Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Big Finish - Industrial Evolution

Release number 145 from back in March 2011, Industrial Evolution by Eddie Robson, directed by Nicholas Briggs.

The Sixth Doctor and Evelyn Smythe take Thomas Brewster back to Victorian England, find him a job, and then hang around to see that he settles in. But there is something mysterious lurking in the cellars below the factory and it is growing in power and malevolence.

Industrial Evolution is a good steampunk story that suits the Sixth Doctor rather well. It also harks back to some of the classic adventures from the 1970s. It could almost have been written by Robert Holmes, which is high praise indeed. It's my favourite of the Thomas Brewster stories so far and it has that terrific Sixey-Smythe combination going for it as well. Strange and sad that it is the last story with either companion that we are likely to have.

One observation: The Doctor's adventures on Earth must now number in the hundreds, in all the various formats over the years. So it does rather strain credulity that stories like this one have not affected human history. Obviously this is one of the concessions we make when we suspend our disbelief, but it does make me wonder whether there is some hidden force in the Doctor Who-nverse that goes around tidying up after his exploits. Maybe that was one of the things that The Silence did while they controlled history.

Anyway a terrific story, great performances, rather good music, and a creepy, clanking creature of cogs and steam. 4 out of 5 Victorian top hats off.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Big Finish - The Feast of Axos

The Feast of Axos by Mike Maddox, directed by Nicholas Briggs.

Continuing the arc of stories featuring the Sixth Doctor, Evelyn Smythe and Thomas Brewster. This harks back to an adventure from the Third Doctor's time on television. The space parasite Axos was left deactivated in orbit around the Earth by the Doctor, but now humanity is facing a power crisis and have sent up a mission to restart Axos and harness its power for Earth. Well we know that's not going to go well don't we?

The Sixth Doctor and Evelyn continue to be one of my favourite Big Finish combinations. It seems that the grumpy Doctor meets his match with an older, no-nonsense companion. I just love a Dr Smythe story, her brief but eventful space walk is a highlight of this audio drama. Sadly Maggie Stables is not very well at the present so we may not get any more stories with her. I shall have to look at the back catalogue and see if I have missed any of her adventures while hoping that Ms Stables feels better soon.

On the other hand I am still unsure about Thomas Brewster. John Pickard's performance is fine but for some reason the character does nothing for me. He's just there and I could take him or leave him. Maybe I will be more convinced by Industrial Evolution.

The rest of the production is pretty good and it was nice to see a France space mission depicted as brave and resourceful for a change. But, apart from the Evelyn scenes this story didn't do a great deal for me. Middle of the road 2.5 out of 5 claws of Axos for this one.

Big Finish - Prisoners of Fate

The latest release from the Big Finish monthly range Prisoners of Fate, written by Jonathan Morris and directed by Ken Bentley.

It's the Fifth Doctor with his full Tardis crew of Nyssa, Tegan and Turlough again, and it's the conclusion to a series of linked stories about the search for a cure for a deadly infection called Richter's syndrome. On the planet of Valderon it seems that an effective treatment has been found, but Nyssa meets a man who turns out to be the son she hasn't yet given birth to, in a strange Doctor Who timey-wimey way.

This is a terrific story for the Fifth Doctor and his companions. The twists and turns along the way, and the different timelines really kept me engaged and entertained. But it's the reveal of the villain of the piece that was the real surprise. This is a story that nods to the history of the Doctor and the Time Lords from the classic series, but also references events and stories from the new television series. I can't really say anymore than that without giving away the plot, but if you are looking for a good recent example of Big Finish's work then try this one.

Peter Davison is fantastic as ever, he has always been one of the most likeable of the Doctor's incarnations and that remains the case in this adventure. But this story really belongs to Nyssa and Sarah Sutton gives one of her best recent performances. In particular her scenes with her adult son who, in a neat touch, is called Adric are quite moving. Understandably Tegan and Turlough take more of a back seat role for this one but all of the actors were fine with no jarring notes. And as ever the sound design and music help this along nicely.

