My nutty Thanksgiving weekend

This year my Thanksgiving weekend was crazier than usual.  Last Monday, I received a phone call from a temp agency that I registered with some time ago.  I’ve been trying to get work thru them for a while now, because it seems that they have a lot of good positions with really big companies, openings that pay well and might eventually lead to something permanent down the road.  It turned out that this temp agency wanted to send me out on an assignment, all right, but not for an office job.  No, it was a retail job at a big department store in the Herald Square area of Manhattan.  I would go in for a half day of training on Wednesday, and then return for an eight hour shift on Friday.  Yep, that’s right: Black Friday.

I’ve worked retail during the holiday season before, about a dozen years ago.  It wasn’t pretty.  Crowds of people packed in tight, scrambling to grab all the big “deals.”  I do not even like the idea of shopping on Black Friday.  So the thought of actually working on it filled me with genuine fear.  Nevertheless, I accepted the assignment because, as I said, I’ve wanted to get work from this agency for a while now, and I thought this would be a good way to get a foot in the door.

Everything went fine on Wednesday.  I showed up, did the four hours of training, and left.  Thursday I was nervous, but I tried my best to stay calm.  I went to bed early, so I’d have plenty of sleep.  Friday rolled around, and I got up around 6:15.  Made it to the store in plenty of time of the beginning of the 9 AM shift.  I get assigned to the third floor, and one of the supervisors tells me to walk around & straighten things up, because customers were leaving things in a mess.  I do this for about 45 minutes when the store manager calls me over and takes me to the back office.  I find out that there’s been a mistake made.  Of the 16 people who showed up on Wednesday for training, only 12 were supposed to actually return on Friday to work.  I was one of the four who wasn’t picked to work Friday, but somehow there’s been a miscommunication and everyone came back.  I’m told they don’t need me, and I should call the temp agency to find out what happened.

Hmmph!  After all that worry, I’m in & out the door in under an hour!  So I call up the temp agency, and they have a totally lame excuse.  According to them, everyone who the store wanted to return on Friday received a confirmation e-mail telling them to come back, and if you did not get an e-mail, you should have known not to return on Friday.  They acted like this was so blindingly obvious, and seemed to take the attitude that I made some sort of moronic mistake.  Uh huh.  If it was so obvious, why did everyone come back on Friday?  If all four people who didn’t get an e-mail were clueless that they were not supposed to be there, then it’s not so obvious, is it?  Really, it seems very apparent that the agency should have notified everyone as to whether or not they were supposed to report to work.

Anyway, since I was already in Manhattan, I decided to walk over to Midtown Comics, which was having a 25% off everything until 12 noon sale.  I purchased a handful of trade paperbacks that I’d been meaning to get for a while now, but that I’d been putting off buying for an occasion such as this.  So it wasn’t a total waste of a morning.

Back-tracking to Thursday, Thanksgiving itself was fun.  When I was a teenager in the 1990s, I used to watch the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Turkey Day marathon each Thanksgiving morning.  I miss those.  They used to be one of the highlights of the whole day for me.  I decided to recapture some of the spirit of those days by playing a couple of MST3K episodes on the DVD.  First up was the Turkey Day edition of Night of the Blood Beast, a 1958 cheese-fest produced by schlock filmmaker Roger Corman.  The monster in this movie looks like a giant flame-broiled parakeet.  Next I watched the MST3K edition of Gamera, which was the first of the giant flying turtle movies to come out of Japan.  Strangely, while it was on, I could have sworn our pet turtle Meeshee was watching the TV from her tank.

For dinner, Michele and I met up with her parents, and we ate out.  The restaurant put together a pretty good Thanksgiving Day spread, with turkey, gravy, stuffing, potatoes, and vegetables.  I wish we could have stayed out longer, but I thought I was going to be working the next morning.  We all know how that turned out.

After the Black Friday mix-up the next day, I returned to Queens.  Michele had been invited to a party by her friend Pam, so that night we headed to Brooklyn.  It was a cool get-together.  We were there most of the night.  It’s a good thing I quit drinking a few years ago, because there was a ton of booze at the party.  If I had been imbibing, I’m sure I would have gotten totally smashed.  As it was, I ended up spending most of the night watching a Jackass marathon on television.  I’ve never actually sat down and watched Jackass before.  Damn, what an incredibly stupid show… yet at the same time, absolutely hysterical in a really sick, twisted way.  I was totally laughing my ass off.  I really had to wonder at what sort of astronomical premiums Steve-O, Johnny Knoxville, and the rest of the gang need to pay on their insurance policies.  That is, assuming any carrier would be willing to cover them.

