Saturday, May 29, 2010

Review: War of the Worlds, the series ep 24

The twenty-forth episode of War of the Worlds, the series is called The Second Wave.  It features some significant cast changes, a new executive producer, and completely redone credits.  Additionally, the fundamental scope of the series and the universe underlying it takes a huge shift.  Not all of that is immediately apparent, though, as this episode serves as a very effective transition from season 1 to season 2.

Let's start with the opening credits.  In muted colors, the camera pans through an explosion in space and up to Earth. It then enters the atmosphere and finds a city, which it films from above.  Televisions play on buildings, reporting about violence and chaos.  It ends by panning up to what looks like a city hall, with three revolutionary war statues in front.  This disolves to a sickly green glowing logo, jagged and organic looking.  The keen-eyed will notice that there are now only three main characters, Harrison Blackwood, Suzanne McCullough and John Kincaid.  This does not bode well for our heroes, no.

The episode proper starts out with a bang, literally. We see another planet floating in space ... a white dot fires off from it, and then the planet explodes rather unconvincingly. The dot then makes its way to Earth. After it lands, shadows engulf the planet.  I don't think the shadows are meant to be taken literally, but everything else probably is.  We then jump to Harrison, driving along in a rather rundown urban environment that intertitles tell us is "Almost Tomorrow." Harrison was lured out of the comparative safety of the Cottage for a purported meeting with General Wilson. (Uhhh ... drink? It remains to be seen if he'll still be referenced, but I figured I'd drop it in for old-time's sake.)

It turns out that it's all a plan for the new wave of aliens who have arrived from Morthrai (not Mor-Tax anymore.)  Malzor, played by Denis Forest (previously seen in Vengeance Is Mine,) is the new alien leader.  He functions as a kind of high priest for the Eternal, the living god of the aliens. At his right hand is Catherine Disher's Mana, the alien science officer.  Making up the third leg of the alien triumvirate is Julian Richard's Ardix. Note that these are not three equals, there's a rigid hierarchy between these three.  Ardix is very much the man in the field, with Mana the brains and Malzor the leadership.  The aliens no longer do things in threes, sadly, nor will the phrase "To Life Immortal" ever be uttered this season.  The Eternal was originally to be named The Immortal, but that plan got dropped along the way.  In between the execution of all of the previous aliens for their failure, including the Advocacy, we learn that their plan is to capture Blackwood and make a clone of him, to destroy the Blackwood Project from within.  It's sad to see the previous guard gone, it really is.  The Advocacy were great villains, so disdainful of humanity.  We see a few pasty human-aliens with radiation scars get fried, complete with odd clothing and an alien arm bursting from the gut.  It's a nod to what went before, but no more.

The cloning plan is foiled, at least initially, by the arrival of Adrian Paul's John Kincaid, who blows away the two aliens sent to collect Blackwood from the meeting they set up.  We learn that Kincaid used to serve under Ironhorse before being drummed out of the service, but still does occasional jobs for Wilson. He and his brother were sent into an alien ambush, and Kincaid has been tracking them ever since. Norton manages to locate the aliens, so Ironhorse takes Omega Squad to their position for recon. Sadly, it does not go well. His squad is obliterated, and he becomes the first test of the cloning device.  The copy seems to have Ironhorse's memory and personality, only with a complete and utter devotion to the Eternal.  Blackwood and Kincaid, who had followed behind Ironhorse, manage to rescue the original Ironhorse and make their way back to the Cottage.

At the Cottage, the new Ironhorse plants plastic explosives in the lab.  Norton walks rolls in on him and they chat amicably, at least until he gets Blackwood's phonecall. At that point, there is a brief struggle with little doubt as to the outcome; Norton Drake ends up with a bullet in his chest, lying on the floor. He gets one last victory, though, when, dying,  he manages to set off the panic alarm.  There's chaos as the clone manages to locate Debi and hold her at gunpoint.  He offers to let Blackwood, Kincaid and McCullough go before the place explodes, but informs them that he and Debi are staying put.  It's an odd strategy, one that's more based on the drama of the situation than in any kind of logic. The real Ironhorse, looking extremely worse for wear, confronts his "brother." When he realizes that they are linked, he commits suicide to get Debi free.  It works; the clone dies with him. With seconds to spare, the team evacuates the cottage.  It explodes, leaving Harrison, Debi and Suzanne without a home in the company of this new resistance fighter, Kincaid. 

 The Good: As far as transitions go, this one was pretty good.  The directing was solid, the pacing fast and the overall plot exciting.  By starting off with the feel of season one, the producers are able to quickly ratchet up the stakes as beloved characters and settings are offed left and right. The new producers seem to understand what was important about the last season, even if they didn't agree with it.  The Cottage and the old aliens each get dispatched almost lovingly.  It's sad to see them go, but necessary for the new format.

The new cast members, especially the aliens, are all superb. Forest's Malzor is calculating and full of menace, while the understated Mana and Ardix move to carry out his will. Of Kincaid, I'm less sure for now.  It's not an acting issue, it's a writing issue.

Norton Drake and Paul Ironhorse each got a good death.  Ironhorse gets a chance to say goodbye, giving the character a real sense of closure.  The new producers have stated that the decision to off Ironhorse was based on how he wouldn't fit into the new format of the show, but that after the deluge of fanmail he got they decided to make the first episode about his exit.  This they accomplish.  Goodbye, Ironhorse, you'll be missed.  Drake's death is much quicker, and he has a lot less to do this episode. However, it seems appropriate, and gets a bit of heroism along the way.  While I'm not sure I agree that Ironhorse couldn't fit into this new, darker world, I'm positive that Drake couldn't. The team is already scientist-heavy, and a paraplegic just wouldn't fit in the more underground war with the aliens.

