Doctor Who reviews: Sleep No More

I’m finally caught up on my Doctor Who viewing.  Here are a few thoughts on the episode “Sleep No More” written by Mark Gatiss and directed by Justin Molotnikov.

1) Found footage

I am generally not a fan of so-called “found footage” movies.  I found The Blair Witch Project to be one of the most overrated pieces of $#!+ that I have ever seen.  On the other hand, I did enjoy Paranormal Activity, although part of that may have been due to not having very high expectations in the first place.

You can imagine how I felt when I started watching “Sleep No More” and realized that it was that type of story.  Fortunately this was actually a good episode.  Gatiss wrote a scary, unnerving script that made very good use of the format.

Molotnikov did very solid work directing.  Rather than the confusion and motion sickness that Blair Witch left me with, “Sleep No More” with its cutting back-and-forth between security cameras and character POVs resulted in, for the most part, genuine suspense.  While there were chaotic moments of storytelling, for the most part those contributed to the atmosphere of the story, since the audience was left just as uncertain about what was going on as the characters.

Sleep No More poster

2) In space no one can hear you sleep

Humanity once again manages to make a mess of things.  Yeah, leave it to capitalists and scientists to get together for the oh-so-brilliant idea of cramming people’s need for eight hours of sleep into a mere five minutes, leaving us able to work non-stop for almost an entire day.  I’m sure that in the real world there are people actually attempting to find a way to do just this, all in the name of greater profits.

Of course, since this is Doctor Who, things inevitably go pear-shaped.  The Doctor falls into his standard role of calling out humanity on its arrogance and short-sightedness.  Due to the format of this episode Peter Capaldi only has a couple of short monologues regarding the foolishness of the Morpheus program.  Nevertheless, in these few brief moments he invests them with both a genuine sense of outrage at humanity’s audacity and a philosophical contemplation of the value of sleep.

3) Enter Sandmen

The Sandmen are, when you come down to it, a ridiculous concept.  Fortunately the episode moves at such a fast clip that you aren’t left considering for too long that a bunch of people-eating monsters have been formed from “dream dust.”

The low lighting and herky-jerky camerawork also, for the most part, results in the Sandmen not being seen too clearly.  Good decision, since from the few good glimpses we get of them they look very much like humanoid lumps of oatmeal.  I expect that it a well-lit room they would appear quite silly.  Molotnikov did a pretty good job filming the Sandmen in an effective, menacing manner.

Sleep No More promo image

4) Universe building

If you ever watched any of Doctor Who stories made in the 1960s and 70s that were set in the future, for the most part everything was very white and very British.  That began to change a bit in the 1980s, and since the show returned in 2005 we really have seen a number of future eras where occupied by different ethnic groups.

Gatiss had an interesting concept in Sleep No More” for how in the 38 Century India and Japan combine into a massive superpower with colonies throughout the solar system.  It gave “Sleep No More” a distinct flavor and backdrop.  As with the best universe building, Gatiss mostly leaves these as background elements and hints of a larger culture.

5) To be continued?

“Sleep No More” appears to end on a cliffhanger, which left me believing that this was another example of the two episode structure that has occurred throughout Series Nine.  So I was a bit surprised when I then watched “Face the Raven” and it was completely unrelated, the first installment of a three episode season finale.

I wonder if at some point the dangling plotlines of “Sleep No More” will be picked up in a future episode.  After all, the character of Nagata, played by Elaine Tan, survives.  She heads off with the Doctor and Clara in the TARDIS to Neptune, where they hope to shut down the Morpheus program.  Or perhaps we really are going to be left with the episode’s final unsettling minutes, kept in the dark as to exactly how things worked out in the 38th Century.

Doctor Who reviews: The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion

Yesterday I watched the recent two episode Doctor Who story “The Zygon Invasion” and “The Zygon Inversion” written by Peter Harness and Steven Moffat.  It was a pretty good pair of episodes.  They were not perfect, but certainly entertaining and well-made.  This was another one of those stories that I needed to think over for a bit before writing about.

Zygon Invasion poster

1) You say you want a revolution?

The dangling subplot of the Zygons from “The Day of the Doctor” was picked up here.  We learn that humanity and the Zygons did manage to reach an agreement that enabled 20 million Zygons to secretly settle on Earth in human form.  Unfortunately a splinter group of militants has formed made up of Zygons who do not want to live as humans, who wish to embrace their alien heritage.  They regard humans as the enemy and assimilated Zygons as traitors.

I realize that these episodes were written & filmed months ago, and even aired prior to the terrorist attacks in Paris earlier this month.  But the parallels here are interesting.

Those attacks, and numerous other atrocities around the globe in the last several years, are the work of the Islamic State, a fanatical doomsday cult of Muslim extremists.  They wish to create a “caliphate” based upon their idea of a “pure” interpretation of Islam in preparation for the arrival of the End Times.

