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A short review of A Touch of Evil (1958)

Sep. 2nd, 2007 | 08:50 am

More 'Film Opaque' than 'Film Noir', Touch of Evil is an unparrelled cinematic study of corruption, racism and the morality of the Law.

Welles' direction is again light years ahead of anything contemporaneous, the Mexican border town locale being all shadows, smoke, grime and black & white neon, framed by low angles, long tracking shots and car-mounted cameras. Charlton Heston and Vivien Leigh are good foils to Welles' monstrous police chief Quinlan, the do-gooding newly-weds who are enmeshed in the local web of sin and cartelism.

A proto-Chinatown, this thought-provoking yet highly entertaining film is as good as it gets for the noir genre.

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A review of Tansformers (2007)

Sep. 1st, 2007 | 12:34 pm

Toy Story. You don't expect The Seventh Seal of a film about a civil war between giant alien robots that turn into cars and planes, but a bit of characterisation would have been nice.

The admittedly mind-blowing special effects go some way in distracting the viewer away from the rather hum-drum, sub-Spielbergian motions of the narrative, and there are some moments of genuine, self-depreciating comic relief amongst the nonsensical b*ll*cks that pass for a plot, but the overall impression one gets is of ennui and formula.

Shia LaBeouf is rather good as the main human focus of the story, but his love interest is so wooden you fear he may get splinters. Jon Voight once again proves that he'll do anything for a pay cheque although John Turturro wonderfully camps it up as a secret service agent that specialises in giant alien robots that turn into cars (as you do).

Of course, over-grown boys of a certain age will get an illicit, nostalgic thrill with the references to the cartoon of their youth (the film gets some kudos for retaining the original voice of main goodie robot Optimus Prime, which is fabulously gravelly and distinctive), but really it all amounts to time-wasting nonsense designed to bankrupt middle class parents by spoilt demands for cheaply-made shape-shifting plastic lumps. The robots, although brilliantly animated, are confusingly designed so one looks pretty much like another, and their motivations appear to be as deep as a kiddie's paddling pool... which has sprung a leak on a hot summer's day.

Kinetic yet traction-less, "Transformers" proves that there's nothing that is 'more than meets the eye' about most Hollywood blockbusters these days.

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A review of the first three episodes of Season Three of Doctor Who.

Apr. 16th, 2007 | 07:27 am

All images in this review are copyrighted material belonging to the BBC, and are reproduced here for critical and non-profit making purposes, and can be removed on request.

To be honest, my expectations were low going into the third year of the resuscitated Doctor Who. An appallingly naff yet cynical Christmas special (The Runaway Bride) on the back of a somewhat lacklustre if not fairly mediocre second year (in terms of scripting, if anything) meant that I approached Season Three with a sense of creeping apathy. It was really a make or break time.

We’re now three episodes into the new series, and the good news is that a sense of genuine vitality has crept back into the whole enterprise. A lot of the artistic errors and irritating creative ticks that proved so irksome last year have not been totally rectified, but the show has regained its sense of confidence and discipline. The direction is inventive and sympathetic, the acting nuanced and sincere, the editing taut and sharp, the scripts… well… the scripts have moments of brilliant genuine wit and don’t lack ambition in terms of spectacle. They do, however, lack narrative cohesiveness, with more holes than a string vest, and still seem hostage to the idea of spectacle over sense. But one great episode, one fairly average attempt and one pretty dire story is a pretty good run, especially as there’s redeeming features in all of the stories so far.

But why is Season Three already better than Season Two, despite still suffering from last year’s failings? Well, Doctor Who now seems a show at peace with itself if not with key sections of its audience. If the Christopher Eccleston era aspired to being top draw fantastical drama, David Tennant’s Doctor Who is taking on Harry Potter in the light entertainment market, unashamed of its more outré ideas, self-indulgently guiding the audiences through an overly bombastic soundtrack, scared to bore, frightened to exclude. Last year’s Who was straddling both the dramatic and the throw away, and succeeded, more often than not, in failing in both fields. Season Three has given up on the serious and meritorious drama of the initial revival, and has successfully repositioned Who into the silly throw away escapades of the late 70s Tom Baker stories.

This is not necessarily a criticism. For me, the first season of new Who will remain a high watermark, the zenith of what you can (and should do) with the wonderful concept that is Doctor Who. But if the makers of the show are now committed to lowering the age (or should that be 'intelligence'?) of the target audience, let Doctor Who be escapist fun of the highest order, a rip-roaring adventure that constantly dazzles, continually striving for new spectacles on what is still a tiny budget, and is entertaining for all who happen to stumble across it whether they are 8 or 80, in Kent or Cairo.

Not that to be entertaining a programme should automatically go for a lobotomy, but if the BBC is now committed to selling so many Sonic Screwdrivers (rights reserved) through Woolworths each year, we have to expect a certain lowering of dramatic ambition. Let’s hope that the programme makers can hit their marks within those self-imposed, regrettably narrow horizons.

So, what about the first three episodes?