When Paul confronts his clone, he looks just awful.  Great makeup and great acting on that scene.  I rather like the clone insisting that he is the "real" Ironhorse, then greeting the original as a brother. I don't know why it feels right, but it feels right.

Going back to transitions, Harrison is offered a gun this time and actually takes it.  I wasn't sure where to put this, but given that he's killed aliens with electricity, makeshift flamethrowers, and bo staffs, he can hardly claim to be the pacifist he was back in the beginning of season 1.  Note that he doesn't fire the gun, which is ultimately what made me decide that this was a good transition and not a bad abrupt shift.

The Bad: There are major, major continuity issues at work here. Leaving aside dangling plot points like Quinn and the Synths, who may or may not make an appearance later (they won't,) there are some pretty huge shifts to the underlying mythology of the show.  The aliens now have a different home planet; they no longer do things in threes especially, and there is a heretofore unreferenced deity. Note that, had they gone with the name The Immortal, the third objection would be gone.  They also seem to have undertaken a huge technological shift. No longer do they use inorganic technology, like war machines. Now their tech is organic in nature. They do seem to have a lot more of it, though. Less bad is that they've at least explained that these aliens have undergone a metamorphosis into a more true human form, making them able to exist comfortably on the planet. I thought about criticizing their lack of a space ship, until I remembered that the 1953 invasion didn't use ships either, just one-way canisters. They should have brought war machines, though, they really should have.

Continuing on this vein, the world around our heroes seems to have shifted.  Some of this will be more apparent in future episodes, but the seeds have been planted. The world of "Almost Tomorrow" is a dismal, dystopian place.  Max Headroom, perhaps the seminal dystopian science fiction series, is an obvious influence. Even the new tag is reminiscent of the "20 Minutes Into The Future" of that show. The tagline makes me want to think that we've gone forward a few years to explain things, though Debi of course hasn't aged correctly.  I suppose she could have been tall for her age before and small for her age now, but that's ultimately just handwaving.   A four-year time jump WOULD allow these new aliens to be the 'colonists' we were promised in S1, though we're clearly short of the millions who were supposed to be on the way. Perhaps Malzor lied to the Advocacy? (Again, handwaving.)

For some 'Bad' elements that aren't based on the S1/S2 transition, the security on the Cottage seems awfully light.  Blackwood rides in with a stranger, in a new (awesome) vehicle, and they don't question it. Likewise, Ironhorse's clone comes in with three aliens dressed as Omega Squad (almost wrote Project Omega; I've still got Animated on the brain, apparently) troopers.  Should the soldiers know each other? There's only maybe two-dozen of them, tops.  Oh, and speaking of, the Omega Squad goes down really quickly inside the alien base. Maybe it's because he only brought two or three soldiers? Still, these guys are trained for this, and should have put up more of a fight. Oh, and once again Omega Squad is riding around in a station wagon.  Really, the show should have sprung for a jeep.

The clone's plan, to hold Debi hostage but let the others go, seems just terrible. It's dramatic, but it doesn't make a lick of sense.

The Ugly: There's a lot of new elements here, but let's just go with a new alien corpse.  Gone are the rotten-eggs and cast-off human body parts; instead we are treated to glowing green guts and melting bodies.  On the whole, this season was a lot less gruesome than the first, so we'll see how "The Ugly" goes from this point forward.

And there you have it, the opening salvo in The Second Wave.  New aliens, new environment, new threat.  It's actually a really good episode, the best we've had in quite a while, though much of that comes from the shock of the destruction of the familiar. 

For the record, I don't agree with all the changes the new producers made. I think Ironhorse was one of the strongest characters in the show, and should have been kept around in S2. Suzanne I'm not so sure about; maybe she could have been replaced with a bad-ass chick?  Just spitballing here.  I'm sure they kept her because of Debi, though. Having a kid along actually makes a lot of sense in this darker underground war.  I agree with the producers that Drake had to go, though.

As much as I'll miss the Advocacy, I think having alien villains with recognizable actors week after week makes a good deal of sense.  I think that more consistency between aliens, though, would have been nice.  There was no reason to change the homeworld.  (Perhaps Morthrai is the system and Mor-Tax is the planet? Maybe they colonized other worlds before and these are offshoots?) Anyway, here's a still from Starlog showing the execution of one of the Advocates. It also offers a clear view of some of the alien tech.

The continuity shifts are abrupt and jarring, but my feeling is that by continuing to watch the show I'm making a tacit pact to accept that they have happened and avoid complaining about them too much in the future. DID they change the premise? Yes. Was it explained? No. At least, though, they were upfront about it.

One last observation. At the end of Earth: Final Conflict season 1, the main character has an ambiguous possible death.  For the second season, the replaced him with the character "Liam Kincaid."  I remember at the time thinking how funny it was that two different science fiction series would replace a main character with a newer, younger, cooler character named Kincaid. Coincidence? Yes, of course, but one worth noting.

War of the Worlds has not yet had the second season released to DVD, and probably won't for a long while. Perhaps when the underlying economics of on-demand DVD pressings change, we'll see it.  Until then, there's always YouTube.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Review: Marvel G1 #55: The Interplanetary Wrestling Championship!

