Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Great Gamebooks of Yesteryear: Fabled Lands

Dave Morris and Jamie Thomson's Fabled Lands was an obscure cult classic that had the bad luck to hit shelves just as the last rumbles of the great gamebook boom of the 80s and early 90s were dying away. It was a cheekily ambitious project that attempted to do something with the gamebook genre that had never been done before, and foundered after the lavish first editions, with their glossy covers and their cool fold-out maps, failed to recoup production costs.

Still, as Machiavelli once said, "Make mistakes of ambition and not mistakes of sloth." Fabled Lands found itself a small yet devoted fanbase, despite having only six of a planned twelve book series out in the world (soon to go out of print) before the project was canned. And after long years of fan badgering and creator plotting and planning, the original six books were re-released in 2010 and 2012, now in handy-dandy pocket-sized editions, with the tantalizing hope of the long-lost books 7-12 following someday.

The reason these little numbers were and are so beloved of committed gamebook nerds is that they spurned anything as dull and prosaic as a single plot. Instead of having a Fighting Fantasy-type rent-a-hero on the trail of some gloating warlock, with many paths converging on a single “victory” destination, Fabled Lands presented a sprawling and creatively-realized fantasy world to explore at whim, with each volume in the series corresponding to a different area. The player picked a character class and wandered around looking for adventure, finding wealth and fame or failure and death according to their choices, skills, and the roll of the dice. It was like a low-tech version of all the huge videogame RPGs that are so popular with the kids at the moment, with an intuitive system of code-words to keep track of outstanding quests, enemies with grudges, or other consequences of the player's interactions with the teeming civilizations of Harkuna. The whole experience was made worth your while by the excellent descriptive writing, which conjured up a real sense of the exotic fictional landscapes you were supposed to be trekking through, and by the wealth of options for making mischief that encouraged replayability, allowing you to be a master thief plundering luxurious temples and villas in one life-time, and a decorated, chivalrous warrior in another. 

The first book, The War-Torn Kingdom, was set in a troubled realm clearly modelled on the aftermath of the English Civil War. You had the option to side with the royalist rebels, or go the other way and join the forces of the flint-hearted general now in control of the battle-scarred nation of Sokara. Of course, if you didn't want to risk your neck in local politics, you could stick to doing favours for local temples with interestingly dangerous problems. The writing emphasised that Sokara was being tightly controlled by the military, making travelling around relatively safe, but there were still a few unspoiled or untamed corners where you could have more fantastic encounters.

Book Two covered Sokara’s immediate neighbour, Golnir, a Merry England-type place of peasants, merchants and knights. It was a more colourful place to explore, with plenty of charm and flavour, but profitable quests seemed harder to come by than in bustling Sokara.

The third book covered a vast and forbidding ocean of uncharted islands, which gave plenty of scope for naval exploration. Fabled Lands allowed you to become a ship owner (assuming you’d amassed the cash) and lead your crew to an uncertain fate, battling pirates, venturing onto islands or trading valuable goods between ports.

Book Four dealt with the steppes of the far north, where cold and hunger sapped your Stamina score in a huge wilderness inhabited by monsters, beasts, and fierce nomads.

Book Five was possibly the best of the bunch, depicting the tyrannical theocracy of Uttaku. The Uttakin were a memorable mob of fantasy villains, a flashily cruel court of decadent nobles presiding over a small empire of religious fanaticism and strict hierarchy. You could jump through the hoops of their byzantine law codes to earn the chance to win favour and patronage from the ministers of the Court of Hidden Faces, but with the constant threat that a single mistake could see you gruesomely executed or condemned to slavery.

Finally, Book Six was an obvious pastiche of feudal Japan and its folklore, with the backdrop of a looming civil war between powerful clans. While this had some of the best, most atmospheric writing in the series, it was also by far the hardest, with near-impossible fights, a harsh policy on failure and scant chances for social advancement. It mixed a cultured civilization with dark forests and plains as perilous as any in gamebook history. 

Monday, 24 September 2012

Great Fictional Villains: Charles Logan

When it came to picking villains, the writers of 24 tended to run out of imagination shortly after deciding the latest terrorist mastermind's nationality. Vengeful Serbians, vengeful Englishmen, vengeful Middle Eastern terrorists, incredibly smug Turkish terrorists (you do have to have a soft spot for Harbib Marwan, and his Sauron-like levels of persistence in trying to blow up America), vengeful thinly-disguised Chechens, vengeful unspecified African country...ans, and of course lots and lots of powerful American WASP business and political types.

