flipflopI will never claim that Big Finish only puts out good stories, because we will invariably like some more than others; it’s just how life works.  However, I will always applaud their ability to do something clever.  This isn’t the best they have to offer, but it surely is one of the most intriguing.

Back in my review of Nekromanteia, I made the comment that we’d never have a good conversation about flip-flops.  And while I stand behind that belief, we can get into a good conversation about the Big Finish story Flip-Flop!  Episode 46 comes in a special box.  The box is colored black and white.  The CDs inside are in two smaller cases, not like all the others.  They are not labeled Disc one and Disc two.  One is called White Disc, the other Black Disc.  Aesthetically, I am reminded of the video game Black and White, but no other similarities exist between the two.  So the obvious problem here is: which CD do I listen to first?  In the event you’re not sure, remember: Big Finish is bold and experimental.

Whether you love the story or not really doesn’t matter.  You can’t listen to it and not be impressed by the creativity that went into it.  Mel and the Doctor arrive on the planet Puxatornee to find Leptonite Crystals to help combat an issue with Quarks elsewhere.   Upon arrival, they are already being hunted for something they haven’t done yet.  This is where the story gets clever because they actually already have, and Mel realizes it right away.  Still, you’re not sure; you’re wondering if maybe you put the wrong disc on, but you haven’t.  The Doctor and Mel are stuck in a time loop and while they get out, their past selves are arriving.  As they make it through the story, they leave and their past selves arrive… effectively, you could go on listening to this story, flipping or flopping between the White CD and the Black forever.

I could try to explain how both discs are different, but it wouldn’t be worth it.  Instead, think of it this way: you are unhappy with your current existence so you go back in time to change it.  You come back only to realize things are worse this way, so you go back in time to change the change, but now can’t because you are part of events so you try to undo the change to the change, but… yeah.  You can see why I’m not going to talk about the differences; it would take a book.  (Or you could listen to it yourselves!)  Even the CD insert says there’s no right way to listen to these.  But I’ll give Big Finish still one more standing ovation: when the first disc ended, there was a “coming soon from Big Finish” announcement.  Ah, well, now I knew I listened to the “wrong one” first.  Except, when I finished the second one, they had a “coming soon from Big Finish” announcement.  Ah well now, I knew I had listened… wait!  That was so damned clever.  I almost felt like I was in a time loop!

There are some really great lines, but that’s not what stands out about this episode.  That doesn’t mean I won’t share them!  I loved the Slithergee’s line: “Being a minority has nothing to do with how many of us there are!”   I also enjoyed hearing Mel argue with the Doctor over his “when I say ‘run'” catchphrase only for him to say “come on” instead.  Her sudden understanding of philosophical debate was pretty stellar too, and she comes in with one more great one before the end.  She’s told about the cell they are locked in and that it can only be unlocked from the outside, which she feels makes perfect sense, as it is a cell, after all.  And the Doctor gets a particularly clever comment in about “radiation gloves” that made me nostalgic for The Daleks.

Now you may think this is ironic, but I listened to this at the beginning of February.  In the States, Punxsutawney Phil is our seer of future weather on Groundhog Day.  He lets us know if we have 6 more weeks of winter coming and more often than not, I want to strangle him, since I hate the cold weather.  Anyway, while the spelling was different, I had no doubt that this was a built-in reference to the Bill Murray classic, Groundhog Day wherein Bill Murray is caught in a time loop.  Very clever, but not surprising considering Big Finish is run by some of the most clever storytellers I’ve ever heard of.

I will never claim that Big Finish only puts out good stories, because we will invariably like some more than others; it’s just how life works.  However, I will always applaud their ability to do something clever.  This isn’t the best they have to offer, but it surely is one of the most intriguing.    ML

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The Prisoner: Dance of the Dead

The Prisoner Dance of the DeadAfter a run of episodes featuring escapes, near-fatal dream manipulation, a doppelgänger and a return to London, Dance of the Dead feels like the lowest key, lowest stakes episode for a while. It also doesn’t feel like it belongs in this part of the series at all, with the messed up episode order really rearing it’s ugly head. There have been times where the episode order has created problems before, but this is the biggest one by far because it is so much like an early episode where Number Six is new to the Village. There has been too much water under the bridge for an episode like this, at this stage of the game. It’s not just that he says he is “new here”, it’s the way he reacts to events. He seems to be checking out his environment and learning once again, and he makes a pointless escape attempt, running along the beach. Where does he think he is running to?

Luckily Mary Morris is on hand to elevate the episode to a much more enjoyable one than it would have been with most other Number Twos, the best since Leo McKern. Number Six’s maid this week was also a lot of fun, with plenty of innuendo on both sides:

“We’ll get along.”
“I’m sure you get along with everybody.”

…and the possibly unintentional (but there’s something about the way she delivers the line):

“Everyone’s having a good time outside.”
“Wait until tonight.”

Once again, Patrick McGoohan showed what he can do. I particularly liked the scene early in the episode when Number Six was fighting through the mind control, shaking with the effort of the mental battle. But he was also back to the astute version of Number Six, questioning everything and everyone, who has been largely absent from the last few episodes.

“Am I playing her game, or yours?”

I had a job to get to grips with the main plot of the episode, which all seemed a bit confusing, but I think the point of it was the dead body being used as a substitute for Number Six to report his death to the outside world. Once again that feels like something that should have happened earlier in the series, but more importantly it doesn’t make a huge amount of sense. An autopsy would surely reveal that it’s somebody else, and if that can be manipulated by the powers that be, then their manipulation of the release of information would likely extend to not even needing a body at all. Number Six had his own use for the body: not so much a message in a bottle as a message in a body, which was a bit bleak, but not as bleak as what happened during the rather pointless kangaroo court scene. Six’s old friend Dutton turned up lobotomised, and not just that but dressed up as a jester to humiliate him. It was the cruellest moment the series has offered us so far, and a clear indication of the level of danger that faces Six. This fate may await him eventually if he’s not careful. The villagers screaming and chasing after him was a nightmarish moment. Again, this episode works so well as one that establishes the situation Six is in, and the risk to his life, which it is wasted halfway through the series.