The Interplanetary Wrestling Championship! is the fifty-fifth issue of the US G1 Marvel Comics run of Transformers, and Bob Budiansky's last issue on said series.  It's also the fifty-fifth Transformers comic he would write. He wrote all but 4 issues from 5 - 55, plus 4 issues of Transformers Universe and 4 issues of Headmasters.  This means that he wrote over half of the Transformers comics produced by Marvel in the US.  (By my count, 80 issues, 4 issues of Headmasters, 3 issues of G.I. Joe vs Transformers, 12 issues of G2, 3 issues of the movie adaptation, 4 Universe profile books, or 106 comics.) Even the books he didn't write he was often involved with; he edited the first four issues of the regular run of the series, as well as the movie adaptation.  This multi-talented guy also drew many of the covers, including the iconic one to the first issue of the Headmasters mini-series. He also wrote up the bios for perhaps every character in G1, both the short on-package versions and the longer ones which were used in the Universe profile books.  He is one of the primary architects of the Transformers mythology, and it's more than appropriate that he be inducted into the Hall of Fame at BotCon this year.  On a personal note, he was incredibly helpful in making the first Ark book as comprehensive and full of quality as it turned out to be, and I owe him a great debt.

Sadly, none of that changes the fact that this, his final issue for seventeen years, isn't very good.  Let's get back to format for a bit, shall we? In addition to writing this issue, Bob also did the layouts for the first ten pages.  Jim Fern finishes the rest of the layouts and does finished pencils.  Fern's other Transformers issue was Buster Witwicky and the Carwash of Doom!, where he also did finishes. It's pretty evident that he was one of their go-to guy for last minute fill-in work.  Newcomer Mike Gustovich makes his first and only appearance in Transformers as an inker here.  Rounding things out are colors by the ever-reliable Nel Yomtov and letters by Jim Massara.  The cover is by José Delbo, and I'm just a little surprised that Bob didn't choose to draw this one too.

The cover is what it is.  A ridiculous-looking wrestler holds Roadhandler over his head, while a ref looks on.  They seem to be in some enormous stadium with tens of thousands of onlookers. "It's Man vs. Machine --   -- in a Duel to the Death!" we're told.  It isn't, though, so points off for lying to us.  "Plus: Introducing -- the Decepticon Micromasters!" If they're anything like the Autobot Micromasters, color me unimpressed.  Delbo cheats and hides bothe the wrestler's hands behind Roadhandler's body.  His design isn't particularly appealing, and looks a bit too supervillain for me. I mean, if he actually WAS a supervillain, that'd be one thing, but he's just a wrestler.  I could be charitable and chalk that up to misdirection, but I don't think it is.  So, in short, it's a slightly lazy rendition of an idea that isn't particularly enticing to me, and misleading to boot.

The issue itself is also one of the weaker ones, though not without its charm.  It opens with Roadhandler on Cecilia Santiago's talk show, alongside wrestler Jake "The Jackhammer" Jackson. After learning that the Micromasters are fighting crime in New York, Jake challenges Roadhandler to a match. He soon learns what we all know; wrestling is fake.  Surprisingly, he quickly gets into it and agrees to a televised match where he'll play along to make Jake look good. The only stipulation is that Roadhandler gets to win. Soon his string of victories brings him much adoration, and he uses his publicity to help promote the good name of the Autobots. "Each victory becomes another opportunity for the moralizing Micromaster... " Bob writes, in one last bit of alliterative prose.

Humans aren't the only ones who notice what he's up to.  Lord Zarak, bereft of armor and looking rather patriarchal, attends a match and decides that the Autobots can't get publicity like this. Inexplicably, he decides to fight the Autobots at their own game, rather than just attacking a well-publicized match with overwhelming force.  Instead, he summons some Decepticon Micromasters to Earth. He then brashly shows up at their gym and demands a match, threatening to ... well, to do exactly what I was thinking they should do anyway if they don't. We get some hints that the Decepticon Micromasters might have a deeper purpose to be here, no doubt thrown in to help set up some future machinations from the next writer, one Simon Furman.  Call me crazy, but I actually think the image of Zarak, looking smug, with four Micromasters behind him in oversized coats and cowboy hats is kind of awesome in a bizarre, comic-booky way.

All that remains is the match itself. But will Decepticons fight fair? Hardly! They plan to kidnap Roadhandler's fan club, forcing him to lose. I suppose that there's a certain irony to the climax of the book being the hero faking a wrestling match, though I'm not sure that that's intentional.  Cecilia, though, anticipated this move and asked several of the other Micromasters to stay near the kids.  They all manage to make it to the church on time and Roadhandler beats Stormcloud handily. However, he realizes that by allowing humans to get close to him, he's putting them in danger and quits wrestling.  He tells the kids to buzz off, upsetting them terribly, and rolls out into the sunset as Cecilia looks on.  I can't help but think that there was some middle-ground there, since his efforts really did seem to be winning the hearts and minds of humanity.  Had Roadhandler been spearheading human contact, RAAT might not have been necessary.  Though, one DOES wonder where Circuit Breaker was through all of this.

Ultimately, we the audience were asked to swallow a lot for not that much payoff.  Why would Roadhandler agree to participate in what are basically fixed fights? Sure, he was the superior opponent and the perpetual victory, but by allowing his opponents to seem to have a fighting chance isn't he, in a way, cheating? Why would Zarak think that it's necessary to beat Roadhandler in the ring. Was he worried that the Autobots would seem TOUGHER than the Decepticons? And why would Roadhandler throw away a good fraction of his work by insulting humans on his way out.  Couldn't he just say that his wrestling was putting humans in danger and that he'd limit himself to unpredictable crime fighting from now on? 

The artwork was mixed.  There are some nice action bits in there, it's true.  I rather like Roadhandler using centripetal force to smash Stormcloud into the ground.  Some of the faces were great, others were a bit off.  The final panel in Budiansky's run is Cecilia, watching the Micromasters leave. I was hoping for something a bit more poignant.

