Paul Williams and Tracey Jackson at Barnes & Noble

This past Thursday evening my girlfriend Michele and I were at the Barnes & Noble on 82nd & Broadway in Manhattan. Singer, songwriter & actor Paul Williams and author & screenwriter Tracey Jackson were at the store to do a reading, Q& A and signing of their new book Gratitude & Trust: Six Affirmations That Will Change Your Life.

Photo courtesy of George Baier IV and www.vanityfair.com

Photo courtesy of George Baier IV and http://www.vanityfair.com

Michele and I are both fans of Paul Williams. He is an amazing songwriter and singer.  I am not ashamed to say that, yes, I do have a fondness for sappy, sad, wistful love songs.  Williams has penned many memorable tunes of that sort.  I always seem to get at least a little misty-eyed whenever I hear Kermit the Frog singing “The Rainbow Connection,” co-written by Williams and Kenneth Ascher, for which they deservedly earned Ocsar nominations.  More recently, Williams collaborated with Daft Punk on their Grammy-winning album Random Access Memories.

Williams also starred in, and wrote the music for, the superb cult classic movie Phantom of the Paradise which I’ve blogged about previously (here’s a link). Among his other acting credits that I’ve enjoyed were his portrayal of Virgil the scientist/philosopher orangutan from Battle for the Planet of the Apes, appearing as himself on The Odd Couple and The Muppet Show, voicing The Penguin on Batman: The Animated Series, and playing an animated version of himself on Dexter’s Laboratory.  I’m probably forgetting a few other good ones.

For a number of years Williams struggled with alcohol & drug addiction. He has been sober since March 15, 1990.  Since then, he has been active in the recovery movement, working as a Certified Drug Rehabilitation Counselor.

Author Tracey Jackson is, on the other hand, not an addict, at least as far as substances such as booze or pills are concerned. But for many years she found herself trapped in a pattern of repeating a variety of self-destructive behaviors to compensate for and avoid dealing with her unhappiness.

I enjoyed hearing Williams and Jackson reading from Gratitude & Trust, and listening to their Q & A. I had a great deal of identification with both of them, and I felt they offered very helpful suggestions for people who are in recovery.

It is true that you do not have to abuse alcohol or drugs to be an addict. And once you put down those substances you can still end up not having a sober mindset if you merely substitute your addition to those for other things.  Even if you do not have a problem with mind-altering substances, there is so much out there to become addicted to: food, money, shopping, sex, work, gambling, fame, anger, the Internet, etc.  And, yes, that includes comic books and caffeine, I acknowledge with a definite self-awareness!

I do not know if it is a quality of Western society or of humanity in general, but we often cope with unhappiness and dissatisfaction via outside remedies or distractions. We seek material possessions and the validation of others over addressing the defects of character that lie within us.  Instead of addressing our flaws and working to put behind us the traumas of our pasts, we look for ways to get out of our heads.  It is actually understandable, because it is far easier, at least in the short term, to grab hold of something that will give us momentary satisfaction, than to commence at the hard, unflinchingly honest work that is necessary to address our underlying unhappiness.

Perhaps there is also that impetus of self-reliance, the myth of pulling yourself up by your boot-straps, at play, upon which much of Western society is rooted. We are more likely to try to solve problems on our own than to turn to others for assistance, seeing that as a sign of weakness.  But often there are tasks and struggles we cannot overcome without the help or advice of others.

And then there is the issue of God. I can definitely understand why many people recoil at that word, and at the thought of praying to some nebulous deity for strength & assistance.  There are so many examples of organized religions acting in an imperious, oppressive manner throughout the world, movements and organizations rife with hypocrisy & corruption, so much so that we often wish to slam the door on God.  But it is a fact that some people do find great comfort in their faith.  I am a firm believer in the vital importance of individual spirituality.  What works for me may not work for you.  Each person should be free to work on developing their relationship with the Higher Power of their understanding.

Williams and Jackson definitely address these concepts within Gratitude & Trust. The book is their attempt to take the principals of recovery that have been utilized by alcoholics & drug addicts over the decades and demonstrate how these can also be utilized by others to improve their lives, to find serenity and peace of mind.  I certainly applaud their efforts.  I’m looking forward to reading their book.  Hopefully I’ll be able to put these suggestions into practice into my own life.

Photo by Michele Witchipoo

Photo by Michele Witchipoo

So, yes, it was definitely very cool meeting Paul Williams at Barnes & Noble. I’m afraid that I was terribly nervous, and I forgot to tell him how much I was a fan of his acting & music throughout the decades.  But I did let him know that I appreciated that he and Tracey Jackson penned this volume.  I hope he heard me, since I was probably mumbling a bit!

Anyway, I think that Gratitude & Trust is worth a look. Considering how many of us attempt to look for relief in a bottle of whiskey or a pint of Ben & Jerry’s or a shopping spree at Macy’s or whatever your particular vice is, this book offers a more constructive alternative to the very difficult task of living life on life’s terms.

Doctor Who reviews: Robot of Sherwood

The third episode of Doctor Who Series Eight, “Robot of Sherwood” written by Mark Gatiss, is something of a comedy. After the grim tone of the previous week’s “Into the Dalek” this makes for a nice change of pace. The episode further develops the character of the recently-regenerated Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and his changed relationship with Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman).

Asked by the Doctor to choose a destination for the TARDIS, Clara decides that she wants to meet one of her childhood heroes, Robin Hood. The Doctor immediately dismisses Robin Hood as nothing but a legend. “He’s made up. There’s no such thing.” But Clara wears him down and he reluctantly sets the coordinates for Sherwood Forest in medieval times. Arriving, the Doctor is extremely surprised and annoyed to find that a very jolly fellow in green armed with a bow & arrow claiming to be Robin Hood is ready to steal the TARDIS.

“Robot of Sherwood” brought a big grin to my face on several occasions. Capaldi was excellent as the Doctor, who even at bow-point adamantly refuses to acknowledge Robin Hood’s existence, instead floating all manner of outlandish theories to explain away the presence of the prince of thieves and his band of Merry Men. Clara, in contrast, is utterly charmed and thrilled. Wearing a beautiful red period dress, she is ready to dive right in, much to the Doctor’s disgust.

