Friday, July 29, 2011

Bish's Review Space Above and Beyond Episode 12: Who Monitors The Birds?

"Who monitors the birds?" - Hawkes

The twelth episode of Space: Above and Beyond was written by series creators Glen Morgan and James Wong and directed by Winrich Kolbe.

Promised a discharge from his sentence to the marines,Hawkes is recruited for an assasination mission deep behind enemy lines. After his partner is killed he goes on the run. Alone in enemy territory he has to stay alive and evade capture, while having hallucinations and flashbacks to the In Vitro education program. When finally an extraction arrives, Hawkes destroys his discharge papers and prepares to rejoin his comrades.

The GoodWho Monitors The Birds? is structurally the most ambitious episode of Space: Above and Beyond to date. The dialogue is limited to only a few lines in only about three key flashback scenes, with the rest of the action following Hawkes as he struggles to stay one step ahead of the Chig patrols.

Rodney Rowland steps up to the challenge admirably. Just because he doesn't have much dialogue doesn't mean he doesn't have to carry the show and his physical performance is excellent. Hawkes' exhaustion, both physical and mental, is draining to watch and seeing a flashback to a younger version of Hawkes, stiff, emotionally stunted and naive, being brainwashed to fight for America, is deeply sinister.

Obviously, with dialogue scarcely a concern, it is the direction that must come to the fore, and Who Monitors The Birds? is a fascinating watch. My favourite bit of directorial craft is a moment where Hawkes, in desperation, leaps into a river to escape and the scene immediately cuts to a flashback of his birth, sliding out of the tube in a splash of fluid. It's an easy connection to make, maybe, but it's still a stylish choice.

Similar is a scene where Hawkes is distracted by a pteradactyl like creature in flight and flashes back to his similar amazement at seeing a bird in flight from the window of the education facility. The title is reflective of this, as he is amazed that the bird seems so free while his life is controlled by the sinister "monitors", so he, quite innocently, asks that question, and gets into trouble for it. A Chig walks close by and Hawkes is about to fire before he sees that the alien, too, is fascinated by the creature, and lets it go on its way. I always appreciate the way Space tries to add layers of ambiguity to Chig behaviour and show common ground between the two sides. By this point in the series it is very clear that the Chigs are not by any means pure evil.

On this theme, there is a lovely scene where Hawkes has the better of a Chig and it surrenders, throwing up its four-fingered hands in a very human gesture. It offers Hawkes its dog-tag thing that it keeps on its chest-plate and he gives it a ring in exchange. In the next scene he is jumped by Chigs, kills them, and discovers this individual among them. Heartbroken he takes his ring back, returns the chest-panel and sinks to the ground.

Brave and effective are the moments where Hawkes, exhausted and dehydrated, starts hallucinating a sort of personification of death. This is represented by Vansen, but in a skimpy dress, with pale skin, yellow eyes, and bloody lips.

Almost no dialogue is exchanged in these scenes either, but the chemistry between the two is very well done, and Hawkes' obvious attraction to Vansen is perverted effectively by his dire circumstances and mental state. She really does look nightmarish, and her appearances are heralded by eerie guitar licks that jar brilliantly with the rest of the orchestral soundtrack.

She saves Hawkes by pointing out Chig patrols a couple of times but ultimately he rejects her, casts her aside, and goes to the extraction point. "Until we meet again." she says, mockingly. This is a great illustration of the way death is a constant part of a soldier's life, either aiding him, by taking his enemies, or finally coming for him at the end. Hawkes kills a lot of Chigs, sometimes with Death by his side, but despite the near hopelessness of his situation he is able to ultimately reject her embrace and survive, for now.

The action is decent and we probably see more pyrotechnics here than in any other episode of Space thus far. There are extended sequences of Hawkes running from small arms fire, mortar fire, and fighting Chigs in hand to hand combat and all are tense and exciting.

The BadNot a lot to worry about here. The Chig costumes are a little stiff and clunky, and perhaps do not move as smoothly in hand to hand combat as might be desirable. In addition, the episode opens with a narration by Hawkes explaining what an In Vitro is and why he does what he does. It's written very clunkily and feels like a very late addition to the script, possibly in response to an executive, nervous about putting out a nearly wordless hour of television.

Other than that, with so little dialogue there are no cheesy lines to criticise, and no bad acting. The story is straightforward but well told and we get a good glimpse into the horror that is the In Vitro program.

Future HistoryA nice continuity nod: the Chig officer that Hawkes is tasked with assasinating was responsible for the attack on the Vesta colony.

Past HistoryThere wasn't enough dialogue for any historical or literary references this week.
Overall Who Monitors The Birds? was an excellent and daring piece of work. It is certainly in the top tier of the episodes I have reviewed so far and from what I recall is among the very best the series has to offer, not that it is entirely representative, breaking the usual ensemble format, as it does.
 Space Above and Beyond - The Complete Series is available in a very affordable boxset. And on the strength of my last two reviews you really should think about checking it out.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Death’s Head Review: Issue #2 – Contractual Obligations

The second issue of Death’s Head’s own series and the creative line-up remains largely the same: writer Simon Furman, penciller Bryan Hitch, letterer Annie H, colourist Abadzis and editor Richard Starkings. The exception is David Hine on inking duties.

The cover incorporates the tagline “Guest starring… Dragon’s Claws” and Hitch’s artwork does likewise: Death’s Head is tussling with four of the Claws (the fifth member, Digit, looks a bit spare in the background). They are each letting out grunts of pain, causing Death’s Head to comment, “Articulate lot, yes?”. It’s a passable joke, but the picture looks a little static, lacking the energy of an all-out brawl.

The splash page has Death’s Head bursting through the floor of the Dragon’s Nest base, specifically the living quarters of Scavenger, the Claws’ enigmatic sneak operative. For the last time, the captions reveal Death’s Head’s own thoughts (but this time in the present, not past, tense), “I know how to make an entrance, yes?”

As the two fight, we see that Death’s Head’s new body comes with improvements: boot jets, a bolas and tracking systems that work even when blinded. Though clearly outmatched, Scavenger puts up a scrappy resistance. He is only defeated when Death’s Head unknowingly triggers another of his upgrades: a jet of sleeping gas from his palm. He leaves with his prey just before the rest of the Claws arrive on the scene, though Dragon looks out of the window and recognises Death’s Head escaping.

Death’s Head returns to the underground ruins of Chaney Prison, a maximum security facility that, 10 years ago, got buried in an earthquake. Though presumed dead, the lower level prisoners survived and formed The Chain Gang, led by a tough character named Fox. Death’s Head throws Scavenger to his former crew.

Above ground, Dragon’s Claws are searching for Scavenger, as this was where Dragon first encountered him. We flash back seven years, where Dragon is outnumbered and wounded by a comedy-themed team called The Jesters. Scavenger leaps in to save him, quickly defeating all four Jesters, before vanishing again.

Back in the present, Fox is beating Scavenger for having betrayed their community as Death’s Head watches, bored. His internal monologue explains that, as the surviving inmates suffered from agoraphobia, they were dependent on Scavenger to fetch provisions for them. He gained their trust enough for them to take off an explosive tether, and then fled to join Dragon’s Claws. Death’s Head sympathises with Scavenger, though he concedes that he owes The Chain Gang for repairing him. He has apparently calculated his debt down to the last minute - in twenty minutes, his service is over.

Death’s Head has a brief exchange with Spratt, the puckish young man who repaired him and who took over Scavenger’s foraging duties. Spratt is intrigued by Death’s Head, though he makes the mistake of calling him a ‘hired killer’ and brushed aside.