In the end, though, it was still a fascinating tactical battle between two cool customers: Mary Morris’s fabulous Number Two and Patrick McGoohan’s unflappable Number Six. The cat who moved back and forth between them acted as rather a neat metaphor for that game of cat and mouse. As viewers of Tom and Jerry know, in that game it’s not always easy to get the better of the mouse.   RP

The view from across the pond:

Dance of the Dead is as close to a horror themed episode as any Prisoner episode to date.  The music is marvelously eerie, there’s an element of torture and brainwashing, and a costume party that’s disturbing and fun in equal measure.  (I say fun from a viewer’s perspective not from a party-goers!)

Up until now, we’ve seen a number of strong female characters in the Village, with Mary Morris making the third female #2 since the series started.  She is also the strongest; she’s patient, clever and she never loses her cool, even when she claims to be too old to take the stairs!  While she realizes how important #6 is (“You know the instructions about #6…”), she doesn’t seem to have a problem putting him on trial and potentially letting a mob beat him to death.  On the other hand, she does stop the torture that was going on at the start of the episode.  I’ll come back to that in a second.

We get a number of hints about 6’s time in the village.  For instance, this probably is near the start of #6’s stay in the Village.  “I’m new here”, he says.  Later, when talking to his old friend, Dutton, they discuss how long they’ve both been incarcerated in the Village.  Dutton says he’s been there a couple month but 6 says he’s a recent addition.  On a side note, it’s interesting that Dutton is stunned to see 6.  Again, no indication of who 6 is, but Dutton says “You of all people!  I’d never have believed it!”  Clearly #6 was someone held in very high esteem.  Giving more hints about who #6 is, the torture scene at the start of the episode offers some additional background, but nothing too detailed.  Dutton tries to get 6 to talk.  “They want a breakdown of all we know.  You, me, Arthur, the Colonel, everybody.” Is the Colonel the same one from Chimes?  Many Happy Returns?  Does it matter?  And who is Arthur?  Or who was Roland Walter Dutton for that matter?

Since the start of the series, we’ve seen some very strange things including clones (the repairmen and possibly Curtis in The Schizoid Man), Rover, and most of the tech the Village uses.  That leads us to wonder about the nature of the Village.  #2 offers us some items of interest.  She seems to have an affinity with the cat that seems to spy on #6.  (“Never trust a woman.  Even the four-legged variety!”)   Not a big deal on its own although it made me wonder if that was the same black cat from Many Happy Returns!  To add to that, when she’s talking to the “judges”, she says “he’s a human being, with weaknesses of his kind”.  “…of his kind” sounds suspiciously like she does not belong in that category.  Is it possible that the people running the Village are not human?  I mean, the episode ends with #6 destroying the printer’s internal components only for it to continue working.  That’s not normal!  The Town Hall also has a forcefield of some sort that prevents #6 walking in.  (This scene is very strange too; it takes the viewer a moment to work out what happened!)  And Rover is possibly the strangest life form of all, being summoned from the depths whenever needed and suffocating people; possibly even absorbing some.   What about the fact that when #6 asks about the wallet in the pocket of the dead man, #2 tells him it’s still there, but slightly amended?  “We’ll amend him slightly too”, she says.  Further confirmation of otherworldly technology, perhaps?  Lastly, is it just a totalitarian state when the town crier announces “There will be music, dancing, happiness; all at the carnival.  By order!”  or can they force emotions from the inhabitants when they want to?

There are also two other women in this story that are worthy of note.  #240 is #6’s observer.  She is there to keep an eye on #6 but not to interact with him.  She’s Little Bo Peep for the carnival and she has to always know where her sheep are.  But #6 made it very clear in Free for All that he is not one of the “mindless sheep” so her choice of costume is interesting and if the order of episodes is indeed out of sequence, her costume may be what influences his statement in that episode.  Does #240 observe more than one sheep?  Then there’s the lovely maid who asks what #6’s costume is.  He shows her that he was delivered his own suit for the occasion.  “What does that mean”, she asks.  “That I am still… myself,” he pronounces.  This moment alone probably warrants an essay, but the idea behind it is that the others are not themselves and the carnival displays a wide variety of people, all of whom are not themselves.  The only person who remains true to himself is #6.  “He’s an individual and they are always trying!”

The episode doesn’t stop there.  Throughout the series, we get that wonderful opening, but one line is “whose side are you on?” which makes us wonder about the Village and those who control it.  When #240 indicates there is a democratic quality to the village, she points out that it is “of the people, by the people, for the people”.  Does this imply the Village is part of the United States?

The entire episode feels like a dream.  The aforementioned creepy music helps create that dreamlike quality.  Mary Morris on the beach as Peter Pan is just another marvelous touch.  “I like my dreams,” says #6.  “Then you are mad!” says #2.  She later suggests to #6, “perhaps you don’t exist”!  And then there’s the radio.  It starts off in gibberish, but as #6 tunes it, we get the following:

“Nowhere is there more beauty than here. Tonight, when the moon rises, the whole world will turn to silver.  Do you understand?  It is important that you understand.  I have a message for you.  You must listen.  The appointment cannot be fulfilled.  Other things must be done tonight.  If our torment is to end, if liberty is to be restored, we must grasp the nettle, even though it makes our hands bleed.  Only through pain can tomorrow be assured.”

