Monday, August 30, 2010

The Land of Gorch

There are a few holes in my getting to see Jim Henson's Muppets legacy, and "The Land of Gorch" has always been one.  I've seen one or two sketches in passing over the years, but I've never been able to find a way to see them all.  So I was very happy when Saturday Night Live: The Complete First Season was released on DVD... and even happier when it showed up on Netflix's "Play Now" option.  Now I could just kick back on my sofa, scroll through the episodes and watch them all in order!

 The actual sketches themselves aren't hilarious, but they are amusing.  And it's refreshing to see Muppets dealing with topics that they wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole now that Disney owns them, such as infidelity, drinking and hallucinogenics.  But the best part was probably getting to see Jim Henson, Frank Oz and Jerry Nelson in new material.  Although it was somewhat disturbing hearing Prairie Dawn's voice come out of the sexpot character Vazh!

What really struck me while I was watching these was the craftsmanship that went into making them.  take a look at Scred here:

I mean, look at those eyes.  They're really mesmerizing.  According to the book Jim Henson: The Works, they were taxidermy eyes, and when you mix those with the classic Muppet eyebrows that can go up and down, the expressions are just incredible.  Just as captivating is the texture of Skred's snout-- it doesn't look like fabric at all, it really looks like scales.  Mix all this with Jerry Nelson's portrayal of him as a lovable louse and he becomes a very memorable Muppet.

And that's what makes The Land of Gorch such an interesting experiment.  It wasn't written by the regular Muppet writers at all; it was written by the SNL writers, who really didn't know what to do with them.  After watching the first few, Joy said to me "It doesn't have much of a punchline, does it?"  It was then that I realized what was missing from these sketches: the explosions.  Jim Henson had always said the best way to get out of a sketch was to have something get blown up or eaten.  Now I suppose I can understand them not using any pyrotechnics on a live show, but with characters like these, someone should have been getten eaten by a giant Muppet.

The thing is, for days after watching them I kept finding myself thinking of Scred, Ploobis and the Mighty Favog while smiling to myself and wanting to see more of them!  I haven't rewatched the sketches yet, but I probably will soon; all combined, they only come up to about an hour and twenty minutes.

It also helps that they improved as they went on.  Everyone could tell the Muppets and SNL weren't a great fit, and halfway through the series the Muppets return from England to discover their sets have been burned while they were away and they're not being let into the building.  From there it becomes more of the Muppets interacting with the humans on the show, learning they've been fired and trying to work their way back on!  It's then that the laughs really start.

It's also interesting from a "Henson historical" point of view, because those visits to England that I mentioned earlier were when he was working with ITC to get "The Muppet Show" off the ground.  In fact, in their final appearance (which is the first episode of Season Two, and by far the funniest one of all) they acknowledge that The Muppet Show has started, but they can't get on that show either.

So is the SNL Season 1 DVD box set worth it just for The Land of Gorch?  Honestly, probably not.  But hey, this is the first season of SNL we're talking about.  John Belushi, Dan Akroyd, Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase... this is when the show was revolutionary and more importantly very funny.  And while the combination may not have worked as well in 1975, for a 21st century Muppets fan it's a win-win.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

It Came From Schenectady - Barry B. Longyear

Spoiler Level: Low

I first discovered Barry B. Longyear when my future wife Joy sent me a book called Baker's Dozen: 13 Short Science Fiction Novels Presented by Isaac Asimov back around 1986.  I'll confess I turned straight to Longyear's story "Enemy Mine" because I'd seen a movie poster for it at the mall.  The story (and quite a few others in the book) blew me away, much more so than the movie did when I finally saw it.  From there I've jumped on any book of his I've found, which sadly hasn't been that many considering how long his bibliography is.

It Came from Schenectady is a collection of Longyear's short stories, and I have to say, I think the short form might by his strong suit.  Not that the books of his I read weren't good (and very memorable), but these stories are all winners, right from his introduction "Forepiece" (explaining the title of the book, which had me laughing out loud) straight through to the end.  Topics include time travel, the true nature of dreams, space art counterfeiting, interplanetary terrorism, living alien rocks, space dinosaurs returning to Earth (as shown on the cover) and others I can't even begin to describe.  Each story is preceded by a brief introduction which explains where the idea came to him from.

A lot of times anthologies are a real mixed bag, but this is the most solid one I've ever read. Some of them were disturbing, but they were meant to be, and they're all thought provoking. If you're looking for a good short story collection, this one is worth hunting down.

Wonder Woman (2009)

Spoiler Level: Medium

WOW, was that violent.  Not necessarily gory, although there is some blood; and a lot of the more gruesome things are shown in shadow.  But this movie takes full advantage of its PG-13 rating.

