, to repair their spaceship. It's bad enough that we've seen this kind of story too many times before ( The Girl In The Fireplace, The Lodger, The God Complex ) but the last example was only two episodes ago! This really is poor planning on Steven Moffatt's part.

So, what's good about this story then? It all looks great, with some fine sets, costumes and direction. Tom Riley steals the show as the larger-than-life, laughing-out-loud Robin Hood, charming Clara and hurling insults at that "bony rascal" the Doctor. The other "name" guest actor, Ben Miller, also has a great time playing the vain, egotistical Sheriff. The robots, while having no personality whatsoever
( unsurprising for robots, I suppose ), look suitably imposing and their crucifix-laser-beam stare is a cool effect. Gatiss' script, while nowhere near as witty or clever as it could have been, has some nice touches: a couple of quotes from Karl Marx (!), the odd call-back to the Pertwee era and some insightful thoughts on the importance of legends and heroes. Oh, and Jenna Coleman looks absolutely lovely in her faux-mediaeval gown:
Definitely a case of "must try harder" then. Hopefully, next week's Moffatt-scripted spook-a-thon should bring the series back on track. For now, I'll give this one  -
Three Out of Five Sonic Screwdrivers ( or broken arrows )

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Crucible 2

We went to an art exhibition at Gloucester Cathedral today. This was "Crucible 2", the belated follow-up to the original Crucible exhibition back in 2010, as seen in previous posts here and here. Again, the theme was mostly religious, with some works being quite twisted and disturbing...


I think this last one was my favourite... love the hair!

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Doctor Who: Into The Dalek ( review )

OK... two episodes into the new series and my Doctor Who reviews have already started running late. Same old story. In my defence we did have a mega-busy weekend with Sophie's marathon birthday party ( 8 hours of socialising! ) and several Ice Bucket Challenges taking up a lot of valuable blogging time :-)

After the traditional post-regeneration trauma of last week's episode, the Doctor now seems more stable... and can even fly the Tardis accurately. He proves this by saving the life, somewhere in deep space, of Journey Blue  -  a soldier fighting a last, desperate battle against overwhelming Dalek forces. On board Journey's space shuttle, the Aristotle, the Doctor discovers the rebels have a patient: a captured Dalek who is so damaged he has turned "good". And he needs a doctor. After a quick hop back to Earth to pick up Clara ( who seems to be doing just fine on her own, chatting up new character Danny Pink ) the Doctor and a military escort ( shreddies ) are miniaturised and sent... into the Dalek...
For me, this is one of the best episodes in years, especially after last year's regular series ( away from all the 50th Anniversary hoopla ) was so hit and miss. And it's definitely the best use of the Skarovian pepper-pots in a long time, restoring their full menace and deviousness. Director Ben Wheatley brings a suitably intense, filmic quality to the story with some of his signature slow-motion / trippy visuals  -  I love the psychedelic scene where the Doctor and co travel through the Dalek's eyestalk like it's a funhouse hall of mirrors. The script is fine too, examining this series' theme of what it is to be a hero or, indeed, a good man. The new Doctor can be abrasive and seemingly uncaring at times, a harshly pragmatic man who seems to forget that humans have feelings... but also very funny, exasperating ( especially for Clara ) and at times vulnerable. And calling the damaged, deranged Dalek "Rusty"? Brilliant! Capaldi, while maybe not yet fully comfortable in the role is excellent as ever and promises great things.

The only quibble I have is that there are elements to this story which are overly familiar: the Doctor confronting a chained, broken Dalek ( er, Dalek ), the miniaturisation and attack by antibodies ( Let's Kill Hitler ), falling into the digestive tract of a beast ( er again, The Beast Below ). These are only mild irritations and don't detract from a claustrophobic, exciting and surprisingly scary episode. I can't wait to see what else this new / old Time Lord has up his magician's sleeve...

Four Out Of Five Sonic Screwdrivers ( or Dalek antibodies )

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Sophie The Mermaid

Our beautiful daughter is 19 today. Here's a picture of her from a recent photo shoot. Happy Birthday, Babs. We love you!

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Jack Kirby

As many of you fine folk out there in the Blogosphere probably already know, today would have been the late, great Jack Kirby's 97th birthday. You also don't need me to tell you that Kirby was a prodigious talent with an unrivaled imagination who truly deserved the name "King Of Comics".
Today is also the 200th anniversary of J.S. Le Fanu's birth in 19th century Dublin. Le Fanu was one of the most important writers of supernatural fiction, creating such moody masterpieces as Carmilla, Schalken The Painter and Madam Crowl's Ghost.
In honour of these two very talented and very different creators I'm going to share with you, Dear Reader, some of the King's rare excursions into the mysterious and mystical...
( There's a lot of angry / screaming faces in this post, aren't there? )
Oh, and Mangog doesn't really fit here, does he? I just like that image  -  one of my fave Kirby monsters...