Scavenger’s beating is interrupted when the rest of Dragon’s Claws storm the building. With fifteen minutes left on the clock, Death’s Head is sent to intercept them. There is a nice comedic moment when Steel, the team’s giant samurai, draws his sword to duel Death’s Head, and is immediately knocked off his feet with a less-than chivalrous punch.

The rest of the Claws are subdued pretty quickly, leaving only Dragon, which presents Death’s Head with a problem. As the man who came closest to killing him, Dragon has earned the mechanoid’s grudging respect. “For the first time in my life,” he admits, keeping one eye on his chronometer, “I was going to find it difficult to kill someone, yes?”

Fox moves to finish off Scavenger, who flees into the ruined corridors of Chaney, avoiding his crushing blows. With a change of tactic he leaps on Fox, obscuring his vision and leading him up to the surface. On the way, Scavenger argues that he wasn’t betraying The Chain Gang by abandoning them, he was setting them free. He casts Fox out into the wide open space, where his agoraphobia takes effect and he sinks to his knees, catatonic.

Meanwhile Death’s Head has overpowered Dragon. He raises his mace to finish the job, takes another glance at his chronometer and, with 59 seconds left, decides it is a minute slow. He walks away from the bemused Dragon.

Later, the authorities had arrived to take away Fox and the rest of The Chain Gang. Scavenger hopes he has saved them from Fox, though he acknowledges Fox was acting from what he thought was his people’s best interests. Dragon stares into the distance and, seeing Death’s Head looking at him, offers a half-salute.

Death’s Head finds himself pestered by Spratt, who has eluded custody and snuck up on him. Spratt tries to sell him on the idea of a business partner who can guide him through this world. Death’s Head brushes him off, only to find Spratt persistently tagging after him. He sighs as the captions promise, “The beginning…”

Hmm … after singing the praises of the past four adventures, I felt this one hits a bum note. If Death’s Head occupied too much of Dragon’s Claws #5, he more than returns the favour here. With the issue devoted to Scavenger’s history, and even a two-page flashback for Dragon, this barely feels like a Death’s Head issue. Conversely, with Dragon’s Claws’ own series following such a tight story arc, this extra issue adds no real benefit to them either.

As we learn his backstory, it’s also hard to sympathise with Scavenger. He was clearly the lifeline for an entire community – Fox’s agoraphobia is real and incapacitating, and since none of the others left for the surface, we can assume theirs is too. While he may have wearied of being their lackey, it doesn’t excuse abandoning them to starve. Moreover, as maximum security prisoners, The Chain Gang will presumably be sent to another facility, so defeating Fox hardly ‘saves’ them from captivity. It may be reading too much into it, but when Death Head voices his sympathies with Scavenger, it feels like the writer is trying too hard to support a dubious moral argument.

The tale begins promisingly enough, with Scavenger desperately improvising weapons against Death’s Head. But the subsequent clash against the whole team is a damp squib and mostly off-panel. The titanic battle in Dragon’s Claws #5 is a hard one to match, and this doesn’t come close. Indeed, despite Scavenger musing that The Chain Gang could tip the balance against the Claws, none of them are seen to get involved. There is none of the chaotic violence that occurred in The ‘Pool – Death’s Head just beats them up for a while, then stops when he decides his time is up.

The idea that Death’s Head is contracted for a limited period of time strikes me as awkward. In none of his other contracts – past or future – is he hired by the hour. He always has a set task to accomplish, or not, and by my reckoning he’d repaid his debt to The Chain Gang at page 7, when he delivered Scavenger. While it is always fun to see Death’s Head stick to the letter of his contract, regardless of morality, the ‘ticking clock’ idea seems an obvious contrivance to have him fight the Claws, but spare Dragon at (literally) the last minute. Having Death’s Head invent a reason to avoid his contract also seems seriously off-character, and some nimbler writing from Furman might have found a better excuse.

As the only character in this story to become a semi-regular, Spratt’s role is oddly minimal. He has a brief conversation with Death’s Head, and the story concludes with their unwilling partnership. If that epilogue was to be meaningful, I think we should have seen a lot more of Spratt beforehand, and be eager for him to team up with the bounty hunter. Coming across like this, it’s easy to find him as random and annoying as Death’s Head does. Perhaps he lost space due the necessity of accommodating Dragon’s Claws, but it’s not the best start.

(It’s got me wondering if the issue’s title – ‘Contractual Obligations’ – isn’t Furman’s hint that he didn’t want to write a crossover issue, but was compelled to do so for marketing reasons. Despite both being set in Earth 8162, Death’s Head and Dragon’s Claws share little in common, and it would be much cleaner to have let each series continue along its own path.)

The artwork is also something of a mixed bag. Hitch does a nice job of Death’s Head and Scavenger, although the rest of the Claws are less well-rendered (other than Geoff Senior, Hitch is the only artist to draw the Claws, so it’s a lot to live up to). His action scenes are showing more pace and bite, although the scenery is a little dull (Chaney Prison is nondescript rubble) and some of the framing lacks thought (Fox’s moment of agoraphobia is shown against the enclosing valley wall – I would have thought showing his view of open skies would be more effective). A noticeable loss from issue #1 is inker Mark Farmer, as David Hine’s finishes seem to flatten the art.

Next week: contractual obligations fulfilled, Death’s Head skips across the Atlantic to set up shop in Los Angeles in ‘High Stakes’!

Death’s Head #2 was republished in ‘Death’s Head Volume 1

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Bish's Review: Action Force #26 and #27 "Ancient Relics" Parts 4 and 5

Naturally Simon Furman finished off the story he started and wrote parts 4 and 5. Geoff Senior supplied the pencils, Dave Harwood the inks, Steve White the colours, Annie Halfacree the letters and Richard Starkings was the editor.

The cover for Part 4 is by Jeff Anderson and shows Megatron's hand crushing a Mauler tank while the driver escapes. Personally I don't think this is an especially great piece of art as there is no background detail and the driver is posed rather oddly. However, if a reader were primarily an Action Force, rather than Transformers fan, this cover with a familiar and powerful tank being crushed by a gigantic metal hand from off-panel might be very dramatic indeed.

Part 5, however, also by Jeff Anderson, is just poor. A lack of detail around Blades' eyes just makes him look lifeless and the three Action Force characters are posed and drawn very sloppily. They don't appear to have any spatial relationship with one another. And what does "Doom watch!" even mean?

Megatron, still somewhat mentally unstable, is smashing Action Force tanks as though they are toys while Flint looks on in horror. Scarlett pulls him away while they discuss how hopeless the fight seems to be. Grimlock is out for the count, Blades isn't powerful enough and Centurion doesn't seem to be doing anything.

We duck into Centurion's head as he thinks back to his last battle with Megatron, which ended in his near-destruction. He is powerless, and feeling like the "ancient relic" that Wheeljack accused him of being.

Grimlock regains consciousness and launches himself back into the attack, reconsidering his opinion on humans. He has never had any regard for them in the past but Action Force's heroic fight against impossible odds has saved his life and Grimlock pays his debts! Managing to relieve Megatron of his fusion cannon he lures the Decepticon towards some enormous gas silos...

The perspective shifts to Wild Bill, riding in Blades' cockpit with Flint. He remembers a mission from his past, having to leave a man behind in South East Asia. The memories are flooding back because the only logical plan from his position is an air strike on the gas tanks. Though stricken with horror he says nothing as Flint calls in the Sky Strikers...