This video is an origin story for Wonder Woman, setting her in modern times.  It uses the full Greek mythology, which I always thought worked best for Wonder Woman as it gives her more depth and a rich history to draw from.  The Amazons are fierce warriors... hence a lot of sword combat and the aforementioned violence.

And Nathon Fillion is absolutely fantastic as Steve Trevor.  Steve has a rough time, as the Amazons of Themyscira have been betrayed by Ares, the God of War, giving them a general resentment of men, but Fillion's trademark humor carries Steve through it quite nicely.

Sadly, I've heard that the sales of this DVD weren't as high as the previous Batman, Superman and Justice League OVAs, so there aren't any plans to do any more.  Which is a real shame.  Wonder Woman is the #3 character in the DCU, as iconic in US pop culture as Batman and Superman, and this video shows she can easily hold her own as the star.  I have no doubt that Warner Brothers will change their mind and make another one when the big-budget Hollywood movie comes out in 2013 (assuming that they're still making DCU OVAs at that point), but with a new DVD being released every four months, four years is way too long to give Wonder Woman a second shot.
And as to that big budget movie in 2013, well, I can only hope that Hollywood will do as good as a job as this movie did!

Friday, August 27, 2010

K9 - "The Korven"

Spoiler Level: Low

Now THIS is more like it!!  This episode had good dialogue, some great character moments, was well paced, had a cool looking monster, had some awesome shots of "K9 Vision" where we get to see how K9 views the world, and some fart humor.  K9's scenes with Starkey were very endearing and felt just like the old K9 we know and love.  A big, big improvement over the last episode.  (Perhaps that's why Disney XD UK skipped that one and went straight to this episode?)

 I'm also growing very fond of K9's new look.  I'm sure most of it is CGI, but it generally blends in very well, and the new articulation with his head (and especially his ears) make him much more expressive.

The only down side:  K9 keeps getting knocked out or powered down in each episode.  I realize we don't have much of a show if K9 just bursts in and zaps the monster, but really, there should be some other way to make it more of a challenge then just knocking K9 out for a while.  But as complaints go, this is a very small one in a much, much more improved episode.

Incidentally, is there a consistent way to spell the name of this show?  Traditionally, the character has been spelled "K9," but I've seen other sources calling it "K-9."  But what's printed on his side and in the show logo is "K·9."  So I'm going to stick with the traditional spelling for now.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Superman/Batman: Public Enemies

Spoiler Level: High

Okay, first things first:  The DVD cover is the same as the graphic novel cover.  Major, major points for that.

Second things second:  I've never read the source material.  Superman/Batman (the comic book) came out at a time where Jeph Loeb was driving me crazy with how he was handling the Superman titles.  Yes, I was one of those few people who actually enjoyed the "Superman Weekly" format and the HUGE cast of Metropolis that grew out of it.  When Jeph Loeb and his crew came on board, their goal was to get back to the basic cast and split the four Superman books back into four separate comics.  All of which I wasn't thrilled about, but was handling okay.  But he was also very big on returning the characters back to the way they were in the Silver Age, and that led me to eventually drop all of my Superman comics.  So I never read Superman/Batman (or "S-Bat," as Rich and I always called it) when it debuted.

In hindsight, I'm glad I didn't, because it allowed me to go into this movie with a fresh attitude.  And it's really good.  Oh sure, the Giant SuperBat Robot made my jaw drop, and not in a good way.  But I can forgive that, because it tried to be an homage to the Super Robots of old, such as Mazinger Z, and because the rest of the story worked so well.  I always liked the concept of Lex Luthor being president, and the guest stars alone gave a lot of great moments; Power Girl having such a big role was great, seeing so many villains try to take the two down was fun, and best of all... a true Superman vs. Captain Marvel battle! 

Chalk up another win for the DCU Animated Original Movies!

Monday, August 23, 2010

K9 episodes 1 & 2: "Regeneration" and "Liberation"

Spoiler Rating: Medium

Back in the late 90's when I was working conventions, Joy & I were sharing a table with a local anime/comic shop.  During one of the quieter moments, one of the guys from the other shop and I got to talking about Doctor Who, which somehow led us to talk about its attempted spin-off, K9 & Company.

"I've seen all of those, too..."

"Well, they only made one episode," I pointed out.

"Oh no, no, they made 65 episodes.  The PBS stations in America only aired the first episode."

"No, it was a pilot.  They never made anymore."

There was a pause while my friend mulled this over.  Then he gave his head a firm nod.  "...No, I'm pretty sure I've seen all 65 episodes."

Well, what do you say to that?  It's not like he was a jerk or being pompous... he was just a really nice guy who genuinely thought he'd seen them, and I couldn't push the issue without being a jerk myself.

And only now, some 15 years later, do I truly understand.  He was watching temporal television!  Somehow this show was transmitted back through time, and he was lucky enough to actually see them before they were made!  Or perhaps, just like there are many lost Hartnell and Troughton episodes, these are K9's "Lost Episodes," only now being recovered!