Around three in the morning a bunch of us headed out to a local bar, the Cobra Club.  With a name like that, you would think it would be a douchebag type of place, but turned out to be really cool.  While we were there, I ran into this guy Alex who I knew from way back when I was living in London, England for six months.  I’d bumped into him in NYC a couple of times since, but it had been years since I’d last seen him.  That was cool.  Back around 2004 he was in this local industrial metal band Still Life Decay whose work I liked.

Shortly before last call, the DJ played “Imagination” by Xymox.  I had not heard that song in years and years.  It was so long, in fact, that I’d forgotten who recorded it.  I ended up downloading it off of Amazon the next day.  It’s always cool to re-discover old music like that.

The rest of the weekend was pretty low key.  I was mostly relaxing and reading comic books.  Sunday night I popped another MST3K episode into the DVD player.  Warrior of the Lost World is one of my all time favorite episodes of that series.  I’ve mentioned it before on this blog.  Suffice to say, I was laughing non-stop as Joel, Tom Servo, and Crow went to town on it.  It was a fun way to end the holiday weekend.

Looking back at Love and Rockets series one

I have been meaning to re-read the first series of Love and Rockets by Jaime & Gilbert Hernandez for some time now.  The first time I read it was over a nearly decade-long period when I sporadically began picking up the 15 book trade paperback set published by Fantagraphics, which reprinted the contents of the initial 50 issue run.

I first picked up book one, Music for Mechanics, at the 2001 Pittsburgh Comic Con.  I had heard about Love and Rockets a number of times in the past, but had never tried it before.  The Hernandez Brothers were guests at the show, so I decided to start at the beginning with the first collection.  I immediately took a liking to Jaime’s “Mechanics” stories, but the offerings by Gilbert, “BEM” and “Music for Monsters,” were very bizarre, surreal pieces, and I just could not get into them.

It wasn’t until a couple of years later, in 2003, that I next read any more of the series.  St. Marks Comics was having a big sale on everything in their store, so I decided to give Love and Rockets another try.  This time I picked up book six, Duck Feet.  This was my first real exposure to Gilbert’s stories of Luba and the denizens of the Latin American village of Palomar, and I really enjoyed it.  Gilbert’s writing was full of character, containing a distinctive voice, his artwork imbued with real atmosphere.

love and rockets duck feet back cover

As for Jaime’s half of the book, with the stories of Maggie, Hopey and friends in Hoppers, that was also enjoyable.  As much as I liked Jaime’s early works, I was even more intrigued by this material, where he had dropped most of the sci-fi trappings to focus on a contemporary setting and the everyday problems of young adults.  And I also thought that Maggie, as cute as she was as a teenager, became much more attractive & sexy when Jaime began drawing her in her twenties with longer hair & a curvy figure.  That image of Maggie from the back cover of Duck Feet is one of my all time favorite depictions of her.

About a year later, the Hernandez Brothers both returned to the East Coast, as guests at the Big Apple Comic Con in NYC.  That is a really mainstream show, so most of the fans that went were there for whatever Marvel, DC, and Image creators happened to be on hand.  Gilbert and Jaime’s table was not busy, so it gave me the opportunity to chat a bit with them, and to get a drawing by Gilbert in my Beautiful Dreamer sketchbook.  A couple of days after the show, the Brothers did a signing at the Forbidden Planet comic shop by Union Square, and that’s when all the long time readers showed up, lining up around the block.  After all that, I really started to get hooked on Love and Rockets, and so spent the next several years hunting down the remaining collected editions.

The final piece of the puzzle was when I started dating my girlfriend Michele, who has been reading Love and Rockets since she was a teenager, and is a tremendous fan of the Hernandez Brothers.  Finally having someone to talk to these stories about made them even more interesting to me, and offered up an alternative perspective on the characters & events.

For the last few years, once I had all fifteen books, I told myself one day I’d sit down and read them in chronological order.  Both Gilbert and Jaime’s characters age in real time, and there is a definite progression of events as their characters go through life.  Well, two months ago I started a temp assignment at the other end of the city, which meant I was riding the subway at least two and a half hours a day.  With all that time to kill, I thought it was an ideal opportunity to finally re-read Love and Rockets series one from beginning to end.  I decided to go through Gilbert’s stories first, and then return to Jaime’s.

love and rockets poison river

For Gilbert’s contributions, I chose to literally take things in chronological order, first skipping ahead to book twelve, Poison River.  This prequel chronicles the life of Luba from infancy to her arrival in Palomar as a young single mother, with her childhood & teenage years recounted against a backdrop of organized crime and political corruption.  After Poison River, I went back to the beginning, with Gilbert’s first “Heartbreak Soup” tales set in Palomar.  Following Luba and the rest of the mammoth cast of Gilbert’s stories in order, watching them age & develop, was a very interesting, insightful experience.  I definitely got to know them much better this time through, both because I was following events in the order they occurred, and with the benefit of one or more previous readings of the stories to give me deeper insight into their lives & personalities.  Gilbert expertly crafted an almost epic tale that spans across a generation, giving us very real, flawed, dysfunctional characters.