All told, it's a rather lackluster finale to an incredibly impressive run by Mr. Budiansky. It has some of the elements that made his run great, including a very human and relatable point of view.  I can't help but think that issue 50 or 51 would have worked much better.  This book fails to be much more than an advertisement for toys, with little to say about the human condition. I can't blame Bob for being a bit bored of writing a toy tie-in comic for year after year, though. I have zero doubt his 'legacy' on Transformers was the furthest thing from his mind when writing this book. He was probably much more concerned with leaving a relatively clean slate for his successor. In that, he does admirably, more-or-less tying up the Micromaster plotline and leaving a fairly open canvas to Furman. I rather like that he gives a bit of foreshadowing to Stormcloud's deeper purpose, whatever that turns out to be.

Though THIS issue is mediocre, Bob's run is anything but. He takes the series from the rather weak opening he inherited and tells some very powerful tales right from the get-go.  Shockwave's impressive rise as leader, the tragedy of the Headmasters, the horrors of the smelting pit, the abject fun and silliness of Carwash, the first real bloodbath in Transformers history that is The Underbase Saga, the triumph that is Blaster, the misstep that is Grimlock ... he does a lot, establishes a lot. His imagination and vision helped make Transformers the billion-dollar franchise that it is today, and I for one and incredibly grateful to the man. He's not done with Transformers yet, either. He'll still write up treatments for the Action Master origin, write up bios for the rest of the G1 toys, and eventually come back to write a brand-new 1986 movie adaptation. I'm looking forward to shaking his hand again at BotCon 2010.  

Next issue, we're prompted to wonder "Guess Who's Back from the DEAD?!" The answer will turn out to be ... totally awesome, actually. The Interplanetary Wrestling Championship! is available for purchase in IDW's Classic Transformers Volume 4.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Transformers Names

Hasbro's been making Transformers for over 25 years now, so there are a ton of names.  Naturally, many of them get recycled.  But we still get the occasional new gem, like Chris Mowry's Flatline over in Tales of the Fallen.

So, for no good reason at all, some possible Transformers names:

Magnum Opus:  Perhaps a bit too silly to have a name like Magnum, with all the associated connotations.  Seems Autoboty.

Brouhaha: Could be either an Autobot or a Decepticon.  Again, not terribly serious, seems like a bouncer or a low-level punk.

Gatecrasher: Again, could go either way as far as factions go.  Seems like a car with a reinforced front to me.

Schadenfreude: This one I like.  A cruel Decepticon name.

Deadbeat: Another Decepticon, though kind of a loser. Or, alternatively, an undead Nightbeat.

What about you, gentle readers? Any cool names? I'll highlight them up here if you've got some.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Getting Into Gear ...

If you're a fan of Japanese Transformers, you want to head on over to the Gears Keep Turning blog.  It's run by my old pal Hydra, of whom I've blogged before.  He's a fantastic source for Japanese Transformers, both knowledge and actual toys.  In fact, most of my really rare Japanese toys have come from him.  So, head on over to his Gears Keep Turning blog and see what he has to say. 

Monday, May 24, 2010

Autobot City concept art (part 5)

 Well, all good things must come to an end, and so it is with this unused concept art for Autobot City.  I want to again reiterate my enormous respect for Floro Dery's talent and imagination.  I tried to save the best for last, and this piece really shows off the crow's nest. 

With the AllSpark Almanac II finally put to bed, I'll be able to go back to our regularly-scheduled Ark Addendums next week.  Stick around!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Review: War of the Worlds, the series ep 23

The Angel of Death is the twenty-third episode of War of the Worlds, the series, and the final episode of season one. It introduces a new element to the mythology of the show; Katara, a synth from the planet Qar'To.  She arrives at the site of the future 1992 World's Fair, violently wipes the mind of a security guard who witnesses her arrival, and begins her seven day mission. She moves from city to city at breakneck pace, hunting aliens and demanding they tell her the location of the Advocacy. She has little luck with her primary mission, but racks up an impressive body count.

Both the Blackwood Team and the Advocacy can't help but notice this activity. Both try to figure out what exactly is happening; the humans by setting up a trap to capture aliens alive for questioning, the aliens by allowing some agents to be used as bait. All three forces converge on a human warehouse, where the Katara interrupts the careful operation, slays most of the aliens but captures Ironhorse. She interrogates him with her hypnotic abilities, then convinces him that she is on his side. The aliens, meanwhile, have realized that it's a synth they are up against and have mobilized for battle. Ironhorse brings the team back to Katara to meet her, as friends, but they all fall under attack by alien forces.  Despite everyone on the team, and Katara, getting shot, they manage to repulse the aliens. Katara heals them and informs them that she'll be back, with an ally, in a year. "This could be the start of a beautiful friendship," muses Harrison, even as she informs her people that humanity, as a food source, remains imperiled.

The Good: Not as much as I would like, given how momentous this episode is supposed to be.When the Advocacy personally leads the attack on the synth, they did so as firemen and emergency workers. It makes sense as a way for their battle group to move about quickly, and so I approve. It's also great imagery for a rescue vehicle to show up and have armed combatants pour out.

When Paul goes missing for over 24 hours, the begin preparing to abandon the Cottage and start shredding documents. This makes perfect sense, especially when dealing with aliens who can absorb his mind and knowledge. MIA, in this war, has to be assumed to mean a completely compromised agent.

The Blackwood team lures the aliens to their trap by rebroadcasting recorded alien transmissions. I rather like the words the broadcast turned out to be; "Avoid drinking water in Mexico. That includes ice... " They pick this up on a makeshift blender transmitter, which is cool. Along those lines, there is a tennis racket / scanner that is kind of neat too. The makeshift alien tech was another aspect of the show that I though was consistently clever. There isn't so much of it later on in the first season, and none in the second. 