The actions of ISIL have led to anti-Muslim paranoia in the Western world.  Many in the United States want to ban Syrian refugees from entering the country out of fear that militants could be hidden among them.  This actually plays right into the hands of ISIL, who want to stop the refugees to find a safe haven, and who perceive the Islamophobia as the perfect recruiting tool.

Harness and Moffat pointedly avoid any mention of religious motivation among the Zygons.  However, the revolutionaries, led by a Zygon known as “Bonnie,” are motivated by the dream of a society that is totally free from both the presence and ideology of anything that is not Zygon.  They are willing to commit horrible acts of violence to achieve this “perfect” world.

Bonnie intends to cause the Zygons who have assimilated to return to their original forms, realizing this will create massive panic among humanity.  This will force the assimilated Zygons to join her group solely to survive the inevitable human violence.  Bonnie even recognizes that realistically 20 million Zygons do not stand a chance against six billion humans, but she would rather die on her feet in pursuit of her goals, taking as many humans with her as possible, than live on her knees.

UNIT, in turn, faced with millions of shape-shifting aliens who have the ability to infiltrate all levels of government, to assume the identities of friends and loved ones before they strike, are ready to wipe out all of the Zygons, guilty and innocent, in order to prevent more violence.

INVERSION OF THE ZYGONS (By Peter Harness and Steven Moffat)

2) Working class Zygon

Bonnie forces one of the assimilated Zygons, a man named Etoine played by Nicholas Asbury, to transform back to his actual form, recording it on her cell phone and posting it on the internet as a start to sowing xenophobia among humanity.

Etoine is horrified; he was perfectly happy with his new existence as a human, and now that has been destroyed.  Harness and Moffat make in very clear that this Zygon is apolitical, just someone trying to get on with their life…

Etoine: I’m not part of your fight. I never wanted to fight anyone. I just wanted to live here. Why can’t I just live?

The Doctor: We are on your side.

Etoine: I’m not on anyone’s side! This is my home!

Seeing no way out, Etoine commits suicide in front of the Doctor.  It’s a heartbreaking scene, with a sad, moving performance by Asbury.  It really demonstrates the suffering that ordinary people endure because self-important revolutionaries prize ideals more than they do actual lives, when fanatics believe that the ends justify any means.

3) Capaldi and Coleman

Both Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman are amazing in this pair of episodes.

Capaldi is well on his way to becoming my favorite Doctor ever.  He is such an amazing actor.  In the second episode, the Doctor gives a powerful speech to Bonnie…

I don’t understand? Are you kidding me? Of course I understand. I mean, do you call this a war? This funny little thing. This is not a war. I fought in a bigger war than you will ever know. I did worse things than you can ever imagine. And when I close my eyes… I hear more screams than anyone would ever be able to count!

Capaldi totally owns the episode at this moment.  I could not take my eyes off of him.  He was amazing.

Even when it comes to silly stuff like the Doctor claiming that he has question mark underpants, referring to himself as ‘Doctor Disco” and “Doctor  Funkenstein,” or alleging that his real name is “Basil,” Capaldi delivers those lines with such a wonderful irreverence.  Things that might sound daft coming from a lesser actor are quite witty and almost self-deprecating when Capaldi delivers them.

I know that at this point a number of viewers, myself included, are experiencing a bit of Clara fatigue.  The character has been around for a while now and, as with other companions, the quality of writing given to her has been somewhat inconsistent.  Given that, I think it can become easy to overlook Coleman.  But she actually is a great actor.

This is ably demonstrated when Bonnie takes on Clara’s form for the majority of these two episodes.  Bonnie is a completely different character from Clara, and Coleman plays the part perfectly.  It definitely demonstrates her versatility.

THE ZYGON INVERSION (By Peter Harness and Steven Moffat)

4) Osgood lives

Despite having been murdered by Missy in “Death in Heaven,” Osgood (Ingrid Oliver) returns.  It transpires that since the events of “The Day of the Doctor,” there have been two Osgoods, one human and one Zygon, the living embodiment of the peace treaty.  We don’t find out until the end of “Inversion” which one this is, human or Zygon.  But since they both have the same memories and personality, in a way both of them were real.

When I first heard Osgood was returning, I did feel it cheapened her death.  However it’s made clear that the death of one Osgood very much affected the other, that they had become as close as twin sisters.  Osgood certainly seems a more serious, somber individual here than in the past, no longer a goofy teenage but an adult dealing with great responsibilities.

5) Pod people

There is a tone to these episodes very reminiscent of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” a menacing undercurrent of paranoia.  Is this person a human, or are they actually a Zygon?  Who can you trust?  At times it is quite unnerving.

The difference here, of course, is that the Doctor is hopeful that he can cut through the fear & distrust to find a peaceful solution.  He desperately wants to find a way for the two races to co-exist.

6) Five rounds rapid

Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) comes across much better than she did in her previous appearance in the Series Nine opener.  Yes, it’s obvious that Kate is still very much in over her head.  This time, however, we see that she nevertheless remains as rational and level-headed as one can under extremely difficult circumstances.

