Reality is the playground of the unimaginative
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Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Six Of The Best For 2009...



Depending on how the ubiquitous credit crunch impacts my own personal finances and those of various game manufacturers, this is a list of the six games I'm most looking forward to getting my hands on in the New Year (in order of priority):

(1) Doctor Who (Cubicle 7) - a no-brainer; I've been hot for this title since it was first announced and any reservations over the possible mechanics have been allayed by what little information has leaked out about the game. I guess either because of licencing issues with the Beeb - or just fears of jinxing things - Cubicle 7 has been as tight as anything about letting non-playtesters (silenced by NDAs) know too much about the system.

What little we do know (from the only online preview of the game I could find) is that the core mechanic is "a simple mechanism of Attribute + Skill + 2d6 versus Difficulty Number", which was enough to win me round.

The Renegade Time Lord's sneak preview also included a mention of characters having Story Points which "allowed you to use useful gadgets (like Sonic Screwdrivers and Vortex Manipulators), roll extra dice, or force a simple success".

It all sounds very solid and traditional to me and will hopefully win a large number of Doctor Who fans over to the wonderful world of roleplaying.

And let's not forget that a Time Lord - like The Doctor - can travel to any place or period in history anywhere in the universe and this game is going to be able to let us play that out. If Cubicle 7 play their cards right, this could become the ultimate generic/universal role-playing system!

The game's writer, Dave Chapman, has a sporadic, but entertaining, blog about its development, but these are more concerned generally with production issues than details of the make-up of the game itself.

The Doctor Who RPG is currently scheduled for release, in a box set format, around Easter (possibly to co-incide with the next Doctor Who special on TV). Even if I have to sell a kidney (or not buy any other games in 2009), I'm determined to get this.

(2) Pulp Cthulhu (Chaosium): This long-delayed roleplaying game promises to shift the Call of Cthulhu game from the Roaring 20s to the pulp era of the 1930s and allow players to take on the roles of characters more akin to Doc Savage and The Shadow rather than aging antiquarians and librarians on the verge of insanity.

The book has had a chequered history since it was first announced several years ago, but is currently in the hands of Lovecraftian author and game writer William Jones, whose blog can be found at William's Ramblings, and features a few snippets about the game and its new mechanics.

(3) Traveller: Judge Dredd (Mongoose): Mongoose Publishing's take on Traveller was so wonderfully retro that I feared I was in for a major disappointment when they failed to fulfill their promises of "expanding the settings available for this game to encompass Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog, Hammers Slammers and many more."

However, their Babylon 5 (using Traveller) supplement has just come out and Matthew Sprange, Mongoose head honcho, has announced in his annual State of The Mongoose that the Judge Dredd supplement is on the cards for the summer, in a full-colour, hardback format.

He teases: "Character creation will take you through your judge’s 15 years at the Academy of Law, giving you plenty of time to make friends and enemies (and yes, you most certainly can die at the Academy!) "

With Mongoose now being part of the Rebellion Group (which publishes 2000AD), it means Mongoose has faster - and more secure - access to 2000AD properties such as Judge Dredd and Strontium Dog.

(4) Supernatural (Margaret Weis Productions): Supernatural has been my big discovery of 2008 and while I'd rather see an RPG of it use Eden's Unisystem (as used to drive the Buffy The Vampire Slayer RPG), I'll take what I can get.

This game will actually use the Cortex System (as seen in the Battlestar Galactica RPG, Serenity RPG and Demon Hunters RPG - none of which have exactly blown my socks off), but rather worringly - for a game listed on Amazon as coming out next month - the publisher's website has disappeared.

I understand that it was hacked some time ago, but I would have thought it would have made good business sense to try and get it up and running again as soon as possible.

(5) The Dresden Files (Evil Hat Productions): Another game that seems to have been an eternity in coming out, but the beauty of Evil Hat is that they are fully transparent and have kept fans in the loop during their playtesting process and methodical revisions of the game to ensure that it is as close as possible to Dresden Files' author Jim Butcher's original vision.

The game uses the FATE System, as seen in Spirit Of The Century (the darling of the 'indie' scene), and while this may not be my cup of tea when it comes to rules, I feel certain that the game will be chock full of interesting fluff and guidelines for running this style of urban fantasy adventure.

(6) Ghosts Of Albion (Eden Studios): Already available in PDF form (see the video of Kurt Wiegel's review for Game Geeks above), I'm holding out for a dead tree edition as I don't want to spend a fortune on printing off the PDF. Eden has always produced beautiful looking books and I doubt my printer (currently out of action anyway) would be able to do it justice.

Unfortunately, Eden has also always been notorious for missing deadlines and they haven't updated the news section of their website since August 1; claiming at the time that the hardcover edition of Ghosts of Albion would ship in September. It didn't. Obviously.

Miss December: Caroline Munro

Caroline Munro (from The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad)

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

The Week In Geek (Year End Special)...

Around-up of geeky news you might have missed...

(1) How The Grinch Stole Christmas: Worst Christmas news ever! A judge has ruled in favour of Fox Studios over the Watchmen movie, which means a probable delay to the opening date of the hotly anticipated film and maybe even a scuppering of the whole project!

(2) The Last Miaow: Eartha Kitt, whose Catwoman was one of the most memorable aspects of the 60s Batman TV show, has died.

(3) I Am The Law: A new Judge Dredd film has been green lit. Drokk me!

(4) Suits You: Starting January 1, Suits is new weekly online e-graphic novel series being published free on www.LouisPorterJr.com, inspired by the Haven: City of Violence RPG setting and described as “The X-Files meets The Wire”.

(5) Start Saving: The 2009 UK Games Expo will take place in Birmingham on June 5-7, featuring - new for 2009 - RPGA Living Forgotten Realms and Pathfinder role-playing sessions and a special pre-release of the Dungeons & Dragons Eberron campaign setting for 4th Edition.

(6) 'Barack Obama Is A Muslim': The top ten urban legends of 2008.

(7) How Who Are You?: Californians have the chance to make their own Doctor Who episode to appear on PBS station KTEH, in San Jose.

(8) Coming Soon: At the end of The Next Doctor, the name of the first Doctor Who special for 2009 was revealed as Planet Of The Dead.

Monday, 29 December 2008

Method In My Madness...

The "Great Reorganisation" of my comic book collections continues - at a back-breaking, snail's pace. There is some logical method behind my organisational system at present, kind of a cross between chaos magic and The DaVinci Code.

Eventually, obviously, I'd like to get them all in a roughly alphabetical order, but there isn't enough room in the gamesroom to have a separate pile for each title, so I am having to go through all the comics, repeatedly, as I work my way backwards through the alphabet.

No, I don't know why I decided to do it reverse-alphabetical either; clearly it wasn't complicated enough already.

So far I've worked back from Zot! to (various) Teen Titans, but have had to jump back this afternoon when I realised my moronic oversight of forgetting all the X-Men titles!

