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Essential Werewolf By Night, Vol. 1

Essential Werewolf by Night, Vol. 1Essential Werewolf by Night, Vol. 1 by Gerry Conway
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Good, cheesy fun from the heyday of Marvel’s monster comics in the 1970s! In these collected issues, Jack Russell, cursed with lycanthropy, fights mutants, monsters, witches, sorcerers, and even Dracula. The cast of supporting characters are fun, too, including Jack’s sister Lissa, who is constantly being kidnapped, but who is also the first one to figure out Jack is a werewolf; his friend, the reporter Buck Cowan, who I suspect is actually dating Jack’s sister behind his back, despite the fact that she’s only 17, because she’s always hanging out at Buck’s house; and Jack’s ridiculously horny neighbors at the “singles condo” where he lives, who are always trying to get him in the sack.

While the individual stories are kind of formulaic and forgettable, it’s intriguing to see how many important elements of the Marvel universe got their start in WEREWOLF BY NIGHT, most importantly the Darkhold, a book of dark magic reminiscent of Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, and the sorceress Topaz, whom Jack frees from servitude to the evil wizard Taboo and has a brief romantic relationship with.

I have one big issue with this collection, though, and it’s the main reason I’m only giving it three stars. In my opinion, this book suffers greatly from being printed in black and white. There’s a lot of text in narration boxes — sometimes the comic is grossly overnarrated, with box after box filled with overwrought descriptions of what we’re already seeing in the panels — and the art can often be rich with detail. However, the black-and-white printing makes it hard on the eyes, and sometimes the result is that it’s difficult to discern exactly what’s going on in a panel. I got frustrated by this quite often.

Luckily, there are color collections available now. They’re more expensive, obviously, but if you’re interested in WEREWOLF BY NIGHT and the price isn’t a deterrent, I would recommend those books instead. Still, no matter which version you read, a lot of kitschy, if forgettable, 1970s horror fun awaits you.

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Originally published at Nicholas Kaufmann. You can comment here or there.

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Bookshop and Me

By now you’ve probably heard about Bookshop, the new ABA-backed online retailer that lets you support your local independent bookstores with every purchase. Well, I’ve got a couple of special announcements for you today that will bring my blog feature, The Scariest Part, in line with the exciting possibilities that Bookshop offers.

First, moving forward, all books featured on The Scariest Part will include a purchase link to Bookshop. I’m all about readers making their own choices, so the usual links to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s will remain. But adding a Bookshop link will give readers the added benefit of the ease of online ordering while supporting their own local stores at the same time.

Second, I have set up my own affiliate store at Bookshop that sells just about all the books that have been featured on The Scariest Part so far. My store’s “inventory” will continue to grow with new books as The Scariest Part continues.

I’m excited about this and looking forward to seeing how this new partnership will benefit readers, writers, and independent bookstores around the country!

Originally published at Nicholas Kaufmann. You can comment here or there.

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The Scariest Part: Molly Tanzer Talks About CREATURES OF CHARM AND HUNGER

This week on The Scariest Part, my guest is Molly Tanzer, whose latest novel is Creatures of Charm and Hunger, the third novel in The Diabolist’s Library trilogy. Here is the publisher’s description:

Two young witches, once inseparable, are set at odds by secrets and wildly dangerous magic.

In the waning days of World War II, with Allied victory all but certain, desperate Nazi diabolists search for a demonic superweapon to turn the tide. A secluded castle somewhere in the south of Germany serves as a laboratory for experiments conducted upon human prisoners, experiments as vile as they are deadly.

Across the English Channel, tucked into the sleepy Cumbrian countryside, lies the Library, the repository of occult knowledge for the Société des Éclairées, an international organization of diabolists. There, best friends Jane Blackwood and Miriam Cantor, tutored by the Société’s Librarian — and Jane’s mother — Nancy, prepare to undergo the Test that will determine their future as diabolists.

