The WTF Primer to Marvel’s Post-SECRET WARS World

If you’re a longtime comics fan who hasn’t been keeping up with the books over the past decade, you may have taken a look at the new Marvel titles appearing this fall and saw the following:

  • Peter Parker is an apparently wealthy playboy industrialist
  • Thor is a woman
  • The Falcon is now Captain America
  • The new X-Men lineup includes a teenaged Jean Grey, an adult Iceman, and a gray-haired Logan in street clothes
  • … and Wolverine is a teenage girl

Understandably, you might have thought, “What the f___?!?”

For the sake of your sanity, I’m going to quickly fill you in what’s been happening in Marvel over the past few years. As crazy as it looks, many of these stories have actually been pretty damn good. I’ll post Comixology links to the titles where appropriate. You can also read most of them on Marvel Unlimited if you have a subscription.

Spider-Man:

In the instant classic (and highly controversial) Amazing Spider-Man #700 (2013), Spider-Man was finally defeated by his arch-nemesis, Doctor Octopus, who switched bodies with him. Peter’s mind went into Otto’s frail body and died. Otto, having endured a forced mind-meld trip through Peter’s life, vowed to The Superior Spider-Mancarry on as a hero: the Superior Spider-Man. As Peter, Otto established Parker Industries, using money loaned by Aunt May and her wealthy husband, J. Jonah Jameson Senior. What makes this extra-weird is that Otto was once engaged to Aunt May himself. (Roll with it, my friend.) However, Otto found that he was NOT a superior superhero, after all. He made quite a mess of things, in fact. Unable to rescue the woman he loved, Otto relinquished Peter’s body back to a fragment of Peter’s consciousness that had survived – in effect killing himself so that the real Spider-Man could live. Peter, who has no memories of the months that Otto was in control, has been struggling to keep Parker Industries afloat since. Based on that one new cover image, though, he doesn’t seem to be struggling anymore.

(Note: I can’t praise writer Dan Slott’s run with Spider-Man highly enough. He’s put the character through a mad, exhilarating wringer. Read or pick up the collected editions starting with “Big Time” and continue through The Superior Spider-Man.)

Thor:Thor, Goddess of Thunder

During the Original Sin story (2014), Nick Fury whispered a secret to Thor that caused him to lose what makes him “worthy.” He lost the ability to wield Mjolnir. A woman took possession of the hammer and – using the old enchantment – gained the strength and power of Thor. Neither the original Thor (now called Odinson) nor Odin was happy about this, but they’ve begrudgingly accepted this. While the identity of the new Thor was Marvel’s biggest secret for a while, we now know that it’s Thor’s long-ago girlfriend, Jane Foster, who – in another twist – is undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. Her use of Thor’s powers is slowly killing her weakened body.

Captain America:

Agents of Hydra injected Captain America (Steve Rogers) with All-New Captain America by Alex Rossa chemical that negated the original Super-Soldier treatment! He suddenly became a frail, 90-year-man, yet he kept his sharp, tactical mind. Steve gave his shield to his longtime friend and partner, the Falcon (Sam Wilson), and told him to carry on as Captain America. From what we can see of the new covers, however, Steve doesn’t look nearly as frail as he did last year! He’s bulked up a bit, so perhaps the Hydra chemical’s effects weren’t permanent.

Wolverine:

In Paul Cornell’s and Alan Davis’ excellent Wolverine run (2013, beginning here), sentient alien microbes took revenge against Logan by removing his healing factor. Thus, no more instant healing for the man who had made more deadly enemies than perhaps any hero in comics. Even popping his claws caused his hands to bleed. Time, foes, and karma caught up to Wolverine last year, and he died. Now, months later, it seems that X-23 – a female clone of Logan (note the two claws on her hands) who has been bouncing around the X-books for years – has taken on the genetic mantle.

Young X-Men:

Cyclops (Scott Summers), while possessed by the Phoenix Force, recently killed Professor Xavier. The Beast (Hank McCoy), distraught by the current path of mutantkind and Scott’s actions, hatched a desperate and kind of crazy plan: He went back in time to when the X-Men were just getting started and convinced the teenagers to come back with him to our time, in the hopes that they could stop present-day Scott from inadvertently derailing all of Charles Xavier’s progress. Things didn’t go as planned. (See All-New X-Men from 2012.) The original X-teens, while stunned by the continuing anti-mutant violence of our time, didn’t want to return to the past, feeling they could do more good here and now – regardless of the temporal paradox that created. Teen Scott developed a romantic interest in X-23, which – considering she’s a clone of Logan – is pretty funny. Teen Jean Grey, though, had to come to grips with the fact that, as an adult in our time, she destroyed star systems and died. She also committed the mental faux pas of outing Teen Bobby Drake as gay, something that even the adult Iceman hadn’t come to grips with yet.

Old Man Logan:

This one is nuts, in a good way. In an alternate future timeline where supervillains have taken over the country, Logan lives in seclusion after having killed all of his friends. And then… well, no, I can’t spoil it. It’s too wonOld Man Logan in SECRET WARSderfully Cronenbergian. Just read Old Man Logan when you can. But the question now: How is he here in the present?

Secret Wars and the Incursions:

In the background of nearly ALL of the main Marvel books were the Incursions. You see, the multiple violations of space and time that occurred in All-New X-Men, the Age of Ultron mini-series (which was fairly dull, to be honest), and other titles were causing fractures in the multiverse. On top of that, Molecule Man (an obscure Fantastic Four villain) killed the Molecule Man of another Earth, destroying that Earth in the process. A multiversal domino effect resulted, as universes began to collide and destroy each other, with Earth as the cataclysmic impact point each time. Behind the scenes, the Illuminati (Iron Man, Doctor Strange, Black Panther, Mister Fantastic, Namor, Black Bolt, and the Beast) secretly worked to protect our Earth – often by destroying the other Earths first. Yeah, it was morally dicey. Ultimately, there were only two universes left: ours and the Ultimate universe, home to Miles Morales and the Samuel L. Jackson Nick Fury before Samuel L. Jackson was cast as Nick Fury.

