It Came from the 1990s: Ivar the Timewalker

Welcome to the latest edition of Super Blog Team-Up!  This time our theme is immortality.  I will be taking a brief look at the comic book character Ivar Anni-Padda, aka the Timewalker, the immortal time travel whose adventures are published by Valiant.

Truth to tell, I was already planning to do a piece about Ivar, since this month marks 25 years since the publication of Timewalker #1, which came out in August 1994. (Time really does fly!)  So when this installment of SBTU came along, it felt like synchronicity.

Timewalker 1 cover

Ivar the Timewalker is a free-spirited swashbuckling adventurer who over his thousands of years of life has crisscrossed across the ages.  Both his visual appearance and his immortality evoke Conner MacLeod from the original Highlander movie released several years earlier.  However, in regards to both his more lighthearted personality and his time traveling exploits Ivar seems to anticipate another immortal figure by more than a decade, Captain Jack Harkness from Doctor Who and Torchwood.

As I have mentioned before, the 1990s often have a bad reputation when it comes to comic books.  Yes, a lot of really bad comics came out in that decade.  However, there were also some really great ones, as well.  Some of the best were published by Valiant Comics, a great company that was founded in 1989 by Jim Shooter, and which in its early days saw significant contributions from talented creators Barry Windsor-Smith and Bob Layton.  I really should have blogged about Valiant before now.  In the first half of the 1990s I avidly followed their comics.  I was especially a fan of Ivar, who eventually starred in his own series.

Initially in the Valiant universe it was established that there were two immortal brothers: Gilad Anni-Padda, aka the Eternal Warrior, and Aram Anni-Padda, aka Armstrong.  The two were polar opposites.  Gilad was a fierce & ruthless warrior who worked in the service of the mystic Geomancers who sought to safeguard the Earth.  Aram, on the other hand, was an alcoholic hedonist, a millennia-old party animal who in the present day had established a friendship with the mortal teenage monk Archer.

In early 1993 we finally met the third brother, Ivar.  Archer & Armstrong / Eternal Warrior #8 was a double-sized issue combining the two ongoing series.  It features Armstrong telling Archer the true story of D’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers, who in the Valiant universe were actually Gilad, Aram and Ivar.

Written & penciled by Barry Windsor-Smith, inked by Bob Wiacek, colored by Maurice Fontenot, and edited by Bob Layton, “The Musketeers” relates how in France in the early 18th Century the Geomancer Angelique D’Terre foresaw the events of the French Revolution and attempted to forestall them.  Working with Gilad, she ruthlessly maneuvered to replace King Louis XIV with his secret twin brother, the so-called Man in the Iron Mask.

However, inverting the events of Alexandre Dumas’ novel, in this reality Louis is merely an incompetent moron, whereas his brother Henri is a brutal monster.  Belatedly realizing that replacing Louis with his brother will make a bad situation infinitely worse, Angelique and Gild are able to undo the switch, but not before Henri has raped & murdered D’Artagnan’s fiancée.  Ivar is completely disgusted at Gilad’s machinations, and at what the failed scheme has cost their friend D’Artagnan.

Archer Armstrong 8 pg 29

Sooon enough we meet Ivar again, this time in then-present day London, England, within the pages of Archer & Armstrong #10-11 by the team of Windsor-Smith, Wiacek & John Floyd, and Fontetot.  Ivar is attempting to access a “time arc” that will at long last take him back to Egypt in 37 BC, back to the side of his beloved Queen Nefertete.

Armstrong arrives to visit his brother, with young Archer in tow.  The trio is soon ambushed by a group of time-displaced civilians from across the centuries who have all ended up in 1992, and who believe Ivar is responsible for abducting them.  Armstrong, however, informs them that he is to blame, that his efforts to find a way to return Ivar to Ancient Egypt inadvertently drew all these people from across the ages.  Fortunately the nuclear-powered Solar arrives to inform Armstrong that an old foe of his is tearing up Los Angeles looking for him.  Solar is able to use his powers to re-energize Armstrong’s time portal, which he uses to send all of the abductees back to their proper time & place.

Solar offers to finally send Ivar back to 37 BC.  Faced with the possibility of finally being reunited with “Neffi,” Ivar is actually nervous.  Letting down his guard, revealing for once the cost he feels immortality has exacted, Ivar explains to his brother:

“It’s been, like… three thousand years since I last saw Nefertete, man — and I’ve lived a zillion lifetimes since… I’m not the same guy she loved back then… I’m afraid that I may have… changed too much for her to accept me again.”

Armstrong tells Ivar that if he has changed in the millennia since he’s seen Neffi then it’s probably for the better.  Encouraged, Ivar enters the time portal.  Unfortunately F7, a robot from the 41st Century who has grown attached to Ivar, leaps in right after him, hoping to join him in Ancient Egypt.

Archer Armstrong 11 pg 19

When we next see Ivar it is in Magnus Robot Fighter #33 (Feb 1994) in a story plotted & penciled by Jim Calafiore, scripted by John Ostrander, inked by Gonzalo Mayo and colored by Mark Csaszar.  Due to F7 jumping into the time arc, he and Ivar instead end up in North Am in the year 4002 AD.  Unfortunately since F7 has been away the Earth has been invaded by the sentient alien robots the Malevs.

F7 quickly comes under the control of the Malevs, who scan his memory and learn about Ivar.  The Malev Emperor realizes that if it can capture Ivar and replicate his powers, the Malevs can travel back in time to prevent the births of Magnus and Rai, thereby ending the resistance against the invasion before it even began.

Ivar, understandably annoyed at once again being in the wrong place at the wrong time, encounters Magnus.  Soon discovering exactly who Ivar is, Magnus realizes he needs to keep the time traveler out of the Malevs’ metal clutches long enough for another time arc to materialize.  At long last one does open.

Hopping on a sky cycle while the Robot Fighter is being overwhelmed by Malev soldiers, Ivar promises that he will send help.  He then flies into the time arc, and for a minute it looks like Magnus is going to be killed, until literally out of nowhere Rai and his allies arrive to save him, with a mystified Rai explaining the nanites in his blood told him to come to here, that somehow the nanites knew Magnus needed help at this exact time & place.

And elsewhere in time, now in a vast barren desert, in an example of what Doctor Who would later describe as “wibbly wobbly timey wimey,” Ivar records a journal entry:

“Time jump report, supplemental. Make note – the next time I see Bloodshot, have him program the information about Magnus into his nanites. Have to be careful so that Bloodshot himself doesn’t learn too much about his own fate. If I understand all this correctly, the nanites will compel the man known as Rai to go to Magnus’ aid.”

Magnus Robot Fighter 33 pg 6

Having completed his report, Ivar wonders where exactly he has gotten to this time.

Both Ivar and the audience would learn the answer in the Timewalker Yearbook #1.  Published in early 1995, this annual was plotted by Jon Hartz, scripted by Kevin VanHook, penciled by Elim Mak, inked by one of my favorite artists, the talented Rudy Nebres, and colored by Eric Hope.

Offhand I didn’t recognize the name Jon Hartz, so I asked VanHook about him on Facebook.  I also told VanHook that Timewalker was one of my favorite Valiant characters. He responded:

“Jon was our head of marketing. He was also very creative and had a hand in building the character of Timewalker.

“I always liked Timewalker. I didn’t get to do a lot with him, but I enjoyed the character.”

Opening in the same place & time that Magnus #33 ended, the Yearbook has Ivar still exploring the vast desert on his sky cycle.  A loud rumbling and dust storm on the horizon comes towards him, and in the next instant Ivar is nearly overrun by thousands of stampeding dinosaurs, followed by an immense tidal wave.  Ivar belatedly realizes the desert he was in was the Mediterranean Basin, and the titanic deluge of water is the Atlantic Ocean flooding over the Gibraltar Straight to create the Mediterranean Sea.

Of course, it is now generally accepted that the cataclysmic flooding of the Mediterranean Basin actually occurred approximately 5.3 million years ago, long after the dinosaurs died out.  But, hey, I’ll let this one slide, because the spectacle of charging dinos makes for a dramatic moment, and Mak, Nebres & Hope certainly do an incredible job of depicting it.

Timewalker Yearbook pgs 2 and 3

Just in the nick of time, another time arc opens as the massive wave reaches Ivar,  bringing him to a New York City rooftop in April 1992.  This very wet & violent arrival brings Ivar to the attention of the ruthless Harbinger Foundation, which dispatches several operatives to investigate.  That, in turn, results in the Foundation’s rivals the H.A.R.D. Corps also wanting to bring in Ivar for questioning.  The Foundation’s team of Eggbreakers captures Ivar, but he is quickly rescued by the Corps.  Ivar finds himself in another one of those lovely time paradoxes when he addresses the Corps’ leader:

Ivar: Listen, Gunsliger… I know we’ve never really gotten along…

Gunslinger: Gotten along? I don’t even know you, buddy.