When Miriam learns her missing parents are suspected of betraying the Société to the Nazis, she embarks on a quest to clear their names, a quest involving dangerous diabolic practices that will demand more of her than she can imagine. Meanwhile Jane, struggling with dark obsessions of her own, embraces a forbidden use of the Art that could put everyone she loves in danger.

As their friendship buckles under the stress of too many secrets, Jane and Miriam will come face to face with unexpected truths that change everything they know about the war, the world, and most of all themselves. After all, some choices cannot be unmade — and a sacrifice made with the most noble intention might end up creating a monster.

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Molly Tanzer:

In the same way that dread is often more affecting than horror, not-knowing is worse than knowing. In Creatures of Charm and Hunger, apprentice diabolist Miriam Cantor has been hiding out with family friends in the north of England while her parents — also diabolists — remain in Nazi Germany, fighting from the shadows via arcane means.

When the novel opens, it’s been a while since Miriam has had a message from them. A long while. Miriam is a stoic, bottling up her feelings and throwing herself into her schoolwork. . .but what could be worse than that bleak, gnawing anticipation? That, to me, is the scariest part of anything, that state of not-knowing; the awful slowing of the minutes that comes from waiting for, if not necessarily anticipating something. “Try to put it from your mind.” “The answer will be the same whether or not you worried about it.” “You can’t change what will happen, so don’t worry yourself sick.” These little mantras, we offer them up like prayers, or apotropaic spells, hoping that this they will work, finally allowing us to effectively concede to ourselves that worry isn’t rational and we should be carrying on as usual until we hear what we hear.

So here is the thing: Am I a horror novelist? Honestly, I have no idea. No one can decide. It’s true, my novels have things like vampires and demons and evil funguses, but no one — and I mean no one — thinks anything I write is scary. It’s not! The sort of horror I deal in is social: “I wish I didn’t have to be at this party where I hate everyone and can’t leave,” “how can I explain myself out of this conversation I don’t wish to be in,” “my friend is mad at me and nothing I can do can fix it,” etc. So I have to make it count. I have to make it real. I have to make that kind of scary actually scary.

At the start of the novel, Miriam is bothered by her parents’ absence — of course she is. But she accepts it. What else can she do? But when she hears a rumor that her parents’ silence is due to them having turned traitor. . .that’s when she snaps. Too many uncertainties, too many variables. The not-knowing becomes too much for her. She decides to devote herself not to her diabolical school work, but to discovering the truth. That desire for some sort of data point beyond her faith in their hearts will take her down dark paths — ones untrodden by the wise, only the desperate.

Miriam succeeds — after much hardship and sacrifice, she finds out what happened to her parents. And then, of course, she has another question. . .one we all must ask ourselves, at some point in our lives: was the scariest part knowing, or not-knowing?

Creatures of Charm and Hunger: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Powell’s / Bookshop

Molly Tanzer: Website / Twitter / Instagram

Molly Tanzer is the author of The Diabolist’s Library trilogy: Creatures of Will and Temper, the Locus Award-nominated Creatures of Want and Ruin, and Creatures of Charm and Hunger. She is also the author of the indie weird western Vermilionan io9 and NPR “Best Book” of 2015and the British Fantasy Award-nominated collection, A Pretty Mouth. She lives outside of Boulder, CO with her cat, the Toad.

Originally published at Nicholas Kaufmann. You can comment here or there.

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Archer & Armstrong: Deluxe Edition, Book 1

Archer & Armstrong: Deluxe Edition, Book 1Archer & Armstrong: Deluxe Edition, Book 1 by Fred Van Lente
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Something like 20 years after ARCHER & ARMSTRONG first premiered, Valiant decided to reboot the series with Fred Van Lente at the helm. They couldn’t have chosen better, as Van Lente brings his trademark intelligence, imagination, and snarky humor to the series. It’s a wild ride through history, conspiracies, and the occasional immortal assassin, but Van Lente keeps things light, even when the fate of the world is at stake, which makes for a fun, brisk read. Filled with compelling characters, a lot of action, and fascinating world-building, ARCHER & ARMSTRONG will keep you cheering, laughing, and gasping, sometimes all on the same page. Highly recommended.

