Thursday, November 28, 2013

Almost Sleepy Agents

Ask me six months ago what new show I'd be most excited about watching every week and I would have said Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. without hesitation. Ask me today, and it's a different story.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is set in the shared continity universe of the Marvel Studio movies that include Iron Man, Thor and Captain America. Lead by Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), whose first appearance in Iron Man cemented him into the Marvel universe, the team is made up of two highly skilled field agents, Melinda May and Grant Ward, two scientists, Leo Fitz and Jemma Simmons, and a civilian computer hacker and activist, Skye. They operate out of a mobile command centre in the form of a huge retrofitted cargo plane, stamped with the S.H.I.E.L.D. logo everywhere.

References to the movies are natural and common, with mentions of the greater organisation beyond Coulson's team dropped in regularly. While the series is unable to have regular cameos from the principle actors from the various movies, there have been some nice surprises, including Cobie Smulders in the pilot reprising her role as Agent Maria Hill, that give us hope that Robert Downy Jr. or Chris Evans might drop by for a chat in a later episode.

I'm really enjoying S.H.I.E.L.D. I understood from the before the pilot aired that I should expect something closer to Warehouse 13, and I'm loving that that is what we have. Some people are dissappointed that there aren't super-powered beings leaping all over the screen in every episode, but it's a TV series! And the first season. They don't have the budget to do that. Instead, the team investigate strange artifacts or weapons, and occasionally run into someone with powers.

The cast is strong, and the characters are becoming more defined. The writing is clever and sharp, and there's some great dialogue among all the action and tension. And in true Joss Wheadon fashion, there's a deeper mystery at work for the fans to follow and ponder over. Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is lots of fun, and some great weekly viewing.

But it's not my favourite show right now.

Originally, I pretty much ignored Sleepy Hollow outright. I disliked the premise: Injured in his own time, Ichabod Crane wakes up in the modern world and has to defeat the Headless Horseman in a strange, new land. It just didn't sound particularly inventive. But people kept telling me great things about the series, and then Claire started hearing about it and growing interested. Only one male caucasian on the main cast (two, if we assume Headless is one two, I guess), and, pretty early on, the writing staff realised what the fans knew from the seccond episode: Ichabod isn't the main character, it's Lt. Abbie Mills, Ichabods police officer friend who has seen and knows more than she's willing to admit.

So we tried out the first episode, and we both loved it! It's clever, very funny, and wonderfully cast. Ichabod reacts to the modern world in a real way, obsessing over electric windows and the number of Starbuck's within a block of each other. Big things like cars and computers seem almost too much for his brain to handle, so he focuses on the smaller changes, and it's wonderful. At one point, he's handed a pistol for his own protection and told "It's works just like the old ones. Point and shoot." I immediately smiled at the important fact that Abbie took for granted, and, sure enough, after firing once, Ichabod throws the gun away, thinking it spent. A great moment, well crafted.

The show is suitably creepy for it's source material. It's never gorey or downright scarey. It's just that subtle find of creepy that sends shives down your spine and leaves you wanting more, but maybe tomorrow, or next week. The end of the pilot is especially shiver-inducing. If you're a fan of the Dresden Files series of urban fantasy novels by Jim Butcher, then you'll understand when I say that the thing in the mirror at the end of Sleepy Hollow's pilot is how I imagine He Who Walks Behind should be portrayed in a movie or proper series adaptation.

Plus, Sleepy Hollow has Orlando Jones as Captain Irving (a nice nod to Washington Irving, author of the original poem), and he's always great to watch.

And then there's Almost Human, a sci-fi series filmed here in Vancouver staring Karl Urban as Det. Kennex and Michael Ealy as his android partner, Dorian. Rather like Sleepy Hollow, I was unimpressed with the lack of creativity from the trailer for this show. A human cop is injured and his partner killed when their police android decides that they are not a priority based on mission parameters. This leads to him hating on androids, bu being forced to work with one as an active officer. He's given a "defective" unit, an older model that displays too much emotion, and they bond. It sounds like something one of those automated plot generators would spit out:

He's a white cop with an artificial leg who hates androids. He's a black android who feels too much emotion. They fight crime!

