Doctor Who reviews: The Angels Take Manhattan

In last night’s Doctor Who episode “The Angels Take Manhattan,” Amy Pond and Rory Williams, after years of traveling through time & space with the Doctor, bid farewell to the man in the Police Box.

The news that actors Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill would be leaving Doctor Who in this episode had been circulating for several months now, leading to much speculation as to how exactly Amy and Rory would be written out of the series.  I was personally wondering if they would be given a dignified exit that didn’t feel silly or nonsensical, because, to be honest, I always found the two characters to be inconsistently written over their two and a half year period on the show.

At times Amy could be very likable, one of the best companions the Doctor had; at other times she was just plain annoying.  My feelings ran hot & cold for her from episode to episode.  Rory, likewise, was great as the unassuming everyman who became a heroic figure, the immortal Last Centurion who guarded over Amy for two millennia while she was in suspended animation in the Pandorica.  I wasn’t quite as enamored with Rory when certain writers cast him as a bumbling fifth wheel whose presence felt extraneous to the friendship between Amy and the Doctor.  So it was actually very fortunate that writer Steven Moffat brought his A-game to “The Angels Take Manhattan,” giving both Amy and Rory a very good script to exit on, one that really highlighted their strengths as characters.

Another character whom I’ve have fluctuating feelings towards is Amy and Rory’s half-human, half-Time Lord daughter, the time traveling archeologist River Song, portrayed by Alex Kingston.  Part of the reason why I think the character has been so variable is because the Doctor is always meeting her chronologically out-of-order.  And when she is a younger individual, River is just, well, annoyingly smug and ridiculously impulsive.  I like her better during her appearances from later on in her personal timeline, when she’s mellowed out and become less bat$#!+ crazy.  Given that “The Angels Take Manhattan” is the last appearance of her parents on the series, it makes sense for River to pop up in this episode.  Fortunately, we mostly see her in a more low-key, introspective state here.

The Weeping Angels

This episode also sees the return of the Weeping Angels.  Their 2007 debut story “Blink” is probably the all time scariest Doctor Who episode ever made.  I was underwhelmed by their return to the series in the 2010 “Time of the Angels” / “Flesh and Stone” two-part story, though, and subsequently wondered if they should have been a one-off villain.  But “The Angels Take Manhattan” definitely restored the Weeping Angels to the status of one of the Doctor’s most terrifying foes.

In “The Angels Take Manhattan,” the Weeping Angels have infested New York City.  This time, though, instead of simply sending people back in time decades and feeding off the energy of their lost lifetimes, the Angels are also imprisoning their victims in an apartment building near Battery Park, keeping them trapped there for the rest of their lives, using them as living batteries.  It takes an already horrible fate and makes it infinitely worse.

The Doctor is completely unaware of all this, of course, when he lands the TARDIS in NYC in 2012.  Relaxing in Central Park, having a picnic lunch with Amy and Rory, the Doctor is reading a mystery novel he happened to find in his jacket pocket.  Then Rory disappears on the way back to the Park from a coffee run, and the Doctor realizes that he is reading no ordinary book.  It’s actually penned by River Song, and it tells him that Rory has been sent by the Weeping Angels back to the 1930s.  Taking the TARDIS back in time, the Doctor and Amy meet up with River and track Rory to the apartment block in downtown Manhattan, where they hope to rescue him from a lifetime of imprisonment by the Angels.

The quality of “The Angels Take Manhattan” that meant the most to me is that it finally, after two and a half years of episodes, cemented Amy and Rory’s relationship.  For all the time Rory has been with Amy, he has been plagued by doubts that Amy really loved him as much as he loved her, that she would rather be with the Doctor than with him.  As a viewer, I have often wondered which relationship is supposed to be the closer, stronger one, Amy and Rory’s marriage, or Amy and the Doctor’s friendship.  It really is a very moving scene when Rory, to escape being trapped by the Angels, is willing to take his own life, thereby creating a temporal paradox which will wipe out their presence in New York City, and Amy decides to join him.  We see that she would rather die with him than live without him.  Moffat’s writing, buoyed by Darvill and Gillan’s acting, movingly demonstrates Rory’s very human bravery and Amy’s strong, passionate love & commitment to him.

