Reality is the playground of the unimaginative
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Saturday, 29 November 2008

Merlin: The Labyrinth of Gedref

Out on a hunting trip, Arthur kills a unicorn (for no more reason than to kick start this week's story) and in so doing, brings down a plague of famine and drought on the Kingdom of Camelot.

Frank Finlay (this episode's big name guest star) appears out of nowhere (like the Shopkeeper in Mr Benn) and tells Arthur he is responsible for the curse that has befallen Camelot and only he can lift it, but passing three tests.

It takes over half the episode for Arthur to accept that he is actually responsible and it's only after he lets a grain thief go - who says he needs the food to feed his three children - and the city water supply starts running again that he fully grasps his role in the events.

His next test comes in the woods, when he meets the thief again and finds that he was lied to - the man is just hording food. Arthur fails this test because he is willing to kill the man for insulting his honour, but Merlin manages to talk Anhora (Finlay) into giving him a 'do over'.

The final test comes with the titular Labyrinth of Gedref, a massive hedge maze that no one has ever mentioned before and really should be a tourist attraction in Camelot (as Arthur knows where it is without asking). In all honesty, the Labyrinth is totally irrelevant to the test, which comes once Arthur is through it (and it doesn't appear to be much of a challenge for him) and on a beach.

By this stage in the series it's as though everyone involved has just given up the will to live and are just going through the motions. The daft and unexciting story is complemented by lacklustre acting (even Anthony Head as Uther doesn't seem that bothered with this episode). Several characters (e.g. Morgana and Gwen) just pop up for brief cameos to justify their salary and for a show about England's most powerful sorcerer Merlin only uses his magic once... to kill a rat.

The scene that follows, with Merlin trying to feed 'rat stew' to Arthur adds a new definition to 'uncomfortable', despite being inappropriately played for laughs.

Another poor episode, although bizarrely the producer of the show is claiming the BBC is making "positive noises" about a second season. My only hope would be that if it comes back, the show takes a leaf out of Babylon 5's book. B5 had a "monster-of-the-week" format in its first season to get its audience familiar with its characters and set-up, but then discarded that for subsequent seasons to embrace an on-going storyline.

Next time: Oooh, this looks exciting... but is anyone still watching? Does anyone care?


(Film clip only avilable in the UK)

We Want Your Braiiiinns... or My Winter Reading List...

After the reasonable success of my Summer reading list, inspired by Ken Newquist of Nuketown Radio Active, and with the Christmas holidays fast approaching, I felt it was time to draw myself up another reading list... and try to stick to it this time.

I've already finished World War Z and am about half-way through Cormac McCarthy's award-winning, bleak, post-apocalyptic tale: The Road, which Paul got me for my birthday.

Next up will be: The Words Of Their Roaring, by Matthew Smith. One of Abaddon Books' Tomes of The Dead series of zombie fiction.

I'd initially dismissed the Abaddon books out of my hand, because of my own stupid prejudices, due to their connection to Mongoose Publishing (a role-playing and wargames company I've always had a bit of love/hate relationship with because of several poorly produced books I brought from them many years ago and their habit to hooking me in to a line of figures and then dropping it).

Mongoose is part of the Rebellion Group, which publishes 2000AD and owns Abaddon Books. I'd read mixed reviews about Abaddon's books online, but nothing but praise for The Words of Their Roaring, a zombie novel set in London - the location I have chosen to site my PROJECT Z wargames.

As a total contrast, next up on the list is Mr Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream, by Steven Watts.

Since before last Christmas I've been looking for an up-to-date biography of my hero - Hef - and Rachel got me this hefty hardback for my birthday.

Then comes another birthday present, this time from my mum: Doctor Who: The Writer's Tale - The Untold Story of The BBC Series, by Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook.

Required reading for a Doctor Who fan, this is RTD's insight into bringing the show back, writing his episodes, his ideas and inspirations etc

As much as I love the new Doctor Who - and am glad to have it back on our screens (hopefully forever) - I'm not a sycophantic fan of RTD's writing; in my opinion he's writing as many stinkers as he has great episodes.

Thus I shall be interested to gain an insight into his writing procedures and thought patterns.

And anyway, even if he'd never written a single episode of the show - he brought it back and no one can ever take that away from him.

All being well, by this time, Christmas will have been and gone, and Paul will have gotten me another Abaddon Book - this one more in tune with The Road; a merry little post-apocalyptic yarn called The Culled; a tale of survivors struggling in the aftermath of a global pandemic (kind of like Survivors, but probably more exciting).

Finally, in preparation for next March 6, when the most eagerly awaited comic-book movie hits the big screen, I shall be digging out my well-loved, first edition trade paperback collection of Alan Moore's Watchmen.

These 12 issues had such an impact on me when I first read them in 1986 and certainly played a major part in my thinking behind the original HeroPress play-by-mail game, which I started with Steve, Pete and Nick back in 1987.

If only it could have carried on, and continued to grow, perhaps we'd be getting excited about the impending release of a HeroPress movie next year as well...

Friday, 28 November 2008

Book Of The Month: World War Z

The first thing you realise about World War Z (An Oral History of The Zombie War) is that it is not your 'typical' zombie book.

Author Max Brooks, who also wrote the excellent Zombie Survival Guide, posits a near-future world that is recovering in the aftermath of a global zombie uprising.

He then tells his story as a series of transcribed interviews with various survivors, starting with the Chinese doctor who discovered the first victim through soldiers, politicians, experts up to the President of The United States.

It is left to the reader to piece together the full picture - cinematic montage style - from these individual snapshots.

Very few actually deal with face-to-face encounters with the undead, some involve massed battles and others tackle the logistics and implications of facing a foe that 'lives' to eat and has no support structure or chain of command.

To use a World War II analogy, World War Z is more akin to a historical documentary than a John Wayne war movie

Brooks brilliantly takes his topic seriously and has really explored every angle of this imaginary war and its social, psychological and political impact.

His ideas on underwater zombies; those that freeze in the winter, then thaw again in spring, and 'quislings' (traumatised people who act like zombies) were new to me and demonstrate the broader canvas he is using than most zombie-themed movies.

Also, in contrast to the cinematic greats, this is a world where mankind has triumphed (albeit at great physical and emotional cost) over the undead and takes a generally more positive spin on the, usually apocalyptic, scenario.

This is not a book for those who require massive amounts of gore with their walking dead, but rather it is required reading for those who - having enjoyed the Zombie Survival Guide - want to go to the next logical step of "what if..."

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Supernatural: Folsom Prison Blues

The supremely condescending and confident FBI Special Agent Henricksen, from Nightshifter, is back on the scene when Sam and Dean are arrested breaking into a museum and wind up behind bars.

It transpires that the Winchester boys, as a favour to a marine corps friend of their father, had "allowed" themselves to be caught, so they could get into the prison where a murderous spirit was believed to be killing the inmates... only they hadn't expected Henricksen to turn up so quickly.

The brilliance of the episode is undermined slightly by the fact that, as Sam says, Dean's plan to get them arrested is stupid - not only could a million variables have gone wrong in the process to not end up with them, together, in the right place to confront the malicious spectre, but given they are both wanted by the FBI already surely there might have been an alternative - less conspicuous - plan?