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Originally published at Nicholas Kaufmann. You can comment here or there.

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X-Men: Magik: Storm & Illyana

X-Men: Magik: Storm & IllyanaX-Men: Magik: Storm & Illyana by Chris Claremont
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My favorite member of THE NEW MUTANTS was always Illyana Rasputin, Colossus’s little sister, a.k.a. Magik. Aside from my obvious adolescent crush on her, I was drawn to her mix of mutant and mystical abilities. Sure, she can summon “stepping discs” that allow her to teleport anywhere (and sometimes even through time), but she also has a cool “soulsword” and magical armor and a repertoire of spells at her disposal! Coupled with her constant internal battle against the dark, demonic side of her nature, how could I NOT be obsessed with her?

I read this four-issue miniseries when it first came out in 1983-4 to learn how she got those mystic powers during her years in Limbo with the demon Belasco. Trailers for a movie adaptation of THE NEW MUTANTS reminded me how much I liked the miniseries, so when I found a used trade available for a reasonable price, I snatched it up and dove right in. I was not disappointed! The story still holds up as an enjoyable, gothic adventure through a dark mirror-world of magic and demons. Back in the day, I found the alternate versions of the X-Men Illyana encounters in Limbo, twisted by Belasco’s dark magic, to be deeply disturbing, especially Kitty Pryde’s transformation into an unhinged human-cat hybrid. Today I found them equally disturbing.

Only two things keep me from awarding MAGIK five stars. The first is that the writing is ridiculously overwrought, particularly Belasco’s dialogue. This is not unusual for comic books, especially comics in the 1980s, but as a more discerning reader now it really stuck out for me. Second, it feels rushed. Had the miniseries gone for six or eight issues instead of only four, it wouldn’t have had to rely so much on exposition told through narration boxes across the panels and would have had room to show us more of what Illyana was experiencing in Limbo. It would have allowed time pass a little more organically, too, even with Limbo’s strange temporal properties.

Overall, this was a very fun read, and one I’m glad I revisited after all these years. Illyana Rasputin will always hold a special place in my dark little heart, and so will this miniseries!

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Originally published at Nicholas Kaufmann. You can comment here or there.

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The New Mutants: Demon Bear

New Mutants/X-Force: Demon BearNew Mutants/X-Force: Demon Bear by Chris Claremont
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

THE NEW MUTANTS was one of the few comics I read regularly back in the early to mid-1980s (along with X-MEN and ALPHA FLIGHT), so with a film adaptation on the horizon I thought I’d revisit one of the comic’s best-known story arcs. I’m sure I read it in issues back in the day, but I was surprised how little of it I remembered. For example, I remembered all the members of the New Mutants except Magma, whom I had completely forgotten existed! I was also surprised to see just how small a role Dani Moonstar plays in the overall story, despite the Demon Bear being her personal nemesis. After the first issue, Dani spends the rest of the time in the hospital while her teammates battle the Demon Bear on her behalf. These aren’t necessarily bad things, by the way, just things I didn’t remember. The story is actually quite exciting!

It’s also a reminder of what an efficient writer Chris Claremont is. Not only does he pack an epic, mystical battle into just three issues, he also takes the time within those issues to set up significant future plot lines. We briefly see Rachel Summers, the daughter of an alternate-future Cyclops and Phoenix, looking for Professor X at the mansion before her story takes off in the pages of X-MEN. We also get a few interludes setting up Warlock’s imminent arrival on Earth, including a small cameo by the Starjammers and Binary, a.k.a. Carol Danvers, the Captain Marvel we know from the MCU. As for Bill Sienkiewicz’s art, I remember thinking at the time that it was “weird,” but now I think it’s pretty great. I also appreciate that he draws our young heroes as realistic teenagers rather than giant-boobed pin-ups like other artists.