One of my girlfriend’s favorite moments from a Gilbert story is contained in “Duck Feet.”  After Palomar’s nightmarish encounter with a lonely bruja (a sort of witch), Luba contemplates “Don’t know what’d be worse… losing someone where I could never be with them again… or having that someone always close by but having lost them just the same.”  It’s a very introspective moment.  This time around, I was left wondering if Gilbert intended this as a foreshadowing of Luba’s eventual estrangement from her daughters.

love and rockets duck feet pg 58

Jamie’s involvement with Love and Rockets is centered on Maggie, Hopey, their gang of friends, and their families.  Initially there are the aforementioned sci-fi elements, with Maggie working as an assistant mechanic repairing rocket ships and pining for the attentions of prosolar mechanic Rand Race.  These aspects are gradually phased out over the early books, and eventually Maggie and Hopey are very much grounded in reality.

There are exceptions, namely the bombshell Penny Century, who with her wish to become a superhero and her marriage to billionaire H.R. Costigan remains with one foot firmly planted in the fantastic.  There is also Izzy, the woman who first introduced Maggie and Hopey to one another, and who for many years was their close friend.  As with Gilbert, Jaime includes elements of magical realism in his stories, and this manifests in the apparent pursuit of Izzy by the devil, who has an infatuation with the unfortunate woman due to the guilt she carries over having gone through a divorce and an abortion.

I think that one of the key elements of Jaime’s stories is the process of growing up, of maturing, the struggle to become an adult and leave childhood behind.  Maggie and Hopey both have to face the choice of pursuing long-term adult relationships or continuing teenage flings.  A great deal of the tension revolves around whether or not they will continue to be lovers in a dysfunctional relationship, or if each of them will decide to walk away and set down roots in a stable relationship elsewhere.  Other characters face similar choices.  During the events of “The Death of Speedy,” we see the return of Ray Dominguez to Hoppers after several years on the East Coast.  Ray is alarmed to find his old friends, now in their twenties, still acting the part of wannabe gangsters and macho street hoods, unwilling to grow up, ready to start fights with rival gangs at the drop of a hat.  Ray despairs at this, having gained the maturity and worldview to recognize that his friends are on a path of self-destruction

A more humorous look at the struggle between adulthood and immaturity can be seen in the long running feud between professional wrestler Vicky Glori and her former tag team partner, Rena Titanon.  Vicky is Maggie’s aunt, and Rena becomes a close friend of Maggie’s.  Years back, Vicky turned on Rena and cheated (“She used the ropes!”) to take the world championship title from her.  Since then, neither woman has been able to forgive the other.  Much to Maggie’s dismay, each even seems ready to use Maggie as a pawn, with both trying to turn her against the other, leading Maggie to despair at “old ladies playing junior high school games.”  Certainly I can relate, having been in situations where people I’ve known in their thirties and forties still act as if they were teenagers, with all of the accompanying petty jealousies, backstabbing, and selfishness.

love and rockets house of raging women pg 95

I think the relationship between the past and the future is actually a pivotal aspect to both Gilbert and Jaime’s stories.  In Gilbert’s final Palomar tales contained in Luba Conquers the World, Luba’s past comes back to haunt her, and she resolves to set out to close the door on the legacy of her youth.  In the process, she realizes she needs to leave the town of Palomar and move on with her life.  Her future lies elsewhere.  For Jamie’s two protagonists, however, the first series of Love and Rockets appears to end with them much as they began.  While many of Maggie and Hopey’s friends and family have realized it is time to grow up and move on to the next stage of life, the closing pages of Chester Square sees the two women contentedly reunited in the back of a police car, arrested for carrying on as if they were still juvenile delinquents.  For them, at least at this stage, they are happy to stay put and remain who they are.

Of course, both Jaime and Gilbert continued to create material after the conclusion of series one.  So this is certainly not the ending of Maggie, Hopey, and Luba’s stories.  In future series, especially in Jamie’s installments, time does continue to march on, something very much epitomized by the continuing developments of Maggie’s life, and those around her.  But that’s something to discuss in a future blog post!

So, re-reading these Love and Rockets books was definitely a rewarding experience.  I’m now looking forward to moving on to the later stories by the Hernandez Brothers, to once again see what happens next.

Separating the Ink Masters from the Stink Masters

I really, really try to avoid watching “reality television” because, let’s face it, Sturgeon’s Law is especially applicable to that segment of the airwaves, and a whopping 99.9% of it is total crap.  But somehow, against better judgment, I inevitably get sucked into watching episodes of such fare as Celebrity Rehab, Rock of Love or *shudder* Jersey Shore.  It’s the whole train wreck phenomenon… you just cannot look away from the blood & carnage.