The set-up just seems slightly contrived.

By the end of Folsom Prison Blues - which is a solid, old school "find the bones, salt 'em and burn 'em" ghost hunt - the brothers are in even deeper doo-doo than at the end of Nightshifter; adding escaping prison to the ever-increasing list of crimes they are wanted for, which runs the full gamut from grave desecration and credit card fraud to first degree murder.

This is one of those episodes that as soon as it finishes you want to stick in the DVD of the subsequent episode to find out what happens next, as it must be becoming harder and harder to keep up the family business of hunting monsters...

Supernatural: Hollywood Babylon

After the heart-breaking conclusion of Heart, Hollywood Babylon is total contrast: darkly comedic and full of in-jokes.

Sam and Dean roll up in Hollywood to investigate the death of a crew member on the set of an Evil Dead-like horror movie, Hell Hazers II: The Reckoning, only to quickly discover that it was all staged to generate online buzz for the movie.

But the death's don't stop and the brothers continue their undercover work as part of the film crew to dig up what's really happening.

Dean becomes more and more drawn to his role as a PA and his attraction to the movie's leading lady, while Sam remains focused on the job in hand - finding out what's attracting murderous ghosts to the set of a dodgy horror flick!

Hollywood Babylon could have degenerated in an episode of Scooby-Doo, but thankfully the show's consistently strong writing kept it on track.

Ben Edlund's script is packed with knowing humour (from early references to The Gilmore Girls, which Jared Padalecki appeared in, and the 'Canadian' weather in Los Angeles - the show is filmed in Canada - to the behind-the-scenes politics and wrangling over the script) that makes this the strongest, light-hearted episode of Supernatural yet, without undermining the show's innate verisimilitude.

Hell Hazers II even has its own teaser trailer, which popped up in the middle of the episode:

Supernatural: Heart

We've had Supernatural's take on vampires, now it's the turn of that other staple of horror fiction: the werewolf.

Sam and Dean are investigating the death of a businessman, found mauled in his office with his heart ripped out. They suspect that the attacker is the ex-boyfriend of the man's assistant Madison (Emmanuelle Vaugier), but, this being Supernatural, things are never straight forward.

Sometimes, I can't help thinking that shows that thrive on the twist need an occasional Occam's Razor storyline where the obvious solution is the correct one for a change; just to throw smart-arses like me off the scent.

But once the 'surprise' is revealed, Heart moves in a totally different, emotional direction as the brothers hunt desperately for a cure for lycanthropy that leads to one of the most powerful final scenes this series has yet given us.

Once again, Supernatural has taken a horror cliche (the werewolf) and reinvented it for its own ends.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Still Surviving...


The second episode of Survivors aired last night and our band of hardy survivors clashed with a gang of thugs when they tried to raid a nearby supermarket for provisions.

The pacing is erratic, the dialogue veers from wonky to horrible, and some of the acting is rather poor, but the story compels you along as you want to know what ordeal the protagonists are going to face next.

Dialogue issues must surely be laid at the feet of the show's writer, Adrian Hodges, who also penned Primeval, which only managed to survive its first season with the distraction factor of Hannah Spearritt's pants.

This episode introduced a new member to the group - soulless poor little rich girl Sarah (Casualty's Robyn Addison), who adds glamour and annoyance to the show in equal measures.

Max Beesley's bubbling psycho Tom remains the most interesting character, but, of course, the majority of science-fiction fans will be tuning in to see Paterson Joseph in action and judge his potential as the next Doctor Who. Some websites have him as a shoo-in for the role, but while I have nothing against the man I'm still waiting to be convinced.

More shockingly, Rachel said she may not be able to watch Doctor Who anymore if he becomes the 11th Doctor, as she is a major Peep Show fan and he will always be "Johnson" to her, Mark's slimy boss.

(Film Clip Only Available In The UK)

Top Of The Pile: Ultimatum #1

It's hard to believe that Ultimatum is written by the same man (Jeph Loeb) who has been making such a pig's ear of Marvel's supposedly bullet-proof title The Ultimates.

This mini-series - featuring all the major characters of the Ultimates Universe (from Spider-Man and the Hulk to the Fantastic Four and the Ultimates themselves) sees Magneto taking revenge on the world for the death of his two children (Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver in recent issues of The Ultimates).

Normally when a villain swears revenge against the world it only affects the world from the perspective of the characters in a single title (the one where the particular heroes and villain usually clash), but this cross-over mini-series brings the entire imprint in on the action in a definitive way that Marvel's regular "event" titles (such as Secret Invasion).

This storyline promises real, lasting impacts on the Ultimate Universe and opens with the sudden flooding of New York city (drowning millions in the process), which Richard Reeds initially blames on Namor, The Sub-Mariner.

The scene is incredibly dramatic, with David Finch's art really bringing home the sudden, awful swamping of the Big Apple - a scene reminiscent of the trailer for the new Roland Emmerich disaster movie 2012.

Not only is the art great in this title, but the characters are believable and the action frenetic - this looks like being the "event" title of the year, with long-lasting ramifications for the Ultimate Universe (although I'm pleased to hear that Ultimate Spider-Man will continue).

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

The Week In Geek (One Month To Christmas Special)...

A round-up of geeky news you might have missed...

(1) Alien Contact In A Few Years: Senior SETI astronomer Seth Shostak believes we could make contact with an alien race by 2025.

(2) Fight Zombies For Free: A free online MMORPG is being developed, to go online early next year, where players take the roles of urban survivors after the zompocalypse.

(3) Return of The Dynamic Duo: Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (stars of Hot Fuzz and Shaun Of The Dead) have teamed up for Pete, a road movie about a couple of slackers travelling across the United States.

(4) Superman Quits Earth: Superman is to leave Earth "forever" in DC Comics next year.

(5) Watchmen Gets Video Treatment: A dreadful-looking video game prequel to the Watchmen movie is being worked on.

(6) Travel Back In Time With Doctor Who: The BBC has set-up an online archive of old Doctor Who material, so that fans can explore the behind-the-scenes origin of the long-running show.

(7) The Rats Are Back: Rats have returned to the German town of Hamelin and the Pied Piper is nowhere to be seen.

(8) Pushing Daisies Pruned: The sublime Pushing Daisies has been cut down in its prime due to low viewer ratings.

(9) Gen Con For Sale: The world's most famous RPG convention is up for sale!

Monday, 24 November 2008

The Sarah Jane Adventures: The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith

It's days like today when I wonder how the world coped in those dark days when the Doctor Who franchise was off the air?

The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith was not just a fantastic episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures but an incredible piece of science-fiction writing by Gareth Roberts and a tear-jerking family drama.

Sarah Jane and her 'gang' discover a hole in time that just happens to lead to the 1950s village where she was born. Although she realises quickly it is obviously a trap she can't help but step through - with Luke - in an attempt to find out why her parents abandoned her just moments before they were killed in a car crash.

When she uses her sonic lipstick to disable their car, the future is changed and Clyde and Rani find the world suddenly morphed into a bleak, rubble-strewn wasteland (aka a classic Doctor Who quarry!)