Part 5

As Grimlock and Megatron continue to struggle, Wild Bill gets his voice back and yells his concerns to Flint. Centurion looks on with interest. Wild Bill wants to tell Grimlock to get out of the way but Flint points out that Megatron will follow him out of the firing line.

Centurion comes to Blades with a suggestion. As Grimlock and Megatron duel Blades drops Centurion in to help Grimlock. The helicopter Autobot drags Grimlock to safety while Centurion keeps Megatron busy. As the Action Force planes release their payloads Centurion grins, pleased that he was still able to contribute.

The gas goes up in a tremendous fireball and the two burning, unrecognisable figures plunge into the Thames. Blades explains to Flint why Centurion did what he did and Flint says that Centurion was more "old soldier" than "ancient relic" and salutes his memory.

The story ends with more exciting action and a farewell (at least for now). The incoming airstrike is a well worn but often effective plot device and while Wild Bill's flashbacks feel a little tacked on I do appreciate the effort to give him a bit of characterisation as well as the reference to Vietnam.

Unfortunately the really emotional part of this story is rather less effective than it should have been because Furman makes the bizarre choice to not show the human intelligence behind Centurion. Anyone who didn't know his history would assume he was just an Autobot, or some other autonomous robot. Professor Morris isn't mentioned at all. If, after Wheeljack's repairs, Centurion is supposed to be autonomous then it certainly isn't made clear, and that seems unlikely, because then he would just be a new character, not Grimlock's old friend.

If poor old Professor Morris has now lost his only connection to the outside world then that is worthy of an emotional pay-off but we don't see anything of the sort. It's probably not strictly a continuity error because there is no way that Furman would forget the history of this character but it is a very strange approach to continuity.

That aside, I do like the story. I like the London setting and the escalating waves of Action Force reinforcements. It's big, loud and over-the-top but at least it shows that humans can do more than just be stomped underfoot. Of course, we could have seen that even better if Professor Morris had been used and I suspect his interractions with Action Force, and their reaction to Triple-I might have been very interesting indeed, but, admittedly, a completely different story from this exciting action piece.

Geoff Senior continues to deliver on the artwork. When doesn't he? The explosion on the second to last page is particularly effective and accompanied by Furman's favourite large explosion sound-effect: "KRAKADOOM!" On a more emotional level the joy on Centurion's face as he realises that he has made a difference is dead on, and a really good argument for the redesign as he now has a face with which to express joy.

I enjoyed Ancient Relics immensely. It was a fast, exciting action storyline that knew how to escalate the situation with each passing issue. I wouldn't want every Transformers story to follow this exact model, but I would certainly have liked to have seen more of Action Force (or, as I can't help but think of them - GI-Joe) than we ultimately did.

Check back next week for a return to the actual Transformers book and a review of Kup's Story.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Ark Addendum - Getsui's Transform and SDCC 2011

Sorry, took another week off there.  Was very busy last week with Comicon and, um, a project that I can't talk about yet but which will make some of my fans very happy.  What am I talking about?  Hmmmm.....

ANYWAY, here's another Trainbot transformation, Getsui this time.  Neat stuff, huh?  As usual, very dynamic, especially with the motion lines in the first panel.

So, another Comicon has come and gone.  Mostly it's a chance for me to do professional networking, but I did get to do a few panels here and there: Kevin Smith and Young Justice.  Panels were nifty, networking was productive, but overall it's an exhausting experience.  But what makes it fun for me, mostly, is the costumes.  Sme fans do a terrific job.  Here were a few that caught my eye.

Me and a poor sod from Dharma.  I wonder if he knows what fate awaits him.

Bill with a Suicide Girl wearing an awesome shirt.  I picked up a nice SG hardcover book this year, my main souvenir. 

Lovely Chun-Li!

Me getting beaten up by a rather terrifyingly accurate Rorschach.

More to follow later!  Oh, and while I'm on the subject of SDCC, I wanted to mention Crave, a site I've blogged about before and occasionally sit down with for powwows on the collector marketplace.  They're running a SDCC give-away with some Transformers prizes, so if you're looking for a Masterpiece Convoy (and, let's face it, who isn't?) or some other nifty toys (Boba Fett, Amazon gift cards) then you might want to head over to  You've got till the end of the month, so don't dally!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Bish's Review Space Above and Beyond Episode 11: The River Of Stars

"Iridanus: The River Of Stars - When I was kid, in the winter it'd get dark real early and on the way home from basketball practice I'd see Iridanus in the sky. It gave me comfort to see it return every year. To know some things never went away." - Wang

The River Of Stars was written by Marilyn Osborne and directed by Tucker Gates.

During a battle on Christmas Eve, the 58th's ISSCV transport is disabled and left helpless - drifting towards Chig territory. While McQueen mounts a search mission the squadron discuss the meaning of the Christmas, give presents and argue about faith. When all hope seems lost, Wang receives a burst of morse code on the radio warning the 58th of an incoming comet. A further transmission gives the 58th the data they need to enter a stable orbit around the comet and hitch a ride away from enemy territory. The only snag is that Wang has to make a dangerous space walk in order to point the thruster in the right direction. McQueen, picking up the same transmission, sends his search team to rendervous with the comet and find the 58th alive and well.

The Good
That's right, Space: Above and Beyond did a Christmas episode. I bet you expected it to suck, didn't you? Well it didn't. While many TV shows crap out a seasonal episode that lacks anything other than empty sentiment (although that trend seems to be dying) Space manages a tense, interesting forty-five minutes that lays on the Christmas theme without losing track of the usual themes of the show.

In fact, I will go one further than this, and say that a Christmas episode is actually more appropriate for Space than many other TV shows. After all, who needs the spirit of Christmas more than a group of marines fighting a bitter war against an inhuman enemy in the cold of space? It is no surprise that many of the Wildcards are looking forward to one of the only breaks they are likely to get for a long time to come.

The show's determination to give the war with the Chigs some texture gets a major boost here as it is revealed (although never explicitly stated) that the aliens are behind the mysterious transmissions in broken morse code. A cynic might point out that this humanitarian gesture comes at a rather convenient time when it is highly unlikely that the Chigs have any idea of the significance of this particular date but Space has never really been above that kind of convenience in order to service a theme. The show tends to be more about broad sweeps of passion than nuts and bolts verisimilitude and comparing the Chig's act of mercy with the famous Christmas truce of January 1914, as the prologue to the episode does, is powerful stuff, if a little further from reality than a more modern show might attempt.

That aside, there's a lot more going on here. The most insistent arc of the episode is Wang's regaining of his faith after all the trauma he has been through since the war started. He cannot quite bring himself to mention the Silicates, but it is clearly what he means when he talks about "the things I've done." Dramatically I think this basically works but is a little disappointing in a couple of ways. I can understand how risking his life to save his friends would pull Wang out of the mire but in this arc the script drops the ball a little (for this atheist). There is an exellent scene early in the episode, where Damphouse and Wang explain Christmas to a genuinely clueless Hawkes:

"I kind of... took off... from the In Vitro educational facility before they taught us stuff like this, so all I know about Christmas is there was one day out of the year in Philadelphia that everything was closed and it was a headache... and it was lonelier than usual."

What really works is that the rest of the 58th gives the religious side, son of God, magical stars, etc and Wang gives a more grounded, scientific version, but they aren't competing with one another. They take the topic back and forth and give both sides without arguing or worrying about who says what. At this moment I felt that the show was being very even-handed, and explaining that Christmas has different meanings for different people, but in fact, the script goes on to equate Wang's beliefs with a loss of faith in himself, which I feel is a misstep, although a minor one, as the episode really doesn't dwell too much on the Christian side of Christmas.