One of my favorite moments came early on when Robin (Tom Riley) challenges the Doctor to a duel for the TARDIS. The Doctor accepts, but instead of utilizing a sword whips a large spoon out from his jacket. Capaldi’s enthusiasm and irreverence totally sells the scene. Of course the Doctor would be crazy enough to fight someone with a spoon!

Doctor Who Robot of Sherwood promo

Much of the episode is devoted to the Doctor alternating between attempting to prove Robin is a fake and showing up the archer. Quite clearly the Doctor does not want to be proven wrong. Neither is he comfortable with Clara mooning over the outlaw lord of Locksley, as the Doctor hates to be outdone by anyone.

During the famous archery contest organized by the Sherriff of Nottingham (Ben Miller) to trap Robin into revealing himself, the Doctor inevitably tries to grab the spotlight, attempting to out-shoot the legendary archer, and then finally resorting to blowing up the target with his sonic screwdriver. When the Sherriff orders his knights to attack them, in the resulting fight Robin hacks off one of their arms, revealing it to be a robot. Of course the Doctor is utterly jubilant, as this finally seems to confirm for him that everything that is taking place is a fake.

However, it does inevitably transpire that Robin Hood is the genuine article. Only the robots, and their spaceship hidden at the center of the Sherriff’s castle, are out of place. It takes Clara to figure this out, as she bluffs the besotted Sherriff into revealing how he plans to use these crash-landed automatons to seize control of the English throne. The Doctor and Robin finally agree to work together and, escaping from the dungeon, discover the control center of the robots’ ship. The Doctor is perturbed to learn that the ship had been en-route to “The Promised Land,” a destination that had also been sought out by the half-faced clockwork man in “Deep Breath.”

In a number of ways “Robot of Sherwood” is almost a love letter to the Jon Pertwee era of Doctor Who. The Twelfth Doctor’s costume has a more than passing resemblance to the Third’s. Capaldi’s performance certainly possesses some of the authoritative, bossy arrogance of Pertwee’s. There are parallels to the Third Doctor story “The Time Warrior,” with its spaceship crash-landing in medieval England, and a ruthless robber baron attempting to use alien weapons to expand his empire. “The Time Warrior” even had a robot knight, and “Robots of Sherwood” improves on that with a whole army of them.

Other instances that call back to the Pertwee era are the Doctor using a martial arts move to disarm Robin Hood, and his suggestion to Clara at the start of the episode that they take a trip to Mars to visit the Ice Warriors. At one point, trying to figure out the “truth” behind Robin Hood’s presence, the Doctor wildly guesses that they are actually in a Miniscope, a shout-out to the Third Doctor serial “Carnival of Monsters.” Miller’s theatrical performance as the black-clad, bearded Sherriff even brings to mind the Third Doctor’s constant adversary The Master, both in his physical appearance and in his propensity for wildly impractical schemes to conquer the world. I was left wondering if the Sheriff attended The Roger Delgado School of Villainy, as taught by head instructor Anthony Ainley.

Doctor Who Robot of Sherwood Sheriff

Although “Robot of Sherwood” is a humorous tale, Gatiss’ script does also take a bit of time to reflect on the character of the Doctor. Concerning Clara’s fondness for Robin Hood, the Doctor asks “When did you start believing in impossible heroes?” One suspects that this is as much directed at how Clara feels about Robin as she does in the Doctor himself, who seems to find her faith in him misplaced. At the end of the episode, when Robin, referring to Clara, says to the Doctor “You are her hero, I think.” The Doctor merely replies “I’m not a hero.”

It is actually very appropriate for the Doctor to have this self-perception, and to be dismissive of his accomplishments. It has sometimes been observed that real heroes do not think of themselves as heroes; rather, they are just people who are merely attempting to do the next right thing in a difficult, complicated world.   And that can certainly apply to the Doctor.

Some fans may have been put off by the whimsical tone of “Robot of Sherwood.” Myself, I liked it. One of the great strengths of Doctor Who is that is can support episodes that are diverse in tone and style. This was humorous without being silly, a fun story that entertained while continuing to develop the character of the Twelfth Doctor.

The return of the Forever People

I was a bit surprised when DC Comics announced that one of their latest New 52 titles would be Infinity Man and the Forever People, a revival / revamp of the characters created by Jack Kirby.  Although I think the Forever People are cool, I will be the first to admit that they are probably among the lesser-known “Fourth World” characters devised by Kirby.  After their initial eleven issue run in the early 1970s, they were not seen again until a six issue miniseries published in 1988.  Subsequently they have not been featured in any other starring roles, only making guest appearances here and there.

However it is not entirely unexpected for the Forever People to receive a revival.  It is true that DC has actually attempted to launch a number of offbeat and experimental titles in the last three years.  The problem faced by many of those fringe books has been that DC put them out there with little in the way of promotion.  Most of them ended up falling below the radar, drowning in a sea of Batman related titles.  Based on that pattern, I honestly did not know how long Infinity Man and the Forever People would last.  But I figured I had might as well give the book a try while it was here.  After all, I am a fan of the characters, as witnessed by the Beautiful Dreamer tattoo on my left leg.

Infinity Man and the Forever People 1 cover

Co-writing Infinity Man and the Forever People are Dan DiDio & Keith Giffen.  They’ve made revisions to the original set-up by Kirby, altering some of the characters.  I generally am not too keen on that, and was underwhelmed by the New 52 re-conception of both Darkseid and Highfather’s origins in Justice League #23.1 last year.  That said, I have to acknowledge that the Forever People were never developed in too much detail by Kirby during their all-too-short original series, and their sporadic appearances since then has left them somewhat blank slates.  So it is not as if DiDio & Giffen are upending decades of storylines & characterizations.

Mark Moonrider and Beautiful Dreamer so far appear to be pretty close to their original incarnations.  Vykin the Black has been renamed Vykin Baldaur and made into a more cynical figure (as much as I love Kirby, I really thought it was unfortunate that the only two non-Caucasian members of the Fourth World mythos were named Vykin the Black and the Black Racer).  Serifan has been given a change in gender & ethnicity, becoming Serafina, the younger sister of Vykin.  Big Bear is now the oldest member of the Forever People, as well as secretly from Apokolips, apparently having been given elements of Orion’s backstory.