I also realised yesterday that I have been collecting comics for almost 30 years. Steve got me hooked when I was about 15. Prior to that I had read American comics, and British reprints of them, but my main hording love was 2000AD which I had followed from issue one.

Once I got a job, when I was 18, I'd reckon over 50 per cent of my monthly income would go on comics and games. As I grew older and moved out of my parents' house, into my own, my comic book collection became very ordered; filling almost an entire room of the three-bedroom house I shared with a work colleague.

If I hadn't gone through frequent cycles of selling off vast tracts of my comics (and games) to buy more comics (and games), I hate to think how large my gamesroom would have to be to accommodate all the material that passed through my collection.

Yes, I yearn to reclaim the epic runs of Superman (both pre- and post-John Byrne's mid-80s reinvention of Kal-El), Batman, Conan etc, as well as countless long-forgotten mini-series, but what's done is done.

Everything stayed very organised, even when I went to university (aged 28) and all my worldly goods got shipped back to my parents' attic. I still made the pilgrimage, every holiday, up into the loft space to keep the collection all neatly organised, if not alphabetically, at least grouped by title.

Then, when I fell ill in 2005, I no longer had the energy - or concentration - to make those trips and order collapsed.

Which brings us up to date, and I'm having to go through a mess of half-organised and half-chaotic comic book titles in the naive hope that eventually they'll be in some sort of order.

It's going to be a long project...

Lesbian Vampire Killers...


With James Corden and Mathew Horne from the hugely enjoyable Gavin And Stacey, this could be the new Shaun Of The Dead. Or it could be awful!

It's not written by new comedy-god-on-the-block Corden though and the trailer doesn't give away much yet, but the film has a promising, if not very informative, official website.

And we only have to wait until March 20 for Lesbian Vampire Killers to open; if Watchmen has failed to appear on time, we might need cheering up...

Credit Crunch Comics...

Comic books - and particularly the superheroes we love today - first appeared during America's great depression of the 1930s and 40s: Superman in 1938, Batman a year later and the Flash in 1940, along with Green Lantern and Wonder Woman.

Comic books cost 10c then.

Kids wanted cheap, escapist entertainment and heroes to inspire them.

As we in 2008 head into what many pundits are saying is potentially the biggest recession since the 30s, let's look at how much comics now cost...

The majority have a cover price of $2.99, while DC and Marvel price their "special" issues at $3.99.

For us Brits that's between £2-£3 a comic!

That's a serious investment! With the average price of a DVD now less than £10 on Play.com, the choice comes down to three or four comics or a movie? Going to the cinema round here costs about £8 - or two or three comics. A paperback book on Amazon will probably only set you back £5 - two comics!

This recent price increase (due - for us - by the failing value of the pound) is compounded by the increasing output of the comic companies.

Surely, in these current economic conditions, they should be concentrating on adding value to their major titles rather than trying to milk their fanbase with so much variety.

Take Marvel's new "noir" range (traditional superheroes sans powers and in a pulpy/film noir environment); originally that sounded right up my street, but it would be just expanding my fortnightly pull-list at a time when I have to watch every penny.

All this could have the knock-on effect that I buy fewer comics and more cheap trade paperback collections from Amazon, which will, of course, affect the comic book store I've been a loyal customer of for over a decade (Paradox Comics in Poole). The last thing I want to do is contribute in some way (however small) to the demise of such a brilliant shop.

I can't be the only one who thinks Marvel and DC are pumping out too much material - all at the same time. They can't really expect the average fan to be able to pick all of this up, can they?

Perhaps if they returned to cheaper paper stock for the interior pages, as a way of reducing costs, and cut their monthly output by 25 - 30 per cent, the fans might be able to keep up better with the increasingly tangled plotlines of their favourite characters.

Come on, Marvel and DC, don't keep diversifying your ranges when we can barely afford what you put out at the moment. Just give us the escapist entertainment and inspirational heroes we crave... at a price we can afford.

Sometimes less is more.

Sunday, 28 December 2008

DVD Of The Week: Ultimate Avengers (2006)

What a strange beast this 2006 animation is.

Clearly - and explicitly - based on the brilliant Millar and Hitch run on The Ultimates, this cartoon refuses to shake off its mainstream Marvel heritage.

For those who don't know, the Ultimate Universe has been the best thing to happen to Marvel for many a year, being a fresh imprint re-imagining all their characters back to 'day one' to hook new readers who might have been put off by the encyclopedic background knowledge needed to keep up to speed with events in the original comics.

The Ultimates were the new incarnation of The Avengers, Marvel's mightiest superhero group since the 1960s.

Mark Millar took a much tougher, more 'realistic' and mature approach to the idea of a team of supersoldiers - treating them as 'weapons of mass destruction' - rather than just masked crimefighters and alien invader repellents.

The Ultimate Avengers movie - which could have been mind-blowing done live action in the style of Spider-Man or The X-Men - is a strange mix of the two universes, dumbing down Millar's story and making it more child friendly, but still keeping the characters of new Ultimate universe, with their cocky natures, bickering and inter-party feuds... although The Hulk doesn't get to eat anyone, which is a shame!

The animation is pretty good, but not a patch on Bryan Hitch's original artwork, which again gives the cartoon a very run-of-the-mill, sub-anime feel in the wake of its high calibre source material.

The story and dialogue are also above-average for American cartoons, but could have been so much better ... the problem arises from trying to turn an adult comic back into a kiddy cartoon.

That being said, it still makes good viewing - even if it runs the risk of leaving both Avengers and Ultimates fans cold and disappointed.

The Great Reorganisation Begins...

It's something I'd planned to do since we moved in in March, and had it pencilled in as a project for 2009 - but last night, on a wild impulse, I began the reorganisation and alphabetisation of my comic book collection.

It started almost by accident; I had cleared the wargames table before Christmas - to make room for piles of comics - and then this evening I just started to look through my collection, setting some issues aside on the table as I went through them... and suddenly it was almost midnight and I was surrounded by piles of comics!

At least now I've started I will have to finish and this will allow me to not only highlight gaps in my collection, but filter out any series I started collecting and lost interest in.

I'm already finding titles I'd forgotten I had as well, which is brilliant as it creates a reading list for 2009 as I go along.

Sunday Funny: So Long And Thanks For All The Fish...

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Congratulations To Nick and Clare!

One of my oldest friends - Nick - got engaged on Christmas Day to my former housemate, Clare. They met on May 25, 2007 - at my wedding to Rachel - and have been inseparable ever since.

This has meant that we, once again, have a female player at our games nights!

Now bring on the themed wedding!

Doctor Who: Warriors Of The Deep (1984)

Suspension of disbelief has always been a key ingredient to the magical success of Doctor Who, however there is a sequence in Warriors of The Deep that taxes even the most die hard of Doctor Who fans' ability to overlook the show's budgetary short comings.