Most of them were just fodder for Jack Bauer's deadly thighs; according to tried and tested formula, many apparent string-pullers were exposed as mere pawns of the real uranium-toting Dark Lord of Explosions around the current season's half-way mark. But out of this endless pageant of thugs and rebels and assassins, one face stands out. One slimy, shifty, insidious individual, who made a bigger mark than any other villain in the show's history, apart from perhaps the ever-hissable Nina Myers. I speak of course of the best Bad President America never had, the spectacularly Nixonesque Charles Logan.

The character was introduced as a pretty standard archetype, a vacillating inept coward elevated beyond his abilities. After Season 4's blandly heroic President Keeler (my memory of minor 24 characters can be scarily good sometimes) was left comatose by one of menace-of-the-moment Harbib Marwan's eighty different terror plots, his quivering Vice President was launched into the Oval Office, and started making screamingly daft decisions so quickly that he had to call in blandly heroic ex-President Palmer to re-kindle some of the old Jack/Palmer magic and save the day. Needless to say, he wasn't very interesting.

But by Season 5, Logan had settled into his unexpected Presidency and even won re-election on his own merits, gaining character development as a skilled and capable politician with a history of self-doubt and a poor track record of dealing with country-destroying crises (which to be honest would doubtless apply to most of us). The writers made Logan a little more intriguing and believable than his square-jawed predecessors, inching the viewers towards being a little more sympathetic to his travails and reminding us that being President in the 24-verse would be really super-difficult and that the upper echelons of government probably wouldn't split evenly between the Competence Captains and the Stupid Bureaucrats being stupid on purpose.   

And then we found out he was behind the terrorist ring his government was trying to stop.

As a twist, it was insane, ridiculous, what would have been a shark-jumping moment if Jack Bauer hadn't filleted the shark and mounted its head on the wall many episodes ago. I dimly recall there was some semi-plausible motivation brought up for the President's bold strategy for securing re-election, possibly involving petrol prices. But it instantly, decisively propelled Logan from "weak-chinned placeholder for the next POTUS" to "unpredictable Master of Lies" and for that it is to be saluted. For the rest of the season, the usual Bauer antics were accompanied by a riveting sub-plot of Logan's efforts to cover up his part in some serious atrocities, justifying it with sly sophistry along the way, and countering the efforts of his disturbed, horrified wife to expose him along the way. You could almost admire the sheer audacity of his tight-rope walking act of trying to play the role of President while concealing his villainy; it was honestly gutsy stuff for a character introduced as a standard-issue coward.

He naturally met his downfall in the end, but spun his defeat into a cushy house arrest, his true nature kept secret from the fragile psyche of the American public. He even staged a comeback in 24's final season; having wrought more devious shenanigans than a thousand Nixons, he was STILL determined to secure his political legacy at any cost. 

Compared to that level of commitment to the political dark arts, nuking Los Angeles starts to seem relatively tame.

Twenty Years of D.C. Animation: Batman Beyond

Batman Beyond (or “Batman of the Future” as it was called in Europe), could not have had a more dubious genesis. A sinister cabal of suit-wearing executives, allegedly inspired by the growing popularity of a geeky little live-action show about a high-school vampire-slayer, badgered Bruce Timm to do a Batman spin-off starring a school-aged Batman, who would presumably have wacky misadventures like juggling foiling diamond heists with getting to prom on time. The basic idea was to do a lighter alternative to Timm, Paul Dini and company’s darkly adult take on Bruce Wayne, in keeping with an inexplicable tradition beloved by suit-wearing executives everywhere; that a target demographic needs one of their own in the story to identify with (the strange notion responsible for giving the world Robin the Boy Wonder, along with various other sidekicks of comic’s Golden Age).

With what I imagine was boyish, cackling glee (“They want kid-friendly? I’ll show them kid-friendly!”) Timm proceeded to produce a show that was as dark, if not darker, than its famous parent, an odd cartoon that mingled Saturday morning staples of colourful crooks and breakneck action with themes of loss, aging and redemption.