Of course, every once in a while a reality TV show comes along that does have a modicum of intelligence and genuine entertainment value to it.  Ink Master on Spike is one of those, and I’ve been hooked on the show since its debut in January of this year.  A large part of the appeal for me is that I really love tattoos (I’ve got seven and counting) and I find the whole subculture surrounding getting inked to be fascinating.  The other major reason why Ink Master appeals to me is that to be on it requires genuine talent & artistic ability.  The contestants on it, despite their varying levels of douchebaggery, all are legitimately skilled in the art of tattooing.

Ink Master is hosted by Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro.  I’m not certain exactly what qualifies him to be presenting the show, much less serving as one of the three judges, other than he’s heavily inked.  But I suppose he brings the requisite “rock star” presence to the series.  The other two judges are Chris Nunez and Oliver Peck.  Both are apparently very accomplished tattoo artists.  Certainly the critiques and advice they offer the contestants seem to be intelligent and thoughtful, the result of years of experience in the field.  I have to tell you, though, when Navarro, Nunez, or Peck launches into a lecture about some aspect of illustration such as the use of shading, texture, or contrasting colors, my girlfriend, who is an artist, likes to comment “Wow, this is art school for dummies!”

I mentioned douchebaggery, didn’t I?  Well, there are some real characters who have competed on Ink Master.  Everyone appears to be a competitive egomaniac ready to leap at each other’s throats… perhaps at the producers’ suggestions, who knows?  Each season, you get at least one guy declaring “I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to win!”  This was actually somewhat palatable in Season One, because the guy making this proclamation, Shane O’Neill, had the talent to back it up, and indeed he ended up winning the competition.  This time around, you have someone like Kay Kutta doing the bragging, but he just doesn’t have the skills or experience to justify the bravado.

Chris Nunez, Dave Navarro and Oliver Peck from Ink Master

Chris Nunez, Dave Navarro and Oliver Peck, hosts of Ink Master

This week’s episode was Star Wars themed, with a group of “human canvases” getting tattoos of characters & imagery from the films.  That definitely interested me, big sci-fi geek that I am.  As I was watching it, I was thinking to myself that it was too bad that my friend Chris didn’t get on this episode, because he’s a huge Star Wars fan who already has at least a couple of really awesome tattoos from the movies.  Then, wouldn’t you know it, less than two minutes later, who should show up on the TV screen?  Yep, it was Chris.  For those who watched, he was the guy who got the Star Destroyer & Tie Fighters done on his back.  I’m glad he ended up with one of the better artists, Sebastian Murphy.  Despite the criticism offered up by the judges, I think Murphy did a fine job on a difficult, detailed subject, and Chris ended up with a nice tattoo.  Anyway, it was a good episode, although I think the winning tattoo should have been the Clone Trooper by Sarah Miller, and not the Yoda piece by Tatu Baby.

My girlfriend keeps pestering me to try and volunteer to become a human canvas on the next season of Ink Master, to which I invariably respond “Are you out of your #@%&ing mind?!?”  No thank you.  The next tattoo I get is going to be a subject matter that I choose, and it will be done by an artist who can take his or her time with it, who actually wants to work on the particular piece, and who is not racing against the clock to complete it.  Okay, I can understand the appeal this has for some people, in that you get a free tattoo and get to appear on television.  But for me this is the equivalent of tattoo Russian roulette, because the odds pretty good that you’re going to end up with a mediocre or, worse, just plain bad image stuck on your body for the rest of your life.  Knowing my luck, I’d end up going from Ink Master to Spike’s other tattoo reality show, Tattoo Nightmares, which spotlights artists who specialize in covering up really awful pieces!

White on the subject, I gotta admit, Tattoo Nightmares is another entertaining show.  One of the three artists showcased, Tommy Helm, came in second place in the first season of Ink Master, and is really good at what he does.  Having said that, it’s another series I’m perfectly content to sit back & watch.  I hope I never end up with a piece so awful that I’d require the services of Helm or his associates to do a cover-up.

Anyway, Ink Master is fun to watch.  Despite the often ridiculous personalities & behavior of some of the contestants, it is very interesting to see them attempt to produce tattoo masterpieces in a high pressure environment with the clock ticking, definitely not the ideal environment in which to ink anyone.  Given that, it’s a thrill to see some of the amazing pieces that come out of that.

Doctor Who reviews: Trail of the White Worm / The Oseidon Adventure

Since 1999, Big Finish has been producing Doctor Who audio plays featuring numerous actors from the original television series.  For many years, however, they were unable to convince Tom Baker to reprise his portrayal of the Fourth Doctor.  This impasse was finally overcome just recently, and Baker began recording a series of audio adventures, first for the BBC itself, and now for Big Finish.  The first Big Finish “season” sees Baker re-teamed with actress Louise Jameson, returning to her role as Leela, the primitive descendent of a human space expedition that had been stranded on an alien planet generations before the Doctor met her.  The stories in this Big Finish season were set between the on-air adventures “The Talons of Weng Chiang” and “The Horror of Fang Rock.”

