Friday 29 April 2016

All-Star Section Eight, by Garth Ennis and John McCrea (DC Comics) | review

A six-issue spin-off from Hitman (the comic not the game) which was itself a spin-off from The Demon. Tommy Monaghan, the hitman with x-ray vision and a heart of gold, was introduced in the latter during one of DC’s dafter crossovers (invading aliens whose attacks gave some people superpowers). He once tried out for the JLA, but the funniest parts of his comic were usually when he ran into alcoholic Sixpack and his band of hopeless heroes, Section Eight, including characters like the Defenestrator, Dogwelder and the pervert Bueno Excellente. Here, at last, they get their own comic, or at least the survivors do, as Sixpack tries to get the team back together. After adding The Grapplah, the demon bartender Baytor, Powertool, Guts and a new Dogwelder (who found the previous guy’s outfit in a junk shop), he gets up to seven members, and then tries to persuade the stars of the (New 52) DC universe to fill the last slot. The Martian Manhunter, Wonder Woman and Superman all show up; none seem likely to take the bait. It’s funny and gross, Sixpack’s snot, drool and wee depicted in repulsive detail, but also surprisingly moving, by the end reminding me of the classic Doctor Who strip by Scott Gray and Martin Geraghty, “The Land of Happy Endings”. Super-heroes may be dumb, but as Garth Ennis writes here, “As dreams go... Well. I suppose you could do worse.” This mini-series may not mean very much to people who didn’t love The Demon or Hitman, but it’s a must-read for those who did. Stephen Theaker ****

Monday 25 April 2016

Doctor Who: Echoes of Grey, by John Dorney (Big Finish) | review

This sixty-seven minute play checks in with Zoe Heriot, now in her fifties after being returned to her own time by the Time Lords. They wiped her memories of her travels with the Doctor, leaving her with just the recollection of his visit to the Wheel in Space to fight the Cybermen, but she has an eidetic memory, and she can tell that there’s a discontinuity in her mind. It has made it difficult to form relationships; she feels like the ghost of herself. Then she meets Ally Monroe, whose life she apparently saved during one of the adventures she can’t remember. Ally thinks her alpha wave gadget will help, and slowly Zoe starts to remember the time she, Jamie and the second Doctor encountered the Achromatics, grey beings who declare their love for you while draining away your life. It’s a second Doctor story in the classic style, of slow-moving monsters in a confined space, with all the creepiness that brings. When they chase the Doctor around a room (he has a plan, but “no other ideas at all!”) it’s easy to imagine how it would have looked on screen. Wendy Padbury is as adept at voicing the Doctor and Jamie as when playing her younger self. The framing device is cleverly done, and by the time it ends the play’s title turns out to be clever too. It’s a good story, though its ramifications are potentially tragic: if Zoe and – as we’ve learned in other stories – Jamie have recovered some of their memories, did the Doctor make a terrible mistake in the Tomb of Rassilon? Stephen Theaker ***

Monday 18 April 2016

Doctor Who and the Ark in Space, by Ian Marter (BBC/Audible) | review

The fourth Doctor, only recently regenerated and accompanied by journalist Sarah Jane Smith and U.N.I.T. medic Harry Sullivan, lands the Tardis on the Nerva Beacon. It seems to be abandoned, but further investigation reveals slimy trails, as if of a giant slug, and then freeze-dried humans, packed away in storage for thousands of years to survive a stellar disaster. The first humans to wake up suspect the Tardis crew of sabotage, a fatal distraction from their true, hidden enemies: the Wirrn, a race of giant locust-like insects with a grudge against humanity, and a gruesome purpose for these survivors. “The Ark in Space” was originally a television story, and this is the Audible version of the Target novelisation from the eighties, written by the actor who played Harry Sullivan. He wasn’t in the Tardis long, sadly, having been cast as the Chestertonian man of action, an entirely redundant position after Tom Baker took the role of the Doctor. It is read by Dead Ringers star Jon Culshaw, who first became famous for his wonderful telephone impersonations of Tom Baker’s Doctor. That ability makes him perfect for this audiobook, though ironically this comes from a time when the fourth Doctor wasn’t particularly funny – for much of this story he’s indistinguishable from his previous, rather serious, incarnation. He narrates in his own reading voice, and keeps the tension high. For a children’s book it is surprisingly gory, with talk of suppurating stumps and smouldering bodies welded to panelling after being repeatedly shot, and in the audio version there’s no bubble wrap to break the spell. Sarah Jane’s long, arduous and essential crawl through a narrow duct is as stressful as ever, no matter how many times we’ve already seen her succeed. The fate of one human infected by the Wirrn bears repetition in full: “with a crack, like a gigantic seedpod bursting, his whole head split open. A fountain of green froth erupted and came sizzling down the radiation suit…” There’s a reason these were my favourites as a child: other books were, quite literally, bloodless in comparison. Stephen Theaker ***