Alien arrogance continues as well. When the rebroadcast transmissions are first picked up, they deride the humans for the transparency of their ploy. Later, when they learn that the humans are voluntarily working with the synth, they mock us for our ignorance. "If only they knew their fate," they quip.

We also get the last "To Life Immortal" utterances in the series, which makes me sad.  It's said several times, in both Mor-Taxian and English.  What a great catchphrase! Too bad it was one of the many elements that got dropped in the next season.

A small thing, but one of the alien operations hit by Katara was a food-gathering operation. Hearkening back to An Eye for an Eye, they were doing so at a nursery, gathering flowers.  Nice continuity there. More nice continuity when Quinn gets namechecked. (So does, surprise surprise, General Wilson. Drink!)

Finally, we really do see a lot of alien bodies. I always loved that aspect of the show, and it's nice to see it done to excess here.

The Bad: I'm afraid that Elaine Giftos' performance as the synth from Qar'To didn't do much for me. It seemed a bit much, with her constant Tae Bo and her halting speech. What's more is, originally Hulk Hogan was going to be the villain / new element in this episode, a plan which was scuttled. I'd have loved to see how he'd deal with the role. 

And, while we're talking about the synths and the powers that sent them, War of the Worlds has, at its heart, one of the oldest science fiction twist-endings ever; Earth's bacteria stopped the aliens. That's not a flaw, of course, since Welles invented this trope, but it's important to keep in mind. So, when the season finale introduces perhaps the second-oldest science fiction twist ending ("To Serve Man ... it's a cookbook!!!") it seems extremely unimaginative. The Twilight Zone could get away with it in the 60s, Soylent Green in the 70s, even V in the early 80s... WotW, not so much.

Ironhorse's mental manipulations didn't ring all that true to me. Maybe it was just the producers trying to play fair with us, but I think the synth could have convinced the team to share their knowledge in a much less invasive way. It feels weird to have one of our main characters violated like this. Of course, Paul will have much worse in the next episode ...

Oh, and on that subject, the tag at the beginning of the episode was "Paul is dead." Now, of course, he isn't (yet), but the real objection is that inside the episode they went with the much more reasonable "Ironhorse is dead."  This way, you don't get old Beatles flashbacks.

Also, there was a whole subplot about the aliens thinking that Suzanne was the synth that went nowhere. Instead, the aliens shoot her with the anti-synth ray, realize they have the wrong target and then shoot Katara. What exactly did that accomplish, except to kill a couple of minutes?

The Ugly: Since this episode doesn't revolve around alien-initiated horrors, most of the ugliness is around their bodies.  The first alien that Katara interrogates gets nicely mauled by her atomic bullets.

So, there you have it. We're well past the halfway point of the show here, but this marks the last episode produced under the old guard. It gives some hints as to where the story was going; eventually, we'd have seen a three way war between humans, Mor-Taxians and the Qar-To agents. The plan was for Katara to return in a year, probably the 2nd season finale, with Ta'Kara, a more aggressive and less friendly synth. Of course, none of that would ever happen. I have to say, the notion of the synths as new villains in the series doesn't hold much appeal to me.  Not only is it unoriginal, but they seem extremely overpowered compared to both our heroes and our villains.

Overall, the first season of this show was fairly uneven. There was a lot of good, including the chemistry between the two male leads and the gruesome extremes to which the aliens would go. However, there was a lot of bad too. The directing was rather hit-or-miss, with some episodes paced way too slow. The characters of Norton and Suzanne never really click as well as they should, either.  All told, it's a show that swings for the fences, occasionally connects and often misses. What is clear is that the producers and writers had a lot of heart, and had fun with the stories they told. While the first season is hardly required viewing for a casual science fiction fan, it's a good series for such fans who like their comedy and action dark.   War of the Worlds - The Complete First Season is available for purchase on DVD, and I've now written pretty much everything I have to say about this season.  Next up, War of the Worlds: The Second Invasion AKA season two.  Stick around, you may be surprised.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Review: Marvel G1 #54: King Con!

King Con! is the fifty-forth issue of the US G1 Marvel Comics run of Transformers.  It was penned by Bob Budiansky, and is in fact his penultimate issue.  José Delbo continues to provide the layouts and partial pencils, with inks and finishes by Danny Bulandi.  As always, Nel Yomtov provides the colors, and newcomer Jim Massara does the inks.  The cover is by Delbo. 

It's a cover that works better than the sum of its parts.  Iguanus climbs the Empire State Building, clutching a human in his claws.  Four micromasters attempt to deal with him from a lower level.  Lightning flashes in the background as ominous stormclouds gather.  Basically, it works really well, with a giant purple focal point in the middle.  However, when you examine the anatomy and perspective, you realize that it isn't really close to being right.  The woman looks particularly stiff, and the weird motion lines don't do much to help.  Road Handler, too, has something weird going on with his neck and chest.  "King 'Con(tm)!" it says, though I doubt that Hasbro or Marvel actually copyrighted the word "'Con."  That's a bit unnecessary, as the title page will say the same thing.  What's more awkward, though, is the enormous honking arrow that states "and introducing the most Amazing Autobots(tm) yet: the MICROMASTERS!"  Note how the text of the word Autobots overlaps with the Micromaster logo.  Clumsy.  Also, was the art really that bad that you couldn't tell which of these guys were the Micromasters?  Despite all these flaws, it basically works.  You get the King Kong reference right away, and it's visually pleasing if you don't analyze too deeply.

[Warning: I'm in an odd mood, so this review will be a bit more playful than normal. BE PREPARED!!!]

