Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Bish's Review: Marvel UK #114 "Wanted: Galvatron - Dead Or Alive" Part 2

Issue #113 was written by Simon Furman and drawn by Will Simpson. Inking was provided by Tim Perkins and lettering by Richard Starkings. Steve White added the colour.

The unforgiveably terrible cover was by Jeff Anderson and features a badly rushed - just look at his wheels! - Rodimus Prime, in vehicle mode, being introduced by Wreck-Gar. It's supposed to be funny but I don't really get the joke. Even if it were funny, the mood whiplash between this cover and the actual story, which opens with a scene of desperate battle and closes with the destruction of a much-loved character, is far too great... Wreck-Gar looks ok.

We're still in the distant future of 2007 as we join the Autobots, led by Rodimus Prime, as they take a beating from a massive Decepticon assault. Blurr and Kup go down and things look bleak before shots come out of nowhere and despatch the Decepticons - it was a ruse. The helpless Decepticon commander, who remains nameless, but looks sort of similar to other generic Decepticons like Macabre, begs for his life, but Rodimus Prime denies his request and blasts him to pieces. When Kup congratulates him on the victory he jumps down his throat, reminding him that they have just "terminated eight sentient beings".

My first reaction to this incident was annoyance at Rodimus' schizophrenia here but then I realised that was the point Furman was making. In order to demonstrate just how bad the war has become since the destruction of Unicron we are shown that actions like these are necessary. Contrast this with the contraversial scene in Revenge Of The Fallen where Optimus Prime executes a Decepticon in similar circumstances. In the film it is unacceptable because the Autobots are the ones on the offensive, actively seeking out and hunting down rogue Decepticons. Here Rodimus' Autobots are so beleagured that they need to adopt these tactics in order to survive. Of course there is a case for arguing that these tactics undermine the Autobot cause, no matter the situation, but I think Furman does a good job here in setting up the situation and differentiating these Autobots from the ones in 1987. Either way, it does fit rather better with the slightly more brutal atmosphere of Transformers: The Movie. Furman uses a couple of phrases from Optimus Prime's battle with Megatron from said movie here ("Grant me mercy", "You who are without mercy... etc") presumably to contrast Rodimus with Optimus, but I'm not sure it's wholly successful, as there is at least one point in the movie where I think Optimus is going to shoot Megatron down, which would basically be the same as this scene. It's far from clear though, as Hot Rod spoils his aim anyway, so Furman's interpretation is certainly valid.

Rodimus is distracted by news (from a generic Autobot) that Nautilus, a rather flamboyantly designed Autobot deep-cover agent has broken cover with important news. It seems that he encountered Cyclonus and Scourge shortly after their dust-up with Death's Head and found out that both Galvatron and Death's Head have now time-travelled to the Earth of 1987! Rodimus is distraught that his actions have unleashed this threat upon the past.

We change scene to Bumblebee crouched beside a black and smoking patch of Earth. It emerges that his companion, First Aid, has disappeared to make way for a time-traveller of sufficient mass, an effect that Bumblebee is quite familiar with at this point. What he is not familiar with, however, is the deadly threat posed by Death's Head! As soon as he appears he decides that Bumblebee must be terminated in order for his presence to remain secret and, in a shocking display of firepower, blasts the loyal little Autobot into scrap!

Furman raises the stakes in characteristically shocking fashion. Ok, so it probably won't shock anyone these days to learn that Bumblebee will soon be rebuilt into Goldbug but he was a much-loved character and I'm sure many kids would have worried that he wouldn't be coming back. Not only has he been killed but he has been killed by a threat that he had no answer to. Rather than the usual comic character death by heroic sacrifice he has simply been blasted because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Other than this there isn't an awful lot of story in the issue. The only important plot point is that Rodimus Prime now knows where Galvatron and Death's Head are. Although we are not told so it seems unthinkable that he won't follow them and cause yet more time-travelling shenanigans.

I appreciate another look at post Movie Cybertron and it seems in keeping with Furman's storytelling style that things have only become worse since Unicron has been vanquished. From a logical perspective I find it rather hard to believe that in a war millions of years long these twenty have really been all that significant, but it would seem that Shockwave, in keeping with his first appearance in the comic, is just that much of a threat.

Will Simpson's art is pretty dramatic in this issue. I still have the odd criticism of his rendering of the Transformers but his Death's Head is decent and Bumblebee (before and during his untimely destruction) is basically on-model. Assuming Simpson did the designs for the one-off characters in this issue I think he is also worthy of praise, particularly for Nautilus, a colourful design that fits right into the more futuristic, fantastic style of the Movie characters.

The story continues in the next issue with Burning Sky and the pieces are certainly in place for some exciting action. The whole saga, Galvatron, Death's Head and all was reprinted in Titan's Fallen Angel collection. Out of print, but not too tricky to get hold of. Sadly it seems unlikely that IDW will be able to publish a new version as Marvel currently own the rights to Death's Head.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Ark Addendum - Megatron's Master Plan (e)

All good things must come to an end, and so it is with this classic episode of the original series, Megatron's Master Plan

Just as I started on what I felt was a high point, I wanted to end the same way.  The first post in the series, back in December of 2008, focused on propaganda.  We went through some models of Berger's rocket and some structures in the episode, but I figured I'd finish off with the models that make up Central City.  It seems to be quite a large metropolis, with a robust skyline, a huge stadium, a massive city hall, and a fairly contentious political scene.  One wonders if The Flash is around to keep things safe.  Sadly, the futuristic version of this town gets crushed in Five Faces of Darkness when Metroplex and Trypticon battle.  Ah, well, easy come, easy go.I hope you enjoy this detailed examination of the nearest city to the Ark as much as I did.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Bish's Review Space: Above and Beyond Episode 4: Mutiny

"They take us out of the tank at eighteen Hawkes... can't get eighteen years back in a day" - McQueen

The 58th are forced to hitch a ride on a cargo vessel, the SS MacArthur (weirdly split into Mac Arthur in the establishing subtitles) which has a crew of In Vitros commanded by regularly born humans. Hawke discovers that the MacArthur's mission is to ferry natural-borns and In Vitros to a plutonium mining colony. The natural borns are in stasis and signed up for the mission. The In Vitros are still in their tanks and did not.

When a Chig vessel attacks and overloads the nuclear reactor, the captain orders power to be cut to the In Vitro section to save the ship, just as Hawkes has learnt that he has, genetically speaking, a sister still in her tank. The In Vitros come out in a full-blown mutiny with Hawkes unable to decide what to do.

When tensions mount, the captain of the MacArthur is killed accidently and McQueen steps in. The In Vitros back down and work with the 58th to save the ship and destroy the Chig. Hawkes, fittingly, is the one to cut the power to the In Vitro bay and goes in to find his sister, and apologise to her.

The Good

There were strong performances from the main cast this week with a strong moral problem at the heart of the episode. McQueen's status as a father-figure to Hawkes is back in the spotlight, even as he forces him to make difficult choices.