Ivar: That’s right… not yet.

Gunslinger: What?

Three pages later Ivar learns exactly why Gunslinger later doesn’t like him when the time traveler blows up the wrecked sky cycle in order to escape.  And two months later, waiting to catch another time arc in the Rocky Mountains, Ivar humorously reflects on the paradox…

“Have to remember to look up when I met Gunslinger. I think it was ’94 or ’95… Too bad I can’t warn myself that he’s going to slug me!  Oh, well… I’ll deserve it!”

I like the idea that Ivar kept a journal of his travels. Considering he had lived for thousands of years and he was constantly bouncing back & forth in time, it was a good way for him to keep track of his innumerable experiences.

Going back in time, at least publishing-wise, we finally get to the first issue of Timewalker.  The series spun out of Valiant’s company-wide crossover The Chaos Effect.  A dark necromantic power from the end of time follows Ivar back to 1994, where it consumes the planet’s electrical energy.

I found The Chaos Effect to be sort of an underwhelming storyline.  Whatever the case, at least it led to Ivar finally receiving his own solo book.

Chaos Effect epilogue

Ivar spends most of The Chaos Effect unconscious, but he wakes up in time for an epilogue written by Bob Hall, penciled by Don Perlin, and inked by Gonzalo Mayo.  Once again meeting Magnus, this time in the present day, Ivar shares some slightly tongue-in-cheek insights into his experiences as a time traveler:

“History’s all relative, anyway. If history describes something a certain way, and you go to the time where it happened, then you were always there… so it probably turned out the way history describes just because of you. You may as well just show up and have fun.

“Beyond that, carry condoms, a flashlight and matches, beware of the drinking water, make loud noises to scare off bears and humans, and take chewing gum. Every era likes chewing gum.”

With that Ivar leaps into the next time arc, and into the pages of his own series.

“Ivar the Traveler” is by the team of Hall, Perlin & Mayo, with colors by Stu Suchit, and editing by Layton.  Ivar’s latest journey through time deposits him in Briton during the time of the Roman occupation.  The time traveler ends up trying to fight off a group of drunk, violent Roman soldiers who are doing the whole “rape & pillage” thing, including one who spots Ivar and shouts “You!!! I told you if I ever saw you again I’d kill you!”  Of course, Ivar hasn’t met this fine fellow… yet!

Cursing the perils and paradoxes of time travel, Ivar attempts to fight off the soldiers.  And then another time arc opens, scooping up Ivar.  Looking around, the time traveler spots a Nazi patrol, and realizes he is in Europe during World War II.

Successfully infiltrating the Nazi forces, Ivar eventually ends up encountering the captive Professor Weisenfeld and his young son.  Pretending to interrogate the scientist, Ivar explains how he has come to be there:

“In 1998 you have a grandson named Mack. He’s a friend of mine and he’s fixing my tachyon compass… He told me that when I land here I have to rescue you. Otherwise he doesn’t get born and my compass doesn’t get fixed.”

And as if this story wasn’t already wibbly wobbly timey wimey enough, a minute later the Eternal Warrior bursts into the prison, leading to the following exchange:

Ivar: Gil, what are you doing here?

Gilead: You told me to come! 1934, you told me to show up here, don’t you remember?

Ivar: No! I haven’t done that yet!

Good thing for Ivar that Gil wasn’t still holding a grudge over their argument back in 18th Century France!

The brothers fight their way through the Nazis.  Gil leads the Professor, his son, and the other prisoners to safety while Ivar holds off the goose-steppers.  Ivar is shot, but another time arc materializes, and he leaps into it. His destination: the year 1854, during the Crimean War.

Ah, but that’s a story for another time… so to speak!

Timewalker 1 pg 19

The ongoing Timewalker series lasted for 15 regular issues, plus the aforementioned Yearbook, as well as a Zero issue featuring Ivar’s origin that came out a few months after the series ended.  I definitely enjoyed it.  Ivar’s adventures were an enjoyable mix of comedy and drama.

Perhaps I’ll do a retrospective on the rest of Timewalker at a later date.  But, honestly, it’s such a great series, I recommend seeking out the back issues.  Trust me, you’ll probably have a more enjoyable time reading the actual comic books than you would having me yammer on about them at this blog!

Valiant unfortunately experienced difficulties in the second half of the decade.  In 1994 they were purchased by Acclaim Entertainment, who I feel pushed the company to expand too fast.  Then the market imploded in the mid 1990s, leading to the cancellation of the line.  Acclaim did restart a handful of the series in the late 1990s, as well as creating a few new titles, but those did not last long.  At that time Acclaim appeared to have much more of a focus on developing video games based on the Valiant characters than in actually publishing quality comic books.

The Valiant universe was eventually re-launched in 2012 by a new group of owners under the Valiant Entertainment label.  Over the past several years the company has had a reasonable amount of success.  Among those rebooted characters has been our pal Ivar.  Ivar: Timewalker ran for 12 issues between Jan and Dec 2015.  The entire run has been collected into three trade paperbacks.  I haven’t had an opportunity to read those yet, but they are definitely on my “want” list.  Hopefully I will get to them soon.  After all, unlike Ivar, and the other subjects of this edition of SBTU, there’s only a limited amount of time available to me.

So many great comic books, so little time!

SBTU Immortal

Here are links to all of the other Super Blog Team-Up participants.  I hope you will check them out.  Thanks!

(Some of these links will not be active for another day or two, so if they are’t working right now then check back again soon!)

Comic Reviews By Walt: TMNT and Highlander

Superhero Satellite: SBTU Presents IMMORTAL: Peter Loves Mary Jane

Comics Comics Comics: The Immortal Dr. Fate

Between The Pages: Big Finish: Doctor Who’s Finest Regeneration

The Unspoken Decade: Archer and Armstrong: Opposites Attract

DC In the 80s: Forager – The Second Life of a Bug

Black, White and Bronze: What Price Immortality? A Review of Red Nails

The Daily Rios: Arion The Immortal: The 1992 Miniseries

Chris Is On Infinite Earths: Podcast Episode 26 – Resurrection Man 1997 & 2011

Vic Sage of Pop Culture Retrorama Podcast: I am Legend

The Source Material Comics Podcast: Vampirella “Roses For The Dead”

Dave’s Comic Heroes Blog: Multi-Man, the Immortal Foe of the Challengers

Magazines and Monsters: Kang/Immortus: Marvel Triple Action #17, 1974: “Once an Avenger…”

Radulich Broadcasting Network: TV PARTY TONIGHT – Jupiter Ascending commentary

 

Comic book reviews: The Rook #2-4

The four issue miniseries The Rook by Steven Grant and Paul Gulacy published by Dark Horse recently concluded. I previously reviewed the first issue, so now I’m going to take a brief look at the remainder of the story.

The Rook 2 cover

Having been gifted the Time Castle by his older self, Restin Dane aka the Rook travels back from 2015 to the late 19th Century to seek out his great-great-grandfather Adam, the man who first discovered the secrets of time travel. Adam is, in fact, the unnamed narrator from the H.G. Wells novel The Time Machine.  In a paradoxical twist, Restin with his knowledge of 21th Century science plays a key role in his ancestor’s development of the first time machine.

Having related his experiences to his friend Wells (who of course goes on to describe them in his book), Adam returns to the far-distant future to lead the Eloi against the Morlocks. Resin follows after him in the Time Castle, only to discover that Adam’s mission has gone decidedly pear-shaped.  Adam also has, from his perspective at least, his first run-in with the sinister Quarb.

Grant sets up an interesting relationship between Restin and Quarb. The later is an incredibly long-lived being, having existed for countless thousands of years.  Restin, via time travel, has (or will have) encountered and fought against Quarb repeatedly throughout the millennia, but always in a non-linear manner.  It was Quarb who organized the “Rook Revenge Squad” (as I like to call them), the assemblage of Restin’s old enemies, in the first issue.  That was but one of the innumerable schemes that the immortal plotter has crafted over the eons.

I get the impression that Grant must have some flowcharts to keep track of the timelines of the various different characters, and the points at which they meet. I read issue #4 as soon as it came out last week.  Today I re-read the entire miniseries in one sitting.  A number of the connections and strands that Grant sets up in it suddenly became much clearer to me.

The Rook 3 pg 6

It’s interesting to see how events unfold. For now Grant leaves it up in the air if various occurrences are the result of time loops and predestination paradoxes, or if history actually is being rewritten by Restin’s actions.  As the Rook’s robot aide Man-Rs astutely observes in Dark Horse Presents #14, if you do alter the past then all of your memories of it, and all of the accounts in the history books, are instantly going to change, so you are never going to notice the difference.