Just as both universes were about to be annihilated, Doctor Doom – who’d been using science and sorcery to set himself up for JUST this moment – used the Molecule Man to rearrange reality and compile everything that was left into one world: Battleworld, where Doom now presides as an unquestioned, omnipotent god. And that’s the premise of Secret Wars and its various tie-ins.

Obviously, Doom will not hold on to his godhood for long, but some of the cross-time and cross-reality effects will carry through to the new titles, hence Old Man Logan on the new X-Men team.

As for Howard the Duck? Howard the Duck abides, dammit. Rock on, Howard.

If your brain hasn’t melted and you have any questions, please comment below. Thanks!

Orphan Black’s Helena vs. 24’s Jack Bauer: Who Would Win?!

The third season of the amazing Orphan Black begins tomorrow night (April 18) on BBC America, and that compelled an interesting question from Sue, the wife of my co-Brain, Mike Ferguson:

Who would win in a fight: the always-intense, time-challenged, seemingly bladderless Jack Bauer of 24 or the deliciously insane, knife-wielding, donut-eating Hungarian clone, Helena? A GOOD QUESTION. Let’s compare stats:

BIRTHPLACE/CHARACTERISTICS
Helena:
Born in the UK / raised in Ukraine
March 15, 1984 (age 31, if the series is set this year)
Height: 5’4″

Jack:
Born and raised in Santa Monica, CA
February 18, 1966 (age 49… or 42 or 53; 24’s time jumps are weird)
Height: 5’9″ – with shoes

INTIMIDATION TACTIC
Helena:
Eats toast while staring at you. Muffins are acceptable.

Jack:
Never eats toast. Never eats anything. Uses everything EXCEPT food as an intimidation tactic.

BEST COMEBACK
Helena:
In the barn after she has captured and de-pantsed the wacko cult leader who drugged her, removed eggs from her ovaries, fertilized them himself, and then implanted them in other women…
Cult Leader (realizing he’s in a, uh, compromising position):  “You’ve made your point. This isn’t funny.”
Helena (preparing the massive cow inseminator): “Do I look like I’m trying to be funny?”

Jack – hmmm, it’s a tie:
1) President Taylor: “You resigned from government service, and the Senate regards you as having been a renegade agent. How am I supposed to know where your loyalties really lie?”
Jack: “With all due respect, Madam President, ASK AROUND.”

2) Weasel Turncoat Steve Navarro being interrogated by Jack and smugly certain he’ll get full immunity…
Jack: “I can promise you, full immunity is not on the table… but your hand is.” CRUSH.

REACTION TO EMOTIONAL LOSS
Helena:
“I fell in love with a boy called Jesse. But, after bar fighting, he had to go to war and become a tow-truck driver.”

Jack:
Furious eye-blinking

PREFERRED WEAPON
Helena:
Kitchen knife

Jack:
Heckler and Koch USP Compact, SIG Sauer P228, Glock 19, monkey wrench, screwdriver, surgical scissors, jumper cables, etc.

COMBAT SKILLS DERIVED FROM…
Jack:
Training with Green Berets, Delta Force, Los Angeles SWAT, and CTU.

Helena:
Internal psychoses. Hair.

POSSIBLE MUTANT SUPERPOWERS
Helena:
Remarkable powers of recuperation. Unlimited stamina.

Jack:
Time manipulation. Ability to travel from upper Manhattan to the Brooklyn Bridge in 12 minutes. Processing of bodily waste.

SIGNATURE LINE
Helena:
“Sestra…”

Jack:
“DAMMIT!!!”

SIGNATURE MOMENT OF BADASSERY
Helena:
Drenched in blood, Helena cuts the throat of the sadistic Daniel and hugs the chained & panicking Sarah, who probably lost 10 Sanity Points that night.

Jack:
Needing to reestablish an undercover identity, Jack summons a criminal stool pigeon to George Mason’s office – and shoots him dead. Jack to the stunned George: “I’m gonna need a hacksaw.”

VERDICT:

So who would win? Jack has the training and intelligence of a super-spy. Helena has the cunning and relentlessness of a serial killer. Jack is the MacGyver of weapons. Helena has the edge in surprise; she’s 5-foot-4 and can sing “Sugar Sugar” by the Archies right before cutting someone’s jugular.

It all comes down to location. In a dark warehouse, basement, or even (yikes) a barn, Helena is practically unstoppable. But anywhere else, when there’s a chance of power tools, a lamp cord, chopsticks, or a rogue rat, Jack will PUT YOU DOWN. He’d likely kill Helena. On the plus side, she’d come back three weeks later and go after Jack.

Thoughts? Disagreements? Are there other classic moments you’d cite? Post them in the comments! And be sure to watch the Orphan Black season premiere on April 18.

Top 10 Moments in Doctor Who

Series 8 of Doctor Who was arguably the most brilliant — and the most controversial — since the new era began with Christopher Eccleston. As we approach the Christmas Special and the end of 2014, let’s take a look back across five decades and 12 Doctors (or maybe 13 — damn you, Steven Moffat!) and admire the show’s many great moments: some sad, some frightening, and nearly all surprising.

Here, in chronological order, are 10 classic Doctor Who moments:

  1. Barbara steps into the TARDIS (An Unearthly Child, November 1963). In that first episode of that first story, schoolteachers Barbara and Ian investigate the mystery of their student Susan. After an argument with Susan’s mysterious grandfather in a junkyard, Barbara pushes her way into the tiny British police call ball and … discovers that it’s bigger on the inside. MUCH bigger. We’re jaded now, but for the early ’60s audience, this was wild stuff.
  2. The Doctor and Barbara argue over the fate of the Aztecs (The Aztecs, May 1964). We miss the series’ purely occasional forays into the purely historical dramas, because of moments like this. After the TARDIS lands in ancient Aztec times, Barbara is mistaken for the avatar of the sun god. She decides to use that leverage to turn the Aztecs away from their bloody religious rituals and make them a strong, enduring, progressive force in history. The Doctor is horrified. “You CAN’T!” he angrily pleads. He tries to make her understand that history cannot be altered like this without devastating consequences. Wonderful acting by both William Hartnell and Jacqueline Hill.
  3. The Dalek emerges from the Thames (The Dalek Invasion of Earth, November 1964). The first time we saw the Daleks a year earlier, they were on a far-off world, oppressing their historical foes, the Thaals. Here, the TARDIS lands in 22nd century London to find it devastated and policed by ruthless, cybernetic “Robomen.” At the end of the first episode, they see a Dalek rolling imperiously out of the Thames River. The Daleks are on Earth, and they’ve already won.
  4. “All these evils I have fought, while you have done nothing but observe! True, I am guilty of interference. Just as you are guilty of failing to use your great powers to help those in need!” (The War Games, April-June 1969). The Second Doctor’s farewell, and the viewers’ introduction to his people — the Time Lords. And during the Doctor’s trial (the first of many!), he makes it quite clear why he’s on the run from them in a rackety old TARDIS.
  5. “Have I the right?” (Genesis of the Daleks, April 1975). Doctor Who usually hasn’t shied away from exploring the grayer areas of morality. In Terry Nation’s epic, most of the characters aren’t heroes and villains as much as they are people arguing over principles. The Doctor, at the birth of his archenemies, has a golden opportunity to destroy a Dalek nursery and ensure that the Daleks never threaten the galaxy. But he can’t bring himself to connect those two wires and commit genocide. It’s Tom Baker at his best.
  6. “Nice to meet you, Rose — run for your life!” (Rose, March 2005). After a decade’s absence from the TV screens, the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) had returned. An engrossing start to the series’ revival, as producer Russell T. Davies wisely chose to let us see things through the eyes of Rose (Billie Tyler) and not the Doctor.
  7. “Everybody lives!” (The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances, May 2005). In a creepy two-part story set in 1940s Britain, the Doctor is determined to end the death that constantly follows in his wake. He’s a man who is desperate to find a happy ending … and he does. “Just this once, Rose… everybody lives!” (Thinking about these scenes again makes me newly sad that Eccleston called it quits after just one year.)
  8. Oswin Oswald (Asylum of the Daleks, September 2012). Doctor Who fans had known for some time that Jenna-Louise Coleman would become the new companion for Matt Smith’s Doctor in the Christmas special that year, once Amy and Rory were gone. So, Whovians around the globe were shocked to watch the start of the new series’ seventh season and see… Jenna-Louise Coleman?! Acting all companion-like?! But how…? She’s not starting for months! How did showrunner Steven Moffat keep this a secret, and how… what, now she’s DEAD?! But how… MOFFAT!! Overall, just a brilliant bit of misdirection by Moffatt, and even though he dropped the ball on resolving the mystery of Clara Oswin Oswald several times during the season, there’s no doubt that he stuck the landing in the season finale, The Name of the Doctor.
  9. “I’m a Doctor… but probably not the one you expected.” (The Night of the Doctor, November 2013). In another surprise that’s stunning for its secrecy, Paul McGann appears onscreen as the Eighth Doctor for the first time since the 1996 TV movie — and he is magnificent. In less than 7 minutes in this prequel to the 50th anniversary special, McGann leaves a legion of old and new viewers wondering about what could have been. And Moffat’s script gives fans everything we needed, including a few items we didn’t even realize we needed.
  10. No, sir! All THIRTEEN!” (The Day of the Doctor, November 2013). The 50th anniversary episode had many wonderful moments that made you sit up with surprise and glee, but the one that made you jump out of your chair was the shocking sight of Peter Capaldi and his baleful stare, weeks before he would actually assume the role of the Twelfth Doctor, joining the other Doctors in the salvation of Gallifrey. Just when you didn’t think that scene could get any better, it did.

Thoughts? Disagreements? Let us know — and Happy Holidays!

–Ken & Mike

Review: The Widow’s Assassin

Big Finish’s new audio release sets the bar pretty high: How do you address one of the most nagging and least-liked outcomes in Doctor Who history? Quick refresher: At the end of Mindwarp (part of the knotty Trial of a Time Lord), the Sixth Doctor’s first companion, Peri, is either – take your pick – abandoned, mindwiped, and killed OR rescued by a barbarian warlord and becomes his queen.

As Bugs Bunny would say, “Would you like to shoot me now or wait until you get home?”

The pleasant surprise is that The Widow’s Assassin wildly succeeds, doing for Mindwarp what X-Men: Days of Future Past did for X-Men: The Last Stand – cutting the original tale’s Gordian knot and spinning gold out of the pieces. Writer Nev Fountain waded into Mindwarp’s mess once before, in the clever Peri and the Piscon Paradox. Here he tackles the problem head on, coming up with an answer that not only maintains continuity but clears the path for a new, refreshing wave of post-Trial Sixth Doctor and Peri adventures.

The tale kicks off with the Doctor traveling to Krontep, seeking forgiveness for betraying and abandoning Peri. But the bride-to-be is not in a forgiving mood. The fairy-tale/murder-mystery mashup that follows is full of drama, sadness, marvelous timey-wimey, and lots of humor. (I really did laugh out loud in spots.) There are a couple of jaw-dropping shocks, plus moments of giddy revelation, as we see the Sixth Doctor playing the Long Game in shrewd, scheming ways we’d associate with the Seventh and Eleventh Doctors.

Excelling throughout are Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant. While their TV relationship was sometimes maligned as one of the most unpleasant Doctor/Companion pairings, The Widow’s Assassin shows us where their relationship could have – and should have – gone. The Doctor’s abrasive personality has been mellowed by years of traveling, and dire circumstances have forced Peri to adopt a more mature outlook on life. Baker wonderfully conveys the Doctor’s earnestness and confusion when he first approaches Peri. (He also contributes to the story more than you think.) Bryant gives us a confident yet sad Peri who reveals new layers to her personality – in more ways than one.

The Widow’s Assassin jumps straight into the Top 5 releases of Big Finish’s Doctor Who line. After listening to this, you’ll finally be able to rewatch parts of Trial of a Time Lord with a smile on your face, which is probably the highest praise that a Doctor Who fan can give. It’s available on the Big Finish website.