What does it mean?  Is it just a random broadcast?  Moments later, a new voice can be heard saying “… that Practice Dictation was at 60 words per minute.”  Was that the same channel or was it changed?  Was the message for the Village?  Consider: “Nowhere is there more beauty than here” – the village is beautiful and it is a self-contained location unhampered by world governments.  Tonight when the moon rises, the whole world will turn to silver: the carnival is that very night, where no curfew exists.  “…the appointment cannot be fulfilled.  Other things must be done tonight” – like what?  #6 can’t get his message out because he has to “die” instead?  “If our torment is to end, if liberty is to be restored, we must grasp the nettle even though it makes our hands bleed.  Only through pain can tomorrow be assured” – or is the death of #6 important on a larger scale?  Does his death herald a different kind of freedom?  I’m sure there’s a lot to be said without many real answers.  I guess we could debate about it for a long time.  As they say, “feel free!”  ML

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Elfen Lied

Elfen Lied Lucy NyuI’m not keen on violence in television and film so I never expected to enjoy a series like this, packed full of dismemberments and bodies being sliced and diced in any way possible. If you can’t stomach blood and gore you probably won’t get past the first scene of the first episode. If nudity offends you then you might not even get past the opening titles. This is strong stuff, but the storyline is fascinating and compelling and drew me in almost immediately despite my misgivings.

The plot concerns a mutant species known as Diclonius. Visibly they look the same as us, apart from a couple of small horns on the head, which can of course be easily concealed. But they have an ace up their sleeves (or rather, behind their backs): extra arms, known as “vectors”, which are invisible, deadly and extend for a great distance. It might sound like a weird idea, but the animators really make it work convincingly.

The series has a lot to say about the harm humans do, particularly scientists. They go to great lengths to rationalise their cruel experiments on the Diclonius by the risk they pose, and it is indeed true that the main character at the very least is capable of snapping into a split personality and creating mass murder of innocents, but she is driven to that by the most extreme form of bullying. Throughout the series it is the humans who are the monsters, while the Diclonius have the humanity and compassion, once they understand that the world is more than just the torture chamber they are familiar with. That’s not to say there aren’t good human characters. This series is all about shades of grey, every shade conceivable in fact. So we have a scale that has at one end the heartless torturing scientists and the brutal soldiers, and at the other there is Kouta, who takes in and helps anyone in need (although we can’t give him too much credit because they are all cute girls who sometimes don’t understand the need for clothes). In between we have the scientists who are driven to do what they do, and in the end one in particular has to learn what family really means and what matters in life. Nobody is a stereotype though. Even Kouta is indirectly responsible for a world of tragedy, thanks to one simple lie.

This is also a very clever series. Initially you might think things are happening by chance, such as when Lucy is discovered naked on the beach by Kouta, but she didn’t randomly get washed up just anywhere after her escape. The series gradually reveals the connections between all the main characters via flashback sequences, which add an emotional level to the whole thing. My only criticism is the penultimate episode, which reuses a lot of flashback footage, at a time when you feel that the animators should have been making the most of the available running time to bring the story to its dramatic conclusion. That is the only time this happens though.

There is a strong element of romance to balance against the horror, and it is a story of love conquering the most astonishing odds. It is also a story of forgiveness, although that’s not quite the right word. You’ll have to watch it to understand what I mean by that.

Only one of the main characters didn’t work for me, and that was Kouta’s cousin Yuka. She is an essential character but her obsession with Kouta and her jealousy starts to grate on the nerves pretty quickly. At least the series eventually shows us the consequences of all-consuming jealousy, in spectacular fashion. Apart from that they are a fabulous cast of characters, from the split-personality Lucy/Nyu, to the homeless child abuse victim, to the Diclonius sent to fight Lucy, to the brutal soldier who is obsessed with the girl who defeated him, to the scientist who has to make an impossible decision. Later in the series the threat level ramps up with the introduction of the mysterious “Number 35”, who is spectacular. But this is far more than a lazy series that simply raises the stakes with the boss level enemy at the end. Number 35 is a key character in her own right, an essential link in the chain of events, and has an emotional journey of her own which will leave you a blubbering wreck if you have a heart.

So my recommendation is this, with the proviso that the DVD release is a 15 and I’m surprised it’s not an 18: if you have an aversion to graphic violence and nudity in anime and you can possibly get past that, then try. Elfen Lied is a series that is worth pushing past those kinds of reservations for, if at all possible, because otherwise you are missing out on one of the greatest anime stories ever told. All aspects of humanity are to be found here, and the most human of all are the monsters.

We will be taking an episode by episode look at this series later in the year.   RP

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The Haunting of Villa Diodati

lonecybermanLord Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley (well, she will be), John Polidori. All great writers, and fascinating human beings. It’s a job to get a sense of that from this episode, which just packs so much in. It’s difficult enough to get to know four different historical figures in a single 50 minute episode, but when that episode also contains a very complex haunting story and then ties it in to a returning monster, the characterisations struggle to come across. It doesn’t help that the Doctor travels around with four companions nowadays. It’s a crowded narrative.

So I’m not sure this episode did much of a job of examining these four important characters, or even explaining clearly what they are famous for. Earlier this series, Doctor Who did a very good job of shining a light on a lesser known historical figure: Nikola Tesla. Most of us probably came away from that having learnt something new. Could you say the same about John Polidori, other than a vague impression that he was a bit of an idiot? That idiot arguably invented the whole vampire genre. Well, vampyre, strictly speaking.

The episode was set on the night that the four writers accepted Byron’s suggestion to write a ghost story each, and as always Doctor Who continues to rob historical figures of their own original ideas by showing an adventure with the Doctor to be their source of inspiration. When the Doctor arrives, apparently an expert in these four writers, she is immediately surprised to see them cavorting around. Does she know nothing about them? My favourite character actually turned out not to be one of the writers, but the valet Fletcher, who communicates exactly how tiresome he finds everything, just with his expression. He’s also pretty handy with a tray, if you’ll pardon the pun.