Grant is definitely not doing the decompressed thing here. These four issues, plus the DHP prologue, are packed with plot and dialogue.  Considering that nowadays most 22 page “pamphlets” can be read in less than ten minutes, it’s a real pleasure to find a comic book that demands the reader’s attention to detail.

Once again the art by Paul Gulacy is amazing. As I’ve written on a few occasions, I am a huge fan of Gulacy’s work.  I really think he is such an underrated talent.  His storytelling and action sequences are among the very best in the field of sequential illustration.  Gulacy demonstrates his versatility, effectively depicting both Victorian London and the far distant era of the Eloi and Morlocks.  Jesus Aburtov’s coloring once again looks amazing over Gulacy’s art.

It’s worth mentioning that Grant imbues his stories with a certain amount of humor. Gulacy’s art very ably complements that quality.  His style is definitely hyper-detailed, but he also possesses the ability to render comedic scenes through exaggerated figures and facial expressions.  The encounter between Quarb and the Morlocks in issue #3 literally had me laughing out loud.

The Rook 3 pg 17

Grant and Gulacy are currently working on a second miniseries. I’m definitely looking forward to it.  The Rook was a great read, and I’m anticipating the further adventures of Restin Dane.

Dark Horse will be releasing a trade paperback of The Rook on May 25th. If you missed this miniseries then I highly recommend picking up the collected edition when it comes out.

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.

Doctor Who reviews: Under the Lake and Before the Flood

Here’s my overview of the second two-part storyline of Doctor Who Series Nine, “Under the Lake” and “Before the Flood,” written by Toby Whithouse and directed by Daniel O’Hara.  Once again, if you’re looking for a detailed synopsis, there’s always Wikipedia.  The numbered thoughts format worked well in my last Doctor Who review so I’m going with that again.

Under the Lake Radio times poster

1) A fate worse than death

Let’s face it: dying violently & unexpectedly sucks.  But there’s something worse than that, which is dying violently & unexpectedly and then coming back as something that’s neither alive nor dead.  That is a major reason why the zombie sub-genre is frightening; it’s not just the idea that if the zombies catch you that they’re going to kill you, but also that you are then going to be turned into one of them.

That’s pretty close to what happens in Whithouse’s story.  If you get killed, you then come back as a “ghost” with no will of your own, existing only for two purposes: to signal the Fisher King’s people to invade Earth, and to create more ghosts for that same purpose.  We’re never told how much sentience or intelligence, if any, remains of the victims after they die and come back.  But the mere possibility that you will spend the rest of eternity as a mindless, incorporeal wraith is undoubtedly horrifying.

It’s no wonder the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is utterly disgusted at the Fisher King’s actions…

“You robbed those people of their deaths. Made them nothing more than a message in a bottle. You violated something more important than time. You bent the rules of life and death. So I am putting things straight. Here, now, this is where your story ends.”

Capaldi does a superb job conveying both the Doctor’s moral outrage and his grim determination to thwart his adversary.

Under the Lake ghosts

2) Sometimes less is more

Back in April 2013 I compared “The Rings of Akhaten” to “Cold War.”  The former was ambitious, a special effects laden episode set on a far-off alien world.  Yet it was also a story that very much underwhelmed me.  The later was contained within the claustrophobic interior of a Soviet submarine, but was effectively written and directed, leaving me much impressed.

That comparison comes to mind again this year.  Series opener “The Magician’s Apprentice” and “The Witch’s Familiar” had the spectacle of the Doctor facing Davros and an army of Daleks on a restored Skaro, but it was a very uneven story.  There were some great scenes, but also moments that were really weak, resulting in a story that was merely good.

In contrast, these two episodes are much more limited in scope.  Part one is set in a shadowy underwater base in the early 22nd Century.  Part two expands the action to a deserted Welsh village in 1980.  The special effects and make-up are rather minimal, limited to the ghosts, the Tivolian undertaker and the Fisher King.  Yet the writing, the acting, and the directing are all absolutely top-notch.  This two part entry is intelligent and suspenseful, both scaring the audience and really making them think.  And speaking of which…

3) Round and round we go

The bootstrap paradox, aka stable time loop, is an intellectually perplexing aspect of time travel, as well an incredibly unnerving one.  The idea of an event existing without a prima causa, but rather as an endless Mobius strip running back & forth though time is definitely the sort of thing that can make your head hurt.

It is also disturbing because it seems to completely nullify the concept of free will.  In a bootstrap paradox, your actions are apparently totally pre-determined.  That is a frightening concept, the idea that no matter what you do, whatever choices you make, they are inevitably going to lead to a single outcome that cannot be altered.

Doctor Who has utilized the bootstrap paradox previously, most notably in “Blink.”  A variation of it appeared as far back as the 1972 serial “Day of the Daleks,” although in that story it’s implied that the Daleks initially altered history, and a failed attempt to undo their changes led to the temporal paradox.

Outside of Doctor Who, the excellent novel The Anubis Gates (1983) by Tim Powers contains one of the most interesting utilizations of the bootstrap paradox.  Also noteworthy is the very unsettling comic book story “Counter-Clockwise” by Bill Elder & John Severin from Weird Fantasy #18 (March/April 1953).  I find myself wondering if that tale was an influence on the Doctor Who novel Vanderdeken’s Children (1998) by Christopher Bulis.

Before the Flood Clara

4) Clara Oswald: action junkie

Last season in “Mummy on the Orient Express” Clara (Jenna Coleman) asked the Doctor if he was addicted to traveling through time & space, and to making life & death decisions.  If he is, then it appears Clara herself also now suffers from that ailment.  As “Under the Lake” opens she is chomping at the bit, eager for the TARDIS to land somewhere new & exciting.

Clara also once again, much as she previously did in “Flatline,” finds herself stepping into the role of the Doctor, taking charge and nudging, almost manipulating, the actions of others.  And, whereas previously Clara found herself angry that the Doctor had made her an “accomplice,” here it is almost second nature.  If Clara is a positive influence on the Doctor, making him a better person, well, certainly the Doctor seems to sometimes be a negative one on Clara herself.

And, just as certain people are understandably resentful of the Doctor’s machinations, so too do they not take kindly to Clara’s.  As Cass inquires through Lunn…

“She said to ask you whether traveling with the Doctor has changed you, and why you always have to put other people’s lives at risk.”

I wonder if Clara is embracing the Doctor’s travels and lifestyle so whole-heartedly because she is attempting to fill the void left by Danny’s death.  Perhaps this is going to be an ongoing subplot through the year.  We know now that Coleman is leaving the show soon, so inevitably there is going to have to be some form of closure for Clara’s character.

5) It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever

In his various incarnations the Doctor has always walked a tightrope between a wise, caring guardian and an arrogant, obtuse meddler.  That is especially true of Capaldi’s portrayal of the Twelfth Doctor.  He is an individual concerned with safeguarding the innocent and combating injustice, yet he is frequently cold and dismissive towards those he is supposedly protecting.

The idea that Clara has the Doctor carry around cards with sympathetic expressions for him to read aloud because he is too self-absorbed and alien to see how much he is upsetting people is both brilliant and all too on-the-mark.  On a more serious note, yes, it does seem that the Doctor made only a token effort to save O’Donnell, and he was actually curious to see if she would be the next to die.  He obviously cares a great deal more about Clara since he was seemingly ready to break the laws of time to save her life.  The Doctor can be maddeningly inconsistent… but, then again, so can most of us.

The Fisher King

6) Fishing for compliments

The design of the Fisher King was really good, making him a menacing figure.  The voice was also well done.  The Fisher King was more effective in the scenes set indoors when he was kept somewhat in shadows.  Later, when we see him outside in daylight, he is not nearly as impressive, but still works pretty well.

Having said all that, considering how damn tall the Fisher King was, how exactly did he plan on fitting into that stasis chamber?

7) One final note

Once again the Doctor plays the electric guitar, this time performing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in the pre-credit sequence to “Before the Flood.”  Is it a little self-indulgent to let Capaldi play the guitar two stories in a row?  Possibly.  But I enjoyed it.  As Jim O’Brien astutely observed in the comments section last time…

“While over the top, one of the things I like about Capaldi’s depiction of the character is he can pull off things that might come off as a bit too “twee” or camp if it were say, Matt Smith, or maybe even Tennant doing them. That stern gravitas Capaldi conveys makes the comedic stuff even funnier for me.”

Crap!  I wish I’d been able to articulate my thoughts that well.  Anyway, my point is that much of the time Capaldi is brooding or rude or angry.  So when he then does something completely outrageous like, say, playing the electric guitar, the juxtaposition to his usual intense attitude makes it even more amusing and entertaining.  It’s yet another reason why I am so enjoying Capaldi’s portrayal of the Doctor.