Mark, Dreamer and Serafina are shown to be students on New Genesis who are about to embark on a study abroad type of assignment on the planet Earth, but they are unable to activate their Mother Box.  Vykin, who dislikes Mark and doesn’t want his sister going off-world with him, arrives to object, only to find that he is the only one Mother Box will respond to.  Reluctantly he accompanies the other three to Earth.  They are greeted by Big Bear, who has been on Earth for some time, working with human scientists in an attempt to advance the planet’s technology and bring about greater prosperity.

DiDio & Giffen appear to be focusing on the “rebellious youth” aspect of the Forever People.  Back in 1970, when he devised the characters, Kirby was inspired by the hippy / flower children counterculture.  Truthfully I do not know how much of that came through in his stories, though.  After their devastating cosmic war with Apokolips, the people of New Genesis mostly turned their backs on conflict, and the planet became close to a spiritual paradise.  Because of this, I never really understood precisely what the Forever People were rebelling against.  They merely seemed to be more impulsive and hotheaded, rushing off to Earth to fight the forces of Darkseid.

In contrast, in the New 52 (both in this title and in the pages of Wonder Woman by Azzarello & Chiang) it is shown that New Genesis is a highly organized, regimented society.  Highfather is now a more militant figure, closer to his Izaya the Inheritor days from the Kirby continuity.  The Forever People generally, and Mark Moonrider in particular, are rebelling against their world’s “control.”

Infinity Man and the Forever People 3 pg 4

When the Infinity Man finally makes himself known to the Forever People, he positions himself as an agent of chaos.  “The universe relies on chaos. It needs to expand, to grow, to learn. There is a corruption, a corruption brought on by a need for order that prevents the natural course of non-prescribed evolution. Both New Genesis and Apokolips are guilty of imposing their forms of order on the universe. This must stop. That is why I chose you.”

One can discern a state of affairs set up by DiDio & Giffen inspired by Cold War geopolitics.  Apokolips, with Darkseid at its helm, is a force of totalitarian order akin to the Soviet Union.  It brutally oppresses its citizens, forcing blind obedience & uniformity from them, and it seeks to expand its empire via conquest.  New Genesis is cast in the role of the United States, ostensibly working to preserve freedom & democracy.  But in the name of preserving its security and opposing Darkseid’s machinations, New Genesis interferes in the affairs of lesser worlds, resulting in unfortunate side effects for those planets and their inhabitants.  And while not an identity-crushing police state like Apokolips, the government of New Genesis encourages conformity and obedience lest individuality and the questioning of authority weaken the planet’s strength & resolve.

While I am a bit hesitant to embrace a version of New Genesis that appears to have such common ground with Apokolips, I have to acknowledge that this actually provides the Forever People a very clear-cut political system to rebel against, an ideology to oppose.  They are rejecting both Highfather and Darkseid’s paths.  They are seeking the freedom to guide their own destinies, and to enable other beings to do the same thing.

Infinity Man and the Forever People 1 pg 15

In addition to co-writing Infinity Man and the Forever People, Giffen is also penciling the series, paired with the talented Scott Koblish on inking.  I very much enjoyed their work on the first issue.  Giffen has often had a rather Kirby-esque element to his art, and that very much suits this series.  This especially comes into play in a scene where Big Bear reveals his technology and explains “Kirby is my communal reconstruction bio engine. He’s responsible for building and maintaining this environment. Without him, none of this would be possible.”  That was a nice tip of the hat to the King of Comics.

Regrettably Giffen involvement in DC’s big Futures End crossover prevented him from penciling the next two issues of Infinity Man and the Forever People.  So, yep, we already have fill-in art teams on this book.  I hope that does not kill any sales momentum or reader interest.  At least the guest artists were mostly good.

On issue #2, the art is courtesy of penciler Tom Grummett and inker Scott Hanna.  I’m certainly a fan of both gentlemen.  Grummett has always been good at rendering Kirby’s characters, including the New Gods.  For instance, Grummett penciled an appearance by the Forever People in the pages of Adventures of Superman about twenty or so years ago.  I enjoyed seeing him now having an opportunity to depict the New 52 versions of the characters.  Offhand I don’t recall if Hanna has ever inked Grummett before.  They definitely go together very well here, creating some lovely art.  I was especially taken by their rendition of Beautiful Dreamer.

Infinity Man and the Forever People 2 pg 5

Everyone’s favorite cosmic comic book creator Jim Starlin is the guest penciler on Infinity Man and the Forever People #3.  He is paired with inker Rob Hunter.  Truthfully, I was not especially fond of their collaboration.  Hunter’s inking is in the vein of the house style of Top Cow, with flourishes reminiscent of Silvestri and Turner.  I did not feel this fit Starlin’s penciling.   I would rather have seen him inking himself, or by longtime inking partner Al Milgrom, who always does a good job finishing Starlin’s pencils.

That said, the sequence towards the end of the issue, when Dreamer is inside her subconscious, conversing with Anti-Life, is very well done.  Perhaps for this surreal tableau Hunter’s inks were somewhat better suited, as they give Starlin’s nightmarish imagery an extra punch.  (It appears that DiDio & Giffen are drawing inspiration from the long-ago declaration by Kirby in the pages of Forever People #1 that Dreamer “is one of the few whose mind can fathom the Anti-Life Equation.”)

Nice coloring work on these issues by the gang at Hi-Fi.  I’ve always found it to be a good sign when that name pops up in the credits.  They are definitely one of the better groups of computer colorists in the biz.

Infinity Man and the Forever People 3 pg 12

On the whole I did enjoy the first three issues of Infinity Man and the Forever People.  DiDio & Giffen did a good job introducing the characters and establishing the premise.  I just wish that the comics were a little bit longer.  Twenty pages just did not seem like sufficient space.  The book really needs an extra two or three pages to enable the story to breath a bit.

I am very interested in seeing what happens with the Forever People next.  I know that this month’s installment is a special crossover with the aforementioned Futures End storyline.  And then there are going to be a couple of issues tying in with the “Godhead” storyline running through the various Green Lantern titles.  Perhaps that will inspire some GL fans to check out this series.  Oh, yes, from the pages of Batman Incorporated, there’s going to be an appearance by Bat-Cow!  That sounds like just the sort of delightfully offbeat, bizarre humor the Giffen specializes in, and I’m looking forward to it.