This story has several surface similarities to Paul Cornell's Father's Day, from the first season of the new Doctor Who, but instead of releasing Reapers, Sarah Jane's actions allow her old nemesis The Trickster, from Whatever Happened To Sarah Jane?, to manifest in the '50s and suck the world dry.

Sarah Jane and Luke travel back from the bleak future to arrive just before The Trickster appears and Sarah Jane is determined to find a way of defeating him that doesn't involve the death of her parents.

This is strong stuff for a children's show and is handled brilliantly. The acting, especially from Elisabeth Sladen, is some of the finest this series has yet given us and all the cast prove their worth, with totally convincing performances.

Of course, I could have done with less Graske action (The Trickster's diminutive agent in our dimension) but even he was less bothersome than his earlier appearance in Whatever Happened To Sarah Jane? and actually grew in to a reasonably sympathetic character by the end of the story.

I Will Survive...


The BBC's new science-fiction thriller Survivors kicked off last night with a double-length episode and continues on Tuesday.

For Rachel, wrapped up on the sofa with a hacking cough (that may well be the tail end of a week of flu), it was all a bit too real and bleak and I'm not sure she'll be joining me for the next episode.

Based on Terry 'I invented The Daleks and Blakes 7' Nation's original 1970s drama, this modern retelling follows the lives of a handful of survivors after a virulent flu-bug wipes out over 90 per cent of the Earth's population in a few days.

For the most part the characters took a very British/stiff-upper-lip approach to this germy apocalypse, not really freaking out but just trying to get on with their lives, convinced that the authorities would sort it all out soon.

Leading the cast is Julie Graham (fresh from the car crash television that was Bonekickers, and no doubt hoping to wipe that from peoples' memories), as Abby Grant, a mum looking for her son who was away on an outward bound adventure holiday when everything hit the fan.

Joining her is Greg Preston, who just wants to be on his own, played by Paterson Joseph, currently the hot favourite to be the new Doctor Who - so Who fans will have another reason to tune in besides the Terry Nation angle.

A couple of other cast members with Doctor Who connections are Shaun Dingwall (aka Pete Tyler, Rose's dad) who appears as Abby's husband and appeared to die in the first episode, and the fantastic Freema Agyeman (aka Martha Jones), as primary school teacher Jenny Collins, who also went MIA (presumed dead) part way through last night's story.

Max Beesley is on hand as sinister escaped convict Tom Price, who still has 20 years to serve on his sentence for some heinous - and as yet unrevealed - crime.

The majority of the characters had met up by the end of the episode and, although they had nothing in common, Abby has convinced them that they would be better off sticking together.

The series runs for five more episodes, but I'm asssuming the story won't be wrapped up in that time and the programme makers intend this to run and run. I'm certainly in for the duration; the show might have been a tad slow in places but it held my interest - especially with the teasing cameo by the "mysterious (and possibly evil) scientists" at the end.

(Video Clip Only Available In The UK)

DVD Of The Week: The Chronicles Of Narnia - Prince Caspian (2008)

It's a year after the events in The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe (see below) and the four Pevensie are summoned back to the magical kingdom of Narnia from wartime London for further adventures in Prince Caspian.

While it may only be 12 months since they left, hundreds of years have passed in Narnia and a human kingdom, Telmarine, has risen to prominence and driven the supernatural natives to near extinction.

The "old kings and queens of Narnia" were summoned by Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes), rightful heir to Telmarine, who is escaping his usurping uncle's assassins.

Peter (William Moseley), Edmund (Skandar Keynes), Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Susan (Anna Popplewell) join with Caspian to bring the Narnians out of hiding and restore peace and harmony to the land.

From the outset this is darker film than its predecessor and more violent, as its central focus is the war between Narnia and the invading Telmarines.

Although the running time is nearly two-and-three-quarter hours, the story races along with superb pacing and almost non-stop action scenes, with each battle or duel somehow managing to top the one that came before.

As with the first Chronicles of Narnia film, the weakest element of this generally superb film is the young leading actors - all of whom (with the exception of Edmund, who has a hint of the 'dark side' about him after he was tempted by the White Witch) are totally devoid of charisma and only really shine in the fight sequences.

Thankfully there are enough supporting characters - many of whom brought to life by incredible CGI - who are more than capable of carrying the film (particular praise has to go to the mouse Reepicheep, who I only realised towards the end was voiced by Eddie Izzard).

As fantasy war films go, Prince Caspian is an amazing display of unearthly fighting (just look for the Telmarine's adopting a Testudo formation and the centaur jumping into the middle of them) that should entertain its target audience and provide great inspiration to role-players looking to add a splash of colour to their combat sequences.

To set things in context, here is my review of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe after I saw it at the cinema in 2005:

Let's get one thing straight - this is not the next Lord Of The Rings. That trilogy set the bar so high for fantasy films that it would take something pretty amazing to even equal it. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is not that film.

Amazing (but sometimes a bit wonky) effects sequences, wonderfully animated talking creatures, beautiful sweeping New Zealand scenery and odd flashes of humour can't stop this being very clearly an old school children's' film with a simplistic story, cheesy bits (like the appearance of Father Christmas to hand out the 'magic weapons') and two-dimensional characters.

It also doesn't help that the four central child actors are very annoying - lacking the charisma, talent or maturity of, say, the stars of the Harry Potter series.

Thankfully the Christian subtext is subtle and Liam Neeson turns in a warm vocal performance as Aslan, but it's the CGI Beavers and wolves that will really stick in the mind.

A mild distraction, Narnia is a pleasant piece of gore-free fluff that will - eventually - become a Saturday afternoon television staple to distract the wee kiddies from their XBoxes once ITV's copy of the Railway Children has worn out.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

What Constitutes A Horde?

This week I received my latest batch of painted miniatures back from my figure painter of choice (Neil Wilson of Wilsons Miniatures) - a superb mix of Weird War II and pulp-centric characters - and dispatched another box full of minis to him.

This latest dispatch marks the first official PROJECT Z collection: 10 East Riding Miniatures' Golgo Island zombies, a couple from Musketeer Miniatures, and a handful from Hasslefree (as mentioned earlier), as well as some random zombie-fighters/survivors of the zompocalypse.

These I hope to see back sometime mid-December, but obviously the postal service goes a bit skew-whiff the closer we get to Christmas.

However, my enthusiasm for PROJECT Z has meant that I've almost got a second collection of zombies and survivors ready to send out for painting already. I'm just waiting for my last order from Fighting 15s (some general zombies and a pair of toxic zombies crawling out of oil drums) to complement a couple of blister packs of Cold War miniatures and an assortment of survivors from a variety of manufacturers.

I already have the basic building blocks of my horde - the five Copplestone zombies pictured above that Neil painted some time ago for me - but now I'm starting to wonder: how many zombies constitute a decent horde?

Can you ever have too many zombies in your figure collection?

Reading World War Z last night, there were accounts of millions of zombies in the world-wide conflict, but I don't think my limited budget would stretch to that kind of one-to-one recreation.

Sunday Funny: You'd Pay To Watch...