Comic book reviews: Rocket Girl #1-5

One of the new titles that I’ve been enjoying lately is Rocket Girl, which is written by Brandon Montclare and illustrated by Amy Reeder.  Last year’s Kickstarter campaign to fund the first issue was such an overwhelming success that Image Comics decided to publish the book.  Rocket Girl #5 just came out, wrapping up the first story arc, while leaving plenty of unanswered questions hanging in the air, no doubt causing many readers besides myself very much anticipating the next installment of the series.

Rocket Girl is the story of Dayoung Johansson, a 15 year old who travels back in time from 2013 to 1986 to change history.  The 2013 that Dayoung comes from is not “our” present / future, though, but a world where the titanic corporation Quintum Mechanics has made tremendous technological breakthroughs, creating a world where glistening high tech skyscrapers, robots, and personal jet packs are commonplace.  In other words, it is a vision of tomorrow very much in keeping with the idealistic future envisioned in the pulp sci-fi novels & movies of the mid-20th Century.

Dayoung, though, is not content.  A member of the New York Teen Police Department, she sees the tremendous political and economic power being wielded unopposed by Quintum Mechanics.  And then an anonymous informant known only as “Joshua” informs her that Quintum came to power by sending technology back through time to the founders of the company in 1986.  Convinced that “crimes against time” have been committed, Dayoung sneaks into Quintum headquarters and utilizes their time travel tech to go back 27 years into the past and avert what she regards as the perversion of history.

Rocket Girl 5 cover

Brandon Montclare poses some intriguing questions in his scripts.  I constantly find myself wondering if Dayoung Johansson’s mission is justified.  Unlike so many other science fiction stories involving traveling in time to alter history, the 2013 seen in Rocket Girl is not some sort of dystopian or post-apocalyptic nightmare.  So far we have mostly just seen the members of the NYTPD and Quintum Mechanics, which makes it difficult to get a feel for what sort of life the average citizen has in Dayoung’s 2013.  But it doesn’t seem all that different from the “real” 2013.  Actually, it seems a bit more pleasant, with cool technology.  And you don’t seem to hear anyone talking about global warming, pollution or crime.

Yes, Quintum Mechanics appears to be a shadowy, amoral corporate entity with too much influence.  But what happens if Dayoung succeeds in undoing the apparent alterations to the time stream?  Rather than a world where Quintum is manipulating events from behind the scenes, we would have “our” 21th Century where the Koch Brothers and their like are pulling the strings of power.  It is not going to be a “better” world, just a different one with similar flaws and corruptions.

There is also the implication that the board of directors of Quintum actually want Dayoung Johansson to travel back to 1986, that her attempt to alter the past is a crucial part of the corporation’s rise to power.  Montclare is definitely playing around with the notion of temporal paradoxes here.  It’s mind-bending stuff.  We even see people from 1986 meeting Dayoung for what is, from their perspective, the first time, and then 27 years later running into her again, where she doesn’t know them because, in her personal time line, she hasn’t yet traveled back in time.

And that got me thinking… I would not be at all surprised if the mysterious informant “Joshua” turns out to be the 2013 incarnation of someone we have already been introduced to in 1986.  It would certainly be interesting if “Joshua” was revealed to be Annie, the idealistic pink-haired Quintum Mechanics scientist who quickly befriends Dayoung upon her arrival in 1986.  Because people do most certainly change over a quarter century, and the Annie of 2013 would not doubt have a very different view of the world than her younger self.

Rocket Girl 1 pg 9

Dayoung Johansson is a well-written character.  She is very much a teenager, impulsive and headstrong, full of a simplistic idealism about how she thinks the world ought to be, disdainful of anyone over 30.  I can look at Dayoung and recognize aspects of the sort of person I used to be when I was in high school.  Yeah, if you had given me a jet pack and a time machine when I was 15, I would probably have made a mess of the timelines in some sort of ill-considered attempt to “fix” history.

The artwork by Amy Reeder is fantastic.  As I’ve written before, I’ve been a fan of her work since I first saw it on Madame Xanadu several years back.  Reeder continually gets better as time goes by.  I was impressed by the Halloween Eve special she did in 2012, her first collaboration with Montclare (although they knew each other from when he was her assistant editor at Vertigo).  Reeder is now creating even more impressive work on Rocket Girl.

One of the most striking things about Reeder’s work is her stunning layouts.  She utilizes some very unconventional, dramatic storytelling techniques.  They are especially effective in the action sequences where Dayoung is kicking ass or rocketing around, zig-zagging all over the place.  Reeder definitely  imbues her still images with a genuine sense of dynamic action.

Rocket Girl 4 pg 10-11

Reeder is also especially skilled at rendering her settings.  I already knew from her work on Madame Xanadu that she excelled at depicting historical setting in lavish detail.  Here in Rocket Girl she both imagines a futuristic 2013 full of bright, streamlined technology, and she recreates the gritty urban sprawl of New York City in the mid-1980s.

Rocket Girl is briefly going on hiatus, with issue #6, the opening chapter of the second story arc, scheduled to come out in September.  If you missed the first five issues, I recommend picking up the trade paperback which is due out next month.  It’s an intriguing, thought-provoking, fun read with incredible artwork.

Remembering Glyn Idris Jones

This past Monday morning, while checking my inbox, I received some unfortunate news. An e-mail from a familiar addressed opened with the following:

“Dear friends both near and far

“I have some sad news for you. As some of you will have already heard (and thank you for all your kind thoughts), at 3pm on Wednesday the 2nd of April, Glyn Idris Jones died peacefully here at home in Vamos, Crete. It was just 25 days before his 83rd birthday and 4 days before our 54th Anniversary.”

These words were written by Christopher Beeching, Glyn’s partner of more than a half a century. While I never had the good fortune to meet Glyn in person, I was fortunate enough to have regularly corresponded with him via e-mail for the past several years.

Glyn Idris Jones
I wrote a bit about Glyn’s life and career as an actor, writer & director in January last year in my blog post about his excellent autobiography No Official Umbrella. I highly recommend picking up a copy. It is a wonderful read.

As to how I got in touch with Glyn personally, well, not too surprisingly I discovered his work via his involvement in Doctor Who. Glyn held the rare distinction of having both written for and acted in that series, penning the 1965 serial “The Space Museum” and appearing a decade later in “The Sontaran Experiment.”

I have always liked “The Space Museum,” finding it an underappreciated gem. It was the very first Doctor Who story to really explore the idea that time travel is a lot more complicated and dangerous than simply bopping back and forth from one era to another in the TARDIS.

The Doctor (William Hartnell) and his companions Ian, Barbara, and Vicki land on Xeros, a conquered world that has been transformed into a vast museum celebrating the history of the once-mighty Morok Empire. However, the TARDIS has “jumped a time track,” and the four travelers arrive out of sync with the time stream. The first episode ends as they see their own personal future: they have been turned into museum exhibits, freeze-dried and placed in glass display cases for the rest of eternity.

Then time re-aligns itself, and the Doctor and friends “arrive” in the present on Xeros. They spend the next three episodes desperately attempting to avert the dire future fate they have glimpsed. There is an interesting philosophical debate running through the story: Is the future set in stone, or can it be altered? By attempting to avert their horrible fate, are the Doctor and his companions actually initiating the events that will lead them to become museum exhibits?

The thing about “The Space Museum” is that, in addition to its high concept premise, Glyn Jones also conceived it as a tongue-in-cheek tale. However, script editor Dennis Spooner cut a great deal of the humor from the final scripts, and the episodes were directed in a very straightforward, static manner by Mervyn Pinfield.

Space Museum novelization
Offered the opportunity to novelize “The Space Museum” in 1987, Glyn restored much of the excised comedy. He also used the prose format as an opportunity to get into the heads of his characters and develop them. This was particularly the case with Governor Lobos, the villain of the story, who was quite a one-note figure on-screen, but rather more interestingly realized in print. All in all, the novelization was an entertaining read.

In any case, when “The Space Museum” was released on DVD, I did a write-up of the story on Associated Content in July 2010. Having come across Glyn’s website, I decided to e-mail him a link. After all these decades, I had no idea how he felt about his involvement in Doctor Who, but I figured, why not, he might be interested. Soon after, he wrote back:

“Thank you so much for your letter and for the article which I read with interest. No, it doesn’t bother me one jot that people after all these years are still talking about The Space Museum. It’s quite flattering and who objects to being flattered especially when sincerely meant?