Doctor Who reviews: Deep Breath and Into the Dalek

After months of waiting, the eighth series of Doctor Who is here, featuring the full debut of Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor, with Jenna Coleman returning as Clara Oswald.  I canceled cable television several months ago, and I was concerned I’d end up missing the new episodes.  Fortunately I was able to purchase the entire season on iTunes to watch on my laptop.  Here is a quick look at the first two episodes, “Deep Breath” and “Into the Dalek.”

Doctor Who Deep Breath poster

When a tyrannosaurus shows up in Victorian London, it transpires that the newly-regenerated Doctor had landed the TARDIS in prehistoric times, where it got swallowed by a dinosaur, which then got transported to the late 19th Century along with its would-be meal.  Fortunately the t-rex coughs up the TARDIS on the banks of the Thames, where the Paternoster Gang is investigating the presence of the dinosaur.  And so Madame Vastra, Jenny Flint and Strax are reunited with Clara, and introduced to the Twelfth Doctor.

Following on from his transformation at the end of “The Time of the Doctor,” our resident Time Lord is understandably discombobulated.  He is quickly put to bed in Vastra & Jenny’s house, while Clara attempts to process what, exactly has occurred.

To be honest, of all the people in the universe, you would expect that Clara would have the easiest time accepting the Doctor regenerating.  Perhaps she doesn’t really remember her experiences as “the Impossible Girl” whose consciousness was fragmented and scattered about myriad points in the Doctor’s timeline.  However, she quite recently met both the War Doctor and the Tenth Doctor during the events of “The Day of the Doctor.”  So she knows he can regenerate, and that even though he looked young he was really a couple of thousand years old.  This makes it very surprising that Clara is seemingly in shock that the Doctor is suddenly completely different and older-looking.  Perhaps it is a case of the difference between knowing something is possible and actually seeing it occur before your eyes?

Still, Clara’s uncertainty and difficulty accepting the new incarnation of the Doctor does lead to an interesting scene between her and Vastra (Neve McIntosh).  Often the Paternoster Gang is written with a rather tongue-in-cheek manner, and they are typically depicted as moving about very comfortably within Victorian England, accepted by the authorities as experts on strange phenomenon.  Given that, it is easy to forget that Vastra is an outsider, a Silurian who was born millions of years ago, now living in a completely alien world.  Writer Steven Moffat addresses this in “Deep Breath,” showing how she copes with her new existence among humans who are often unable to accept anyone or anything that is strange or different.  It makes sense that Vastra would feel a certain kinship to the Doctor, who is also an outsider.

Truthfully, I did not fine the plot of body-snatching clockwork robots especially compelling.  I was actually wondering at what appeared to be an apparent plot hole.  These mechanical beings supposedly crashed on Earth centuries before and have been harvesting humans to rebuild themselves all this time, but their activities have only been noticed for the last few months, with the London newspapers reporting various instances of supposed spontaneous combustion (they were burning their victims to disguise the stolen body parts).  Maybe this is something that Moffat is going to address later on in the eighth series, that some outside force work them up.  Perhaps it ties in with that enigmatic woman in black named Missy (Michelle Gomez) who has popped up twice so far?

Probably the best part of “Deep Breath” was Capaldi.  Early on, his post-regeneration instability gives him an opportunity to engage in some humorously odd observations.  Looking in the mirror at his new face for the first time, he wonders why he now looks this way, if for some subconscious reason he chose this appearance.  He also has a bit of criticism concerning one particular feature:

“Look at the eyebrows! These are attack eyebrows. You could take bottle caps off with these.  They’re cross. They’re crosser than the rest of my face. They’re independently cross! They probably want to cede from the rest of my face and set up their own independent state of eyebrows.”

Even in this confused state, the Doctor still wants to help return the tyrannosaur to its own time period, recognizing that it is an innocent being that was plucked into a strange place through no fault of its own.  And he is distraught when the dinosaur is killed by the clockwork robots.  We also see the Doctor is genuinely hurt and disappointed at Clara’s difficulty in accepting that he has changed.

Towards the end of “Deep Breath,” Capaldi really comes into his own.  Confronting the leader of the robots aboard its makeshift dirigible floating over London, the Doctor boldly declares “Those people down there. They’re never small to me. Don’t make assumptions about how far I will go to protect them, because I’ve already come a very long way. And unlike you, I do not expect to reach the Promised Land.”

In the next scene, following on from the Doctor’s warning, we discover that the robot has been destroyed, having fallen out of the blimp and become impaled upon a metal steeple.  You are left wondering if the clockwork man committed suicide once it became convinced it would never reach the mythical paradise it believed in, or if the Doctor was forced to kill it.

“Deep Breath” was a somewhat uneven episode.  There were a number of good scenes, character moments and performances that perhaps were not connected together as well as they could.  I was a bit underwhelmed, although Capaldi definitely impressed as the Twelfth Doctor.

Doctor Who Into The Dalek poster

I was definitely much more impressed with this week’s episode, “Into the Dalek” co-written by Phil Ford & Steven Moffat.  Sometime in the far future when humanity is engaged in a massive space war with the Daleks, the Doctor rescues Journey Blue (Zawe Ashton) when her fighter ship is destroyed.  Returning her to her home spaceship, the Aristotle, the Doctor discovers that the humans have taken a Dalek prisoner.

Strangely, this captured Dalek seems to have “turned good” and is expressing a desire to fight against its own kind.  Although suspicious and extremely skeptical that Daleks are capable of any sort of change from the conformity that is genetically programmed into them, the Doctor nevertheless reluctantly agrees to help the humans repair it, in the hopes it will aid them in their fight, and show a way in which to grant empathy and creative thinking to the rest of its species.

The Doctor pops back to 2014 to collect Clara from Coal Hill School, where she is still teaching, and returns with her to the future.  Together with Journey Blue and two other human soldiers, the Doctor and Clara are shrunk down and inserted into the Dalek, which the Doctor has nicknamed “Rusty,” to locate & repair its internal damage, as well as determine the source of its personality change.  Yes, it’s Fantastic Voyage with a Dalek, something that the Doctor sardonically lampshades when he comments “Fantastic idea for a movie. Terrible idea for a proctologist.”