The other Wildcards all had good moments, despite not carrying the main plot. West, tasked with trying to track the Chig vessel through a storm of solar radiation is called out by McQueen on his going AWOL a few weeks ago (Back in The Farthest Man From Home). By the end of the episode West has saved the day and told McQueen that he understands what he did was selfish and will never happen again.
McQueen is typically unwavering throughout. He doesn't care whether he and Hawkes are human or something different: they are marines. It is not that he doesn't care about the injustices - he just has more of a kinship with his fellow marines than he does with unborn In Vitros. He reveals that he never looked for his genetic family, because he was afraid of what he might feel if he ever found them. As things stand, as he tells Hawkes, the 58th is their family.
Wang and Vansen have a slight but amusing subplot where they argue about the nature of love. It emerges that Wang has got himself a girlfriend on "Spacenet", ie, online. This episode came out in 1995 when such things must have seen like a new and scary prospect.
The cat and mouse game between the Chig hunter-killer (dubbed a U378 - trivia fans) and the MacArthur is tense and well presented. While it is not given as much screentime as the In Vitro plot it feels much as a real space battle would probably be: two ships miles apart, trying to work out where the other is and put a hole in her. More evoking submarine combat than the World War Two heroics from the pilot and probably more realistic for it.
The Bad

The prejudice shown by the natural-born crew over the In Vitros is drawn in far too broad strokes. The captain does not seem especially prejudiced but he certainly tolerates it, and his second in command (I think): Potter, is such a cartoon racist as to be completely unbelievable - although he is played by a black actor, which probably seemed smart at the time - maybe it was - I can't decide.

We are given indications that this is what life is like for In Vitros on Earth and her colonies, that McQueen was used for forced plutonium mining before joing the Marines and that the unborn In Vitros will have no say over their fate.

The reason I have a problem with this is not because I have an optimistic viewpoint regarding humanity's continuing tendency for prejudice. I have no doubt at all that In Vitros could easily become an underclass if this future were to come to pass. I just find it heavy-handed. The crew of the vessel are too unlikeable for us to really believe them to be typical of our society, which robs the episode of its punch in quite a significant way.

The scene where McQueen talks about his past is a little more effective, and resonates with the fate of the unborn In Vitros on the MacArthur. I think the problem I have here is that it is muddled. We would have benefitted considerably from a more detailed description of just what rights In Vitros have or do not have. We know that the In Vitro brigades have been disbanded and that they are no longer forced to fight against their will, but has this practice been replaced by slavery and forced labour? There is a line about indentured servitude being banned, but McQueen points out that the unborn In Vitros have no say in their fate - how is this anything other than slavery? This is a massive contradiction that happens in a single conversation and the episode does nothing to address it. The Captain looks sad, but what he is doing does not seem to be illegal, when surely it should be? Do In Vitros get paid? Can they buy their way out? Similarly - the show goes out of it's way to show that Earth is not a one-government planet. These are American In Vitros, do they have different rights to those from other countries? (I'm reaching a bit on the last one - I can't see how they could have easily addressed that without it being awkward).

Hawkes' drama is well-played and I can see how a young man like him would struggle in this situation, but the other big mistake that the episode makes is reducing it to a numbers game: one hundred and sixty-eight In Vitros vs four-hundred natural born humans. Far better would have been to have had equal numbers of lives. Then we'd have had a conflict on our hands! As angry as Hawkes might be about the usual treatment of In Vitros, this is a no-brainer. And that's before we even get into the very sticky philosphical problems this decision conjures up. The natural-born humans have lived, they have their own lives, they're just in cryogenic stasis. The In Vitros haven't even been born yet. There's an abortion debate to be had here but the episode does not even try to take it on.

Future History

There is now a Disneyland in Detroit.

Mention is made of some kind of "World Federation" but we still do not seem to be part of a one-planet government. Perhaps future episodes will clear this up.

I didn't type the fictional slur "tank" at all while reviewing this. Wow, how middle class and liberal am I?

Actual History

Vansen quotes WB Yeats' When You Are Old to Wang. This show can get quite erudite when it wants to.

It was almost inevitable after the West and Vansen showcases of the previous two weeks that this would be a Hawkes one. It touches enough contiuing beats to resonate, just about, particularly Hawkes' continuing search for exactly what and who he is, and the closing scene, with tube after tube of dead In Vitros and Hawkes apologising to his dead sister really hits with a punch that the rest of the episode does not deserve. Rodney Rowland gives a good performance, as usual, so we care about the character but ultimately, however, this episode is too confused about what it wants to say, and too heavy-handed when it decides upon it.

 Space Above and Beyond - The Complete Series is available on DVD and even though I wasn't very keen on this episode, you should still consider giving it a watch.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Review: Marvel G2 #2 - All or Nothing!

The second issue of the Transformers G2 run of Marvel Comics is titled All or Nothing.  It wraps up the G2 prelude story begun in the pages of the GI Joe ongoing book.  It's written by Simon Furman, with pencils by Derek Yaniger, Manny Galan, and Andrew Wildman.  Amash, Severin, and Baskerville provide the inks.  Starkings w/ Gaushell provide the letters (Letterbots, they're called.)  Mossoff is the Colorbot.  Editors Rob Tokar and Tom DeFalco are credited as All and Nothing, respectively.  The cover, as indeed all of the G2 covers are, is by Derek Yaniger.

The cover features a rather dangerous looking Megatron, kicking the crud out of Fortress Maximus.  "Fort Max gets the Ax!" it declares.  He, ummm, he does, so truth in advertising here.   While I've definitely warmed up to Yaniger's style, this piece isn't one of his better ones.  It's certainly dramatic, which I like, but the perspective / anatomy on Fort Max's hand seems off, and Megatron has a kind of unfinished look about him.  Things like the gun and Max's head are superbly rendered, but Megatron's torso lacks comparable detail.  I do rather love how the smoke from Megatron's shoulder canon obscures the lettering a bit.  I really want to love this cover, but I just can't quite bring myself to do so.

Since this book isn't picking up from G2 #1 but instead from GI Joe #142, there's more recap than usual.  We kick off with a one page summary designed to lay out most of the key players on Earth, then shift over to Megatron for a triumphant bit of expository gloating.  "I beat them ALL!" he declares, a bit prematurely as it turns out.  There are enemies on board, one human, Spike Witwicky, and one Autobot, Skydive.  Spike and Skydive have a brief misunderstanding before it's revealed that Spike is, in fact, Fortress Maximus.

Megatron works on some kind of project that looks suspiciously like Starscream, wondering to himself if this course of action is 'sheer lunacy.'  I'm sure Starscream's inclusion was mandated by Hasbro, hence Furman's lampshading of this action.  "I still can't believe I'm actually doing this!" he muses.  Me neither, Megatron.  His thoughts are interrupted by Fortress Maximus, who engages Megatron while Skydive spirits Dr. Biggles-Jones to safety.  Skydive can't just abandon his colleague, though, and Max needs all the help he can get.  Megatron shreds him pretty effortlessly.  There's some mental back-and-forth between Max & Spike, echoing the events of issue #79.  In the end, Max sacrifices himself, throwing his battered form into the antimatter conversion chamber to destroy the ship and, presumably, Megatron.  Spike is given an out, but doesn't take it.  Megatron, with seconds to spare, heads somewhere with purpose.  The ship goes, um, what's the technical term, Sidney?  She can't remember, but Skydive offers a helpful 'Bang.'