“Since moving to Crete I have virtually given up with theatre and the media so, apart from a new musical, still waiting in the wings, one play set in Athens which I hope will shortly be produced there, I have turned to prose with the following results: an autobiography titled No Official Umbrella, four comedy thrillers with my very own detective Thornton King and his female sidekick Holly Day. These are Dead On Time, followed by Just In Case and then Dead On Target. The fourth The Cinelli Vases is due out later this year. Much fun if read in sequence as characters from number one go right through to four.”

Of course very soon I had purchased Dead On Time and No Official Umbrella, and found both of them to be very engaging, entertaining reads. I wrote back to Glyn with my thoughts, and soon enough I was corresponding with him pretty regularly.

On his own blog Glyn penned some intriguing, insightful, witty commentaries on theater, television, society, politics, religion and many other topics. We ended up talking about quite a few of these. On the subject of post-Apartheid South Africa, Glyn was happy to see the end of the systemic discrimination that had plagued the country of his birth for decades, but he was saddened to see it replaced by rampant corruption & crime. He concluded with an optimistic wish for the future: “However it is still the most beautiful country and hopefully the years will see a distinct improvement for everyone and not just for a few.”

I asked Glyn if it would be possible to mail him my copy of the novelization of “The Space Museum” for him to sign. He warned me that the mail in his region could be unreliable, but agreed. A few weeks later, when the book was mailed back, I was very pleasantly surprised to discover that he had included an autographed copy of The Cinelli Vases, his fourth Thornton King novel.

Cinelli Vases
Glyn was kind enough to take a peek at my WordPress blog and offer feedback, either via comments here or by e-mail. I always took it as a compliment that he took the time to do so, and found his views to be interesting.

In the last year I ended up sort of dropping off our correspondence. I was pretty wrapped up with personal matters and searching for a new job. I really regret that I never took the opportunity to read the copy of his new play The Muses’ Darling which he e-mailed me, or order the DVD of Champagne Charlie, Christopher Beeching’s musical play about Victorian music hall entertainer George Leybourne which Glyn had written.

I want to offer my thoughts, sympathies and best wishes to Chris, and to Douglas Foote, who was their good friend of 27 years.

“The Play is over, tired, he sleeps.”
Glyn Idris Jones
27th April 1931 – 2nd April 2014

Tomorrow is today: X-Men “Days of Future Past”

It’s 2013.  Do you know where your X-Men are?

Sure, here in the real world, if you want to locate the X-Men, just head on over to the local comic book shop, where you’ll find your favorite mutants in numerous ongoing series published by Marvel Comics.  But back in the early 1980s, within the fictional world they inhabited, the X-Men had every reason to be fearful of the 21st Century.  In the now-classic two part story “Days of Future Past,” readers were given a glimpse of a horrifying dystopian future where humanity no longer ruled, and mutant-kind were hunted like animals by soulless mechanical tyrants.

Originally appearing in Uncanny X-Men #141-142, published in late 1980, “Days of Future Past” was co-plotted by John Byrne & Chris Claremont, penciled by Byrne, scripted by Claremont, inked by Terry Austin, lettered by Tom Orzechowski, colored by Glynis Wein and edited by Louise Simonson.

This two issue tale showed us the remnants of the X-Men in the year 2013 attempting to alter history.  With the aid of the telepath Rachel, the now-adult Kate Pryde’s consciousness is projected back in time into her teenage body.  She tells the skeptical present-day X-Men of 1980 of the dire future waiting on the horizon.

Kate informs the X-Men that the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants is planning to murder U.S. Senator Robert Kelly, who is advocating for the regulation of mutants.  Kate states that the Brotherhood’s actions backfire horribly; rather than serving as a warning for humanity to stay out of mutant affairs, the assassination causes a virulent wave of anti-mutant hysteria to sweep across the nation.  The “Mutant Control Act” is passed in 1984, but is struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.  This merely further emboldens the paranoid elements of the federal government, and they reactivate the giant anti-mutant Sentinel robots.  The Sentinels are given “fatally broad parameters” to deal with mutants and, to humanity’s horror, decide the most logical manner in which to do so is to seize total control of the United States.

Over the next quarter century, nearly all superhumans in North America are exterminated by the Sentinels, with the survivors imprisoned in “internment centers.”  In 2013, the Sentinels are now preparing to spread out across the globe to fulfill their mandate to eliminate mutants.  The rest of the world, much more fearful of being conquered by the Sentinels than they are of the dangers posed by mutants, is prepared to retaliate with a full-scale nuclear strike against the former United States.

The present-day X-Men race to Washington DC, hoping to thwart the assassination attempt on Senator Kelly by the shape-shifting Mystique and her new Mutant Brotherhood.  Meanwhile, in 2013, the remnants of the future X-Men escape from the South Bronx Mutant Internment Center.  This ragtag band heads into Manhattan and the Baxter Building, which is now the headquarters of the Sentinels, in a desperate attempt to destroy it and avert nuclear holocaust.

The X-Men of 1980 narrowly succeed in saving Kelly, and Kate’s consciousness departs back for her own time.  Unfortunately in 2013 events take a much worse turn, with the future X-Men being brutally slaughtered by the Sentinels, leaving only Rachel and Kate alive.

Back in the present, the X-Men ponder whether or not they have averted the dark future of mutant genocide.  Professor Xavier observes “Only time will tell.”  And in an ominous epilogue, Kelly, more convinced than ever that mutants are a danger, is introduced by the President to Henry Peter Gyrich.  To safeguard humanity from mutant-kind, Kelly & Gyrich are to put into place the top-secret “Project Wideawake,” and a key aspect of this program will be the reactivation of the Sentinels.

As I did not get into comic books on a semi-regular basis until the mid-1980s, I obviously did not have the opportunity to read “Days of Future Past” when it was first published.  I think the first time I ever found out about the events of the story was one summer, when I was at day camp, and a fellow comic book fan had brought along several issues of The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe.  One of these contained the entry for Rachel Summers aka Phoenix II, the telepath from “Days of Future Past.”  Her biography in that issue was, in part, a summation of Claremont & Byrne’s story arc, a description of the nightmarish Sentinel-controlled future.

Rachel’s Handbook bio in seriously unnerved me.  As a Jew, it really struck a chord.  Having grown up learning all about the Holocaust, to then read about a fictional scenario where a minority group right here in the United States was rounded up and imprisoned in concentration camps, marked for extermination, was VERY disturbing.

I finally had the opportunity to read “Days of Future Past” itself in the early 1990s, when Marvel reprinted the story in a one-shot, and then several years later when it was included in Essential X-Men Vol. 2.  I found it a very powerful story.  Claremont & Byrne definitely crafted an unsettling vision of the future.  The artwork by Byrne & Austin was stunning, really driving home the impact of this dark tomorrow.  (And I am a huge fan of Austin’s inking on pretty much anything.  He’s an amazing artist.)

The covers for these two issues have become extremely iconic.  That image of Wolverine & Kate backed against the wall of wanted posters, drawn by Byrne & Austin, has been the subject of numerous homages over the decades, and #142, which was both penciled & inked by Austin, showcases the gruesome death of Wolverine at the hands of the Sentinels.

It is interesting that “Days of Future Past” was only a two part story.  Nowadays, if anything like it was attempted by Marvel (or DC, for that matter) it would probably be a huge event, at least ten chapters long, and cross over with numerous other titles.  I really do not think what Claremont & Byrne achieved in those two issues, not to mention within the rest of their groundbreaking run on Uncanny X-Men, could be replicated today.  Well, not at the Big Two, at any rate.  Perhaps it could be in the arena of independent and creator-owned books?

That “Days of Future Past” reprint special ended with a brief afterword by Simonson, who noted that Claremont & Byrne’s “dual vision, their future history remains. Its seeds are in the past. Its reality flavors the present. And its future is almost upon us.”

It has often been observed that the X-Men can serve as metaphors for nearly any minority or group that has faced discrimination: African-Americans, Jews, homosexuals, etc.  I think that is true.  I also think that the themes of “Days of Future Past” are more relevant than ever.  Despite the important strides many minorities have made in gaining recognition under the law, there is still a tremendous amount of bigotry & intolerance in this country.

Politics have become increasingly polarized, allowing the most extreme elements of society a greater voice & influence.  In the post September 11th era, there are some who advocate surveillance upon the entire Muslim community as a necessity to insure national security.  There are calls to “secure the borders” in order to prevent illegal immigrants from Latin America entering the country to steal jobs from “real Americans.”  Many still regard homosexuality as an “abomination” against God, with some even wanting to imprison gays to prevent the further spread of AIDS.  To secure votes, unscrupulous politicians pander to the racist elements of their constituents, cementing the belief that President Obama is some sort of foreign-born Muslim Socialist with a sinister agenda.