One of the best Big Finish Doctor Who stories I have listened to of late. Not quite up to the giddy heights of Spare Parts or The Burning Prince but still an impressive 4.5 out of 5 type forty Tardises. Good work all round, BF.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

2000AD Prog 1835 - A Medical Review

This post looks at some of the medical issues raised in the Judge Dredd story from 2000AD Prog 1835, the final part of The Forsaken storyline written by Mike Carroll with art by P.J.Holden. Spoilers follow, you have been warned!

The Forsaken follows Dredd and one of his many clones, Dollman, as they try to discover what happened to a group of cadet Judges in the immediate aftermath of the Day of Chaos. The search turns out to have a particular family resonance for Dredd and Dollman when it is revealed that one of the trainee Judges is yet another clone. All the way through this story we have been led to believe that the cadet in question is a chap called Falcon but at the end of Prog 1834 Mike Carroll pulled that rug out from under us with the surprise twist that the clone was really a young woman called Jessica Paris.

In this final installment they reveal how Justice department Gene-Techs turned a male foetus with XY chromosomes into a female. Click the picture for a larger image.

The SRY gene is the Sex determining region on the Y chromosome. There is a rare but naturally occurring condition called Swyer syndrome where a defective SRY gene produces females who do not have functioning ovaries. Women with this condition do not go through puberty unless they are given hormone replacement treatment and they can not produce eggs. They couldn't become pregnant unless they had an embryo implanted by IVF or some similar procedure. At the end of this story we learn that Cadet Paris is indeed pregnant and that she appears to have conceived somewhere out in the city after the Day of Chaos, and not in a nice, warm Justice Department laboratory.

So the big problem with this reveal is not how they would produce a female clone who can have babies, but why they would want to. If they are trying to clone a line of tough female Judges why would they start with Dredd? Wouldn't the Gene-Techs be more likely to look at some of the existing strong women characters like Chief Judge Hershey or Psi Judge Anderson? And even if they did produce a female version of Dredd there would be no good reason to go to all the trouble of making her able to conceive. They don't need pregnant judges when they can produce new ones in a test tube.

It's clear that Dollman in particular feels a family connection to his clone brothers and sisters which drives the story of The Forsaken along, but the only reason that Carroll seems to have borrowed this bit of real world medicine is to let him pull off the misdirect that the clone was the last male cadet, Falcon, instead of Paris. And soon there will be a new baby Dredd-let in MC1. I wonder if they will bother to return to that plot point in the future.

I should point out that House of Usher on the 2000AD forums, and Orlok on the ECBT2000AD blog covered some of this ground ahead of me, and spotted the obvious problems that this story created (in more ways than one).

Judge Dredd - Jihad

Continuing my way through the complete Big Finish range of 2000AD stories here is Judge Dredd: Jihad from 2004, written by James Swallow and directed by John Ainsworth.

Dredd has his work cut out trying to run the security for a conference of senior Judges from all around the world, and investigate a weird religious cult that has sprung up in the undercity. A threat from Mega-City One's past has returned again to threaten Judge Joe Dredd and the millions he protects.

James Swallow's last contribution was Dreddline which I did not like at all but this is a far superior audio drama which has lots of nods and references to some of the classic epic storylines from the comic. If you are familiar with 2000AD then the villains of the piece are rather given away by the cover art, and once again listeners will figure out what is going on before Dredd does. The Judda are a cult of cloned Judges who want a society dominated by their clone brothers and sisters. Dredd had previously wiped out most of them but a few crazed survivors are back to menace the big Meg.

Toby Longworth is given a lot more to do in this script and his performance gets even better. Teresa Gallagher makes a good Chief Judge Hershey, and Garrick Hagan is the convincingly deranged villain, Jonah. These 2000AD stories are about an hour long and they rattle by pretty quickly in comparison to the Doctor Who Range. The direction, sound design and theme music are all top notch, and I loved all the mentions of classic Dredd stories.

Jihad doesn't quite do as well as Death Trap or Get Karter but it's a good Dredd story that gets 4 out of 5 clone DNA strands.

Man of Steel

The latest in the blockbusting Superman franchise Man of Steel, directed by Zack (300, Watchmen) Snyder, produced and co-written by Christopher (Dark Knight) Nolan. I was really looking forward to this. Henry Cavill looked great in the trailers. I wasn't too crazy about the costume redesign but I was prepared to let that pass. The clips of Clark Kent wandering in the wilderness looked interesting, and I wanted to see what Kevin Costner and Diane Lane did with the Kents.