Smith and Jones (*SPOILERS*)

An uneven affair that highlights all that is both good and bad about new Doctor Who, and more specifically, the scripts of Executive Producer Russell T Davies.

On one hand, you have the superb integration of the mundane and the familial into a fantastical world of limitless possibilities. The new companion, Martha Jones, superbly played by Freema Agyeman (who within ten minutes steps out of the shadow of Billie Piper), has a wonderfully dysfunctional family background and a demanding job (trainee doctor), longing to escape the humdrum. Davies introduces Martha in a superb ‘conference call’ mobile phone conversation, with all her family on her back (and each others), the audience being drawn into her world effortlessly and with a wry smile. This is Davies at his best, the scene setting and the snap shots of ‘everyday life’.


On the other hand, the script suffers from Davies’ usually glib high pitch concepts that cannot sustain themselves for 10 minutes let alone 45. It might be fantastic to go left field and relish such striking images of hospitals on the moon, rhino intergalactic policemen and sinister couriers who turn out to be robots made out of solid leather, but if you are unable to construct a convincing narrative that ties these ideas into a coherent (small ‘d’) dramatic whole, what’s the point and where’s the sustained interest? The end result is fast food fantasy, immediately filling but non-nutritious. You’ll get a sugar rush, but the stomach of the mind will be empty again within the hour.

It wouldn’t be so bad if most of the ideas were original as they purport to be or if there was an over-arching theme or use of iconography – but Smith and Jones lacks both. Fascist anthropomorphic policemen are a staple of the counter-culture comic strips of 2000 AD, which have long since permeated the fantasy mainstream (films such as The Fifth Element, to take one example) and sinister leatherboys/ bikers a staple of thrillers of the 70s and 80s. And the transportation of a everyday building to a fantastical place via a violent storm? The Wizard of Oz, anyone?

So the mish-mash of fantastical ideas are highly enjoyable if one disengages brain before viewing, yet their chaotic and seemingly random inclusion sit at angular odds with the focused, masterful care with which Davies draws and plots his main regular characters.

Better than last year’s dire season opener (New Earth) but lacking the genuine shock of the new that was the first episode of the revival (Rose), although that cannot be helped, Smith and Jones is a fun fairground ride of episode that is best enjoyed without too much detailed examination, greatly aided by a confident, more nuanced performance than we have seen before from David Tennant, who’s beginning to show a mystery and comic mastery that has not been seen in the role since the hey days of the aforementioned Tom Baker.

The Shakespeare Code (*SPOILERS*)

Shamelessly traditional, drawing from premises and traits of both ‘classic’ and new Doctor Who, The Shakespeare Code is one of the most masterful episodes of the show we have seen in a while. Thrilling and witty, with wonderful performances from the leads and guest cast, perilously veering to camp but enjoyably so, this ‘historical’ story is heavily indebted to ‘the one with Charles Dickens’ (The Unquiet Dead) and ‘the one with Queen Victoria and the Werewolf’ (Tooth and Claw). The literate-but-not-overly-so script, by fan writer Gareth Roberts, is superb although not flawless. The dialogue zips along, often producing a wry smile if not a laugh out loud, with the characters having a good grounding in the main plot, which is not always a given in new Doctor Who. The whole enterprise has a satisfying coherency and pace, never boring but never as fidgety as Season Two’s stories.

Tennant is again superb as the Doctor (two hits in a row) as is Dean Lennox Kelly as Shakespeare, played as a louche proto-celebrity (but not over doing it). The production values are of mainstream, big blockbuster quality, and I doubt you will see anything as so polished in terms of the overall look in a fantasy show this year (unless the Who production office trump themselves later this season).The direction by Charles Palmer is some of the best the series has had, and the editing enhances both the budget, pace and look by sympathetically complimenting the special effects (again, not always a given in new Who) and bringing out the best in the performances.

Martha Jones and the Doctor.

There remains, alas, niggles. The witches were too Little Britain and stereotypical, and failed to scare or convince (not fatal, given the overall tone of the episode), and Roberts’ traditionalist approach unfortunately rendered Martha a typical Doctor Who companion of old, a device to ask seemingly obvious questions for the benefit of younger members of the audience. This made Martha somewhat idiotic on occasion, and unintentionally reduced this alleged trainee doctor to 1970s “Doctor, what’s gravity?” Dolly Bird status. This regrettable dip in otherwise solid comic characterisation is fleeting however, and it does Roberts a disservice to blow it out of proportion – not so much misogyny, but more brief, badly handled exposition.

These annoyances and dire Dan Brown aping title aside, The Shakespeare Code is solid, exuberant Doctor Who that will be revisited many times while Season Two DVDs gather dust on the shelf.

Gridlock (*SPOILERS*)

Russell T Davies resumes scripting duty for this futuristic tale of traffic jams without end, killer giant crabs, cat nuns and Irish cat pilots, heavy-handed social moralising and fan-pleasing continuity.