This episode really showed of the unsettling, darker side of the Doctor.  He wonders aloud if he is a good man or not, a question he asks Clara.  Once miniaturized inside Rusty’s form, when attacked by Dalek antibodies, the Doctor more or less sacrifices one of the human soldiers, harshly justifying his action by stating “He was dead already! I was saving us!”

The Doctor locates a radiation leak inside Rusty and seals it.  This saves the Dalek, but it also causes its internal computer to begin functioning normally, and it’s conditioning to be restored.  Rusty breaks loose on the Aristotle and begins attacking the humans, as well as summoning the Dalek mothership.  Soon the Daleks are assaulting the Aristotle in force.  Still shrunk inside Rusty, the Doctor is ready to give up, convinced that Daleks really can never change.  But Clara forces him to reconsider, and the two of them, with Journey Blue’s assistance, manage to reboot Rusty’s computers, once again giving the Dalek access to its full memories.  The Doctor mentally taps into Rusty, hoping that what the Dalek sees in his own memories & experiences will convince it to once again reject its programmed ideology…

Rusty: I see in to your soul, Doctor. I see beauty. I see divinity. I… see… hatred!

The Doctor: Hatred?

Rusty: I see your hatred of the Daleks and it is good!

The Doctor: No no no no. You must see more than that. There must be more than that!

Unfortunately Rusty is unable or unwilling to listen to the Doctor’s pleas.  Rusty ambushes the Dalek boarding party, wiping them out.  Afterwards, the Doctor, Clara and Blue have returned to normal size.  Even though they have won, the Doctor is disappointed, and Rusty is unable to understand why.

Rusty: Victory is yours, but it does not please you?

The Doctor: You looked inside me and you saw hatred. That’s no victory. Victory would’ve been a good Dalek.

The Doctor really had hoped to change the Daleks, to get them to grow, to put aside hatred, enable them to appreciate the beauty of the universe, to understand that other beings had a right to existence.  Instead, all he was able to do was to cause Rusty to embrace a different form of hate, to turn its destructive abilities upon a different target, namely its own species.  And, worse yet, this experience has once more reminded the Doctor of his own hatred, his own capacity for violence and destruction.

Throughout the episode, it is shown that the Doctor has a great dislike for soldiers and war.  At the end, when Journey Blue asks to join him and Clara on the TARDIS, the Doctor refuses.  “I think you’re probably nice. Underneath it all, I think you’re kind and definitely brave. I just wish you hadn’t been a soldier.”

The Doctor is undoubtedly reminded of his own experiences during the Time War, when he was the War Doctor, fighting against the Daleks.  The dislike for the military he shows here is at least partially due to his own self-loathing for the person he once was.  As much as he likes Blue, the Doctor will not take her with him.  Humans such as Clara have helped to awaken the best qualities in him, often serving as his conscience.  And so he is undoubtedly afraid that someone like Blue will bring out his worst aspects.

Ford & Moffat did an excellent job writing “Into the Dalek.”  The script really is top-notch, the ideas it touches upon complicated and thought-provoking.  The direction by Ben Wheatley is fantastic.  The sets, costumes, and special effects look great.  Capaldi does a superb job working with this material, giving a very compelling performance.  Regular Dalek voice artist Nicholas Briggs turned in a nuanced performance as Rusty, really bringing to life the creature’s emotional turmoil.

Doctor Who Peter Capaldi close up

While not perfect, series eight of Doctor Who is off to a good start.  Peter Capaldi has definitely hit the ground running as the Twelfth Doctor.  I am very much looking forward to seeing more from him in the coming weeks.

Oh, yes, one other thing… I love the new opening title sequence.  As I understand it, it was inspired by a sequence created by series fan Billy Hanshaw that was posted online.  It looks very cool, with a rather steampunk style to it.  Definitely suits the new Doctor.

Comic book reviews: Sensation Comics #1

The past week was insane.  I’ve been dealing with personal stuff and not getting enough sleep.  So naturally enough I didn’t have a chance to blog about various items that I wanted to.  Well, here’s a three day weekend, so let’s see what I get around to covering.  First up is Sensation Comics #1, featuring Wonder Woman.

While I would not say that I am a huge fan of Wonder Woman, she is a character who I like, and whose monthly title I have followed on and off throughout the years.  That and I have all three DVD box sets of the television show starring Lynda Carter (I eventually got Michele incredibly annoyed at having to listen to that opening theme song over and over again).  When it was announced that DC Comics would be publishing a Wonder Woman anthology series with work by a number talented creators I was naturally intrigued.

A bit of reference: after making her debut in All Star Comics #8, cover-dated December 1941, Wonder Woman received an ongoing starring role in Sensation Comics #1, which came out the very next month.  Wonder Woman was featured in Sensation Comics for nearly its entire run.  Her final appearance was in issue #106, dated Nov-Dec 1951, with the series ending three issues later (credit goes to the Grand Comics Database for that info).  Wonder Woman also received her own solo series in mid-1942, which meant that for nearly a decade the character had two regular titles.

I could be wrong (and if I am then I am certain someone will let me know) but I believe that with this new Sensation Comics book it is the first time since 1951 that Wonder Woman will be starring in two ongoing titles.  That is pretty darn cool!

Sensation Comics 1 cover

Sensation Comics is one of DC’s “digital first” books, which means that the material is offered for sale online before it appears in print.  I guess I’m a bit of a Luddite since I prefer having a comic book in hand, rather than reading it from a computer screen, so I’ve decided to wait for the material to hit the comic shops.  But that’s just me, and Tim Hanley, author of the excellent Wonder Woman blog Straightened Circumstances, is going the online route.

This first print issue of Sensation Comics was pretty good.  The main story is “Gothamazon,” penned by former Wonder Woman writer Gail Simone and illustrated by the talented Ethan Van Sciver, with Marcelo Di Chiara pitching in to help out on a page.

After the various costumed criminals of Gotham City team up and ambush Batman, temporarily putting him out of action.  Barbara Gordon aka Oracle calls Wonder Woman in to pinch hit as Gotham’s protector to restore peace & order.