This volume also features two re-appearances of the Demon Bear in later issues of X-FORCE, but neither adds much to the story, in my opinion, although it’s nice to catch up with an adult Dani Moonstar in the first of them. Overall, I found THE NEW MUTANTS: DEMON BEAR to be a highly enjoyable blast from the past (with no bigger blast, perhaps, than seeing Storm’s 1980s mohawk again!). I don’t think I was fully conscious of it at the time, but THE NEW MUTANTS spoke to me in a way no other comics did because the characters were all around my age at the time and shared many of my insecurities, which helped me see that those insecurities were universal. I’m older now — much older — but the New Mutants still have a special place in my heart, and I enjoyed spending some time with them again.

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Originally published at Nicholas Kaufmann. You can comment here or there.

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Breeding Ground

Breeding GroundBreeding Ground by Sarah Pinborough
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read Sarah Pinborough’s magnificent thriller BEHIND HER EYES a few years ago and absolutely loved it, so when I found a copy of BREEDING GROUND, one of her early horror novels for now-defunct mass market publisher Leisure, I snatched it up. BREEDING GROUND is definitely “paperback horror,” with all the good and bad that entails, but Pinborough is a talented writer who lifts this novel above others like it with her skillful use of voice and characterization. I don’t think it’s as good as her later novels — some of it is clumsy, many of the interpersonal conflicts feel forced — but you could say that about any writer’s early work, and BREEDING GROUND does show a lot of future promise. It may not stay with you or get under your skin like BEHIND HER EYES, but it’s an enjoyable monster romp if you’re in the mood for one.

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Originally published at Nicholas Kaufmann. You can comment here or there.

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Doctor Who: “The Timeless Children”

***MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD! SERIOUSLY!***

Holy smokes, there’s a lot to unpack in this episode! Let’s get right to it, because this is going to be a long one!

One of the things I grew to dislike about the Steven Moffat era was his seemingly constant need to make pointless additions to the Doctor Who canon, perhaps the most egregious of which was having one of Clara’s splinter selves tell the First Doctor which TARDIS to steal when he and Susan fled Gallifrey. In “The Timeless Children,” Chris Chibnall makes an addition to the canon as well, one that is maybe not pointless, but isn’t entirely necessary, either. Do I hate it the way I hate Clara telling the First Doctor which TARDIS to steal? No, and the reason why is that ultimately this addition doesn’t actually change anything. Everything we know about the Doctor from Hartnell onward remains unaffected, and so there’s a lot less for me to push back against. Plus, I’m far more intrigued by this idea than by all that nonsense with Clara’s splinter selves.

It is, however, a fucking huge addition to the canon! It also answers a lot of lingering, if minor, questions about Doctor Who. The Timeless Child, as we discover from both the Master and the Matrix on Gallifrey, is a being from another universe with the ability, previously unknown in our own universe, to regenerate instead of die. The Timeless Child was discovered long, long ago by Tecteun, an astronaut and scientist of the Shobogans, Gallifrey’s indigenous species, near a gateway to the Boundary, and Tecteun decided to experiment on the child until the mysteries of regeneration were unlocked and could be added to Shobogan DNA. Mixed with the civilization’s discovery of time travel, thus were the Time Lords born. So what became of the Timeless Child? They were recruited by the Division to run special, secret missions that the Time Lords wouldn’t openly authorize because of their policy of non-intervention.

The Master’s biggest reveal, though, is that the Timeless Child is actually the Doctor, and that she has had numerous pre-Hartnell lives (such Doctor Ruth from “Fugitive of the Judoon”) that were erased from her memory. Unfortunately, at this point the fact that the Doctor is the Timeless Child likely comes as a surprise to no one, because it’s always the Doctor. The most dangerous creature in the universe is locked inside the Pandorica? Surprise, it’s the Doctor! The Hybrid is supposed to be a deadly crossbreed of two warrior races? Surprise, it’s the Doctor…and Clara! (We’re going to come back to the Hybrid a little later, by the way. Stick around!) Personally, I thought it would be a better revelation, and possibly make more sense, if the Timeless Child turned out to be the Master. It would better explain why he destroyed Gallifrey if he discovered he had been ruthlessly experimented on as a child, had his memory erased, and been lied to all his lives by the Time Lords about how important his role in their society really was. Instead, he’s angry because…there’s a piece of the Doctor’s DNA inside him? Because the Time Lord’s pomposity was unearned? The Master has always thought their pomposity was unearned! (On the other hand, if the Master is the Timeless Child, we lose Doctor Ruth, and a cosmos without Doctor Ruth scarcely bears thinking about.)