I talk, of course, of the infamous Myrka, a giant rubber pantomime horse, which breaks through an obviously polystyrene bulk head door into the underwater base where the Doctor is hiding.

The story behind Warriors Of The Deep is basically sound though, and we mustn't get too hung up on the awfulness of this one - unfortunately quite large - element.

Playing on the Cold War paranoia of the mid-80s, The Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) takes his companions Tegan (Janet Fielding) and Turlough (Mark Strickson) to Earth 100 years in the future... from when the show was made.

Two superpowers are on the brink of a major nuclear war, tensions are running high and the TARDIS crew are initially taken for enemy agents when they arrive on Seabase Four, an underwater military installation staffed by a nervous collection of eyeliner-wearing officials.

Little does everyone realise but the real enemy agents are already on board, undermining their operations, and a deadlier threat is approaching.

The Silurians have returned and brought along a unit of Sea Devils, with the aim of taking over the base and launching its missiles to trigger a war that would wipe humans off the face of the Earth and allow the reptilians to replace them.

Much has seemingly happened in the intervening century as not only do the Silurians and Sea Devils refer to themselves, and each other, by these species names (although these misnomers were made up by humans during first contact situations), and The Doctor not only recognises the Silurian battle cruiser and the Myrka, but knows the Silurian leader Icthar of the Silurian Triad (although he "thought he was dead").

The Silurians have also had enough of trying to broker peace with the "ape primitives", hence the pre-emptive strike. Ichtar mentions the Silurians have extended the hand of peace to the humans twice, which suggests that The Doctor in an earlier incarnation met these first inhabitants of Earth at least once more before the events of Warriors Of The Deep.

The humans never seriously consider trying to negotiate with the 'aliens', despite The Doctor's continued warnings of their superior technology and firepower (including their 'weapon of mass destruction' - the Myrka).

At its core, this story is the standard sci-fi/horror/war story trope of survivors trapped in an isolated environment, surrounded by hostile forces, but it is the politics of the piece that make this story so interesting.

Warriors Of The Deep should be remembered for Peter Davison's superb performance and Doctor's humanity, even though he has no reservations about physically attacking a foe with his Venusian Aikido (like his third incarnation) or even threatening people with a firearm.

It is Davison's utter despondency after he is forced into a Shakespearean bloodbath solution, and his line "there should have been another way", that lift this story above memories of the Myrka.

Friday, 26 December 2008

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Doctor Who: The Next Doctor

It's a year later and the nightmare Voyage of The Damned is forgotten, thanks to the sheer, seasonal brilliance of The Next Doctor. Bereft of stunt casting of gay icons and plots recycled from hackneyed disaster movies, this year's Doctor Who Christmas special was a glorious return to form with a straight-forward, fun adventure and mystery story.

No sooner has our Doctor arrived in Victorian London - at Christmas, naturally - than he meets a gentleman claiming to be "The Doctor" (David Morrissey), who seems to know a lot about Time Lords, regeneration, sonic screwdrivers, the TARDIS and so on.

While our Doctor wonders if this new Doctor is a future regeneration, only bookies and readers of the tabloid press could seriously think that David Morrissey's character was really going to be David Tennant's replacement.

The clues to the mystery have been with us from the start - with Morrisey's Doctor speaking and acting like the 10th Doctor (when have any two of the Doctor's other iterations sounded alike?) - but nevertheless this sub-plot is magnificently unravelled by Tennant's Doctor, who treats Morrissey's Doctor with an enormous amount of compassion and humanity.

The mystery of the "other" Doctor's identity is only part of The Next Doctor though, as the episode's main plot revolves around a band of cybermen, ejected from the Void after the reality-collapsing events of Journey's End - with stolen dalek technology.

These stranded cybermen are trying to take over the planet with the aid of the strong-willed Miss Hartigan (Dervla Kirwan), a handful of cyberwraiths (cats and dogs augmented with cybertechnology, I believe) and the spectacular Cyber-King!

The Cyber-King was the episode's pièce de résistance, a multi-storey, steampunk, mecha robot that rose out of the Thames and threatened to stamp all over the city.

This did lead to my only slight issue with the story - albeit a very geeky one, that will perhaps be addressed in a future 'special' - how come no one in the future knew about this monsterous metal man (who owes a lot of his appearance to Ted Hughes' seminal Iron Giant) or even remembered it? What this actually a parallel Earth and not our Earth after all?

The Doctor acknowledges this point in passing, but offered no solution, which does make me think it will be revisited at some point.

Not that it matters at the moment though because this was a genuinely brilliant episode of Doctor Who; perfect family viewing for Christmas Day - with slight touches of cheese and silliness.

It also makes you realise just how much we will miss David Tennant when he finally vacates the TARDIS.

HeroPress Holiday Wishes...

Seasons Greetings To All Our Faithful Readers!

Have A Super Christmas!

He Came...

... he saw, he ate all the cookies! Santa's been! It must be Christmas!



Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Doctor Who: Battlefield (1989)

The Seventh Doctor and Ace arrive on Earth sometime in Ace's near future (possibly the mid-90s), near the site of an Arthurian archaeological dig and a broken down UNIT convoy transporting a nuclear weapon.

Their arrival coincides with that of a unit of interdimensional blaster-wielding knights in armour, led by the sorceress Morgaine (Jean Marsh) and her son, Mordred (Christopher Bowen).

Morgaine has come to make sure Arthur doesn't awaken - as has been prophesied.

Well, I think that's why she's here - throughout Battlefield, by Ben Aaronovitch, you can't escape the feeling that you are only getting half the story.

Some of this is deliberate, of course, such as the brilliant implication that in a future (or parallel?) regeneration The Doctor is Merlin, and thus it was he who lay the king to rest in a dimension-hopping spaceship at the bottom of the nearby lake (the interior of the spaceship, unfortunately, resembles a gaudy nightclub in places... and has a rather pathetic defence system in the shape of an ethereal serpent that keeps headbutting The Doctor).

Aaronovitch's script is an odd mixture of inappropriate physical slapstick and cracking dialogue that captures the mythic essence of Doctor Who perfectly, rendering the end result a classic curate's egg.

For instance, a big fuss is made of an unearthered scabbard, then it's never mentioned again, and there's no real explanation of why UNIT was driving a nuclear missile through the English countryside, but as with a lot of Doctor Who, Battlefield is more about the characters than the story.

Morgaine is interesting because she is not the out-and-out evil baddie you might have expected, she follows a definite code of honour and does at least one good turn during the story (curing the eyesight of the hotel's blind landlady). She can also be very creepy - such as when she is towering over Ace and Shou Yuing (Ling Tai) in their protective chalk circle.

Shou Yuing is a totally random character introduced into the story simply to give Ace someone to befriend and talk to, and fails to contribute anything, however Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) is called out of retirement - for his last on-screen appearance in the Whoniverse until Enemy Of The Bane - once UNIT discovers The Doctor has returned, which adds another level of depth to the story.