Setting the show in the future, around the 2030s, ensured from the get-go that the story would likely venture into some bleak territory. It depicts a burnt-out and bitter Bruce Wayne, forced into retirement after the exertions of his nightly labours finally caught up with him. Even though his skills were flawless and no enemy could best him, the mortal hero was eventually worn down by simple entropy, barred from further battles with fresh generations of criminals by a dodgy heart. Even worse, the long-term results of his vigilante campaign have been negligible. Of course, one man and a handful of loyal cohorts can’t simply stamp out all the crime in an entire city, or even a neighbourhood, for any length of time, and the B: TAS fixtures of corporate ruthlessness and street-level thuggery still thrive in the future, only with fancier gadgets with which to menace and corrupt. Meanwhile, Batman’s single-minded pursuit of an impossible ideal has left him totally alone in an echoing mansion with only Ace the Bat-Dog for company, lacking a wife, heirs, or even old friends.

At this point a daredevil teenager called Terry McGinnis appears on the scene. While immature, he has a measure of intelligence and steely determination beyond his years, and most provocatively of all, a murdered father to avenge. After the mandatory initial reluctance, Wayne takes him on as a trainee replacement Batman, complete with a stylish flying suit and an ultra-tech aerial Batmobile.

The show proceeded to mine a fair amount of drama and entertainment out of the interplay between the headstrong novice and the gruff, grumpy veteran giving out instructions from back in the Batcave (though the old warhorse had plenty of opportunities to spring back into action in a pinch). There was also novelty to be had with the idea of a more callow Batman, who lacked his predecessor’s peerless ability, requiring him to wing it to a greater extent in order to survive his many battles with the terrors of the future.

Batman Beyond was never as highly regarded as the show it spawned from. With some noteworthy exceptions (like a gut-punch of a coda for the sad saga of Mr. Freeze, and a feature-length epic that revealed the whereabouts of Mark Hamill’s celebrated Joker) the classic rogues did not return, replaced by a new generation, distinctive to this new Batman. They put McGinnis through his paces in an entertaining manner; the standouts were Blight (“I AM POISON!”) a ghoul out of Greenpeace’s nightmares, and the fearsome, Freudian Inque. But in contrast to their illustrious forbears, they usually presented more of a straight-up physical threat to the Bat than a cracked psychological mirror, and failed to claw under the skin in quite the same way. There were far fewer iconic episodes, and far more decent and serviceable ones, while the series as a whole coasted for a while and then sputtered out (though Justice League later worked in a retroactive finale, the near flawless “Epilogue”, which acted as a fitting coda for the whole DCAU). But the team deserve kudos for turning a glib marketing idea into an enthusiastic and creative alternative spin on the animated universe.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Twenty Years of D.C. Animation: The New Adventures

The Superman animated series tends to get dismissed for not being a pop cultural phenomenon like its counterpart and predecessor, Batman. However, it was a perfectly decent show that deftly evoked the simple, homespun virtues of America’s greatest hero. It may not have plumbed the psychological abyss in the same way its sister show did, with villains whose gimmicks were dedicated to devising creative ways around Superman’s near invulnerability, rather than fodder for anguished character studies, but it was usually entertaining and often quite smart in the many devious, reasonably non-contrived methods the writers used to put their godlike protagonist through the wringer. It was nicely distinguished from the grimness of Gotham, with a light and airy urban aesthetic; the inevitable criminal outrages were like nails down a chalkboard of harmony and prosperity. Much mileage was gained from playing with the standard tropes of the Superman story, and even the inevitable dud episodes weren’t offensively bad.

As an added plus, the show also had one of the coolest, most broodingly dangerous takes on Lex Luthor ever, thanks to Clancy Brown’s murderously suave voice-work.

At the same time, Batman got a relaunch and a revamp to bring it more into line with the crisper aesthetic of Superman. This refurbishment included a variety of character re-designs that sparked much geeky controversy; Scarecrow was boosted from his underwhelming traditional duds into a hideous Grim Reaper, will the Joker had his classic design butchered with the alteration of his eyes into distracting puddles of tar. In other developments, the departure of Dick Grayson’s disgruntled Robin saw the arrival of an animated Tim Drake, echoing the mainstream comic’s habit of having a turnover of ill-fated Boy Wonders.