On Earth, things are no less tense.  Cobra Commander's trailer full of junk must be dealt with.  Hot Spot engages the Cobras and blows them to smithereens!  Guh?  Excuse me?  I know that G2 has a different tone than G1, but it's still odd for this shift in character of the Autobots.  Snake-Eyes and Hawk help out, which is a nice touch.  After all, this storyline began in GI Joe, it'd be odd if those protagonists simply stopped mattering at all.  (It also sets up some nice stuff for later, but we'll get to that in a few issues.)  Hot Spot succeeds in blowing up the truck (Great lettering, Starkings!) but he's completely spent.  Rather than be disassembled by Cobra, he blows himself up, which is echoed by Max's sacrifice a page later.

Both storylines end together with Skydive, Hawk, Scarlett and Biggles-Jones share a silent moment.  With no concept of Death, wonders Skydive, is the loss of a colleague easier or harder?  Who can say?  Hawk salutes as they stare off into the sky.

I have mixed feelings about this issue.  On the one hand, I really did love the G2 plotline in GI Joe, at least when it first came out.  On the other hand, this issue suffers from some structural and artistic flaws.  Let's start structurally.  The previous issue, #1, established a great cosmic threat.  This issue, however, ignores that and focuses entirely on Megatron and Cobra.  It needed to be done, after the set-up from Joe 138-142, but tonally it doesn't match what the book has been set up to be.  It's a shame that this story wasn't told entirely in the confines of GI Joe.  In retrospect, I think that artistically G2 would have stood taller had the Joe crossover not happened.  The events of the Joe book felt too much like G1, and the events here as an odd muddle of G1 and G2. 

It is clear to me that Furman is just moving the pieces around, shifting them to where they need to be from where Hama left them to where he wants to take the story.  The use of Spike, so shrewdly done in The Last Autobot, here feels somewhat out of left field.  Sure, he popped up in Joe #142, but this is his swan song.  I feel like more time could have been devoted to him.  Recalling his triumph in #79 should have been shrewd but just makes this story pale in comparison  He's an odd piece to move off the board, since of all the Transformers he's the one who could most reasonably sit out on action.  Meanwhile, Starscream is moved INTO play, which just doesn't seem like something Megatron would do, but I've already ranted about that.  

Hot Spot, too, seems way out of character.   He's a Protectobot, for God's sake!  In the entirety of the US run, I can't think of one instance of the Autobots purposefully using lethal force on a Human, but here it's done with nary a second thought.  I don't mind a grittier tone, but this shift should have been after character development and soul searching.  Instead it's treated as if this is always how the Autobots have operated, and it isn't.  (More great art/letter interaction here, by the way.)  Oh, and Furman's Cobra Commander doesn't hold a torch to Hama's Cobra Commander.  "Bring me his... cab!" and "I'll have your heads!  After I've had your fingers, your toes, your --" just reads like generic bad-guy dialog.  Hama's CC was a virtuoso of vocabulary, this guy sounds like a thug.  He even seems to be at a loss for words... that's just not right.

Moving on, we get to the art side of things.  Yaniger proved unable to meet his deadlines, causing them to call in two ringers for this issue.  Manny Galan tried to match Yaniger's artwork, Andrew Wildman did not.  Hence, we have two and a half different styles all in one book.  Additionally, Yaniger's artwork isn't as strong as it was last time.  I'm guessing he was more rushed, but the lack of detail seems lazy this time rather than stark.  I do love seeing more Wildman, as he's probably my favorite TF artist from the era, but it still feels out of place.  Galan, on the other hand, just does a bad Yaniger.  He'll do much better when he allows himself to draw in a way more natural to himself.  As much as I've warmed up to the art style in G2, this just isn't a good example of it.

So, what's the verdict?  It's a necessary issue, concluding 4 or so issues of set-up from another in-continuity book, but overall it's probably the weakest issue Furman's penned to date, at least in the US.  The writing flaws are bad, but combined with the artistic flaws and you have a book that's only really worth reading so that other books make sense.  As a stand-alone story, it sadly fails.  All or Nothing was reprinted in the Titan collection   Transformers Dark Designs , which is out of print but not too pricey on Amazon.com.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Ark Addendum - Megatron's Master Plan (d)

Another week, another Ark Addendum!  I'll admit that I'm not feeling especially creative today, so I'll just pick up from where last week left off.  Yup, Megatron's Master Plan

As a two-part episode, there were a plethora of models.  This time I look into some of the structures around town, including houses, gymnasiums, Berger's office, and of course the TV Studio where a good deal of the action around the phony Autobot attack took place. 

Next week, I'll finish up this episode and the week after, who knows?  Maybe some Masterforce or some Headmasters.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Bish's Review: Marvel UK #113 "Wanted: Galvatron - Dead Or Alive" Part 1

Wanted: Galvatron - Dead Or Alive Part 1 was written by Simon Furman, drawn by Geoff Senior, Coloured by Steve White and Lettered by Anne Halfacree. This was the first UK originated story for nine issues - the previous eight were the US issues detailing the trauma surrounding the death of Optimus Prime and Megatron once again having trouble with Predacons. With Optimus Prime still dead and Megatron missing in action Furman picks a a good time to catch up with the future portion of the storyline and check in with the movie era characters.

The cover was also by Senior (quite obviously so) and is of a very angry looking Rodimus Prime. Sometimes Senior's art-style works better for action shots than showpieces like this but it is certainly not a bad image. The anatomy is a little imprecise but here is a lot of emotion here (Senior's strong suit) and Rodimus is well-depicted and on-model, with a certain amount of artistic licence.

The issue opens with a wonderfully evocative image: a wanted poster, bearing the likeness of Galvatron and offering a reward. As a splash page this is unusual but immediately intriguing. We find that this poster has been put up in a bar on the robot planet of Elpasos, and, in contrast to last issue, we are back in the (then) future, 2007.

A horned and armour plated mechanoid, known as Death's Head, sees the poster and asks the bartender what it means. This allows Furman to retread the Galvatron/Rodimus Prime battle from the end of Transformers: The Movie, but also to fill in the intervening year. We find out that Rodimus searched unsuccessfully for Galvatron's body but was forced to abandon this when Shockwave (so he survives to the future then? Or will we get further time travel to put this in doubt?) gathered the remaining Decepticons and attacked Cybertron. Rodimus, unable to continue his search for the Decepticon leader, is now offering a reward for his capture or destruction.