Still, this new information does answer some questions that have been around for a very long time. We finally learn, for instance, that a Time Lord’s twelve-regeneration limit is imposed by Tecteun at the start, rather than a natural limitation. (The Timeless Child could apparently continually regenerate, well past thirteen incarnations.) This also explains how the Time Lords are able to grant one of their own a whole new life cycle, as they offer to do for the Master in 1983’s “The Five Doctors,” and actually do for the Doctor in the 2013 Eleventh Doctor episode “The Time of the Doctor.” Perhaps most remarkably, this revelation also finally explains all the pre-Hartnell faces that appear on the screen during the psychic mindbending battle between Morbius and the Fourth Doctor in the 1976 serial “The Brain of Morbius”! Those faces were always intended to be Doctors before Hartnell, but later that same season the twelve-regeneration limit was mentioned for the first time in 1976’s “The Deadly Assassin,” so the faces were retconned to actually be Morbius’s previous incarnations. Now, at last, we can retcon them back to being the Doctor’s. It only took 44 years, but we got there!

Everything about the Timeless Child is a bold idea, but there are problems with it, some of which are pretty big. The Time Lords’ ability to regenerate being the result of genetic manipulation with the DNA of the Timeless Child directly contradicts the bit about River Song being able to regenerate simply because she was conceived in the TARDIS as it traveled through the time vortex. Granted, I always thought that was stupid anyway, but it’s hard to reconcile the two. If Doctor Ruth is one of those previous, forgotten incarnation, why does she call herself the Doctor? What reason does she have to operate under that name even while she’s working for the Division? It was always assumed to be the name the Doctor chose for themself when they left Gallifrey, “the [person] who makes people better.” If that’s no longer the case, could “the Doctor” actually be a codename assigned by the Division, one that the Doctor kept without fully knowing why? Another issue: Why was Doctor Ruth’s TARDIS already in the shape of a police box? The lore was always that the First Doctor stole a faulty TARDIS from Gallifrey, one with a broken chameleon circuit that left it stuck in the shape it had assumed when he and Susan landed on Earth in the early 1960s: a British police box. There could be a couple of possible explanations for this one, at least. One is that Ruth’s TARDIS’s telepathic circuits read the Thirteenth Doctor’s mind and transformed itself into a police box specifically for her. Another possibility is that Doctor Ruth’s TARDIS got stuck in the shape of a police box and, after her memory was wiped and she became the Hartnell Doctor, he wound up stealing that same TARDIS before it was repaired. (I think we can safely assume Doctor Ruth was the final secret incarnation before Hartnell, since she’d already left the Division by the time of “Fugitive of the Judoon.” It’s likely she was recaptured, memory-wiped, and turned into a child that grew up to be the First Doctor as we know him.)

“The Timeless Children” also explains that the young Irish police officer Brendan, whom we saw flashes of in “Ascension of the Cybermen,” was a Matrix construct designed to disguise the story of the Timeless Child under a visual filter. When the older, retired Brendan gets his memory erased, that’s the Timeless Child getting their memory wiped by the Division, either before a new mission or before becoming the First Doctor. Which makes me wonder: If the life of Brendan is a Matrix construct designed to hide the truth, then who’s to say the 1965 and 1966 Peter Cushing Doctor Who movies can’t be also? Perhaps now they, too, can be canon! (Okay, that might be pushing it.)