It was nice to have Simone back writing Wonder Woman, as well as Oracle, the latter of whom she always did a superb job scripting in Birds of Prey.  By thrusting Wonder Woman into the urban warfare of Gotham, the writer examines the various, sometimes conflicting, aspects of Princess Diana.  On the one hand, she is a warrior, a soldier who has fought on myriad battlefields, who will countenance tactics and solutions that other crime-fighters such as Batman would never approve.  On the other, Diana is also a force for love and peace, who hopes to find the best in all individuals.  Simone demonstrates that while such qualities may appear contradictory, in fact they complement one another.  Faced with the absolute ruthless insanity of such adversaries as the Joker and Two-Face, she comes to realize that facing them head on would require fighting them with their own methods, the utilization of lethal force.  But because of her nature, Diana is able to perceive an alternate path.  She recognizes that when brute strength fails, understanding and compassion may succeed.

Simone’s story highlights how Wonder Woman and Batman are such different individuals.  The Dark Knight’s rigid methodology of fighting fear with fear may work in the short term, but Diana, who is more interested in finding permanent, constructive solutions, perceives that openness towards alternative approaches can be more helpful in enacting lasting changes.  We even have Diana recruiting Catwoman and Harley Quinn as honorary Amazons to assist her in this mission.  It was fun to see the three of them side by side.

That said, sometimes punching the bad guy in the face does work wonders.  As Simone writes, “the closed fist has its charms, as well.”

Van Sciver’s art was quite good.  It was definitely stronger on the first several pages of “Gothamazon.”  In the middle of the story it did get somewhat looser and sketchier, losing some of the artist’s trademark hyper-detail.  Perhaps there were some deadline problems?  Still, putting that aside, on the whole Van Sciver does solid work, rendering some really dynamic layouts.  His characters are very expressive, both in their facial features and body language.

Sensation Comics 1 pg 14

I was not nearly as impressed with the back-up tale, “Defender of Truth,” written by Amanda Deibert, with artwork by Cat Staggs.  At ten pages, this one seemed too rushed.  Diana has a fight with Circe, who is doing something in Washington DC.  It is never explained what the mythical sorceress is up to, just that for some reason or another she’s animating statues at the National Cathedral and turning men into animals.

The strongest part of the story was its final two pages, where Diana shows up to tell a group of young boys that there is nothing wrong with liking “girl stuff.”  As she explains, “Being true to yourself is never wrong.”  One of the character’s central themes has always been empowerment, be it female empowerment, individual empowerment, or any other struggle to break free of marginalization by the greater part of society.

Cat Staggs is an artist I know from her cover artwork, as well as from Comic Art Fans where a variety of beautiful commissions and convention sketches that she’s created have been posted.  This must be the first time I’ve seen any interior art done by her.  Her work on “Defender of Truth” is pretty good, but I do think that her storytelling might need some improvement.  And some of her figures appear too photo-referenced.

Staggs’ best work was, interestingly enough, on those final two pages.  You can really tell that an artist is good at sequential illustration when they are able to make a “talking heads” scene, with characters conversing, compelling and dramatic.

I was also wondering why her rendition of Circe looked nothing like the character has in the past.  The sorceress has typically been depicted as having purple hair and wearing green outfits, at least ever since Perez revamped her post-Crisis.  Here, however, Circe is a blonde clad in a lavender costume.  That might be down to the colorist rather than Staggs, though.  And I don’t recall the character previously using a magic wand.

Sensation Comics 1 pg 30

While I would certainly not consider it an unqualified success, I still enjoyed Sensation Comics #1.  I definitely like the idea of a Wonder Woman anthology series with a laissez faire approach to continuity.  There is a lot of potential to the character of Princess Diana.  She is a great character with a rich history, and she lends herself to different interpretations & incarnations.  Among the creators who will be working on upcoming issues are Chris Sprouse, Gilbert Hernandez, and Dean Haspiel.  It sounds like there’s plenty to look forward to.

God is a jerk: Ridley Scott’s Prometheus

Michele recently took out from the library the DVD of the 2012 movie Prometheus directed by Ridley Scott.  Neither of us had seen it before, and it turned out to be quite good.  It also transpires that next month Dark Horse will be releasing the first issue of Prometheus: Fire and Stone, a miniseries which follows on from the events of the movie.  So, yeah, good timing on Michele’s part!  Since that Dark Horse comic book is in the pipeline, now is an ideal time to look at the original movie.

Prometheus is written by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof.  It is set in the same fictional universe as the Alien film series, the first installment of which Ridley Scott directed in 1979.  It is not, strictly speaking, a prequel, but it does tie in with some of heretofore unexplained background elements of that first film.

Prometheus poster

Set at the end of the 21st Century, Prometheus is the story of an expedition to discover the origins of humanity.  Having located identical star charts among the ruins of numerous ancient Earth civilizations across the globe, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) believe that these are guides to the home world of an extraterrestrial race who created mankind, beings who Shaw refers to as “Engineers.”  The two convince the elderly, dying trillionaire industrialist Peter Weyland (Guy Pierce) to finance an expedition to the Engineers’ planet.  Shaw and Holloway, accompanied by a group of scientists and archeologists, embark aboard the spaceship Prometheus, named after the mythical figure.  The expedition is headed up by the icy corporate executive Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), Weyland’s android “son” David (Michael Fassbender), and the world-weary ship’s captain Janek (Idris Elba).

Prometheus addresses the relationship between human beings and their creator, an idea previously broached in Ridley Scott’s classic Blade Runner.  Shaw and Holloway are scientists and explorers, but underneath their search for facts and knowledge is a yearning to find the answer to one of the oldest questions in the world: Why are we here?

After arriving on the planet, Holloway is despondent to find it is a barren, inhospitable place, with all the Engineers long dead under mysterious circumstances.  He is like a man who has lost his faith, discovering his god is a falsehood, a lie.  Naturally enough, he decides to hit the bottle.  While Holloway is busy drinking away his ills, the android David approaches…

David: I’m very sorry that your Engineers are all gone, Dr. Holloway.

Holloway: You think we wasted our time coming here, don’t you?

David: Your question depends on the understanding, what you hope to achieve by coming here?

Holloway: What we hope to achieve? Well, it’s to meet our makers. To get answers. Why they…why they even made us in the first place.

David: Why do you think your people made me?

Holloway: We made you ‘cause we could.

David: Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?

Michael Fassbender plays a replicant in Ridley Scott's Prometheus.

A short time later, a now-drunk Holloway makes his way back to the room he shares with Shaw, with whom he is romantically involved.  Still despondent, he begins to question Shaw’s faith…

Holloway: I guess you can take your father’s cross off now.