–Ken

Geek Dad: “Big Hero 6” review

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Geek Dad: a new recurring series on tidbits for geek parents or parents of newly hatched geeks.

For a long time, Disney Animation was overshadowed by the work of its amazingly talented acquisition, Pixar. It was little surprise, then, in 2007 when Disney made Pixar head John Lasseter the top guy for ALL Walt Disney Animation Studios projects. It’s been on a roll lately, with Wreck-It Ralph, a little film called Frozen, and now Big Hero 6.

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Baymax gets suited up by Hiro

The first Disney animated film based (very loosely) on a Marvel property, Big Hero 6 is funny, touching, exciting, and – most surprising of all – inspiring. All the heroes are geeks and scientists, and the movie shows that science isn’t just real (as They Might Be Giants put it) – it’s also fun and can lead to amazing things. Don’t be surprised if your child looks over at you during this film and says, “I want to be a scientist” or “I want to go to college.”

The film takes places in “San Fransokyo,” a gorgeous mashup of San Francisco and Tokyo that’s the bright, optimistic sibling of Blade Runner’s Los Angeles – or maybe an alternate reality where maybe Japan won World War II? Hiro Hamada, a young Japanese robotics wiz and orphan (of course he’s an orphan, it’s a Disney film!), grapples with a tragic event and the theft of his robotics tech by a kabuki-masked villain, nicknamed Yokai. With support from his healthcare robot, Baymax, and three collegiate brainiacs (plus their kaiju-loving “mascot,” Fred), Hiro decides to use their combined tech to hero up and stop Yokai before anyone else gets hurt.

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The kinetic, straight-talking GoGo Tomago

The emotional relationship between Hiro and Baymax is the heart of the film, and Baymax himself is a brilliantly designed bit of animation. He’s essentially a cross between Wall-E and a Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade balloon, but he’s the source of both the funniest and most tear-inducing moments. The rest of the team is admirably diverse, representing different ethnicities and both genders equally well, and they’re supportive of each others’ efforts, even when their first superheroic outing is a bit of a bust.

Adults – especially comics fans – will enjoy the action-packed setpieces and the various in-jokes about superhero origin story tropes, plus the excellent post-credits scene. Yokai and his creepy, crawling microbots are scary, and they create some harrowing moments for the heroes, but those scenes are brief and shouldn’t overly frighten kids age 6 or older.

Now that the weather is turning colder, if you want to get the family out of the house for a couple of hours, go check out the high-tech heroes of Big Hero 6.

And be sure to be in your seats on time, or you’ll miss a magnificent short film, Feast, also from the Disney team. You’ll smile and get choked up at the same time.

Ken

Halloween Reading: The Legion of Monsters

Do yourself a favor, especially if you ever enjoyed the horror comics from Marvel in the Seventies: Read The Legion of Monsters by Dennis Hopeless and Juan Doe. It’s a nutty, fun, whacked-in-the-hell, Hellboy-like mystery. It reads like an independent comic which happens to feature Marvel characters you may have forgotten about.

It’s worthwhile picking up via Amazon, and certainly worth reading on Marvel.com if you have the Marvel Unlimited subscription.

–Ken

Davros: His Greatest Schemes and Grating Screams

“The graveyards are full of the ‘indispensable,’ Mrs. Baynes.”

Big Finish DavrosRecently, while listening to an older Big Finish audio, called simply Davros, I said, “Good god, this is spectacular.” Right away, it blasted into the top tier of my Doctor Who/Big Finish list. Terry Molloy, who portrayed the creator of the Daleks in Davros’ last Classic Who appearances, is terrific, and his stabbing banter with Colin Baker’s Doctor is a dream. More important, though, is the story, which explores Davros’ origin and showcases his brilliant, twisted intellect in a way not seen since waaaaaay back in his introduction, Genesis of the Daleks (which cracked the Top 5 list on this very site).

Two things came to mind: 1) It’s not a surprise that the story is great, as it was written by Lance Parkin, author of the best of the Missing Adventures novels, Cold Fusion. 2) Why isn’t Davros written like this ALL THE TIME?

Let’s face it. Davros is as well known for his hysterical shrieks as he is for creating the Daleks. And considering that he’s also the galaxy’s foremost geneticist with an intellect that rivals the Doctor’s… well, that’s a Dalekanium-encrusted shame. Is it that hard to write a obsessed fascist scientist with visions of galactic conquest? Let’s take a look through his TV appearances.

genesis-of-the-daleks-5Genesis of the Daleks (1975)
We’ve praised this great tale already on the blog, but let’s call out the chilling performance of Michael Wisher. He makes you not merely loathe Davros… he makes you understand him. Davros is a megalomaniacal scientist, sure, but whoop dee doo; Whovian history is full of those. What makes Davros stand out is that he’s also, oddly enough, a patriot. He does what he does because, in his mind, it’s the only way for his nation to “win.” Anyone who stands in his way is a traitor who must be exterminated. Yet, when he seems to secure his victory over the Doctor, he wants to talk to his foe — not as enemies, but “as men of science.” The resulting scene is iconic. Forget the makeup. Marvel at what Wisher does using only one hand and the inflections of his voice.

Destiny of the Daleks (1979)
Unfortunately, Wisher wasn’t available for Davros’ return and was replaced by David Gooderson. Davros’ makeup, though, was already designed for Wisher. The result, like just about everything else in this episode, is off. The Daleks are mercilessly mocked within the show (blame Douglas Adams’ rewrites more than Terry Nation’s script), they’re treated like unfeeling robots, they’re powerless to defeat the Derek Zoolanders of Space, and both Davros and his creations lack the menace that made the previous story so powerful.

Resurrection of the Daleks (1984)
Davros, portrayed for the first time by Terry Molloy, gets a little bit of his necrotic mojo back in this relentlessly grim tale (a staple of Eric Saward’s scripts). Not content to be a mere tool of his creations, Davros plots to regain power with help from an extremely handy mind-control needle that’s in his chair. (In fact, it’s SO handy that one can’t help but wonder why he didn’t use it in his previous stories!) But that’s about it for Davros’ character. He does do something that would appear again in the series: He calls out the Doctor on his convenient morality. The Doctor refuses to do the dirty deed of assassinating Davros, although he’d probably find a way to indirectly assign that task to someone else.