Whew! I told you there was a lot to unpack, and I’ve only covered half the episode! The other half, involving Ashad and the Cybermen fighting the human survivors, including Graham, Ryan, and Yaz, and invading the ruins of Gallifrey, is pretty good, but obviously less interesting. There’s some mumbo-jumbo about a “death particle” embedded inside Ashad that turns out to be pretty important and probably should have been brought up a lot sooner than just this episode, and a nice moment between Graham and Yaz when they think they might be about to die, and a neat plan to sneak past the Cybermen inside Cyber armor. The death particle is employed at the end of the episode, presumably killing the Master, killing his dumb-looking Cybermen/Time Lord hybrids called CyberMasters, and preventing any life from ever existing on Gallifrey again. Not to be too cynical about it, but you can expect two of those three things not to be true in the long run.

(The CyberMasters aren’t just dumb looking, they also don’t make sense. First, you don’t need organic material to make Cybermen. In fact, Ashad’s plan was to remove the organic material from the remaining Cybermen and make them entirely robotic, so there isn’t any need for the Master to use Time Lord corpses to make himself a Cyber army, even one that self-replicates. Second, how the hell did he create and redesign them so quickly? Third, and perhaps most confusing, if Time Lord corpses can regenerate, then they’re not corpses, they’re alive. The Master specifically said they were dead, so how can they still regenerate? My heads hurts.)

Ultimately, “The Timeless Children” is an exciting episode that turns Doctor Who lore on its head in an intriguing way, but I have so many questions. Also, I wish Captain Jack had come back for the finale, but at least we got another nice scene with Doctor Ruth. Also, I wish we had been given some further information on when exactly this Master comes from in their timeline. If he’s post-Missy, I want to know how that’s possible. If he’s between the John Simm Master and Missy, then I want to know that, too, just so I can understand.

And now for some Doctor Who neepery! On Gallifrey, the Master reminds the Doctor about how they used to have fun running from Borusa after skipping his classes at the Academy. Borusa was first introduced in the aforementioned 1976 Fourth Doctor serial “The Deadly Assassin” as an old teacher of the Doctor’s who has become a cardinal of the High Council. (He would reappear twice more on the show, the final time as Lord President of the High Council in 1983’s “The Five Doctors.”) The Master also mentions what fun they had in the panopticon, where the High Council gathers, including assassinating presidents. This is also a reference to the plot of “The Deadly Assassin,” in which the Master frames the Doctor for the Lord President’s assassination. The term Shobogans also comes from “The Deadly Assassin,” although in that serial it is meant as an insult meaning hooligans. It makes sense that the Time Lords might turn the name of the race they evolved from into an insult, much like an Earthling calling someone a cave man is an insult. When the Doctor sees her companions and the remaining human survivors have come to rescue her on Gallifrey, she says, “No humans on Gallifrey,” a rule that also first came up just before “The Deadly Assassin” as the reason why Sarah Jane Smith couldn’t come to Gallifrey with him. That rule was either scuttled later or ignored when Leela, a human, was allowed to stay on Gallifrey at the end of the  1978 Fourth Doctor serial “The Invasion of Time.” (Clara was also allowed on Gallifrey, sort of, in the 2015 Twelfth Doctor episode “Hell Bent.” So were the Sisterhood of Karn who, while not humans, are also not Gallifreyan.) The Doctor mentions she fought the Matrix before and denied its reality, something they did in “The Deadly Assassin” and also in the 1986 Sixth Doctor serial “The Ultimate Foe.”  The Division sounds a lot like the Celestial Intervention Agency, a secret Time Lord organization that often used the Doctor for special missions, such as sending him to Skaro to prevent the creation of the Daleks in the 1975 Fourth Doctor serial “Genesis of the Daleks.” However, the organization wasn’t given a name until, you guessed it, “The Deadly Assassin.” Really, I’m shocked at how much of “The Timeless Children” calls back to “The Deadly Assassin”!

And finally, as promised, a little more about the Hybrid. There’s a theory going around that “The Timeless Child” actually fulfills the Hybrid prophecy from season 9. The prophecy says that a hybrid creature would stand over the ruins of Gallifrey and unravel the Web of Time, breaking a billion billion hearts to heal its own. At the end of season 9, it was hypothesized that the Hybrid was actually the Doctor and Clara traveling together, but this new theory states that the Master merged with the Cyberium is the true Hybrid. After all, he stood over the ruins of Gallifrey; hacked into the Matrix to discover its biggest secret, thus unraveling the Web of Time; and broke a billion billion hearts to heal his own by murdering the Time Lords. I don’t know if this was intentional, but it’s an interesting take!