Soundtrack: Grace by Jeff Buckley

Monday, 25 August 2014

Doctor Who: Deep Breath ( review with spoilers )

"Where did he get that face? Why's it got lines on it? It's brand new. How can his hair be all grey? He's only just got it..."
After what seemed like an eternity in the Time Vortex, the Twelfth Doctor finally crashed to Earth last night, giving us the first proper look at the 100% rebel Time Lord. So, how was he? Take a deep breath...
The new Doctor and Clara make a bizarre entrance in this episode  -  the Tardis is vomited out of the throat of a T-Rex and onto the banks of the Thames in Victorian London. ( It's that kind of a story. ) Old friends Vastra, Strax and Jenny are on hand to help a bewildered Clara and an erratic, post-regeneration Doctor... or they would be if the wayward Time Lord hadn't run off into the London fog in his nightshirt like a demented Wee Willie Winkie. The new-look Tardis team and Victorian allies find themselves caught up in a grisly plot involving spontaneous combustion, a buried alien spaceship and a half-faced cyborg harvesting human organs. Clara also has to deal with the sudden and frightening change in the man she had come to know and trust throughout many adventures in space and time. This new, fierce Doctor with an older face, "attack eyebrows" and all, is a harsh, erratic presence... when he's present at all. At one point he even seems to abandon Clara to the not-so-tender mercies of the Half-Face Man and his clockwork army. It's a far cry from the days when Clara could twist the Eleventh Doctor around her little finger...
This first, feature length episode of Series 8 is far from perfect but is loads of fun. In a gambit reminiscent of Tom Baker's first adventure, Robot, this story surrounds the new Doc with familiar characters, themes and surroundings, seemingly to reassure viewers that, yes, this is still the same show. The tone of Deep Breath is still more or less that of the Matt Smith era, with plenty of running around and comedy courtesy of the Paternoster Gang, although a darker, creepier vibe is seeping in  -  not surprising when the director is Ben Wheatley, the man behind Sightseers and A Field In England. We can expect the mood to darken as the series progresses.
Unsurprisingly, much is made of the new Doctor's apparent age and older look. He is as much confused by this change as his companion. In a lovely scene he has a manic, rambling conversation with a tramp in a back alley, forcing said hobo to look at Capaldi's face in a mirror, demanding to know if the tramp has seen these lined features before, because he hasn't  -  "Who frowned me this face?" he asks in a moment of existential angst. The Doctor also confronts the Half-Face Man, himself made up of stolen body parts over a robotic interior, and, while questioning him, questions himself too...

"There's not a trace of the original you left. You probably can't even remember where you got that face from..."

This may all sound too grim and serious but there are plenty of Steven Moffatt's trademark witty lines, with Clara and the Doctor trading insults in a sinister restaurant being a standout scene. And, as for Capaldi... well, he's as excellent as I had expected. Managing to bring just the right amount of vulnerability and charm to a harsher Doctor who could so easily have alienated the audience ( no-one wanted to go the Sixth Doctor route ) he is a joy to watch, whether conversing with a dinosaur like a time-travelling Dr. Doolittle, cavorting around London's rooftops or coolly pouring himself a drink before facing his cyborg enemy. I can't wait to see what he does next. Oh, and Jenna Coleman is fantastic, finally getting some meaty drama to, er, get her teeth into. She really brings to life Clara's fear and bravery when, seemingly abandoned by the Doctor, she faces down the Half-Face Man and his clockwork killers, armed with nothing but anger and intelligence.
I've got a few reservations about this episode ( the Paternoster Gang probably need a rest now, the dinosaur in the Thames would surely be a major disruption to recent history, I don't like the new theme music ) but I'm feeling very positive about this new era so I won't dwell on them. Instead...

I'll give this episode Four Out Of Five Sonic Screwdrivers ( or slimy eyeballs )

Soundtrack: Deepest Purple: The Very Best Of Deep Purple ( old school rock! )


Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Reading comics the hard way...

