Saturday, August 30, 2014

Big Finish - Revenge of the Swarm

The latest from the monthly main range: Revenge of the Swarm by Jonathan Morris, directed by Ken Bentley.

Back to the Seventh, Ace and Hex combination with the ongoing plot about restoring Hex's original memories, but first there's a plague ridden space station and a return of the Swarm from the Fourth Doctor television story The Invisible Enemy. The Doctor seems to have the bad guys defeated and the whole thing wrapped up after two episodes, so much so that the third and fourth parts seemed like unnecessary padding. Still the Doctor gets to roll some Rs with relish and Ace rides a light bike from Tron and makes a nice Jet Set Willy reference.

It's all done with the usual Big Finish professionalism apart from one sore point. Philip Olivier has to do a Swarm possessed Hex voice and while he sounds entirely natural when doing his normal voice he struggles with his alien inflected tone. It really stood out for the wrong reasons and spoiled the last two parts for me. Shame really as this was almost a good Seventh Doctor story.

So only two of out a possible five light cycles for the first part of what appears to be a Seventh versus bugs trilogy. Ho hum and roll on the next Big Finish Sherlock Holmes release please.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Return to Armageddon

Here is an nice collection of one of the weirder strips to appear in the early years of 2000AD. This ran in Progs 185 - 218 from 1980 to 1981 and the short version of this review reads: "Brilliant. Buy it".

Written by Malcolm Shaw with superlative art by Jesus Redondo and lettered throughout by Bill Nuttall, it also has a very cool title font on each of the 34 episodes that makes me wonder if it was designed by the late Jan Sheapherd. The plot is fiendishly complicated with a deep space vessel encountering some form of wormhole which transports it to a planet covered in frozen bodies, some of which look like horned devils. Proving that the crew have never seen John Carpenter's The Thing they carve out one of the bodies, defrost it and then somehow manage to produce two clone kids from it. One of them rapidly evolves to became The Destroyer, a creature of pure evil, while the other appears to be a normal human called Amtrak who may be the only person who can end his malevolent twin's reign of terror. Along the way Amtrak will pick up a one-armed robot sidekick called Seeker, a good looking human companion named Eve and, of course, a magic sword.

That sounds all just bonkers and I haven't even mentioned the space pirates yet, it moves on in a frenetic fashion packing miles of story into each five page episode and proving that you can tell a sprawling space opera epic in this limited format. It's so complicated that the introductory text box in the first panel of each installment soon fills up with smaller and smaller text trying to bring the new reader up to speed. Return to Armageddon is tremendously exciting for a children's comic book story from 34 years ago and Mr Shaw was clearly a scribe with a very vivid imagination. Some of the stuff is quite terrifying, proving that kids do love a good scare in the safe environments of their comics, books and films.

And all of this is beautifully presented in Redondo's stunning black and white line work. There is one colour two page spread where this story made the centre pages for one prog and the colour adds very little, in fact I prefer the monochrome pages. Redondo was another Spanish master in these early Progs and I hope we learn a little more about him in the forthcoming Future Shock documentary. 

Of course the art does suffer in places from being shrunk down from Prog size to fit a trade paperback which makes some of the panel layouts look a little dark and cluttered. There are also a couple of lettering glitches where words seem to have dropped out or be missing letters and I'm not sure if that is due to the originals or the reproduction. In terms of extras we get the four colour covers that Return To Armageddon appeared on at the back of the book, the usual one paragraph creator bios, but no introduction. I know the margins must be tight on these Rebellion trades but could they not find room for a one page introduction? I'm sure there would be fans from the forum queuing up to write one for free.

Minor gripes aside this is a lovely trade collection of one of those bizarre gems from the halcyon days of 2000AD. Give Rebellion your money and get a copy, you won't regret it. Five star stuff.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Big Finish - Omega

Last of the £1 purchases: Omega by Nev Fountain, directed by Gary Russell, with Ian Collier as Omega and Caroline Munro as Sentia.

Let me quote from the Big Finish blurb itself: A strange telepathic message prompts the Doctor to travel to the 'Sector of Forgotten Souls', a place where, thousands of years ago, Omega's ship vanished whilst detonating a star. He's not the only one journeying towards it. 'Jolly Chronolidays' prides itself on giving its tourists an experience of galactic history that is far better than mere time travel.

And of course this is not just a holiday recreation of the legend of Omega, the big bag guy is going to make an appearance and we are set for a head to head debate between the Fifth Doctor and Omega himself. This is one of three stories Big Finish ran in their first fifty releases that dealt with three big bads, I have listened to the Seventh Doctor's encounter with the Master but have not yet bought Davros with Colin Baker as the Sixth. Now my big problem with this is that I have almost no familiarity with the character of Omega. Everyone knows Davros and the Master but I can't remember any of the television stories in which Omega appears. So I missed most of the significance of his rantings in this story. The head to head stuff was pretty good and there is a nice twist involved which set this apart from some other clashes with big bad guys. And, of course, there is the delectable Caroline Munro as Sentia. She doesn't look like she did in the 1970s when I was completelty smitten but she still sounds sexy to me.

