Reality Is The Playground Of The Unimaginative

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Thursday, 30 April 2009

At The Fleapit: X-Men Origins - Wolverine (2009)

Part of the allure of the character of Wolverine has always been the mystery around his backstory and the origin of his powers, nevertheless X-Men Origins: Wolverine takes brave stab at setting down an origin that ties in with the three X-Men movies.

In fact, it's almost as though the film script was written with a tick list of established Wolverine points that had to be shoe-horned in at all costs (you can almost feel Hugh Jackman's embarrassment when, out of nowhere, he suddenly spouts Wolverine's catchphrase about "being the best at what I do" to his girlfriend, for no real reason).

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (and what an annoying mouthful that title is) is so full to bursting with "touchstone moments" and dialogue that desperately wants to be "quotable" that the story seems to have been hung on all this as an afterthought.

From the off, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), or James as he is to begin with, and his older brother, Victor (Liev Schreiber), are shown to have similar powers: heightened senses and reactions, the ability to grow bone claws and accelerated healing which grants them extended lifespans - although this is never really spelt out.

At first they are inseparable, but gradually Victor's brutal nature starts to worry James until eventually - post-Vietnam - they are together in a US Government black ops team, full of mutants, headed by William Stryker (Danny Huston), and Victor - the future Sabretooth - goes too far.

James walks away and seeks a "normal life", distanced from the death and carnage, as Logan the lumberjack.

But, of course, that's not a life you can just walk away from and six years later his past catches up with him.

There is a convoluted plot about Stryker kidnapping various mutants to "drain" their powers to create a single, super-powerful mutant and a lot of fan-favourite characters make appearances - from Gambit (Taylor Kitsch) to The Blob (Kevin Durand) and Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) - although not all of them in particularly recognisable forms.

Deadpool, for instance, is not a character I have any particular fondness for or knowledge of for that matter, but the film's ultimate transformation of his established character is just a pointless deviation from Marvel Comics canon. He might as well have been a completely new character for all the connection he had to either the character at the start of the film or in the comics which bear his name.

Conversely, I was impressed by the subtle way David Benioff and Skip Woods' script wove the young Scott Summers (Tim Pocock) into Wolverine's story - without either man knowing who the other was and thus mucking up continuity for their first 'real' meeting in the 2000 X-Men movie.

There was even a young girl in the mass of mutants who might have been meant to be Emma Frost, she certainly had the ability to turn into a diamond form - but lacked the powerful psychic abilities.

But for every fan-pleasing Easter Egg like that, there was a moment of unexplained duffness, such as Stryker's totally random deduction that shooting Wolverine in the head with an adamantium bullet would wipe the mutant's memory!

And we mustn't forget that strange - almost ethereal - cameo appearance by an uncredited "old friend" from the X-Men franchise, who steps in at the last minute to whisk young Scott and a gaggle of other liberated mutants to safety, in a scene that looks as though it was Photoshopped in. Is the character actually there or is he just some fancy piece of CGI? Most peculiar.

Some of the best scenes in X-Men Origins: Wolverine actually come in the title sequence, following the mutant brothers, James and Victor, through a succession of wars (American Civil War, First World War, Second World War and Vietnam War) and the film makers missed a trick by not expanding and developing these scenes more, rather than tacking on the jumbled mass of plot the movie actually offers us.

While Wolverine may be the name on the posters, the film really belongs to Victor Creed as the screen lights up when Liev Schreiber's nasty piece of work steps into view. Without this character, the film would have been a lot weaker and those who doubted Shreiber's ability to carry off the role of Sabretooth have been proved well and truly wrong.

As the first potential summer blockbuster of the year, X-Men Origins: Wolverine is okay, but not great. It's exciting on a purely visceral level, but won't tax any brain cells; a true popcorn film that fills you up for an instant but is soon forgotten.

If it wasn't for the experience of seeing a big budget action film at the cinema, I'd say X-Men Origins: Wolverine was really a DVD film to be savoured with a few cans of lager and a takeaway curry.

Enjoy the film more for the spectacle of superbeings beating the snot out of each other in creative ways than for any deep meaning or substance.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Born Of Hope: Another Lord Of The Rings Fan Film!

Born of Hope - 2008 Teaser Trailer one from Actors at Work on Vimeo.

Born Of Hope is an hour-long British fan film due out online (for free) later this year.

Inspired by a couple of paragraphs by Tolkien, it tells the story of the Dúnedain, the Rangers of the North, and follows the lives of Arathorn and Gilraen, the parents of Aragorn.

Top Of The Pile: Captain America #49

Few writers would have both the chutzpah and the talent to first kill off the title character of their comic - who happens to also be a cornerstone of the Marvel Universe - then bring back his long dead, wartime sidekick to, eventually, replace him and then, on the eve of the title's landmark 50th issue, devote an entire issue to a supporting character.

But that's what Ed Brubaker has done with Captain America, and so far, aside from ruffling a few fanboy feathers along the way, he hasn't let us down.

Issue 49 of Captain America is a Sharon Carter story; Steve Rogers' former girlfriend, who - under the influence of the Red Skull - pulled the trigger on Captain America and murdered a living legend (while, unknowingly, carrying his baby).

This story is about her ongoing struggle to come to terms with murdering her lover and, ultimately, discovering the loss of their child.

Sharon's attempts to regain a normal life include visits to her aunt Peggy, in a care home. Peggy was also a past lover of Steve Rogers, but during the Second World War. I found a particular, touching resonance in the scenes between Peggy and Sharon, having my own experience of seeing an elderly loved one's memory be eaten away before my eyes.

Brubaker captured the sadness and hopelessness of this all-too-common tragedy perfectly and subtly.

Let's hope his run of quality writing continues into issue 50 and beyond.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

The Week In Geek...

Trailer 2 - by HuntForGollum

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

(1) A Date With Torchwood: Torchwood's third season is believed to be airing in the UK in the week of June 15, according to

(2) Torchwood On The Air: Three new Torchwood audio dramas are coming to Radio 4. They will possibly air in June, in the run-up to new Torchwood season: Children Of Earth.

(3) Hackmaster Basic Unveiled: Kenzer & Co has released the first information about its forthcoming Hackmaster Basic publication. Pre-orders are being taken.

(4) Aykroyd On Ghostbusters 3: Dan Aykroyd lets slip some spoilers about the new addition to the beloved franchise.

(5) Best. Theme. Ever. The Doctor Who theme music has been voted "best ever science fiction theme" by readers of Total Sci-Fi website.

(6) Hammers Slammers Go Travelling: Next up from Mongoose for their revamped - but still retro - take on the Traveller RPG is a supplement for roleplaying David Drake's Hammers Slammers.

(7) Paul Goes Wild: Captain Britain and Doctor Who writer Paul Cornell joins a new crop of writers for George RR Martin's on-going series of Wild Cards superhero novels. The original books, of course, grew out of Martin's long-running superhero roleplaying game campaign.