Spoiler warning, some plot details ahead. You have been warned.

To begin with we get a lot of time on Krypton and Russell Crowe's Jor-El may get nearly as much screen time as his blue clad son. Then we join a grown up Clark Kent wandering the Earth doing good deeds before leaving town while wearing denim jackets and plaid shirts. If the famous Incredible Hulk TV series music had started playing I wouldn't have been surprised. Then there is almost no time for him to discover his  true heritage in an ancient Kryptonian spaceship before General Zod and the rest of the Phantom Zone prisoners arrive and start blowing stuff up. Forcing Kal-El to suit up and begin a lengthy series of battles of mass destruction. Snyder celebrates with the soundtrack turned up to 12 (one more than 11) and with an almost pornographic fixation on property damage, with no thoughts for all the people who must be dieing in those buildings.

What a terrible film. Oh, the disappointment! Let's get the positives out of the way early on. I like Henry Cavill in the title role but he is given almost nothing to do apart from be rendered as a CGI sprite that bashes into other CGI sprites. Lois Lane starts out the picture as a convincing reporter who tracks down the urban legends about a man walking the earth performing miracles, and the idea that she knows Superman is Clark Kent but nobody else does actually works quite well. However by the last reel she is reduced to her usual role of falling out of aircraft only to be snatched up by a very fast moving hero (no doubt smashing many of her bones and internal organs as he does so). Kevin Costner looks right as Jonathan Kent but the messages he gives the young Clark are just too contradictory and it's never clear whether he wants his son to help people or just leave them to die. And Pa Kent's own death scene makes no sense. In the comics and the proper films Clark's dad dies of a heart attack, something that even the most powerful being on the planet is powerless to stop. Here Costner gets swept away by a Wizard of Oz sized tornado, while a fully grown Clark stands about 50 feet away and just watches. Why?

The Christ imagery which blighted Superman Returns is hyped up even further in this movie. Again we see Superman posing in crucifixion mode. He tells the military that he has been "on this planet for 33 years". Clark spends time in a wilderness and even gets taunted by a satanic figure in a road side bar. And then just before his epic battle with Zod he has a crisis of faith and sits in a church in front of a large stained glass window of Jesus and almost asks that this cup be taken away from him. Couldn't we just have the big, blue Kryptonian who saves people because he can, and does so with a smile on his face?

If the Christ imagery is a little bothersome the recurrent re-creation of 9/11 is really disturbing. Snyder wants to show us those towers coming down again and again, and again. Buildings crash to the ground, planes, trains and automobiles are tossed around like frisbees. Metropolis is basically annihilated while the few survivors emerge from the rubble coated in the same ashen dust that we saw after the attacks on the World Trade centre. And Superman continues to hurl Zod and his followers through buildings with no apparent thought to the humans in them. Superman should try and save people, that's what he does. But Snyder just wants to blow stuff up and twist that volume dial to deafening levels.

And then there is the ending. After a huge science fiction technobabble plot device returns most of the bad guys to the Phantom Zone it comes down to Kal-El versus Zod. In the first act we saw Zod kill Jor-El with a spiky Kryptonian blade which popped from his battle armour, so I was expecting this to return in the final act like a classic Chekhov gun. Instead we got some more punching through buildings before Zod turns his laser vision on some trapped humans forcing Superman to do the one thing he never does. Ever.

Humourless, extremely loud and extremely long, offensive and, in the end, boring. How many times do you want to see a battle suited Kryptonian throw Superman through another building? I can't remember the last time I wanted to walk out of a film but I nearly did here. I only waited for the end to give the filmmakers a shot at redemption by playing the John Williams theme music, and they couldn't even give us that.

0 out of 5 exploding planets. Someone please stop Zack Snyder from making any more comic book movies.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Iain Banks no more

Yesterday came the sad news that one of our greatest authors had died at the age of 59 after what he described as a "brilliant life" that was cut short by "bad luck" in the form of metastatic cancer of the gall bladder.