So it's a bit of an oddity, as have been my other two £1 purchases. I'm going to be generous and swayed by the presence of Ms Munro and give this 3.5 out of a possible 5 hands of Omega. Perhaps I should get the Sixth and Davros story and complete the trilogy but in the meantime it's back to the main range because there's a new Seventh Doctor story to tee up next.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Big Finish - Loups-Garoux

Another £1 offering from the sale, Loups-Garoux by Marc Platt, directed by Nicholas Pegg.

The Fifth Doctor and Turlough are in Rio de Janeiro for the carnival but get caught up in a hunt for a Werewolf and a race to death on a speeding monorail train. Actually it's even more confusing than that and I can't really remember all the other stuff that happens and quite how the Doctor resolves it all in the end. This one felt very long indeed, like an episode of Thunderbirds with Jeff Tracy and Lady Penelope stuck on a runaway train while the Thunderbirds try to come to the rescue.

I was hoping for a creepy Werewolf tale (or tail even?) but it was all a bit confusing and dragged out for me. The cast are all fine, Eleanor Bron and Bert Kwouk are in it which was a surprise. As ever there is nothing wrong with the production values but it just didn't do it for me at all and I found my attention wandering. I confess I also miss not having the CD extras on the these earlier releases. Who would have thought that I would miss hearing the Big Finish actors waffle on about the terrific lunches they get while recording?

2 out of 5 Lupine antidotes and on to Omega we go.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Big Finish - Doctor Who and the Pirates

I picked up three titles for a £1 each in the recent Big Finish fifteen year anniversary sale and here is the first. Doctor Who and the Pirates by Jacqueline Rayner, directed by Barnaby Edwards.

Evelyn Smythe visits one of her students to recount a somewhat improbable tale of the Sixth Doctor and some seafaring shenanigans. But there is something deeper than Davy Jones locker going on and the nonsensical tale has a point. However there is a fair bit of that nonsense to get through before we learn the true purpose of Dr Smythe's visit. And there is some singing, in fact the third act is a musical and how you feel about that my depend on whether you can stand the light operas of Gilbert and Sullivan. It has to be said that the cast do a pretty good job of their singing duties but it was not quite my thing. 

The pirate stuff including a rather over the top performance by a Bill Oddie is a bit tiresome but the framing story is rather touching and Maggie Stables is as good as ever. I just wish we could have some more from her but that probably isn't going to happen which is a great shame.

So a bit of a mixed bag that gets three out of piratical eye patches, but not at all bad for a pound. Next up from the Big Finish pound shop is the Fifth Doctor and some Werewolves.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Send in the Clones

If you have read any of my previous reviews you will know that I had a long break from the galaxy's greatest comic and only took out a subscription about five years ago.Yes I was a black sheep but now I have returned to the fold. So I have been using Rebellion's fine collections to fill in some of the gaps, and here we have a trade full of Wagner stories with the common theme of Dredd's family, or what passes for family in the disordered world of Mega city One. 

The opening stories are about the clone who takes the name of Dredd's brother Rico and who seems most likely to replace the old man if and when he finally retires. Dredd supervises him as a rookie and sees echoes of his own younger self. Rico then joins his first sector house and gets involved in an investigation that recalls the police procedural style of The Pit. Rico's introduction is followed by some stories about Dredd's niece Vienna and how she comes back into his life. Finally we have the introduction of cadet Dollman as he tries to decide whether to leave the Justice department.

The theme of identity runs clearly through these tales. Dredd muses on his eventual replacement by a clone and wonders how many versions of himself are out there now. Rico learns about his heritage and questions what made the original Rico go bad and whether the same flaw exists in all the clones. Dollman has probably the most extreme response to the knowledge of what he is and the future that his creators planned for him, and he really struggles to come to terms with who he is. Even his name suggests he is merely a synthetic representation of a real person.

And then there is Vienna who sits calmly at the centre of it all. Much of her identity and memories have been taken from her by a satanic cult, as she rebuilds her life she acts as an almost matriarchal presence for Dredd and the two younger versions of himself. The old man find  this relationship awkward while Rico and Dollman seem much more at ease with the notion of family in Vienna's presence.

Androids may dream of electric sheep but do clones think for themselves or are they just literal carbon copies of the Rico tells his sector house colleagues that he gets occasional flashes of what Dredd is doing although it is not made clear if this represents some paranormal telepathy or just the fact that he acts and thinks like the younger Dredd so can intuit what his clone father might be doing. This works for the story but does not address whether a clone can be their own individual person or if they will just always be just a slightly different version of another person.

This is more classic stuff from Wagner and I am more and more impressed with the way his writing matured from those early kids' stories, and how he brings in these subtle themes of family, or looks at the issues of celebrity and human rights in other tales from the big Meg. Of course there is plenty of action with the clones breaking heads on the street in their usual brutal style. There is also the detective story of Rico's investigation of another corrupt sector house. But I found these elements secondary to the clones' dilemmas and their one link to a real human family member.

Artwise there are expected star turns from Ezquerra and MacNeil but the real surprise of the collection for me was Charlie Adlard's dynamic work on one of the stories. Like many others I have recently jumped off the Walking Dead book and apart from that I had only seen his art on a couple of 2000AD covers. His work on Dredd is totally different from his style on walking Dead and it was revelation. I wish we could get him to do some more.

Overall this book is another top thrill from the house of Tharg. Wagner and his artists are on top form and the characters are fascinating, particularly Vienna and the disillusioned Dollman who I hope returns to the Prog soon. Recommended reading.