(8) Record Numbers Watch HD Doctor: 200,000 people - including me - watched Doctor Who's Easter special, Planet Of The Dead in High Definition, a record number for the BBC HD channel.

(9) Star Wars Goes Green: Zazzle is offering a new range of environmentally-conscious Star Wars T-shirts.

(10) More Moore: The start of a six-part interview with Watchmen creator Alan Morre about his latest League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen story.

(11) Predator Returns: Robert Rodriguez is to reboot the Predator franchise with Predators, according to Ain't It Cool News.

(12) I'll Be Back (Again): Arnold Schwarzenegger confirms virtual cameo in Terminator Salvation.

(13) Lord Of The Fan Films: An incredible-looking, 45-minute Lord Of The Rings fan film, The Hunt For Gollum, debuts online on May 3.

(14) Bea Arthur Passes Away: Golden Girls star Bea Arthur died at the weekend, of cancer. She was 86. As well as her many famous roles she also played the cantina bartender Ackmena in the infamous 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special.

(15) When Titans Clash: Filming has started on the remake of Clash Of The Titans.

(16) Grab A Free Comic This Weekend: This Saturday is Free Comic Book Day (check the FCBD website to find participating stores in your area)!

Monday, 27 April 2009

ElvenQuest - New Comedy Fantasy On Radio 4!

ElvenQuest is a new six-part, comedy, radio play starting on Radio 4 this Wednesday, at 6.30pm.

According to the Radio Times, it's the story of a fantasy novelist called Sam (Stephen 'Green Wing' Mangan), drawn into a parallel fantasy world by "a noble elf, a sexy warrior princess and a fiesty dwarf called Dean" because Sam's dog happens to be the "Chosen One" destined to save their realm, Lower Earth, from Lord Darkness (Alistair McGowan).

The cast also includes Peep Show veteran Sophie Winkleman, last seen in the recent Red Dwarf story Back To Earth.

Tuesday Knighter Nick drew my attention to this and there is something about it that reminds me of an old radio serial I listened to when I was at school called Hordes Of The Things (which provided me with a lot of background inspiration for a Dungeons & Dragons/The Fantasy Trip campaign I ran both at school and beyond for a while).

Journalist Gary Rose, in his Radio Times preamble for the show, takes an ill-informed potshot at the "Dungeons and Dragons society" suggesting that all fantasy gamers enjoy "masquerading as wizards with a magic helmet, a ridiculous name and a penchant for slaying goblins"; but hopefully this is not an indication of the show's humour - just that of an ignorant magazine hack writing about something he knows nothing about.

If you miss the show first time round it will almost certainly be available on iPlayer or the BBC's "listen again" function on the Radio 4 website.

Top Of The Pile: Action Comics #876

Sometimes all you need from your current comic book is some good girl-on-girl action and that's exactly what Action Comics issue 876 delivers.

The bulk of the issue is given over to a spectacular superpowered punch-up between Ursa (General Zod's right-hand woman) and Thara (the Kryptonian currently posing as Flamebird).

Ursa is not only a mistress of mindgames but is insane enough to wield a kryptonite knife - even though using it makes her feel sick as well. She pushes Thara over the edge by teasing her about killing her parents, making her lose her cool while Ursa retains hers and thus has the upper hand.

Then in steps Lor-Zod, aka Christopher aka Nightwing, partner to Flamebird and son of Ursa, who turns the tables by turning Ursa's psychological tricks back against her.

It's not a particularly clever or insightful issue, but Greg Rucka's writing, combined with the artwork of Eddy Barrows and Sidney Teles, makes it an exciting and thrilling read nevertheless.

I was never one of those naysayers who wondered how DC's various Superman titles would work during this period when he was on New Krypton, and thus not around in his own titles. I had faith in the writers and so far I don't feel let down.

Even over in Supergirl (issue 40), despite Jamal Igle's hideous artwork, I have been enthralled by the on-going Who Is Superwoman? storyline and genuinely surprised by the final page revelation of the mystery woman's true identity.

I can't wait for an explanation on that score.

All these disparate, but engaging, plot threads prove to me that, for the short term at least, Metropolis can still be a great place to read about even if Superman, himself, is away on another planet.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

DVD Of The Week: Godzilla - Final Wars (2004)

A recent charity shop purchase of a Godzilla graphic novel (Age Of Monsters) reignited my passion for large rubbery monsters crashing through models of cities (usually Tokyo) and so I sought out one of the more recent Godzilla movies to see how the Big Guy was getting on these days.

In 2004, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Godzilla franchise, the legendary Japanese film studio Toho took a "kitchen sink" approach with Godzilla: Final Wars and threw everything they could think of into the story.

The king of monsters, Godzilla, is trapped under ice at the South Pole in the opening sequence and we are then treated to a quick summation of the state-of-the-world since the advent of kaijū (giant monsters).

We learn how their appearance has united the warring nations of the planet to form the Earth Defence Force - which includes an elite unit of newly discovered superhuman mutants.

The story moves swiftly to the discovery of a mummified kaijū, known as Gigan, which scientists believe is somehow linked to the appearance of the mutants, but then before the movie gets too bogged down in exposition monsters start appearing all round the globe and rampaging through major urban areas.

But then, if that wasn't enough excitement, no sooner has the rampage started and the EDF are on the back foot than an alien space ship appears in the sky and beams all the monsters away.

The aliens, who introduce themselves as Xilians, tell the people of Earth: "They come in peace" - so we immediately know they are the real baddies! (Haven't these people seen V?)

Not that it matters because the aliens' duplicity - and desire to eat us all - is unmasked a mere handful of scenes later; although the Xilians don't really care as they control not only the monsters but also - through their bloodline - the mutants.

Consequently, forty-five minutes into the exhaustingly-paced two hour movie, the action shifts up yet another gear.

Within moments the planet has been trashed and the EDF all but wiped out and it's left to a surviving handful of soldiers and scientists to free the one monster the aliens don't control - Godzilla - as he is the one creature strong enough to stand up to them.

And this is only the half-way point of the movie!

Godzilla then embarks on a destructive world tour, battling a veritable rogue's gallery of his old enemies - with a bit of help at one stage from Mothra, the only good-inclined kaijū - and managing to demolish any remaining landmarks that weren't steamrollered by the earlier alien Blitzkrieg.

This frees up the surviving humans to take the fight back to the Xilians.

Meanwhile, there's a sub-plot with a young Japanese kid and his grandfather who find Godzilla's baby, Minilla, at the base of Mount Fuji (Minilla looks a bit too much like Godzooky). This doesn't really go anywhere until the very final sequence - when Minilla suddenly appears a lot larger than he did at first - where the child and the baby monster manage to shoehorn in a convenient cheesy and slightly sickly "happy ending".

The world is, however, left a post-Apocalyptic wasteland...