Into the Davies idea blender goes J. G. Ballard, Blade Runner, Terry Gilliam, 2000 AD (again), Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and The Fifth Element (again), which let’s face it, is a pretty appetising cocktail – if you’re going to borrow, borrow from the best. Visually, the episode takes its cues from these sources as well, and more often than not meets these ambitions admirably (albeit with one or two duff shots/ effects – not bad though for 45 minutes that are pretty much set in a virtual environment).

However, when it comes to this cocktail, Davies is not much of a barman. All the ingredients have been thrown together, neither stirred or shaken, leaving a rather unpleasant taste in the mouth. Maybe Davies should have gone easy on the alcohol in this mouth-watering concoction… am I drunk, or is the Irish Space Cat singing “The Old Rugged Cross”? And is that David Tennant doing bad ‘angry’ acting again? I thought that was so last year! Is that a crude “Kids, don’t do drugs!” message stuck at the back of my throat...?

Furry from the deep...

Yes, somehow, Gridlock manages to negate itself, all that’s good about it tarnished by the Davies' leitmotif of having a non sequitur for a narrative, which can be taken apart by most intelligent thirteen year olds within a matter of minutes. What’s the point of poignant characterisation and social allegory if the plot does not credit any of the participants with the slightest bit of intelligence? Not wishing to labour what is in fact a tedious although valid point, if everyone on the ‘surface’ world has been wiped out by 'drug AIDS' (or something equally anti-permissive society – it’s not the first time new Doctor Who has revealed a pro-establishment, socially conservative sensibility), why is no-one in the subterranean motorway system bothered by the lack of contact or communication? Also would people really set out on a 12 year car journey consisting of perpetual log jam for an elusive paradise of ‘work’, unless they were all part of some kind of 1960s arts absurdist movement big on allegory? Er… no.

Subtle Gridlock ain't, and as if to distract faithful viewers from the somewhat cack-handedness of the whole enterprise, Davies throws in LOTS of continuity porn for fans, both old and new…

“Look! It’s the Face of Boe! You must remember him from last year… and the year before? And he’s got a secret… oh yes, a secret… oh… what’s that? A fan of an older vintage…. Well, listen… listen, I tell you… It’s the Doctor talking about the Timelords… oh yes, you remember them, don’t you? Yes, that’s right… from about the time when people stopped watching Doctor Who in the first place… still thinking of turning over? I know I cocked up such a wonderful premise, but we’ve been friends for a long time now… and I have a treat… oh, yes… you remember those giant crabs Patrick Troughton fought back in 1967?… you know, from that story that’s been completely destroyed and hasn’t been seen for 40 years?... Well here they are… LOOK! Please Look! It’s the Macra! Yes, The Macra!!! Don’t think about it (please, God, don’t think about it)… just look at the 1967 space crabs… in CGI!!!!! Don’t worry about Irish Space Cats singing 20th Century Evangelical hymns… don’t…. Face of Boe! Timelords! Macra! Nonsensical plot! What more do you whinging ninnies want, for Christ’s sake?… not that I believe in Christ… although I can’t shut up about God… but MACRA! TIMELORDS! BOE!”

And that unfortunately is the sum of it… again, great if Mr. Brain decides that he’s checking out on Saturday evening, but if you really want a programme that has something intelligible to say about its pretensions, or meaningful about its author’s social concerns, I’m sure Sky’ll be showing an episode of the new Battlestar Galactica on one of their channels.

Tennant, though, has morphed into something of a saviour of the show, and both Ageyman and him keep the programme on the road with some superb acting that moderates the unnecessary, demystifying, almost Spielbergian Doctor's reminiscences about his home planet into something emotional and meaningful amidst the reefer-madness, J.G. Ballard-via-Balamory social commentary that threatens to drag the episode to Sylvester McCoy-era depths.

So, one great episode, one average episode and one dire episode…. Season Three’s field is still wide open as to whether or not the viewer is backing a winner or an old nag that’s about to collapse at the last hurdle, but already they have been presented with a more exuberant model of Doctor Who than the 2006 brand, and rather fittingly, given the loose positivism that underpins the new series’ ethos, hope springs eternal for the future of Doctor Who.

Past Peter Crispin Doctor Who Reviews:
A review of Doctor Who: The Face of the Enemy by David A. McIntee
Doctor Who - The Runaway Bride
Doctor Who - New Earth

Official Site:
Doctor Who (BBC Site)

Unofficial Fan Site:
Outpost Gallifrey

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"Ja! Das Hokey Kokey"

Apr. 12th, 2007 | 03:43 pm

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A review of The Life of Thomas More by Peter Ackroyd

Jan. 24th, 2007 | 06:00 pm

One hears a lot these days about a “Clash of Civilisations”, allegedly diametrically opposed religions and ideologies facing an irreconcilable conflict over the way their adherents and other citizens should lead their lives and by what values they will be judged by, whether in this life or the next.

This creeping de-secularisation of our and other societies has come as a shock to those who grew up in an irreligious era, where God (or Gods) sat on the sideline as the world discretely scrapped in the Third World over whether monetarism or Marx was the great leap forward.