The “New Adventures” have a reputation for representing a dip in quality compared to the “classic” episodes of the early 90s, but in truth they aren’t too far removed in terms of the ration of duds to classics. If anything, the New Adventures had more episodes that were merely respectable or average, rather than dire or brilliant, which is why Batman’s solo show is sometimes remembered as having limped to an inglorious finish. However, it does have the eerie “Growing Pains”, the insanely dramatic “Over the Edge” and the sad yet hopeful “Old Wounds” in its favour. Of course, this is also the era of the crossover episode, which were every bit as entertaining as you’d expect from a clash of icons.

Apart from “Sub-Zero” a suitably awesome feature-length Mr. Freeze adventure that seriously showed up a certain live-action Batman movie airing at the time, and 2003’s mediocre “Mystery of the Batwoman”, that it was it for the Dark Knight’s solo adventures. However, the DCAU was about to hit a new level of ensemble craziness that would give him plenty of fresh opportunities to shine, as well as a new suits-driven high concept show that would defy all the odds by being surprisingly decent.


Thursday, 13 September 2012

Spartacus: Gods of the Arena

HBO’s Rome was one of my favourite TV shows ever. Sweeping, gritty, vivid, unflinching in its depiction of the savage tumult of the world of the Late Republic, with characters that doled out violence and treachery with abandon but remained broadly sympathetic. Though well-acted and plotted, Rome was frequently grisly and salacious, rarely shying away from the seedy and sensational.

Spartacus makes Rome’s most debauched episodes look like a cycling holiday in the Cotswolds. It is boldly, proudly, triumphantly depraved, brandishing its own stylistic excess like a honed blade to slice boredom out of everyone’s lives. Yours Truly started with the prequel, Gods of the Arena, made while the show’s leading man was absent undergoing sadly unsuccessful cancer treatment. Despite unnecessarily giving away the finale of the first season (fortunately only spoiling a development that anyone owning a basic familiarity with the period could have predicted), the prequel holds up as an entertaining and propulsive story in its own right, filled with shout-outs for established fans to appreciate but still accessible for new viewers.

Beginning with a gory statement of intent, as a bisected head slaps onto the sand only seconds into the action, Spartacus briskly ensures that the faint-hearted will be encouraged to bow out early, so they don’t have time to get invested before being horrified and alienated. A storm of enthusiastically delivered curses soundtracks the ultraviolent gladiatorial brawls, soon followed by spectacular carnal acrobatics as hotshot swordsman Ganicus (who resembles a cross between Shawn Michaels and some ancient death god) is rewarded for his victories with a share in the licentious pleasures of the Roman elite.

The plot is brutally straightforward, although with a few twining turns along the way before its bloody conclusion. John Hannah’s Batiatus must juggle a stubborn father, a devoted yet scheming wife, and coldly ruthless rivals (including one especially snotty character, who resembles a caricature of an old-fashioned British public school prefect, in the best possible way), while struggling to make his gladiator training school the greatest stable of iron-hard warrior flesh that the mean streets of Capua have ever seen. Echoing HBO’s emphasis on Rome’s hopelessly class-segregated society, Gods of the Arena skips back and forth between the travails of the gladiators (who, for all their glamour and martial prowess, are ultimately property to be brutalised at will) and the household slaves, and the multiplying intrigues and deceits of the upper classes.

At only six episodes (the series proper is apparently much longer) Gods of the Arena rattles through the action quickly, which helps to keep up a giddy momentum. Consistently watchable and entertaining,

Spartacus even manages to pull off some weighty drama as events build to a climax; the ferocity and sensuality of the world it depicts helps to stoke the intensity bubbling beneath the fraught relationships of the characters, making them more than cut-outs who slaughter and copulate for the audience’s amusement. A tortured romance subplot strives gamely to provide the most compelling character drama of the series, but loses out to a troubled father-son relationship with no clear villain, as Batiatus Junior’s combination of amorality and earnest ambition clash with the values of his more honourable but more coldly conservative father.

At no point, however, does the show skimp on the violent thrills. It shamelessly indulges in the slow motion gimmickry popularised by Zack Snyder’s 300, but does a noticeably more competent job of using it than the big-budget director. While Snyder used slow-motion rather abruptly and unimaginatively (in fairness, this is something Spartacus sometimes does as well) Gods of the Arena uses it as primal punctuation for its desperate duels, lending queasy impact to each slice and blow.