Like the majority of Japanese science-fiction, Godzilla: Final Wars is totally bonkers to Western sensibilities, but manages to maintain its own eccentric internal logic and delivers exactly what you would expect: a massive monster smackdown with incalculable collateral damage.

Despite what the title may suggest, rumour has it that this is not the final outing for Godzilla and Toho is now just "resting" their star for a few years to generate interest in a big, dramatic return to form.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

I Want My Kröd!

Kröd Mändoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire is a chucklesome adventure fantasy co-production between America's Comedy Central and our own BBC2.

The first season appears to be six episodes (very British) and four have already been shown in the States. So where's our slice of the pie?

As far as I can make out, the show is some sort of cocktail of Xena, Little Britain and Dungeons & Dragons, with Grange Hill's Sean Maguire as hapless hero Kröd and Matt Lucas as the evil Chancellor Dongalor.

Oh, and the rather gorgeous India de Beaufort play's Kröd's "girlfriend" Aneka.

Krod MandoonThursdays 10p / 9c
Behind the Scenes - India de Beaufort
Matt LucasKevin HartSean Mcguire

As BBC licence fee payers we have a right to say: "We want our Kröd and we want it now!"

Krod MandoonThursdays 10p / 9c
Enter the Freedom Fighters
Matt LucasKevin HartSean Mcguire

Krod MandoonThursdays 10p / 9c
Krod Mandoon Series Preview
Matt LucasKevin HartSean Mcguire

Friday, 24 April 2009

Doctor Who: Image Of The Fendahl (1977)

The Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) and his barbarian sidekick Leela (Louise Jameson) are drawn to 1970s Earth by a "sonic time scan" and discover a group of privately-funded archeologists investigating a 12 million-year-old human skull that seems to glow with a supernatural energy.

Image Of The Fendahl, Doctor Who's last real stab at Gothic horror, is a Dennis Wheatley tale of witchcraft and Devil worship, filtered through alien technology, complete with dark misty woods, an isolated old priory, and a gaggle of arch stereotypes.

For the most part the story radiates a distinct British horror vibe like a classic Hammer film or The Owl Service, before culminating in a fascinating insight into a particular piece of Time Lord folklore and its possible connection with the evolution of mankind.

The Doctor explains to Leela that the alien ceature known as The Fendahl came from "the Fifth Planet", which was destroyed 12 million years ago, and the suggestion is that this is the fifth planet of Gallifrey's own star system - which, as a geeky fanboy, certainly caught my attention.

As well as, it must be said, Louise Jameson's Amazonian Leela, stalking through woodlands and haunted corridors in her skimpy leather miniskirt, who is on particularly fine form throughout.

The Doctor, himself, exhibits his usual Classic era ambivalence towards firearms, both advocating the use of a shotgun (loaded with rocksalt, in true Supernatural style) against the Fendahl and its spawn, and he doesn't think twice about handing a revolver to a victim of the creature to allow him to blow his own brains out.

This is, of course, totally counter to the current take on The Doctor's attitude to guns and it would be fascinating to see a story - presumably in the late Eighth or early Ninth Doctor's run, and almost certainly during the Time War - that explains the strengthening of his anti-gun convictions.

Image Of The Fendahl isn't without plotholes though, particularly The Doctor's unexplained, mysterious, release from imprisonment in the second episode, but these are minor glitches in an otherwise solid and atmospheric (family-friendly) horror story.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Pig-Faced Orcs - Just As Gary Said They Should Be!

As "old school" is the buzz phrase of the moment, and a style of gaming I have long subscribed to, I thought I should introduce you to my tribe of pig-faced orcs - just as Gary Gygax described them.

To paraphrase Tony Stark: "I prefer my orcs with pig-faces. That's how Gary did it, that's how the Old School does it, and it's worked out pretty well so far."

They are, of course, the tribal box set of Otherworld Miniatures that Rachel bought me last month at Salute, as an early wedding anniversary present (that's tradition, right? First wedding anniversary is paper, second is orcs).

The figures were subsequently handed over to my painter of choice, Neil Wilson, who turned them round in record time - in case I needed them for this week's Labyrinth Lord gaming session.

As it happened we didn't need them as the gang were kept quite busy by a gaggle of paltry kobolds, who nearly handed them their collective asses on a plate!

The statues, shown behind the orc shaman in the second picture, came from a dolls house show the other year that I attended with Rachel (dolls houses are one of my wife's geeky weaknesses). Those shows are a great place to pick up this kind of unusual, unspecified scale terrain; random pillars, Gothic statues etc.

Wolverine Promotes Free Comics...

Hugh Jackman sings the praises of Free Comic Book Day - and plugs his upcoming film: X-Men Origins - Wolverine (in UK cinemas April 29).

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Getting All Creative - Without Burning The House Down!

If there's one thing that can really make a game for me it's props.

Over the years, I have accumulated an ever-growing horde of bits and bobs that could be potential in-game props - many even for RPGs that I'll probably never run (such as Call Of Cthulhu).

And while I may have the artistic talent of a monkey with a fistful of poo, that doesn't stop me from "getting all creative" when I foresee a "prop opportunity" in my current game.

I knew The Tuesday Knights would be meeting up with a potential halfling hireling called Jabo Furfoot (inspired by a cowardly halfling hireling profiled in a recent issue of Knights Of The Dinner Table), so, for a bit of added value, I decided that his "grandpappy" used to be an errand boy for White Rabbit Castle (the site of their exploration) and Jabo happened to have his "grandpappy's" old sketch map of the "public areas" of the castle.

Now it has to be said that not all halflings (hobbits by any other name) have the penmanship, or cartography software, of Bilbo Baggins!

I "traced" the castle map - leaving out some areas - onto a piece of printer paper, then screwed it up and dropped it in a bowl with a teabag. Hot water was added, so the tea leaves would stain the map.

For added effect, I then spread the sodden map on a baking tray and slid it under the grill in our cooker for a few minutes... until it started smoking, actually... then quickly removed it and left it to dry (and make sure it didn't burst into flames).

Seriously, I'm not sure of the safety implications of "grilling" maps - so I'm not recommending you try this at home, kiddies.

When I was sure it was safe and dry, I folded the map into quarters and slid it away with Jabo's character sheet - ready to hand to the players at the right time.

I think they appreciated it - although Pete did enquire whether the halfling had been using it as toilet paper (or words to that effect).

It was a useful tool for their exploration of the castle as it meant they didn't need to map the surface level.

Of course, compared to the stylish maps used by groups like that at Geek Orthodox, my efforts were pretty craptastic - but it did its duty and helped guide the players, eventually, down into the dungeon... where no doubt they will all meet horrible deaths within about 10 minutes of the start of the next game.

I'm hoping to make some more maps in the future, so if anyone has any other more interesting - and safer - techniques for giving pseudo-parchments a quirky texture I'd love to hear about them.