Reading The Life of Thomas More, Peter Ackroyd’s 1998 biography of the first English layman to be beatified as a martyr, one is struck how deeply pious and religious British society used to be, with Christianity permeating every facet of daily life much in the manner that people view Islam today. Thomas More represents the tensions within such a society, the allure of humanism and rediscovered classical text set against the rigidity and solace of deeply rooted Catholicism.

True faith? Thomas More by Holbein

More’s age saw the conception of the ideas that would eventually give birth to the renaissance and modernity, the primacy of the individual edging forward over that of the Pope. More’s mind was not closed to the developments and changes his society were going through, and in his early life was seen to champion to the reintroduction of classical learning into rhetorical teaching, albeit in a Christian context. It is the writings of Martin Luther that set More off on a more trenchant, reactionary path. As far as More was concerned, Luther was literally the antichrist, a portent for the collapse of the then world order.

More did have a point, for our world would be unrecognisable if it were not for the protestant reformation. Not that Luther is a historical figure that should be held with any particular veneration; a vitriolic anti-Semite, driven by an emotional psychosis brought about by his own disillusionment with the Catholic Church. His nailing of his theses on the church door in Wittenberg was motivated just as much by his own inner conflict and despair rather than the cold, analytical rationality that his writings would, in due course, inspire. If it weren’t for Luther, you would not necessarily have philosophers such as Hegel and Heidegger. It really is that simple.

Martin Luther

So was More right to be so resistant to the advent of Protestantism? Well, as has been mentioned and which Ackroyd goes on to describe, Luther did not help his own case. Even More’s fellow humanists who at first were intellectually curious about what Luther had to say about individual enlightenment, turned against the former German monk. However, one of these humanists, Desiderius Erasmus, who was a great friend and champion of More, also became alarmed with the Lord Chancellor’s increasingly draconian and militant stance. One thing that does come out of Ackroyd’s account is how much of a bellwether Erasmus was for the shape of the early Reformation, especially in England. His insights into the pomposity and hubristic arrogance of Henry VIII’s court are something that More seems somewhat oblivious to, whether through piety, natural reserve or political cunning.
The collective name for those around More was, in the fifteenth century, ‘a threat of courtiers’. One contemporary described the court as ‘quesy’ and ‘unstable’. ‘It is hard trusting this wylle worlde,’ he continued, in which ‘every man is here ffor himsylff’. Erasmus had attacked court follies in Moraie encominium where are to be found ‘nothing more indebted, more servile, more witless, more contemptible’ than the courtiers themselves. It was a world of faction and patronage, ‘affinity’ and worship, where competing groups intrigued in order to gain access to the king and where offices could be bought and sold.
The Reformation may have changed our society, but on this evidence it did not change human nature, as I am sure the Metropolitan Police could currently testify as they investigate to what lengths people today will go to ’gain access to the king’.

If More and Luther are to the two opposing ideological forces in this story (thereby creating the first true dialectic of the modern era?), the other central relationship is that of More and Henry VIII. Historians are still divided as to whether Henry’s eventual break with Rome was a cynical move to allow him to marry Anne Boleyn or an action of a man who genuinely believed his first marriage to be unlawful and cursed (Ackroyd is in the former camp), but the transformation of Henry VIII from the great new hope for peace and learning into a bloated, warmongering bully is one that pains More greatly. If one to use a crude modern analogy, More was Tony Blair to Henry VIII’s George W. Bush, someone who saw himself as a restraining influence on his monarch’s impulsion and excesses.

Henry VIII by Holbein

And Henry VIII did listen… for a while. More’s eventual martyrdom was incomprehensible and painful to Henry as the monarch’s bellicose and provocative stance were to Humanists such as Erasmus and More. When More became a (debatably) passive figurehead for those who were resisting Henry VIII’s clerical reforms, he had to be got rid of, and Ackroyd is particularly strong in his book on More’s final act.

The nature of genuine martyrdom is now somewhat misunderstood in an age when desperate, alienated young men all too willingly blow themselves and others up in our multicultural metropolises cities. A genuine martyr has too really sacrifice all he holds truly dear, too the point of painful disavowal of a higher cause. The act of martyrdom is not one undertaken by eager volunteers – it is an act of almost unwilling self-harm and an act which has to be that last available course to the martyr-to-be. And in his last years, we see the tremendous self-discipline and conviction of More, always hoping his Monarch and his court would come to his senses, and avoid the folly of separation. But More could not break his own believes and did not damn those of less resolve – it was an intensely personal matter, one solely between God and himself, a matter of adhering to the teachings he espoused for the whole of his life. Of course, there is a slight irony that Luther was the advocate of the personal contract with God, and that this was all that More was left with as he was beheaded, his own Church withering on the vine in the land in which he was born. However, this More death was the seedling, the last barrier to be overcome on our society’s onward march towards the primacy of the individual and his/ her beliefs.