Rory and Amy’s goodbye kiss

If there was a weakness in the story, it would be that I find it difficult to wrap my head around the idea of the Doctor and River Song being married.  River more than once refers to the Doctor as her husband, and it feels odd.  The best scene between the two was their final one, where it is the Doctor and River in the TARDIS by themselves.  I realized then that when Moffat really needs to do is write at least one episode with just the Doctor and River traveling together, to really give Matt Smith and Alex Kingston an opportunity to explore the rapport that is supposed to exist between their two characters.  There is a lot of potential there, especially the fact that the Doctor knows how River is eventually going to die, knowledge he cannot share with her, and with that an awareness that any time he has with her is limited.  “The Angels Take Manhattan” makes the point that the Doctor hates endings, hates to say goodbye.  So how must he feel about River, having already seen her demise?  There is a lot to explore here, but I feel Moffat really needs to do it in a story without any other companions taking up the spotlight.

As an American fan of Doctor Who, I do appreciate the fact that the new series now had the budget and technology to either make the occasional trip abroad to film a story here in the States, or at least make it appear to be set somewhere here.  It was definitely cool to watch the characters walking about Central Park and the streets of Manhattan, actual places that I see in my daily life.  It definitely makes a pleasant change from having all the Earth-bound episodes set in Great Britain.

Actually, this reminds me a bit of Doctor Who in the 1960s, when often the production teams’ reach may have exceeded their grasp, and they strove to recreate all manner of geographical & historical settings in a tiny studio with a shoestring budget.  The creators of those early episodes may have been overambitious, but they were not afraid to try and achieve the impossible.  There’s a lot of that same quality to the present-day series.

Comic book reviews: The Judas Coin, by Walter Simonson

The new graphic novel The Judas Coin, written & drawn by Walter Simonson, published by DC Comics, is a collection of six interconnected short stories.  The linking thread is a cursed Roman coin, one of the thirty pieces of silver Judas was paid to betray Jesus.  Over a two thousand year period, this silver coin traverses the globe, bringing with it murder, treachery, and general ill-fortune to anyone unlucky enough to come into its possession.

Simonson selects an interesting assortment of characters to feature in his stories, many of them rather obscure: The Golden Gladiator (73 AD), The Viking Prince (1000 AD), Captain Fear (1720 AD), Bat Lash (1881 AD), Two-Face & Batman (The Present), and Manhunter 2070 (2087 AD).  I had at least a passing knowledge of most of these.  After all, everyone knows Batman and Two-Face!  I knew of The Viking Prince and Bat Lash as having been illustrated in the past by Joe Kubert and Nick Cardy, respectively.  Captain Fear, coincidentally, is a character I came across a few months ago when buying back issues of The Unknown Soldier, a couple of which featured the swashbuckling pirate as the back-up feature drawn by a young Walter Simonson himself.  The only two I was totally in the dark about were the Golden Gladiator and the future Manhunter.  But Simonson does a good job making each story in The Judas Coin accessible, providing enough information that one could be completely unfamiliar with all of these individuals and still enjoy the book.

The Judas Coin, by Walter Simonson
The Judas Coin, by Walter Simonson

With each segment, Simonson chose to experiment with his art style & storytelling.  For example, on the Golden Gladiator tale, he was influenced greatly by both Prince Valiant creator Hal Foster and the Dell Comics adaptation of the film Helen of Troy drawn by John Buscema.  The Two-Face & Batman tale is done in a newspaper comic strip style, black & white, with the page layout turned vertically.  Here, Simonson drew inspiration from the work of Yaroslav Horak, the artist who drew the James Bond newspaper strip in the late 1960s and 70s.  I actually knew of Horak’s work beforehand, as Titan Books collected the entire run of the strip in a series of trade paperbacks several years ago, and I own one of those.  On the Manhunter story, we see Simonson attempting to do a Manga-esque version of his work.  It is a bizarre jumble of styles, I have to say, and I would not want to see him draw like that all the time, but it makes for an interesting experiment.

The stories range from the whimsical to the truly dark.  One quality of Simonson’s writing I have always appreciated is that he can tell very serious stories yet successfully imbue them with a sense of humor.  That’s certainly true of The Judas Coin.  I was especially struck by the tone of the Manhunter 2070 segment, which begins as a rather wacky space opera, full of rocket ships, sexy girls and space pirates, but gradually veers into darker territory, ending on a very somber, introspective note.  It is an effectively moody conclusion for a blood-soaked odyssey spanning two millennia.

I’ve been looking forward to this book for some time now.  Simonson was a guest at the Hawthorne NJ Comic Con in May of last year, and he brought along with him a portfolio containing photocopies of some of the pages from The Judas Coin.  The artwork, which was from the Viking Prince segment, looked absolutely amazing.  Apparently Simonson has been working on The Judas Coin for several years now.  The effort certainly shows in his work on this book, which contains some of the best work of his career.  There is some magnificent storytelling on display in Simonson’s artwork, and the varying of styles allows him to utilize a number of different techniques, demonstrating his versatility.