Even in a supposedly progressive city like NYC, we have seen a resurgence of gay-bashing, and many people genuinely believe that if the police do not stop & frisk every single dark-skinned teenage male in sight that crime will skyrocket.

My point is that we must remain ever vigilant in safeguarding our liberties & freedoms.  When one group is oppressed, it creates a slippery slope that could lead to others also being denied their rights, until eventually we are all under the heel of oppression.  The Sentinels are a potent symbol for intolerance.  Via their actions in “Days of Future Past,” we can see that hatred is blind, and embracing it can lead to the destruction of all that we were claiming to be protecting in the first place.

UPDATE: Uncanny X-Men #141 went on sale 40 years ago this month, on October 21, 1980. The contents of “Days of Future Past” feel even more relevant than ever in the year 2020:

Donald Trump, running a vitriolic campaign of racism & xenophobia, became President of the United States four years ago. His running mate Mike Pence, a fanatical religious fundamentalist, has in his role of Vice President aggressively worked to advanced a repressive agenda of homophobia and misogyny. Mitch McConnell and the Republican Party have rubber-stamped the appointment of hundreds of far-right judges to the federal courts. Neo-Nazis and white supremacists, emboldened by this administration, are openly marching in the streets of America. In the last four years hate crimes have skyrocketed.

In sort, we have seen the the dangerous actions of an angry, fearful group who, terrified of change, of the loss of political, religious and social influence, are desperately lashing out against anyone different from them, and who by their actions threaten to destroy the very country they claim to love.

Now, more than ever, we must fight against ignorance and intolerance, because if we do not the consequences will be catastrophic.

Doctor Who reviews: Day of the Daleks

Recently I’ve been enjoying fellow WordPress blogger Chance November’s ongoing look at the entirety of Jon Pertwee’s five year run as the Third Doctor on Doctor Who.  She’s been doing an excellent job at it.  After Chance penned a write-up on “Day of the Daleks” I was inspired to take my own look at it, since it is one of my favorite Pertwee serials.

“Day of the Daleks” was one of the earliest Doctor Who stories to be released on VHS, back in 1989.  In a turnaround, it became one of the last DVDs, coming out in 2011, ten years after the BBC began re-releasing the series on disk.  However, it was worth that decade-long wait.  The two disk set of “Day of the Daleks,” in addition to the original broadcast show, has a Special Edition with new visual & sound effects, as well as an assortment of extras.

Day of the Daleks DVD

Examinations of the complications and paradoxes inherent in time travel are rather common in the revived Doctor Who series.  “Father’s Day,” “Blink,” “The Big Bang,” “The Girl Who Waited,” and practically every episode to feature the character River Song have all touched upon the notion of just how strange, convoluted, and dangerous time travel can be.  The excellent 1998 novel Vanderdeken’s Children by Christopher Bulis also dealt with time paradoxes in a very eerie manner.  But back during the show’s original run from 1963 to 1989 this was very seldom addressed.  Ninety-nine percent of the time, time travel was simply a device to get the Doctor and his companions to the particular place in the past or future where they needed to be for the story.

The first Doctor Who serial to address the possible complexities of time travel was the underrated, thought-provoking 1965 story “The Space Museum” written by Glyn Jones.  It would not be for another seven years, in 1972, that the series would dive headlong into the same waters, when Louis Marks penned “Day of the Daleks.”

Most long-time fans of the series will already know the plot of “Day of the Daleks.”  The premise revolves around a group of guerilla resistance fighters traveling back in time 200 years to the late 20th Century in order to alter history.  By assassinating the politician Sir Reginald Styles, they hope to prevent the outbreak of World War III and, in its aftermath, the total subjugation of the Earth by the alien Daleks.  The dramatic twist of the story is the revelation that the guerillas are caught in a predestination paradox: by attempting to alter history they have actually caused those events to take place.  The first time I saw “Day of the Daleks” this curveball blew my mind.  It was both clever and frightening.

It’s worth noting that the Daleks are implied to be the original instigators of history being altered.  They inform the Doctor “We have changed the pattern of history,” and later on explicitly travel back to the 20th Century to destroy Styles’ peace conference, thereby causing nuclear war to occur, ensuring their future domination of Earth.  It appears that the guerillas, unaware of the Daleks’ own manipulations of time, then went back in time themselves to alter history, but instead became trapped in a paradox.

If “Day of the Daleks” was made today by the Doctor Who production team, I wouldn’t be surprised if they removed the Daleks as the initial cause of Earth’s apocalyptic future.  In keeping with the notion of history as “a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff” (to quote “Blink”), the guerillas’ actions would probably be part of what is commonly referred to in sci-fi as a stable time loop with no actual involvement by the Daleks in the initial alteration of the time stream.  That said, for a Doctor Who serial filmed four decades ago, the time travel concepts Louis Marks introduced in “Day of the Daleks” were very though provoking and revolutionary at that time in the show’s history.

There are a number of fine actors on hand who do a superb job of bringing to life Marks’ brilliant script.  Foremost among them is Pertwee himself, turning in one of his best performances as the Doctor.  The moment when he deduces the cause of history being altered, he gravely proclaims to the guerillas:

“You’re trapped in a temporal paradox. Styles didn’t cause that explosion and start the wars. You did it yourselves!”

It’s a powerful scene made even more so by Pertwee’s forceful delivery, one that all of these years later gives me chills.

Another instance where Pertwee shines is in the Doctor’s verbal fencing with the Controller, the Daleks chief human lackey in the 22nd Century.  Pertwee delivers stinging condemnations raining down on the Controller.  And on a lighter note I’ve always enjoyed the scenes where the Doctor is, to quote Jo Grant, “carrying on rather like a one man food and wine society.”

The Controller is effectively portrayed by Aubrey Woods (fans of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory will remember him as Bill the candy shop owner).  Although at times Woods’ performance is, to quote producer Barry Letts, “far too theatrical,” it is nevertheless very compelling.  At first the Controller appears to be a willing agent of the Daleks.  However, as the story progresses, we see he is not genuinely evil, but rather weak.  He is terrified of the Daleks, believing them unbeatable.  The Controller rationalizes his collaboration by regarding himself as someone who can reason with the Daleks, gain concessions, and make the occupation of Earth slightly less brutal.  His interactions with the Doctor, who labels him a traitor and a quisling, slowly begin to reawaken his buried conscience.

In the fourth episode, Woods delivers a haunting recitation of the Earth’s nightmarish future to the Doctor and Jo, relating how after decades of war decimated the globe, the planet was crushed by alien invasion, humanity’s survivors turned into a slave labor force to mine resources for the expanding Dalek Empire.  Woods’ monologue vividly illustrates what would have been impossible for Doctor Who to actually visualize on-screen with a shoestring budget and early 1970s special effects, painting a grim picture of a shattered world under the domination of the Daleks.

Day of the Daleks Aubrey Woods

The actors portraying the guerillas are also very good.  Just as the Controller is nowhere near as clear-cut as he first appears, neither is the anti-Dalek underground.  The guerillas straddle the fine line that can exist between freedom fighter and terrorist.  Though their goal is a noble one, to free Earth from Dalek rule, they are seen utilizing such morally ambiguous tactics as assassinations and suicide bombings to achieve their aims.  The actors really bring across the desperation and fanaticism that the guerillas have become gripped by as a result of their gargantuan struggle against the Daleks.

Dudley Simpson composed the incidental music for nearly all of the Doctor Who serials produced between 1970 and 1979, including this one.  His work on the series has a definite consistency and, in retrospect, there is this “sameness” to a lot of his scores.  I think certain serials might have benefitted from another composer to shake things up.  The music for “Day of the Daleks” falls within the earlier period of Simpson’s work, before his signature became quite so uniform.  He was more experimental at this time.  In other words, he goes a bit crazy with the synthesizer from time to time on this serial, although it’s not as insane as what he did for “The Claws of Axos” the previous season!  The music on “Day of the Daleks” may be quite odd in places, but mostly it is effective.

While the writing and acting is almost consistently top-notch, the serial does have a couple of striking deficiencies.  Much has been made over the years of the fact that the Daleks actually have very little screen time.  This is probably at least partially due to the fact that Marks’ initial story did not even contain the Daleks!  His original conception was to have a fascist human government ruling the 22nd Century.  However, both Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks felt the story would make a stronger season opener if the Daleks were in it, and so instructed Marks to insert them into his scripts.

In Marks’ defense, he did this in a rather seamless fashion.  True, the Daleks aren’t actually seen very much.  But the other characters talk about them throughout the story, making them a sort of unseen menace looming above the proceedings.  In a way, this is more effective than having scene after scene of them crashing onto the screen, guns blazing, shouting “Exterminate” over and over.