Kate is obviously much less idealistic than the Doctor.  Like her father, she is willing to use violence as a first resort.  But these episodes do demonstrate that her approach is not all that unreasonable…

Kate: You left us with an impossible situation, Doctor.

The Doctor: Yes I know, it’s called peace.

As much as I appreciate the Doctor’s noble intentions, it’s easy for him to negotiate a peace treaty and then fly off in the TARDIS.  Kate was left with the difficult job of actually making it work, of ensuring that humans and Zygons peacefully co-existed.  Just as Ashildr pointed out in the previous episode, the Doctor is always interfering and then running away, leaving others to deal with the consequences of his action.  All things considered, Kate appears to be doing the best she can.

While it is unfortunate that Kate had to kill several Zygons, if she had not done so then she herself would have died, just as many other members of UNIT did in this story.

Zygon Inverson Kate Stewart

7) Let’s let Zygons be Zygons

The Doctor eventually convinces Bonnie to give up her crusade.  He also forgives her for her crimes.

I was left wondering if Bonnie got off easy.  After all, she and her followers killed a great many people, both human and Zygon.  Many would argue that she was deserving of some form of punishment.

Perhaps this can be seen as the lesser of evils.  If Bonnie had been killed, it likely would have turned her into a martyr, inspiring her followers to continue her fanatical path.  If she had been locked up, she could have remained an unrepentant enemy waiting for an opportunity to escape and resume her terrorist activities.

By convincing Bonnie to reconsider her views, the Doctor has diffused the threat she and her organization presented.  At the end we see her devoting herself to maintaining the peace treaty by permanently taking on the form of Osgood.  It can be argued that she is making amends for her crimes by working to heal the rift she created and prevent others from following in her footsteps.

This is an issue that continually plagues humanity.  What is more important, enacting retribution or ending the circle of violence?  Do you let crimes go unpunished if it will prevent future violence from occurring?  There definitely is no easy answer.

As I’ve observed before, a quality of science fiction which I appreciate is that thru its lens it enables us to gain different perspectives on contentious real world issues. Obviously these two episodes of Doctor Who gave me a great deal to consider.

Happy 75th birthday Roy Thomas

Today is the 75th birthday to influential comic book writer, editor and historian Roy Thomas, who was born on November 22, 1940.  Additionally, this year marks 50 years of Thomas’ professional involvement in the comic book field, having started in it in the summer of 1965.

Happy birthday to Roy Thomas from Conan the Barbarian

It has sometimes been opined that while Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko created the majority of the building blocks of the modern Marvel universe, it was Thomas, along with Steve Englehart, who structured them into a cohesive whole.  Thomas was often the writer who was chosen by Stan Lee to take over on various Marvel series as the editor-in-chief’s workload increased and the line of titles expanded.

Some of my favorite early work by Thomas was on Avengers.  He chronicled the adventures of Earth’s mightiest heroes from issue #35 (Dec 1966) thru #104 (Oct 1972).  During this six year period Thomas, often working with penciler John Buscema, introduced the Vision, Ultron, the Grim Reaper, the Black Knight, Yellowjacket, Arkon, Red Wolf, the Squadron Supreme and the Zodiac.

From Avengers #89 to #97, Thomas, paired with artists Neal Adams, Sal Buscema, John Buscema and Tom Palmer, crafted a lengthy storyline of intergalactic warfare & intrigue that came be known as “The Kree-Skrull War.” In addition to establishing ties between two extraterrestrial races first devised by Lee & Kirby, this story arc set the groundwork for the lengthy relationship between the Vision and the Scarlet Witch.

Looking back on Thomas’ work on Avengers, one can see that he devised characters and stories that numerous other writers at Marvel would continue to utilize and built upon for decades to come.

Avengers 58 pg 10

Thomas was instrumental in convincing Lee and Marvel publisher Martin Goodman to approve a comic book starring Conan, the barbarian adventurer created by Robert E. Howard.  Conan the Barbarian #1 debuted in 1970, written by Thomas, with pencils by a young Barry Windsor-Smith.  Within a year and a half Thomas’ old collaborator John Buscema took over as penciler.  Thomas also wrote Marvel’s black & white magazine Savage Sword of Conan, which began in 1974, as well as a newspaper strip that ran from 1978 to 1981.

By encouraging Marvel to publish the Conan the Barbarian comic book, and then writing so many epic, memorable stories featuring the character, Thomas played a major role in making Conan a well-known, popular character.

Another landmark in Thomas’ career was the World War II superhero series The Invaders.  Thomas worked with veteran artist Frank Robbins on this book.  The Invaders was Thomas’ love letter to the Golden Age of superhero comics which he had grown up reading and for which he possesses a deep fondness.

Initially a team-up of Timely Comics big three Captain America, Namor the Sub-Mariner, and the Human Torch, Thomas would gradually introduce an entire cast of costumed heroes.  These were both of the genuine Golden Age variety, such as the Whizzer and Miss America, and of brand new characters he created to retcon back into the Marvel universe of the early 1940s, such as Spitfire and Union Jack.

