October 7, 2015

The Omega Factor: "Powers of Darkness"

It's 11 July 1979 and time for more of The Omega Factor.

Four university students have been toying with the occult with disastrous effects. One of them is already confined in a hospital, and now another - Jenny (Maggie James) is having flashbacks to a past life. By the time Tom Crane (James Hazeldine) gets involved, in may be too late to save Jenny from the demonic power that looms over her.

"Powers of Darkness" is a surprisingly dark and horrific episode, even within the context of a paranormal series like The Omega Factor. It's script, by Anthony Read, is a clever mixture of elements - past-life regression, psychic powers and demon worship - and it is all directed very effectively by Eric Davidson. In fact it may have been too effectively written and directed, since "Powers of Darkness" is the episode that got The Omega Factor cancelled.

NES30 #7: Dragon Warrior IV (1992)

In 2015, Nintendo's hugely successful Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) turns 30 years old. The NES, an adaptation of Nintendo's already successful Famicom console, re-invigorated console gaming internationally after the collapse of Atari and went on to sell 43 million units worldwide. NES30 celebrates this anniversary by counting down my favourite 30 games for the system.

Through the 1980s and 1990s there was basically two key role-playing game franchises fighting it out for supremacy on Nintendo's consoles. Square's Final Fantasy stood in one corner, and in the other stood Enix's widely acclaimed Dragon Quest. There were four Dragon Quest games produced for the Famicom, and all four were ported over and translated for the NES in North America under the name Dragon Warrior. The first game debuted in 1989, and was followed by a second in 1990, a third in 1991 and a fourth and final NES title in 1992.

The gameplay was familiar to anybody who had played a Japanese role-playing game (RPG). Players controlled a group of heroes fighting their way across a fantasy kingdom. They travelled via a top-down map screen, entering towns and villages to rest and buy equipment, and journeying into dungeons to kill monsters, gain experience and progress to further areas of the world map. Where Dragon Warrior IV differs from its competitors is in its story, which is unexpected, original and groundbreaking: you control not one protagonist, but five.

October 6, 2015

Blake's 7: "Sand"

It's 23 November 1981, and time for more Blake's 7.

Five years ago a Federation science mission went silent on the planet Vern. Now an investigation is underway, commanded by the arrogant Reeve (Stephen Yardley) and including an incognito Servalan (Jacqueline Pearce). When Avon hears of the mission he dispatches Tarrant (Steven Pacey) to steal the mysterious scientific discovery from under the Federation's noses - only an unexpected presence on the planet leaves Tarrant and Servalan trapped in the base together.

"Sand" is an exceptional episode of Blake's 7. It manages to pull off multiple achievements at once. It tells an intriguing science fiction story. It enriches its lead characters, and develops them in fresh directions. It even presents an unlikely romance that, while truncated, is pretty much the most effective storyline of its kind since the series began. It's written by the noted fantasy author Tanith Lee, who also wrote the unusual Season 3 episode "Sarcophagus". For me "Sand" is the much stronger script.

Into the Woods (2014)

It's been such a pleasure in recent years to see Hollywood re-embrace the musical as a genre worth exploring. While there were occasional attempts to produce a screen musical through the 1980s and 1990s, it's only really been in the last decade and a half that we've finally seen the studios actively pursue new films with the likes of Moulin Rouge, The Phantom of the Opera, Le Miserables, Rent, Sweeney Tood and a host of others. Into the Woods is the latest attempt: a Walt Disney production directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago) and based on the popular Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine stage production.

The simplest description of the plot goes something like this: in a fairy tale kingdom, the Baker and his wife rush to break a curse that's preventing them from having a child. On the way their quest becomes tangled with the stories of Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel and Jack and the Beanstalk. Into the Woods is an ensemble film with multiple protagonists, overlapping storylines, a highly cynical edge, and an unusual two-act format that is almost its undoing.