Old School Fun And Bloody Carnage!

I had been more anxious about yesterday's game than usual because I'd switched everything over from Castles And Crusades to Labyrinth Lord

In the process, naturally, everyone's characters had got a lot weaker... a point not lost on Nick whose dwarf, Wu Bao, now only has four hit points (half of which he lost to a single stray arrow in the very first combat encounter of the evening).

I'm pleased to say though that everyone seemed to embrace the rules change - both Nick and Steve, in particular, enjoying the nostalgia and reminiscences of "true" old school gaming.

Pete was initially a bit shocked by how weak - spellwise - his druid had become (there being no actual druids in Labyrinth Lord, I went online and was directed to a Swords & Wizardry supplementary ruleset for druids.

Had I stuck with the basic Dungeons & Dragons ethos I'm trying to emulate - and consulted the Rules Cyclopedia - I would have found a different take on druids, but that would have meant Pete playing a cleric for a lot of levels before switching to a druid.

In hindsight, of course, the group could have used the healing!)

As it turned out, later in the evening, he used his Faerie Fire spell to make his scimitar glow and thus give the impression it was a magical sword - in the hands of a large, raging, tattooed berserker!

Having only just finished writing up the descriptions for the first underground level of White Rabbit Castle the morning before The Tuesday Knights all rolled up for their usual pre-game pizza extravaganza and breeze-shooting session, I was pleasantly surprised by how long they spent in their new "home town"; a slightly modified version of Larm, from Brave Halfling Publishing.

Following comments from Ben Robbins' West Marches article in Open Game Table about making "towns" safe and the "wilderness" the dangerzone, I decided to remove the mini-dungeons from Larm (but that's not to say they've disappeared completely).

All kitted out, with halfling hireling in tow, our brave heroes made their way to the dark, abandoned and supposedly haunted castle... and pretty quickly Clare's fighter, Clodius, was getting freaked out by strange, half-heard, whispers in the old smithy she was exploring.

There was only really one battle in the whole evening - but it ran and ran. The party was ambushed by a gang of kobolds and a running battle ensued as Gregor managed to flank the poor creatures and scare the living daylights out of them (shattering their morale!).

The party then effectively chased them down into the dungeon level of the castle, where they were ambushed again by the entire (small) tribe and the battle escalated as the kobold chief and his guards joined in.

The session ended with the party shutting themselves in the kobold chieftain's room - with a newly arrived kobold shaman and his pet giant red frog outside - only to find, cowering in the corner of the room, half-a-dozen female kobolds and their babies!

Moral dilemma time (although Clare/Clodius immediately shouted words to the effect of "slaughter them all!"); compounded by the fact that Gregor - thanks to a string of great rolls to hit and massive damage - had managed to coat himself, and Clodius to a lesser degree, in buckets of kobold blood and guts!

Everyone said how much they had enjoyed the game as they trooped out, which I was delighted to hear.

There had still been some fudging of the rules behind-the-scenes, but hopefully by next time I'll have read through them again and got a better handle on some of the minor issues (but better to fudge than halt the game and flick through the rulebook).

I also, whenever possible, took to making my die rolls in public. In combat, in particular, this brings home the fact that I'm letting the dice fall where they may and if the characters die from an unlucky roll, then so be it.

It has to be said everyone in the party has taken a pretty mighty beating already and they're only a couple of rooms into the actual dungeon - without a cleric in sight... or even a secure place to rest up!

God, I love me some old school Dungeons & Dragons! I just hope next time they live long enough to explore a bit more of this level.

As usual there is an "in-character" write-up of the evening's events over at The Chronicles Of Tekralh and a selection of pictures on Facebook.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

The Week In Geek...

A round-up of geeky news who might otherwise have missed...

(1) Primeval Goes Big Time: ITV's much-improved, time-travelling dinosaurs' action, adventure serial Primeval is to be turned into a Hollywood movie. The prospect of a big screen Hannah Spearritt dancing around in her underwear is too exciting to contemplate!

(2) Outlander Preview: See the first five minutes of Outlander, the vikings versus alien monster movie, on the new-look Sci Fi UK website.

(3) Work With A Legend: Rob Kuntz, of Pied Piper Publishing and co-DM of the original Dungeons & Dragons campaign with Gary Gygax, is looking for designers and graphic artists to work on projects for his company.

(4) Clone Troopers On Parade: An exhibition of props, artwork and costumes used in the development of Star Wars: The Clone Wars will run at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis until January 31, 2010.

(5) Random Doctor Who Rumour: The Sun newspaper claims that Russell T Davies was so impressed by Lee Evans in Planet Of The Dead, at Easter, that he is considering giving Evans' character his own spin-off show!

(6) Design A Dungeon, Win Prizes: Wannabe dungeon-builders have until May 14 to design a one-page, systemless dungeon and be in with a chance of winning a selection of role-playing game goodness.

(7) Starlog Signs Off: That venerable old sci-fi magazine, Starlog, is ceasing print publication after 33 years and going 'online'.

(8) Force Is Strong In The Force: Eight police officers - and two civilian members of staff - in a Scottish police force list jedi as their religion, according to Jane's Police Review.

(9) Behind The Scenes With Tintin: Empire Online has exclusive behind-the-scenes action from the new motion-capture Tintin movie.

(10) Interesting 4e Statistics: Scott Rouse WoTC's Senior Brand Manager for Dungeons & Dragons reveals some interesting facts and figures about D&D 4e at the GAMA Trade Show - and an insight into the furture plans.

(11) JG Ballard Dies: Science-fiction writer JG Ballard has passed away. He was 78.

(12) Pushing Daisies Lives Again: Axed-before-its-time Pushing Daisies will rise from the ashes of its aborted televisual odyssey as a comic book.

(13) Wanted: Lumpy: The sequel to the tiresome Wanted is being penned by Evan Spiliotopoulos, whose portfolio includes Pooh's Heffalump Movie - a big favourite around HeroPress Towers (as is anything Lumpy-orientated).

(14) To The Castle: Chapter Eight Of The Chronicles of Tekralh is due to commence this evening with The Tuesday Knights heading towards White Rabbit Castle.

Monday, 20 April 2009

HeroPress Gets A Namecheck...

... as does every other member of The RPG Bloggers Network at the back of Open Game Table - The Anthology Of Roleplaying Game Blogs, Volume 1.

Do I think it'll drive new readers to my site? Probably not in the short term - there are well over 100 sites listed, many far more well known and well written than HeroPress.

But what this listing - and the book as a whole - does is make me feel humble to be groups among such giants of the blogging community.

Open Game Table is a "greatest hits" selection of gaming blogs from the last couple of years, available from Lulu.

I'll admit I initially balked at the £16.34 price tag, but a couple of successful eBay sales put some pocket money in my hand and so I invested - and I'm so glad I did (and not just for the HeroPress listing, but that is a really cool bonus feature).