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Merlin: The Moment Of Truth

Merlin's mum turns up at Camelot with a black eye and tales of bandits raiding her village. The young secret-sorcerer manages to get his mum to speak at court, pleading with Uther to send forces to drive off the bandits. The king is sympathetic but won't help because the village is in a neighbouring kingdom and to move troops there would be seen as an act of war.

So Merlin, along with Morgana, Gwen and Arthur decide to go and see what can be done on their own... and suddenly Merlin has become a stripped-down version of the Magnificent Seven, with the four Camelot residents trying to train a village full of farmers how to defend themselves.

Merlin meets up with an old friend - who knows Merlin's secret (which increasingly sounds like a metaphor for homosexuality throughout this tedious and trite story) - and this old friend urges Merlin to use his magic to defend the village, while Merlin is still keen to stay in the closet (magically speaking) because of Uther's violent opposition to any manifestation of wizardly ways.

By the time the story lumbered to its inevitable climatic fight, I was nearly asleep from the constant barrage of tedious dialogue and inane posturing from the central characters.

Given Uther's heavy-handed protection of both Arthur and Morgana, it seemed quite unbelievable that he didn't send someone out to drag them back to Camelot and stop chasing off on some fool's errand to protect a load of peasants.

Alexander Siddig, who has starred in such major films as Syriana and Kingdom of Heaven, is totally wasted as the one-dimensional bandit leader in the plot that could almost as easily have been a left-over from one of the recent incarnations of Robin Hood. The set certainly was.

With no magical opposition and the usual use of the 'reset' button at the end to avoid Arthur stumbling over Merlin's great secret, The Moment Of Truth was a new low for this series which has bumbled along for several months, but never achieved the potential it promised.

After this episode, I'll be very surprised if the show comes back for a second series.

Next week:


(Film Clip Only Available In The UK)

Pick Of The Pods: The Tin Dog Podcast

Unsurprisingly the Internet is awash with Doctor Who-related podcasts, the show being popular around the world.

I've listened to many since I first discovered podcasts, but the one which fits my tastes best is The Tin Dog Podcast.

With shows running on average 15 or 20 minutes, and presented by a single speaker - intercut with sound clips from both the show and the Big Finish audios - these are easily digestible chunks of Whoness delivered to my podcatcher on a reasonably regular basis.

While Doctor Who is on the television, the host (a gentleman from Newcastle with a broad accent and laid-back style that sounds quite like the commentator on Big Brother) puts out weekly review shows after each episode.

During the off-season, the podcast appears to have gone to a fortnightly format, reviewing the latest DVD releases, pickings from the Doctor Who back catalogue, recent plays from Big Finish or hot topics of internet discussion (e.g. David Tennant departure and the Children In Need teaser).

The delivery sometimes rambles off at tangents (some interesting, some slightly irritating, but never boring) and the host has a very level approach to his reviews - although a hardcore fan of the Classic series he is not an automatic "RTD-hater" or overly harsh critic of the new material.

As he often says: "Any Doctor Who is better than most other things."

This is a show for fans of Doctor Who who don't have the time, or room on their iPod, for several two-hour shows of in-depth geekery a week. It is informed and informative, balanced and light-hearted and well worth a listen.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Supernatural: Roadkill

While Tall Tales might have subverted the standard formula of a Supernatural episode by rendering the Winchester brothers' usual research almost redundant and pitting them against a near-omnipotent foe, Roadkill was a return to first season glory, complete with a ghost hunt, a shotgun full of rock salt and the old "dig up the bones, salt 'em and burn 'em" routine.

Throw in Battlestar Galactica's gorgeous Tricia Helfer as a co-star, a couple of spooky shacks in creepy woods and a story which takes place during a single night and you've got a standalone episode that encapsulates Sam and Dean's mission as well as the show's Pilot.

The vengeful ghost of a dead farmer haunts an isolated section of road, once a year, on the anniversary of his death.

Sam and Dean thus have one night to track him and lay him to rest, but they are flagged down by Molly (Tricia Helfer), whose car crashed after her husband swerved to avoid hitting the ghost of the farmer. Now her husband has disappeared and she's been chased through the woods by the gruesome ghost.

Molly refuses to leave the area until she can find her husband and so tags along with the Winchesters on their ghost hunt - even though she is initially sceptical (and scared) when they reveal their presence on the road was no co-incidence and that they are seeking to vanquish an apparition.

The story, which explores the brothers different approaches to the paranormal as well as the question of what happens to spirits after they are 'set free', has a brilliant twist, which I only began to suspect towards the turning point for the final act.

Roadkill is classic Supernatural; a welcome breather from the overarching through-plot of the season and a return to the show's roots.

Supernatural: Tall Tales

There comes a point in every television addicts life when, while watching the latest episode of his favourite mystery serial, he recognises the 'villain of the piece' the moment he (or she) appears on screen... and without any further clues knows the butler/mailman/janitor/street sweeper did it because they are a recognisable bit-part player.

This Scooby Doo moment happened to me a few minutes into Tall Tales, when I saw the face of an incidental character and thought: "I've seen you before!"

Tall Tales revolves around a university campus where a string of seemingly unrelated, weird events unfold as the Winchester brothers try to figure out what's going on - from a campus legend of a vengeful spirit to 'alien abduction' and finally alligators in the sewers.

All the while, the brothers are "bickering like an old married couple", and the bulk of the story is told in unreliable flashbacks as the Winchesters relate events to Bobby - who they've called in for assistance.

Although, as usual, the story involves several deaths, this is clearly meant as a lighter tone after the hardcore grimness of the recent Supernatural episodes.

In this respect, it works, while also giving us further insight into the brothers' relationship and an opponent the like of which they've never tackled before.

And yes, he would have gotten away with it, if it wasn't for those pesky kids...

Supernatural: Born Under A Bad Sign

Born Under A Bad Sign gave both Sam and Dean a chance to showcase their 'tough S.O.B.' sides.

Sam has been missing for a week then turns up at a motel, covered in blood (not his own!) with no memories of what has happened in the past seven days.

Together the brothers start to backtrack his exploits and discover a Sam that neither of them recognises - smoking, drinking etc - and eventually the trail leads back to the home of a murdered hunter, where security camera footage shows Sam beating the tar out of him before knifing him.

Sam pleads with Dean to kill him, but Dean refuses and Sam coldcocks him before heading off to take young Jo Harvelle hostage and torture her with tales of hre father's death.

By this time, Dean has worked out that Sam is possessed and drives him off with holy water.

Possessed Sam then targets Bobby Singer and things go from bad to worse as Dean and Bobby find out exactly which demon is possessing Sam and what it wants.

A very clever story, using a tried and tested set-up of the classic "lost weekend" and throwing in some demonic possession in to the mix - and allowing (kind of) the return of a popular villain from the first season.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Double The Fun...

Isn't it typical? You wait for ages for a film involving both zombies and strippers, then two come along at once...

Both Zombie Strippers and Zombies, Zombies, Zombies claim to be comedies, but only the former generates more laughs than groans.

Zombie Strippers, which boasts Robert 'Freddy Krueger' Englund and "worldwide media sensation" (i.e. porn star) Jenna Jameson in its cast, opens with an elite army unit raiding a top secret laboratory where a "super-soldier" serum has turned a bunch of homeless test subjects into flesh-eating zombies.