The Judas Coin, page 24, featuring The Viking Prince
The Judas Coin, page 24, featuring The Viking Prince

The lettering by John Workman is very well done.  I believe Workman is Simonson’s letterer of choice, and they have worked together on a number of projects throughout the years.  He utilizes a series of effective, dramatic fonts.

Additionally, there is some wonderful coloring on The Judas Coin by Lovern Kindzierski.  I remember his work very well from the 1990s.  I am not an expert on coloring, but he does a superb job at varying the palette and tones of his work to suit the atmosphere and style of each segment.

So how good was The Judas Coin?  Well, I read the whole thing in one sitting.  Okay, halfway through, I did take a break to have lunch because I was hungry, but then I picked the book right up.  And then right when I got to the Manhunter chapter, my girlfriend asked me to go down the street and get her an iced coffee at Dunkin Donuts, so I had to put the book down a second time.  Sorry, Mr. Simonson, but in a toss-up between my girlfriend and comic books, I try to pick the former. It’s usually safer that way!  But other than lunch and iced coffee, yep, I read it straight through.

Seriously, though, The Judas Coin a good read with superb artwork, and I highly recommend it.

Doctor Who reviews: A Town Called Mercy

In the Doctor Who episode “A Town Called Mercy,” the Doctor, Any and Rory arrive in the American Southwest in the late 19th Century.  The Doctor learns that the town of Mercy is harboring Kahler-Jex, a crash-landed alien scientist, who in return for safe haven has cured the town’s cholera outbreak and wired it up for heat & electricity.  Now, though, a deadly cyborg hunter known as the Gunslinger is camped outside of Mercy, demanding the town turn over Kahler-Jex to him for execution.  The Doctor attempts to come up with a plan to aid Kahler-Jex in his escape, but cuts short his efforts when he locates the alien’s spacecraft, intact, out in the desert.  Suspicious, the Doctor accesses the ship’s log, and learns that Kahler-Jex was part of a group of scientists who performed a series of hideous medical experiments to create a cyborg army in the hopes of ending a war that had decimated their planet for nearly a decade.  The cyborgs did indeed bring a quick end to the carnage, but one of them, the Gunslinger, went rogue and began hunting down the team who created it.  Kahler-Jex is the last survivor.  The Doctor is now confronted with the moral dilemma of whether to still aid Kahler-Jex, or to leave him to the Gunslinger’s brand of justice.

The Doctor’s first reaction to Kahler-Jex’s true nature is one of absolute disgust.  Charging back into town, he forces the scientist out into the desert at gunpoint, ready to give him over to the Gunslinger.  Although shocking, I do not think this action came out of nowhere.  In the episode preceding this one, “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship,” the Doctor left the ruthless space pirate Solomon, who had murdered thousands of innocent Silurians, to be killed when a fleet of missiles was diverted towards his spaceship.  I was a bit surprised by that, as the Doctor very rarely kills anyone in cold blood.  But Matt Smith had done such a superb job of conveying the Doctor’s slowly mounting anger at the pirate’s crimes, so that it seemed understandable from the Doctor’s point of view that he did what he did.  And, indeed, “A Town Called Mercy” follows up on the Doctor’s changing attitude.

Once again, Smith brilliantly conveys the cold fury coursing through the Doctor.  In a brilliant exchange penned by writer Toby Whithouse, a shocked Amy demands to know why killing has suddenly become a choice.  And the Doctor, full of rage & anguish, tells her “But they keep coming back, don’t you see? Every time I negotiate, I try to understand. Well not today. No, today I honor the victims first. His, the Master’s, the Daleks’.  All the people that died because of my mercy!”  And Amy responds by telling him “This is what happens when you travel alone for too long.”

Whithouse’s script is tapping into the idea that the Doctor’s companions serve to ground him, to give him the ability to empathize, and grant him morality.  This is something that was seen in David Tennant’s final year on the show, but actually goes back to the very first season of Doctor Who, broadcast in 1963-4.  When we first see the Doctor at the start of the series, he is rather ruthless, manipulative figure, kidnapping Ian Chesterton & Barbara Wright to keep his granddaughter Susan from leaving him, ready to bash in a caveman’s skull with a rock to save his own life, and sabotaging the TARDIS so that he has the opportunity to stay and explore an alien planet.  But Ian and Barbara had a humanizing effect on the Doctor.  Their presence gradually seemed to make him a better person.  And by the time the serial “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” aired a year later, it was the Doctor who was stopping others from killing in cold blood, stating that he would only take a life in defense of his own.