The book offers up an eclectic mix of 47 articles, from 32 different blogs, under 10 chapters - Play Style; Game Play; Characters & Players; Monsters & NPCs; Encounters, Settings & Location; Adventure Design; Campaign Setting Design; Classes, Action & Equipment; RPG History & Commentary; and The RPG Tool Box.

For me, the strongest material came in the "play style" and the "RPG history" chapters, being, namely, a fascinating piece of the "first" roleplaying game - which preceded Dungeons & Dragons - and Dave Arneson's involvement in it as a player and an inspiring article by Ben Robbins about his "grand experiment" to run a freeform, sandbox campaign called West Marches.

West Marches immediately joins the short list of campaigns (i.e. Blackmoor, Greyhawk, Arduin, Tekumel) whose merest hint of a war story fires my imagination and reminds me why I have stuck around in this hobby for so long - and gives me goals for the endgame that I, one day, hope to achieve with a long-running campaign.

To be honest, these two articles alone justified the price of admission.

My only criticism, and I know it's one voiced by several people, is the excessive number of pages (over 11) devoted to an article on a monk character class for Dungeons & Dragons 4e (the bulk of those pages being devoted to a listing of the various powers available to the class).

Not that I have an issue with 4e - there are several articles on the system in the 130-page book - but the majority of articles, although primarily favouring the various iterations of D&D, are largely crunch free and applicable to most RPGs.

All the articles are fully annotated as well, with hyperlinks from their original appearances being transformed into footnotes, and a URL is given for the article's original online location as well, so this book can also serve as an introduction to various topics, as you chase down threads and ideas that it sparks.

To be honest, if you read HeroPress for my occasional gaming articles, then you owe it to yourself to get over to Lulu and purchase this book (In the United States, it is also available from Amazon - although, sadly, not in Europe as that would have saved on Lulu's killer postage costs).

Sunday, 19 April 2009

DVD Of The Week: Gonzo - The Life And Work Of Dr Hunter S Thompson (2009)

I can't remember how exactly I stumbled across the writings of the late, great Dr Hunter S Thompson or even which of his early works I read first.

As a naive, young, local journalist, it was a breath of fresh air - if slightly tinged with the aroma of nicotine, whisky and dope - to discover that there "other ways" to approach my chosen career, other voices besides that of the accepted status quo that would be both listened to and a fun read.

Not that I would aspire to live Hunter's wild life of extremes, fast driving, guns and mind-altering substances or even claim to a minuscule percentage of his natural talent for the written word.

But I liked the idea of setting the journalist as the centre of the story, making the tale about the experience rather than a dry, black-and-white reporting of events.

As an aside, it was also a short story of Hunter's that inspired my one, and only, tattoo: a black panther on my left arm. If I recall correctly, Hunter's story was along the lines that he didn't have anything to write for his magazine column that week, so he took his assistant to a tattoo parlour and got her a panther tattoo... just so he had something to write about!

Alex Gibney's two-hour documentary, Gonzo - The Life And Work Of Dr Hunter S Thompson, is a Picaresque journey through the man's life, bouncing from his early years to his suicide in 2005, concluding with his elaborate, self-planned funeral.

Along the way we are treated to interviews with American politicans he supported and crossed verbal swords with, his editors, Ralph Steadman (his long-time collaborator), Hell's Angel Sonny Barger and countless others who had direct involvement with the pioneering father of Gonzo-journalism.

The documentary, like Hunter's work, manages to be amusing, eye-opening, informative and ultimately rather sad.

Given his disillusionment with the American Dream under Presidents such as Richard Nixon and George W Bush, you get the impression that his depression would have lifted with the current occupant of the White House and Hunter might have recaptured the mojo that made him such a powerful social commentator.

Clearly there is a lot more to say about the life and times of Hunter Thompson than is covered in this documentary, but as a monument to his lasting legacy it's a good place to start.

Career-wise I have had very few heroes (who didn't have superhero secret identities), but as I said back when this film was first announced last year: "Without Thompson-led aspirations I wouldn't still be writing today and he remains, in my opinion, the greatest journalist of all time and one of my favourite authors."

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Changing The Guard...

My "go to" wargames magazine, Wargames Illustrated, one of the few magazines I still get on a subscription basis, is getting a facelift, new logo and a relaunch with its next issue (#260).

Thanks to the magazine's new owners - Battlefront Miniatures, the people behind the Flames Of War (FoW) system - the mag will feature 16 extra pages of FoW content and 16 extra pages of additional general content for no extra cost, bringing the page count up to a tasty 112 pages a month of wargames-related material.

Not that there was anything wrong with the 'old' W.I., but I'm looking forward to the changes with only a slight apprehension that the magazine's broad remit might shift towards a focus on the Second World War (given the games produced by the new owners). This would be a shame as it's not, generally, a period that interests me for gaming (the closest I come is pre-war pulp adventure).

As long as the F.o.W. pages remains "bonus" material and the rest of the magazine, and its sterling range of advertising, continues to cover games from cavemen with sticks to science-fiction supersoldiers with killer lazerguns, I'll be content.

The next issue of W.I. comes out on May 21 and co-incidentally will be the first issue of my new subscription, so they've got me for a year at least.

Friday, 17 April 2009

All Gamers Love A Good Map...

Tim Hartin, the hard-working genius behind the continually-updating Villains And Vigilantes Emporium, has come up trumps again by directing me to his Old School cartography site (Paratime Design).

Resplendant with traditonal dungeon designs, building maps, caverns, and wilderness locations, in a variety of styles (black & white, old school blue and textured) and, most importantly, free to swipe and use under the terms of the Creative Commons license.

I shall certainly be using some of these in the future for my Tekralh campaign and, depending how the recently-switched to Labyrinth Lord game takes off, may even consider taking Tim up on his commission offer - if I have a specific dungeon design in mind for a particular level or location etc

Paratime Design also hosts a number of spaceship designs for those of a sci-fi bent and, not covered by Creative Commons, some of Tim's personal files from his own 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons' Greyhawk campaign.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Top Of The Pile: Flash - Rebirth

Wally West was my Flash growing-up, from his time with the Teen Titans through to his own title, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't have a soft spot for Bally Allen.

Barry was The Flash when I picked up my first copy of that comic, aged about eight, but I never really got into his adventures until his heroic death in the epic Crisis On Infinite Earths.

Now there was a comic book death that I thought would stick. Surely there was no coming back from that?

Seems I was wrong...

Barry returned during Final Crisis and now has his own title again: Flash: Rebirth, written by possibly the greatest writer currently in the field of comics - Geoff Johns.

Combine that with the scorching hot artwork of Ethan Van Sciver and DC should have a hit on their hands.

The elephant in the room - Barry's return - is confronted head on. Barry isn't exactly delighted to be to back and, while everyone wants to celebrate his return, he wants to make the most of his time because he fears he could be pulled back into "the speed force" at any time.