Revelation of the Daleks (1985)
Davros (Terry Molloy) pops back in the very next season, and this time he has — brace yourself — an actual plan! He pulls a Soylent Green in order to amass funds and create more loyal Daleks to support him, now that the Dalek Civil War is underway. He gets to make a couple of funny business/marketing comments, but otherwise, there isn’t much depth to his character until the climax, where he and the Doctor have it out. Before that, it’s more of the usual “I will make the Daleks the Supreme Power in the Universe” stuff.

Remembrance of the Daleks (1988)
Without a doubt, one of the best Dalek stories ever. Alas, it’s also the worse use of Davros (a blameless Terry Molloy). He doesn’t pop up until the final minutes, where we discover that he is actually the Emperor Dalek. His ranting is now so over the top that Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor rightfully mocks him. Davros’ final words to the Doctor: a cowardly, pleading “Have pity!” By the roving eye of Rassilon, this is NOT the way the creator of the Daleks should behave!

We wouldn’t see Davros on screen again for 20 years, not until…

The Stolen Earth / Journey’s End (2008)
Journey's End (8)Russell T. Davies pulled out all the stops for the Series 4 two-part finale, bringing back a slew of plot threads, companions, supporting characters, and classic baddies. “New Who,” now firmly a success, could comfortably dive headlong into its history without worrying about viewers saying “WTF?” and changing channels. And dive it did. Julian Bleach portrayed Davros here, and it’s a stellar performance! The actor said in an interview that he saw Davros as part Hitler, part Stephen Hawking, and that impression comes through solidly here. Even though Davros isn’t quite the top dog among the Daleks, it’s his body — literally — that is responsible for these new Daleks’ dominance. And with the Reality Bomb, he’ll finally be able to ensure that his creations are the masters of the universe… because no one else will be left. Mixing Machiavellian tactics, insanity, and scientific fascination, it’s the best portrayal of Davros since Wisher’s original. Davros and the Daleks are genuinely scary again in this story, for the first time in a very long time. It all ties up near the end, when Davros completely NAILS the Doctor on the Time Lord’s “true self”:

“The man who abhors violence, never carrying a gun, but this is the truth, Doctor: You take ordinary people and you fashion them into weapons… behold your Children of Time, transformed into murderers. I made the Daleks, Doctor — you made this.

“The Doctor, the man who keeps running, never looking back because he dare not, out of shame. This is my final victory, Doctor. I have shown you yourself.”

That description sounds a lot like Peter Capaldi’s Doctor in Series 8, doesn’t it?

Also worth noting is the Doctor’s initial shock at seeing Davros. He says that Davros died in the first year of the Time War, when his command ship was seemingly destroyed at the Gates of Elysium after flying into the jaws of the Nightmare Child. With that, Russell T. Davies successfully caused millions of Who fans to jump at their screens and yell, “What the hell is that?! It sounds great! We need to see that story NOW!!!”

Your move, Big Finish.

After hearing Lance Parkin’s Davros, I’m eager to sample to rest of Big Finish’s Davros tales. The guy deserves to be treated well… preferably with a dermatologist on call.

–Ken

Doctor Who DVD Review: Planet of Evil (Welcome to the Jungle!)

planet-of-evil2

The thirteenth season of Doctor Who is also arguably its best of all time. Certainly, it’s got a lot going for it. In this season, you get arguably one of the best (and certainly the most iconic) actors to take the role of the Doctor in Tom Baker, and perhaps the best companion with Elisabeth Sladen’s portrayal of Sarah Jane Smith … and it’s in this particular season where the wonderful chemistry between the two really begins to shine. You also have Phillip Hinchcliffe at the helm as producer, finally steering the show away from its action-adventure period with the Third Doctor towards a more horror-inspired era heavily influenced by the Hammer films of the 1950s and 1960s … and the brilliant Robert Holmes as script editor. The show hit a creative peak during this season that’s been largely unmatched, before or since – imagine the possibilities if only this amazing creative team had been given the budgets and the special effects technology of the modern show!

Season Thirteen has a number of outstanding episodes – the fantastic “Seeds of Doom”, the delightful Frankenstein-inspired “Brain of Morbius” (a story that Ken and I like so much we named this site after it!), and the chilling “Pyramids of Mars”, which made our Top 5 Classic Who Episodes list. But pretty much all of the stories in this season are exceptionally good, with the possible exception of “The Android Invasion”, which mostly suffers by unfortunate comparison – put it in virtually any of Tom Baker’s other seasons as the Doctor, and it’d be closer to the top, rather than the bottom. Compare that to almost every other season, even including the modern iteration of the show. There’s almost always at least one clunker in there, if not two or three! So to have a season of solidly “good” stories, with half of them being standouts, if not classics … well, it’s impressive indeed.

One of my favorite Fourth Doctor stories – and another that I think gets overlooked from Season Thirteen, lost in the shuffle of so many good episodes to watch – is “Planet of Evil”. It’s the first real story where the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith step away on their own, away from Harry Sullivan and the last vestiges of UNIT, and forge their way through the universe in a bold new direction. Like many of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes stories of this time, “Planet of Evil” cribs liberally from gothic horror stories – in this case, “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, with a more modern splash of “Forbidden Planet” thrown in for good measure – and puts its own Who-laden spin on the tale.

“Planet of Evil” opens up in the year 37,166, at the edge of the known universe, where a scientific team is studying anti-matter on the lonely planet of Zeta Minor. Professor Sorenson – the leader of the scientific team – is slowly going crazy, and while the rest of his crew is still sane (good!) they’re also being murdered by sinister invisible monsters (bad!). One of the last members of this crew manages to activate a distress call before shuffling off this mortal coil, though, so the signal is picked up by both the Doctor and Sarah Jane in the TARDIS, and by a military exploration ship. The Doctor and Sarah Jane arrive first, and are immediately blamed for all the deaths by the crew of the exploration ship that arrives later. Wacky hijinks ensue as the Doctor tries to convince everyone that what’s really killing everyone is an anti-matter creature, except no one’s listening except Sarah Jane (as usual) – and the anti-matter creature’s taking physical form through Sorenson, who’s apparently been busy drinking enough anti-matter soy espresso venti lattes to become an anti-matter monster himself!