Where the episode was really on solid ground was with all the scary stuff. The spidery hands were creepy enough to activate the arachnophobia instinct, especially the one lurking above Yas’s head. The episode was shot by candlelight, which was extremely effective, and the apparitions worked well. I enjoyed how the explanation for them fitted so perfectly, and yet a couple of them defied explanation.

“Ghosts don’t exist, right?”
“Unless they do.”

That’s an unusual thing for the Doctor to say, somebody who usually has a boring technobabble term for anything supernatural. I liked it.

What I didn’t like so much were the times the episode went a bit too far. Maybe it’s the paternal instinct in me, but I was very troubled by the danger to the baby, and when it was replaced with a skull and a hand in the cot I thought that was stepping over the line of good taste. Similarly, I didn’t like this:

“I slit their throats when I joined the resistance.”

The episode had enough scares. It didn’t need to conjure up that image in the mind of children watching, if any actually are still watching Doctor Who any more. That line came from the lips of the Lone Cybermen, whose appearance was predicted by Captain Jack. I’m in two minds about the half-converted Cyberman. He retained his emotions, which added another layer of threat, but on the other hand seeing the man inside the costume does diminish the fear factor to some extent, especially as so much of the face was visible. You lose the uncanny valley dread that the Cybermen inspire, for a start. As a one off, it’s OK. I’m sure lots of fans will say that his appearance was predictable. We knew a Lone Cyberman was coming later in the season and this episode features the writer of Frankenstein. I am a little ashamed to say that I didn’t see that coming, but perhaps that shows the wisdom of teasing a big development like that and then forgetting about it for a couple of episodes. More importantly, it illustrates how involved I was in the story.

Having said that, I don’t think I was really invested in the moral dilemma, which was a lot of fuss over nothing. Of course the Doctor wasn’t going to just sacrifice Shelley’s life. She does what she always does: deal with one problem at a time, rather elegantly expressed with the idea of undoing the damage of “step one” in “step two”.

I suppose we need to go off and re-evaluate Journey into Terror now, from the First Doctor story The Chase. Now that we know the original source of inspiration for Frankenstein’s monster, in a way that was our first Daleks vs Cybermen story, and we never realised it.

“Words matter.”   RP

The view from across the pond:

Where do I start?  You know, if this season of Doctor Who has taught me anything, it’s: go in expecting nothing.  The few times I went in excited for one of these episodes this season, I’ve been horribly let down.  Now when I expected rubbish…

The Haunting of Villa Diodati was a very pleasant surprise.  I spent the week condemning what I expected was going to be a lonely episode right before things should have gotten “good” with the 2 part finale.  Sort of the way 2005’s Boom Town happened just before Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways.  Boom Town was not a bad episode, but it was a lonely episode surrounded by far superior ones.  Seeing what Chibnall has been giving us so far, it was an easy expectation to have.  But from the moment the opening credits revealed the writer was not Chibnall, I experienced what can only be called “a glimmer of hope”.  If I’m being honest, Maxine Alderton’s opening was not an inspiration to me.  When people knock at the glass doors, one shouldn’t jump when the resident opens the door.  Glass, a reasonably unexpected invention that allows us to see through wall, should have shown both the visitors to the homeowner, as well as the homeowner to said visitors.  Then the rather unexpected comment about the psychic paper, “might need a blow dry”, just made it clear that Maxine was after a laugh, when it really wasn’t needed.

But then the episode starts getting creepy quickly.  A hand rips out of a painting, creepy apparitions appear in the hallways, there’s a kid behind a closing door, and the house functions much the way M. C. Escher’s paintings do.  The hand alone was a priceless piece for me as it moved around like a sinister spider.  My wife pointed out that it served little purpose, and in fairness, she is right, but it was so utterly magnificent that I can turn a blind eye.  Frankly, the scene with it on the wall above Yaz’s head just made my day.  I am an absolute sucker for a bit of eerie!  And the episode didn’t stop there!  The baby’s crib occupied by a skull with skeletal hand was marvelously disturbing.  Bravo!

On top of the creepy, there was a suitable amount of comedy.  Graham is, hands down, the funniest of the characters.  His toilet excursion was far funnier to me than perhaps it should have been.  “Splendid.  Very convenient!”   Or his “I’m going with: alien parasite” gave me reason to chuckle.  I also loved the idea that team TARDIS come from somewhere “much, much stranger”, “The north!”  But there was something that was plaguing the entire episode for me: the use of the accursed Sonic Screwdriver.  I truly see why JNT destroyed it all those years ago.  When the Doctor said of the house, “it isn’t letting me think”, I immediately applied that to the sonic. It doesn’t let her think; it gives her all the answers.  And she seems to have no concern about who sees her use it, regardless of how out of place it is.  Say it with me, class: anachronisms.  And apparently Dr. McCoy’s scanner in Star Trek might be loosely based on the Sonic, since it can give a breakdown of the elements in bone.  And for what it can’t do: the Doctor can always taste human bones to figure out what century they hail from.  You know… because that makes sense.  “My bones have never caused such mischief before!”  (Let it go… just, let it go…)

But ignoring the problems, which in fairness don’t take away much of anything (I’m picking nits, as it were…) the unexpected happens when a form is seen in the lightning roughly half-way though the episode.  When the Doctor realizes it’s a time traveler, I was expecting a repeat of Matt Smith’s Hide.  We had all the right elements: ghost story, creepy house, historical characters, historical setting, and a time traveler to boot!   What I didn’t expect was to have a prelude to the finale.  We went from Boom Town to Utopia in one fell swoop.  Once the Doctor realizes we are in Cyber-territory, things get really exciting.