The story is a multiple mystery with plots covering traditional superhero fare like murder investigations through to the ramifications of Barry's return and the strange side effects he discovers in the closing sequence of issue one.

This is good stuff. This is no cheap gimmick to ressurect an old favourite. You can just tell that Johns has put his thinking cap on and is going to take this story to places and directions us mere readers could never dream of.

It's a shame it's only a five-issue mini-series, but hopefully Johns will carry the ball afterwards - as he has done with The Green Lantern - and give us a new (old) Flash for the 21st Century.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Know Your Friends...

Although the front cover of Companions And Allies might suggest it is a guide book concentrating on the 10th Doctor's many and varied companions, the attractively-illustrated, 96-page, full colour book actually details people who have helped The Doctor since his first on-screen incarnation as William Hartnell back in 1963.

Companions And Allies is the latest BBC-published reference book for Doctor Who, and follows three similar volumes on the monsters and aliens of the series (Monsters And Villains; Aliens And Enemies; and Creatures And Demons) - which are being collected, revised and updated later this year as The Ultimate Monster Guide - and Starships And Spacestations.

Every main entry in Companions And Allies - from Susan Foreman through to Lady Christina De Souza - starts with a paragraph on the actor portraying the character before launching into an exhaustive essay on the companion's backstory and role in their Doctor's life and adventures.

Being a BBC publication it, of course, sticks to the television series (skipping over characters from Big Finish's audio plays and numerous spin-off novels), but every entry is well illustrated with colour stills - even from the show's early black and white days - as well as short nuggets on minor characters who have helped The Doctor along the way.

As with all the books in this range, Companions And Allies is an essential purchase for Who fans new and old. While comrades of the Ninth And Tenth Doctors may hog the limelight towards the end of the book, it is not at the expense of the multitude of fascinating travelling companions seen in the pre-Russell T Davies decades from the 1960s to the telemovie of the 1990s.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

The Week In Geek...

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

(1) Open For Business: A website for an on-going project to design an 'old school' multi-level, megadungeon has been launched by James Maliszewski of Grognardia. Access to the site is free and while primarily written for Swords & Wizardry, it should be compatible with all the retro-clone of the original Dungeons & Dragons rules.

(2) Oh Captain, My Captain: To celebrate the arrival of the new Star Trek film, Total Sci-fi is asking Trekkers to vote for their all-time favourite captain. You have until May 8 to get your vote in by e-mail.

(3) Fanboys Hits DVD In May: The eagerly-awaited love-letter to the Star Wars universe, Fanboys, is coming out on DVD on May 19 with a host of tasty extras.

(4) Green Lantern Arrives On Earth In July: The animated Green Lantern film from DC is now set to be released on DVD on July 21.

(5) MIB 3: Sony is developing a third film in the faltering Men In Black franchise... for some reason.

(6) Doctor In Distress: Outgoing Doctor Who actor David Tennant got "emotional" reading the script of his last scenes when he hands over the part to new boy Matt Smith.

(7) Iron Man 2: Shooting has begun on the sequel to Iron Man.

(8) FuMP You: The latest compilation album from the Funny Music Project is now available, featuring, among others, The Great Luke Ski.

(9) Forge Your Own Empire: Fantasy Flight Games has released a promotional video for its epic Age Of Conan game.

(10) Buffy Jnr: Sarah Michelle Gellar (aka Buffy) is expecting a child with her husband Freddie Prinze Jnr.

(11) Palladium Steps In: Wizards Of The Coast might have yanked all its PDF products from the market, but Palladium has stepped into the void and is releasing all its system books in pdf format for the first time.

(12) Expo On Sale: Tickets are now on sale for June's UK Games Expo in Birmingham.

(13) Dead Second: Unofficial early ratings put Doctor Who's Planet Of The Dead Easter special as the second most watched programme on UK television on Saturday night.

(14) A Chapter Closes: Fantasy Flight Games announces it is wrapping up its short-lived Mutant Chronicles miniatures game.

(15) Doctor Addresses The 'Kissing' Issue: Speaking to the BBC News service, David Tennant explains the benefits of being a Time Lord.

(16) Back Again: A scenario book for All Things Zombie, called The Lazarus Project: Ragers, is due out in May.

(17) Rabid's Marilyn Chambers Dead: Pornstar-turned-mainstream actress Marilyn Chambers, who found fame in 1977 with David Cronenberg's Rabid, died on Sunday of unknown causes. She was 57.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Lost Zombies Found!

I warned you that my postings might be a bit patchy while I was working on my Labyrinth Lord "megadungeon" for The Tuesday Knights, but I couldn't resist drawing your attention to this incredible "social networking" site which aims to create a collaborative post-zombie apocalypse documentary from visitors' submissions.

Lost Zombies posits a world where 75 per cent of the population has fallen prey to a superflu pandemic, which in turn has led to a rise in zombie attacks, and the site's creators want to hear YOUR survival stories, in written, photographic and video format.

Find more videos like this on Lost Zombies

As a side project to the documentary, they are also collating a "scrap book" of handwritten notes, journal entries, photographs etc relating to the zombie apocalypse - for publication and sale through the site (with any profits being shared among contributors).

Red Dwarf: Back To Earth

Returning to our screens after a decade, Red Dwarf: Back To Earth, the three-part Red Dwarf special shown on satellite channel Dave over the Easter weekend, at first seemed to be a big mistake.

Although benefiting from the lack of an artifical laughter track, the first episode, on Good Friday, was also lacking in actual laughs - but I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt as I believed it was just taking its time setting up the story for the next two episodes.

Nine years after the last episode, Lister, Kryten, Cat and Rimmer (Craig Charles, Robert Llewellyn, Danny John-Jules and Chris Barrie, respectively) were being plagued by a strange, giant squid monster in the Red Dwarf's last remaining water tank. Then a hologram of former science officer Katerina Bartikovsky (Sophie Winkleman) popped up and showed them how the squid could be used to travel between dimensions.

And that's when things started to get interesting, surreal and slightly existential as, in the second episode, the Dwarfers were transported to an "alternate" reality - that started off very much like our own - where they discovered they were actually characters in a TV series (called Red Dwarf) that only had a limited number of episodes left to run.

Suddenly, it morphed into a very heavy parody of Blade Runner (with the Dwarfers fates echoing that of Roy Batty and co.), but as though written by Grant Morrison (check out his run on Animal Man and you'll see what I'm getting at) - with a selection of wonderful, witty moments from the Dwarfers in a science-fiction shop full of Red Dwarf merchandise to the gang turning up on Coronation Street and freaking out actor Craig Charles and finally confronting their "creator" and eventually trying to rewrite reality with his typewriter.