Like everyone else I was introduced to Banks by his first remarkable novel The Wasp Factory which I read shortly after its publication in 1984 when I started to hear all the fuss about it. He has since published another 27 books and I have read them all, several of them twice or more. It was a particular delight to discover his science fiction books which he wrote as Iain M. Banks, about which I have blogged in the past.

His writings revealed him as thoughtful human being with liberal views and a hopeful vision of the future where we will one day perfect medicine, get past scarcity, and, most importantly of all, stop being so horrid to each other and concentrate on creating art and just having fun. In his science fiction books this version of humanity is known as The Culture, and although they aren't always a force for good in the universe they are a beguiling thought experiment about how things might one day be.

My father and my three brothers were all huge fans of his Culture books and we would look forward to a new one coming out every other year, and then discuss it and share our thoughts via email. Banks' books were one of the things we had in common and we joined in all the fun of thinking up new names for the giant ship Minds that feature in the novels.

My brother Michael died last year after a similarly short battle with a metastatic cancer. Now both Michael and his favourite author are gone and the loss of one of the things we used to talk about seems to make it worse somehow.

I met Iain Banks at a book signing for his novel Surface Detail in 2010 and he was delightful. I have never heard anyone say a bad word about him. He always seemed to be humorous, witty and a genuinely nice bloke. The dignified way he dealt with the news of his own illness stands as a lesson to us all. I wonder if I will have the same courage they had when my time comes.

One day in the distant future we will finally crack the cancer problem and it will become a thing of the past. Until then we have to mourn the loss of decent people who are taken before their time.

Rest in Peace Iain and Michael.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Big Finish - Judge Dredd: War Planet

Judge Dredd War Planet by Dave Stone, directed by Gary Russell.

Dredd is sent off world again, this time on the trail of the fugitive criminal Efil Drago San, played with villainous relish by Stephen Grief who was the first Travis in Blake's 7. Finding him turns out to be easy, it's keeping him in custody while treading through the murky diplomatic waters of a former Earth colony that proves difficult. And this brings Dredd and Psi Judge Karyn up against the initially charming Lady Shamtrie played by Charley Pollard herself, India Fisher.

This one was short and not terribly convincing. As ever the writer tries to find ways to put Dredd in trouble without access to his gun or bike. It works OK for a while but when it gets to the final solution I was just left wondering why didn't they try that from the start. Toby Longworth provides a great voice for Dredd but his character is all over the place depending on who is writing him. This was a very passive Dredd who just accepted the stuff that was happening to him. Not much of a go-getter.

A shortish feeling 60 minutes that ties up some loose ends from earlier in the series. A dull 2 out of 5 failed psychic readings. Next up is Jihad.

Big Finish - The Lady of Mercia

The Lady of Mercia by Paul Magrs, directed by Ken Bentley.

The Fifth Doctor is on the trail of a temporal anomaly and brings the Tardis crew to a university campus in 1983. There are budgets cuts, student protesters, visiting lecturers for a history conference, and of course, there is something strange going on in the physics department. Before long Tegan has been hurled back in time to the 10th century and finds herself caught up in the legend of Ã†thelfrid, the Lady of Mercia herself.

A completely historical adventure for the Doctor with the only science fiction elements being time travel itself. No aliens. no bug eyed monsters, and no super-villains. Just some good clean timeslip fun for The Doctor, Nyyssa, Tegan and Turlough to sort out. Tegan gets the most to do and, unusually, is not possessed by anything. She does what she does because she thinks it is the right thing to do, and this is a pretty good Tegan story. The downside is that everyone else just get the minor roles, Nyssa is merely there to ask the Doctor questions, and Turlough is back in his sarcastic, surly mode. I thought we were done with the unhelpful Turlough but apparently not.

I enjoyed Peter Davison's performance quite a lot. It's nice to have a more classic Doctor who doesn't have to run and shout all the while. Although it might help if this incarnation did stop and explain things every now and then. It would clear up a lot of misunderstandings but would probably reduce the running time by at least a quarter. Janet Fielding has a (pun intended) field day with her meaty role and manages to produce one of the least irritating attempts at a regional accent I have heard for some time.

The music, sound design and artwork are all top notch and really this was one of the best Big Finish Doctor Who stories I have listened to in a while. 4 out of 5 golden swords and now it's time to jump tracks and head back to Mega City One and more Judge Dredd.