Ackroyd evocatively depicts the period, putting the modern reader successfully into what is now an alien mindset. His attention to detail is impeccable, and he always has an eye for the telling fact or detail that rounds out events, individuals or beliefs. He also manages to debunk existing preconceptions of More as a proto-liberal (a la Robert Bolt’s Man for All Seasons) in a gentle sardonic style that is amusing without going for the Rottweiler hostility of a David Starkey. The Life of Thomas More, as so much of Ackroyd’s work, is simply superb and highly insightful for those who cannot fathom those who go to their deaths for their beliefs.

The Life of Thomas More by Peter Ackroyd was published in hardback by Chatto & Windus in 1998.

Past Peter Crispin book reviews:
Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir by Gore Vidal

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A review of Doctor Who: The Face of the Enemy by David A. McIntee

Jan. 23rd, 2007 | 06:00 pm

Turn back now if you don’t what an “Axon” or a “Bok” are…

A little bit of self-indulgence is good for the soul, especially for the closet geek. BBC Books (and before them, Virgin Publishing), used to publish a series of Doctor Who novels for those who are deeply under the influence of the old series. Unlike the current range of books, which are clearly aimed at the new and younger elements of the programme’s audience, the BBC Books and the Virgin Books before them are clearly written with the more mature Doctor Who aficionado in mind.

Do not even attempt to read these books if you’re new to Who, especially if you have not been acquainted with the original series that ran until 1989. You’ll be lost and you will not appreciate them. This is no reflection either way on the quality of the writing which is, as one would expect from a series of novels written by different writers, highly variable. But for those have been initiated, those who know their Masters from their Maras, and for those who can tell you not only when Tom Baker started in the role, but who wrote, directed and produced his first story and how it differs from the previous ‘regeneration’ stories, these books are a guilty pleasure, the ultimate hit for a furtive habit, novels that stimulate and satisfy but ones that you’ll never really talk about with your work colleagues.

Not that the readers should feel that bad or be secretive in enjoying these books, as they really are well written when the author is on the ball; it’s just all in code for those who never though more of Doctor Who after the episode’s credits have rolled. Since being a Doctor Who fan was decriminalised a couple of years ago, the exchange of this socially prohibited literature no longer carries the threat of solitary confinement or being exiled from dinner parties, and I hear that occasionally Doctor Who fans congregate in central London, seeking solidarity and to campaign for equal rights for those who find time travelling police boxes and quirky robot dogs attractive.

Doctor Who: The Face of the Enemy by David A. McIntee

If you have fully come to terms with your Doctor Who-ness, and if you really do know more about the programme than you really should, please accept as a recommendation Doctor Who: The Face of the Enemy by David A. McIntee. The Face of the Enemy is an unmitigated hoot from start to end, rewarding not only the loyal fans of 1970s Doctor Who but those who are also familiar with the James Bond films, old ITC television series and 1970s pop culture.

As already mentioned, The Face of the Enemy fits into the narrative of 1970s Doctor Who, when the eponymous hero was played by Jon Pertwee, exiled to Earth by his race the Time Lords and assisted by dollybirds in inappropriately short skirts (not very practical for alien planets and home county quarries). During this period of the show, the Doctor was mainly Earth-bound due to his exile, the constraints of the BBC budget and the Three Day Week, and he worked as Scientific Adviser for UNIT (United Nations Intelligence Taskforce), a paramilitary organisation that was a cross between the X-Files and Dad’s Army, complete with a quasi-comedic Brigadier, who is very much a fan favourite.

The Face of the Enemy’s unique selling point is that the Doctor does not feature in this story, as he’s co-currently engaged in another adventure (the 1972 story The Curse of Peladon, if you really must know). This allows the supporting characters of this era of the programme to take centre stage, with a particular focus falling on the aforementioned Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and the Doctor’s arch nemesis, The Master, who is a kind of Moriarty to the Doctor’s Sherlock Holmes.

The main plot is very much in the Quatermass for the kindergarten mold that the series was cast in during the early ’70s, extraordinary and sinister events taking place against a familiar, contemporary backdrop. In this case a plane crash involving the corpse of a still accounted for Cabinet minister, a bank robbery and people emitting a strange, mysterious radiation are the building blocks for an exciting thriller that proudly wears its influences on its sleeve (or should that be dust jacket?) and that never dawdles.

The militarism of the 70s programme is accentuated here, with violence that would have had Mary Whitehouse choking on her Saturday dinner, let alone complaining. This doesn’t jolt the fan though, as there is something innately appealing in the Master brandishing Kalashnikovs, bringing down helicopters, after a failed mob meeting in the Oxo Tower, in what is a brilliant pastiche of a similar scene in The Godfather Part III. Indeed, the early parts of the book is more in hock to 70s ITV serials such as The Sweeney and The Professionals, conjuring up images of car chases involving Ford Cortinas, cardboxes and a still-undeveloped and abandoned London Docklands.