The serum works in such a way that while women still retain some control over their faculties, men become totally mindless (see where the satire is going?)

The unit's newest recruit gets bit and flees next door to Rhino's, an illegal strip joint. Top stripper Jenna Jameson then gets turned into a zombie... and a "super stripper".

Club owner Robert Englund sees a money making opportunity - as all his new star demands is "something to eat" after her performance.

Gradually more of the performers are turned into zombies and the men they feed on return as living dead as well, until the balance tips completely and things - surprise, surprise - get out of hand.

Zombie Strippers is far funnier than it has any right to be, from the philosophy-quoting strippers to the totally, over-the-top, Grand Guignol, blood-splattering effects.

It's not exactly cutting edge satire, but, as self-aware, "made-to-be-bad", cheapish-looking horror films go, Zombie Strippers is pretty decent entertainment, reminiscent of such 80s' classics as Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers.

On the other hand, Zombies, Zombies, Zombies is just bad. Seemingly made for $20, by a bunch of film students, the dreadful acting, script, special effects, sound and picture quality give new meaning to "bargain basement".

It certainly will not make you "laugh-out-loud", as the quote on the front of the DVD (from Bloody-Disgusting.Com) claims, and the copy writer for the back cover should be sued under the Trade Descriptions Act for daring to say the film is "in the vein of Shaun Of The Dead".

A scientists' experimental cure for cancer is stolen by a junkie and gets into the hands of some prostitutes, who turn into zombies and start snacking on punters and visitors to the Grindhouse strip club. The strippers, some other prostitutes and their pimp hole-up in the club and fend off the living dead.

This sad little piece of celluloid really has nothing going for it, despite a couple of half-decent one-liners.

Best avoided unless you are very, very drunk or just mad keen for anything with zombies in; there's not even as much flesh on display as in Zombie Strippers, so it doesn't even have that going for it.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Ghoulish Goings On In Tekralh...

Although Steve was unable to attend this week's Tuesday Knights' gaming session of Castles & Crusades, it came at a good time in the Tekralh campaign as his character was said to be off trying to hunt down the wizard who had conned them last time.

I see Steve's ranger (Red), who he has variously described as Batman and Van Helsing (the Hugh Jackman version), as having a touch of the Solomon Kane fanaticism about him - so there is no question that he would head off after Magoo and leave the rest of the group to their more squalid tunnel grubbing.

Nick (Feng Ying), Clare (Clodius) and Pete (Gregor) were hungry for some dungeon-based antics and they got it in spades - including a wonderfully gory scrap with a couple of flesh-eating ghouls (one of whom managed to sever an artery in Lemunda the NPC's neck, thanks to a great critical hit), where Pete's half-orc druid and his pet badger both succumbed to the creature's paralysing claws (I take this as being a virulent disease caused from the undead fiends' foul feeding habits).

Pete - through use of a 'hero point' chip - managed to shake off the paralysis at the end of the fight; in time to staunch the bleeding from Lemunda's neck - saving her life.

The group's next big fight came with a giant spider, which managed to ambush Nick's gnome martial artist and poison him with virulent venom before the rest of the party could wade in and batter the enormous beastie into a gooey mess on the floor.

With one character poisoned and another weakened from a serious wound, the adventurers didn't feel up to tackling what they believe is a large gathering of goblins and so headed back to the surface for some much needed R'n'R.

Although this was quite a short session, it saw the most use of the 'hero point' chips yet - as the players came up with inventive uses (such as the shaking off of ghoulish paralysis) to complement the standard uses of increasing damage or rerolling failed 'to hit' checks.

Towards the end of the evening - once they were back, safe and sound in the town - Pete was trying to come up with creative uses of his druidic 'entanglement' spell and thrown pot plants to create some form of 'entangling grenade'. No doubt I will hear the resolution of his ruminations next month.

Originally this evening's game had been planned as the last session of the year, as December's meeting is traditionally a meal out.

We're still going to do that (once numbers have been agreed), but we're also hoping to squeeze in another actual game of Castles & Crusades before the year is out, even if only to allow Steve to sling some more dice.

Pete brought up the great suggestion as we were packing away that we consider playing this campaign for a year, then switching to another system for 12 months. He volunteered to run an old school Top Secret game and I'm all in favour of that.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

The Week In Geek...

A round-up of geeky new that you might have missed...

(1) Obama = Geek. Official: Barack Obama's "one of us". The next US President's coolness continues to grow as we find out more about the man - he collects Conan and Spider-Man comics (and he's read every Harry Potter book)!

(2) Boldly Going: Have a sneak peak at the new look for Kirk's Enterprise in the forthcoming Star Trek movie, due out May 8, 2009.

(3) Weekly Doctor Who In 2009: The Doctor may be absent from our TVs for most of next year, but Big Finish will be releasing new, weekly, audio adventure episodes for download for 16 weeks from March 7.

(4) Lost Returns: Season 5 of Lost is scheduled to premiere on January 21 in the United States.

(5) Ratner Directs Conan: Brett Ratner has been named as the director of the new Conan movie.

(6) Johnston Directs Cap: Joe Johnston has been named as the director of the new Captain America movie.

(7) 28 More...: Danny Boyle is thinking about a sequel to 28 Weeks Later, but insists that his two "28...Later" zombie films are not zombie films. If it looks like a zombie, growls like a zombie, bites like a zombie, runs like a (Zack Snyder) zombie and spreads the love like a zombie... then it's probably a zombie.

(8) Thor Gets Animated: Marvel is prepping a 26 episode, cartoon series revolving around Thor, to debut in 2010.

(9) Once A King Always A King, But Once A Knight Is Enough: The next meeting of my game group, The Tuesday Knights, is due to take place this evening.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Christmas Is Coming...

While it may seem as though Christmas is starting earlier and earlier each year, my first seasonal card arrived today - the day after my birthday - a whole week later than last year!

This year's honour for first past the post goes to SFX magazine, plugging their Christmas special issue, which should be on the shelves any day now.

The card depicts the aftermath of a mid-air collision between Santa's sleigh and a certain blue, flying police box.

And it's only 38 days until the Doctor Who Christmas Special... and Christmas Day!

And as a special treat, for Children In Need, the BBC has released the first two minutes onto YouTube; the pre-credit sequence. Enjoy!
(Video Clip Only Available in UK)

DVD Of The Week: The Mist (2007)

First things first - if you like decent, tense, horror films or smart thrillers with monsters in, then see The Mist before someone tells you the ending.

It's not that the ending is particularly revelatory, but it would undermine your enjoyment of the movie if you knew where things were heading.

To be honest, you only have to be semi-cineliterate or have a penchant for bleak, nihilistic horror to be able to guess the 'twist' in the tale after about half an hour - but it's still better than anything the so-called "twistmeister" M. Night Shyamalan has given us since The Sixth Sense.

The Mist is Frank Darabont's two-hour adaptation of a Stephen King novella that has a small New England town (Castle Rock again) enveloped in a strange mist that rolls off the lake after a violent storm has left the area without power.