Death's Head immediately takes off to find Galvatron and we get a lovely piece of character development where the bartender demands he pay for his drink and comes off very badly. Death's Head claims to have some kind of moral objection to being called a "bounty hunter" by the bartender, preferring "Freelance Peacekeeping Agent" but really he is just a thug who wants a free drink.

Death's Head works out that since Scourge and Cyclonus were Galvatron's lieutenants they might know where he is so he heads to Cybertron to track them down. We find them complaining about Shockwave's orders before Death's Head arrives and takes them both down in short order. Scourge makes the mistake of calling Death's Head a "bounty hunter" and suffers suitable retribution. After offering token resistance Cyclonus crumbles cretinously and lets Death's Head know about Galvatron's time-jump equipment, which seems to offer the best solution as to his whereabouts. The issue ends with Death's Head preparing to jump to the distant past of 1987.

This issue is something of a landmark among fans of the UK book because it introduced Death's Head, a perennial favourite, and with good reason. The intention to create a breakout character with the "freelance peacekeeping agent" is clear without being obnoxious. The rights to Death's Head were secured by Marvel and he had his own run of comics for a while without ever becoming truly successful but he fits right in to the Transformers universe and his introduction is not grating in the way that spin-off generating stories sometimes are. It helps that he is tied directly into a major ongoing plotline: the fate of Galvatron.

With the Prey arc somewhat underwhelming, it has been the time-jumping shenanigans of the future Decepticon leader that have provided the truly compelling narrative and with this this issue we can see that it will be back front and centre. Death's Head is interesting enough by himself, but the prospect of him interracting with all our favourite characters on Earth is very exciting indeed.

The story as told is simple enough. Furman is really just moving his new pieces onto the board in order to start a new arc, but even in this short appearance Death's Head is such a strong presence that we immediately know who he is. Senior's art goes a long way to make him distinctive: he is clearly robotic but obviously not a Transformer, and, obviously the skull-like face that gives him his name is instantly recognisable. While some of the idiosyncracies that make the character a cult classic are not fully realised yet, Death's Head is such a strong central figure that this issue cannot help but be a classic.

Senior delivers his usual strong work and shows a flare for design that is perhaps not often shown in a book where most of the characters are toys long before they ever made it to the page. Death's Head, as mentioned, is particularly vivid, but I feel special mention must also be given to the robot bartender, again obviously mechanical, but spindly and so clearly not a Transformer. I have always been entranced by the conceit in these stories that the Transformers are in no way unique. The idea that the universe is brimming with mechanical as well as organic life is an original and exciting concept and it is issues like this that bring it to the fore.
Furman reminds us that Transformers is sometimes a full-on space opera with winning style and an intriguing central character. I'd be looking forward to the next issue if I hadn't already read it so many times before. In only a few pages Death's Head's arrival has been one of the most interesting developments for a good many issues. More from everyone's favourite hypocritical bounty hunter next week, yes?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Unintentional Hilarity - Babylon 5, Batman, Star Trek

I delight in life.  Little joys, big triumphs, dancing a tiny jig in the bookstore when they play a song I like, a large grin on my wife's face when I crack some silly joke. One tiny pleasure I take is the small moments of unintentional hilarity in the sci-fi and fantasy shows and movies I watch.  I'm not talking about something that's intended to be funny, nor am I talking about the so-bad-it's-good kind of joy I get from shows like The Cape.  (BTW, we're having a Curtains for the Cape party at my house this Saturday, if you're in LA email for details.)  Nope, I mean those minuscule moments in an otherwise quality program that make me laugh out loud at their absurdity.  Often they require a moment to think about, but having trod that mental road it's impossible to not laugh at the absurdity.

Here's one that always gets me.  I'm a huge fan of Babylon 5.  It had so much potential, and though there were some issues towards the end it remains one of the most ambitious sci-fi undertaking ever attempted on television.  This scene is from Infection, the fourth episode aired but the first one (post-pilot) produced.  They were still finding their feet, and it's regarded as one of the weaker episodes.  But there's one line in particular, that's delivered with such sincerity and zeal that I almost want Dr. Franklin's response to be something like, "well, you raise a valid point."  I'll remember this scene the next time I'm doing a little bit of harmless smuggling.

I feel funny bashing B5 without taking a little poke at Star Trek.  Now, to be sure, there's a ton of cheese in Star Trek.  However, one line in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country made me chuckle then and has in fact entered my lexicon.  Keep in mind that Scotty is supposed to be one of Kirk's very best friends in the universe, loyal to the point that he'd break the laws of the universe for this man.  So, when Spock asks him to visually inspect some torpedoes to clear Kirk's name...

Is it just me or should the next line from Spock be a sarcastic, "well, then don't do it."  My friends and I now use this phrase in a whiny voice when someone asks us to do something perfectly reasonable and necessary.  "That could take hours!!!"

Finally, here's one from Batman: The Animated Series.  The episode? The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne, where Hugo Strange gets video proof of Batman's secret identity and attempt to auction it off to the Joker, Two-Face, and the Penguin.  I'll admit that this might be a bit of a cheat.  It's entirely possible that this line was SUPPOSED to be funny.  However, the tone of the episode is so serious that that's not at all clear.  Still, Strange's reaction is so wonderfully understated that it cracks me up every time.  I'd certainly be less caviler if the Joker was given reason to believe I was trying to screw him!

Hope you enjoy!  If there's some unintentional hilarity that you've found in otherwise quality sci-fi, please let me know and I'll check it out.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Review: Marvel G2 #1 - War Without End!

In May of 1991, the final issue of the Transformers comic from Marvel came out.  The universe wept.  But all was not lost!  A scant year and a half later, September of 1993, Transformers: Generation 2 #1 hit comic shops and newstands.  Even better, veteran scribe Simon Furman returned to writing duties. Art is by newcomer Derek Yaniger, with colors by Sarra Mossoff (goodbye, Nel Yomtov, you had a good run) and letters by Richard Starkings (with Gaushell).  The cover is by Yaniger as well.

The cover, available both with and foil, as was in vogue in 1993, is a pretty slick piece of work.  We get a tight close-up on Optimus Prime's face, with a smoking gun held up to it as if he's just fired.  There are a few bullets lodged in his helmet, and oil and fluids leak down.  "THIS is NOT your father's AUTOBOT." it states, borrowing from the classic Oldsmobile slogan.  Of course, in 1993, most kids father's wouldn't HAVE Autobots, but it gets the message across.  (Nowadays, though, that statement could be pretty accurate.  How many eight-year-olds have dads who played with Transformers?  A lot, I'd reckon.)  We also get our first hints of the new art style, though one still image can't really convey that.  It's an effective cover, though, violent, bold, setting itself apart from what went before enough that maybe you wouldn't be too daunted to pick up this book.

We open "many billions of light years from our galaxy..."  (Science geek interlude - the Andromeda Galaxy, the closest proper galaxy to us, is 2.5 MILLION light years away.  The most distant galaxy that we've observed is about 13 billion light years away, and the Hubble didn't spot that till just this year.  That means that some of the action in this issue takes place pretty much on the other side of the universe from us.)  Some new robots with an unfamiliar design are aboard a ship, and we learn that one of their outposts has been attacked, with no survivors. Their report segues into...