McIntee perfectly captures the characters from the programme, fleshing out previously quite anaemic portrayals and minor roles. He has the most fun in depicting the suavity of The Master, who was played with such assurance in the programme by Roger Delgado. He firmly places the character at the heart of this 70s world, half-Carlos The Jackal, half –Jason King:
The strains of Bowie singing ‘Diamond Dogs’ filtered out from the Waltham radiogram as the Master sat with a copy of The Financial Times, idly toting up his profits from the day’s trading. The humans used such a primitive system of investments that they might as well simply give him their money. He didn’t need the money as such, especially the currency of such an irrelevant planet as this, which wasn’t even legal tender anywhere else, but it had its uses for acquiring local labour. And so it was a necessary evil.
It is playfulness such as this which makes this book such a joy to read. It’s never going to be regarded as Crime and Punishment, but it was never meant to be. It does exactly what it says on the tin, and is on a par with any of those Alistair MacLean novels that get sandy on summer holidays. Admittedly, you really will only enjoy this if you have quite a formidable familiarity with the original Doctor Who, featuring as it does surprise and substantial cameos of other popular characters not mentioned in this review, but if you have ever cowered behind your sofa because of the Daemons, been terrified of the Autons or witnessed the colony in space, this book is a nostalgic and highly enjoyable read that does not disappoint.

Doctor Who: The Face of the Enemy by David A. McIntee was published by BBC Books in 1998.

Past Peter Crispin Doctor Who Reviews:
Doctor Who - The Runaway Bride
Doctor Who - New Earth

Official Site:
Doctor Who (BBC Site)

Unofficial Fan Site:
Outpost Gallifrey

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In Praise of Marvel Comics’ Civil War

Jan. 15th, 2007 | 06:00 pm

All images in this review are copyrighted material belonging to Marvel Comics, and are reproduced here for strictly non-profit making and critical purposes and can be removed on request. There are also some minor spoilers in this article. Please visit the Marvel website: www.marvel.com

Captain America's been torn apart
Now he's a court jester
With a broken heart
He said turn me around
And take me back to the start
I must be losing my mind
"Are you blind?!"
I've seen it all a million times.

Paradise City by Guns N Roses

So sang Axel Rose at the end of the 1980s, and what was once metal’s tortured allegory for the death of the American dream is now the plot of what has to be the most exciting development in mainstream American comic books of the last twenty years.

Marvel Comics is the publisher of titles such as The Amazing Spiderman, The Fantastic Four, Captain America, The Avengers, The X-Men, The Incredible Hulk and The Punisher. Presently, Marvel’s cultural currency has never been so high, with successful Hollywood adaptations of its books (the Spiderman films, the X-Men films, Fantastic Four) breaking box office records and rehabilitating the superhero genre after the dire and frankly embarrassing Batman films of the 1990s. Marvel, as a publisher, has capitalised on this, placing strict editorial controls and standards on its entire stable of titles, attracting renowned writers from other media to write regularly for its books. In recent years, Joss Whedon (the creator of Buffy The Vampire Slayer amongst others) has had a run on The Astonishing X-Men, J. Michael Straczynski (the creator of Babylon 5) has tackled The Amazing Spiderman and The Fantastic Four while Kevin Smith (the film director behind Clerks, Mallrats and Dogma) has written for Daredevil. Not only has it brought a new adult audience to these books (much in the same way that the 1980s phenomenon the ‘graphic novel’ did for a while with such fare as The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: The Killing Joke), but it is has noticeably raised the quality of the titles and, in turn, the game of the other writers.

What casual viewers of the movies or the intermittent readers of these titles may not be aware of is that they all inhabit the same fictional universe and stories and characters overlap, sometimes with witty and incisive aplomb or at others for cynical reasons to boost the falling sales of a failing title (a very popular character turns up in the book for no good reason; in Marvel’s case, this is usually the X-Men’s Wolverine). This is a blessing and a curse for the comic fan, as sometimes it’s great to see how the events in another part of the ‘Marvel Universe’ impacts on the narrative of your favourite character while it can also be a forced, illogical intrusion that makes little sense if you don’t follow certain other books, and is to the detriment of the titles that you do read.

Aside from Marvel, there is DC Comics, which is home to the slightly older and more established characters such as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Green Lantern, The Flash and The Green Arrow. These DC characters never interact with the Marvel characters apart from the odd (in all senses of the word) publishing gimmick one-offs, which are never artistically satisfying. The DC characters too share their own fictional universe, although this is somewhat more fragmented and bogged down with a highly complex continuity that takes in hundreds of parallel worlds and differing creative intentions, if only due to the fact that DC has been continually publishing since the mid-1930s whereas Marvel has only really been in business since the mid-60s (although it did acquire the rights to one or two character of the 1940s, such as Captain America, who they have since interwoven into the fabric of Marvel continuity).

The official Civil War trailer from www.marvel.com.