The Blade Runner lifts were increasingly unsubtle as the story headed into the third and final episode, and although they might have left any viewers not au fait with Blade Runner a tad bewildered (but, honestly, is there any Red Dwarf fan who isn't at least aware of Blade Runner?), they certainly pandered to my inner geek and reminded me just how good Red Dwarf could be.

Even when the final twist was revealed to be a very traditional - and quite cliched - Red Dwarf take on a strange situation, it was still handled with a style, gravitas and sly humour that we hadn't seen on the show since the days when Doug Naylor was writing with series co-creator Rob Grant.

All initial misgivings were forgotten and I'm now beginning to think that maybe, just maybe, the world might actually be ready for a new season of Red Dwarf (I just hope, if that time comes around, they can come up with some different twists beyond variations on "it was all a dream").

Sunday, 12 April 2009

DVD Of The Week: Night Of The Demon (1957)

Often when we revisit things that hold fond childhood memories - such as books, films, television programmes and places - we find that in the cold light of adult eyes the objects that once held such magic and fascination are flawed and not truly as grand as we remembered.

I cannot recall exactly how old I was when I came across Night Of The Demon on late-night TV, but it certainly made such an impact on my impressionable, young mind that I couldn't wait to see it again.

Unfortunately, it has proved notouriously hard to track down on DVD here in the UK - due to some legal wrangling over the movie rights, as far as I can figure out - and it took HeroPress reader I, Warren from Toronto to point out that film was available from Amazon in Canada.

So I settled down today to watch my new arrival - with slight apprehension that my childhood memories might be rose-tinted - but I was not disappointed.

Night Of The Demon still holds up all these years later.

Dana Andrews plays cynical American scientist John Holden who flies to England for a conference on claims of paranormal activity only to find that his colleague Professor Harrington has been killed while investigating a supposed "devil cult".

Holden takes over the investigation into the cult and meets its wealthy and charming leader, Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis). Initially Holden dismisses him as harmless, but refuses to drop the investigation and that's when things start to go from bad to worse for him.

Holden has embarked on a classic Call Of Cthulhu investigation, consulting arcane books, attending seances and meeting strange local folk but still finding time to flirt with Harrington's gung-ho niece, kindergarten teacher Joanna (Peggy Cummings).

Unfortunately, by now, Karswell has laid the same curse on Holden that he did on Harrington and the cynic begins to have his eyes opened to the supernatural world as the clock ticks down towards his prophesied time of death at the hands of a summoned fire-demon.

Naturally, by today's standards, the effects are pretty basic and the demon itself - thankfully only glimpsed briefly - is clearly a puppet, but the story is just overflowing with atmosphere and understated menace.

Even right up to the closing credits, there remains the suggestion that the whole threat was possibly just in the minds of the victims all along and not a genuine "monster". I think it was that doubt which stuck in my mind as much as those tantalising scenes of Karswell chasing the all-important piece of parchment down the railway track towards the smoke-shrouded beast.

The DVD (which, rather strangely, has its menus written in Japanese) also includes the shorter, 82-minute cut of the film which was released for the American market under the title of Curse Of The Demon.

Ironically, Night Of The Demon was shown on BBC2 late on Friday night. I hope some of you caught it.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Doctor Who: Planet Of The Dead

Fleeing the scene of her latest daring break-in, posh totty and artistocratic burglar Lady Christina de Souza (Michelle Ryan) steps abroad a number 200 London bus, closely followed by The Doctor (David Tennant) who is tracking a small "tear in space".

Unfortunately for both of them as the bus goes through an underpass it bursts through the wormhole and ends up on the desert planet of San Helios. Until a year ago, San Helios was a plush, thriving world of greenery and cities - until a swarm of omnivorous flying manta rays turned up and devoured everything.

The Doctor and Christina rally the bus passengers to try and find an escape back through the wormhole - before the manta ray creatures can get through and do the same thing to Earth that they did to San Helios.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, the police - who were chasing Lady Christina - have called in UNIT to deal with the disappearance of the bus and the sudden appearance of the wormhole.

The UNIT detachment is headed by Captain Erisa Magambo (Noma Dumezweni), who we saw in Turn Left assisting Donna and Rose. Here she is teamed with enthusiastic scientist Professor Malcolm Taylor (Lee Evans), a big fan of The Doctor, and Bernard Quatermass (it has long been speculated that Doctor Who and Quatermass existed in the "same universe" and this fanboy Easter Egg will add fuel to that particular debate).

As the clock ticks down on David Tennant's reign as The Time Lord (and Russell T Davies' stint as showrunner), it doesn't look like either David or RTD are taking their foot off the gas and just coasting.

Planet Of The Dead may not have been a massive epic, but it was still an hour of non-stop excitement.

The compact, and well-crafted story only got silly during the whole "flying bus" sequence at the end, which went on a bit too long for my liking and was rather too "Harry Potter".

Nevertheless, David Tennant rocked, as always, as The Doctor and even the celebrity guest stars brought their "A-game" to the table; Michelle Ryan was suave, sexy and dynamic as the modern-day Raffles while Lee Evans exceeded my (low) expectations and was genuinely fantastic (something I never thought I'd say). I'd be quite happy if either of these characters popped up again in future Doctor Who yarns.

While, generally, the story was a standalone special, which could have taken place anywhere during The Doctor's post-Donna solo travels, RTD managed to seed in some ominous foreshadowing of the 10th Doctor's impending exit - with talk of his "song coming to an end" and someone returning from out of the dark "who will knock four times".

Will it be The Master, Davros... who knows? But I'm dying to find out. Not sure I can wait until Christmas though!

At the end of the episode we learned that The Doctor returns later in the year in The Waters Of Mars, which is believed to be a prequel to the 10 Doctor's two-part finale.

Join Me In The Arena...

The latest wonderful time waster on the World Wide Web... My Brute.

Name and design your mini fighter, then let him (or her) run riot in a daily series of arena bouts... and that's it.

Here's my dude: - join my dojo and become a pupil of The Acrobatic Flea (yeah, that's right the cool, bald dude over there on the left).

You are limited to the number of fights you can have each day, which limits the amount of time you can waste on My Brute, but if you find yourself wasting too much time blame Darius Whiteplume of Adventures in Nerdliness. He alerted me to this great little site.

The Doctor Is... Back!

The Doctor is back on our televisions this evening, in glorious High Definition (for the first time) but for one night only with his Easter special episode: The Planet Of The Dead.

As always, with a Russell T Davies-penned script, I'm looking forward to this evening with a mixture of trepidation and excitement.

But, at the end of the day, any Doctor Who is better than no Doctor Who, right?

And this story does feature the stunning Michelle Ryan as the Doctor's new - temporary - companion, high society jewel thief Lady Christina de Souza. Hopefully, she has shaken off her dire turns in the short-lived revival of the Bionic Woman and the equally limp Merlin and is back to her EastEnders era greatness.