While the story may not be 100 per cent air tight and some of the acting (especially Angela Bruce as Brigadier Bambera) leaves a lot to be desired, there is enough of an air of mystery about Battlefield to paper over the cracks for those who are willing to look at the bigger picture, the multiple personas of The Doctor and his role in future events as well as those of the past.

Perhaps this is an area that a coming showrunner (such as Steven Moffat) can explore - the conflicts The Doctor and Morgaine will have and his role in carving out the Arthurian myths.

In one sense the idea that all events described in the Arthurian legends happened in a parallel dimension, then were told here when Arthur's people came to bury him, would explain why there is no, real physical evidence that Arthur even existed on this world.

I'm possibly taking this a bit too seriously!

It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas... Geek Style!

The Nativity - as depicted by Star Wars fan Larry Lars in Lego.

And if that hasn't got you geared up for a geeky Christmas tomorrow, check out the annual Newquist family 'Geek Tree' over at Nuketown, home of the excellent Nuketown Radio Active podcast.

I Can't Believe We Survived...

Having been "tricked" into watching Survivors - like a lot of Doctor Who fans - by the BBC claiming that Freema Agyeman was starring in it (instead of just appearing in a single episode) and the convenient leaking of rumours that show star Paterson Joseph was the front runner to inherit the Doctor's mantle from David Tennant (which almost certainly isn't the case).

Freema even features quite prominently on the cover of the reissued Terry Nation novelization of his original serial (pictured left)!

I'm not cynical enough to believe that this was a deliberate ploy by Aunty Beeb, but I can't think of any other way they could have got people to stick with this pretty pedestrian piece of post-apocalyptic poppycock.

Having limped its way through five uninspired episodes it was rather satisfying that the series went out with a bang. This was certainly the most action and drama packed hour that Adrian Hodges has given us, but I still have little or no empathy for any of the protagonists except Tom.

Finally, our "heroes" were shaken out of their politically correct naive belief that only "bad guys" could carry guns, and managed to get Tom tooled up as quickly as possible.

Samantha Willis had begun her rather half-hearted attempt to restore law and order to the country, by visiting every house and home and compiling a new "Domesday Book". Unfortunately, she had teamed up with Dexter, the shotgun-wielding thug from episode two who had previously threatened Abby and Tom.

Airhead Sarah almost showed a bit of character when she sold out Anya to the baddies, as a doctor, so they took Anya instead of her to look after the sick in their encampment, but like most of the personalities in this series managed to remain steadfastly one-dimensional.

Meanwhile, the group's youngest member, Naj, decided to run off back to Manchester - meaning everyone had to trail after him - and managed to get himself mixed-up with a very unconvincingly Dickensian Fagin-figure, Craig (Adam Kotz).

Craig - with his own Nancy, June (Katie Lyons) - was using a gang of young children to steal supplies for him in return for access to arcade video games, powered by the generators they were stealing chip fat to fuel!

It was all so cheesy that I expected someone to burst into song at any moment: "Consider yourself at home. Consider yourself one of the family..."

The sinister scientists also got themselves thrown into the mix, having learned of Abby's miraculous recovery from the virus, which led to the climatic shoot-out on a car park roof, one of our heroes fighting for his life and Abby bundled off into van.

Will we ever see her again? What happens next? Does anyone really care?

Even with the excitement of this final episode, the whole show has been so limp and uninspired that I can't believe it'll come back for a second series - unless enough of us die hard Doctor Who fans were tricked into watching it that it rakes in decent enough ratings, despite the low quality.

Of course, this is an Adrian Hodges masterpiece and, as I've said before, Primeval's second season was in a different class to its first, so maybe - should Survivors return - he might be able to pull off the same turnaround again.

It would be nice though for a new British genre piece to be able to hit the ground running, rather than struggle along on sympathy and earn a second series on merit rather than because there isn't anything else going on.

Of course, Blake's 7 is supposedly coming back (to Sky One) next year, perhaps that - another Terry Nation creation - will be the new "Doctor Who", albeit not on the BBC.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

The Week In Geek...



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

(1) First Lady Of Trek Passes On: Majel Barrett, wife of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, voice of all the major Trek computers and frequent star of the Original Series as Nurse Chapel, has died at the age of 76.

(2) You're All Winners: At the annual Tuesday Knights prize giving meal last week, the Most Valuable Player award went to: the entire party, for their contributions to the campaign to date.

(3) Hulk Versus: January 27 sees the release of two Hulk slugfest cartoons on DVD, Hulk Versus Wolverine and Hulk Versus Thor.

(4) Yoggie Hits Five Thousand: The foremost HP Lovecraft roleplaying and Call of Cthulhu fansite, Yog-Sothoth.Com has signed its 5,000th member on its 10th anniversary.

(5) New Face For Dresden: Evil Hat's Dresden Files RPG has got a new-look website as excitement builds towards the game's 2009 release.

(6) Gearing Up On T5: Although Terminator: Salvation (aka T4) hasn't even opened yet, work is beginning on the fifth movie in the Terminator franchise.

(7) Fox Still Sniffing Round Watchmen: 20th Century Fox's claims over the rights to the Watchmen movie should be heard in court on January 20. I hate to think of the worst case scenario if they win this case!!!

(8) Free Zombie Rules: As a special Christmas treat, the Table Top Titans have published - for free - their zombie wargame rules, Twilight.

(9) Marvel Goes ARG: It appears that Marvel's latest Dark Reign spin-off, Secret Warriors, is also part of an online 'alternate reality game' (ARG).

(10) Dark Knight Comes Out On Top: The Dark Knight isn't just the top grossing film of the year, it's now also the most popular DVD release as well.

(11) The Latest Buzz From Green Hornet: Stephen Chow, director of Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer, has stepped away from directing The Green Hornet, citing 'creative differences'.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Torchwood Comes To HeroPress...

Months after they were first announced the first four Torchwood action figures have arrived from Scificollector. For those who can't tell from my rubbish photograph, they are (from left to right): a weevil, the cyberwoman Lisa Hallett, Gwen Cooper and Captain Jack Harkness.

Each one comes with a detachable display plinth, decorated with the Torchwood logo. The attention to detail on the figures extends to embossing the Torchwood logo on the individual clamshell packaging the figures arrive in.

My only (slight) complaint about them is, it was always my understanding that although made by a different manufacturer they were being scaled to fit with Character's popular Doctor Who range of figures.

However, as you will see, from the picture below, the Torchwood Captain Jack (on the right) is noticeably bigger than the Doctor Who version of the good captain.

However, somehow due to the vagaries of figure scaling, the other three figures seem to fit in with the Doctor Who range much better; see below for a comparison of the cyberwoman (from Torchwood) with the Doctor Who Captain Jack.

The second wave of Torchwood figures, due out next year sometime, includes the blowfish-headed alien and Captain John Hart from Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang, and core team members Ianto Jones and Toshiko Sato.