A group of locals and out-of-towners becomes trapped in a supermarket when they discover there are "things" in the mist... and these things have tentacles and teeth.

But the biggest threat to the people in the supermarket comes from their own paranoia and prejudices as the film quickly becomes a character study of the extremes fear can drive people to, with the town's local Bible-quoting eccentric (Marcia Gay Harden) fanning the flames of extremism as she wins more and more frightened people round to her Apocalyptic way of thinking.

Nominally in charge of the group is David Drayton (Thomas Jane), a level-hearted artist, who only wants what's best for his terrified and traumatised son Billy (Nathan Gamble), and he is our point-of-view anchor as events rapidly unravel.

If the film has a weak point it is the exposition info-dump delivered by the Private Jessup (Smallville's Sam Witwer) when the majority of crowd turn on him and blame the army for their predicament.

It would have been better if the audience could have been drip-fed this information somehow; but then again it is never confirmed - or denied - that this is the real explanation for what's going on anyway.

Although there are CGI monsters aplenty, The Mist's horrific impact is totally psychological because while, in all honesty, we are unlikely to actually come face-to-face with giant spider-like, flesh-dissolving, carnivorous creatures in the real world, we see fanatics who prey and thrive on other people's insecurities all the time.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Merlin: Excalibur

Despite its reworking of generally established Arthurian myths, Excalibur is the strongest episode of Merlin to date - even if it did introduce (but not name) the crucial sword very early into the saga.

However, all the good the story does is undone at the end by the series' need to introduce 'known' elements of the myths early and then take them away again, so things can continue on as before (as with Lancelot).

How much better for the series would it have been for Uther to have continued to wield Excalibur and the writers have woven it into his fall and Arthur's rise?

This story saw the return of Michelle Ryan as Nimueh and we learn a huge amount of the backstory to Uther's hatred of magic and Nimueh's involvement with him. It turns out that Uther had asked Nimueh to use magic to help his beloved but barren wife, Igraine, to bear a child - Arthur.

But, unknown to Uther, to keep the balance of magic, for a life created, one must be taken and Igraine died during the birth.

The episode opened with the arrival of a mysterious black knight at Camelot - sticking to the show's formulaic 'monster-of-the-week-turns-up-at-Camelot' - and challenges the court to single combat to the death.

Gaius realises that this is Igraine's brother, who Uther slew 20 years ago, back from the grave for revenge - reanimated by Nimueh's magic to exact the curse he laid on Camelot when he died.

As a wraith, the Black Knight cannot be slain by mortal weapons, so Merlin takes a fine sword made by Gwen's father and gets the Great Dragon to burnish it with his magical breath - on the condition that only Arthur will be allowed to wield the magic sword.

Uther has other plans, not wishing to see his only son (recently sworn in as crown-prince of Camelot) slain in combat by an unbeatable foe, and manages to step in to the fight in Arthur's place and wielding the magic sword which Merlin and the dragon had intended Arthur to use.

I was really convinced that this episode was going to the turning point of the season, especially when Merlin confronted the angry dragon towards the end and was told he could no longer "be trusted".

But then Merlin managed to sneak away the sword all too easily, allowing the writers to effectively press 'reset' on the Excalibur part of the legend; and when he hurled the sword into the lake we didn't even get a hand rising up to catch it!

This episode had so much promise, and so many strong scenes, that it's a shame it ended the way it did, so that next week's episode will be able to - probably - not make any reference to the occurrences during Excalibur.

Next time:


(Film clip only available in the UK)

Flogging An Undead Horse...

Despite a fulsome foreward from the Romero of zombie literature, Max Brooks, Dynamite's Raise The Dead adds very little of any worth to the genre.

This hardback collection of the four issue comic book mini-series starts promisingly enough with the zompocalyse already in full swing and a collection of strangers seeking sanctuary in a late-night New Jersey cafe.

The story, by Leah 'daughter of Alan' Moore and John 'husband of Leah' Reppion, then cleverly uses Lost-style flashbacks to fill in the background of the characters as they escape from the cafe into a bus and head for the supposed safety of an out-of-town research facility.

However, the flashbacks, as interesting as they may be, don't appear to add much to the characters in the here and now - for instance, the first shows two children (Joseph and Maria), who have to kill their mum when she turns into a zombie - but this has no lasting impact on their psyche or demeanour, just explains what two kids are doing with a loaded handgun.

Another flashback disappears down a comedy cul-de-sac when a character, blinded by an exploding meteor (can we say Day Of The Triffids?), is ignored in the hospital waiting room where he is patiently seated as zombies slaughter everyone around him.

Homage (the news reports erroneously that the zombie plague started in Pittsburgh, where George A Romero films all his movies) quickly turns into rip-off when the true cause of the outbreak is revealed as experiments to produce a new form of synthetic blood that have the unfortunate side-effect of driving animal test subjects mad (i.e. like the 'Rage' virus from 28 Days Later).

The virus escapes into the atmosphere when the aforementioned meteor crashes into the side of the lab!

Stylistically there are some nice touches with the zombies as the virus gives them haunting red eyes and as the virus can affect animals as well as humans that can mean a lot of glowing red eyes in the darkness...

However, one of the main problems with Raise The Dead is that it doesn't know if it wants to be a serious spin on the genre - like The Walking Dead - or a Shaun Of The Dead-style comedy.

It certainly lacks the gravitas of Robert Kirkman's magnum opus if we're supposed to take it seriously, but it obviously takes itself too seriously to be an out-and-out comedy.

The characters are a typical collection of cliches (orphaned kids, ex-con, short-tempered executive, maternal black bus driver estranged from her child, mad scientist with a secret etc) but none of these have particularly distinct, original personalities or develop in any satisfying ways out of their stereotypes before either they are killed or the book runs out of pages.

The story is left open, with several tempting plot threads dangling, for a possible continuation but I can't see it happening. There are better and more original stories out there that need telling.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Supernatural: Houses Of The Holy

I don't know how they keep doing it, but Supernatural continues to hit home runs with pretty near every episode, and Houses Of The Holy was no exception.

Dean is forced to lie low after the incidents in the last episode, while Sam investigates reports of people driven to murderous acts after being visited "by an angel". Dean is very sceptical, but it turns out Sam is a believer.

Their legwork soon uncovers the fact that all the victims attended the same church and upon investigation it would appear that the previous parish priest was slain on the church steps just before the "avenging angel" started its mission. The new priest has been praying for help to clean up the violent neighbourhood ever since.

Dean believes the previous priest has come back as a vengeful spirit, but Sam is adamant that it is God answering the new priest's prayers.

As seems to be the pattern these days, much of the episode has the brothers working independently, tackling the problem from different angles, although one time when they are together, the "angel" appears to Sam and gives him his own mission.

Dean ends up following that lead, because he doesn't want Sam to kill anyone - even though all the victims turn out to have nasty, hidden secrets - and so Sam is left to try and summon the spirit of the dead priest.

Another solid episode; while it doesn't move the bigger season story forward much at least it maintains the threat level established by earlier stories and makes good use of elements like Sam's concerns over his supposed "destiny" to be turned into a foot soldier for the Yellow-Eyed Demon in some forthcoming demon war.