Though “Planet of Evil” is a fairly straightforward story, it’s a good one … and it’s dark. The story really doesn’t pull any punches. The desiccated corpses of the science crew visible early on in the first episode make it clear that this is going to be a bleak, somber story. (You can see how those who still viewed Doctor Who as solely a children’s program, like Mary Whitehouse, would clearly be dismayed by Philip Hitchcliffe’s reign as producer!) The character’s lives are in constant danger, whether from each other, or from the anti-matter creatures lurking on Zeta Minor … or from the horrors exotic alien jungle, which is worth its own special mention.

Designer Roger Murray-Leach created a beautiful set for the jungle scenes that still looks terrific even when watching the story today – it’s a far cry from the typical “spray-painted styrofoam and tinfoil tied together with a bit of twine” cheap sets that unfortunately were all too common in the stories from this time. Done properly, with proper dim lighting to set the mood, rather than the constant over-bright lighting common to everything recorded in the BBC’s Television Centre … anything featuring the jungle sets is a treasure to watch. It makes you wonder what might’ve been possible production-wise in the stories of this time if only the BBC had been a bit more flexible!

“Are you pondering what I’m pondering, Doctor?”
“I think so, Sarah Jane, but where would we get a coconut at this time of night?”

Another of the main reasons that the story works so well is because of the Doctor and Sarah Jane. Tom Baker, in his second season in the role of the Doctor, is starting taking the opportunity to truly make the role his own … and he’s paired with Elisabeth Sladen, starting her third year as Sarah Jane. Top this amount of time they’ve spent in their respective roles with the clear chemistry between the two actors – it’s quite evident that Tom and Lis have a great deal of affection for each other – and you’re seeing a Doctor/companion pairing that isn’t trying to figure out exactly what that relationship really is, as it does in so many other seasons. They’re best friends, and they trust each other implicitly. And this trust comes across not just in the acting, but in the writing as well – when Sarah Jane heads back alone to the TARDIS through the jungles of Zeta Minor, there’s a moment where it’s clear the Doctor doesn’t want her to go … but he also knows she’s resourceful, and she’ll do the right thing, so he doesn’t try to stop her. There’s several scenes where Sarah Jane gets to do far, far more than just ask “What is it, Doctor?” in “Planet of Evil”, and it’s lovely to see the many nuances Elisabeth Sladen gives to the character.

The other characters (with one major exception, noted below) bring a lot to “Planet of Evil” as well. Frederick Jaegar’s unhinged Professor Sorenson can get a little over the top at times, but he plays the part of obsessed scientist very well, and as he starts transforming into the “Anti-Man” – the Hyde-like villain of the story – you can’t help but feel a little sorry for the deluded fool. Also worth mentioning is Ewen Solon, who plays Vishinsky, the second-in-command of the military ship. Vishinsky’s an interesting character in that he realizes fairly early on that what the Doctor is saying about the dangers on Zeta Minor is correct … but he’s not always in a position to do anything about it. There’s a nice balance between military duty and pragmatic realism with the character, and the conflict he finds in reconciling the two, and he’s both fun and believable to watch.

Not that everything about “Planet of Evil” is always brilliant, of course. For as wonderful as the filmed studio jungle sets are for the story, things get decidedly less impressive when the story returns to the video cameras and sets of BBC Television Centre Studio 6. Apparently military spacecraft in the year 37,166 are quite minimalist, utilizing cheap glass-and-chrome furnishings from some IKEA knockoff store to represent a supposedly high-tech control room. (Sharp-eyed viewers will notice that this set gets a terrific makeover the next season, though, when it’s transformed into the control room of the Sandminer in “The Robots of Death”.) Also, the electronic effects for the anti-matter monster – the in-theory scary “Big Bad” of the story – while reasonably good for the time back when “Planet of Evil” originally aired in 1975, don’t hold up well at all some forty years after the show originally aired.

“You know what they say, Frank … black holes really suck.” (puts on sunglasses)
YEEEEEEAAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!

And then there’s Salamar, the commander of the military ship. Bless Prentis Hancock, who played the character, but he’s straight out of the William Shatner/David Caruso School of Overacting. (When he arrives at Zeta Minor to survey Professor Sorenson’s abandoned outpost, I kept waiting for him to put on a pair of sunglasses while The Who’s ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ started blaring in the background.) He’s just ridiculous in the part, and it doesn’t help that he’s been handed a ridiculously-written part in the first place – he’s all blustery pompousness, doing virtually nothing that’s helpful to find out what’s actually happening on the planet, and often doing incredibly stupid things simply because it’s the opposite of whatever Sarah Jane or the Doctor has just helpfully suggested. Salamar’s just a bad fit all around for an otherwise exceptionally good story, which is a shame (although he does add a certain amount of unintentional comedy to his scenes that’s worth something, I guess).

If you can find “Planet of Evil” on DVD, it’s definitely worth picking up – apart from getting to watch a terrific story, the extras on the DVD are certainly worth a view as well. The “making-of” feature called “A Darker Side” covers the production aspects of the story, such as the making of the aforementioned brilliant jungle set at Ealing Studios, as well as the evolution of the script from its initial concept to its final draft. Meanwhile, the feature called “Planetary Performance” focuses on the acting side of the story, including a lot of interesting insights from both Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen about their acting relationship, and what their respective takes on their roles where during this time period. If – like me – you’re an absolute junkie for exactly how the show was made during these times, these features are must-watches for you.

Is “Planet of Evil” the best story of Season 13? No. But it’s damn fun, and it’s damn good … and if it can be said that there’s a hidden gem in this outstanding season of “Doctor Who”, this would be it. “Planet of Evil” is definitely worth watching.

Agree? Disagree? Think that Salamar has been viciously slighted in this review? Post your comments below!