Another aspect of The Invaders was that Thomas, Robbins and their collaborators devised a number of Axis villains.  If you look back at the actual Timely comic books of the early 1940s, aside from the Red Skull there really were no major super-villains who made a lasting impact, just a number of oddball menaces who were all-but-forgotten a couple decades later.  To rectify that, Thomas and Robbins introduced Master Man, Warrior Woman, U-Man, and Baron Blood as arch-foes for their heroes to fight.

Although the original run of The Invaders lasted less than five years, from 1975 to 1979, the various characters have been the subject of numerous revivals in the decades since.  Thomas himself has been involved in a few of these, returning to Marvel at various points to write new adventures of his Nazi-smashing heroes.

Invaders 20 pg 1

The length and breadth of Thomas’ five decade involvement in comic books is something that I cannot even begin to do justice in a short blog post.  For an in-depth look at his career, however, you need look no further than the magazine Alter Ego.  Edited by Thomas, this excellent magazine has been published by TwoMorrows Publishing since 1999.

Thomas was interviewed at length by Jim Amash on several occasions for Alter Ego.  Each of these examined roughly a decade of Thomas’ career, with the 1960s being covered in Alter Ego #50, the 1970s in #70, the 1980s in #100, and the 1990s in the just-released #136, with the late 1990s and beyond scheduled to be covered in the upcoming #139.  I’ve found these interviews to be extremely informative.  Thomas presents an honest and insightful recounting of his career.

I want to wish both a happy birthday and a happy anniversary to Roy Thomas.  Here’s hoping for many more years to come.

Mantis: The Celestial Madonna tattoo

One of my favorite comic book characters is Mantis.  I wrote about her once before.  Created by writer Steve Englehart, she made her debut within the pages of Avengers #112 (June 1973).   Mantis was initially designed by the much underrated Don Heck, who penciled that issue.  Two months later, in Avengers #114, her distinctive costume, designed by John Romita, made its debut.

Mantis was the central focus of the story arc “The Celestial Madonna,” which ran through Avengers #128 to #135 and the quarterly Giant-Size Avengers #2 to #4.  Englehart explored both Mantis’ mysterious past and the cosmic history of the Marvel Comics universe.  Englehart did excellent work developing Mantis during his time on Avengers.  The character experienced a fascinating arc of change and growth.

This past Saturday, I got a tattoo done on my right leg.  I’ve been thinking about getting this piece for several years.  After selling a couple of pages of original comic art from my collection I finally had the funds to have it done.  It is a tattoo of Mantis based on Dave Cockrum’s stunning artwork for Giant-Size Avengers #2 (Nov 1974).

Mantis tattoo

Mantis tattoo

I had originally hoped to have this done by Becca Roach, the artist who did my Beautiful Dreamer and Watchmen tattoos.  Last week I contacted Becca on Facebook… and learned that she’d moved to Hawaii a couple of months ago.  Oops!

I sent Becca another message, asking if there were any other tattoo artists in NYC who she would recommend.  She suggested Daniel Cotte, with whom she had recently worked with at SenaSpace Art + Tattoo, located at at 229 Centre Street in the East Village.

Daniel was a really cool guy.  It turns out that he is also a comic book fan.  He mentioned that he really liked Joe Kubert’s work on Enemy Ace.  Daniel appeared interested in tattooing this particular piece, which was good to know.

Daniel finished the tattoo in a little less than two hours, which was a relief to me because, yipes, was it painful!  This was by far the most detailed piece that I’ve ever gotten.  It was especially uncomfortable when Daniel was tattooing all of the details of Mantis’ feet & ankles, because that was on my ankle, where there’s a lot less muscle under the skin.  But I just gritted my teeth and tolerated it, telling myself to hold still because in the end I would have a really nice piece.  And, yes, it does look fantastic.  Thanks again, Daniel!

Daniel Cotte tattooing Mantis

Daniel Cotte tattooing Ben’s leg

After I got home Saturday night, I e-mailed a photo of the Mantis tattoo to Steve Englehart.  He really liked it, stating that it was “gorgeous!”  I also sent the photo to Dave Cockrum’s widow Paty, who responded with “Wow! Totally awesome tat, kiddo!”

I am a huge fan of artist Dave Cockrum.  He is well regarded for his work on X-Men.  But shortly before he revamped Marvel’s mutants, Cockrum briefly worked on Avengers.  He inked several issues of the monthly title, providing wonderful embellishments for the pencils of Rich Buckler, Don Heck, John Buscema and Bob Brown.  Cockrum did the full artwork for the second issue of Giant-Size Avengers, and then penciled the third one, with Joe Giella inking him there.

In my assessment, Cockrum’s work on Giant-Size Avengers #2 is dynamic, some of the best of his career.  Especially striking is the beautiful, haunting page which contains the figure of Mantis that I had tattooed.  Here is a scan of it from the Celestial Madonna trade paperback.