However, a much more tangible reason for the Daleks’ limited appearances is that there were only had three Dalek props on hand.  True, with some creative editing, a director could make a trio of Daleks appear to be a much bigger force (something David Maloney would achieve in “Genesis of the Daleks” a few years later).  Unfortunately, someone had the none-too-bright idea to have the lead Dalek in “Day of the Daleks” painted gold.  This made it much more difficult for director Paul Bernard to have it appear there was an entire army of Daleks, especially at the end of the fourth episode.

Day of the Daleks trio

Due to the story’s less-than-spectacular final battle, some have faulted Bernard’s direction.  However, throughout the majority of the serial, he does strong work.  He frames his shots in a dramatic fashion.  I like how he filmed the Daleks’ apelike henchmen, the Ogrons, often shooting them from a low angle, so that they appeared as towering monstrosities. And the editing, the cutting from one scene to the next, is very good, heightening the drama.

Really, one cannot place too much blame on Bernard for the final sequence.  In addition to only having three Dalek props, he had to film them on location.  It wasn’t even easy to get the Daleks to maneuver around the studio back in those days, so I can only imagine the difficulties in the Dalek prop operators had in trying to move about outside on an uneven field.  It’s no wonder that final battle was underwhelming.

Much more of a sticking point for me were the Daleks’ voices.  The two actors who spoke the dialogue in “Day of the Daleks” had not done any other Dalek stories before or since, so the tones sound unfamiliar.  Additionally, a lot of the dialogue is spoken in a drawn out, stilted monotone, with each syllable pronounced almost as if it is a separate word.  These are probably the least effective Dalek voices ever heard on the series.

Since “Day of the Daleks” was an otherwise well done story, in the past it was easy to overlook these few problems.  Nevertheless, many Doctor Who DVDs have featured updated effects, so I thought it would be cool if, when “Day of the Daleks” came out, the producers could change the Dalek voices.  Specifically, I was hoping they’d bring in Nicholas Briggs, who has very effectively voiced the Daleks on both the revived television series and on numerous audio adventures produced by Big Finish.  And if they could also add some extra Daleks to the battle sequence, that would be the icing on the cake.

It turned out the DVD producer Steve Broster felt exactly the same way. With the help of a small group of talented individuals, he created the Special Edition of “Day of the Daleks,” adding new visual effects, extra Daleks, and having the Dalek voices re-recorded by Nicholas Briggs.  As the DVD extra on the making of the Special Edition explains, these were not simple tasks.  I really have to compliment Broster and his crew on creating a new, more visually exciting version of the serial with effects that nevertheless manage to mostly remain in synch with the original 1972 footage.

As for the new vocals by Briggs, well, until I heard them in this story, I don’t think I truly appreciated just how much of the Daleks’ effectiveness as monsters is due to their voices.  Yes, Raymond Cusick’s iconic design is a crucial aspect of their appeal, but their vocalization is equally important.  Re-doing the Dalek voices makes them so much more menacing.  At the same time, Briggs knows when to inject arrogance, panic, and incredulity into his delivery of their dialogue, so that they are not just screaming non-stop, instead possessing a certain amount of nuance.

Of course, if Special Editions are not your cup of tea, the original 1972 broadcast version is still available for viewing on the first disk of this set.  So you can choose which you prefer.

There are a number of other excellent extras included.  One of these, “The UNIT Dating Conundrum,” humorously addresses one of those contentious issues that keep hardcore fans arguing endlessly among themselves, namely when did the UNIT stories take place.  Were they set in the years they were broadcast, or a decade in the future?  The quick answer is that there is no answer, because there’s just too much contradictory information in the stories.  Or, as they say on Mystery Science Theater 3000, repeat to yourself “It’s just a show, I should really just relax!”

Another interesting extra was “The Cheating Memory,” which examines how the brains of children process information, and how our memories from when we were young are often not reliable.  This is looked at in the oft-common context of very young fans who watched the stories in the 1960s and 70s when they were first broadcast, and remembered them as being incredible.  This being before the era of television repeats on the BBC, video recorders, or DVDs, it might often be years, even decades until fans might have an opportunity to re-watch those same shows.

I remember that when I first began watching Doctor Who in the 1980s, I would always hear fans complaining that the current stories were nowhere near as good as the old ones.  In response, then-producer John Nathan-Turner would often respond “the memory cheats.”  A good example of this is when the long-missing 1967 story “Tomb of the Cybermen” was re-discovered in 1992 and a number of fans had to admit that, while still very good, it was nevertheless not nearly as brilliant as what they remembered seeing when they were little kids.

Even I’ve experienced a bit of this myself with several stories when I watched them on PBS in the mid-1980s and then didn’t have an opportunity to see them again until they came out on VHS or DVD a decade or more later.  So I certainly identify with “The Cheating Memory.”

Day of the Daleks novelization

By the way, if you want an alternative to the DVD Special Edition, there is always the novelization written in 1974 by Terrance Dicks.  Unrestrained by a limited budget or primitive special effects, Dicks gives an expanded view of the post-apocalyptic dystopian future via a prologue entitled “Terror in the Twenty-Second Century.”  Dicks also includes scenes featuring dozens of Daleks, gives background information on the guerillas, and he even makes the rather goofy motorized tricycle chase from episode three seem exciting & suspenseful.  Dicks concludes his adaptation with an introspective final chapter, “All Kinds of Futures,” that bookends an earlier scene from the televised story where the Doctor and Jo briefly encounter versions of themselves from elsewhere in the timeline.

Dicks wrote several dozen Doctor Who novelizations over the years.  Some of the later ones he penned were rather by-the-numbers, and it almost seemed that Target / W.H. Allen had the poor guy chained to a typewriter with orders to churn out a book a month.  But if you look back on the earlier books he penned in the 1970s, Dicks did an excellent job developing many of the serials beyond the confines of the television screen.  In the 1980s, before the VHS and DVD releases, those books were often the best way to experience the early stories.

*Whew!* That was a long post. I certainly had a lot to say. Thanks for reading.

Doctor Who reviews: Hide

The Doctor: “Telepathy and precognition are normal in anyone whose childhood was spent near a time fissure, like the one in the wood.”
Jack: “He’s as bad as she is! Here, what’s a time fissure?”
The Doctor: “It’s a weakness in the fabric of space and time. Every haunted place has one, doesn’t it? That’s why they’re haunted, it’s a time distortion.” – Doctor Who: Image of the Fendahl

When I first heard beforehand that the upcoming Doctor Who episode “Hide” was written by Neil Cross, who also penned “The Rings of Akhaten,” I must have inwardly groaned.  But, having watched the episode, I was much relieved.  Whereas “Rings” just never came together and left me underwhelmed, “Hide” was a very tightly plotted, engaging tale with interesting characters.

The year is 1974.  Professor Alec Palmer (Dougray Scott) and empathic psychic Emma Grayling (Jessica Raine) are at Caliburn Mansion, attempting to obtain proof of the existence of the Witch in the Well, a ghost who has reputedly haunted the area for many centuries.  Alec and Emma’s inquiries are abruptly interrupted by the Doctor and Clara, who arrive claiming to be from the Health and Safety division of the Ministry of Defense.  And, in typical fashion, the Doctor quickly takes charge of the investigation.

“Hide” very much reminded me of the “gothic horror” stories of Tom Baker’s era on the show.  Indeed, scientists probing the existence of bizarre phenomena at an old English house out in the countryside is highly reminiscent of the set-up found in the above quoted 1977 serial “The Image of the Fendahl.”  Certainly the director of “Hide,” Jamie Payne, does an absolutely marvelous job at creating an eerie, spooky atmosphere.  There were some really suspenseful moments.

Of course, as with so many of those Tom Baker stories, the apparently supernatural entity in “Hide” is eventually explained as a scientific occurrence by the Doctor.  The solution to the mystery is unexpected, yet highly effective.  And right until the end, Cross’ script provides a number of well thought out twists.  I really enjoyed the conceit of the Doctor and Clara using the TARDIS to travel forward in time from the beginning of Earth’s history until the planet’s final days, periodically stopping in the exactly same spot, the once and future location of Caliburn Mansion, in order to collect evidence.

Come on out, all you ghosts, I'm from Health and Safety!
Come on out, all you ghosts, I’m from Health and Safety!

There is some excellent character development in this episode.  Watching the Doctor crossing through the entirety of Earth’s history as casually as if he was taking the bus across town, Clara finally begins to understand just how alien he is.  She realizes the Doctor operates on a scale vastly beyond human comprehension, and is actually intimidated.  As with last week’s “Cold War,” we see great work by Jenna-Lousie Coleman here, once again really fleshing out Clara beyond the initial character remit of plucky girl genius tossing off clever one-liners.