My ultimate aim is to be able to use these figures, along with my Doctor Who collection and several Primeval figures (also from Character) with the forthcoming Doctor Who roleplaying game (due out at Easter).

I think it was seeing the awful Monsters And Mazes film back in the 80s that gave me the idea of using action figure-sized pieces to represent the players' in-game personas. About the only good thing that came from that piece of ill-informed nonsense!

Sunday, 21 December 2008

The Cyberking Will Rise...


Four days to go and the BBC are teasing us with more tasters of The Next Doctor, this year's Christmas special of Doctor Who.

Advance press reviews are already putting it in a different league to last year's debacle.

(Film clip only available in the UK)

Top Of The Pile: Wonderful Wizard Of Oz #1

It's no great secret around HeroPress Towers that The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz ranks almost as high as Alice In Wonderland on my list of great literature, and I adore many of the cinematic versions of the former that have been released.

Therefore I can't believe I hesitated before picking up Marvel's latest offering, an adaptation of L. Frank Baum's masterpiece.

The last time I saw Oz in comic book form was The Oz-Wonderland War from 1986, featuring Captain Carrot And His Amazing Zoo Crew.

Eric Shanower's script for Marvel sticks a lot closer to the original text!

During the late 80s and early 90s, Shanower - a lifelong fan of the Oz books - wrote a series of five original Oz graphic novels for First Comics, then Dark Horse (The Enchanted Apples of Oz; The Secret Island of Oz; The Ice King of Oz; The Forgotten Forest of Oz; and The Blue Witch of Oz). These were reprinted by IDW in 2006.

However, it isn't just the attention to, and love of, the source material that makes his current Wonderful Wizard Of Oz adaptation so magical it is the incredible, stylised art of Skottie Young (coloured by Jean-Francois Beaulieu) that brings an almost Calvin And Hobbes level of innocent adventure (with just the right hint of darkness) to the classic tale.

The first issue follows young Dorothy Gale (and Toto, her dog) from the plains of Kansas, into the twister and then down into Oz, right up until her meeting with the Scarecrow.

In these credit crunch times, there are certain comics that make you forget about their $3.99 price tag and enjoy for the quality that drips off the page - The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz is just such a creation.

Sunday Funny: You Can Never Have Too Many Guns...


(thanks to The Evil DM for this one)

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Top Of The Pile: Captain Britain And MI13 #8

Just when you think Brian Michael Bendis is going to drag the whole Marvel Universe down into the depths of some convoluted Hell for bad storytellers, along comes Doctor Who writer Paul Cornell with Captain Britain And MI13.

Cornell is on the verge of returning Captain Britain aka Brian Braddock to his glory days of the mid-80s when his adventures were handled by that demi-god of comics Alan Moore with the wonderful art of Alan Davis (and when Steve first introduced me to the character).

Complemented by the sweet, smooth art of Leonard Kirk, Cornell is upping the "magical" side of the Captain Britain mythology, pitting him and his team of British superheroes against the otherworldly creatures that were released as part of a deal to drive the invading skrulls out of Britain (see, something good did come out of Secret Invasion after all!).

In this first, post-Secret Invasion adventure, Captain Britain and colleagues are pitted against Plotka, a duke of hell who has set up base in a Birmingham tower block and is increasing his power by trading people's souls for their greatest desires.

The whole thing is wonderfully surreal, yet retains verisimilitude (unlike a certain series I could mention, but I'm going to belabour that point too much more... I think you know where I stand on the Secret Invasion issue by now).

This is the closest Marvel comes at present to touching the Grant Morrison-madness/genius that fuels the brilliant and eccentric Final Crisis storyline from DC. That book's epic scope and mind-bending writing makes the bulk of Marvel's current output look so banal and pedestrian by comparison that it is a joy to discover in Captain Britain And MI13 that hope isn't lost for us old Marvel fanboys.

Cornell's writing also manages to embrace the human side of his story's wild events, making the smaller incidents of people grasping, or rejecting, their desires all the more moving. The ending of this issue was therefore not only a massive shock, but totally convincing.

Long may the team of Cornell and Kirk stay on this book and it continue to escape the interference of the likes of Joe Quesada and Brian Michael Bendis. In the meantime, I shall be looking - once more - to shift the focus of my fortnightly pull list from the House of (So-Called) Ideas to its Distinguished Competition.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Bottom Of The Pile: Secret Invasion #8

Oh my God, I can't believe Marvel has done it again! As with Civil War, Secret Invasion started promisingly and rapidly degenerated into back-to-back brawls and barrel scraping.

All that "trust no one" hoo-ha came to nothing and the resolution of the whole scenario was infuriatingly farcical.

You have to wonder if Brian Michael Bendis - who does such top-notch work on Ultimate Spider-Man - has forgotten how to write a decent story.

Almost the entirety of the action in issue 8 - the conclusion of this disappointing farce - is told to us through dull narration after the event, including the death of a founding member of the Avengers (which happens between panels in an most dismissive and anticlimactic way).

Then a moment later all the heroes who were replaced by shape-changing skrulls turn up in a space craft that Iron Man just happens to discover in orbit.

And finally, to cap all this badly paced, idiotic nonsense, the President of The United States dismisses Tony Stark, dissolves S.H.I.E.L.D. and appoints Norman Osborne to take over the new organisation that will replace it.

Norman Osborn? Norman Osborn, the Green Goblin? The well-known psychopath and mass murderer? Yes, that Norman Osborn.

I don't care if people do think he is reformed, it's like handing the keys of kindergarten to Hannibal Lecter... you just don't do it! It makes no sense at all and is beyond unbelievable.

This isn't like DC making Lex Luthor the President; that worked because Luthor was a subtle, behind-the-scenes operator with a squeaky clean public persona, at the time, but Osborn is as subtle as drag queen at an Amish wedding.

The continues in Secret Invasion: Dark Reign, with Osborn having called a meeting of powerful - and controversial - figures of the Marvel Universe: Emma Frost, leader of the X-Men and therefore the mutant community; Namor (although Alex Maleev's art renders him almost unrecognisable); Doctor Doom (I can't believe he'd have any truck with Osborn in the first place); The Hood (the new Kingpin of crime); and Loki, Goddess of Mischief (WTF??? Yeah, I know, I don't buy that either).

Osborn pitches them the idea that if they all work together, with him, they can get on and do their "thing" and he can guarantee them immunity as long as they do him some favours along the way.

I kinda get what Bendis is trying to do here, but given the initial shaky foundations of the premise, it just doesn't hold water in this format.

And how on Earth, for instance, could Osborn have any control over a god of Loki's stature? Or even, for that matter, an international tyrant like Doom who eats upstarts like Norman Osborn for breakfast? It would almost have been more believable if Doom had orchestrated this meeting himself.

While there is definitely the inkling of a clever idea in there - getting everyone to work together, rather than keep pulling in their own directions - the handling of the scenario is far too contrived to be convincing.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Doctor Who: The Sea Devils (1972)

The Sea Devils, Malcolm Hulke's sequel to Doctor Who And The Silurians retreads much of the same ground as its predecessor, but is saved by the introduction of The Master into the mix.