Next up is this year’s Christmas Special (or next year’s New Year’s Day Special) “Revolution of the Daleks,” which we’ve just learned will also be Graham and Ryan’s final episode. Nooooooo, Graham, come back!

Originally published at Nicholas Kaufmann. You can comment here or there.

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Rat Queens, Vol. 7: The Once and Future King

The Once and Future King (Rat Queens #7)The Once and Future King by Ryan Ferrier
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another fun romp through the Rat Queens’ D&D-on-crack world, this time under the guidance of new writer Ryan Ferrier. The transition from Kurtis J. Wiebe’s writing to Ferrier’s is seamless. The characters, settings, and absurd adventures remain instantly recognizable. This volume starts with a standalone adventure called “Swamp Romp” that’s fun, charming, and had me laughing out loud. I promise you’ll never look at unicorns the same way again. The adventure that fills the rest of the volume, which involves the invasion and takeover of Palisade, is fun, too, but “Swamp Romp” might just be my favorite RAT QUEENS issue in some time. Violet is notably absent in the main adventure, having stepped away from the Rat Queens to start a family with Orc Dave and been replaced by young, nerdish Rat Queens fan Maddie. Maddie is a fun and interesting character with a lot of potential, but I still missed Violet. The art by Priscilla Petraites is excellent, although there were a few panels where I lost track of who was doing what or who was speaking. Not a major issue, but somewhat frustrating in the moment. I continue to enjoy the adventures of the Rat Queens and eagerly await the next volume!

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Originally published at Nicholas Kaufmann. You can comment here or there.

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Doctor Who: “Ascension of the Cybermen”

***MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD***

This episode is a very exciting first part of the two-part season finale, but it’s also something of a mixed bag. I liked it, but there are a few things that didn’t work for me. Let’s start with the things I liked.

The Cybermen are back! It’s always fun to see one of Doctor Who‘s greatest and longest-running foes (the first Cyberman episode aired back in 1966!) show up again, but what makes “Ascension of the Cybermen” so much fun is that it’s not your run-of-the-mill Cybermen story. The action takes us to the end of the Cyber Wars, when there are very few Cybermen left (and very few humans, too). What we get are Ashad, the half-converted Cyber zealot who was introduced in the last episode with a total allegiance to the idea of rebuilding the Cyber empire, and two beat up old Cyberguards, and they’re still enough to pose an enormous threat to the human survivors!

In fact, everything having to do with the Cyber Wars is what lifts this episode above others of its kind. There’s a great scene of what is essentially a space graveyard, with hundreds of dead Cybermen (and loose parts) floating in space near the wreckage of one of their biggest battles. It’s a striking image, and one that will stay with me for a long time. I was also very pleased to see classic series-style Cybermen among the revival-style Cybermen on the troop carrier. The scene toward the end with all the Cybermen awakened from their “tombs” and marching through the corridors of the ship strongly reminded me of a similar scene in  the 1982 Fifth Doctor serial “Earthshock” in which awakened Cybermen march out of the hold of a space freighter toward the bridge.

One interesting bit of information we learn is that human survivors have been escaping through the Boundary, a wormhole to the farthest reaches of the galaxy, or perhaps beyond, where the Cybermen can’t follow them. I have to admit, for most of the episode I assumed it was going to be a Logan’s Run situation where the Boundary is actually a trap and everyone who goes there winds up dead! The Boundary is guarded by a lone, older, wizard-looking human named Ko Sharmus, who keeps telling the Doctor to walk closer to the water’s edge to activate the Boundary. I thought for sure Ko Sharmus was going to spring a trap and possibly reveal that he has survived all this time through cannibalism. It didn’t happen that way, and I’m glad because the actual reveal — and the episode’s excellent cliffhanger that made me want to watch the next episode immediately — is that the Boundary appears to lead to Gallifrey!