The final two releases of this first block of audio adventures are the linked stories “Trail of the White Worm” and “The Oseidon Adventure.”  The attraction these particular stories had for me is that they have Geoffrey Beevers once again portraying the Doctor’s arch-nemesis the Master in his final, death-like incarnation.  He first played that role so very effectively on television in “The Keeper of Traken,” and returned to it many years later at Big Finish in a pair of audio plays starring Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor.  In addition, “The Oseidon Adventure” features the alien Kraals & their robotic servants from “The Android Invasion.”  Given the ties “Trail of the White Worm” and “The Oseidon Adventure” had to two of my favorite Tom Baker television serials, I could not resist picking them up.

(I do not think I am really giving away any major spoilers by revealing the involvement of the Master or the Kraals, as their images feature prominently on the covers of the CDs!)

Doctor Who: Trail of the White Worm

“Trail of the White Worm,” in certain ways, does a good job capturing the feel of the television stories around which it is set, evincing much of the atmosphere of gothic horror of the Philip Hinchcliffe & Robert Holmes years.  Set in the English countryside of the late 1970s, “Trail of the White Worm” has the Doctor and Leela arriving in the TARDIS to discover that a mysterious creature is menacing a small, isolated village.  The Doctor meets the posh Demesne Furze, played by Rachael Stirling, who relates to him the local legends of the White Worm, which date back two millennia to the time of the Roman occupation of Britain.  Meanwhile, on a nearby estate, Leela comes across the retired Colonel Spindleton, portrayed by Michael Cochrane.  A reactionary with a grudge against progress, the Colonel has a fondness for shooting at trespassers with his remote controlled tank, although he quickly learns that Leela is more than a match for his security arrangements.  She, in turn, discovers that the Colonel has thrown in his lot with the Master, who dangles before him the promise of restoring to Britain its lost greatness.

The ending of “Trail of the White Worm” leads right into “The Oseidon Adventure.”  The Master opens a space/time portal to the Kraal home world, and his alien allies march forward with an armored column and an infantry of android soldiers.  At first, “The Oseidon Adventure” appears to be a straightforward alien invasion story, much in the vein of the early appearances of the Master when the character, as portrayed by Roger Delgado, would summon a succession of extraterrestrial menaces to attack Earth, only to be opposed by the Doctor and UNIT.  However, writer Alan Barnes does a magnificent job of confounding expectations.  Just when you think you know where “The Oseidon Adventure” is heading, he throws in a series of unexpected plot twists, with double and triple crosses coming left and right.  I really should have foreseen something like this, given how the original serial “The Android Invasion” so successfully played with the idea of infiltration & identity theft.  But since Barnes did such an excellent job of making it seem one thing was going on, when in fact something else entirely different was occurring behind the scenes, I was constantly getting caught off guard.  The end result is a suspenseful story that really leaves you guessing what is going to happen next.

Doctor Who: The Oseidon Adventure

Tom Baker return to the role of the Doctor is superb.  It’s almost as if there hasn’t been a three decade lapse in time since he last played the role, and he’s picking up right where he left off.  I do think that his performance in these two stories was somewhat more akin to the rather more silly, buffoonish tone he increasingly adopted during Graham Williams’ tenure as producer than the relatively more serious, somber take of his first three seasons with Hinchcliffe.  That said, it is great to have him back.  If he had perhaps a bit too much fun recording these stories, well, that’s Tom Baker for you.

Louise Jameson also does good work slipping back into the role of Leela.  I know that she has played an older, somewhat more sophisticated version of the character in other Big Finish releases.  So I’m not sure how difficult it was for her to now take a step back and return to the intelligent but uneducated savage she portrayed on television.  I think Jameson does admirable work at recapturing this younger version of Leela.  Together with Barnes’ scripting, this does sound like the character we saw in those classic Doctor Who serials of the late 1970s.

And then there is Geoffrey Beevers.  The man is excellent at imbuing the Master with malicious, sly, sneering malevolence.  Listening to “Trail of the White Worm” and “The Oseidon Adventure,” I was reminded once again why his performance in “The Keeper of Traken” left such a lasting impression on my childhood memories.  Beevers really brings to life the Master, and makes you believe this is a figure that could actually defeat the Doctor.  The ending of “The Oseidon Adventure” leaves open the possibility of at least one more encounter between the Master and the Doctor before the events of “The Keeper of Traken,” so hopefully Beevers will be back in the recording studio with Baker at some point in the near future.