Mantis by Cockrum

Giant-Size Avengers #2 page 26

I think that this is it for tattoos, both because I can’t think of anything else I’d want done, and I’m running out of areas where I can get them that can be covered up when I go to work.  But you never know what will come to mind in the future.

If you have never read it, I recommend the Steve Englehart era of Avengers, which contains some groundbreaking stories and quality artwork.  Most of the issues which contain the Mantis storyline are reprinted in black & white in Essential Avengers Volume 6.

By the way, rumor has it that Mantis will be appearing in the second Guardians of the Galaxy movie.  So keep an eye out for her.

Thank you to Michele Witchipoo for the photos <3

Doctor Who reviews: The Girl Who Died and The Woman Who Lived

I’m behind on my Doctor Who viewing!  Hopefully I’ll catch up soon.  In the meantime, here at last are my thoughts on “The Girl Who Died” written by Jamie Matheison & Steven Moffat and “The Woman Who Lived” written by Catherine Tregenna.

The Woman Who Lived poster

1) Period pieces

It has often been observed that one of the BBC’s greatest strengths is in filming historical dramas.  This has definitely served as asset to Doctor Who, enabling the show’s creators to craft stories set in Earth’s past that have a feel of authenticity to them.  Certainly that is on display in these two episodes, which take place, respectively, in a Ninth Century Viking Village and in the English countryside of 1651.

Along those lines, the juxtaposition of a familiar historical period with fantastic sci-fi elements can work wonderfully.  I do not necessarily think that either the Mire or Leandro necessarily rank up there with the all time great Doctor Who villains.  But both are quite effective within these period setting, perhaps more so than in a story set in the present day.

2) Who wants to live forever?

A theme that has recurred throughout Doctor Who is that immortality, or even a really really REALLY long life, can be as much a curse as a blessing.  For all the benefits of living for millennia, there is the fact that everyone around you grows old and dies, that over and over you will lose those you care for.  And with all those long years ahead, you are also left wondering exactly how you are supposed to occupy your time.

This is very evident in the character of Ashildr.  The long centuries have embittered her, left her aloof and indifferent to the rest of humanity.  The majority of her memories have faded, and she needs to keep detailed journals to remember her own past.  For all of the wonderful adventures she has experienced, she has also experienced monumental loss, and now feels utterly alone.  It really is left up in the air if the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) was right to save her if it condemned her to this existence.

3) Maisie is amazing

I was extremely impressed by the performance of actress Maisie Williams, who portrayed Ashildr in these two episodes.  Williams showed such an incredible range and depth for such a young actress (she is only 18 years old).  Ashildr as written by Matheison & Moffat in the first part is very different from the figure seen in Treganna’s second installment.  Williams played Ashildr as a sweet, thoughtful, imaginative girl in part one.  In the next, she effortlessly transitions to the haughty, cynical, haunted, mournful woman that the Doctor now encounters.  Williams and Capaldi had a wonderful chemistry and interaction in these two episodes.

The Girl Who Died

4) Am I a good man?

Previously examining the relationship between the Doctor and the Master, I pondered the idea that the two of them began as similar people but then developed in very different directions.  That leads to a question, one akin to the Twelfth Doctor’s consideration.  If they were once so very alike, then is the Doctor actually a good person?

“The Woman Who Lived” offers some insight into this.  We learn that the Doctor is, from experience, well aware of the pitfalls of immortality.  It can engender a dangerous sense of superiority and disdain for others, and create disconnect from the mortal world.  That is why the Doctor will not allow Ashildr to travel with him; he feels that he needs to be around ordinary human beings to be able to continue to appreciate their importance, the precious qualities of mortal lives.

I believe that the quality of “good,” of decency and morality, is not simply something that it exists.  It is not natural to anyone.  Instead it is something that we need to vigilantly maintain each and every day of our lives, in spite of all the offenses and injustices that life throws at us, in opposition to our own defects of character.

This is the difference between the Doctor and the Master.  They possess similar personalities and flaws, but the Doctor endeavors to continually remain aware of his failings and his weaknesses, and to work to overcome them, to be selfless.  That is what makes the Doctor a good man.

5) Hopefully not a Swift end

When the highwayman Sam Swift (Rufus Hound) shows up halfway through “The Woman Who Lived,” he seems like just an arrogant douche.  Later we learn that Swift has been arrested and sentenced to die.  Standing on the gallows with the hangman waiting, Swift proceeds to tell a number of cornball jokes, hoping to keep the spectators amused for as long as possible, to delay his execution for just a little bit.  It’s a surprisingly touching and subtle performance by Hound, showing the frightened, vulnerable side of the character.

This is a great scene that underlines the Doctor’s point that the inevitability of death is what gives life worth meaning.  Ashildr, barring catastrophic injury, will live forever.  Without the fear of dying, she is no longer able to appreciate her life.  In contrast, Swift is desperate to hold back death, to stay alive, if only for a few precious moments.