...a nice two page VERTICAL splash page.  Once again, we find that the book takes bold artistic choices.  It seems that some of our old pals the Autobots are responsible, and looking more bad-ass than ever before.  Sideswipe, in particular, looks amazing with his spiked wheels and his massive guns and swords.  There is an uncomfortable moment when a robot tries to surrender to hound, only to get shot in the back by Blades.  Hound himself almost gets fragged by a nasty looking robot whose vehicle mode is some kind of steamroller-tank, but the arrival of Grimlock (in Dino-mode... looks like Nucleon is no longer an issue) saves him.  The Dinobots help rally the troops and we see what they were fighting for, some blueskinned aliens who look almost as scared of the Autobots as they were of the enemy robots.

In true comic-book fashion, the fight serves as the backdrop to a philisophical argument between Blades and Hound.  Hound points out that the Autobots were almost as violent as those they were fighting, but Blades retorts that Hound is weak, claiming that the 'surrendering' robot was about to turn on him.  I've always liked this kind of confrontation.  Comic books can do it so well, and Furman does not disappoint.  Grimlock ends the argument, calling for an end to the infighting since, after all, they're all Autobots...

AUTOBOTS!  Remember, that was all told via a framing story, from what we now learn are Decepticons.  Their leader, Commander Jhiaxus (a pun off of Furman's prediction for the fate of the book... 'Gee, axe us!') explains to his subordinate Rook what Autobots even are... throwbacks, anachronisms.  He intends to "Bring them screaming into the present day!"  An intriguing notion, one that will be further explored.

Cut to Optimus Prime, having an apocalyptic dream which ends in him turning to dust.  While I'm not sure it was intended this way, it feels finally like familiar territory.  Everything that had gone before, these new dispassionate Decepticons, the incredibly savage Autobots, this all feels very new.  Not necessarily bad, but new.  But Optimus dreaming about the end of everything?  Yeah, we've seen this before.  When he snaps back to the present, he, Hot Rod, and Kup are all on 'a dead planet in the butt end of the galaxy,' which means that Jhiaxius was VERY far away from where we are now.  They've been summoned by Grimlock, but they don't yet know why.  He does feel that he needs to gather up his 'scattered Autobot army,' in light of his recent premonitions. 

We get treated to a bit of a recap of the G1 comic, in the form of an interesting splash page depicting many of the greatest threats the Autobots ever faced.  (While I mostly have warmed up to the artwork, I hate how stubby Shockwave is here.  It's an anatomical sin that Yanniger would occasionally fall prey to.)  Memory lane gets invaded by some more of the G2 Decepticons, prompting a quick battle.  With the enemies dispatched, Grimlock shows up and we see why Optimus was summoned here... a massive Decepticon installation. 

It seems that Grimlock's stumbled on something... big.  He's found seventeen Cybertrons all over the galaxy.  This planet the they're on now was a failed attempt to make one - Grimlock didn't expect there to still be guards.  Optimus quickly realizes that Bludgeon's little band couldn't possibly have anywhere close to the resources necessary to pull off a trick like this.  The problem is, in fact, a lot bigger than he's realized.

Indeed it is, Optimus, for at that moment Jhiaxus shows up with his starship, the not-yet-named Twilight.  I do rather love this scorpion-looking ship.  He blasts the Autobots from orbit, destroying their ships and bringing them aboard.  Soon Optimus and Grimlock stand before the second-generation Decepticon commander, who informs them calmly that he has chosen to not annihilate them from space but rather educate them as to the current state of Cybertronian affairs.

The war ended almost four million years ago.  Once Megatron was no longer in command of the Decepticons, a faction of them left the empty husk that was their world for greener (um... greyer?) pastures.  Only a 'token administrative presence' of 'small-minded tyrants' (cue picture of Straxus) was left behind.  DEstruction has become CONstruction.  Optimus, on some level, wants to believe it, but he just can't.  It's still all conquest and oppression.  Jhiaxus doesn't help his case much when he tries to clarify.  It's not so much that they hate other species, it's that lesser beings have no value to them.  If they can coexist with the Decepticons, great, if not, they're exterminated without malice.  In a way his cold indifference is far scarier than Megatron's anger ever was, because on some level it seems more realistic to me.  I have a hard time imagining an alien race showing up that just hates everything we stand for, but the idea that some hyper-advanced beings might bulldoze the Earth to make way for a hyperspace bypass seems somehow more plausible. It's definitely an interesting direction to have taken the story, in any event.

(We also get a tiny, two-page interlude that lines up with the events of the G.I. Joe books.  The timing of the distress call might account for the rag-tag nature of the Autobots sent to stop Megatron.) 

In his cell, Optimus feels very small.  Grimlokck snaps him out of it, with violent rhetoric (accompanied, rather inexplicably, by a flashback to Buster facing off against Ratbat) and a violent prison break.  The Autobots, rather effortlessly it seems, shake off their bonds, arm themselves, cripple the ship, and make their way to the shuttles.  Jhiaxus seems almost melancholy that Optimus has chosen to continue to fight rather than join him in the current, glorious empire.  Still, he's planned ahead.  Pursuit craft have already been launched, so he's well positioned to track them back to their lair and destroy them all.  Hmmm.... I'd start by looking on Cybertron, were I you, Jhiaxus.  Ah, well.  Optimus Prime, apparently free, makes his way back home, only his nagging doubts persist.  He can't shake the feeling that whatever his dreams are trying to tell him isn't about Jhiaxus... something far worse is out there!

Well... wow!  It's a big issue, worthy of being a #1.  Clearly this is no mere continuation of the Generation One storyline.  Sure, it's in continuity, but that tale seems to have been told.  This story is suitably new and epic, and even plays off of the idea of a Generation Two.  While it's not definitively spelled out yet, it does seem like Jhiaxus and his crew are from a very different era than Optimus, Megatron, and their respective armies.  Their cold indifference seems as far removed from Megatron as Megatron is from Optimus.  Even now, it's clear that a confrontation between Megatron and Jhiaxius' minions is inevitable.

The more mature themes, especially the rather savage fury of the Autobots in battle, are also welcome.  It's clear that Furman is aiming at a slightly older audience than he's targeted in the past.  Some of that is probably the contemporary success of characters like The Punisher, but creatively it works and helps differentiate this book from what went before.  

There are certainly some parts of it that are a stretch.  It's hard to believe that Cybertron would have been abandoned so completely that the events of the G1 comic went completely unnoticed.  After all, if there were a diaspora of Decepticons, you'd expect for them to spread out from Cybertron at the center, not go to the other end of the Universe and work their way back.  Still, I rather like the idea that the four million year time gap actually means something, that significant events happened during the long twilight sleep on the Ark.  (An aside... doesn't Shockwave seem like the kind of bot that would have done VERY well among the G2 Decepticons?  I can't help but feel that there's a fanfic in there somewhere.)