-Mike

Doctor Who and the Pirates

Big Finish and a Quartet of Evelyns

Big Finish has been creating wild, thrilling Doctor Who audio adventures since 1999. Along the way, we’ve met several new Companions (a few of whom were name-dropped into official Who canon in The Night of the Doctor). Of these, perhaps the most creatively successful is Evelyn Smythe.

Created by Jacqueline Rayner and voiced by Maggie Stables, Evelyn is the type of Companion not seen on TV Who to that point. She’s 55 when we meet her, can’t run well, acts independently, and constantly calls the Doctor out on his bad manners. And when “her” Doctor happens to be the Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) in the early post-Peri years, she calls him out a LOT. She’s an excellent character who is partly responsible for the growth of the Sixth Doctor’s mellower, more reflective persona in later Big Finish releases.

In all, there are about two dozen Big Finish adventures with Evelyn. Unfortunately, Maggie Stables died late last month after a long illness. So, as a salute to both Maggie and Evelyn, here’s a sampling of her time aboard the TARDIS:

The Marian Conspiracy (2000)

The Marian Conspiracy“What would you say if I were to tell you that I once destroyed an entire race, that I have led friends to their deaths and caused numerous wars. That my intervention has led to peaceful people taking up arms and good people having their faith or reason destroyed.”

Evelyn’s first adventure with the Sixth Doctor is that rarest of treats: a historical! No aliens or monsters – just human beings in 16th century England. The Doctor traces a temporal fault to Professor Evelyn Smythe in the year 2000 and he tells her that her family history is being wiped out. The solution? Go to the source of the problem in the time of the Tudors! But when she’s pulled into a conspiracy to assassinate Queen Mary, will the Doctor’s solution cause more harm than good?

Pros: Worth repeating: a historical! Evelyn’s confidence and sass, right from the get-go. Her understandable belief at one point that the Doctor is her great-great-etc.-grandfather! The Doctor’s dark admission of the many mistakes he’s made. Good times.

Cons: None really, unless you’re against historicals, in which case you’re a fiend.

The Sandman (2002)

The Sandman“There’s a worrying possibility they’ll be less afraid of me now. It’s incredibly difficult to maintain one’s reputation of a fearsome monster when you’ve been seen running away!”

In the Clutch, a massive space fleet in constant motion, the Galyari are being stalked in the shadows by a boogeyman from their distant past, a bloodthirsty monster known as the Sandman. It is death to look upon him. He is also called… the Doctor. This tale is a weird one! The Sixth Doctor is positively creepy at times, and Evelyn is understandably confused and repulsed as she hears of the Sandman’s legacy.

Pros: Colin Baker clearly relishes the opportunity to go into Full Villainy Mode in the Sandman flashbacks. It’s a side of the Doctor rarely seen up to then. It precedes similar tactics used by the Tenth and even Twelfth Doctors. The nature of the true killer is rather clever.

Cons: Big Finish overdid it on the Galyari voices. At the start of the story, the lizard-like aliens’ voices are so distorted and grating that you may be tempted to tune out. The Doctor’s method of defeating the killer is a few feathers short of coherent.

Doctor Who and the Pirates (2003)

Doctor Who and the Pirates“Mutiny this is! Again! Mutiny squared!”

A bona fide Big Finish classic. Thrill to the exploits of the Gallifreyan swashbuckler, the Doctor, as he faces off that dread pirate, Red Jasper. Will Evelyn the Pirate Queen find the buried treasure or will she first order the foppish English captain to walk the plank? Yes, this is a comedy, through and through, set within a somber and surprising frame. Colin Baker, blessed with a wonderful script, is simply magnificent, going for Gilbert & Sullivan levels of bombast and comedy. Evelyn again is the moral center of the tale, and it’s her morality and empathy that lead to emotional payoffs in both the past and present.

Pros: The continuity-packed and hilarious “I am the very model of a Gallifreyan buccaneer…” The never-better chemistry between the Doctor and Evelyn. Red Jasper’s varying opinion of the Doctor’s wardrobe and manner, depending on whether Evelyn or the Doctor is telling the story (I laughed quite a bit). Nick Pegg as the cowardly Captain Swan. The out-of-the-blue emotional wallop in the final minutes.

Cons: Probably not for everyone. It IS a comedy. But if you’d let that stop you from listening to this, ye should be keelhauled, you scurvy dog!

Medicinal Purposes (2004)

Medicinal Purposes“How can you be so matter of fact about it?” “His death is his destiny.”

Evelyn, already grappling with the pain of seeing good people die, now faces the body-snatching deeds of Burke and Hare in 1827 Edinburgh, where the death of innocents is not only certain, but a fixed part of history! A bold and dark story – featuring murder and prostitution right off the bat – Medicinal Purposes has a fantastic cast, including Leslie Phillips, David Tennant, Glenna Morrison, and an interesting discussion of the historical benefits of murder.

Pros: The Doctor’s stance that body snatching was “admirable, but not honorable” and Evelyn’s disgusted reaction to it. His explanation of proper name-dropping. Also, did you see what I wrote above? DAVID TENNANT IS IN THIS!

Cons: The time-loop machinations aren’t easy to grasp, and the virus subplot doesn’t help.

Any Big Finish audios you’d like to recommend? Do you have a favorite Big Finish Companion? Post your comments below!

-Ken

Doctor Who DVD Review: The Claws of Axos Special Edition (It’s, Like, Way Groovy, Man!)

clawsofaxos-specialedition-496

Doctor Who during the early Seventies remains something of an anomaly. For a show that likes to mine its own past, going all the way back to its earliest episodes in the Sixties, it’s in some ways surprising. Modern interpretations of the Doctor’s character owe a lot to the show’s past – Matt Smith’s Doctor clearly is influenced by Patrick Troughton, right down to the bow tie, while the gruff abruptness of Peter Capaldi is in many ways a reflection of William Hartnell’s original interpretation of the character. As the show’s marched on through time, the newer caretakers of the role have been influenced quite a bit by their predecessors – Hartnell, Troughton, Tom Baker, Davison …

… and then there’s Jon Pertwee. The Third Doctor.