High Noon for the Doctor

“A Town Called Mercy” presents a very real moral conundrum for the Doctor.  The character of Kahler-Jex is a very complex one.  He epitomizes just how much of a fine line there is between “war hero” and “war criminal.”  Kahler-Jex feels he absolutely did the right thing in creating the cyborg army, that he saved millions of lives.  Yet, when pressed on the issue, he is forced to admit innocent people suffered & died on his operating tables in order for that to be achieved.  He is a mixture of self-righteous justification and monumental guilt.  And, as the Doctor points out to him, now the citizens of Mercy have been drawn into his conflict, putting the fate of further innocent people in his hands.  Adrian Scarborough does a magnificent job at portraying this contradictory, conflicted individual.

This is one of the few Doctor Who stories I can recall offhand with such a high level of moral ambiguity to it.  Reflecting on the Doctor’s ambivalence about what to do with him, Kahler-Jex observes “It would be so much simpler if I was just one thing, wouldn’t it? The mad scientist who made that killing machine. Or the physician who’s dedicated his life to serving this town. The fact that I’m both bewilders you.”  Whithouse did an excellent job scripting a story which raises some very difficult questions, really bringing the characters to life.

In the end, there aren’t any easy answers offered in “A Town Called Mercy.”  While on a certain level this is frustrating, it is also more realistic.  As those who regularly read this blog may realize, I am not any kind of adherent to black & white morality, to Objectivist thinking.  In real life, answers very seldom come wrapped in neat little packages marked “right” and “wrong.”  This story address that, as we see the characters grapple with the issues and try to come up with the best possible solution to a complicated problem.

I was very impressed by the production values of the episode.  It really did look like it was set the post-Civil War American West… or, at least it looked like what we’ve come to think of as the Old West.  After all, I myself have never actually been in a time machine that took me back to Arizona in the 1880s, so I can only comment on the seeming air of authenticity!  I’ve read that the Doctor Who team actually filmed this episode in Spain, with sets from an old Sergio Leone western being utilized.  However they pulled it off, it looked great.

I cannot even think of anything critical to say about composer Murray Gold.  Often I have found his scores for Doctor Who to be too whimsical.  But on “A Town Called Mercy,” Gold absolutely hit all the right notes (no pun intended).  When it needed to, his music absolutely packed the requisite emotional punch.

My only real complaint concerning “A Town Called Mercy” is that Rory seemed to be a fifth wheel for most of it, either running around to provide a distraction for the Doctor or just standing in the background.  I probably should not complain; he received a really prominent role just last week in “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.”  It’s just that Whithouse appears to have written a script that could have easily functioned with only just the Doctor and Amy.  From what I’ve read, there are just two more episodes before both Amy and Rory leave the series for good.  So I certainly hope those stories give him more of a presence before that departure.

Reflections on Criminal Minds

I’ve been a fan of the type of mystery stories commonly referred to as “police procedurals” since I was a teenager, reading Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels.  In my college years and twenties, I was a huge fan of the television show Law & Order.  I watched CSI for a short time.  But within the last few years, I have really gotten into the series Criminal Minds, which is broadcast on CBS, as well as re-run in syndication.  With the Season Eight premier scheduled to air on September 26, I wanted to take a glance back at the show’s past.

Criminal Minds follows the adventures of an FBI division known as the Behavioral Analysis Unit, or BAU.  The agents of the BAU use a combination of psychology, forensics, and computers to track down an assortment of criminal “Unsubs” or unknown subjects.  The majority of the BAU’s targets are serial killers, although they have also tackled rapists, arsonists, mad bombers, kidnappers, religious cults, and terrorists.

What I find most interesting about the series are the characters.  The members of the BAU are all very well written parts, played by a group of talented actors.  There is a lot of real chemistry on screen, as we see this group of profilers working as a team to crack a case.  A large part of this is that the BAU has bonded into a surrogate family of sorts.  Dramatically, this makes a lot of sense.  The criminals they pursue, who are among the most depraved examples of humanity, often come from extremely dysfunctional, broken backgrounds, or they are sociopaths, individuals who are incapable of true emotional attachment & connections.  Given this, it makes sense that the BAU members would form a kind of family unit to hold themselves together and retain their sanity in the face of unremitting horrors.

If there is one character on Criminal Minds that I can identify with, it would have to be Spencer Reid, portrayed by Matthew Gray Gubler.  If I was a much, much, much smarter man, I could see myself as Reid, who possesses an uncanny encyclopedic knowledge, yet who is both extremely socially awkward and who is haunted by fears of mental illness.  Gubler really does a superb job making Reid a three-dimensional character.