The story opens with The Master (Roger Delgado) incarcerated on an island prison off the south coast of England, after the events in The Dæmons.

When The Doctor and Jo Grant (Katy Manning) turn up to check on him, they learn of a series of mysterious ship disappearances in the area of a nearby, abandoned sea fort.

The Master, of course, isn't a helpless prisoner and has, in fact, been manipulating his guards into believing he can help them stop the "saboteurs" who are attacking the ships, when in reality he knows it's the so-called Sea Devils (called that because of the traumatised ravings of an attack survivor).

The Sea Devils are underwater cousins of the Silurians and the Master wants to help them reclaim the Earth, purely as a way of spiting The Doctor.

The Doctor, however, again, tries to broker a peace between the original inhabitants of the planet and the humans, but is thwarted by an overzealous parliamentary under-secretary (Martin Boddey) who is determined to protect British interests at all costs.

It is the banter between The Master and The Doctor that stops The Sea Devils being a simple rerun of Doctor Who And The Silurians in a nautical setting, with Delgado's Master at his charismatic, Machiavellian best.

As well as strengthening the backstory between the two Time Lords, The Sea Devils also accentuates many areas of The Master's personality and lays the ground work for future stories; for example the scene of The Master watching children's favourite The Clangers on TV is echoed years later in The Sound Of Drums when he watches The Teletubbies with equal fascination.

Although quite action packed - Pertwee's Doctor, in particular, gets to flex his muscles quite a bit (including a rather silly sword fight with The Master) - this seven-part, 150 minute story drags rather and feels slightly bloated; possibly because of the enormous sense of déjà vu from the story.

The situation is compounded by the extremely static nature of the Sea Devil costumes; only one of them actually speaks and the rest wander around aimlessly and unconvincingly, like the blinkered stuntmen in rubber suits that they are.

Static - or in photographs - there is a sense of menace about these monsters, but as soon as they are mobile they, unfortunately, become quite comical.

Perhaps it would have been better if The Sea Devils had somehow moved the idea of early lifeforms returning to claim the Earth forward rather than just going over the same territory again... in a different environment.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

The Growing Horde...

With my latest batch of miniatures back from my painter (Neil), it's time for the first HeroPress zombie 'fashion show'. I'm trying to spread the love by buying zombies from many different manufacturers, to make my horde as varied as possible.

I guess it's the old "role-player" in me, but I like all my wargames' figures to be different, to differentiate one from another.

This is probably why I've never really gotten into Napoleonic wargames, or any of that ilk, where you have rank upon rank of identical figure lined up on each side.

The figures above are Drew and Brian from Musketeer Miniatures. They only do three zombie figures, under their Hazel's Heroes line of one-off figures, but they are very nice, with some good detailing.

These four come from Hasslefree, which does a good selection of characterful zombies (as well as zombie hunters), which are always highly detailed - although do often err on the short side in the greater scheme of 28mm figures. Not that that is a problem, because a mix of heights also adds variety to a horde of zombies.

Hasslefree have a handful of new, utilarian zombies on their workbench which are due out at the end of this year/start of next; which - finances willing - will eventually pad out the horde a bit more.

These are my old Copplestone zombies, from his Future Wars range, and remain the standard by which I judge all other zombie figures.

These 10 figures are from the bizarre, eccentric Golgo Island range, as sold by East Riding Miniatures. Out of this week's batch of figures the Golgo Islanders were the most basic, but I felt they still had enough detail for Neil to individualize them.

Next up, probably mid-January, will be the remainder of the current zombie figures that I have with Neil, which includes the awful, bland figures from Amazon Miniatures (I'm hoping Neil can work a miracle with these) and the larger-than-average, but beautifully detailed, Griffin Miniatures.

If Griffin actually get around to producing the range of zombies and survivors they are promising, then there's a strong possibility they could become my zombie suppliers of choice.

However, they've been around since the days when Harbinger was a print magazine, but have so far only produced this single range of 15 zombies and five survivors.

Somehow Managing To Survive...

Part way through the penultimate episode of Survivors it dawned on me how dull post-Apocalyptic Britain was. Sure, this may be a "realistic" depiction of life after a killer pandemic, but that doesn't make it great drama.

A bunch of travellers turn up in the grounds of our protagonist's home, led by a New Age preacher who claims God speaks directly to him and guides him. In the group is a heavily pregnant women about to give birth and this, eventually, forces Anya (Zoe Tapper) to reveal that she is a doctor... and, more shocking for Tom (Max Beesley), a lesbian.

The preacher, John (Kieran O'Brien), is clearly a dangerous, paranoid schizophrenic from the moment he twitches onto camera babbling about seeing patterns in everything and hearing the voice of God, so it's never entirely convincing that anyone would believe him in the first place.

It takes Anya more than half the episode to spot he is a disturbed man off his medications; this is before he kidnaps her, with a knife at her throat, to look after the newborn child.

There's a sub-plot about another woman in the group who seduces Al (Phillip Rhys), at the behest of her own boyfriend, with the intention of improving her chances of getting pregnant (as "the world needs babies"). Then the boyfriend changes his mind and threatens Al, but this never really goes anywhere.

Bizarrely, during the episodes' violent(ish) climax in a nearby church, this cuckold boyfriend at first appears to be on John's side, then when it's all over he and Al part as friends without any explanation of his flip-flopping loyalties.

The sinister scientists and their gas-masked minions pop up for a couple of bookending scenes, including the opening sequence which proved to be the strongest the series has yet given us - a random survivor raiding a supermarket is cornered by gas-mask-wearing soldiers and bundled into a van.

The final scene shows one of the scientists watching the message Abby recorded when she first encountered Samantha Willis' eco-centre, and this clearly sets things up for the season finale next week.

Some development of Anya's character meant this episode wasn't entirely held together by Max Beesley's anti-hero Tom, although he still remains the only character in the show I have any long-term interest in.

Although this episode - thankfully - kept all the main characters together for once, it was still a jumble of plotlines with too much going on and no real concentration on any particular story, which meant we had characters like Greg (Paterson Joseph) just brooding in the background for the most part and not really doing much.

At least the next episode - the season finale - looks like its on a larger scale, complete with a deserted city and the return of many antagonists from the previous episodes, so perhaps the show will go out with the bang it has lacked to date.

(Film clip only available in the UK)

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

The Week In Geek...

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

(1) Star Wars: The Musical: The six Star Wars films are being 're-imagined' into a live, two-hour show which debuts in London in April.

(2) Democracy Usurps Feudalism: The western world's last remaining feudal nation, the island of Sark, has become its youngest democracy.

(3) Does This Mean We Are Not Alone? The Hubble telescope has found both carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide in the atmosphere of a distant planet which could be the first indications of alien life forms.