Friday 15 April 2016

Doctor Who Comic #7, by Robbie Morrison, Brian Williamson and chums (Titan Comics) | review

A wonderfully substantial publication that collects four issues of the ongoing US format comics, one each from the twelfth and tenth Doctors’ comics, and two from the eleventh Doctor’s title. In “The Fractures, Part 2”, by Robbie Morrison and Brian Williamson, the twelfth Doctor and Clara are trying to help a UNIT scientist from another dimension. His wife and daughters died in a car crash, and they live on here, but when he crossed the void between dimensions he attracted the attention of the Fractures. Visually it’s not up to the standards of the strips that appear in Doctor Who Magazine, but it’s enjoyable enough. The eleventh Doctor’s story “The Eternal Dogfight” (complete in this issue), by Rob Williams, Al Ewing and Warren Pleece, sees him accompanied by three new companions: a shape-changing alien, a depressed assistant librarian, and a chubby David Bowie type. An everlasting dogfight between two fleets of alien combatants has drifted into Earth’s vicinity, and if the Doctor and friends can’t bring it to an end there could be eight billion civilian casualties. All very entertaining, in thanks part to the intrigue of each new companion’s ongoing story, and the jolly artwork. It reminded me of the early Tom Baker strips in Doctor Who Weekly. The tenth Doctor is also joined by a new companion – Gabby, an American from New York – for his story, “The Weeping Angels of Mons, Part 2”, by Robbie Morrison and Daniel Indro. The statuesque monsters of the title are snatching soldiers from the trenches of World War I. It’s an interesting story, and the artwork (including the colouring by Slamet Mujiono) suits it perfectly, the expressions of the angels being as alarming as one would hope never to see. I liked each individual story, but it’s the cumulative effect of reading almost a hundred pages of new Doctor Who comics that makes it so rewarding. I subscribed before getting even halfway through it. Stephen Theaker ****

Monday 11 April 2016

Penny Dreadful, Season 2, by John Logan and chums (Sky Atlantic) | review

A coven of (often naked) witches is determined to bring Vanessa Ives to meet their master, and they have identified lonely Sir Malcolm Murray, so much in need of comfort after the events of season one, as a weak point in the Penny Dreadful gang. Meanwhile, Doctor Frankenstein makes the mistake of falling in love with the bride his creature has demanded, and Dorian Grey shows how romantic he can be. Ethan Chandler has a particularly hairy time of it in these episodes, but his relationship with Vanessa Ives deepens, particularly during a short break in her holiday cottage at the coast. The reverse of season one, this run starts slowly but ends well. The blood and gore continues at a level appropriate for a programme with this title. The announcers on Sky Atlantic typically warn that viewers may find some scenes disturbing, but there are scenes in this series that only a psychopath would not find disturbing. And yet there is noticeably more smiling this time around, even from tortured souls Ethan and Vanessa, perhaps to alleviate the bleakness. Eva Green as Vanessa is once again the star of the show. While the other characters, at least in the early episodes, feel rather like a league of boring gentlemen, she looks like she was drawn by Kevin O’Neill and brings Mark Hamill levels of belief and commitment to every scene. Stephen Theaker ***

Friday 8 April 2016

The Technopriests, Vol. 1: Techno Pre-School, by Alexandro Jodorowsky, Zoran Janjetov and Fred Beltran (Humanoids) | review