I also love the character of Penelope Garcia, a former computer hacker who was recruited by the FBI to be the BAU’s resident tech whiz.  In a way, Garcia sometimes veers dangerously close to being a plot device, with her uncanny ability to near-instantly access any electronic information just in the nick of time.  But she’s saved for becoming a deus ex machina both by the writing and the acting.  Kirsten Vangsness makes her into a lively, sassy geek girl who is a mixture of attitude and innocence.  I was once talking over Criminal Minds with a friend who also watches the show, and she was not at all surprised that I like the character of Garcia, as she saw similarities between her and my girlfriend.  Had not noticed them before, but yeah, I guess she’s right about that.

The cast of Criminal Minds from Seasons Three to Six.

The original lead character on Criminal Minds during the show’s first two years was Jason Gideon, portrayed by Mandy Patankin (yep, Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride).  When we first meet Gideon in the pilot episode, he is returning the BAU after suffering from a work-related nervous breakdown.  After an intense manhunt for a mass murderer who had claimed over a hundred victims, Gideon finally realized he was once again suffering from burnout and abruptly quit the BAU.

His replacement could not be more different.  Whereas Gideon was cerebral and low-key, David Rossi, played by Joe Mantegna, could be described as something of a hot shot, career-driven superstar profiler.  One of the agents who helped establish the BAU, Rossi subsequently left the FBI for a time to write true crime books, becoming a bestselling author.  But eventually he came to have a crisis of conscience, realizing that his books were immortalizing the monsters that he had helped capture, while causing the victims to be forgotten.  Rossi returned to the BAU to tackle a twenty year old unsolved case that had haunted him, and stayed on in hopes of making amends for putting his ambition ahead of other considerations.

The head of the BAU is Aaron “Hotch” Hotchner, portrayed by Thomas Gibson.  An intense individual, Hotch spent many long hours on the job, much to the consternation of his wife Haley, who finally divorced him.  Tragically, Hotch became caught up in a game of cat & mouse with a serial killer who took on the alias of the Reaper, and Haley became one of his victims.  After killing the Reaper in a brutal hand-to-hand fight, Hotch was left to raise his young son Jack by himself.  Choosing to stay on with the BAU, Hotch juggles the demands of job and family, while trying to re-establish a personal life for himself in the wake of his tragic loss.

I would say that the majority of the episodes of Criminal Minds do adhere to a certain formula, in that a series of killings take place somewhere in the United States, and the BAU is called in.  While the team carries out their investigation, we see the parallel plotline of the killer at work, stalking his latest target.  It soon becomes a race against time, with the BAU attempting to identify and locate the Unsub before he can finish off his current victim.  What makes the show work, despite the repetition, is the aforementioned high quality of writing and acting.  In addition, there is the fascinating look at the BAU assembling psychological profiles of the criminals, methodically deducing through actions and evidence just what makes these twisted individuals tick.

Admittedly, there appears to be a certain amount of, shall we say, exaggeration for dramatic purposes.  The majority of episodes of Criminal Minds take place within a matter of days.  In real life, it might take the FBI or other law enforcement agencies weeks or months, perhaps even years, to crack a particular case.  Obviously events are truncated, otherwise Criminal Minds would be a very slow moving show.

Criminal Minds is often an extremely dark show.  And, certainly, I sometimes think the on-screen violence gets too intense.  So I would not recommend it for everyone.  But it is definitely a very well produced series, and I’m looking forward to its return to television later this month.

Comic book reviews: New Crusaders #1

Archie Comics is, of course, very well known for publishing the fun, comedic adventures of Archie, Betty, Veronica, Jughead, and the rest of the gang from Riverdale.  What is probably not as well known is that throughout their 73 year history is that they have, from time to time, dabbled in superhero comic books.

I first became aware of characters such as the Shield, the Fly, and the Comet back in the early 1990s.  DC Comics had licensed the Archie superheroes and created new interpretations of them under an imprint titled Impact Comics (or !mpact Comics with an exclamation point).  Impact only lasted about two years before being canceled due to low sales, but I tremendously enjoyed those books they put out during that brief time.  And I discovered a few of the earlier Archie-published comics in the back issue bins, including an issue of Mighty Crusaders from the early 1980s featuring artwork by comic book legends Rich Buckler, Dick Ayers, Tony DeZuniga, and Rudy Nebres.

A few years ago there was apparently a second, more recent attempt by DC to license the Archie superheroes, this time to integrate them directly into DC continuity, but for one reason or another this didn’t work out, and the properties are now back with their owners.  Archie has revived their old Red Circle Comics imprint and are publishing New Crusaders: Rise of the Heroes.  The series actually made its debut in an online digital format a few months ago, but this past week it came out in print format with the release of New Crusaders #1 in comic book shops.