All in all, the actors, writer Alan Barnes, and director Ken Bentley have all excelled at capturing the feel of the original Tom Baker stories.  These two audio plays utilize elements from the television series, while nevertheless crafting stories that develop in new, unexpected directions.  They also take full advantage of the unlimited scope of the audio format.  I seriously doubt that either the immense figure of the White Worm or the massive Kraal army would have been achievable on the limited budget & resources the television show had access to in the late 1970s.

“Trail of the White Worm” and “The Oseidon Adventure” are both entertaining, well-produced tales.  If you are a Doctor Who fan, but you have not listened to any of the Big Finish releases, they make an excellent jumping on point.

Doctor Who reviews: The Children of Seth

I’ve mentioned in the past how much I enjoy the Doctor Who audio plays produced by Big Finish.  I actually reviewed a few of them on Associated Content a couple of years ago, but until now I’ve yet to discuss them in any detail on this blog.

As I wrote in my review of the serial “Kinda,” some of the earliest Doctor Who stories I saw, when I was eight or nine years old, were the Peter Davison ones.  So it’s always a pleasure to listen to one of the Big Finish audios starring him.  Each time, it feels a little bit like it did on those weekday evenings at 6 PM, tuning in to WLIW Channel 21, to catch the next episode of the show.

In the last few years, Big Finish has been adopting for the audio format a number of “lost stories,” i.e. Doctor Who scripts that made it to various stages of completion but, for one reason or another, were never actually filmed.  The obvious choice to start off that range was Colin Baker’s lost season, which would have featured such serials as “The Nightmare Fair.”  Now, having completed a number of these with Baker & Nicola Bryant, Big Finish has turned its attention to Lost Stories from other eras of the show.

“The Children of Seth” was an unproduced script by Christopher Bailey, who also wrote “Kinda” and “Snakedance.”  As readers of this blog may recall, “Kinda” is a favorite of mine, so when I first heard about “The Children of Seth,” I was understandably curious.  I finally had an opportunity to purchase a copy of the story at the New York Comic Con, from the Doctor Who Store.  Peter Davison was a guest at the convention, so of course I had him autograph it.

In addition to its authorship and it featuring the Fifth Doctor, another reason why I decided to get “The Children of Seth” was that it stars Honor Blackman and David Warner, two very good, distinguished actors.  As well as that, Janet Fielding and Sarah Sutton reprise their roles as Tegan and Nyssa.  I always felt that the three person team of the Fifth Doctor, Tegan, and Nyssa was a very strong one, and regrettably that particular line-up only appeared in a handful of stories (sorry, any Adric fans out there, but I think the TARDIS was too crowded with four people, and Matthew Waterhouse was given some really bad material to work with in Season 19).

Doctor Who: The Children of Seth

In “The Children of Seth,” the Doctor receives a cryptic message from the Archipelago of Sirius, a city located inside an immense hollowed-out asteroid.  Arriving in the TARDIS, the Doctor encounters an old acquaintance of his he first met in a previous regeneration, Anahita, the consort to Sirius, Autarch of the Empire.  Anahita has learned that the ambitious Lord Byzan, who has gradually been usurping power from the now-elderly Sirius, is about to propel the Empire into war, a crusade against the mysterious Seth, Prince of the Dark.  Foreseeing the immense loss of innocent life and the potential ruin of the Empire, Anahita, who has been exiled from the court, is desperate to reach Sirius and convince him to intercede.  And she hopes that the Doctor will aid her in thwarting Byzan’s ever-growing web of influence.

“The Children of Seth” is very much a political thriller, with plots and counterplots, schemes and betrayals, machinations and manipulations.  If this story had actually been produced in the 1980s, I’m uncertain if my young self would have actually enjoyed it.  Back then, one of my main reasons for watching Doctor Who was the monsters, and aside from the mantis-like security drones, “The Children of Seth” is extremely notable for the absence of any aliens or strange creatures.

Of course, as an adult, I absolutely loved it!  The characters are all very well developed, and there is a great deal of moral ambiguity to everyone.  Honor Blackman does a superb job portraying Anahita, a well-intentioned but occasionally ruthless figure.  Her reputation as “Mistress of the Poisons” will undoubtedly tell you that she doesn’t always walk the straight & narrow path.  Blackman is just majestic as this at-times inscrutable figure.

Adrian Lukis also is excellent as Byzan, imbuing him with a mix of runaway ambition, megalomania, and paranoia.  It’s interesting that Byzan will crush dissent by gleefully dispatching political prisoners to be mind-wiped & exiled to the mysterious Level 14, and he’s ready to plunge the Empire into a pointless war, but he actually draws the line at cold blooded mass murder.  Having a villain with the slightest of scruples can be much more interesting, and realistic, than having a one-dimensional black-hearted fiend.