6) Another third path?

I’m returning here to something that I brought up in my review of “The Witch’s Familiar” where both Moffat and the characters failed to think outside the box.  In that case, it was the Doctor not finding a third alternative to either killing Davros as a child or letting him live his life uninterrupted.  In the comments section, Jim O’Brien described that as such: “in many of the stuff [Moffat] pens, I find that he (or his characters) often have a very clean-cut X, Y, and Z perspective on things.”

There was another occurrence of that here in “The Woman Who Lived.”  Ashildr desperately wants to travel with the Doctor in the TARDIS because she is bored with immortality, with being stranded on a primitive planet with nowhere to go, nothing new to experience.  The Doctor refuses to let Ashildr join her because he perceives the danger to his own behavior that could occur from being around another immortal. He wants to leave her in 1651.

Well, why isn’t there a third choice?  Why can’t the Doctor offer to give Ashildr a one-time lift in the TARDIS to another time or planet where interplanetary space travel exists, so that she can then go off and explore the universe on her own?

The Woman Who Lived Ahsildr

7) Weird science

I wonder if electric eels actually work in the manner seen in “The Girl Who Died.”  Could the Doctor really have been able to defeat the Mire that way?

Well, wacky science aside, what I appreciated about the Doctor’s plan is that it once again shows that, rather than shooting or blowing up his adversaries, he really tries to find an intelligent and clever method of outthinking his foes in order to defeat them.  That’s one of my favorite qualities of the Doctor.

8) But you can’t go around wearing copies of bodies!

I don’t think we needed it explained that the Twelfth Doctor subconsciously chose the face of Caecilius from “The Fires of Pompeii” as a reminder to himself that he saves people.  After all, Capaldi is hardly the first actor to guest star and then return to play an ongoing character during the show’s long history.

Along these lines, I’m wondering what we’re going to find out next.  Will it turn out that Lieutenant Andrews from “Carnival of Monsters” was Harry Sullivan’s grandfather?   Or that Bret Vyon from “The Daleks’ Master Plan” was a clone of Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart?  Maybe it will be revealed that immediately after the events of “Inferno” Sir Keith Gold bumped into the malfunctioning TARDIS console and was transported back to the Victorian Era where, stricken with amnesia, he assumed the identity of amazingly alliterative London theater manager Henry Gordon Jago.

Now I’m half-expecting there to be an upcoming Big Finish audio story revealing that the Sixth Doctor took on the likeness of Commander Maxil from “Arc of Infinity” to remind himself to, um, dress to stand out and to shoot first & ask questions later?  Well, that would explain Old Sixie’s odd fashion sense and tendency to be trigger-happy!

Okay, all kidding aside, I did enjoy these two episodes.  “The Girl Who Died” was perhaps the weaker of the two, coming out a bit uneven.  “The Woman Who Lived,” on the other hand, was absolutely fantastic, featuring an amazing performance by Maisie Williams and superb writing by Catherine Tregenna.  Of course, Peter Capaldi continues to impress and amaze as the Twelfth Doctor.

Star Wars reviews: Rebels season one

As the release of The Force Awakens approaches, I’ve been reviewing various entries in the vast Star Wars Expanded Universe.  Today I’m looking at a recent piece of Star Wars lore, the first season of the animated TV series Rebels, originally broadcast between October 2014 and March 2015.  I picked up the season one DVD last month.

Rebels season one DVD

Set a decade and a half after the events of the prequels, Rebels chronicles the exploits of a small cell of the Rebel Alliance operating out of a freighter starship known as the Ghost in the vicinity of the planet Lothal:

Ezra Bridges – The fifteen year old is the figure through whom the audience is introduced to the crew of the Ghost.  Ezra’s parents conducted underground anti-Imperial broadcasts on Lothal.  They were arrested when Ezra was only eight years old.  Spending the next several years as a homeless thief, Ezra comes to the attention of the Ghost crew when he makes off with a supply shipment which they themselves had only just stolen from the Empire.  At first motivated solely by survival and self-interest, Ezra joins the Rebels after they risk their lives to rescue him from the Empire.

Kanan Jarrus – The leader of the Ghost crew is a former Jedi Padawan who survived the destruction of the Jedi Order during Order 66.  Spending the next 15 years in hiding, he became a smuggler and guerilla fighter, keeping his Jedi abilities hidden.  Kanan finally unsheathes his lightsaber in a battle to liberate Wookies who have been captured by Imperial slavers.  After years of running from his past, Kanan reluctantly re-embraces his Jedi heritage when he realizes that Ezra is a Force sensitive, and he takes on the boy as his apprentice.

Hera Syndulla – The Twi’lek owner of the Ghost and an extremely skilled pilot, Hera is the den mother of the group.  She has a close friendship with Kanan, and it’s implied that there is a mutual attraction between the two.  The level-headed Hera serves as the link between the Rebel cell and the larger Alliance, communicating with a mysterious contact known only as “Fulcrum.”