Yesterday, Midtown Comics did a signing featuring several of the creators involved with New Crusaders: writer Ian Flynn, cover artist Ryan Jampole, and artist Alitha Martinez, who takes over drawing the series with issue #3.  Since I was such a fan of the Impact incarnations of these characters, I went to the signing to purchase New Crusaders #1.  I had the chance to talk to Ian Flynn for a few minutes, and he seems to have a lot of enthusiasm and ideas for the series.  He mentioned doing a quite a bit of research into the various past incarnations of the Archie heroes in preparation for chronicling their new adventures.

New Crusaders #1, autographed by Ian Flynn and Ryan Jampole
New Crusaders #1, autographed by Ian Flynn and Ryan Jampole

New Crusaders #1 opens with a reunion of the members of the superhero team the Mighty Crusaders, who are now all retired to the town of Red Circle, living incognito and raising families, their arch-foes defeated years before under unrevealed circumstances.  Unfortunately, the aging heroes are attacked by a menace from the past that crashes the reunion.  While the majority of the adults try to hold back their old enemy, the Shield takes their teenage children to safety.

Flynn appears to be establishing a scenario wherein the children of the Mighty Crusaders have to step into the void left by their defeated parents, with the Shield serving as mentor to the new team.  The first issue of New Crusaders serves as a set-up for this by introducing the young cast and showing the fall of the original heroes.  It is always the hallmark of a good comic book that when you get to the end of the issue you cannot wait for the next to come out to see what happens next.  That was certainly the case here, and I am eagerly anticipating next month’s issue.

Writing for an all-ages audience is not an easy task.  A lot of the time, there is an awful temptation to talk down to children, to make things overly simple or safe.  It’s all too easy to underestimate younger readers.  But I guess I am young enough that I can still remember what it was like to be a kid and encounter material that felt like it was being condescending to me or underestimating me as a reader.  Flynn does not make that mistake here.  He writes a story that is truly appropriate for all ages, one that both children and adults can appreciate.  I have to give him major recognition for that and, as I said before, I am looking forward to what he does with this series next.

As to the artwork, Ben Bates & Gary Martin do a very lovely job, with an animated style.  I was very much reminded of the work of the late Mike Parobeck (who, incidentally, drew The Fly for Impact Comics).  I’m a big fan of that style, and it works perfectly here.  I think that it has a deceptively simple look to it, but that drawing in such a style can actually be much more difficult.  The artist cannot hide behind over-rendering, crosshatching, or any other embellishments, instead having to rely on good, solid storytelling.  Certainly the penciling by Bates is very good in this respect, very clear & concise.  The inking by Martin has a very neat, solid line to it, as well.

As I understand it, Alitha Martinez will be coming onboard with New Crusaders #3, working over Bates’ pencil layouts, before then taking over full art chores with the subsequent issue.  In the past, she’s done nice work on Iron Man and Marvel Adventures Fantastic Four.  Recently, she penciled a couple of fill-in issues of Batgirl that were stunning.  The previews of her work for New Crusaders #3 that I’ve seen online look very promising.

For those who have lamented that both DC and Marvel’s recent “renovations” or “reboots” of their superhero comic book lines were not reader friendly, I would recommend checking out New Crusaders, either in the comic shops, or on the Red Circle website.  If the first issue is any indication, it’s a very promising title, one that hopefully will bring in a lot of younger readers.  As for myself, I’m 36 years old, but I fully intend to see where it goes.

Doctor Who reviews: Asylum of the Daleks

Dalek Prime Minister: What do you know of the Dalek Asylum?
The Doctor: According to legend you have a dumping ground. A planet where you lock up all the Daleks that go wrong. The battle-scarred, the insane, the ones even you can’t control. Which never made any sense to me.
Dalek Prime Minister: Why not?
The Doctor: Because you’d just kill them.
Dalek Prime Minister: It is offensive to us to extinguish such divine hatred.
The Doctor: Offensive?
Dalek Prime Minister: Does it surprise you to know that Daleks have a concept of beauty?
The Doctor: I thought you’d run out of ways to make me sick. But hello again. You think hatred is beautiful?
Dalek Prime Minister: Perhaps that is why we have never been able to kill you.

“Asylum of the Daleks” is the premier episode of Doctor Who Series Seven, featuring Matt Smith as the Doctor, Karen Gillan as Amy Pond, and Arthur Darvill as Rory Williams.  I have to say, it’s great that here in the States we are now getting to see brand  new episodes of Doctor Who so soon after their first airing in the UK.  For a long time, there would be a wait of two or three years for the shows to make it across the Atlantic.  But now they are aired on BBC America within a matter of a couple of days.