Finally, David Warner portrays Sirius, the now doddering figurehead ruler of the Empire.  This was a relatively small part for someone of Warner’s stature, but he gives it his all, bringing to life a once-great man now crippled by nostalgia, the onset of dementia, and an unwillingness to perceive the political corruption taking place around him.  However, once his people are actually threatened, this aged ruler is ready to stand on the front lines again.  And despite his acrimonious relationship with Anahita, when faced with the possibility of losing his wife, Sirius is despondent.

Janet Fielding is given a substancial portion of the action in “The Children of Seth.”  In many ways I think Tegan was almost a prototype for Catherine Tate’s character Donna Noble.  The difference is that too often Tegan was scripted as overly aggressive and pushy, rather than assertive.  One of the few writers on Doctor Who to do the character justice and give Fielding good material to work with was, of course, Christopher Bailey.  So it’s no surprise that Tegan in “The Children of Seth” is an interesting, engaging character, rather than a mouth on legs.  Fielding does an excellent job, especially in the scenes where she is paired with Honor Blackman.

Unfortunately, the character of Nyssa is sidelined for much of the story.  So I felt that Sarah Sutton wasn’t given much to do.  That said, the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa have been featured traveling without Tegan in quite a few of the earlier Big Finish stories, so Sutton has already gotten the spotlight in several of those stories.  Given those circumstances, I enjoyed Tegan featuring in a large portion of “The Children of Seth” instead.

And what about Peter Davison himself?  Well, to a degree the Doctor is also pushed to the sides for a bit, in favor of Tegan and Anahita.  But then Davison is really given an opportunity to give it his all in the final episode of “The Children of Seth,” and he makes the most of it.

From the behind-the-scenes interviews on the CDs, as well as info from Doctor Who Magazine, I gather that Bailey’s scripts for “The Children of Seth” were in the early draft stage when the decision was made to drop the story.  Marc Platt, himself a good writer who has done extensive work for Big Finish, was recruited to transform these into something that could be recorded as an audio play.  Happily, instead of merely dusting off Bailey’s old scripts and finishing them on his own, Platt met in person with him, and they discussed the best way to resolve the various plot problems, as well as come up with an ending to the story.  I don’t know where Bailey’s work ends and Platt’s begins.  Whatever the case, “The Children of Seth” is an excellent story.

One last thing… I would have to say that “The Children of Seth” is not a casual listen.  I was not expecting it to be, though, given that “Kinda” has to be one of the most complicated Doctor Who stories ever made.  I knew what I was in for, that I’d really have to pay careful attention to the audio play to keep track of the characters and plotlines.  It wasn’t easy, but it was definitely worth the effort.

That said, in one respect the audio format is undoubtedly a strength.  It enabled me to envision the Archipelago of Sirius as a vast city with crowds of people, instead of merely a bunch of corridors occupied by a handful of extras, which is probably how in would have appeared if the story had actually been filmed in the early 1980s on a shoestring budget.

In any case, given its complexity, at some point I intend to sit down again to re-listen to “The Children of Seth.”  It’ll be interesting to see what I get out of it a second time.

Comic book reviews: Captain America vol 6 #15-19

I’ve been following the ongoing Captain America title pretty religiously since 1989.  That’s, what, 23 years?  The series has seen a lot of ups and downs in that time.  On the whole, I think that Ed Brubaker’s eight year run on the book has been more positive than negative, although I never did prefer his tendency for decompressed storytelling.  I also have to admit, as I’ve said in a previous blog, I never warmed up to the current volume of Captain America.  But, a few months ago I learned Brubaker would be concluding his mammoth stint with issue #19, and I decided to stick around for the finale.

The current series of Captain America (volume six, for those keeping count… I really wish Marvel would stop renumbering all their series) has seen Steve Rogers cross swords with one-time ally Codename Bravo, who had now allied himself with a faction of the subversive terrorist organization Hydra.  Bravo looked upon the political corruption & social decay of contemporary America, and believed that Cap had failed to lead the nation to a better place.  Bravo also held a long-standing grudge against Steve for, in his mind, stealing away Peggy Carter from him back in World War II.  Bravo joined forces with the Hydra Queen and Baron Zemo to create, as he saw it, a better world.  Unfortunately, like most terrorists, Bravo and his allies felt that if they had to shed innocent blood and tear the country apart to start afresh, then so be it, because the ends justified the means.

Captain America #s 15-18, “New World Orders,” is co-written by Brubaker and Cullen Bunn.  Hydra has successfully taken control of a popular Fox News-type network, and is broadcasting a 24 hour cycle of character assassination against Cap, the Avengers, and the U.S. government.  To bolster the effectiveness of their mass media manipulation, they are utilizing hypnotic Madbomb technology.  Hydra has also dispatched robot shock troops, the Discordians, across the globe to cause chaos & destruction, in order to make it appear that the Avengers are ineffective and unable to preserve peace & order.  Through their propaganda, mind control, and inducing of fear & panic, Bravo and his confederates hope to turn the general public totally against the government and the American political process, presumably to pave the way for a coup.