(4) Watchmen Goes Mobile: Exclusive documentaries, iPhone applications and film footage from Watchmen has been made available on iTunes - but (except for the video podcast) just in the U.S. at present.

(5) A Date With The Doctor: In case you'd missed it, The Next Doctor, the Christmas Doctor Who special is on at 6pm on Christmas Day in the UK; then Doctor Who At The Proms, a musical show which features Music of the Spheres (a specially-filmed scene with the Doctor and the Graske, written by Russell T Davies) is on New Year's Day at 1.5opm.

(6) Kiss Of Deaf: Chinese woman goes deaf after passionate kiss; newspapers warn of 'dangers of kissing'.

(7) Iron Man Shoots For Musical Gong: The original score for Iron Man has been nominated for a Grammy. The music award winners will be announced on February 8.

(8) Deadlands Coming To A Board Near You: The cult wild west/horror RPG setting Deadlands is being transformed into a boardgame next year by Twilight Creations, publishers of the popular tile game Zombies!!! Sadly, Pinnacle's own Deadlands prepainted miniatures game, Slaughter Gulch, has been scrapped.

(9) Actors' Strike Could Scuttle Oscars: Actors are being balloted in January over the possibility of a strike, just ahead of the Oscar ceremony.

(10) 'Oldest Brain' Unearthed: Archaeologists in York have dug up the remains of what could be one of the world's oldest brains.

(11) Carlyle Steps Through Stargate: Robert Carlyle has effectively ruled himself out of being Doctor Who's 11th Doctor by taking the lead role in the new Stargate franchise - Stargate Universe.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Just 10 Days To Go...


The latest trailer for the eagerly-anticipated Christmas Day Doctor Who special: The Next Doctor.
(Film clip only available in the UK)

DVD(s) Of The Week: Kidulthood (2006)/Adulthood (2008)

When a girl hangs herself after being bullied, her classmates are given a day off to cope. During this time, Kidulthood follows the interweaving lives of several of these friends - in particular Trife (Aml Ameen) and his ex-girlfriend, Alisa (Red Madrell), who has just found out she is pregnant.

Trife doesn't know if the baby is his or that of the school's main bully, Sam (Noel Clarke), who claims to have slept with Alisa.

Trife is also tangled up with his uncle, Curtis (Cornell John), a mean and nasty villain who, among his many criminal activities, deals in replica guns which Trife drills out for him in the school's metalworking room.

Trife and his mates - Jay (Adam Deacon) and Moony (Femi Oyeniran) - do over Sam in his mother's flat after he's robbed them earlier and events escalate through the day as various stories weave in and out of each other in a street-level ballet, culminating at a party where Sam has tracked down the others to get revenge.

At the heart of this gritty, vicious drama is the love story of Trife and Alisa, but their moment of happiness is shattered by the violent - and fatal - intervention of Sam.

Adulthood picks up the story of the surviving characters six years later when Sam is released from jail, wracked with guilt and the realisation that he is not the "big man" he thought he was, all he wants to do is get his life back together.

However, he didn't reckon on people still wanting revenge for what happened that night at the party.

While Kidulthood was a complex drama about teenagers getting out of their depth in an adult world - be it parenthood or criminality - Adulthood, while revisiting those themes, is more a traditional thriller as, again, a web of disparate plot lines weave together around Sam as he ends up turning the tables on those looking to make him pay.

Jay has turned from a useless waster into a real nasty low-life street dealer, but Moony is trying to make something of his life and study law at university and is torn between his new direction and his loyalty to Jay.

Both films were written by the multi-talented Noel Clarke (aka Mickey Smith from Doctor Who), who also directed Adulthood.

The latter film features cameos from several of his fellow Doctor Who regulars - Nicholas Briggs (the voice of the daleks) appears as Max, who runs a hairdressing salon; Adjoa Andoh (Martha Jones' mum) is Sam's mother; and Camille Coduri (Rose Tyler's mum) makes a brief appearance as a bus passenger.

While both films feature the usual sex, drugs and violence you'd expect from this type of "youth" film, it is never glamorized - the drug use and sex always looks a bit seedy and nasty, while the violence is eye-avertingly suggestive (particularly in Kidulthood where Uncle Curtis forces Trife to join in torturing a member of his gang).

These are powerful films that stand-up on their own, but work brilliantly watched back-to-back as you can see the progression of the main characters and impact their life choices have made on them.

Individually, Kidulthood is the stronger of the two as Adulthood seems to portray the repentant killer Sam as a more traditional anti-hero, whereas in Kidulthood everyone is equally grim and tainted and we are not "rooting" for anyone in particular.

This kind of contemporary youth movie has never really been my cup of tea - I'm not exactly "street" and have never had any interest in this kind of "youth culture", even when I was a youth - but Clarke's films (belated birthday presents from my friend Lou) have turned me round on those prejudices.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Sunday Funny: Why Go LARPing?

If You Build It, They Will Come...

Sucker as I am for a dose of nostalgia, I've been hankering for a bit of Villains & Vigilantes action since I came across The Villains And Vigilantes Emporium by chance the other month.

I was searching on Google for certain Lovecraftian images to supply Neil (my figure painter) as a guide for some figures I was thinking of sending him, when I noticed one of the images came from a site with "V and V" in its web address.

I thought I'd better investigate as, has been stated many times on HeroPress, Villains & Vigilantes is one of my favourite roleplaying systems from my youth and was the game that led to the creation of not only my Acrobatic Flea persona but HeroPress as a whole.

The Villains And Vigilantes Emporium, maintained by Tim Hartin, is a wealth of house rules, homages to the great Jeff Dee (the game's artist supreme), useful links and character conversions.

It is this latter section that blew my mind. There's not just one or two comic book characters painstakingly statted out for V&V, but a cornucopia. And not just obvious sources - such as Marvel and DC characters - but also such genre favourites as monster movies, Battle of The Planets (aka Gatchaman), the worlds of HP Lovecraft, Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy, and - best of all - Doctor Who!

One of the things I always used to enjoy doing when we were playing Villains & Vigilantes almost 24/7 was convert comic and film characters into V&V characters, but Tim has made it into an artform over at the Emporium.

Major props also to the man for not only giving us stats for Night Of The Living Dead zombies in V&V (every game needs zombies), but also a mini-campaign, complete with guidelines on creating low-powered heroes to confront the hordes of undead.

And what makes this site - for a game that hasn't been published since 1987 (and some would argue has been overtaken by Mutants And Masterminds) - extra special is that it is still live and being updated.

I think it's time the Acrobatic Flea got off his butt and started to fight some crime, I'm itching for a superpowered smackdown.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Merlin: Le Morte D'Arthur

It's a brave soul that dares to go head-to-head with the final of the country's most popular music talent, The X-Factor, but Merlin is a plucky little show that knows no fear.