14 years ago, I wrote a complaint about Russell T. Davies and, while I apologize for ever doubting Russell, I do still stand behind my idea of what the Cybermen should have been upon their return.  It took those 14 years for my idea to sink in and by God I was happy with it.  The idea of a half-finished Cyberman was far creepier than the Age of Steel variety of machine men.  This had organic bits.  This had an arm that was important from Mondas and a back full of lights.  It resonated power and terror.  They felt like there was decaying human flesh mixed with eternal metal.  That is far more terrifying than robots.  When this particular human reminisces about his children and then the horror of what he is sinks in, we realize the Cybermen should be the most terrifying of all races in Doctor Who, and we get a glimpse of what they really are all about.  “You will be like us.”  The Doctor is horrified and ignores the advice of Captain Jack because she realizes sometimes she can’t win.  She’s truly between a rock and a hard place.  She has to give the lone Cyberman what it wants!  The Cybermen are back and they are glorious.  Let’s hope they stay that way.

But the episode didn’t just impress me with the enemy or the creepy bits.  It was a writer’s dream.  When the Doctor realizes the stakes: one man or billions, the revelation is based on who the man is.  In this case, it’s a writer.  One man can make a difference.  (Which is doubly ironic for me because tonight I also watched Classic Trek’s Mirror, Mirror.  “In every revolution there is one man with a vision!”)   I should also point out that this scene leads to another dialogue triumph when the Doctor talks about the org structure of her team, where she is with some of the decisions she has to make.  If she allows Byron to die, the future that Ryan comes from would not exist.  “I will not lose anyone else to that,” she says, clearly remembering Bill Potts.   She isn’t going to gamble on that.  Her point, though, is that words matter.  And that gave me hope.  Maybe Roger and I will make a difference with our website. As writers our words could potentially influence someone.  And maybe that changes the future.  Even on a super small level, maybe it matters.  And that is what dreams are made of!

Back to the past, Mary Shelley gets her inspiration, even calling the Cyberman “this modern Prometheus”, a cobbled together bunch of parts, who gets power from lightning.  History remains intact.  The gorgeous Nadia Parks as Claire Clairmont gets to smack Percy down with an empowering “the spell is broken!” because the way he treated her.  (Marvelously said.)  Percy Bysshe Shelley gets to end the episode with a quote while the camera falls on the Doctor, “she was the universe.”  And the Doctor gets a great quote, “Don’t lose hope!”  I had truly started to lose hope this season.  I think I’ve been convinced to trust the Doctor and hold on for just a little longer!    ML

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Glass Mask

glassmaskThe Junkyard presents a review by Daz of the anime series Glass Mask.  Contains some spoilers: 

Recently I felt that I was doing myself wrong by overlooking the longer shows. Some of these shows have been on my watch list for a very long time yet I always just scroll past them when searching for something new. I make excuses about time or how I could have watched two or maybe three shows in that same space of time. This just simply isn’t cool so I decided to pick one and stick with it. I mean, it isn’t like I haven’t watched longer running anime before. Monster, Dragonball and Hajime No Ippo are long and I enjoyed them greatly so why hold myself back from something that could be the best thing I’ve never seen?

I decided upon a show called Glass Mask and what an amazing experience it was. Never have I seen a show quite like this one. It’s about a young girl called Maya who wants to be an actress. You find her mimicking lines from TV shows in her bedroom or even at school. Acting out scenes by herself gets her instantly treated as a weird girl and it isn’t appreciated by her mother at all.

This typical negative behaviour towards the arts (music, dancing, acting, etc) is something that I have had to deal with and it’s confusing and hurtful: constantly being told to do “normal” things yet watching as they idolise the very people they tell you you cannot be. Maya fights against this and I’m truly glad she did. It’s something I wish I had the power to do when I was a kid. Hey, if I ever find myself in a situation where I can go back in time, I know what to do.

Maya and her mother work in a ramen shop where her mother is very critical and ashamed of her daughter, always treating her like a let down and never giving her praise. This creates a situation where everyone treats Maya the same way, like she’s nothing. A nobody. Especially to the daughter of the people that own the shop.

One day Maya sees an advert for a play that’s happening in her area starring a very talented young actress called Ayumi Himekawa. She is absolutely delighted by this but doesn’t have the money to get a ticket. Upon finding this out, the daughter of the shop owner decides to be spiteful and buys a ticket and shows off to Maya. At that point, a snow storm happens. Maya’s mother is very ill yet they still need deliveries going out. The daughter then tells Maya she can have the ticket if she makes ALL the deliveries by midnight.

Her eyes open wide at this opportunity and she sets out immediately. She cuts it fine but manages to do it. As she meets outside to get the ticket, the daughter is so shocked and angry that she throws the ticket into the air and it blows towards the sea front. Maya isn’t about to let this pass her by and runs off the pier into the sea and gets it. Already I know I’m in for a good show. The drive of this kid is phenomenal. Even when faced with near impossible odds, she manages to come out on top through her own sheer will.

She watches the play and is blown away by it. It’s everything she’s ever wanted and more. There and then she decides she is going to be an actress.

Walking home she starts reciting parts of the play which gains her the attention of a mysterious woman who previously saw her dive in the sea all for the sake of a ticket. The woman confronts her with a proposition… Will you let me make you an actress? It turns out that the woman was an old starlet who just happens to be looking for somebody to star in her play called “The Scarlet Angel”.

Maya agrees and is whisked away to an acting school where she is immediately mocked by the students there for not knowing what to do and having no acting background except for one…

The girl from the play, Ayumi Himekawa. She notices the raw talent and natural ability that Maya has and instantly puts the students in their place and vows to keep an eye on this unknown prodigy.

What we get next is the gripping story of a young girl with an amazing natural ability trying her best to make it and her rival who has all the skills to make it to the top. Who will get there to win the role of the coveted Scarlet Angel?