...and, no, I don't mean whilst standing on one leg. During my comic-reading years I've very rarely managed to "get in on the ground floor" of my favourite mags, often picking up on a character or comic after it's long established and then going back and trying to fill in the blanks. And occasionally my first exposure to a new comic has been completely the wrong point to start. Take Howard The Duck no.10 for instance:
You probably don't need me to tell you, Dear Reader, but the late Steve Gerber's HTD was one of the most intelligent and iconoclastic comics of its day, a satiric sideswipe at American culture, tackling comic books, the Kung Fu craze, religious cults, Presidential elections, mental health and many more of the hot topics of the 1970s, all with Gerber's acidic, surreal viewpoint. And all this with a talking duck from another dimension. By the time I tracked down an issue the comic had been running for over a year and was already notorious so I was keen to see what it was all about. What I didn't expect was an issue-long dream sequence in which Howard is mentally tortured by his own subconscious for supposedly being a coward and a loser.
"Swan-Song Of The Living Dead Duck" hits the reader with surreal image after surreal image  -  Howard hatches on page one, only to narrowly avoid being crushed by a giant hand ( Gerber's? ); he is almost "cancelled" by a giant ape called Kong Lomerate; he seeks advice from dream versions of Doctor Strange (  here called "Doctor Piano" ) and a Spider-Man who pours out of a tap; his human girlfriend, Bev, appears and opens her face like a porcelain mask to reveal a water-squirting, plastic flower inside; past enemies queue up to insult him and, finally, he "dies" and finds himself chained in Hell. The issue ends like this:

"I was brave. I was heroic. I acted in the best tradition of unthinking pugnacity an' I died... for honor. An' my eternal reward? To be laughed at for all time-- by the bums who put me there. I just hope I'm still dreamin'-- 'cause if this is for real, I'm gonna get very depressed."

Heavy stuff, man. As well as artist Gene Colan's disturbing images, Gerber's discussions of heroism, morality, guilt and conformism were not what I was used to in the average comic book. ( I was only 10 at the time... ) Sure, writers like Don McGregor had covered similar topics in strips such as War Of The Worlds and The Black Panther, but always with a reassuringly traditional super heroic slant. This was like taking a trip through the mind of a very disturbed individual with no return to normality at the end of the comic  -  the "coming next" blurbs reveals the title of issue no. 11 as "The Quack-Up!!" Somehow, after all that, I still went back for more...
Another strange trip came a few years later in Cerebus no. 20. Cerebus The Aardvark was probably the coolest  -  and definitely the most unusual  -   character in comics as the beige-toned '70s gave way to the grey-hued '80s. Following in Howard's webbed footsteps, the Earth Pig's strip had started off as a parody of the Thomas / Smith Conan The Barbarian before heading down its own idiosyncratic path. I may have expected satiric barbarian fantasy from my first encounter with the short grey one... but that's not what I got. ( Do you see a pattern forming here, Dear Reader? )
Cerebus has been drugged by the Cirinists ( an all-female cult whose apparent purpose is "to wipe out fun in our lifetime" ) and finds himself, or his consciousness, floating in the mystical realm of the Seventh Sphere, also the hangout of Illusionist guru and 182-year old hippie Suenteus Po. The aardvark plays the two cults off against each other in attempt to return to reality  -  although by the end of the issue he doesn't seem to have succeeded. This was all a fine introduction to Dave Sim's cantankerous, controversial character for me, and to Sim's mastery of witty dialogue and expressive cartooning. But ( there's always a "but", isn't there? ) the experimental storytelling caught me by surprise. The Seventh Sphere ( which is the background for every scene ) is depicted as a black void with areas of "shimmering grey" and the only character visible throughout the story is Cerebus, manipulating the unseen cultists as he wanders through the darkness. The grey areas are actually a portrait of Cerebus, chopped up and spread throughout the 20 pages of story, with the smaller images of the aardvark pasted on top. And here's the full picture:
Yeah. As the Cirinists would say: "we are like unto one negotiating the sale of farm animals without the benefit of daylight..."
My last example is Doom Patrol no. 54. All I really need to say here is... Grant Morrison...
I obviously came late to the Doom Patrol party ( Morrison had started scripting this comic with its 19th issue ) but I thought I'd give it a go. Doom Patrol had a reputation for Morrison-brand wierdness but I was sure I could handle it.Unfortunately the issue I chose was the most impenetrable of the entire run. It's ( apparently ) a meditation on alchemy, with the DP's hermaphroditic, mummified, three-in-one character Rebis travelling to the Moon and somehow giving birth. There's all manner of surrealism here: prostitutes wrapped in bandages, Siamese twins fighting and screaming at each other / themselves, incest in a submerged bomber, many references to sex, death and rebirth, a Moon buggy transformed into a cocoon...

It's all weapons-grade oddness but, luckily, I gave the comic another chance, bought some more issues, and found it to be one of the best mags of its time  -  hilarious, scary, thought-provoking and heart-breaking. This issue's weirdness did, however, yield some beautifully bizarre prose amongst all the obscure references:

"Rainforest green light in the submarine twilight. Stifling heat in the belly of the beast. Drowned leviathan bomber. These archangel bombers prowl the torn fringes of creation. Their gigantic engines throb in our dreams. The war in heaven never ends."

Who says comics need to make sense...?

Soundtrack: It'll End In Tears by This Mortal Coil   ( Hey! Post number 775! )

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