Supernatural: Nightshifter

I thought Playthings - possibly the strongest straight ghost story I've yet encountered on Supernatural - would be a hard act to follow, but Nightshifter rose to the challenge.

Although there is no mention of their continuing hunt for Ava and Sam has finally gotten rid of his wrist cast, the second half of Season Two opens with The Winchester brothers on the trail of another shapechanger; this one is using its ability to rob banks and jewellery stores.

While following up leads, the brothers come into contact with Ronald Reznick (Chris Gauthier), a humorous, Hurley-like character who believes the crimes are being carried out by a "mandroid" (like the villain in Terminator 2).

Unfortunately when Ronald - armed with an automatic rifle - takes the staff of a bank hostage (where Sam and Dean have tracked the shifter to), things plunge into darker, less comedic territory as once again the brothers are drawn into a game of cat-and-mouse with a creature that can change its appearance.

The police have the bank surrounded and power is cut, plunging the building into darkness and adding to the confusion.

The ante is upped significantly though by the arrival on the scene of FBI Agent Victor Henricksen (Charles Malik Whitfield) who has been tracking Dean for weeks - since he pulled his disappearing act in The Usual Suspects. Henrickson has pieced together all the available information about Dean and Sam, and their father, and decided that they are radical survivalists.

He is determined to bring Dean down at all costs and while the boys manage to give him the slip this time, I doubt this is the last we shall see of such of a powerful character.

Charles Whitfield injects the FBI agent with such a sense of overwhelming purpose, confidence and conviction that you quickly realise that maybe demons and monsters aren't the biggest threat to the Winchester's - and their exotic lifestyle might be coming to an abrupt end soon.

Best Watchmen Trailer Yet...



Visit the Yahoo! Movies Watchmen site.

More Watchmen Goodness...

Thanks to Rover over on the Midnight's Lair forums for drawing my attention to this latest wave of gorgeous Watchmen posters promoting Zack Snyder's eagerly anticipated film.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Hot On The Press...

Six months on from our last review of the of the 10 most written about topics on HeroPress, here's a run-down of how things stand at the moment:

(1) DVD - (up one place) While there is still quality TV around, I do find myself watching more DVDs these days (e.g. Supernatural) for some reason. As I said in the last review, this also probably has a lot to do with the fact that I don't get to the cinema so much anymore.

(2) TELEVISION - (down one place) This still remains a bedrock of my sanity, but I do find myself less inclined to write about it at the moment.

(3) DOCTOR WHO - (up three places) My aim to review all available episodes of Doctor Who remains and given the recent insight the public was afforded into Cubicle 7's Doctor Who RPG (out next Easter) via a positive review of a playtest of the system, my excitement levels are through the roof in anticipation. Of course, next year there wouldn't be as much new Who on the box as we have gotten used to, but with the RPG, Big Finish's audio adventures and DVD releases of old adventures I am sure to be able to keep myself busy.

(4) RPG - (down one place) Surprisingly, the start of my Castles & Crusades campaign, Tekralh, for my gaming group, The Tuesday Knights, has meant less aimless specualtion about RPGs here and more writing about the game world on its own dedicated blog.

(5) FILM - Continues to remain a staple of my life and I can't see this ever changing, as much a source of inspiration as the written word or comic book illustrations. Although I am artistically inept, I'm a very visual person and get most of my best gaming ideas from the movies.

(6) COMICS - (down two places) Another cornerstone of my geek life; I have been slightly disappointed by the general standard of comic books I have been reading of late. While there remains a hardcore of fantastic titles on the market, the quality control of publishers - both big and small - seems to be dropping as they flood the reading public with merchandise that it is poorly written and drawn. Perhaps, in this time of economic gloom, they would be better served with fewer, but higher quality, titles being produced every month.

(7) RACHEL - What I said six months ago, remains so true (if not more so) today: my wife, my life saver. I wouldn't be here today without her.

(8) REAL LIFE - (up one place) Given all the work going on in our new home, it's no surprise that 'real life' impinges on so much of my thoughts and blog entries. I will strive, in the next six months, to reduce the influence of 'real life' on my geekery and restore a sense of disconnected fantasy to HeroPress.

(9) STAR WARS - (down one place) Sadly something had to suffer because of the increase in 'real life' activity.

(10) HORROR - (new entry) With my discovery of Supernatural and resurgence in my interest in the writings of HP Lovecraft and Call of Cthulhu, as well as my decision to focus my tabletop gaming interests next year on 'zombies', I hope to write more in this area over the next 12 months. My current thinking is that the zombie game will probably remain a wargame as I am having so much fun piecing together a zombie horde and some rugged survivors to face them. My 'back-up' RPG for 2009 will, hopefully, be Doctor Who.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Dial P For... Pictures!



David Drage, host of the excellent Dial P For Pulp podcast, has posted the above short film as a teaser for the latest episode of his show, which includes not only a review of Hydra Miniatures' fine range of retro science-fiction wargame figures but also of the Savage Worlds role-playing game system. This latter, quick yet comprehensive, review is by Ken Newquist of Nuketown Radio Active.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

The Week In Geek (Armistice Day Special)...

A round-up of geeky news you might have missed...

(1) Character To Produce Military Figures: Toy manufacturers Character, who make the excellent 5" Doctor Who range, have entered into an agreement with the Ministry of Defence to produce a line of 10" figures entitled HM Armed Forces.

(2) Preacher Lives On: After we reported back in September about the death of HBO's plans to adapt Preacher to the small screen, now Columbia Pictures have picked up the rights to turn it into a Sam Mendes film.

(3) We Wish You a Gromit Christmas: The Oscar-winning Wallace and Gromit return to BBC1 this Christmas in A Matter of Loaf And Death, in which the the pair open a bakery... and hilarity ensues.

(4) Michael Crichton Dies: The creator of ER and author of Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton died on Wednesday at the young age of 66.

(5) Something To Sink Your Teeth Into: Mongoose releases Apocalypse Z this week, a supplement for the relaunched Battlefield Evolution wargame rules that thows hordes of zombies against the mass ranks of 'normal humans' in a near future environment. Meanwhile Ambush Alley Games has released Ambush Z, a standalone rules set pitting contemporary soldiers against the living dead.

(6) Bite-size BSG: The Sci-Fi Channel's screening of Vin Diesel's Pitch Black on January 15 will include a number of short Battlestar Galactica 'webisodes' during its commercial breaks in preparation for the launch of the final half of the final season's the following day.

(7) Own A Piece of BSG: Costumes and props from Battlestar Galactica are going under the hammer next year... Hide my credit card, Rachel!

(8) Keep The Noisy Buggers Out: Vue Cinemas in the UK are starting 'Over-18s only' screenings of select films, so grown-ups can enjoy films in peace.

Monday, 10 November 2008

The Sarah Jane Adventures: The Mark Of The Berserker

Doctor Who has had its successes with its Doctor-lite episodes (e.g. Blink and Turn Left), but it has also had its dismal failures (Love & Monsters), so can The Sarah Jane Adventures carry off a story with little input from the titular character?