This had me gripped from that very first episode and writing it all out makes me want to watch it again. It’s that good. The writing is excellent. There is never a dull moment. As you are whisked through their lives, you see and feel it all. The acting performances they give are amazing and the way the scenes play out just amps it up to the max.

The name “Glass Mask” refers to the fragile mask that actors have to wear each time they become a character. One tiny mishap can shatter the moment and ruin the Illusion. I never hear or see anybody talking about acting in this way and it’s great to get inside the minds of people that pretend all the time. What do they do to become somebody else? How do you come back from that? How much of themselves do they lose? It’s all very fascinating stuff.

One gripe I had with it though is the weird love angle that occurs between Maya and the owner of a studio. The first time he lays eyes on her, he becomes infatuated and makes sure she can be all she can be. He puts her through classes, he sorts out living accommodation, he makes plays available to her but he does all this through the acts of a fan… He sends Maya a blue rose every time she is in a show. She has no idea and uses her “fan” as a way to motivate herself. All the while, she actually hates this guy. He is horrible to her and creates some true heartache in their actual lives, and yet he’s winning her over secretly. I found this super creepy. This is grooming. It’s not cool to watch and would make my skin crawl every time he was on screen. I wasn’t a fan of that angle at all. There are boys her own age so there’s hope that she ends up with them. Fingers crossed…

This leads me on to my other gripe with this show: the ending was poor. I couldn’t believe it. How could something this amazing have an ending like this? Well you see, it doesn’t really have an ending. It’s left open in what’s another case of “manga wasn’t finished yet”; something else ruined by this strange need to adapt things with no ending. It will never make sense to me. It’s still enjoyable though. The ending was not about to put me off. It just stopped it from being a masterpiece.

This show gets a 9/10 from me. It’s absolute top drawer. Some of the episodes are amazing: 38 & 39 in particular, as Maya and Ayumi show off their skills once again but on a bigger scale. I could quite easily watch those two over and over.

Glass Mask was an amazing 51 episode ride that is well worth the time even if the ending is a bit off. And oh yeah, let’s not forget the groomy bit…

Actually let’s.  DT

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Erased Episode 7

Satoru and Kayo Erased Out of Control 7“Out of Control”

The view from Igirisu:

“Go back! Go back! Just once more… please!”

Whether it’s sheer willpower that takes him back, or heightened emotions, or his prayers being answered, Satoru returns to 1988 and his date with Kayo at the museum. Understandably, the tears flow. This time he can’t make a mistake.

We continue a couple of important themes that have been bubbling under the surface of Erased. Last week, Satoru wanted to give Airi some words of hope and asked what a superhero would say. This week he has to come up with some kind of an explanation for the extraordinarily perceptive Kenya, and this is what he says:

“I’m a superhero… or… I want to be.”

Kenya seems to be the cleverest 11-year-old in the world, realising that Satoru isn’t the same person he used to be, and testing out the theory by making up the title of a book that he never actually lent to Satoru (it’s not a real book title, in case you’re wondering).

“Satoru, who are you?”

He’s incredibly astute, and a powerful ally. There is always a nagging feeling on first viewing of Erased about whether he can be trusted. After all, we have seen him having secret meetings with Gaku Yashiro, so could he be part of some shady conspiracy? He does come across as totally genuine and trustworthy, but the writing is clever and we can’t quite be sure.

Another clever bit of misdirection this week happens when Satoru visits Yuuki, planning to give him an alibi. We know that he’s not the murderer, but it hasn’t been entirely clear up to this point if he has paedophile tendencies or not anyway. When Satoru tells him that he is dating Kayo there is a fleeting moment when Yuuki appears to be shaking with jealousy and Satoru is getting ready to defend himself with a craft knife… and then the tables are turned on us and it becomes clear that Yuuki is simply experiencing powerful emotions at the thought that this poor, lonely, beaten child is no longer alone. He cares deeply for the welfare of the kids he knows. It’s a great bit of writing.

From then on, Satoru starts changing events dramatically, providing Yuuki with an alibi and getting Kayo to agree to him “kidnapping her”. He comes very close to killing Kayo’s mum, and here we come to the other major running theme: the importance of friendship. Kenya stops him from going too far, and does so simply on the grounds of logic: if Satoru kills her and gets caught, the game’s up for him and he can’t help Kayo. Again, this is great writing. If Kenya appealed to Satoru on a moral level it would be hard to side with him. He would still be right, but we’ve witnessed the monstrous actions of Kayo’s mum and we’ve seen her smile while she disposes of her dead daughter’s possessions.

Thinking back to watching Erased for the first time, it provides a viewing experience that can’t be replicated the second time round. Satoru’s attempts to save Kayo (and his mum) have failed once. In fact, everything he has tried to do has failed, other than giving Kayo a happier last few days (which is important). So when we see things apparently going well for him, we can’t help but expect something to go wrong. When I watched this the first time I was on edge through this whole episode, and the ending seemed to confirm my suspicions.

This is a fabulous “water cooler moment” series. It’s such fun to discuss after each episode, and the topic when I was chatting to my wife about this episode the first time round was very much about the mistakes Satoru was making and what we would do differently. Surely he’s trusting too many people? Surely too many people know where Kayo is hidden? Surely it would be easy to find her because of the tracks in the snow? Surely one of Satoru’s friends is betraying him? But we were forgetting the key theme of Erased: the importance of friendship. Sometimes you just have to trust people.