Shaw: Why would I wanna do that?

Holloway: Because they made us.

Shaw: And who made them?

Holloway: Well, exactly. We’ll never know. But here’s what we do know, that there is nothing special about the creation of life. Right? Anybody can do it. I mean, all you need is a dash of DNA and half a brain, right?

The Engineers are, in many respects, a challenge to faith, and to humanity’s sense of identity.  Searching through the catacombs of the planet, the scientists discover stockpiles of bio-weapons and containers of mutagenic black slime.  David accesses the Engineers’ computers, and learns that the entire complex is one giant spaceship.  It was set to travel on a course for Earth, where the Engineers were going to unleash their lethal cargo.  It is Captain Janek who finally connects all the pieces and presents them to Shaw:

“You know what this place is? Those, uh, Engineers, this ain’t their home. It’s an installation, maybe even military. They put it out here in the middle of nowhere, because they’re not stupid enough to make weapons of mass destruction on their own doorstep. That’s what all that shit is in those vases! They made it here, it got out! It turned on ‘em! The end! It’s time for us to go home.”

And now it is Shaw’s turn to waver in her faith.  Determined to find answers, she explains to David “They created us. Then they tried to kill us. They changed their minds. I deserve to know why.”

Prometheus Noomi Rapace and Idris Elba

Imagine having met your makers, only to find that they were seemingly complete bastards, entities who engineered virulently lethal organic weapons, who plotted genocide against the human race.  Confronted by that, you might very well ask “God, why have you forsaken me?”  Or, if you wanted to put it more bluntly, “God is a jerk!” not to mention a few other choice words, I imagine.

That contentious relationship, the struggle between creator and creation, actually plays out throughout the movie.  In addition to looking at it on the level of species, it is seen in the interaction between parents and children.  Shaw is very much motivated by the death of her parents, and by her father’s faith.  Her infertility, her inability to conceive, weighs upon her.  As someone who wishes she could have children, perhaps she is appalled at how the Engineers are acting towards their figurative offspring.

The abrasive, no-nonsense Meredith Vickers is also troubled by familial relations.  We eventually learn that she is the daughter of Weyland.  And once this is revealed, much about Vickers makes sense.  It is obvious that her father views his android creation David as much more of a child and heir than he does her.  Vickers also holds tremendous resentment that Weyland desires to use the technology of the Engineers to extend his life indefinitely, thereby robbing her of her inheritance, her succession to rulership of her father’s corporate empire.  Witnessing the dysfunctional relationship between Vickers and Weyland, it is not surprising that David concludes “doesn’t everyone want their parents dead?”

After I was done watching Prometheus, the wheels in my head started to turn, pondering various questions.

There is a prologue to the film where one of the Engineers is on Earth, standing atop a massive waterfall.  He opens a vial of dark liquid and drinks it.  His body begins to disintegrate and he plunges into the water, where a chemical reaction begins to take place.  I wasn’t sure what that meant, but subsequently reading over various comments on the Internet, it seems that this was supposed to be the moment when humanity’s creation was initiated, that this Engineer sacrificed his life to give us ours.

If that is so, then the title of the movie provides a possible answer to Shaw’s question of “why.”  In Greek mythology, Prometheus stole heavenly fire from the gods of Olympus and gave it to primitive man, enabling human civilization to develop & advance.  Zeus punished Prometheus for this by chaining him to the face of a mountain for all eternity, among other torments, depending upon the particular version of the myth you read.

There is a school of thought that many of the stories in mythology and religion are inspired by or based upon actual historical events.  Perhaps the Engineer who we see at the beginning of the movie was a Prometheus-like figure who absconded with the bio-technology of his people and traveled to earth, where he used it to create humanity.  If that is the case, then the remaining Engineers would likely regard the existence of humans as a mistake or a crime.  This would certainly explain why they decided to wipe out mankind.

However, a second, darker possibility also occurred to me.  What if humanity is yet another bio-weapon devised by the Engineers?  After all, we possess a remarkable propensity and aptitude for violence.  Perhaps the Engineers came to perceive us as much too effective a creation, one that was beyond control, one that would one day develop the technology to journey to the stars and pose a direct threat to them.  That would be a very good motivation for them wanting to see mankind destroyed.

Supposition and deduction aside, the film leaves the motives of the Engineers quite inscrutable.  But it does offer up some answers regarding the film that inspired it.

Alien Space Jockey

Anyone who has seen the original Alien will no doubt remember the bizarre extraterrestrial skeleton sitting in a strange cockpit aboard the massive spacecraft that contained the nest of eggs from which the “Facehuggers” hatch.  That unidentified mummified figure was nicknamed “the Space Jockey,” and for years many viewers, myself included, wondered who or what it was.  In Prometheus we find out the Space Jockey was one of the Engineers, clad in its elephantine space helmet.  It seems very likely that the Facehuggers and the Xenomorphs they spawn are yet another bio-weapon devised by the Engineers, and that the spaceship transporting them crash-landed on planet LV-426, where it was eventually discovered by the crew of the Nostromo.  At the very end of Prometheus we even get a glimpse of a creature very similar to a Xenomorph which has been created by the black slime, demonstrating that the bio-technology is closely related.

I don’t recall if it was ever stated in what year Alien took place, but it seems likely that it is set decades, if not centuries, after Prometheus.  This leads to some apparent anachronisms, as the technology possessed by humanity appears to be far in advance of what was on display in the Alien and its various sequels.  Obviously the reason for this is that the special effects that Ridley Scott and his crew had access to in 2012 were far better than what he had available in 1979!  But if you’re looking for some sort of in-universe explanation why the Prometheus spacecraft is so much more technologically advanced than the Nostromo, well, maybe there was a galactic recession or a massive war that took place between the two films.  Feel free to come up with your own rationale if you want to!

It’s worth noting that Prometheus seems to have been at least partially inspired by the H.P. Lovecraft novella At the Mountains of Madness.  That story concerns an archeological expedition of an ancient alien city that has been discovered in Antarctica.  This was once a colony of the extraterrestrial Old Ones, who had settled on Earth millions of years in the past, creating the planet’s first living organisms, as well as developing a slave race of amorphous, powerful blob-like creatures known as Shoggoths who eventually turned upon them.