The issue opens with a trio of hunters, Gus, Juan and Morrie, trying to keep the wildlife of the New Jersey swamps away from their home.  What they find, though, is Iguanus, who promptly drives them off.  The opening sequence feels very Bob.  We introduce some humans, give them a smidge of characterization, then let the menace be seen through their eyes.  It work moderately well.

This incident will provide the first mission for the newest Autobot arrivals on Earth: the Micromasters. Optimus Prime and Hi Q wait at People's Gas (in communist Russia, Gas fills up You!) for a new trans-dimensional warp (looks like we can say goodbye to the space bridge)  to bring them reinforcements. (Yes, I had not one but two parenthetical in that last sentence. Yes, it's clumsy. Deal with it!)  Out pours eight Autobots, the Off Road and Race Car Patrols.  It's quickly established that these new Autobots are rebellious and bellicose. They have little respect for the "gas guzzlers" who dumped them on Earth to get rid of them.  When Hi Q doubts their efficacy on account of their size, Road Handler fires off a rocket fist (how 70s Japanese robot) and smashes the gas station sign.  (In communist Russia ... oh, nevermind.)  They are dispatched to New Jersey, to investigate both the creature sightings and odd weather patterns.  Off they roll, into our hearts! OK, that might be a bit over the top of me.   Actually, the whole sequence feels a bit perfunctory. Ho, hum, more Autobots and they're badass.  It's clear that Budiansky looked for some overarching characteristics he could give to all Micromasters to try to unify them a bit.  I imagine that, based on their size, he went with youth.  It's not a bad direction to go, though it isn't inspired.

The next day, the Micromasters aren't the only ones patrolling the swamp.  A human reporter, Cecilia "Ceci" Santiago, goes looking for monsters.   She'll have good luck, too, as Scorponok has established a base at a dump site in New Jersey.  They have a rather cool looking piece of equipment designed to turn energy into energon cubes, and Scorponok intends to proceed with his new plan immediately thanks to all the media attention he's been getting.  The Pretenders are to be his instruments, probably because they were the least effected by Starscream's blasts.  Each pretender has a mission, though Skullgrin isn't too happy with his; guarding the Stormmaker.  Iguanus postulates that it's because he's a fleshling-lover, what with the whole movie star thing.   I love the artwork on the Con base, though there's something weird going on with Scorponok's dangling claw here.  Is that damage? From what, he hasn't been in a fight for five issues, and he had both his claws there.  Good continuity on Skullgrin's loyalties coming into question as well.

Santiago manages to be on-hand to witness the pretenders emerging from the swamp.  She hears about the purpose of the Stormbreaker installation thanks to more Iguanus/Skullgrin bickering, but promptly gets caught by Iguanus.  He wants to terminate her, but Skullgrin suggest keeping her prisoner until the operation is finished.  There's what looks like an art mistake, where Skullgrin points to the city and says that half the fleshlings there will be terminated, so what difference does one more make?  It was probably supposed to be Iguanus.  When Skullgrin demands the human, Iguanus gives him a bitchslap.  (Pardon my French there, but just look at the artwork on that. Lovely!) Whak! Following the 'it never rains but it pours' principle, appropriate given the weather, Mudslinger picks that moment to make his appearance. The human gets forgotten and dropped in the ensuing melee, though Mudslinger radios the Race Car Patrol to pick her up on the highway.  When the rest of the Off Road Patrol shows up, Iguanus abandons Skulgrin to these four tiny titans and makes off to complete his mission, mounting the Electrostator on top of the Empire State Building. (Do you see where this is going?) Flippancy aside, though, this is my favorite bit of the book.  Skullgrin, having a speaking part for pretty much the first time since Monster-con from Mars!, apparently really has gone soft on humans.  Good for him! I like that kind of growth.  It's a shame we didn't get to explore that a bit more.  The Micromasters, on the other servo, continue to bore me.

Cecilia makes her way to the highway and flags down some cars. With her keen reporter eyes, she gets into a car that calls her 'human' and is driven by a mannequin. Cecilia, you're shaking my confidence baby! She demands to be let out, though Road Handler convinces her of his good intentions. We finally get to the real theme of the issue, which is that no matter how independent you are, you always need help sometimes. She helps them get to Manhattan by teaching them about tunnels and toll booths.  It's not terrible, but it's not great either. (Oh, and the Off Road Patrol manages to destroy the Stormbringer, but it's too late! The storm is already too strong.)

The issue lurches to its climax as Iguanus begins to climb. The Micromasters get high with a little help from their friends, sensibly, by taking the elevator up. They arrive a bit after Santiago, who knew better than they how to operate the elevator. (Sample dialog: "I think it's a binary code..." "try talking to it."  Fun.) Unfortunately for her, Iguanus snagged her with his tail and continued to climb.  He drops her as a distraction to the Autobots and plants the device.  With only seconds to spare, he summons the Pretender fliers. They pick him up just as the lightning hits the building, frying half of Manhattan and pulverizing the Race Car Patrol and Miss Santiago. Oh, wait, no. Actually, Roadbuster fires his fist and knocks the Electrostator off the building.  Iguanus, not quite thinking, leaps for it and takes the full blast of the lightning all by himself.  He falls 102 stories to his presumed death, though actually he'll be fine in like three issues.

All that's left is a half-page denouement.  The Micromasters accept Cecilia as a friend, and when Optimus rolls up and offers to help them get away, they reject him. They plan to stay with their new human friends.  It feels right, though when you stop to think about it it seems odd.  If they've REALLY learned that sometimes they need help, why are they rejecting it from Optimus? The lesson isn't at all clear.