More successful is the passing around of West's picture of Kylen as a more general symbol of faith and hope for the 58th. West gives it to Wang before his space walk and Wang eventually gives it to McQueen as a symbol of his faith that the 58th would be found alive. West's insistence on finding Kylen was always a little awkward in this show about broader themes of life and death but this is a nice evolution of the arc. Yes, West is still looking for her, but he has friends now, and comrades and they have their own symbols, rituals and belief in each other.

Vansen plays the role of the mum of the group, secretly packing Christmas presents into the transport and giving them out at a time of dire need. Kristen Cloke plays this scene beautifully, as Vansen is all too aware that this is detracting from her usual air of badassery but cannot help but be excited so she tries to rush the moment as much as possible in quite an adorable way.

McQueen and Ross on the Saratoga get a few great scenes. Most memorable is the silent shot from behind McQueen as he watches the transports return from the battle, silently counting each one back with the fingers on one hand. A look of heartache and a clenched fist are all that's needed for James Morrison to convey the emotion in the moment. Once again Ross and McQueen spar over how big a search to conduct and whether the 58th are likely to be alive but Ross barely argues, even going as far as to play "I'll Be Home For Christmas" on his guitar over the radio in the hopes that the 58th will hear, but not before assuring them that he isn't drunk. McQueen's similar gesture is to play a recording of the Apollo 8 astronauts reading from the book of Genesis from when they orbited Earth for the first time. Perfectly in keeping with McQueen's character, his deep sense of history, and the themes of the episode. This is even better as it is contrasted with a funny moment earlier in the episode where the radio picks up an old transmission from Earth of the Batman theme and the Wildcards briefly wonder if McQueen has lost his mind.

"One guy's like a bat and the other's like a bird... I liked that show." - West.

Hawke, being the token outsider, gets the traditional "what is the meaning of Christmas?" arc. There's nothing original here but the sentiment is earned and sincere when he accidently gives Vansen a Christmas present she doesn't want, and then learns that is perfectly ok, because it's the thought that counts. It could have been cheesy but it's remarkable how Space avoids the cliches in moments like that merely because you believe that these gestures really do mean this much to the characters.

Oh, and the space walk is really very convincing, especially for 90s special effects.

The Bad
For this episode, other than my slight criticisms of Wang's arc, any bad would really be reaching. I really think it's that good.

(Ok, fine - maybe the comet is moving improbably quickly. Either that or the boundaries between Chig and Human territory are REALLY precise)

Future History
I didn't catch any future history this episode but we did get a bumper helping of:

Past History
As mentioned, the episode opens with a prologue explaining the Christmas truce of 1914, in the First World War. It is narrated by Wang and features photographs and newsreel footage. It manages to be poetic, educational, and perfectly in keeping with the concerns of a science fiction show about people born in test tubes who fight aliens in interstellar space.

There is also a great deal of detail about the history of Christmas which is woven neatly into the narrative and, of course, McQueen's message from Apollo 8.

Wang's present from Wang is a copy of Romeo and Juliet and the following passage is read out:

And when I shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun
- Juliet

In a nice touch, the title of the book is never shown or read aloud, leaving the audience who know the speech feeling clever and the others intrigued enough to look it up.

A good forty-five minutes of Space: Above and Beyond and just a great episode of television in general. An exception to the rule that Christmas themed episodes are disposable and only work in the holidays. (See also Futurama, for equally triumphant yuletide stories, although in a completely different way).

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Death’s Head Review: Issue #1 – Death’s Head Revisited!

Death’s Head’s own title begins here: writer Simon Furman, penciller Bryan Hitch, inker Mark Farmer, letterer Annie H, colourist Nick Abadzis and editor Richard Starkings.

The cover is by Bryan Hitch, and it’s memorable: an extreme close-up of the mechanoid’s head, his metallic skin cold and flawless as he stares at the reader, gun raised close to his face . Underlighting adds to the sinister appearance, and the shadows cast from his tusks fall perfectly across each of his unblinking eyes. The dialogue softens the frightening visage with some to-the-audience humour, “Buy this comic … and stay healthy, yes?” It’s one of the best covers in the series.

The issue itself is made up of three 6-page stories – all occurring before Death’s Head’s encounter with Dragon’s Claws – and a framing story that continues after he got blown up and buried. In the same style as ‘High Noon Tex’, the captions are Death’s Head’s own narrative.

The first story is set on Sttudduj, a medieval-style world of simian-humanoids. Death’s Head is infiltrating a royal palace, hired by oppressed rebels to assassinate their king. He silently dispatches two guards (the first and only time he uses his arm attachment to shoot a blade) but gets suspicious at the lack of resistance. His verbal quirk makes for an amusing conversation with himself: “Would a king … leave himself unprotected like this, eh?” “No, yes?”.

Bursting into the throne room, cloak rakishly draped across his front, Death’s Head is confronted by the king and a roomful of palace guards – the same guards who, pretending to be rebels, had hired him (the king’s plan to snare potential assassins).

Disarmed, Death’s Head pulls his own trick: his shottblaster attachment was concealed under his cloak – the removed hand was poking out of the cloak only for show. Guards mown down, the defenceless king attempts to cancel the contract. Death’s Head replies with his mace, as the narrative gives us, “Rule One: Always honour a contract, but never trust a client!”

In the ‘real world’ of 8162, two men in a dim laboratory inspect an off-panel Death’s Head. A small man in a white coat, Spratt, has repaired him, but the mechanoid refuses to stir. As if he has a mind of his own…

Story two has Death’s Head on Furik, a world of Prohibition-era characters, right down to the Tommy guns, pinstripe suits and cod-gangster accents. He starts on the defensive, being chased into a nearby barber shop by a half-dozen hoods. The hoods follow and, none too bright, ignore the only customer with horns until he leaps from his chair, decapitates one of them with an axe, and seizes a gun to annihilate the rest (Death’s Head does all this while still wearing the curly blond wig that was his ‘disguise’).

Continuing with his contract on a boss named Dutch Malone, he invades a speakeasy and crashes into an upstairs room. Inside he finds a woman reading to a child and turns to leave with apologies. He is blasted off the balcony by the ‘child’, who reveals himself to be the diminutive Malone – aka ‘Babyface’ – teddy bear replaced with a huge blaster. Recovering, Death’s Head snatches up a bottle and lobs it at Malone’s head, bringing him crashing to the ground. “Rule Two: Make no concessions for age, size or gender.”

Back in 8162, the larger man, Sabre, is losing patience. We learn that ‘The Chain Gang’ want to use Death’s Head to hunt down one of their former members. Frustrated, Sabre punches the lifeless metal face. Two red pinpricks of light appear in the eyes…

Third story: the robot world of Scarvix. Death’s Head is sitting in his office (which may be the same one he blew up in ‘High Noon Tex’) and brooding about a lack of business. His only work has been to recover the memory circuits of a robot butler who then forgot he had hired him. “He’ll remember where I shoved his memory circuits forever, yes?”

He then sees a massive red robot – a bruiser named Backbreaker – tearing his way down the high street. Though he shrugs off the idea of playing the hero, an idea occurs. He confronts Backbreaker, claiming to have been hired by one of his victims, and shoots a little pellet into his forehead.

Taking the fight into the street – where there are plenty of onlookers – he pounds his opponent with a number of impressive attacks before the original acid pellet takes effect and eats away Backbreaker’s brain. He coolly gives his address to the cheering crowds, and is next seen dealing with long queues to his office. “Rule Three: Never kill for free, but it pays to advertise.”