Also, the prophetic dream thing that Optimus experiences... I've decided that I don't care for it.  We've seen a bit too much of it in the latter days of Generation One.  It worked there, with the cosmic threat that was Unicron.  Here, though, it feels like we're treading on old ground.  That might not be such an issue if the rest of the book weren't so darned new and fresh and interesting. As it is, though, it feels out of place.

The art style is different than anything we'd gotten in the 7 year run of Generation One.  It's grittier, more violent.  At the time I didn't care for it, but I've come to appreciate it for what it is.  It's also a slick move, creatively, as it helps distance G2 from the G1 book that went before. The more mature themes of the book go along well with this newer, more stylized, darker artwork.  Wires and weapons are everywhere, and mistings of ink make the whole work feel worn, used, even dirty.  There's definitely a war on here. 

It's not just the pencils.  The coloring and lettering is also pretty top notch.  Notice how the flashbacks are flushed green, making them pop out.  Also, pay attention to the lettering.  The robot speech bubbles all have little markings on the side, with squares for Autobots, triangles for Decepticons, and trapezoids for Dinotots.  That must have been a lot of work, but it's appreciated.

So, there you have it!  A mostly very very good tale, not without flaws but basically a creative success.  By recasting Optimus in the role of a resistance fighter, rather than a great general, the stakes are ratcheted up.  It's a book that clearly acknowledges what went before but is charting its own future.  I think this is one of the more ambitious bits of Transformers storytelling, and so far that ambition is paying off.  War Without End! finally brings us back to reprint territory.  It was included in the Titan collection   Transformers Dark Designs , which is out of print but pretty reasonable second hand through Amazon.com.  If you loved G1, I'd highly recommend you check out the first half of Generation Two.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Ark Addendum - Megatron's Master Plan (c)

Once again, I pick up where the Ron Friedman scripts left us off.  During that run, I posted the script to part one of Megatron's Master Plan - alas, no part two.  To go along with it, I posted some of the background models from that episode. 

Today, I bring you the third (of five) sets of models from that episode.  This time I'm focusing on the various energy producing structures that were visited over the course of the episode.  Oil drilling and refineries, solar collectors, coal mines, and electrical generators all showed up at one point or another in this story.  Hope you enjoy!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Bish's Review: Marvel UK #104 "Resurrection!" Part 2

Resurrection: Part 2 concludes the arc begun in Prey! and was written by Simon Furman. Jeff Anderson took over the art from Will Simpson (while I like the mix in styles I wish they had been able to keep one artist per story, at least - the curse of a weekly book, I guess). Steve White coloured the story, Annie Halfacree lettered it and Ian Rimmer edited.

The cover was by Geoff Senior and is really very good. The characters are well drawn and dynamic, and we get to see Megatron in a position that he's not often in. That said, I am not a fan of this development in the actual story, but the cover is well done and shows what can be achieved with careful colouring on Senior's stylised line work. I mean - just look at the lovely rivets on Ultra Magnus' head!

The Autobots (including Omega Supreme!) are gathered at Optimus Prime's grave site on Earth, paying their last respects. Ratchet is the bot who has the honour of delivering the eulogy which helps the uninformed reader understand just why they all think Prime is dead. Perceptor is sure that this is what Prime would have wanted, which gives us a rather nice segue into -

Optimus Prime alive and well on Cybertron, explaining that what he actually wants is Megatron's head! He has planned a diversionary attack by the Wreckers to lure away Megatron's security so that Prime can confront Megatron in Polyhex.

Following last issue's brain swap shenanigans with Straxus, Megatron's body is still confused as to which mind inhabits it. He remembers the brain swap, and the subsequent destruction of Straxus' head, from both perspectives (again, allowing new readers to catch up). Ratbat disturbs his reverie by informing him that the Autobots are attacking. Megatron's befuddled response tips Ratbat off to what is actually going on as the Decepticon leader(s?) wanders off, only to run straight into Optimus Prime!

He prepares to fight but Ultra Magnus appears behind him. He explains to Megatron, while chokeslamming him against a wall that getting to destroy Megatron will help him put Impactor's death behind him. Megatron wasn't really involved in that so I'm not sure how psychologically healthy this is, but Prime seems to agree with the idea.

Optimus tells Megatron he wishes there were a better way but unfortunately he will have to die. Megatron concentrates and begins to unlock an ability only seen once before, in the "so old it's barely canon" Raiders Of The Last Ark - he connects his internal circuitry to the anti-matter energy of a black-hole in space and uses it to smash the Autobots around. This is very out of left-field but I don't really mind because I quite like the idea of the dangerously unstable Megatron having a dangerously unstable ability that is so destructive even he would only use it while totally out of his mind.

Ratbat decides enough is enough - Megatron will destroy them all - and gets Octane to target the space-bridge and transport Megatron, Optimus and Magnus to Earth. As they disappear the Predacons appear - telling Ratbat that they have been sent by Shockwave to find Megatron.

Megatron appears right in the Decepticon camp (convenient!) but luckily for Shockwave he appears to have lost his memory. Soundwave mindreads Megatron (we're all about little-used abilities today) and concludes that the two personalities in Megatron's mind are clouding his thoughts.

Elsewhere, Optimus Prime arrives at the grave site (really too convenient!), surprising the Autobots and Ultra Magnus ends up in parts unknown, relishing the opportunity to explore the planet while looking for the Ark.

This has been a long arc with several ups and downs. I felt it improved last issue, with Straxus' strike at Megatron and Optimus Prime's influence on the Autobot resistance but it seems to me that the potential has gone rather to waste and the arc ends on something of a damp squib.

Perhaps the biggest challenge that Furman faced here was timing. I'm not certain, but I would guess that since the UK book was contracted to run every US issue, the timing of when they had to fall was quite precise, in order to fit them all in. Having Afterdeath! looming meant that Furman had to get all of his toys back in the box just the way Budiansky left them in Decepticon Graffiti! That would hobble any writer, so it's not surprising that the ending of this arc rather undercuts the drama. The problem here is that Furman built for too long and did not allow things to end at a natural pace. Because we have several different strands to follow, this eleven page issue has a good two and a half pages only on exposition of things we have already seen, leaving only eight and a half pages to wrap up a complicated plot. Because of this everything happens far too quickly. I find it very hard to believe that even with a diversion Prime and Magnus could simply walk into Polyhex, and there is something dramatically unsatisfying about seeing both huge Autobots beating Megatron down at the same time. Not having enough pages to deal with it also grants us such absurdities as Megatron and Prime being teleported back to their troops with no explanation. Equally jarring is the time wasted by Ratbat talking to the Predacons. They had to be back on Cybertron, because Budiansky had not yet brought them to Earth in the US book, but in this story it's just filler that the plot can ill afford.