Albino the Supreme Technopriest is on a spaceship with five hundred thousand of his brethren, travelling from one galaxy to another, where they hope to start a new society, where healthy relationships will count for more than scientific advances. It’s the perfect time to kick back and think over his eventful life to date: this first book in the series begins with the horrific events that led to his mother’s pregnancy. Understandably consumed by bitterness, she vows revenge on Ulritch the Red and his fellow pirates. Young Albino is left to feed at the breast of a guanodont, and grows up working in his mother’s cheese factory, with only computer games and little Tinigrifi, a talking (android?) bunny, to keep him sane. Eventually she arranges for him to attend the Technopriest training school of Don Mossimo, where his cleverness attracts the attention of a Techno-Bishop, while she amasses enough money to hire the mercenaries she needs for her revenge. The artwork by Janjotov and the colouring by Beltran are tremendous throughout, detailed and fascinating, only let down by some jarring computer graphics used to illustrate scenes of virtua-walking in cyberspace. This boy lives in a weird world full of peculiar people, not least his own family, and that side of it was good, but there’s an awful lot of sexual violence, right at the heart of the story, and the “Tee hee” from Tinigrifi that follows one event feels misjudged, to say the least. As well as individual digital volumes, the entire series is available in a single hardback omnibus. Stephen Theaker ***

Monday 4 April 2016

Game of Thrones, Season 5, by David Benioff, D.B. Weiss and chums (Sky Atlantic) | review

Tyrion crosses the sea in a crate, reluctantly, to start a new life working for Daenyrs, the mother of dragons. She’s having trouble keeping control of her city, the previous ruling class refusing to accept the changes she has made. Jon Snow and the men of the Night’s Watch must consider what to do with the defeated Wildlings. Winter is coming, and if humanity doesn’t stand together, even the scruffy ones with bad hair, they’ll all be killed by the zombie army of the White Walkers. And then be revived to join that army! Winterfell suffers under the heel of a mad tyrant, while further south King’s Landing falls prey to religious mania. Elsewhere, Arya learns what it takes to become an assassin like the Faceless Man. This is probably the weakest season of the programme so far, and the level of violence towards women and children is extremely uncomfortable at times. But it’s still very good. By now we care about these characters; we’ve watched some of them grow up, we’ve seen what they’ve been through, and their lives matter to us. The effects are of a very high quality. The Wildling giant, in particular, is magnificent. Stephen Theaker ***

Friday 1 April 2016

You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), by Felicia Day (Simon & Schuster/Audible) | review

This is the story of how a badly home-schooled violinist grew up to become a god among the virtual geeks. The face of Felicia Day will be familiar to many more people than actually know who she is; she had a spell as the background photo of some YouTube apps, she sang viral hit “Do You Want to Date My Avatar?”, and had eye-catching guest spots in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dollhouse (the episodes set in the future) and Supernatural, where her red-headed hacker is the fun kind of friend Sam and Dean badly need in their ever-tortured lives (the episode where they join her at a fantasy battle re-enactment is a classic). Understandably, this book focuses more on her own creative achievements, though it does give us a striking portrait of what it’s like to be a struggling (and then a doing-fairly-well) actor in Hollywood. Before that, and after an introduction by Joss Whedon in which he sounds remarkably like Ultron, listeners learn about Felicia Day’s childhood, where a miscalculated attempt to get out of some religious nonsense led to her mum withdrawing her from a good school, her education going badly astray from there until violin skills got her a college scholarship at the age of fifteen. Though fierce competitiveness made her the college valedictorian, she didn’t love the violin enough to make it her life, and so began her acting, and eventually a desire to write her own scripts. One of the most interesting parts of the book describes the support group of aspiring women she joined, and then constantly lied to about the progress on her script: the pilot episode of The Guild, which would eventually become a successful web series. It’s only after she comes clean about her fibs, and her addiction to World of Warcraft, that the dam breaks, the members of the support group become her producers, and the programme ends up a huge Xbox-endorsed success. It’s a good story, and it’s bracing to hear all the hard work that went into Day’s success, as well as all the failures that led up to it. Later in the book comes a dark period after she takes on too much, develops health problems, lets people down, and loses good friends, but there’s always the sense that she’s determined to do the things she wants to do, and any bumps in the road are eventually going to get flattened. The penultimate chapter is about her well-publicised run-ins with online boors, which events are all the more unfortunate given the positive light in which gaming (WOW aside) and the internet are seen throughout the book. Overall, it’s funny, rather inspirational, and sweet-natured, in a steely sort of way. The highlight, I think, is an excruciating scene where a fan recognises her in a build-a-bear workshop, leading shoppers who don’t know who she is to act as if she’s impudent for being recognised. Stephen Theaker ***