Every couple of years, both Marvel and DC run a ‘crossover event’ in each of their own respective universes, an over-arching plot that runs throughout all their major titles. These, more often than not, are cynical marketing pushes at times of the year when sales are down (the summer months) and are of a variable quality. Both publishers also use these events as a house-clearing exercise, whether it is tidying up that annoying bit of continuity, killing of an artistically expired character or using it as platform to reintroduce, reinvent or create an old character or brand new hero or villain. Last year, both Marvel and DC ran their own crossover series, DC’s being called Infinite Crisis while Marvel’s was titled Civil War. Both were publishing events within the industry and both were meant to restructure the publishers’ universes to appeal to a new generation of comic books readers as well as attract back those who may have drifted off. Out of the two, only Marvel’s emerged as the unqualified artistic and commercial success (the failures of DC’s Infinite Crisis will be touched upon later), andunderlines all that is good, innovative and engaging at ‘the House of Ideas’ (as Marvel’s affectionately know as by its fans).

Marvel’s Civil War at its heart has a brilliant conceit that allows writers to bring in contemporary social and political concerns into this fantastical universe. A group of inexperienced US superheroes known as the New Warriors disastrously botch a raid on a supervillain hideout, resulting in a huge explosion that takes out a nearby school with hundreds deaths, mainly children. All of this is captured on tape by a reality TV crew, and the nation reacts violently against all costumed vigilantes, forcing the superhero community to examine its own actions and its very existence. A split emerges, with those who now decide that all superhumans must be registered and trained by the US Government, while others see this as an infringement of their freedoms and are suspicious that they will become mere pawns, super-soldiers to be deployed at whim by a bellicose administration. Two factions emerge, relations deteriorate, further deaths ensue, and one group of heroes become sanctioned by the government to forcibly track down, prosecute and (if needs be) imprison the others who resist registration.

The main story is self-contained in a special seven issue limited series actually called Civil War, while the story is expanded upon in all the characters’ regular titles and another series called Front Line, which follows a pair of investigative reporters at The Daily Bugle (the paper for which Peter Parker/ Spiderman works as a photographer) looking at a possible political conspiracy behind the Superhuman Registration Act.

Marvel claim that the actual Civil War title is self-contained, and that the reader will not need to buy all the other spin-offs to follow the main plot, and for the most part this seems to be bourn out. However, there are occasions where ‘off-panel’ events are casually dropped in and jars the casual reader.

The main Civil War title is therefore, and correctly, the main motor for this crossover event, and is masterfully scripted by Scottish comic book writer Mark Millar and brilliantly drawn by Steve McNiven, who virtually animates the panels to convey the kinetic, cinematic action. Millar is an astute writer who cleverly decides to accentuate the ambiguity of the situation, imposing a ‘what if?’ realism to the far-fetched Marvel world. While instinctively one feels that the plot and the characters would rebel against the notion of government-run superagents, Millar (quite rightly) underlines the point that where people expect police, firemen and medics to be properly trained and licensed, would not the non-powered denizens of the Marvel world be aghast at vigilantes repeatedly taking the law into their own hands, regardless of the collateral cost? This point is underlined all the more when these vigilantes are wearing garish costumes, can walk up or through walls, turn themselves invisible, fly or put themselves on fire without harm.

A fictional, fantasy world at war with itself over civil liberties.

This is not entirely new territory for comic books; Millar’s own post-modern re-imagining of Marvel’s premier superhero team The Avengers into Iraq-invading, George W. Bush bootboys in the highly successful The Ultimates series shares many elements with Civil War, and The Ultimates has its own antecedent in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen series (in which a still in power Richard Nixon uses registered heroes to bring about the end of the Vietnam and Cold Wars). However, this is the first time that a writer has been allowed to play around with the fundamental basics of some of the most profitable popular culture icons of the second half of the Twentieth Century. Marvel promises that the resolution of Civil War will stick and that the characters’ world will remain forever changed, a world that will bear more of a resemblance to our own mores, values and political climate.

Miller is writing for the jugular in Civil War. Iron Man, a millionaire technological wizard who fights crime in his own specialized body armour, is made out to be a war profiteer, someone who will gain huge riches on all the technology needed to carry out and then enforce registration. His alter ego, Tony Stark, is the most visible and vocal superhero to campaign for registration, drawing parallels with the way some in the Bush Administration manipulated the case for invading Iraq to suit their own oil interests just as much as those of national security.

Going up against Stark/ Iron Man is the aforementioned Captain America, a super-soldier from the Second World War who is still fighting due to a convoluted history involving super serums and cryogenic suspension. Millar has the most fun with this character, as ‘Cap’ was actually a comic book hero from the 1940s, published during the war for propaganda purposes. Millar wrong foots us, with the readership thinking that such a patriotic character would automatically come out in favour of the government, justice and the American way. However, Millar rightly interprets that such a character who epitomises liberty, and has throughout his entire fictional career fought nasty totalitarian regimes (whether they be Nazi or Communist), would automatically bridle against the introduction of compulsory identity cards, state super armies and violations to the US Constitution. Captain America goes rogue as the US cracks down on civil liberties, becoming a figurehead for a resistance movement he cannot necessarily choose, making strange, ethically compromised bedfellows.