October 5, 2015

NES30 #8: Kid Icarus

In 2015, Nintendo's hugely successful Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) turns 30 years old. The NES, an adaptation of Nintendo's already successful Famicom console, re-invigorated console gaming internationally after the collapse of Atari and went on to sell 43 million units worldwide. NES30 celebrates this anniversary by counting down my favourite 30 games for the system.

I received an NES console relatively late in the day. While the console was released in 1985 it was actually in about 1991 that I received a second-hand console and games as a birthday present. There were two games with the console: Tennis, which was relatively rubbish, and Kid Icarus, which remains one of my favourite videogames of all time.

Kid Icarus was released in Japan in 1985, and in the rest of the world in 1987. It's a platform game in which the player controls Pit, a winged fighter with a bow and arrow who fights his way through three different worlds to save the goddess Palutena from the evil Medusa. This Greek mythology-inspired game offered wonderfully cute characters, varied and challenging gameplay, and a bunch of ear-worm musical themes.

AKB0048: "Return to Lancastar"

It's 8 July 2012, and time for more AKB0048.

Following the latest AKB concert, an unexpected announcement is made: both the trainees and the successors will perform concerts on the planet Lancastar. It is Nagisa, Yuka and Orine's home planet, and the first time they have returned there since their adventure began. Nagisa is assigned a solo song - usually only assigned to someone receiving a promotion. Yuka gets a message from a friend begging her not to return.

I haven't reviewed an episode of this series in almost 10 months after the last one, "Miracle of the Waves", indulged in exactly the sort of leering creepy exploitation of teenage girls that previous episodes had largely avoided. Thankfully this episode seems as if the ship has righted itself: it's colourful, weird, and extremely emotional.

October 4, 2015

Doctor Who: "Under the Lake"

The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Coleman) arrive at an underwater base in 22nd century Scotland, only to find its crew hiding from a pair of mysterious ghosts. The Doctor is compelled to keep the crew safe while solving the mystery of the ghosts - and of the strange alien spacecraft recovered from the lake's bottom.

'Base under siege' is pretty much one of Doctor Who's stock-in-trade formats. As early as the second episode of "The Sensorites" back in 1964 the Doctor and his companions were trapped in confined spaces with a group of fearful humans, attempting to outwit and outmatch an invading alien force. It was probably 1967's "The Moonbase" that perfected the format, although even then it was largely copying story elements tested out in "The Tenth Planet" a year earlier. It seems as long as there is Doctor Who it will, inevitably, return back to a small group of humans running down corridors. Here we are again in 2015: a base, some humans, some aliens, a bunch of corridors, and a siege.

The Pull List: 30 September 2015

Time for another Batman annual it seems - the fourth since the New 52 rebooted DC's entire superhero line. This issue's an interesting one because it focuses not on Batman - currently performed by former police commissioner Jim Gordon - but on Bruce Wayne. He's an amnesiac these days: he has no memory of ever being Batman, and thus far no one including Alfred has broken the news to him. Here we see him retake custody of Wayne Manor after it was briefly used to house Gotham's criminally insane, only to find that not all of the inmates left as expected.

Writer James Tynion IV really feels like the heir apparent to Batman. He got his break co-writing with Scott Snyder, and moved to writing fill-ins and annuals such as this, and finally his own titles - including the excellent Boom Studios book The Woods. Here he once again demonstrates enormous skill in handling the Batman universe characters, and tells a nice self-contained story with a couple of genuine surprises.

Roge Antonio's artwork is expressive and strong: I don't recall seeing his work before, and would be very happy to see him illustrating a DC book again.

This is precisely what a comic book annual should be for: telling a great self-contained story that's a little bit longer than the usual issue, and giving talent the chance to play around with the big league characters they might not otherwise get the chance to handle. (4/5)

DC Comics. Written by James Tynion IV. Art by Roge Antonio. Colours by Dave McCaig.

Under the cut: reviews of Aquaman, From Under Mountains, Godzilla in Hell, The Infinite Loop and Revival.