While I did enjoy Prometheus, I nevertheless felt that the script was uneven in places.  The flow of action was not especially smooth, and at times it did feel like certain barely-connected scenes were only loosely strung together.  I think that the script could have used perhaps one more revision to iron it out.

Prometheus Xenomorph

That said, the performances are very good.  Michael Fassbender as David is probably the best, with his portrayal of the android ostensibly as an emotionless entity that is in fact hiding his jealousy of and contempt for humanity underneath a self-effacing, subservient façade.

Noomi Rapace is also very good as Elizabeth Shaw, giving her a real strength that enables her to struggle against both the horrific creations of the Engineers and an existential crisis of mammoth proportions.  Shaw was well written, and it is interesting to see the concept of faith addressed through her character.  I very much appreciated how Shaw was a scientist, yet she was also shown to believe in a higher power, and that she does not perceive any contradiction between science and faith.  Rapace did an excellent job bringing this through in her performance.

Also noteworthy is the always-excellent Idris Elba as Janek.  At first the captain of the Prometheus appears to be a blasé, cynical figure who is only interested in getting a paycheck.  But it eventually transpires that Janek is actually the most moral individual in the movie, as he demonstrates his unwillingness to let the Engineers’ living weapons make their way to Earth.  Elba really makes Janek a memorable character.

I will say that I found some of the accents in this film a bit variable.  Several of the characters, including Shaw, are apparently supposed to be British.  But their accents seem to veer between English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish throughout the film.  Well, okay, Rapace is from Sweden, so I’ll give her some leeway.  On the other hand, you have Janek who speaks with such a flawless American accent that I didn’t even recognize that was the London-born Elba playing the character until the credits rolled!

Despite its flaws, I nevertheless found Prometheus a compelling viewing.  Ridley Scott’s direction is definitely solid.  The script by Spaihts and Lindelof raises many perplexing questions, ones that you find yourself pondering long after the final scene.

Oh, yes, one other thing of note: with the protagonist named Elizabeth Shaw, I do have to wonder if someone involved in the making of Prometheus happens to be a Doctor Who fan!

Comic book reviews: Savage Dragon #197

The latest issue of my favorite ongoing comic book series, Savage Dragon by Erik Larsen, is now out.  At issue #197, this long-running Image Comics series is rapidly closing in on the big two-zero-zero.  But, if you want to get technical about it, Larsen has actually reached that point with this issue.  Before he launched the ongoing Savage Dragon title, it was preceded by a three issue miniseries.  Which when you add everything up, makes Savage Dragon #197 the two hundredth issue written & drawn by Larsen.  Well, okay, there was also a zero issue, and maybe a few other things I’m forgetting at this moment.  But, whatever, you get the point!

Savage Dragon 197 cover

Ooooh, that’s a nasty-looking Malcolm Dragon on the cover to #197.  Whatever happened to him?  Well, in the last couple of issues, Malcolm was nearly killed by the Vicious Circle crime cartel.  He was found by a group of mutants living in Chicago’s lawless “Danger Zone” who hid him away from the Circle’s operatives.  However, the mutants also drugged Malcolm with the same mutagens that had been illegally dumped in the Danger Zone by Bellco Chemicals.  They hoped that Malcolm would ally with them to attack Bellco and retrieve their top secret cure, which would restore all of them to normal humans.  Unfortunately the mutants’ plan worked too well: Malcolm mutated and immediately went on a near-mindless rampage, killing nearly all of his captors.  And then his girlfriend Maxine arrived, accompanied by the Chicago PD.

As #197 opens, Maxine is desperately attempting to reason with Malcolm, to talk him down before he attacks both her and the cops.  Before she can get very far, though, the Vicious Circle, having finally located Malcolm, attacks in force.  However, the Circle agents are unprepared for the enhanced strength and unchecked brutality of mutated Malcolm, and what follows is a bloodbath.  This forces Dart, the Circle’s new leader, to step forward and tackle Malcolm herself, as Larsen, after months of build-up, finally presents a confrontation between the two.

Savage Dragon #197 seemed like a pretty quick read.  The main story clocks in at 20 pages.  That said, Larsen does offer up plenty of material.  There are Malcolm’s action-packed confrontations with Dart, the Vicious Circle, and Bellco Chemicals.  We also see the poignancy of the Danger Zone mutants’ desperate hope of once more becoming human, and Maxine’s concern for her boyfriend.  Larsen even manages to squeeze in a couple of instances of his trademark irreverent humor.  So, while the story moves along at a rapid pace, it still contains quite a bit of substance to it.

Savage Dragon 197 pg 6

The issue also contains a six page back-up, the first chapter of a new Vanguard serial written by Gary Carlson and illustrated by Frank Fosco.  “Homecoming” sees Vanguard, accompanied by his robot pal Wally, his girlfriend Roxanne, and the few surviving members of his race, return to his home world for the first time in years.  During the intervening time, Kalyptus was invaded by its arch-foes, the brutal Tyrrus Combine, who also decimated the original Dragon’s people, the green-skinned, finned Krylans.

It’s nice to see Carlson once again penning the adventures of Vanguard.  I enjoyed the two miniseries he wrote quite a number of years back starring the character, and the various back-ups in Savage Dragon where he subsequently had the opportunity to return to the adventures of Van, Roxanne and Wally.  Carlson and Larsen are long-time friends & collaborators, and they’ve always done a superb job at coordinating & intertwining their various stories & characters.  With “Homecoming” it appears that Carlson is picking up several subplots previously set up by both himself and Larsen, and utilizing them as a springboard to launch this new Vanguard arc.

Fosco is another frequent associate of Carlson, as well as a talented artist.  Fosco most notably illustrated the 23 issue Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles book written by Carlson that was published by Image in the late 1990s.  Fosco did good work on that series, and I’ve been pleased to see him subsequently draw a number of back-up stories in Savage Dragon.

Savage Dragon 197 pg 23

It’s great that Erik Larsen is still chugging away full speed ahead on Savage Dragon.  Larsen, along with such talented compatriots as Carlson and Fosco, make this book is a real pleasure to read.  I am definitely looking forward to seeing what they have in store for us next, especially with #200 right around the corner.

Not to sound like a broken record, but if you aren’t reading Savage Dragon then I highly recommend giving it a try.