Sabine Wren – A sarcastic teenage explosive expert and graffiti artist, Sabine is from the planet Mandalore.  She was previously enrolled in the Imperial Academy, until an experience there completely embittered her towards the Empire.  As a result she developed an aversion to blindly following orders.  Kanan has a crush on Sabine, but she has declined to acknowledge it, preferring to remain friends.

Garazeb “Zeb” Orrelios – The large, hairy Zeb is one of the last of the Lasat, an alien race who were brutally invaded by the Empire.  Seeking to avenge his people, Zeb became involved in the Rebellion.  Something of a grumpy hothead, Zeb is less than enthusiastic about Ezra joining the crew, although they eventually develop a grudging mutual respect.

Chopper – A beat-up old astromech droid, C1-10P aka Chopper helps keep the Ghost running.  Possessing an irritable, mischievous personality, the droid expresses himself through grunts and beeps.

Over the course of the first season, the writers do a good job introducing the main characters, spotlighting each of them throughout the 15 episodes.  By the time I was finished watching the DVD set, I really did not have a favorite, having grown to like all of them.

Rebels characters

Probably the best character development was in the deep friendship that grows between Ezra and Kanan.  They become not just student and teacher, but also a surrogate family, with Kanan becoming a father figure and role model for the reckless orphan.  Teaching Ezra to use the Force and become a Jedi is just as much a learning experience for the teenager as it is for Kanan.  Both of them need to discover patience and understanding.  It is a different relationship than that of Luke and Yoda, as can be seen by this amusing exchange from “Rise of the Old Masters”…

Kanan: Enough jokes. Focus!

Ezra: I’m trying!

Kanan: Do, or no not. There is no try.

Ezra: What does that even mean? How can I do something if I don’t try to do it?

Kanan: Well, see… Actually, that one always confused me, too. But Master Yoda sure used to say it a lot.

That was one of my favorite bits from the first season!

Rebels appears to be geared to a slightly younger audience than the Star Wars movies.  There is more of an emphasis on comedy and slapstick, although at times it can also be pretty intense and serious.

Some of the humor derives from the fact that the Empire comes across as pretty damn incompetent.  Yes, there’s that old joke that Imperial Stormtroopers cannot shoot straight.  But if you actually watch the movies, most of the time they are incredibly dangerous adversaries who mow down their enemies left and right.  It’s only when they encounter major characters such as Han, Luke or Leia that they are utterly incapable of hitting the broad side of a Jawa sandcrawler.  And such is the case with Rebels, where the Ghost crew constantly runs circles around the Empire.  You almost get the impression that it’s only sheer force of numbers that’s allowing the Emperor to maintain control of the galaxy!

There are exceptions, such as Agent Kallus of the Imperial Security Bureau, who is dangerously competent, but who is constantly frustrated by the bumbling antics of his troops.  Likewise the utterly ruthless Grand Moff Tarkin arrives on Lothal late in the season to take charge of operations, and he seems to spend half the time uttering exclamations of exasperation at the people serving under him.

The closest thing to a “big bad” for season one is the Imperial Inquisitor, a Force-adept disciple of Darth Vader who utilizes a double bladed lightsaber capable of whirling like a propeller.  The arrogant, mocking Inquisitor spends much of the season in pursuit of Kana and Ezra.  The design and personality of the Inquisitor is somewhere between Vader and his Sith predecessor Darth Maul.  He is definitely a formidable adversary.

Rebels Inquisitor

Several actors from the movies reprise their roles.  As always, Anthony Daniels is on hand to voice C-3PO.  James Earl Jones returns for his iconic vocalization of Darth Vader, as do Frank Oz as Yoda and Billy Dee Williams as Lando Callrissian.

Lando appears in the episode “Idiot’s Array.”  Zeb loses Chopper to Lando in a game of Sabacc, much to the droid’s indignation.  To get Chopper back, the Ghost crew agrees to help Lando smuggle cargo through the Imperial blockade of Lothal.  And, no, the cargo is not a case of Colt 45 (which was my first guess) but so-called “mining equipment,” namely a very odd animal that is a cross between a pig and a puffer fish.  This is a few years before Lando became the semi-respectable administrator of Cloud City, back when he was still a smooth-talking gambler and con artist.  Williams does a good job recreating the part.

“Idiot’s Array” is one of the most offbeat and comedic installments of the entire season.  Actually, it’s a great episode, genuinely funny and entertaining.  And it actually works out well, coming right before the final four episode arc of the season, a very intense and serious storyline.

Season one draws to a dramatic conclusion with “Fire Across the Galaxy.”  The crew infiltrates Tarkin’s star destroyer to rescue Kanan.  This leads to a final, riveting showdown between Kanan and the Inquisitor.

“Fire Across the Galaxy” also reveals the identity of Fulcrum; she is none other than Ahsoka Tano, former Jedi and fan favorite from The Clone Wars animated series.  It was a pleasant surprise to learn that Ahsoka survived the Jedi Purge and was working alongside Senator Bail Organa to organize the Rebel Alliance.