The other complaint I have is that the whole "Optimus Prime fakes his death" plot is too overcomplicated and unbelievable. This raises its head here, with Wheeljack, who helped Prime build the facsimile construct, attending the funeral and not once raising a suggestion that his leader might be alive. Either he thought this was all part of the plan and he is stupidly loyal or he cannot recognise his own handiwork, or, in fact, count, because surely there would have been twice as much dead Prime as usual, and, if not, why didn't Wheeljack insist upon a search?

That aside, there are a couple of good things in this issue. I very much like the fact we can see the start of Ratbat's ascension here. It's a good detail that goes well with his upcoming appearances in the US issues. I think that the failed mind swap has the potential to pay off in interesting ways, although it wouldn't have done for UK readers at the time because Budiansky obviously wasn't using it. Luckily Megatron has a tendency towards instability, so the difference wasn't too jarring.

Jeff's art is to a high standard here with no massive highlights. I'm no astrophysicist but I like the effect of Megatron's black hole weapon - I suppose the energy had to be black to sell it, really. The characters are on model and the fight choreography isn't bad - Prime's head is still too big though...

The Prey/Resurrection arc is over. Never up for UK readers would be Afterdeath!, from the US book, which Jim has covered. We will pick up next week with Wanted: Galvatron - Dead Or Alive! and I couldn't be happier!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Web-Comics, Blogs, Etc!

OK, just a small post today.  It seems I'm popping up all over the place!  So is my intrepid co-author, Bill Forster. 

Let's start with me.  I've been interviewed in a couple of places that are just popping up now.  One is my old pals at Moonbase 2, talking about the Ron Friedman draft of the Transformers: The Movie that I uncovered.  Download the podcast and head to their forums

Bouncing over to Bill, he's got his first webcomic off the ground.  Drawing from his four years of hell at the TSA, he's lampooning the men and women who keep us 'safe' in homelandsecuritytheater.  New comics three times a week. 

Finally, a company called Crave interviewed me for their blog.  Crave is a social marketplace that's looking to service collector's communities, and I've been helping them out with some brainstorming. 

Hope you guys enjoy these various links!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Review: Marvel G2 prequel - G.I. Joe Starring Snake-Eyes and Transformers Generation 2 #142

The final issue of the Generation 2 prequel, exploding into the pages of the ongoing G.I. Joe book, is appropriately enough titled Final Transformations.  As usual, it was written by Larry Hama.  Art duties were split up quite a bit. Jesse Orozocoe and William Rosado did pencils.  Chip Wallace, Tim Tuony, and Arienne Alexandron did inks.  Colors were by Andre Ani and Chi.  (Yes, the same Chi who would color for Transformers G2 and be a staple of the Transformers fan art scene for years.  I like Chi's work a lot.  Feel free to go check out his deviant art page.  Go on, I'll wait.)  Letters were by Rick Parker.  The cover art was by Rosado.

The cover leaves a lot to be desired.  It picks up almost exactly where the last issue left off, with Scarlett squaring off against Megatron for the safety of Biggles-Jones.  The only thing new is Skydive, peaking out at Megatron from behind a building.  So, it's fairly unambitious, but the actual quality of the rendering also leaves much to be desired.  Scarlett looks flat and unappealing, and her head seems way too small for her body.  Cobra Commander is apparently unconscious on the street, that or highly disinterested.  Zarana seems gleeful, and Megatron's anatomy just looks awkward.  The whole thing is just uninspired. 

To add insult to injury, the opening splash page is almost the same image, only much better rendered.  I'm assuming this is Orozocoe artwork, given the difference in quality.  I mean, compare Scarlett here to Scarlett on the cover.  It's night and day.  The angle is also a lot more dramatic, with the sun behind Megatron's head making him appear truly titanic. 

In any event, thanks to the telegraphing from the cover, there's little surprise when the page 2-3 spread turns out to be a team of Autobots, converging on Megatron like an angry swarm of bees.  They're also about as effective as bees would be against a man, annoying but not particularly threatening.  Before too long Skydive is grounded, Steeljaw blasted to pieces, and a miscolored Chase crippled.  The other Autobots withdraw to regroup.  This serves to showcase how hard Megatron has become, but I'm not sure I buy how weak the Autobots are.  If Megatron was really such a threat, why wouldn't Optimus send more men?  I get that he's been upgraded, but is he really that much tougher than before? 

Let's not forget that this is a Joe book, though.  Scarlett eviscerates a frag viper (and with him, whatever shreds of her cover were left) for his weapon right in front of Cobra Commander.  He jumps her while paraphrasing Shakespeare. (I do love the intellectual bent Hama gives good ol' CC.) Scarlett's banter is much more lowbrow, but it's still fun.   "They can't understand you!  You've got a street in your mouth!"  Snake-Eyes, too, was in a pickle, one that he gets out of by dropping a handful of grenades on the floor.  Sure enough, the many armed guards pointing weapons at him flee for their lives, allowing him to dash out a window. While normally I'm not a huge fan of the omnipotent ninja, Snake-Eyes here seems to balance his bad-assery with a certain realism that makes him appealing.  Maybe it's that he's been around before Ninja were over-played. In any event, the two plots intersect when Snake-Eyes rescues Scarlett and sends Cobra Commander and Zarana running. I do rather enjoy these characters, and don't have a hard time seeing why they're so beloved by Joe fans.  Hama really does a great job here. 

The Autobots are having a much worse time than the Joes, though.  Brawn, busy guarding their interstellar transport, gets the drop on Megatron, but once again his new abilities prove to be amazingly powerful.  He ignites a neutron implosion, destroying Brawn and the ship alike. The three surviving Autobots realize that their only way off the planet is now the Ark, and concoct a new plan.  With some help from Spirit and Storm-Shadow, they deactivate Skydive and truck him onto the Ark without tripping the alarms.  Unbeknown to them, they've got an extra hitchhiker, the intrepid Spike.  Override provides a diversion, but it's pretty clear that he's outclassed.  It's not at all clear where Hot Spot is during all of this, either.  His plot thread will be picked up later, but his absense from the last third of the book is pretty strange.  Really, it's not a great plan.  Get Skydive onto the Ark and... what, exactly? 

Override's sacrifice does more than provide a distraction, though.  He allows Biggles-Jones to escape from Megatron.  I do love how battered and bruised she is after her ordeal at his hands.  When becomes clear that Megatron will pursue the Joes for as long as they have Biggles-Jones, she sacrifices herself to save the others.  Override's example has inspired her.  Megatron, thus armed with what he desired and on the radar of the Autobots, wastes no time in boarding the Ark.  Cobra Commander shrieks that he's owed more technology, that they had a deal.  Megatron is unimpressed and departs.  He is, though, somewhat impressed with Biggles-Jones, for the audacity she displayed by attempting to corrupt him with a virus encoded into his rail gun operating system.  Though he doesn't say so, I suspect that her bravery in turning herself over to his custody impressed him as well.    The book ends with him musing that he may yet be able to turn her talents to his ends.