Finishing in the real world, Sabre aims another kick, and is promptly clobbered as Death’s Head comes alive. He thanks Spratt for the repair job and, revealing his brand new uniform, declares himself, “open for business, yes?”

It’s a storming introduction. The short-story format really works here, giving us plenty of Death’s Head, in a variety of situations, without a main antagonist intruding on our attention. Using Death’s Head as the narrator – the same manner as the Punisher’s War Journal – is a great touch, giving some efficient exposition as well as showing off his dry humour. I’m really surprised this device was only ever used once again (briefly in the next issue, then dropped), as it seems a perfect fit for the character.

Added to this, in the opening pages for each story, we’re treated to some intriguing hints about Death’s Head origins: he killed his programmer ‘for fun’, a rare exception to his profit-only rule; he was created to be a ‘rich man’s deadly plaything’ but rebelled to rob and murder his owner. Most of this gets contradicted by his later origin story, but reading without that foresight, they seem like good foundations.

At an early stage in his career, Bryan Hitch’s artwork is good, but a little unrefined. Though he does a great job on the different characters and scenes, sometimes the action feels sluggish and framing choices a bit standard. The rendering of the characters, however, is splendid and the final, full-page of Death’s Head’s new uniform is outstanding. The tattered green body armour has been replaced with dark blue samurai plates. The whole effect is leaner; while the original design suggested a robotic version of clothes, this seems like actual armour he is wearing over a metallic body (more fitting, I suppose, for his adventures among humans). Spratt even got rid of the dent in his cranium.

Three stories mean Hitch gets to deliver three splash pages, which are done brilliantly. There is a stealthy menace as Death’s Head leaps through the rafters like some vast predatory bird (sorry, the Furmanism was screaming at me), but my favourite is the image of him brooding in his office (right down to the ‘DH’ coffee mug). For both these pages – and for distinguishing the flashback ‘dream’ stories against the sterile and moody framing story – credit should include inker Mark Farmer and colourist Nick Abadzis.

Each of these stories are riffs on familiar genres: fantasy, gangster and Western (there are no cowboys in the third one, but it has a ‘sheriff-cleaning-up-the-town’ feel). The first one is my favourite, having a couple of nice twists and requiring Death’s Head to use stealth and intellect – something he doesn’t get to do enough. The second story is cartoonish, mostly played for laughs (especially the wig!) and the third is a solid tale.

It’s a shame this ‘short-story’ style was never repeated in the series. I think it shows Death’s Head at his best: making him a devious and violent player in a random environment (the alien worlds are also a fun stretch of Furman’s imagination). As there’s little development for his amoral character, the narrative counts for a lot more and (looking ahead) a 22-page story can sag whereas these 6-page episodes stay brisk.

What I liked about the framing story is that it puts these tales in context: Death’s Head is going over his past cases to reboot himself, each one confirming a ‘rule’ of his profession. It has the same feel as the Dinobot story “Victory”, where Furman jumped between reality and mechanoid dreams to great effect.

I wasn’t so happy about the motives of his rescuers. We find out in the next issue that ‘The Chain Gang’ are the inhabitants of a ruined prison, so even if you accept they have the wherewithal to repair and improve an advanced mechanoid, Sabre’s talk about the ‘manpower and resources’ from Spratt’s ‘department’ sounds too corporate for a mob of convicts.

Perhaps Furman hadn’t properly settled on this part of the story. Indeed, the idea of an unscrupulous corporation repairing Death’s Head (in the manner of Robocop) has some dramatic potential, especially after his flashback admission that he kills anyone who tries to own him. The mechanoid’s friendly acknowledgment that he owes Spratt a debt undercuts any idea that things might turn nasty, which would have made a nice cliffhanger.

Next week, the new-look Death’s Head repays his new friends by taking on old enemies. Round 2 with Dragon’s Claws in ‘Contractual Obligations’!

Death’s Head #1 was republished in ‘Death’s Head Volume 1

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Unintentional Hilarity - Superman

OK, it's been a while, so I thought I'd post another Unintentional Hilarity.

So, in real life, the explanation is pretty simple - the bullets are fake, the prop gun is real. But I love the idea that while bullets can't harm Superman, a thrown gun can!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Bish's Review: Action Force #24 and #25 "Ancient Relics" Parts 2 and 3

The rest of Ancient Relics took place within the pages of Marvel UK's Action Force book rather than Transformers. While there were Transformers comics still being published at the same time it makes the most sense to put this storyline to bed first, especially given that it's thoroughly in continuity, and with the return of Megatron, is actually pretty important. That's a pretty annoying stunt, but it's nothing like as bad as the tangle Marvel and DC make out of their superhero books to get you to buy them.

Simon Furman provides the script, Geoff Senior the pencils, Dave Harwood the inks, Anne Halfacree the letters and Steve White the colours.

The cover to Part 2 was by Lee Sullivan and is a fairly good depiction of Megatron's damaged face with the rather uninspired idea of surrounding it with Action Force mugshots. It's not terrible but the smaller faces aren't integrated very well and really the cover would be more powerful without them.

Part 3's cover was by Jeff Anderson and ably depicts the moment where Wild Bill falls from his destroyed Dragonfly. It's much more dramatic than Part 2 and the anatomy of Wild Bill is pretty good. I don't rate this as a classic cover as it feels too much like a panel from the actual comic than a showcase piece but it is an arresting image.

Part 2 kicks off right where Part 1 left off giving us a little insight into Flint's mind as Megatron lunges into the attack and Action Force beat a swift retreat!

They hurtle out of the sewers only to be confronted by Grimlock (looking adorable with his tiny arms raised above his head) and Centurion. Grimlock is impatient to discover humans when he was expecting Transformers. Before he can say much more, however, Megatron bursts fists first out of the ground and immediately attacks.

While the two metal titans wrestle and hurl barbs at one another, Flint uses the opportunity to call in Wild Bill and a squadron of Dragonflies for an air strike. Wild Bill has a fun line here about Megatron having a bucket on his head but it doesn't save him as the rockets leave Megatron completely unscathed and he blasts Wild Bill's chopper out of the air. Things look bleak as we head for:

Part 3!

As this issue starts we find that Blades has made his own way out of the sewer, underwater. He leaps from the Thames just in time to save the crashing Wild Bill. There are some exciting action scenes here but not much story, so here's an excellent Geoff Senior splash page.

Flint does not see Blades' rescue of his friend so is wracked with guilt as the Dragonfly explodes. He steps up the battle, calling in Heavy Metal and his squad of Mauler tanks.

Megatron has the better of Grimlock before he is bombarded by their explosive shells just as Blades lands with Wild Bill safely inside his helicopter mode. Flint is shocked but spurred into action as Wild Bill tells him to call off the attack. Blades has told him that Megatron is virtually indestructible, and now he's mad!

So there you have it. Two issues of fairly frenetic action. The Action Force comic was comprised of very short UK originated stories and longer reprints of US GI-Joe material so this crossover was told in rather bite-sized chunks. It's exciting stuff, well-paced, and doesn't waste any time to get where it needs to go. I especially like the way Furman escalates the battle while showing off some Action Force hardware. It might not be super-realistic to have tanks so easily on hand in central London but it makes for a great moment and helps for Action Force to not be upstaged in their own comic by the Transformers, which would have been quite possible, especially given that Furman was writing it.