Jon Pertwee’s incarnation of the Doctor clearly owes a lot to the Sixties British television series of “The Avengers” – specifically, the John Steed/Emma Peel incarnation of that show – and Pertwee’s debonair, aristocratic and often pompous man of action remains even today something of a unique portrayal of the Doctor. It’s very, very good, and extremely entertaining … but the Pertwee era of Doctor Who is a reflection of the time in which it was made. I suspect that if someone really tried to update Pertwee’s performance for the modern version of Doctor Who – the Twelfth Doctor’s costume details notwithstanding – it’d either come across as wildly, ridiculously camp, or require so much action and special effects that the budget would be astronomical.

Which is a shame, because the stories for the Third Doctor’s era are just fantastic. (To coin a certain phrase.)

If you’re not familiar with Jon Pertwee’s tenure in Doctor Who’s long history, I can think of no better introductory story to start with than the wonderful “Claws of Axos”. While not the best story of the Third Doctor’s era – that honor would more rightfully belong to “Inferno”, or perhaps “The Daemons” – “Axos” is a beautiful example of everything that was fun and great about “Doctor Who” at this time. It’s got Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning, with their chemistry between the Third Doctor and companion/best friend Jo Grant at its very best. It’s got the full supporting cast of UNIT – Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, Captain Yates, and Sergeant Benton – all crisp, brilliant and at their action-packed finest. And it’s got Roger Delgado as the original (and the best) Master, charming and subversive and ruthless, displaying just why the evil Time Lord is perfect as the Doctor’s “best enemy”. In a lot of ways, “Axos” is like a ‘greatest hits’ story for Pertwee’s Third Doctor, containing bits and pieces of everything that made his run on the show such a blast, and distilling it all into four fast-paced episodes that are still just a pleasure to watch.

The Partridge Family in Space. You know, if the Partridge Family was a bunch of psychedelic ruthless, homicidal space aliens in disguise. (That might actually be true, though.)

The Partridge Family in Space. You know, if the Partridge Family was a bunch of psychedelic ruthless, homicidal space aliens in disguise. (That might actually be true, though.)

The story itself is simple but solid – an alien race called the Axons come to Earth, offering humanity a fantastic gift called Axonite that seems too good to be true, in exchange for some help with their crashed spaceship. The aliens come across as these enlightened, flower power alien hippies … which is a disguise that the Doctor, of course, sees through right away. However, unable to prove his suspicions, he’s forced to work with UNIT to help transfer the Axonite into human hands – but meanwhile, he continues to work to expose the Axons for what they really are!

It’s not the deepest plot in the annals of “Who” history, but it’s enough to make a really intriguing tale. The action sequences are great, with the fights between UNIT and the Axons among the best the show ever featured in those early years. Pertwee’s at his charming, arrogant best, managing to be politely condescending to the bureaucrats while managing to con his way to getting access at a nuclear power plant, as much for his own selfish purposes as for stopping the Axon menace. And the Axons – and their crashed spaceship – are great, looking slightly surreal and psychedelic, which perfectly fits a lot of the ‘trippiness’ of the story.

The constant misdirection in the story is pretty great to watch as well. While it’s not of the complexity of, say, one of Moffat’s better “Modern Who” tales, “Axos” features a lot of unexpected twists. Virtually all the characters in this story do something surprising at some point during its four episodes, and it’s not always immediately clear why they’re doing those things. These many, many twists are all resolved fairly quickly, but they go on long enough for the viewer to keep guessing as to what’s really happening, and enough to make things very interesting – and very entertaining – indeed.

"Good night, Doctor. Good work. Sleep well. I'll most likely kill you in the morning."

“Good night, Doctor. Good work. Sleep well. I’ll most likely kill you in the morning.”

One particularly genius moment comes in “Axos” when the Axons go on the attack in full-on spaghetti monster mode, with the Doctor and Jo taken prisoner by them … and the Master and UNIT are forced together to fight them instead. And later on, after the Doctor’s inevitable escape, it’s the Doctor himself who joins forces with the Master against the Axons. This uneasy alliance between the two Time Lords is something that gets lost later in the classic series with Anthony Ainley, for the most part, and certainly with John Simm’s portrayal of the Master – Delgado’s original Master wasn’t always obsessed with killing or destroying the Doctor. In many of his stories, he’s doing something nefarious that doesn’t initially involve the Doctor, but his activities catch the Doctor’s attention – and many times, it’s actually in the Doctor’s interest (or the Doctor’s allies) to help the Master, either to buy some time, or to prevent something even more awful from happening. There’s a fascinating dynamic between Pertwee’s Doctor and Delgado’s Master that’s usually wonderful to watch, a game of one-upsmanship where the two mortal enemies have a healthy respect for one another, even if the game’s a deadly one to play.

There’s still some flaws, to be sure. Paul Grist’s ‘American’ accent for Filer is atrocious, and Derek Ware’s English country accent is even worse. And there’s some story elements which – typical of the time – not only defy logic, but proceed to club logic to death, kick logic a couple of times in the side for good measure, and then bury logic out in the deep woods somewhere to rot in ignominy. (Why do the Axons make a copy of Filer when they don’t need to? Why do they need to extract the secrets of time travel from the Doctor, when they’ve already been working with the Master? AAAAAARRRGH.) But it’s nothing more egregious than any other Doctor Who story of pretty much any era, and as with plenty of other Who stories, the good far outweighs the bad in “Axos”, making it a most enjoyable watch.

If you’re just interested in checking out “The Claws of Axos”, you can find the original DVD release on Amazon or eBay (or other similar sites) pretty damn cheap, and it’ll be worth every penny. I’d seriously recommend getting the Special Edition DVD of “Axos”, though, if that’s a viable option for you. In addition to having the original video restored to much better condition by the Doctor Who Restoration Team, there’s a few “behind-the-scenes” and “making-of” features included in the DVD that are totally worth checking out. In particular, I found the “Studio Recording” feature interesting, as it shows the video recording of all the studio sequences, including what’s going on between takes.

(And if you enjoyed this story, I highly recommend checking out the Big Finish audio production of “The Feast of Axos“, featuring the return of the nefarious Axons in an encounter with Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor.)

-Mike