I'm sorry to say but, at this point, it feels like Bob is going through the motions.  The issue is an extended riff on King Kong, the themes of the issue are muddled, and even the bits that he normally does well feel a bit soulless.  The only moment in the issue that rang true for me was the Skullgrin / Iguanus interactions.  I did like Delobo's depiction of Iguanus.  The reptillian form worked well for him.  It's sad to say, but it feels like Bob is going out not on a bang, but a whimper.  King Con!  is available for sale in  IDW's Classic Transformers Volume 4.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Autobot City concept art (part 4)

Here is the third of four close-ups on the Autobot City concept art posted last month.  You can see creases, and where some of the many sheets of paper that make up this monstrosity don't quite line up.  Notice how massive the city is, compared to the already quite large shuttles.  This thing clearly dwarfs the old volcano headquarters by a good order of magnitude. 

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Review: War of the Worlds, the series ep 22

The Raising of Lazarus is the twenty-second episode of War of the Worlds, the series. It features some intra-governmental agency squabbling between the Blackwood Project and Project 9, an Airforce taskforce in charge of, among other things, attempting to weaponize alien technology.  The catalyst: an alien scout pod recovered intact in remote northern Wisconsin near an experimental nuclear facility.  Nicolas Coster guest stars as Colonel Fredrick Alexander, one of two (and, eventually, two of two) main antagonists of the episode.  His bluster flusters Ironhorse and (quietly) infuriates Blackwood.

Alexander quickly establishes himself as dangerously unstable, when he takes an alien cell sample with the intention of injecting it into himself. Things go from bad to worse when the alien revives and begins to make its way around the base.  It makes contact with Alexander, through his computer, and offers him some helpful tips on how to insure cellular compatibility. It then intercepts communications between Harrison and Norton, learning all that they know.  Thus armed, it acquires some nuclear material and attempts to flee, though not before appropriating Alexander's body.  With the team sealed in by radiation, all seems lost. However, Ironhorse uses a laser, which was earlier used to attempt to open the alien craft, to blow up a fleeing alien/Alexander hybrid.

The Good:  It's about time we saw something like Project 9. If the world actually repulsed an alien invasion, you'd better believe that the military would do everything in its power to adapt and adopt that technology.

Alexander injecting alien cells into his tongue was nicely visceral. First the ear, then the tongue? Perhaps future episodes will give us eyeball injections.

I also liked how quickly the alien got the run of the place. It was extremely methodical in his approach, first getting food, then making contact with a potential ally, then arming itself with knowledge, acquiring nuclear material as both a weapon and as a way to stave off bacteriological infection, before finally getting a host body and fleeing.

The tuning fork makes its very last appearance in the series.  Goodbye, tuning fork!

The use of the laser, set up early as a potential way to get into the pod, to finally slay the escaping alien was rather clever. 

The Bad: Alexander's motivations were murky at best. Here, an alien craft fell into his hands, giving him a huge potential for research. Why, then, would he choose to start injecting himself with alien cells? I'd think that such a radical and dangerous step would be undertaken only when all other avenues of research had been exhausted.

The alien, too, seemed a little inefficient in his approach. Why not just take over Alexander's body immediately? Why all the jazz about cell matching? You could have made the episode a lot tighter by just having the alien make contact with Alexander and taking over his body immediately. While injecting cells into his body seemed like too much, attempting peaceful contact is much more reasonable.

I didn't care for the effect when the alien took control of the computer systems.  There was a glowing green field that seemed to be projected ABOVE the monitor. Why would it manifest itself like that? On the monitor, maybe, but floating above it? It seems like magic.  We also see a new alien ability, interfacing with computers by holding a few wires.  On the whole, I don't care for that one. It doesn't seem in keeping with the abilities they've demonstrated in the past.

The alien seemed to trap our heroes, by using radiation to systemically shut down every room in the compound, awfully quickly. Our heroes, in turn, seemed fairly willing to just allow themselves to be trapped. Also, it seems like they should have soaked up an awful lot of radiation. Perhaps they'll be having decontamination showers a little later, I dunno.

The Ugly: Surprisingly, not much at all. There was a murdered nuclear technician that had ... something ... going on with his mouth, we'll go with that.

Overall, a fairly weak episode.  There was a lot of time devoted to the alien skulking around the air ducts that seemed somewhat wasted.  While Project 9 is an intriguing notion, sadly the change of production staff means it never goes anywhere beyond what we see right here.  Alexander wasn't a particularly compelling villain.  For the penultimate episode of the season, I was hoping for better.   War of the Worlds - The Complete First Season is available for purchase on DVD.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Review: Marvel G1 #53: Recipe for Disaster!

Recipe for Disaster! is the fifty-third issue of the US G1 Marvel Comics run of Transformers. It was written by Bob Budiansky, drawn by José Delbo, inked by Dave Hunt, colored by Nel Yomtov, and lettered by newcomer Jade Moede.  The cover is by HOLY CRAP ... JIM LEE?

Ahem. Yup, Jim Lee cover.  Keeping in mind that, back in 1989, he was still pretty new on the scene, it's not THAT surprising, really. It's a rather lovely depiction of a huge, armored-bikini-clad amazonian woman, holding Cloudburst's head by some wires with a sword held ominously in her hand.  There's a nice contrast between the soft lines of the woman and the hard and detailed lines on Cloudburst.  It's not Jim Lee's best work, far from it, but it's a rather nice cover for Transformers.  "NEXT!" she says as she looks right at the reader.  Despite the decapitation, I can't help but imagine that many young readers would have like to be next.