Either way, with somebody entering the old bus where Kayo is hiding, are we about to see Satoru fail again?   RP

The view from Amerika:

Satoru was arrested at the end of the episode 6 and I stayed my hand at immediately watching another episode.  That wasn’t easy.  I wanted time to digest what happened.  Two days later, I started episode 7.  Out of Control opens with a recap and picks up at that moment right after Satoru noticed the watcher.  He’s about to be pushed into the police car when he screams “Go back”.  There is an incredible effect of “negative lighting” the scene, coupled by a blast of music and a freeze frame image… and he’s back in the past with Kayo.  There was no doubt in my mind that he’d go back, but it was a question of how he’d do it.  This gives him a second chance to correct the death of Kayo.  It’s also his last chance, as he says “this is my last revival!”  We now know he will not get another chance after this.  He has to get it right.

Today I had a conversation about superhero movies.  (For the record, today I’m still back in 2019; this article is a time traveler’s dream, rather appropriately.)  The conversation was regarding good superhero movies and TV shows.  It seems I chose a good day to watch this episode; a day when I should be talking about Erased as another good superhero series.  It comes about this way… Satoru is lured into talking to Kenya by a comment about a fake book.  Kenya goes all Vorlon on Satoru, asking “Who are you?”  The scene is heavy with drama; a big moment as Kenya begins to figure out that something is different with Satoru now.  Satoru has the chance at a big reveal; something truly inspired…  he thinks it through, struggles, and upon imagining a Power Ranger, he blurts out “I’m a superhero”.  While it’s a laugh out loud moment, Kenya draws the point home later, when he compliments Satoru for trying to save Kayo.  “You already are a superhero.”  And like a good superhero time traveler, that means he has to do some things to prevent a calamity.  One of these moments leads him to nearly pushing Kayo’s mother down the stairs, and that’s when Kenya turns up.  And that’s when we really see a band of heroes start to form.

The episode is a testament to something I believe in very strongly: Friendship.  Friendship often comes about when we are kind to people.  It’s part of why I loved Capaldi’s final advice in Doctor Who: “love is always wise, and hate is always foolish… always try to be nice, but never fail to be kind”.  Friendship is a magic bond and can bridge time and space.  It defies all the laws of nature.  Even the first Doctor pointed out in Twice Upon a Time, good should not win.  But it defies the odds, and that’s because of friendship.  I have friends who have been brothers and sisters to me for over 30 years, and many span continents.  My family are friends as well; the distinction being that you can’t choose family but you can choose friends and I am very close to my own family.  When we help each other, we grow and become better.  We find joy in helping each other.  In many ways, we become like superheroes.  If you think superhero stories mean action and explosions … you’re only seeing a small part of the picture.  Doctor Who and Star Trek  are both about superheroes because they show us that there is someone who cares enough to put themselves on the line for others.  And that’s what Satoru is willing to do, and when he does it, others follow.  Satoru gets it: love is wise, being kind matters.  Satoru is a superhero whether he succeeds or not.  But I sure as hell hope he succeeds!  ML

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Babylon 5: Dust to Dust

b5If there’s one thing we’ve learned at this point, It’s that G’Kar is an outstanding character.  Actually, that wasn’t what I was going to say. I was going to say, it’s that Straczynski thinks big with his story telling.  But those two ideas come together in Dust to Dust.  Let’s rewind to the pilot episode, The Gathering.  Depending on the version you’ve seen (because for some completely befuddling reason, the Amazon version doesn’t have this scene in it) there is a moment where Sinclair has to talk a criminal down from committing murder.  The man is in possession of a drug called Dust.  So from the first few minutes of the series, we’ve heard about this drug.  Now, Bester is on the station trying to find a Dust smuggler.  Through his involvement we learn what Dust does: it opens peoples minds and makes them, temporarily, telepathic.  It has a devastating effect on actual telepaths.  We also learn that the Narn, who have no natural telepaths anymore, can use the drug.  (No doubt you see where I’m going with this…)  G’Kar gets his hands on some Dust and, with everything else that’s gone wrong for him and his people, he thinks, “what the hell” and takes the Dust.

So look, this episode is what: 43 minutes long?  But what towers over everything else is the moments G’Kar and Londo spend together.  But we have to be fair to other elements of the episode, so let’s sidestep that for a moment.  Let’s look at the brilliant scene where Ivanova almost blows Bester’s ship out of the sky and Sheridan has to intercede.  He advises her to “fight them without becoming them.”  It leads to a great moment with Sheridan’s Army of Light meeting with Bester surrounded by Minari telepaths.  Sheridan then “gives it to him straight” telling Bester he doesn’t like anything about him, including his uniform and attitude.  This isn’t even as blunt as it will get down the line.  There’s also Vir’s return to the station to mention.  He comes back like a teenager having been away from home experiencing a trip to Hawaii!  It’s a fun moment but what really makes his return special is the scene in the meeting room when Vir tells everyone “one day he will surprise you!”  Is that Vir’s rose-tinted view on Londo, or is he right?  Will Londo come around one day?

But that’s about as long as I can wait; it’s time to get back to the Dust.  When Londo’s doorbell rings, it’s Vir who opens it and is promptly knocked out.  G’Kar enters…  I should point out that this doesn’t happen until almost 30 minutes into the episode.  As G’Kar decides to delve into Londo’s mind (after beating him up a bit first), Londo’s scream signifies things have just become deadly.  G’Kar learns that Londo’s position as ambassador was a joke; he was given the role no one else wanted.  “How does it feel to be helpless?  To be the victim?”  G’Kar hopes to make Londo feel what he and his people have felt.  As he burrows deeper into Londo’s mind, the great Andreas Katsulas pours his soul into the acting: “All of it, Molari!  ALL OF IT!!!!”  He then sees images of everything Londo has done leading to the near destruction of G’Kar’s homeworld.  It is a stunningly powerful moment.  Then a voice: “It is enough.”  G’Kar sees his father, as he was described in last season’s And Now For a Word.  His father tells him to “honor my name”.  G’Kar’s interpretation seems to be initially to fight the Centauri but when an old man appears, he says something that really starts to get into G’Kar’s mind (and ours): “We are a dying people G’Kar.  So are the Centauri.”  I’ll pause here to go back to the first episode after the pilot, Midnight on the Firing Line.  Kosh tells Sinclair:

Kosh: “They are a dying people.  We should let them pass.”
Sinclair: “Who, the Narn or the Centauri?”
Kosh: “Yes.”