The arrival of the Questing Beast in the kingdom of Camelot saw Arthur, Merlin and a handful of knights embracing the Monty Pythonesque tactic of "run away, run away" before Merlin and Arthur embarked on some Dungeons & Dragons-style cave exploration (complete with flickering torch).

Needless to say, things don't go according to plan and Arthur gets bitten by the CGI nasty and falls into a fatal coma. Merlin learns of the 'Isle Of The Blessed' from Gaius - the home of the Old Religion - where he may be able to strike a magical deal to save the Prince.

It has already been established (in Excalibur) that the Old Religion/Magic demands that to save a life, a life must be taken and so when Merlin arrives at the Island and is confronted by Nimueh (Michelle Ryan) he offers his own life in exchange for Arthur.

Merlin's arrival at the mist-enshrouded Island is probably the most atmospheric sequence of the whole season and you have to wish that everything had been this good (it reminded me of the students arriving across the lake at Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies).

The Island, itself, was instantly recognisable to me as the ruins of Raglan Castle in Wales (which Rachel and I visited earlier this year... and where Rachel got attacked by a wasp), which added a degree of empathy to the episode that it was otherwise lacking.

The return of Merlin's mother (from The Moment Of Truth), however, had no emotional resonance at all because (a) she was barely recognisable and (b) having only been in a single other episode (and not a very good one) she's not a character tha audience has any interest invested in.

Despite the ultimate magical duel between Nimueh and Merlin, Le Morte D'Arthur wasn't the massive season finale this show really needed, probably because the build-up was so slow that the final twists and turns of the plot had to be raced through.

As usual, the 'reset' button got pressed at the end of the episode, despite Merlin seemingly making an enemy of the Great Dragon and Morgana waking dramatically from one of her "dreams".

Storywise, I felt it would have been stronger to have taken this opportunity to remove either Uther or Gaius from the series; as it stands, should it return for a second season, very little will have changed in the show's set-up.

With the X-Factor final drawing viewing figures of 14.6 million at its peak, Merlin only managed 5.76 million (according to Digital Spy), but we will have to wait and see if this light-weight tale of wizardry returns.

Or will the BBC try and unearth a third genre piece (after the lacklustre performances of Robin Hood and Merlin) to hold onto Saturday night audiences who are asking: "When's Doctor Who coming back?"

Doctor Who: Doctor Who And The Silurians (1970)

I am not the world's biggest fan of the Jon Pertwee incarnation of The Doctor, but had I seen Doctor Who And The Silurians before any of his other episodes I might have rated him higher.

The Doctor has been exiled to Earth and is just getting used to his new position as "scientific adviser" to UNIT, when he and Liz Shaw (Caroline John) join the Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney) in investigating mysterious power losses at an underground nuclear research centre in Derbyshire.

The research centre is built into a cave network that just happens to the resting place of a legion of hibernating Silurians - the bipedal, humanoid lizards who lived on Earth before mankind evolved.

The Silurians have been tapping the centre's power to awaken their sleeping kin and one of the scientists, Dr Quin (the late, great Fulton Mackay), has been helping them, believing they will allow him access to their advanced technology.

The Doctor discovers what is going on and tries to broker peace between the Silurians and the humans, but is hampered by the fact that the humans either don't believe him or want to wipe out the "monsters" and only the leader of the Silurians agrees with his aims. The Silurian leader is overthrown and the new lizardman leader releases a virulent plague to wipe "ape" life off the planet they wish to reclaim as their own.

The Doctor and Liz struggle to concoct an antidote before too many people die, then the Silurians reveal their next plan: to turn the Earth into a baking hot house by destroying the ozone layer (although it is incorrectly referred to as the Van Allen Belt).

A few bits of wonky science aside (there is a lot of misinformation about when exactly the Silurians roamed the planet), and if you can ignore the awful rubber monster costumes, silly puppetry, garish lighting and colours that mar many of Pertwee's adventures, this is a brilliant, tense, political story that rattles along at a lick that belies its seven-episode, almost three-hour duration.

There isn't a vast amount of padding for such a long story, although the script could probably have done with trimming some of the many secondary characters - although Dr Lawrence (Peter Miles), the research centre's obnoxious, comb over-sporting director would be sadly missed for his scenery chewing turns.

We also get to see, in the denouement, a darker side of the Brigadier.

The Silurians themselves, once you look past the rubberiness of their get-ups, are great 'aliens' (in the broadest sense, technically they have as much right to be called 'Earthlings' as us); a reasonably well-rounded, complex species - not intergalactic Nazis like the daleks and cybermen with their excellent range of psychic abilities channelled through the third eye on their scaly foreheads.

These psychic powers seemed as multi-faceted as the sonic screwdriver, with uses ranging from operating machinery and drilling through rock (and 'regrowing' it) to mental torture (giving Pertwee an opportunity to use his cross-eyed, gurning shtick).

What I'd really like to know, though, is in the final episode, when the Doctor is wearing a T-shirt, we can clearly see his (Pertwee's) snake tattoo on his arm; has this ever been incorpated into the Doctor Who mythology? I'd be very surprised if it hasn't, there must be a clever story in there somewhere: do any other incarnations of our favourite Gallifreyan have a tat?

The Silurians deserve their moment in the sun in the new era of Doctor Who and join my growing list of Classic creatures I'd like to see revived (this batch, surely, remain frozen under the moors - something could easily wake them up) by Russell T Davies or Steven Moffat.

Friday, 12 December 2008

First Snow Of Winter...

Okay, in the greater schemes of things it's a bit feeble, but it is snow (well, a thin sprinkle on a layer of frost and ice).

Won't be building a snowman in our garden just yet, but maybe it bodes well for the weekend (as we're not going anywhere).

The Wonder Of Woolies...

One year shy of its centenary, Woolworths - that staple of the British High Street - has begun its "closing down/everything must go" sale.

I've been a big fan of Woolies, particularly its toy department where you could usually be guaranteed a totally 'random' treasure; sometimes a major discount. It was in the Tunbridge Wells branch last year that I stumbled across my Master Replicas Force FX lightsaber (at half-price).

Woolworths always offered a good - although not great - selection of action figures and often managed to work with the manufacturers to produce exclusive box sets; again in the past 12 months I picked up comparatively cheap box sets of Doctor Who and Primeval figures that weren't available anywhere else.

When it was announced the other week that Woolies was going under I came across the worrying revelation that it owned a 40 per cent stake in 2Entertain, the media company which produces the excellent, extras-packed DVDs of Classic Doctor Who episodes (the other 60 per cent being held by a branch of the BBC).

For a while I was concerned that the collapse of Woolworths would bring down this company as well, thus killing off the regular output of Doctor Who material, but I now read that 2Entertain "is not in administration".

However, it remains a sad day for geek shoppers. I, for one, shall miss my occasional rummages through the odds and ends in the action figure aisles of toy department - trying to root out those hidden gems.

It may not have had as much stuff as our out-of-town Toys R Us that interested me, but it was a damn site easier to hobble to on foot!
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