Rebels Ahsoka Tano

As “Fire Across the Galaxy” came to a close, I found myself very much looking forward to season two.  The first year had done a great job at developing the main characters, and I am interested in seeing Ahsoka becoming a regular.  Also, with the arrival of Darth Vader on Lothal in the final scene, the possibility of Ahsoka encountering her former master and learning of his turn to the Dark Side appears to be in the cards.

By the way, in watching Rebels season one, I came to realize just how crucial the visual designs of Ralph McQuarrie, the music of John Williams and the sound designs of Ben Burtt all are in recapturing the feel, the atmosphere of the Star Wars universe in an animated series.  All of these have been utilized by the makers of Rebels, and it just would not be the same in the absence of any of them.

I cancelled cable TV service a while back, but I can always get Rebels season two through iTunes.  It’s definitely something I’d rather not have to wait for the DVD release.  It’s an entertaining, well-written series that does a great job of exploring the period between the prequels and the original trilogy.

Comic book reviews: The Rook #1

I’ve been anticipating The Rook miniseries from Dark Horse since it was first announced several months ago.  I was not familiar with the character, other than being aware that Restin Dane was a time traveling adventurer created by W.B. DuBay and featured in various Warren Publishing titles between 1977 and 1982.  Even so, the creative team for this revival of The Rook immediately grabbed my attention.

The Rook 1 cover

Steven Grant was the writer of the Punisher: Circle of Blood miniseries that helped to catapult the character into A-list status.  Grant has written a number of excellent, intelligent crime and horror series over the years.  In particular, I enjoyed his writing on The Damned and Mortal Souls, as well as his offbeat revamps of Challengers of the Unknown and Manhunter in the mid 1990s.

Paul Gulacy is an artist who I’ve blogged about previously.  After his breakout run on Master of Kung Fu, Gulacy went on to work on such diverse characters as Sabre, Batman, Valkyrie, James Bond, Black Widow, Terminator, Catwoman, and G.I. Joe.  I’m a huge fan of his work.

Even though The Rook is a pre-existing character, Grant & Gulacy have made Restin Dane entirely accessible to new readers.  An eight page prologue, “The Gift,” appeared in Dark Horse Presents #14.  The time traveling Dane arrives thousands of years in the past in the city of Ilion, where the inhabitants are celebrating the ending of a long war.  At first Dane is confused about his whereabouts… until he spots a giant wooden horse, and belatedly recalls that Ilion was another name for Troy.  Uh oh!

DHP 14 pg 5

“The Gift” was a solid introduction to the character of Restin Dane.  Grant gives us a good look at his personality and hints at his mission.  I felt that Grant packed in more plot and characterization into this short prologue than many writers nowadays manage to fit into a full-sized comic book.  It definitely left me intrigued and eager to read the actual miniseries.

Within the first issue, Grant again sets out essential information.  It is quickly established in that Dane originates from some point in the 21th Century, and that he is embroiled in a temporal feud with a sinister individual known as Lock.  With that, the story barrels ahead, presenting both action and mind-bending questions.

As a fan of science fiction in general and Doctor Who in particular, I really appreciate the fact that Grant is exploring the nature of time travel, and the possible paradoxes inherent within it.  “The Gift” suggests that Dane, in attempting to alter events and prevent the destruction of Troy, instead causes history to unfold exactly as it was written.  The implication is that Dane always was going to arrive in the past to play that specific role in it.

Moving on to the first issue, Dane arrives in his own past in the year 2015, affecting people and events, including his own younger self.  I’m really curious to see what Grant does over the next three issues.  Only a couple of weeks ago I was touching upon the concept of the bootstrap paradox in another post.  Now I am wondering if Restin Dane’s timeline will be another example of a causal loop.  Hey, the cover logo does have an infinity symbol / Mobius strip contained within it!

Then again, perhaps Grant is playing with reader expectations and is actually going to go in an entirely different direction.  We shall have to see.

The Rook 1 pg 2

The artwork by Gulacy in the DHP prologue and in the first issue of the miniseries is amazing.  He superbly renders the historical setting of the Trojan War and early 19th Century Spain, as well as the hi-tech and fantastic elements.

Gulacy is one of the best action artists in comic books; his fight sequences are dynamic.  He definitely knows how to lay out a page and tell a story.  I was also struck by Gulacy’s designs for Lock’s sinister coterie of assassins against whom Dane is pitted in the first issue.

Last but certainly not least, the rich coloring by Jesus Aburto suits Gulacy’s artwork very well.  It definitely works to create a genuine atmosphere.

I enjoyed the debut issue of The Rook and am looking forward to reading the next three installments.  A sequel by Grant and Gulacy is reportedly already in the works.  I certainly recommend this miniseries.  The first issue is still on sale, and it is also available digitally.  I hope everyone will check it out.