As for the Doctor, Matt Smith once more shows us, underneath the wacky nonchalance, the hints of his darker, more manipulative side.  It seems he is becoming more and more obsessed with finding out who or what Clara really is, why she keeps reappearing throughout history.  At times he appears to regard her not as a person, but as a mystery to be solved, or a laboratory specimen to be examined.

Cross does very nice work scripting the characters Alec Palmer and Emma Grayling.  Alec is haunted not just by the Witch in the Well but by his own past.  He ran black ops during World War II and saw a great deal of death.  Dougray Scott really buried himself in this role, and I didn’t even realize it was him until I went to Wikipedia to check the episode credits.

(As a side note, I did think Alec Palmer looked about a decade too young to have seen action in the war.  He’d have probably been in at least his early to mid-50s by 1974.  In real life, Scott is 47 years old.  Maybe the make-up department should have given him a few extra grey hairs. Ah, well, Scott played the role so well, I’m willing to shrug it off.)

Also well cast is Jessica Raine as Emma Grayling.  Cross’ script makes it clear that Emma’s paranormal senses often leave her feeling vulnerable and exposed.  Raine brings this quality across without making the character look weak.  I also thought Emma’s unreciprocated feelings towards Alec were well handled, and the relationship between the two seemed to evolve naturally throughout the course of the episode.

It’s interesting that such a dark, eerie, atmospheric episode becomes one about hope and the future.  But, again, the transition works effectively.  Unlike “The Rings of Akhaten” or “The Snowmen,” here the message of the importance of love and relationships is underplayed.  Cross allows it to come out of the events of the story, rather than hitting us over the head with a blunt object.

I probably could write more concerning “Hide,” but I would rather not give away too much about it.  If you haven’t watched it yet, it is well worth seeing.  I’d say that it is probably tied with “Cold War” for my favorite episode so far of Series 7B.

Doctor Who reviews: The Aztecs

The Doctor Who serial “The Aztecs” was originally broadcast back in 1964, as part of the show’s very first season.  I’ve been thinking of doing a write-up on it for a while now.  Since “The Aztecs” was just recently aired on BBC America as part of a special on William Hartnell’s era playing the Doctor, now is certainly a good time.

The TARDIS arrives in Mexico sometime in the Fifteenth Century, during the reign of the Aztec empire, materializing within the tomb of a high priest, Yetaxa.  History teacher Barbara Wright, portrayed by Jacqueline Hill, has long been fascinated by the Aztec culture, and she slips a bracelet she finds in the tomb onto her arm.  When the Doctor, Barbara, Ian, and Susan emerge from the tomb, they realize that it can only be opened from the inside, and that they are trapped.  The  TARDIS travelers are quickly discovered by the two leading religious authorities: Autloc, High Priest of Knowledge (Keith Pyott) and Tlotoxl, High Priest of Sacrifice (John Ringham), the later whom the Doctor and Ian quickly deduce to be “the local butcher.”  Because Barbara was wearing the bracelet when she emerged from the tomb, the current High Priests believe she is the reincarnation of Yetaxa, and as such a deity.

Barbara decides that, having been elevated to the position of a goddess, she will command the Aztecs to discontinue their barbaric practice of human sacrifice.  Her hope is that if she can set them on a “better” path, when Cortes and the Spanish arrive several decades hence in 1519 they will find a more “civilized” culture, one that they will not destroy.  The Doctor immediately sees the futility of this mission, and unsuccessfully tries to dissuade her.  Indeed, Barbara’s attempts to halt the sacrifices immediately fail, and Tlotoxl realizes that she is “a false goddess.”  From then on, it becomes a race by the Doctor to locate a secret entrance back into the tomb so that they can escape in the TARDIS before Tlotoxl is able to disprove Barbara’s divinity to the general populace and have her & her friends executed.

Tlotoxl and Barbara
Tlotoxl and Barbara

“The Aztecs” contains the Doctor’s now-famous admonishment, “But you can’t rewrite history! Not one line! Barbara, one last appeal: what you are trying to do is utterly impossible. I know! Believe me, I know!”  (I like the implication in the Doctor’s warning that he was once in Barbara’s position, and learned a bitter lesson, one he now hopes to save Barbara from having to endure.)  Whereas most Doctor Who serials see the Doctor and his companions doing exactly that, altering events, changing history, fighting on the side of good against evil, here they are nearly powerless.  The Doctor recognizes that the eventual destruction of the Aztecs is what current show runner Steven Moffat defines as “a fixed point in time.”  The only “victory” that the Doctor, Barbara, Ian and Susan can possibly achieve here is to survive.

John Lucarotti’s writing on “The Aztecs” is magnificent.  He previously penned another historical serial in Season One, “Marco Polo,” the episodes of which unfortunately are believed to no longer exist, aside from the audio track and still photos.  So “The Aztecs” is the first completely intact example of his work on the series.  Lucarotti’s scripts really demonstrate a high level of sophistication and characterization, one seldom achieved subsequently by the series during its original run, but now quite common since its revival in 2005.  “The Aztecs” is very much Barbara and the Doctor’s story.  Jacqueline Hill and William Hartnell each give one of their strongest performances from their time on the show.

The two High Priests, Autloc and Tlotoxl, are both well cast.  Keith Pyott does a good job as the High Priest of Knowledge, who for much of the serial has an unflinching belief in Barbara.  Towards the end, when Autloc’s faith and his progressive attitudes are challenged by his loyalty to the Aztec culture and his wavering trust in Barbara, he becomes a troubled figure.  Pyott really brings this anguish across.  As for Tlotoxl, John Ringham’s performance practically steals the show.  As the High Priest of Sacrifice, Ringham sneers and schemes his way through the story.  Apparently channeling Shakespeare’s Richard III, Ringham’s Tlotoxl is a Machiavellian figure, successfully pitting characters against one another, including the TARDIS crew themselves.  Tlotoxl is, in my mind, one of the series’ all-time great villains.

No doubt “The Aztecs” sounds like a bleak story, and indeed it is.  The mood is somewhat lightened by the relationship between the Doctor and Cameca, a middle aged Aztec lady played by Margot van der Burgh.  The Doctor initially becomes close to Cameca when he hears that she knew the architect who designed to tomb of Yetaxa, hoping to learn if she knows of an alternate entrance back into it.  But as the story progresses, the Doctor becomes quite fond of Cameca.  And then he accidentally proposes to her!  Subsequently, when it becomes apparent that the Doctor is going to depart, Cameca sadly bids him farewell, and you can see from the Doctor’s reactions that he really has feelings for her.  So, yes, long before Grace Holloway or Rose Tyler ever crossed the Doctor’s path, we see him in a very heartfelt, bittersweet relationship.  William Hartnell and Margot van der Burgh do an excellent job developing this over the space of the four part serial.

It’s certainly worth mentioning that no small part of the serial’s success is due to the behind-the-scenes crew.  John Crockett’s direction is solid, if understandably limited by the restraints of early television technology.  Barry Newbery’s sets are stunning, and ably achieve the goal of recreating a historic, foreign setting within the studio.  Finally, the lavish costumes by Daphne Dare and Tony Pearce are quite impressive.

The Aztecs novelization
The Aztecs novelization

A special edition DVD of “The Aztecs” is scheduled to come out next month.  If you do not already own the regular version that came out in 2003, then I highly recommend picking up the new release.  “The Aztecs” is one of the all-time great Doctor Who stories.  Also worth tracking down is the novelization of the serial written by John Lucarotti in 1984.  The author utilizes the book to further develop certain aspects of the plot and the characters beyond what was presented on the screen.  I actually read the book before I saw the television story itself.  When I sat down and re-read the novel about five years ago, I tremendously enjoyed it, and that is what finally convinced me to buy the DVD, which I have subsequently viewed on several occasions.  In any case, the novelization makes a nice addendum to the television story.

Re-watching “The Aztecs” when it was on BBC America a couple of weeks ago, it occurred to me that it would be great to have a brand-new Doctor Who story starring Matt Smith that was a “pure historical.”  No monsters or alien invaders, just the Doctor and his companions arriving in the middle of past events on Earth, and seeing what happens.  I don’t know if Steven Moffat is interested in doing anything of that sort, though.  Fortunately, several of the Big Finish Doctor Who audio plays have been historicals in the vein of “The Aztecs.”  I’ve mentioned before the excellent Colin Baker audio “The Marian Conspiracy,” which is set during the tumultuous reign of Mary I of England.  Well worth picking up.

Getting back to “The Aztecs,” it’s definitely a favorite of mine.  And hopefully it has picked up a few more fans due to its recent re-broadcast.  Almost fifty years later, it is still one of the best Doctor Who stories ever made.