It's kind of a strange book.  Most of it is devoted to a rather one-sided fight between Megatron and a team of Autobots.  While I was expecting to be swept away by this action, I found it rather implausible.  I suppose the threat of the G2 Decepticons has Autobot resources stretched pretty thin, but even then the Autobots come across as a disorganized rabble.  They had the drop on Megatron with 7 guys, and still get routed.  Then they regroup and their next best plan is to sacrifice one of their own to slip a single agent onto Megatron's ship?  Meanwhile Brawn splits up and dies alone.  If they were worried that Megatron would find their ship, why not regroup... at the ship!  Ugh.

The character of Doctor Sidney Biggles-Jones almost completes her journey here.  She started out 8 issues ago as a hot-shot scientist.  Captured by Cobra, she seemingly enthusiastically joins up, though in reality she seems to be a double-agent working for the NSA.  However, she pique's Megatron's interest and eventually winds up going off with him more-or-less willingly to save her friends.  I'm not really sure what the point of her was.  Perhaps she had some other grand destiny, subverted by the whims of a toy company prepping for the relaunch of Transformers.   I would have liked to see her grow more as a character within the Transformers Universe, or even in the Joe universe, but alas, it's not to be. 

Those flaws aside, this book (and the three preceding it) does effectively reintroduce the concept of Transformers.  They stride like colossi, with larger than life bodies, personalities, and conflicts.  Their agenda is cosmic in scope, and where they walk chaos follows.  We've also got some specific plot threads set up for G2, mostly around Megatron's return.  For all that this book may suffers from splitting the focus between the Joes and the Transformers, it's pretty certain that the main G2 book won't have any similar flaws.  I'm looking foward to it.

The G2 prequel has yet to be reprinted, which is still a real shame.  Perhaps IDW, which has the rights to both, is up to the challenge?  Still, the back issues don't go for all that much, so if you're a die-hard G2 fan then why not try to scrounge them up?  It's not a perfect story, but it's an enjoyable tale that continues directly a few issues later in G2 #2.  Stick around, it's about to get real.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Bish's Review Space: Above and Beyond Episode 3: The Dark Side Of The Sun

"They killed my family because a coin came up 'tails'" - Shane Vansen

The Dark Side Of The Sun was written by Glen Morgan and James Wong and directed by Charles Martin Smith.

With Vansen suffering nightmares about her parents' death the Wildcards are tasked with defending a helium mining facility. Here she comes face to face with the enemy who killed her family - the Silicates, rebellious AIs who worship chance and gambling. Acting as pirates, the AIs intend to hijack the mined helium and sell it to the Chigs.

Initially successful, they drive the Wildcards back to their troop transport. A counter-attack falls apart and most of the team end up being captured. Hawkes distracts the Silicates long enough with a game of Blackjack for West and Vansen to stage a rescue but Vansen gets cut off, obsessed with finding out why her parents were targeted.

When a captured Silicate informs her that it was pure chance, the flip of a coin, she flies into a rage and rips him to pieces with a knife, before single-handedly taking down a group of Silicates who have the Wildcards pinned. She orders a counter-attack but West stops her, pointing out that they are low on resources and in poor shape. Vansen takes off alone and manages to down the enemy ship with a rocket launcher as they are making off with the helium ore.

The Good

This was a marked step up from last week's West showcase because Vansen's backstory is actually interesting enough for us to care about. The Silicates make an effective addition to the Space universe because while the idea of rogue Artificial Intelligence is hardly a new one, the obsession with gambling and chance is at least vaguely original, and the makeup design, cross-hair pupils and artificial flesh torn open to reveal circuitry is very creepy. The little beeps and clicks that let us know that they are communicating wirelessly are simple enough but add immensely to the sense of something inhuman.

Kristen Cloke is very good here. In the pivotal scene, confronted with the fact that her family's destruction, ultimately, meant nothing, she portrays rage and disbelief marvellously and her savagery in dismembering the Silicates is almost frightening. You can get away with a lot of violence on TV if your enemy is robotic and Cloke really goes to town here, without descending into melodrama. Her subsequent rampage of revenge against the Silicates appears to be cathartic, both for the audience and for the character but, in a twist on dramatic convention, Shane gets nothing out of it. She kills all of the AIs on their ship but there are many more out there. Her nightmares have not gone away. I love this because it is real. Far too often drama presents us with something from a character's past that demands closure but rarely is it denied to them, despite how often this might happen in life. At the episode's end Vansen has no more peace than she did at the start.

The other members of the cast get nice moments as well: Hawkes continues to display an interest in 20th Century rock music (there's always one) which gives us a very effective lock and loading scene and, while he has been accepted by the natural-born humans their interractions are still believably awkward. This is conveyed not in cliched "what is this emotion you call love?" scenes but with the other Wildcards laughing nervously at Hawkes' attempt at a joke about the low survival rate of In Vitro gestation or his waking everyone up with his music just to see their reactions.

West is a reliable presence when he is not forced to carry the plot and his pleas to Vansen to let the AIs go are as
sensible as they are doomed. It is a testament to their strength as comrades after only three episodes that he can tell her the correct course of action and she cannot bring herself to follow it, and neither resent the other even a little.

The music and atm
osphere of the episode are top notch. Vansen's opening nightmare is given a wonderfully overwrought classical score and a wordy voiceover very reminiscent of similar ones (that Morgan and Wong presumably also wrote) in The X-Files. In another programme this could have come across as hammy but the producers and the actors really make it work. The war setting helps this introspection come across as natural in the long periods of boredom between engagements.

The mining facility is a nice setting, with retro dials, valves and metal corridors that cannot help but invoke Aliens especially in a particularly tense fight with marines hiding behind filing cabinets. Unlike a lot of shows Space often makes an effort to bring us an alien environment and the asteroid, with it's black sky and low gravity (admittedly, spoken of, rather than shown for the most part) is a good stab at this.

The Bad

While the episode makes a decent go of hanging a lampshade on it with the Wildcards complaining about being sent on a routine mission, it still makes no sense that the military would be using highly trained fighter pilots for sentry duty. From a dramatic perspec
tive it is clear that Morgan and Wong want to have their military cake and eat it too but this stretches believability to breaking point. This is a point that can be made again and again throughout this series but I'm going to leave it here. It's part of the universe of the show and there is no point continually bitching about it. While Space: Above and Beyond is no Generation Kill it does feature enough superficially decent military terminology and practice to distance itself from the average Science Fiction show and anyway, to borrow a joke from 30 Rock "this isn't HBO, it's TV!"

Another attempt to up the military side of the drama is the introduction of several Wildcards who exist only to get gunned down. A war without casualties is, admittedly, not very believable, but neither is being able to tell who is going to live or die based on the opening credits. There are better ways to create drama than the time-honoured dead Red Shirt technique.

The Dark Side Of The Sun is easily my favourite episode so far of Space: Above and Beyond which is a pleasant surprise because I could not remember much about it going in. It performs its duty of showcasing Vansen efficiently enough without resorting to too many cliches and has a darker ending than we might have expected.