Following a conclusion both triumphant and bleak, all the pieces have fallen into place for the arrival of the titular character himself, that legendary rebel who gave Rome’s bloated tyranny one of the greatest shocks in the violent history of the Republic. This demented show still has a long and bloody journey ahead of it.     

Twenty Years of D.C. Animation: Mask of the Phantasm

It’s unfair to compare Mask of the Phantasm with its more heavyweight cousins, the live-action Batman movies. A commercial failure after its limited theatrical release, apparently botched by Warner Brothers, “Phantasm” raked in less money than the notorious Batman and Robin but at least gained a respectable afterlife on video. It’s not a masterpiece of animation, though gorgeous by the standards of the television show. There are plenty of impressive flourishes but it’s still overshadowed by the dazzle of the Disney Renaissance. The themes are strong, and the story, while predictable and a little awkward in places (presumably due to a painfully rushed production) is actually fairly haunting, with a tender yet doomed romance mixed up with ferocious action sequences, obsessed heroism, grim anti-heroism and sleazy villainy.

Clearing the decks of most of the regular supporting cast (boosting the impact of those who do appear) “Phantasm” makes the potentially tedious choice of bringing in both a long-lost lover for Bruce Wayne and a new threat that acts a shadowy counterpart to Batman (a concept already heavily mined by his existing Rogue’s Gallery). Lacking the iconic weight of established characters, these new elements could have fallen flat as clich├ęs. However Andrea Beaumont pleasantly surprises as a convincing foil and love interest for the dashing yet awkward billionaire, helped along by the solid voice-work of Dana Delany, soon to be the voice of Lois Lane on Batman’s sister-show Superman. The Phantasm, while a tiny bit naff, is a nice thematic contrast to Batman’s vigilante strivings, using its quasi-supernatural powers to wage a deadly crusade of naked revenge, rather than well-intentioned justice, against the film’s crew of grotesque mobsters,  highlighting Batman’s moral discipline.

Dark themes of cruelty and loss aside, the filmmakers still set aside some time for thrills and spills, with the Dark Knight’s sheer toughness and drive highlighted in thumping battles across the gloomy neo-noir cityscape of a soaring animated Gotham, building to the suitably evocative finale in the decaying ruins of futuristic theme park, a bleak metaphor for Batman’s shattered dreams of romance and peace.  

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Great Fictional Villains: Jadis, the White Witch

Say what you like about C.S. Lewis (and a lot of his writing decisions and implied personal beliefs do look dubious or discredited coming back to his books as an adult), but he pulled off a vintage villain in Jadis, the White Witch, the Chronicles of Narnia’s most noteworthy antagonist. A sorceress and despot, the White Witch is portrayed as a physical and existential threat to the land of Narnia in her first appearance in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Not only has she imposed a harsh and illegitimate regime on the cowering Narnians, recruiting legions of fairy-tale monsters to be her soldiers and secret police and styling herself as legitimate ruler while brazenly usurping the established dynasty; she also uses her unmatched magical powers to swathe a fertile land in endless winter, a sign of deathly sterility to be swept away by the eventual return of paw-dragging Messiah Aslan.

Of course, in Lewis’ arguable laboured theology the Witch is a stand-in for Death and/or Satan, a seemingly all-powerful tyrant who crumbles with embarrassing speed the moment Aslan decides to really assert himself. She still gets to show off a notable talent for cruelty, manipulation and intimidation in the brief window before her regime abruptly implodes, however.

It’s in underrated prequel The Magician’s Nephew that Jadis really gets her chance to shine, as her back-story and the roots of her Narnian takeover are revealed. Jadis was originally the haughty royalty of a nameless humanoid race, the people of a world separate from Narnia and the “real” world entirely; mighty, decadent Charn. Charn was initially ruled by idealised kings and queens, echoing the Aslan-anointed Pevensies of Narnia. However, with each successive generation the dynasty grew harsher and more morally depraved, finally reaching its nadir in the ruthless Jadis.