That said, there's not a whole lot of meat here. Action Force are given only cursory characterisation. Flint thinking Wild Bill is dead adds a little depth, but since he uses it as a reason to call in an armoured strike that was probably always going to be a good idea, it doesn't really go anywhere. Not to mention that Bill appears alive and well almost immediately. Megatron is still completely insane after blowing himself up (or did he?) and works fine as a berserker threat but there's no nuance, and it's a little too reminiscent of Galvatron's equally unhinged performance in the previous long arc. I do enjoy the impatience of Grimlock with puny humans and it's great that while being a pompous dictator in the US stories he still leaps straight into battle with Megatron without a second thought. He might be arrogant, misguided, and a liability as a leader, but he's still a hero.

Geoff Senior is at his best when drawing action and he really delivers here. His clean cut style gives the reader a really clear understanding of where characters are in relation to each other and exactly what they're doing. Call me shallow but he also draws excellent explosions. I enjoy battle scenes where humans get involved as more than just screaming bystanders because it adds a new dimension and a sense of scale to the comic. I might be in the minority here but I think if you remove the human element from Transformers completely then the Autobots and Decepticons might as well be humans themselves. Superheroes, probably, but their size and power would still largely be wasted. Michael Bay is guilty of many, many things, but I don't count pitting the US army against the Decepticons among them and we get a taste of that kind of action here, albeit with a rather more fantastical tone.

I'm really enjoying this storyline, and it's a shame it hasn't been reprinted anywhere. It's not the best Transformers story ever but it's clear, fast and exciting, and sometimes that's enough.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Iván's Gallery: Movie Shockwave

Well, it's been a long while, but friend of the blog Iván Mas wrote to me the other day with a pretty awesome picture of movieverse Shockwave!  He's asked me if I can come up with a Mosaic featuring the character, and I just might. In the meanwhile, enjoy his take on the character.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Spirit Journey Formation Anniversary!

Well, it's my birthday, and it wouldn't be my birthday if I didn't have well-wishers from all corners of the world.  One friend shared a rather unique birthday song, from the sometimes brilliant, sometimes awful, but always insane Aqua Teen Hunger Force.  It features Zakk Wylde!

Here are the lyrics:

Deep within the womb of time,
a creature thus be born
The seed of life is united with
the egg of tyranny
Gestates forth from within the womb of life
for three-quarter and nigh a year
The creature thus be born!
The creature thus be formed!
And ye of years ... bells will chime!
When the heavens open up
and drink from the silver cup
The creature thus be born!
And blow the magic horn!
To alert the spirit deep within the cycle of life.
The creature has begun it's journey deep forlorn,
upon this day which he be formed
In the sea of mucus the spirit rides down from the mountain
and unites with the creature in the womb
A holy union, dark mortality, until the dark mortality
breaks the chain of life
The creature thus be born
And every year raineth down the celebratory tears
A celebration of the years from mere mortal sky

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Death’s Head Review: Dragon’s Claws #5

Before he finally got his own series, Death’s Head had one more guest spot. ‘Dragon’s Claws’ was a late- 80s Marvel UK title, the first of several US-format monthlies (‘Death’s Head’ itself was close behind). From the creative team of Simon Furman and Geoff Senior, it was the story of an enforcement team (the eponymous ‘Dragon’s Claws’) trying to bring order to a far-future dystopia. Sadly lasting only 10 issues, it is a cracking series and one I’d thoroughly recommend.

The creative line-up for the series was fairly consistent. Dragon’s Claws #5 had writer Simon Furman, artist Geoff Senior, letterer Annie Halfacre, colourist Steve White and editor Richard Starkings. No credit for the cover , but my guess is Senior.

The cover is a nice one. The guest star is prominent, delivering a solid punch to the titular hero, Dragon, who certainly looks to be feeling it. The background is plain, which centres attention on the two figures. The text (“Introducing: Death’s Head!”) works with the mechanoid delivering one of his trademark, half-to-the-audience, puns: “Gonna be a big hit, yes?”.

An interesting alternate cover has surfaced on the blog It Came From Darkmoor - Death’s Head standing triumphant over the whole team. Impressive, but not story-accurate, and a little too defeatist for a title about the Claws. The stance is near-identical to the fantastic splash page anyway, which leads us to…

“The ‘Pool, Northern England ,” the captions explain, “ an unsavoury place populated by unsavoury people … whose numbers have just risen by one!”. Surrounded by crackling energy and smouldering fires, red cape resplendent, Death’s Head is shaking both fists in anger after being tricked by Doctor Who, “but as I always say in these situations don’t get mad … kill something, yes?”.

His arrival has been noticed by Cousin Bob and Cousin Rob, two cyberpunk-types armed with flamethrowers and redneck accents. The pair belong to ‘The Jones Boys’ gang and mistake Death’s Head for one of ‘The Evil Dead’ (their rivals and the main villains of the series, recovering from defeat and holed up nearby). Seeking information, Death’s Head remains calm, though Cousin Bob is unconvinced and treats him to a large helping of flamethrower.

With slow menace, Death’s Head emerges from the fire, affixing his shottblaster, “You were doing fine for a while. Then you made the mistake. You got me mad, yes?”. He quickly executes the cousins, and is spotted by a heavily-armoured police transport. Without missing a beat, he attaches a missile and blows the craft to pieces. As he laments all this killing for free, he is approached by Death Nell, a member of the Evil Dead. Unlike the others, she sensibly wishes to hire him.

The scene switches to Dragon’s Claws and their London base. Dragon is suspicious about N.U.R.S.E., the organisation that reactivated his team, and presses Stenson, a N .U.R.S.E. executive, for answers. He is stopped by Deller, N.U.R.S.E.’s military liaison (and Dragon’s rival) who reports the disturbance in The ‘Pool and blames The Jones Boys. The whole team springs into action.

Back at The ‘Pool, The Jones Boys are raiding the Evil Dead’s stronghold for money, weapons and explosives. Their leader, Incinerator Jones, is motivated not by greed, but fear of punishment for their ‘non-payment’ to an unnamed agency. Death’s Head’s contract is to stop them and Death Nell reveals his payment: a room full of medicine, the most precious commodity in this diseased age. He picks up a rifle, ready to go to work.

Investigating the police wreckage, Dragon’s Claws hear a nearby explosion at the Evil Dead’s stronghold. They arrive to see Death’s Head taking on The Jones Boys and quickly join the battle. Using the distraction, Death Nell helps her injured leader, Slaughterhouse, to escape.

Viewing the Claws as competition, Death’s Head declares that he won’t ‘split the bounty’ with them. This initiates a debate with the righteous Dragon about how government enforcers are no different from himself. “All do someone else’s dirty work for them and pick up their pay cheque at the end of the week, huh?”.

The rest of the Claws finish off The Jones Boys, with Incinerator Jones dealt a mortal wound by the team’s martial artist, Mercy. His dying confession is that N.U.R.S.E. have been using Dragon’s Claws as hired killers. Mercy’s response is a cold, “Yeah … So what?!”.

The debate between Dragon and Death’s Head is cut short when Deller sneaks around and shoots the mechanoid in the back. Admiring the underhand tactics, Death’s Head returns fire, hitting Deller in the left shoulder (a popular spot – in ten issues, he gets wounded there three times). After a brief scuffle, Dragon orders the Claws to retreat and faces Death’s Head alone.

Dragon tricks Death’s Head by shooting at the crates of explosives directly behind him. In a massive detonation that blows off both his legs, Death’s Head is consumed by the inferno. Knocked to the ground, Dragon’s ankle is suddenly seized by an exoskeletal hand and what remains of Death’s Head drags itself out from the flames.