And of course, out pops the Master, who has obviously escaped from the Kasaavin in the way the Master always escapes his fate. So what does all this have to do with the Timeless Child and the Master’s destruction of Gallifrey (and maybe even Doctor Ruth)? We’re about to find out. Next episode now, please!

I mentioned “Ascension of the Cybermen” is a mixed bag, and indeed there are a few things I didn’t like. The Cyber Drones, which are basically just flying Cyberman heads that can shoot lasers, are the stupidest-looking things I’ve seen on Doctor Who since the Dalek agents that suddenly sprouted Dalek eyestalks out of their foreheads. The idea of Cyber Drones is a good one, and could have been a chance to show how Cybermats — small, rodent-like machines the Cybermen use to infiltrate their targets, which first appeared in the 1967 Second Doctor serial “Tomb of the Cybermen,” and later as the updated Cybermites in the 2013 Eleventh Doctor episode “Nightmare in Silver” — have evolved into something new and more destructive. Instead we just get flying heads, which made me groan rather than worry.

When the survivors’ dying gravraft (great name!) makes one last thruster push in order to make it to another ship in the space graveyard, they don’t appear to have much control over where they’re going, but instead of crashing haphazardly into the side of the ship the gravraft flies right into its perfectly-sized docking bay with the ease of a puck sliding into the goal in air hockey. It was lazy writing and could easily have been fixed with a two-second scene showing one of them desperately trying to pilot the gravraft into the dock instead of crashing it. (And it came as zero surprise to me that the ship was actually a fully-stocked Cyber troop carrier, but that’s probably because I’m a jaded lifelong Doctor Who viewer.)

I wondered what Ashad was doing when he and his two Cyberguards go after the sleeping Cybermen in the troop carrier with what appear to be buzz saws. Afterward I figured this is how he reprogrammed them to follow his orders, but it struck me as a strange way to go about it. Wasn’t there some computer he could tinker with instead? How does cutting into them like that help reprogram them, unless he just needed to switch some wires around? (One theory is that he isn’t reprogramming them, he’s cutting out their emotional inhibitors, but there’s no evidence of this, at least not in this episode.)

What was up with Brendan, the abandoned baby who grows up in 1950s Ireland to become a policeman? Why doesn’t that robber’s bullet kill him? I had several theories as I watched the episode: Brendan is the Master reborn after Missy’s death. Brendan is Ashad. Brendan is the Timeless Child. None of them seem to be accurate, especially in light of that final scene with an older Brendan retiring from the force and being greeted by his somehow unaged father and boss who proceed to forcibly mind-wipe him with a device that looked sort of like a Chameleon Arch, but maybe isn’t? (Alexa’s theory is that Brendan is actually a Cyberman, that 1950s Ireland is his dream while he’s in stasis, and that the mind-wipe is Ashad reprogramming him before waking him. It’s as good a theory as any!)

And now for some Doctor Who neepery! At the refugee outpost, Yaz sets up a particle projector to spray gold dust at the Cybermen, claiming that they’re allergic to it. This is a reference to something that was first mentioned in the 1975 Fourth Doctor serial “Revenge of the Cybermen,” in which we learn Voga, the Planet of Gold, was instrumental in winning the Cyber Wars by discovering gold dust choked Cybermen’s respiratory systems. Gold is used as the Cybermen’s weakness in every classic-series appearance after that. The Doctor offers Ryan a humbug out of a paper bag for his motion sickness. While certainly reminiscent of the Doctor offering people jelly babies out of a similar paper bag throughout the classic series, mostly during the Fourth Doctor’s tenure, it should be noted that the Fourth Doctor did once offer a humbug to someone instead of a jelly baby in the 1977 serial “The Sun Makers.” (I had to look that one up. I’m nerdy, but not that nerdy!)

Really looking forward to the next episode, promisingly titled “The Timeless Children”!

Originally published at Nicholas Kaufmann. You can comment here or there.