So, now that we've got that mystery solved... how were the episodes themselves?

"Regeneration" was a very decent start.  The series is set in a dystopian future London, where we meet a batch of teenagers (all of which came across better than the kids in the pilot for Sarah Jane Adventures), and a scientist who's been trying to recover his lost family via time travel.  What he gets instead is K9, plucked out of time and dropped into their world, where he regenerates into a slick new model.  K9's memories are gone, presumably by whatever crisis he just escaped from.

Now, K9 (the series) is being made by Bob Baker, one of K9 (the character)'s co-creators, without any connection to the BBC.  Thus, the show is not allowed to use anything directly from Doctor Who.  But Bob Baker has stated that the K9 in this show is the original K9 Mk I that stayed behind on Gallifrey.  So the viewer can then presume that he was upgraded with regeneration technology while he was there, and that his escape and memory loss are from his escaping Gallifrey during the Time War.  It all makes total sense, but of course is never directly stated (or even implied) in the show itself.

As a pilot, "Regeneration" worked a lot better than Sarah Jane Adventures "Invasion of the Bane" pilot.

"Liberation," on the other hand, was a bit of a chore to get through.  The first half spends most of its time having the two lead teenage boys bicker with each other.  Which wouldn't be so bad if it was witty banter that gave us insight into the characters... but these writers are no Joss Whedon.  This is just annoying, like over hearing kids in the park while you're trying to read.  You can tell exactly what the next comeback line is going to be each time.

The second half, however, was pretty good, and actually felt like it had a lot of story exposition crammed into it.  If they had used more time from the first half to work on the exposition and less of the bickering boys, I think it would have worked much better.

And it's worth pointing out that John Leeson, the original voice of K9, is back for this series, giving K9 his classic personality and making him the K9 we know and love, no matter how he looks!  And I'm willing to forgive a shaky start;  after all, Sarah Jane Adventures just got better and better, and K9 looks like it has the potential to as well.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Star Wars: The Old Republic - Fatal Alliance by Sean Williams

Spoiler Level: Medium

This book was a real mixed bag.  After the first 50 pages I had made up my mind that it would be the only Old Republic book I'd read, but by the end of it I was enjoying it so much that I had completely changed my mind.

Just as I was finished reading all the books set in the Sith era, Del Rey sneaks out Old Republic: Fatal Alliance to tie in with the latest Star Wars video game.  This book takes place 3650 years before Star Wars, which puts it right smack in the middle between the Lost Tribe of the Sith e-books and the Darth Bane trilogy.  Since I really enjoyed getting to know the Sith culture in both of those, I was looking forward to this book showing what it was like when the galaxy was full of rival Sith Lords who were fighting each other as much as they were fighting the Jedi.  That, and the video game trailer showing the Sith ransacking the Jedi temple on Coruscant (which I posted in my review of Darth Bane: Dynasty of Evil) made me really want to see what lead up to that battle.

In that sense, this book disappoints on both counts.  The ransacking of the Jedi Temple is mentioned as having happened years and years ago, so the epic trailer has nothing to do with this book.  And the book itself focuses mostly on one Sith apprentice, occasionally her Master, and very briefly the Dark Council of the Sith.  So we get very little of the Sith culture as well.  What I really did like, however, was learning that after The Great War (which apparently culminated with the scene from that trailer), the galaxy was now divided in two, with the major ruling powers being the Sith Empire and the Republic.  The idea that there was already an Empire millennia before Palpatine's rise makes his actions a little extra chilling.  Emperor Palpatine wasn't just establishing his Empire; he was re-establishing the Sith Empire!

The Sith themselves are also written as rather two-dimensional caricatures, simply being evil for evil's sake and literally abusing small furry animals.  There's some bits of Sith philosophy in here, but nothing to make you really understand why the Sith think they're in the right as in the Darth Bane books.

The final complaint I have with this book is the first segment, which covers the first 100 pages or so.  It takes a long time to get to know the characters that will end up becoming the stars for the rest of this story. We're introduced to all of them in their normal settings, which is logical enough, but this also means we're introduced to a lot of other characters who will have no little to no impact on the story at all, with no one character standing out (at least to me) to let me know which ones I was supposed to be paying attention to.  And to be honest, the set up wasn't particularly intriguing.  It wasn't bad, but it wasn't good either.  It doesn't help that the character that's supposed to unite all of the main characters is nothing but a McGuffin.

Luckily, by the second part of the book all the important characters are in place, and the story starts to get interesting.  We now have about five main characters-- a Jedi Padawan, a Sith apprentice, a down-and-out former Republic trooper, a Republic emissary who's really an Imperial spy, and the usual lovable rogue smuggler.  And the search for the McGuffin character leads the group to fighting a new breed of droid that's nearly unstoppable... hence the need for the "fatal alliance" of the title.