At first I thought this was just great storytelling.  It wasn’t until G’Kar asked who he is that I started piecing it together: “I am who I have always been.”  And the final message from Captain Cryptic, the same message he gave Sheridan when he was trapped on the alien ship in All Alone in the Night: “I have always been here.”  I realized it before the angel appeared to G’Kar: Kosh was manipulating him.  But… why?!

The encounter left me talking with my family: why would Kosh get involved?  Why stop G’Kar finding out everything?  Perhaps he was trying to protect the Army of Light so the secret wouldn’t get out but I don’t think I buy that because Kosh often knows things about the future.   Wouldn’t he have an idea of who G’Kar really is and what he’s capable of?  Wouldn’t that be a good thing?  Which leads to the more important realization.  G’Kar learns more about himself than Londo; his experience opened his eyes to something we all need to remember.  “We are fighting to save one another.”  Not the Narn; all of us.  Sometimes we have to fight our own demons, which is exactly what G’Kar is made to face.  He is gaining wisdom, and that’s significant.  “How have you chose to honor [his father’s] name?”  It’s not about vengeance; it’s about life.  To have a life of meaning, not a death of ignominy.  “It no longer matters who started it, G’Kar… Turn from the cycle of death.”  As messages go, what he learns is far more significant than the secrets Londo was keeping because through that message, real change can begin.  “You have the opportunity here and now: to choose, to become something greater and nobler…”  And this episode leads to that change.  We are about to see the evolution of a character.

We thought G’Kar was amazing before?  Let’s see what 60 days of solitary confinement can do for him.  Even as he is on trial for his actions, he has an inner peace about him.  He doesn’t even need his “bible” while away, as he tells Michael, “I’m now somewhat closer to the source.”

I’ll share one more idea about the interaction.   Was Kosh really being cryptic when he said “I am who I have always been?”  He says it while in the guise of G’Kar’s father.  I couldn’t help but wonder if there was more to that statement than met the eye.

Dust to Dust is an outstanding episode.  And every time I watch it, I am both delighted that I had the opportunity to meet Katsulas, and broken-hearted that I didn’t say more to him.  The man was as much the legend as his character.  The universe is a better place because of him; both ours and Babylon 5’s.  ML

The view from across the pond:

Vir is back again this week, a welcome happy sight among the bleakness of the current ongoing storylines, and he turns up wearing the 23rd Century equivalent of the Hawaiian shirt:

“It’s a Minbari ceremonial coat of welcome.”

He is gone again by the end of the episode and there seems little point to his return other than to provide the usual contrast to Londo, and to continue to be the only nice Centauri we have ever seen. He also has the best line of the episode:

“One is foolish, the other frightened.”
“Telling which is which, that’s the hard part.”

If Vir’s role in this episode seems repetitive, that’s because the whole episode is repetitive in nature. Bester is back, and just being Bester as usual. We seem to be building up to the big reveal at the end, that Psi Corps created the drug Dust, with Bester’s help, but this is no surprise at all, so doesn’t actually offer much in the way of a new insight into any of the characters. I did find a couple of points of interest. Firstly, Bester’s willingness to accept the drug that suppresses his telepathic abilities suggested to me that he is immune to it. This wasn’t confirmed (although it was perhaps hinted at), so maybe this is something for another episode. Secondly, his conflict with Garibaldi was rather interesting.

“The badge and the uniform does have certain advantages.”
“Like intimidation?
“Absolutely, just like your badge and your uniform.”

That comes dangerously close to making a very subversive point about those who wear a uniform, doesn’t it, and it’s hard to argue against it. There are times when JMS’s writing comes across as gloriously anti-establishment, bearing in mind that his whole big story arc is about our heroes trying to quietly topple a corrupt government, and constantly at loggerheads with anyone in a position of political power.

JMS also gives us an anti-drugs message this episode. I’m all for one of those, although I prefer it if a writer finds something more interesting to say than drugs are bad. I’m not sure he does that, and I don’t think there is any coherent message behind the fact that the drugs actually function as a means to an end for G’Kar. This is a pivotal episode, in which G’Kar becomes the first person to find out about Londo’s deal with Morden. I’m looking forward to the consequences of that.

G’Kar’s actions buy him two months in prison, which seems extraordinarily lenient for buying an illegal drug and then nearly killing two people while under the influence. It would have made more sense if a scene had been inserted into the episode either showing the judge being influenced by somebody, or making it clear that her lenient sentence was as a result of her feelings about the Centauri occupation of Narn, but in the end we were left to conclude that the justice system has become entirely toothless in the future. We could almost say the same about Ivanova issuing an order to murder somebody going unpunished, except nobody other than Sheridan witnesses that act. It is quite an extraordinary moment, and illustrates the depth of her feelings towards Psi Corps, although it beggars belief that one person would be able to order everyone else off the command deck. Surely there would be safety procedures to prevent that from happening?

So the interesting thing from here on in will be seeing where we go next with G’Kar. The vision of his father as an angel gave him some food for thought:

“Some of us must be sacrificed if all are to be saved.”

There’s really no way for that sentence to make sense, is there. Sacrifice one person and by definition all are not saved. We are also given a reminder that Garibaldi still has G’Kar’s book. Even after two months of G’Kar sitting and smiling to himself in prison, if Garibaldi has learnt Narn by then to a standard where he can read an ancient text, he’s a cleverer man than I am. Is there still Google Translate in 2260?   RP

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