Steel, one of the Claws, returns to free Dragon and they both flee as the legless and one-handed Death’s Head calls them back to fight (shades of Monty Python’s Black Knight there). The building then collapses on the mechanoid, as he decides that he may just have to cut his losses on this contract…

Phew! Anyone who bought the issue because of Death’s Head (as I did) certainly got their money’s worth. From his first magnificent appearance, he dominates; driving forward the plot and hammering heroes and villains alike. Despite meeting an untimely end, this story really does show off Death’s Head at his finest: dumped in an unfamiliar and dangerous world, he immediately adapts to his surroundings. I like that he is polite and business-like when he needs to be; but when fighting begins, he goes all-out, destroying anything in his way without hesitation. The lawless, violent Greater Britain of 8162 is a good setting for him, especially as the Wild West bounty hunter that Furman originally envisaged.

As an interesting point: this defeat by Dragon makes it the second time in a row he’s been tricked by someone he underestimated. After hunting down Transformers, it seems that Death’s Head is having a hard time coping with humans.

It could be argued that Death’s Head actually occupies too much space for a guest. The reason the other Claws were hardly mentioned in the recap is because – with the exception of Dragon and Deller – they don’t really get much time. That said, one of the main threads of the series is whether Dragon’s Claws are a force for good, or just hired enforcers, so thematically it’s a good time to introduce a paid killer for some home truths. “Who decides who the deserving cases are, eh?”.

The plot goes at a breathtaking pace, almost all action, but barely a panel wasted. The series arc is further developed by some ominous portents from both Stenson and Slaughterhouse (as well as a great cliffhanger final page concerning Dragon’s family). It’s typical Furman that even a throwaway character like Incinerator Jones (barely a page’s worth of appearance in total) has a depth that goes beyond a cardboard goon. It was a nice touch that Jones’ dying breath was heard by Mercy – arguably the most cynical of the Claws – and so wasted.

Senior’s artwork is always top-notch, and I’d rate this among the strongest in the whole series. The decaying ruins of The ‘Pool make a great post-apocalyptic backdrop, especially The Evil Dead’s Greyskull-like fortress. There’s a lot of fire depicted in this issue; it has a nice kinetic quality (rather than repeating squiggly lines) and the colours make a sharp contrast to the dark setting (the whole episode takes place at night).

There’s a good image of Mercy leaping against a blast of flames – but that’s really all the standout images the Claws get. In the same way as the writing, the artwork also centres on Death’s Head. As well as the full splash, there are two great images of him wreathed in fire: the first when he terrifies the Jones Boys; the second when he crawls out of the explosion like the Terminator (with James Bond’s sense of humour, “Repairs will cost me an arm and a leg, yes?”).

(I could quibble that having Death’s Head appear from flames on two occasions diminishes the impact of the second – more important – image. But it would be a shame to lose either.)

With such an energetic issue, there are some nice touches to be picked up on the second reading – a moment of subtle humour when Cousin Rob plunges a knife into Death’s Head’s chest, only for it to buckle and the mechanoid to look down on it, unimpressed. I also like the foreshadowing of the explosive crates being visible – but not obvious – before they became important to the plot.

In all, a classic issue – a bit more than the lion’s share of the story for a guest spot, but I think any Dragon Claw’s fan would be too busy enjoying the story to feel short-changed.

Next week, whatever’s left of the mechanoid begins his very own series as we recall his past adventures: Death’s Head Revisited!

Dragon’s Claws #5: ‘Death’s Head’ was republished in ‘Death’s Head Volume 1

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Bish's Review Space: Above and Beyond Episode 10: Stay With The Dead

"Everytime I close my eyes I hear this voice, like, I don't know, familiar, over and over 'stay with the dead.'" - West

Stay W
ith The Dead was written by Matt Kiene and Joe Reinkemeyer and directed by Thomas J. Wright.

West is found wounded and shipped back to the Saratoga to be treated. He is plagued by dreams and flashbacks that suggest the rest of the 58th are still alive despite being constantly told otherwise, including a tape of his own distress call. Just as he is about to have electro-shock therapy that will calm his delusions but destroy his long-term memory he remembers the truth: he made the distress call as a decoy for the Chigs to fall into a trap and the 58th had to retreat. He remembers the co-ordinates of the fallback position and the squadron are saved.

The Good
Stay With The Dead continues Space: Above and Beyond's excellent record with atmosphere. The hospital transport in the cold open is suitably horrifying and effective. We even get a sense that the medics, who we never really get to know that well are nervous as the wounded arrive. Very understandable, and a nice human touch to characters who later exist mostly to block West's attempts to get to the truth "for his own good."

The hospital equipment draws a good line between flashy and all too familiar. West's first day or so of treatment, lying in bed, unable to talk and filled with tubes is quite harrowing. Morgan Weisser really acts his socks off in this episode and portrays West's trauma very believably. James Morrison is also on fine form as McQueen, forced to confront his own demons about the loss of the Angry Angels as he sees West in the same state.

The flashback structure is fairly interesting, and shows us some more interesting facts about the Chigs. They booby-trap wounded enemy combatants and they show no compunction about killing red cross crews. Of course our heroes find this unconscienable, and anyone in that situation would, but it does serve to drive home the point that these are aliens we're fighting, not just humans with different hats.

In a similar vein, Space: Above and Beyond has always been quite good at using genuinely different concepts to portray convincingly alien planets that they don't have the budget or techniques in place to do with cgi or set dressing. In this case the planet the 58th fight over has a great deal of static electricity and we get told this makes your mouth very dry. It's a small thing, but it's clear that someone on the writing team cared enough to try to differentiate the various locations with actual science-fiction concepts, even if they are all just places in California.

I really liked that the reason West kept telling himself to "stay with the dead" was because the trap the 58th set up for the Chigs used some marine corpses as bait and it was a nice bit of symmetry to have him use the same phrase to convince the stranded Wildcards that a rescue was the real deal.

The Bad
The problem here is that the plot is fundamentally broken, and I see this without even thinking this is a particularly bad episode. There are a lot of strong performances and good writing on display, but in a series like this you simply cannot maintain suspense with this plot. We know that the 58th can't be dead - television doesn't, it can't, work like that. I feel like I've seen this plot several times on different shows and they all have the same problem. The viewer finds themselves just killing time until the inevitable turnaround. There is merit in bringing the lead character as low as possible and watching him cope with it: the distress call in his own voice was a good trick although there had to be an explanation.

As well as this, the deadline involving the threat of electro-shock treatment is just ridiculous. While it is controversial medicine, there is no evidence that it would definitely and without any doubt whatsoever strip West of his ability to remember what had really happened. I suppose this could have been some magic space electro-shock but it doesn't feel right. It would definitely have affected West's ability to be a marine, there's probably enough drama in that to work, but I could not believe that the treatment would be so severe that there was no hope of West keeping his memory after just one jolt. Why would that ever be a recommended treatment? The problem is that, fundamental plot problems aside, the episode was pretty watchable: there was some good acting from Weisser, some exciting action in the flashbacks to the planet and everything was hanging together, if not remarkably, then at least entertainingly but then the electro-shock subplot comes up and the episode takes a bit of a nosedive.

Overall though, Stay With The Dead is a fairly decent hour of television, a tired but serviceable plot kept alive by Space: Above and Beyond's general air of quality and seriousness, which is pretty ingrained by this point. I'm not sure I should give this episode a pass, but it entertained me, so I'm going to.

There weren't really any references to history, real or made up, which was a little disappointing.