The book consists of four parts, and each part just gets better than the last.  By the end of the book I couldn't believe this was the same book that was literally putting me to sleep at the beginning of it.  We get high-stakes combat with a new, nearly unstoppable enemy, and we watch the characters go through life-changing events.

Maybe the first part would have been more interesting to me if I had been into any of the Knights of the Old Republic games or comics.  But any time I tried those out, I was just bored with them.  So if you're into those, this book might work from start to finish for you.  For me, the last three fourths of the book were far and away worth the tedium of the first fourth.  So while I can't highly recommend this, it's still a very worthwhile read.

Next month:  I'm now all done with the Sith Era, and it's on to the Prequel era!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Star Trek: IKS Gorkon - Enemy Territory by Keith R. A. DeCandido

Spoiler Level: Medium

Man, I'm loving this series.  I wish it had sold better; I'm getting bummed that there's only one more book left.

The reason I'm loving this series so much is it keeps taking the typical Star Trek scenarios and turning them on their ear.  Take this book, for example...

How many times has the Enterprise come across a new civilization that decided to shoot first and ask questions later?  So Picard has Worf fire phasers, Worf takes out the ship's weapons in one shot, the Enterprise hails the ship and learns what their situation is and why they fired and then usually tries to help them solve their problems.

Now what do you think would happen if a new civilization decided to fire on a Klingon ship and ask questions later?

The answer is exactly what you'd expect... you get the entire Klingon Empire bellowing "Bring it on!!" in excitement.  Oh, the Klingons will help them solve their problems, all right... after they've kicked their butts from here to Qo'noS and back and firmly planted the flag of the Klingon Empire in what's left of their planet.

But if that wasn't enough for a good story, Enemy Territory continues showing us the lives of the crew of the IKS Gorkon, especially the ship's reluctant chief engineer Kurak, and the ground-pounders of the 15th Squadron and their leader Wol.  The 15th Squadron has been in all the books, and I can't help but make the connection between this 15th and the 15th Squad from Southern Cross/Robotech Masters, but as you can imagine for a Klingon series, in this 15th Squad members keep getting killed and replaced.  How the squad deals with the new members and mourn their fallen comrades is part of what makes them so interesting; the other part is DeCandido's excellent characterization.

DeCandido is also excellent at creating alien races.  The San-Tarah from A Good Day to Die were great, but the Elabrej in this book are even more amazing.  Their appearance is very creative, if not a bit hard to visualize at times, and they turn out to be just as corrupt as human culture can be.  There are some definite reflections to our current society-- for example, the upper 1% of the Elabrej society controls nearly all the wealth.

 The next book in this series takes a bit of a shift and isn't called "Star Trek: IKS Gorkon" at all, but rather "Star Trek: Klingon Empire," as the Gorkon heads for home.  I have no doubt that DeCandido will make it very interesting-- as I stated above, his characterization is always great to read, and I'll be more than happy to see what happens to them next.  But what's made these first three books so much more special for me is the way they take the usual Star Trek situations and put them through a Klingon filter, and I'm disappointed to see that element go.

This series is out of print so they're hard to get a hold of, but they're definitely worth it.  Hopefully Pocket Books will reprint them in an omnibus edition someday, and better yet, hopefully that will lead to more Gorkon books!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths

Spoiler Level: Medium

First off, let me apologize to my buddy (and fellow blogger over at greatplaidmusings) Rich.  See, Rich and I started watching the DCU OVAs last week, so it was kind of assumed we were going to wait for each other to watch them.  But I was hanging out with another friend of mine this weekend who was in a mood to watch some super hero cartoons, so we picked Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths via Netflix's instant viewing option.  But don't worry, Rich, I liked it a lot and will be happy to watch it again.

Crisis on Two Earths loosely follows the story from the graphic novel "JLA: Earth-2" by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely.  A lot of the key elements are still there; the take on the Crime Syndicate definitely owes more to Grant Morrison than to the pre-crisis versions of the team.  The big difference is, to me, a big improvement:  The Crime Syndicate's Earth is not Earth-2 of the anti-matter universe, but simply one of infinite Earths.  Call me too old-school, but I can't get into "Earth-2" ever being anything other than the pre-Crisis home of the JSA.  (What Earth is this now in the 52 universes, anyway?)

The story itself is mostly a lot of smack-downs between the JLA and the Crime Syndicate, with some interesting views into their Earth in between.  It's actually nowhere near as dark as the original graphic novel, which is kind of amazing considering it's PG-13.  Unlike Justice League: The New Frontier, there's nowhere near as much strong language and very little blood.

Sadly, since we were watching it via Netflix I didn't get to see the Spectre short, so I still have something new to look forward to when I watch it again with Rich.  :)