And it does hit a lot of the generic clich├ęs: A tough but kind hearted older female superior officer, a young, sexy collegue, a rival officer who thinks the main character is a has-been, and who thinks of androids as lifeless tools, and even a missing ex-girlfriend who may or may not be mixed up in something bigger.

It sounds like it should be unwatchable, but they pull it off. For one thing, it's fun. The banter between Kennex and Dorian is well written and delivered, and I especially liked the discussions on life, love and death from episode two. The "Stop scanning my testicles" was a great character moment between the two. I like their view of a future that is "normal", not a dystopian nightmare, or a utopian paradise, but a world of hope and crime in a big city. The ills of the world have not been solved, but we haven't degenerated into chaos either.

Almost Human is a fun show to switch off and woatch. It has a lot of heart for a sci-fi action show, and, as suggested by the title, it takes a bit of time to discuss the line between human and not human in a world where androids can be programed to be "too human", a "condition" that causes that line, the DRNs, to be discontinued and shelved in favour of more conventional models. I'm really looking forward to seeing more from this series, and hope we at least get a season or two out of it. I think it has glimmers of the fantastic within it's first two episodes, and has a whole lot of potential beneath it's skin. Also, someone must have written fan fiction of how Almost Human is the setup world for Battlestar Galactica![1]

Agent's of S.H.I.E.L.D., Sleepy Hollow and Almost Human are all on my weekly viewing, each providing it's own style of entertainment and surprise. If I had to pick one fo the three to recommend, I think it would be Sleepy Hollow right now, though Almost Human has the potential to usurp that given a few episodes of development. Maybe it's my levels of expectation versus my levels of enjoyment on viewing, but S.H.I.E.L.D. hasn't left me as excited as the other two shows after each episode. It's still a great show, and I'll be watching every episode, I just think the others, for now, are a little greater.

[1] - I'd love to see one of the BSG Final Five actors appear in Almost Human as one of the creators of the androids, with another appearing as the programmer for the too human DRN line! Actually... excuse me a minute. I have something to start writing...

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Cancelling The Dino Apocalypse

When Evil Hat Productions announced they were KickStarting a series of pulp novels set in their Spirit of the Century universe, I was all over it like fleas on a gorilla! I jumped at the chance to support this endeavour to produce new stories in the genre I love so much. While the KickStarter resulted in a whole slew of novels by the time it wrapped, it began as a trilogy by Chuck Wendig. Since then, the first two of the Dinocalypse trilogy have been released, Dinocalypse Now and its sequel Beyond Dinocalypse.

The Dinocalypse trilogy follows the adventures of the core members of the Century Club as they battle strange creatures from beyond time, lead by the villainous Gorilla Khan in his attempt to take control of the world from the hands of man. Dinocalypse Now takes place in the 1930's, while Beyond takes place... elsewhen. I don't want to spoil anything.

Chuck Wendig does a great job of recreating the action of the classic novels that were written when pulp ruled the book stands. The first book opens in the middle of the action, and barely lets up from then until the last page, sending the heroes jet-setting from tall cities of secret lairs. Mysterious artifacts, impossible devices and wondrous weapons from ancient worlds are all presented in classic pulp fashion.

But it is the characters that shine through all else. As well as the larger task of wanting to save the world, each gets their own personal goal. Some simply want to prove themselves more that their progenitor, others want to impress their colleagues, while more simply want the fame and glory. They are real people with real emotions and desires, and they can be hurt, both physically, with punishing blows, and emotionally, with humiliating defeats.

Everything in these books is paired down to a sharp point. Chuck Wendig manages to set up more inthe opening pages than some authors manage in opening chapters. We immediately get a sense of who we're up against, and what's at stake. When the twists and reveals come, it simply reinforces what's already there, rather than taking the story on a wild, unexpected tangent. Dialogue is equally sharp, with every character having their own voice, reading sufficiently differently from each other throughout the story.

The two books available in the Dinocalypse trilogy so far are a blast, taking readers on a thrilling ride through a suitably epic pulp adventure. I have no doubt that the final volume, Dinocalypse Forever will be equally as exciting when it hits bookshelves and e-readers everywhere in 2014.