 Space Above and Beyond - The Complete Series is available as a very affordable box set, and you should buy it and watch it, and then come on here and disagree with me about everything.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Ark Addendum - Shouki's Transform

Oops, sorry, I glance up and the next thing I know, two weeks have gone by.  I realize that last week I skipped The Ark Addendum, but this week I'm back in force.

Time to break out the Trainbots!  I'll warn you in advance, I don't have all of their transform sequences.  I'm missing one of the train-to-robot sequences, and I don't think I have Raiden's combination either.  Still, I figured that it was better to post what I had than not.

What boy doesn't love to play with trains?  I know I loved them when I was a kid.  There's something so majestic about a mighty engine pulling a dozen or two cars along.  Thee have certainly been no shortage of Transformers train toys, most of which come from Japan.  The trainbots were the first dedicated train team from Transformers.  (Well, there was the Astroforce... oh, I'd love the models for the Astroforce!)  They'd be far from the last. 

As for the specifics of Shouki's Transform, I don't have too much to say.  It's not spectacular, but it gets the job done.  I do remember that I had a lot of fun researching the Trainbots for  Transformers: The Complete Ark  (order it today!) .  Getting the best translations for their names and a bit about their personality was very satisfying.  Hope you enjoyed those efforts, and this transformation.

Monday, July 11, 2011

For sale!

Do you know the name M Sipher?  It's an encryption code used by the Predacons, and it's also an awesome Trans-Fan, Greg Sepelak.  He's written a number of very well received Transformers stories, including this year's Animated BotCon precursor Moving Violations.  Moving Violations is available for free online, so check it out if you haven't already.

Anyway, he's selling off large swaths of his collection.  Check it out.  Right now there are some great pieces, including a nice Thunderwing, Targetmasters Cyclonus, Scourge, Hot Rod, Kup, and Blurr, and more.  Expand your collection while supporting Transformers creators!  Maybe he'll throw in an autograph if you ask nicely.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Blog watch - A Real American Book!

If you're reading this blog, there's a good chance that you're a fan of either G.I. Joe, character models, or both.  Well, a good blog for you to keep an eye on is that run by my buddy Tim Finn, A Real American Book!.  He's working on crafting the definitive guide to G.I. Joe, and chronicling his efforts to do so.  He's helped me out with a project of my own and I can assure you that he's very on-the-ball.  Head on over and check out his interviews, models, and insights.  You'll be glad you did.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Death’s Head Review: The Crossroads of Time

Death’s Head’s post-Transformers adventures started in the pages of Doctor Who Magazine #135. Script by Simon Furman, art by Geoff Senior, letters by Zed and editor Richard Starkings. The story was originally printed in black and white, and coloured for the collected edition (no credit given to the colourist, but they did a great job). The issue had no cover art, opting for a photograph of Sylvester McCoy on a motorbike.

We begin with the TARDIS travelling peacefully through the ‘corridors of time’. Heading from the opposite direction comes a ‘rogue element’ – none other than Death’s Head, who has been catapulted out of the Transformers universe and sent hurtling through time and space.

The two collide with a mighty ‘Kshunk!’ and come to land on some alien landscape, along with a Time Warden, who materialises to help with these right-of-way disputes. Emerging shaken from the TARDIS, The Doctor (the Seventh Doctor, by the way) is greeted by the Time Warden who, with a quick glance aside, decides not to get involved after all. The Doctor is certain everything can be sorted out reasonably – until he is picked up by the scruff of the neck by a giant robot.

Death’s Head introduces himself, then quickly decides the simplest way of resolving the dispute would be execution. He drops The Doctor back on the ground, all the better to be squashed with his mace attachment. Desperately trying to bargain, The Doctor empties his pockets until he finds a Tissue Compression Eliminator and blasts Death’s Head with it.

Overcoming the pain, Death’s Head looks up triumphantly and declares the device didn’t work – only to find himself now at eye-level with The Doctor. Shrunk to human size, Death’s Head is now seriously angry and goes at The Doctor full-tilt . The Time Warden briefly reappears, providing enough of a distraction for The Doctor to escape into the forest.

Catching his breath, The Doctor realises he has no hope of escaping a professional hunter, but he now has something to bargain with. At the same time, Death’s Head is calming down and asserting his business instincts over the desire for revenge. So when The Doctor reveals himself and offers the TARDIS in exchange for his life, Death’s Head (now small enough to fit inside) must accept.

Demonstrating how to operate the time machine, The Doctor pushes a few buttons and selects a destination at random – Earth 8162. But the TARDIS doesn’t move and only Death’s Head vanishes – The Doctor had set the controls to transport the nearest mechanical organism. The Time Warden pops up again to scold The Doctor for cheating on the deal, as he wonders aloud what he has unleashed on what was once his ‘favourite planet’…

For a story that only existed to get Death’s Head from one place (Transformers universe and giant-sized) to another (Marvel universe and human-sized), this is a really good tale. Over 8 pages, the plot goes along at a lovely pace, mixing action and humour. The Doctor’s initial amiability contrasts well against the mechanoid’s no-nonsense murderousness. There is also the recurring uselessness of the Time Warden, and the final trick played by The Doctor (which, if memory serves, seems in keeping for the seventh incarnation).

Having written both of them previously, Furman does a great job with the main characters – their attitudes and reactions are spot-on and they even start to develop a nice sort of chemistry: the wily and intelligent Doctor paired with the bullying and distrustful Death’s Head. It’s a shame that, despite future crossovers, this never went further.

As a final character note, it’s interesting how Death’s Head comments that he finds hunting his prey more satisfying than merely executing them, then reminds himself that he is a businessman. It’s something that will develop throughout the series – forcing himself to conform to a mercenary nature to avoid the decline into a mindless hunter (and explains why he is so particular about being called a ‘freelance peacekeeping agent’).

And I have to give kudos for inclusion of the Tissue Compression Eliminator. At first, I assumed this was just a random gadget for the purposes of shrinking Death’s Head, but it was actually a weapon used by The Doctor’s arch-enemy, The Master, in the TV series. The shrinking effect was lethal to humans, but it’s easily conceivable that a robot could have survived it, making it a nice piece of continuity.

The artwork is superb and Senior’s rendering of Death’s Head, as you would expect, is excellent. The expression on the mechanoid’s face when he realises he’s been shrunk is priceless, and there is a great full-body shot for his first appearance (the scale may be a little on the generous size, but the disproportion certainly helps the humour). The portrayal of The Doctor is equally strong – when drawing real-life actors, a lot of artists tend to fall back on portrait or caricature, which looks flat. This Doctor, while still identifiable as the actor, looks like a comic book character.

Matching the plot, there is a lot of energy in the artwork. You can feel the power in the collision between TARDIS and Death’s Head, as if they really have been shaken loose from the time stream. The landscape is nicely alien, without intruding on the action. The colouring of the reprint edition is worth another mention: I’ve seen other black and white strips recoloured in fairly a basic, fill-in-the-blanks style. This is as good as anything in the regular series.

For a bibliography that was half-comprised of guest appearances, I’d put this down among Death’s Head’s best. He’s strongly in character, makes an impact, but does not dominate. ‘Crossroads’ remains The Doctor’s story (as it should be, in his own title) of how he met, outwitted and survived this robot bounty hunter.

Next week, the story continues without pause: Death’s Head has been tricked and dumped on Earth in the year 8162. Just in time to encounter … Dragon’s Claws!

‘The Crossroads of Time’ was republished in ‘Death’s Head Volume 1