Tony Stark, The Invincible Iron Man, promises a Bush-a-like US President that he'll bring in the rogue Captain America.

Millar deliberately plays his own cards close to his chest as to where his own sympathies lie, and both sides and arguments are portrayed to have their valid and invalid points. Tony Stark may be a war profiteer but has he also got the flawless argument? Captain America may be an incorruptible war veteran, but isn’t there a touch of the redneck militia in his tirade against big government? The story imbues a complex dialectic that seems to be totally missing in most North American art or news coverage, so it is heartening that Marvel is ensuring that the kids are not going to be starved of ethical roughage in their ravenous consumption of the entertainment ‘industry’.

Aside from his intelligent handling of Captain America, Millar brilliantly handles that other great pop icon, Spiderman. As anyone who has seen a Spiderman movie or read the comic book will know, Spiderman is the gawky kid who is always torn over what the right course of action is for him… should he fight crime with the gifts of his superpowers or should he ‘selfishly’ live a normal life? As, famously, the character reasoned with himself "with great power comes great responsibility", and, as one can imagine, the events of Civil War cause Spiderman no end of angst, torn between the two sides, initially culminating in him publically declaring his true identity so the public could have faith once more in its own heroes. Millar being Millar, this does not herald in a new age of Aquarius, as all the villains Spiderman has fought come out of hiding, retirement and prison to hunt down and persecute his family. Spiderman has always been the comic book’s Everyman, and Millar uses him as the readers' guide through the moral complexities of the story.

Peter Parker 'comes out' as Spiderman in Civil War issue 2.

Elsewhere in the Marvel Universe, ramifications are felt everywhere. The Incredible Hulk is exiled into deep space, superhero marriages break up, heroes become villains, villains become heroes, and even the apple pie Fantastic Four split up. To get incredibly pretentious about it, Civil War is the Marvel Universe’s Dreyfus Affair.

What gives the story its edge is that you are aware that the writers have almost been given total free rein to do whatever they feel necessary. We are talking about Marvel's chief financial assets being totally taken apart, and the cosy, predictable mainstream narratives and norms have been shattered in a way that has not happened since the radical social commentary of Chris Claremont’s X-Men run of the 1980s. All bets are off, and one expects iconic characters to be rubbed out (pardon the pun) before the story’s over (there is one issue left to go). It’s heartening that sales of Marvel books have gone through the roof in response to this devil-may-care approach to Marvel’s crown jewels and it will hopefully encourage other creators and entertainment companies not to be so bloody precious with their assets. The recent James Bond reboot would a complementary comparison to show that everyone’s a winner when producers or editors take well-thought out risks.

One keynote sequence that characterises the daring of Millar and co is a face off between Captain America and The Punisher, a non-powered Vietnam vet vigilante who wages a perpetual war against the Mob. Cap has reluctantly taken The Punisher on his side, only to find him gunning down two villains in cold blood. Cap attacks the Punisher, only for the Punisher to refuse to fight back. Others observe that the reason why is that the Punisher probably went to ’Nam due to the patriotic inspiration of Cap (Millar wryly commentating on the character’s original propaganda origins) and that they are in effect the “same guy, but different wars”, to which Cap blows his top, claiming that the Punisher is insane, where he is not. Not only is Millar drawing a valid comparison between two characters who have never been compared before, he is also highlighting Marvel’s somewhat morally dubious decision to make a children’s hero (and a lot of money) out of character that distributes instant, fascistic justice by machine gunning down those he deems guilty. And this is all in a mainstream comic, not farmed off in a specialist edition or a graphic novel aimed at adults, but at the general readership which ranges from people in their pre/early teens right through to people in their 30s/ 40s and beyond. Millar and Marvel deserve plaudits for this approach, which is uncharacteristically daring for an industry that has more often than not engaged in cynical marketing than valid character development.

Just compare Civil War to what DC Comics are currently doing. Aside from the Batman and Superman titles that are literally as well as figuratively bulletproof, DC is flailing wildly in quality and content after its own recent reboot of its universe. DC seems content to revisit past glories, xeroxing old plot lines and characters so much so that one wonders why they don’t take its logical conclusion and just reprint old classics. In ten years’ time, DC Comics will be extinct and irrelevant due to its own editorial mismanagement whereas Marvel has guaranteed that its popular cultural assets will remain valid, relevant and enjoyable in our rapidly changing world.

As Stan Lee, legendary founder of Marvel Comics, used to say “Make Mine Marvel”.

Marvel Comics’ Civil War concludes with issue 7, published on 17th February 2007 and will be available from all good comic shops. Back issues are still available, and the series will be collected as a tradepaperback by Marvel at a later date.

Official sites:
Marvel Comics
Millar World (Official Mark Millar website)

Unofficial sites:
Newsarama (Comic Book News site)
The Marvel Database
Comic Book Resources (Comic Book News site)

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