After Planet Of The Dead, I believe, we have to wait until the end of the year for the next - and final - adventures of David Tennant as the 10th Doctor and, presumably, the first appearance of Matt Smith as the 11th Doctor.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Star Wars: The Clone Wars - Season One episodes...

Continued from previous...

(16) The Hidden Enemy: Anakin and Obi-Wan are leading a Clone army against Separatists on the planet Christophsis when they realise they have been betrayed. While they head off behind enemy lines - to face Asajj Ventress - it is up to a pair of loyal clones to unmask the traitor.

While it's great to finally have new episodes of The Clone Wars back on Cartoon Network, I have to say I was not 100 per cent convinced by the possibility of a traitor in the clone ranks. That aside, his argument that the clones were little more than "slaves" to the jedi was a good one and hopefully this point will be tackled in more depth at a later date. Although not stated on air, this episode is a prequel to The Clone Wars movie, as we are seeing the build-up to the ground battle which opens the movie for our jedi heroes. It was also good to see Ventress again, although her duel with Anakin and Obi-Wan was too brief. (3.5/5)

(17) Blue Shadow Virus: Elements of the droid army are detected on Naboo, which leads to a hidden bunker where a Separatist scientist is developing a weapon of mass destruction - "the blue shadow virus". Anakin, Obi-Wan and Ahsoka join Padme and Jar-Jar in an assault on the underground compound where our heroes must race to stop the evil scientist from releasing the killer germs.

Those who found the Nemoidians racial stereotypes will also probably be disturbed by "evil nazi mad scientist" caricature of the Separatist bad guy. That element aside, and the story not being that original, the highlight of this episode is simply how gorgeous the show makes Naboo look - like High Definition beautiful. It's a pity this episode had to include Jar-Jar, who once again proves more trouble than his worth, and sadly he doesn't succumb to the fatal virus. (3/5)

(18) Mystery of a Thousand Moons: Just when the jedi think they have the "blue shadow virus" contained, a canister is released in the underground compound - trapping, and infecting, Padme and Ahsoka. Obi-Wan and Anakin race against time across the galaxy to the one planet where an antidote can be found. Only once there they run afoul of that planet's "guardian ghost" which prevents ships from ever leaving again.

Fast-paced and exciting, this episode brings the element of threat down to a personal level, raising the stakes for Anakin as Padme gradually falls prey to the killer bug. Again, sadly, Jar-Jar escapes unscathed, but we can live in hope! The fact that he only plays a very minor role in this episode highlights the inappropriateness of the character to a story - or even a series - that is dealing with subjects like bio-terrorism. (3.5/5)

(19) Storm Over Ryloth: The Techno Union have blockaded Ryloth, home of the Twi'leks and the Republic send in a fleet to break the blockade. Ahsoka, given her first command, is slow to respond to orders to pull out when the set-up is revealed to be a trap - an action that costs the lives of her squadron. Her confidence shattered, Ahsoka is reluctant to help Anakin with his subsequent scheme to punch through the lines to Ryloth.

A wonderful episode that really felt like it was telling a war story. While I have a slight problem with Ahsoka (who must be, what, about 12?) being given her own command, the story is handled well and Anakin's sly manipulation of her to restore her confidence is great. The point she raises, though, that Anakin disobeys orders as well - but seems to get away with it - isn't really answered. (4/5)

(20) Innocents of Ryloth: Obi-Wan leads the ground assault in the liberation of Ryloth, but the wicked Separatist's are using captured Twi'leks as a "living shield" around their gun emplacements to prevent the Republic from bombing them from the air. However, with the aid of a young local girl, Obi-Wan finds a way underground to circumvent the droid army's defensive positions.

A fantastic episode that is not visually stunning, but incredibly well-written. The sub-plot with the young Twi'lek girl is genuinely moving while Obi-Wan's "jedi mind trick" to lure the rampaging native monsters - released by the droids - into a trap is one of the highlight of not just this episode, but the entire series. (5/5)

(21) Liberty on Ryloth: The final surge to free the capitol city of Ryloth is lead by Mace Windu, who forges an alliance with a Twi'lek freedom fighter to save the planet before Techno Union leader Wat Tambor can enact a "scorched earth" policy and raze the Twi'lek cities and villages to the ground.

Continuing the gritty excitement of the previous episode, pausing only for a brief bit of Twi'lek internal politics, this episode wraps up the Ryloth storyline in great style. Again the stand-out moment is a piece of jedi trickery - with Mace Windu's escape from the collapsing plasma bridge being another demonstration of the incredible abilities of the jedi knights. If only all the episodes of The Clone Wars could stay on target like this. The victory march that wraps up the story, echoing the end of The Phantom Menace, would have made a perfect finale for the season. (5/5)

(22) Hostage Crisis: While Anakin is resting on Coruscant and trying to convince Padme to come away with him on a short holiday, bounty hunter Cad Bane and his gang break into the senate and take hostages to exchange for the release of Ziro The Hutt (last seen in The Clone Wars movie). It is down to Anakin, accidentally without his lightsaber, to save the day and rescue the captured senators (who include Padme and Bail Organa).

A dark and violent episode to round out the first season on rather a downer, although it does, of course set up the first adventure for the second season of The Clone Wars. Cad Bane is an interesting character, clearly based on a Western gunslinger archetype, with a gang of miscreants that includes Aurra Sing (glimpsed briefly in The Phantom Menace), who somehow recognises - and knows - Anakin by name. While seemingly an odd episode to end the season with (much like the strange choice of opening episode), it was nonetheless packed with the usual eye candy and fan-pleasing jedi goodness. (5/5)

Enjoyment Ratings Average For Season One: 4.03/5

Season Overview: Many months ago, when I saw the first art for the animated Clone Wars cartoon I was sceptical - fearing it would resemble little more than a computer game - and it really wasn't until I saw the movie that I could appreciate just how wrong I had been.

Barring a few hic-cups along the way, The Clone Wars serial has been a major hit for me so far, perfectly capturing the alien exoticism of the Star Wars universe, along with its humanity. While necessarily bloodless (why do think they are fighting droids?), because it is, first and foremost, a children's cartoon, the series also doesn't shy away from tackling the harsh realities of war as well (e.g. biological warfare, human shields, scorched earth tactics etc).

However, that brings us to my one real sticking point with the programme. While moments of humour - to counterpoint the harshness of the situation - are a welcome relief, the slapstick stupidity of Jar-Jar Binks is totally inappropriate.

The character is clearly a liability in every situation he is brought into and it totally shatters the verisimilitude of the set-up that the Republic would not only keep him around but repeatedly send him into frontline situations where his asinine behaviour continuously puts other people's lives at risk.

Bench Jar-Jar and The Clone Wars would be as close to perfect Star Wars as possible.

Note: Episodes of The Clone Wars are being released on DVD in the UK from Monday, but these are vanilla releases (sans extras) and I suspect, as is done with the new series of Doctor Who, eventually there will be an extras-laden box set release of the entire season.


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