I think Brubaker & Bunn do a pretty good job of wrapping up the overall Codename Bravo storyline.  To be honest, though, I think “New World Orders” could have used another issue, because it felt rushed in places, especially the final chapter.  That probably seems a strange critique, considering I was previously complaining about Brubaker’s decompression.  However, I think his earlier arcs on this volume were all a bit too long.  It’s a shame that one of the issues from those earlier installments of the ongoing major story was not allocated to “New World Orders” instead.  Still, it’s a decent enough wrap-up.

I was surprised that Brubaker did not do anything to address the apocalyptic future vision that Steve Rogers glimpsed at the end of Captain America: Reborn, the one with the War of the Worlds type alien tripods devastating the Earth.  For a few years now, I had assumed that Brubaker was going to build up to some sort of major storyline involving that.  It looks, instead, that Bunn will be utilizing Steve’s look at the future in the current Captain America & Black Widow comics, although I’m not one hundred percent certain, since I just glanced through those issues in the comic shop.

Captain America vol 6 #16

Captain America vol 6 #16

The artwork on “New World Orders” is of a very high quality.  Scott Eaton & Rick Magyar do great work.  Likewise, the covers by Steve Epting are magnificent.  I was especially impressed with the cover to issue #16.

For his finale on Captain America #19, Brubaker once again assumes to solo writing duties, and Epting, who was there at the beginning of his run, returns to draw the entire issue.  This untitled tale is an insightful and introspective conclusion to Brubaker’s time writing the character.  The writer once again brings back the insane 1950s Cap, the twisted mirror image of Steve Rogers.  Brubaker also addresses something that, truthfully, had never occurred to me until he touched upon it earlier in his run: Steve never set out to be Cap, to become a symbol of heroism & patriotism, to represent an entire nation.  The truth is young Steve only wanted to serve his country by enrolling in the military.  When finally offered the opportunity to do so by participating in Operation Rebirth, he believed he would become the first of an army of super-soldiers.  It was only after Professor Erskine was assassinated that Steve was thrust into the role of Cap, that he was asked by his government to adopt the identity of a red, white & blue super hero, a living propaganda symbol.

What I think Brubaker is getting at is that part of the reason why the 1950s Cap (and by extension some of the other men to briefly adopt the role) failed is because he deliberately set out to assume this enormous responsibility.  He looked upon it as a blessing, and was unable to live up to the tremendous burden that it truly was.  Steve Rogers, in comparison, never wanted to be Captain America.  He took it on only because he felt it was the right thing to do, the best way he could serve his country.  It was his humility, and recognition of the tremendous responsibilities that being Cap would bring, which enabled him to succeed where others failed.  It is an interesting line of though on Brubaker’s part.

Issue #19 has, once again, some superb artwork from Epting.  He is an amazing artist, and it’s great to see how much he has grown as an illustrator, not just over the course of the eight years from when he first worked on Cap, but throughout his entire career.  If you look at his work back in the mid-1990s on Avengers and X-Factor, it was decent, and had potential.  Over the two decades since then, he has continually grown & developed, becoming an amazing illustrator.  I really became a fan when he was over at CrossGen, and my admiration for his work absolutely went through the roof due to his run on Captain America.  I’m glad he was able to come back for Brubaker’s finale.

Captain America vol 6 #19 variant cover

Captain America vol 6 #19 variant cover

Epting contributed a great cover for issue #19, as did Butch Guice on the variant edition.  I really had a hard time choosing which one to get (wish I had the funds to pick up both) but I finally went with the one by Guice.  He’s another excellent artist who has consistently developed through the years.

Anyway, that’s that for Ed Brubaker on Captain America.  I think that, despite some rough, uneven patches, on the whole he did a very good job on this series.  He certainly leaves the book in much, much better shape than it was when he first came onboard it.

So, what’s next?  Rick Remender is taking over as writer on Captain America, with art by John Romita Jr.  I’m certainly tempted to continue reading the series, since I’m a fan of Remender’s work.  At the same time, the $3.99 price tag and the promise of a lengthy opening story arc leave me unsure.  Especially the price.  Why oh why does Marvel need to charge four bucks for a 22 page comic book?!?  I’m rather more inclined to try Uncanny Avengers by Remender.  Yeah, it’s also four dollars, but I enjoyed the first issue of that, and I like the idea of Cap leading a mutant team of Avengers against the Red Skull and other major threats.  I’ve wanted to see something like that for years.  Well, maybe I’ll just wait for the trade paperback collections of the Remender’s new Captain America series.