In any case, “Asylum of the Daleks” was a pretty good opening episode for the new season.  The Parliament of the Daleks has discovered that the human spaceship Alaska has crash-landed on their Asylum world, breaching a supposedly-impenetrable force field.  And if something can get in, then it follows that something could likewise get out.  Fearful that the insane inmates of the Asylum will break loose and attack their captors, the Parliament forcibly recruits the Doctor and his companions to travel to the planet and shut down the force shields, which will thereby enable the Dalek fleet to then obliterate the planet.

The Daleks have always been experts at manipulating other beings into doing their dirty work, often using deception, fear, or mind control as incentives.  All of these tools are on display in “Asylum of the Daleks,” taken up several notches.  They manipulate the Doctor, their arch-nemesis, into aiding them, something they already did once before in “Victory of the Daleks.”  More insidiously, we see the Daleks using nanogenes to convert innocent people into Dalek/human hybrids, twisted creatures that can be used as sleeper agents or weapons.  Even dead, these mutant beings are still useful, becoming zombies armed with Dalek technology.  There is some unsettling material in “Asylum of the Daleks,” as the Daleks casually twist and pervert humanity into tools they can use.  Writer Steven Moffat very much restores the Daleks’ stature as beings of almost pure evil in this story, and Nick Hurran’s excellent direction imbues them with a real sense of menace.

I did think it was rather clever that at least some of the inmates of the Asylum were Daleks who had survived encounters with the Doctor during their past campaigns.  The Doctor has the unique ability to wear down the patience of even his closest friends.  So for a species such as the Daleks, who are obsessed with overcoming him, being defeated by him would no doubt be enough to drive them insane.

The lunatics have taken over the asylum

One of the reasons why the Doctor agrees to go along with the Dalek Parliament’s plans is because at least one member of the Alaska’s crew survived the crash, a computer genius named Oswin, portrayed by Jenna-Louise Coleman.  Oswin has been stranded on Asylum for a year now, wrecking havoc with the planet’s infrastructure and baking soufflés while zinging witty bon mots.  At first, with her unnatural grace under fire and her quick-witted repartee, I had almost written off Oswin as yet another of Moffat’s uber-competent heroines along the lines of Amy and River Song.  But right from the start, there are hints that all is not what it seems with Oswin, and the Doctor picks up on these right away.  When he finally discovers the truth about her, it is a truly horrifying, tragic revelation.  I don’t know if other viewers saw it coming, but I certainly did not.

There is also a subplot concerning the impending dissolution of Amy and Rory’s marriage.  Amy has become a high fashion model and is seemingly ready to chuck her relationship with Rory in the rubbish, casually signing divorce papers right before the two of them are kidnapped by the Daleks to join up with the Doctor.  Towards the end of the episode, we finally learn why Amy is so ready to throw in the towel.  It does seem incredulous that this is a topic that she never even attempted to discuss with Rory before, putting up a false appearance of indifference.  That said, the actual scene where Rory forces Amy to admit what is going on is in and of itself well written, and both Arthur Darvill and Karen Gillan play in marvelously.

I mentioned before Oswin’s flair for witticisms.  If there is one overriding criticism that I’ve had with Doctor Who since its revival, first under Russell T Davies and now with Steven Moffat, it is that both of them have often made too much of an effort at penning this sort of rapid-fire, clever, ultra-self aware dialogue.  I much prefer it when the scripting goes more low-key.  Some of the best scenes in “Asylum of the Daleks” are the more restrained ones.  Matt Smith is especially good at taking these very big, emotional moments of anger, excitement, or sadness, and underplaying them.  It is much more effective than playing it loud and broadly.

The music by Murray Gold was, for the most part, effective.  However, it did seem a bit too whimsical at times for what was such a dark story.  On more than one occasion, I wondered to myself how much different the mood of show would have been if it had been composed by Peter Howell or Roger Limb, both of whom were composers on Doctor Who in the 1980s.  I think it would be interesting to have either one of them contribute to the revived series, especially on one of the more atmospheric episodes such as this one.

So, though not perfect, “Asylum of the Daleks” is a decent episode.  It’s good to have Doctor Who back on our television screens, and this opening episode leaves me anticipating the rest of the forthcoming season.

Comic book reviews: Femforce #160

I have to be honest: about 13 years ago, when I first heard of the comic book series Femforce, published by AC Comics, I initially wrote it off as yet another “bad girl” comic book, sight unseen.  Of course, I soon after learned three significant facts about the series.  One, it had begun publication in 1985, several years before the whole bad girl anti-hero movement had kicked off.  Two, many of the characters in Femforce actually dated back to the 1940s, and had been revived by publisher Bill Black.  Three, in the early 1990s a number of issues of Femforce had been penciled by Silver Age artist Dick Ayers.