The Mark Of The Berserker, filmed at the same time as Journey's End, has Luke staying over at Clyde's house while Sarah Jane is away for the weekend.

Meanwhile Rani comes across a kid at school who has come into possession of an alien pendant that grants a person the power to make others obey his every word. Rani gets hold of the artifact and hopes Sarah Jane will know what to do with it.

But, of course, Sarah Jane is away... so Rani leaves the amulet hanging up in Sarah Jane's attic, so they can discuss it upon her return.

Clyde is surprised by the sudden arrival of his estranged dad, Paul (Gary Beadle), and in trying to impress his father he reveals what he, Luke, Sarah Jane et al get up to - saving the universe, battling aliens etc.

Naturally, his dad doesn't believe him, so Clyde takes him up to Sarah Jane's attic to introduce him to Mr Smith and show him some alien technology. Paul steals the amulet and discovers its powers when they are confronted by Rani's father in the driveway.

Things escalate from there as Paul - with Clyde in tow - goes on a 'shopping spree' that ends at the coast, with the pair about to sail off in a yacht.

The Mark Of The Berserker is a parson's egg as it has some great material in it, a fantastic cameo from Maria and her dad in Washington (they actually contribute to the story and movew the plot along, rather than just waving over a webcam) and these two episodes prove that the younger members of the cast are all capable of carrying the show for a while without the solid presence of Lis Sladen.

However, the central MacGuffin - the pendant - has powers that really seem to have any relevance to its history according to the UNIT files that Mari and her dad dig up and given Clyde's apparent dislike of his father, I find his willingness to betray the trust of his friends rather convenient for the story.

These two plot holes aside, The Mark Of The Berserker continues The Sarah Jane Adventure's successful drive to embed itself firmly in the mythology of the Whoniverse - with multiple mentions of The Doctor in the last story, UNIT and daleks being name-checked in this one and The Trickster and The Graske returning in the next story.

Top Of The Pile: Final Crisis #4

DC versus Marvel. The eternal battle. Never more obvious than this week when I was reading the latest issues of both companies "event" titles - Final Crisis for DC and Secret Invasion for Marvel.

Both deal with massive, world-changing invasions of Planet Earth that can only be halted by that universe's superheroes.

But where Final Crisis, penned by probably the greatest writer currently working in the medium Grant Morrison, feels like a real war, with its series of vignettes of beleaguered heroes trying to make their last stands against the overwhelming hordes of Darkseid, Secret Invasion is just a playground fight between a random collective of costumes.

The entirety - give or take a few panels - of Secret Invasion issue 7 is a big punch-up between the superheroes of the Marvel Universe and the shape-changing alien Skrull invaders in Central Park (although you wouldn't know the location if you hadn't been told because of the total absence of any real background detail).

I can't believe this was written by the same Brian Michael Bendis, who, month in, month out, does such a brilliant job of capturing the teenage struggles of young Peter Parker in Ultimate Spider-Man.

Secret Invasion started so promisingly, but - like Civil War before it - seems to have pissed away any good ideas and good will it might have had and settled for resolving all its intellectual dilemmas with laughable slugfests and fisticuffs.

In total contrast, at the other end of the pile, we have Morrison's magnum opus Final Crisis, which simply writes rings around Marvel's paltry effort (it's as if they're not even trying to compete anymore).

While with both titles there is the inescapable feeling that you're "missing something", if you don't read every single tie-in title (which I don't... I'm not made of money!), the spine of Final Crisis is so intriguing and strong that you don't mind and can allow yourself to simply bathe in Morrison's sublime scripting and JG Jones' detailed artwork.

In the DC Universe, the superheroes have always been seen as gods among men, but now they are having to face the wrath and machinations on 'real' gods (i.e. Darkseid and his Anti-Life Equation) and are found wanting.

Final Crisis has a genuine dark, brooding, Apocalyptic feel to it that instills a sense of futility and a belief that maybe this is one battle the heroes can't win, whereas Secret Invasion - for all its scale - is just another punch-up that will have no lasting consequences.

At the moment, I genuinely believe that Final Crisis could change the DC Universe forever, while Secret Invasion might cause a few inconveniences for a year or so, but is ultimately going to be overtaken by Marvel's next ill-conceived 'event'.

Final Crisis means something and is written that way; Secret Invasion is just an excuse for lots of heroes to flex their muscles and punch things.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

DVD Of The Week: The Forbidden Kingdom (2008)

Having secured the martial arts talents of both Jet Li and Jackie Chan, you would have hoped that the makers of The Forbidden Kingdom would have pulled out all the stops to make one kick-ass wuxia movie.

Mike Sargent of WBAI Radio calls it "the BEST martial arts epic EVER made!", according to the back of the DVD packagaing.

I suggest Mike rents some more martial arts DVDs before he makes such a rash proclamation.

Starting out in a modern American city, the plot of The Forbidden Kingdom (out on DVD in the UK on November 17) unfolds as a mash-up between the ancient Chinese legend of Monkey, The Wizard of Oz and The Karate Kid.

Michael Angarano stars as Jason, a spotty, put-upon, whiny, fan of kung fu movies, who might be a new arrival in the city - or just at his school. His background is never made clear and the first 10 minutes of the film are almost painful to endure, through a combination of tired dialogue, dated set-up and bad acting, until - with a series of predicatble plot twists - he finds himself transported back in time to Ancient China and charged with the task of returning Monkey's magic staff to him.

For a few moments, the film makers thought it would be amusing if Jason couldn't understand Chinese, then after a moment they realised that could get very annoying and suddenly - with the arrival of Jackie Chan's alcoholic Lu Han - he can.

Jackie Chan is back firmly in Drunken Master territory and from this point on the film becomes more enjoyable as Dorothy... sorry, Jason, picks up his travelling companions: the babelicious bard Sparrow (Yifei Liu) and The Silent Monk (Jet Li).

Sparrow has an annoying habit of talking about herself in the third person, but no one ever picks her up on this.

Trying to stop Jason on his quest is the wicked Jade Warlord (Collin Chou), left in charge of The Forbidden Kingdom by the Jade Emporer (Deshun Wang) while he is off meditating for 500 years.

The Jade Warlord has the infinite resources of The Jade Army at his disposal to thwart Jason and his three companions, but also decides to call in the beautiful bounty hunter as Ni Chang the White-Haired Witch (Bing Bing Li), to boost his chances of success.

To be honest Bing Bing doesn't really achieve much, besides looking absolutely stunning, until the final confrontation when all bets are off and the power levels are amped up as the Monkey King returns.

There's something quite magical, reassuring and familiar about this film that will one day probably make it a fixture of Christmas, or Sunday afternoon, family viewing. The scenery is incredible, the fight sequences are breathtaking, the humour is gentle and the denouement - almost - justifies the groan-worthy first 10 minutes.

The thing I didn't get though is why when Jason meets The Jade Emporer at the end and is given one wish he should choose to go home to the bland, grim city he came from, when he's free to live a life of adventure and excitement with his girl by his side (it would have been a more productive use of his wish to bring her back) in the company of Lu Han and the Monkey King.

I guess some people don't realise they're onto a good thing, even when it's staring them in the face!
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