The cover does seem a bit disconnected from the cliffhanger we were left with last month, but the opening page dispels that notion. The action starts where we left off, with Cloudburst and Landmine restrained and about to become dinner.  After a brief bit of back-and-forth exposition about what happened last issue, they pull out an electro-magnet and forcibly separate the Pretenders from their shells. This proves to be an oversight, though, as the shells are now free to engage in battle. Even still, though, the Mecannibals manage to corner the good guys. Cloudburst, though, once again manages to reason his way out of things. He describes a delicious meal of robots marinated in mercury, garnished with lead sulfide crystals and sprinkled with iron filings. Incredibly, the Mecannibals go for it, offering to spare their lives in exchange for cooking their next meal.  This rather silly plot twist is derided by Hi-Test and Throttle, perhaps as a way for Bob to acknowledge that it's a bit weak.  We keep the theme of Landmine wanting to fight and Cloudburst wanting to talk going, but in a way that rather strains credulity.  Ah, well.

Soon, our heroes are sent to the nearby planet Femax, where they are to gather the crystals they need. Berko remains behind as collateral. Hi-Test and Throttle don't want to risk letting Autobots go, and so follow them. Sky Lynx, skulking nearby, in turn follows them.  Oh, what a tangled web! Sky Lynx observes as the Nebulon engines combine with their Decepticons allies, but sticks to the shadows.

On Femax, the Autobots find some primitive giants, all men.  The crystals that they want are inside a mountain with a massive steel door.  Rather than go through the door, they decide to go under it and soon discover a verdant paradise within.  Artificial sunlight and climate control are at work to maintain the environment.  Before long, they are beset by amazonian women wielding spears (really, they've got artificial sunlight but are using melee weapons?) and speaking in a strange tongue.  Landmine keeps them at bay while Cloudburst figures out the translation.  Once he does, he expresses peaceful intentions.  The women decide to bring the Autobots (still disguised as humans) back to their leader, the First One, to decide their fate.

The First One, the leader of the Amazons, languishes in her throne and listens to Cloudburst's words. She decides to give the Pretenders the crystals they seek ... if they can withstand their physical tests.  Landmine tries to be the champion, as after all, he's the more physical of the two Autobots, but the First One only has eyes for cloudburst.  She watches, rather suggestively, as he wresles with monsters, dodges missiles, and jousts on lizard-back.  Finally, impressed, she takes Cloudburst away for his reward.Once again, Delbo's artwork is strong during depiction of alien elements, such as the horse-like lizards ridden by the contestants or the green horned monster he battles.  The choice of making the first one mostly bald, with cascades of hair in one long plume, is an odd one. It makes her appear rather severe.  Lee cheats by putting her in a helmet that disguises this fact, but it does diminish her sex appeal a bit.  Perhaps if Delbo wanted her to appear tough at first but softer later, he should have given her a more conventional hairstyle and hid it with a helmet during her first scene.

She leads him to her private chambers, where she asks him to doff his armor. He rather blankly looks at her when she informs him that he can have the crystals, and "much, much more."  With him still not getting it, she tries to kiss him and offers him the position of Second One, her mate. He decides that the time for deception is over and reveals himself to her. She does not take this well. Even as she accuses him of tricking her, she draws her weapon. Over his protests, she lops off his head in one blow. KLONK! I love how clueless he is about the whole situation. Even the most naive of readers will have picked up on her interest in him, but as a robot the idea of this kind of relationship never enters his mind.

The First One storms out, sword in one hand, Cloudburst's head in the other, and comes for Landmine. His first instinct is to fight, of course, but he decides to do things Landmine's way for once. He manages to talk the First One down. She decides to make amends. Before long, a repaired Cloudburst and Landmine are receiving crystals, as well as the friendship of the Femaxian women.  As they exit the mountain, they are beset by Darkwing and Dreadwind, but Sky Lynx gets the drop on those goons. They return to Master Mouth with the crystals, but negotiate a new deal. Rather than cook their next meal for them, the Autobots will leave with Berko in exchange for not destroying the ship of Hi-Test and Throttle, their robo-spotters. They ALSO demand that the Mecannibals repair all of the robots they digested, rather than keep the 500,000,000 microchips. The Autobots wouldn't want to live at the cost of other lives. The Mecannibals reluctantly agree, but to put a cherry on top of this Sunday, the Autobots THEN inform the Mecannibals that the Dreadwing ship is in fact a robot.  The issue ends with Sky Lynx (who we'll never see again) and Cloudburst flying back to the Ark, and the Mecannibals chasing the Decepticons.  Once again, the negotiation with the Mecannibals rings false. Are their contractors, the robospotters, really worth THAT much to them? And why would the Autobots then TELL the Mecannibals that the bargaining chip that they JUST played was based on deception? Are they THAT sure of the Mecannibals' word? 

Overall, it's an ok issue on its own, a bit weak in the context of the two-parter that it concludes. The Femaxian story is a decent vignette, but it feels thematically and tonally disconnected from the Mecannibal story surrounding it. Landmine's story arc feels rote, by the numbers. Yes, he comes around to Cloudburst's way of thinking, but we don't really see why. Also, Cloudburst never really sees his side of things, which makes that arc feel a bit lopsided. Finally, the odd business practices of the Mecannibals are a distraction. It's not a terrible comic, but it never transcends mediocrity either.

Next month, we're promised "The newest -- and Smallest -- Transformers yet: The Micromasters!!" It dosn't sound particularly promising, but we'll see. Recipe for Disaster! is included in IDW's Classic Transformers Volume 4, for sale at

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Autobot City concept art (part 3)

Welcome to part three of my ongoing exploration of the concept art of Autobot City.  This is the right side of the paper, which includes Floro Dery's signature and the date (8/16/85).  It also includes the information about the city closing up like a fist.  Neat stuff!