That last item that really caught my attention.  I’m very fond of Ayers’ artwork.  In addition, I’ve met him and his wife Lindy at a number of conventions over the years.  I figured that if Ayers was involved with Femforce, it had to be worth checking out.

A local comic shop happened to have a box full of early Femforce issues, along with a few other AC Comics titles, such as Nightveil and Sentinels of Justice, which I was able to buy up pretty inexpensively.  I quickly got caught up on the series, and I found it was a fun title with interesting, well-developed characters.  Yes, the female protagonists were all sexy women, but they were drawn in a retro “good girl” style that wasn’t exploitative.  More importantly, Bill Black and frequent collaborator Mark Heike developed personalities and rich back stories for their cast of lovely ladies.

femforce 160 cover

In the last few years, due to the difficulties in distributing & selling independent titles, Black and Heike have altered the format of Femforce somewhat.  It is now a quarterly 80-page title priced at $9.95 with shorter stories by an assortment of creators.  I have to admit, I do miss the days when the series had full-length stories featuring the entire team, with Black and Heike themselves as the driving forces behind the series.  But I can understand why changes needed to be made, and I’m glad that the book continues to exist in some format.

The latest issue, Femforce #160, is topped off by a cover by the very talented Eduardo Barreto, whose work I’ve always enjoyed.  Tragically, Barreto passed away at the much too young age of 57 in December of last year.  This must have been one of the last pieces he drew before his untimely death.  It really is a lovely cover, featuring images of team members She-Cat, Stardust, and Ms. Victory.

Inside, what really impressed me, as always, was the artwork.  I’ve gotten so tired of much of the material at the “Big Two,” Marvel and DC.  You either have over-rendered work with ridiculous amounts of crosshatching, or you get Manga-inspired styles with poor storytelling.  These have pervaded through much of Marvel and DC’s products.  What I like about the artwork on Femforce is that it’s clean-cut.  The penciling reminds me of such 1970s & 80s artists as Ron Wilson, Alex Saviuk, and Alan Kupperberg, who have clear, solid storytelling abilities.  The inking is reminiscent of the Filipino school of illustration, with its rich embellishments.  I’m a huge fan of that style, as well, so I like the combination of the two.

My only real criticism of the art is that at times the blacks do print somewhat dark.  It would be lovely to see some gray tones & shading.

femforce 160 pg 34

The stories in Femforce #160 are all on the short side, each a solo tale of one of the team members.  I guess the problem I had with these is that none of them really felt like the events in them had any significance to them.  The two exceptions were the Synn and Nightveil stories, but each of those had this real dream-like quality, and at the end you weren’t entirely certain what did and did not occur.  Having said that, the Nightveil episode appears to be a set-up for future events, and so I have to wait and see what that leads to.

There was also a Stardust solo story in #160 that was good.  The story by Eric Johnson, although a bit on the slight side, was fun.  I was certainly impressed by the dynamic artwork by Chris Allen and Scott Shriver.

As I mentioned earlier, I am more of a fan of the longer tales featuring several of the ladies of Femforce working together on a big case.  I’m thinking specifically of “Full Circle” a 42-page story written by Mark Heike that ran ten issues ago.  That was divided up into shorter chapters, with a different art team illustrating each segment.   I felt that worked extremely well.

femforce 160 pg 11

One definite improvement to Femforce is that the Gargantarama flip book has been dropped.  I never understood the appeal of all those giant women.  Yeah, I don’t mind if Tara the Jungle Girl would sometimes develop the power to grow to be 50 feet tall, or that Femforce would occasionally fight a six story tall female menace.  But devoting almost a third of the book’s page count to a flip book featuring stories of giant women was excessive, in my opinion.  In #160 we do get one giant woman tale, and that’s just enough for me.

Anyway, putting humongous females aside, Femforce is a fun comic with cool characters and fantastic art.  I’m happy that Bill Black and Mark Heike have been able to continue to publish this series.

I definitely recommend taking a look at the AC Comics website, where there is a huge selection of Femforce back issues & trade paperbacks available.  AC has also released a number of old sci-fi and horror movies & serials onto DVD and has them for sale.  There’s some interesting, rare material being offered.  AC has even produced several low-budget direct-to-DVD movies based on the Femforce characters.  You can really see the fondness that Bill Black has for his characters & stories, devoting all that time & creative energy into bringing them to life.