Edit: The original upload of this post had a mix-up with the names of the second and third books in the series. It has been corrected here. Annoyingly, I didn't notice, despite the correct titles clearly visible on the embedded cover art. Sorry for any confusion caused.

Steel Yourself For Adventure

On January 1st, 1900 a group of people were born across the world that would go on to be a little more than human, a little faster, a little stronger, a little more intuitive. As adults, they would form the core members of the Century Club (along with a talking gorilla, but that's for another story), an organisation whose mission is to protect the world from the evil that lurks in the Shadows. They would stand tall against the darkness, becoming a beacon of hope and of honour. Those who met them would call them heroes, those who knew them would call them friends.

But even heroes and friends have to spend time growing up, learning life's hard lessons and allowing events to mold them into the people the world will come to love. Few heroes start adventuring in their twenties or thirties, and in the world of Spirit of the Century, the best start out as daredevil teens who have a tendency to get themselves into more trouble than your average kid.

Sally Slick and the Steel Syndicate is an action packed Young Adult novel from author Carrie Harris (Bad Taste In Boys) set in the world of Evil Hat Productions Spirit of the Century roleplaying game. It follows the release of other books set in the same world that focus on the same heroes, but later in their adventuring careers, including the first of this wave of pulp adventure novels, Dinocalypse Now, by Chuck Wendig.

Sally Slick and the Steel Syndicate follows the adventures of The Century Club's premiere inventor and gadgeteer, Sally Slick, during her first brush with the world beyond her home and away from racing tractors and tinkering with engines in her fathers garage. In this pulp action novel, Sally is just sixteen years old and unaware of her potential, or her future as a globe trotting adventurer with her childhood friend and co-star, Jet Black.

This first book, in what I hope becomes a series, is a fantastic introduction to the world of pulp heroes and villains, packed with fresh takes on classic tropes. I really, really don't want to spoil a single moment from this book, but if you're a fan of the pulp genre you'll enjoy the twists and turns the story takes as our heroes battle the bad guys to save not the world, just a family member who has fallen in over his head. If you're a fan of the Spirit of the Century world, either from the roleplaying game or the previously published novels, then you'll love seeing the characters grow over the course of the story from imaginative children into the heroes you already know.

There was much to squee loudly about over the course of Sally and Jets adventure, for new and old fans. Reveals were masterfully executed, especially... well... especially one in particular that had me smiling with joy and slapping my head that I hadn't seen it coming, despite the setup that suddenly seemed so obvious! Villains are suitably nefarious, action scenes are daring and dramatic and characters are incredibly well realized, leaping fully formed into my minds eye.

"But Dennis", I hear you asking, "what about if you've never played Spirit of the Century, or read any of the other books in the setting?" First of all, it's Denis. One "n". The French spelling. Secondly, and more important, however, is the fact the Sally Slick and the Steel Syndicate is just simply a great book. The story is fun and fast paced, the central characters are all well crafted, and each gets their time to shine, while even the secondary characters seem more rounded than some big-budget movie supporting cast (I'm looking at you, "Man of Steel").

Sally Slick and the Steel Syndicate is the perfect introduction to the world of the pulp adventurer for the young reader, and a wonderful addition to any library that might also contain Flash Gordon, Doc Savage or The Shadow. It's an easy read, without ever being too basic, an action story that gives its characters time to develop between rounds of intense and masterfully written conflict.

If Carrie Harris is a new name to you, you'll be keeping an eye out for her work after reading this. If Sally, Jet and The Century Club were unfamiliar titles before starting this adventure, then you'll find yourself seeking out their other tales of daring and heroics before you even reach the final page.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, T'was His Intent

Purely because it's been a tradition on this blog since 2007, here's this years Guy Fawkes post. Honestly, it's far less in honour of someone who tried to blow up the British Parliament, and more in honour of my love for V For Vendetta.

Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.

Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t'was his intent
To blow up King and Parliament.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England's overthrow;
By God's providence he was catch'd
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King
!