Though she sports villainous virtues like a strong will, self-belief and an admirable work ethic (she can’t spend five minutes on another world without trying to take it over, and ran Narnia seemingly single-handed for a century), Jadis’ defining characteristic was a breathtaking, limitless arrogance that sealed Charn’s doom and might have put paid to Narnia as well. Charn’s overbearing empire was torn apart by an apocalyptic civil war for ultimate power between Jadis and her own sister, which ended with Jadis using a sort of magical nuke to wipe out all life on the planet apart from Jadis herself rather than concede defeat. She hibernated for an eon before a blundering English schoolboy on an inter-dimensional jaunt woke her up, and soon found herself in a newly-created Narnia, where she found immortality at the cost of having her impressive demeanour and fierce vitality (put across well by the original illustrations) wither away and leave her a pallid husk, still feared and powerful but soulless and ultimately doomed.

With his depiction of the descent of such a potent and lordly, yet callous and monstrous character, echoing Milton’s Satan, Lewis (whose intellectual and artistic gifts I personally find to be wildly uneven) managed to pull off the most effective commentary on evil his work ever managed.    

Great Fictional Villains: Angelus

Poor David Boreanaz. Allegedly hired for the part of Angel, brooding boyfriend to heroine Buffy Summers, because his good looks charmed female members of Joss Whedon’s production team, the inexperienced actor looked incredibly awkward during the early days of the soon-to-be cult show. Playing a supposedly immortal being, a predatory, angsty vampire with a perspective beyond the comprehension of any ordinary mortal, was always going to be a tall order, and for all his mysterious moping early-period Angel frequently came across as nothing more than A Guy. Just A Guy, with a penchant for billowy coats, an impressively firm jawline and some boundary issues, but not really convincing as one of the most powerful and infamous vampires in the Buffyverse.

Of course, Boreanaz eventually blossomed into the role and became a decent, if never quite Brando-calibre actor, but when he made a shocking return to evil in Buffy’s second season you could be forgiven for having misgivings about his ability to portray an even more far-out character; the inhumanly sadistic Angelus (really nothing more than Angel with his conscience, self-restraint, and drive towards virtue stripped away). It was a pleasant surprise, then, when he ironically turned out to be far better at portraying Angel’s unrepentantly evil persona than his tortured and self-loathing one. His Angelus doesn’t only commit some of the most hateful acts of any villain during the show’s run (more for their emotional impact than their apocalyptic scale); his smirking, menacingly intense performance puts him across as the sort of warped personality capable of committing such enormities.  

Angelus is basically the Ultimate Stalker. In Season Two the temporary loss of his soul curdles his frantic infatuation with Buffy into a murderous obsession, presenting the fledging Slayer with a terrible challenge and a painfully intimate threat; she has to destroy the man she loves, aware that he is being compelled by an inherently evil nature but still shocked by the savage extremes to which he takes their love affair-turned-vendetta. The Mayor may have been cooler, but Angel’s brutal regression to his soulless past was the most personal evil Buffy ever faced, forcing her to battle through her own emotional turmoil as much as Evil Angel’s minions and assassins.

Angelus’ creepy fixation on Buffy added dramatic spice to the plot arc of the Second Season, but it was clear that even without his particular obsession, he was still an all-purpose figure of dread. The average Buffyverse vampire is a brute predator, a creature of violent instincts that has to be put down. Young Liam of Galway’s vampiric persona took this further, standing out through his love of cold-blooded and calculated torture, wracking the minds and bodies of luckless mortals and even his fellow blood-suckers at every opportunity. This implies that the demonic essence that shaped human into vampire only brought out some latent capacity for cruelty and manipulation in the young man; a disturbing notion for modern-day, repentant Angel to deal with.

Buffy was eventually able to defeat Angelus without destroying him. He returned to goodness after having his soul magically restored even as he was cast into a nameless hell. Spat out of the inferno in mysterious circumstances, he ended his dysfunctional relationship with Buffy and struck out for LA, starting his own spin-off show as a professional do-gooder on the mean streets of the City of Angels. The threat of the return of Angelus hung over Angel’s early seasons, a prospect I often secretly looked forward to, as Angelus’ happy-go-lucky approach to mayhem and death had an element of deviant fun missing from Angel’s sulky celibacy and admittedly adorable social awkwardness. Yet even though Angelus did get the occasional brief comeback (before the Dark Side was inevitably subdued by Angel’s firmly-established heroic persona once more) he never topped the sheer viciousness of his earliest appearances.